11 January 2012

Liverpool 1-0 Manchester City

Gerrard 13' (pen)

The same template we saw when Liverpool traveled to Stamford Bridge, and more than a hint of Benitez-era Champions League matches. Get the goal, kill the game. So, will one goal be enough in two weeks time?

If not for Joe Hart, Liverpool would have taken the lead even earlier. Between the 5th and 11th minutes, Hart replicated the heroics we saw in this season's Anfield meeting, first saving Carroll's right-footed effort after the striker excellent turned and beat Savic, then saving Gerrard's shot from the top of the box, and then saving Downing's deflected blast from the subsequent corner.

But there was no saving Gerrard's penalty. Savic felled Agger on the corner following Downing's deflected shot, a high boot with Agger trying to control and run through the defense. Unsurprisingly, Liverpool's return from the penalty spot has been vastly improved with Gerrard's return, and the captain hammered in his second in as many games; Hart went the right way but Gerrard's shot was too hard and too perfectly-placed low into the corner.

A goal to the good, Liverpool looked far happier to soak up City pressure, and Spearing's 23rd-minute injury exacerbated the defensive, vertical tendencies. Adam's entrance forced Gerrard to sit deeper for added protection, in a more orthodox 4-2-3-1 than what Liverpool started with, but Liverpool were already shifting from all-out attack to all-out defense. From five good chances in the first 15 minutes to just one afterwards – Carroll heading Kelly's deep cross just wide of the far post in the 35th. But City didn't test Reina until the 43rd, parrying Nasri's shot from distance; the Frenchman had replaced the ineffective and volatile Balotelli just four minutes earlier, the first instance of the tactical tete-a-tete which dominated the second half. In the 45th, Richards beat Johnson for the first time, but Milner skied the cut-back from the spot.

There's no way around describing Liverpool's second half performance as parking the bus. There was no semblance of attack from the away side, and Carroll was wholly completely utterly isolated. But, unlike during the last regime, it was bus parking with a purpose which earned a result.

One manager made a change, then the other responded. Adam Johnson stopped playing on the right, so Glen Johnson stopped playing on Liverpool's left. Enrique replaced Downing on the hour as Liverpool shifted to something like a 5-4-1, with Glen Johnson as a roaming left-sided center-back, doubling up on Richards' overlaps and keeping an eye on Adam Johnson floating between the lines. Mancini then replaced Johnson with Dzeko followed by Kolarov for De Jong, adding width and an out-and-out target man. Liverpool's riposte was a more defensive, more natural five at the back, with Johnson moving back to his normal right back berth, followed by Carragher replacing Bellamy, playing as a holding midfielder and dispelling any misplaced notion that Liverpool might go in search of a second.

However you slice, dice, excuse, and explain the tactical minutiae, Liverpool parked the bus. Carroll was often the only Liverpool player in Manchester City's half, and he spent nearly all of the final minutes defending. Reina had multiple saves to make, but City were mostly limited to set plays and shots from distances due to Liverpool's nonstop work. It wasn't pretty, but it was effective. We'll sacrifice aesthetics for results every now and then. Especially without Suarez, without Lucas, with an early Spearing injury, against the league leaders, on a ground where Liverpool lost heavily just eight days earlier.

Liverpool dominated possession in last week's league meeting but went down three-nil thanks to mistakes being punished, poor set play defense, and being carved open on the break when pushing for an unlikely comeback. Today, City had 56% possession while Liverpool had zero second half shots, but Liverpool leave winners. Incidentally, Liverpool also made far fewer mistakes – just one, Kelly's sloppy back pass, but Reina was there to prevent Agüero taking advantage.

Pick a defender and he'll have a case for man of the match; my choices are Reina for his saves and Johnson for his versatility. Henderson and Gerrard did well in midfield, although Spearing was the pick of the bunch prior to his injury. City also dearly missed both Yaya Toure and David Silva. Barry and De Jong were functional but added little in attack, while Milner mostly played wide. Nasri couldn't create with no space as Silva's done time and time again. Carroll's role was totally thankless, but he pressed until his legs fell off and was crucial in defending set plays, especially late on. There'd be no complaints about his performance had he taken one of his two first-half chances, but such is the striker's life.

Today's away goal is meaningless as we know it from Europe; away goals only count in this competition after second-leg extra-time, and if there's extra time, City will have at least one away goal of their own. Liverpool will have to be more than just diligent and defensive at Anfield in two weeks time. Nonetheless, this result gives Liverpool the perfect foundation to do so in front of a baying and expectant Kop, with the first trip to Wembley for 16 years at stake.

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