x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 20 January 2018

Mancini grateful his Hart is in the right place

Joe Hart came to Manchester City's rescue time and again at Anfield as the Premier League leaders held on for a 1-1 draw against Liverpool after seeing substitute Mario Balotelli sent off.

LIVERPOOL // Exit the artist, enter the insurance policy. As the fourth official prepared to signal the addition of three extra minutes, Roberto Mancini indicated his feelings about the score line. David Silva departed as Kolo Toure came on, charged with preserving the point.

Rather than a third centre-back, his goalkeeper achieved that, a stretching Joe Hart clawing Andy Carroll's header away to complete an afternoon of inspired defiance. Yet if, after a side have won 11 of their first 12 games on a record-breaking start, there is a tendency to see anything other than victory as disappointment, this was a point gained, not two dropped. "I am happy with it," Mancini said.

The pragmatist in him recognised as much. A manager who, before his side were swept to the top of the table by a flood of goals, was accused of negativity, is actually a realist. A draw at Anfield is always a respectable result, one achieved amid a late bombardment can count as an escape.

While Silva had a late shot cleared off the line, for the first time in the league, they mustered a solitary goal. More importantly, they only conceded one.

The Italian's side survived the Anfield onslaught, weathering the late storm with the considerable assistance of Hart. "Joe saved an important point," said his manager; just how significant will become apparent in May.

The theory is that title-winning teams tend to contain a great goalkeeper and, while both City and Hart remain works in progress, each could deem it a step in the right direction on the path to greatness.

Liverpool posed much the sternest test of City's credentials; Hart saved from Charlie Adam, Luis Suarez and Carroll while Dirk Kuyt and Stewart Downing also came close, but they survived.

"We came up against a goalkeeper who did what three or four others did here," said Kenny Dalglish. Goalkeeping heroics are becoming a regularity on Liverpool's hallowed turf, even if it was the latest instalment in the Anfield saga of spurned chances.

Even the one they converted came from an opponent as, within the space of two minutes, City's central defenders traded goals, Vincent Kompany's at the right end and Joleon Lescott's at the wrong. The captain evaded Dirk Kuyt's attentions to head in Silva's corner. His sidekick immediately cancelled the lead out, contriving to wrong-foot Hart and redirect Adam's wayward shot past his unfortunate goalkeeper.

It appeared the only ball the Scot misplaced all afternoon. His partnership with Lucas Leiva is developing promisingly. Each provides a sense of direction; in the process, each provides a contrast with City's most wayward talent.

Mario Balotelli's cameo only lasted 18 minutes, but incorporated two bookings; the first, for a tug on Glen Johnson, drew criticism from Mancini; the second, when he raised an arm to Martin Skrtel, prompted the City manager to accuse the Liverpool players of getting his compatriot dismissed.

Dalglish had little sympathy. "I think Balotelli got himself sent off," he said. "His actions spoke louder than anyone else's. Sometimes if you look in the mirror, you get the answer. Sometimes he doesn't help himself."

The striker's afternoon concluded with an altercation with the dressing-room door.

"If he damages the door, he pays," Mancini said. "Like his house." Whatever the state of the fixtures and fittings at Anfield, City emerged unscathed in their title challenge.