Man City cede ground in title chase after Liverpool storm to 3-0 win
LIVERPOOL, England -- Three quick thoughts from Liverpool's 3-0 victory over Manchester City at Anfield on Wednesday.
1. Liverpool hunt down City
Vincent Kompany had described it as "hunting season," the time in the year when Manchester City have a habit of gunning down their title rivals. But that was in previous years. Now City look like the prey. They are being hunted down by a Liverpool team who hassled them remorselessly on their way to a deserved 3-0 win. This Manchester United side could soon lose their grip on fourth place in the Premier League.
City have overcome eight- and nine-point deficits to win the title before, but they are now 10 points behind leaders Leicester and are level with Louis van Gaal's youthful United. An excellent week, in which City won 3-1 at Dynamo Kiev and lifted the Capital One Cup at Liverpool's expense, came to a wretched conclusion. Manchester City have suffered three consecutive league defeats for the first time since 2008, and their record against the better teams in the Premier League remains awful.
Their Anfield jinx continues, too, as they took their run of winless league visits to 13. The mention of that number could lead to suggestions of being unlucky. They were not. They were abject. They failed to track runners or cope with Jurgen Klopp's high-energy pressing game. City turned in one of the no-show performances that a mercurial side can produce. Liverpool had seemed the team with less to play for, but they produced the more energetic and emphatic display.
Adam Lallana, James Milner and Roberto Firmino all scored and starred. Liverpool did not miss the absent Daniel Sturridge, the unused Philippe Coutinho or the injured Mamadou Sakho. City were deprived of the services of Yaya Toure, whose minor problem meant he remained on the bench, but they seemed to have named the stronger starting XI. By half-time, perceptions had changed dramatically. In a round of fixtures in which Leicester, Tottenham and Arsenal all dropped points, City find themselves further off the lead.
2. Milner wins the battle of the exes
The last time City won at Anfield, in 2003, they did so with the goals of a former Liverpool player, Nicolas Anelka. History did not repeat itself. Raheem Sterling did not enjoy the happiest of homecomings.
Rather, the alumnus who enjoyed his evening was Milner, the man who is often overlooked in all the focus on Sterling. This was a tale of two men who swapped clubs. After making opposite journeys, they experienced contrasting nights.
Sterling's performance was curtailed after just 45 minutes when he was substituted. It amounted to an ignominious first return to Anfield. When Milner was removed, it was to a standing ovation with the game long since won. A hard-running scorer had acquired ubiquity. He had form and fortune alike. He appeared to handle Sergio Aguero's header on the stroke of half-time. It could have been a penalty and a red card. It was neither.
Yet one who has often gone underappreciated -- including by Manuel Pellegrini during his first season in England -- began in the shadows again. Sterling was the centre of attention. It was like the old times when the Kop cheered Sterling. Well, almost. They reacted with relief and a hint of derision when a shot sailed into their midst, safely past Simon Mignolet's goal.
It was as close as he came to finding the net. There was a soundtrack of boos every time he touched the ball, even if it would be an exaggeration to brand it a cauldron of hate. But there was a huge roar of approval when Jon Flanagan, legally but forcefully, charged into a challenge with Sterling after 20 seconds, taking the ball and upending the former colleague.
Boos greeted the award of a free kick several minutes later, when Sterling and Flanagan clashed again. Sterling is certainly well remunerated at City, even if none of the other 21 players on the pitch should be paupers either. Yet the manner of Sterling's departure from Merseyside left a bad taste in many mouths.
Milner, who made the opposite journey, was not jeered by the City faithful. They remain appreciative of his honest endeavour. He served them faithfully but it was a professional allegiance, and he was willing to celebrate a goal against them, with the aid of an imaginary lasso as City were reeled in.
It is worth remembering, too, that while Milner ranks among the best-paid players at Anfield, he arrived on a free transfer. In comparison, Liverpool profited to the tune of £49 million for Sterling, even if 20 percent of it was owed to Queens Park Rangers in a sell-on clause and most of the proceeds were squandered on Christian Benteke. On nights such as this, they seemed to get the better part of the convoluted exchange of wingers.
3. Lallana and Flanagan have nights to savour
The rapid rematch provided an early opportunity for revenge after Sunday's final. Lallana took it out on Manchester City goalkeepers. He took Liverpool's last penalty at Wembley, which was brilliantly repelled by Willy Caballero. Joe Hart displaced the Argentine on Wednesday and dived rather unconvincingly when Lallana let fly from 25 yards. Unlike three days earlier, the £25m man found the net.
It was a significant strike, and not just in the context of a game. Lallana hasn't had a big enough impact in defining matches for one of the most expensive players in Liverpool's history. His previous league goals came against West Bromwich Albion, Leicester (when they were relegation strugglers, not title challengers), Swansea, Crystal Palace, Norwich and Sunderland. This was a first against elite opposition.
Often anonymous in the glamour games, Lallana was excellent this time. He complemented his opener with crucial contributions to Liverpool's second and third goals. His back-heel was directed for Firmino, who picked out Milner. His first touch enabled him to advance on goal. His second was an assured finish. Then Lallana provided the defence-splitting pass for Firmino to add a third.
Flanagan had a different reason to savour the result. He played in the top flight for the first time in 661 days. His previous Premier League appearance was also Luis Suarez's last for Liverpool. At 23, Flanagan already evokes an earlier era. He is an old-fashioned footballer, both in his hugely committed tackling technique and his status as a local lad. He has a prominent cheerleader in Jamie Carragher.
Flanagan occupied the left-back role in Liverpool's title charge two years ago but it was kinder to bring a right-footed player back in his natural role.
There were hints of rustiness, when Sterling accelerated past him and when he lost the ball to Fernandinho. But Flanagan saw off Sterling, his immediate opponent, and then held his own against Kelechi Iheanacho, giving his return a joyful feel. It was a timely display; he is out of contract at the end of the season, and a summer shake-up is anticipated.
Richard Jolly is a football writer for ESPN, The Guardian, The National, The Observer, the Straits Times and the Sunday Express.