They left The Etihad having accomplished both. It wasn’t pretty at times. Kenny Dalglish and his players wont care.
The Reds, no doubt encouraged by the absence of Kompany , Toure and Silva took the game to the hosts from the kick off. They were rewarded in the thirteenth minute when Steven Gerrard’s penalty, following a foul on Daniel Agger put them in front. Gerrard had given the goalkeeper a clue with a clear look towards the corner that he targeted but such was the accuracy and power of the kick it beat Hart’s outstretched hand.
Leading up to what proved to be the winning goal Hart had been forced into three outstanding saves. Andy Carroll was first to be denied as his shot, following a flicked through ball from Downing, was cleared by the goalkeeper with his legs. Minutes later Gerrard curled a shot through a forest of bodies and the England keeper did well to push it away at his left post. From the resulting corner Downing hit a left foot volley that again had Hart diving to his left to force the ball away. The pressure in and around City’s penalty area proved too much for City’s young centre half Savic as he caught Agger on the knee following another Gerrard corner and the Liverpool captain applied the finishing touch from the spot.
The response from City was tepid. Liverpool continued to dominate possession and the midfield trio of Gerrard, Henderson and Spearing controlled that crucial area of the pitch. In the twenty-third minute Spearing limped off with a tight hamstring, to be replaced by Charlie Adam, and Liverpool’s game plan was forcibly altered. Immediately following the change the momentum stayed with Liverpool and City seemed reluctant to commit men forward in search of an equalizer. Mancini replaced an ineffective Ballotelli with Sami Nasri in the thirty-ninth minute and finally City showed some attaching threat ending the half with Milner missing a great opportunity to score before Johnson curled a free kick harmlessly wide and over the bar.
The second half took on a completely different complexion as Liverpool ceded territory and possession to Man City and the game was transformed into what amounted to an exhibition of attack versus defence. Fortunately for the Reds City lacked the nous to find a way through the packed Liverpool defence. When they did, and their best opportunity came when Kelly put Aguero through with a ill conceived back pass, Pepe Reina was equal to the task. The Red’s keeper was also called upon to deny Aguero’s low struck shot and Richard’s header but never looked over extended. It was a case of the ends justifying the means for Dalglish and those means included finishing the game with six defenders after Enrique and Carragher were introduced for Downing and Bellamy. That could have been reduced to five had Johnson’s tackle on Lescott received the red card that technically it seemed to warrant. Once more, following on from Kompany’s dismissal for a similar tackle just days before, the argument centred around referee consistency. It’s an unrealistic expectation to have all referee’s apply the rules in the same way given the speed of the game, different positioning etc but it moves the introduction of temporaneous video review ever closer if it is to be achieved.
The second half made for uncomfortable viewing at times as it seemed impossible to see how Liverpool would respond had City scored and one could have easily led to another. However, that fear remained untested, as the defence held firm and City’s attack was ultimately toothless.
The second leg at Anfield is now set up to be a fascinating occasion with the game far from over. Liverpool and Dalglish will face the dilemma of how freely to attack knowing that an early goal will give them some breathing room but to concede will hand City a huge boost. The prize at stake is a trip to Wembley but the experience and tension of the occasion will stand the team in good stead for Champions League football next season should it be achieved. It will be the first game this season at Anfield in this competition, it promises to be worth waiting for.