Manchester City once again came face to face with their most dangerous opponent in the place they like least and once again left Anfield empty-handed after defeat by Liverpool.
City’s four titles in five seasons have firmly and deservedly established them as the pre-eminent domestic force, tracked all the way by Liverpool, but if there is an arena that brings discomfort, disappointment and contention to them and manager Pep Guardiola it is here in front of the Kop.
In the past 22 seasons, City have only left Anfield victorious twice and one of those came behind closed doors during the pandemic when the atmosphere and noise which inspires Liverpool was removed.
Those 22 games have also brought 14 defeats, City adding another painful loss to their list as Mohamed Salah’s runaway goal in the 76th minute decided a full throttle, ill-tempered but enthralling game.
Guardiola was left with a familiar feeling, believing City were victims of an injustice when Phil Foden’s opener was ruled out by the video assistant referee, a visit to the screen convincing referee Anthony Taylor that Erling Haaland’s tug on Fabinho’s shirt was a foul, halting celebrations in the visiting end and sparking elation and relief at Anfield.
City’s manager was also a target for objects thrown by Liverpool fans near his technical area, saying: “They tried to throw coins but they didn’t touch me. Maybe next time they will do better.”
Guardiola delivered a reminder of the occasion when City’s coach was attacked by Liverpool’s fans before a Champions League quarter-final in April 2018.
Liverpool also issued a statement condemning what they described as “vile chants relating to football stadium tragedies from the away section”, adding that a concourse was also daubed with graffiti of a similar nature.
Anfield is not Guardiola or Manchester City’s happy place and they will feel no better about it after this, their first away defeat in the league since they lost at Tottenham on the opening weekend of last season. It was also the first time they have failed to score in the league this season.
The latter statistic is perhaps the biggest surprise of all considering the manner in which City, with Haaland as the unstoppable spearhead, have been taking defences to the cleaners this season.
Here, City’s finishing touch – even Haaland’s – was missing and in what is traditionally a fixture of fine margins, it proved decisive.
City had plenty of the ball, enjoying long spells of possession, but for once they could not find the final touch.
Haaland certainly had his chances but found Liverpool keeper Alisson the barrier as he saved a first-half header and an attempted lob, as well as a goal-bound second-half shot, which he turned away with an outstretched right hand.
And Liverpool’s winning goal, while a rich source of joy to Anfield, was a mess from City’s point of view, from a wasted free-kick into Alisson’s arms to Joao Cancelo’s panic-stricken slip with Salah in his eyeline from the keeper’s long clearance that allowed the Egyptian an opportunity he was not going to pass up.
In the end, for all the sound and fury summoned up by Anfield, it was this one slip by Cancelo that settled the contest.
It summed up City’s day. Plenty of it was good but not quite enough from a team that is still the best in the country. It was, in some ways, a throwback to some of City’s rare losses in recent seasons when all their possession and territorial presence was undermined by the occasional lack of a killer touch that Haaland now gives them.
City will not allow one painful experience to knock them off course, although Arsenal must now also be given growing consideration in the title race as Premier League leaders following their magnificent start to the season.
This outstanding Manchester City side will shrug off the defeat, complete with the sense of injustice that often accompanies them when they leave Anfield, and it will not be long before they are winning again and Haaland is scoring again.
City were, however, just short of their brilliant best and on occasions like this at Anfield, that can be costly as they now stand four points behind Arsenal and 10 ahead of Liverpool, who have a game in hand.
Guardiola and Manchester City are probably glad to have their annual league visit to Anfield behind them after this latest chastening experience.