Liverpool produced a disciplined performance at the Etihad Stadium to move a step closer to a first appearance at the New Wembley.
Reds’ skipper Steven Gerrard converted an early penalty to give Kenny Dalglish’s men a 1-0 Carling Cup Semi-final first leg victory and set them up nicely for the return leg at Anfield in two weeks’ time.
The Carling Cup is often renowned for teams fielding weakened sides, but the fact both sides were missing star players was not through choice. Manchester City captain Vincent Kompany began his 4-match ban for his controversial red card in Sunday’s FA Cup defeat to Manchester United, whilst the Premier League leaders were also without injured playmaker David Silva and the Toure brothers, Kolo and Yaya, who are away at the African Nations Cup with the Ivory Coast. Though the sight of the four City players missing from the home team sheet would have given Liverpool a boost, particularly the exclusion of Kompany and Yaya Toure who both excelled in City’s league win over the Reds last week, Liverpool too were missing two of their star performers this season, with Lucas Leiva ruled out for the season and Luis Suarez still serving his 8-game FA ban.
As was the case in last week’s 3-0 reversal at the Etihad, Liverpool took the game to their hosts. Under-fire striker Andy Carroll should have put the Reds one-up inside five minutes when he wrestled his way past defender Stefan Savic, but saw his right foot shot well saved by Joe Hart. Gerrard was next to bring Hart into action when he curled in a 25-yard shot which the City stopper did well to palm around his left post. From the resulting corner kick, Stewart Downing’s goalbound volley was flicked on by Daniel Agger, forcing the excellent Hart into another splendid save.
But, on 13 minutes, Liverpool’s early pressure finally got its rewards. From another corner, Savic mistimed tackle on Agger gave referee Lee Mason no option but to award a penalty. Gerrard kept his cool to fire his spot-kick low past Hart to net his 4th goal of the season and third since his latest comeback from injury.
With the midfield trio of Gerrard, Jordan Henderson and Jay Spearing bossing proceedings and Craig Bellamy a constant threat against his former club, Liverpool continued to hold the upperhand. They were dealt a blow midway through the half when Spearing pulled up with a tight hamstring forcing the young midfielder to be replaced by Charlie Adam. But, despite the change, the Reds still looked the more threatening, with Carroll flashing a header wide of the far post.
At the other end, City struggled to make any in-roads towards the Liverpool goal. After missing the United game through injury, Mario Balotelli was chosen to partner Sergio Aguero in attack, but the enigmatic Italian was at his infuriating worst. Having not seen the ball, his first action saw him react angrily to Adam’s tap on the head following a foul, with the Italian blasting the resulting free-kick into the wall. He showed dissent towards the referee after not being given a free-kick, then on 39 minutes, when he failed to routinely control a ball, City boss Roberto Mancini withdrew the striker, replacing him with midfielder Samir Nasri.
The change almost paid instant dividends as Nasri cut in and forced Pepe Reina into a save low to his left. With City finally clicking, Micah Richards rampaging run down the right set-up Milner, who fired over from 12 yards.
After impressing for most of the first half, Liverpool came out after the restart with a different gameplan. Rather than attack what had looked a vulnerable City defence, Dalglish opted to protect what they already have by getting men behind the ball and making it hard for City to find a breakthrough.
The plan nearly backfired on 54 minutes, when Martin Kelly’s loose pass back fell to Aguero, though Reina did enough to force the Argentinian wide before he fired over. The Liverpool keeper was called into action again minutes later when he reacted smartly to deny Richards’ header from a Nasri corner.
As City looked to up the pressure, Dalglish replaced Downing with Jose Enrique, with the Reds reverting to what looked like a back five, although Glen Johnson, who had started at left-back, didn’t quite know where he was playing. It mattered not though as the England full-back was in the right place at the right time to produce a wonderful tackle on Aguero as the striker wound up to fire at goal.
Edin Dzeko and Aleksandar Kolarov were both sent on as City looked for an equalise, a move which was counter-acted by the Reds when they went even more defensive by throwing on Jamie Carragher in place of Bellamy, with Johnson moving to right-back, his third position of the night.
Despite the home side’s dominance of possession, Dalglish’s tactics worked wonderfully as Liverpool were able to safely see out the rest of the game and gain the advantage ahead of the return leg at Anfield in two weeks time. For City, it was their second home defeat in a row and the first time they have failed to score at home this season.
The only cause for concern for the visitors was a late two-footed lunge by Johnson on Joleon Lescott. Referee Mason didn’t even deem the challenge a free-kick, but replays show it looked worse than the one Kompany was reprimanded for only days earlier.
Manchester City: Hart; Richards, Savic, Lescott, Clichy; A Johnson (Dzeko 66), De Jong (Kolarov 72), Barry, Milner; Balotelli (Nasri 39), Aguero
Subs not used: Pantilmon, Zabaleta, Onuoha, Hargreaves
Liverpool: Reina; Kelly, Skrtel, Agger, Johnson; Bellamy (Carragher 79), Gerrard, Spearing (Adam 23), Henderson, Downing (Enrique 59); Carroll
Subs not used: Doni, Coates, Shelvey, Kuyt
Goal: Gerrard (13 pen)
Referee: Mr Lee Mason
Yellow Cards: Nasri, Carragher
Man Of The Match: Glen Johnson (Liverpool) – The England defender started off in an accustomed left-back role, moved centrally and then over to right back. Produced a solid performance including a fine tackle on Aguero, although it was soured slightly by a rash challenge late on.