FROM THE RED CORNER: Jurgen Klopp explodes as Liverpool feel the heat against title rivals Man City
- Liverpool struggled with the pressure at they fell to first league loss this season
- With lead down to four points now comes the real test for Jurgen Klopp’s side
- The Reds found it difficult to settle down against Manchester City on Thursday
- REPORT: Manchester City 2-1 Liverpool – Premier League title race back on
Thinking clearly under pressure: it’s the thing that usually separates the great from the good, the ability to act normal in abnormal situations.
All through this week, pressure has been the word thrown at Liverpool. Can they handle it? Will it get to them? Pep Guardiola clearly feels it will. Before the collision dubbed Champions versus Challengers, he explained how hard it could prove for them to carry the weight of history.
Liverpool moved with the force and speed of a runaway train through December but it is true to say they had not faced an opponent like the one that was waiting for them at the Etihad Stadium; this, then, was going to be a revealing evening.
Liverpool looked anxious as they succumbed to their first league defeat of the season
What Jurgen Klopp would have wanted more than anything was a calm, assured start. Ease into the contest, quell the frenzy of the attacking ‘thunderstorm’ he anticipated and play with the poise of a team that can go and become champions.
But what he got was something altogether different. With only nine seconds gone, a ball that Sadio Mane would usually control with his eyes closed ended up skidding from his foot and out of play. Fair enough, you will say. That can happen to anyone at any time.
If Mane was anxious, however, he was not alone; with 70 seconds on the clock, Alisson Becker, the goalkeeper who rarely – if ever – gets flustered, sliced a clearance out of play in the fashion of weekend golfer clattering one out of bounds.
With their lead down to four points now comes the real test of nerve for Jurgen Klopp’s team
The Brazilian did it again in the third minute, a straightforward pass to the centre circle not having enough weight on for James Milner to get there; Leroy Sane, a persistent threat, raced in and launched one of those rapid counterattacks when he looks like a motorcyclist weaving in and out of traffic.
Could Liverpool settle down? The answer was no. Minute four? It was Dejan Lovren’s turn to miss his intended target. Minute five? Trent Alexander-Arnold succumbed, his cross field switch of play ended up being intercepted by the imperious Fernandinho.
This wasn’t Liverpool. Klopp did his best to keep his emotions in check but, every time you looked at him, he was becoming increasingly fidgety, his temper fizzling down the like the wick on a stick of dynamite. In the 12th minute, he went boom!
Liverpool’s play was without freedom in the first 45 minutes as they struggled under pressure
Mane, again, had erred. Rather than pressing Danilo high up the pitch, the Senegal forward stood still. Klopp popped, arms waving like an excited tic-tac man. Mane gave as good as he got, bickering back and pointing to the centre of the field. James Milner stepped in to calm Mane down.
To observe this was to see sport at the highest level unfolding. Klopp is weary of being asked questions about whether Liverpool can become champions for the first time since 1990 but you only had to see study them for the first 15 minutes to see how much they want it.
Liverpool have not played a Premier League game with so much riding on it since April 2014 and their play was without freedom during the first 45 minutes. They did have a fine chance to take the lead, when Mane struck the woodwork and John Stones cleared off the line, but they were scratchy.
Sadio Mane struck the woodwork in the first half but Liverpool weren’t at their best
The numbers they produced in that period were revealing; only 77 per cent of their 261 passes went where they should – the third lowest total they managed all season – while just two shots was the lowest they had mustered in a game since facing City at Anfield on October 7.
Klopp was aware that the standard had fallen. He sprinted down the tunnel as soon as referee Anthony Taylor blew his whistle and Liverpool re-emerged with a spring in their step; their equilibrium was restored further when the manager tweaked his system.
The introduction of Fabinho for Milner saw Liverpool shift to 4-2-3-1 and you could see them grow. They levelled, deservedly, when Firmino stooped to nod in Andy Robertson’s cross. This was more like it. Still, it was not perfect and Sane’s suckerpunch shortly after flattened them.
All, of course, is not lost. Victory would not have won them anything, defeat hasn’t wrecked their ambitions. What it has done, nonetheless, has turn up the heat on them. Now it really becomes a test of nerve.
Liverpool improved following the introduction of Fabinho in place of James Milner
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