No joy for the travelling Yellow Army; their heroic, icy trek from east to west being ‘rewarded’ with a first-hand view of a 5-0 Anfield thumping. With the Reds having already put five past City this season – in late September – the Kop could have been forgiven for a rendition of “‘Can we play you every week”.
Most worrying for Chris Hughton was the fragility shown by his defensive unit; the same fragility that was so painfully evident in the first month of the season.
The first sign that it wasn’t to be City’s afternoon came in the form of the team-sheet, with no sign of Sebastien Bassong – one assumes the result of a late injury or illness. In his place, Ryan Bennett was drafted in to the starting XI – to slot in alongside Michael Turner; the last time they lined up together in central defence – in a league game – was the opening day of the season.
Also absent were Anthony Pilkington and Wes Hoolahan – the result of a tactical reshuffle – with Elliott Bennett and Jonny Howson both returning to the starting line-up. As expected, Chris Hughton opted for a fit-again Grant Holt to lead the line – Simeon Jackson joining Pilkington and Hoolahan on the bench.
For the Reds, Luis Suarez – City’s nemesis for the last two seasons – was joined in attack by their new £12m signing, Daniel Sturridge; his first Premier League start in a Liverpool shirt. In central defence, veteran Jamie Carragher was preferred to Martin Skrtel, in an attempt by Brendan Rogers to contain the physical threat posed by Grant Holt.
It was typically the home side who made the brightest start, with City’s five-man midfield struggling to make the most of their one man advantage. With Glen Johnson operating from left-back the home side almost went ahead on 3 minutes when his inter-play with Suarez ended with the Uruguayan picking out Stewart Downing at the far post. Luckily for City – with heading not being the England international’s strongest suit – his effort drifted wide of Mark Bunn’s post.
Despite being on the receiving since the kick-off, City had a great chance to open the scoring on 7 minutes. A perfectly flighted Robert Snodgrass free-kick – awarded following Lucas’ foul on Holt – presented Ryan Bennett with a great opportunity, but he headed harmlessly in to the arms of Brad Jones.
More Liverpool pressure followed and was eventually rewarded with the lead on 26 minutes. City looked to have cleared the danger with Howson and Elliott Bennett jointly blocking Suarez’s route to goal, but the bobbling loose ball was hammered past Bunn – from the edge of the box – by Jordan Henderson.
With Norwich struggling to retain possession – and the home side continuing to dominate – it was no surprise when the Reds extended their lead on 36 minutes. A through-ball by Lucas was dummied by Sturridge, allowing Suarez a free run in on goal, and – in typical fashion – he stroked the ball past Bunn with ease.
City’s response to this second goal was a positive one and from a rare spell of pressure, Holt saw his powerful volley blocked by the head of Andre Wisdom.
On the stroke of half-time Bunn prevented further damage when he saved smartly from Sturridge.
Buoyed by – one suspects – a lively half-time team-talk, City made a decent start to the second period and had a chance to pull one back when the ball fell invitingly for Alex Tettey on the edge of the Liverpool box. Unfortunately for City he could only screw his right-foot volley horribly wide.
The early City pressure was short lived the pattern of the second half followed that of the first, with Liverpool enjoying long spells of possession.
With the Suarez-Sturridge combination continuing to cause problems for the City rear-guard it came as no surprise when they made it 3-0. Henderson’s beautifully flighted ball to the right was volleyed across the face of the goal, first-time, by Downing, and was side-footed home by an unmarked Sturridge.
The ease with which the goal was created was alarming from City perspective.
Wes Hoolahan’s introduction into the fray on 65 minutes – in place of Elliott Bennett – was greeted by the home side scoring their fourth; again its simplicity a cause for concern.
Johnson’s rampaging run down the left – two City players trailing in his wake – ended with a simple pass inside to Steven Gerrard. With the Kop encouraging him to shoot, the England skipper did what he has done dozens of times before and rifled the ball low into the corner of the net. While there was little that Bunn could do to prevent it, Gerrard was given too much time and space to pick his spot.
Salt was rubbed into the gaping City wounds in the 74th minute when Liverpool made it five. Again, defensive frailties were exposed as Raheem Sterling skipped past Turner and then his cross-shot was turned into his own net by Ryan Bennett.
The Canaries managed to avoid any further damage and – not for the first time – the occasion was made bearable by the fantastic efforts of the travelling Yellow Army.
Another away day to forget for Hughton and his troops as City continue to slide towards the wrong end of the table. No need for panic yet, but one point from the last eighteen should remind David McNally and co that the remaining twelve days of the transfer window remain critical ones in the fight for Premier League survival.