PERHAPS those in charge of programme planning at the two satellite broadcasters really are blessed with the gift of being able to see into the future.
When the roster for this weekend’s round of televised matches was published just after Christmas, eyebrows were raised that a potentially titanic clash between Manchester City and Liverpool was missed off the list.
Now we know why those tussles between Wigan and Tottenham, Blackburn and Bolton, not to mention that blockbuster between Aston Villa and Burnley, were all deemed fit for broadcasting ahead of this.
City against Liverpool should have been a contest that crackled with excitement, a collision when an established Champions League side had their credentials for fourth spot sternly examined by an up-and-coming ensemble.
With more than £250m of talent on the pitch, surely it was not beyond reason to expect someone, somewhere to conjure up a magic moment that would quicken the pulse and fire a message of intent in the battle for fourth place?
Apparently so. Having sat through what amounted to 96 minutes of utter boredom, both sets of supporters came away from the City of Manchester Stadium wondering what all the fuss was about after a game that provided more questions than answers.
Taking a point may have handed Roberto Mancini’s side advantage in the race for that final Champions League spot – they are level on points with Tottenham with a game in hand – but it will be a miracle if, come May 9, they end the campaign there.
Laboured, lacking any kind of attacking verve and struggling to deal with the weight of expectation on their shoulders, City did absolutely nothing to convince they are ready to start rubbing shoulders with Europe’s elite.
The problem, however, for Liverpudlians today is that neither did their team. As he headed for home last night, Rafa Benitez was visibly frustrated, as were the majority of his players, that two more points had been frittered away.
City were there to be torn apart.
Reports yesterday morning of problems in the dressing room appeared spot on, as the 11 men playing in laser blue failed to show any kind of spirit.
A team playing with elan would have had little difficulty ransacking their home, as the suspicion from the first whistle was that their tetchy home crowd – all groans, mumbles and howls of derision – was ready to turn at the first sign of trouble.
Liverpool, though, were desperate. Unable to string any kind of slick, stylish passing moves together, short of pace on the flanks and lacking speed of thought, they were pedestrian when circumstances demanded they be positive.
That Shay Given only had one save to make either side of half-time – and that a routine one from Steven Gerrard – tells you everything you need to know about what Liverpool were like as an attacking force.
Such a frustration. The longer the Reds continue to be so ham-fisted in the final third of the pitch, the more they pass the ball backwards and sideways or – worse still, keep finding the opposition – the harder it will be for them to reach their main objective.
After making a bright start, when they gave cause for optimism that this would be a first happy away day since December 29, they never moved forward at all; whenever they got within an ace of City’s 18-yard box, inevitably their world would cave in.
Attempts at adroit flicks went out of play, subtle through balls clattered into the legs of defenders and, worst of all, the ‘Hollywood passes’ – those raking, cross field change of plays – ended up in the stands.
Gerrard, in fairness, did his best to inspire some kind of change in pace but, unfortunately, the two balls of supreme quality he produced in the game just failed to come off.
First, a precise corner from the right seemed destined for Daniel Agger’s head but, much to City’s relief, Joleon Lescott managed to get the faintest of touches to divert it away from the Danish defender.
More vexing was the ball Gerrard squirted through to Agger’s defensive cohort Martin Skrtel just before half-time; unmarked six yards from goal, the Slovakian could not make Given work with what was ultimately a free-header.
While he failed to win the game for Liverpool, Skrtel did at least save the game for them; when Emmanuel Adebayor skipped clear with 80 minutes on the clock, a deep sense of foreboding gripped every watching Red.
Thankfully, Skrtel kept his poise, stretched out a leg and spirited the ball away from Adebayor, just as he was about to shoot; it was a moment of real quality and so pleasing to see.
Since he suffered knee ligament damage on this ground in October 2008, when Liverpool came from behind in spectacular fashion, Skrtel has often looked a pale shadow of the player that arrived from Zenit St Petersburg.
Shaky, indecisive and seemingly short of confidence, some of his play has left certain observers covering their eyes, fearing an impending calamity – think about his performance at Anfield against the same opposition last November.
Yet here he was much more like the Skrtel Benitez paid a then club record fee for a defender two years ago; he had no margin for error when Adebayor turned on his heels but his tackle was, in a word, impeccable.
Sadly, that word is not one you would use to describe anything else associated with the afternoon and, to make matters worse, Liverpool will face an FA fine after six of their players had their names taken by referee Peter Walton.
This was not a game full of malice or spite, so the number of cautions came as a surprise; saying that, they can consider themselves fortunate that a red card wasn’t shown when Javier Mascherano had an ugly coming together with Gareth Barry.
Walton, mirroring the teams he was officiating, had an erratic afternoon and he could easily have awarded Liverpool a penalty in injury time, particularly if substitute Yossi Benayoun had gone to ground when he tangled with Vincent Kompany.
But, in truth, Liverpool did not do enough to win the match – and if they are going to come out on top in the four way battle for fourth spot, that has to change. Fast.
MANCHESTER CITY (4-3-3): Given; Zabaleta, Kompany, Lescott, Bridge; Ireland (Ibrahim 75), De Jong, Barry; Wright-Phillips (Bellamy 68), Adebayor, Johnson.
LIVERPOOL (4-2-3-1): Reina; Carragher, Agger, Skrtel, Insua; Mascherano, Lucas; Babel (Torres 75), Gerrard, Rodriguez (Benayoun 64); Kuyt (Aquilani 84).
Bookings – Mascherano (31), Gerrard (45), Babel (63), Benayoun (67), Kuyt (76), Torres (90)
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