This was a match that turned two seasons. For Manchester City, five points behind Chelsea, having played a game more, it was the moment their grip on their title loosened, perhaps fatally. For Liverpool, this was a wildly improbable victory which makes it likelier than not they will finish in the Champions League places.
Dawn would have been starting to break over the Mersey when Brendan Rodgers and his team reached their beds on Friday morning. They had endured two hours of gruelling, draining football against Besiktas. There would have been the crawl through Istanbul’s choking traffic and a four-hour flight, carrying with them all the baggage that comes from a lost penalty shoot-out. They would have one day to prepare for the champions of England. There seemed no logical reason to imagine they might win.
It may not have been coincidence, but neither Philippe Coutinho nor Jordan Henderson, the two principal reasons why Liverpool won this match, travelled to Turkey.
Each scored a staggeringly good goal and, far from fading, as most at Anfield would have expected, Liverpool finished the stronger. On the final whistle, Rodgers turned to the Main Stand, punched the air twice and grinned hugely. This was one of the biggest victories of his time as Liverpool manager.
“It was a brilliant result and a brilliant performance,” he reflected. “We were relentless. Landing at half four in the morning and then not getting to your bed until six o’clock and then having to prepare for a game against the champions is no mean feat – but to play like that is something else.
“As the game went on, we became more dangerous and we restricted Manchester City to one shot on target. The momentum, the flow and the rhythm were always with us. If we reach the top four it will be a more significant achievement than it was last year because of where we are coming from.”
The only travel City had to endure in midweek was negotiating the traffic jams on the Mancunian Way that lead to the Etihad Stadium but they still suffered a chastening European experience at the hands of Barcelona. As they came off the pitch, some of Manuel Pellegrini’s side might have been grateful Luis Suarez had left Liverpool. However, they still had Coutinho to come to terms with.
Neymar, who was in the Barcelona side that sashayed through the same leaden 4-4-2 formation Pellegrini employed at Anfield, remarked that Coutinho, whom he has known since he was 16, could become the brightest star in the Premier League. This game demonstrated why. City never came to terms with either the young Brazilian or his strike partner, Raheem Sterling.
Coutinho did not appear to be in a dangerous position when the ball came to him with 15 minutes to go – he was on the left of the penalty area and there seemed to be too many blue shirts around him. One of them was Samir Nasri, who was just about to close him down when Coutinho shot. Once more Joe Hart flung himself to reach a ball bound for the top corner of his net. Once more, he clutched only rain-spattered air.
“The kid has got so much ahead of him,” said Rodgers. “He came to us at 19 and in a way he is still adapting to us and to this country. To have beaten Joe Hart, who is 6ft 5in, from that angle and with that power is astonishing.
“He is a star and although there are improvements he can make to his game he loves it here because he is playing for a team that loves to play a technical game. He cost eight-and-a-half million quid, by the way.”
City have never enjoyed the short journey to Anfield, having managed one victory here since Boxing Day 1981, but this defeat was one of the worst they can have experienced. Because of the reconstruction of Anfield, the coaches had to park outside where the Shankly Gates used to be, forcing the teams to walk through the crowded car park to their dressing rooms. City were given a reasonably good welcome but you wonder what reception will be in store when Manchester United come later this month.
Adam Lallana had already clipped a shot into the net, one of two he had ruled offside, when Liverpool went ahead in the 11th minute. It began with Vincent Kompany taking a swing at thin air and continued as Sterling found Henderson, who turned inside, taking Fernandinho with him, and sent a shot from 20 yards curling and dipping beyond Hart.
Henderson has been chosen to be Steven Gerrard’s successor as Liverpool captain and this was the kind of goal Gerrard would have scored. “Beautiful goals”, said Pellegrini when assessing the two shots that left his season in the balance.
Sergio Aguero too has his trademark goals and yesterday nearly brought one of his best. The Argentine remained fractionally onside as he ran to meet a long ball from David Silva. Pursued by Martin Skrtel, he allowed the ball to bounce twice before sending a left-footed shot against Simon Mignolet’s post in front of the Kop.
Aguero can provide goals as well as score them and in the 26th minute his pass took out four Liverpool defenders, dissected Emre Can and Dejan Lovren, allowing Edin Dzeko to slide the ball home.
But one of City’s weaknesses when defending their title is that Kompany and Pablo Zabaleta, the cornerstones of a defence that won two championships, have endured indifferent seasons. Kompany in particular seemed very out of sorts here, getting nowhere near Sterling and committing far too many fouls for a footballer of his quality. Even after Dzeko equalised, City never seemed comfortable.
Late last season, they came to Anfield and lost what seemed a critical game, one that looked to have cost them the title. The stories of their two Premier League titles are tales of remarkable recoveries but this is unlikely to be the third.
Liverpool had further chances to add to their lead following Coutinho's goal, with Daniel Sturridge, on as a substitute, poking wide when clean as a Michelin-starred chef's work surface through on goal.
The hosts, who started without a recognised striker for the second Premier League game in a row, had two Adam Lallana goals ruled out for offside, as City failed to take advantage of Chelsea's appearance in the Capital One Cup final later this afternoon.
Liverpool's form has improved with the air of a tear-jerking Hollywood drama since the fallow early days of the season, and they were more vibrant than City throughout.
Pellegrini, already under fire after a limp Champions League defeat to Barcelona at the Etihad in midweek, will be cursing another error from Vincent Kompany that allowed Henderson room to fire home.
And although City improved in the second half, in truth they had little answer to a Liverpool side who look to have all the momentum in the "rat race" for the Champions League.
Join our new commenting forum
Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies