Man City will regret lack of ambition
Manchester City's ambition off the pitch knows no limits - so it would be ironic indeed if a lack of ambition on it was to pull the rug from under Mark Hughes and his brave new world.
The expensive symbols of their desire to dismantle the Premier League's established order were dotted all over Anfield in a meeting with Liverpool that was custom made to measure the scale of Manchester City's threat this season.
Instead, confronted by a Liverpool team short on confidence and shorn of key personnel before and during the game, City's negativity betrayed a lack of conviction that raises serious questions about their ability to muscle in on the top four.
Hughes - having painted a decidedly rose-tinted picture of how City were the better team in an undistinguished, messy affair - railed at justified suggestions in his post-match briefing that a more positive tactical approach might have brought greater reward.
Benitez and Hughes watch the action from the sidelines
As an advert for how Liverpool and City would emerge as the main protagonists in the fight for a Champions League place, this did little more than offer encouragement to those other outsiders Aston Villa and Spurs.
It was a fair reflection on the monument to mediocrity carelessly assembled by the two sides during a dreadful first 45 minutes that the board showing six minutes of stoppage time was greeted by an audible groan around Anfield. It was that bad. Maybe even worse.
And while Liverpool could offer up some slight excuse for their lamentable display after early injuries to Daniel Agger and Ryan Babel halted momentum, there was no logical explanation for City's docile tactical approach.
Liverpool's dramatic decline, with boss Rafael Benitez undermined by a devastating list of injuries and loss of form, allied to the unpredictability of results such as Arsenal's loss at Sunderland, means City will never have a better chance to muscle in on the top four.
They will not take that opportunity unless they show greater bravery than they did here. This was actually a rare case of two teams being there for the taking - with neither good enough to cash in.
In Hughes's defence, he is managing huge expectations as well as Manchester City since the arrival of the Abu Dhabi United group's riches - but he is being compensated by one of the biggest transfer budgets in football history.
The easy bit is going on the front foot at home with an array of striking riches so lavish that Hughes left two strikers worth £43m, Carlos Tevez and Roque Santa Cruz, on the bench at Liverpool even in the absence of Robinho.
City have showed they are more than capable of this. The hard part is travelling to places where the full extent of their danger to the top four will be measured, Anfield for example, and showing the self-belief and desire to take on the best on their own turf. They did not do that here - too tame by far.
Liverpool may rue the loss of another two points at home, but City should feel the greater sense of disappointment after missing out on making what should have been a powerful statement of intent.
City arrived at Anfield on the back of five successive Premier League draws - and their readiness to offer nothing in the way of positive intent until Martin Skrtel opened the scoring for Liverpool suggested they would have been happy with a sixth at the outset.
If Liverpool are being portrayed as a club in a constant state of crisis these days, then City have not exactly been covering themselves in glory either.
Their expensively-assembled line-up have dropped points to sides their huge outlay suggests they should be beating, with home draws against Fulham and Burnley plus stalemates at Wigan and Birmingham being prime examples.
Hughes tried to fool the untrained eye when he announced City had got their first-half tactics "spot on." If this meant not posing a threat to Liverpool's goal while setting up a dismally unadventurous defensive strategy, then fair enough.
He added: "We were waiting for the right moment in the game to go for it. That was always going to be in the latter part of the game. The goal we conceded pushed that schedule forward."
Does that sound like a team coming to Anfield for a point then suddenly realising they needed to do something once Liverpool scored? It does to me.
The folly of City's lack of progressive thought was underlined when they scored twice inside seven minutes through Emmanuel Adebayor and Stephen Ireland once Carlos Tevez was introduced and Liverpool's fragile confidence was actually closely examined.
It begged the question as to why City did not try this obvious ploy earlier. Hughes said he did not want City to "go gung-ho." Fair point - but just a little more attacking ambition from a side with such lofty aspirations surely?
City's own defensive frailty was then instantly exposed by Yossi Benayoun's equaliser for Liverpool - and if Lucas had headed in a wonderful stoppage-time chance, Hughes could have paid an even higher price for refusing to take the handbrake off a side with some wonderful attacking talent at its disposal.
Benitez would have been the happier of the two managers - but only just
Benitez borrowed the rose-tinted spectacles used by Hughes to pay tribute to the "fantastic character" of Liverpool's players, but the long periods of silence that enveloped Anfield on a murky, miserable afternoon merely emphasised the sense of disappointment and resignation surrounding their current circumstances.
Liverpool are now 13 points behind leaders Chelsea, surely an already insurmountable gap, while Fiorentina can confirm the Reds' exit from the Champions League with victory against Lyon this week. It was not meant to be like this in a season that started with so much optimism.
Optimism does still lurk, quite literally, in one corner of The Kop every week where a huge banner paying homage to Alberto Aquilani takes pride of place. It is worthy of note.
"A Hero Will Rise" it states with a typically poetic and colourful Anfield flourish. Well not yet he hasn't - not unless a swift jog along the Anfield touchline with his fellow substitutes midway through the first half counts.
In a season of frustration for Liverpool and their supporters, the continued non-appearance of the £20m Italian summer signing, on whom so much depended after the departure of Xabi Alonso, counts among the biggest.
Benitez insisted Liverpool will improve enough to claim a place in the top four - a sign of the reduced Anfield ambitions after these recent traumatic times. Hughes was equally upbeat about City's future prospects, although neither side produced anything in the way of compelling evidence to totally support these claims.
As someone who has been an avid and vociferous supporter of City's bold attempt to throw a spanner in the well-oiled works at the top of the Premier League and inject unpredictability into the top four, this was a worryingly sterile and dour display.
Hughes concluded his post-mortem by saying: "We are disappointed. We have come to Anfield, scored two goals and got a draw. In the past, City teams would have been delighted. We have got an air of disappointment - that shows how far we have come."
How much further they go will depend on how willing Hughes is to take the shackles of City.
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