Mohamed Salah had seen his number go up before he brought up that of Manchester City. With passions raging and City threatening to wrest a high-end encounter their way, Jürgen Klopp went for a triple substitution. There were 72 minutes on the clock but why was Salah’s No 11 up on the board? He had been Liverpool’s most dangerous player.
It must have been a mistake because Salah was going nowhere. Klopp explained that to him on the touchline as he oversaw the changes. Moments later, Salah would storm through to score the game’s only goal, handing City a first defeat of the Premier League season and reminding everybody that this Liverpool team are a long way from being a spent force. Did anybody seriously believe that anyway, despite their erratic start to the season?
Salah’s goal was a personal disaster for João Cancelo, who had reached in to try to nick away an Alisson clearance only to get it all wrong. When Salah rampaged through, there was no doubt as to whether he would finish.
The second half was a thriller and there was plenty more to come. Earlier, Pep Guardiola had raged at the disallowing of a Phil Foden goal for a foul by Erling Haaland in the build-up but it was Klopp who saw red, losing 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 touchline? A saving Virgil van Dijk header, as Haaland lurked behind him; a terrible Thiago Alcántara tackle on Rodri when he was fortunate to escape with a yellow card – Thiago’s defence was that he slipped – and some atrocious finishing from Darwin Núñez, who entered as a substitute.
It meant that Liverpool could not engineer any breathing space but perhaps it made the full-time whistle even sweeter for them. Klopp was back out for the celebrations and he can now count a 12th career victory over Guardiola. No other manager has beaten him as 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 – to listen 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 focus on Haaland, whose overall financial package had put him way out of reach for Liverpool when he left Borussia Dortmund over the summer.
There was audible trepidation in the home support when Haaland went anywhere near the ball at the outset and roars when he was knocked out of his stride. They knew that he would keep waiting, keep coming back. It is why Klopp considers him to be the best striker in the world. Haaland’s very presence was an element of high-note tension.
Would Klopp persist with his 4-2-3-1 system, which can look a lot like a 4-4-2? Yes, but not as expected because he went with Salah at the tip of the formation, with Núñez back on the bench. Klopp wanted to have Salah in more central areas, not pinned to the wing, and he was prominent in what was a positive Liverpool start.
Salah was in the mood to run at the City defence, to show his physical side, too. When he levered Rúben Dias away from a high ball on 28 minutes, he set Harvey Elliott up for a run at Nathan Aké. The City defender, who started on the left of a back three, stood firm.
Before that, Diogo Jota had failed to muster the needed power or direction on a free header from Elliott’s floated cross and Andy Robertson, back in the starting XI after injury, lashed high after a flowing Liverpool move which was fired by a raking Van Dijk diagonal and saw Ederson push out a James Milner centre.
Guardiola’s surprise was his system, which had Phil Foden at left wing-back, albeit pushed high against Milner, who was in as an emergency right-back. Milner was keen to dispel the memory of being taken apart by Foden in this fixture last season.
City came on stronger in the final 15 minutes of the first-half, Haaland flicking on the after-burners, unleashing the power, radiating menace. He had three sightings after slick City build-up play; the first a run and attempted chip that 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 foul by Rodri on Salah in the lead-up to the first.
The game would ignite at the beginning of the second half, with the controversy coming after Foden forced the ball in off Joe Gomez from a tight angle. Haaland had beaten Alisson to a 50-50 ball after another De Bruyne pass but the VAR spotted that Haaland grabbed the shirt of Fabinho in the build-up. Guardiola was incandescent, sarcastically conducting the celebrations of the fans behind him.
Moments earlier, Roberto Firmino had played Salah through one on one with Ederson – the City goalkeeper made a fine finger-tip save – and then Jota headed off target when gloriously placed after Salah brilliantly worked the ball over to him.
City pushed higher, scenting their moment. Foden carried the fight, a blur of quick feet and wonderful balance. Strength, too. He was so difficult to push off the ball. After one of his runs, from left to right, Ilkay Gündogan saw a shot deflect wide. Haaland worked Alisson after Gündogan had breezed away from Fabinho. Bernardo Silva rasped a low one wide. It was Salah, though, who proved the difference.