29 September 2007

Liverpool 1-0 Wigan

Arbeloa Carragher Hyypia Aurelio
Pennant Gerrard Mascherano Riise
Kuyt Torres

Benayoun 76’

Luck was definitely on Liverpool’s side, but after two draws, three points are three points, and are warmly welcomed. This could have easily been another 0-0 draw, and I utterly fear the reaction that would have elicited.

Yossi Benayoun, on after 56 minutes for Aurelio, won the game for Liverpool with his second stunning solo goal in as many games. When he came to the club just as Garcia left, the comparisons couldn’t be avoided. It’s with as much praise as possible that I say Benayoun was Garcia-esque today -- the creativity, trickery, and guile to break a deadlock when the opposition is stingy and the team’s below par. And doing it as a super-sub only strengthens that comparison.

In the 75th minute, Pennant cut in and played a throughball to Benayoun in the middle, who was tightly marked by Titus Bramble. Benayoun gave himself space with a clever backheel, dropped his shoulder to beat Bramble a second time, and saw his shot go in off of Chris Kirkland, who otherwise played well (as all former keepers do against Liverpool).

As has been written in games past, it should have never gotten to that point. Liverpool let a succession of chances go begging in the first half, mainly through Torres, and should have gone into halftime ahead. Since winning 6-0, goals have been hard to come by in the league.

And honestly, Wigan could have earned at least a point from today’s game. Bent had the ball in the net, but Wigan was ruled offside (Arbeloa had lingered in getting forward after a cleared corner, and it looked like Aghahowa was the only one offside, if anyone was). Scharner’s backheeled flick around Reina narrowly rolled past the post, and Aghahowa should have scored in stoppage time, only to send his header wide when it was harder to miss. Aside from a stretch from about the 70th minute until the goal, Wigan was the better team throughout the second half.

So much had been written about Torres, I guess it’s little surprise his scoring touch deserted him today. He could have had a hat trick in the first half alone, the most egregious miss occurring when he tried an audacious overhead kick in acres of space instead of bringing it down. But finishing aside (and granted, it’s what he was bought to do), Torres didn’t play poorly. It’s a positive that he was working hard and getting into those positions, and we knew when he was signed he has this tendency. I’m still fairly sure that more often than not the keeper will be picking them out of the net.

And all in all, most players had off games. In any event, there’s a lot to critique in my mind. I can’t avoid the cliché that good teams win games even when they’re off the pace, if that’s any consolation.

No defender except maybe Hyypia played well today, and even Hyypia didn’t have a great game, although he’s still commanding in the air. Arbeloa needs to start getting games off. Not only did he look fatigued, but he was at fault for both of Wigan’s best chances: he nearly played Wigan onside when they had the ball in the net, and he was beaten by Koumas when Koumas sent in the cross for Aghahowa’s sitter. Carragher looked out of sorts as well, and almost gave up a penalty if not for another Wigan offside. Neither Riise nor Aurelio (although both are still returning to fitness) made a definitive claim to the left back spot. But despite all of that, Liverpool still picked up the clean sheet, their 7th of the season (5th in the league).

Neither Mascherano nor Gerrard had their best games either and it showed in Liverpool’s effectiveness in possession (especially in the second half), but there were glimpses that were encouraging. Gerrard, who still isn’t anywhere near his best, looked fresher than he has since his injury, and was unlucky not to score twice: first with a free kick within the first couple of minutes and in 64th minute with a shot just wide. Mascherano’s a beast in the tackle, but frequently it feels like he should be contributing more. I don’t enjoy harping on it, but Liverpool misses Alonso’s vision, both in the simple passes that can unlock the midfield and the long cross-field diagonals.

On a less negative front, I thought Pennant played well. He certainly saw more action in front of goal and did well to cut inside at times, which are areas of his game in need of improvement. But Pennant, Benayoun, Torres’ movement, and Reina making the few saves he had to make (all in the second half) were the only performances that stood out.

Of course the fact that Liverpool’s struggling to score is disconcerting (even Benitez recognized the team’s “anxiety in front of goal” post-match), but we’ve seen that the team has goals in them. The opposition has learned, and the Derby match hammered the point home, that Liverpool can carve a team apart if given the space. Whether home or away, teams in the bottom half of the table (and some in the top) are content to pack their half and limit as much space as possible.

The missteps in front of goal will come and go. Every team goes through spells like this every season. The fact that the stretch over the past three league games has seen Liverpool come away with two draws and a win (with the team still unbeaten) has to be seen as a positive. More goals and better performances are assuredly coming.

Marseille on Wednesday.

No comments :