Arbeloa Skrtel Carragher Aurelio
Benayoun Alonso Mascherano Riera
Welcome back, Champions League. I hope Jorge Valdano enjoyed the ‘shit on a stick’ in his home stadium.
Real’s won their last nine league games, scoring 22 while conceding just two. Liverpool’s 4-5-0 over the same spell, with 17 for and seven against. But, in keeping with precedent, we get a different performance in Europe.
To be fair, this tournament suits Benitez and Liverpool down to the ground. And in Madrid against a resurgent Real, Liverpool was able to do what lesser teams do to them in the league, but better: strangle the life out of the opposition and hope for the best on the break (looking to exploit Torres) or a set play.
It wasn’t #9 that got the goal, but otherwise, that’s about as close to ‘according to plan’ as it gets. For all Real’s possession, Liverpool were never ‘backs against the wall,’ and the longer the game went on, the more comfortable the visitors became.
It took until the 20th minute for Liverpool to get a shot on target, whereas both Raul and Marcelo tested Reina before the 16th. And, unsurprisingly, it came after Kuyt flicked on a goal kick and Torres was ruled onside, forcing Casillas into a nice reaction save from a narrow angle. Soon after, hearts were in mouth as Torres received treatment on what looked to be an ankle knock. He didn’t look quite right for rest of the half, and wasn’t helped by the fact that Real kicked lumps out of him. But he looked more disenchanted than injured when he went off for Babel in the 61st.
After the chance, Liverpool did a better job keeping possession, but only threatened when Casillas was quick off his line when Benayoun was chasing down in the 23rd, and on an Alonso shot from his own half in the 45th (just to complain, Liverpool were denied a corner when the referee blew exactly on 45:00).
Meanwhile, Higuain had the ball in the net in the 29th, but was clearly offside, Robben twice cut in dangerously and unleashed shots wide around the 40th, and Reina had to react quickly to prevent a Riera own goal in the 44th.
But, as has been proven to Liverpool to its detriment time and time again, the longer you keep a stronger side at 0-0, the exponentially greater the chance luck will go your way. Other than ten-minute spell to start the second half, Real continued to have more of the ball, but were increasingly limited to shots from distance as Mascherano, Carragher, Skrtel, and Aurelio were all immense. The most frightening again came from Robben cutting in from the right in the 71st, which Reina had to tip over, and as the game went on, even those chances grew hard to come by.
And in the 81st minute, Heinze unnecessarily fouled Kuyt on the right channel. From the resulting free kick came that stroke of fortune Liverpool needed: a great header and even better free kick coupled with poor marking. Aurelio whipped it in, Benayoun got away from Gago and Higuain, and nailed a header past Casillas. Benayoun probably gets man of the match for the goal and his work on the right, but Aurelio and Mascherano both have a claim as well.
In the absence of Gerrard (who got a quick run-out in the 88th) the formation’s become something of a 4-2-3-1 when attacking and 4-4-2 when defending. Part of the reason is so Kuyt would be in better position to flick on or control balls over the top, but more noteworthy is how this demonstrates Gerrard’s versatility, strength, and stamina. With him missing, Liverpool got two rows of four behind the ball, while Torres came deeper to add another body when defending from the front.
Even though it’s a wonderful result, there are still a few notes of caution to be sounded. First, obviously, Torres – that he played for another 40 minutes makes me think it was precautionary, but it’s going to worry until someone official reports different. Second, Liverpool’s been better on the road often this season. Third, Liverpool will undoubtedly open up a bit more at Anfield (and rightfully so; imagine the reaction were Liverpool to sit on a one-goal lead for 90 minutes in front of their own fans). And fourth, the most obvious, it’s only one goal.
It’s been one of those seasons where you simply can’t get ahead of yourself. Little would surprise me from this team. A 1-0 win – away goal and clean sheet – in Madrid with Gerrard missing and Torres limping after 20 minutes certainly doesn’t. But it’s a result that puts Liverpool in a perfect position for the return leg in two weeks.