City suffer back-to-back home defeats for the first time since 2008
Published 12/01/2012 | 05:00
This was an ugly game, a scrap of a cup tie, a celebration of containment over entertainment, but Liverpool will not care a jot.
Determinedly protecting Steven Gerrard's early penalty, Liverpool had six defenders on the pitch by the end of this Carling Cup semi-final first leg, doggedly refusing to yield an inch as they edged closer to a first visit to Wembley in 16 years.
After Sunday's FA Cup loss to Manchester United, this was the first time since 2008 that City had lost back-to-back home games.
Liverpool had started with a real hunger, scoring early through that Gerrard penalty, pushing down the left through Stewart Downing, while Craig Bellamy sought to stretch City down the right.
The hosts were patently missing the suspended Vincent Kompany in defence and the powerhouse that is Yaya Toure in midfield. David Silva's ankle problem had removed him from contention, although City said they were hopeful he would be available to face Wigan Athletic on Monday. With their spine weakened, City were heavily indebted to Joe Hart as a red storm tore their way. The England international quickly made three good saves, diving out to deny Andy Carroll, pushing away a Gerrard shot and then a deflected Downing volley.
But the pressure told. Stefan Savic, too limited an understudy for Kompany, was already struggling, soon erring badly in challenging Daniel Agger, clearly fouling him. Lee Mason hardly needed to be Perry Mason to solve this.
The referee pointed to the spot, and Gerrard did the rest, ignoring the green laser pen shining on his face to slide the penalty low to Hart's right. So resolute until then, Hart had no chance.
Liverpool kept pouring forward, moving fluidly forward with Gerrard setting the tempo. They even took the loss of Jay Spearing in their stride, the midfielder injuring his hamstring and being replaced by Charlie Adam.
The Scot's first involvement was a delight, a beautiful 40-yard pass driven from the centre to Bellamy on the right. It was still unfortunate for Spearing, who had just returned from suspension and had been looking promising in the Lucas role.
City broke briefly into life, Gael Clichy gliding down the left and lifting in a cross that Glen Johnson headed out, but the force was mainly with the sharper visitors.
Carroll was still labouring, still unsure in his first touch as when under-hitting a ball that the excellent Micah Richards seized on.
At least Richards was having a go, joining Hart as one of the few City players performing with the requisite application levels, although they improved after the break.
Mario Balotelli was going through the enigma variations, mainly off-key, though.
Fouled by Adam, the Italian reacted angrily, particularly when the midfielder tapped him on the head. James Milner stepped in smartly to steer Balotelli away.
The striker demanded the ball for the free-kick which he then drove into the Liverpool wall.
He did not last much longer, damaging his ankle, and heading straight down the tunnel, although he hardly seemed to be limping. Samir Nasri came on, needing to convince City fans of his worth, and only really coming to creative life in the second half.
Before then, Liverpool continued to close City down quickly, occasionally with excessive vigour as Gerrard did in challenging Milner, who did not milk the Liverpool captain's foul. Gerrard then flew into a more legitimate challenge on Sergio Aguero, ending a promising dart by the Argentinian.
Nasri reminded people he was on the pitch with a shot that Pepe Reina pushed away.
Trying to inject some energy into his players, Roberto Mancini changed his formation, going three at the back with Clichy pushed far down the left. The Frenchman whipped in some good crosses and City were far better after the break, moving the ball quicker.
When Martin Kelly played the ball back blind to Reina, Aguero pounced, nicking the ball and moving to go round the 'keeper. Reina, judging his interception perfectly, dived in to remove the danger.
Liverpool were sitting deeper, leaving Carroll further isolated in attack.
City chased harder and harder for the equaliser. When Nasri curled over a corner, Richards outjumped Agger in the air, headed downwards, but he was thwarted by Reina.
Still City pushed and probed. Aguero kept running at Liverpool's defence.
Liverpool switched to a back five with first Johnson, and then Kelly as the right-sided of the three centre-halves. Johnson made a superb challenge on Aguero just as the striker was about to let fly.
City kept hunting. Milner slotted the ball wide to Nasri, who curled in a terrific cross that Reina reached just before Gareth Barry.
With 11 minutes remaining, Kenny Dalglish again stiffened his defence. Bellamy was taken off, accorded warm applause by City fans, and replaced by Jamie Carragher.
Liverpool now had a back five of Johnson, Kelly, Martin Skrtel, Agger and Jose Enrique shielded by Carragher. Jordan Henderson, Gerrard and Adam patrolled just in front of them and they almost needed binoculars to spot the distant Carroll. Dalglish had declared, wanting to take that narrow lead, and precious away goal back to Anfield.
City hammered at Liverpool's back-door. Nasri was more involved. Edin Dzeko tried to impose himself. Barry drove a low cross in from the right which Agger thumped out for a corner, and City fans sighed in frustration when Aleksandar Kolarov desperately over-hit it.
Controversy then ensued. Nasri and Carragher were both cautioned for a coming together of heads, then Johnson's two-footed tackle on Joleon Lescott enraged Mancini in the dugout as Liverpool held on. (© Daily Telegraph, London)