Carragher Hyypia Agger Insua
Babel Gerrard Riera
Liverpool, despite the strong line-up, certainly made hard work of that.
Outside of Cavalieri for Reina and Babel for Kuyt, this was as strong as team as Benitez could name. And it was one-way traffic in the first half after the 10th minute, but the away side only had a goal to show for it at the break. Wallace demonstrated Preston's intent in the 5th minute, forcing Cavalieri to push a free kick around the post (even though it looked to be going wide), but Liverpool soon looked likely to seal the game by halftime.
Keane, who had one of those games where little went right, mishit Liverpool’s first opportunity wide in the 12th, while Gerrard tested the keeper a couple of times before Riera opened the scoring in the 25th. Alonso’s corner ended up at the winger’s feet on the right, and he danced inside past defenders and unleashed a wicked shot which Longeran couldn't get to.
Liverpool continued to press, and both Babel and Gerrard spurned chances, but the rest of the half will be remembered for Keane’s misses. Both Alonso and Gerrard released the striker with gorgeous passes, but when his good control took him through in the 38th, he shot at the keeper, and when the captain’s cross found him open in the box in the 45th, he put it wide with the goal gaping. And with those chances affecting his confidence, he pulled it back for Riera in the first minute of injury time when the better option was to shoot. I don’t mean to harp on Keane – he’s getting in the right place and has always been a streaky scorer – but Liverpool should have been two or three up, and he was the main culprit. And to add injury to insult, Alonso was hurt following up the final chance, and ended the half getting treatment, with Lucas coming on for him in the second.
It’s little coincidence that Preston were able to come back into the game after Alonso was forced off. Liverpool had two opportunities early on, with Keane again misfiring and Agger putting a free header wide, but the home side looked better after the break. Longeran made a spectacular save on Gerrard on the hour mark, and Riera fizzed a shot across the face of goal two minutes later, but from then on, Preston looked the most likely to score. And sadly, as a Liverpool fan, it truly started when Stephen Elliot replaced former red Neil Mellor, giving the home side a different option up front.
Center back Sean St. Ledger had an equalizer in the net in the 64th, but it was rightfully ruled out for a silly Parkin foul on Carragher, holding him down as the ball came into the box even though Carra was probably unable to affect the result. So, thanks, Jon Parkin.
Fortunately, Preston’s increased possession led to few opportunities, with St. Ledger's touch wasting their best, from a corner in the 75th, and Torres’ entrance for Keane in the 73rd gave Liverpool some relief as an outlet. The striker soon demonstrated both his talent and rustiness three minutes after his introduction, when he deliciously turned Mawene, but could only fire wide from outside the box.
Aurelio came on for Mascherano in the 83th, with the Argentinean also picking up an injury, which saw Babel move up top and give Liverpool a relief valve on the break. Seeing out the final minutes, that relief valve came good as Babel flicked a long ball on for Gerrard, who raced towards goal, waiting for Torres to join the attack so he could square the ball to him for an easy goal. 2-0 flatters Preston’s first half performance and probably doesn’t do justice to their second half display.
I’m admittedly surprised that Benitez fielded a full-strength team – no Lucas, El Zhar, Skrtel or Aurelio in the starting line-up – but with a week in-between games (as well as the catcalls the manager faced after losing to Burnley at this stage in his first year), I probably shouldn’t be. And that full-strength team was needed as Preston made Liverpool work for it in the second half.
I truly hope Alonso’s injury isn’t too serious. The official site’s saying little so far, other than he had stitches, and we saw conflicting images on television. He came out midway through the second half in an air cast but was smiling, and soon after, we saw him signing autographs for fans. Obviously the air cast is frightening, but those glimpses of his mood don’t show a lot of seriousness.
Had Alonso played the full 90, I’ve little doubt he’d be my man of the match. Preston’s ascendancy in the second half tells the story in and of itself. He controlled play and was involved in all of Liverpool’s build-up. When he’s on song, as he’s usually been this season, he makes Liverpool tick. Time and time again, he’s shown his importance, and has made everyone speculating on the Barry transfer (me included) look like an idiot. And that’s why an extended spell on the sidelines worries me.
Lucas didn’t play badly – he’s often good in possession and the tackle, and plays those prodding passes (and then moves into the space!) Benitez loves so much. But he’s not Alonso, and when teams are pressing and pushing for a goal, Xabi’s steady head and range of passing are needed.
In lieu of Alonso, I’m probably going with Riera for star performer. It was a wonderfully taken goal – his fourth of the season, which is the kind of goal return Liverpool needs from the left flank. He and Babel switched flanks throughout the second before the Dutchman went up top, and was less influential on the right, but constantly looked for an opening and tried to get at defenders, providing a few clever mazy runs.
In addition, I thought the backline played well, especially in the face of pressure. Hyypia again proved needed against a striker as burly as Parkin, and Agger mopped up well throughout. Both Carragher (he’s done well at right back in every game he’s played there) and Insua supplemented the attack, and both were challenged by Preston on the flanks, especially by Wallace down Liverpool’s right.
And at the end of the day, while the wastefulness’s still worrying and until we know more, Alonso’s injury is downright frightening, Liverpool’s through to the next round after a tricky away cup tie. It’s another win to keep momentum, and a return to the field and the scoresheet for Torres.
Stoke City in a week.