26 April 2008

Liverpool 2-2 Birmingham

Finnan Skrtel Hyypia Riise
Pennant Lucas Plessis Benayoun
Crouch Voronin

Forssell 34’
Larsson 55’
Crouch 63’
Benayoun 76’

After the first half, with Liverpool going 0-2 down, a point will certainly suffice.

Until Birmingham scored their second, from an absolutely stunning free kick, Liverpool were insipid and uninspired, and that’s putting it nicely. The first half was especially dire, with Liverpool labored, lacking in movement, and few in the team looking especially bothered by it.

For the first 30 or so minutes, Birmingham were much the same, which was surprising given their need for points. And it led to a fairly boring back and forth affair, with neither side creating much of note until Forssell broke the deadlock 34 minutes in.

McFadden, who had been Birmingham’s best player so far, found a way to deliver a dangerous cross around Riise to Forssell in acres of space at the far post. The Finnish striker had time to control and fire past the on-rushing Reina before Finnan could get back, having unnecessarily drifted into the center.

And to the chagrin of Liverpool supporters, the goal didn’t prompt much reply from the away side. Liverpool still turned the ball over too cheaply, with both Lucas and Plessis shaky in midfield (I don’t fault Plessis much; it’s still only his second game, and expectations were raised far too high in his first game, when he was surrounded by better players). Meanwhile, Crouch was isolated up front, unable to link up at all with the underperforming Voronin. However, Birmingham couldn’t take further advantage, with no other chances before halftime.

Liverpool started the second half better, after what had to have been a tirade from Benitez, but 10 minutes after the break, Skrtel was forced to bring down McFadden on the break (after Walton failed to call a free kick when Finnan was fouled), and Larsson slammed home a spectacular strike from the resulting dead ball up and over the wall, leaving Reina with no chance.

And when it looked like the second goal would ice the day’s disappointment, Liverpool finally responded. Less than eight minutes later, a surging Pennant run (with Pennant probably Liverpool’s best, and at times only, performer to that point) on the break, with Pennant cutting inside and fortunate to receive the ball back from Benayoun, led to Crouch firing a low shot past Taylor to give Liverpool a lifeline.

Soon after, Insua replaced Riise, who had a fairly composed if unspectacular game, which much needed after last Tuesday. I realize I have the potential to get carried away when writing about Insua, but the substitution clearly helped Liverpool. The young Argentinean brought fresh legs and some smarter surges forward, with Voronin moving further left and Benayoun taking up a more central role.

And it was Benayoun who scored the equalizer from Lucas’ cross thanks to a slice of luck when his header deflected off of an unaware Jaidi, wrong-footing Maik Taylor. But Liverpool, finally taking the game to the home side, deserved their luck. It’s no coincidence Liverpool finally got “lucky” after going on the front foot.

Liverpool finished the final 15 minutes the better side and still pressing forward, but Birmingham (aided by bringing on Queudrue to solidify the middle) held on to save a point that would have been welcomed at the start of the day, before they took a two-goal lead.

After Larsson’s goal, you could already feel the media lining up to criticize the rotation, as they expected to do after the Fulham match. And while criticizing rotation wouldn’t have been completely deserved, as we’ve seen that these players perform together before, the criticism of the players would have been given their performance today. Pennant looked moderately dangerous in the first half, albeit too wasteful at times, and he was the only one (with his second half performance probably sealing him being man of the match).

And you had to expect Birmingham to play well -- it was the below par first 30 minutes that was surprising. This is a team in need of points to stave off relegation and had been thumped by their city rivals in the last match. If nothing else, McLeish is a master motivator, and you have to think his sides will bounce back.

Which is why I credit Liverpool for getting back into the game, with the players who had gotten themselves into the hole having to dig themselves out (Insua was the only substitute). The substandard first half performance was unacceptable given some of these players are fighting for either a regular starting berth or their place in the team next season, and it was hard to understand how so many looked so indifferent. But in the final 35 minutes, they came back from two goals down to earn a welcome point.

And with that point, Liverpool is now nine ahead of Everton with the 5th placed side, plus 15 on goal difference. Now they can completely focus on the trip to the Bridge Wednesday.


Django said...

I know Kuyt works hard and has scored in every round of the Champions League ever (or something like that), but I'll be goddamned if right now Pennant seems the superior creator. Pennant has been phenomenal the last couple times I've seen him. I'd be surprised to see him featured from the start on Wednesday, but I expect him to figure at some point. It seems like a 4-4-2 could possibly be in order at the Bridge, with Crouch up front to hopefully give some space to Torres (not to mention Crouch has looked good of late). A 4-4-2 doesn't account for the game Xabi had last week, which was his most impressive of the year. As I mentioned, I'd love to see Pennant in place of Babel or Kuyt, but not likely. Just hoping our creativity can match the need for at least one come Wednesday.

Come on you Reds, YNWA

Tote Football Pro said...

The last two games, surely, have been enough to put Pennant in the frame for the most important match of the season so far. I hope he plays, and plays from the start. He has a good record against Chelsea. At Anfield last season his treatment of Ashley Cole brought a derisive smile to the face of every football fan in England. His goal was as pure a strike as Anny Roaders have seen since Steve Nicol popped one in from 120 yards, or whatever it was. He was good again this season, constantly pushing the angry little Cole backwards and buying himself so much time he could cross at will. A stunning cross to Riise would have produced a goal in the first minute but for the Norweigan’s well-known phobia about controlling the ball. I don’t think Ashley Cole would like to see a Liverpool teamsheet with the word ‘Pennant’ on it.

If that were to happen it would be hard on Dirk Kuyt. He did his incredible scampering thing to tremendous effect in the first-leg and, of course, he scored a vital goal. But better players producing better games have been left out of subsequent line-ups by Rafa – and have survived. Dirk can talk to Crouchie about it on the bench.

Starting11 said...

It's an absolute plus that Liverpool marched back from 0-2 down. Never mind the point gained, it's inconsequential. You don't, however, want to go into a CL semifinal with that kind of performance.