A week after a somewhat undeserved scoreline, if not result against Manchester City, most if not all Canary fans were expecting a similar outcome against Liverpool, before the real business begins once more.
Even more so given the news about a prolonged absence for Adam Idah, so much the catalyst of the recent mini-revival. Jurgen Klopp felt able to make seven changes from the side that played in the Champions League mid-week, Smith made just one bringing in Mathias Normann in place of Pierre Lees-Melou.
City began the game with what is fast becoming a trademark, a long ball to the right-wing seeking the physical presence of Josh Sargent. This time the ball broke for Teemu Pukki who had the merest hint of a path to goal before the Liverpool defenders quickly blocked it. He played the ball to Max Aarons who hit a cross-cum-shot that had Alisson stretching to scoop the ball over for a corner.
Liverpool hit straight back, Mo Salah being afforded too much space and allowed to shoot, fortunately well over the bar.
Then it was City’s turn. Normann played a delightful through ball to Rashica who slotted neatly home, only for the offside flag to be raised. Next Brandon Williams won the first of many balls, playing it to Maclean who in turn put Rashica free on the left. His cross was blocked out for another City corner.
Again Liverpool struck back. Salah floated a delightful cross to the back post where it was surely more difficult for Tsimikas to put the ball over than score, yet he managed it. Breathless stuff indeed.
The game then settled into the pattern that most would have predicted. City sitting back, Liverpool probing and looking for weaknesses. With every week that passes, Dean Smith’s City side evolve.
Whereas a few weeks ago, we were treated to a long-ball fest whenever City gained possession at the back, the last two games have seen more occasions where the ball is played out from the back. This could be a pragmatic response to the loss of Idah, but what it meant was plenty of heart-in-mouth moments for the travelling support.
That said, generally City were able to beat the first line of the press, it was only once the ball reached the midfield that the moves tended to break. Once again, the most promising outlet was Milot Rashica, the Kosovan being a thorn in Liverpool’s side all afternoon.
A further recent feature has been the defensive shape.
The City back four play very narrow, their starting positions being well within the width of the penalty area. The message is clear – not to afford any space through the middle and to force the opposition to play the ball around the sides, confident perhaps in the ability of Hanley and Gibson to deal with the resultant cross.
This has come undone twice in recent weeks, both Palace and Man City able to cut inside and curl shots past Gunn. The omens didn’t look good as Mo Salah gave Williams as thorough workout as the young loanee has had so far.
The Egyptian twisted inside and out yet every time his cross was either blocked or cleared. When Liverpool were able to get a shot away, they found Gunn continuing his recent good work, keeping the shots at bay.
City were still a danger on the counter. At one point, Pukki was apparently through on goal. I say apparently as this is the moment my TV coverage chose to fail, coming back just in time to see the ball roll wide of the post.
Referee Mike Dean continued his love affair with the Canary’s fans. On 38 minutes, Williams was booked for a foul on Diaz, the youngster appearing to initially stumble before a clumsy lunge caught Diaz. Minutes later, Diaz cleaned out Max Aarons with a nasty looking challenge.
Guess what? No yellow…
So at half time, City went in all square, and good value for it having been organized and resolute in defence. Could they keep the concentration up for the second half?
The second half started briskly, much like the first.
Pukki got away on the left, but his ball inside was intercepted by Van Dijk. Then Williams made a great interception inside his own half. Rashica picked up with a fabulous cross-field ball to Sargent on the right side of the penalty area.
The American seemed to have lost track of the ball initially before beginning a run inside across the area. He had a half-chance to shoot but ended up being forced wide left, where he played the ball back to Rashica. The Kosovan feinted past Oxlade-Chamberlain before shooting low and hard to the near post. On the way, the ball hit Matip and looped past Alisson inside the far post.
The Liverpool response was to lay siege to the City goal. For the next eight minutes they piled on the pressure with wave after wave of attacks, with the Canaries unable to get the ball away.
Salah made a weaving run in the area. The visiting fans held their breath yet the defenders showed commendable discipline. No one dived in with a rash challenge, no one gave Mike Dean a decision to make and the ball finally broke to Henderson whose shot was blocked.
On 54 minutes, Rashica was fouled halfway in the City half, finally affording a breather to the defence. Buoyed by the stubborn resistance, City began to play football again. Normann did superbly on the left and laid the ball to Williams who cut inside and played a great ball into the box with the outside of his boot which was snatched from the onrushing City attackers and out for a corner.
This was the start of a good patch for City and on 60 minutes, Klopp had seen enough. He bought on Thiago and Origi, switching to a 4-2-4 formation. This bought Mo Salah more central and the change perhaps disrupted the previously well-organized defence.
The trouble with sitting deep and defending against sides like Liverpool is that you cannot afford a single lapse of concentration. And that is what happened on 63 minutes. Salah played a looping cross from the right to Tsimikas who had slipped free from the attention of Sargent. He played the ball across for Mane to spectacularly play an overhead kick past Gunn.
City came forward again, Rashica doing well to win a ball in midfield and cut it across to Gilmour but the Scotsman could only hit a weak shot. Alisson kicked the ball long. McLean this time was sleeping and allowed Salah to gain a yard. Gunn came rushing out but could only delay the inevitable as Salah cut inside and rolled the ball home.
In barely a few minutes, the game had turned completely.
The third goal was another of real quality. Henderson played a defence-splitting ball for Diaz to take one touch and slot home.
The last two games could have been a slow-motion train crash for City.
Had they been humiliated as at Stamford Bridge, they could be going into the next sequence of games at rock bottom in terms of morale. Instead, they can take real encouragement from the way they are playing.
Williams and Rashica look better with every passing game and Normann made a big difference in the middle. Gilmour is beginning to live up to his hype too.
The only real question mark has to result from that unfortunate injury to Idah. Pukki ran his socks off as usual but when he had his moment it seems he missed badly. If the Finn is not firing on all cylinders, it is difficult to see who Dean Smith has to turn to.