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Ken Early: Liverpool, and the referee, let Manchester City off the hook

Dramatic match left title race in balance and reminded Liverpool fans how hard Jürgen Klopp will be to replace

If Liverpool do lose out to Arsenal or Manchester City in this tense and thrilling title race, they will look back with regret on the home matches against their biggest rivals. Manchester United and Arsenal both took a pummeling at Anfield yet escaped with a point, and now the same thing has happened against City.

Still, rgen Klopp will take it. That his team are in this position, neck and neck with City and Arsenal, is astonishing, considering how weak and washed up they were just a year ago. Right until the last days of a chaotic summer transfer window Liverpool looked uncertain, a club that had lost its way. Something changed with Darwin Nuñez’s two late goals to beat Newcastle: maybe we can do something this season after all. Klopp’s final season has reminded everyone of how difficult he will be to replace.

The post-Klopp future is already taking shape, with the ex-sporting director Michael Edwards reportedly close to agreeing terms on a return to run football operations, with Bournemouth’s technical director Richard Hughes also joining a new-look recruitment department. Edwards built his reputation signing the players who became the first Klopp superteam. But Edwards was also at Liverpool in the years before Klopp, when Liverpool’s transfer committee was regarded as the biggest joke in football. Edwards could sign Roberto Firmino, but if the manager didn’t understand what he was good at and played him as a wing back, nobody would realise what a good signing he actually was. It took Klopp to bring the best out of these players.

On Sunday he did it again. Liverpool were missing 10 players to injury, City had everyone available except Jack Grealish. Liverpool fielded only one of their regular first-choice back five, and Mohamed Salah, consistently their most dangerous player for years against City, was only fit enough for the bench. Yet once again, the stand-ins rose to the occasion.


City started with much more confidence, carving Liverpool open several times in the first 10 minutes with fast, precise attacks. No sooner had Liverpool got a foothold in the game than City took the lead with a well-worked corner.

The goalscorer, John Stones, jumped up on the advertising hoardings to take the acclaim of the crowd. Some City players had been annoyed by Trent Alexander-Arnold’s comments in an interview that “our trophies will mean more to us and our fan base because of the situations at both clubs, financially”. It was clear that they were enjoying this goal very much.

Maybe City’s start was too good. A familiar glitch would soon cost them the lead. It’s a fact that Ederson likes to use his feet where a lot of goalkeepers use their hands. Erik Ten Hag complained last week about his “reckless” challenge on Alejandro Garnacho. This time his recklessness was punished. When Nathan Ake played him into trouble with a short back-pass he charged at Nuñez and booted him into the air. Alexis MacAllister, a much better penalty taker than Salah, scored the equaliser.

It was a game of dramatic individual moments – Erling Haaland’s charge at Virgil van Dijk, Luis Diaz’s 70-yard battle with Rodri and Kyle Walker – lacking only that final decisive moment to tip the balance one way or another. That it ended in a draw owed much to a couple of big decisions.

The first was Pep Guardiola’s decision, as the game entered its final quarter, to take off his most creative player, Kevin De Bruyne. The Belgian, who has more goal involvements than any other Premier League player in 2024, was angry to be withdrawn, and argued with Guardiola on the sideline to the delight of the home crowd. It was silly behaviour from a player who should be too old for such carry-on.

What happened over the following half-hour vindicated Guardiola. The coach explained later: “we needed a player to have the ball and keep it” – and Mateo Kovacic certainly did that, completing 27 of his 29 passes, compared with De Bruyne, who gave the ball away with more than a third of his passes. De Bruyne loses the ball much more than City’s other midfielders, because he is often attempting the killer pass. But when your goal is to kill time, safer passes are more deadly. The introduction of Kovacic stabilised City at a point where they were looking punch-drunk.

The other big call was the decision by Michael Oliver not to award a penalty in the last minute when Jérémy Doku kicked MacAllister in the chest. It will surely go down as one of the worst refereeing decisions of the season. We can at least look forward to the spectacle of the PGMOL boss, Howard Webb, having to discuss a ref botching a studs-to-chest incident on his TV show with Michael Owen. The most famous (non-) decision in Webb’s own refereeing career was his failure to notice Nigel de Jong kicking Xabi Alonso in the heart in the 2010 World Cup final. Webb, at least, could plead in his defence that he didn’t have VAR. Oliver could have gone to take a second look at the incident, but he decided he didn’t need to.

It’s not that Oliver, who earlier this season officiated a game in the UAE Pro League, has an objection to making big decisions on video evidence. He was on VAR duty when Manchester City played at Old Trafford earlier this season. He instructed referee Paul Tierney to give a penalty to City after seeing that Rasmus Højlund had held on to Rodri at a City set-piece. It was a surprising decision in the context of a season where all manner of premeditated holding, blocking and shoving has become so normalised at set pieces.

Oliver was also the referee when Manchester City played Arsenal in October. Kovacic committed two big fouls in quick succession, against Martin Ødegaard and Declan Rice. Oliver let him away with a single booking, to the fury of the Emirates. Webb later admitted that Kovacic should have been sent off. “He doesn’t want to have a negative impact on the game by overreacting to something,” Webb said. Why should he “overreact” when he can have just as big an impact by doing nothing at all?