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Champions Manchester City lost further ground in the Barclays Premier League title race as they were held to a 2-2 draw in a thrilling encounter at home to Liverpool.
Edin Dzeko’s 12th goal of the season put the hosts ahead from close range midway through the first half only for Daniel Sturridge to smash home his fourth in six matches since his move from Chelsea.
An even better trademark Steven Gerrard volley put Liverpool ahead with 17 minutes to go only for Sergio Aguero to salvage a point with an exquisite shot from the narrowest of angles.
However, it was not enough on a weekend when rivals Manchester United won and the result leaves Roberto Mancini’s side nine points adrift of the leaders.
After criticising the youngsters in his side after their FA Cup exit to League One Oldham a week ago Brendan Rodgers selected Liverpool’s oldest starting lineup (average age 28 years and 18 days) since October 2011.
It looked a sensible ploy as City have been imperious at home since before they won the title last May - losing just one of their last 41 Premier League games - and they made their intent clear from the off.
There were just 49 seconds on the clock when Jose Reina was forced to tip over David Silva’s dipping volley. All the early pressure was with City but once Liverpool had weathered that initial storm they started to come into their own.
A deft touch by Sturridge took Stewart Downing’s lobbed pass past Hart in one move but he was denied a goal as Pablo Zabaleta got back to block.
Luis Suarez, busy without being particularly threatening, flashed a shot across Hart and wide of the far post as it seemed the visitors were about to take control.
That notion was dispelled in the 24th minute as some neat interplay from Silva and James Milner from a throw-in on the left saw the latter cross low for Dzeko to sneak behind Daniel Agger and tap home from close range.
If that goal was founded in simplicity Liverpool’s equaliser was made of brilliance, as Gerrard rolled the ball infield to Sturridge, the former City striker, who smashed a fierce left-footed shot past Hart with barely any back-lift. It was the first goal the City goalkeeper had conceded since 29 December, 584 minutes in all.
Liverpool finished the half the stronger and having continued to look dominant after the interval, prompting Mancini to make a tactical switch 10 minutes in when he replaced Matija Nastasic with Aleksandar Kolarov and went to a back three.
That appeared to re-energise City and Aguero threatened to put them ahead again with a blistering 40-yard run only to slip as he entered the penalty area.
Gerrard showed him the way to strike a ball in the 73rd minute with a strike very reminiscent of his goal in the 2006 FA Cup final. Gael Clichy’s poor clearance from Jose Enrique’s cross dropped to the midfielder 30 yards out and the England captain controlled the ball on his chest before unleashing a dipping low volley which gave Hart no chance.
It was Gerrard’s sixth League goal - one more than the whole of last season - and his fifth in the last 10 games, but it would not prove to be the winner.
Aguero raced onto Gareth Barry’s pass and goalkeeper Jose Reina opted to hare out to the left edge of his area, from where the Argentina international turned him and fired in impressively from a narrow angle.
City were fortunate not to concede at the death as Hart denied Sturridge late on but Mancini’s side now find themselves with a mountain to climb if they are to prevent their neighbours from succeeding them as champions.
Manchester City manager Roberto Mancini: "Absolutely not [it is not over]. I think we can recover nine points. There are still 13 games until the end. Two years ago Chelsea were nine points behind and when they went to play at Old Trafford two games from the end [of the season] they were only two points behind. Two games and the championship is reopened. I don't think this is finished but probably now we have to win all the games but if not then 11 or 12 games.
"But in football this can happen sometimes. Last year we recovered eight points in six games so I don't know why it can't happen this year. We have 15 games and they [United] have to play in FA Cup and the Champions League so the season is long - three months - and we are confident. It is enough to recover three or four points in three games.
"For us it is important to play the derby [at Old Trafford on 6 April] two or three points behind and we have time to recover these points. Today we didn't play like we had in the last month but we are confident. Liverpool played better than us in the first half but I am disappointed for the first goal. In the end the result was correct. I am disappointed because I think we didn't play well."
Liverpool manager Brendan Rodgers: “It was an outstanding performance at a notoriously difficult place for teams to even score a goal. I don't think they've conceded here [in 2013]. What was important for me was to see the confidence of the players, the desire, the quality and the efficiency of their game. I don't think anyone would deny that we probably deserved to win that game.
"The disappointing thing was that it typified our season, really, where we've been outstanding in our game and the model of our work but mistakes have cost us. That's all a part of our growth. I was really disappointed for them because they'd put so much into the game. Obviously [Sergio] Aguero's finish is unbelievable but from our perspective we're bitterly disappointed he was even in that position. It was a mistake, everyone was clear on that, but I can't fault the players. I thought they were absolutely brilliant today. We showed great character.
"We might be missing two or three players who can really help the group that clubs like Manchester City have, but I don't think you can fault the players for what they're giving in the game. Once we cut out those mistakes - which we will do, there's no question about that - draws turn into wins and we can be a real force, because we've got some really talented players. The group is still growing and building."
|16 Mar 2013||v Everton (A)|
|14 May 2013||v Reading (A)|
|08 Apr 2013||v Man Utd (A)|
|17 Apr 2013||v Wigan (H)|
|21 Apr 2013||v Spurs (A)|
|04 May 2013||v Swansea (A)|