An unhappy new year for Rafael Benitez and precious little in the way of resolution from his team: as the page turns on the year, the Premier League title slips further away from Liverpool. They are 10 points behind the leaders Arsenal with 19 games left to play and no sign yet that 18 years of waiting for a league title is about to end.
Benitez's team may yet have a game in hand on the rest of the Premier League's big four but they remain incapable of seizing the initiative. Yesterday Liverpool seemed bereft of the imagination to break down a Manchester City team led by the outstanding Richard Dunne. There may have been a brief shoot-out at the end of the match around the City goal but this was a last act of desperation .
None of Benitez's big names came through for him when it mattered most. Fernando Torres was required to climb out of Dunne's pocket at the final whistle; Steven Gerrard could not conjure the winning moment as he had against Derby County five days earlier and Harry Kewell faded into obscurity. There will be few Sundays when Liverpool can take heart from a Manchester United defeat the previous day; this was their chance to make up three points on the team in second place and they blew it.
As the transfer window opens tomorrow, Benitez, who was forced to play Alvaro Arbeloa as a makeshift centre-back yesterday, faces his month of reckoning with the Americans who own Liverpool. Yesterday he was still insistent that they would come up with the money to plug the holes in his squad. "We are close to some players but until you can say that the players have put pen to paper you must keep working," he said. "But we have confidence we can sign the right player at the right price."
Otherwise Benitez was relentlessly positive in the face of strong evidence to the contrary. "Three games earlier people were saying it was impossible, but two games late we are closer," he said. "Now we are 10 points behind with a game in hand. Playing like we did we will win a lot of games."
There are many who would beg to differ. Dunne was, in the understated manner of his manager, "extremely good". City are unbeaten at home in 11 games and they had their captain to thank yesterday for hurling his bulk in front of a few shots and critically clearing a late header from Dirk Kuyt off the line. "Dunne was everywhere," Sven Goran Eriksson added. "I don't know if it was his best performance but when he is physical like that he is a very good player."
There are few more eloquent ways of demonstrating Liverpool's shortage of cover at centre-back than having Arbeloa, in place of the injured Sami Hyypia and Daniel Agger, alongside Jamie Carragher. Benitez was described by Tom Hicks, one half of Liverpool's American ownership, as having publicly "pouted" about their falling-out last month. This was a much more effective means of drawing attention to his shortage of decent defenders not everyone is sure Arbeloa is an adequate full-back, let alone centre-half.
Arbeloa wobbled early in the first half when Stephen Ireland's shot into the ground troubled the goalkeeper Jose Reina but this was not a game that fired the imagination until the very end. Eriksson's side did not try to overload Liverpool's makeshift defence; Darius Vassell on his own in attack was hardly the most ambitious approach.
The battle between Torres and Micah Richards was only briefly interesting, the Englishman getting his positioning all wrong early on when a long ball was played over his head in the first half. Richards managed to drag Torres down without a booking from the referee Uriah Rennie. "It was clear he [Torres] was in a good position," Benitez said. "For me it was a foul."
Within the first five minutes of the second half, Torres had missed two good chances. The first was a shot blocked by goalkeeper Joe Hart from a Gerrard cross. Then the Liverpool captain was gifted possession by Dietmar Hamann and played Torres in on goal in a race for the ball with Hart. The Spanish striker got there first and dinked his shot through the keeper's legs but wide of the post.
Liverpool had found some kind of momentum. Richards made a tackle on Torres that deserved another booking by the standards of the current day and Gerrard struck the free-kick wide. Yossi Benayoun stung Hart's fingertips with a shot. Torres, however, was finding it difficult to shake off Dunne and Richards.
For no discernible reason, Vassell was afforded a standing ovation when he left the pitch with 15 minutes left it was that kind of game. Rolando Bianchi, who had come on for Elano on 70 minutes, was given a half-chance in the area by Vedran Corluka that he passed limply into space. Eriksson's substitutions Gelson Fernandes, Bianchi and Geovanni suggested he thought his team could still win it in the last 10 minutes. Yet it was Liverpool who made most of the running.
Torres went into Rennie's book for a challenge more stamp than studs-up on Richards but indicative nonetheless of the Spanish striker's frustrations. The real flurry of chances for Liverpool came in the final 10 minutes. Carragher headed back across goal on 86 minutes and Kuyt connected with a header that tested Hart to his limits. He did well to get a palm to it but it was Dunne, with Kuyt closing in, who hooked the ball off the line.
Suddenly the City captain seemed to be everywhere. When Benayoun was given the ball at the near post by Gerrard it was Dunne who intervened to deflect the shot wide. For City the question remains whether, fifth in the Premier League at the halfway point, they can break into the top four. "It would be very nice to be in the top four," Eriksson said, before adding the mystifying: "In the jungle it's the big five but fifth doesn't get you a Champions League place."
Membership of the big four alone is just not good enough for Liverpool. They have been in that part of the jungle long enough and on far too many occasions have found themselves toothless when it mattered most.
Manchester City (4-4-1-1): Hart; Onuoha, Richards, Dunne, Ball; Ireland (Fernandes, 61), Corluka, Hamann, Petrov; Elano (Bianchi, 70); Vassell (Geovanni, 75). Substitutes not used: Isaksson (gk), Garrido.
Liverpool (4-4-2): Reina; Finnan, Carragher, Arbeloa, Aurelio; Benayoun, Gerrard, Mascherano, Kewell (Babel, 74); Kuyt, Torres. Substitutes not used: Riise, Voronin, Alonso, Itandje (gk).
Referee: U Rennie (South Yorkshire).
Booked: Liverpool Torres.
Man of the match: Dunne.
Attendance: 47,321.Reuse content