Roberto Mancini was playing for high stakes both on and off the park, as champions Manchester City sought a rare win at Anfield against Brendan Rodger’s young Liverpool braves.
If the fiery Italian was a poker player one suspects he’d be an ace at calling his opponents bluff or, in this case, gambling with three points to get his point over to City’s money men.
What other reason could he have had for pitching Kolo Toure into the fray other than to expose his inadequacies, to prove to those on high at the Etihad of the need to splash the cash on reinforcements…and fast.
Coupled with the prospect of an unsettled Nigel De Jong and frustrated Edin Dzeko also seeking pastures new this season, and one can understand Mancini’s desire to freshen up and strengthen his squad.
And, judging by this largely lethargic showing from City, Brian Marwood and Co would do well to ring the changes this week to help their appease Mancini’s insatiable appetite for success.
Toure the elder and NDJ were two of five changes along with Balotelli, Kolarov and Milner in a somewhat unusual selection given that City were playing the new 3-5-2 formation.
In fairness there was no sign of trouble or unease in the first 15 minutes as City dominated possession with slick passing and movement but no end product. Carlos Tevez went tantalizingly close to opening the scoring on 20 minutes when his effort from an impossible angle rolled along keeper Reina’s goal line and hit the post.
A neat pass from Nasri had the rejuvenated Argentine chasing a nigh on lost cause on the by-line surrounded by the Red’s defence. The fact he threaded his shot through to goal came as a big surprise to Balotelli who displayed the anticipation of a sloth on valium as he languished in the 18 yard box.
Cue Liverpool’s wake-up call which began with a long range effort from Gerrard spinning perilously off Captain Kompany’s boot inches over the City bar, with Joe Hart well beaten.
As the Merseysider’s momentum gathered pace, City’s defending became exponentially exposed. Lamentable zonal marking at a 34th minute corner left Skrtel free to power home a header. Zabaleta and Kolarov combined, were no match in the air for Liverpool’s tattooed terror and Anfield erupted. 1-0.
City repelled the rampaging reds until half time and the sanctuary of the dressing room.
Alas, Mancini’s men continued their lackadaisical labouring after the break. A wayward cross field Yaya Toure pass meant Zabaleta was easily dispossessed by Borini who surged into City territory. He found Suarez who shot inches wide after Yaya made up ground to redeem himself and harass the Uruguayan striker.
The giant Ivorian made an even more telling contribution when he prodded home the equalizer in the 63rd minute, after a Tevez cross from the right wing bobbled free in the six yard box.
Rodwell and Dzeko had replaced the ineffectual Nasri and Balotelli and it was the new recruit from Everton who was penalized – wrongly – by referee Andre Marriner in the run up to Liverpool’s second goal.
A Gerrard shot ricocheted off Rodwell’s legs onto his hands – much the same way as Micah Richards had been punished when conceding a penalty in City’s Carling Cup semi final at Anfield last January. Both decisions were blatantly wrong when handball has to be deemed intentional.
Suarez’s 25-yard free kick arced majestically wide of the sky blue wall and squeezed in the bottom left corner of Hart’s net. A glorious goal and just three minutes after City had levelled.
Now it was the visitor’s turn to push forward and with just 10 minutes remaining Skrtel went schizophrenic and plummeted from hero to zero with a suicidal back pass.
Pressured by Dzeko, Skrtel lost his bearings and played the ball straight to Tevez who kept his composure, rounded Reina and rolled the ball into the gaping goal.
The game was there for either team to win with Shelvey and Dzeko shooting over the respective crossbars. Liverpool substitute Andy Carroll came closest in the dying minutes but Rodwell turned savior, directing the big Geordie’s goal-bound header to safety.
At the end it was the champions who were the more relieved, none more so than their manager who had flirted with disaster, but ultimately strengthened his hand as the transfer window begins to close.