The Europa League exit on Thursday was a disappointment, with a very poor, uncharacteristic performance accompanying elimination from the competition. We could have no complaints about our loss to Besiktas, meaning our entire European campaign this season has been nothing short of awful.
Of course, in the aftermath of the defeat, all we could do was focus on the positives and try to bounce back as quickly as possible. While it’s never nice to miss out on the shot at a trophy, especially one that offers Champions League football for next season as well as the silverware itself, we now find ourselves with a very manageable fixture list that gives us maximum chance of lifting the fairy-tale FA Cup on Steven Gerrard’s last game and birthday, as well as a top four finish.
In the short term though, we were looking at a tough game against the reigning league champions immediately after the difficult trip to Turkey. Man City had an additional 48 hours to rest and train, and must have been rubbing their hands together with glee upon seeing us play 120 minutes, suffer a dent in morale upon defeat in the penalty shootout, and then need to catch a delayed flight home to further minimise our preparation.
So all things considered, our 2-1 win over Man City yesterday lunchtime came as a fantastic result. And it would have been so even if it were a tired, laboured display that saw us scrape the points with lady luck on our side. Instead what we saw, was us dominate the game, getting better and better as it went on, and in the end comfortably being the superior team and fully justifying the win. It wasn’t a perfect performance, but under the circumstances it was very impressive.
Key to the result were the players in midfield: Joe Allen and Jordan Henderson as the controlling duo, and Adam Lallana and Philippe Coutinho in the more advanced roles. Raheem Sterling as the focal point of attack did a lot of selfless running, meaning the two in behind could pick up some intelligent positions and excelled at turning and attacking the Man City back four. The onus was on the holding two to pick them out with passes as quickly as possible, which they did time and time again.
Henderson and Lallana had great games, but it was Allen and Coutinho that both put in arguably their best ever performance in a red shirt. The Welshman was like a whole new player, relishing the defensive responsibility, tactically covering for other players, holding the ball well in possession, and playing the ball forwards as often as possible. And while Allen was doing the dirty work, Coutinho was grabbing the game by the scruff of its neck and making everything tick. I lost count of the amount of times he effortlessly drifted past an opposition upon receiving the ball, and his vision and decision making is impeccable. His job is always to penetrate through defences in any way possible, and now that he has found his shooting boots he knows that he can pick teams apart whether they stand off or close down, for I’m not sure there is a better player in the world for sucking defenders in only to casually waltz around them.
That is without a mention to the two goals that we scored. Both were very special strikes, with Henderson and Coutinho perfectly executing precise, deadly finishes. Before today, Man City hadn’t conceded a single goal from outside the area in the league. So Joe Hart isn’t easily beaten from range, but our players produced two simply unstoppable efforts. Being able to bang them in from long distance is a valuable trait, as even if you aren’t given the time and space to do it, you can force defenders to rush out of position in a desperate attempt to stop a prolific marksman from getting a shot away.
Manchester City also scored a good goal of their own, but their classy team goal shouldn’t detract from another relatively solid defensive display by us. Dejan Lovren stood in again for the injured Sakho, but isn’t looking the shaky, nerve-ridden player he was. Simon Mignolet could have been quicker off his line in a couple of instances, but on the whole he was reliable and it’s clear the team has faith in him. Emre Can, whilst occasionally showing his inexperience at the back, is incredibly composed on the ball and offers a great calming influence on the team. But most of all, Martin Skrtel may be the one benefitting the greatest since the switch in system. The reduction in the amount he has to move around has brought to light his exceptional positioning, and crosses into the box are no longer the major threat they once were to us, as Skrtel is frequently in place to cut them out before they reach their target.
It was important that we made the game against Besiktas an anomaly rather than a downturn in fortunes, so to carry on our excellent league form with a victory over the champions should be enough to keep our confidence and mentality at a high level. With our usual second half of the season improvements continuing, our top four aspirations seem to be looking pretty good.
By James Nelson (@_James_Nelson_)