Into the New Year and the season’s first silverware is up for grabs as we reach the semi-finals of the Carling Cup, formerly known as the League Cup, amongst many other names. On Tuesday Night at Selhurst Park in London, Dougie Freedman watched his Crystal Palace side take a narrow first-leg lead over Malky Mackay’s Cardiff City, Anthony Gardner, the former Tottenham defender, with the only goal of the game. The following evening at the Etihad stadium in Manchester, Roberto Mancini’s City side entertained Liverpool. City and Liverpool locked horns eight days previously with the Sky Blues running out 3-0 winners, and the Italian would have been hoping for a repeat performance. Liverpool, still adapting to life without Lucas and, for the time being, Suarez, felt that the 3-0 score-line flattered City and didn’t reflect the pattern of the game accurately. They were looking to capitalise on the absence of Vincent Kompany, who began a four match ban, and Yaya Toure, away at the African Cup of Nations.
Liverpool started the game by far the stronger of the two teams and within minutes Joe Hart was forced to show his class. Stewart Downing slid a perfectly weighted ball through the City back-line, Andy Carroll showed great strength to out-muscle Stefan Savic before shooting with his, weaker, right foot, Hart spread himself well to deny the Liverpool striker. Hart was again called on, twice in quick succession, first he got down swiftly to push Steven Gerrard’s measured curler round his left hand upright. Then, from the resultant corner, Gerrard pulled the ball back to Downing who struck a left foot volley from the edge of the box, his shot, though on target, took a slight deflection off Daniel Agger on its way through the crowded penalty area, making Hart’s save, again low down to his left, even better. Liverpool’s early pressure looked bound to reap dividends, and they got the reward that their dominance and endeavour deserved in the thirteenth minute when Stefan Savic, in for the suspended Kompany, clearly tripped Agger in the box. Steven Gerrard stepped up to take the penalty, and the Liverpool Captain kept his nerve, thumping the ball into Hart’s bottom right corner, leaving the England keeper grasping fresh air.
City were stunned, it’s fair to say that they were struggling to cope with Liverpool’s high tempo and urgency, and barely had the ball over their own half-way line in the opening period. Although Liverpool were forced to replace, the impressive, Jay Spearing with Charlie Adam early on, the Scot wasn’t really troubled in the anchor role, hardly his best position. Mancini’s team’s first half display was summed up by the performance of Mario Balotelli. The enigmatic Italian, sometimes brilliant, sometimes woeful, was having a terrible time of it. Reportedly carrying an injury ahead of the game, Mancini took a gamble on the striker, the gamble blew up in his face though when Balotelli, sluggish, ill-tempered and totally off his game was substituted on just 38 minutes, having just completely failed to control a simple pass. Samir Nasri came on to replace the Italian international, and within five minutes had done more for his team, forcing Reina to palm away his 20 yard curler. City’s only clear cut chance in the first period fell to James Milner who blazed over from 14 yards.
After the break, it was more of the same for the first ten or fifteen minutes, City without Toure and Silva were sorely lacking in energy and creativity, in fact it was Liverpool who created the Citizens’ best chance for them. Just before the hour mark, Martin Kelly panicked in possession and played a blind pass back to Reina from just inside his own half; Sergio Aguero and Reina both raced to meet it, the Argentine got there first but Reina managed to push him wide, the resulting shot flew high an wide, much to Kelly’s relief.
That was the cue for Kenny Dalglish to tighten things up, and he immediately brought on Jose Enrique for Stewart Downing. Liverpool battened down the hatches and dug in deep for the final thirty minutes, content to allow Manchester City to have the ball, and urging their opponents to try to break them down and find a way through. City were unable to do so, and in fact, were unable to create any clear cut chances from open play, they came close from a corner, but Pepe Reina was in excellent form when he was called upon to block Micah Richard’s powerful header. Aside from Aguero’s header, in the dying seconds, which went over the bar, Liverpool were more than comfortable and held on to complete the victory.
One talking point emerged in the 87th minute when Glen Johnson, my choice for man of the match, appeared to go into a challenge with Joleon Lescott with two feet, Johnson went unpunished, leaving Robert Mancini, still seething over Kompany’s dismissal against Manchester United, furious on the touchline. In his defence, Johnson began his challenge when the ball was loose and, as such, referee, Lee Mason, may have seen it more as an interception than a tackle. However, it definitely falls into the “seen them given” category and further highlights the confusion that appears rife at the moment surrounding the rules of tackling.
An intriguing encounter between two heavyweights of the modern game, Liverpool record an important first-leg victory, City fail to score at home for the first time in fourteen months. The two teams meet at Anfield for the second leg on 25thJanuary, where Liverpool will be hoping to make the most of home advantage as they bid to win the competition for the eighth time in their history, City, I’m sure, will do their utmost to prevent that from happening.
Originally written on 13/01/12