Manchester City steeled for title push
Manchester City's absence of Premier League title-winning pedigree means they are getting used to being asked the questions - and they continue to deliver the answers the doubters require.
The old sages say you do not prove you can take the steps towards titles when the waters are calm. The significant moves are made when you are not playing well, when you have to respond to a damaging defeat.
Roberto Mancini's side faced their initial searching examination when they suffered a first league defeat of the season at Chelsea last month. The next home game against Arsenal was the theatre for a forensic examination of their character, nerve and aspirations.
Even Mancini's post-match appearance was scrutinised at Sunderland. The perfectly normal frustrated body language of a manager who has seen his side create enough chances to win three points and end with none was taken as the usually immaculate Italian looking dishevelled as a result of mounting pressure.
No matter that City could, perhaps should, have beaten Sunderland. How would they respond against Kenny Dalglish's Liverpool only two days later, with limbs still heavy and minds supposedly scarred by their failure to take advantage of closest rivals Manchester United's loss against Blackburn Rovers?
At a storm-lashed Etihad the response was impressive enough to confirm the growing belief that even if United's ominous shadow continues to follow them, City have enough steel and talent to stay the course.
Whether they end up winning their first league title since 1967-68 remains to be seen, but the manner in which they dealt with an admittedly average Liverpool will have soothed many lingering worries among the usual dark humour of City's followers.
Mancini was infuriated by the cavalier manner in which City conceded defeat with more or less the last kick of the game at the Stadium of Light. Liverpool's visit called for maximum concentration and a return to the core values of miserly defence as a platform for more flamboyant attacking talents such as Sergio Aguero and David Silva.
City, even with Liverpool enjoying plenty of possession, exuded a steely control at the back. Indeed, they seemed content to let Dalglish's highly expensive attack have the ball safe in the knowledge that Liverpool would do nothing to hurt them with it. And so it proved.
Aguero's soft early goal, conceded cheaply by Liverpool goalkeeper Pepe Reina, set City on their way, while Yaya Toure added a second before half-time. Even after losing Gareth Barry to a second yellow card late on, they still ended looking to add to their goal tally after James Milner scored their third from the spot.
Silva adorned the game with his usual delicate touches and Aguero was his predatory self, but it was two of the more physical forces in Mancini's squad that cemented this entire performance together.
Vincent Kompany was magnificent in central defence, leading by example and demonstrating in short order that he was not the man to give poor Andy Carroll a helping hand in his so far fruitless quest to prove he is worth anything like the £35m Dalglish paid for him.
And in central midfield, the mountainous figure of Yaya Toure ran the game. For a man with such a hulking frame, he gathers terrifying speed as he surges forward - with more than one observer making the point that he is the identikit midfield man Sir Alex Ferguson currently craves at Old Trafford.
Yaya drove City's effort with almost unstoppable force. He was certainly too much for the flimsy forces marshalled by Dalglish on Tuesday, with Charlie Adam poor and Jay Spearing anonymous in midfield.
Of course Yaya's display left Mancini to answer another question, although he admitted himself he is struggling to answer this one. How will he cope when the Toure brothers are away at the Africa Cup of Nations with the Ivory Coast?
Yaya Toure (right) "is a very important player" according to City boss Roberto Mancini. Photo: Getty
Mancini confessed he is close to irreplaceable, emphasising his point by revealing his optimism that City will be in prime position to win the title should they still head the table when he returns from international duty.
He underlined January as a crucial month for City - but they all are now as the season heads into the turn and expectations mount that the great prize can be claimed.
For Liverpool, the shadow of Luis Suarez hung over the evening as they announced just before kick-off that they had decided not to appeal against his eight-match ban for being found guilty by the Football Association of racially abusing Manchester United's Patrice Evra.
To emphasise their refusal to go quietly, Liverpool issued another incendiary statement criticising the Football Association and reiterating their support for the Uruguayan.
And Dalglish was in no mood to accept that, outside Anfield at least, public opinion is gathering against Liverpool because of their stance on the issue as he refused to budge a single centimetre in his backing for Suarez.
He will certainly know the value of Suarez after this lame effort from his team, and may have it underscored even more forcibly during the remaining seven games of his suspension.
Carroll, inevitably, was the target for the mirth of City's fans as his frustration grew. He was as unimpressive as many of his colleagues - yet it should also be stated in his defence that he was left too isolated for too long and was starved of quality service, the sort Stewart Downing was bought to provide but delivers all too rarely.
If Carroll is short on confidence, and he appears to be, his Liverpool colleagues did little to help him.
Dalglish admitted Liverpool had been given harsh lessons, especially in the clinical fashion of City's attacking play, and at least his side have the chance to prove they are quick learners as they are back here again in the Carling Cup semi-final next week.
No such worries for City as the celebrations, and the selection of celebratory tweets from Kompany, Aguero, Adam Johnson and Micah Richards, suggested they had proved a point to themselves as well as those who continue to question their credentials.