Mahrez penalty miss leaves Liver­pool, Man City at im­passe

Chronicle (Zimbabwe) - - Front Page -

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.

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