Webster (OG) 78'
"A narrow, 1-0 win would suit me just fine. It could be a lucky 1-0 win for all I care, similar to the away leg against Gomel."
Believe me, I'm more surprised than you are; there won't be very many posts referencing how I correctly predicted something. Because it doesn't happen often.
Nonetheless, for all the discomfort, a 1-0 away win does suit me just fine. Sure, the line-up was questionable; Carragher, Spearing, Shelvey, and Adam all had frightening, horrible moments; and the only reason Liverpool are taking a lead into the home leg is a Hearts own goal.
Make no mistake, Liverpool struggled their way to this fortunate victory. The midfield, with Spearing and Adam holding, Shelvey in an attacking role, and Henderson on the right, was fairly dire. Carragher, surprisingly starting instead of Coates, looked even more heavy-legged than usual, often troubled by Sutton. Borini was frequently isolated, and Sterling was Liverpool's only attacking threat.
But Hearts weren't much better. Liverpool's failings made them look far better than they actually were. The home side threatened Reina just once until the last few frantic minutes: a neat passing move ending with Taouli's back-heel setting up Novikovas in the 11th minute, whose 30-yard blast forced Reina to palm behind. The frequent switching between Templeton, Taouli, and Novikovas unsettled Liverpool, and while Liverpool had more possession, Hearts usually had more threatening possession, but the defense still rarely broke. Jack Robinson, frequently challenged, did admirably, as did Kelly and Agger more often than not.
Liverpool's midfield seemingly tried to play as fluidly as Hearts'. Shelvey and Henderson often switched positions, Adam tried to burst forward from deep to join the attack. The latter forced the first save from McDonald, charging forward and having his low shot palmed away in the ninth minute, but all too often, Liverpool's midfield looked disjointed. Shelvey and Adam both attempted too many Hollywood passes, which (it goes without saying) didn't come off, while Spearing was caught out of position and gave simple balls away time and time again. Relegated to the right, just like last season, Henderson found it difficult to make an impact outside of two chances in two minutes – first winning possession in the final third, setting up Shelvey which ended with Borini's shot blocked, then a wicked early cross from the right that just eluded the open Borini.
Otherwise, Liverpool were reliant on Sterling, looking for him at every opportunity, hoping his pace would see him past defenders. And it usually ended with him out-pacing the right back, cutting inside, but seeing his shot either blocked or sail wide. But in the 45th, he cleverly intercepted an ill-conceived cross-field pass, bursting forward to set up Borini, who could only hit the post. Just like Saturday; meet the new season, same as the old season.
The second half proceeded in the same fashion, with a couple more chances for Hearts – both of Liverpool's making, both wide of the target – until Rodgers made substitutions: Downing for Robinson, then Allen for Spearing. Downing added slightly more threat in attack, but Allen made the difference, settling the muddled midfield, his composure extending to others. The goal followed soon after, extended possession in Liverpool's half (which started after a throw-in following Allen's interception) dragging defenders into the middle, Sterling to Downing to Henderson, who spread play wide to a wide-open Kelly, in acres of space on the right. Borini couldn't get on the end of his dangerous cross, but an unsighted Webster shinned it into his own net. Again, sometimes, often, it's better to be lucky than good.
From there, it was an exercise in keeping possession and taking the sting out of the match, an exercise Liverpool desperately need practice in. And it worked for 10 minutes, until Hearts threatened twice, their two best chances of the match, in the 88th and 90th minutes. First, the substitute Driver luckily scuffed a ten-yard shot after Adam failed to track back after committing a foul and Carragher awkwardly failed to clear. Then, neither Adam nor Shelvey chased the ball after Agger's headed clearance, assuming the other would clean up. Taouli immediately put the ball in the box, Paterson outmuscled Downing to claim possession, but Reina excellently parried his low, angled shot. Phew. That Adam Morgan made his senior debut in injury time was the most-pleasing moment outside of the goal and the final whistle.
Sterling played well, Robinson and Kelly got much needed match time, Allen looked excellent off the bench, Reina made the three saves he needed to make, and Borini worked diligently no matter his constant isolation. Rodgers learned something, for good or ill, about all involved. Liverpool played an under-strength, fairly young line-up, and Liverpool won.
All that matters is Liverpool won.