On a day in which the football world stood silent, stunned by the new of Gary Speed’s death, Liverpool put in an impressive performance, largely dominating the imperious league leaders, but for the fourth Anfield game in succession were rewarded with only a point.
Manchester City arrived at Anfield with the stats of a team ready to tear the league apart. 42 goals scored, 2 points dropped, hundreds upon hundreds of millions spent. The 6-1 thrashing of Manchester United showed exactly what they can do when their hit their straps, but on the other hand their indifferent Champions League form shows that they are far from yet being the finished article.
Liverpool, likewise, have spent heavily since the arrival of new owners FSG and have yet perhaps to see full return for their outlay, but they have become a team difficult to beat under Dalglish. Since his return in January only Tottenham in May have pilfered three points from Anfield, and some big names have fallen in front of the Kop.
Given that the Reds became one of the few teams this season to see more of the ball than City, and managed to fashion more than twice as many shots on goal, one may have expected Roberto Mancini’s men to be added to the number of those cast aside. A superlative performance from Joe Hart, however, at his shot-stopping best to hold back the red tide, earned the visitors a point and drew yet more groans of frustration from the Anfield crowd.
There was already planned a minute’s silence for the start of this match. The passing of Brad Jones’ young son Luca after a battle with Leukemia has touched everyone at the club, and when added to the tragic news of Gary Speed’s death, it was for a poignant moment that everyone stood in respect. It was perhaps fitting that, on this of all days, a Manchester City fan was photographed with ‘Justice for the 96′ printed on the back of his shirt, a reminder that there are things bigger than the game which unite us as fans.
Craig Bellamy had been withdrawn from the game by Kenny Dalglish, the Liverpool manager understanding that the Welshman’s need to grieve for a friend and mentor far outweighed any game of football, and in his place came Jordan Henderson. The former Sunderland man was given a central role alongside Charlie Adam and Lucas Leiva and the youngster had a solid, if unspectacular game in his favoured position.
For much of the first half hour it looked like being a long afternoon for Liverpool fans. City controlled the ball, with the home defence sitting deep and looking to protect their goal as the first order of business and attack second. It is worth noting that before Vincent Kompany’s 31st minute opener, the Reds had managed not a single shot on goal, Joe Hart having been given no warning of what lay ahead.
That goal, Kompany’s first real positive effect on the game having spent much of the first half hour being turned inside out by the ever industrious Luis Suárez, was just reward for City’s opening. They may not have been able to cut through Liverpool as they had other sides, thanks largely to the efforts of Lucas Leiva and Daniel Agger in keeping David Silva quiet, but they had looked the more threatening side, and few could argue when the ball looped off Kompany’s shoulder and into the corner of Pepe Reina’s net.
The reaction from the hosts was immediate, however, and almost before the City fans in the Anfield Road end had ceased their celebrations, a significant slice of fortune had the home side level. Charlie Adam’s drives forward from midfield have become a feature of their play this season, and the Dundonian was again found with the ball on the edge of the penalty area. He has hit many a sweeter shot than the one he dragged off target on this occasion, but with Suárez and Dirk Kuyt making runs, Joleon Lescott lost his bearings, stuck out a foot and diverted a harmless shot beyond Hart, bringing Liverpool level.
From that point on the momentum of the game swung inexorably behind the Reds, and they could have been in front soon after, had it not been for the first of Hart’s excellent saves. Some wonderful interplay had seen Suárez spring Kuyt beyond the City defence and the Dutchman, forced wide of goal, had the presence of mind to turn the ball back into Adam’s path, but his shot was turned away by the England goalkeeper’s legs.
The second half, after a very brief flurry from the visitors immediately following the whistle, belonged to Liverpool. From Henderson indulging in a spot of ball juggling fifteen yards from goal to Kuyt heading wide when Kompany deflected a cross towards him, they set their stall out early to take the game to City. There was, of course, the odd moment of panic among their own defence, mostly when an underhit backpass was sent in Reina’s direction and the Spaniard had to use his speed to get them out of trouble, but for the most part it was a wave of Liverpool attack that could so easily have seen them take all three points.
It was nearly another stroke of luck that gave them the lead after the hour mark when Downing, who was having one of his better games in a red shirt, thumped a volley into the turf, the resulting bounce looping the ball towards the corner of the net until Hart leapt high and turned it over the bar for a corner. Soon they again looked dangerous with Suárez wriggling free close to the byline and cutting the ball back into the ‘danger area’. Lescott came close to bagging himself a brace of embarrassing moments, twice slicing his attempted clearance against Kuyt, but eventually the ball dropped wide of the post.
City weren’t shy with their substitutions, sending on attackers in the shape of Mario Balotelli and Edin Dzeko as they looked to swing the game back their way, but the big Italian lasted only eighteen minutes before the latest episode in his self-penned sitcom. Having already been booked for a cynical foul on Glen Johnson, he went into a challenge on Martin Skrtel leading with his arm. By the letter of the law the second yellow card from Martin Atkinson was perhaps correct, but there were few who didn’t think it was harsh. Nevertheless Balotelli was ordered from the pitch and Liverpool smelled blood.
Andy Carroll was sent on in place of Kuyt but it was Suárez who was next to test Hart. The Uruguayan exchanged passes with Henderson and Lucas before creating half a yard of space and thundering in a shot from fifteen yards. Hart may have seen it late with defenders in his way, but he reacted quickly enough to dive across to his near post and tip the ball out for a corner.
The best was yet to come, however, when a superb header from Carroll, two minutes into injury time, looked destined for the corner of the net but Hart’s acrobatic display again came to his side’s rescue, turning the ball out for Liverpool’s eighth and final corner of the match. Sky may have awarded man of the match to Lucas, for his superb and dominating display in midfield, but there was no question that Hart had been the biggest influence on the end result.
1971 – Sunday’s draw was Liverpool’s fourth in a row at Anfield, the first time they have had such a run since 1971.
69 – Lucas Leiva completed 69 of his 75 attempted passes, a completion rate of 92%.
7 – Despite Liverpool’s frustrations this season, they have collected 23 points in the Premier League, 7 more than after 13 games under Roy Hodgson last season.
17 – In their 13 league games so far this season, Liverpool have scored 17 goals, the same as botton-of-the-table Blackburn Rovers. On the other hand, they have conceded only 12, the joint best defensive record in the league, alongside Manchester City and Newcastle United.
“There are a lot of people saddened by what has happened but the most important people at this moment in time are his wife and two boys.
“It’s them your heart goes out to and they’ll need as much support as they can possibly get, and I’m sure they’ll get that because he had an awful lot of good friends. He was a good guy and it’s disappointing for everybody.
“Gary was like a mentor to Bellars. Bellars was a bit upset and I took the decision to say, ‘Look, there are more important things than playing a football match.’” Kenny Dalglish expressed sympathy for the family of Gary Speed.
“Joe Hart was good for them but Lucas was the best player on the pitch – he was amazing. He is playing really well with Charlie who is scoring some important goals for us this season.
“They are both really important for us. Stewart Downing came back into the side and also did well.
“City have some very good strikers but Pepe Reina made some very good saves. At times Pepe was like another centre-back for us!
“But it’s not just down to the back four and the ‘keeper, the whole team are playing really well.” José Enrique reserves special praise for Man of the Match Lucas.
“I don’t think we could have asked for more. In terms of effort and commitment from the players, they were fantastic.
“City started the game better than us, I thought, and scored a goal just as we were getting a foothold in the game. We equalised quickly with a piece of good fortune but that’s where the good luck ran out for us.
“We’ve come up against a goalkeeper who has done what three or four others have done here (this season). He had a fantastic game. Eventually we’ll come up against a goalkeeper who is not saving everything that hits him.” Dalglish was pleased with his players and awaits the day the Reds don’t have to face a super-keeper.
There are days when the simple playing of a football match pales into insignificance, and yesterday was one of them. The thoughts of everyone were with Gary Speed and his family, though when they did finally turn towards the game at hand, there were yet more signs on encouragement for Liverpool. This may have been a fourth home draw on the bounce, but there can be far more solace found in dominating the league leaders and failing to secure victory than doing the same against newly promoted sides. There is no worry that the Reds can compete with and beat the best in the league, it is their ability to put the sword to the ‘smaller’ sides that remains in doubt.
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