Degen Carragher Kyrgiakos Dossena
Babel Spearing Aurelio Riera
Much harder work than it should have been, plus Liverpool needed a little bit of luck. But it was never going to be easy in front of 30,000+ Leeds fans, and no matter how awful the first half was, Liverpool finally got going – and got the goal – in the second.
And make no mistake – the first half was sloppy as hell. Liverpool were overrun in midfield, Ngog was isolated up front, and the score was only level at halftime thanks to a questionable linesman’s flag.
Leeds don’t get many games like this in League One, and they were certainly up for it. Liverpool’s unfamiliar lineup found it hard to string passes together or create any opportunities, and were on the back foot for the majority of the first 45. Michael Doyle should have scored in the 11th when a cross found him for a free header, but the midfielder could only put it wide.
And the controversy came a minute later. From a corner (surprise, surprise!), Michalik headed goalwards, neither Beckford nor Cavalieri could get decent contact, and Beccio scooped it over the line. But he shouldn’t have. Beccio was ruled offside, and Michalik’s header would have gone in anyway after Cavalieri couldn’t claim. Phew. Lucky, lucky Liverpool yet again.
Leeds never got a chance as good as that one, but still bossed the half. Liverpool’s first shot on target was a tame Babel effort after a nice run that the keeper easily smothered on the half-hour mark. Riera should have opened the scoring in the 44th, but headed straight at Higgs from a wonderful Aurelio free kick. I mean – and no offense meant – but when Phillip Degen (Degen!) is your best player in the half, you’re not firing on all cylinders.
Benitez’s response was to switch Babel and Riera for the second half, meaning both players were on their weaker foot, and Leeds kept up the pressure. Carragher and Mascherano combined to cut out Crowe’s dangerous center after a one-two with the excellent Snodgrass in the 49th, while Cavalieri was lucky to block Beckford’s stabbed effort after the striker outpaced Carragher and Kyrgiakos to a ball over the top five minutes later.
But Liverpool finally settled, and finally saw more of the ball. Mascherano, who had been casual and frustrated all game long, was lucky to stay on the field after a petulant, needless elbow before a throw-in in the 59th. Unsurprisingly, it was the Argentinean who provided the assist seven minutes later. An Aurelio corner was cleared out to Mascherano, who put the ball back into a dangerous area. Ngog collected, turned beautifully, and beat Higgs. 1-0. Finally.
Despite the defensive frailties, Liverpool was never going to let the lead slip after that. I’m struggling to think of any chances for the home side to equalize, and Liverpool brought on Johnson, Gerrard, and Skrtel to see the match out. Aurelio had a free kick deflected over in the 86th, while Gerrard forced a good save in the final minute, but that was about it for goalmouth action on either end.
Obviously, Liverpool’s play was disappointing for long stretches. But that’s understandable with an unusual side against a determined opposition. Benitez is damned if you do and damned if you don’t in the Carling Cup. If the reserves get beat, he should have played the big guns. If a key player gets injured, he should have been rested. Regardless, the team still got the win.
But the midfield performance was still unforgivable. Most of the play bypassed Spearing, Mascherano, and Aurelio in the first half. Both Spearing and Mascherano gave the ball away constantly. Outside of Aurelio’s free kicks and corners (which are almost always dangerous, and he should be first choice to take them when he’s fit), I would have forgotten he was playing. Ngog got literally zero support in the first half; he’d win the ball from a long punt out of defense, have no one to pass it to, and Leeds would reclaim. Otherwise, I thought Ngog impressed, and deserves to be man of the match.
And, of course, luck had something to do with it. Liverpool were very fortunate they didn’t go behind in the 12th minute. Beccio had no need to touch the ball from an offside position – it was going in anyway thanks to Michalik’s header and Beckford’s pressure – and it’s still questionable whether the striker was offside (depends on whether Beckford got contact, and I don’t think he did). Leeds should have taken advantage when they had Liverpool on the back foot. When you don’t, teams like Liverpool will make you pay, even if it’s the second string.
No matter how it happened, Liverpool’s now in the draw for the 4th round, which will be played at the end of October. Good enough for me. Hull at Anfield on Saturday.