If this is what a fourth place play-off looks like, then Richard Scudamore can keep the idea of staging one in that file of projects marked 'pending'. Rarely in one season has the cherished fourth spot merited such discussion and rarely in the course of this season has a match produced less of merit.
The moral victory was Liverpool's, on a day when Fernando Torres finally returned to the fray, and although Manchester City manager Roberto Mancini did not comprehend the word "booing" when it was put to him last night, he is certainly becoming accustomed to the sound. For the second successive home match his side trooped off to the muffled noise. Mancini later insisted his side's unflattering display had not frustrated him but his actions in his technical area told a different story
The sense that Mancini is not in control of the £200m of talent at his disposal, engendered by the manager's admission that Craig Bellamy was not enamoured with some aspects of the new training regime, was strengthened last night when the Italian expressed frustrations about Carlos Tevez's continued absence, eight days after he was granted compassionate leave to be with his wife for the end of a difficult pregnancy.
Mancini initially suggested that his 19-goal forward had failed to comply with an order to head back – "yes, I have ordered him to come back," he said – though it was later clarified that the Italian, still getting to grips with English, had not issued an order. Mancini clearly wants Tevez back now that his wife Vanesa, has given birth to a daughter, Katie, who was born prematurely on Friday. "I hope he comes back because we have an important week," said Mancini, who does not expect to have the 26-year-old for Wednesday night's FA Cup fifth-round replay at Stoke. Tevez has no immediate plans to return to Britain, with the child still in intensive care and no Manchester flights booked.
There are bigger preoccupations for Mancini on the evidence of this display. When his side were gliding to the four consecutive wins which marked his arrival in Manchester, he would settle at the front of his technical area and observe events so contendedly that you believed him when he said that, after four years at Internazionale, this kind of pressure was nothing. One glance at the man yesterday – down on his haunches and unable to look at one stage, then storming to his seat muttering what can only have been profanities – and you realised the manager was discerning things more clearly now.
A match between two contestants each so badly wanting to avoid defeat was never likely to summon up much cavalier spirit. But when opportunities to break out arrived, City advanced with such diffidence it was scarcely believable that this was the core of Mark Hughes' ambitious, high-rolling side. It took them precisely an hour and 15 seconds to conjure any shot on target – Pepe Reina was still conscious enough to palm Emmanuel Adebayor's strike smartly around his right- hand post – though Mancini denied that his club's first thought is now always to defend. "For me, as a team, this is important we didn't concede any chances," Mancini said. "We played a top squad."
But that is not what Liverpool have been of late, shorn of the powers to create since deprived of Torres and Yossi Benayoun during the bitter FA Cup defeat to Reading on 13 January. Rafael Benitez can reflect on how, for better or worse, he has limped on through those intervening five weeks, collecting a creditable 11 points from 18 before yesterday, and now has most of his prime players back, with Glen Johnson in training next month. His own side's 11-match run-in certainly looks easier than City, who emerge from an immediate awkward period facing Chelsea and Tottenham into a mildly easier month before Arsenal, Manchester United and Aston Villa await in the space of three weeks.
Mancini's main source for encouragement yesterday came again from Adam Johnson, swapped from left to right flank during a first half in which he looked the only player with spark, though the quality of his distribution and crossing was poor. At half-time, only Liverpool could take the satisfaction of an occasional glimpse of goal away: Maxi Rodriguez fired wide, Gerrard lofted a shot over.
Liverpool picked up six bookings and a £25,000 fine without ever looking like a cynical side although Javier Mascherano, who generally erred on the right side of the line between full-hearted and dangerous, should have been dismissed for a challenge in which he placed his studs down the back of Gareth Barry's lower leg. Daniel Agger presented Benitez with some anxious moments all afternoon, none less than when his misjudged header sent Adebayor running in towards goal. Martin Skrtel put in a decisive challenge.
Torres's 15 minutes provided no horrors for Mancini although Benayoun might well have won Liverpool an injury-time penalty had he gone down under Vincent Kompany's challenge. "You cannot blame the player [for not going down]", Benitez reflected. The Liverpool manager also concluded that the result was "not good for anyone" though he has more to reflect positively on today.
Manchester City (4-2-3-1): Given; Zabaleta, Kompany, Lescott, Bridge; De Jong, Barry; Wright-Phillips (Bellamy, 68), Ireland (Ibrahim, 75) A Johnson; Adebayor. Substitutes not used: Richards, Taylor, Santa Cruz, Sylvinho, Toure,
Liverpool (4-2-3-1): Reina; Carragher, Skrtel, Agger, Insua; Maschenano, Lucas; Rodriguez (Benayoun, 63) Gerrard, Babel (Torres, 75); Kuyt (Aquilani, 87). Substitutes not used: Cavalieri, Rieira, Aurelio, Kelly.
Referee: P Walton (Northamptonshire).
Booked: Man City: Kompany. Liverpool: Mascherano, Babel, Gerrard, Benayoun, Kuyt, Torres.
Man of the Match: Kompany.