Johnson Carragher Agger Insua
Kuyt Gerrard Benayoun
Now that’s a fucking turning point. I could not love Fernando Torres any more. And Pepe Reina comes close.
Yes, yes. One-man team. Never looked like getting the goal in a combative, back-and-forth snowy contest with both teams on short rest. Villa had the better opportunities despite more Liverpool possession, with Reina making two tremendous saves. Liverpool needed two lucky breaks to set up Torres in the penultimate minute of the match. Whatever. Warnock under-hit a backpass (thanks Stevie!), Dunne slipped, and Agbonlahor’s tackle thankfully ricocheted to Torres, one-on-one with Friedel. It doesn’t matter how “injured” he is. He’s not missing that.
It didn’t look like that was coming for 92 minutes. The first half was limited to an excellent save from each keeper, while the majority of play seesawed back and forth after an excellent early spell from the home side. Liverpool had more possession as the half went on, which, as is oft repeated, isn’t unfamiliar even during this dire stretch. And the pattern stayed similar for all but five minutes of the second half, where Villa had three excellent chances, as the home side were content to keep Liverpool from breaking them down and attacking through the counter and set plays. And it was infuriating as Liverpool failed to find any sort of final ball. But Torres takes that one opportunity and here we are.
And nerves were raised during those first few minutes, as Villa racked up the set plays (always frightening) and kept Liverpool penned in their own half. But the only real chance created was from Dunne header down in the 14th, on a corner, blocked and smothered by Reina. Three minutes later, Liverpool would have been in front if not for Friedel when Torres teed up Gerrard, who smashed a pretty shot with no backlift (reminiscent of last season’s cracker at Marseille) only to see the American tip it over.
Set plays came back to haunt Liverpool on the half hour mark, though, and Villa would have been in front if not for Reina. After Carew robbed Johnson to win a corner, Downing was found in acres of space at the back post as Kuyt and Insua both marked the same man. But Reina came up with a magnificent reaction stop, staying big to turn the volley wide. And that was about it as goalmouth action went for either side in the half.
Villa were content to soak up Liverpool’s pressure (or lack thereof) throughout the second 45, and look to break-out, which is a fairly clever tactic given Liverpool’s struggles and Villa’s situation. They’re ahead in the table, at home, playing well, and have a speed-merchant like Agbonlahor.
And it provided them the better opportunities, all coming within a five-minute span around the 70th minute. Agbonlahor beat Carragher to a ball over the top but saw Reina equal to the acute shot, Carew narrowly headed wide from the resulting corner, and Insua could have been called for a handball, heading onto his arm (it would have been massively harsh) three minutes later.
Meanwhile, Liverpool drove men forward, especially in the final fifteen minutes, looking for the win. But a narrow, misfiring Liverpool, unable to thread the eye of the needle, never looked like getting that needed goal. Babel, on for Aquilani in the 76th, had the only real chance prior to Torres’, missing a free header after a short corner in the 81st.
But, in the first sign that this might be a similar team to last year’s, we finally saw that never say die attitude, and more importantly, it finally paid off.
Again, it wasn’t a performance to write home about. The attack continued to frustrate – Kuyt, Benayoun, and Aquilani were all guilty of too many giveaways (as was Johnson), while Torres struggled to make an impact even though he looked to be running more freely. Even though Liverpool kept the clean sheet (the first consecutive ones in the league), I could complain about three of the four defenders, but Carragher and Reina were enough to keep Villa off the scoresheet. Those two, along with Gerrard and Lucas, were the only two who had decent, complete games.
But Torres doesn’t need to have complete games. Torres just needs one moment, and that’s why he’s Liverpool’s fastest to 50 league goals. Faster than Hunt, Stubbins, Raybould, Hodgson, Rush, Fowler, or Owen. Only Andy Cole, Shearer, and van Nistelrooy did it in fewer Premiership matches, and all three of them took penalties. I can’t do him justice. I can only repeat that he is the best striker in the world. The. Best.
And I’m convinced that one moment will do more for confidence that the wins over United and Everton, the previous “turning points.” That’s the Liverpool we saw last season. Blood, guts, clean sheets, and late winners were what led Liverpool to their highest points total in two decades. Villa are no mugs, played well, and I'm probably undervaluing the whole team's workman-like performance, which was better than previous matches.
Liverpool isn’t out of the woods by any means. This win moves them all the way up to seventh, 12 points behind the leaders and four behind fourth. The same problems persisted for 90-plus minutes. But that’s one early season defeat avenged. Reading in the FA Cup on Saturday before Liverpool get the chance to make amends for another, against Spurs, the team currently in fourth.