23 February 2008

Liverpool 3-2 Middlesbrough

Reina
Finnan Hyypia Arbeloa Aurelio
Lucas Mascherano
Kuyt Gerrard Babel
Torres

Goals:
Tuncay 9’
Torres 28’ 29’ 61’
Downing 83’

Thank you Fernando Torres. It’s not often you get to say a £20m player is an absolute bargain.

It was just about the same line-up as the one against Inter (Carragher's suspension meant Arbeloa came in at center-back), but the performance was little like Tuesday’s.

The only change was in defense, and it was the defense that gave Boro the lead and kept them in the game. Within ten minutes Boro had a free kick on the right when Babel unnecessarily handled on the wing, and Downing’s ball found Tuncay for an easy header with Liverpool’s defense claiming offside. It wouldn’t be the first time the offside trap caused trouble.

For the next 18 minutes, Liverpool’s passing was abhorrent and the team lost possession far too easily. When they were able to get a ball in the box, it was usually too long for the recipient. But then came Fernando Torres.

First, an ill-judged back header by Arca put Torres through on goal, rounding Schwarzer and evading Pogatetz to slot home 28 minutes in. Less than 60 seconds later, Aurelio centered for Torres in space outside the box with room to stride forward and unleash a shot that curled around the defender and past the keeper, reminiscent of the goal he scored away against the same side.

It looked like that would give Liverpool a platform to put the match away, but Boro twice had the ball in the net before halftime, both correctly ruled out. First, Tuncay needlessly scored with him arm in the 35th. Four minutes later, the same player was barely offside before he put Aliadiere through.

O’Neil also had a chance to score in the last minute of stoppage time after getting the ball in space after Downing again got down Liverpool's right, only to shoot tamely wide. And the trend continued ten minutes after the restart; Aliadiere was flagged for offside when it was Tuncay who received the pass and could have been one-on-one with Reina.

But in the 61st minute, another moment of brilliance from Torres looked likely to seal it. Kuyt played a lovely long ball out of defense towards Torres, who was able to control the ball around Wheater and avoid the on-rushing Schwarzer with a shot from outside the box for his hat-trick, his second three-goal game this season. Most impressive was how he made the incredibly difficult move look so simple.

Liverpool had chances to take it to 4-1, the best being Lucas’ free header over from Gerrard’s curling free kick and when Schwarzer did well to prevent Torres from getting his fourth on the break.

But Boro made it a nervier finish when the impressive Downing received a long ball after another giveaway, got away from Benayoun, and shot between Reina’s legs in the 83rd minute. However, soon after Aliadiere was sent off, slapping at Mascherano after he was seemingly provoked. In Masch’s defense, it looked like he only put a hand in Aliadiere’s face after some words were said, while Aliadiere absolutely swung back.

It certainly seemed like Liverpool weren’t helped by the substitutions made (and not made) in the final 20 minutes either. When the line-ups were announced, it was strange to see no room on the bench for either Alonso or Pennant, and that Alonso wasn’t there made a difference.

Lucas played fairly well for 70 minutes or so, but clearly began to tire and started to make mistakes. And with Benayoun having come on for Babel, Kuyt soon to be replaced by Riise, and no central midfielders on the bench, Lucas stayed on. I don’t mean to come off as unfairly harsh on the young player, but the mistakes that lost possession stood out.

More worrisome was the defense, especially the offside trap. Arbeloa made some excellent tackles, but he was the difference between today’s match and Tuesday’s, and something was definitely different. Again there were too many mistakes, far too often a problem this season, and no offense to Boro, but a team with more confidence and talent up front could have made Liverpool pay.

But it also could have been a different story without Torres. Arca’s mistake began the onslaught, but all three goals were stunning in their own right. Pogatetz did well to try and get back and put Torres off for the first, and when rounding the keeper, Torres almost lost the angle, but was still able to put it away. The second goal was just a stunning strike from distance. And the third was yet another display of how much of a threat he is one-on-one with the defender from pretty much any angle.

And now, before the end of February, that’s 21 goals on the season, 15 of those coming in the league. He’s the first 20-goal scorer striker for Liverpool since Owen. And what’s more, he’s only scored 21 in a season one other time, coming in 40 games for Atletico in 03-04. Sometimes it’s hard to remember it’s his first season in England; he’s only played 31 games in his Liverpool career.

Other than Torres, I thought Kuyt, Mascherano, Gerrard, and Hyypia played well. I hope it’s not lost that it was Kuyt’s assist for the third goal, and he’s starting to adapt to playing on the right in a 4-2-3-1, although like many in the first half, too often his crosses were inaccurate. Mascherano’s excellent performances are becoming standard fare, but there’s no other I’d rather have mopping up play. I’ve long run out of complementary adjectives for his work.

Liverpool made things difficult for themselves, and on another day they could be coming away with less than three points, but no matter how they got there, it’s job done.

With Carragher returning from suspension and Agger and Skrtel nearing fitness, I’m hopeful the defensive lapses were an aberration. Liverpool also must improve their passing, but at the end of the day, it’s three points in the league and two wins in a row for a team that desperately needs the confidence boost. That’ll do.

4 comments:

Mike Georger said...

"He’s the first 20-goal scorer for Liverpool since Owen"

you're forgetting stevie's 23 goal season of 05/06

nate said...

thanks mike, meant to write "20-goal striker" instead of scorer.

duly fixed.

Mike Georger said...

apparently momo gave up a stoppage time penalty to cost juventus a draw today. hes doing terrible over there thus far and is already pulling the 'i know i need to improve' shit we heard all season. great move selling high.

Anonymous said...

Bless Masch. As the commentator stated, he was not great with the ball at his feet, but mop up he did. He puts a wrench into the gears of any offense. Lucas did the same occasionally, but I thought he played terribly throughout the game. In fact, I don't think anyone had a great game excepting Torres. I do enjoy watching him and wish he had more time with the ball at his feet. He rarely got touches in the 2nd half but every one of them lifted my eyebrows.

Admittedly, I do not like Kuyt and am always left wondering why we don't play Babel up top with Torres. We have a stacked midfield - playing Babs up top and having Pennant, Lucas, Gerrard, Riise, Beni... play wide makes a lot more sense to me. Babel is quicker, stronger and definitely has the taste for striking more than Kuyt. (I'd even argue that he passes and crosses better) He also threatens defenders with just about every touch - something Kuyt seems squeamish about. Anyone have an answer for that?