Liverpool 1 Man City 2
Nicolas Anelka came back to haunt Gerard Houllier with two goals which could do untold damage to Liverpool’s Champions League dreams.
Chelsea’s defeat at West Ham means Liverpool are actually level on points now with the west Londoners – but still need a win next Sunday at Stamford Bridge if they are to steal the fourth qualifying place.
But they will not want to remember their former team-mate Anelka with much warmth, after he scored his first goals since late February to fire City to victory.
After Milan Baros had fired Liverpool ahead, Anelka’s pace won him a penalty following a Djimi Traore foul, which he blasted home himself.
Then in injury time Anelka – dumped last summer as Houllier chose to sign El Hadji Diouf – struck with a fine rising volley to give Manchester City their first win at Anfield in 22 years.
Unchanged Liverpool found City annoyingly disruptive to their Champions League aspirations.
Peter Schmeichel pulled off a string of fine saves while French defensive pairing Sylvain Distin and David Sommeil cancelled out the threat of Michael Owen with an outstanding display.
Elsewhere Ali Benarbia was sheer quality while Joey Barton, Kevin Horlock and Shaun Wright-Phillips ran themselves into the ground in midfield.
In a first half of few chances, Schmeichel – playing the penultimate game of his professional career – showed his class, tipping over at full stretch a blistering Steven Gerrard free-kick, and then producing a reflex block to get a shoulder in the way of a Dietmar Hamann 30-yard effort.
Elsewhere Robbie Fowler – greeted loudly by the Kop on his Anfield return - got little change out of Sami Hyypia, while free-scoring Michael Owen and the equally quick Milan Baros were confronted with two defenders in Distin and Sommeil who could match them off the mark.
City had Horlock – in for the injured Marc Vivien Foe – and Richard Dunne booked in the first half, while referee Neale Barry’s main job during that period was to keep a sharp eye on the pulling and pushing going on constantly between Baros and Distin.
Twice Baros went down in the box in the opening half, under pressure from Distin and Scouse midfielder Barton and both times Barry was not interested.
City had two fine chances straight after the break to take control, but Fowler and Anelka wasted them.
Fowler managed to scuff an effort from Wright-Phillips cross right in front of the Kop, and then Anelka was played in by Benarbia but was forced wide and drilled his shot into the sidenetting.
But on 59 minutes Liverpool got the stroke of luck they needed to inject belief into a flagging performance – and the goal was clouded in controversy.
Fowler, deep in his own half, looked to be fouled by Hamann but Barry gave nothing. Diouf got the ball into the box from the right and Baros hooked it into the net from six yards.
The decision angered City and created an unpleasant atmosphere, with Gerrard and Dunne confronting each other before a City free-kick could be taken.
City, through Barton and then Fowler, bounced back with two chances of their own.
But Schmeichel then produced another stunning save. Diouf shot from 10 yards and the goalkeeper palmed it instinctively up and onto the bar, and followed that up with close range block from Baros.
City were deservedly level on 74 minutes when Traore clipped Anelka as he surged into the box onto a Benarbia pass. The big French striker stepped up to drill home the penalty himself.
On 77 minutes Liverpool took off Diouf and Hamann and introduced Bruno Cheyrou and Emile Heskey – but it achieved little – with Heskey booked two minutes after coming on for a foul on Wright-Phillips.
City had defended superbly, worked hard in midfield, and two minutes into injury time they struck with a peach of a winner.
Benarbia and Wright-Phillips combined and the ball was touched to Anelka, who lashed it home from 15 yards to reduce Anfield to stunned silence.