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Feb 22, 2009

Liverpool's chances ended by City?

Few clubs specialise in the perverse like Manchester City. It was part of their quintessential charm in the days before they acquired the tag of the world's richest club. But it was in keeping with the club's traditions that, having been utterly abject on their travels this season, they came to Anfield and took a point.

It was typically bittersweet, the draw proving a silver lining to a particularly sizeable cloud for their long-suffering supporters as it should ease Manchester United's passage to the title.

This is a club who have contrived to lose at Stoke, Portsmouth, West Brom, Bolton and Middlesbrough this season, yet they procured a point at Liverpool. Having attempted to lure the world's premier attacking talents, they did it with uncharacteristically dogged defending.

Yet if there is a club as illogical as City, it may just be Liverpool. Their title challenge has been formed by improbable wins, whether because of the late timing or the lofty opposition.

It is foundering, however, in the matches where a comfortable victory is anticipated. As City emulated Stoke, Fulham, West Ham and Hull by emerging with a point at Anfield, Rafa Benitez, with his scientific approach and emphasis on control, must be more perplexed than most.

This is a control freak with an enigmatic team. It is another paradox at Anfield, where a seemingly inoffensive man is part of the warring factions and where an insistence he wants to stay has not entailed actually committing to a new contract.

'I want to concentrate on football,' said Benitez, on three occasions, when asked about the unsigned deal and reports of his unhappiness at the current impasse (the source of which is thought to be a Spaniard with a beard).

His own future is an issue. So is his team's. There is an acceptance that Liverpool have to beat Manchester United on March 14 to overhaul the Premier League leaders.

'Yeah, if you want to reduce the gap,' admitted Benitez. His analysis of Liverpool's title chances was: 'Clearly, it is more difficult. We have to win against Middlesbrough and against Sunderland and start thinking if we can win at Old Trafford.'

Benitez, as ever, polarises opinions. It surprised that he persisted with two holding midfielders - including the Kop's bête noire, Lucas - for 85 minutes and the thought occurred that the departed Robbie Keane could have had a part to play in Steven Gerrard's absence.

Yet Benitez contrived to influence the game: Liverpool were energised by the arrival of Nabil El Zhar, when Benayoun was switched to the left flank.

In his new role, the Israeli crossed, Fernando Torres applied one touch and Dirk Kuyt finished emphatically for the equaliser. Thereafter, in another frantic finale, Kuyt was inches away from a winner and Shay Given produced a magnificent stop to thwart Benayoun.

Yet he had been so under-worked that Given had emerged early with one of the coaching staff for some practice before the second half began. Although Micah Richards had blocked Albert Riera's shot on the line, Liverpool failed to turn control into clear-cut chances.

That, in turn, reflected well upon a dogged City side. Mark Hughes, so often a picture of frustration outside the City of Manchester Stadium, was entitled to look satisfied. 'It was an excellent performance,' he said. 'There was drive and purpose to what we did. We were strong and resolute when we had to be. A draw was the least we deserved.'

More appeared probable when, rather predictably, Craig Bellamy scored on his return to Anfield with a shot that deflected in off Alvaro Arbeloa. It was not City's only threat. Stephen Ireland and Robinho played a wonderful one-two that should have brought a firmer finish from the Irishman.

The Brazilian, whose relationship with his manager is under the microscope, was praised by Hughes: 'I thought he was excellent. His contribution was very good. If you give him the ball, very often he will retain it. That gives people the confidence to give him the ball in tight areas.'

This was a rare away match where City appeared to have balance. Robinho is always liable to be stranded up-field, but City defended in numbers. It is unusual to see them so intent on preserving a clean sheet. Ahead of Given, Hughes fielded seven essentially defensive players and only three who are more attack-minded.

That said, Vincent Kompany was the de facto target man, especially from goal kicks, working tirelessly in a more advanced position. Having arrived as a centre back, played much of the campaign shielding the back four and spending this afternoon roaming around in an attacking midfield role, the Belgian will presumably end the season as the centre forward.

But then, at both Manchester City and Liverpool, the implausible often becomes possible.

MAN OF THE MATCH: Richard Dunne
It has hardly been a vintage season for the man who used to be City's most dependable defender, but the captain was excellent. Several interceptions were a reminder of the defiant Dunne of old.

LIVERPOOL VERDICT: They could do with starting games with the same urgency that they display at the end. While others complain about a surfeit of fixtures, Liverpool hadn't played for 15 days and it may have showed in an insipid opening. But although the absences of the injured Gerrard and the suspended Xabi Alonso could account for the setback, Liverpool were insufficiently inventive until the end.

MANCHESTER CITY VERDICT: There are times when they can be overloaded with attacking midfielders. Not today; City were disciplined with Pablo Zabaleta and Nigel de Jong staying behind the ball. 'Nigel was excellent,' Hughes said. 'It was almost certainly his best game since he arrived at the club. He has an understanding of where he has to be on the pitch to break attacks up.'

HAVING THEIR PHIL: Manchester City's travelling fans earned a few laughs when they told Phil Dowd: 'You're too fat to referee.' Dowd isn't one of the Premier League's more slim-line officials but, in his defence, he seemed to cover plenty of ground.

ARTETA INJURY BLOW: Everton's influential Mikel Arteta was stretchered off after just five minutes against Newcastle with what appeared to be knee ligament injury; a potentially severe setback for the Toffees.

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