Pep Guardiola’s gamble on his squad players backfired in spectacular style as Liverpool ended his side’s Treble dream at Wembley. But if Manchester City bounce back with the league wins over Brighton, on Wednesday, and Watford next weekend, it will have been a risk worth taking.
And after a spirited second-half revival that turned the Liverpool end of Wembley from a gleeful, triumphant mass into a mess of nerves, they restored their pride and set themselves up for another surging challenge in the Premier League and Champions League. They were undone by a dreadful first-half performance that hinged on a goalkeeping error from which there seemed to be no comeback.
The City manager said on the eve of this FA Cup semi-final that he was considering abandoning his usual policy of playing Zack Steffen in cup games. After the USA international’s brain freeze handed Sadio Mane the first of his two first-half goals, he probably wished he had gone with his instinct from him.
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Steffen, looking for all the world like a poor Ederson tribute act, failed to get the ball out from under his feet, and for the second year running he handed Wembley opponents an absolute gimme of a goal. Ederson almost made a similar error last week in the league clash of these two, as Diogo Jota raced in, but retrieved his presence of mind to calmly stroke the ball to safety.
Steffen, by contrast, looked like a man whose brain had ceased to communicate with his feet, and he feebly touched the ball as Mane charged in and bundled it home to make it 2-0. Last season, with City still chasing four trophies, he was similarly negligent against Chelsea, his hesitancy from him gifting Hakim Ziyech a goal that saw the Blues lose in the semi-final.
Steffen said after that game that “their goal was indecision on my hands and I’ll learn from it.” He clearly did not.
The £7million buy from Columbus Crew was not alone in looking statue-like as Liverpool swarmed all over the Blues in the first half – the exertions of Wednesday night had taken their toll, not only on the strength of the squad, with Kevin De Bruyne only fit for the bench and Kyle Walker missing altogether, but also on the legs and minds of those who were asked to go again.
Bernardo Silva, Joao Cancelo and Phil Foden – such important players for City this season – were shadows of their former selves, and the refreshed front three of Raheem Sterling, Gabriel Jesus and Jack Grealish could not gain a foothold in the game.
Liverpool, who had been able to rest seven key men for the formality of their second leg of their Champions League quarter-final in midweek – a stark contrast to City’s battle in the Wanda Metropolitano – looked sharp and lethal from the off.
It was a dispiriting day for the Blues fans who had braved the Easter traffic to head to Wembley, only to suffer a third successive FA Cup semi-final disaster, after exiting to Chelsea last season and to Mikel Arteta’s Arsenal team the year before. Guardiola was in a cleft stick. If he had been swayed by the emotion of the day, and the need to match Liverpool, by risking De Bruyne, Ruben Dias and Rodri, and messed up the remainder of the season, he would have been guilty.
Steffen had looked nervous right from his first touch when he tried a lofted pass to Aleks Zinchenko out on the touchline and sent it sailing yards over his head. He did not recover from that moment, looking hesitant with the ball at his feet from him, and it cost City a second goal in the 17th minute.
The USA international simply froze with the ball at his feet, his brain not functioning as Mane raced in and simply bundled it over the line. His teammates of him lost faith in him at that moment, Bernardo running back to take the ball off his toe of him the next time he was in possession, and Fernandinho going back to take a goal kick. It was that bad.
The nervousness spread, with City offering little going forward as Jack Grealish, Phil Foden and Sterling all lacked ideas, and Liverpool were always likely to score more.
They grabbed a third moments before half-time as Liverpool, playing with swagger and confidence, played neat triangles around the City defense on the edge of the box, before Thiago Alcantara flipped a clever pass out of the melee to the unmarked Mane. He gleefully volleyed it between the hapless Steffen and his near post from him.
The City fans were stunned, but they got a lift right at the start of the second half as City roused themselves from their slumber, courtesy of Gabriel Jesus. He carved in from the right, battled and swerved his way past Fabinho, leaving the midfielder on the ground, and then slid a pass to Grealish, who fired home to bring a glimmer of hope.
City certainly felt so, and they showed far more ambition and belief after that. In fact, when Grealish freed Jesus, in acres of space, he was through one-on-one with Alisson. His countryman stretched out a hand to turn his shot beyond the post.
But Liverpool were only one goal away from making the game safe, and when Zinchenko’s header left Steffen short, Salah lifted his chance wide. City kept pushing and at least restored some pride with their second-half performance after their woeful opening 45 minutes. If they can follow it with six points against the Seagulls and the Hornets in the next seven days, life will quickly start to taste sweeter again.
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