Comment: Vincent Kompany and Manchester City lack the recipe for success as defeat sees Liverpool extend advantage at top of Premier League table
When the emotion and the red smoke had cleared, City just looked a very battle-worn team
The size of Manchester City’s challenge was written across the Anfield Road at not long after midday on Sunday, when the Liverpool team coach inched through a fog of red smoke and a tide of 1,000 people, maybe more, whose red flags flew. It was also written across the tear-streaked face of Steven Gerrard not long after 3.45pm, struggling to contemplate after all these years that the trophy he had perhaps given up on in his heart might belong to him after all. “Emotional. Emotions,” as Gerrard put it.
A performance of perfection was needed from a visiting team in such a place as this, at the start of a week of commemoration such as this, and that team could not afford to lose the best that it possesses. A City lacking Yaya Touré from the 19th minute, when he exited injured, with a Vincent Kompany whose knee was bandaged up and a Sergio Aguero only fit for a 22-minute cameo, was not the squad City's Abu Dhabi owners dreamt of when they were getting busy in the transfer market last summer.
When the analysis and the emotion and the red smoke cleared, City just looked a very battle-worn and patched up team. Defining days such as this tend to turn on very small details, like a player's capacity either to clear a ball in the heat of battle or slice it wearily to the opponent - and Philippe Coutinho responded emphatically when a manifestly less than fit Kompany accomplished the latter. All three of Liverpool's goals owed something to errors from the defender. Kompany's pace and quick feet make him arguably the world's best defender. There was a reason why he had a day like this. His club did not buy another centre-half in January because Kompany had recovered from the thigh injury that had spoilt his autumn. The gamble did not pay off on Sunday.
There is a danger in damning a side too much after the event - especially when the fourth official Lee Mason could have given the game a final twist had he noticed Martin Skrtel's late and deliberate handball. Yet when the pips squeaked and it really mattered, the squad the Liverpool manager, Brendan Rodgers, described in his programme notes as "the best in the division" was not that. City's Jesus Navas did not terrorise Jon Flanagan, Liverpool's weakest link, and was withdrawn after 50 minutes.
Alvaro Negredo, who completed a run of 10 goals in 12 games when these teams met in December but who has managed nine since, has faded in a way that meant he did not merit a minute on this field.
The answer to City manager Manuel Pellegrini's problems was an Englishman, James Milner. Yet he did not display the trust in Milner to start the game with him or, more significantly, to send him on when Touré - the player Rodgers feared so much on Boxing Day night that he detailed a group of his players to "cage him" - left the field with a groin injury after 19 minutes.
It is not as if Milner has not displayed what depths lie beneath that artisan image of his this season. A player who has somehow become a symbol of drab, unambitious football in recent years was adhering so well to Pellegrini's new creative creed in the depths of winter that the joke going around the Etihad was that he was "Milnerino". That, on the back of an immense substitute's appearance against Arsenal and all 90 minutes of the Champions League win at Bayern Munich in December.
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Milner had the same great effect on this Anfield turf. His give-and-go exchange of passes with Fernandinho which set up City's opening goal came moments after he had arrived in place of Navas. By then Pellegrini's decision to send Javi Garcia on for Touré had already cost his side dear. They were overwhelmed in a first half during which a less profligate Liverpool could have inflicted on City the same damage they did to Arsenal, in that paradigm-shifting 5-1 win here in February.
Another Englishman who might have cast a rueful look at the way City were carved apart in that opening period was Milner's old partner Gareth Barry, who had hoped when Pellegrini called him into his office in July that his City career would be salvaged, but was instead told it was over. Fernandino looked a more ambitious, attacking option back then, Barry went to Everton and Roberto Martinez rubbed his hands with glee. How Pellegrini could have used him on Sunday.
That is how it has been for City - so often looking outside the club for the best way of taking the squad on in their pursuit of continental domination. Rodgers, the manager with less riches, has proved the best prospects can lie within a club and that many of them are English. Liverpool's freedom and fearlessness are the product of his instinctive sense of who his best assets are and how they will play. He was at it again yesterday, altering the system mid-game to go 4-3-3 when the narrowness of Liverpool's diamond had allowed City to inflict damage.
There were some exceptional City moments. To have recovered from a 2-0 deficit showed a motivation which Pellegrini has imbued his players with. David Silva extended the argument that he is the most creative player ever to have worn the City shirt, even though his despairing slide to lay a foot on the ball that Sergio Aguero slid in to him left the City chief executive, Ferran Soriano, slamming the ledge in front of him in frustration.
As City departed, contemplating the possibility that Touré has played his last football this season, it felt like the triumph of a development club over a spending club; millionaires over billionaires.
"It's about more than quality," Rodgers said. "There has to be a bond and you can see clearly that intensity and cleverness." The last word had to be his.
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