It wasn’t so much jingle bells more like jangling nerves as Manchester City edged table toppers Liverpool 2-1 in a ding-dong feast of festive football fayre.
And in keeping with the seasonal sentiment of peace and goodwill, Liverpool keeper Simon Mignolet must have mixed up his Christian festivals big time, presenting victory to City on ‘Palm Thursday’.
The Belgian flapped an insipid right hand at Alvaro Negredo’s 45th minute shot and The Beast of Christmas Present wrapped up the points, giving the City faithful a belated but massively appreciated gift.
How apt that Jesus himself slipped the slide rule perfect pass through to City’s Spanish hitman, before Negredo’s less than convincing strike bounced off Mignolet’s flailing hand into the net.
City, spurred on by the Lazarus-like recovery of Argentine lionheart Pablo Zabaleta, surprisingly and delightfully restored at right back, were made to sweat on their ninth consecutive home win.
Liverpool were by far the best opponents to be dispatched by Manuel Pellegrini’s entertainers at Fortress Etihad, with the Merseysiders coming to battle and not a hint of any unseemly bus parking.
A high octane affair between the Premier League leaders and the PL title favourites was riddled with controversy amid the spectacle of a thrilling, fast moving and fluent affair.
But rather than have the match celebrated by the media, Brendan ‘bleating’ Rodgers grabbed all the headlines with his hyper-critical comments of the match officials.
The Liverpool boss will feel his attack on referee Lee Mason and his assistants, is justified after Raheem Sterling’s early onside strike was ruled offside. It was a desperately poor call by some highly inept officials, but it is easily forgotten that the immaculate Joe Hart had ceased playing at the ref’s whistle, as Sterling scored.
Rodger’s ire was also inflamed when Uruguay’s finest ever Roland Rat impersonator, Senor Luis Suarez, clearly had his shirt pulled by City’s Joleon Lescott for what was a stonewall penalty.
The fact the hugely talented striker chose to exaggerate the foul with a ‘Hands Up Hallelujah’ type dive, cost him a genuine spot kick.
Prima facie Rodgers, the TV pundits and the Anfield adorers in the media had a case. A disallowed goal and a penalty – Liverpool would have won 3-2 and City would have been exposed as fraudsters masquerading as would be champions.
How convenient that so many of the aforementioned assembly of ‘experts’, commentators and ‘journalists’ should forget Martin Skrtel’s valiant attempts at his World Wrestling Federation audition.
Liverpool’s Slovakian national captain delivered a dazzling array of moves on his Belgian counterpart, Vincent Kompany – as his attempts at headlocks, Half Nelsons, Full Nelson’s and even the whiff of a Boston Crab – went blissfully unpunished by the gloriously inept Mason.
It’s funny how Rodger’s omitted to mention the three penalties that should have gone against his team thanks to Skrtel’s skirmishes. A confident Yaya or a deadly AK47, Aleksander Kolarov, would surely have fired home the penalties…so that would be 5-3 to City with Liverpool’s goal difference diminished by a further goal.
Go on Brendan have a bleat about that then!
As stated, Rodgers does deserve credit for assembling a pacy and purposeful ‘Pool’ side who displayed composure and real cutting edge. City were genuinely troubled, particularly by the passing and movement of Suarez, Brazilian Philippe Coutinho and England starlet, Raheem Sterling, no more so than in the 24th minute.
The three waspish wonders combined to engineer the opening goal, with Coutinho turning the ball past a helpless Hart.
City had fallen behind at home for only the second time in nine home PL games, the previous occasion being the blue scousers in early October. It could have been different if Navas’ header hadn’t hit Mignolet’s post in the early exchanges when City dominated.
City were level on the half hour when Kompany managed to break away from Skrtel’s attempts to exchange shirts during match time. The City skipper’s second goal in two matches was a powering header from a David Silva corner.
Recently re-instated Joe Hart was as sharp as Christmas holly, making several vital stops to prevent the league leaders regaining the advantage.
By contrast, the normally reliable Mignolet was at fault with what ultimately proved to be the winner. One can only cringe at the manner that Hart would have been metaphorically crucified by the media had it been his mistake. Such is the rabid pack-like intentions aimed towards City.
With talisman Sergio Aguero destined to miss at least a dozen games with a calf injury, City are still hitting the net with encouraging regularity. The Boxing Day night brace makes it 53 in the opening 18 PL fixtures, equalling the record set by…Manchester City in 2011/12.
It’s now 59 home league games on the spin that City supporters have at least one goal to celebrate, none more so than Negredo’s, which was just one of 20 attempts on Mignolet’s goal.
The spotlight this season has rightly been on City’s goal scoring prowess but, in the wake of this narrow victory, the contribution of a much maligned, oft changed defence should not be under estimated.
Normally Scrooge-like, City’s defence, the meanest in the PL since 2010 has recovered to be the 5th best in the top flight. Zabaleta’s unexpected return and the pending reinstatement of Matija Nastasic will give Pellegrini the chance to select his ultimate back four.
Under Mancini, Gael Clichy would have been an undisputed first choice at left back, but Kolarov’s increasingly competent defensive displays may now give him the edge.
Renowned for his rocket free kicks and lightning fast crosses, the likeable Serbian was exemplary against the nifty Liverpool forwards with a trio of superb last ditch tackles and interceptions.
Admittedly only two PL games into his ‘resurrection’, Joe Hart is shaping up to being the Joe of old, instilling confidence in his team mates. His shot-stopping and judgement calls were 100% in this vital game and Pellegrini seems satisfied that the England keeper CAN continue as City’s number one.
If City can benefit from mended bodies returning to the fray, Pellegrini can rotate his squad for the rigours of playing games every three days, so Costel Pantilimon may yet return in the FA and Capitol One Cup ties in January.
A clean bill of health and a settled defence could be just as important as the headline grabbers and goal-getters in the days, weeks and months that lie ahead.
Let’s face it a few shut-outs would be welcomed by Joe, as he chases his fourth consecutive Golden Glove Award for the least number of goals conceded.
A win over Palace could see City top the table if Arsenal falter at Newcastle, a great achievement by a squad, subjected to a glut of injuries and still minus Super Sergio.
By David Walker