x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 28 July 2017

Red nut a tough one to crack

Liverpool's mantra of 'try breaking us down' has seen them steal a march on other sides chasing fourth place, writes Richard Jolly.

Manchester City's Emmanuel Adebayor, left, and Liverpool's Martin Skrtel jump for the ball during their Sunday's 0-0 draw at Eastlands. Both teams are battling it out to finish in the top four.
Manchester City's Emmanuel Adebayor, left, and Liverpool's Martin Skrtel jump for the ball during their Sunday's 0-0 draw at Eastlands. Both teams are battling it out to finish in the top four.

One meeting of Manchester and Liverpool provided drama in abundance, excellence and an upset. The other did not. Manchester City's stalemate against Liverpool contained just two shots on target. No one emulated Diniyar Bilyaletdinov, whose superlative strike brought Everton's equaliser against Manchester United, or Jack Rodwell, who sealed victory with precocious assurance. But it was significant nonetheless.

For Liverpool, it was proof that their obduracy has returned. Rafa Benitez's side are in period of retrenchment. The title is long gone, but a grim battle to secure fourth place is being conducted using age-old tactics. Especially in games against their immediate rivals, it is a defensive strategy with the majority of the side committed to ensuring goalkeeper Jose Reina receives ample protection, while a select few are responsible for isolated attacks.

It is among the most basic principles of the game: if you don't concede, you don't lose. Liverpool have only yielded two goals in nine league games. They are building from the back. If 0-0 draws last season, especially at Anfield, hindered them, Sunday's can be seen in a different light. In the last two months, Liverpool have faced each of the other sides who covet fourth place. Aston Villa and Tottenham were beaten, City held. None succeeded in breaching a back four who have rediscovered their frugal streak.

It is Anfield's era of austerity, perhaps. This time last year, Liverpool were commencing a remarkable run defined by its thrilling attacking play. Then they were personified by Steven Gerrard and Fernando Torres, who together displayed a deadly dynamism. Now earthy endeavour has supplanted sublime skills. Sweat-soaked serial triers such as Dirk Kuyt and Jamie Carragher serve as more appropriate faces of the new approach.

When goals are required, Carragher ventures forward from his new role at right-back more frequently and more effectively than is often acknowledged. Nevertheless, he is essentially a defensive full-back. When the more progressive Emiliano Insua shows similar caution and when Javier Mascherano and Lucas Leiva form a double shield in front of the defence, the message is a defiant one: try breaking us down.

Few have succeeded of late. It is less ambitious football than what Liverpool intended to play - not that attrition and entertainment often go hand in hand - but it may play to their manager's strengths. Even when Liverpool were demolishing Real Madrid and Manchester United 11 months ago, Benitez made for an unlikely cavalier. Men with such attention to minute detail are rarely carefree. Now circumstances have changed. Liverpool may have approached the game at Eastlands as underdogs in their own mind (in strictly financial terms, they were). That may suit them: it helps to generate a siege mentality.

But accentuating the negative made sense. Yossi Benayoun and Torres returned as replacements in the second half on Sunday. There is the promise of an added dimension to Liverpool's game, but for the time being at least, an objective has been achieved. They sit in sixth place but, with 11 games to go and the reinforcements arriving back from the treatment table, they may be the favourites for fourth spot. Using whatever means they could, Liverpool have hung in there. But as those present at Eastlands will know, it has not been pretty.

Beating United is always an achievement. To do so after taking on the champions at their own game is a greater one. It was a sign of the boldness of David Moyes that the Everton manager eschewed a more defensive option in midfield and fielded two of his "midget gems", as they were christened, as the central pair. Leon Osman and Mikel Arteta set the tone for still more attack-minded players such as Landon Donovan, Steven Pienaar and Bilyaletdinov. Everton, who were outstanding when beating Manchester City and Chelsea at Goodison Park, arguably performed better still in overcoming United. It is another illustration of Moyes's considerable prowess.

It is also tempting to wonder where Everton would be in the table but for a spate of injuries and the destabilising effect of the Joleon Lescott saga last summer. Tottenham's 3-0 win at Wigan on Sunday restored them to fourth place. It also meant that the aggregate score in the two teams' meetings this season is an improbable 12-1. The comfort for Roberto Martinez is that his men cannot face Spurs or Jermain Defoe, scorer of six of those goals, again this campaign; the worry is that, after only one win in 12 league games, they will not take on Tottenham next year either.

Two of Owen Coyle's teams were in action on Sunday; it is hard to say which acquitted themselves better. His former side, Burnley, lost 5-2 at Aston Villa after his current charges, Bolton, were beaten 3-0 at Blackburn. Coyle's past and present now sit side by side in the relegation zone. The spectre of Billy McNeill is looming large. His fellow Scot was the last manager to take charge of two top-flight teams relegated in the same season, Manchester City and Aston Villa in 1986-7. McNeill captained and managed Celtic whereas Coyle merely supports them, but the parallels are worryingly close nonetheless.

sports@thenational.ae