Mascherano Carragher Agger Aurelio
Maxi Lucas Gerrard Benayoun
Andrews 40’ (pen)
Last season’s fortitude beats this season’s pervasive bad luck. Oh, and a fit Fernando Torres might have had something to do with it too. Pepe Reina’s not bad either.
Despite the change in formation, despite Mascherano at right back, Benitez had nearly a full compliment of players to pick from, and it led to three deserved points. Blackburn made a real fight of it, especially over the last half an hour – partly down to their fortitude, partly down to Liverpool unsteadiness, and partly down to Alan Wiley loving him some Blackburn today – but the result's justified.
And the away side started on the front foot, creating pressure and winning corners (two in the first three minutes) – one of which Samba had a free if difficult header on that he tamely hit straight at Reina. It took Liverpool nearly five minutes to establish any sort of possession and 20 to create a flowing attacking move.
But they scored from that first attacking move, and what a move it was. Gerrard started it in midfield: Gerrard to Kuyt to Gerrard to Benayoun to Gerrard. The captain received the ball back from Yossi when striding through the box, his touch taking it past defenders then cleverly lofting over Robinson. That’s what you get from Gerrard in midfield – a surging, beautiful move capped with a goal when running in from deep. But you also get more gaps in midfield, even if they’re not necessarily the captain’s fault. Liverpool was just as open in the victory over Wigan in December, the last time they played this formation. Blackburn having more possession than opponents usually do at Anfield wasn't coincidence.
And Blackburn didn’t go away after the opener, as Pedersen forced two saves from Reina in quick succession a minute later. However, Liverpool were clearly growing in confidence and time of possession, while Blackburn reverted to type even quicker than usual, hoofing and barging when with the ball.
But they didn’t deserve the equalizer. Benayoun sloppily cleared the ball straight to Pedersen, who found Kalinic surrounded by four defenders. He looked to be muscled out, but somehow Carragher slipped and handled, and Wiley immediately pointed to the spot. To compound the stomach punch, Reina went the right way only to see Andrews’ penalty squirm under him.
Based on the majority what we’ve seen this season, you’d expect the team to fold after conceding such a soft equalizer in front of the Kop. But it took less than four minutes to reclaim that lead, thanks to that man Torres. Lucas’ tremendous long distance throughball nearly found the striker, and Samba’s clearance fortunately fell to Maxi. And when Robinson strangely decided to jog out to no man’s land, the winger easily found Torres to tap into an open net.
That Liverpool couldn’t find a third goal to open the gap and seemingly seal the game caused problems throughout the second half, and may have caused a few heart attacks on Merseyside, especially given this season’s proclivities. But Wiley’s leniency for anyone in blue and white is what kept Blackburn with a full complement of players.
Nzonzi should have marched for petulantly pushing Lucas to the ground after fouling the midfielder five minutes after the restart. Chimbonda should have marched for karate-kicking Maxi after being fouled in the 80th. And somehow the likes of Kalinic, Salgado, and Diouf failed to pick up second yellows. Diouf should have been sent off for simply being Diouf. How Liverpool picked up six bookings last week compared to how this game was refereed baffles the mind.
Blackburn’s bullying tactics started to pay dividends around the hour mark, when Andrews volleyed Agger’s clearance wide before Hoillet shot straight at Reina after a quick passing move, and Liverpool spent most of the last 30 minutes defending. After a “lull,” Blackburn again upped the pressure with ten to play, when the likes Torres, Benayoun, and Maxi were clearly gassed. Babel and Ngog came on for the first two (in the 78th and 90th, while Insua replaced Aurelio not long before the Blackburn’s goal after
It looked as if Liverpool would hold on without a serious threat to Reina, as Blackburn hoofed and hoped and Liverpool ultimately cleared, until the second minute of injury time. Here’s where we thank Pepe Reina. Another deep Blackburn free kick after another nothing foul (in contrast to how Wiley saw Blackburn offenses) finally found Samba in the area, but somehow Reina stretched across his goal to keep the header out with his fingertips. Amazing. Immaculate. And absolutely saved two points.
It would have been nice to see Liverpool hammer a league opponent, and the game could have turned out that way had Carragher not slipped in the box or had Wiley correctly sent off Nzonzi with 40 minutes to play, but this type of win might be more reassuring. Liverpool didn’t fold under the weight of an unfortunate equalizer and didn’t fold under constant late pressure like we’d seen all too often this season.
That both Gerrard and Torres scored is probably the most heartening player statistic. But Mascherano continued his immense form, probably man of the match, this time in an unfamiliar right back role (last seen in the 2-0 win against Sunderland last season that started the closing run). It was easily Maxi’s best game for Liverpool and he earned his first assist. And outside of the penalty, the backline stayed firm despite frequent physical pressure (although Kyrgiakos would have been helpful today).
It’s probably not coincidental that the final score was the same as when Liverpool last played 4-4-2, against Wigan in December. And coincidentally, they’re also the next opponents. Both wins were more workman-like than impressive, with Liverpool marginally more threatening in attack but also more open in midfield. Torres even scored the winner in both. Obviously, there are trade-offs, and that Benitez has been more willing to “experiment” in recent games probably shows we’ll see the team adapt tactically to the opposition, like Rafa was wont to do earlier in his Liverpool career. Again, back to basics during a difficult stretch.
Now, all eyes are on staying fit during this midweek break before the aforementioned Wigan match in eight days.