|Gerrard (pen) 13|
Liverpool have picked up a vital away goal in recording a 1-0 away victory in the first leg of the 2011/12 Carling Cup Semi-Final at the Etihad Stadium on the evening of Wednesday 11th January 2012.
Andy Carroll had a great early chance when he was played through one-on-one in the Man City area, but Joe Hart was out quickly to make a good save. Savic, the centre half, will have been pleased his goalkeeper was sharp, as he had found himself the wrong side of the big Liverpool forward. Carroll looked disappointed not to have hit the net, after using his physical advantage to shrug off the defender well, but an early statement of intent had been made by Kenny Dalglish’s men.
Manchester City refused to be moved from their patient, passing style, but Liverpool showed a willingness to chase down the odd pass in order to break up City’s rhythm. It looked as though a mis-placed pass leading to a speedy counter attack would be Liverpool’s best hope of an away goal.
In the tenth minute Joe Hart had to be alert once more when Steven Gerrard hit a fine looking low shot from the edge of the City area. Hart dived full stretch to his left to beat away the shot for a corner. From the resulting centre, Hart was even better to save when Stuart Downing’s volley was flicked by Andy Carroll.
Moments later, from the next corner, the referee was pointing to the spot following a foul on Daniel Agger by Savic’s high foot. The challenge was more ungainly and ugly than anything else, but Steven Gerrard was presented with a gilt edged chance to bag the early advantage – and a vital away goal.
This time, Hart was beaten, when Steven Gerrard (pen, 13) smashed the ball right into the bottom left corner. Hart guessed the right way, and dived hard to his right, but he could not touch such a well struck penalty. 1-0 Liverpool.
Liverpool nicked the ball straight from City’s restart, allowing Gerrard to line up another long range strike, but the deflected effort was kept in play by Hart, who prevented another corner.
The sides traded blows for ten minutes or so, during which time both Liverpool’s Andy Carroll and Man City’s Mario Balotelli became aggravated.
Liverpool were disappopinted to see Jay Spearing pull a hamstring in the middle of midfield – he left the pitch on 23 minutes to be replaced by former Blackpool man Charlie Adam.
Adam was soon in the thick of things, as Mario Balotelli worked him for a free kick. The Scot gave Balotelli a playful slap on the head when standing up which seemed to light the Italian’s short fuse just before the half hour mark. His free-kick, unfortunately, was not as firey as his reaction: it powered straight into the red wall.
Andy Carroll then had the next chance of note when he again beat Savic, this time to a cross, and glanced a header just wide in the 35th minute. Liverpool were well worth their lead as the final ten minutes of the first half began.
Samir Nasri came on for Mario Balotelli, who had been looking slightly off the pace for some time, in the 39th minute. City needed something, as, without David Silva and Dzeko, and with a half-fit Balotelli, they had appeared a little short of incision in attack up until this point.
City looked like they needed half time, and appeared sluggish and lacking in ideas when in possession towards the end of the first half. Liverpool stole possession a number of times around the 40th minute and, with a better delivery, could have worked good opportunities from this period of Man City lackadaisy.
Nasri’s impact was immediate, when, given the first decent pass since his introduction, he stung Pepe Reina’s hands in the 43rd minute hitting a powerful low drive for the bottom right hand corner from around 22 yards. The Spanish stopper was good enough to beat the ball away from danger, however.
James Milner was then presented with an excellent opportunity to get the scores level, when Micah Richards beat his man before pulling back to the young England star around the penalty spot. Milner blasted high, though, when a goal beckoned with just 30 seconds of ordinary time remaining in the half.
These two chances did, however, seem to spark some late life into Manchester City, who then won a late corner in the third and final minute of stoppage time. The ball was not cleared effectively, and Adam Johnson worked a free kick by winning a foul from Steven Gerrard right at the death of the half. Nasri, Milner, Micah Richards and Adam Johnson were all gathered around what looked an ideal left-footer’s free-kick.
It was Johnson who struck a curling left-footed strike which flew out high and wide signalling the end of the half.
At half time, Liverpool led 1-0, and deservedly so. But for Joe Hart’s fantastic early interventions, Liverpool could, already, have been out of sight.
Liverpool must have approached this match targeting at least one away goal, but, by the time the interval arrived, it was clear they had an opportunity to put this two-legged tie out of City’s reach, thanks, largely, to a lacklustre home team lacking in the focus and attacking verve usually provided by David Silva, Mario Balotelli and Yaya Toure.
Stefan Savic at centre half was also enduring a difficult day: City really missed Vincent Kompany’s cool headedness at the back. It had been Savic who had given Liverpool’s two best chances, first being pushed off the ball by Andy Carroll; then with his ugly tackle on Daniel Agger which gave away a penalty.
City looked a little more composed when they emerged in the second half, and began to get their flowing, passing game going again. In particular, Nasri looked lively when dropping a little deeper to collect the ball, and playing passing interchanges with those around him. But Liverpool were, quite rightly, content to allow City possession well away from the danger area.
Jordan Henderson put in a good sprint to get clear up the left flank for Liverpool ten minutes into the second half, but was unable to find either of Carroll or Bellamy with his cross.
This appeared to inject a little life into the game, though, and Liverpool and City both looked keen to grab the next goal. It was Sergio Aguero, of Manchester City, who would be presented with the opportunity, when Liverpool played him in when Kelly hit a poor back-pass onto which the Argentine sprinted. Pepe Reina was out smartly to close down the angle, meaning, even though Aguero did beat him, the shot which eventually came was from a tight angle, and flew over the target.
City had produced yet another clear goal-scoring chance and Liverpool looked like a side who needed to regain and retain possession better in order to prevent giving away more chances, one of which would surely be taken.
With just over half an hour left, more City pressure led to a Man City corner, which saw a Johnson cross headed powerfully by Micah Richards who leapt higher than all around him. Pepe Reina produced a great low save to maintain the Reds’ advantage.
Jose Enrique came on to replace Stuart Downing on 60 minutes, as Liverpool reverted to a more defensive approach, seemingly keen to protect their advantage. Glen Johnson was pushed into a defensive midfield position, protecting the back four, into which Enrique had slotted.
Sergio Aguero then worked himself an opportunity when he raced onto Nasri’s pass before turning three defenders with one move. His right footed shot was weak, though, and easily fielded by Pepe Reina in the Liverpool net.
Moments later, Adam Johnson was replaced by the strong forward Edin Dzeko, who Roberto Mancini must have hoped, would add the bite that City’s attacking line had lacked in the first 66 minutes.
City had worked a number of good crossing positions in the second period which had seen crosses pass through the Liverpool area in dangerous positions with no City player near them. Another such moment passed when Clichy played a good-looking ball through the box that Edin Dzeko had not anticipated moments after his introduction.
Signs were there, though, that City would produce more goal threat in the final quarter, as they began to retain possession and push for the goal they needed to get on level terms. However, with Liverpool’s defensive stall now well and truly set out, it appeared as though City would have to play through at least two walls of Reds to produce a goalscoring opportunity.
Nasri was the next to work a half chance, when he grabbed a yard just outside the box before hitting a high shot which sailed over the bar.
Mancini played his final card as Nigel de Jong was brought off to be replaced by Aleksandar Kolarov with just under 20 minutes remaining. His first touch came soon after when he was offered the chance to cross from a free-kick wide on the right, an attempt which was overhit and went out for a goal kick.
Gareth Barry was presented with an excellent opportunity in the 79th minute when he received a cross from the right. Pepe Reina came out once more, and his presence seemed to put Barry off as the City player appeared to pull away from the onrushing keeper when a flick of his left foot might have seen the net bulge from what would have been a 50:50 challenge.
Carragher came on for Craig Bellamy with just over ten minutes remaining, reaffirming Kenny Dalglish’s wish to maintain the status quo. Carragher promptly wound up Samir Nasri and both players became the first and second in the referee’s book.
As the clock ticked into stoppage time, Aguero jumped to meet a cross, only to see his glanced header go over the bar when, again, he perhaps should have done better when entirely unmarked from 6 or 7 yards.
A couple of minutes later, and the final whistle sounded with Liverpool’s job in this two-legged semi-final half done. Their hard work had seen them emerge, deservedly, 1-0 winners over Manchester City.
An under par Man City will be disappointed with their efforts going forwards in this match, but will be thankful to their goalkeeper that their task in a couple of weeks’ time is not at least twice as difficult.
Liverpool will host Manchester City on the evening of Wednesday 25th January 2012 at Anfield knowing that another defensive clean sheet will see them through to a Wembley Final against Championship opposition for this year’s League Cup.