LIVERPOOL, ENGLAND - APRIL 11: Andy Carroll of Liverpool celebrates scoring his team's third goal during the Barclays Premier League match between Liverpool and Manchester City at Anfield on April 11, 2011 in Liverpool, England. (Photo by Michael Regan/Getty Images)
If Alex Ferguson and United were looking to game plan against City, then they will need look no further than the opening thirty minutes of this game.
How City start games this season has often been of such stark contrasts. When they come out fast and score early, they overwhelmingly go onto win games. However, counter to this, when they start slow and concede the first goal, it is invariably early and puts them on the back foot.
Last night of course proved to be the latter, when faced with a Liverpool side that came out full of spirit and desire they were simply no match and perhaps the only surprise was that it took until just before the tenth minute before they conceded.
There wasn't an anticipation of a raft of changes but Roberto Mancini opted to rest Nigel de Jong and David Silva, certain starters for Saturday, and also Mario Balotelli. In came, Gareth Barry, James Milner and Edin Dzeko. Mancini could have adopted a number of formations but given the line-up the 4-4-2 deployed was the most likely, and most suitable given the players on display.
Mancini admitted his mistake is taking plenty of heat and in some quarters the knives have come out; of course, as is the case following any defeat, most commentary is way, way over the top. But there are some very valid criticisms to be made of last nights selection. Hindsight has shown that not only the initial selection was incorrect, the formation was too. However, as a result of having only two central midfielders away from home, the side looked totally overwhelmed and under-manned against a marauding opposition.
The central pairing of Yaya Toure and Gareth Barry could not cope with wave after wave of Liverpool pressure. The extra man - namely de Jong is so pivotal to the way City play, so to lose that cushion could always prove costly - particularly away from home against a side that (at Anfield at least) are undoubtedly a force. I am certainly no fan of the 4-4-2 (or more pertinently, a central two in midfield): far preferable is the fluid 4-5-1/4-3-3 often adopted, and adapted (between offensive and defensive depending on the situation) according to needs.
Equally strange were the decisions to then introduce both Silva and de Jong, risking injury (the reason they were presumably held back initially) when the game had long gone. Along with that pairing, Carlos Tevez and Vincent Kompany have been the pick of the players this season. Why then were they not rested? The decision unfortunately smacked of a half-hearted gamble that badly backfired. When you thought matters couldn't get much worse given the start that all but signalled the end of the game, the sight of Tevez limping off proved otherwise. Sky (at the time) suggested it was his hamstring, which if true - and there has been no definitive confirmation thus far - surely sees him out of the FA Cup semi-final, and quite possibly a large part, if not all of the remainder of the season.
Whilst there was much to criticise on the pitch, most evident were the struggles of Kompany and Joleon Lescott, pillars of strength of late, but were unsteady in the face of Andy Carroll reprising his performance for Newcastle at St James's Park earlier in the season) and Luis Suarez (Tevez-like in his mobility): two opposites in terms of style but equal in terms of threat. Although the defensive pairing have posted 6 clean sheets in 14 outing, they have conceded 2 or more in 6 games too.
In so much as the long term picture in terms of the league, a loss is a loss, so regardless of the performance and manner of the defeat, too much could be read into what is essentially defeat in just one game. However, there are valid points which raised questions and doubts for the remainder of the season.
Even with certain players missing, I tweeted at the time that the side possessed plenty of strength, indicating the depth of the squad. The performance though suggested otherwise. There appears an inability to function without Tevez, Silva and de Jong. Moving forwards, the latter two will be by choice, but the former likely not. Tevez remains the fulcrum and focal point to the side, and neither Mario Balotelli or Edin Dzeko look like they could replace what he brings at this juncture. The game also showed that neither de Jong or Silva can afford be rested.
The initiative has now been lost in terms of cushion held over Tottenham and interestingly, they now play twice (Arsenal, April 20th and West Brom April 23rd) before City next take the field in the Premier League away at Blackburn on April 25th. By this time, City (with a game in hand) will be between three points behind and three points ahead; a crucial pair where City will hope their rivals slip up.
Home form is not a concern and the games City have to play look very winnable but the away record continues to disappoint and could become the achilles heel hampering hopes of fourth. Much like they struggled on the road under Hughes, they are equally so of late under Mancini.
Six games now remain and the side is sat on 56 points. This means that 11 points are required to finish on 67 the likely total to secure fourth. This is very achievable but not without concern and you do get the increasing feeling that as the calendar ticks by, the date of May 10th when City meet Tottenham will look every larger.