LIVERPOOL, ENGLAND - JANUARY 25: Samir Nasri of Manchester City is challenged by Daniel Agger and Glen Johnson of Liverpool (R) during the Carling Cup Semi Final Second Leg match between Liverpool and Manchester City at Anfield on January 25, 2012 in Liverpool, England. (Photo by Michael Regan/Getty Images)
Having got used to the feel of Wembley in recent times City missed their opportunity to make a return there for what would have been a fourth visit in just nine months. Instead it is Liverpool who will make there visit to the stadium in its new guise (and first in total since back in 1996) as City found the one goal deficit from the first leg a step too far to overcome.
Over the course of the two legs it is difficult to argue a case against saying Liverpool deserved the victory, in truth shading both games and looking the more threatening side at Anfield - despite lacking at times the clinical touch or finish that has plauged their Premier League campaign.
Roberto Mancini sprang somewhat of a surprise with his starting line-up, opting for three central defenders (used to good effect during part of the game at The Etihad Stadium) which saw Sergio Aguero drop to the bench. At times against Liverpool this season City have struggled in the central midfield areas and rather than a move simply to bolster numbers in this area the design may have been more around utilising the full-backs (in a higher position) to create more width and stretch the play.
It was a move that whilst far from being unsuccessful did not create the desired effect; Liverpool were the brighter, sharper side and played with more intensity and purpose. Still, City took the lead when Nigel de Jong (who returned in place of James Milner) provided the rarest of collectors items when he struck from outside the box to put City ahead on the half-hour mark.
Hopes of a City lead at the half were dashed though when referee Phil Dowd awarded Liverpool a penalty - yet another decision that sparked debate and recrimination - when the ball struck Micah Richards arm, with Steven Gerrard subsequently slotting the penalty home to level on the night. Unsurprisingly, Roberto Mancini was vocal in his thoughts post game:
"In the last two months we have been very unlucky with referees. It was no penalty because the ball touched his leg before his hands. He cannot cut his arm off. I don't know how it is possible to concede a penalty like this and not get a penalty for the foul on Dzeko."
The difficulty in such decisions is the scope provided to the referee in being able to determine what is, or isn't deliberate when assessing handball decisions. This brief summary illustrates precisely that and shows that a case can be made either way. Where Dowd perhaps errored was in his ascertion of quite where the position of Richards's arms were; 'unnatural' maybe, but as this picture shows his position was not quite as Dowd believed it was in real time and there was little Richards could have done to avoid contact.
Where Mancini will be equally as frustrated is that City hardly helped themselves in the tie, particularly at Anfield where they twice took the lead on the night to level the tie yet twice allowed Liverpool back into the game. If coming back twice was a stretch, then a third time would ultimately proved beyond them.
As in recent games the second half saw a brighter, more determined showing. Mancini made a half time switch, putting Stefan Savic out of his misery to allow Sergio Aguero to enter the fray. It was a decision that may have been tactical, but was as likely merciful given Savic's display that justified Kolo Toure's alleged comments. Vincent Kompany is now available for selection once again and if anyone doubted his worth to the side, the past four games provided evidence enough with Liverpool's second goal exposing a huge hole in the back line.
The introduction of Aguero however didn't bring the return hoped as he was far too often on the fringes of the game and although both David Silva and Samir Nasri were willing, lacking was the final ball or touch that could make the difference and in many ways the Edin Dzeko goal came from nowhere; a penetrating (albeit surprising) ball from Aleksandar Kolarov catching the Liverpool defence out to leave Dzeko to tap home.
Thoughts turned to extra-time and even further ahead, to Wembley itself, but after holding the lead from de Jong's goal for just nine minutes City's second lead stood for just seven minutes: Craig Bellamy, marginalised and then ostracised by Mancini, finished a neat move to land a blow that City this time could not recover from.