Philippe Coutinho struck with 12 minutes remaining to provide Liverpool with the most precious of winners from a thrilling top-of-the-table clash with Manchester City at Anfield.
Vincent Kompany’s poor clearance was snapped upon brilliantly by the Brazilian, whose dramatic contribution swung the Premier League title race firmly in the Merseysiders’ favor. Liverpool, who ended the game with 10 men courtesy of a reckless challenge from Jordan Henderson, have negotiated a massive hurdle and now know that if they win their final four matches they will be champions for the first time in 24 years.
Right before Coutinho’s intervention, it looked like an emotional afternoon was set to end very differently. Liverpool had begun superbly in front of a deafening Anfield crowd eager to mark the 25th anniversary of the Hillsborough Disaster by roaring their team onto their most important league win in more than two decades.
Raheem Sterling put his side in front in just the sixth minute and there could be no complaints when Martin Skrtel then made it 2-0 20 minutes later. But Manchester City regrouped and David Silva’s goal early in the second half signified a major shift in momentum. The Spaniard was now running the game and when Glen Johnson unluckily diverted his cross past Simon Mignolet, the visitors were the likelier winners. And they so nearly were. Silva’s virtuoso performance came so close to the perfect climax, instead he was inches away from turning a Sergio Aguero cross into the net. Just three minutes later, Kompany erred and Coutinho struck and the points were staying in Anfield.
The decision to start Kompany may well be one that Manuel Pellegrini regrets, with the Belgian, who picked up a knee injury in training on Saturday and was a doubt right until kickoff, at fault for all three goals.
It had again been a display that demonstrated the thrilling attacking play that could well take Liverpool to the title and the suspect defending that might see them miss out. But the intangibles appear with Liverpool. The belief that Brendan Rodgers has inspired in his players was all-too evident in their failure to wilt and instead rise again in a most trying second half. And Manchester City will consider themselves mightily hard done by not to have been awarded at least one penalty from two convincing appeals, while Luis Suarez also walked the disciplinary tightrope when arguably warranting a second yellow card for a dive.
Suarez had been booked early on when getting a little too pumped up following a hair-raising rendition of “You’ll Never Walk Alone.” Feeding off the atmosphere, Liverpool predictably began at a furious pace. Not for the first time this season, their opponents couldn’t live with them. Sterling’s position at the point of the diamond was causing City particular problems and it was not long before the ever-improving teenager had the hosts in front.
Luis Suarez was superb in the buildup, showing his strength to hold off first Martin Demichelis and then Gael Clichy, before playing Sterling easily in behind Kompany. With Joe Hart foolishly leaving himself stranded, Sterling showed utmost composure to sell both the Manchester City goalkeeper and Kompany back-to-back dummies to allow him to place a shot into an unguarded net.
City continued to struggle to get a foothold in the game and could easily have found themselves two goals behind less than 10 minutes later. Sterling’s pace this time easily outstripped Clichy before whipping in a perfect early cross for Daniel Sturridge, but the striker failed to make clean contact in the middle. City’s afternoon continued to deteriorate when Yaya Toure tweaked his groin and was forced off just 19 minutes in to be replaced by Javi Garcia. And soon their deficit was doubled.
The visitors had been given a warning from set-pieces when Gerrard was left free and had a header turned over by Hart, but failed to heed learn their lesson when from the resulting corner Liverpool’s captain went to deliver. From the near-post cross, Skrtel easily shook off the attentions of Kompany and then rose above Clichy before heading deftly into the net.
While clearly on top, Liverpool were also getting the rub of the green. A wild challenge from Mamadou Sakho in the box got none of the ball but enough of Edin Dzeko to make referee Mark Clattenburg’s decision not to award a penalty the wrong one.
Still, at that point it looked like being a comfortable win for Liverpool. Yet unlike so many visitors to Anfield this season, City did not go away quietly. Having been thoroughly second best, Pellegrini’s men finally began to find their feet in the final five minutes of the opening half. Silva’s header was deflected just wide, while from the resulting corner, Sterling had to head off the line from Kompany’s effort. Simon Mignolet was forced into action, too, when diving at full-stretch to turn Fernandinho’s effort past the post.
City grew further into the game when James Milner injected energy after coming off the bench. Suddenly it was Liverpool who were slow to close their opponents down, a fact that was in full evidence to allow City to get back into the contest. Allowed too much time, Fernandinho and Milner combined to get the England international in down the right of the box and his pull-back was expertly turned into the net by Silva.
By that point, Liverpool should arguably have been down to 10 men when Suarez theatrically went to ground without any contact being made from Demichelis. The 11 men of Liverpool were already having a hard enough time trying to halt their rejuvenated opponents.
Dzeko so nearly got onto Silva’s driven cross, but it was not long before Manchester City’s increasing pressure resulted in an equalizer. Again Silva was at the heart of it. On this occasion fortune was with him when his pull back struck Johnson and went into the full-back’s own net off the boot of the wrong-footed Mignolet.
Mignolet was back in the thick of the action moments later when blocking a shot from Dzeko. That came either side of a penalty appeal for either side. Silva’s request for a spot kick following Jon Flanagan’s clumsy challenge was more convincing than Suarez’s for Kompany’s strong-arm tactics in the box.
The key moment of the contest, though, and perhaps the whole title race was yet to come. Sergio Aguero made his return off the bench from a month out and immediately made an impact. His turn and pace left Skrtel trailing in his shadow down the left and his low cross appeared perfect for Silva, but on the stretch he could only get enough purchase on the ball to take it outside rather than inside the post.
Liverpool had survived and soon after they spectacularly came again. Kompany’s attempted clearance from a long throw was completely mishit, but Coutinho still deserves huge credit for a wonderful finish on the turn to whip the ball into the bottom corner. This time, despite Henderson seeing red for an over-the-ball challenge on Nasri, the hosts hung on and Gerrard’s tears at the final whistle summed up what it meant to all on the red half of Merseyside.