City get rub of green to dent Reds' ambitions
Manchester City 2 Liverpool 1
An affirmation of who really holds the cards at the top of the Premier League.
The team is Manchester City, who take a stride towards the top, rather than Liverpool, whose slip to fourth reveals that leading at Christmas does not carry quite the same comforts as usual in this incredibly fluid season.
But the scoreline made the night no less a statement of intent from the players Brendan Rodgers sent out. Some very strong squads have been taken apart at the Etihad in the past four months but Liverpool's performance was better than any other from a visiting side.
There have not been many occasions before this when we could say that City needed the resilience of Fernandinho and the goalkeeping of Joe Hart to preserve their 100pc Premier League home record. Manager Manuel Pellegrini punched the night air and his superiors will doubtless have nodded, knowingly. Rodgers is a manager who seriously impresses them.
At times in the first half, the football was as eviscerating as anything we had seen in City's dismantling of Arsenal two weeks ago, though written through with none of the same inequality. Rodgers sent out a team that looked and played like they actually believed they could stand toe-to-toe with the most powerful side in the Premier League. So although City quickly came at their weakened and vulnerable right flank like a battering ram, with Aly Cissokho up against Jesus Navas, Liverpool were not cast aside.
There were certainly some ominous moments for them in the early stages, with Navas racing ahead of Cissokho to head a cross against the top of Simon Mignolet's right-hand post: the third attack down that flank in the first 10 minutes. But Liverpool looked the sharper team, brimful with incision and imagination in the 30 minutes before half time.
Luis Suarez was at the axis of some wonderful creation in the final third, Philippe Coutinho and Raheem Sterling combining with him intricately, and you only had to cast your mind back to the Liverpool we saw last St Stephen's Day -- dismally defeated at Stoke -- to know how far they have come in a year.
Sterling found himself dancing around Joe Hart to fire the ball into the net just before the 20-minute mark, after a finely timed and weighted through-pass by Suarez. Though he had clearly beaten City's offside trap, referee Lee Mason's linesman didn't see it that way, so there was a form of justice about the way Sterling helped put Liverpool ahead after another move of liquid football five minutes later. Suarez's deft touch created it again -- spinning Jordan Henderson's pass into the path of Sterling, who rounded Hart once more and allowed Coutinho, positioned beside him, to send the ball into the net from an acute angle.
The problem for Rodgers, though, was that his defence was not equipped to withstand the way that City came back at Liverpool. City counter-attack with a power which makes concession of the ball to them anywhere on the field a danger and the standard of defending which allowed City to equalise was dismal. It was a repeat of their well-known vulnerability to the set-piece which allowed their opponents back into the game. Vincent Kompany jockeyed in front of Martin Skrtel -- for whom this was a generally good night -- to deposit David Silva's corner past Mignolet, who might have done better, and Joe Allen, who failed to clear from the line.
Liverpool might have gone back ahead. Another beautiful interlinking move concluded with Sterling levering a ball into the area for Suarez to lay off for Coutinho, whose shot Hart leaped sharply to his left to save. But then City counter-attacked in all of their finery -- box to box, five players involved, with Nasri's clipped long ball the best component and Negredo the beneficiary. The Spaniard's early clipped shot seemed to surprise Mignolet, who put a weak glove on it but could not prevent it looping over him into the net. He should have done better.
It was measure of what Liverpool were offering that a City whose manager says they will always attack tightened up a little after the interval, with Fernandinho reducing the threat of being caught on the break.
Yet it was hardly a defensive outlook. The tally of 28 shots on goal after 75 minutes showed what kind of game this was. Suarez was unfortunate to be booked for hurtling into Hart as he chased a late ball at the end but his greater frustration was felt for how Sterling squandered the clearest goalscoring opportunity of the second half as the 19-year-old put Suarez's cross over the bar from five yards. Liverpool's challenging Christmas continues at Chelsea on Sunday but they will travel without fear. (© Independent News Service)