Finnan Carragher Agger Arbeloa
Pennant Gerrard Alonso Riise
74’ - Babel for Pennant
80’ - Voronin for Torres
90’ - Sissoko for Kuyt
Laursen (OG) 30’
Barry (pen) 85’
Besides win on the road, something Liverpool infrequently did last season was win games at the death. Which is why today’s game was so encouraging. Liverpool won the first game of the season, away from Anfield, and it was with a stunner of a free kick by Gerrard in the 87th minute, after it looked like Villa would undeservedly snatch a point thanks to an incidental handball in the box by Carragher only minutes earlier.
Unsurprisingly for the first fixture of the year, the game started slowly. But after a quarter of an hour, Liverpool started to click, and started to grow in stature. Torres and Kuyt were linking up well, creating space for each other with their runs, and looked to bring Gerrard and the wingers into the mix.
After 30 minutes came the break-through. Torres was through on goal, and probably should have scored but for a save by Stuart Taylor. It looked as if the ball was going to trickle out, but Kuyt, working his socks off as usual, got to it just before it crossed the byline, and Laursen put Kuyt’s chipped cross into his own net.
Liverpool stayed on top for the next 10 or so minutes, but by halftime, Villa had steadied the ship. And honestly, they came out the better team in the second half and continued the pressure. For the most part, Liverpool soaked up their attacks and had chances on the counter, but it was the home team who dictated the pace in the second half. Villa are no mugs, and that’s the reason I’m so pleased with today’s victory.
For a while there, it was a bit shaky. And at times in the second half, it did look like last year. The defense bent under Villa pressure but didn’t break until the penalty, but Villa should have never gotten the opportunity to make it 1-1. But, and excuse the pun, that’s the way the ball bounces sometimes. This time, it bounced up and hit Carra on the arm with no one pressuring him, and Barry stepped up and sent Reina the wrong way with his penalty.
Gerrard was my man of the match before his free kick (although Kuyt gave him a run for his money), but that certainly sealed the deal. Last year, this game would have ended 1-1. I’m absolutely certain of that. But given one opportunity, on a free kick Gerrard himself earned with a surge forward, Liverpool took advantage, and comes away with all 3 points. And what a free kick it was. Somewhere, David Beckham is very, very jealous.
While I’m very pleased with Gerrard’s all-around performance – his energy and intensity, his attempts at driving into the box, his passing, and his overall vision – there’s a little nagging voice that wonders why we rarely saw him play so wholeheartedly last season. Don’t get me wrong, I’m thrilled with the outcome, but it’s odd to see his morale seemingly so much better today than it was for a lot of the time last season. Long may it continue.
I was also pleased with the performances of the new boys. Torres, as said earlier, had a good understanding with Kuyt, showed he’s got the strength and touch to compete in the Premiership, showed his creativity, created opportunities out of nothing, and probably should have scored. Babel looked very dangerous for the 20 minutes or so he was on, had two good shots at goal, and was lightning quick, but at that point, Liverpool was attacking on the counter and Villa was sending men forward in droves, both of which played to Babel’s strengths. Voronin didn’t have much to do, with Villa attacking for the majority of the time he was on, but like Kuyt, he showed a willingness to work hard, chase down balls, and pressure defenders from the top, which was what was required in that situation.
Yes, there were annoyances today, aside from the fact Liverpool couldn’t get a second goal while dominant and Villa was able to get back into the game. I wasn’t pleased with the performance on either wing. Pennant, while showing flashes of talent on the right, was at his petulant worst, although in his defense, he was ridden all game by both Villa players and fans because of his Birmingham connection. Riise provided little width on the left as well. And the defense seemed unsteady at times, even if Liverpool were hard done by Villa's goal. But those problems are remediable, and are easy to forget with the good feelings this win inspires.
I can’t emphasize enough my belief that this would have ended in a draw in the past few seasons. It’s trivial to say, but these are games that title contenders win. Last year, both United and Chelsea were lauded for being able to snatch a victory in the last few minutes. If Liverpool has added that dimension to their game, it’ll help immensely.
This is the toughest game any of the “big four” will play this weekend. Villa is a good team, and look like they’ve improved in every area since last season. So not only has Liverpool come away with all 3 points from a difficult away fixture, they’ve done so in such a manner that it has to be a morale boost. Let’s hope it also sets the tone for the rest of the season.
Toulouse on Wednesday.