26 December 2007

Liverpool 2-1 Derby

Finnan Carragher Hyypia Aurelio
Babel Gerrard Alonso Riise
Voronin Torres

Torres 12’
McEveley 67’
Gerrard 90’

Steven Gerrard. That is all.

Well, not quite all.

Liverpool was awful today. Just awful. I don’t want to downplay Derby’s second half, because Paul Jewell made some inspired changes, the fans rallied around the team, and Jay McEveley made Liverpool pay for Derby’s increased possession and Liverpool’s apathy, but outside of the home match against Marseille, this was the worse Liverpool performance I’ve seen in ages.

The first 15 minutes went according to plan. Liverpool pressed from the off, and a sublime individual goal by Torres got them off the mark after 13 minutes when dancing through the penalty area he nutmegged Darren Moore, stepped by Leacock, and slotted past Price.

But then it was almost as if Liverpool expected to stroll as they did at Anfield. But despite continued mistakes by Derby, Liverpool gave the ball away too cheaply and too often resorted to route 1 football, with little cohesion in their play. An involuntary change, bringing on center-half Michael Johnson for the injured Pearson tightened Derby at the back, but the real impetus began after halftime.

Buoyed by Liverpool’s inability to get the second goal, and with Jewell making two more changes before the 56th minute (Feilhaber for the inept Moore and then Earnshaw for Teale), Derby sprang to life in the second half. They saw much more of the ball, while Liverpool still defended and attacked casually.

In the 67th minute, Derby made them pay. Alonso was unfairly whistled for a handball, but Liverpool was unable to clear the resulting free kick (it looked like Aurelio missed his header, but I could be mistaken), and McEveley kept his cool to prod past Reina.

Unsurprisingly, the goal spurred Liverpool, but with numerous chances missed by pretty much every attacking player over the next 20 minutes and Liverpool still giving the ball away too cheaply, especially in the final third, my greatest fears seemed to be realized.

This would have been an implausible result. It certainly would have been the end of any talk about contending for the title. But then Steven Gerrard popped up in the 90th minute.

Derby will feel aggrieved that Mears didn’t draw a free kick in Liverpool’s half, but Gerrard stormed the length of the field on the break, found Benayoun who centered Torres, only to see Price make another excellent save. But Gerrard followed the play for the rebound, and Derby’s hearts were broken.

Liverpool was saved by the captain’s performance. He never gave up, even after barely missing the winner in the 88th minute when his cannon of a shot ricocheted off the crossbar. I’m without adjectives for the work Gerrard put in over the final 25 minutes, and you could see the fatigue on his face at full time.

But other than Gerrard’s late heroics and a moment of brilliance from Torres in the 13th minute, Liverpool were utterly dire. No one should be pleased with individual or team performances today. And Liverpool, to some surprise, lined up with a stronger team than expected.

I hate singling out players, and everyone needs to have a look at today’s performance, but Riise, Babel, and Voronin were especially disappointing. Babel looked lost on the right, made some questionable decisions in the final third, and was ineffective. Voronin, although taken out of the game by Derby’s relentless and uncalled fouls, wasn’t good enough in possession or a threat to the opposition’s goal. And Riise lost or misplayed the ball more times than I can count, and was no better when moved to center-back to rest Sami with an eye on the weekend.

I suppose I should be pleased that Liverpool played so badly and still won. The cliché that good teams find a way to win when they shouldn’t is still apt. But outside of amazement at Gerrard’s ability to snatch victory, relief is the only positive emotion.

Credit to Derby for their fight, but this was an insipid Liverpool performance. Maybe there’s a Christmas hangover coupled with an eye on the match at the Eastlands, but that’s almost as unforgivable. I don’t care about the opposition's points total; there are no easy games in the Premiership, and you can’t sleepwalk a win against anyone.

But a 2-1 win in injury time still gets the same amount of points as a 6-0 drubbing.

City on Sunday. A performance like today’s will not suffice.

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