In the final analysis, it was impossible not to zero in on the moment when Zack Steffen wished he could be anywhere but here and Liverpool assumed a vice-like grip on this FA Cup semi-final that it was difficult to see them relinquishing.
Poor Steffen. Pep Guardiola had wanted to show his faith in the backup goalkeeper but it all went wrong for the US No 1 and Manchester City in the 17th minute. Addressing a routine back-pass and under the usual orders to play out Ederson-style from the back, Steffen took a heavy first touch and, after some hesitation, an even heavier second one.
In flew Sadio Mané to tackle the ball into the net for a 2-0 lead and Liverpool were on their way to a final against Chelsea or Crystal Palace – and, they hope, the second element of an unprecedented quadruple. Liverpool’s dominance of the first half was total and it would get worse for Steffen when he conceded softly for 3-0 at his near post from Mané.
City responded in the style of champions in the second half, Jack Grealish pulling one goal back, and after Alisson made a save to deny Gabriel Jesus they hinted at the outlandish when the substitute Riyad Mahrez crossed in the 90th minute, the ball hit Alisson and Bernardo Silva turned 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 yet more drama. Fernandinho blasted high while Raheem Sterling shot low at Alisson but City had left themselves with too much to do. Guardiola made seven changes from the team that started the second leg of the Champions League quarter-final at Atlético Madrid on Wednesday night and one of them was Steffen. An abiding image would come after the full-time whistle when he sank down sadly on to his haunches and had to be consoled by some of his teammates.
City’s war of attrition in Madrid had framed plenty of the buildup and it prompted Guardiola’s sweeping rotation but it was not if they could hog this particular line. Liverpool too are in the throes of a punishing programme and they have home league fixtures in the coming week against Manchester United and Everton, their two biggest rivals.
Even so, the relative strength of the starting lineups appeared to have given Liverpool the edge, with Klopp recalling his big guns after Wednesday’s Champions League tie at home to Benfica.
It was Ibrahima Konaté, one of the few Liverpool starters not considered a first-choice selection, who put his team in front. Red smoke drifted across the stadium from flares lit inside the Liverpool end and their supporters sang their songs at full volume. At that early point, they believed it was their day and the feeling only intensified when Steffen suffered his horror moment. City simply did not turn up at the start, even if Grealish, playing as the false nine, did have a fourth-minute shot blocked by Virgil van Dijk.
The atmosphere had crackled at the outset, although it was disgraceful that a section of the City support refused to keep quiet during the pre-match silence for the 33rd anniversary of the Hillsborough disaster. The Liverpool support booed them and the referee, Michael Oliver, had to cut short the remembrance.
Konaté’s goal was all about his power and desire – but it was made by the most perfectly flighted of outswinging corners from Andy Robertson, an invitation to the central defender that would have been indecent to pass up. Konaté outmuscled Jesus and then got up higher than Nathan Aké. It was a towering headed finish; Konaté’s third goal for Liverpool and his third in three games.
City had looked edgy in the opening exchanges and got an attempt to play out from the back all wrong in the sixth minute. Was it a portent for Steffen’s indecision? While Klopp had stuck with Alisson having started his No 1 in the previous round at Nottingham Forest, Guardiola went with Steffen after picking him in all but one of City’s previous domestic cup ties this season.
Liverpool’s third goal just before half-time was exhibit B for the prosecution because Steffen was horribly slow to get down and across on Mané’s volley, which was slashed towards the near corner. The Liverpool buildup had been of a piece with their enjoyment of the first-half, all assured touches and movements that were too quick for City. The excellent Thiago slipped in between two sky-blue shirts before swapping passes with Trent Alexander-Arnold and the flighted pass out right to Mané was made to measure.
City, who struggled to suppress the electric Luis Díaz, needed something at the start of the second half and they got it. Fernandinho won the ball and released Jesus up the inside right channel. He produced a lovely jink inside Fabinho and then sent a square pass to Grealish, who made a difficult finish look easy.
City were a different proposition now: they squeezed higher and played with more urgency and aggression – even a note of anger. Could they find a second to ignite a contest? Jesus ran on to a Sterling touch to work Alisson at the near post and they crafted the big chance on 71 minutes – a one-on-one for Jesus after a Grealish throughball. Alisson got down to block.
Before that, Fernandinho flirted with a red card when he stretched into a bad tackle on Mané – he got away with a booking – but, after Salah almost capitalised on Oleksandr Zinchenko’s loose back header, City made their last-gasp push. It was not enough.