Mohamed Salah had seen his number rise before picking it up Manchester City. With passions raging and City threatening to upset a high-end encounter, Jürgen Klopp went for a triple substitution. There were 72 minutes on the clock, but why was Salah’s No.11 on the board? He had been Liverpool’s most dangerous player.
It must have been a mistake because Salah was going nowhere. Klopp explained it to him on the sidelines as he oversaw the changes. Moments later, Salah burst through to score the only goal of the game and hand City a first defeat in Premier League season and remind everyone that this Liverpool team is far from a spent force. Did anyone seriously believe that anyway, despite their erratic start to the season?
Salah’s goal was a personal disaster for João Cancelo, who had cut in to try and clear an Alisson clearance, only to get it all wrong. When Salah crashed through, there was no doubt whether he would finish.
The second half was a thriller and there was much more to come. Earlier, Pep Guardiola had been furious at the disallowance of a Phil Foden goal for a foul by Erling Haaland in the build-up, but it was Klopp who saw red and lost his mind when the referee, Anthony Taylor, did not whistle for a Bernardo Silva challenge on Salah. He would be directed to the stands.
What did Klopp miss from the sidelines? A saving header from Virgil van Dijk as Haaland lurked behind him; a terrible Thiago Alcántara tackle on Rodri when he was lucky enough to escape with a yellow card – Thiago’s defense was that he slipped – and some atrocious finishing from substitute Darwin Núñez.
It meant it Liverpool couldn’t make any respite, but maybe it made the full-time whistle even sweeter for them. Klopp was back for the celebrations and he can now count a 12th career victory over Guardiola. No other manager has beaten him so often.
If it had felt like Liverpool’s last stand for the Premier League title, it was also a last stand for humanity in the face of City’s crushing dominance – listening to Klopp beforehand. Liverpool cannot compete, he said, with City in the transfer market, and it was one way – yet another way – of turning the spotlight on Haaland, whose total financial package had put him well beyond Liverpool’s reach when he left Borussia Dortmund in the summer .
There was an audible tremor in the home support as Haaland went near the ball at the start and roars when he was knocked out of his stride. They knew he would keep waiting, keep coming back. This is why Klopp considers him to be the best striker in the world. Haaland’s very presence was an element of high-pitched tension.
Would Klopp continue with his 4-2-3-1 system, which may resemble a 4-4-2? Yes, but not as expected because he went with Salah at the head of the formation, with Núñez back on the bench. Klopp wanted to have Salah in more central areas, not attached to the wing, and he was prominent in what was a positive start for Liverpool.
Salah was in the mood to run at the City defense to show his physical side as well. When he lifted Rúben Dias away from a high ball on 28 minutes, he set up Harvey Elliott for a run at Nathan Aké. The City defender, who started on the left of a back three, stood firm.
Before then, Diogo Jota had failed to muster the necessary power or direction on a free header from Elliott’s floating cross and Andy Robertson, back in the starting XI from injury, whipped high after a fluid Liverpool move which was fired by a tearing Van Dijk diagonal. and saw Ederson push out a James Milner cross.
Guardiola’s surprise was his system, which had Phil Foden at left wing-back, albeit pressing high against Milner, who was in as an emergency right-back. Milner was keen to banish the memory of being separated by Foden in this game last season.
City came out stronger in the final 15 minutes of the first half, with Haaland whizzing on the afterburners, unleashing the power and radiating threats. He had three sightings after smooth City build-up play; the first a run and attempted chip which Alisson had covered. The next two were headers from Kevin De Bruyne crosses. He sent the first over and the second straight at Alisson. Liverpool had wanted a mistake from Rodri on Salah in the run-up to the first.
The game would be ignited at the beginning of the second half, with the controversy coming after Foden forced the ball in by Joe Gomez from a tight angle. Haaland had beaten Alisson for a 50-50 ball after another De Bruyne pass, but VAR spotted Haaland grabbing Fabinho’s shirt in the build-up. Guardiola was glowing and sarcastically carried out the celebrations for the fans behind him.
Moments earlier, Roberto Firmino had played Salah through one-on-one with Ederson – the City keeper made a fine fingertip save – and then Jota headed home when he was well placed after Salah brilliantly worked the ball across to him.
City moved higher and smelled their moment. The foot carried the fight, a blur of quick feet and wonderful balance. Also strength. He was so hard to push the ball off. After one of his runs, from left to right, Ilkay Gündogan saw a shot deflected wide. Haaland worked Alisson after Gündogan had flown away from Fabinho. Bernardo Silva rasped a low one wide. However, it was Salah who proved the difference.