starting to fire - Manchester City 2
Daniel Taylor at City of Manchester Stadium for Get Your Kits Out Return to Main Page
Monday December 29, 2003
Robbie Fowler has waited so long for his first league goal at this arena it is a pity there were so many empty blue seats when it arrived. The fanswere heading away in droves because, City being City, Kevin Keegan's men had duped everyone. Instead of seeing out a game they should have won, City were heading towards a galling defeat. For many it was too much to bear.
Those who stayed behind were rewarded for their perseverance. Jerzy Dudek beat away Nicolas Anelka's speculative shot but Trevor Sinclair was first to the rebound and sent a volley back towards goal. Loitering with intent inside the six-yard area, Fowler was perfectly positioned to apply the finishing touch. It was the third minute of injury-time.
In equalising the man Liverpool's fans used to call "God" emulated Anelka in scoring against his former club but, more importantly, spared Keegan a familiar post mortem. Out-passing teams without out-scoring them has been a trait of the downward spiral that has taken City within two points of the relegation zone.
They have now gone 11 matches without a win and, though managers have been sacked for less, it would have been a travesty if City had lost, having outclassed a one-paced, one-dimensional Liverpool for so long.
Gérard Houllier's men had needed confrontational words at half-time before uncovering City's suspect temperament. A close-range finish from Vladimir Smicer and a superb volley from Dietmar Hamann had turned the game upside down but, with their captain Steven Gerrard departed with a thigh strain, there was a sense of recklessness to their play that Fowler duly exposed.
"A lot of people have knocked Robbie but I hope those same people will praise him because his work-rate and enthusiasm are tremendous now," said Keegan. "A lot of people under-estimate him. He's got this Jack-the-lad reputation but he has a lot of pride and ambition. It maybe doesn't come over to outsiders but you can definitely say now that he's back. I don't think he ran about as much as this when he was 18."
But Keegan's frustrations were not totally eradicated. "The last thing I asked the players at half-time was whether they could put in another 45 minutes the same," he said. "Unfortunately the answer was no. We had them rattled but we couldn't finish them off."
Liverpool were poor, occasionally bordering on the atrocious throughout the opening 45 minutes, their desperation summed up by a dismal passage five minutes before half-time. It was hard not to wince at the lack of movement and imagination as they took possession and, with such a paucity of forward options, found themselves passing the ball sideways and then backwards, John Arne Riise eventually slicing the ball out for a throw-in.
Riise's frustration was particularly intense because it had been his surreptitious tug on Fowler's shoulder that conceded the penalty from which Anelka scored his first league goal since mid-October. Liverpool's players were incensed with the referee Mike Riley but Riise clearly impeded the striker as he shaped to meet Michael Tarnat's corner. Anelka's spot-kick combined power and precision, so making amends for coming out second best in a one on one against Dudek moments earlier.
City might have had a penalty after only 10 minutes when Igor Biscan was given the benefit of the doubt after controlling the ball on his arm and there were plenty of other chances for the home side early on. Shaun Wright-Phillips will reflect he should have scored, or at least got his effort on target, when Fowler's pass gave him a chance from which he fired over.
"I wasn't disappointed to be only a goal behind at half-time because they totally dominated us," said Houllier. "I was not angry but I did ask the boys for a reaction. It wasn't just one player; it was the whole team. But we definitely improved."
Gerrard's departure did not hint at a Liverpool comeback but within six minutes they had equalised. City's defenders were ponderous in reacting to Danny Murphy's corner and, through a congested penalty area, Smicer emerged to bundle the ball past David Seaman.
Harry Kewell struck a post but even then it was still a surprise when Claudio Reyna headed out another Murphy centre and Hamann lashed a dipping, left-foot effort into the top right-hand corner
The last time the German beat Seaman from 25 yards, Keegan was the England manager and resigned immediately afterwards. Thanks to Fowler, he will not have had an unhappy sense of déjà vu.
Man of the match: Robbie Fowler (Manchester City)