Mahrez penalty miss leaves Liverpool, Man City at impasse
WHEN the story comes to be told of the 201819 season it will be an oddity that the first heavyweight contest between the two sides who are widely assumed to have the outstanding players is fit really only for a place in the small print. Did Liverpool versus Manchester City really just finish nil-nil? Not many people would have anticipated such an outcome and, for Riyad Mahrez, a strangely subdued game will be remembered as a personal ordeal.
At least Mahrez showed the nerve to take the ball when Virgil van Dijk’s careless challenge on Leroy Sané, one of City’s substitutes, gave Pep Guardiola’s side an 85th-minute penalty and the chance to win a desperately tight match. By that stage Sergio Agüero, City’s usual penalty-taker, had already been substituted. His replacement, Gabriel Jesus, wanted the ball but Mahrez pulled rank and City will regret the missed opportunity. Mahrez’s penalty was struck wildly, missing the crossbar by some distance and still rising as it flew into the crowd.
Had Mahrez kept that shot down City might be reflecting on their first Premier League win at Anfield in 18 attempts and a significant early blow in this season’s title race. As it was, Liverpool can consider this a lucky escape on a day when Pep Guardiola’s tactics made it absolutely clear he was not bothered about repeating the entertainment of last season’s epic contest when Liverpool led 4-1, City scored twice in the final six minutes and very nearly completed an improbable feat of escapology in stoppage-time. Guardiola, one imagines, did not enjoy coming off second-best in a sevengoal thriller and they played with unusual restraint.
On Guardiola’s watch, City have been to Old Trafford, Stamford Bridge, the Emirates and all the rest, and it is difficult to remember him bending for anyone. On this occasion it was different and, ultimately, it was for Liverpool to see if they had the wit and creativity to find a way through. They did not and it was not just Mohamed Salah who found it tough this time. If anything, Salah was the pick of Liverpool’s attackers, with Roberto Firmino and Sadio Mané a long way from their best.
It was certainly unusual to see the amount of time City’s players spent passing the ball around their own defence, often at little more than walking pace. The idea, plainly, was to make sure they dictated the rhythm rather than the other way round, to unsettle their opponents and stop Liverpool rolling out their favourite Anfield tactic of sustained and wild pressure. It did not help the match as a spectacle but Guardiola clearly thought it was worth trying something different – and however much it was out of character, perhaps he could be excused this one time for the ploys of conservatism. It was May 2003 when City last won at Anfield, with Kevin Keegan in the dugout and Nicolas Anelka scoring the last-minute winner.
The problem for City was that by adapting this new, slower method of keep-ball they sacrificed some of the attacking qualities that make them such a dangerous team. City did control large periods of play but it was bordering on risk-free football, with their full-backs rarely venturing forward, Bernardo Silva operating in a more withdrawn role than usual and Raheem Sterling, as often happens at Anfield, finding it difficult to have any positive impact.
By the midway point of the first half, they had subdued Liverpool to the point that a triumphant cry of “Where’s your famous atmosphere?” could be heard from the away end. That brought a nice riposte of “Where’s your European Cups?” but on the pitch the home team were finding it difficult to fathom out what their opponents were scheming. Liverpool desperately needed one of their front players to seize the game by its lapels and encourage the crowd to turn up the volume. But it never really happened. For City, meanwhile, when was the last time Agüero played a match without having a single chance to score?
Liverpool’s cause was not helped by James Milner succumbing to a hamstring injury just before the half-hour mark and the only real issue from the opening half went back to a penalty appeal for Dejan Lovren’s challenge on Agüero in the 20th minute.
Klopp had sprung a surprise by accommodating Lovren at the expense of Trent Alexander-Arnold. Joe Gomez switched to right-back, allowing Lovren to operate in the centre of defence, and the two players will be relieved Martin Atkinson was unconvinced by Agüero’s fall. Agüero had taken the ball from Gomez’s miscued clearance and Lovren’s initial challenge carried a clear risk.
City could also reflect on another penalty claim on the hour mark and this time their protests were more vociferous. Van Dijk did indeed bring up his right arm to handle the ball while defending a corner. That, however, was because Fernandinho had tugged at the defender’s arm as they went for the ball.
Later, there was another penalty-box incident when Gabriel Jesus wriggled past Gomez and then shaped to get round Lovren only for his opponent to swipe him with an open hand to the face. Van Dijk’s challenge on Sané was much clearer but the biggest moment of Mahrez’s City career to date ended badly. — The Guardian
Riyad Mahrez reacts after missing his penalty.