11 May 2008

Liverpool 2-0 Tottenham

Arbeloa Skrtel Carragher Insua
Kuyt Gerrard Mascherano Babel
Torres Voronin

Voronin 69’
Torres 74’

As predicted, the first half was the epitome of an end-of-season match. Thankfully, it picked up the pace in the second, with two good goals by the strikers and entertaining play to boot, to end the season on the right note.

It was a slightly different formation than usual, with both Torres and Voronin up top and Gerrard deeper in midfield, but players were moving around the pitch, and even in the first half it was end-to-end despite a sloppiness in the final third from both sides.

Crouch, Riise, Pennant, and (unfortunately) Alonso were noticeable in their absence, and that none even made the bench says a lot about the summer plans. Supposedly, Alonso missed out through injury, but remembering Gerrard’s “neck injury” a few weeks back, I’m still both skeptical and worried. The departures of the first three listed wouldn’t surprise me, but losing Alonso, despite the fact he hasn’t been at his best for most of the season, is something I still have to get my head around.

Even considering back and forth nature of the game, neither side created many chances in the first half. Voronin and Babel both tested Cerny in the first 15 minutes, but the best chance of the half came from Berbatov’s header from a corner 25 minutes in, with Reina making an excellent reaction save to keep the Bulgarian from tallying in what may be his last game for Spurs. But other than that, little was coming off for either side in the final third and it really was a sub-par first half for both sides despite the openness of the game.

Gerrard did well to pull the strings in midfield, but had less influence sitting deeper and far less of a combination with Torres than usual. Meanwhile, Tottenham only really threatened through their corners (they had eight in total, with the majority coming in the first half, and their best stretch of pressure came during a run of three straight, culminating with the aforementioned Berbatov chance).

However, playing for pride, both teams came out better in the second. Liverpool again had the first opportunity, with Gerrard further forward and linking up with Torres, only for Cerny to block the Spaniard’s effort with an outstretched leg five minutes in. From there though, Tottenham had their best spell of pressure of the match, more successful in their passing and in keeping the ball away from Liverpool.

But in the 69th minute, Skrtel’s long ball out found Torres, whose flicked header put Voronin in on goal. The oft-criticized (and frequently rightfully so) Ukrainian controlled well, avoiding Dawson and slotting past Cerny for the opener (and it’s worth noting he opened the scoring against Spurs at Anfield as well) for his fifth in the league.

Spurs almost had an immediate reply through Berbatov’s excellent volley, which was well-saved by an acrobatic Reina, but five minutes after the opener, Torres got the goal that gave him the record for most in a debut season by a foreigner. One-on-one with Dawson after Benayoun got him the ball, Torres looked like cutting inside, but opened up and sprinted past the centerback to slot through Cerny’s legs, eerily similar to his first goal for Liverpool against Chelsea. He truly has had an amazing season, and at age 24, he’s only going to get better.

From there, Liverpool could have had a rout. Hutton nearly scored a spectacular own goal, Woodgate put in a last ditch tackle on Gerrard with the captain almost through, and then Torres cheekily chipped over Cerny only for the effort to careen off the bar. Late on Benayoun nearly got a goal of his own, stinging the keeper’s palms, but the home side was able to keep it at 2-0.

After all the drama of the season, Liverpool end the campaign with 76 points, their second-highest total under Benitez. Gerrard, as usual influential in midfield, was probably the man of the match, but today was Torres’ day. Even after watching him all season long, I still find it hard to believe how much of an impact he’s had. Few players take to the Premiership so quickly: 24 goals in the league, 33 in all competitions, and he’s still only 24 and improving in every match. This was only his third goal away from Anfield in the league this season, and that’s where I expect him to improve the most next year.

I also have to credit the defense today. In the last game of the season, this is the first time Tottenham’s been held scoreless at White Hart Lane. As mentioned, Spurs had a number of corners, while Liverpool has struggled on set plays and in defense this season. But it was another clean sheet kept, the 18th of the season, and Reina’s again going home with the golden gloves. Obviously, I’m also going to make mention of Insua, who struggled against Malbranque at times (it was little surprise Carragher played on the left of defense to support him), but got forward well and was increasingly assured as the game went on.

Where Liverpool struggled today was on the wings, and I doubt it was a coincidence that both goals came after Benayoun came on for Babel. Babel continues to show flashes of brilliance, especially when the ball’s at his feet and he’s running at defenders, but he still floats in and out of the game and has questionable decision-making. But he’s still finding his way, and it’s a credit to the manager that he’s used him more and more as the season’s gone on. I expect big things from the Dutchman next season as he continues to adjust to English football.

So that’s this season in the books. Admittedly, after the turmoil that’s gone on, part of me is happy to see it come to a close, but Liverpool finished strongly, unbeaten in the league in the last seven matches, with the lone loss in the last 11 coming in the Champions League semi-final at Stamford Bridge.

But we’ve also seen where Liverpool need to improve. Despite clean sheets in the last two and Reina’s golden gloves, the team’s given up the most goals since Benitez’s first season, while Liverpool still need to get more from the wide players, both in midfield and from the fullbacks.

With those positions marked for the off-season transfer window, plus the on-going ownership saga, it’ll assuredly be an eventful summer.

I can't wait until August.

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