Having untypically and unwisely agreed that this was a "make or break" game, Liverpool's manager Rafa Benitez was last night left facing the unpalatable fact that his team's Premier League hopes are broken beyond repair for another season. Worse, one victory in 10 games has not only left them with too much ground to make up on stronger domestic contenders, but on Tuesday they go to Hungary in the Champions' League knowing that even a win over Debrecen will be irrelevant if Fiorentina beat Lyon.
Further injuries will affect the manager's planning before that game after he was forced to make two substitutions in the first 18 minutes yesterday, losing Daniel Agger and then Ryan Babel. Steven Gerrard, starting for the first time since 20 October, was not at his most effective and Fernando Torres is still missing. In those circumstances, Benitez was pleased to score two goals, but had to accept that two bad ones were conceded to unmarked players, the first of them yet again from a corner.
Liverpool's ambitions are now clearly confined to finishing in the top four and this result did not improve the possibility; they will be five points away if Tottenham win at home to Wigan today. Manchester City may yet beat everyone else to that coveted position but they need to begin converting draws into victories after six in succession.
Although Mark Hughes did not agree, they could have shown greater adventure earlier on, rather than waiting until falling behind soon after half-time. Once he then brought on Carlos Tevez for a characteristically whole-hearted half-hour, City were in the ascendant, scoring twice but immediately losing concentration and conceding again. "Tactically we got it spot-on and always looked dangerous on the break," Hughes said. "Carlos made a real difference and at 2-1 I thought we'd have gone on and won the game quite comfortably. I've got a group of players sitting in the dressing-room quite disappointed."
Benitez spoke more about character and spirit than quality of performance. "The comeback [from 2-1] was fantastic," he said. "I'm disappointed with the result but you can't say anything because the players were working so hard. With some [more] players fit and available, we'll be much better." But how long can he wait?
After having 27 attempts on goal last time out against Birmingham, yet requiring a shocking dive by David Ngog – starting a bad period for French sportsmanship – to earn a home draw, Benitez had asked for "greater accuracy". In a strange game, that only came alive after half-time, his players were rarely in a position for target practice.
The Kop began the day in feisty mood, producing a banner that read: "The Sun: 40 years of lies" to mark that newspaper's anniversary. There was little vocal support for the manager, however, amid long quiet periods in a first half as bleak as the weather, in which disruptions for injuries necessitated six minutes of added time. After only 10 minutes Agger collected a head injury and had to be replaced, and soon afterwards Babel crashed into Gerrard and also went off. Another potential patient perhaps for the Serbian physiotherapist Marijana Kovacevic, who has treated four Liverpool players recently. Two of them, Yossi Benayoun and Fabio Aurelio, appeared as substitutes .
There was no flow because of the stoppages, and neither side created more than a couple of opportunities in that dire first half. Early on, Gerrard's free-kick was met by a header from Martin Skrtel, causing Shay Given to make a good save, and later Gerrard was given two bites in front of goal, putting the second too high. At the other end, Gareth Barry, not looking the player Benitez was so desperate to sign, was left unmarked to bring a save from Pepe Reina and Shaun Wright-Phillips drove into the crowd.
Kolo Touré was another casualty of the 51-minute first half, which was mercifully followed by a livelier second period. Four minutes into it, Gerrard swung in a free-kick from the left and Skrtel stole ahead of Emmanuel Adebayor to jab in his first goal for the club. Soon, the roles would be reversed: a corner to City, taken by Craig Bellamy at which Skrtel was the inattentive marker and a header down into the ground and over the goalkeeper by Adebayor. "A running jump will always beat a standing jump," Hughes said of that one, exposing the weakness of zonal marking in a sentence.
Stephen Ireland put City ahead from one of the game's few coherent moves, started by Tevez and carried on by Wright-Phillips but within a minute Benayoun reacted faster than any defender as Ngog's shot was deflected to the far post.
Referee: Phil Dowd
Man of the match: Ireland
Match rating: 6/10
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