LIVERPOOL: Liverpool, the emotion of Anfield inspiring pace, craft and athleticism beyond the norm, are in pole position to win their first championship in 24 years after seeing off Manchester City.
A 3-2 win grounded in Liverpool’s finest first half of the season provided the foundation. That, and a little good fortune. But manager Brendan Rodgers will also have seen it as a reward for vision and long-time planning.
Now they have another ‘game of the season’ on the horizon, home to Chelea on April 27. Chelsea maintaind their own title pursuit by stumbling to a 1-0 win at Swansea. Demba Ba scored the 68th-minute winner against a Swansea reducd to 10 men midwaythrough he first half after the expulsion of Chico Flores.
Meanwhile, back at Anfield, City’s immediate problems were both short-term. Skipper Vincent Kompany had been injured in training the previous day and needed a fitness check before the warm-up; then, in attack, Sergio Aguero had not recovered fully from a hamstring injury and began on the subs’ bench.
A further challenge for them was the tidal wave of emotion they had to confront. This was the 25th anniversary weekend of the Hillsborough disaster in which 96 Liverpool fans died and was marked by floral tributes, a perfecty-observed one-minute’s silence and a deafening rendition of You’ll Never Walk Alone from The Kop.
The power lent Liverpool wings. In the opening 44 minutes they washed all over City, wave upon wave of red shirts dominating the pitch and possession. Raheem Sterling struck an early opening goal then Martin Skrtel headed another.
Adding to the agony, City lost key man Yaya Toure to injury after 17 minutes. On the rare occasion that City threatened, Steven Gerrard cut out the danger.
But the first signs of a change of fortune came just before half-time when Liverpool cleared twice off their own goal-line within seconds.
City maintained that momentum after the break. David Silva pulled one back and Glen Johnson equalised with an own goal six minutes later. Suddenly, dramatically, City looked the likeliest winners, especially when Daniel Sturridge limped out of the game.
But that injury allowed Rodgers to make a tactical change, shoring up midfield. Twelve minutes from the end Kompany mistimed a clearance and the superb Philipp Coutinho twisted and fired the winning goal beyond Joe Hart.
Jordan Henderson was sent off in stoppage time for a reckless lunge at Samir Nasri but City had no time left in which to capitalise on the numbers game.
Hence Liverpool edged closer to their first league title in 24 years within reach. City have two games in hand but Liverpool lead them by seven points.
It would surely be too much that Liverpool should win their first Premier League title in the year in which the legacy of Hillsborough has played such a powerful role. But that prospect is now within touching distance.
The managers . . .
After the game Liverpool’s Brendan Rodgers said: “It was a remarkable performance. I thought we were incredible today. We showed so much spirit and quality. Credit to Manchester City. We were outstanding in that first half but you expect a team like City to come back for 15 or 20 minutes.
“Together, the players, the supporters and the staff, it was a wonderful victory for us.
“It’s always emotive, especially around this time. We live with Hillsborough every day. The families and the victims are in our thoughts every day. It was an inspiration for us, rather than something that held us back.
“We will remember them again at the memorial service on Tuesday but today it was about creating a different memory and it was a wonderful three points for us. The expectation on this football club is a challenge every day. Our objective is to stay where we are.
“We have been put under pressure in very big game but you can see from the quality of our football that we are coping with it.”
Manuel Pellegrini, Manchester City’s manager, said: Manchester City manager Manuel Pellegrini: “It was a very pretty match as it was two teams who like to attack. We deserved a better result. They also played very well, especially the first 20 minutes but we were very unlucky.
“We played very well in the second half when there was only one team on the pitch and we had clear chances to win the game.
” There was just one team inside the pitch in the second half. There was a clear penalty when Martin Skrtel had a handball but I don’t think the result today was because of the referee, who had a good game. Normally, Vincent Kompany is great defender but today he made a mistake.
“If we win our two games in hand we will be a point behind Liverpool, who still have to play Chelsea. The title does not finish today. We are still going to fight. A lot of things will happen between now and the end of the season.”