LIVERPOOL, England, Dec 31 (Reuters) - Liverpool’s 1-0 win over Manchester City at Anfield on Saturday may not have been the classic high-scoring encounter many had expected but it certainly sent a clear signal about which team Premier League leaders Chelsea need to fear most.
City are now 10 points adrift of Antonio Conte’s side and are hardly playing with the style or confidence of serious title challengers.
Juergen Klopp’s Liverpool, in contrast, are exuding confidence, energy and purpose and as the German himself noted, it is no mean achievement to be within six points of a team who have won 13 games in a row.
Saturday’s game showed clearly why the Merseyside club are staying closest to Chelsea’s coat-tails and why Pep Guardiola finds himself in the unusual position of being locked out of the top two after years of dominance with his previous clubs, Barcelona and Bayern Munich.
Klopp has successfully moulded Liverpool into a team who play with high energy and positive intent and has shown the tactical flexibility to adjust his high-pressing approach when needed.
Although he noted that City’s precision in the final third was often lacking, he was particularly pleased to see his defence keep a clean sheet against one of the league’s most dangerous attacks.
“We were not as confident as we could have been in our possession, sometimes we lost the ball too easily,” Klopp said.
“I know everyone talks about our defence but the defending today was really good.”
Indeed, the back line, with Estonian Ragnar Klavan impressing alongside Dejan Lovren, no longer looks like the weak link in Klopp’s side and added steel has not been at the cost of creativity.
On the wing, Adam Lallana is brimming with confidence, his perfect cross for Georgino Wijnaldum’s eighth-minute goal being the best moment of a sparkling display.
In the absence of Brazilian Philippe Coutinho there was not quite the same edge to the Liverpool attack but there are no shortage of options in that area for a team with England striker Daniel Sturridge and exciting Belgian Divock Origi on the bench.
City are supposed to be on a journey towards the nirvana of Guardiola’s possession football that won him so many admirers - and trophies - in his homeland.
But the Manchester side are not comparable to Barcelona at this stage and it is hard to view them as even being on the road to that style of football.
They have quality throughout their squad but perhaps not enough to play the kind of short-passing ‘keep-ball’ that Guardiola loves.
In the absence of that style, City are struggling for consistency and identity and on Saturday were unable to feed lone striker Sergio Aguero with the kind of service he can thrive on.
As Guardiola himself noted, Klopp, who moved to Anfield in October 2015, has had time to shape his team and the Spaniard is just half-way through his first season.
Time will tell if the ‘Pep Experiment’ will deliver the leap in quality at the level that City’s owners crave.
But for the moment, merely keeping pace with their domestic rivals seems to be a big enough challenge. (Editing by Ed Osmond)