Skrtel Carragher Agger
Johnson Lucas Spearing Aurelio
Benayoun Kuyt Babel
A balloon takes the air out of Liverpool’s title chances? A balloon, and Steve Bruce’s balloon-shaped head.
If I don’t laugh at this season’s misfortunes, I’m going to cry. Only this team could fall behind within five minutes to a stray balloon. A balloon that looked like it came from the Liverpool fans, no less. As much as it pains me to write and as early as it is, on current form, Liverpool is going to struggle mightily for a Champions League place. And yes, I’m fully aware I predicted #19 little more than two months ago. It’s like 2002-03 all over again. I knew I’d jinx it.
In an atypical 3-4-3 (3-4-2-1 if you like) – which we haven’t seen since Pompey last February (when both Gerrard and Torres were missing) – Liverpool struggled to head off early Sunderland possession and paid for it. Sunderland broke after a piss-poor Aurelio free kick (every single one of his set play deliveries was atrocious today), Reid’s right flank cross found its way to Darren Bent, and the striker’s shot fooled Reina by bouncing off an oversize balloon on the six-yard line. Sigh. You can’t make this shit up.
Going 0-1 down prompted a marginally better response, but Liverpool couldn’t find a quick riposte, and it didn’t last. A goalmouth scramble in the 13th saw Liverpool’s best opening, but neither Babel nor Johnson could finish it off, and the game settled into a back-and-forth affair as neither team could keep coherent possession, although Sunderland saw more of the ball.
Unsurprisingly, chances were at a premium, which, despite Liverpool’s attacking prowess at times this season, I’ve written far too frequently. A Benayoun deflected shot, Johnson unable to reach a clever back-heeled throughball, and Spearing just over from distance were all of Liverpool’s close calls in the first half. At the other end, Bent, Jones, and Reid continued to pose questions as Bent had a couple of headed chances from Reid and Bardsley crosses.
The second half saw more Liverpool pressure, but Sunderland with the better opportunities (thanks to three Liverpool mistakes) until the inevitable final furious minutes. Bent was in twice, in the 55th and 61st, after gaffes by Spearing and Skrtel, but Pepe saved the first and the second caromed off the post from an acute angle. In a similar position eight minutes later, Malbranque saw his effort blocked by Carragher.
Malbranque’s chance was bracketed by three for Liverpool: Kuyt and Benayoun went for the same header, which landed tamely in Gordon’s arms; a weak handball shout off Cana’s shoulder; and Lucas’ throughball finding Benayoun in the area, only to be blasted over after he created space. Sunderland had their last threat in the 76th, when Henderson shot wide, before Liverpool started the onslaught that should have come earlier, with the lineup that should have started.
Benitez sent Mascherano and Voronin on for Spearing and Skrtel in the 72nd, reverting to an “orthodox” 4-2-3-1 with the Ukrainian behind Kuyt and Babel on the right. It didn’t click until Ngog came on for Babel in the 81st, shifting Kuyt out right, but then Liverpool finally threatened. Unfortunately, it was, again, to little effect. Even seven minutes of stoppage time (injuries to Jones and Cattermole) couldn’t save Liverpool.
Gordon kept out a weak header from Voronin and a cross-turned-shot from Johnson. Mascherano shot over from 25 yards. Voronin saw a shot blocked. In the third minute of added time, Liverpool had their best opportunity, but Gordon saved the day, keeping out Kuyt’s low shot and Ngog’s rebound. When a ricochet fell to Gordon in the 96th, you knew there was nothing to be salvaged. So far, this team has none of the recovery powers of last year’s (outside of Bolton, I guess).
Yeah, yeah, credit to Sunderland. They got the fortunate opener and held on for the win, and have rightfully leapfrogged Liverpool in the standings. Cana was outstanding, especially when he moved to centerback after McCartney went off at halftime. Benitez is now 1-5-3 against Steve Bruce in the league.
I’d like to head off the ‘this is what happens when Gerrard and Torres are missing’ criticism right away. Sure, they would have helped today – Liverpool certainly could have used more attacking threat – but the team has won without those two. Liverpool hasn’t scored in three games – with or without Gerrard and Torres (I guess they used them all up against Hull). The midfield has been awful, just awful in all of Liverpool’s losses. I hate to keep referencing Alonso, but it can’t be helped. His sale and Mascherano’s loss of form contributed more to today’s loss than either Gerrard or Torres’ absence. Aquilani really can’t get healthy soon enough.
If it weren’t for that freak goal, this game would have ended 0-0. Granted, that’s not good enough, but it would have been a lot better than what really happened. The three centerbacks did alright; Agger and Carragher, along with Reina, were probably the only players to come away with any credit. Kuyt, Benayoun, and Babel obviously needed to contribute more, but chances were hard to come by until the end. Johnson, further forward than usual, was Liverpool’s most frequent threat, and he disappointed.
Once again, as said above, the problem’s in midfield. Spearing and Lucas are young players with potential, so I’m hesitant to pile on them. And it’s not as if any pairing’s been great aside from Lucas/Gerrard against the smaller clubs. Masch hasn’t been playing well and had two immense games for Argentina this week, although it was weird to see him fit enough to come off the bench. Aurelio did not do well in central midfield against Fiorentina.
Almost all of Liverpool’s successes have come from winning the battle in midfield, especially as Benitez has built the team in his image. Early on in his reign, Liverpool was dependent on Hyypia and Carra’s defending, but Liverpool’s looked more and more like the Valencia Crushing Machine in each successive season. Not this year, and the whole side’s consequently falling apart.
Yes, injuries, yes, there’s still 29 games, but these nine have not been good, and this team is damn close to teetering on the precipice. It is a very good league this year; Villa's win today, along with Sunderland, Spurs and City, and there are eight strong sides. Liverpool's just part of the pack behind Chelsea and United, and drifting further behind in that pack.
Lyon at Anfield on Tuesday. Let’s hope certain players are healthy by then.