James Lawton: Dalglish steps into light after darkness of race row

 

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The Independent Online

Here for the first time in a considerable while we had the acceptable face of Liverpool Football Club. Here was a club taking a large stride out of what many would say was a tribal kraal of its own making. They went to the place where English football power is supposed to be relentlessly brokered and not only did they win, they looked eminently at home slugging it out for one of the game's prizes that had looked so remote for some years now.

Manchester City's second successive defeat – and fourth in eight games – was another dagger into the side of the hope that their manager Roberto Mancini was being just a touch paranoid with his claims that the richest club in the world needed to pull out their chequebook yet again.

For Liverpool's Kenny Dalglish it was a point of light after the oppression and the grievous mistakes of the Luis Suarez affair.

It was, more than anything, an incentive to believe that the second half of the season can be not a time of regret but genuine opportunity.

Liverpool were plainly in need of some kind of swaggering statement of self-belief and Dalglish, who tends to make such declarations as freely as most of us pass the time of day, inevitably obliged at the first time of asking.

Had he gained any encouragement from glancing at a City line-up denied three key components, Vincent Kompany, Yaya Touré and David Silva? Not as much, said Dalglish in his latest version of a Glaswegian verbal kiss, as when contemplating his own team-sheet.

You might have said this was strictly par for the course if Liverpool hadn't immediately gone the equivalent of three under. Indeed, the Dalglish hubris could hardly have been made any more quickly to look like the merest statement of reality.

If City were a mess, and nowhere more obviously than in the place in defence where Stefan Savic looked so fragile as he attempted to fill in at least some of the huge hole left by the suspended Kompany, Liverpool were something they hadn't really looked since overwhelming Chelsea so impressively at Stamford Bridge.

Andy Carroll still looked, at £35m, the last word in football inflation but he still had the capacity to terrify Savic – a process that undermined the young defender so seriously that in no time he was yielding, haplessly, a penalty which Steven Gerrard converted quite formally. It could easily have been outright disaster for City if Joe Hart hadn't shown the nerve and athleticism that prevented Liverpool adding at least two more goals inside the first 20 minutes.

A 10-man City performed heroically, and extremely professionally against Manchester United in Sunday's FA Cup, but here they looked utterly drained of both purpose and flair. Even Sergio Aguero looked beaten down and it was hardly a surprise when the City manager Mancini withdrew his latest act of faith in Mario Balotelli, yanking him off under the weight of evidence that this was a night when the potential for disaster far outstripped some redeeming brilliance.

Liverpool, though, looked more than capable of inflicting some damage of their own. With Touré on duty on the African front, Gerrard had extra scope to inflict himself on Dalglish's new Liverpool. This freedom was curbed somewhat when Mancini for a second successive game was forced into a major recasting of his tactics. Samir Nasri came on for Balotelli with the clear imperative that it was maybe the time when he moved in from the periphery of City's campaign to something a little nearer its heart.

The game had changed, as clearly as it did in the sharply uphill battle against United, but sufficiently for City to prove that they could indeed survive without some of their most vital influences? It was, yet again, as much a test of competitive character as mere talent. For Liverpool there was also a vital question. Having reannounced some of that conviction which came flooding back with the arrival of the old icon Dalglish, could they make something more than a fleeting gesture?

Such issues have reached pivotal phases in the seasons of both City and Liverpool and certainly the face of Mancini reflected perhaps a deeper concern than the outcome of English football's least valued competition. Still, a trophy is a trophy and City's cupboard needs to be a lot more cluttered before any opportunity is so easily shrugged away.

Long before the end it was clear that we had more than a routine Carling Cup final with Crystal Palace or Cardiff waiting at the end of the football B-road. What it was, in fact, was one of those battles which need to be won, or at least not lost, if there isn't to be at least a a little draining of belief in your own powers.

In these terms, there was no doubt about who emerged in better health. Liverpool are moving again and, you have to say, it is a more agreeable direction.

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