----Skrtel Carragher Agger
So are we going to let another late win – another late winner from that man Torres – gloss over the performance as a whole? Is Benitez still an idiot or a genius? The starting formation got nowhere, but the substitutions sure won the game.
We knew Gerrard and Lucas would be out, and that Torres, Alonso, and Kuyt were all fatigued. And we know the emphasis Benitez puts on fitness – and in my opinion, rightfully so. Despite what the pundits say, there’s a difference between being fit for the bench and being fit enough to start, and there are a lot of games left.
There isn’t much else the manager could do with the team selection with those five players out. The 3-4-3, 3-4-2-1, whatever you want to call it, was pretty much the only formation possible with that many midfielders and the star striker missing. And given that Liverpool hadn’t used this shape all season, I thought it worked reasonably well, even considering the two goals conceded.
For about 25 minutes, the team played well and had Pompey off balance. In the 8th, Benayoun slipped when in space on the right, shooting into the side netting, before Aurelio put a free kick off the outside of the post and later shot wide after one of Liverpool’s best passing moves. In the 26th, Mascherano forced a great save from James on a shot from distance, but that was pretty much the last sniff of the half as Pompey settled.
The fact that the game passed over the midfield, with Mascherano and Aurelio unable to establish the sort of possession Liverpool’s had in the past, didn’t help matters, but Ngog was often isolated as Benayoun and Babel dropped back more often. The backline of Skrtel, Carragher, and Agger held firm, limiting the home side to a couple of shots from distance, the best from Crouch in the 38th.
The possession and tempo was better in the second half, even as Liverpool still failed to find the final ball to unlock another stingy defense. Ngog didn’t have the best of games, but at 19 and often battling both Campbell and Distin, it was understandable. He showed a bit of potential in holding up play and trying to turn, but wasn’t making much headway, with Kuyt coming on the 56th. And the substitute almost provided the opener three minutes later, putting a perfect centered pass across the box for Babel after Benayoun beat two defenders, but somehow Babel couldn’t make contact, summing up his day. Today was a big opportunity for the Dutchman, and although I doubt it’ll be his last, he didn’t have a game to remember.
It didn’t take long for Liverpool to pay the price. Crouch put Nugent (who looked offside) through in the 62nd, and he was able to slide a left-footer past Reina. Five minutes later, Liverpool made another game-changing substitution (but to the commentators’ dismay, it wasn’t Torres) in Alonso, and two minutes after that it was level. It was partly thanks to Crouch, whose back pass (which Kuyt smartly read) led to James’ handling. Alonso laid the indirect free kick off for Aurelio, and his venomous shot from 12 yards beat Kranjcar at the near post.
The goal, along with the subs, brought Liverpool back into the game, and it looked as if Kuyt put them ahead in the 76th, only to be ruled offside. If Nugent was onside, so was Kuyt, and it seemed like the decision would haunt Liverpool as Pompey went back ahead. Johnson won a free kick on Liverpool’s left, Belhadj sent in a dangerous ball, and Hreidarsson somehow got a free header, which bounced awkwardly in front of Reina. Another set piece goal, after Liverpool had one pulled back, and I was ready to slit my wrists. Little did I know what was to come.
In the 85th minute, a mistake from Distin, similar to Ashley Cole’s last week, let Torres (who came on for Babel in the 76th) in. At a narrow angle, the Spaniard cut back for Kuyt, who took a touch and looked to have lost the chance before smashing a point-blank rocket past James at the near post.
At this point, it was starting to feel like the comebacks against Boro and City, and we weren’t disappointed. And it was that man again. In the first minute of added time, Mascherano charged forward and fed Benayoun, who crossed perfectly for Torres to smash and grab at the near post, just like the winner against Chelsea. 2-1 down, 3-2 up. Who cares if United has two games in hand? For now, Liverpool’s top of the table.
I wrote it for a reason at the top of this post – the win can’t completely gloss over a shaky performance, where Liverpool had to produce another brilliant comeback against a team that’s taken two points from the previous eight matches. But, given the starting line-up (which again, Benitez is responsible for, but was understandable with fitness issues, upcoming games, and suspensions), it’s a great result. Substitutions and fortitude won the game, two things you love to see.
And at the end of the day, all that matters is the three points. But the morale boost from a win like this can’t hurt.