Three minutes into the second half of this FA Cup semi-final Luis Díaz took the ball just inside his own half, looked up and saw in freeze-frame the figure of Fernandinho suspended inches above the Wembley turf, rotated at an angle of 60 degrees to the ground, left leg extended to meet the ball – and in the process to send Díaz in a semi-somersault arc as the frame of Fernandino propelled itself through the space where previously he, Díaz, had stood.
It wasn’t a foul, although the next one on Sadio Mané was, a slide into the ankle that really could have led to Fernandino being sent off. The tackle on Díaz was more like a message, a considered personal missive from the entire Manchester City dressing room. Because City will have hated the first half of this game.
They finished it 3-0 down, having played like a team with small sacks of gravel tied to their ankles: hungover, frazzled, heads pounding, still burping up the taste of three-day-old after-dinner Atlético liqueurs.
Mainly, they will have hated what Díaz did to them, the frills of his game as much as the hard edges. Díaz was not the man of the match in this 3-2 victory (that was probably Mané or Thiago). He didn’t score a goal or directly create one. But for 45 minutes he did something to City nobody has for quite some time, perhaps not since the 3-0 loss in the Champions League in 2018 when Mohamed Salah was in full galloping hare mode.
Díaz took the mickey. He pranced about. He made risky little mocking turns and flicks. He looked, above all, like a man enjoying himself, which is in itself an affront to City’s sense of self. Here is a team that prides itself on suffocating its opponents, in inducing a migrainous 90-minute tightening of the temples. Fun? You don’t have fun here. Except this is what Díaz did and it felt significant as Liverpool continue to veer off into the rarefied air of the season’s end.
There were plenty of other moments to drool over. Thiago’s, semi-impossible lift-pass with the outside of his big toe to tee up Mané’s finish for the third goal; the kind of pass that seems to stop the day, to turn the ball into a helium balloon, a candy floss bag.
There was the sight of poor old Zack Steffen’s mistake for the second goal. And in between there were those little glimpses of illumination, of something that felt like fun, strength in reserve, the kind of qualities that might just take Liverpool close to something.
They were always likely to start stronger. City had left the Wanda Metropolitano not just bruised but depleted by the sustained toxic emotion of the occasion. These are days that take a bite out of you. At which point, enter Díaz in full scamp mode.
He is a fascinating footballer, a workaholic modern-day athlete, all shuttling cover and counterpressing. But he has just enough mischief too, a playfulness in his slender limbs. He was involved in the first goal as Liverpool’s left-hand side forced a corner that was headed back and in by Ibrahima Konaté.
He was also involved in the third, ferreting away on the left and seeing the ball run to Thiago. In between he did stuff. He took the ball in the centre circle and chopped and shimmied away from three players, then eased a slightly insulting showtime pass through for Salah.
He drew a kind of gurgling sigh from the crowd by the left touchline as he fed the ball back to Andy Robertson via a leaping, instep pirouette flick. He jinked inside and just stood right up against João Cancelo, rolling a foot over the ball the way you would playing a corridor tennis ball kickabout with a partially sighted pug. In return he got Cancelo’s shoulder in his face, which was probably fair enough.
By half-time, Díaz had been fouled four times, completed five dribbles and romped about the pitch like a man who really does love this grey concrete bowl. He has played twice here in his time in England: won a League Cup final, beaten Chelsea, beaten City, left his rhythms, his own little snapshot moments all over that turf.
Three Liverpool goals in his 15 games does not really tell the story of his impact. He looks unafraid, the kind of footballer who just wants to grow into this stage; not to mention a textural variation, another dribbler to complement Salah.
City came back strongly in the second half and might have forced extra time at the death. But somehow it never really felt like that was the script.
Now to the run-in. If there is one surefire way of ensuring Liverpool will not win English football’s first quadruple, it is to count up the games required to get there. But here goes anyway. Liverpool are 11 games away, although City must also drop points in the league for them to win the title.
Whatever happens from here it will be quick, every game carrying its own jeopardy. This is just something to be savoured, a rare moment in any footballing life.
It will take luck, brilliance, luck and plenty more luck. Díaz will be a key part of the collective either way. And there was a glimmer of something here in his sense of fun, his vim, the feeling of someone ready to keep running to the end.