Last Night's Barclays Showdown Managed to Warp Time Itself
After a game so frantic and frenzied it felt like one between rival prisons, we saw a title-race-proper opening up.
Kompany trying to murder Salah in a tackle. Screenshots: YouTube
Football does strange things to time. It's able to push and pull your perception of it in ways that can make 90 minutes seem as long as a beloved pet's lifespan or as brief as crossing a busy road; trap playground memories of goals scored and fouls committed so vividly in amber that they feel easier to revive than the face of this morning's bus driver.
Most obvious at this time of year is the way football is able to slow-mo and fast-forward the seasons at will, rendering, as it always does, the festive period an impressionist blur of never-ending, mud-and-thunder war-football, a type of football that you chain-smoke and binge-drink until you're slingshotted out of the bleak midwinter totally and utterly reliant upon it. A new year has just begun, they tell us, though our circadian rhythms insist the year is already five months old and ridden with anxious narrative, starting as it did one idyllic afternoon back in August at 3PM sharp.
Even with the best part of half the campaign left to run, Liverpool arrived at the Etihad last night knowing that a win would cleave them open an intimidating ten-point lead at the top of the division. For the home side, there was the knowledge that victory would hand back enough momentum to feel pivotal. For both sets of players, it was always going to be a monumentally difficult cusp to navigate, a battle to seduce the fine margins that tend to define the big matches that tend to define big Premier League seasons.
And from the start, a big Barclays battle was what we got: a game so frantic and frenzied it felt like one played by rival prisons. Alisson shanked a clearance straight into touch. Jordan Henderson apologised to the ref for landing his full body weight down on Raheem Sterling's boot. Fernandinho, so fully absorbed in his efforts to win the ball deep in enemy territory that he seemed hypnotised, administered a gratifyingly retro double-handed Tango-man slap to the face of Andrew Robertson. Robertson screamed. You glanced at the clock, just about lapsing – implausibly, luxuriantly – into its fifth heavy minute.
It was in the 17th that the moment – or moments – arrived that seemed to shatter the evening's clock face entirely, contorting all the invisible cogs and gears into perverse shapes, finding for them new, alien rhythms. Typically swift interplay from Mohammed Salah and Roberto Firmino pierced the heart of City's rearguard, buying Sadio Mané a rare pocket of space inside the area. Sent sprawling by the onrushing Ederson, the Senegalese was still airborne when his nudged shot rebounded off the post, but it's what happened next that will live longest in the memory, when somehow, in the space of one solitary second, John Stones was given time to affect what could well prove to be the most significant three acts of his career to date.
First came the thwacked attempt at a clearance into Ederson's hands, which only sent the ball looping back in a doomed arc towards City's goal. Then, as was visible only with the help of Sky's slow-motion playback, came a mini-moment within the moment for Stones to compose himself, plant his feet and find the flight of the ball before lifting off and executing one of the great goal-line clearances, miraculously clawing it away and past the torso of the onrushing Salah with the most distant inch of leather on his right boot. So breathless was the pace of the game that it felt an age before a replay was shown. When it was, the GDS graphics confirmed that the ball had failed to cross the line – by all of 11 millimetres.
Football. Time. Fine margins. It was a moment that made you ponder your own moments, wonder what it is you've been doing with your solitary seconds, forced you to appreciate the poise and mental faculties of anyone able to operate the way Stones did under the haywire conditions of what was, irrefutably, the first real title-race game the division has seen since these sides met five years ago. Twenty minutes later, it was City who tasted blood first: Sergio Aguero, in pest mode all evening, wrong-footed Dejan Lovren before lashing in from the narrowest of angles. There was a touch of rage to Aguero's celebration, and if it was particularly noticeable maybe that’s because anger is a rare look on post-Gulf City, a side who've grown so accustomed to gliding and smiling their way to victory. If Pep Guardiola is, for the first time in his career, expected to come from behind to win a title, perhaps a bit of newfound anger is what’ll get him there.
Throughout, there were other sights to behold that would’ve been weird anywhere else, but felt perfectly natural in this high pressure, maximum absurdity setting, like Virgil van Dijk being twice the size of any other human on Earth, or Salah with his mouth pressed up against Amyeric Laporte's back yet still managing to sprint, somehow, at full pace, like a living, breathing Xbox glitch. Given that most people have spent the last fortnight stumbling around in a haze asking each other what day it is, there was a reassuringly transgressive frisson to the way one of the most intense English football matches in living memory was able to break out on a Thursday, how an evening usually attuned to the dank traipse of the Europa League was hijacked for the night, like The One Show overrun with a Gabba raver flashmob.
By half-time, it felt like an hour had passed. By the final whistle, it felt like three, neither side letting themselves down in the sort of game to which Twitter clips or morning-after FootballOrigin highlights just can't do justice, the sort of game that begged you to surrender in attritional full to its own relentless, harebrained pace. Liverpool’s equaliser was a thing of heaving beauty, a cross-field pass from Trent Alexander Arnold’s touchline to Robertson over on his that eventually found Firmino for an easy header in the six-yard box. There is something indefinably stirring about this kind of goal, when crosses are hoisted vertiginously from one full-back to another as if the whole game is being played in the midst of a raging, rolling storm at sea, hapless first mates tumbling into the waves as high-calibre defending forces the deep extremes of the pitch to be explored and conquered.
Later, Leroy Sané would swing things back decisively the other way with a shot that owed much to its own fine margins, scything in narrowly off Alisson's left-hand post. It proved enough for City to take all three points and reduce the gap to Liverpool to just four, though you can’t see either club letting things drop off in the next few months to the extent that they rule themselves out of the running completely. If this was an occasion that failed to anoint or vanquish a Premier League champion, then at least it announced the commencement of a title-race-proper; an exhibition of football and the weird things that time can do to it that you could happily live inside, where at the end the biggest shame wasn't that either team had to lose, but that the game had to finish at all.