10 February 2007

Liverpool 1-2 Newcastle

A return to the bad old away days? Dominate for the majority of the first half, but wasteful, with only one goal scored and a solitary mistake leading to an equalizer. Let the opposition grow in stature in the second half, and cheaply give away the game-winning goal. Awesome.

The game was defined by the weather it was played in. It may have made it eminently watchable for the neutral, and full credit for the grounds crew for it even able to be played, but the conditions impacted every single thing the teams tried to do. Passes skidded across the ground at lightning speed, players were unable to get even a semblance of traction, and it was wide-open football because of it.

It was a seemingly a game tailor-made for Craig Bellamy, and that it was against his old club made it even more so. He was easily the most threatening player in the first half, looking to run past Newcastle’s back line at every opportunity. He could have had four in the first alone, but was limited to a lone goal, coming in the 6th minute. A misplaced clearance by goalkeeper Harper sent the ball directly to Pennant, who beat his man to the byline and cut it back for Bellamy to slot in the net.

Newcastle equalized against the run of play in the 26th minute. It was an unfortunate goal, but I don’t necessarily blame Reina for it. Martins had Agger beaten; I was screaming for Pepe to rush as soon as the ball was hit, it’s one of the things he does best. It was just unlucky that the clearance a) went right at Agger and b) bounced ever so cleanly for Martins to walk into the empty net. Unfortunately, things like that happen in conditions like those.

Liverpool had many chances to get the second goal, but nothing came of it. Opportunities weren’t easy to come by in the conditions, but there were opportunities to be had. Harper saved on a Zenden breakaway that would have made 2-0 and seemingly sealed it in the 13th minute. Bellamy had two opportunities in the space of a minute around the 30th minute. Early in the second half, Kuyt toe-poked it wide from a tight angle after turning the Newcastle defender. Despite Newcastle coming out from halftime as the better team, with all the opportunities Liverpool had, it always seemed the second goal was coming.

But Liverpool paid for their profligacy. Newcastle made use of their increasing edge in possession, and in the 69th minute, Riise clearly fouled Steven Taylor in the box. Solano stepped up to take and sent Reina the wrong way. Liverpool again had the majority of possession in the final quarter of the game, sending Guthrie, Arbeloa (making his debut) and Crouch on in an attempt to get an equalizer, but despite the pressure, Newcastle’s back line held firm. Don’t take this as sour grapes, but yes, I’m as surprised as you that I’m writing that about Newcastle’s defense. But Taylor, Bramble, and Babyaro all made key interceptions, while Onyewu showed why he’s already so highly thought of on this side of the Atlantic.

I frequently say I don’t like to criticize individual players, but I can’t help it after a loss as disappointing as this. Agger, Riise, and Zenden all underperformed today. Partly the conditions, partly because of the way Newcastle played, but below par all the same. Agger could not keep up with Martins or Dyer, and was playing both far too tight for what the conditions required. Riise was gash for the majority of the game, gave away an unnecessary penalty, and didn’t even get forward with his usual aplomb. Not only did Zenden miss Liverpool’s best chance outside of the goal, he was invisible the majority of the game and offered little down the left; it was telling he was replaced by Guthrie as the first substitute, making only his third appearance in the league. Liverpool also dearly missed Alonso’s playmaking. I will say Bellamy and Pennant had good games, Carragher cut out a lot at the back with his usual cool head, and Sissoko was in form in his first game back, tackling with the best of them and showing a good range of passing. But it wasn’t enough.

Thanks to Chelsea’s win, second place is becoming a tougher and tougher ask. 10 points over 11 games isn’t insurmountable, but it’s a large gap. If Arsenal win tomorrow, they’ll be one point back. The game at Anfield at the end of March is looking larger and larger. That and the United game in 3 weeks will pretty much define the rest of the league campaign.

Time for different thoughts, though. Bring on Barca.

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