Verdict: Liverpool 2 Manchester City 2
Goals: Skrtel 50, Benayoun 77 for Liverpool. Adebayor 69, Ireland 76 for City.
City and Liverpool were forced to settle for a draw after neither side proved capable of holding onto a lead in a game that left everyone disappointed.
After the match both managers sought to put a positive spin on the affair. Mark Hughes claimed City sides in the past would have been happy with a point, while Benitez remained sure of a top four finish. Tottenham and Villa probably felt like the real winners as they now have the opportunity to move ahead in the race for a Champions League place.
Hughes surprisingly dropped Carlos Tevez to the bench as he opted for a 4-5-1 formation with de Jong, Barry and Ireland all in the midfield. Micah Richards didn’t even make the bench despite fine performances for the England u-21 side.
Of course the formation could have been a 4-3-3 had Bellamy and Wright-Phillips been used to support to Adebayor, but there was precious little sign of that in a poor first half.
Liverpool were missing Torres, Johnson, Aquilani, Benayoun and Riera, while Gerrard was less than 100% fit. City were practically at full-strength and it’s hard to recall any time in the last 30 years when our team has looked so strong on paper in comparison to theirs.
Despite this, Shay Given was required to make the first (and only) difficult save of the first half when a Skrtel header forced him to change direction, stick out a hand, and palm the ball wide.
Stoppages followed as first Agger, then Babel succumbed to injuries. The previously lumbering Kyrgiakos and a half-fit Benayoun were there replacements. What further incentive could City have had to go at Liverpool?
Yet we were happy to defend and play a route one tactic to the isolated Adebayor. It may have resembled vintage Wimbledon but Adebayor is no John Fashanu when it comes to physically dominating centre-backs. Similarities in physique are purely coincidental as the Togolese prefers the ball to feet.
We were playing into the hands of Skrtel and Kyrgiakos who just had to stand there and take turns to head the ball away. Consequently we failed to gain any attacking momentum in the first half.
Midway through the first half, Carragher picked up a booking when he caught Bellamy. The Liverpool stalwart should have been targetted by City from then on. He’s not the quickest, is slow on the turn and out of practice at playing full-back. Bellamy easily had the beating of him for pace and Carragher couldn’t have risked another booking.
However, our policy of containment and the long ball persisted. As an attacking outlet, Bellamy was never used. His main role was tracking any forward movement by Carragher. To those who look forward to the return of Robinho, he would have been utterly peripheral in the first hour of this match. Little wonder he dreams of Barcelona, when the alternative is tracking Jamie Carragher.
Liverpool were the side trying to play the more expansive football, but didn’t have the players to do it. De Jong was doing an admirable job, while Lescott and Toure were comfortable in dealing with the limited threat of Ngog.
“In the first half, tactically, I thought we got it spot on.
“We were waiting for the moment to go for it, which was always going to be later on in the game.”
It goes without saying that most spectators and commentators begged to differ with the City boss on this one.
Five minutes into the second half and a needless foul by the previously commendable Zabaleta gave Gerrard the chance to whip in a free-kick. He duly obliged and Skrtel got there fractionally ahead of Adebayor to give Shay no chance.
Going a goal behind is rarely a good thing, but this one finally spurred City into playing football. Tevez came on for Barry, and my pre-match desire to see a midfield of Ireland and de Jong was fulfilled. Adebayor duly got his revenge on Skrtel by heading home a Bellamy corner, while Tevez showed us why United fans loved his substitute appearances. Busy and skillful, he turned the game on it’s head.
Skrtel and Kyrgiakos were now being moved around and their vulnerability was exposed. Tevez managed to get the beating of Skrtel to supply Wright-Phillips who turned brilliantly and passed for Ireland to slot home a first time shot. It was just rewards for the Irishman who had endured a frustrating match with no-one able to get on the end of his through balls.
For Wright-Phillips, this was a good moment in an otherwise lamentable showing in terms of end product. Throughout the match, Insua looked comfortable against the England winger and it was summed up near the end when Shaun was simply knocking the ball out of play when attempting to take the game to Liverpool.
Hughes would have been disappointed to see us concede within 74 seconds of taking the lead. Onuoha spoiled an otherwise excellent return by failing to adequately clear a ball in our penalty area. Ngog’s shot deflected off Lescott to fall kindly for Benayoun to score. Zabaleta could have been tighter on the Israeli but the deflection caught him out.
For a couple of minutes City continued to go at Liverpool, before settling back into defensive mode. For me this was arguably the biggest disappointment of the match. By the end only one side looked like they were trying to win it, and Lucas had a golden chance when unmarked at a corner. Fortunately he headed wide and the match finished all-square.
Both managers tried to put a positive spin on the game, but few people were fooled. Benitez had the stronger case, arguing his injury hit side did well on the day to take the game to us.
“We have come to Anfield and we are disappointed with a draw. Previous City sides would have been delighted with that.”
Clearly, this is tosh. Previous City sides in the last 30 years didn’t have the investment and quality of players that this one has. Likewise, previous Liverpool sides in the same period weren’t as poor as this injury ravaged team which was further depleted by two injuries in the opening 20 minutes.
Our available attackers were Adebayor, Tevez, Bellamy and Santa Cruz. Liverpool had a Ã‚Â£1.5m twenty year-old in Ngog. In defence they had their best centre-half playing at full-back, and had the cut price Kyrgiakos playing for most of the match. We had our first choice back four with Onuoha and Kompany on the bench.
Rafa Benitez insisted Liverpool would still finish in the top four when the likes of Torres, Aquilani and Johnson return. Considering we’re supposed to be his primary challengers and had a near full-strength side out, it was easy to see his logic given we were practically hanging on at the end.
As an opportunity to make a statement of intent, and strengthen our confidence, this was a big opportunity missed. Once again the tactics of Mark Hughes come under scrutiny as we failed to impose ourselves on a weakened opponent.