Wijnaldum strikes early as Klopp dents Guardiola’s title hopes
We will only know in May how this fixture impacted on the title swing-ometer, but this felt like the evening Liverpool’s belief soared.
Georginio Wijnaldum’s winning goal means they, not Manchester City, head into the New Year as Chelsea’s closest rivals. Pep Guardiola’s first season in English football may now be filed under the heading ‘transitional’, a 10-point gap to the leaders ensuring he must be looking over his shoulder before he can afford the luxury of thinking too far ahead.
For the victors, 2017 will begin with the resolve to end a 27-year title drought. Liverpool do not often win games in this way – their defensive excellence came to the fore after they had secured a decisive early lead – but they are making a habit of winning these types of games.
Against their top six rivals, they have now taken 11 from 15 points available and should have won the two they drew against Tottenham and Manchester United. Three of those teams around them are still come to Anfield this season. But for stupid mistakes against Burnley and Bournemouth, the situation would be even healthier.
Liverpool’s 43 points is their most at the halfway stage of any season in the Premier League era, as is their goal tally of 46. They are in the top two on New Year’s Day for only the third time since 1992. Little wonder Jürgen Klopp said he ‘could not imagine being more happy’ having seen his side produce a performance that required a different characteristic to so many others. If early-season victories evoked memories of the attacking excellence when Brendan Rodgers’ side went so close in 2014, this was more like the vintage of Rafa Benítez’s near miss in 2009.
Wijnaldum shone in midfield, but Klopp will be giving the extra bear hugs to centre-backs Dejan Lovren and Ragnar Klavan, who ensured City barely registered a shot.
This thrilling, slugfest of game lived up to its billing, even if the technical excellence broadly surrendered to sheer panic in the most vibrant of atmospheres.
Once Liverpool led, it became an exhibition of attack versus counter-attack. The magnitude of the occasion embraced everything in the most anxious fixture of the campaign. It is doubtful even the Bundesliga encounters between these A-list managers were so infected by tension.
The home celebrations and City’s dejection underlined how high were the stakes, even if it is premature to sugthe gest where these clubs will finish. What was evident is that, while Liverpool were able to penetrate, City were powder-puff light, all promise with no substance.
Liverpool were multifaceted, a side made of several complementary elements. City looked one-paced and onedimensional, their passing plodding and lacking in both imagination and penetration. Sergio Agüero was often isolated.
Guardiola’s men enjoyed plenty of encouraging spells monopolising the ball, but too often it felt like they were playing keepy-up against a brick wall.
With Guardiola trying to mould a side befitting his reputation, the first eight minutes portrayed his problems in microcosm, as Liverpool barely exchanged a pass but went a goal up.
Adam Lallana found space on the left ring and delivered the perfect cross for advancing Wijnaldum. His aerial contest with Aleksander Kolarov was a mismatch.
So the theme was established, City probing and toiling to make their possession meaningful while Liverpool countered with purpose, even if poise deserted them the longer the game went on.
That this would be the only goal seemed inconceivable. Agüero returned from suspension as the figurehead of a potentially destructive attack, but the visitors’ defence often looked vulnerable.
Vincent Kompany watched with the City fans in the Anfield Road End. That City needed their captain on the pitch was all too evident when Wijnaldum scored with his head.
Emre Can’s inclusion at the expense of Divock Origi was a surprise, but there we saw its merit. It enabled Wijnaldum to push further forward, the hosts more willing to play to the circumstances rather than a philosophy.
When Guardiola first took on Klopp in Germany, the Spanish coach compromised, abandoning the short game for the direct approach. Here, Klopp successfully tinkered with a winning formula. It was as much a sign of respect as Klopp seeking out his counterpart for a pre-match embrace yesterday
Liverpool must have played more long balls in the first half than the entire season, being ready to exploit City’s discomfort when the ball bobbled near their centre-backs. There was a method to this approach, with Liverpool’s football still eye-catching in areas that could inflict damage.
Only carelessness prevented them carving out further clear-cut chances.
Roberto Firmino failed to control a superb James Milner pass when he would have had an easy chip over Claudio Bravo, the advancing goalkeeper. Then Firmino hesitated before sending Lallana through for another one-onone just before half-time, the linesman’s flag intervening to Klopp’s consternation.
City needed 53 minutes to register their first shot on target, with Aguero firing straight at Mignolet from 25 yards more in hope than expectation.
Silva was closer from the edge of the penalty area but the most encouraging moment for the visitors was Jordan Henderson’s early departure with a heel complaint. Klopp reassured fans afterwards that it was not a recurrence of the injury that kept Henderson out of much of last season.
It would be foolish to write off City’s chances on the basis of this result, but they look a work in progress. Both managers sounded like they knew the consequences of this result.
For Guardiola, the hunt continues for an end product. Klopp was thinking about the gap to the top. “Can you imagine how annoying it is when you win 13 games in a row and there is one team only six points behind?” he said.
Flying start: Georginio Wijnaldum scores the winner for Liverpool yesterday