Outside of the Arsenal and Chelsea wins, that may have been the most satisfying three points of the league campaign. Reading were that good and that victory was that hard won.
I had sincerely underestimated Reading, and given they're a promoted team in 8th place, that's hard to do. They have had a very good season so far, but there had been some drop in results over their past few games. However, they were more than up for itand more than capable today. It was the home side who set the tempo, controlled possession, and for the majority of the second half, were the better side. Liverpool had to work the entire game to get a result, and the fact that they never gave up, finally imposed themselves on their opposition in the last 15 minutes, and saw a struggling Dirk Kuyt get the winner in the 86th minute from a delightful toe-poked cross after Pennant’s good run made the result so welcomed.
From the opening whistle, Reading looked to take the game to Liverpool. But for the most of the first half, Liverpool dealt with the threat. Carragher was simply superb in cutting out Reading opportunities, and the defense’s job was made easier by a fantastic first goal by Arbeloa on the counter attack. Crouch put the recent acquisition cleanly through on the left hand side, and Arbeloa opened up to sidefoot past Hahnemann, who got fingers to the ball but couldn’t keep it out. I can’t say enough about Arbeloa, it’s the best £2m Rafa’s spent. Left back or right back, and now he shows he’s got the ability to attack from the counter as well.
But Liverpool couldn’t use the goal to change the game, and Reading stayed in it. Liverpool’s defense was very good today, but Reading’s was as well. Ivar Ingimarsson was absolutely outstanding in blocking out Liverpool opportunities and beating strikers to the ball, and the entire Reading team closed down quickly and prevented Liverpool from playing their game. They really are a very good team, and it's a credit to Steve Coppell for not only assembling it on a shoestring budget, but playing with the style and tempo they do.
And the second half brought a different story. Reading came out with even more drive, brought on Andre Bikey (who scored in the Carling Cup match) for Michael Duberry, and within two minutes had gotten an equalizer. The flag stayed down on a throughball to Gunnarsson on the right, who unleashed a rifle of a shot from a very tight angle that Reina had no chance on.
Liverpool responded immediately, bringing on Kuyt for Bellamy, and Pennant for Crouch about ten minutes later, but it did little to halt Reading for the time being. Liverpool was unable to create enough time on the ball and establish possession or tempo, and continued to play on the back foot and tried create their chances from the counter. And with Sissoko and Mascherano in midfield, it wasn’t quite coming off.
I don’t enjoy singling players out, but Sissoko did not have a good game today. Far too often he would get the ball, and his pass attempting to open up Reading would go astray, usually right to the Reading defender. Momo has never been noted for his distribution, he is labeled a “destroyer” and rightfully so, but unlike in other games, he wasn’t even as successful in stopping Reading from playing their game, and his passing truly did let the team down at times today.
Reading had chances to take the lead as well, the clearest coming when Crouch headed a Reading corner onto his own bar right before he was substituted, but Liverpool saw out the pressure, and I can’t say enough about that. All too often away from Anfield, Liverpool would succumb to a goal, frequently a cheap one, when they couldn’t break the other team down. But a well-marshaled defense led by Carragher, who for my money truly is the best defender in the world and must be man of the match, never gave in, and by the last 15 minutes, Liverpool was the fresher side. Getting closer to opening up Reading through the pace of Pennant and Gonzalez, who was later substituted for Riise’s fresh legs in the 80th minute, Liverpool looked ever more threatening, and it also had a lot to do with Dirk Kuyt.
Kuyt’s come in for a fair amount of stick after going scoreless in the last few games after an excellent start to his Liverpool career. But, together with Pennant, he changed the game today. His hard work was leading to more Liverpool opportunities, and did more to unsettle the Reading back line than anyone else had prior. And he was rewarded with the winning goal. Pennant broke through two defenders after a good run down the right and toe-poked a cross to the back post where Kuyt was lurking unmarked and made no mistake.
The result is probably harsh on Reading, as they probably deserve something out of their performance today. But that makes Liverpool’s win that much sweeter. It really was fought for the entire way, and a very hard-earned three points. The team never gave up the belief that they’d be the one to get the second goal despite everything Reading threw at them, and that’s got to be at least partly down to the morale they’ve built up over the past couple of games. Despite injuries, despite tough losses earlier in the season, it seems to be coming together now, and it couldn’t have come at a better time.