x Abu Dhabi, UAE Thursday 20 July 2017

City now a world away from Liverpool

Richard Jolly looks at how Liverpool and Manchester City have swapped roles in the past few seasons.

Vincent Kompany, right, played in the 3-2 defeat to Liverpool nearly four years ago. Much has changed since then.
Vincent Kompany, right, played in the 3-2 defeat to Liverpool nearly four years ago. Much has changed since then.

It is a situation Liverpool may recognise. Less than four years ago, they faced a team under a new manager, looking to bridge the gulf between pretenders and contenders. They were a combination of new recruits and older faces, spliced together in a search for a winning formula.

Indeed, that team took a 2-0 lead against Liverpool. Did it herald a new dawn? No, it soon transpired. Fernando Torres levelled with a typically clinical brace. Dirk Kuyt supplied the injury-time coup de grace, taking the points back to Anfield.

The defeated, demoralised team was Manchester City. Fast forward less than four years and it is notable how much has changed.

Only three players who started then should do so again today: Joe Hart, Pablo Zabaleta, who was sent off in October 2008, and Vincent Kompany, then deemed a midfielder by Mark Hughes.

They were at an uncertain point in their development. The strike duo were Robinho and Jo. In terms of talent, that was the sublime and the ridiculous. It summed up the club, the lofty ambition and the lowly reality going hand in hand.

There was a happy ending for City, Premier League champions three and a half years later. The manager had changed along with most of the personnel, but then that is also true at Liverpool. Those nostalgic for that Eastlands afternoon in 2008 are likely to have Anfield allegiances.

Consider the front six Rafa Benitez fielded: besides Torres and Kuyt, they comprises Steven Gerrard, Xabi Alonso, Javier Mascherano and Albert Riera. And if the winger was the odd man out in such elite company, he proved effective enough in that season.

They were the halcyon days of Liverpool's recent past, a year when Benitez's side blazed a trail, scything opponents apart at devastating pace. They earned plenty of accolades and won 86 points, though not the title.

Since then, however, there has been a marked role reversal. Then they were 36 points ahead of City. Last season, they finished 37 points behind them, scoring 46 fewer goals. By any standards, a 73-point swing in 36 months is a colossal shift in the balance of power between two clubs.

Now they find themselves in the position City were in during the autumn of 2008, even if the circumstances are different. Mark Hughes's answer lay in the chequebook, Brendan Rodgers's in the 180-page dossier he presented to Liverpool owners Fenway Sports Group at his job interview in the summer.

He has a philosophy that Liverpool hope can help restore past glories. And yet, just as City found out four years ago, the journey looks long and arduous.

Only Roberto Mancini disagrees. "I think Liverpool will fight for the title this year," he said. In reality, Rodgers is not even tasked with achieving a top-four finish.

Last week's 3-0 defeat at West Bromwich Albion got his reign in the Premier League off to a false start. The fixture list provides unwanted reminders of Roy Hodgson's unhappy arrival at Anfield.

Besides City, their next three opponents are Arsenal, Sunderland (away) and Manchester United.

City famously spent Christmas in 2008 in the relegation zone and, while Liverpool should not emulate them, the danger is it gets worse before it gets better.

With the support of owners who have embraced his vision - even if not of the section of the fan base who are determined to find unflattering comparisons with the sacked Kenny Dalglish - the Northern Irishman is unlikely to suffer Hodgson's fate.

Yet his ideas cannot be implemented overnight. Passing principles underpin the Rodgers revolution and perhaps it was a new-found willingness to play out from the back that led to Martin Skrtel losing the ball and conceding a penalty at The Hawthorns last Saturday.

It was a damaging defeat in more ways than one. Daniel Agger is suspended after his dismissal. Enter, presumably, Jamie Carragher, one of three potential starters for Liverpool who also featured in 2008 (Gerrard and goalkeeper Pepe Reina are the others) but one who has declined along with the club he loves.

With the 34 year old's lack of pace ever more marked, his consolation may be that the electric Sergio Aguero is injured. But while Carragher is a constant at Anfield over the past decade and a half, Agger's importance does not merely lie in his elegant defending.

That City hoped to sign the Dane is significant. When, newly wealthy, they aimed for Torres, the Spaniard rejected them out of hand. City were below him. Now men Mancini rarely selects are inclined to make the opposite journey. Craig Bellamy, the Hughes loyalist who had little part to play under the Italian, headed for Anfield last season and, in a monumental individual display, overcame City in the Carling Cup final. Adam Johnson, a fringe figure at City, was on Rodgers's radar before signing for Sunderland.

Now these are clubs who compete in different markets, ones with very different realities. Last season, Liverpool finished far nearer bottom club Wolverhampton Wanderers than City on points.

It is a sign of the scale of Rodgers's task. Because, while Liverpool could be forgiven for wanting to turn the clock back to the 1970s and 1980s, even 2008 was a world apart from now.