Hart saves City from ambush
Published 28/11/2011 | 05:00
Why always him? For those thinking Mario Balotelli might be slightly unhinged, a damaged dressing-room door bore witness to his volatility.
Reduced to 10 men when the Italian was dismissed for two cautions, Manchester City were grateful to their outstanding 'keeper, Joe Hart, for slamming the door on Liverpool's attackers in the closing stages.
Assisted by Martin Atkinson's willingness to play advantage, this was a fast-moving game of growing grandeur, a reminder of the resilience of Roberto Mancini's title-chasers and Liverpool's undeniable blossoming under Kenny Dalglish.
City are five points clear, having survived a potential ambush. Liverpool are sixth, having again proven to everyone they live with the best.
Mindful of City's central power, Dalglish opted to flood midfield, using Dirk Kuyt and Stewart Downing wide with the outstanding Lucas holding, squeezing the space around David Silva, while Charlie Adam and Jordan Henderson pushed on towards Luis Suarez.
Liverpool's frontrunner was in pest mood, constantly troubling City's defenders with his livewire movement but sadly also revealing a capacity for gamesmanship with the occasional waving of imaginary cards.
Dalglish needs to have a word about such antics. Mainly, though, the Uruguayan concentrated on hurting City through legitimate means, starting a breathless match by knocking the ball impishly past Joleon Lescott and Gareth Barry. He then nutmegged Vincent Kompany.
City's tactics were similarly reliant on quicksilver qualities. Mancini deployed his smaller, spinning-top attackers, releasing Samir Nasri and Silva to support Sergio Aguero. Light-blue waves began to roll towards the Kop, testing the awareness and athleticism of Liverpool's defenders. Daniel Agger particularly impressed, sliding in to dispossess Aguero. And so it began, a high-speed contest replete with relentless pressing.
So confident domestically, City were building, looking for weaknesses, hunting a goal. When Jose Enrique underhit a back-pass, the alert Pepe Reina charged from his area, just beating Aguero to the ball and clearing before Silva could pounce.
Then Milner released Aguero, who sped past Martin Skrtel and Agger, but ran out of room, much to the Kop's mirth.
That laughter soon disappeared. City's pressure told. When Enrique conceded a corner, Silva bent the dead-ball to the near post.
Surprisingly, Kompany's progress towards the inviting, incoming ball was tracked by Kuyt and Glen Johnson. Kompany was far too powerful for both of them and rose confidently to score past Reina.
As Liverpool sighed in frustration, City fans launched into their Poznan dance, turning their backs on the action. Mistake. By the time they faced the pitch again, they had lost the lead. Again a City centre-half had the decisive touch, Lescott inadvertently redirecting Adam's shot past Hart.
The action was fast and compelling to behold. Touches of class could be seen from defenders and attackers.
It took a fine sliding tackle from the imposing Kompany to prise the ball from Suarez's twinkling feet.
Two well-matched sides went at each other like heavyweights. Kompany flattened Adam, who accepted it as a compliment. Skrtel fouled Aguero, who had elegantly rolled the ball away. Moments of technical excellence spiced proceedings. Aguero was denied by Reina as the half closed.
There was little let-up in the tempo as the new half opened. Adam had a shot deflected. Agger again brilliantly read Aguero's intent to block off a promising avenue. Construction and destruction lay everywhere.
Lucas struck a magnificent cross-field pass. Then Agger adroitly turned away from Aguero, steering the ball to safety. Gael Clichy swept across a marvellous first-time ball that set Liverpool alarms ringing until Enrique cleared.
Still Liverpool's defending drew admiring gasps from the home fans. Reina thwarted Aguero. Lucas put in a tackle on Yaya Toure that was pickpocketing at its most precise. Liverpool were also quick to turn defence into attack; Downing would have scored but for Hart's reflexes. A familiar tale.
And so came Balotelli for his 17 manic minutes. He was clearly not in the mood, and was cautioned for a pull on the escaping Johnson. That 77th-minute incident reflected how Liverpool had seized the initiative.
Chances came and went in front of a beseeching Kop.
Henderson crossed but Downing dragged his volley badly wide.
Mancini strived to ease the near-siege, sending on Edin Dzeko to push Liverpool deep. The move was swiftly undermined when Balotelli, leading with an arm in to Skrtel, effectively invited Atkinson to brandish a second yellow.
However much City complained about the reaction of Liverpool's players, Balotelli was simply foolish to challenge like that.
The Kop sensed a famous win. Lucas set up Suarez, who could not get the better of Hart. City still enjoyed a frisson of hope. When Dzeko's cross found Silva, the Spaniard took far too long to get his shot away, allowing Skrtel to clear.
As the game closed, Liverpool looked the likelier to score. Hart stood between the hosts and victory. When Johnson dinked in a cross, substitute Andy Carroll thought he had scored with a firm header but Hart saved. Again. 'Why always him?' Liverpool could have been forgiven for thinking. (© Daily Telegraph, London)