It was not the night that Kevin Keegan will have wanted Michael Owen to rediscover the art of scoring goals, but by this morning the Manchester City manager will have far deeper concerns to ponder than the basics of this defeat. The records tell us that 14 Premiership games without a win is the club's worst sequence for 17 years and for the boss that spells trouble.
The glow of that tumultuous comeback against Tottenham in the FA Cup has been buried beneath the deathly boredom of Sunday's goalless draw with Birmingham City and this result that confirms City's status as below that of the contenders for European places. When Billy McNeill and Jimmy Frizzell took City on a 14-game run without victory in 1987, they also took City down.
When it came to embarrassing sequences, City were not alone. It was nine matches, stretching back to Oct 25, since Owen had scored for Liverpool, but the England striker took only three minutes of the match to put the record straight with the smartest of finishes past David James.
There was a foul by City's new defender, Daniel van Buyten, on the edge of the area, but referee Mike Riley waved on play when the ball fell to Dietmar Hamann, who picked out Owen in the area. Owen swayed past Richard Dunne, moved out to right-back for the evening, and lifted the ball over James into the far corner.
There were still chants of support for Keegan from the relentless City away following, but they must have felt much the same as their chairman looked: despairing and unhappy.
Recalled from the substitutes' bench he has occupied for so much of the last month was Steve McManaman, whose playing return to Anfield for the first time since he left more than four years ago could hardly have been more anti-climatic. In the City attack alongside Jonathan Macken was Robbie Fowler, who has struggled desperately to find the edge of the suspended Nicolas Anelka.
The City attack had done nothing to suggest that they had a goal between them in the first half and when Macken appeared to pull up after the interval, the options on Keegan's bench looked sparse. But the striker stayed on and played his part in distracting a Liverpool defence that kept backing off from an innocuous-looking break by McManaman on 50 minutes.
The midfielder found Shaun Wright-Phillips inside the Liverpool area and his shot across Jerzy Dudek and into the net gave City a hope that they barely deserved. With only three minutes of the half gone they had been uncomfortably close to conceding a second when Steven Gerrard beat Robbie Fowler only to see his goalbound shot cannon off the ankle of Sylvain Distin.
Keegan's respite, and that of his board, lasted only a minute and many of them were still taking their seats when the next gloomy instalment of City's season arrived. In the area with the ball at his feet, Owen seemed unable to slot it into a position he could shoot from, but when possession dribbled towards James, the City goalkeeper was unable to hold on and Gerrard smashed home the rebound.
Despite his hesitancy in front of goal, Owen was proving more and more of a problem for a City defence that has become tougher but no less mobile with the addition of van Buyten. From a Gerrard corner from the right on the hour it was left to McManaman on the line to first block an effort from Anthony Le Tallec and then stop another from Owen.
It was not really a very happy return to Anfield with his new club for James, who went down at Owen's feet in the are on 66 minutes only for the striker to skip clear and, with the area crowded full of players, smash the ball high into the Kop. With Joey Barton sent on to tighten the midfield around Gerrard, the Liverpool captain eluded both his markers and hit a shot that just curved over James's bar.
Liverpool: Dudek, Finnan, Henchoz, Hyypia, Carragher, Le Tallec (Murphy 69), Gerrard, Hamann, Cheyrou (Biscan 85), Kewell (Heskey 59), Owen.
Subs Not Used: Kirkland, Sinama Pongolle.
Goals: Owen 3, Gerrard 51.
Man City: James, Dunne, Van Buyten, Distin, Wright-Phillips, Reyna (Barton 68), Bosvelt, McManaman, Tarnat, Fowler, Macken (Sibierski 77).
Subs Not Used: Jihai, Arason, Elliott.
Goals: Wright-Phillips 50.
Ref: M Riley (W Yorkshire).
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