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Sunday, April 14, 2024

Big misses and defensive errors leave Premier League title race awaiting final act

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A game that had everything except a crescendo – and maybe some accuracy. As high as the standards of this rivalry have been over Jurgen Klopp’s time at Liverpool, there was a symbolism in how it was errors that characterised another otherwise brilliant match against Manchester City. Liverpool lost John Stones for the first goal before a misplaced Nathan Ake pass gave up the equaliser, as so many chances were missed.

That may actually be better for the title race, since imperfection tends to produce much more drama than perfection. This 1-1 draw was certainly best for Arsenal, who stay top of the league on goal difference.

Such margins reflect how this game itself had echoes from the high ceilings of the first Liverpool-City title race in 2018-19, as there were so many near misses that may yet bring this down to mere millimetres again.

Will Jeremy Doku end up ruing the bounce of the ball off that post more than Luis Diaz will regret so many missed chances? And what of Doku’s 98th-minute challenge on Alexis Mac Allister, that looked a penalty? Could the interpretation of that yet have huge influence?

There was still the sense that Liverpool will feel they deserved more than the draw, although they can take considerable confidence from how a depleted side took it to City.

The starting line-ups alone had indicated Pep Guardiola’s side might dominate, and the opening stages seemed to conform to that. It was completely different by the final whistle, largely due to the resolve Klopp has instilled in this team.

They ended furious about a late penalty call, and lamenting big misses.

That at least was very different to how it started.

A callowness in the Liverpool team had seemed to be illustrated in how City appeared to take charge of the game through greater experience. They were shutting out all space in their half while appearing to open it at will in Liverpool’s. City had got in behind several times in the opening 20 minutes, twice through Kevin De Bruyne.

Liverpool were perhaps fortunate the game hadn’t been killed in that spell, and then unfortunate that they went behind after they got to grips with it. Except that sense of misfortune only goes so far. There was just bad defending for the corner from which the excellent John Stones scored.

Stones celebrates his goal

(AFP via Getty Images)

Darwin Nunez was supposed to be marking him, his laxness allowing De Bruyne to display his own sharpness.

The delivery was superb and Stones’ finish so smart. If that had raised concerns for Liverpool as to the inexperience of the side and how much they needed emotional momentum, they were quickly dismissed. Klopp’s side had already started to find gaps in the City backline. Harvey Elliott was probing all the time. Diaz was causing chaos with weaving runs into the box, something he seemed to have more success with than wide open space later on.

City were served warning with a free header for Dominik Szboszlai that should have been to their cost. He somehow headed over. That was still less confusing than Nathan Ake’s decision just after half-time as his short back-pass found Darwin Nunez instead of Ederson, who took down the striker. Alexis Mac Allister almost took the net off to make it 1-1.

The game was level but had also been completely tilted. It came from two teams tactically trying to find space to one where it was opening up at will – especially at the City end. It was their turn to be grateful to fortune, and some bad misses and decisions.

Diaz could have had a hat-trick, with three different types of opportunities. The variety made it all the more frustrating for Liverpool, especially as he ran through on goal only to skew it wide. As embarrassing as that might have been, he rectified it by repeatedly embarrassing some of City’s defenders.

Luis Diaz missed several chances

(AFP via Getty Images)

Guardiola was forced into two changes. One was through injury to Ederson, which may have greater repercussions. Stefan Ortega went on but, remarkably, De Bruyne soon went off. Guardiola evidently felt he wasn’t bringing the right shape to an unusually open midfield. The Belgian was furious on the sideline as he opened his arms in shock to his manager before turning to the bench with the same expression.

The City boss was almost immediately vindicated as Phil Foden hit the bar with an opportunistic intervention.

It did steady City. This is where the manager sees things even De Bruyne can’t. They even went closer to winning it as a player who came on in that double change, Jeremy Doku, hit the inside of the post.

As in 2018-19, might such millimetres be what the title comes down to?

That could be more likely given this game never built up to the crescendo it warranted. There was a sense it went unfulfilled, although that is actually far from the only time that has happened in showdowns between these two teams. It was similar in the big build-up for 2021-22.

Klopp and Guardiola embrace

(AFP via Getty Images)

Klopp can now consign this fixture to his past, although the rivalry with City may yet rise to a new crescendo of its own. There’s still everything to play for, and another team in it.

If all that’s missing is accuracy, we may yet be in for one of the great Premier League races. It’s never needed it more given the weight hanging over it all with City’s 115 alleged breaches and various other issues through the division.

There are no issues with the drama, though. That now just requires this final act.

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