Pep Guardiola doesn’t get much wrong but he could have sleepless nights about his decision to drop 21-goal Raheem Sterling for Wednesday night’s Champions League humdinger against Liverpool that ended 3-0 to the home side.
Perhaps Guardiola was concerned that Sterling always seems affected by the merciless abuse he gets at Anfield. Perhaps he thought the technical skills of Ilkay Gundogan were preferable for the first away leg of a quarter-final.
Whatever the reasoning, the outcome was disastrous for Manchester City. By the time Sterling was introduced for the below-par German after 57 minutes, the champions-elect were 3-0 behind as Liverpool sent their supporters wild.
Raheem Sterling was surprisingly named amongst the substitutes for Manchester City
Sterling was eventually brought on in the 56th minute as he replaced Ilkay Gundogan
It was a surprise when Guardiola’s team sheet was handed in without Sterling who has developed into one of English football’s finest players since leaving Liverpool for city in controversial £49million deal three years ago.
And it was an added surprise when City’s formation revealed Gundogan as a right-sided attacker in a 4-3-3 rather than central midfield, where Kevin De Bruyne remained.
It went against Guardiola’s pre-match assertion that City wouldn’t change their traditional winning style to combat Liverpool. And it backfired badly.
The 23-year-old was unable to help City reduce the deficit against Liverpool
Though the plan was for Gundogan to keep hold of the ball and for him and Leroy Sane to funnel back to make it a 4-5-1 when Liverpool attacked, the result was that City were slow in possession, playing at half the speed of Klopp’s men.
The result in an explosive atmosphere was inevitable. City couldn’t hold onto the ball themselves or match Liverpool’s intensity when the home side had it.
Gundogan was a passenger in the first half and Liverpool struck first after 12 minutes when Roberto Firmino’s shot was parried by Ederson and Mo Salah fired in the rebound for goal No38.
RAHEEM STERLING’S RECORD VERSUS LIVERPOOL
Yellow cards: 2
Red cards: 0
Worse still, the German was comprehensively beaten to a 50-50 by James Milner’s challenge after 20 minutes. Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain picked up the rebound and smashed the ball home from outside the box.
By the time, Liverpool added a third before half-time from Sadio Mane’s header, it was clear the Guardiola experiment had gone badly wrong.
Without Sterling providing an balance to Sane on the left, Gabriel Jesus was isolated at centre-forward. City had more possession than Liverpool but failed to register a shot on target. Even De Bruyne was careless with the ball and gave away cheap possession.
Surprisingly, Guardiola didn’t change personnel during the interval but he did make a tactical change, swapping Gundogan and De Bruyne’s positions.
The idea was for De Bruyne’s athleticism to produce more penetration down the right flank while Gundogan – who used to play for Klopp at Borussia Dortmund – could knit play together in midfield, his speciality.
Even after he entered the pitch Sterling’s frustrating evening continued as he struggled
The City player was booked in the closing stages for a challenge on Georginio Wijnaldum
After 53 minutes, Liverpool’s dangerman Salah withdrew with a groin injury, and as a response, Guardiola went bolder – taking off Gundogan and belatedly bringing on his in-form England winger with De Bruyne going back into midfield.
City looked better-balanced but holding a 3-0 advantage Liverpool could afford to be more cautious and even took off Roberto Firmino to save him for the Mersey derby and second leg.
Meanwhile, Sterling was serenaded with “There’s only one greedy bastard” by The Kop and jeered every time he touched the ball.
It didn’t noticeably affect his performance which was neat and tidy but neither was he able to create or take goalscoring moments. One decent run and cross was hooked wide by an acrobatic volley from Jesus. He was booked in injury-time for a tactical foul on Gini Wijnaldum.
City failed to register a single shot on target during the entire 90 minutes. That’s unfamiliar territory for Guardiola – but he probably had only himself to blame.