No one was fooled last night when Stephen Ireland said that Manchester City were happy leaving Liverpool with what they'd got, and that they are drawing games which last season they were losing. The disappointment of a sixth successive League draw was etched on his face.
Anfield might be a stadium where City have won only once in 32 games, but that statistic belongs to the days when Liverpool were the aristocracy and City the working class. Consider the strike forces on offer to the managers here for a full appreciation of how this was an opportunity spurned: for Rafael Benitez – David Ngog, bought for £1.5 million from Paris Saint- Germain in the summer of 2008; for Mark Hughes – Emmanuel Adebayor, Craig Bellamy, Roque Santa Cruz and Carlos Tevez, collective worth £90m.
Hughes bought those players to challenge the Premier League's elite, not Sotirios Kyrgiakos and Martin Skrtel. A front line like City's should comfortably do the job against a defence which looked less than makeshift after Daniel Agger left the field on a stretcher, concussed and needing stitches to his head, after seven minutes.
For all their pretensions to the top four, though, there did not seem to be a belief in City and their manager that Liverpool and the points were there for the taking. Hughes resisted the chance to dispense with caution and go for broke after Ryan Babel followed Agger off the field inside 19 minutes.
"They've still got threats on the field of play," Hughes insisted last night, in defence of his decision not to push Liverpool harder. "You don't go gung- ho at Anfield." Other sides, however, might have believed that this was the moment to deliver a resounding statement of intent.
That City chose not to do so is an indication of the pressure they feel. There was so much symbolism about this match and what it might say about who will reach the top four that for nearly an hour neither side had the courage to strike out.
In fairness Hughes did have his problems. Gareth Barry returned from England duty in Doha last week with a sore groin, which might have contributed to his failure to show Liverpool what they missed in the summer when he opted for a future at the other end of the M62. Javier Mascherano dominated the midfield, and City's fortunes turned on Barry leaving and Carlos Tevez taking his place.
The Argentinian's presence and power might have made Hughes ponder whether he was wise to drop Tevez to the bench for the first time this season, and the question marks over Skrtel's pedigree would have been even more pronounced had he taken his place from the start. Tevez hustled the Slovakian defender near the corner flag before emerging with the ball and sliding an immaculate reverse pass through for Shaun Wright-Phillips to spin past Kyrgiakos and set up Ireland's goal. It summed up what having Tevez around can do for a team.
City were 2-1 up at that stage, but their familiar defensive failings were also beginning to set in. Liverpool's opening goal provided a reminder of them, Adebayor encapsulating his generally anaemic afternoon by allowing Skrtel to be first to a Steven Gerrard corner and lever the ball in with his left foot. Nedum Onuoha's poor clearance to Ngog which led to Liverpool's equaliser belonged to the same school of defending: City spurned several chances to halt Ngog before he released a shot which ricocheted off Joleon Lescott before Yossi Benayoun applied the finishing touch.
Before boarding the bus out of Anfield last night, Hughes said he felt hard done by. "It's only a matter of time before we start winning again," he said. "I think everyone understands that." Benitez was left with pride intact; one win in 10 is a dreadful record, but then his side are no longer the aristocrats.Reuse content