James Lawton: Sergio Aguero's flash of genius against Liverpool is not enough to restore self-belief of doubting champions Manchester City
Liverpool’s progress had been overtaken by the chilling reality of City’s plight
Roberto Mancini is supposed to do exasperation at the Etihad Stadium. Often he appears to have the exclusive contract and who, anyway, can do it quite like him? On this occasion, though, he surely had to defer to the body language of Sergio Aguero's despair.
Aguero played like a champion and scorer of the most superior goals. He refused to accept that in the absence of Yaya Toure and Vincent Kompany City would inevitably drift further off their title course, especially after Daniel Sturridge produced still more dramatic evidence that he might well prove an enduring catalyst for the new Liverpool of Brendan Rodgers.
It was the most formidable case made by the young man branded a brooding misfit at Stamford Bridge but one who is suggesting with beautiful (if we can forget the ugly dive for which he was yellowed carded with splendid certainty by referee Anthony Taylor) nerve and skill that he is fighting to save a front rank career at Anfield.
His brilliant goal, and mostly silky touch, gave Liverpool the momentum normally generated most persuasively by Luis Suarez and Steven Gerrard.
Certainly it was true that when Gerrard put Liverpool into the lead quite superbly there was reason to believe that we were seeing more than one of the more compelling Premier League games in a season of seriously dwindling standards, especially in the old science of professional defence.
This might just have been the winning statement by the Liverpool that they are indeed a gathering force – one to justify the recent statement of their old hero Ian St John that they are beginning to play some of the football that first began to shape their great tradition.
It was an impression that hardly faded with Aguero's sublimely flighted equaliser but by then Liverpool's progress – though plainly real enough – had been overtaken by the chilling reality of City's plight: and the Argentine's failure to deliver the most remarkable of repairs.
The truth is that it will take more than the return of Kompany and Toure – and Aguero's blazing refusal to accept the concept of defeat – to return City to any serious chance of retaining their title.
Manchester United's lead of nine points may be no guarantee that they will remain unscathed by the distractions of Europe and the limitations of a squad that has at times been pushed to its seams, but they do have something which has never been so perilously threatened in this critical season of the City project.
It is the kind of self-belief which can carry you through all kinds of crisis and yesterday for City it was running so low that it was beyond the restoration offered by the magnificent Aguero.
He has his less effective days, of course, but there is never a question mark against his resolve – or his willingness to push back all limits on his performance. That was the way he announced himself when he first arrived in Manchester as the fabled son-in-law of the great Diego Maradona and it is a statement on which he has never reneged. It was the story of his first performance as a substitute when he made and scored remarkable goals, when he rescued the title on the last day of the season and there were moments when he reached out for such an effect yesterday.
The goal, after Pepe Reina's latest rush of blood, was conjured quite extraordinarily and at the end there was reason to believe that he might again redeem a team which too often falls below his levels of intensity and professional pride.
When it didn't happen, when in the last moments he received a head-high ball into the box that might not have challenged the imagination of anyone at the most humble strata of the game, something seemed to give, at least for the moment. He was angry and defeated and that for him is a rare and demoralising sensation.
It is something, though, he might have to experience a little more of if Mancini cannot engender new levels of both commitment and a degree of composure.
The idea that in the wake of the Mario Balotelli misadventure, City might indeed regain a little more obvious purpose and professional authority, did surface briefly in the early going. It came with James Milner's aggressive work along the left and a perfectly placed cross for Edin Dzeko to open the scoring. That might have been a platform for renewal of a serious nature. At least for City it was agreeable to think so before Dzeko the hero went down and stayed down while plainly not seriously injured, and Liverpool swept – quite justifiably – to Sturridge's finely driven equaliser.
The goal was as legitimate as Liverpool's suggestion that they were indeed on their way. This made the pain for City, for all Aguero's efforts, all the more acute. They are down not just nine points but with the oppressive sense that they have rarely seemed quite so lost.
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