James Lawton: Anfield cauldron rekindled as Balotelli lets latest sparks fly

 

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The Independent Online

Anfield yesterday witnessed an occasion of superb commitment, at times brilliant professional composure and the clearest evidence yet that Liverpool are indeed once more a serious football team.

They should have beaten the league leaders Manchester City, who at times showed some beautiful rhythm, and would have done so if Joe Hart hadn't magnificently compensated for the latest evidence that, although Mario Balotelli is undoubtedly blessed with extraordinary ability, you wouldn't trust him to fetch you a bottle of milk.

His manager, Roberto Mancini, has of course invested rather more in the supreme indulgence of his professional career, his belief, this is, that unlike Jose Mourinho, his successor at Internazionale, he will finish up in profit by giving Balotelli his chance to come good on a reasonably consistent basis.

Already you might say the player's burst of nine goals as City took command of the Premier League and his routine promise of something exceptional put the Mancini gamble in credit but it was a theory that hardly survived yesterday's action. Mancini sent him into a game that was slipping away in the hope that he would turn back Liverpool's growing momentum.

Instead, what he had was the parody of a professional performance, one languidly earned yellow card, a second awarded along with a red for a foul so careless and crudely executed that it was almost beyond belief – and then the obligatory scene on the touchline.

Meanwhile, Liverpool were pounding away at a weary City, for whom the disappointing drama in Naples seemed to come rushing back, most alarmingly when Hart was required to produce one last superb save, this time from Andy Carroll.

Liverpool may not be the finished article and the January transfer window may not get them completely over the line but the lacklustre home performances against the likes of Swansea City and Norwich City were pushed firmly into the past by yesterday's effort.

It was notable for superb individual performances by Lucas and Charlie Adam and the persistent threat offered by Luis Suarez. This was the quorum of a team that can indeed make a serious challenge for a place in next season's Champions League.

Despite the Balotelli fiasco and the strength of Liverpool's second-half performance, City maintained their unbeaten league record and preserved their five-point margin over Manchester United. They also produced, at times, awesome control, which might have developed still further if Joleon Lescott hadn't lunged at a shot from Adam and deflected it past Hart.

From Liverpool, though, came the clearest evidence that they have the basis of serious development, something that was perhaps not quite so evident before the fine performance at Stamford Bridge last week. What happened yesterday underlined the meaning of that victory in a way that fell only marginally short of those moments which can be looked back upon not only with fondness but the certainty that they made a significant point about a team's potential. In this, Suarez is pivotal. Liverpool certainly have a huge interest in his emergence from the racism controversy with a new resolve to mind his behaviour, on any level from mischief to more serious transgressions, because he is a player who can lift his team to sustained heights.

His gift is of pure skill and constantly rechargeable ambition to make a major impact on any game. That he failed, ultimately, yesterday did nothing to diminish the problems he created.

Carroll is, of course, a little nearer to the Balotelli category. His raw ability, his potential to turn Anfield into the old cauldron, was dramatically represented with the header that stretched Hart to his limits. But for the most of the action he had sat on the bench, £35m worth of misdirected ambition. It has to be the most infuriating waste for Dalglish, a man whose own playing career was a monument to sustained, brilliantly economical efficiency.

It is a problem which no doubt will continue to exercise the Liverpool manager. In the meantime, though, Dalglish is not exactly short of vital encouragement. Not after the day his team harassed so profoundly the world's most expensive football team.

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