LONDON -- When the best of Liverpool face the best of Manchester City there is nothing quite like it in the modern game. This was not quite football at that level, but one could hardly complain about the spectacle as a sun-drenched Wembley was treated to another engaging clash between these two great rivals.
A late sally that ended with Alisson's goal under siege might have brought something more like balance to the score, but a 3-2 defeat arguably reflected more favorably on City than Liverpool, still chasing an unprecedented quadruple as the season enters its finishing straight. Their momentum feels irresistible. Certainly it would take a stronger side than what City put on the pitch Saturday.
Pep Guardiola would contend he simply did not have a choice. Injuries sustained in midweek had robbed him of Kyle Walker while Kevin De Bruyne was only fit enough to be named among the substitutes. For others, the sheer weight of the effort they put in to overcoming Atletico Madrid meant they had to be held in reserve as their manager made seven changes from midweek. Jurgen Klopp made the same number from the side that had drawn with Benfica. The difference was he was bringing back his star players.
One of those changes Guardiola couldn't argue was forced upon him came within the sticks. Zack Steffen is City's FA Cup goalkeeper and he was trusted with the assignment of quelling Mohamed Salah and company just as he had been against Cheltenham Town. It always looked a gamble and it was swiftly apparent it was not going to pay off. The USMNT international was a skittish presence on the ball as Liverpool pressed with much greater intensity, he always seemed to need an extra touch Ederson wouldn't.
There was cruel irony in the way in which he conceded his second. Trying to replicate the Ederson's élan in front of his own goal last week, he instead found Sadio Mane clattering into him to squirt the ball over the line. Already trailing from Ibrahima Konate's powerful header, City seemed to think for a time, at least until the interval, that the jig was up. It was to their credit that they turned this into a real contest in the dying minutes but in reality the game probably slipped away from them as the ball did from Steffen in that moment.
It would be hard enough for Guardiola's best players to overcome this deficit. They were all on the bench. Fernandinho was a step slow to every loose ball in midfield, showing for a pass a fraction of a second later than Rodri might. His day was typified by a nasty tackle on Mane that brought him a long overdue yellow card.
Jack Grealish may have scored a fierce volley worthy of a $130 million player, but for too much of this game he slipped to the peripheries. It would be too much to ask him to replicate De Bruyne's brilliance from last week, but he did not offer anything like the vision and thrust that the Belgian had. Ahead of him Raheem Sterling seemed to freeze against a fanbase who have never forgiven him for the way he left Liverpool.
Meanwhile the tactics that had worked so effectively last week seemed to run aground for City. Andrew Robertson and Trent Alexander-Arnold seemed willing to curb their attacking instincts just a tad, robbing Bernardo Silva of those inside out passes that had been so dangerous at the Etihad. Klopp would instead put that down to work done to cut the long balls out at source, telling CBS Sports, "If you don't [put pressure on the ball] you can't have the line we had against City. It worked out for us really often and then it didn't work out for us in one game and we have to talk about it in general. The reaction from the boys today was exceptional. We want to have a high line in the right moments." In that regard the outstanding Naby Keita excelled lead a press of renewed intensity that forced more of the play back into the City third of the pitch.
Though the sustained brilliance of Sunday's Premier League encounter was rarely apparent, when one of these two clicked into gear it was a feast for the eyes. It was generally just one of these two however with Liverpool always looking more likely to add to their tally than City pull it back.
When the match-winning third came, it was enough to stun even the ebullient Liverpool end.
Trent Alexander-Arnold's elegant cross-field delivery unleashed the effervescent Luis Diaz, soon the ball would find its way to Thiago. A clipped pass from the excellent Spaniard and the ball was sitting up perfectly for Mane to volley home his second. Quietly he has accrued what is an extremely impressive return of 18 goals from 41 games this season, already two more than he managed in a down 2020-21.
Watching on from the touchline, Klopp was in raptures. "I think the first half was one of the best we ever played," he said. "We did all the right stuff, we scored in the right moments, we played an incredible game in the first half, I really loved each second of it."
City rallied in the second half. Grealish looked far more at home on the left, ghosting in from that flank he volleyed in his second goal of 2022. For a moment they seemed to believe the comeback was on, yet Guardiola's reluctance to immediately deploy the big guns from the bench, particularly in a match where he was allowed to make five changes, pointed to the simple reality that they were not ready to play.
He would subsequently reveal that Rodri and Riyad Mahrez were the only senior substitutes on the bench who were fit. De Bruyne might have been able to warm up in the first half but the ankle injury he suffered in Madrid meant he needed stitches and painkillers. "At the end i didn't want to take the risk to lose him for the next games," said Guardiola.
Without them Liverpool looked to be the better side even if City made it more of a contest. Twice Nathan Ake denied them what looked like developing clear-cut scoring chances, first blocking a Virgil van Dijk effort before then sliding in on Mohamed Salah in the box.
Opportunities still came City's way but it was in those moments that the gulf between these two versions of Europe's best teams became apparent. A sliding interception from Bernardo Silva won possession for his side in midfield, seconds later Gabriel Jesus was charging through on goal, opening his body to bend a shot around Alisson. But the best one on one goalkeeper in England was not to be so easily defeated, getting enough on the shot to deflect it wide for a corner. Even though he would concede one more before the match was out, Bernardo Silva pouncing on the rebound after Mahrez's shot from close range had squirmed through the goalkeeper, by that time he had repelled City often enough that the clock was not their friend in the closing stages.
Today Alisson was the difference, or at least representative of it. City's reserve handed their opponents a goal from thin air. His Liverpool counterpart demanded that they magic something spectacular to respond.