As the floodlights went out before the players entered pitch it was hoped it would build an atmosphere. It wasn’t successful. This was a semi-final of the Carling Cup, two games away from the Wembley final, but you would never have guessed. Just over 36,000 witnessed the game at the Etihad Stadium, a disappointing attendance from the Manchester City fans given it was the semi-final of a winnable trophy. Whether it was the high ticket prices just after Christmas and two home games already in January, or the fact that it was shown live on the BBC, it compounded a miserable night for the club. City lacked tempo, pace and creativity and the atmosphere in the ground was just as flat as the performance.
Having played Liverpool nine days earlier and beaten them 3-0 in the Premier League, the Blues were optimistic about their chances. City, despite being weakened by the absence of their three best players in Silva, Kompany and Yaya Toure, fielded what was their strongest possible side – recalling Mario Balotelli after an ankle injury and seeing Joe Hart return in goal.
City were thankful for Joe Hart in the opening ten minutes as Liverpool started brightly and forced Hart into making 3 world class saves. The first from Andy Carroll who managed to turn inexperienced centre-back Stefan Savic with ease, the second from Gerrard who’s curling shot was pushed past the post for a corner. The third coming from the resulting corner was the best of the lot. Gerrard whipped the ball to the edge of the box where Downing caught it beautifully on the volley and hit it towards goal. The shot took a deflection and Hart managed to get down low to push it wide. Were it not for the heroics of Joe Hart, easily the best goalkeeper in the Premier League, City would have been a goal down.
Minutes later they were a goal down. Another corner from Gerrard wasn’t cleared by City’s defence and Stefan Savic’s mistimed tackle caught Daniel Agger on the knee, the referee awarded a clear penalty which was despatched by the Liverpool skipper.
Having gone a goal up Liverpool seemed content to see the game through, returning to Anfield for the second leg with a one goal advantage. As City pressed for an equaliser they lacked the guile of David Silva and the power of Yaya Toure and could not find a way past Liverpool goalkeeper Jose Reina. On the stroke of half time, a bursting run from stand-in captain Micah Richards saw him easily get past Johnson and cross the ball for Milner who blasted his shot over the bar. It was a probably City’s only clear cut chance of the match.
The second half saw more of the same; City struggled to break down a defensive Liverpool side, and after even after the introduction of Aleksandar Kolarov and Edin Dzeko the Blues just could not find a way through.
In the dying moments of the game, City’s man-of-the-match Micah Richards powered a header at Reina from a corner but the Spaniard parried it and Liverpool were able to clear. With time running out and City pressing forward, Glen Johnson made a two footed tackle in the direction of Joleon Lescott. It was a tackle that won the ball cleanly, but looked much worse than Vincent Kompany’s on Sunday in the Manchester derby. Johnson’s challenge went unpunished whereas Kompany’s was given a straight red card. Neither challenge warranted a red card; a clean, forceful challenge that won the whole of the ball and made no contact with the player is not a challenge we want to eradicate from the game. If, however, the law states that a challenge like that is one that does merit a sending off when will we see the consistency from referees to enforce these laws?
By the letter of the law Kompany’s tackle was a red card. By the letter of the law Johnson’s tackle was a red card. It leaves a bitter taste in the mouths of City fans who see their inspirational captain sidelined for four matches, whilst Johnson receives no punishment.
The game finished 1-0 to Liverpool and City have it all to do at Anfield in two weeks time.