Improving Liverpool dent City's hopes
Going, going, gone? Manchester City's crown is slipping from their grasp as even Manchester United's arch-enemies came to their assistance. A gap that Roberto Mancini thought would be smaller by the end of February has grown. It could have been down to two points on Tuesday. It is now nine and while City overturned an eight-point deficit in six games last season, United have a simpler fixture list 12 months on. The title race may not be over - "absolutely not", insisted Mancini - but their rivals are pulling clear as they head for the finishing straight.
But football creates some unlikely allies. Liverpool made their contribution towards United's 20th championship as Steven Gerrard, a player Sir Alex Ferguson used to covet, made the Scot glad he had never signed him with a colossal performance and a glorious goal that heartened those with Anfield allegiances but benefited the laird of Old Trafford. So, too, have his colleagues' efforts. Having lost twice to United this season, Liverpool have drawn home and away with City. The former monarchs may be the unwilling kingmakers.
The reality is that the psychologically important first league victory against a team in the top ten eludes Liverpool, even in perhaps the best performance of Brendan Rodgers' reign. They were thwarted by Sergio Aguero, whose equaliser was stunning. He and Gerrard raised the bar so much that this match merited a goal-of-the-game contest; Edin Dzeko's finish, from a slick team move, and Daniel Sturridge's crisp strike were overshadowed by the magnificent efforts that followed.
"Aguero's finish is unbelievable but we are bitterly disappointed he was even in that situation," said Rodgers, rueing yet more defensive errors from two of the regular culprits, Pepe Reina and Martin Skrtel. "For large parts of the game we were in real domination. The only disappointment is that it typified our season where we have been outstanding in our game but mistakes have cost us."
As another year-long theme continued with Liverpool maintaining their winless streak against the best, City distilled their campaign into 90 minutes. Theirs was a patchy performance that contained evidence of their fighting spirit, moments of quality, a mid-match switch in system and resulted in another draw. It was the eighth time they have shared the points and the second in five days.
"I'm disappointed because we didn't play well," added Mancini. There were exceptions: Aguero was scintillating in the final half-hour, James Milner the epitome of reliability and Pablo Zabaleta their rescuer the first time Joe Hart erred. The Argentine made a perfectly timed interception to deny Sturridge a goal with his keeper stranded. Excellent then, Zabaleta was almost embarrassed later after a second breakdown in communications involving Hart. His backpass bypassed the goalkeeper and, to the relief of both, did not end up in the net.
City led after more defensive misjudgements. Daniel Agger, a target for Mancini last summer, did his suitor a double service, first playing Milner onside and then allowing Dzeko to escape him to tap in. The build-up, however, was trademark City move, where both nominal wingers appear on the same flank, Milner switching flanks to meet David Silva's pass and deliver the most enticing of crosses.
Then a previously impenetrable defence was breached by a scorer City produced. Sturridge's driven effort was the first goal the champions conceded in 2013 and was dispatched clinically after Javi Garcia coughed up possession for a distracted City team. There were no celebrations from the former City striker but complaints from a current forward, Dzeko, who had gone to ground after Agger's challenge. "Agger did a foul," complained Mancini. But referee Anthony Taylor did not stop the game and too many of the City team failed to react accordingly.
"The referee had told a couple of the players, Daniel Sturridge and Steven Gerrard, to play on," Rodgers added. "It was purely a referee's decision. There was no injury." Indeed, Dzeko made a rapid recovery to display the dissent that resulted in a yellow card, highlighting that treatment was not required.
Yet the goal was a sign of the greater incision Liverpool have had since Sturridge's half-time introduction at Old Trafford. They are growing in belief, lacking only the major scalp they require as proof of their improvement. Sturridge and Suarez were twin tormentors in attack, the captain an authoritative figure in midfield.
"Steven Gerrard has got better and better as the season has gone on and as he has got a grasp of what we are trying to do," Rodgers said. "His performance was immense." His strike was a reminder of his capacity to score great goals, vaguely reminiscent of his equaliser in the 2006 FA Cup final, with a clean swing of the right boot. "Incredible," added his manager.
Yet the incredible preceded the improbable. "Few players can score the kind of goal that Sergio Aguero scored," said Mancini. The Argentine darted away from Skrtel and Reina to finish from an acute angle.
But now City's margin of error is just as slim. "Probably now we need to win all the games," Mancini said. "If not all, 11 or 12." And there are only 13 games to go.
MAN OF THE MATCH: Steven Gerrard - Outstanding, as he has been for much of the last two months. Gerrard has been liberated by Lucas' return to the team and, on current form, is the finest central midfielder in the country.
MANCHESTER CITY VERDICT: It was an awkward afternoon for many. Joleon Lescott and Matija Nastasic were paired in the middle of defence for the first time, an experiment that ended when the Serb was withdrawn and Mancini went to a back three. Hart's judgment was twice faulty and perhaps the best news for City game from another hemisphere as they gained three players, including the crucial Yaya Toure, with Ivory Coast's exit from the African Nations Cup.
LIVERPOOL VERDICT: Impressive. There is a greater confidence to them and, with the addition of a second striker, they are better equipped to take the game to opponents. The strikers and Gerrard topped the bill but Stewart Downing also had a fine game, as did Jamie Carragher, who illustrated why he has displaced Skrtel. Yet mistakes at the back continue to cost them. While Liverpool have more reasons to believe in their manager, they may be missing their former assistant, Steve Clarke, who made them more frugal in his time at Anfield.