Arbeloa Carragher Skrtel Aurelio
Kuyt Gerrard Babel
That Reading came to Anfield and looked to attack Liverpool, as more teams have this season, is what kept the away side in the match for the entire 90 minutes.
There were signals of some of the old defensive mishaps within the first few seconds, when Aurelio gave the ball away after kickoff, only for the resulting cross to be blocked for a corner.
And it only took five minutes to punish Liverpool. Hunt and Arbeloa, who clashed all match long, fought for a ball down the flank, and it appeared Arbeloa had tackled away for a corner, only for Marriner to blow for the free kick.
From there, Reading took advantage of Liverpool’s set-piece defense. Shorey’s centered free kick found Matejovsky in acres of space just outside the box, and the resulting shot was a dazzling goal. Credit to Reading for attacking from the off and the quality of the strike, but Liverpool will certainly be aggrieved with the decision leading to it.
The goal prompted the correct response from the home side, with Liverpool’s midfield increasingly pulling the strings and Torres dangerous on the break. But more casual defending nearly led to Reading’s second in the 17th minute, with Shane Long’s pass just too heavy for Oster in the end.
And less than a minute later, Liverpool got the equalizer when Mascherano received the ball in space, beat Hunt, and fired an unstoppable shot past Hahnemann from five yards outside the box. His first goal for the club has long been coming and the joy with which he celebrated, in front of the Kop, was little surprise.
From there, Liverpool began to dictate proceedings, and finished the half the far stronger side.
Both Alonso and Mascherano were spraying passes all over the pitch (Mascherano’s long passing seemed much improved today), with Babel the most likely recipient. With his usual willingness to run at defenders, Babel forced Hahnemann into a brilliant save from a snap shot in the 30th minute and had the ball in the net after the resulting corner, only to be rightly ruled offside. Kuyt and Alonso also had noteworthy chances, but the half ended deadlocked with Liverpool unable to turn their superiority into a lead.
However, less than 3 minutes after the restart, Torres was the difference once again, giving Liverpool the lead when he escaped Bikey for a free header from Gerrard’s free kick (after Babel again drew a foul from Rosenior). It didn’t take long to hit 20 goals in the league, and nine in the last seven games might have something to do with that. The ease with which he scores has made what’s he done almost less impressive; he’s had an absolutely remarkable campaign for a 23 year old in his first season in English football.
With Liverpool in position to seal the game with a third goal, some of the old problems arose. The next two opportunities came at Liverpool’s end, and both came because of mistakes. Another Aurelio giveaway forced Skrtel to track back and ease Doyle out of the way (it was never a penalty), followed by Gerrard’s back pass almost letting in Long, only for Reina to come out well to deal with it.
From there, Liverpool settled, but still never found a third goal, and honestly rarely looked like getting one. Until the final few minutes, Reading’s only opportunity was dealt with by Carragher – holding off Doyle so Reina could claim after Liverpool again failed to clear (and again, never a penalty) – but a one-goal advantage made Anfield rightfully edgy. Despite the current seven-match win streak, games like West Ham away and Wigan at home still linger in the memory.
Making things more nerve-wracking were the two soft free kicks Reading picked up in added time, with both again troubling the defense. The first led to a scramble, which ended with Gerrard blocking Kitson’s attempt (incidentally with his arm, trying to bring it into his body, and for the third time, never a penalty), while the second was bobbled but claimed under pressure by Reina.
No matter how they’re earned, it’s still a much-needed three points. But the inability to kill off the game and shakiness on set pieces are worrisome. Liverpool truly could have been punished with either of those two late free kicks. In addition, neither Arbeloa nor Aurelio had the best games; Reading’s willingness to go forward with both fullbacks looking to attack as well left gaps in the defense. Both those problems lead me to think we’ll see a lot of the backline that went out against Inter over the coming stretch of games.
However, some of those problems, especially the quality in the last quarter of the game, can also be put down to tiredness after the Champions League match on Tuesday. Indeed, any win after a midweek away game in Europe is a good win.
And there were still positives to take away. It’s the usual suspects for man of the match, which probably goes to Mascherano for a simply fantastic first goal for the club and an excellent range of passing, but Torres, Skrtel, and Carragher all had good games as well.
The willingness to counter, with Gerrard and Torres (and Babel to a lesser extent) again linking up well, and the pace of Liverpool’s attack are both excellent signs. This formation, and the personnel deployed, has led to a quick-strike counter-attack the likes of which Liverpool hasn’t had in ages. Much of it has to do with Torres, but his partnership with Gerrard (aided by Gerrard in a free role thanks to Alonso and Mascherano covering) has certainly helped.
Another three points in the bag, Liverpool’s fifth successive league win. Eight days until the trip to Old Trafford that begins the crucial, and grueling, next three weeks.