The extent to which Liverpool Football Club has progressed over the last 18 months under Brendan Rodgers was on show on Boxing Day, as the Merseyside outfit faced arguably the toughest game in English football.
The Northern Irish manager led his table-topping side to the Etihad Stadium to face a resurgent and ruthless Manchester City outfit, who were intent on closing the gap between the teams.
Although losing 2-1 in the end due to goals from Vincent Kompany and Álvaro Negredo, the away team gave Manuel Pellegrini’s charges arguably their toughest fixture on home soil this season.
In the absence of talisman Steven Gerrard and hotshot striker Daniel Sturridge, Rodgers set his side up in a bespoke 4-3-3 system, while City matched this by playing three in the centre of the park.
In the early exchanges Liverpool showed that they had not come to Manchester on a damage limitation exercise and were instead keen to prove themselves as worthy of their place in the Premier League’s top four.
With main man Luis Suárez the focal point for their attack, the Reds showcased some clever interplay between the Uruguayan striker and onrushing midfielders, creating openings against a usually stringent home rearguard.
When Philippe Coutinho bundled the ball into Joe Hart’s net after another enterprising passage of Liverpool possession, no one could argue that Rodgers’ men were not good value for their lead.
The manner of City’s comeback and the goals that Liverpool conceded will have been tough viewing for their manager and the travelling faithful after the effort put in to claim a lead.
However, the Reds should be applauded for the way the looked to play the game, despite being put under pressure by arguably the Premier League’s best team.
Rodgers had obviously implored his men to keep the lion’s share of the ball, and as a result the visiting defenders looked to pick a pass rather than clear their lines on more occasions than not.
With Gerrard absent, Jordan Henderson continued his recent run of excellent form, and looked like a man more than capable of claiming a place in the Liverpool midfield for the next decade. While David Moyes is campaigning for a return to the England fold for Tom Cleverley, a more apt reintroduction to Roy Hodgson’s squad is overdue for Henderson.
The ex-Sunderland man was partnered well by an industrious Lucas Leiva and a confidence-filled Joe Allen, who is starting to live up to his billing. The former Swansea man has taken some flak since arriving on Merseyside, but has put in a number of comprehensive performances in recent weeks.
Coutinho was largely frustrated by one of the best defenders in England in the form of Pablo Zabaleta, and in an ideal world Rodgers needs to manufacture a formation where the Brazilian plays more centrally rather than on the left flank.
Finally, on the other side, Raheem Sterling looks like a man that has evolved from an outstanding prospect to a certified Premier League star, and repeatedly got the better of Aleksandar Kolarov with his pace, trickery and running off the ball.
Had an incorrect first-half offside call in which Sterling raced behind the City defence to latch onto a Suárez throughball been adjudged correctly, the remainder of the game may well have panned out differently.
Despite losing their berth at the top of the table and suffering defeat in Manchester, Rodgers will be proud of the manner in which his side conducted themselves at the Etihad Stadium. Their fans should be too.
Liverpool’s development and evolution is clearly making giant strides as the season progresses, and the Merseyside outfit must be considered as a real challenger for Champions League qualification as a minimum.