City’s strength in depth makes all the difference but Liverpool never took a step back as they slugged it out with the champions
As across town Manchester United were trying to force through a £60m transfer for Ángel di María, Manuel Pellegrini was addressing what a fine close season Manchester City had enjoyed. “The need for a strong squad is why we have brought in Willy Cabellero, Bacary Sagna, Frank Lampard, Fernando, Eliaquim Mangala and Bruno Zuculini during the summer. It was a big boost that so many have signed new contracts – Samir Nasri, Aleks Kolarov, Sergio Agüero, David Silva, Vincent Kompany and Edin Dzeko,” said the manager before he watched Stevan Jovetic, another squad player, profit from Agüero’s lack of match fitness to open the scoring on 41 minutes and add a second. Once Agüero, who entered on 68 minutes and netted with his first touch, can start games and if he can avoid the injuries that plagued large swaths of his previous campaign, City could be truly frightening.
In the pre-game TV interview Brendan Rodgers said: “We respect the opponent and understand their quality but for us it’s about imposing our game. They’re a very good side here but we’re looking to get on the ball and defend strongly.” The Northern Irishman’s red men proved the embodiment of this promise. Here was a contest befitting last season’s No1 and No2 sides, a heavyweight encounter in which Liverpool slugged it out with the nation’s champion XI and dominated large passages. Any team would miss the scintillating Luis Suárez but Rodgers’ side seem to have already consigned him to distant memory. The fast interplay of ball and man which is the manager’s ethos was correct and present as Liverpool pinned City back on their own patch before a vocal home crowd that continually reminded their counterparts who claimed the championship. The sight of Raheem Sterling, who continues to add muscle to his pace and trickery, trying to bully the towering Yaya Touré and Liverpool’s determination to keep at City even when 3-0 down, climaxing in Pablo Zabaleta’s own-goal, were two microcosms of how Rodgers had sent his men out to play.
Beforehand Pellegrini said: “You cannot stand still in football and having the correct attitude is a big part of being successful. If you want to keep winning titles, if we want to improve on what we did last year, attitude is so important from the start until the end. As a club we did so many things right last season, on and off the field, but that doesn’t mean we cannot learn and improve and that is what we aim to do.” Liverpool dominated large passages yet it was City who had coasted into a two-nil lead by the 55th minute through a Jovetic double, before Agüero added a third. This is all evidence that there is scant sign of the complacency and internal disruption that made City’s Premier League defence of two years ago such a disappointment.
The cautious Manuel Pellegrini had no qualms about publicly discussing having a tilt at all four competitions last season and this time it is the same, with his players already talking the talk. Bacary Sagna said: “The fact is we want to win everything but we know how difficult that will be. There are no secret ingredients to success in the Champions League, you just have to take things on a game-by-game basis and I believe we have the best players in Europe. It’s all about working hard and focusing and we know [we] need to show just how good we are by applying ourselves on the pitch.” Given how Pellegrini, below, has bolstered the squad and how they soaked up Liverpool’s punches, City appear in a far stronger position to venture further in the Champions League than last season’s final-16 stage and in the FA Cup, where the Blues were knocked out in the quarter-finals.
Pellegrini said: “Last season Liverpool were near us to win the title but now it’s a new season a different season, and it’s always important to start winning and being at the top of the table. Both teams have very good attacking players and score lots of goals. The team that defends better will win the game.” Yet what unfolded was a spectacle in which the City and Liverpool midfields were bypassed too easily, with the champions finding it particularly difficult to halt the red wave. First, Daniel Sturridge and Philippe Coutinho left Yaya Touré behind to run at an isolated Vincent Kompany. Then came a counter-punch, Edin Dzeko finding himself in behind with a chance to shoot at Simon Mignolet though the goalkeeper watched the ball roll wide. Fernando, similar to Fernandinho in name, style and appearance, was also guilty of being caught out of position to allow Sturridge, when he dropped back into a No10 slot, to pass him by too easily. Jamie Jackson