Manchester City’s stars count for little

When the lineups for Manchester City and Liverpool were announced on Sunday, ahead of their Premier League clash, there should have been only one winner. Not only did the City lineup have superstar names in every position on the field, it also cost them almost double the amount Liverpool had spent on the team that they had fielded for the game at the Etihad on Sunday.

The whooping difference between £316 million and £168 million was evident from the list of the names in the two squads, but the league table showed just a point separating the two teams. Few would have predicted such proximity between the two sides in the standings when the season began, but the way the game panned told everything about why City are fighting for the same goals as Liverpool.

With due respect to Jurgen Klopp’s men, who had a great start to the season, and at a point appeared to be challenging for the title, a top-four finish would be considered a really good return from the season, considering the quality and depth in their squad. Despite being blessed with players of high technical quality like Phillipe Coutinho, Roberto Firmino and to an extent Sadio Mane, the Reds are often found wanting in terms of quality in other areas of the pitch.

Knowing the fragile nature of the Liverpool defence well, Pep Guardiola’s side started on the front foot in the game on Sunday. Within seconds of the start, Raheem Sterling was running at the Reds’ full-back before flashing a low cross into the box, that had to be dealt with. It set the tone for Manchester City who bombarded Liverpool’s box with low crosses, all throughout the evening.

Quite typical of a Guardiola team, City always had width through Sterling on the right and Leroy Sane on the left, who remained in fairly advanced positions especially in the early parts of the game as the thrust of their midfield coming from the movement and energy of the likes of Yaya Toure, Kevin de Bruyne and David Silva pegged the Reds back into their own half.

The hosts asked quite a few questions at the visitors who somehow managed to have the answers, but the pressure on them was telling. Fernandinho, who played at right back for City, spent 50 percent of his time in Liverpool’s half in the opening 15 minutes. During that time, he sent in three crosses that the Reds had to deal with.

However, it wasn’t until the 19th minute when City actually went behind the Liverpool rearguard. Sergio Aguero, who received the ball in the middle of the park, found Sterling in the pocket of space between midfield and the defence. The former Liverpool man then drove at the heart of that Liverpool backline to release Sane through on goal. The German’s cross was partially cleared into Silva’s path who blazed the shot over despite having enough time to size his effort. It was a good chance for the hosts to get an early lead, but the Spaniard couldn’t keep his composure. The City defence, which has been a disaster waiting to happen all season long, did display their fragility whenever Liverpool managed to find some time in the City half. The forwards’ aggressive play sometimes made it difficult for the hosts to play their way out. Unfortunately, the Reds’ midfield and defence failed to maintain a similar intensity while pressing the City attackers, allowing them to put the away team under pressure. Such was Liverpool’s agony that by the half-hour mark, they had won more tackles in City’s half than their own.

The biggest moment of the game came in the 39th minute when De Bruyne opened up Liverpool with a brilliant through ball to Silva, who squared it across the face of the goal, but first Sterling, and then Fernandinho, both failed to apply the finishing touches.

The goal was wide open and any sort of touch would have resulted in a goal, but City miraculously managed to miss it. Although Sterling had a strong case for a penalty, there was no excuse for Fernandinho to miss such a massive chance from six yards. The game remained locked at 0-0.

Meanwhile, Liverpool who had slightly grown in confidence while going forward, forced the the first big save of the game from Willy Caballero in the 40th minute. For all of City’s dominance, it was the visitors who registered the first shot on target. Their second came just seconds later when John Stones blocked a crucial shot from Joel Matip from inside the box, as he threatened to bundle in a cross.

Klopp’s men ended the half stronger and at half-time had managed more shots on target (2-1), and delivered more crosses (14-13) into the box. Even though City had more of the play in the first half, Liverpool were statistically better at the break. Yaya Toure was the game’s top tackler at half-time with three successful tackles, and surprisingly for City, it all came inside Liverpool’s box. This showed that the Ivorian was forced back into defending to help out his side’s frail rearguard.

Slightly buoyed by the positive end to the first half, Klopp’s men began second half on the front foot. City had Stones to thank once again for blocking Mane’s shot that seemed destined for the back of the net. However, a moment of complete brain fade followed for City as Gael Clichy, who lost Firmino, clumsily fouled him inside the box to give away a silly penalty.

James Milner stepped and scored his seventh goal from the spot this season, and City for all their expansive football in the first half, found themselves trailing. The Reds threatened to run home the momentum thereafter and hosts’ backline looked more and more porous.

However, Liverpool who hadn’t managed to completely halt City’s attacking endeavours were breached in the 69th minute as Aguero, who eventually got a yard on his marker, made no mistake in smashing home a pinpoint cross from De Bruyne. City somewhat regained their lost zest going forward, but Toure had to substituted post the hour mark. Fernandinho who then switched to the midfield role, failed to exert the same level of calm that the Ivaorian did on the home side.

Guardiola’s men were uncharacteristically sloppy in the second half, and that kept on allowing Liverpool to have chances of their own. In the 76th minute though, it was City who squandered a great chance to take the lead when after an intricate passing move saw Aguero enter the box and fluff his line after getting into the box. The rebound from his weak effort though fell kindly for De Bruyne who struck the post. That was the seventh time he had rattled the frame of the goal this season, more than any player in Europe’s top five leagues. In a certain context it may reflect well on the Belgian, but considering the fact that he has scored just four goals in the Premier League this season, hitting seven shots on woodwork is a worry.

One need not look beyond the sitter he missed against Chelsea from four yards out in November. That day it proved to be a turning point as the Blues went on to score three more goals to win the game. Four minutes later, a similar script could have materialised had Adam Lallana not failed to tap in from six yards after being picked out near the penalty spot.

Aguero, who was a busy figure in the second half, saw many half chances fall his way, but he was unable to convert any of them. In stoppage time, he seemed to have the goal at his mercy when De Bruyne found him unmarked at the far post, but the Argentine fired his shot well over, to let another glorious chance go.

The game ended level-pegging and despite City’s superior quality, Liverpool deservedly snatched a point from the game. The Reds had more shots on target at the end of the game as the hosts wondered what might have been.

It was the sixth draw at home for City, a tally only lower than their neighbours Manchester United, who have seven home draws. It was another occasion when they bossed a game, but had little to show for it. They were erroneous at both ends of the pitch time and time again, and were made to pay for it.

The share of spoils meant City lost further ground on leaders Chelsea, and got dragged into the scrap for the top four positions.

Having spent millions in the summer, trying to restore Manchester City to the summit of English football, their frequent displays of inefficiency suggest they are quite a way away from their target. Their band of superstars are a delight to watch, but more often than not, they have counted for little on the pitch. Performance in the Champions League second leg against Monaco, the sloppy 2-2 draw against Tottenham at home are a few glaring incidents of City’s habitual inefficiency that surfaced once again against Liverpool on Sunday.

Having gone two years without the title, despite having a really strong squad and with the business end of another season approaching, it is time the Manchester City players stop being mere showpieces and actually become the superstars they are supposed to be on the pitch. If not, they must be prepared to be called as the perennial underachievers.

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