Liverpool took a significant step towards a first Wembley appearance since 1996 with victory over Manchester City in the first leg of their Carling Cup semi-final on Wednesday evening.
Steven Gerrard scored the only goal of the game from the penalty spot to provide Liverpool with a potentially crucial 1 goal advantage going into the second leg at Anfield. But this win could, in the main, be attributed to some rather resolute and attritional defending, as the Reds strived to protect the lead which Gerrard’s 12th minute strike had gifted them.
Roared on by a particularly vociferous away support, on a notably mild winter evening in Manchester, Liverpool showed no shortage of confidence – despite their disappointing 3-0 reversal at the hands of the same opponents the previous week – as they took the game to their hosts in the opening 15 minutes.
In fact, the visitors could have been ahead on a couple of occasions before Gerrard’s 12th minute opener. In a similar manner to last week’s league fixture, Liverpool had the first genuine chance of the game. Andy Carroll found space behind a changed Man City defence to meet Stewart Downing’s pass but Joe Hart was able to deny Carroll’s first-time effort with his legs.
Somewhat surprisingly this was the first time that both Gerrard and Carroll had been named in the same starting line-up. The captain has the ammunition on which the number 9 could potentially thrive. Yet Carroll was again too often isolated here and struggled to get the better of the City defence by himself.
Further chances came Liverpool’s way as they dominated possession early on. Firstly, Gerrard forced Hart into a good save low to his left with a curling shot from the edge of the box. Before, from the resulting corner, Downing’s drive forced Hart into an even more impressive low save via a slight deflection.
Though, a second successive corner provided the Reds with their chance. Another Gerrard centre tested the home defence and resulted in young defender Stefan Savic , who suffered a difficult first half, upending Daniel Agger outside the 6-yard box. A clear penalty-kick, which skipper Gerrard just about dispatched beyond the reach of Hart.
Liverpool continued to control midfield and possession. But the loss of Jay Spearing midway through the first half was somewhat of a setback. In the absence of Lucas, Spearing is arguably the closet thing Liverpool have to the Brazilian. That holding role is crucial to Liverpool’s midfield and, when Spearing was withdrawn through injury to be replaced by Charlie Adam, the Reds allowed City to gain back some of their lost control in the middle of the pitch.
Another early substitute, Samir Nasri, became the first player to trouble Reina shortly before the break with a dipping effort. But Liverpool entered the dressing room at half-time well on top.
There was little disguising Liverpool’s intentions in the second half. The Reds gradually retreated towards their own goal as they sought to hold onto the lead, with 90 minutes still to come at Anfield.
Whilst the introduction of defenders Jose Enrique then Jamie Carragher, at the expense of Downing and Bellamy, respectively, tells its own story.
But, were defensive mistakes had cost them 8 days previously, they were not about to suffer a similar fate. The anticipated onslaught from Manchester City arrived. Yet in truth – perhaps affected by the loss of influential performers David Silva and Yaya Toure – the hosts failed to inspire the kind of cutting edge and attacking threat with which they have come to be associated.
In fact it was some careless play from the Reds themselves which gifted Roberto Mancini’s team one of their most clear cut openings to equalise. Martin Kelly’s poorly misjudged back pass presented Sergio Aguero with a gilt edge chance. But, having allowed the Argentine’s shot to slip under his body the previous week, Reina was not about the afford Aguero a similar gesture and raced off his line to deny the striker space and force him wide, before he eventually shot high and wide.
Reina produced an equally impressive piece of goalkeeping to deny a close range Micah Richards header from Nasri’s corner. But Man City otherwise struggled to find wholes in the Liverpool rearguard from open play.
Mancini drew the wrath of Gerrard and co. in injury time when he appealed for a red card following a challenge by Glen Johnson on Joleon Lescott. A challenge which the Italian claimed was equal to the one for which Vincent Kompany was recently dismissed and will subsequently miss both legs of this tie. Though, in truth, neither challenge was worthy of such harsh punishment.
There is little doubt that this cup semi-final still has plenty of legs left in it yet. Liverpool themselves will be aware that only half of the job is done. But a 1-0 advantage and a confidence-boosting clean sheet will give both the club and their fans plenty of belief that they can secure a long overdue Wembley appearance ahead of the return leg.
Man of the Match: MARTIN SKRTEL
The standout performer in an impress defensive display. The Slovakian, who has been in fine form throughout this season, made some crucial challenges and interceptions.
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