Manchester City vs. Liverpool: 6 Things We Learned
Liverpool's spell as the Christmas No. 1 came to an end with their 2-1 defeat at Manchester City, but the Reds were impressive enough to suggest that they are more than just a one-hit wonder this season.
Brendan Rodgers' side took the lead the Etihad Stadium through a precise Philippe Coutinho finish following some intricate buildup, but ultimately they were forced to rue defensive sloppiness as goals from Vincent Kompany and Alvaro Negredo turned the tables to take City up to second place in the Premier League behind Arsenal.
Kompany beat Martin Skrtel in the air to head the equaliser, before Negredo profited from a Simon Mignolet error and saw his strike squirm over the line in first-half stoppage time.
Both the timing and the manner of Negredo's goal proved crucial as City protected their second-half lead in the face of fierce Liverpool pressure, with Raheem Sterling wasting the Reds' best chance when he fired over from close range having been found by Luis Suarez.
Sterling had earlier been frustrated by an incorrect linesman's flag in the first half with the score still at 0-0, and ultimately this became an evening of "what might have beens" for Liverpool.
City, however, will take heart from a ninth home league win of the season, albeit one achieved with a fraction of the emphatic nature of pretty much all of the others.
Here are six lessons learned from the Etihad:
City Learn How to Win Ugly
Manchester United, Tottenham and Arsenal had all been blown away at the Etihad earlier in the season, conceding a combined 16 goals that didn't even make up half of the 35 that Manchester City had scored in their eight home league games before Thursday.
But―the glee of the Manchester derby aside―arguably this win has to give Manuel Pellegrini's side the most pleasure.
They were tested and stretched almost to breaking point by this rapidly evolving Liverpool team, one that might have only vague title ambitions but one that certainly looks as though they will be serious contenders for a top-four finish. That was something that was proven even in defeat here.
City dug out this win, and it might well end up being their most important of the season.
Coutinho Adds to His "Numbers," but Only Slightly
Brendan Rodgers must surely have a similar goal in mind in his work with Philippe Coutinho, a player, like Hazard, who has the ability to shine on the fringes of things, but one who needs to improve both his goal output and his ability to assist teammates in scoring.
On the same day that Hazard scored Chelsea's winner at home to Swansea, Coutinho put Liverpool into a deserved lead here, but it will be the chance that he fired at Joe Hart that could have put his team 2-1 up that the Brazilian will remember.
His numbers increased Thursday, but things could have been so much better.
Pellegrini Finds Jesus Instead of Dzeko
Pellegrini started with Negredo and Edin Dzeko up front in the win at Fulham, but the decision to withdraw the Bosnian before the hour mark always suggested that his place in the starting lineup was under threat for one of City's toughest games of the season.
In the end the Chilean boss opted to play Jesus Navas wide right and leave Negredo up top on his own, perhaps looking to exploit the uncertainty on Liverpool's left side, where Aly Cissokho was starting his first game in six weeks.
In the end it was the freedom that this gave Negredo that proved to be the pivotal point.
The Spaniard loves to run beyond the last defender, and in doing so he provided the match's key moment just before half-time―even though few could have expected the limp way in which Simon Mignolet attempted to save his admittedly swerving shot.
The Dreaded "What Ifs?"
Football is full of those Sliding Doors moments, those instances where a slight change here or a decision there would change the course of the history of a match and perhaps even a season.
Raheem Sterling was the centre of both of the most glaring moments here, first being incorrectly flagged offside following a Luis Suarez pass in the first half and then blazing over from Suarez's cross in the second when it looked easier to score.
They were the moments that indicated that this wasn't going to be Liverpool's day, but the Reds now can't let them affect their push to become reacquainted with the top positions in the table come the campaign's end.
The team―and most importantly the seemingly confidence-dependent Sterling―can't afford to dwell on the "what ifs?"
City Look Handily Placed
Having survived the toughest examination of their home form and weakened one of their apparent title rivals in the process, Manchester City look to be in a terrific position heading into the New Year.
They may even approach 2014 on top of the table given that they face a home game with Crystal Palace next whilst current No. 1 Arsenal go to an in-form Newcastle, and Pellegrini could certainly be forgiven for the wry grin that he wore at full-time.
The away form might still be a concern to many, but City are seemingly safe in the knowledge that whoever comes to the Etihad Stadium will be leaving with little more than a cup of tea, and that is a tremendous position of strength to build upon.
Arsenal, Chelsea and even Manchester United might have won on Boxing Day, but City are the team with the power to knock them, Liverpool and the rest out over 38 rounds.
Look Out, Chelsea
Liverpool lost, but they certainly showed enough to suggest that they will trouble Chelsea in what has now become a crucial away game for them on Sunday.
In standing up to City and bettering them for large periods of the game, the Reds will have let it be known that they don't intend on slipping from one of the top four positions in the table any time soon―something aided by Everton's surprise loss at home to Sunderland earlier in the day.
Mourinho would have undoubtedly been watching events closely, and you can expect Chelsea to defend deep next weekend in an attempt to keep the likes of Luis Suarez, Jordan Henderson, Raheem Sterling and Philippe Coutinho from running beyond them.
What is not in doubt though is that the Blues won't be relishing the contest and that Liverpool will fancy their chances of taking something from Stamford Bridge for the fourth season in a row.