Carragher Agger Hyypia Insua
Benayoun Gerrard Babel
Gerrard 31' 66'
Alonso 76' (pen)
That’s one way to end the year.
To be fair, a four-goal margin of victory usually flatters the victors. Not today. It’s no exaggeration saying that Shay Given prevented Liverpool from tallying double-digits. Liverpool finished with 25 shots, 13 on target, more than double the opposition.
The visitors had seven excellent chances before a quarter of the game was completed. Given kept five of them out: Kuyt from close range, Gerrard trying to side-foot on a free run through the box and on a trademark shot three minutes later, and two stops on Lucas efforts. Hyypia narrowly headed wide from a corner in the 16th and had another cleared off the line by N’Zogbia.
But unlike in past games where Liverpool’s labored to open the scoring, they got the breakthrough around the half-hour mark, when Gerrard finally thundered an unstoppable shot into the top corner from Benayoun’s cutback, with a nice pass from Mascherano releasing the Israeli.
And five minutes later, Hyypia doubled the lead, but not before Owen had the ball in the net, only for Duff to be dubiously ruled offside. 1-1, especially when Liverpool was dominant, might have changed things, but the away side was rampant throughout, and the bad calls evened out when Lucas was clearly onside in the 78th.
Newcastle always looked vulnerable on corners, and Hyypia beat Coloccini in the 36th, jumping highest to meet Gerrard’s cross. The same combination almost put Liverpool up 3-0 in the 42nd, but again, Given came to the rescue.
And on the stroke of halftime, Liverpool’s own lax defending on corners allowed Newcastle to trim the advantage. Both Gerrard and Carra were caught ball watching, and Edgar rose for a free header.
Ameobi came on for Enrique after the break, and Newcastle were able to create and maintain better possession, but again, awful defending on a corner led to Babel cramming in from close range when Given couldn’t clear the Dutchman’s backheel after Lucas chested down (it wasn’t a handball) Hyypia’s flick.
Geremi nearly provided a lifeline in the 60th, when his 25-yard free kick ricocheted off the crossbar, but six minutes later, Liverpool sealed the points. Alonso replaced Benayoun, firming up the midfield when Newcastle was winning possession, which shifted Lucas to the right. And the Brazilian, who was probably my man of the match again (I’m worried I’m getting biased, writing this in the last two games he’s started, but I truly thought he was excellent), played a perfect throughball for Gerrard to run onto from the right, outpacing Coloccini to chip over Given.
10 minutes later, the captain must have rued not getting the chance to register a hat-trick when N’Gog, who replaced Gerrard in the 71st, was tripped in the box by Edgar. Alonso stepped up, and while Given went the right way, the Spaniard’s shot was struck too well. And Liverpool could have had more – the aforementioned dubious offside call, when N’Gog had the ball in the net, as well as another superb save from Given on Lucas from close range in the 89th (with N’Gog’s follow-up soft and easily cleared off the line). But 5-1, leaving Liverpool top of the league at the end of 2008, will do.
With Liverpool back in the 4-2-3-1, the game was won early on in midfield. Lucas and Mascherano were dominant, not giving Newcastle a sniff of possession and spreading the ball well. Masch basically marked a line in front of defense that the home side couldn’t pass, and Lucas got from box to box, in the middle of everything.
Gerrard was basically a striker in support of Kuyt, and hassled and harried just as well as the Dutchman. Although his finishing wasn’t the best early on, he still tallied twice and was able to be rested for the final 20 minutes. It was a bit of a surprise to see Keane left out for the entirety after his performance Friday, but the reprieve will do him good, and Liverpool continued to score in his absence.
I also should apologize to Hyypia, who I assumed would be too knackered to start two in a row. That couldn’t be further from the truth – once again, the Finn was imperious at the back and a constant threat from set plays. Insua (and Agger, when Newcastle was pushed back) again supplemented the attack well, although Duff beat him for a pace a couple of times.
Another apology is due to Babel, who did well starting on the left (and playing for the full match). He was error-prone and in and out of the game for the early period when Liverpool was dominant, but was an increasingly effective outlet as the game went on, and did well to force the goal that basically guaranteed the win.
The last two games have seen Liverpool play their best football of the season, and it’s come at the perfect time. Halfway through the season, the team’s hitting their stride for the first time in the campaign, and have thoroughly beaten the opposition in back-to-back games. At the same time, key players are nearing fitness – Skrtel saw the last ten minutes of today’s match, while Torres will soon be back in the picture.
Now, Liverpool just needs to keep doing what they’re doing. Easy, right?