Gerrard makes point on and off the pitch
At Etihad Stadium
Roberto Mancini was probably heartily sick of the sight of Steven Gerrard even before the Liverpool captain took the fight to Manchester City's manager in the tunnel following the first leg of this Carling Cup semi-final.
Gerrard, returning to full fitness after 10 months of injury strife, led from the front during and after the 1-0 win that saw Kenny Dalglish's side seize an important advantage in their attempt to reach Wembley for the first time since 1996.
Fuelled by a sense of injustice about the tackle that resulted in a red card for Vincent Kompany in the FA Cup defeat by Manchester United on Sunday, Mancini complained bitterly about a similar offence committed by Liverpool's Glen Johnson on Joleon Lescott towards the end of this match in Manchester.
Johnson escaped any punishment, much to Mancini's annoyance. But the Italian, who even hurled away a packet of his beloved fruit pastilles during the second half to demonstrate his frustration, received no sympathy from Gerrard.
After scoring what turned out to be the winner from the spot after 13 minutes, the 31-year-old continued to lead from the front post-match by confronting Mancini and exchanging words with the Italian as some members of the media looked on.
Steven Gerrard scores from the spot. Photo: AP
How Liverpool striker Andy Carroll must wish such leadership came as easily to him as it does to Gerrard, who has moved effortlessly through the gears following his patient rehabilitation from groin surgery and an ankle injury.
Carroll, in contrast, has to deal with speculation about his future - suggestions of a return to Newcastle United were quashed in the most emphatic manner possible by Dalglish - and a fruitless search for form.
There is no lack of effort, simply a lack of confidence and quality. He never cut a convincing figure when put clean through early on, his shot easily blocked by Hart, and is knocked to ground far too easily for a young man of such stature.
In the eight-game absence of suspended Luis Suarez, this is Carroll's big opportunity to put down a marker at Liverpool, to at least start to answer the doubters. On this night, he did neither, although he was often so isolated that his colleagues may have needed the aid of a satnav to locate him.
No matter for Dalglish and Liverpool, though, as they and their fans left Manchester with the whiff of Wembley and a first trophy since 2006's FA Cup win in their nostrils.
For City, there was a second successive home defeat at the place where they were impregnable for so long - and the sense that their season is entering a crucial phase.
No-one should doubt this City side's spirit. They demonstrated that in victory against Liverpool in the Premier League last week and, quite spectacularly, in how they fought against adversity in FA Cup defeat against Manchester United.
Application was not absent on Wednesday, but the quality and sharpness that has featured in their rise to the top of the league table was. Try as they might to step on the gas, there was nothing under the bonnet.
Mancini will not garner much, if any, sympathy with complaints about lack of personnel or squad strength given the financial largesse of City's owners, but how they missed the suspended Kompany and Yaya Toure, who is away on international duty with the Ivory Coast at the Africa Cup of Nations.
Yaya Toure will be sorely missed but the removal of Kompany from the equation for another three games is arguably an even greater handicap. He is the team's leader as well as being a magnificent defender.
Stefan Savic fouls Daniel Agger. Photo: PA
The 21-year-old Stefan Savic, who conceded the penalty from which Gerrard scored, was uncertain and exposed as a rookie at this level, leaving Lescott looking less than assured. Lescott, as he did with Phil Jagielka at Everton, flourishes in a stable partnership and is diminished by Kompany's absence.
It makes January a crucial month, with a visit to Wigan next Monday followed by an increasingly important meeting with Tottenham at home. The shadow of Spurs is on City's shoulder, with one City fan immediately setting aside his disappointment at the defeat by Liverpool to ask how Harry Redknapp's side, who must be taken as serious Premier League title contenders, had fared against Everton.
City are hardly at crisis point. They were also missing the brilliant David Silva through injury, while Mario Balotelli was having a real 'nightmario' before hobbling off in the first half, but they are having a little wobble.
Mancini has the talent within his squad and the experience within himself to put it right. He must not, though, become sidetracked by perceived injustices or resort to sowing seeds of doubt about his squad strength.
A few clouds are gathering over City but they hardly constitute a storm and this tie is still open to be contested at Anfield. The argument will be settled there - and Mancini will know Liverpool's captain is in the mood to make it a fight to the finish.