Finnan Carragher Hyypia Arbeloa
Babel Gerrard Mascherano Benayoun
Torres 19’ 78’
Gerrard 84’ (pen)
Don’t let the scoreline fool you; this game could have gone a lot differently.
Liverpool began well enough, and looked to have a dream start with Torres’ free header (thanks to a Lucho Gonzalez slip on a wet night) from Gerrard’s corner after 19 minutes. Although Porto looked to slow the tempo and keep possession, Liverpool increasingly gained a foothold, especially after the opener, and truth be told, Porto didn’t look much like getting into the game after the first 30 minutes.
But in the 33rd, after excellent work by Kazmierczak bullying his way past Mascherano down Liverpool’s right, Lisandro got free from Arbeloa and replied with a header of his own, Porto’s first real shot on target.
And for the rest of the half, Liverpool was completely at sea. The team looked shell-shocked, and was lucky not to concede again, with a last ditch tackle by Finnan preventing Quaresma from getting a shot off, and Lisandro spurning an excellent chance after getting behind the defense, amongst other opportunities.
By halftime, Liverpool had started to settle (and looked to counter to finish the half, only for the referee to strangely blow for halftime on exactly 45:00, despite the two goals), and after the break, the game looked like it could go either way. Liverpool still wasn’t clicking, but at least they had collected themselves and Porto threatened far less. After Benitez made a couple of excellent substitutions (Kewell for Voronin, Crouch for Benayoun) while Porto began to wear down, the floodgates finally broke.
First, Kewell put Torres through (although Torres’ strength and turn created the chance) in the 78th. Four minutes later, Stepanov (who had been excellent until this point) handled Gerrard’s free kick in the box under pressure from Hyypia (it was a penalty, and it wasn’t a foul by Sami). Despite Torres on a hat trick, Gerrard stepped up, and scored his 7th goal in the last 8 games.
Out of the game by that point, Porto’s heads dropped, and Crouch got in on the act from another Gerrard corner (3 goals stemming from set plays?). Again the goal was contested, with Porto players pleading for infringement on Kuyt, but it stood, and the scoreline was complete.
The two-goal performance of Torres (his first two goals in the Champions League) will get the headlines, but I thought Finnan was extraordinary today. Nothing spectacular, but a couple of last ditch tackles, excellent positioning, covering, and overlapping with whomever was on the right at the time (usually Babel, but Voronin, Benayoun and Kuyt all occupied the flank at some point). Easily his best game of the season, and making me feel like an idiot for questioning his inclusion.
Gerrard will also get a lot of the plaudits, and deservedly so. He’s returned to form over the past month or so, and continues to be Liverpool’s talisman. Torres again showed why Liverpool shelled out a record fee for him (and what Benitez can do when given significant money). It’s great to see Crouch continue to score. And despite the shakiness following the equalizer, the rest of defense had their moments, and it’s worth noting that Liverpool’s nemesis in the last match, Ricardo Quaresma, was quiet no matter where he popped up on the pitch.
I am a bit afraid that the final score will overshadow some of the problems. It was very worrying to see Liverpool’s collapse following Porto’s equalizer, and I can’t emphasize enough how lucky Liverpool was not to concede a second. Too many passes went astray, Liverpool was unable to get their wits about them and reestablish possession. After they had steadied themselves in the second half, the team tried to be too intricate in unlocking the defense, and frequently broke down in the final third without getting a good chance at goal.
Voronin and Babel, and Mascherano and Arbeloa to a lesser extent, all could have had better nights as well. None were bad, but none were up to their standards either, and I think Voronin’s invisibility (although that’s a bit harsh) hurt Liverpool when they were unable to settle after Lisandro’s goal, while I still believe that Babel is more suited to a substitute role, although Kewell filled that role well tonight.
But more importantly, Liverpool didn’t concede a second. And with past complaints over creating goals in the latter stages, Liverpool scored 3 in the last 15 minutes. There are lessons to be learned from the match, but on the whole, something to be positive about. Porto is a very good team, and it’s a credit to them they kept Liverpool on the ropes for nearly half the game. But bad teams don’t score 4 against Porto either.
This result, even with Besiktas’ win against Marseille, doesn’t change an awful lot. Thanks to Marseille’s win at Anfield, Liverpool still need to win in France to go through. Porto leads the group on 8, both Liverpool and Marseille follow with 7, and Besiktas still in contention on 6. (Edit: Whoops. If Besiktas beat Porto in Portugal and Liverpool draw, Porto, Liverpool and Marseille will all be on 8 points, and it'll go to goal difference.)
But again, at the end of the day, it’s a very good result. Liverpool’s scored 17 goals in their last 4 games. It was an emphatic reply to the media turmoil of the last week, especially by the fans, who chanted “Rafa, Rafael” all match long. And Liverpool can still qualify for the money-spinning knockout stage with a win in Marseille December 11th.
And if this is the result following a sub-standard performance, I can’t wait until they click more often.