Philippe Coutinho shines for Liverpool to put pressure on Man City's Pellegrini
LIVERPOOL, England -- Three thoughts from Anfield after Liverpool claimed a 2-1 victory over Manchester City to climb to fifth in the Premier League table.
1. Coutinho the scourge of City again
History repeated itself. For the second successive season, Manchester City lost to Liverpool. Once again, they were defeated by a wonderful strike from Philippe Coutinho. The Brazilian's ability to unleash unstoppable shots at vital moments is ever more apparent. Seven days after Coutinho scored a glorious goal at Southampton, he mustered another at Anfield.
And just like his winner 10 months ago, he reshaped the title race. Chelsea retain their five-point lead over City, but now have a game in hand. Manuel Pellegrini's wretched week took a turn for the worse. Beaten by Barcelona and losing at Liverpool, the prospects of him becoming unemployed in the summer grow by the game.
In contrast, Liverpool's remarkable renaissance continues. They are the only undefeated team in the Premier League in 2015. Twelfth in November, they look increasingly likely to finish in the top four. They deserved their win, both for the performance and the circumstances.
Considering they touched down on English soil less than 56 hours before kickoff after playing 120 minutes against Besiktas, the Reds played in impressively energetic fashion. Perhaps it was no coincidence that two of their brightest performers and both scorers, Jordan Henderson and Coutinho, had been spared the midweek trip to Istanbul.
Yet others were enterprising and attack-minded. Liverpool had more chances. Adam Lallana had two goals disallowed and spurned two presentable opportunities. Raheem Sterling skewed wide when granted the opportunity to win it. Instead, he compensated by setting up Coutinho.
City's threat revolved around Sergio Aguero, who created their goal, but Edin Dzeko's effort was their sole shot on target. That was all the more damning because neither side defended well. Both were susceptible on the counterattack; the feeling that each rearguard was capable of making a costly blunder was ever present. Instead, it was a moment of quality that secured Liverpool all three points.
2. A tale of two captains
The opening goal was a redemptive story for Henderson. The only red card of his Liverpool career came in the equivalent fixture last season, when he was dismissed for a late lunge at Samir Nasri. As a result, he missed three of the last four games of the season; there is a case for saying it cost Liverpool the title. Ten months on, Liverpool's vice-captain made his mark against City again, curling in a glorious shot. It was the sort of wonderful finish to invite questions why it was only his fourth goal of the season. It was, too, the kind of goal that tends to be associated with Liverpool's club captain, Steven Gerrard, not the man who was deputising as the leader.
Yet there was another reminder of last season's 3-2 epic. Vincent Kompany was partly culpable for all three Liverpool goals that day. He was at fault again, being dispossessed by Sterling, in the build-up to Henderson's strike. This was a tale of two men wearing the armband.
So Kompany's awkward 2015 continued. His errors have been constants, his mistakes punished as first Arsenal and then Middlesbrough and most recently Barcelona won at the Etihad Stadium. Besides his considerable natural ability, his career has been notable for his mental strength, but the Belgian seems to be suffering from a crisis of confidence. There were instants in which his judgement deserted him, moments when he seemed unsure what to do. One was bizarre, when Yaya Toure tried to high-five his skipper after Kompany won a challenge; he missed that, too.
But to his credit, he improved after the break. He seemed more assured, more commanding, more like the old Kompany. Now, however, he has to rally City to mount another comeback in the title race.
3. Dzeko proves Pellegrini's point
There are times when Pellegrini's faith in his favourites has seemed unnecessarily stubborn. He persevered with Martin Demichelis when the Argentine was at his most accident prone, and he continued picking Jesus Navas when others despaired of the Spaniard's ineffectiveness. He arrived at Anfield having axed two of the loyalists. Demichelis, City's best centre-back this season, was dropped from the starting XI. Navas was omitted from the 18 altogether.
Pellegrini adopted another unfashionable cause instead: Dzeko. The Bosnian's selection against Barcelona was a surprise. It wasn't justified. He came to Anfield with a solitary good performance, against a shocking Newcastle team, and a lone goal in the previous five months. That tally was doubled. Pellegrini may consider himself vindicated.
At heart, he favours a 4-4-2. His game plan left him looking naive as Barcelona dominated the midfield at the Etihad Stadium on Tuesday. His preference for two strikers was apparent in a second defining game, and while the more conservative option would have been to play a 4-2-3-1, Pellegrini opted to attack again, and both forwards combined for City's goal.
The Premier League's joint-top scorer was the supplier, with Aguero providing a gorgeous reverse ball. Dzeko's finish was not quite as precise, but it was good enough to beat Simon Mignolet. Yet while they linked up well then, the most instinctive, incisive alliance was between Aguero and David Silva. The Spaniard found the Argentine before he picked out Dzeko, just as Silva had sent Aguero scurrying clear when he hit the post.
It was only when City had scored, playing his beloved 4-4-2, that Pellegrini reverted to a 4-2-3-1 and removed Dzeko. But not for Wilfried Bony. The new 25 million pound forward has discovered his fate is to understudy Dzeko, but he did not replace him. Instead, James Milner came on, presumably to close up some of the spaces in midfield that were created by Pellegrini's open tactics. Yet it wasn't enough to stem the Red tide, and by the time Bony was brought on, Liverpool had a crucial lead.
Richard Jolly covers the Premier League and Champions League for ESPN FC. Twitter: @RichJolly.