Classic Matches: Man City 2 Liverpool 1, December 26th, 2013.
It’s hardly ancient history at this stage but Liverpool’s nearly-season of 2013/14 has already been fast-tracked into Premier League mythology – largely because of the free-scoring chaos by which they arrived at the brink of glory, and then the Shakespearean brutality with which it was snatched away.
The campaign’s defining games – the 5-1 win over Arsenal, the 2-0 loss to Chelsea, “Crystanbul” – reflect the nature of the story. But arguably the match that cemented Liverpool’s gloriously doomed title charge was one which they lost, which saw them disposed from the top of the league, and which, if the result was reversed, would have seen the trophy presented at Anfield in May.
As this season’s halfway point looms with Liverpool at the Premier League’s summit once more, Scouse minds won’t need much prompting to wander back to three years ago.
Liverpool’s players woke up on Boxing Day 2013 looking down on the rest of the division, and trundled down the M62 that evening intent on proving that a purposeful start to the season, and some gluttonous recent form (they’d won four on the bounce, scoring 17), was no fluke.
But no one on Merseyside was mentioning the T-word just yet, and any inferiority complex they had regarding that evening’s opponents, who hadn’t dropped a point at home, would have been well-placed.
City were a fearsome team and by a country mile the favourites for the league, having banished memories of the previous year’s wretched title defence with a potent prescription of goals – lots of them.
They’d put six past both Spurs and Arsenal in preceding weeks, hit a 7-0 win over Norwich shortly before that and registered a cathartic 4-1 win over United – who’d just been plunged into their bleak post-Fergie universe – early on in the season. Each of these in itself could be considered a statement win. City had done all four before Santa visited, and beaten Bayern Munich at the Allianz Arena to boot.
Already it was looking like a title race that would be defined by its strikers. City’s summer signing Alvaro Negredo had hit the ground like an Olympic sprinter alongside the dead-eyed Sergio Aguero, their little-and-large partnership already reaping an absurd 32 goals before Liverpool visited the Etihad Stadium.
Luis Suarez had missed the season’s first five games due to Biting Ban Number One of his career, but had come back with savage single-mindedness, notching an astonishing 19 goals in 12 outings – a haul that made Sturridge’s nine in 11 look comparatively measly.
In the event, City edged the game 2-1, all three goals coming before half-time in what was one of the most breathless and high-class 45 minutes of football in recent years.
After five minutes, Jesus Navas ambled in at the back post to float a header against the crossbar; Negredo blammed a sighter wide shortly afterwards. Back and forth it went, with a pair of heavyweight midfields (Yaya Toure’s effortless orchestrator’s routine a particular highlight) feeding their dancing frontlines, and chances carved out with knuckle-whitening frequency.
By the time Liverpool opened the scoring midway through the half – Philippe Coutinho’s finish concluding a lightning passage of one-touch passing that shredded City’s backline to ribbons – they should already have been ahead, Raheem Sterling denied a goal minutes earlier by an offside decision amiss by a matter of meters (“An AWFUL decision!” hooted an unusually excitable Michael Owen from the commentary box).
As was his default setting throughout that season, Suarez was in monstrously good form, playing with an unrelenting and near-inhuman ferocity that was impossible to take your eyes off.
Up front on his own and the side’s stand-in skipper (Sturridge and Steven Gerrard were both out injured), he showed himself to be a bona fide leader of men, so long as you like your leaders fuelled by frothing rage and a misplaced persecution complex. (In that regard, you could even say he was a couple of years ahead of his time.)
Repeatedly he went to war with Vincent Kompany and Joleon Lescott and beat them at their own brutalist game, engaging City’s centre-backs in a battle of brawn before wrestling himself free of their attentions to scamper into enemy territory.
As the team’s lone spearhead, all Suarez’s best moments came, bizarrely, as a playmaker: he bisected City’s defence to lay on Sterling’s non-goal, Coutinho’s actual one and another glorious chance for the Brazilian just before half-time, which drew a staggering Schmeichel-esque smother-save from Joe Hart.
Suarez didn’t get on the scoresheet, or even come close, but it was perhaps his most impressive performance of a season which stands alongside Eric Cantona in 1996 and Cristiano Ronaldo in 2008 as the pinnacle of sustained individual brilliance in modern-era English football.
City responded to Liverpool’s opener with a blitz of their own. First Toure stampeded into the box and lashed an effort wide. Then Kompany levelled from a corner, before Negredo notched what would turn out to be the decisive goal: a strange, sliced effort that Mignolet palmed upwards but couldn’t preventing from sailing into the net – a costly aberration in a game of sumptuous quality.
The second half was similarly intense but shorter on chances, Sterling squandering the best of them as he blazed over at the back post after Suarez had shed his marker on the halfway line before guiding a cross right along the Etihad’s corridor of uncertainty.
Come the final whistle, Liverpool had sunk to fourth in the league, but they’d gone toe-to-toe with the favourites and lost by a hair’s breadth. “I’m furious that we didn’t get three points,” said Neil Atkinson on the Anfield Wrap radio show the following morning. “But the fact that we’re not happy with defeat suggests that this is a proper football team.”
City came away victors but the game’s effects were felt most profoundly in their opponents. Liverpool bounded into the new year emboldened, embarking on a 16-game unbeaten run – including 11 straight wins – before that fateful visit of Chelsea, Jose and cruel, cruel gravity in late-April.
In the end, what could be argued to be a decisive result in the title race – City finished the season with 86 points, Liverpool with 84 – was perhaps a key factor in the title race happening at all. Although given the trauma with which it all ended, maybe a comfortable Liverpool win might have worked out best for everyone.
The author, Alex Hess can be found @A_Hess
WANT SOMETHING EXTRA FOR THE WEEKEND? Horse Racing Fans Check this out – Ascot, Haydock and Punchestown covered plus a review of last weeks Open meeting at Cheltenham with leading jockey Harry Skelton who picks out a few for the season…