Goals from Sergio Aguero and Leroy Sane ensured defending champion City cut Liverpool’s lead at the top of the table to just four points with a deserved 2-1 win.
Jurgen Klopp’s side traveled to the Etihad Stadium on the hunt for its first league title in 29 years but found it difficult to settle into the game.
They found themselves a goal down at half-time after Aguero scored a world-class opener — the Argentine has now scored in all seven of his home league appearances against Liverpool.
A Roberto Firmino equalizer in the second-half had given the visitors hope but Sane’s shot rebounded off the post to put Pep Guardiola’s side back in front and up to second in the league.
“A very, very intense game,” Klopp told BBC Sport. “It’s not easy to take but it is normal. We had chances, they had their moments.
“Two teams had to fight like crazy to stay in the game. I liked a lot of our game, both sides could play better but we didn’t let each other. That’s tactical football.
“We lost, it doesn’t feel really good but it is not a massive thing, this is our most difficult game of the season.”
It was a game that Guardiola said his side could not lose and the magnitude of the match was not lost on the players, with both teams playing at a frantic pace.
Dejan Lovren set the tone with a heavy challenge on Aguero early on and Vincent Kompany was perhaps lucky to stay on the pitch after a dangerous first-half lunge on Mohamed Salah.
Things could have been very different had Sadio Mane converted an earlier chance for the visitors though.
The forward sparked panic in the host’s defense after his shot rebounded off the post and almost crept back in after hitting City goalkeeper Ederson.
City’s wobble ends
It was a vital win for City after a relatively disastrous Christmas period.
Before facing Liverpool, Guardiola’s side had lost three of its last five league games — a run which saw them drift seven points from the top spot and allowed Tottenham to sneak into second place.
“We lost two games in four days but you can’t forget what they have done for 16 months,” Guardiola told BBC Sport. “We knew that it was a final today, if we lose it is almost over.”
City’s recent stutters had raised questions about the depth of its squad — with particular attention on Guardiola’s inability to replace the injured Fernandinho.
The Brazilian’s presence and ability to snub out counterattacks were severely missed as the team’s defence bowed to the likes of Leicester City and Crystal Palace. Needless to say, the roaming midfielder was keen to make amends and was dominant throughout.
City’s defence is not lacking in investment though and shouldn’t need to rely on such a safety net. Guardiola has spent more than $126m on full-backs alone, but an injury to star-signing Benjamin Mendy has left a void at left-back which has caused obvious problems.
Usual centre-back Aymeric Laporte was chosen to fill in against Liverpool — arguably a case of using a square peg to fit a round hole.
Liverpool investment still paying off
Meanwhile, Christmas had been kind to Liverpool. Anfield has been sizzling with self-confidence and momentum after the team won every game in December.
In fact, three league draws had been the only blemish to a fantastic season before tonight — an unbeaten form that could only be matched by Juventus and Paris Saint-Germain in Europe’s top five leagues.
Despite the loss, the title is still in Liverpool’s hands and it certainly has the personalities to comeback from a first league defeat of the season.
The additions of central defender Virgil van Dijk and goalkeeper Alisson Becker in 2018 have solidified the team, more than justifying their hefty price tags.
Having signed for an estimated $84 million, Alisson has solved Liverpool’s goalkeeper crisis — a consistent problem which blighted an otherwise fantastic 2017-18 season.
In addition, Van Dijk — who signed for the club this time last year for an estimated $94 million — has brought much-needed leadership to a back-four that has conceded just 10 league goals this season.
His form will certainly grate with Manchester City fans who saw their club reportedly bulk at the world-class defender’s transfer fee last year.
Despite the £1.39 billion net spend overseen by Shiekh Mansour since his takeover in 2008, Riyad Mahrez was the only notable signing to last season’s record-breaking team.
In comparison, Klopp brought in the likes of Fabinho, Naby Keita and Xherdan Shaqiri for an estimated $136 million during a busy summer transfer window which has seemingly closed the gap at the top of the Premier League.