No matter five goals scored in both matches against Norwich or demolitions of QPR, Sunderland, and Fulham. Liverpool's two best performances of the season so far have both been against Manchester City. And Liverpool earned just two points because they simply cannot stop shooting themselves in the crotch. It's almost unbelievable. Almost.
It's yet another 2-2 draw against a side ahead of Liverpool in the table, the fourth of the season. Liverpool had the lead in all four. And yes, we're all well aware Liverpool's still yet to beat a side that's currently ahead of them. Arsenal and Everton at least merited their draws, pinning Liverpool back for long stretches. Having a two-goal lead in both of those matches makes it that much more painful, but Arsenal and Everton's performances at least earned their points (yes, yes, I'm obviously trying to ignore the rightful winner ruled out at Everton).
But in the 180 minutes against today's opposition, Liverpool largely outplayed the defending champions, taking the the lead three times in those two matches, three outstanding goals from outside the box. And then subsequently conceded because of three mistakes. City's opener today also came because of shoddy Liverpool's defending. Overall, Liverpool can take heart from playing quite well against the safely-ensconced-in-second-place side, better than any other side at the Etihad except United and Dortmund this season, but they still drew. Which, unsurprisingly, is more infuriating than the performance was heartening.
Rodgers reverted to the more attacking shape that we saw against Norwich, with Henderson ostensibly on the left and Suarez lurking behind Sturridge. And Liverpool's attack looked massively more coherent. Aside from a routine Reina save on Silva's blast, the away side took the game to the hosts, creating all the chances prior to City's opener, out-possessing City for long stretches. Suarez saw two shots sail wide, while Zabaleta made an incredible block as Sturridge controlled Johnson's long ball around Hart.
Then came Liverpool's first brain fart. City overloaded Liverpool's right flank on a throw-in, with Agüero, Silva, and Milner dicing through Gerrard, Lucas, Johnson, and Carragher. While Johnson let Milner get behind him, allowing space for the cross, more blame is attached to Daniel Agger, not only spoiling the offside trap, but caught flat-footed when unforgivably calling for offside, allowing Dzeko to burst forward to tap in Milner's low cross. Embarrassing, but not wholly out of the ordinary, with excellent interplay to create the goal. The next concession would be far worse.
It didn't take long for Liverpool to equalize, albeit with some controversy. Anthony Taylor ignored what looked an Agger foul on Dzeko to reclaim possession, then Liverpool (rightly) ignored City howls to put the ball out of play, with extended possession in City's third culminating in Sturridge's unstoppable blast from the top of the box. Dzeko, amazingly shot up as soon as Sturridge scored, Lazarus come from the dead, come back to tell us all that the linesman was a moron. He received a yellow for his complaints.
Aside from a Zabaleta error, nearly scoring on own goal by touching a back pass around Hart just before the interval, the rest of the half was back and forth with few chances for either side. Liverpool's midfield smothered City's, as Gerrard and Lucas allowed no space between the lines, Henderson shuttled inside and out excellently, Agger stuck tight to Dzeko, and Carragher even kept Agüero under control. Moving Suarez closer to Sturridge, unlike the formation against Arsenal, helped Liverpool's ability to charge forward, transitioning from defense to attack quickly, as was needed. Special mention goes to Sturridge, who held up the ball excellently with back to goal, keeping possession until Liverpool players could join the attack, finding outlets time and time again. It's almost as if he had a point to prove against his old club. Now where have I heard that before...
Liverpool continued its control after the restart; Lescott crucially blocked Gerrard's effort then prevented Carragher from getting on the end of a corner, while Downing headed wide from Henderson's cross. As always with Liverpool, you worried there would be a stomach punch if Liverpool didn't make the breakthrough when on top. And credit where due, Mancini's change just before the hour helped shift the momentum, removing Nastasic for Kolarov, shifting to three at the back. Liverpool had to hold on for a spell, but they held on successfully, limiting City to half-chances from Milner crosses which Dzeko got nowhere near, not allowing Agüero or Silva any space to create.
And then Gerrard struck, with a carbon copy of his injury time blast in 2006 FA Cup final, probably the "best" goal he's scored since then, an atomic bomb on the half-volley from 30 yards out after City cleared Enrique's speculative cross. How hard? Gerrard.
But Liverpool could only keep the lead for five minutes, narrowly missing out a third seconds before the equalizer when Sturridge flicked a header wide and Skrtel – on as a substitute for the faltering Enrique – was unable to reach it to redirect on target.
Then, insanity. A hopeful punt upfield towards Agüero, pushed wide by the direction of the pass, seemingly covered by Skrtel and the retreating Agger (who had shifted to left back). Yet Reina decided to charge out of his goal, out of his box, and Agüero controlled around him then somehow scored from absolutely no angle. Take nothing away from the brilliant strike, but that doesn't mean we can't totally blame Reina. I'm well aware of how many times he's saved Liverpool by playing as a sweeper-keeper. That doesn't make it any less of a moronic decision, as well as the eighth error leading to an opposition league goal he's made since the start of last season.
From there, Liverpool looked slightly more likely to get the winner, but it was end-to-end stuff. Gerrard had another shot from distance well blocked, Agger and Johnson missed the target with their efforts, and Hart made an outstanding save on Sturridge's jammed toe-poke in the 90th minute. But City had opportunities of their own: Skrtel reacting outstandingly to prevent Agüero from bursting through, then making another block deep in injury time to cut out Maicon's cross to Dzeko, a similar move to the one City opened the scoring with.
Only three teams have scored more than once at the Etihad in the league this season: Southampton on the opening day in a 3-2 loss, United in a 3-2 win, and now Liverpool. Yes, Liverpool were slightly fortunate with both, as the record with shots from distance has been pretty dismal except all but three teams: Johnson against West Ham, five against in two matches against Norwich, and now three against Manchester City.
Sturridge and Henderson were fantastic, Suarez more involved in Liverpool's attack despite wayward shooting, Gerrard and Lucas at their defensive best (even if Gerrard's passing was marginally disappointing), and Carragher phenomenal (often against the speedy Agüero). Liverpool looked a far more cohesive side than in other matches against top opposition, and it was done at Manchester City.
But this, more than any other game except the reverse fixture, was two vital points thrown away. Without context, most sides would kill for two points from consecutive away matches against Arsenal. I'm sure I'll feel marginally better about it after the anger over how Liverpool conceded subsides. Unfortunately, after 25 matches, five points behind sixth and nine points behind fourth, there's an awful lot of context. Context which makes this result all the more depressing, despite the otherwise impressive performance.