Manchester City’s striker Sergio Aguero (3rd R) celebrates with teammates after scoring the opening goal of their clash against Liverpool at the Etihad Stadium in Manchester… on January 3, 2019. Photo: Paul ELLIS / AFP
Manchester City inflicted Liverpool’s first Premier League defeat of the season to breathe new life into their title defence with a 2-1 victory at the Etihad on Thursday.
City now trail Jurgen Klopp’s men by just four points thanks to Leroy Sane’s winner 18 minutes from time after Roberto Firmino had cancelled out Sergio Aguero’s first-half opener for the hosts.
A run of nine straight league wins had given Liverpool a commanding lead at the top of the table as they edged towards a first top-flight title since 1989/90, particularly after City suffered back-to-back shock defeats to Crystal Palace and Leicester to begin the festive season.
With no more league meetings between the sides to come, Liverpool’s destiny is still in their own hands, but they will now have the pressure of having a City side that romped to the title with a record 100 points last season on their tails.
Jurgen Klopp had predicted a “thunderstorm” of a start from the champions to match the Champions League quarter-final second leg between the sides last season when City roared into an early lead before Liverpool fought back to win 2-1 on the night and 5-1 on aggregate.
However, despite City’s dominance of possession, it was Liverpool who looked the more assured in the early stages.
And only the finest of margins denied the visitors the lead on 19 minutes when Sadio Mane burst onto Mohamed Salah’s pass and saw his shot come back off the inside of the post.
John Stones then smacked his panicked clearance into City goalkeeper Ederson but the England international redeemed himself by clearing just before all of the ball had crossed the line.
City were also handed a reprieve by referee Anthony Taylor when captain Vincent Kompany only saw a yellow card for a wild two-footed lunge on Salah.
At the other end Virgil van Dijk was again justifying his tag as the world’s most expensive defender to keep City’s array of attacking talent quiet with he Dutchman standing tall to block David Silva’s effort.
However, a Liverpool defence that had not conceded twice in the same game all season in the league before kick-off was breached when City managed to free Aguero from Van Dijk’s shackles.
Sane threatened first with a pacey burst down the left and rising drive that Alisson Becker parried.
But City recycled possession and Aguero beat Dejan Lovren to Bernardo Silva’s cross before firing into the roof of the net to score for the seventh time in seven home league games against Liverpool.
Despite a combination of nerves and fatigue at the end of a gruelling festive period, the game truly came to life in a pulsating second-half.
City had claims for a penalty waived away when Raheem Sterling tumbled under a challenge from Andy Robertson before the Scot was to play a vital part Liverpool’s equaliser.
One Liverpool full-back picked out another as Trent Alexander-Arnold’s cross was met perfectly by Robertson to square for Firmino to head into an empty net.
Pep Guardiola had his head in his hands when a slack pass from Sane set Liverpool free on the counter-attack moments later, but within seconds the German showed what he is capable of as he latched on Sterling’s pass before firing in off the far post.
Alisson demonstrated why Liverpool spent a then world record £67 million for a goalkeeper in July to bolster their title chances with a brilliant save from Aguero as the Argentine tried to round him at the end of a blistering City counter-attack.
Seconds later it was the turn of his understudy in the Brazil side to make a huge save as Ederson denied Salah as tempers flared with Guardiola furious a free-kick wasn’t awarded City’s way before the Egyptian broke clear.
Sterling then wasted a great chance to ensure City didn’t have to see out a tense five minutes of stoppage time, but the hosts held out to put the title back up for grabs.