Real Madrid missed the chance to move four points clear of Barcelona at the top of La Liga after being held to a 1-1 draw by Villarreal on Sunday.
Cristiano Ronaldo’s early second-half penalty looked to have Madrid on course for a fourth consecutive win, but Gerard Moreno’s thunderous equaliser 26 minutes from time earned the visitors a deserved point.
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However, the visitors started the brighter and should have been in front on 12 minutes when Iker Casillas made a fine save from Moreno and then Dani Carvajal headed Moi Gomez’s follow-up effort off the line.
The European champions began to bombard the Villarreal defence with crosses as the half developed and Gareth Bale came close to an opener when his header from Toni Kroos’s corner flashed wide.
The World Player of the Year opened the scoring from the spot after he had been pulled down inside the area by Eric Bailly.
Ronaldo should have doubled his tally moments later when he latched onto a wonderful through ball by Bale, but Asenjo rushed from his goal-line to make a brave block.
That miss was to prove costly when Villarreal levelled thanks to a wonderful low finish by Moreno.
Ronaldo had the chance to restore Madrid’s lead four minutes later as he showed Bailly a clean pair of heels, but was once again denied by Asenjo.
Casillas then had to make another great save of his own at the other end to prevent Luciano Vietto heading home a winner for Villarreal before Ronaldo nodded over one last chance in a frantic finale.
Earlier, Sevilla and Atletico seemed to suffer a hangover from their European encounters in midweek at the Sanchez Pizjuan in a tense game short on clear-cut chances.
Sevilla had the better of the first period as Vicente Iborra struck the post and Miguel Angel Moya in the Atletico goal made a couple of smart stops.
However, the introduction of Koke and Fernando Torres from the bench gave the visitors a boost after the break.
Torres had the best chance to win the game when he broke clear seven minutes from time, but the former Liverpool and Chelsea striker saw his shot slide across goal and beyond the far post.
“Selfless and sensational” was how Liverpool manager Brendan Rodgers described Philippe Coutinho after he looked to have dampened the fire in Manchester City’s Premier League bid again.
The Brazilian struck the winner in last season’s corresponding encounter, but his Reds ended up being pipped to the championship by Manuel Pellegrini’s men.
This time, Coutinho served up a scintillating 75th-minute effort to sink City after Edin Dzeko had cancelled out a powerful drive from Jordan Henderson. It rekindled Liverpool’s top-four hopes, but left City five points behind Chelsea having played a game more.
Rodgers said: “He is a joy to work with – £8.5 million (Dh48.2m), [it’s] frightening to know what he could be worth.
“His performances in particular since he signed his [new five-year] contract, he has started to score goals.
“He is a very selfless player and a very humble young guy and would rather create for others. We are encouraging him. His technique is at a high, high level so he is going to score more goals.
“He is a joy to watch. He is a kid who has so much ahead of him in the game – 22 years of age people forget he came to us at 19. He is a sensational footballer. To beat Joe Hart at that angle and power was a phenomenal shot.”
But Liverpool as a team were phenomenal given they had only returned around 4.30am on Friday morning after their Europa League defeat to Besiktas. They showed greater desire from the moment Henderson blasted the 11th minute opener.
It was symptomatic of the way City have performed defensively recently. Not sharp enough, nor decisive enough.
Fernandinho was slack with an intended pass to Vincent Kompany and Coutinho was quick to pounce and punish the error by launching a fast-paced counter-attack. He fed Raheem Sterling who spotted a run from the supporting Henderson and the stand-in captain switched the ball onto his right foot and whipped in a glorious, curling effort from 20 yards into the top corner.
City’s response was instant as Sergio Aguero raced onto a lofted ball from David Silva and sent a half-volley past Simon Mignolet, but against the post.
Aguero, inevitably, was involved in the 25th minute leveller, collecting a pass from Silva and then darting across the sea of red shirts before slipping through an inchperfect, astute ball for Dzeko to drive home.
But Coutinho was equally beguiling, balanced and brilliant, and Liverpool’s “little magician” conjured up a sublime winner.
Brushing off the attentions of Samir Nasri and Pablo Zabaleta, he cut inside and smashed the ball past Hart for a wonder strike that has become part of his forte.
Think Coutinho has been probably the best player in the PL in the last 2.5/3 months.
— Richard Jolly (@RichJolly) March 1, 2015
City ended up with one shot on target as they failed to win at Anfield for a 13th successive time.
“There were a lot of problems,” said frustrated City boss Pellegrini. “There were two goals from Liverpool, very good goals in the top corner. We miss three clear chances.
“I think we never give up about the title. No, not in spirit. We must try to improve our play first and after that try to win our next game. You never know in football what will happen. I am concerned about the whole team.
“We will see in the reaction in the next game [against Leicester]. The only way to see is the way we play again on Wednesday.”
When Manchester City faltered 3-2 at Liverpool last April, it was widely regarded as the death-knell to their Premier League title hopes. But they rose from the depths of despair that day to prove their critics wrong.
The burden of expectation proved too much for Liverpool, and that is something that could perhaps be afflicting City in this campaign. Right now, it seems unlikely they can catch Chelsea after blowing a massive opportunity to reduce the lead at the top to just two points with yesterday’s 2-1 loss at Anfield.
Manuel Pellegrini says his side won’t give up, and they won’t until it is mathematically impossible, but their current form indicates they lack the confidence and conviction to back up their words.
As they showed by deploying centre-back Kurt Zouma in midfield against Spurs in yesterday’s League Cup final, Chelsea adapt to the opposition with different formations and personnel to get the win. City don’t and their ‘Engineer’ needs to come up with a Plan B before it’s too late.
Pellegrini shows faith in his players but he is causing concern by showing an unwillingness to change when tactics don’t work. He again started with Edin Dzeko alongside Sergio Aguero up front, despite that strategy proving hopelessly naive against Barcelona in midweek.
Pellegrini: “Playing two up front at Anfield was the best decision. It was a close game and they won the game when we had one striker on.”
— City Watch (@City_Watch) March 1, 2015
It backfired again at Liverpool and left City struggling in other areas. They were undermanned in midfield by the more energetic and enterprising Reds, which put a hesitant defence under more pressure.
Fingers have been pointed at captain Vincent Kompany, but while he is lacking the assurity of old, he is not alone in the blame game. The responsibility lies with the team, not just him.
Scoring nine times against Stoke and Newcastle matters not one bit when a side featuring Aguero, Dzeko, David Silva, Samir Nasri and Yaya Toure can only muster one shot on target at Liverpool – and that was Dzeko’s goal. It is not good enough and Pellegrini has to make decisive, difficult decisions to put things right.
In his post-match assessment, he admitted there were problems and he has to find solutions. As outstanding as Philippe Coutinho was for Liverpool, Silva could have caused as much damage had he been given the same freedom behind Aguero.
Pellegrini signed Wilfried Bony as seemingly the final piece in City’s attacking jigsaw to provide impetus in the run-in, but he has yet to start and make an impact off the bench. His most notable contribution yesterday was an elbow on Adam Lallana in an aerial challenge that could have seen him sent off.
If Pellegrini persists with 4-4-2 then Bony needs to start against Leicester on Wednesday, as does Frank Lampard to offer more ideas and intelligence in midfield. Not only are City’s fading hopes of a trophy at stake but also his own future.
Was told recently by someone high up at a La Liga club that Pellegrini wouldn’t see out the season at City. After this week, looking ominous
— Ed Malyon (@eaamalyon) March 1, 2015
With the quality in their ranks and spending support of the owner in the transfer market, they simply have to be doing better. Players and Pellegrini have recently talked about some below-par performances being not the real City. Well, now, with many convinced their title hopes are already over, is the time to respond.
It is a test of character as much as quality, and Pellegrini’s credentials. Never has the time been more apt for them to live up to their mantra to ‘fight til’ the end’.