With not one but two old boys returning to Anfield yesterday - and both of them strikers - this was always going to be a tricky one for Gerard Houllier. The Liverpool manager had spoken on the eve of the game of Robbie Fowler's mistake in choosing to leave Liverpool, but it was the player who wanted to stay who may have done irreparable damage to the Merseysiders' Champions' League ambitions.
The penalty by Nicolas Anelka, which wiped out Milan Baros's earlier strike for Liverpool, may have made little difference to his former club's requirements next Sunday at Stamford Bridge, but the Frenchman's injury-time winner - a chest-high volley struck with his weaker left foot - has left Liverpool needing to win to claim the fourth and final Champions' League spot.
With seconds remaining, a draw meant that Liverpool only needed another one to keep them ahead of Chelsea and their superior goal difference, but then Fowler made his one telling contribution to the game as he and Shaun Wright-Phillips combined to set up Anelka.
The irony of his goal will not be lost on his fellow Frenchman in west London next week should victory prove too much for Houllier's side. A year ago the moody one seemed poised to make his temporary move from Paris St-Germain permanent when Houllier had a sudden change of mind and opted to sign El-Hadji Diouf.
The last time Anelka was at Anfield he was banging home a goal for Liverpool in a 5-0 rout of Ipswich Town. But the visitors yesterday were never likely to suffer such a reverse, so lacklustre were Liverpool for at least half this match.
The theory was that City, with little to play for except a top-half-of-the-table finish and a defence which is always liable to capitulate at the merest threat, would be easy prey for the six-goal maulers of West Bromwich Albion the previous week. But Anelka was not the only Frenchman in a blue shirt who was in a cantankerous mood. Sylvain Distin and David Sommeil were so vigilant that, for almost an hour, the only threat to City were a couple of free-kicks from Steven Gerrard that were brilliantly dealt with by Peter Schmeichel.
Not for the first time this season Houllier ought to have been concerned by the lack of creativity in his midfield. It is something he is going to have rectify if next season is not to follow the same disturbing pattern as this. How they cry out for a playmaker, for all Gerrard's occasional raking passes from deep. It would have been interesting to see what City's Ali Bernabia would have done in a red shirt.
Even so, Liverpool would surely have scored in the first half had it not been for Schmeichel, old red nose turned blue nose, as Kevin Keegan put it. The City manager lamented that he would not be able to "replace him like for like" when he retires at the of the season.
If his first save, from a shot arrowed towards the top corner by Gerrard, was brilliant, his second, from a vicious, swerving drive, was inspirational, as at the last split-second he thrust out his ample breast to deflect the ball wide.
Fowler was guilty of arguing with the referee, Neale Barry, about a tackle by Didier Hamann while Diouf got on with the business of crossing for Baros to volley Liverpool ahead after 58 minutes. Had a shot by Diouf not then crashed against the underside of the crossbar and been grabbed by Schmeichel as it bounced up off the line, Liverpool might have gone on to win.
As it was, City were allowed back in for what was only their second win in 30 visits to Anfield. With 16 minutes to go Djimi Traore sent Anelka crashing to earth as he ran onto an astute through ball by Bernabia and the Frenchman himself rolled home the spot kick. And then that rapier through the heart.
"It's a final," said Houllier of next week's game, searching for a silver lining, "but we like finals."
Liverpool: Dudek, Carragher, Traore, Hyypia, Riise, Diouf (Heskey 78), Hamann (Cheyrou 78), Gerrard, Murphy, Owen, Baros.
Subs Not Used: Arphexad, Diao, Biscan.
Booked: Hamann, Heskey.
Goals: Baros 59.
Man City: Schmeichel, Dunne, Sommeil, Distin, Wright-Phillips, Barton, Benarbia, Horlock, Jensen, Fowler, Anelka.
Subs Not Used: Nash, Macken, Jihai, Bischoff, Belmadi.
Booked: Horlock, Dunne.
Goals: Anelka 74 pen, 90.
Ref: N Barry (N Lincolnshire).
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