Carling Cup: City's stumbles continue
Manchester City will have a tough mountain to climb in two weeks' time after losing tonight’s Carling Cup semifinal first leg at home to Liverpool. Steven Gerrard scored the only goal of the game when he converted a penalty from the spot after young Stefan Savic took out Daniel Agger in just the 12th minute of play. City must now find at least two goals at Anfield (or win by one goal to force a penalty kick shootout) in the return leg on the 25th of January if the Premier League leaders hope to progress to the finals at Wembley.
The questions coming into tonight’s game were obvious: How much would the static of Liverpool’s off-field issues affect their team; and could City cope with the loss of several key regulars? To the former, the answer was a qualified “not much” and to the latter, the answer is a resounding “not well.”
City, missing the influential David Silva, Yaya Toure and Vincent Kompany, played their worst half of football this season to open the match. They never recovered. Despite finally getting some traction with the introduction of Samir Nasri as a creator, they could not find a way through a Liverpool side that packed the back with six defenders to close out the game.
City were under pressure from the start, with Savic looking particularly vulnerable, slotting into the suspended Kompany’s usual role. Liverpool pelted Joe Hart in the first 10 minutes, forcing the England number one to make three virtuoso saves just to stay level. Hart first stopped Andy Carroll’s breakaway by coming smartly off his line to contain and ably touched Gerrard’s long-range attempt around the post. Stewart Downing, in the news for all the wrong reasons this week, seemed to have opened the door when his fierce shot took a brutal deflection, but Hart was again able to smother.
What Hart was not able to do was prevent the callow Savic from spiking Agger in the kneecap, allowing Gerrard the attempt from the spot. It was a careless challenge that Agger certainly embellished well, but referee Lee Mason had no hesitation in awarding the penalty (and was correct to do so). It would be the only time Hart would be beaten on the night, but it was enough.
Following the goal, Liverpool decided discretion was the better part of valor and packed the back, frustrating first Mario Balotelli and (later) Nasri, while also containing Sergio Aguero well. Keeper Pepe Reina was lightly worked during the evening, really only having to make two interventions to hold the line. Balotelli wasn’t a factor — he barely lasted 40 minutes in his return from injury - and while he looked labored, he badly muffed some simple crosses and showed more fire in confronting Charlie Adam after a tackle than he did in front of goal.
City clearly isn't the same without the artistry of Silva, who is out for an uncertain amount of time with an ankle knock, but it was the void left by Yaya Toure – off on duty at the African Cup of Nations – that proved the killer. Without his bulk and guile, City were never able to generate sustained pressure out of the back or really give the Liverpool back line fits.
Liverpool deserve credit for seizing the bit at the whistle, and Downing, who was arrested on suspicion of assaulting his ex-girlfriend Sunday, was the vital cog. His interplay with Gerrard and, to a lesser extent, Jordan Henderson, proved too much for City’s defenders to handle, and while his stint lasted only an hour, it was enough as Kenny Dalglish parked the bus at game’s end.
That’s not to say Liverpool were great shakes. Carroll still looks like a disaster of a purchase, fading badly after the first 10 minutes and looking nowhere near fully fit. The Reds dearly miss suspended Luiz Suarez, and even the irrepressible Craig Bellamy cannot cover up that hole for long. Longtime fans also must have been shocked to see Liverpool — so often a team that ranges forward – simply packing up shop with six men across the back. Arguably, there’s no shame in doing that against the Premiership leaders, but it was a telling tactical move.
Even more telling was City’s best chance of the night: it came when Martin Kelly made a rare gaffe, sending a back pass to Reina that Aguero latched onto. Any other night, the City striker might have buried it. He should have done so tonight, but he scuffed it badly instead.
The Sky Blues are now staggering a bit, and must look to rebound from two bad home losses in a row. I wouldn’t like to be Wigan next Monday night.