Arbeloa Hobbs Carragher Aurelio
-----Voronin Lucas Babel
Outside of a moment of sheer idiocy from Peter Crouch and an unfortunate deflection off Carragher, I really can’t complain. Chelsea’s second in the 90th minute added a bit of injustice to the scoreline, but it was more to Liverpool’s credit they were able to keep them out for 30 minutes when reduced to 10 men.
The line-up was a bit of a surprise, but with the amount of games coming up and the importance of other competitions, it’s explainable. And coupled with the fact that the game was at Stamford Bridge, where Liverpool’s won once in 20-odd visits, pragmatism was always going to be the order on the day.
Despite Jorge Valdano’s past proclamations, the game was eminently watchable for the first hour. Few chances were created, although both teams had an excellent opportunity denied by the opposition keeper in the first half, but both also saw a bit of the ball and looked to move it around. Liverpool's plan appeared center on the counter-attack, and was playing good one-touch football at times, with Lucas involved in much of it.
Chelsea’s best chance of the first half came when poor passes from Hobbs and Arbeloa put Lampard through on goal, with but Itandje did well to come out and make himself big. Minutes later, some of that one-touch football led to Crouch putting Lucas one-on-one with Cech, only to see the keeper make an excellent save.
The second half started much like the first, with Itandje forced into another brilliant save, punching away Essien’s fierce shot within the first 10 minutes. But in the 58th, Lampard was lucky to see his shot take a nasty deflection off of Jamie Carragher, who doesn’t deserve the run of luck he’s had at times this season and defended manfully all game long. 1-0, deadlock broken.
90 seconds later, Crouch and Mikel, who battled all game long, were at it again on the sidelines, and Crouch lunged two-footed, in the air after losing out. Best-case scenario, it was an awful example of a striker’s tackle. Worst case, it was stupid, petty, and uncharacteristic. Mikel may have hammed it up, and Crouch may not have made much contact, but it was assuredly a straight red, and most likely down to frustration from the result, a lack of fouls called on the opposition, and his own underwhelming performance.
Babel, and then Voronin, tried to forge a path up top on their own, but with Chelsea in front and Liverpool down to 10 men, it was always going to be slim pickings. And with a bench composed of Martin, Hyypia, Riise, El Zhar, and Benayoun, there wasn’t much that could be done, although I’ll still argue it was right to rest the players like Torres, Gerrard, and Kuyt.
Credit to Liverpool that they held out for as long as they did, and Shevchenko’s goal, from a Ballack flick after Bridge somehow worked out a cross, was one of the few shots Chelsea had from inside the box with Liverpool down to 10 men.
I don’t want to downplay a loss, because (and I probably shouldn’t feel the need to reiterate this) you’re always rooting for your team to win. But it’s the Carling Cup, Liverpool obviously has their focus on other competitions, and all things considered, the team didn't play poorly.
Carragher was fantastic today and didn’t deserve to have the winning goal go in off him. He wore every tackle on his face, and gave his all despite clearly tiring in the second half. Injuries have forced him to play more games than he regularly would (he hasn’t had a game off since returning from injury in early October), and he’s had some bad luck with penalty decisions and today’s deflection, but he still gives his all and is crucial to Liverpool’s defensive success.
But aside from Crouch and some of Sissoko’s play (as usual, excellent in breaking up the opposition and everywhere on the pitch, some good passes to open up the attack, but offset by poor decision-making and misplays in Chelsea’s half), there are reasons to be pleased with performances. Lucas was excellent in a role similar to Gerrard's, unlucky not to score thanks to Cech, and everywhere in midfield. Babel showed the customary flashes of brilliance and ability to beat players with mazy runs. Alonso played 60 minutes, and although he’s clearly not match-fit, steadied the side. The defense limited Chelsea to mostly long-range chances.
I’m afraid to read some of the criticism following the match. A loss here can’t be considered in the same breath as to Reading or United. It was a second string team in a competition clearly lower down the list, against a nearly full-strength Chelsea side (although limited by injuries). Benitez didn’t get it wrong -- it’s always going to be a narrow game between Liverpool and Chelsea, and this side continued that trend. And more young and reserve players were able to get time on the pitch, with the performances by Lucas, Babel, Hobbs, and Itandje justifying it.
I do worry about 2 consecutive losses, and 3 in the last 4, but I also believe it’s an aberration, and the pragmatism here will pay off with players' fitness down the line.
The next chance to see if that holds any water is Saturday, when Portsmouth travels to Anfield, and Liverpool will look to make up for the 0-0 stalemate at Fratton Park.