City's title defence hanging by a thread
Manchester City 2 Liverpool 2: The way they clinched the championship means that there will always be hope of retaining it but Manchester City had better start rummaging around for the keys to the trophy cabinet. With 13 games left to make up a nine-point deficit on Manchester United, Roberto Mancini's calculations are beginning to sound like the words of a desperate man.
"No, no, no, absolutely no," the Manchester City manager said last night after it was put to him that the race might be over, following the concession of four points in five days. But we are venturing towards the last-chance saloon. "I think probably now we need to win probably all of the games and if not 11 or 12 games," Mancini said, adding that he needs to head to Old Trafford on April 6 no more than three points behind Manchester United. With visits to Everton and Tottenham up ahead and Chelsea at the Etihad, that target certainly has its challenges. It doesn't account for the need for Manchester United to lose three times.
It would be more heartening if City looked like champions but the outcome which had the Mancini calculator out last night really should have been more calamitous than it was. Liverpool have been the better team against this opposition home and away this season, and maintained their habit of allowing a late lead to slip in a manner which will have left Martin Skrtel cursing their very existence. At Anfield in August, it was his slack back pass which allowed Carlos Tevez to level for 2-2, ten minutes from time. Here, it was his unforgivable reticence about closing down Sergio Aguero, sending Pepe Reina into work to disastrous effect as the Argentine measure a 20-yard shot past him from an angle barely within slide rule measurement. "Unbelievable," was how Rodgers described it. The controversy and title permutations which the game left behind should not obscure what incredibly fine goals and an incredibly fine contest it provided.
For Mancini, there was the consolation of Ivory Coast's African Cup of Nations quarter final exit to Nigeria, presaging the return of Yaya Toure – because his players looked painfully short of someone to drive them forward with pace and intent from midfield. Gareth Barry's display reflected the fine, relatively uncelebrated, season he is having. But there was little element of rapier surprise.
Liverpool did provide it. They are still to beat a team in the top half of the Premier League table but their moral victory included some encouraging signs from Jordan Henderson and Stewart Downing, both of whom Rodgers had given up on, and a magisterial display from Steven Gerrard. And then there was Daniel Sturridge – a steal at £12m if he consistently delivers like he did in that first period and a player with the look in his eyes of someone with something to prove.
He left City because they wouldn't pay him £65,000 a week on the basis of five starts and his performance showed why that was a source of regret to Mancini, when he arrived as manager. Pace, power and a capacity to play with his head up caused City trouble and created the partner Luis Suarez has been needing. Suarez sliced his first time shot badly when the 23-year-old powered away from Matija Nastasic in that first period and levelled an accurate ball for him. City's own mistakes at the back contributed to an air of something less than champion class. It was an undistinguished first half in his own six yard box from Joe Hart, who wobbled when Sturridge took down a lofted ball from Glen Johnson and was almost undone by a Pablo Zabaleta tap-back.
For all their pressure, Liverpool maintained their pattern of misdemeanours proving catastrophic, when Daniel Agger first played James Milner onside to receive a finely measured pass into a left hand channel of the penalty area and then failed to intercept the Englishman's low cross which Edin Dzeko was waiting to poke in.
City's fulminations about Liverpool's rapid equaliser were based on Liverpool's determination to play on while Dzeko was writhing on the turf after Agger had clattered into him. It did look like a foul, though Dzeko's rapid to his feet to remonstrate suggested he was in less agony than he had implied. Rodgers' players were certainly right to remember the basics and play the whistle. By the time the referee intervened Sturridge had unravelled a 30-yard rocket past Hart, after Gerrard had laid Javi Garcia's dismal clearance at his feet.
It was the first goal City had conceded in 584 minutes of league and cup action and though City enjoyed a resurgence after Nastasic's knee ligament injury brought his 55th minute departure and the installation of a three-man defence, their ascendancy was brief. When Gael Clichy cleared a Jose Enrique cross straight to Steven Gerrard, he thumped it straight into the net from 30 yards – his 30th Premier League goal from outside the area. It took five minutes for Aguero to conjure an even greater piece of magic but by the end Hart was diving to squeeze out another Sturridge effort as Liverpool foraged again.
"They must play the FA Cup and Champions League," Mancini said of the team across town. "We are confident. The season is long." But time seemed to be in short supply for him, last night.
Manchester City: HART 6/10, ZABALETA 7, NASTASIC 6, LESCOTT 6, CLICHY 6, GARCIA 5, MILNER 7, BARRY 8, AGUERO 8, SILVA 7, DZEKO 6
Liverpool: REINA 6, ENRIQUE 6, AGGER 6, CARRAGHER 8, JOHNSON 7, DOWNING 7, LUCAS 6, SUAREZ 7, GERRARD 8, HENDERSON 7, STURRIDGE 9
Substitutions: Man City Kolarov 6 (Nastasic, 56) Maicon (Silva 76) Nasri (Barry, 88). Liverpool Skrtel (Enrique, 76) Allen (Sturridgew, 92). Bookings: Man City Dzeko, García. Liverpool Henderson, Sturridge, Carragher, Gerrard. Man of the match Sturridge. Match rating 8/10.
Possession: Man City 46%. Liverpool 54%. Attempts on target: Man City 3. Liverpool 4. Referee A Taylor (Gr Manchester). Att 47,301
Belfast Telegraph Digital