Steven Gerrard’s penalty handed Liverpool an important advantage in their League Cup semi-final with Manchester City as the visitors came away from Eastlands with a 1-0 first-leg lead.
Liverpool, who have won the League Cup a record seven times, are seeking their first trophy in six years and are now favorites to advance to the final against Championship opponents Crystal Palace or Cardiff City.
Given the negative publicity Liverpool have endured over their handling of the Luis Suarez racism case, victory at a ground where they were beaten 3-0 by the Premier League leaders just eight days earlier could not have come at a better time.
“It’s set up for a cracking match at Anfield,” Gerrard told the BBC. “There’s still 90 minutes to play and I’m sure it will be a cracker at Anfield. The advantage is ours, but it’s still not over.”
City manager Roberto Mancini insisted his side did not deserve to lose.
“The first half, we didn’t play well, because after six months it can happen for the first time. It is clear that without three or four players it’s more difficult, but in the end we didn’t deserve to lose the game,” the Italian said. “We played poorly in the first half, but the result is not right. The right result was a draw.”
Liverpool made an electrifying start to the tie and, but for City goalkeeper Joe Hart, they could have been in total command of the match.
As it was, they had to settle for the single goal, scored by Gerrard from the penalty spot after back-up centerhalf Stefan Savic, only playing because of the absence of Kolo Toure on international duty and the suspension of Vincent Kompany, had clearly brought down Daniel Agger at a corner.
Gerrard struck low past England goalkeeper Hart and into the left-hand corner in the 13th minute.
That goal was the culmination of a spell of concerted pressure and, after four minutes, Hart saved with his legs from Andy Carroll.
Gerrard then chanced his arm from 20m with a right-foot strike the diving Hart, once more, kept out brilliantly and, moments before the penalty, a Gerrard corner picked out Stewart Downing, lurking on the edge of the area, for the winger to unleash a superbly struck volley, Craig Bellamy steering the shot toward goal and Hart making a stunning reflex save.
City’s controversial forward Mario Balotelli summed up the hosts unease, looking out of sorts throughout the first half, being dragged away from an altercation with Charlie Adam and, finally, being replaced by Mancini after 40 minutes without it being immediately apparent whether or not he was injured.
It was not until his departure that City finally had a meaningful chance, Balotelli’s replacement Samir Nasri having a 20m shot pushed away by Liverpool goalkeeper Pepe Reina in the 43rd minute and James Milner shooting over from 12m after fine work by Micah Richards.
City maintained their improvement after the restart, with Martin Skrtel making a superb tackle to stop Sergio Aguero in the area, before Martin Kelly’s disastrous back-pass fell straight to the City forward, who rounded Reina, but, having been pushed wide, could only chip over the open goal.
Nasri’s 59th-minute corner was met by Richards for another City chance, this one saved impressively, at the second attempt, by Reina.
Then Nasri’s pass sent through Aguero, who expertly took three Liverpool defenders out of the game, only to curl his shot straight at the Liverpool goalkeeper.