Vincent Kompany bundled in a David Silva corner kick in the 31st minute, and moments later Joleon Lescott deflected a Charlie Adam shot for the equalizer as Liverpool drew 1-1 with Manchester City at Anfield on Saturday.
For the second straight week, the Reds played with a heavy heart as news of Wales manager Gary Speed’s death filtered across Britain early Saturday morning.
Kenny Dalglish had signed the former Welsh international while manager of Newcastle, and Craig Bellamy considered him a mentor and was said to be devastated by the news, causing Dalglish to withdraw him from the lineup.
Under this pall then, arguably the biggest match between the two clubs kicked off. The gravity of the stakes was reflected in the conservative lineup fielded by both managers, with Roberto Mancini opting to keep both Edin Dzeko and Mario Balotelli on his bench.
Dalglish in turn fielded Luis Suárez as the lone striker ahead of a five-man midfield of Dirk Kuyt, Charlie Adam, Lucas Leiva, Jordan Henderson and Stewart Downing. Meanwhile the defensive quartet of Glen Johnson, Martin Skrtel, Daniel Agger and José Enrique started their third game in a row at the back.
Dalglish certainly would have wanted to slow a City juggernaut which came in having scored 23 goals in six away games, and on a six-game run of scoring at least three goals. The focus seemed to be on stymieing the midfield play of Silva and Yaya Touré, in which the Reds largely succeeded.
The first real threat came off an Enrique back pass in 17th minute that was almost intercepted by Sergio Agüero, but for the brilliant play of goalkeeper, Pepe Reina, who put the errant pass out of touch for a throw-in.
The play was emblematic of Reina’s stellar performance on the day but he was hung out to dry by his defense on Kompany’s goal. Kuyt failed to get between his man and Silva’s dart from the corner flag and the ball deflected in off the Belgian’s left shoulder and into the far side netting.
A scant minute and a half later Kuyt would make amends of sorts, picking up a loose ball in the City final third and teeing up Adam for a 25-meter shot on goal.
The ball appeared to be going well wide of Joe Hart’s goal, but Lescott somewhat instinctively put his right foot to it to deflect it past Hart and into his own net. Adam was unfortunate not to add a second minutes later when Joe Hart somehow got a boot to his low drive on goal.
A minute later and it would be Glen Johnson’s turn to threaten the City defense, when he picked up a Suárez lay off and placed a shot just wide of the far post. Liverpool were rampant and City desperately sought to hang on until the half.
City came out with renewed purpose after the break and Liverpool soon found themselves on the back foot and under heavy pressure. Gael Clichy put in an immediate strong challenge to win the ball from Kuyt, leading to Samir Nasri’s errant 25-meter effort on goal.
Liverpool would soon settle, however, and soon Downing would find Kuyt with a deflected cross to the right of the City goal. All the Dutchman could do was head it into the ground harmlessly wide, having been forced to adjust himself in mid-air by the deflection.
Reina was called into action again in the 62nd, when Gareth Barry tried to send Agüero through on goal. The Liverpool custodian alertly came outside the box and—perhaps channeling his outfield days on the playground—put in a tackle on Agüero to put the ball out of play.
The teams would exchange chances with Liverpool testing Hart time after time, with the current England first-choice keeper proving himself up to the challenge on each occasion.
The sole remaining drama would be provided by the temperamental Balotelli, who made a brief cameo appearance, long enough to earn himself two silly yellow cards and a sending off.
In the 77th minute, the enigmatic Italian cynically fouled Johnson for his first caution, only to follow that up with a silly challenge into the back of Skrtel for his second booking.
Mancini can try all he wants to blame the Reds for influencing the referee, but Martin Atkinson is a man who hardly needs any influencing, and Balotelli needs to do better. Despite everything, City must consider themselves fortunate that Hart was able to save them from utter disaster in the end.
As always, player ratings are presented by position (back-to-front) below, along the following guidelines:
10: Exceptional— superlative performances only.
9: Excellent— outstanding performance.
8: Impressive— very influential game.
7: Very good— eye-catching game.
6: Average— good game, but nothing overly impressive.
5: Below Average— decent performance, but with some faults.
4: Poor— many faults, performance stands out for all the wrong reasons.
Additionally, any performance which affects the outcome of the game will increase or decrease a player’s rating by half a point (.5)
Reina— had a brilliant day in goal for Liverpool demonstrating that he’s much more than a fine shot stopper, but also reads the game extremely well. Was put into an awkward situation by the Enrique back pass but dealt with it with aplomb, much as he did all game. Was let down by his defense on the Kompany goal. Grade 8.5
Johnson— continues to justify his manager’s faith in him and silence the minority of fans calling for Martin Kelly to get the nod over him in the starting lineup. Completely bottled up Nasri all game and worked well with Skrtel to contain Agüero, turning the two City threats into mere spectators for most of the encounter. Also found time enough to venture forward and join in the attack, terrorizing Clichy’s right side, particularly in the first half. Grade 8
Skrtel—had a stellar game in defense, particularly helping keep Sergio Agüero in check. Won every aerial challenge and is forming a very nice partnership with Johnson and Agger. His battles with Balotelli, though brief, were key to quieting the City attack in the second half. Last week I questioned whether he would start ahead of a healthy Jamie Carragher, but surely now that question has been answered in the affirmative. Carragher is a very good player, but Skrtel in enjoying a fine run of form at the moment. Grade 8
Agger—had a fine game in central defense despite having to deal with the constant threat presented by Agüero and Silva in particular. He is quickly emerging as the vocal leader of this present Liverpool back line, proving himself an able substitute to Carragher in that regard. Grade 7
Enrique—had yet another sub-par game today which worryingly seems to coincide with the uptick in the quality of Liverpool’s opponents. Owes his countryman a few tapas after Reina saved him from embarrassment with the back pass. Another sloppy giveaway intended for Downing in 52nd was fortunately dealt with by the Liverpool defense before any harm could come of it. All was not lost for him though, as he got in front of a Clichy cross intended for Agüero on the back post to silence a late City threat, offering a nice slaloming run of his own in 75th, before shooting high and wide. Grade 6
Kuyt (Andy Carroll 84th)— had a much more influential game than he did against Chelsea, but still not quite up to standard. Did very well to set up Adam’s 37th-minute effort, and to put in his own tepid effort off the Downing cross in the 53rd. He was also very influential on the defensive front pairing with Lucas to minimize the influence of Touré and Silva in the City midfield. Grade 6.5
Lucas— had perhaps his finest game of the season for Liverpool, and easily was the Reds’ defensive Man of the Match. Answered the call whenever a crucial interception was needed in midfield and hardly had to put in a tackle—so acute was his reading of the game. When one considers the quality of the opponents that he faced in Silva and Touré, the accomplishment takes on even greater significance. Easily could have had an assist on Suárez’ 89th-minute effort, were it not for yet another astonishing save by Hart. Grade 9
Adam— finally seems to be settling in at Anfield and turning around his game from the disappointing start to the season. His shot on goal wasn’t particularly well-taken, but he’s proven it true that you cannot score unless you give it a try. His set-piece delivery was much improved from last game, but still a couple of his corners failed to clear the first defender. His defensive effort has steadily been improving as well. Grade 8
Henderson— did not have a huge visceral impact on the game, but he did well to support the attack at times and put in a solid shift defensively in midfield. It was not exactly an anonymous performance along the lines of his early-season games, but not far from it. Grade 6
Downing— made his way back into the starting lineup after coming off the bench against Chelsea and seemingly got the message (if one was indeed intended). While still not the performance fans would have expected (why, for instance, didn’t he take on Micah Richards more when the opportunity presented itself?), but he was certainly more assertive than he had been in recent games. Did well to create a couple opportunities for his teammates, and forced Hart into a difficult save off a mishit chance. Grade 6.5
Suárez— rebounded from his disappointing game against Chelsea with a much more inspired performance against City. Still failed to find the back of the net, befuddling fans and fantasy managers alike, but his impact on the game cannot be overstated. Continued to draw the attention of both City center backs, earning Kompany an early booking and drawing several fouls on both him and Lescott. Could have easily had at least one goal and several assists were it not for Hart's superhuman effort in City’s goal. Grade 8
Carroll— did not have much of an impact after replacing Kuyt in the 84th minute, but did force Hart into a difficult diving save off his header late in the game. Grade 6
Not used: Alexander Doni, Jamie Carragher, Jay Spearing, Martin Kelly, Maxi Rodriguez, Sebastian Coates.