The eyes of Liverpool fans did fill with disbelief and dismay at a couple of aberrations. Martin Kelly’s leaden touch allowed Yaya Touré to level Martin Skrtel’s thunderous header. After Luis Suárez restored Liverpool’s advantage with a majestic free-kick, Skrtel’s ill-judged pass gifted the excellent Carlos Tévez the chance to equalise with his 100th goal in English football.
It was Rodgers’ insistence that his defenders did not launch the ball wildly forward when under pressure that eventually cost them, yet such was the price to pay for adhering religiously to a new doctrine, to the possession game, to rebuilding Liverpool. Row Z is for supporters, not clearances. Rodgers wants his players to be bold, to manoeuvre the ball out of tight corners, even with the obvious heightened risk.
Nobody said it would be easy, learning a new way. Patience is required. Concentration too. Yet Rodgers’ approach is to be lauded.
The fans certainly applauded.
As Rodgers began planting seeds of a more thoughtful, fruitful game in Anfield’s lush terrain, it seemed strange to read the “we come not to play” motto of Liverpool’s new kit sponsors splashed around the ground. The slogan, supposedly celebrating a focus solely on winning, was out of kilter with Rodgers’ tenets. Liverpool do come to play.
Here were Liverpool passing and moving, the tone set by the composed Joe
Allen. The fee of £15 million required to prise the midfielder from
He rarely wasted the ball, also demonstrating a hunger for closing opponents down, particularly when Lucas hobbled off, requiring Allen to anchor more in Rodgers’ 4-2-1-3 system.
Another plus was a lively display from Raheem Sterling, making his first Premier League start, signalling his promise with a series of runs at and beyond Kolo Touré, who resembled a statue at times.
Sterling was brought in from
Investing in personnel was a theme on Roberto Mancini’s mind. The
Javi Martínez, seemingly in Bayern Munich’s embrace, remains on City’s radar, understandably so as the Athletic Bilbao player can operate as a ball-using centre-half in the 3-4-1-2 system Mancini occasionally favours, or dictate tempo in midfield.
City also need a striker. Even taking into account the month-long loss of some of their cutting edge with Sergio Agüero’s unfortunate incapacitation through injury, City should still have mustered a more menacing look in attack. Mario Balotelli rarely raised a canter, let alone a gallop. Samir Nasri disappeared down too many cul de sacs.
David Silva was kept in reserve too long. Edin Dzeko replaced Balotelli but failed to worry Liverpool. Only Tévez was a persistent threat. Only Tévez of Mancini’s players really lived up to his vaunted reputation.
Mancini’s tinkering with his tactics, here using a 3-4-1-2 system that accounted for Chelsea in the Community Shield, had been anticipated by Rodgers, who unleashed Sterling at the exposed Kolo Touré. The lyrics about a “teenage wasteland” from The Who’s Baba O’Riley wafted around Anfield at the break, a slightly inappropriate song after the energetic exertions of the 17-year-old Sterling.
It was an adventurous move by Rodgers, almost a statement of intent that he will give youth a chance. Given the value of Sterling, a penny for the thoughts of Stewart Downing and Jordan Henderson. Slim of frame but strong of will, Sterling acted like an adrenalin shot on Anfield.
The game took a while to come into vibrant life, eventually ignited by Sterling. Sebastian Coates suddenly drilled a long pass to the No 31, who tamed the ball effortlessly. Moments later, he was troubling Kolo Touré again, suddenly cutting back on to his right foot and lifting in a superb cross that Fabio Borini turned wide.
City’s usual thoroughbreds were off the pace. Only Tévez showed. The Argentine darted in from the right, shooting from a tight angle past Pepe Reina but hitting the post. Liverpool responded, Steven Gerrard whipping in a ball that Vincent Kompany almost diverted in past Joe Hart. The ball ended up in the Kop but was soon in City’s net. When Gerrard drilled across the corner, Skrtel outmuscled and outjumped Aleksandar Kolarov and Pablo Zabaleta to power a header past Hart, almost ripping the net from the stanchions.
The new half failed to bring an immediate change in City’s efforts.
Yaya Touré seemed penned too deep, a victim of Mancini’s system that was supposed to liberate him. Mancini withdrew Nasri and sent on Jack Rodwell, the former Evertonian cruelly greeted with chants of “you should have stayed at a small club” by the Kop. Rodwell assumed the deep-lying duties, Yaya Touré pushed on and was soon rewarded. Tévez eluded Sterling on the right, brushing the youngster aside, and crossed into the box. Skrtel’s slight touch took the ball away from Reina, sending it on to Kelly. Liverpool’s full-back could have hooked it clear but chose to try and control it. His touch had to be adhesive. It was not and Yaya Touré pounced.
Liverpool swiftly regained the lead via a 67th-minute free-kick, although Rodwell was unfortunate to have been deemed to have handled Gerrard’s thunderous drive that engineered the set-piece. Hart ordered a wall, comprising Rodwell, Kolarov, Dzeko and James Milner. This human barricade appeared to be lined up properly, seeming to protect the space at the near post. Suárez, though, imparted enough bend to take the ball around Rodwell and draw it back in, bisecting the diving Hart and the post.
Mancini finally switched to a back four. City, showing their character, pushed on in search of a point. It came gift-wrapped.
Skrtel played the ball blind back to Reina, not noticing the lurking Tévez. Such a cool finisher as the Argentine was not going to waste such a present as this, rounding Reina and stroking the ball home.