Liverpool continue unbeaten run vs. top half in high-paced draw at Man City
MANCHESTER, England -- Three quick thoughts from the 1-1 Premier League draw between Manchester City and Liverpool at the Etihad Stadium on Sunday.
1. Liverpool maintain unbeaten record against the best
The reality is that at the end of a breathless game that was both brilliant and flawed, very little had changed. Manchester City stayed third and Liverpool fourth, neither in any danger of catching Chelsea. Jurgen Klopp's charges remain the team the best cannot beat, extending their unbeaten run against the top-half sides and taking their record against the seven foremost to 25 points from 33. Pep Guardiola's group, on the other hand, are yet to develop a winning habit in summit clashes.
Four days after exiting the Champions League to Monaco, this ranked as another potentially season-defining match they did not win. They at least averted a second successive defeat, courtesy of their top scorer.
For so potent a finisher, it was a surprise Sergio Aguero had failed to score against any of the Premier League's top seven this season. He remedied that by side-footing in Kevin de Bruyne's cross to end one drought and extend another scoring sequence. He has faced Liverpool in five league games at the Etihad and struck in each.
City were inches from a winner when De Bruyne hit the post after Aguero, when well positioned to shoot, had slipped. Liverpool had a still better chance, Adam Lallana miscuing horribly when Roberto Firmino found him unmarked six yards from goal. Simon Mignolet played his part in preserving parity, too, tipping wide as Raheem Sterling tried to lob him. There had been a litany of other misses, with David Silva and Philippe Coutinho among the main culprits in the first half, and it ranked as a surprise that no one struck before the break in an eventful, exciting game.
It was as high-paced as might be expected when Klopp and Guardiola meet and illustrated that Liverpool remain a bogey team for City. Klopp's side had been resoundingly mediocre in beating Burnley last week. They were much better this time, with Firmino's return proving pivotal, Emre Can exerting an influence in midfield and Joel Matip defending defiantly.
It was fractious, too. Yaya Toure was aggrieved to be booked when others felt a slide into the fallen Can, when studs connected with chest, might have resulted in a red card. It was a difficult game to referee, with a series of possible penalties. On every occasion bar one, Michael Oliver gave the benefit of the doubt to the defenders.
2. City pay the penalty as Milner and Sterling clash
City have had ample time to regret losing James Milner. Indeed, they could lament his departure even before it happened, Manuel Pellegrini only belatedly realising the virtue of the ultimate odd-job man as Milner ran down his contract and joined Liverpool.
Yet the annoyance about how he got away on a free transfer two years ago was increased when Milner, with a certain sense of inevitability, put Liverpool ahead. He scored against his old club last season and did so again. The 31-year-old, booed by some City supporters for comments this week, provided his own response.
A man relocated to the left by Klopp had a centrality. Milner scored a penalty. He could have conceded one. The complicated relationship between the two clubs was highlighted when a man City were keen to keep slid in one who forced a move from Liverpool. Sterling had been accused of greed by the travelling Merseysiders. They were glad he was not rewarded with the spot kick that he ought to have got. City still could have scored, Fernandinho materialising behind either to shoot into the side netting from Silva's enticing cross, but their chance could have come from 12 yards, not four.
It was a moment of fortune for Milner, but he also acquitted himself commendably apart from that. He is the left-back who Klopp says is not a left-back. On this occasion, however, he was. The player who had delivered the second most crosses in the division operated almost exclusively in his own half.
Because City's wingers operate so high and wide, Liverpool's full-backs stayed back. Milner coped better than Nathaniel Clyne, who was troubled by Leroy Sane. His sense of responsibility helps Milner cope. He was positioned perfectly to intercept the German's low cross when one winger aimed to find another, Sterling, at the far post. Perhaps because of Milner, Guardiola ended up moving Sterling infield.
Theirs was a strange job swap in 2015. Liverpool benefited by the tune of £44 million, City by getting the player almost nine years younger. In the long term, City's end may seem the better deal. But so far, Liverpool have taken 10 points from four league games against City since Milner joined. This was the first time Sterling could even celebrate a point against his old employers.
3. Caballero impresses against Liverpool again
Given City's dreadful recent record against Liverpool, few of their players boast should relish meetings with Klopp's team. Willy Caballero is an exception. Last season's League Cup final was a game that transformed opinions of Caballero; a liability in many fans' opinions acquired the status of a hero --and a reliable deputy in general -- on the day.
Controversially picked ahead of Joe Hart, he justified Pellegrini's faith in the subsequent shootout. City won silverware because he denied Coutinho, Lallana and Lucas Leiva at Wembley last year.
The scene seemed set for a sequel when Gael Clichy caught Firmino. Penalty specialist faced penalty specialist. This time, Caballero could not bail City out. He guessed wrong. Milner scored.
Yet the Argentinian fared better in open play. Firmino, Liverpool's resident big-game hunter and a scorer home and away against City last season, cut infield and curled a shot. Caballero flung himself to his left and clawed it over the bar. Lallana connected sweetly with a rising shot. Caballero reacted swiftly, tipping it over the bar.
He made a second stop from Firmino eight minutes before Aguero equalised. It ranked as a turning point. Given how few stops Claudio Bravo made before he was dropped, it underlined that Caballero is an upgrade. He may revert to being second choice again next season, but it was at least another game with Liverpool that showed he can play major matches without letting City down.
Richard Jolly covers the Premier League and Champions League for ESPN FC. Twitter: @RichJolly.