After the call for calm aroused by the angry story of this match, Manchester City and Liverpool produced a festive treat that sped along at 100mph and contained no hint of worry until the 77th minute.
At that point, Fabinho, as a substitute, tackled Rodri, who challenged, and suddenly there was a scrum with a jostled Jordan Henderson and Ilkay Gündogan flying into the scrum. The result has been bookings for the front two, and that proves the rarest of tie flashpoints.
Instead, it was an end-to-end feast of play in which defenses crumbled and neither team enjoyed control, although Pep Guardiola could point to City’s 57% overall possession and how they are emerged victorious from an invigorating fight.
The final score was 3-2 but could have been 10-2 against City or, say, a 5-5 draw, so breathless and harum-scarum was the entertainment from start to finish. The clock showed 20 seconds when Erling Haaland almost opened the proceedings, galloping over Gündogan’s pass but with liverpool split and Caoimhín Kelleher rushed in, the Norwegian sent the ball over. Forty-three seconds later, Darwin Núñez rushed Stefan Ortega’s goal but the centre-forward had his shot blocked by Aymeric Laporte.
Already the Fare was wide open and fervent, as Manuel Akanji had this time Haaland harassed along the right when he found the unmarked Cole Palmer, who rushed in from the left. The youngster should have scored rather than fought for a close throw-in.
Palmer, however, made amends by forming the crucial Kevin De Bruyne bond as City opened the proceedings. The latter clung from the left and Haaland got up and volleyed for his 24th goal this term. It was the first City-style road Joe Gomez left onlooker by a supernatural predator who seems to know precisely where to go before the mortals around him.
Palmer’s next act was a labyrinthine run that saw him squirm in the area of a confused Liverpool side and a good yard off the pace of their opponent. But then came the surprise of an equalizer which arrived because City shut down.
Joel Matip had plenty of time to pass the ball to an unmarked James Milner in the hosts’ box and he too received no pressure as he relayed to Fabio Carvalho who beat Ortega with ease.
Both goals told the tale of two uncertain full-backs, a thread that continued when Palmer reappeared to float the ball as those in red watched. Riyad Mahrez continued and Haaland nearly added a second. This, once again, was happening along the City left: Liverpool were continually drilled there but could not help it.
City had hosted their Merseyside neighbor having failed to beat them in their last five fixtures (including the Community Shield) with November’s 1-0 loss at Anfield (league) and April’s loss at Wembley (semi-final FA Cup) their two losses in the sequence. .
For this first post-World Cup outing, each manager fielded their alpha striker in Haaland and Mohamed Salah who, before 6,000 of Liverpool’s roving support, had been offered no openings when the tie reached the interval.
Instead, the Egyptian magician had to watch City launch more raids: twice De Bruyne rolled down the right and attacked a teammate – Gündogan, whose effort was thwarted, and Nathan Aké, whose header failed to beat Kelleher. Núñez, late in the half, fended off a gaping chance to put Liverpool ahead. Given City’s debauchery, they couldn’t have complained.
Conversely, their dominance meant Liverpool had themselves to blame when, 67 seconds into the second half, they were breached. Thiago Alcântara lost the ball in midfield, Rodri dropped it on Mahrez’s toes and after drifting onto his favorite left foot, Kelleher didn’t stand a chance.
City were ahead – for about a minute. This time, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, in place of Carvalho, grazed the ball along the left sideline and Núñez, embarrassed by the defender, passed Laporte, squared the ball for Salah, who had lost Aké, and went Liverpool’s second equalizer.
Then, in the smörgåsbord of incidents, City again took the lead. It was simple – too simple from Liverpool’s point of view – as Palmed slapped in a small corner to De Brune and his looping ball was hit by Aké’s head.
With over half an hour remaining, more thrills followed. Andy Robertson blazed, Gündogan crashed into Núñez, Guardiola threw over John Stones, Jack Grealish and Phil Foden; then Núñez sprayed a pass from Naby Keïta, Fabinho’s belly punched a De Bruyne effort off the line and Kelleher saved Foden’s follow-up.
Nearby City, who travel to Southampton in the next round, had ended their winless run against their rivals and it had been a superb introduction to the Premier League’s return on Boxing Day.