Carling Cup: Liverpool captain Gerrard gives Manchester City mountain to climb
Manchester City 0 Liverpool 1: Before Sunday, Manchester City had not lost at home in the space of a year. By last night they had lost twice there in the space of four days. The storm has not arrived at Roberto Mancini's door just yet but he can hear it rumbling in the distance.
Monday’s trip to Wigan Athletic takes on an added dimension for a team that are out the FA Cup and now have 90 minutes to salvage this Carling Cup semi-final at Anfield in 13 days’ time. The Premier League remains the priority, and Mancini’s team still lead the way in that competition, but they could do with a decisive win at the DW stadium to steady the ship.
Without the injured David Silva and the suspended Vincent Kompany, this was not City’s best performance but they had some legitimate cause for complaint. The reckless two-footed lunge that Glen Johnson launched at Joleon Lescott in the closing stages of the game looked very similar to that one which Kompany was dismissed for on Sunday against Manchester United and yet there was no action taken against the England full-back.
It precipitated a dispute in the tunnel after the game between Steven Gerrard and Mancini in which the Liverpool captain accused the Italian of trying to intervene to get Johnson dismissed. As for Kenny Dalglish, he stuck to the classic Arsene Wenger defence of not even having seen the challenge in which Johnson clearly went in two-footed but made no contact with his opponent.
The television cameras picked out Kompany through the drifting rain watching the game from his executive box in the stadium and certainly you had to wonder how different this might have been for City if their captain had not been serving the first game of a four-match ban. They suffered for the presence of Stefan Savic in the centre of defence and it was he who conceded the penalty that ultimately won the game.
City have lost four of their last eight games in all competitions. It is hardly a crisis just yet but they face Tottenham – who are now just them points behind them on 45 - at home a week on Sunday three days before the return leg at Anfield. Those are the kind of schedules that all teams with aspirations to be league champions are forced to confront at some point in the season.
As for Liverpool, they have their problems too. Johnson played as an emergency left-back last night and Jay Spearing succumbed to an injury early in the first half. Without the suspended Luis Suarez, Dalglish picked Andy Carroll as the lone striker in a 4-2-3-1 formation and he struggled again.
After the match, Dalglish bristled, in the way only he can bristle, when asked about the possibility of Carroll moving back to Newcastle – a story that seems to be based more on the desire of his former club than anything Liverpool might countenance. “I worry about the people who invent those stories,” he said. But there was no disguising another disappointing performance from the forward.
There were lots of other strong performers, including Gerrard, making his second start since the long lay-off with injury and infection. Pepe Reina was excellent once again and although the back four rode their luck at times, this was the first time City have failed to score in a home game for 14 months.
Having parked the bus in the closing stages, Dalglish brought on Jamie Carragher on the 15th anniversary of his debut for the club, as a defensive midfielder. Liverpool were clinging on grimly at the end of the game but that goal will be precious at Anfield where the away goal rule is only enforced after extra-time has been played.
Liverpool scored in an early flurry of pressure which might have yielded more goals had it not been for the magnificent form of Joe Hart who stopped three Liverpool chances that a lesser goalkeeper would not have saved before he was beaten by Gerrard’s penalty.
Within five minutes Hart had to go down low to stop Carroll when the Liverpool striker, went through on goal but could not get his shot beyond Hart. Within the next five minutes Gerrard had a shot pushed away by Hart and the best of all was a save to the goalkeeper’s left from a deflected shot from Stewart Downing.
Given his form, there was a nagging feeling that Hart might save Gerrard’s penalty too. It was conceded by Savic, starting a game for the first time since 7 December, who raked his studs down Daniel Agger’s leg when he misjudged the ball in the area. Gerrard struck his penalty into the inside of the side-netting to Hart’s right and it was too well-placed even though the City goalkeeper dived the right way.
It had been a strong, decisive start from Dalglish’s team. The travelling support sang “We’re not racist, we only hate Mancs”, although there were fewer Mancs than usual in a crowd of 36,017 that was well below capacity. City lacked direction in those early stages and had the added concern that Mario Balotelli was on the edge. He had been carrying an ankle injury but he also looked pretty angry too.
The Italian had reacted to being patted on the head by substitute Charlie Adam as he lay prone following a foul from the Liverpool midfielder. On that occasion James Milner sprung to his feet to intervene. But with two minutes of the first half to play, Mancini replaced Balotelli with Samir Nasri and Balotelli, went straight down the tunnel.
City rallied towards the end of the first half. Reina saved Nasri’s shot from the left. Then Micah Richards went past Johnson and cut the ball back for Milner who missed. By the time Mancini brought Edin Dzeko on 21 minutes after the break they were firmly pushing back.
Reina did extremely well to shepherd Sergio Aguero away from danger when Martin Kelly’s panicky pass back to his goalkeeper was intercepted by the Argentine. Richards met a corner first time and forced a good save from Reina at close range. Johnson was fortunate to escape without punishment for his tackle on Lescott but Liverpool had held out. And they will be hard to beat at Anfield.
Man of the match Reina.
Match rating 5/10.
Referee LMason (Lancashire).