Liverpool produce a largely encouraging performance at Anfield, but two defensive lapses cost them points in a match they really should have won. There's plenty to take from this one, both individually and collectively, and even though there's no room in the table for moral victories, it's a largely positive sentiment we're left with after Brendan Rodgers' first match at home in the Premier League.
Liverpool 2: Skrtel 34', Suarez 66'
City 2: Y.Toure 63', Tevez 80'
Most of that positivity started prior to kickoff, with the rumored team sheet proving true, and starts on tap for Raheem Sterling and Sebastian Coates. We'd expected the former to work his way in slowly after a good performance midweek and the latter to again be a casualty of Jamie Carragher's grip on the third central defensive spot, but Rodgers' surprising choices were roundly met with acclaim. Even though it was only two changes, it was the type of eleven that felt like a significant shift, and one that eventually produced a very solid, very promising brand of football.
The returns weren't quite so excellent early, with City on the front foot and Liverpool scrambling. It was mostly skittish and frenetic from the hosts, who easily confused one-touch gusto and sloppiness in possession with an active brand of pass-and-move. The visitors were far better across the opening minutes, with Liverpool hampered by an early injury to Lucas--which looked to be just a thigh strain, thankfully--and a lack of cohesion for the brief moments they managed to have the ball.
Fabio Borini nearly connected on a neat cross from Sterling on the left flank just inside of the twenty minute mark, giving Liverpool their first chance and first real sign of life on the day. They almost conceded straightaway, though, as Carlos Tevez hit an impossible shot from a tight angle that spun across the face of goal and dinked off the far post. It would have been a stunning goal, and that he very nearly made it work was both horrifying and fantastic.
Thankfully Liverpool settled from there, with Joe Allen pacing things along en route to a perfect half in the passing game, and the home side would have control until they took the lead. A dangerous cross from Steven Gerrard almost forced an own goal, and the resulting corner--also from the captain--was met by an onrushing Martin Skrtel, who blasted an unstoppable header past Joe Hart in front of the Kop.
Liverpool held on late in the first half despite conceding a few dangerous-seeming free kicks, and they managed to start the second how they spent most of the first. Patient in possession, ticking the ball along, and pressing from the front. And if anything they could have used more from their forward men, who were active in pressing and movement, but failed to piece together anything significant in the final third.
Just as it seemed like they were growing into the game, however, a constellation of defensive errors gave City the equalizer. A Carlos Tevez cross--allowed by Raheem Sterling, who was covering for an absent Glen Johnson--was nicked by Martin Skrtel, whiffed by Pepe Reina, and controlled sloppily by Martin Kelly. Yaya Toure, who'd pushed further forward after the introduction of Jack Rodwell, was on hand to slot it into the empty net, and all of a sudden Liverpool's lead had vanished.
Minutes later Liverpool were back in front from another set piece, this time after Liverpool had won a free kick some twenty-five yards from goal. Luis Suarez and Steven Gerrard both looked to take, and it was the Uruguayan who curled an inch-perfect strike around the wall and just inside the post, leaving Hart with no chance. For all their frailty after conceding big goals last season, this seemed monumental, as they responded immediately.
The City onslaught was only a matter of time, with David Silva introduced and nerves jangling for the hosts. For the most part Liverpool coped well, with the only significant error being the one that gave City their second equalizer. Martin Skrtel completely lost himself under pressure, and his backpass--the type that Liverpool had played all day and will continue to play in this system--left Carlos Tevez free on goal, where he jinked around Reina and coolly knocked it in. Liverpool huffed and puffed in the final minutes, with Andy Carroll's looping header the only real effort on goal, and the match ended in a draw, with a hundred different feelings rattling around at the same time.
On the one hand there's a lot to be thrilled with, from Brendan Rodgers' team selection to the play of a number of individuals to the fact that Liverpool were, yet again, very good against top-quality opposition. But the tendency to throw away points in matches in which that's the case can't be ignored, and there's a point at which the points need to follow up the performance. That's reality.
It's also reality that if Liverpool can replicate this type of performance, the points will absolutely follow, as the errors we witnessed today are the type that (hopefully) are of the rare sort. We finally got a glimpse at something resembling potential, from Sterling, from Coates, and from the side as a whole. They grew together as the match progressed, and while the narrative as a whole didn't change, the manner in which they went about their business did.
Raheem Sterling was a standout, obviously, not only for the fact that his full Premier League debut came against the defending champions, but because he held his own on both flanks and proved a nuisance on more than one occasion. He needs strength, no doubt, but this type of experience can only boost what looks to be a promising career. The same goes for Coates, who erased his one-per-match catastrophe and didn't look out of place at all; he was just as good as Skrtel on the day, and that the Slovakian committed the error that led to the dropped points gives the Uruguayan the edge. Across the back it was uneven, with Coates and Johnson the standouts, while Skrtel and Kelly were shaky.
There's not enough to be said about Joe Allen, whose early performances have justified his price tag and more. He was remarkable throughout the match and made only two errors on the day--a misplaced pass on 52 minutes and his shot at the death when Liverpool were working around the periphery of the City defense. Lucas' absence hurt, but Allen filled the hole comfortably and stabilized a situation that could have become very messy. Jonjo Shelvey is still green and is an absolute liability without the ball, and while I think he has plenty to offer, I'd like to see Jordan Henderson given more minutes.
It's not there as a whole for the attacking contigent, as Steven Gerrard looked confused and sloppy at times, and each of Luis Suarez and Fabio Borini were isolated at times and didn't have the understanding we'd have hoped for. You get the sense they're on their way, though, and Suarez once again proved his worth both for the goal and beyond, and Borini's tireless running both going forward and tracking back are encouraging.
Today was disappointing, and there's no escaping the fact that Liverpool threw away the win. There's ultimately no progress without getting the results, making today a failure in the sense that it provides very little in terms of practical returns. But if this is an indication of the direction they're headed on a consistent basis, we can feel good that. Both that there's actually a direction in which Liverpool's heading, and that it seems to be one that'll improve the club immensely.