Though defeat at the Etihad was widely expected, Brendan Rodgers can look back on a proudly on the performance of his young team. The Reds stood toe to toe with Manuel Pellegrini’s expensively assembled team, and having been so equal in terms of the statistics and overall gameplay, Rodgers might feel slightly disappointed that his Liverpool side could not earn a point.
First of all, this was Liverpool without Luis Suarez being at his best, and the level of performance of the rest of the team has arguably even exceeded that of the Spurs thrashing, when Suarez was his usual imperious best. The Reds will feel very aggrieved that their first real chance of the game, when Raheem Sterling was put through on goal by Suarez, was flagged offside by the linesman on the far side. Sterling was a yard onside, with Aleksander Kolarov playing him on, and odds were Sterling would have scored one-on-one with Joe Hart.
When Liverpool did score though, what a fine goal it was. The interchange at the front of Manchester City’s box was mesmerising, before Suarez’s sublime chip over the top for Sterling saw the young winger round Hart. Off-balance, he smartly allowed the better placed Coutinho to slot it home. Definitely deserved go-ahead goal.
Then the Reds’ frailties from set-pieces were exposed again. As mentioned in the previous article, Martin Skrtel really had to improve on his defending of set-pieces after his performance against Cardiff, especially when City’s considered amongst the tallest teams in the league. Their skipper, Vincent Kompany, easily shrugged off Skrtel’s hold and powered a header that Joe Allen could not clear off the line. Another set-piece goal conceded, and with half the season gone, Rodgers clearly has not found the solution for this yet. He’ll have to find one soon, or else more cheap goals will be leaked.
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Liverpool’s response was good, to be fair. Another magnificent interplay between the front three found Coutinho facing Hart in the six yard box, but as is Coutinho’s preferring placement over power, he could only force a magnificent save out of Hart. The Brazilian should have scored his, and Liverpool’s, second goal there; things might have been totally different.
What could have happened if Liverpool went into the half-time break at 1-1? They will never know after Simon Mignolet had an uncharacteristic error in first-half injury time. Usually reliable goalkeeper, he will have been very disappointed to see his weak parry of Alvaro Negredo’s unorthodox outside foot shot end up in the back of the net. A key moment in the game, one of many that did not fall Liverpool’s way.
The second-half response from Liverpool was outstanding. Apart from the shaky Mamadou Sakho, which was highlighted by his failure to bring the ball out of defence a number of times, and the ineffectiveness of substitute Victor Moses, Liverpool was determined and should have equalised.
Sterling’s golden chance after Suarez’s brilliant cross from the left side should have been converted. Admittedly, City managed to keep Suarez quiet for most of the game, but Suarez could have had with some protection from the referee after Joleon Lescott twice fouled him, one outside the area with a barge on his back, the other inside the area when Lescott pulled his shirt for the whole duration of the corner kick.
Another Fine Response Required
After playing so well but leaving the Etihad empty-handed, Rodgers will have to pick his team up and just go at it again with another tough trip, this time to Jose Mourinho’s Chelsea at Stamford Bridge.
Like mentioned previously, having already picked up six points from this tough December run of four fixtures, Liverpool can play with the freedom again at Chelsea. They do have a good record at Stamford Bridge, and Suarez will want to come back firing again, after drawing his first blank in a long while.
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With Liverpool’s squad so thin right now – even second-choice left-back Jon Flanagan is out injured – Rodgers can’t really do much to change his side. Iago Aspas’ first substitute appearance since the 1-0 reverse against Southampton three months ago surely means he is still not ready to start a game, though he will probably have his chance off the bench again at Chelsea. Victor Moses came on showing a lack of effort and conviction, but then again he can’t play against his parent club. Luis Alberto is the only other realistic midfield or forward option, and surely he will be deemed too lightweight to compete against the likes of Jon Obi Mikel and Ramires.
Sakho’s poor showing at the Etihad might see the door open for Daniel Agger’s return. Or Rodgers might spring a tactical surprise by employing the 3-5-2 formation again. Either way, his options are very thin, and one can only hope this Liverpool side can pull through until the likes of Steven Gerrard, Jose Enrique and Daniel Sturridge return from injury in January.
As mentioned before, if this severely depleted Liverpool side can pull through this tough December period in or near the top 4, with the return of those key players plus the fact that almost all the big sides have to travel to Anfield in the next few months (exception is Manchester United), Rodgers should be quietly confident of a return to Champions League football next season.