City survive deserving Red threat
Unbeaten but not unbeatable, depleted but not defeated, Manchester City experienced a novel situation. Hanging on for a draw has not been a feature of their superlative start to the Premier League season. A battling point had a rarity value as well as an importance.
They escaped Anfield grateful for their goalkeeper's acrobatics and having displayed different qualities. Demolition specialists ended up in an exercise in damage limitation, trading David Silva for Kolo Toure as they sought to stop Liverpool. "I am happy with the point," Roberto Mancini said. As City acquired a pass mark in their stiffest test to date, Kenny Dalglish's team have become an intriguing paradox, a historic giant who prosper as comparative minnows.
They seem to fare best as underdogs and stand a greater chance of winning the mini-league of the best than the title itself. Inspired and inches from victory again, they nonetheless completed a quartet of draws on their own turf, the admirable, against the two Manchester clubs, bookending the irritating, when Norwich and Swansea visited.
Sixth place is their reward for subjecting City to their most awkward afternoon of the domestic campaign. While, Liverpool were the benchmark for two decades, now they provide a different sort of yardstick, formulating a different gameplan for every encounter with the elite and, apart from a thrashing at Tottenham, troubling each.
This was a reversion to 4-3-3, to prevent being outnumbered in midfield, to offer security at the back and with the intention of springing quick breaks on the flanks. It brought a host of chances; Joe Hart saved from Charlie Adam, Stewart Downing, Luis Suarez and, in injury time, Andy Carroll; Glen Johnson, Downing and Dirk Kuyt missed the target.
"We came up against a goalkeeper who did what three or four others did here," said Dalglish, aware that praising opposing shot-stoppers is becoming a post-match theme. "I don't think we could have asked for much more in terms of effort and commitment from the players. They were fantastic."
Two, in particular, stood out; the midfield alliance of Lucas Leiva and Adam lack stardust but are dovetailing nicely and grafting impressively. Each excelled in last week's win at Stamford Bridge. Both flourished again, giving Liverpool a platform to attack and suggesting Mancini's omission of the destructive Nigel de Jong was a mistake.
In his stead, the battleground contained a left-footer Liverpool long coveted against one they signed after a six-month pursuit. Adam is subject to a reinvention to ally distribution with force. If his preference was to play quarterback, Liverpool are deploying him as running back, powering forward with purpose.
His advances from his supposed home of the centre circle had, indirectly, led to goals against Manchester United and Chelsea. A hat-trick of sorts was completed on this occasion, even if none were his. But even stray shots can prove useful, as this proved; Joleon Lescott, the ex-Evertonian, misjudged it and dispatched it past Hart. Imperious against opponents, he was helpless when his team-mate struck.
In the process, a lead secured by one central defender was surrendered by another. On the day Mancini turned 47, City reached 43; league goals for the season, that is. For the first time, there was only one, even if two of his troops imprinted their names upon the scoresheet. While Lescott was debited with a goal, Vincent Kompany was credited with one, heading in Silva's corner.
Supplier was almost scorer, Silva having an 89th-minute shot cleared off the line by Martin Skrtel. The Slovakian had already become City's bete noire with his involvement when they were reduced to 10 men. Mario Balotelli concluded another eventful week, previously notable for vomiting on the San Paolo pitch, with a cameo, the substitute sent off for two bookable offences.
The first, a rather needless tug on Glen Johnson, was beyond dispute; the second, when he raised an arm as he and Skrtel jumped for the ball, rather more contentious. "He didn't do nothing," said Mancini, blaming the Liverpool players' reaction. Dalglish disagreed. "I think Balotelli got himself sent off," he said. "His actions spoke louder than anyone else's. Sometimes if you look in the mirror, you get the answer. Sometimes he doesn't help himself."
A glance in the mirror would have revealed a bleach-blond Mohican, the sort of extravagance that seems all the more unnecessary when he errs. But, sinner or sinned against, hero of Old Trafford and villain of Anfield, scorer of nine goals in his previous 10 games and red-carded three times in 15 months in the City shirt, the Balotelli debate continues.
A slammed dressing-room door was a sign of his frustration, though damage was denied. "If he damages the door, he pays," smiled Mancini, remembering the decision to set off fireworks in Balotelli's bathroom. "Like his house."
The enfant terrible notwithstanding, Mancini's house is in order. Five points clear and still undefeated, it wasn't the happiest birthday imaginable, but it could have been much worse. Even as his side showed some frailties, he still has reason to celebrate.
MAN OF THE MATCH: Joe Hart - The injury-time save to thwart Carroll spared City from defeat and put the finishing touch on a fine afternoon's work from the England goalkeeper. He has been at fault for goals earlier this season but here he was flawless.
LIVERPOOL VERDICT: In many respects, they were excellent. Once again, Dalglish got his tactics right in a major match and his players responded with some fine performances. Both full-backs, Jose Enrique and Johnson, were a threat going forwards and the decision to keep Jamie Carragher on the bench was vindicated by Skrtel and Daniel Agger. Liverpool did concede from a set-piece for only the second time this season, but Kuyt appeared the culprit for letting Kompany go.
MANCHESTER CITY VERDICT: Mancini prioritised short, sharp players by picking Sergio Aguero and Samir Nasri, trying to thread passes through the Liverpool defence. With the Argentine looking lively, it was a policy that almost worked. However, his side did tire in the final stages, especially when they were reduced to 10 men, with the trip to Naples taking its toll. Both Barry and Balotelli are banned for Tuesday's Carling Cup tie at Arsenal and Mancini will make wholesale changes.