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Jan 3, 2012

City sink toothless Reds

For weeks, Roberto Mancini was consistent in his complaint. Manchester City had a mere 48 hours to prepare for a pivotal fixture; their opponents, who had played on Friday, were allowed a further two days. This, he was arguing, was an unfair time to face Liverpool.

Actually, it transpired, it was the ideal time. Sergio Aguero, Yaya Toure and James Milner ended the league leaders' mini blip and inflicted the second heaviest defeat of Kenny Dalglish's comeback. Distracted and then defeated at the end of a damaging few hours, Liverpool misplaced their knack of frustrating the best. The grudging acceptance of Luis Suarez's eight-match ban, though not of his guilt, for racially abusing Patrice Evra preceded two first-half examples of unusually generous defending that were compounded by cautious selection.

As the Manchester rain teemed down, Dalglish was the picture of a man alone as he stood on the edge of his technical area. Hood up on trademark bubble jacket, he was insulated against the elements, much as Liverpool have tried to ignore the outside world. Indeed, they still do. Suarez, the manager said, was a case of: "Wrong place, wrong time. It could have been anyone."

He remains unapologetic about the striker's use of the word 'negro' to Evra. "I think if you ask a linguistic specialist, which I'm not, that in the part of Uruguay he comes from, it's perfectly accepted," he added. "His wife calls him that. He has made a brilliant statement and we stand by that." The much-criticised decision of players and manager to wear t-shirts with Suarez's image at Wigan was, Dalglish insisted: "A fantastic statement for their team-mate." There were hints, too, of criticism of the FA and suggestions their 115-page report did not contain "the whole context."

But defiance can become negativity, a particular risk when Dalglish is at his most insular. If, shorn of Suarez, Liverpool's gameplan was to keep their matchwinners in reserve and unleash them late on, it backfired. The game was all but gone by the time Steven Gerrard and Craig Bellamy entered proceedings and over when by the time the strangely underused Maxi Rodriguez was introduced. Mancini had failed with a similar gambit at Sunderland on Sunday, but Aguero returned to the starting line-up to score and Silva to provide two assists. The 100% home record remains intact as the notion other sides have worked City out was dented somewhat.

In contrast, Liverpool were short of stardust and, more pertinently, goals. Theirs was a starting XI with just eight league goals this season - Aguero has almost twice as many on his own - and a performance of possession without penetration. Lacking the dynamism, drive and sheer speed that Suarez, Gerrard and Bellamy offer, theirs was an expensive impotence; the five most attack-minded starters cost £88 million which, while still less than their City counterparts, demands a better return in the final third. "I'm not saying we deserved to win but I think the lesson we learned is if we're not clinical we are going to suffer," Dalglish said.

The game-changing moment may have arrived as early as the eighth minute when Jordan Henderson released Stewart Downing with a piercing pass. But the £20 million winger's extraordinary record of neither scoring nor providing a league goal was extended as Joe Hart repelled his effort. He went on to bookend the game with fine saves, denying Bellamy and Rodriguez at the death.

Where one goalkeeper flourished, another floundered. Pepe Reina was culpable for Aguero's opener, diving over the Argentine's dipping shot. Glen Johnson was next to err, being out-jumped by Toure when Silva curled a corner in from the right wing.

It gave City a two-goal lead they never looked like relinquishing. Even when they were reduced to 10 men - the former Liverpool target Gareth Barry collecting a second caution for an innocuous but clumsy challenge on the advancing Daniel Agger - their response was to secure the points. Bursting forward, Yaya Toure brushed Martin Skrtel and went to ground. In a second contentious decision in quick succession, referee Mike Jones pointed to the spot and Milner converted.

Edin Dzeko subsequently hit the post but, while his drought extended to a 10th game, he dragged defenders out of position to afford Aguero space. At the other end, Andy Carroll's wait for a goal is just as long, but Liverpool's need is greater. Neither formation nor personnel suited the target man and there was some surprise that the decision not to appeal against Suarez's suspension was announced when it was, depriving them of the top scorer now.

"He's got to serve eight games at some point, but this time's as good as any," Dalglish argued. "It's better to get the situation over and done with." The on-field repercussions will become apparent over the next six weeks but, if this is an indication, they could be considerable. Suarez's comeback could be controversial indeed, if it is against Manchester United at Old Trafford but Dalglish said: "I'll just be delighted to get him back." He needs the Uruguayan because, after a case that seemed to produce no winners, one beneficiary emerged: Manchester City.

MAN OF THE MATCH: Vincent Kompany - A commanding performance at the heart of the back four. The captain dealt well with Andy Carroll and helped ensure that City supplanted Liverpool as the possessors of the division's meanest defence.

MANCHESTER CITY VERDICT: Without being at their most fluent or fantastic, the scoreline made it an emphatic return to form after failing to score in their previous two games and they were reassuringly solid. Barry's ban will rule him out of the FA Cup tie against Manchester United, meaning Nigel de Jong may be granted the chance to improve upon an undistinguished season. Another bit-part player, Kolo Toure, tends to be chosen for major matches and has helped Kompany keep clean sheets against both Arsenal and Liverpool. For Mancini, a concern comes when both Toures go to the African Cup of Nations. "I try to find another Yaya in the squad but there isn't another Yaya," he sighed.

LIVERPOOL VERDICT: It was intriguing that, for the third successive game, Gerrard replaced Charlie Adam, a trend that suggests the Scot is at threat from the captain's return. He was the major culprit as, not for the first time, Liverpool's set-pieces were poor. While it is hard for Bellamy to play two games in a week, the chance to give him a rest in Friday's FA Cup tie against Oldham perhaps could have prompted his inclusion. He improved Liverpool when he did come on.

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