Liverpool put a huge dent in Manchester City’s title hopes with a 2-1 victory which dramatically enhanced their own hopes of a top-four finish.
Chelsea’s involvement in the Capital One Cup final had given Manuel Pellegrini’s side a chance to reduce the gap at the top to two points but, as was the case last season, they were cut down at Anfield.
Eleven months ago defeat here did not prove their undoing in the title race as Chelsea did them a favour by winning at Anfield. This time it was Liverpool doing Chelsea favours.
Jordan Henderson’s brilliant opener was matched by an equally good team goal from Edin Dzeko but Philippe Coutinho’s 75th-minute winner eclipsed them all.
Coutinho, who twice set up Adam Lallana to first shoot weakly at Joe Hart and then brilliantly finish from a narrow angle only to be judged marginally offside, was the instigator of Henderson’s opening goal in the 11th minute.
Pressing hard he robbed Vincent Kompany and rode a challenge from the City captain before laying off to Raheem Sterling, who gave Kompany a torrid time in the first half, and he teed up Henderson to curl a beauty into the top corner.
Immediately the intensity went up a notch, with Sergio Aguero breaking free of Martin Skrtel and beating Simon Mignolet but not the far post with a left-footed shot. It was end-to-end stuff, with the creative Coutinho and equally mercurial David Silva running the show for their respective sides, although an honourable mention should go to the pint-sized Joe Allen, who was a giant in midfield against players of huge size and even bigger reputations.
The former’s ball with the outside of his right foot sent Sterling racing down the left wing, but although he easily jinked past Eliaquim Mangala, City’s £32 million summer signing, his cross rolled through the six-yard area with no-one to knock it in.
Silva was increasingly finding space in front of Liverpool’s back four, the area where he is most dangerous, and from there he crafted City’s 25th-minute equaliser. The Spain international picked out Aguero, whose sublime ball to Dzeko was deservedly rewarded with a goal as the Bosnian slotted past Mignolet for his 50th Premier League goal.
From then on the game became even more open with Aguero heading over 20 seconds into the second half and Sterling bundling wide a Lallana cross, but the quality level dropped somewhat.
In an instant it was raised again, in the 75th minute, when Coutinho cut in from the left, dropped his shoulder and unleashed an arcing shot which dipped over the outstretched fingertips of Hart.
A frenzied final ten minutes saw Coutinho have another shot deflected over, City substitute Wilfried Bony escape with a yellow card after appearing to lead with an elbow on Lallana, substitute Daniel Sturridge roll a shot wide with only Hart to beat and Silva flash a shot just off target with the seconds ticking down. City remain five points off the top, having played a match more than Chelsea, but manager Manuel Pellegrini will not give up on retaining the Barclays Premier League title.
“I think we never give up about the title. We must try to improve our play first and after that try to win our next game,” he said. “You never know in football what will happen. It is more difficult when you have less games and you continue with the same points, but I don’t think the team can think about that.
“We are worried about our team, not the other teams that are behind us.
“We will see in the reaction in the next game. The only way to see is the way we play again on Wednesday (at home to Leicester).” Liverpool are now just seven points adrift of City and, while second place may be beyond them, the win moved them up to fifth and just two points off the Champions League places.
“It is a big win. We still have a lot of games to go yet, but it is a significant win for us because it keeps us on the chase,” said Reds boss Brendan Rodgers. “It was a brilliant result and an equally brilliant performance. We thoroughly deserved the victory. The players were relentless in their work and intensity and we had great quality in our football.”