Manchester City showed in their 2-1 win over Liverpool on Thursday that for all their famous technical ability and attractive passing, they can fight as hard as anyone when the stakes are high.
The presence of captain Vincent Kompany, whose appearances have been restricted by injury this season, set the tone for a City side who matched Liverpool for effort and aggression throughout a compelling match. But while Kompany has long been a warrior-leader, there were other players who demonstrated they are not just pretty passers.
Portuguese midfielder Bernardo Silva, who has made such a valuable contribution this season with his precise passing and clever dribbling, constantly harassed the Liverpool backline. Raheem Sterling, whose pace and directness troubled Liverpool, never tired of chasing back and limiting the effectiveness of Andrew Robertson’s trademark forward surges.
And of course Brazilian Fernandinho, whose absence was sorely felt in City’s recent poor run, was a rock in the center of midfield, with his timely interceptions, physical confrontations and ability to break up Liverpool counter-attacks.
Those who witnessed City players around the dressing-room after their warm-up and before taking the field, were certainly not surprised by the aggressive way they played. Pep Guardiola’s men thumped their chests and yelled at each other, clearly pumped up and ready for a battle.
“It came from our guts, a desire you can’t describe. We are a better team when we play with emotions,” said Kompany. “I’m absolutely buzzing with a tremendous performance we went toe to toe with a very physical very aggressive team and we matched them if not more,” he added.
“The 12th man is more than just the fans, it’s a desire, something from within you can’t describe and today it was there and it made us a better team and we are a better team when we play with emotion”.
If there was one player who seemed to be lifted by that emotion to a new level of competitiveness it was Bernardo Silva and his contribution was noticed by his manager. “He did everything,” he reflected.
“He won all the duels. He is the smallest one. He shows that to play football, it doesn’t matter, you have to be good. Of course I would prefer to have a taller team or more physical but Bernardo is incredible.
“It is a long time since I see a performance like he did in all terms, he is precise, he is clean, he is clever, he even fought with (Virgil) Van Dijk,” he said, referring to the way in which Liverpool’s towering Dutch defender had the Portuguese playmaker snapping at his heels.
Sergio Aguero, whose stunning strike opened the scoring, showed a willingness to dart across the Liverpool back line in search of openings and to close down Juergen Klopp’s side as they tried to play out from the back. Guardiola rejected the idea his team had adopted a more direct style for the crunch match but acknowledged this was the kind of intensity City would need to show if they are to succeed at home - and in Europe.
“All credit to these incredible players,” he said. “That is how we have to play in the Champions League. We had a lot of pressure but we were not scared, we had no fear”.