Liverpool 1 Steven Gerrard 13' (pk)
A week after falling 3-0 to Manchester City in the league, a Liverpool side without two of their top players returned to face a City side missing three of their best for the first leg of the League Cup semi-finals. In the end, the visitors managed to escape on the back of a Steven Gerrard penalty and a committed—if at times tense and confusing—defensive display, taking a narrow lead home to Anfield for January 25th's second leg.
With Kompany, Toure, and Silva all missing for City, Liverpool always seemed to have a better chance than the week before when they'd bossed possession but fallen to a trio of well taken strikes. Still, City went into the match with a far more expensive squad to pick their replacements from than Liverpool, who as against Oldham played Jay Spearing in the holding midfield role while Andy Carroll returned from the bench to lead the line in Luis Suarez' continuing absence.
None of that was hugely surprising, however, and the real selection shocker was that after having Friday off, Charlie Adam found himself starting on the bench in a move that signalled his recent dip in form hasn't gone unnoticed by Liverpool's coaching staff. As much as Adam not starting was a surprise, so too was that Steven Gerrard was able to start his second game in a row in Adam's place as he continues to work back from the series of injuries and infections that have plagued him for more than a year.
Meanwhile, Jose Enrique also found himself making a rare appearance on Liverpool's bench as Dalglish started the right-footed Glen Johnson at left back to counter the tricky and left-footed Adam Johnson, a move reminiscent of Rafa Benitez playing the right-footed Alvaro Arbeloa against Barcelona and Lionel Messi in the Champions league in years past. It was a role Johnson played to near-perfection, hardly putting a foot wrong outside of a moment late in the first half when Micah Richards used his power and pace to beat Johnson on his weaker left side. Certainly, though, when it came to the reason for his move—namely, negating Adam Johnson—it was a top performance from the Liverpool fullback and another sign that when they want to, Kenny Dalglish and Steve Clarke are more than capable of leaning on tactical ingenuity in order to win a match.
And for much of the first half, their tactics gave Liverpool the run of play, the away side dominating possession for long stretches and stopping City from getting a shot on goal until the 43rd minute. Hart, though, was impressive as always in goal for City, stopping a right-footed effort early from Andy Carroll as the big striker powered past a shaky Stefan Savic, forced into action in Kompany's absence. Soon after, Hart would save City twice more, first stopping a perfectly curled Gerrard effort heading for the bottom corner before blocking Carroll's flick-on of Stewart Downing's volley off the ensuing corner.
Liverpool's second corner in a row, though, would provide the breakthrough, with the ball falling to Daniel Agger in the box. The Danish centre half would poke the bouncing ball past Savic, who flailed wildly at the Liverpool player, bringing him down. There was momentary concern that Agger might have picked up a knee injury as referee Lee Mason pointed to the spot, but when Agger was able to walk away under his own power Gerrard stepped up and beat Joe Hart low and to the left, his drilled effort finding side-netting when the City keeper had guessed right and anything less would have been stopped.
The first signs that everything might not go Liverpool's way came in the 23rd minute when Jay Spearing pulled up with a hamstring injury. With no City player within ten yards of him when he went down and with Lucas out for the remainder of the season, one might reasonably expect Liverpool will now be left without any senior holding midfielder for at least the immediate future.
Back with events in the recent past, however, the immediate result was the introduction of Charlie Adam off the bench. And the immediate result of that was that Manchester City began to see far more of the ball. It wasn't all down to Adam being less suited to the role he was being asked to play than Spearing, but it certainly didn't help Liverpool's fluidity that Steven Gerrard suddenly had to check his attacking instincts and Jordan Henderson—until then putting in perhaps the best performance of his Liverpool career—ended up dropping deeper and deeper to cover as the half progressed.
Things further shifted in City's favour after 39 minutes, when a misfiring and possibly injured Mario Balotelli was removed for Samir Nasri before he could do himself—or anybody standing too close to him—any more damage. It meant a nervy close to the half for Liverpool, with the best chance the one that came from Glen Johnson's one misstep, with Richards beating him to the outside and cutting the ball back to Adam Johnson only for the England international to blast it into the stands from the penalty spot.
If the first half had seen the story shift from Liverpool dominance to desperately hanging on, the second half would at least stick to its theme of dogged defending and hoping to take a lead—or at the very least a draw—back to Anfield for the second leg. And given that no side had shut out Manchester City at home since 2010, as Liverpool sank deeper and deeper throughout the half and City began to press forward, it began to seem inevitable that Reina would be beaten eventually, leaving Liverpool once again regretting that they hadn't fully capitalised on early dominance.
Clearly, though, it was an intended tactical switch from the visiting side and not simply tired legs and City pressure, as first nine and then eventually ten Liverpool players dropped into their own penalty area, defending deep and central and looking to stop a City side lacking a target-man from playing it through them. Early on at least it led to Liverpool trying to play on the counter, but with Carroll left completely alone in the centre circle with absolutely no support it never amounted to much.
It also once again makes it impossible to really judge Carroll's contribution to the match, leaving fans with a first half that was the usual mixed bag of hard work and poor touches that has begun to define the player and a second where he might as well have sat out in a lawn chair for all the times the ball came anywhere near him.
If Carroll's utilisation in the second was as disappointing as his often heavy touch in the first, what was intriguing was the way in which Dalglish and Clarke attempted to tactically nullify City's attack. It was likely Liverpool's most negative display under Dalglish, and it certainly wasn't much fun to watch for long stretches—and at times it seemed as though the players were slow to fully put into practice their frequently changing instructions—but just as clearly there was a lot of thought behind the squad's shifting positioning and personnel as the half progressed.
It all seemed to get more than a touch confusing on 59 minutes, when an underwhelming Stewart Downing found himself removed in favour of Jose Enrique. Downing's performance had certainly been dire, and he fully deserved to be removed from the pitch, but the key reason behind the move was to counter City shifting Adam Johnson off the right wing after Glen Johnson had closed him down all evening.
However, with three fullbacks on the pitch it was far from clear how—or even if—they had been told to set themselves up tactically, with Glen Johnson moving inside as a left-sided centre back in a central trio before pushing ahead and central as something of a cross between a defensive midfielder and sweeper. Johnson made a number of fantastic defensive stops during this time, including a perfectly timed sliding tackle to stop Sergio Aguero in the box, but at times the defensive unit looked as confused as to their new roles as the watching fans were.
Things settled down a fair bit when Johnson moved to the right to counter the introduction of Aleksandar Kolarov and Martin Kelly helped to form a trio of central defenders, but by that time it almost didn't matter who was playing what position—with Carroll dropping deeper and deeper in an attempt to become involved in the game, Liverpool at times had all ten outfield players packed into their own penalty area. And from that point on it was defend, defend, defend, with any moment of Liverpool possession quickly followed by a punt downfield to nobody in particular.
With Jamie Carragher introduced in something of a straight swap for Craig Bellamy on the right wing after 79 minutes, Liverpool would spend the final moments of the game that way, desperate to take the lead home with them. And all the while the fans waited for the seemingly inevitable City sucker punch to draw level.
It nearly came when Aguero headed onto the bar as injury time began, but in a season filled with bad luck and bad bounces for Liverpool, for once the woodwork went their way. On the whole, it was far from a positive display—at times it was downright ugly—and questions will remain about certain players and the wisdom of so wholeheartedly retreating into their shell as Liverpool did, but in the end the result was there, and it's the result that matters. Which, in the end, makes it all seem a little bit like those nervy European away nights of the Benitez era, when tactics and cagey play and the odd nicked goal earned Liverpool countless advantages to take home to Anfield. One can only hope that when the time comes for City to pay their visit later in the month, Liverpool will have rediscovered the kind of home form that might allow them to capitalise on tonight's hard-fought result.