Dalglish stands in way of City bouncing back
After chastening defeat in Naples, Mancini's table-toppers must show character at Anfield
Has it honestly been only 219 days since Liverpool appeared to have brought the whole Manchester City edifice crashing down on Anfield?
After Carlos Tevez's hamstring lasted 15 minutes of his side's 3-0 league defeat in April, the scoreline of which did not tell the full story, Roberto Mancini reflected, rather desperately, that "we can't cry now; we have other players". It was also the night that James Milner's grudging departure when his number showed on a dot matrix board suggested that even those not predisposed to mutiny were potential malcontents in this squad, while Mario Balotelli became the first Mancini substitute to be substituted since Robinho – and everyone knew what had happened to him.
Mancini is certainly not crying for an Argentine, seven months later – you'll find no one in the Etihad Stadium boardroom discouraging Kia Joorabchian from urging Milan to sign Tevez – while Milner, or "ispirato", as one Neapolitan headline writer called him this week, has emerged as his manager's second finest asset of this season, behind David Silva and not far ahead of Balotelli. City have won 16 League games, drawn one and lost just one since that bitter night by the Mersey, which suggests that Mancini's team talk when he gathered his players 36 hours after it has worked. "Forget it," he told them, gesturing graphically that he wanted the memory literally to be thrown away.
Mancini, who is 47 tomorrow, was generous about Kenny Dalglish's side as he prepares for a return to the stadium which, as the place where he also publicly resigned the managership of Internazionale after an ignominious Champions League defeat in 2008, is surely not one of his favourite places. "Liverpool might be 11 or 12 points behind us but they have a team good enough to win the Premier League," he said. "It's a really strong team."
But the evidence of the season so far suggests this was flattery. Liverpool's journey since the sides met in April has been a rather less steady one. Andy Carroll, who scored his first two goals in a Liverpool shirt in that win, is yet to find the net at Anfield again. And while the contributions of Charlie Adam and Jordan Henderson in last Sunday's 2-1 victory at Chelsea were encouraging, no one is getting too carried away with them.
Dalglish has also been left to muse over why his side have performed so modestly at Anfield this season. There have been three successive draws and another tomorrow would be the first time they have drawn four since a goalless stalemate with City in January 1971. "Our home record could be better," Dalglish admitted. "You are not going to dismiss it as a quirk. You have got to work at it and improve it."
Liverpool can take most encouragement from Craig Bellamy's glittering display against Chelsea. The Welsh striker has a habit of scoring against his former clubs – Blackburn Rovers, Newcastle United and Norwich City will all tell you about it – and he has even more incentive to put one over City, given the very public way Mancini made it clear he was persona non grata in Manchester.
City, of course, also carry the baggage of Tuesday night's 2-1 defeat to Napoli, a result which had Mancini suggesting yesterday that his side are not among the top four in Europe. "We have to be realistic," he said. "I don't think we have a team to win the Champions League because Real Madrid, Barcelona, Bayern Munich and Milan maybe are better and have more experience than us in the Champions League.
"But I hope we can stay in it because the Champions League can be strange. If you get to the second stage you can meet Apoel Nicosia or Bayer Leverkusen. You don't know what can happen." (That's two more potential opponents with an incentive to turn City over.)
Tomorrow brings the most stringent test of whether City have an esprit de corps to go with that dazzling array of talents, having lost just a little of their lustre in the Bay of Naples. Defeat to Bayern Munich in September was followed by nine straight wins, though as Mancini was honest enough to point out, a trip to Blackburn Rover followed the disaster in the Allianz Arena, which is not quite the same thing as Liverpool at Anfield.
Dalglish's side are unbeaten in nine games in League and cup, too, their longest run for three years, and Dalglish, much like Mancini, has built firm defensive foundations first. Liverpool share the best defensive record in the Premier League with City and Newcastle and in the current form of Daniel Agger and Martin Skrtel they have individuals whom City will need to be at their best to breach.
History is against City, who have won only once in their last 20 league visits. But it was Milner this week who pointed out that a seismic event five days after that April defeat at Anfield – the FA Cup semi final defeat of Manchester United – revealed how £800m of Sheikh Mansour's money has bought mental resilience as well as individual brilliance.
"With [defeats] like that it can go two ways," Milner reflected. "It's how you bounce back. We could have rolled over, gone to the semi-finals taking a big hit in confidence. From there, we could not have played as well and not have finished the season well. I think you saw that we know how to bounce back."
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