City’s pivotal 2018/19 home clash with Liverpool, as seen through the eyes of Sergio Aguero and Leroy Sane….
Barely over the midway stage of the season, when Liverpool visited the Etihad in January 2019, it already felt like this was a game City dare not lose.
Pep Guardiola’s side, imperious the season before during the glorious ‘Centurions’ season, were suddenly playing catch up as Jurgen Klopp’s men arrived in the blue half of Manchester unbeaten in their opening 20 Premier League games.
"The response from Anfield had been as loud as the ‘heavy metal’ style of football Klopp loves to say his team plays with, dropping just six points from a possible 60."
If this were a boxing contest, City had taken an early blow on the jaw before steadying with a series of jabs to win a couple of rounds back.
There was still 17 games to play no matter what the result of this game, so the title race couldn’t possibly decided in this, the latest Titanic meeting of the north’s two powerhouses.
So, why did it feel like a City loss would make a worrying gap at the top feel like chasm?
It was because this game was so much more than just a battle for three points.
Liverpool had set their stall out with a brand of swashbuckling football that was regularly blowing teams away and they came into this fixture having thrashed Arsenal 5-1 at Anfield.
Their 30-year wait for a Premier League title had become a millstone around their neck, but now only Manchester City stood in their way. Only, indeed...
Even with 17 games left, if Liverpool won and increased the lead to 10 points, many felt it would be a lead they wouldn’t surrender.
They were kicking for home with a little less than half the race remaining.
From City’s point of view, victory would reduce the gap to just four points and the battle for the title would re-ignite, but, more importantly, it would sew a seed of doubt in the minds of Klopp’s men that the defending champions were hellbent on hunting them down.
Sergio Aguero and Leroy Sane were two of City’s potential matchwinners, with Aguero’s habit of scoring goals against the Reds at the Etihad and Sane’s reputation of tormenting the Merseysiders on a regular basis.
Aguero recalls the feeling ahead of that pivotal clash.
"We had ahead of us what was practically a decisive match..."
“If we couldn't get the three points, it'd have been an uphill battle to close a 10-point gap – even with 17 games left in the season.
“They were unbeaten, but we were confident in our game. We couldn't afford any distractions, we couldn't pass up any opportunity. We knew it would be a really gritty game - like any game against Liverpool nowadays - but with the added emotion of staking out all our aspirations.””
Sane, City’s explosive left wing talent, was one of the few forwards that gave Trent Alexander-Arnold sleepless nights, says the players were annoyed that pundits and journalists were already suggesting Liverpool would run away with the title.
He felt it was a little disrespectful to dismiss a team that had won four trophies and broken numerous Premier League records just a few months before with the campaign barely halfway through.
"That night, I was extremely motivated to prove those wrong who had already written us off."
"I can’t deny that there was a certain pressure inside me, but the desire to achieve something outweighed it. So all I was thinking about was winning.
“Pep tried to take the pressure off us before the game. He said that the pressure was more on Liverpool because they knew that if we won, we would get going again. The Premier League table at that time was enough motivation for us. In this case it was not really necessary to have that big motivational speech ahead of the game.
“Pep told us to stay patient during the game no matter what happened and to believe in ourselves.”
City went into the game with Danilo at right-back and Aymeric Laporte at left-back with both Kevin De Bruyne and Kyle Walker on the bench.
Up front for City, it was Raheem Sterling, Sane and Aguero, while Liverpool’s front three were the equally irrepressible Mo Salah, Sadio Mane and Roberto Firmino.
The Etihad fairly crackled with expectancy, electricity and tension as the battle commenced upon referee Anthony Taylor’s whistle signalling the start of 90 high-octane minutes of drama, incredible near-misses and controversy.
What followed was nervy, sometimes disjointed and sometimes scrappy as the first-half began to take shape.
There was so much at stake, but on 18 minutes, an incredible passage of play that Aguero remembers – for good reason – with incredible clarity.
“I remember how it played out vividly,” he said.
“Salah put Mane through, he hit the inside of the post and John Stones meant to clear it, but the ball bounced off Ederson and ended up stopping the ball flat on the goal-line. John's clearance that followed was an amazing feat and after the match we heard there had been just a few millimetres separating the ball from fully crossing the line.
“But what matters is that the goal was averted, it kept the score even for the time being.”
Stones the hero nearly became Stones the villain just past the half-hour mark as a wayward cross-field pass to skipper Vincent Kompany allowed Salah to nip in and look set to race clear – Kompany lunged towards the ball and the Egyptian crumpled to the floor.
The City fans held their collective breath as the referee blew for a foul – replays showed it had been an enthusiastic challenge by the skipper and VAR today might have judged it to have been dangerous – but thankfully the official deemed a yellow card sufficient.
Salah wasn’t hurt and the Belgian had – again by millimetres – probably got just enough of the ball.
The Blues had enjoyed the rub of the green twice and four minutes from half-time, cashed in fully on that good fortune as Aguero cracked home the opening goal to send the Etihad wild.
Aguero recalls: “Near the end of the first half I had my chance to put us ahead. Bernardo overlapped on the left flank, saw me close to the six-yard box and passed the ball with just the right amount of force to allow me to control the ball with my right foot while outmanoeuvring Loveren’s marking, and then finish strong with my left.
"Pep talked to me before and after the game. Before, he said this was the type of game when I would have to make a difference, when goals were worth much more than ever."
It was a superb finish by the Argentinian, finding the slightest of gaps to fire high past Alisson Becker into the roof of the net and City went into the break 1-0 up, but Liverpool were far from finished.
A period of intense second-half pressure was rewarded as City’s defence switched off for split-second and that was enough for the Merseysiders to level the score ad Alexander-Arnold checked inside on the right, swung a cross to the far post where fellow full-back Andy Robertson knocked it back across goal for Firmino to nod home.
Which way would this absorbing contest swing? It felt as though Liverpool had the momentum, but Sane had other ideas.
After Ederson raced out to stop Salah breaking through, Danilo picked up the ball, raced towards the halfway line before finding Sterling in the middle of the Liverpool half – he collected the pass, then spotted Sane’s overlap on the left and after taking one touch, the young German swept a low shot past Allison and in off the foot of the right post to put City 2-1 up with 72 minutes on the clock.
“In those few seconds, you don’t even have the time to think about it,” recalls Sane. “It was a matter of being fully concentrated and committed and, afterwards I realised how important the goal was, especially for our mind and motivation for the next games.
“With this win we reduced the gap from seven to four points and in the end we were champions. That’s the best example that you should always believe in your abilities, and especially - even though it’s a very common phrase - that in football anything can happen.”
Sane’s goal proved decisive and City held out for the remainder of the game (plus the six minutes of added time) to record a crucial victory and close the gap at the top.
“Afterwards, Pep hugged me and stood by what he had said earlier,” said Aguero. “I can't deny it – there are goals that turn a whole league on its head, and those goals are the kind you need to win a challenging competition like the Premier League.
“That victory put us right back in the hunt and just a manageable four points away. It was a key win, we broke their undefeated streak, and we both got into a real tooth-and-nail fight for the title. Both teams got extremely close matches afterwards, but we managed to close the gap and overtake them...
“I still remember Vinnie's famous "Don't shoot!" goal on Leicester with a smile. We won that Premier League with a single point edge, and that only speaks to how competitive that season was, on the great form each team had.”
The rest, as they say, is history. City went on to win the title by a single point, to continue the fine margins theme that had run since the meeting at the Etihad and will no doubt play out again this campaign.
Sane and Aguero have both since left City, with Leroy joining Bayern Munich and Sergio forced to retire on health grounds.
Sane has happy memories of his time in sky blue, and of his relationship with the City fans, who made him an almost instant crowd favourite.
“They made the adjustment easier for me,” says Sane. “It's always helpful, both for everyday life and for performance on the pitch, when you get positive feedback. It was my first time being abroad and I was still very young. I hope that I have been able to repay their trust to the fullest. I still can remember when I heard the City fans singing my song (‘Leroy Sané walks down the wing for me…’) for the first time. It gave me goosebumps and it was really special to me.
“For this game, I’d say that it’s a bit of an advantage that City play at home. The players know what they are capable of in front of this amazing crowd. Liverpool is an extremely strong opponent, but even more when they play at Anfield.
“Sometimes such factors can be decisive in these games. My predictions are not always the best, but I think City will win 2-1 as we did in 2019. Fortunately I’m already playing with Bayern Munich on Saturday, so I can enjoy this game in front of the TV at home the day after. I’m really looking forward to it and I’ll keep my fingers crossed for my former teammates and the whole club.”
And for our record goal-scorer, games against Jurgen Klopp’s side were always special and had plenty riding on them.
“All matches against Liverpool for the past few years have been major.”
“We're back in the race against them and this will be a key match, just like in 2019. With less games ahead for the season, though. I hope history repeats itself.
“It'll be played at the Etihad, with our supporters there rallying us up. I say this because I know how much their support means for those on the field, as I knew throughout the ten seasons I played, as well as off of it.
"When my heart condition caused me to retire, I lived through very difficult times, but hearing the stadium chant "Sergio, Sergio...", match after match, was truly important for me."
"I'll be eternally grateful to all the City fans for that. Those were trying times and their affection made it so much better. Combined with the team we've got, everything is possible if we fight ‘til the very end.”
And on a final footnote, Sane admits that if City and Bayern Munich could go all the way to the Champions League final, that would be a dream come true.
“That would definitely be a very special game for me,” he smiled. “No nutmegs from me for City if it happens! But before we talk about that, we have to fight for the semi-finals next week first.
"We have a lot to make up for. Still, winning the Champions League is our main goal. Bayern and City are definitely two teams that can make it to the final. I hope it becomes a reality.”
Thankyou to Leroy Sane, Sergio Aguero, Florian, Stefan Mennarich and Daniel Fresco for the making of this Match of the Season.