Goalscorers have been chasing down tempting high-bouncing balls since the professional game was played on mud by men who went home on the tram, but all that sepia-tinted, in-my-day history does not mean that in 2017 a striker stretching for the ball is permitted to kick a goalkeeper in the head.
Sadio Mane went off in pursuit of Joel Matip’s long pass on 37 minutes with honest intentions, and his eyes were looking nowhere but at a ball that his speed and athleticism took him within a whisker of controlling. All that does not, however, absolve him of the responsibility for the safety of the advancing Ederson Moraes who took Mane’s right boot to the side of his face and looked in trouble even before he got his hands out to break his fall.
Another red card that divided opinion and demonstrated that there are still so many in football who see the game on the terms that they remember it, or once played it. Which is fine for the post-match debate but when it comes to the difficult real-time decisions in the heat of the moment, all the referee can do is interpret the law as it is today and Jonathan Moss was correct to dismiss Mane.
The boot of the Liverpool striker was around chest height when it connected with Ederson’s head, and the goalkeeper’s bravery in going for the ball was clear to see. He was on the ground for seven minutes before being carried off on the stretcher they now construct around the prone footballer. By then the referee Moss had already lifted the red card to Mane who after that had, at different times, sat down on the turf and wandered around the goalkeeper, not knowing quite what to do.
On Twitter, David James, the former Liverpool and Manchester City goalkeeper, praised Ederson’s bravery and Moss’ decision. His old team-mate Robbie Fowler, that prolific poacher of similar chances who also played at both clubs, simply said, “The game has gone”. The game has certainly gone down a certain route, and that is one in which a boot as high as Mane’s that connects with a goalkeeper “endangers the safety of an opponent” and is, by the letter of the law, a red card.
Mane is not refereed according to the rules that existed 50 years ago, or even those in Fowler’s day, he is subject to those of the current-day game, just as Nani, then at Manchester United, was when he raised a boot and kicked Alvaro Arbeloa in the ribs at Old Trafford in 2013 in what turned out to be Sir Alex Ferguson’s last ever European tie. That red card also distorted a beautifully-poised game but then it is not the referee’s role to maximise the entertainment.
Ederson was taken to the medical institute at City’s training ground where he was scanned for a jaw and cheek fracture and had stitches for what was described as a long cut to his face. The goalkeeper was not immediately diagnosed with concussion and was back in the stadium by the end of the match.
City were already a goal ahead by the time of the red card, a clinical finish from Sergio Aguero after Liverpool had made the mistake of losing a single header in midfield. Fernandinho found Kevin de Bruyne and his threaded throughball was taken around Simon Mignolet by the Argentine striker. By the end, City had their third win from four games with five goals in a summary dismissal of the 10 men of Liverpool.
Yet although City were in the lead building up to Mane’s dismissal, Liverpool had shown signs of life, none more so than Mane. He had turned Danilo beautifully to play in Mohamed Salah, who should have done so much better with his shot from the left channel. The Senegal striker had also drawn Fernandinho into a booking with his first properly penetrative run of the day, and it would be fair to say that both he and Salah were causing problems.
Both sides were at an exceptionally high level, but both had their weaknesses. It was Nicolas Otamendi for City, hopelessly off the pace when the ball was played in behind him for Salah to run onto and then not much better when the Egyptian stood him up and dribbled past. City were on top when the red card came but Liverpool represented a serious threat to them until that point.
Mane’s dismissal finished that and City concentrated on attacking the right side of Liverpool’s defence where they pressured Trent Alexander-Arnold at full-back. The 18 year-old looked good going forward but he came under pressure in the opposite direction, and in the sixth minute of time added on for Ederson’s injury, the ruthless De Bruyne robbed the teenager. His cross was headed in by Gabriel Jesus.
There was no doubt that City smelled blood. To his credit, Jurgen Klopp did not simply try to block his way through the second half. He switched to a three-man defence, replaced Salah with Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain for his debut and playing in central midfield. City scored their third with a ball through the middle from Fernandinho to Aguero who squared it to Jesus for his second.
The second half was not a game in the way that the first had been but it did demonstrate what this City team are capable of when the lead is theirs. De Bruyne was at the heart of it all, his forward ball to the substitute Leroy Sane, going wide to Benjamin Mendy before the German winger slotted in the cross. In injury-time at the end of the game, Sane struck the best of the lot, a curling, left-foot shot past Mignolet’s outstretched hand.
Perhaps City would have won this match even if Mane had been on the pitch, and his dismissal was unquestionably the turning point, but it was the right decision too – and that is what matters most.