It felt like a trick of the eye. Kevin De Bruyne had aimed his 42nd-minute penalty for the bottom corner and, with Alisson having moved the wrong way, everybody inside the stadium waited for the net to bulge. And then the ball kept going, past the post before banging into the advertising boards.
De Bruyne had taken this game by the scruff of the neck, helping to get Manchester City back on level terms after Liverpool had made a fast and aggressive start, driving his team with trademark craft and energy. He does not take many penalties but when he does, he tends to score them. Only once previously had he missed.
It all went wrong for him this time and, in the final analysis, it would prove costly. City had started the day in 12th place, albeit with a game in hand, and they needed the victory more than Liverpool. Not because they were at home – the benefit of that advantage seems less clearcut these days –but to regain some ground on their rivals, who have started the season more evenly. To make a statement as they attempt to wrest back the title. They could not do so and the numbers now show that they have made their worst start to a league season since 2008.
Liverpool are up into third place, within touching distance of the summit, and Jürgen Klopp could see the point as reward for his boldness. The major pre-match teaser for him had been an apparent either/or between Roberto Firmino and Diogo Jota up front. Klopp picked them both. He wanted bravery from his players and he showed the way with his selection.
With Jota on the right, Firmino high alongside Mohamed Salah in the centre and Sadio Mané on the left, the best way to describe the formation was 4-2-4. Liverpool started with all guns blazing and, with City initially rattled, the visitors took a deserved lead.
From a City point of view, it was another poor concession, Kyle Walker misreading a dart inside the area by Mané and getting himself on the wrong side. Walker made contact with Mané, the Liverpool winger went down and it was a clear penalty. City were unhappy that Jota had avoided censure for a barge on Raheem Sterling moments earlier at the other end – outside the area – but they could have no complaints about the award of the spot-kick. Salah blasted home for his first goal against a “big six” club in 13 games.
Liverpool had threatened at the very start, with Ederson forced to leave his line to deny Firmino and Trent Alexander-Arnold creating a headed chance for Mané. The visitors bristled with speed and menace and Klopp’s only regret was that they could do more when so obviously in the ascendancy.
The first half was blisteringly enjoyable and, with De Bruyne seeking out space from his roving role, City surged back into it. He teed up Sterling on 26 minutes with a curling cross only for the City winger to cut inside and see a shot blocked by Alisson. Could Sterling have taken it on first time? Perhaps the angle was too tight.
City equaliser soon followed and while it was De Bruyne who played the pass into Gabriel Jesus, really it was more about what the centre-forward, making his first start since the opening day of the season, did with it. Jesus outfoxed Alexander-Arnold with a lovely first touch and spin and, with the second, he prodded past Alisson.
De Bruyne fired a low shot past the post from distance but the decisive moment came when he did the same with City’s penalty. The kick was awarded on VAR advice after his cross had struck Joe Gomez. The Liverpool defender’s arm was away from his body – a fatal position in these times.
Liverpool closed out the first half with a slick counterattack that finished with Alexander-Arnold extending Ederson, the City goalkeeper then reaching back to grab the ball from in front of the line and Jota. The margins were fine; the action end to end and the passions best reflected in the touchline gesticulations of Pep Guardiola and Klopp.
The second half was less frantic for one simple reason: the players are not machines. To maintain the tempo of the first period was physically impossible. The danger of a blow-out was plain and unfortunately Alexander-Arnold suffered one; he was forced off when he felt a muscle twang in the back of his lower leg. It would be the prompt for a lively post-match discussion with both managers saying the schedule is unsustainable and five substitutes had to be reintroduced.
Liverpool almost went back in front after the interval when Ederson took the unusual decision to punch clear from Salah’s deflected shot. He was relieved when Jota’s follow-up was weak. But it was Jesus who blew the gilt-edged opening on 55 minutes. The impressive João Cancelo picked him out, all alone to the left of goal, but he got the header all wrong. It was not City’s only moment of profligacy.