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In Good Conscience

Reds are starved of success but which City will show up in final?

When Manchester City and Liverpool played in Europe over the past few days, they travelled in different classes.

City scored splendid goals through Sergio Aguero, David Silva and Yaya Toure in the Champions League in Kiev.

Liverpool stayed at home, and eked out a 1-0 win against the Germans Augsburg in the Europa League with a James Milner penalty.

Dress it up any way you like, the two Uefa events are definitely first and second class. In money, in TV exposure, in quality of opponents, there is no comparison.

When City and Liverpool line up at Wembley Stadium tomorrow, the prize on offer is the Football League Cup - otherwise known as the Capital One Cup.

Even if every Liverpool player runs his heart out, even if Daniel Sturridge is fit and eager to lead the attack tomorrow, the key to the Wembley final will be Manchester City.

Given the way that City bailed out of England's most prestigious knockout competition by fielding a youth team in the FA Cup at Chelsea last week, why should we take them seriously in the second-best domestic trophy?

I'm guessing that Manuel Pellegrini's pre-match address at Wembley will be on the lines of: You've come this far, might as well finish the job.

There are two caveats to that.

Liverpool are hungry for success, and any piece of silverware would do to kick-start the Juergen Klopp era. And Liverpool know how to beat City because, in November, the Reds stunned them on their own Etihad turf by winning 4-1.

There were extenuating circumstances. "Today we did it all wrong - the performance, the way we defended, the way we went forward," said Pellegrini. "It was a fake night, a fake game. If we meant to do it on purpose, we couldn't have done it that badly."

If that sounded disingenuous towards Liverpool, it was not Pellegrini's intention. The Chilean is among the most honest men in football.

He was questioning his own team. And he knew what was wrong.

One thing was the absence of Vincent Kompany, the governor of City's defence. Within 30 minutes, City were shocked by an Eliaquim Managala own goal, followed by Liverpool's Brazilian duo Philippe Coutinho and Roberto Firmino pillaging two goals.

This was a freak, as opposed to a fake, result.

But City have other priorities. The club are hell-bent on making a decent fist of the Champions League, and the Etihad defeat came days before an away game at Juventus.

Also, Liverpool were still excited by the arrival of Klopp. They ran City into the ground. Statistics are overused in football, but the analysis that counted here did come out of a computer. It showed that Liverpool collectively ran 7.5km more than City.

With Klopp a jack-in-the-box on the touchline, and with the former Borussia Dortmund manager demanding that his players impose themselves by running, running, running, he got the response that new coaches often do.

Sustaining that is more difficult. Coutinho is a subtle, gifted individual, not a workhorse. Firmino still has to find consistency after his transfer from German football. Adam Lallana, though English, has never run as far or as fast as that game in Manchester. And perhaps not unconnected, Lallana is injured now.

Against all this energy, this pressure on City in their own half of the pitch, high in the opponents' half, Liverpool overran City last November.

However, player for player, City have the better team. On paper, that is.

In heart and mind, a player City allowed to leave and join Liverpool last summer - Milner - personifies the difference.

He will work until others drop. He was like that when he started, with Leeds when he was 16. Now over 30, he has played 551 career games as if every minute is precious, every stride worth the effort.

He left City because he found himself on the bench too often. "I looked at the players City signed last summer," he said. "I want to play football, and I'm not sure I would have kept two £50 million to £60 million (S$118 million) players out of the team."

One of those, Raheem Sterling, quit Liverpool to better his career (and his bank balance) at City. The other, Kevin de Bruyne is injured, and a big loss to the team.

But even if every Liverpool player runs his heart out, even if Daniel Sturridge is fit and eager to lead the attack tomorrow, the key to the Wembley final will be City.

When they are on their game, what talents they possess.

The goals in Kiev were all top notch. Silva's quick dash to the far post after Aguero and Sterling had combined to open up the defence for him. Toure heading the ball onto the chest for Aguero, who controlled it wonderfully and then shot with deadly accuracy for the second.

Finally, the coup de grace of City's striking, Toure defying all those who think that he no longer has it. The Ivorian exchanged passes four or five times down the right before, with what looked like almost boredom with just passing and moving, he used those long legs to slip away from a defender and from just outside the penalty area, he curled the ball with his left foot high, handsome, and unstoppable into the top corner of the net.

The dexterity of Toure almost seems like a contradiction to the sheer height and size of the man. His critics say he is lazy, he doesn't chase back and defend as they think he should.

Pellegrini sees another side to the big man. He sees a maverick who can turn a game on its head, using whatever is inside his head at any given time.

The question is, what is on the City players' minds?

Next Wednesday, City play Liverpool again in the Premier League.

I wouldn't suggest that Abu Dhabi City would give Liverpool the League Cup in exchange for gaining the three points at Anfield. But its clear there is a pecking order of what the Abu Dhabi owners want - and no doubt the bonus rewards are geared to Champions League, Premier League, and any other trophy after that.

LIVERPOOL V MAN CITY
Singtel TV Ch109, Monday, midnight

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on February 27, 2016, with the headline 'Reds are starved of success but which City will show up in final?'. Print Edition | Subscribe