Manchester City 0 Liverpool 1: Liverpool find place in the light as shadow falls across modern game

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The Independent Football

Mike Summerbee, who was the young soulmate of Best, was prevented by what might be described loosely as Premiership regulations from leading his own tribute from the touchline, must also have sighed privately. Forgetting Best, which will never be a sustained option for anyone who ever saw him play, it was bad enough drawing comparisons between what we saw on Saturday with what would have been on offer in the equivalent fixture at the time of the fallen hero's prime.

City then would have had Summerbee, a ferociously strong and talented forward, Colin Bell, christened Nijinsky, for the classically striding horse rather than the mad dancer, by his iconoclastic coach Malcolm Allison, and Francis Lee, a raider of breathtaking élan. Liverpool's riposte: the likes of Ian St John, Roger Hunt, and big Ron Yeats, around whom Bill Shankly used to enjoy leading conducted tours.

Would those players have survived in today's football? The question is often asked, but you didn't hear a squeak of it at the City of Manchester Stadium. This was just as well because at the best of times it is a thin line between a display of ignorance and outright offence. This wasn't the best of times for the egregious proposition that the march of fitness and nutrition has created a new age of football titans, one in which Best's generation would shrivel.

The hard truth is that most of the players that the City manager, Stuart Pearce, rather amazingly, has guided to the top half of the Premiership would not only have struggled in the time of Summerbee and his friend Best. They would have been hard pushed to get a kick of the ball.

Whether this says as much about the overall quality of the top division as the acknowledged driving skills of the former England full-back - a player of such grit and professionalism he would have made his way in any age - is not so easy to say. One thing was beyond debate: on today's values City looked around £100m short of making a serious attempt at any of the top prizes - or providing anything like the kind of entertainment that used to be such a staple of football life in the good days back at Maine Road.

Liverpool, of course, occupy rather different territory. The European champions are by the admission of their leader, Rafael Benitez, a winner of La Liga against the weight of Real Madrid and Barcelona, still learning how to exert themselves in the Premiership. A fourth straight League victory, and a sixth successive clean sheet, showed that Benitez is warming to a job that he jokingly suggested he might be ready to hand over to Steven Gerrard in eight or nine years' time. Plainly, Liverpool are progressing to their logical station in the top four, but whether they will ever provoke the passion once generated by Shankly's team is rather a different matter.

One problem on Saturday was the absence of Xabi Alonso, who on his best days represents at least 50 per cent of Liverpool's pure creativity. Another was Djibril Cissé. In a manner of speaking he was present, but it brought such little benefit it is now impossible to imagine him lingering much longer at Anfield. He left the field early in the second half shaking his head. So might Benitez have done. Cissé squandered a brilliant flick-on by Peter Crouch, for whom each game now arrives like a way of the cross, a torment that will cease only when he knocks in his first goal for the club.

Meanwhile, no doubt he will show the good heart and useful habits that earned a rave notice from another big man, Niall Quinn, during the mid-week Champions' League match with Real Betis.

In that game, his work on behalf of his partner, Fernando Morientes, might have yielded at least two goals. Paired with Michael Owen, Crouch, for all the sneers, might have walked straight in the hearts of the Kop. As it is, he is granted the respect due to a player of impeccable heart and deceptive gifts. His time might yet come.

Against City, Liverpool had more than enough to make the idea of defeat unthinkable. Andy Cole and Darius Vassell never looked likely to discomfort Jamie Carragher and the venerable Sami Hyypia, and once that was established beyond doubt it was merely a question of whether Liverpool could summon a decisive move. Inevitably, Gerrard was involved, though after missing an easy chance he had created for himself he played the minor role in the one-two that saw John Arne Riise smashing the ball past David James.

It was a rare moment of conviction, but it did confirm the separation of the teams. Their presence in the upper echelon is now assured. With two or three new players, a young successor to Hyypia, a wide player of the highest class and a top-notch replacement for Cissé, Benitez will be moving towards a position of formidable strength - at least in the Premiership.

In the wider world they conquered so improbably last season, Liverpool will clearly be pushed to their seams as they strive for a repeat. Meanwhile, much of the Premiership will remain a wasteland of narrow horizons and numbingly mediocre performance. It is little comfort that some of the customers deserve no better.

Goals: Riise (60) 0-1.

Manchester City (4-4-2): James; Mills (Wright-Phillips, 83), Dunne, Distin, Jordan (Sun Jihai, 75); Croft, Ireland, Barton, Musampa (Sinclair,68); Vassell, Cole. Substitutes not used: Sibierski, Onuoha.

Liverpool (4-4-2): Reyna; Finnan, Hyypia, Carragher, Warnock; Gerrard, Sissoko, Hamann, Riise (Garcia, 77); Cissé (Kewell, 51), Crouch (Morientes, 81). Substitutes not used: Dudek (gk), Potter.

Referee: A Wiley (Staffordshire).

Booked: Liverpool Cissé, Crouch.

Man of the match: Carragher.

Attendance: 47,105.