How Darwin Nunez & Virgil van Dijk are making the difference in Liverpool's title bid

From my own experiences as a Liverpool player, when you lose at Anfield and equalize straight after half-time, it does more than give you motivation – it changes the whole feel of the game.

That's exactly what happened in Sunday's draw with Manchester City. Once Alexis McAllister's spot-kick made it 1-1, Liverpool produced a real powerhouse performance and it looked like they would win.

Their work ethic, determination and intensity in the second half was incredible and it was Darwin Nunez who helped spark that, first by winning the penalty for their equaliser.

Yes, it was a mistake by Nathan Ake, whose poor backpass let him in, but Nunez was switched on and ready for it — and he didn't stop there.

Darwin Nunes is brought down by Manchester City goalkeeper Ederson for Liverpool's penalty.
Nunez won Liverpool's penalty 84 seconds into the second half

A lot of Liverpool players did well after the break, but it was Nunez who really made the difference when they were on top. Like many teams this season, City have struggled to cope with his physicality and all-round play.

I believe his display was as good as I've seen since he joined Liverpool in the summer of 2022, which is a strange thing about a striker.

I loved his ability to trouble City's back line and stretch their defence, and his willingness to run without the ball, but he also showed great quality. He slipped Luis Diaz for his one big chance and was involved in almost everything in some way.

Nunez was unselfish in his game, but he was denied a goal when he got a finger on Andy Robertson's crossbar. City keeper Stefan Ortega makes a great save and on another day, it goes in.

Van Dijk is the only player Liverpool can't afford to lose.

Against City you get nothing without defending well and I was also very impressed with Liverpool's performance.

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I expect a lot of Reds fans were nervous when they looked at the teamsheet before the game, because with five of their first-choice players – including goalkeeper Alisson – only Virgil van Dijk faced the defending champions.

Graphic showing Liverpool's starting XI v Man City: Kelleher, Bradley, Kwanza, Van Dijk, Gomes, Szoboslai, Endo, Mack Allister, Elliott, Nunez, Diaz

Ibrahima Konade's injury this week meant the entire right side of Liverpool's defense was very young, with Jarel Kwanza next to Conor Bradley. Jurgen Klopp once again showed his faith in the kids by playing them and they both did very well in the biggest game of their careers.

It's yet another example of the great unity and confidence that has possessed Liverpool so far this season and has kept them in the title race, and despite being plagued by numerous injuries, they have the chance to win four matches.

That means when the chips are down and some of the bigger players aren't close to the big games, they won't falter or feel bad about themselves.

Whoever plays doesn't sit back either. The big strength of this team is that they don't change the way they play even if some of their star names are missing – they still look to play on the front foot.

At the center of it all, however, is van Dijk. Some of his passing against City was excellent, as always, but on top of that, his last stint was excellent.

He was calm and controlled one-on-one with Erling Holland, an important far header from a Bernardo Silva cross and a crucial block to deny Phil Foden.

Liverpool defender Virgil van Dijk tackles Manchester City forward Phil Foden
Van Dijk has started 26 Premier League games for Liverpool this season, more than any other Reds player.

It was a tremendous performance, when it was needed, by a guy surrounded by so many players who had never played before on such an occasion, and some saw it as a title decider.

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Van Dijk has been fantastic all season, but this particular game showed the importance of his presence.

Konate could miss a couple of games and Liverpool will be fine. Trent Alexander-Arnold and Robertson have already been out for several weeks, and the biggest compliment I can pay Gaomhne Kelleher is that he doesn't look like a backup goalkeeper to replace Allison.

Klopp has rotating numbers in midfield, and all the leading players have been injured at some point this season. But, for now, Van Dijk is the one player they can't afford to lose.

That's how important he is to their title hopes, and where their entire season goes from here.

Why the run-in can be a rollercoaster ride

Premier League First Snapshot: 1st Arsenal, 2nd Liverpool, 3rd Man City, 4th Aston Villa, 5th Tottenham & 6th Man Utd

Sunday's game was a great watch, with quality performances from both sides.

With the Anfield crowd and the pace in Liverpool's squad, I think if Diaz had taken one of his chances, they would have left City.

Credit to City, though, because they hung in there and had two good chances of their own in the second half.

Jeremy Doku struck the post after Kelleher had denied Phil Foden at the crucial moment, and for all the chances Liverpool created, they could still have been beaten.

When the dust settles, I think they'll be satisfied with the result – they've now played and drawn twice with City in the Premier League, and they're still a point ahead of them with 10 games to go.

Liverpool will soon be in an even stronger position as City face Arsenal in their next league game on March 31. At least one of their title rivals will drop points, but it would be naïve to think the game will decide anything.

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We've got three great teams in this title race, all of which have strength in depth. But I don't believe any of them will go from here and win every game of the run-in, as both Liverpool and City have done in previous seasons, as they are all a bit vulnerable at times.

Look at Arsenal – they've been on this amazing goal-scoring run, but Aaron Ramsdale had to make two excellent saves in Saturday's win over Brentford and had to wait for a late winner.

Some nerves were involved in their performance, inevitably, and they were to come.

A team you wouldn't expect in that way, emotionally, because they've been doing it for so many seasons now, is City. But I still expect it to be a rollercoaster ride for all three teams, and it wouldn't surprise me if they're all in for another couple of games.

It'll be interesting to see who you're rooting for as it unfolds. No matter which of the teams you like, every football fan wants to see a close match with danger.

How can you not enjoy this run? We all need to see it.

Danny Murphy spoke to BBC Sport's Chris Bevan.

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