21 April 2007

Liverpool 2-0 Wigan

It wasn’t the most enthralling game or the best performance, but I can’t help be really pleased with today. It could have been a lot worse for Wigan than 2-0 (some wasteful finishing was probably the team’s only disappointment today) and nearly everything that could have gone right did.

From start to finish, Liverpool always looked likely winners. It took 30 minutes for the first goal to come more due to Wigan’s resilience rather than any lack of attack by Liverpool, unlike the starts to the recent City, Boro, and Villa matches which still linger in the memory. The visitors packed the midfield with five men, leaving Emile Heskey to operate as a lone striker, and it still took some moments of good defending by Leighton Baines to keep Liverpool out as long as they did. Once again, Pennant threatened down the wings, switching sides with Gonzalez 15 minutes or so into the game, and it was his cross that led to Kuyt’s opening goal half an hour in.

Reclaiming the ball on the left flank, Pennant steered a threatening cross into the box, but Kuyt had a lot to do to get in front of Matt Jackson and make contact with the ball, and showed good striking instincts to get there. Still, the goal probably comes down to keeper error, as Filan misjudged the swerving ball and was left in no-man’s land as Kuyt got to it.

The last 15 minutes of the half saw Liverpool press less with the goal in hand, but credit to Paul Jewell, who brought on a second striker in Henri Camara after halftime in the attempt to get something from the game. But Wigan never looked likely to get anything from the match and Liverpool was still the more dangerous side.

After an hour, with gaps in Wigan’s defense in trying to find an equalizer, Bellamy replaced Crouch in the attempt to utilize the space at the back. Much like the substitution midweek, the team was rewarded fairly quickly. Bellamy was in the midst of a stretch of play soon after where Kuyt and Alonso had efforts blocked before Arbeloa’s header was saved, and in the 68th minute, he was the main architect of Kuyt’s second goal.

Making a smart run to get open on the left flank for Gonzalez’s long pass on the counter attack, Bellamy split two defenders to get the ball to Riise, who tried to lay it back into his path after an incisive run. Although Jackson was there to make sure the shot didn’t come off when Riise’s pass was just too heavy, Kuyt showed again his awareness, and with a smart turn fired a low shot into the far corner. This time Filan couldn’t have done anything about it.

Liverpool had chances to make it 3, most notably through Gonzalez and Kuyt, and as said, the wastefulness at times was really the only disappointment today. Gerrard came on in place of Zenden, ostensibly to keep his streak of playing every league game going while Carra came off for Agger, and thankfully, Liverpool easily saw the game out with nothing untoward happening to any key personnel.

Nearly every player should come away with positives from today. Pennant was again a frequent outlet and looked threatening, even if not to the effect in other games recently. Liverpool still looks to have gotten a steal in Arbeloa, who offers so much in attack while always getting back on defense, where he’s equally assured. It’s a testament to how well he’s playing that he’s been keeping Finnan out of the squad; not that it’s always an accurate measure, but Finnan is currently second in fans voting for player of the season. Hyypia seemed as if he’s been playing the whole season, composed as ever at the back, while Carragher was, well, Carragher. Reina could have been sitting in a recliner all game except for one moment, and when called upon came up with a great save from a point blank Folan header, which is the mark of an excellent keeper. Gonzalez had some poor touches at times and probably should have scored, but he showed his blistering pace, attacked frequently, and got a full 90 minutes with no setbacks, which can only further his development. Bellamy looked fit and in-form after he came on. Really, as performances go, the only complaints can be that I still think Zenden’s been below par, even by his standards (I know, he’s a fashionable scapegoat, but he truly has been one of Liverpool’s weakest links this year) and Alonso’s passing didn’t seem up to snuff.

But with all those encouraging displays, I think Kuyt’s got to be man of the match. Of course, scoring the two goals while in a supposed drought doesn’t hurt, but all around he was excellent today. A couple of chances that should have given him his hat trick were the sole frustrations. He always works exceptionally hard for the team, but it shined through today. Also, he showed some of that selfish he’d been lacking; he took more shots, created more opportunities, and got into the penalty box more often.

With Arsenal’s draw and Bolton and Everton losing, qualification for next season’s Champions League is now assured. Along with no injuries, that was the biggest hope coming out of this game. In addition, Liverpool got 2 goals out of a “struggling” Dirk Kuyt, good performances out of nearly every player in the squad, a clean sheet, certain players rested, and another three points and more momentum before Chelsea. Absolutely as much as could be asked for.

Roll on Wednesday.

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