24 February 2007

Liverpool 4-0 Sheffield United

That certainly was an odd match. 4-0 is always more than an acceptable scoreline, but it never felt like a four-goal performance or that easy of a game. But with all the changes from the Barcelona game (starts for Pennant, Hyypia, Gonzalez, Crouch, Fowler, Dudek, and a debut for Mascherano), even more changes than I thought likely, a more disjointed performance was always going to be the case.

The game was over by the 25th minute after two Robbie Fowler penalties. Yep, two penalties, both given for fouls on Gerrard, before the game was a third completed. That's pretty much what made it odd. It's worth noting that Gerrard fouled and Fowler scoring the penalty is how Liverpool got their goal at Bramall Lane in August.

Both penalties were deserved. The first, admittedly, was quite soft, but replay showed that Rob Kozluk brought Gerrard down, and that Stevie hilariously played up every moment of it. Tussling before a corner, with the referee less than 2 feet away, Gerrard has his hands in the air, doing the full-on ‘look at how much he’s grabbing me’ routine. Kozluk doesn’t stop, puts his arms around Gerrard and starts to pull him down, and Stevie goes down while appearing to shout for the ref's attention. I’m sorry, that’s not in the same category as Drogba or Ronaldo avoiding contact and theatrically diving through the air, that’s clever. And amusing. Fowler stepped up, Paddy Kenny guessed correctly and dove to his left, but Fowler’s shot was too powerful.

During the corner kick that led to the penalty, Rob Hulse accidentally kicked Crouch in the face, and with blood everywhere from a gash on his eyebrow, he was substituted for Kuyt. It’s a pity, because Crouch had finally gotten a start, and the few times he saw the ball he looked useful, but at least it doesn't look like he'll be on the sidelines for long.

Less than five minutes later, we had a second penalty that was absolutely certain. From a throw-in, Kuyt flicked-on for Gerrard to run onto, and with two hands, Nick Montgomery pulled him down. Kenny guessed left again, but this time Fowler chipped to his right for two-nil. Liverpool had been the better team, but had never really seemed to take it out of first gear, and didn’t have much impetus to now that they were two up. Warnock, in an effort to stop the damage, brought on Kazim-Richards, who did help Sheffield offer more, but there was never a real threat to Liverpool’s goal, which featured Dudek in his first league start this season.

Liverpool was better in the second half, but never truly dominant except for a three-minute spell that saw them register the two other goals. The third again came from a corner, when Hyypia was there to slam in a ball skittering through the penalty box. The fourth goal was Liverpool’s best, with Gerrard deservedly getting on the scoresheet after being put through by Fowler, who had been found in space by Mascherano.

With Gerrard earning two penalties and scoring the fourth, he’s got to be the choice for man of the match, but it was more than those three instances. Throughout the game, he was at his rampaging best, making surging runs, unlocking the defense with passes, and getting back to defend when required. Much will be made that he played in the center, but as I’m getting tired of reiterating, Gerrard in the center isn’t necessarily better than Gerrard on the right. As people should know with Benitez, different games merit different styles. Different possibilities.

Other players' performances also merit a mention. Hyypia stepped back into the side with ease. Sheffield gave Liverpool’s center backs a ton of time, but aside from a couple of wayward passes, Hyypia’s distribution in bringing the ball out of defense was superb, and his aerial presence was again excellent. Pennant also put in another outstanding performance. Much is made of his crossing and beating his man to the byline, which he did to decent effect, but what was most impressive here was the way he got up and down the wing. He got back to defend, with pace, every time it was needed, and got back up the sideline just as quickly. The entire game he was running hard, which was reassuring to see, to say the least.

In addition, Javier Mascherano made an excellent debut in which he played the full 90. In the first ten or fifteen minutes, I distinctly remember being frightened, with a couple of misplaced passes, mistimed tackles, and otherwise anonymity. But he certainly grew into the game, getting better by the minute. By the end he was tackling United players all over the pitch. It’s obvious he’s still lacking match fitness with some of his timing issues, but the quality is utterly evident. Either there are some serious extenuating circumstances (there must be), or West Ham has no idea what they had.

This was exactly what was needed. There’s always the potential for a hangover after a win like that at Camp Nou, especially with a team as dogged as Sheffield United, who can epitomize a bogey team. But even with the amount of changes, and with the team never showing the drive they had against Barcelona, they won going away, which will serve to give even more confidence leading up to next weekend. Bring on the Mancs.

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