Liverpool were given a stark insight into the task which faces them if they are to fight for their right to be considered amongst the Premier League’s elite this season and in those to come, in Manchester on Monday evening.
Goals from Gareth Barry and a Carlos Tevez double condemned the Reds to a desperate 3-0 defeat and went some way to confirming Manchester City’s arrival as genuine challengers for this season’s title.
City’s multi-billionaire bankroller, Sheikh Mansour, was at Eastlands to witness his team’s triumph. Amazingly the first time he had presided over his multi-million pound empire in person during his 2 year tenure!
The arrival of such wealth to the blue half of Manchester has undoubtedly altered the landscape of English football. It has long been clear that few, if any, can cope with the financial clout of Roberto Mancini’s City in the transfer market. Whilst, on this evidence, the wealth of top class players which this has beckoned the arrival of at Eastlands will make it tough for many to compete on the pitch as well.
One indication of the progress which the home side – a club which could only dream of playing Champions League football and challenging for honours just a couple of years ago – has made beyond Liverpool is the price tags associated with the Man City players, both on the pitch and in the stands. Mancini has shelled out more money than the Reds have spent on a single player in the club’s entire history 4 times this summer – and 6 times in the past twelve months.
Whilst the home side could grant themselves the indulgence of leaving the likes of David Silva, Emmanuel Adebayor and Shaun Wright-Phillips on the bench, the visitors can have no such luxuries. The absence of the suspended Joe Cole left Liverpool drastically short of creativity. In contrast, City were impervious to the loss of Mario Balotelli thorough injury, in addition to the aforementioned absences.
Roy Hodgson’s side were always likely to be in for a tough examination in their first away league fixture of the season. And so the renewed vigour at the club, which has been heralded by a fresh start, was well and truly tested here.
In the absence of the defected Javier Mascherano, Hodgson took the bold decision to start with a rarely-tested two-pronged forward line of fit-again Fernando Torres and David N’Gog. In hindsight this seemed to be a contributory factor in the Reds downfall. Having removed a body from midfield in favour of two out-and-out strikers, Liverpool too often afforded City too much space in the centre of the pitch.
The home side, Yaya Toure in particular, were able to dominate the midfield. Lucas – culpable for too many mistakes – and Steven Gerrard were barely allowed a kick all evening.
Naturally City therefore dominated possession. But it was the creativity, speed and movement of Mancini’s men in the final third that was the decisive difference between the two sides. Liverpool created little for Torres and N’Gog – albeit the Spaniard was someway short of full-fitness. On the other had City were able to regularly expose a chronic lack of pace in the Reds defence. Adam Johnson single-handedly confirming that Daniel Agger is not a long-term solution at left-back.
Man City could best be described as clinical, without, perhaps, regularly producing the outstanding football that a 3-0 score-line may warrant. Although in truth they did not need to.
Liverpool started the game relatively brightly. Yet, at soon as Barry slotted beyond Pepe Reina in the 13th minute to give Man City the lead, the Reds never looked likely to salvage anything from the game. Yaye Toure out-muscled the Liverpool midfield and found the impressive Johnson, who in turn found James Milner wide in the penalty area. The debutant proceeded to slide the ball to Barry, who finished a well-worked move.
The home-side threatened to add to their lead as their dominance of the game grew. For Liverpool, N’Gog’s shot on target did not genuinely test Joe Hart, whilst a couple of efforts from Gerrard failed to work the ‘keeper at all.
The two further City goals, both scored by Tevez in the second period, will have particularly disappointed Hodgson. The first on 54 minutes was the result a Johnson corner, from which Micah Ricards was allowed to out-jump the Reds defence and head towards goal. Tevez’s intervention directly in front of Reina was enough to distract the keeper as the ball bounced into the net.
The third strike killed off the game as a contest. Johnson’s electric pace allowed him to ease past Agger, as he did persistenly throughout the match, and Martin Skrtel’s mistimed challenge felled the winger inside the box. Tevez sending Reina the wrong way from the spot.
Sandwiched between those two second half goals the Reds did come close to finding a route back into the match with their best chances of the game. The second goal provoked some urgency from Gerrard and the captain’s 20-yard effort beat Hart but struck the post. The rebound found N’Gog in the box, although two fantastic saves – first from the Frenchman and then from Torres’s follow-up – kept Liverpool at bay.
Ultimately the greatest lesson that the Reds will have learned from this forgettable evening is the scale of the task which the club is faced with, both on and off the pitch, if they are to regain their rightful place amongst the elite. One away defeat will not be greeted as a crisis. However the re-building process may need to gather pace if similar reversals are to be avoided this season.
Having established their superiority on the pitch the Man City fans predictably proceeded to mock the travelling support – the home fans taunts focused on dismissing Liverpool’s history. It may be advisable for City to actually make some history of their own before making such statements. But for the Reds to match the new footballing power that is Manchester City, let alone equal the achievements of the past, there is much work needed.