‘Drama, fury, respect – title rivals serve up classic’

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October 5, 2021
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    The sight of Manchester City manager Pep Guardiola clasping Liverpool's James Milner in a warm embrace half an hour after the final whistle summed up an enthralling Premier League classic at Anfield.

    These two Premier League heavyweights traded blows but could not be separated, players falling into each other's arms and the two managers coming together at the final whistle in a mutual show of respect.

    Lots of cliches are trotted out when the Premier League is being described as the best in the world but when you witness 90 minutes like this – and Guardiola echoed these sentiments – then it is sometimes difficult to argue.

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    Guardiola's emotions were back on an even keel by then after he dissolved in anger, with justification, when Milner escaped a second yellow card from referee Paul Tierney with the score 1-1.

    He was discontented for so long that he was eventually shown a yellow card himself after Mohamed Salah put Liverpool 2-1 up – but Kevin de Bruyne's deflected 81st-minute equaliser gave City a point they deserved and Guardiola and Milner were all smiles as they met at the mouth of the Anfield tunnel later.

    Milner could probably afford a relieved smile by then because the harrowing ordeal he had endured at the feet of Manchester City's Phil Foden, who gave the veteran a torrid experience as he filled in at right-back, was over.

    Mohamed SalahMohamed Salah has either scored or assisted in eight of his nine Liverpool appearances this season, having a hand in 12 goals, more than any other player

    This brief meeting between Guardiola and Milner summed up this thriller in microcosm: fortunes swinging from side to side; City superior; Liverpool ahead; City on terms; fury on the sidelines; Liverpool back in front; City salvage a deserved point; then the respect.

    It was noisy, frantic, high-quality, high-octane stuff and one thing was very obvious – anyone hoping to find a way of edging Liverpool and Manchester City out of the title race (and in reality this means Chelsea, because Manchester United are not playing like contenders) will have a long and fierce fight on their hands.

    Anfield paid an emotional tribute to Roger Hunt, the Liverpool icon and England World Cup winner who died on Monday aged 83, before the two sides served up glorious fare that would have won the great man's nod of approval.

    City had key influences all over the pitch and we will come to them later, but Liverpool's catalyst was clearly one man – Salah. He gave a performance of such virtuosity that in any debate about the world's best player, he has to be right in there.

    No wonder every Liverpool fan wants Salah's name on the new contract currently being discussed. Manager Jurgen Klopp has many stellar names at his disposal but life without Salah is close to unthinkable.

    The Egypt forward's pass for Sadio Mane's opener was exquisite but his goal to restore Liverpool's lead was simply on another level, leaving a handful of City defenders bamboozled before lashing a finish past Ederson.

    It threatened to give Liverpool a victory that would have been hugely harsh on City because Guardiola's side came to Anfield and imposed themselves, something they have not always done.

    The game started in the usual Anfield sound and fury, with every period of City possession whistled and jeered, but slowly an ominous hush fell over Liverpool's fans as they realised the visitors were spectacularly unmoved by this show of hostility in an arena that has intimidated them in the past.

    City won 4-1 behind closed doors at Anfield last season, a victory downplayed by some because of the absence of atmosphere. Well, they got the full experience here and coped superbly.

    It took Salah to unseat them, although once again there must be questions about City's lack of a recognised striker as all their possession and control came to nothing in the first half, chances either off target or not coming to fruition, such as when Liverpool keeper Alisson saved at the feet of Foden.

    When battle was joined by Liverpool after the break, a very good match became a great one. The Kop came alive as Mane's finish from Salah's creation showed where City had been going wrong.

    Every Liverpool challenge was met with lusty roars of approval, Klopp clapping his hands above his head to lift his players and the crowd.

    As Liverpool rose to their task, City responded as Guardiola cast aside his heavy coat in the heat of battle as well as his self-control when Milner escaped punishment.

    Rodri tackle on FabinhoRodri slides in to deny Fabinho what looked a certain goal

    If anyone had the lingering suspicion City might be a bit soft at Anfield, they can forget that now as they showed steel and resilience to come back.

    This was the sort of game that needed a dramatic conclusion – and it got one. It did not come in the shape of a winning goal but a sensational block that might just prove vital in the final reckoning this season.

    As Liverpool pressed for the late winner that has become their trademark under Klopp, the ball fell to an unmarked Fabinho in a crowded penalty area. Anfield held its breath and Guardiola, still running hot from earlier, must have feared the worst as the Brazil midfielder controlled the ball and prepared to sidefoot into the net from six yards out.

    However Rodri appeared from nowhere to stop the goal-bound shot with a tackle that was as valuable as De Bruyne's equaliser in ensuring this enthralling contest ended level.

    There was muted applause when the final whistle sounded, surely not out of any sense of disappointment but more perhaps because the supporters were as spent as the players.

    Nothing could separate Liverpool and Manchester City. Something will have to separate them by the end of the season – but on this evidence it will not be much and it will be quite a ride until it does.

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    October 5, 2021
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