Manchester City dropped more points after an engrossing 2-2 draw with Liverpool at the Etihad Stadium on Sunday afternoon and it is now being questioned whether the Premier League title race is all over.
Daniel Sturridge was superb for Liverpool, scoring a fine goal along with captain Steven Gerrard, while Sergio Aguero skilfully capitalised on a Jose Reina error to net an excellent equaliser for City in a game of several talking points.
But City boss Roberto Mancini's greatest concern will be his side's weakening grip on the top-flight title as they sit nine points behind Manchester United with 13 games remaining.
City defender Matija Nastasic returned to the centre of defence as one of two changes. The Serbian recovered from a knee injury which kept him on the bench for the midweek goalless draw at Queens Park Rangers. Opening goalscorer Edin Dzeko also returned as Samir Nasri and Carlos Tevez made way. Vincent Kompany was again absent through injury and Yaya Toure was still away at the Africa Cup of Nations, playing in a 2-1 defeat by Nigeria which eliminated Ivory Coast.
Liverpool made just one change from their midweek draw with Arsenal, with Jose Enrique returning at left-back to mean Glen Johnson switched to his usual position on the right. Andre Wisdom dropped to the bench. Joe Allen and Raheem Sterling were again among the substitutes.
City began in a 4-4-2 formation but Mancini changed shape early in the second half when sending on Aleksandar Kolarov for Nastasic. The reshuffle improved City but they were still outplayed for large periods. With Kompany and Toure sorely missed from the spine of their team, City targeted the flanks. But it was only Aguero's skilful finish which saved the day.
Liverpool appear more comfortable in a 4-4-2 formation. Sturridge has been a revelation since his £12million January arrival from Chelsea and his running and movement stretches opponents. Sturridge outpacing Nastasic in the first half before crossing for Luis Suarez, whose finishing was disappointing, is a marker of their burgeoning partnership. Liverpool also look a better team without Allen and Sterling in their first XI. But individual errors are continuing to prove costly.
Having seen Liverpool have double their 11 attempted shots, it was a surprise City did not use Carlos Tevez. Instead, Kolarov came on for Nastasic, Maicon replaced the worryingly ineffective David Silva, and Nasri was introduced in place of Gareth Barry with just two minutes of normal time remaining.
Liverpool did not make a change until there were 15 minutes remaining and then it was to give the returning Enrique a rest. Martin Skrtel was the man to come on. Sturridge had been struggling with a thigh injury from the first half, which could rule him out of England's friendly with Brazil, and he was given a late breather when Allen came on.
RefereeAnthony Taylor had a busy game. The match official booked six players, including one for Sturridge for a perceived dive in the penalty area in the second half under pressure from Joleon Lescott. But the greatest controversy surrounded Taylor's decision to wave play on in the build-up to Liverpool's equaliser at 1-1. It has been claimed by Sturridge that the referee told the visitors to play on. Before Sturridge's clinical 20-yard finish, Daniel Agger had appeared to foul Dzeko. Agger's poor challenge was seemingly a result of his frustration at his own poor play in allowing Dzeko to score the opener. No free-kick was awarded and, despite Dzeko staying down with an apparent injury, Liverpool did not kick the ball out. When Sturridge scored, Dzeko was quickly back to his feet to complain to a referee's assistant and earn a booking.
Sergio Aguero was the City hero after a positive second half and his fantastic equaliser to save a point. But the Argentine would not have had the opportunity to shoot if Reina, whose future at Liverpool is far from certain beyond the end of the season, had not rushed from his goal. It is not the first time Reina has done so and been caught out in his Liverpool career. Fellow goalkeeper Joe Hart could also be questioned after he was beaten from long range twice in one game. There have already been doubts this season about the City and England No.1.
Sturridge was the man of the match and has now scored four goals in six matches since joining Liverpool. His partnership with Suarez is encouraging and is providing Rodgers's side with an outlet. Steven Gerrard was also excellent and rolled back the years with a superb, half-volleyed, long-range goal which had looked set to win the game for Liverpool. Lucas Leiva's return to top form and fitness and the constantly improving Stewart Downing and Jordan Henderson should also not be underestimated.
It is beginning to look like a monumental task for City to catch and overhaul United at the top of the table. Mancini will welcome the earlier than expected return of Toure after Ivory Coast's elimination from the Africa Cup of Nations but City are still struggling. A trip to Southampton next weekend will not be easy before an FA Cup home date with Leeds United and a vital league meeting with Chelsea at the end of February.
Liverpool can take great encouragement from outplaying the defending champions for the majority in the wake of a promising draw at Arsenal. After two tough away games, they welcome out-of-form West Bromwich Albion and Rodgers' former club, Swansea City, to Anfield in the remainder of their Premier League commitments for February. Liverpool also return to Europa League action this month with two legs against Zenit St Petersburg.