Normal service resumed as Reina gives leaders an easy night
On and off the pitch, Liverpool’s defence was poor. Morally in the case of Luis Suarez and manually here at the Etihad Stadium.
The two statements they released shortly before kick-off were depressingly predictable from a club that has turned a serious issue into a public relations disaster. Only in opting not to appeal against Suarez’s eight-match ban for racially abusing Patrice Evra have they behaved correctly.
More surprising was their sudden inability to defend effectively here, some alarming lapses in concentration seeing them concede more than one goal in a game for the first time since September 18. Indeed, it was only their second defeat since then.
For all the problems Kenny Dalglish has faced this season, his boys at the back have given him very little trouble. The back five here were playing together for the 11th straight game but first came a rare mistake by Pepe Reina and then weak defending at a corner from Glen Johnson.
While Reina enabled Sergio Aguero to score after 10 minutes, Johnson let Yaya Toure strike with a header 23 minutes later and so propel Manchester City clear of Manchester United at the summit of the Barclays Premier League.
If that left Dalglish disappointed, what followed after the break must have made him more than a little miffed. With the dismissal of Gareth Barry in the 73rd minute, his side had a fighting chance, but within 60 seconds, from a move that started with a Liverpool free-kick, City had earned a penalty that James Milner then converted.
For Roberto Mancini’s side, it was a welcome return to form after a last-minute goal condemned them to defeat at Sunderland on Sunday and it was all the more impressive because they delivered such an energetic display so soon after that.
For Liverpool, however, it was rather depressing; a defeat that undermined their efforts to stay in the hunt for those precious Champions League places but one that also highlighted how hard life will be in the absence of Suarez.
Without the Uruguayan, Dalglish’s side were impotent. Andy Carroll, Jordan Henderson, Charlie Adam and Stewart Downing struggled to make any impact.
Carroll was playing his third successive game and he did create a fine opportunity for Dirk Kuyt with an athletic header. But he still looks well short of that £35million valuation and that has to be a concern for his manager.
Mancini, of course, has no such worries and this was a fine way to respond to the recent setbacks at Sunderland and West Bromwich.City needed to respond to a decent start from Liverpool last night, when Downing should have made more of an excellent pass from Henderson. His hesitancy enabled the excellent Joe Hart to block.
That proved costly when Aguero opened the scoring two minutes later. Kuyt lost possession to Milner and the ball found its way to Aguero via David Silva. Liverpool’s goalkeeper then allowed Aguero’s speculative 25-yard shot to dip under his body.
Clearly, it was the Spaniard’s intention to palm the shot away but he misjudged it completely, his failure to get his body behind the ball his biggest crime.
It left Liverpool facing quite a challenge against a side that completed 2011 without losing at home in the Premier League. Of the 18 games they contested, they won 17 — some record. Adam tested Hart with a decent free-kick and Henderson unleashed a long-range effort that drifted just wide.
Despite that early setback, they were playing with the confidence of a side that has not been accustomed to defeat.
Kolo Toure’s reckless challenge on Adam on the edge of City’s area in the 29th minute presented them with another opportunity, but Henderson’s free-kick was driven straight at Gael Clichy.
City might have been awarded a penalty when the ball popped up and struck Martin Skrtel on the arm as Aguero attempted to surge past him. The Liverpool defender was certainly lucky there.
He was more than a little fortunate soon afterwards, too, when he was comfortably beaten in the air by the outstanding Vincent Kompany. On that occasion Reina rescued him with a quite marvellous save.
But when Silva then delivered a fine corner in the 33rd minute, Johnson proved no match for Yaya Toure and the Ivorian midfielder beat Reina with a thumping header to double City’s lead.
As Mancini conceded afterwards, City are going to miss their all-action midfielder when he leaves after this weekend for the Africa Cup of Nations.
The game was crying out for Steven Gerrard, if only to give Liverpool an option beyond playing balls into a fairly ineffective Carroll. That said, Carroll did well to head the ball into the path of Kuyt, only to see Kompany courageously block the Dutchman’s volley.
Dalglish made his changes before the hour, replacing Adam and Kuyt with Gerrard and Craig Bellamy. After 73 minutes Liverpool were suddenly presented with a chance to strike back, Barry’s second yellow card — for a blatant body check on the fast-advancing Daniel Agger — leaving City with 10 men.
But from the subsequent free-kick it was City who scored, the home side winning possession and launching a rapid counter-attack that ended with Skrtel sending Yaya Toure crashing to the ground as he accelerated on to an excellent ball from Edin Dzeko. Referee Mike Jones pointed to the penalty spot and Milner did the rest.
Mancini should not have responded by raising an imaginary card in an attempt to get Skrtel dismissed but, if this was a morality tale as well as a football match, the focus remained on Liverpool.
On every level, this was not a brilliant statement