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Gratifying in so many ways (City 3, Liverpool 0)

23 August 2010

Sir Alex needs a drink -- perhaps a Kamikaze? -- watching The Noisy Neighbors tune up Liverpool.

Glockner and I have had repeated discussions about the plus-minus of fandom — specifically, whether the high you get from a great result is commensurate with the awful feeling that comes with setbacks. Tonight I’m enjoying one of the highs that make the investment of time and emotion seem worthwhile.

The uneven performance at Spurs and Roberto Mancini’s plea for time and patience as the squad gelled definitely had me concerned going into this one. And with 10-man Liverpool nearly taking three points off of my preseason Premier League title-winners, Arsenal, last week, I was worried about a slip-up.

Mancini went with a sort of 4-3-3, with the three holding midfielders from the previous two matches, but with Adam Johnson on the left side and debutante James Milner on the right, alongside Carlos Tévez in a lone striker role.

It didn’t take long for City to calm my nerves with an early goal. And it was a thing of beauty, coming after a move that consisted of new fewer than 20 passes between eight different players in light blue, with a pair of former Aston Villa stars combining on the goal (Gareth Barry) and the assist (Milner).  The rest of the first half consisted of City enjoying long spells of possession and Johnson terrorizing Daniel Agger (who never should have been anywhere near the pitch after suffering a concussion seven days earlier, but that’s another story) and Martin Škrtel, the City winger worrying Pepe Reina in the Liverpool goal on a couple of occasions.

It was great to see City double their advantage shortly after half time. One of the encouraging things about last season was the newfound threat of scoring from corners, after years of not expecting anything from them. This time it was Micah Richards getting his head on a nice Milner corner, with Tévez attempting to a flick on — which he may or may not have done — but definitely obstructing Reina’s view, allowing the ball to squirt in through the keeper’s legs.

This was followed immediately by a brief period of Liverpool pressure that culminated in a wild sequence where Steven Gerrard hit the post, the ball bounced out off of Joe Hart’s back, Hart denied David Ngog with a diving save, and saved from Fernando Torres with his arm out while charging down the Spanish striker. More stunning stuff from the young keeper, who is making Fabio Capello look worse and worse with each passing week.

Things calmed down after that, as Johnson resumed terrorizing the Liverpool defense. His hard work paid off with a penalty when Škrtel hauled him down in the box in the 67th minute. Škrtel and his teammates appeared to take exception to Johnson going down, but the replay vindicated the City player from any accusations of diving. Tévez coolly sent Reina the wrong way and converted his seventh penalty in seven attempts for City to make it 3-0 and start the party at Eastlands.

I was glad to see City clamp down and get the clean sheet — thanks to another excellent save by Hart, who reacted well when a strong Ryan Babel shot took a deflection on its way just inside the near post. This leaves City and Chelsea as the only clubs in the Premier League yet to concede a goal this season.

Milner claimed the Man of the Match award in his first appearance in a City shirt, though honestly the honor could have gone to a number of Blues. Johnson would have been a worthy recipient of the award after a lively performance on the right side that will leave Agger and Škrtel suffering from nightmares. Tévez put on a clinic of holding play for a long striker, often warding off multiple Liverpool defenders, then getting the ball to an open teammate. The three defensive midfielders all turned in very strong performances, and Hart again was stellar once again in goal.

Maybe the best part was the fact City looked every bit a title contender tonight. Yes, Liverpool were weakened by the absences of Joe Cole and Javier Mascherano and Torres clearly isn’t right, but they looked fine the previous weekend. I’ve been waiting to see City come out and look like a confident, assured side instead of a scrappy underdog when facing a big club, and tonight we saw that. It was as if City came out for kickoff and said, “We are better than you and we’re going to prove it.” And they did.

So tonight I’m experiencing the mania that typically follows a huge result for City — checking my City RSS feeds in Google Reader, reading the handful of footy blogs I read routinely, and looking to see what some of the more vocal City haters in the media have to say about this one. It will be a fun few days before the home leg of the Europa League qualifier on Thursday.

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