By Arun Nair – (@Nair_39)
Manchester City edged to a 2-1 victory over Liverpool in an enthralling encounter at the Etihad Stadium. A goal from Philippe Coutinho had put the Reds ahead, but strikes from Vincent Kompany and Alvaro Negredo saw the visitors slip to narrow defeat.
Liverpool however will take encouragement from a performance that merited at least a draw – their profligacy in front of goal and two glaring defensive errors prevented them from leaving Manchester with at least a point – while manager Brendan Rodgers will undoubtedly rue several questionable refereeing decisions. Meanwhile, City moved to within a point of top of the table Arsenal with a win that came as a result of two late Christmas gifts from their opponents in the form of costly mistakes. However, Rodgers will take pride from a performance from his side that did not warrant leaving the Etihad empty-handed, having proved a worthy opponent for a home side that had previously dispatched Man Utd, Arsenal, Everton and Spurs with relative ease.
The game started at a frenetic pace. Jesus Navas saw his stooping header glance off Simon Mignolet’s post, while Negredo fired his shot on the turn wide, before Luis Suarez sent Raheem Sterling through on goal. The teenager skipped past City keeper Joe Hart before firing into the unguarded goal, only to turn and see the linesman’s flag raised.
Replays showed that the decision was clearly incorrect, with Sterling a good couple of yards onside.
However, Liverpool refused to be set back by the injustice, and began to assert some control. Soon, a neat exchange between Jordan Henderson and Luis Suarez led to the Uruguayan’s deft flick playing Sterling in once more, and the winger rounded Hart before allowing Coutinho to slot into the empty net from the angle.
Unfortunately, the lead lasted just seven minutes. After Yaya Toure saw a trademark surge and shot blocked by Martin Skrtel, City won a corner, and Kompany, marked by Skrtel, escaped the Slovak’s attentions to head a corner down and past both a sprawling Mignolet and Joe Allen on the goalline.
The relentless attacking football on display meant that the spectators were treated to a pulsating game, with both sides threatening frequently. A flowing move, again involving Sterling, and the irrepressible Suarez, saw the former chip the ball through to the latter, who managed to divert it to the onrushing Coutinho, only for the Brazillian to fire straight at Hart.
The cost of Coutinho miss was all too apparent on the stroke of half time. Glen Johnson’s loose touch saw Samir Nasri nip in and send Navas clear. Skrtel rashly thundered across despite Mamadou Sakho’s presence blocking Navas’ route to goal, leaving Negredo in acres of space to receive his former Sevilla teammate’s pass.
The Spaniard’s attempted lofted finish lacked power or precision, but Mignolet could only thrust a weak hand into the air towards the ball, which only served to divert it into his goal behind.
The second half saw Liverpool continue to put Man City under pressure at every opportunity. Henderson sent an effort high and wide, before the former Sunderland man was picked out by a long ball. A combination of Joleon Lescott and Hart foiled him, before Suarez robbed a criminally careless Alexsander Kolarov and fired towards goal, only for the now offside Henderson to unintentionally block his teammate’s effort.
City were still an intermittent threat, while the away side continued to fashion chances, and proceeded to waste them. Henderson’s teasing pass towards the far post was blocked, only to rebound to Johnson. However, the full-back’s poor control denied him the opportunity of a shot on goal with Hart defenceless.
Soon after, Suarez evaded Pablo Zabaleta on the left before crossing to present with a Sterling a glorious chance, only for the 19 year old to blaze wastefully over with the goal gaping.
Suarez had desperate appeals for a penalty turned down by referee Lee Mason, despite Lescott having a handful of the Uruguayan’s red shirt – admittedly Mason had allowed Skrtel’s constant shirt-pulling at the other go unpunished – as time began to run out for the Reds as they desperately probed for an equaliser.
Ultimately however, City held out for the win, while the Reds were left to rue what might have been.
Mignolet: 4 – Only forced to make one real save, but his inability to keep Negredo’s tame strike out proved extremely costly.
Johnson: 5 – Was wasteful in possession and missed a glaring opportunity.
Skrtel: 6 – Deserves a share of the blame for both goals, but made a couple of crucial last-ditch tackles.
Sakho: 6 – Was relatively comfortable, apart from a bewildering spell in the second half during which his passes could only find a blue shirt, lead to him falling over, or both.
Cissokho: 6 – Despite pre-match fears about his future health after his encounter with Navas, the loanee acquitted himself reasonably well, but offered little going forward.
Lucas: 6 – Was neat in possession and ensured that the likes of David Silva and Toure were only intermittent threats, mainly in the second half.
Allen: 6 – Did well in his pressing and made some good tackles, while trying to support the front three.
Henderson: 7 – Like Allen, he won the ball back through his excellent pressing, while also providing some creative nous going forward.
Coutinho: 6 – Played his part in some flowing first half moves and took his goal well, albeit a simple chance. Faded in the second half before being replaced by Victor Moses.
Sterling: 7 – Was desperately unlucky to see his legitimate goal ruled out. Like Coutinho, he played his part in the intricate approach play in the first half. However, he missed a gilt-edged chance to equalise in the second half.
Suarez: 7 – Despite the attentions of Kompany and Lescott, the talismanic striker did well, especially in the first half. The second period saw him gradually starved of service as the home side looked to defend deep. However, Suarez was still a constant menace, although his decision-making at times was lacking.
Moses: 6 – Pretty average for most of his appearance.
Aspas; N/A – Little time to make an impact.