Liverpool took a huge stride towards the Champions League semifinals on Wednesday, beating Manchester City 3-0 with an extraordinary first-half performance.
Goals from Mohamed Salah, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain and Sadio Mane had Liverpool 3-0 up after 31 minutes as City, for the second time this season, buckled in the face of Liverpool’s pace and intensity.
Whether because of fatigue, the loss of Salah to an apparent groin injury or tactical changes, City controlled possession in the second half, but it still couldn’t find an away goal that might have turned the tie back its way.
In the day's other quarterfinal first leg, Roma scored two own goals as Barcelona took control of their quarterfinal with a 4-1 win at the Camp Nou.
Here are three thoughts on the day in the Champions League:
Guardiola faces more Champions League woe
Once again, Pep Guardiola is facing premature exit from the Champions League. Last season, when Man City lost to Monaco in the last 16 was the first time he had been eliminated before the semifinal of the competition. City’s capacity for goals means it still has a chance, but if this is a second exit before the semifinal, it will hurt far more than the first.
This was reminiscent of those three seasons with Bayern Munich when Guardiola won the league with ease only to be eliminated in the semifinal of the Champions League. Worse, Guardiola was at least in part the architect of his downfall, making what turned out to be probably his worst tactical decision since giving in to his players’ desire for all-out attack and going with a 4-2-4 as they tried to overcome a 1-0 first-leg deficit in the second leg of the semifinal against Real Madrid in 2014. Bayern lost 4-0.
Here, Guardiola had sprung a major surprise in selection, using Ilkay Gundogan on the right rather than former Liverpool player Raheem Sterling, in more of a lopsided 4-4-2 than City’s customary 4-3-3. That seemed a rare backward step, designed in part to block in Liverpool’s marauding left back Andrew Robertson and in part to ensure even greater possession than City usually enjoys. What that meant, though, was that City’s attacks were very much focused down the left, with a series of long early diagonals hit to Leroy Sane, presumably to try to exploit the inexperience of Liverpool's young right back, Trent Alexander-Arnold. The substitution of Gundogan for Sterling 11 minutes into the second half seemed like an admission of error.
There was a surprising lack of pace to City, as though it had tried to combat Liverpool’s pace by taking as much pace as possible out of the game. The problem was, though, that when Liverpool did win possession back and exploded forward, City seemed unable to respond. That said, perhaps no response was possible; both Liverpool’s goals went from tackle to shot to goal with no intermediate step, the very essence of Jurgen Klopp football.
Liverpool exposes Man City's weakness
The concern about City all season has been its defense, and it was ruthlessly exposed by the pace and intensity of Liverpool. This wasn’t just about tactics: it was also about aggression and desire. Guardiola’s side is prone to that most modern of problems, of being so dominant in possession it concedes few goals but being vulnerable if an opponent can get at it.
Salah’s opening goal was born of two basic errors. It began with a misplaced pass from Sane that allowed Liverpool to break. Salah was perhaps offside as he latched onto Alexander-Arnold’s pass just inside the City half, but the danger seemed to have passed when Ederson saved Roberto Firmino’s shot and the ball ricocheted to Kyle Walker. The England fullback dithered, though, and Firmino nipped the ball off him to leave Salah with a tap-in.
The second goal, scored after 21 minutes by Oxlade-Chamberlain, was the result of a stunning long-range drive, but it, too, stemmed from City being a little lackadaisical in possession. Gundogan was a little slow as the ball broke to him, and that allowed James Milner to make a strong challenge, delivering possession to Oxlade-Chamberlain.
City, as it had in that quarter of an hour after halftime in the league game at Anfield, looked rattled and panicked. Passes went astray, shape disintegrated. The third Liverpool goal was a little less direct, but only a little, the ball won on halfway and worked to Salah. His initial cross was blocked, but his follow-up found an unmarked Mane to head in at the back post, City’s defense left in tatters.
The loss of Salah to a groin injury and the effects of a ferocious first half sapped Liverpool, and City was far more dominant in the second half, but City never found its rhythm and created few, if any, clear chances. That capacity to stifle Man City, just as much as the first-half barrage, should give Liverpool confidence for the second leg.
Own goals smooth Barcelona's path to the semis
As there has been for much of the season, there was a lack of fluency about Barcelona, the old brilliance glimmering from far beneath the surface as Ernesto Valverde’s side did just enough to take a commanding lead against a Roma side that self-destructed.
The goal that gave it the lead was typical, with Andres Iniesta attempting a familiar pass to Lionel Messi only for the ball to be turned into his own net by Daniele De Rossi. The second was also an own goal–a record fifth to have gone Barcelona’s way in the Champions League this season–with Kostas Manolas diverting in Ivan Rakitic’s cross following a short-corner routine early in the second half.
The third goal, similarly, had an element of fortune about it, with Luis Suarez’s shot falling to Gerard Pique to knock in after Alisson's initial save. Edin Dzeko’s turn and finish at least gave Roma an away goal, but awful defending from Federico Fazio presented Suarez with Barcelona's fourth and a foot into the next round.