It was over before it began. It was over when Kevin de Bruyne was injured in Manchester City’s battle with Atletico Madrid last week. It was over when City’s players, emotionally and physically exhausted, fought their way back up the tunnel after the Battle of the Wanda Metropolitano past the head-butts and the fists, overcome by the relief and triumph of their two-leg victory.

It was over when Pep Guardiola named his team for this FA Cup semi-final at Wembley an hour before the kick-off. It was over when three of City’s first choice back-four were missing from the starting eleven. It was over when Fernandinho, a man who is starting to play like a midfielder who is leaving at the end of the season, was picked to hold the line. It was over when Zack Steffen was given a go in goal instead of Ederson.

It was over when the unmistakable message Guardiola sent out was that he was prioritising the Premier League and the Champions League. No blame should be attached to him for that. City’s squad is not as deep as Liverpool’s and however, City may wish to try to disguise it, winning the Champions League for the first time in their history has become their Holy Grail. Everything else is secondary.

It was over when Jurgen Klopp was able to rest several of his first-choice players for the tie against Benfica last week. It was over when the Liverpool team was announced and it was a first-choice eleven. It was one of those occasions when everyone could sense what was coming. Even Peter Reid, the great Evertonian, knew it when he was interviewed before the game. To his regret, he said, he foresaw a win ‘for the Reds’.

And so, if the league clash between the two best teams in England last weekend was a thriller, a nail-biter full of suspense, we knew how this film ended before we sat down to watch it. Sure, the closing stages were frantic and glorious and compelling but the scoreline did not reflect a first half, in particular, that was brutally one-sided. At its close, as we suspected they would, Liverpool had progressed to next month’s FA Cup Final, still in the hunt for an unprecedented quadruple. City’s focus had narrowed.

It is to be hoped that this was merely the second instalment of a late-season trilogy between these two giants and that the third will come in the Champions League Final in Paris on May 28th. This match may not have offered too many clues to the outcome of that game, if City and Liverpool get past Real Madrid and Real Madrid respectively, but the way Klopp ran to the Liverpool fans after the final whistle and offered his customary fist-pumping celebration, suggested his side will eke as much meaning as they can from this result.

Even if City were below par, Liverpool’s performance in the first 45 minutes, in particular, was stunning. They played with a hunger that overwhelmed their opponents. Sadio Mane, the man of the match, was especially relentless. They swarmed all over City and forced them into a series of mistakes in possession. Thiago Alcantara swaggered around Wembley imperiously and Naby Keita and Fabinho obliterated Bernardo Silva and Fernandinho.

Guardiola had made seven changes from team that drew with Atletico last week and was unapologetic about it. ‘We have no alternative other than to make changes,’ he said. ‘We have injuries and we have had incredibly mentally and physically demanding fixtures, not just Atletico Madrid but Liverpool and Atletico again before that. We had no choice – we have to have fresh legs.’

Despite the mood music, City did forge an early half-chance when Gabriel Jesus broke down the right and advanced on Andrew Robertson. He slipped the ball inside to Jack Grealish 18 yards out and a more confident Grealish might have hit it first time. But Grealish took a touch and allowed Konate to close him down enough to block his shot.

A few minutes later, Liverpool were ahead. Robertson swung over a corner from the left and Konate muscled Jesus out of the way and climbed majestically above Nathan Ake to power a header beyond the reach of Zack Steffen. At the other end, the air turned red as a smoke bomb was hurled onto the pitch by the celebrating Liverpool fans.

Liverpool went further ahead inside 18 minutes. This time, the goal was an aberration. Maybe even an abomination. It seemed to be a symbol of the difference in approach between the two teams and the difference in intensity. Ederson was hailed as the King of Cool during the league meeting between these sides last weekend for his composure under pressure but when poor Steffen tried to effect the same nonchalance, he was brutally exposed.
There was no danger when John Stones rolled a backpass to the American goalkeeper but Steffen took one touch with his left foot and then, as Mane raced towards him, he thought about taking another with his right foot but thought better of it. Then he did take a touch with his right foot after all and now Mane was upon him. Steffen tried to clear it but it was too late. Mane slid in, got to the ball first and forced it over the line.

The match was so one-sided, it felt strange. It seemed unnatural, almost, to see City outclassed like this. It was so obvious, Liverpool’s confidence soared. Virgil van Dijk flicked the ball up and let it spin back to him before he played it square, Luis Diaz went through his repertoire of tricks and flicks and, in midfield, Thiago Alcantara ran the show. City, by contrast, seemed to turn into Atletico Madrid. All they could muster was a series of fouls.

Liverpool underlined their dominance on the stroke of half-time. After Diaz had seen a shot blocked, Klopp’s team recycled the ball and Thiago and Trent Alexander-Arnold exchanged quick passes on the edge of the City area.

Thiago looked up and floated a delicate ball to Mane who volleyed it with the outside of his foot so that it spans away from Steffen’s left hand and beat him at his near post. This match was not the goalkeeper’s finest hour.

It looked as if the match were turning into a rout but little over 60 seconds after the interval, City grabbed a lifeline. Robertson gave the ball away near the halfway line, Fernandinho carried it down the right and played it inside to Jesus. He stepped neatly inside his marker and laid the ball square to Grealish who lashed it first time past Alisson with the outside of his left foot.

City threatened again. Jesus raced through only to see his shot deflected over by Alisson. The tempo of the game grew more frantic. Fernandinho was lucky not to be given a straight red for a lunging, mistimed tackle on Mane, saved from dismissal only by the fact that his studs were not raised. Liverpool fans booed his escape lustily.

City, though, were keen to prove they were still in the game and they should have drawn even closer to Liverpool with 20 minutes to go. Grealish toe-poked a pass-through to Jesus that left him one-on-one with Alisson. Jesus took it the first time but hit it too close to the goalkeeper and it cannoned off his left boot and bounced wide of the goal.

A minute later, Liverpool had a chance to put the game out of reach when Oleksandr Zinchenko stooped to try to head the ball back to Steffen but allowed Mo Salah to steal in. Salah dinked the ball expertly over Steffen but it looped lazily into the side-netting.

City did get a second goal as the game ticked over into added time. Substitute Riyad Mahrez got past Robertson on the Liverpool left and tried to tuck his shot between Alisson’s legs. The ball squirmed free and ran Bernardo Silva who slid it into the empty net. That set up a frantic finish that saw Fernandinho blaze over the bar and Steffen make a last-ditch save from Roberto Firmino but Liverpool hung on.


Courtesy: Daily Mail UK

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