Finnan Carragher Hyypia Insua
Kuyt Gerrard Babel
For the first half, it was both a typical encounter between these two sides and a cagey end of season match. But in the second Liverpool kicked it up a gear, culminating with Torres’ 32nd goal of the second, yet another match-winner by the Spaniard and his eight-consecutive at Anfield in the league.
Neither side provided much attacking impetus in the opening 45 minutes, but Liverpool were the better side throughout, while City struggled to get Benjani as a lone striker into the game. But outside of a superlative strike by Gerrard, going for a curler into the far corner from Insua’s set-up and forcing Hart into an outstanding save, there were few chances on goal to write home about.
Gerrard was the key man throughout the half with that effort on goal, another low effort just wide of the post, and attempting to find Torres on a number of occasions, while both Lucas and Mascherano were excellent in midfield, but it was little surprise when the half ended 0-0. All too often, Liverpool were looking to attack City’s fullbacks (Ball and Jihai, Jihai more often than not), but there weren’t enough men in the box to take advantage of any crosses sent in.
However, Liverpool made use of their edge in possession and began to take the game to the opposition much more in the second half. Less than two minutes after the restart, Gerrard flicked a delightful pass with the outside of his foot to put Torres through, but the striker sent his shot wide of the far post from a tough angle.
Elano’s swerving free kick in the 51st minute, just hitting the outside of the post, reminded of the possibility of a goal against the run of play, which has been an all-too-often occurrence at times this season and one of the main reasons Liverpool's sitting in fourth.
But in the 58th, Kuyt headed Michael Ball’s mishit clearance towards Torres, and the striker beat Dunne one-on-one, similar to his first goal for the club against Ben Haim and Chelsea, to slot through Hart’s legs for the opener. Yep, another strike in front of the Kop. Long may it continue.
Liverpool really should have added a second within the next 10 minutes, with Hart making a wonderful save on Kuyt’s volley and keeping out Lucas’s subsequent bicycle kick, Kuyt heading off the bar and then too close to Hart, and a lovely run and cutback by Torres spurned by Babel inside the six-yard box.
Soon after, City brought Hamann on to shore up the midfield and keep the ball away from Liverpool, and while it worked to a certain degree, the home side still had chances on the break, most notably when Mascherano blasted a decent shot from distance that Hart saved, but with Torres in acres of space on the right waiting for the pass.
Outside of 30-yard free kick by Benjani parried away by Reina in the 81st, City was limited to little in attack, and even with Liverpool holding a narrow one goal lead, which hasn’t been enough far too often this season, the result was rarely in doubt.
Though Liverpool rarely took it out of second gear, I was pleased with many of the players’ performances. It’s easy to let heads drop and just go through the motions after a loss like the one suffered on Wednesday and with fourth place assured, but the team responded well enough.
As said, Gerrard was probably the best player in the first half, and continued his influence in the second before being substituted with 10 minutes left to play. Mascherano was everywhere in midfield, as usual, but also sprayed some cross-field passes across the pitch reminiscent of Alonso while Lucas did well playing from box to box. Kuyt also put in another workman-like performance, but was much more of a goal threat and should have scored, having chances with that lovely volley and something like five headers towards goal that were either saved, wide of the target, or ricocheted off the bar.
In addition, I can’t go without a mention of Insua in his first start of the season. I’m well aware I’m prone to exaggeration when it comes to the player, but I thought he was solid and steady throughout. He didn’t bomb forward as often as in the reserves and I’m still concerned about his height as a Premier League defender, but defensively he was better than expected. Up against a wily veteran in Vassell he kept the right winger quiet for much of the match.
Outside of not getting a second goal that would have sealed the match, this is pretty much what was hoped for following the Chelsea match. Liverpool played a marginally stronger side than I imagined, but it shows that this is pretty much the team Benitez plans to go forward with.
What was surprising was no place on the bench for Crouch, Riise, or Pennant. I’m loath to read too much into this things, but at the very least I’d have expected to see Crouch at some stage, if not from the start. In addition, that neither Nemeth nor Plessis was available as a sub is slightly disappointing, but I’m still fairly sure both will be bedded in with the first team next season.
Now, another performance like this at Tottenham next week will close out the season as well as can be expected with Liverpool out of the running for a trophy. And it’s crucial the team finish the season as strongly as possible to build a platform for 2008/09.