In the final analysis, it was impossible not to focus on when Zack Steffen wished he could be anywhere but here and Liverpool assumed a vice grip on that FA Cup semi-final that was difficult to see them give up.
Poor Steffen. Pep Guardiola had wanted to show his confidence in the substitute goalkeeper but everything went wrong for the American No.1 and Manchester City in the 17th minute. Addressing a routine back pass and under the usual orders to play Ederson from the back, Steffen took a heavy first touch and, after some hesitation, an even heavier second.
In stole Sadio Mané to drive the ball into the net for a 2-0 lead and Liverpool were on course for a final against Chelsea or Crystal Palace – and, they hope, the second element of an unprecedented four-fold. Liverpool’s first-half dominance was total and it would get worse for Steffen when he gently conceded for 3-0 at his near post Mané.
City responded in champions fashion in the second half, with Jack Grealish pulling back a goal, and after Alisson made a save to deny Gabriel Jesus they hinted at the odd when substitute Riyad Mahrez crossed in the 90th minute the ball hit Alisson and Bernardo Silva spun home at the far post.
Guardiola’s side had the chances in stoppage time to force extra time as the latest clash between these rivals produced even more drama. Fernandinho exploded high as Raheem Sterling fired low at Alisson, but City had let it go too far. Guardiola made seven changes from the squad that started the second leg of the Champions League quarter-final at Atlético Madrid on Wednesday night and one of them was Steffen. A lasting image would come after the full-time whistle when he sadly collapsed on his haunches and had to be consoled by some of his teammates.
City’s war of attrition at Madrid had framed much of the build-up and that prompted Guardiola’s radical rotation, but it wasn’t if they could monopolize that particular line. Liverpool are also plagued by a punishing schedule and they have league matches at home next week against Manchester United and Everton, their two biggest rivals.
Even so, the relative strength of the starting line-ups appears to have given Liverpool the lead, with Klopp recalling his big guns after Wednesday’s Champions League draw at home to Benfica.
It was Ibrahima Konaté, one of the few Liverpool starters not considered a first-choice selection, who put his side ahead. Red smoke drifted across the stadium from flares lit inside Liverpool and their supporters sang their songs at full volume. At this early stage, they thought it was their day and the feeling only intensified when Steffen suffered his moment of horror. City simply didn’t show up at the start, although Grealish, playing the false nine, fired in a fourth-minute shot blocked by Virgil van Dijk.
The atmosphere crackled initially, although it was shameful that some of the City’s support refused to be quiet during the pre-match silence for the 33rd anniversary of the Hillsborough disaster. Liverpool’s support booed them and the referee, Michael Oliver, had to cut the memory short.
Konaté’s goal was all about his power and desire – but it was delivered by the most perfectly flown of Andy Robertson’s outgoing corners, an invitation to the centre-back he would have been indecent to pass up. Konaté surpassed Jesus then rose higher than Nathan Aké. It was an awesome head end; Konaté’s third goal for Liverpool and his third in three games.
City had looked pissed off in the opening rally and had a poor attempt to play from the back in the sixth minute. Was this a harbinger of Steffen’s indecision? While Klopp had stayed with Alisson after starting his No.1 in the previous round at Nottingham Forest, Guardiola went with Steffen after picking him in all but one of City’s domestic cup matches this season.
Liverpool’s third goal just before half-time was Exhibit B for the charge because Steffen was horribly slow to get down and across on Mané’s volley, which was clipped towards the near corner. Liverpool’s build-up had been one piece with their first-half enjoyment, all touches and assured moves that were too fast for City. The excellent Thiago slipped between two sky blue jerseys before exchanging passes with Trent Alexander-Arnold and the stolen pass to Mané was tailor-made.
City, who struggled to suppress the electric Luis Díaz, needed something early in the second half and they got it. Fernandinho won the ball and released Jesus into the inside right channel. He produced a nice jink inside Fabinho, then sent a square pass to Grealish, who made a difficult finish easy.
City were a different proposition now: they pressed higher and played with more urgency and aggression – even a note of anger. Could they find a second to trigger a contest? Jesus ran over a Sterling touch to work Alisson at the near post and they created the big chance on 71 minutes – a one-on-one for Jesus after a through ball through Grealish. Alisson began to block.
Prior to that, Fernandinho flirted with a red card when he expanded on a poor tackle on Mané – he got away with a booking – but, after Salah almost capitalized on Oleksandr’s loose back header Zinchenko, City made their last effort. It was not enough.