Darby Skrtel Carragher Insua
Kuyt Gerrard Lucas Aurelio
Oh goody, a replay. An insipid performance against the 20th-placed Championship side despite starting a stronger team than expected and a change of formation isn’t the best way to start 2010. Apart from a 15 minute spell to end the first half, Reading were arguably the better team – at least they looked threatening, even if mainly from set plays. I know it’s the FA Cup, I expect Liverpool to win the replay, and any away tie’s tricky, but there’s little to be pleased about. At least Liverpool weren’t punished further and got a deserved equalizer.
The change to 4-4-2, with Ngog supporting Torres and Gerrard deeper in midfield, didn’t bolster the attack as hoped. It led to more hopeful punts from deep towards Ngog and Torres as much of the play bypassed midfield, with Liverpool incapable of retaining possession.
Meanwhile, Reading looked threatening down both flanks, with McAnuff and Sigurdsson testing both Insua and Darby. Once the home side starting racking up set plays, the old fears set in and were soon confirmed. McAnuff won a free kick off Insua, and the ball in found Rasiak at the back post having eluded both Lucas and Darby. Somehow, the striker kept the ball in, flicking back for Church in behind Skrtel. Watching Liverpool defend set plays has become performance art.
Unsurprisingly, the goal took the wind out of Liverpool, but the team finally started creating some of the play we’d hoped for after five or so minutes. Ngog and Kuyt combined well only to see Torres head the Dutchman’s cross wide in the 32nd before Gerrard equalized after an even better move four minutes later. Kuyt won the long ball for Ngog, who spread it to Lucas in the middle. The Brazilian's quick ball wide looked to be too far for Insua, but the fullback recovered possession and set up Gerrard, whose dangerous cross-cum-shot was dummied by Kuyt into the back of the net.
This game would be an after-thought had Liverpool been able to attack like that with more regularly. But Gerrard volleyed over in the 38th, Torres’ couldn’t flick it past Federici after a clever run in the 43rd, and Aurelio missed the far post after Kuyt found him in space a minute later. Liverpool would rarely recreate that sort of football in the second half.
The 'hoof and hope' mentality Liverpool were prone to took over after the restart, and it only helped Reading. Reina had to parry Sigurdsson’s 25-yard blast in the 55th, one of the few opportunities for either side, before Liverpool replaced Ngog with Aquilani, hoping to change the play by pushing Gerrard forward. Didn’t help. Neither did Reading have to switch keepers after Federici pulled up at the same time Liverpool made its first substitution. Liverpool never tested stand-in Hamer with a shot on target, only a low cross that caused confusion and a corner where the referee blew for infringement; the best chance came on a clearance that Torres nearly got on the end of in the 80th, but Hamer came out quickly to close down.
Benayoun’s entrance with 10 minutes to play, for Aurelio, didn’t change much either. I don’t want to single out Aquilani – early days, new signing – but he still looked off the pace of the English game, unable to link midfield and attack (he wasn't alone in this regard, though). Reading forced a spell of pressure at the end before Liverpool almost found the winner, with Torres only able to head Benayoun’s inventive cross onto the roof of the net. The last action of the game, a corner cut out by the first defender, pretty much summed up the final 45 minutes.
There are few positives to take away. At least Liverpool’s not out of the competition, and I distinctly remember a 5-0 mauling in an FA Cup replay after Liverpool were held to a poor 1-1 away result. But that’s a marginal “at least.” Only Reina, Ngog, and Lucas had decent games – Liverpool looked a lot worse after the young Frenchman went off – while Darby impressed in only his second start even though Reading were attacking the flanks. Torres looked lively at times but was starved of service. Carragher was shaky as a left-sided central defender paired with Skrtel, while Gerrard as a 4-4-2 central midfielder didn’t work at all, even if he once again delivered a crucial goal. McAnuff had the beating of Insua far too often, even if an early (and probably unnecessary) yellow hindered the young fullback.
I couldn’t be more nervous for Spurs next week. Liverpool certainly won’t get very far by replicating today's performance.