Liverpool ended 2007 with a frustrating 0-0 at Eastlands, as Man City captain Richard Dunne put in an inspirational display to thwart the Reds.
Match Report by The Times‘ Oliver Kay
The look on Rafael BenÃtez’s face said it all. As the clock ticked down and Steven Gerrard hit a wayward pass, the Liverpool manager scowled and looked to the heavens for salvation. Four days earlier, away to Derby County, his captain had snatched victory in the last minute, but here there was to be no late intervention as his team ended a frustrating year on a suitably frustrating note.
For that, Liverpool’s supporters are likely to bemoan familiar failings, such as a lack of guile in attack on an afternoon when Gerrard and Fernando Torres were below their best. But the significant factor against them was Richard Dunne, the Manchester City captain, whose heroics in keeping the opposition at bay had by the end assumed a one-man crusade. His was an almost superhuman performance, a succession of critical interceptions. But for all that, BenÃtez and his players will have left the City of Manchester Stadium cursing their own limitations, rather than hailing the performance of an opponent.
This was an all-too-familiar tale for Liverpool. When they come to reflect on another unsuccessful title challenge, they will rue points dropped at home to Birmingham City and Tottenham Hotspur, as well as their failure to beat any of their three title rivals at Anfield, but it is not only on home turf that they have come unstuck.
Yesterday’s performance was reminiscent of their goalless draws away to Portsmouth and Blackburn Rovers, matches that they could and should have won but lacked the cutting edge to do so. All three were creditable results in one sense, but draw too many of those games and you leave yourselves in difficulty, particularly if you cannot beat your main rivals.
BenÃtez claimed that the number of chances his team had created ‘“ he cited 17 goal attempts ‘“ showed that Liverpool ‘œcan beat anybody’, but the more relevant fact is that, at the halfway stage in the Premier League season, they have beaten only three of the teams that make up the top nine. They are strong enough to hold their own against just about anybody ‘“ or to ‘œcontrol the game’, a favourite BenÃtez phrase ‘“ but too often they lack the individual brilliance to turn a commanding performance into a win, particularly if Gerrard and Torres are off-colour, as was the case yesterday.
It was a strange match, one in which City resembled a team crying out for a winter break as their exertions catch up with them. They started vibrantly, eager to pick holes in a Liverpool defence in which Ãlvaro Arbeloa struggled as a makeshift centre half, but the couple of half-chances that came their way in the opening half-hour ‘“ a shot by Steven Ireland blocked by Fabio AurÃ©lio and a shot by Elano blocked by Jamie Carragher ‘“ were as good as they got in an attacking sense.
Players such as Elano and Martin Petrov have made outstanding contributions this season, but inevitably they are struggling to maintain that level of performance as the rigours of their first season in English football begin to take their toll. Petrov sped past Steve Finnan twice in the first ten minutes but faded thereafter, while Elano was anonymous before his departure with 20 minutes remaining.
As City tired, the complexion of the game changed quite dramatically. Liverpool’s football did not stir the soul, but they did create chances. Harry Kewell’s fierce shot was saved by Joe Hart, who was also tested by AurÃ©lio before half-time, while Micah Richards had to show all his athleticism to deflect Dirk Kuyt’s effort wide.
In the second half it was one-way traffic, but still Liverpool failed to make the breakthrough, Torres lacking power when set up by Kuyt and then narrowly missing the target as his pace took him away from Dunne and Richards. Even as he complained afterwards that the Spain forward had been subjected to a couple of ‘œunfair’ challenges, BenÃtez expressed admiration for the way Dunne had handled his leading scorer.
The Ireland defender was already guaranteed the man-of-the-match award, but in the closing stages it seemed that he alone was keeping Liverpool at bay. With four minutes remaining, as Hart could only palm Kuyt’s header goalwards, it was Dunne who cleared off the line. Two minutes later Gerrard found Yossi Benayoun unmarked but again Dunne came from nowhere to deflect the shot wide.
Asked for a word to describe Dunne’s performance, Sven-GÃ¶ran Eriksson chose two: ‘œExtremely good’. ‘œHe was everywhere,’ the City manager said. ‘œHe was very good, but if you talk about the whole season, he has been very, very good. He and Micah Richards have been very important for us. It’s very difficult to compare them [with central-defensive partnerships at other clubs], but I wouldn’t change them for anything.’
There had been frustration at City when their perfect home record in the Premier League was dented by Blackburn Rovers three days earlier, but here the final whistle brought only relief. The transfer window, which opens tomorrow, will bring reinforcements courtesy of the club’s owner, whereas for BenÃtez, it promises to be the source of yet more angst.
Manchester City (4-2-3-1) J Hart 8 N Onuoha 6 M Richards 7 R Dunne 9 M Ball 6 D Hamann 6 V Corluka 5 S Ireland 6 Elano 4 M Petrov 5 D Vassell 6 Substitutes Gelson 5 (for Ireland, 61min), R Bianchi 6 (for Elano, 70), Geovanni (for Vassell, 75). Not used A Isaksson, J Garrido.
Liverpool (4-4-2) J M Reina 5 S Finnan 6 Ã Arbeloa 5 J Carragher 7 F AurÃ©lio 7 Y Benayoun 6 S Gerrard 6 J Mascherano 6 H Kewell 7 D Kuyt 7 F Torres Y 6 Substitutes R Babel (for Kewell, 75min). Not used C Itandje, J A Riise, X Alonso, A Voronin.
Referee: Uriah Rennie
Pre Match Team News
Rafael Benitez makes five changes to the side that narrowly beat Derby County at Pride Park on Boxing Day for this afternoon’s clash away to Manchester City.
Sami Hyypia failed to pass a late fitness test after picking up an ankle problem on Wednesday afternoon. Alvaro Arbeloa steps in to partner Jamie Carragher in central defence in Hyypia’s absence.
Also out of the team goes Xabi Alonso, deemed not fit enough for this tough fixture after two months sidelined through injury. Javier Mascherano returns to replace the Spaniard.
Andriy Voronin is replaced by Dirk Kuyt up front whilst Harry Kewell and Yossi Benayoun also start ahead of John Arne Riise and Ryan Babel.
Liverpool: Reina, Finnan, Arbeloa, Carragher, Aurelio, Benayoun, Gerrard, Mascherano, Kewell, Torres, Kuyt.
Subs: Itandje, Riise, Alonso, Voronin, Babel.
Former Liverpool midfield general Didi Hamann returns to the Manchester City team to face his former club. Xabi Alonso, who played alongside Hamann in midfield in Liverpool’s 2005 European Cup Final success in Istanbul, yesterday spoke of his respect for the former German international.
He said, “Didi is a great player, one of the top players I have played with at Liverpool.
“I played a lot of games with Didi in my first season and I could really see how he controlled games and how he instinctively knew what to do in certain situations.
“He has been one of the key players for Manchester City this season. He has a lot of experience and we know all about him – but he knows a lot about us as well.”
Liverpool start the day one point ahead of City, so it’s fifth hosting fourth place this afternoon. The result in this fixture last season finished 0-0.
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