Well, that’s one question answered, at least. Those that had been wondering how long it would take Manchester City’s diamond-encrusted team to gel this season have their answer, and it is quite a specific one – give or take a few seconds, it took one match and twelve minutes before the team clicked into place and from then on the result of this evening’s match was never in a great deal of doubt. While City gelled, Liverpool were oil and water. By full-time they had been run ragged and they now sit in seventeenth place in the Premier League table. It’s a false position, of course, coming as it does two games into the season and with Arsenal and Manchester City having been their opponents thus far, but the lethargy on display tonight didn’t look like much of an improvement on last season and the absolute bare minimum that Liverpool need this season is an improvement on last year.
For all the multi-million pound signings on view, the most rapturous pre-match applause at The City of Manchester Stadium was reserved for Sheikh Mansour, who was taking his place in the Gods for the first time this season. Such is the nature of modern football. Liverpool did, however, start brightly enough, although Fernando Torres’ ring-rustiness was still evident and, even though he was partnered up front by David Ngog, and he cut an isolated and frustrated looking figure at times this evening. Manchester City, meanwhile, pushed up through the gears in a slickly effective manner and scored after thirteen minutes with a slick passing move that cut through the Liverpool defence like a hot knife through butter. The final pass to Gareth Barry came from debutant James Milner, a man who, just a week ago, was still an Aston Villa player. They learn so quickly these days. From here on, City shut up shop in midfield and cut the supply line to Liverpool’s front two stone dead. Most impressive of all, however, was Milner, who drifted around the pitch like a ghost, pullling Liverpool’s rigid 4-4-2 formation from side to side like a vintage bi-plane flying in high winds.
Within ten minutes of the start of the second half, City had lain to rest any major lingering concerns of a second half Liverpool fight-back with a second goal. This time, the route to goal was somewhat more prosaic. A corner from the right-hand side was met by a tremendous jump from Micah Richards, whose downward header might have been cleared were it not for Carlos Tevez frantically swiping at the ball from three yards out. Tevez didn’t seem to make any contact with it, but his motion-blurring seemed enough to fluster the defenders on the goal-line (in particular Glen Johnson), and the ball squeezed over the line. At this stage of the match, it felt as if City could step up a gear and leave Liverpool completely for dead, but the visitors responded to the goal with a glimpse of their potential and their best spell of the match. Within five minutes of Tevez/Richards’ goal, and in the space of a mere matter of seconds, Steven Gerrard had hit the post, and then Joe Hart made a quite exceptional double save from Ngog and Torres. Fabio Capello, presumably, now has a big heart drawn on the inside of his notebook with “JH” scrawled in the middle of it.
From here on, though, City regained control and, midway through the half, they extended their lead still further. Adam Johnson, whose performance was as impressive as anyone else’s on the pitch this evening, broke on the right-hand side of the penalty area and, after stumbling slightly, went down under a challenge from Martin Skrtel. There are two sides to every coin, and Skrtel was both lucky and unlucky with the award. On the one hand, the reverse angle replay seemed to indicate that contact between the two of them might have been slighter than it had at first seemed. On the other, though, Skrtel had been booked within four minutes of the start of the match and he could easily have received a second yellow card for either the foul (no matter how harsh that may have seemed) or his subsequent protests to the referee. Tevez dispatched the penalty with the minimum of fuss and the game was effectively over, although Torres showed a flash of his capability with a shot that flashed across the face of Hart’s goal and wide. He was, however, withdrawn for Ryan Babel who also came close for Liverpool with his first opportunity, but the match wound down in the final ten minutes with City comfortably absorbing whatever Liverpool had left to offer.
Definitive statements after two matches of the season aren’t worth a great deal, but Liverpool have problems that they have to resolve if this season is going to be anything like an improvement upon the last and, with seven days left of the summer transfer window and no new ownership looking likely before the end of the month, they may be stuck with what they have until January at the earliest. There are some reasons for their supporters to be cautiously optimistic about the future, though. They did create a handful of decent chances tonight and, no matter now ill-starred his opening appearances in a red shirt may have been, Joe Cole should at least offer his team a little more of the fluidity that they were lacking this evening. They also play West Bromwich Albion at the weekend, which should be a prime opportunity for the players to compose themselves before any sense of panic gets the opportunity to fully embed itself at the club.
Manchester City, meanwhile, seem to have arrested many of the concerns that casted doubt over their pre-season (although they may yet blow hot and cold – it’s too early to say for sure), and what was immediately noticeable about this evening’s match was how easy it was for them. The City of Manchester Stadium may have been awash with unseasonal rain tonight, but this match was little more than a pleasant summer’s stroll for them. If Roberto Mancini can have them turning out anything like they did tonight every week, their move up from pretenders to contenders might just prove to be a seamless one. It still feels as if he has at least part of the mountain left to climb, but this evening’s performance was solid, tangible evidence of their continuing upward curve.