LIVERPOOL: It could be argued that when Cristiano Ronaldo left Real Madrid in 2018, the Spanish giant’s El Clasico encounter with Barcelona lost its standing as the biggest game in club football.
The spectacle of the Portuguese taking on fellow legend Lionel Messi elevated the La Liga clashes to often unsurpassed heights.
Now, for matches featuring the best players, a high level of expectation and sheer drama, there is none better than Liverpool against Manchester City.
Perhaps it is not a traditional rivalry over decades or one spawned from the same neighborhood, such as encounters against Everton or Manchester United.
But in terms of challenging for trophies and showcasing the finest talent, this is as good as it gets in the world right now.
The match ended 2-2 on Sunday, and was a mixture of such breathtaking brilliance and tension that no one wanted it to finish.
As City boss Pep Guardiola said afterwards: “That is the reason in the last years Man City and Liverpool were always there (fighting for the Premier League) because we try to play in this way.”
A first half riddled with errors and excellence in equal measure saw City dominant, but fail to get the important breakthrough.
Liverpool counterpart Jurgen Klopp felt his side “could not play football” as they were opened up and pushed back repeatedly with James Milner’s right side targeted.
Mohamed Salah had 21 touches, but Liverpool had just one shot — their fewest in an opening period since January 2017 against Chelsea.
The Kop was subdued as City took charge, only to lose control in the 59th minute when Salah sent Sadio Mane clear to slot past Ederson.
City’s response had the hallmark of champions as, 20 minutes later, Gabriel Jesus picked out Phil Foden, who drove a low shot into the corner.
Then followed a moment of genius from Salah — and not for the first time.
On a day when Liverpool paid tribute to Roger Hunt, the club’s second-highest scorer after Ian Rush, following his death last week, Anfield also rose to acclaim their current idol after an astounding goal in the 76th minute.
Deceiving Joao Cancelo on the edge of the box, Salah rolled the ball effortlessly to evade the impressive Bernardo Silva, twisted and turned Aymeric Laporte before firing past Ederson.
It was goal number 101 for the Egyptian King in the top flight, and come the end of the season he may well surpass Robbie Fowler’s tally of 128, which would leave only Hunt and Rush ahead of him.
Another Liverpool icon, John Barnes, embraced Salah post-match on the touchline, no doubt to praise him for a goal that would stand alongside the finest Barnes had scored in his pomp.
Salah has now scored in his past seven appearances for the Reds in all competitions, equalling his longest scoring streak, last achieved in April 2018. The Reds hero was humble in his assessment, saying: “It would be more special if we won the game, but it is what it is.”
Klopp lauded Salah, adding: “Only the best players in the world score goals like this.”
He said: “If Leo Messi or Cristiano Ronaldo scores that goal then the world says yes because it’s world class. He (Salah) is one of the best players in the world, that’s how it is. It is not the first goal he has scored like this, I think against Napoli and Tottenham were similar goals, but it is pure world class, what a player. Absolutely exceptional.
“This club never forgets anything and people will talk about this goal for a long long time, even in 50 or 60 years when they still remember this game,” Klopp said.
But City showed great character to come back again, on a ground where they have won only once since 2003, and in a week when they had beaten Chelsea and lost to Paris Saint-Germain in the Champions League.
With nine minutes left, Kevin De Bruyne’s shot deflected in off Joel Matip and Rodri’s heroic block thwarted Fabinho from four meters.
City are now a point behind second-placed Liverpool and two off leaders Chelsea.
De Bruyne said: “I didn’t play here last year when we won, but I think the way we played here with all their supporters, in the six or seven years I’ve been here, was by far the best one. That’s a good sign for me. I cannot fault the performance. We did everything that we needed to do. To come here is a hard test and I think we did really well, the way we played, we should be happy with that.”
More twists and turns will follow in this season’s title race, but it will take something very special to top a contest as pulsating as this between two of football’s heavyweights.