City make statement in title race
MANCHESTER CITY 3
It was Manchester City making the strong statement to Manchester United last night.
Liverpool, still smarting at losing Luis Suarez, had no answer to City's assertive football, looking as lifeless as Roberto Mancini's team were vibrant in rising three points clear of United at the top of the Premier League table.
The champions can keep pace, although they must win tonight at Newcastle United, but this was an important, if easy, victory for City.
For those predicting a period of silence for those shouting the odds for City, the noisy neighbours turned up the decibel level.
Mancini had torn into his players for not concentrating during the New Year's Day defeat at Sunderland and they responded in style.
They were hungry, intelligent and busy throughout. They never allowed Liverpool any space, any time in possession. So much for Mancini's concerns about his players being exhausted.
Sergio Aguero, Yaya Toure and a James Milner penalty gave City a straightforward victory, so straightforward that they never looked troubled when losing Gareth Barry to a soft red card after 72 minutes.
Yaya Toure was again excellent but once again praise must be lavished on City's captain Vincent Kompany, who again resembled the rock on which opposing attacks founder.
Andy Carroll was poor, utterly failing to alarm Kompany.
With Kompany in such form, and Micah Richards also impressing until Craig Bellamy gave him such late problems, Liverpool simply could not break City down, even with Bellamy on, even with Steven Gerrard given another half-hour.
They looked distracted, as if still absorbing the Suarez ramifications, and need to sharpen up mentally quickly.
On a painful day for Liverpool, the game brought more misery, their mood captured by the pouring rain.
In what should have been an opportunity for Andy Carroll to demonstrate his abilities, the opening 45 minutes in particular proved merely a reminder of how much they miss Suarez's energy and inventiveness around the box.
Liverpool were blunt, Carroll anonymous as City swept into a two-goal lead.
The hosts were far sharper, quicker to close the visitors down, always looking to test Pepe Reina. Edin Dzeko, so disappointing at the Stadium of Light on Sunday, was more involved, bringing a low save from Reina as the game opened up.
But then City stepped up another gear, seizing the lead. Aguero made the breakthrough but it involved a rare piece of poor goalkeeping from Reina.
When Aguero let fly, the Argentinian imparted enough venom in the shot and the ball bounced in front of Reina, but it should still have been a fairly routine save for the Spaniard.
As Liverpool's fans behind the goal looked on in horror, Reina allowed Aguero's shot to spill through his grasp and past him into the net. It was a surprising error for such an experienced goalkeeper.
Liverpool rallied briefly, looking to find Carroll but City were too alert, notably Richards who leapt well to steer a cross away from Carroll at the far post.
Joe Hart also saved a Charlie Adam free-kick. This was a night of deep frustration for Dalglish and his players.
City's threat was always there, always posed from a range of options. Kompany demanded a good save from Reina, who partially made amends for his earlier mistake, but the pressure never eased.
David Silva curled in a corner and there was Yaya Toure heading home. City will miss the Ivory Coast powerhouse when he leaves for the African Cup of Nations.
Trailing by two goals, Liverpool slowly awoke. Carroll headed wide. Kompany, again outstanding, blocked a Dirk Kuyt shot. But Liverpool lacked spark.
Dalglish resisted any changes at the break, waiting 12 minutes before introducing Steven Gerrard and Craig Bellamy, the former City player who was accorded a warm welcome by the home fans.
Bellamy was immediately involved, charging down the left, soon lifting in a cross that required more good defending by Richards to divert to safety.
Another Bellamy cross reached Carroll, who had risen above Kompany, but the England striker's header lacked conviction.
Mancini had questioned his players' commitment on Wearside. He could not here. Dzeko tracked back. So did Aguero. Barry headed clear.
Aguero departed to a standing ovation for his hard work with 19 minutes remaining, being replaced by Adam Johnson.
City were then stunned when Barry, already cautioned for a challenge on Jay Spearing, was sent off for a second yellow, running into Daniel Agger.
It was a pointless challenge, particularly as Yaya Toure was sliding in to dispossess the Dane, but it was hardly venomous.
Mancini was furious, questioning the decision, and eventually laughing at what he saw as the absurdity of the red card.
Within a minute of going a man down, City went a further goal up. Yaya Toure motored into the box but fell far too easily under Martin Skrtel's challenge.
Penalty decreed Mike Jones, pointing immediately to the spot. Whatever the legitimacy of the decision, there could be no arguing with the unanswerable nature of James Milner's finish from the spot, the ball driven unerringly past Reina.
As City's players celebrated, their manager embarrassed himself.
Mancini waved an imaginary card in an attempt to get Skrtel dismissed, which would have made it 10 men apiece. The fourth official, Stuart Attwell, commendably was having none of Mancini's attempted gamesmanship and rebuked the Italian.
Liverpool tried not to go out with a whimper.
Maxi turned in the box but directed a weak shot wide. Then Gerrard drove towards the edge of the City area but failed to worry Hart.
Liverpool need Gerrard more match-fit, and Carroll to step up to the considerable challenge in Suarez's absence. For City, normal service has been resumed. (© Daily Telegraph, London)