Surrounded by his entourage, Vincent Tan took his seat in the directors box like a Caesar in his Coliseum but there was no question in which direction his black-gloved thumb would be pointing. If Roman gladiators were praised for the way they met their deaths, then Malky Mackay’s end was a good one.
Cardiff were playing in blue, the colour Tan had outlawed in favour of his lucky colour, red. At the final whistle, Mackay was embraced by Liverpool manager Brendan Rodgers, to whom he had been assistant at Watford, and when he walked over to his supporters the whole stadium applauded. However, by then the Saturday Caesar had departed.
Before the game, Rodgers had remarked that Tan “knew nothing of football”, a comment that is also true of Liverpool’s owner, John W Henry. However, Henry has long understood how to deal with sportsmen and the way he and Rodgers have handled Luis Suarez will go down as one of the decisive moments in the Liverpool story.
Logically, 2013 should have been the year when Suarez was driven from Merseyside by a combination of his own reckless stupidity and Liverpool’s constant failure to make the Champions’ League. Instead, he has shown sport’s remarkable capacity for redemption.
When he curled another impossible shot into the corner of the net it was his 19th goal of a season that had seen him suspended for the opening five matches. He was wearing the armband of the captain of Liverpool and had just signed a contract that would tie him to Anfield for the next four-and-a-half years. Liverpool will probably return to the Champions’ League in 2014, a year that could possibly see them win the championship.
Having undermined himself with a series of overambitious predictions as to where Liverpool would finish last season, Rodgers has been rather more cautious this time, although he was now prepared to discuss the possibility of Liverpool’s title.
“People will think it is Manchester City’s to lose,” he reflected. “You would say that because of the squad they have but we have been on a fantastic run and we will go there on Boxing Day in a good moment. What I would say is that it is unprecedented in the Premier League for a club to go from seventh to first.”
His opposite number, who had seen Liverpool strike the frame of the goal three times, was less convoluted. “They are absolute title contenders,” said Mackay. “Their success is down to the fact that their owners had a plan and were determined to see it through. They wanted a structure in place that was not built on sand.”
The club that Mackay has taken to top-flight football for the first time since 1962 via a League Cup final against Liverpool is slipping fast into the mud of Tiger Bay. However, there are few clubs, let alone ones in a state of civil war, who could have resisted Suarez in his present mood. Mackay thought him probably the best player in the world. Only his absence from the Champions’ League justifies the ‘probably’.
Cardiff had kept him at bay for a little over a quarter of the game. He had shot into the side-netting, he had driven just wide and then, when Jordan Henderson’s chip found his right foot, the shot left David Marshall in the Cardiff goal paralysed and beaten.
Henderson, who had excelled in the 5-0 humiliation of Tottenham, had a hand in all of Liverpool’s goals. There were some at the start of the season who were surprised the young Wearsider was still at the club. He had been bracketed with Stewart Downing and Andy Carroll as one of the English footballers brought to Anfield by Kenny Dalglish whose talent had not matched their price.
Henderson is in the form of his life, a better than outside bet to be part of the England squad in Brazil and is someone for whom £20m does not seem an outrageous sum of money.
Three minutes before an interval Mackay desperately needed to reach only a goal down, Henderson supplied two more goals. The first was a long ball that found Suarez a few yards in the opposition half with the Cardiff defence operating only in theory. As the most lethal finisher in the Premier League bore down on him, Marshall crouched and waited for the shot. Instead, he passed. In the BBC commentary box, Pat Nevin noted how, in an instant, Suarez’s mind had calculated that he had a 90 per cent chance of scoring whereas Raheem Sterling was a 100 per cent certainty to find the net.
Rodgers also pointed out that when Daniel Agger, the club’s vice-captain, came on, Suarez very calmly handed over the captain’s armband. He is capable of surprising humility. The third goal, curling away from the tips of Marshall’s gloves, demonstrated the other, more familiar, things he can do.
Cardiff, who came out for the second half a full two minutes before Liverpool, were rather better after the interval and scored when Jordon Mutch was given an entirely free header. Rodgers turned and cursed his defence. Mackay stood with his arms folded, his face expressionless. Tan politely moved his gloved hands together and gently clapped.
Liverpool (4-2-3-1): Mignolet; Johnson, Skrtel, Sakho, Flanagan (Kelly 55); Lucas Leiva, Allen; Sterling, Henderson, Coutinho (Agger 82); Suarez.
Cardiff City (4-2-3-1): Marshall: Theophile-Catherine, Caulker, Turner, Taylor; Gunnarsson (Cornelius 79), Medel (Campbell 55); Noone, Mutch, Whittingham; Odemiwingie (Kim 55).
Referee: Lee Probert
Man of the match: Henderson (Liverpool)
Match rating: 8/10