16 January 2010

Liverpool 1-1 Stoke

Carragher Skrtel Kryrgiakos Insua
Degen Mascherano Lucas Aurelio
Ngog Kuyt

Kyrgiakos 57’
Huth 90’

Two typical Stoke goals, but one on each end. For 90 minutes, you could have switched the teams’ kits and would have fooled me. And for 90 minutes, it worked. Liverpool stifled Stoke, tried to counter, and scored a crucial goal from a set play. But then this season’s leitmotif kicked in. Stoke put Liverpool under increasing pressure for the final 15 minutes, and it finally paid off – from a set play – in the final minute of normal time. With five-plus minutes of added time, Liverpool nearly got a winner with the last touch, Kuyt heading off the frame of the goal from an Aurelio deep cross. That goes in last season. But, clearly, not this one.

Obviously, a draw at Stoke after holding the lead going into injury time feels like a loss. But, unlike in recent reviews, this isn’t going to be a denunciation of Benitez or the players. For the most part, I think the tactics were spot on, and until those final five minutes, I was elatedly preparing to welcome the return of Rafa the chess master.

I don’t know what people expected from the line-up. With Torres, Gerrard, Benayoun, Johnson, and Kelly out, Riera just returned, Maxi just signed, and Aquilani having played 120 minutes three days ago, it’s not as if Benitez had many options. The omission of Agger was the only real surprise, and that the Dane didn’t even make the bench suggests he too picked up a knock. The only defender who can comfortably bring the ball out of defense. Awesome. Yes, I’ve seen stronger team sheets in the Carling Cup, but you play the hand you’re dealt.

Subsequently, and of little surprise, there wasn’t much goalmouth action with six defenders and two holding midfielders in the first XI. Neither keeper was tested in the first half; Liverpool saw two Lucas shots blocked by defenders and an Aurelio volleyed cross softly deflected to Sorensen, while all of Stoke's threats came from Delap throws that put Reina under pressure.

Stoke weren’t helped by Faye and Delap limping off around the 25th minute, replaced by Wilkinson and Lawrence respectively, which was the same time what little head of steam Liverpool had built up dissipated. And there was a definable turning point – Lucas harshly booked for diving in the box in the 25th. It may not have been a penalty – he was looking for it and started going down as Higginbotham dove in, but Higginbotham dove in and got man, not ball. But I expect that from Lee Mason, who’s replaced Steve Bennett at the referee with an obvious vendetta against the club (see: Portsmouth and Fulham).

Stoke picked up the pressure in the second half, but Liverpool looked equal to it, with Kyrgiakos imperious in the air and Skrtel far better outside of a few early nervy moments. And it was the colossal Greek who put Liverpool ahead, scrambling Aurelio’s dangerous free kick over the line after Sorensen could only palm into traffic.

Stoke nearly got one back shortly after, Tuncay heading over after a flicked-on long throw (Diao took over throw-in duties after Delap’s departure), but Liverpool were doing well to combat the pressure. In the 76th, that could have all changed if not for Reina, who did well to save Fuller’s header from a corner.

That chance, Stoke’s first shot on target, marked the spell of possession which eventually saw them draw level. We’ve routinely criticized Liverpool for sitting on a one-goal lead when unable to stop shipping soft goals, but again, I fail to see what other options there were. Benitez made proactive substitutions, first bringing on Rodriguez for Degen before trying to firm up the midfield with Aquilani for Ngog, but the home side were always going to push on for an equalizer.

Despite the nerve-wracking ‘all hands on deck’ approach, it looked like Liverpool would preserve the lead thanks to the way the team were defending. But, in another smashing display of the side’s lack of confidence, Liverpool were at sixes and sevens when unable to clear a series of long throws and corners in the last five minutes. One such attempt was frightfully scrambled behind by Carra, and Stoke finally made the breakthrough. Higginbotham flicked the ball back in from the far post, and Huth was open at the near post when defenders were sucked to the ball. Shoddy defending to be sure, and Liverpool paid for it, but I don’t want to hear any condemnation of zonal marking. The reason that goal stood was because Benitez has succumbed to criticism and kept Insua on the far post on the majority of set plays, allowing Huth to be onside when everyone else pulled forward following the flick-on.

We were almost treated to the late heroics we've so dearly missed, but this season continues to punish Liverpool by inches. In the final minute of five added on, Liverpool broke, Aurelio sent in a tantalizing deep cross, and when Lucas was pulled down (the second marginal penalty call Mason could have given), Kuyt still got on the end of it with a diving header, only to see the attempt brutally ricochet off the upright. And the beach ball season rolls on.

I’m open to suggestions as to what Benitez should have done differently. You could suggest starting Pacheco, or even including Babel or Eccleston. But we all know the problems with Babel – he’s become a line in the sand for fans, and you all know I’m on the side ready to see him depart – and Pacheco and Eccleston aren’t getting their first starts in a game like this. Rodriguez has been in the country for less than a week, and Riera's been out for over a month. Liverpool were bound to play it tight, especially at a stadium like the Britannia, and it nearly worked.

It wasn’t a gutless display the likes of which we’ve been treated to far too often. For 90 minutes, emulating Stoke paid off. You’d always like to see more attacking flair, and there’s obviously going to be criticism when the team has all of one shot on target, even if they scored from it. But this season’s pitfalls and the complete and utter lack of squad depth made the decision for Benitez. Had Liverpool been able to defend that corner like they had the other double-digit set plays, I’d be reveling in a hard-won victory.

This is a mid-table side at present. It’s made worse by the injuries to star attackers. Grit, fortitude, and luck are what will get Liverpool through this month, and the rest of the season. We got two out of three today. It’s clearly not ideal, but it’s a start.


Frank said...

Really nice write up. Liked the opposing view you took on the game.

At first, I was very upset with Rafa's decision to exclude Riera, Maxi, and Aqui from the starting eleven and go with bascially 8 defensive minded players. However, you have some good points defending that decision.

I still think that he should of used Aqui from the start. Lucas and Masch are very similar players in that both like to sit back deep and distribute the ball. They are both not really interested in getting forward and creating. That's were Aqui comes in. He can get forward, and enjoys supporting the two strikers up front. Just think it would of been a nice counter point to either Lucas or

Also, I know he's young, but Ngog makes me sick. Between watching him against Reading and then again today, I just don't see the upside of him. Sure, he's got some speed and decent ball skills but he's so weak on the ball. He is VERY hesitent and not very difficult to defend. All you really have to do is put a little pressure and body on him and he almost willingly falls of the ball. He just looks lost out there.

WIth that said, I think we should do everything in our power to pick up Jones for Sunderland. With Torres out, Babel obviously not in Rafa's plans, and Ngog just looking terrible of late, Jones is a much needed piece.

Fucking Kuyt, couldn't just angke that 2 more inches to the left...

Matt said...

Ngog was a disaster with most every touch. He just wasn't in the match.

Is it me or is Maxi slow? I hope its just his intro to the Prem, but he was a step behind everyone. Yikes.

Kyrgiakos was class all match. I didn't like his play early on with Liverpool, but he's definitely grown on me.

Anonymous said...

A good write-up. But I guess you haven't covered Lucas's game today. It was pathetic to say the least. And as Frank said, it would have been good to have Aqua from the start, till maybe just after half time. Agreed Benitez did not have many options, but I hate his stubborn approach. Play Lucas day in day out for the full 90 mins, persist with Kuyt even though he is utterly out of form, make very very late subs. I fail to understand why doesn't he ever try youngsters like Pacheco when he could see Ngog was struggling upfront?

drew said...

It was weird, an hour in I was thinking Kyrgiakos was playing a really excellent game and then he popped up with that utterly Greek goal.

The equalizer was coming though--that is all I can fault Rafa for, not pulling N'gog earlier since he hadn't shown any ability to keep the ball upfield. Kuyt would have plowed that furrow much better.

Nice to see anonymous commenters continuing to slag Lucas when he had his usual tidy game (if not the dominant one I wanted to see), and won an obvious penalty, our second clear one in two games turned down. If anything Nate, you're too lenient there: you know when a Guardian writer not only gives Liverpool benefit of doubt, but calls it a "hilariously inept decision," that it was really, really bad.

Trivia: this was apparently the first game ever for Liverpool without a member of the starting lineup wearing a number between 1-11.

Mike Georger said...

Sami type game from Kyrgiakos today. And what else can be said about Pepe? That was just a goalkeeping clinic on reacting to crosses, my word. This one hurts because we actually defended decently for the most part. And because Stoke are the worst offensive team in the league.

But with today's later results, it stings a bit less. Still gained a point on fourth place when it's all over.

nate said...

I didn't have a paragraph on player performances because I was already over 1100 words.

Kyrgiakos man of the match, easy. Hyypia-esque is the best way to describe it, although I think he might have had a hand in losing Huth at the end (don't really want to go back and watch). Ngog did not play well, he looked tired, isolated, and had a very tough time against rugged defenders.

But I completely disagree with the notion that Lucas had a bad game. He had much more responsibility today, and performed adequately. 'Tidy' is the word I'd use too. It's a lot harder to get back and defend with Mascherano when you're trying to link the attack and get forward as well. Plus, it was a bullshit yellow card that I thought would come back to haunt Liverpool; that Lucas kept his nose clean for 60+ minutes is nothing to ignore.

Otherwise, fairly par for the course as everyone else is concerned.

We would have seen Pacheco had Liverpool needed a goal between 65-80, but Benitez took off Ngog for Aquilani instead. Which was probably the correct decision given the situation. And I don't think starting Aquilani was a option with how much he played on Wednesday, but I admittedly give Benitez tons of leeway 'rotation'-wise as he sees the players day in and day out.

Mike Georger said...

Well he's suspended now right? Guess it haunts us a little. He was actually our best creative force, I thought.

Bolo Zenden scored today. There is no emoticon to express my disdain for that man.

nate said...

Who's suspended? Lucas? I'm pretty sure yellow cards were wiped clean after the new year.

Mike Georger said...

Oh. One of the announcers said he would now be suspended. Fuck if I know how that works.

Frank said...

I've been trying to put this match out of my head all day by thinking about Wednesday.

Any comments/ideas/opinions to take my mind off of the repeating image of Huth sitting alone backpost....

Earl said...

Lucas wasn't the problem, though he and Masch are never going to create any kind of offense playing together. God they're depressing to watch. I know Stoke is very difficult to play at home, but what an awful display. Still, the ugly win would have been a great morale boost. Yet another dagger at the end. Oh Kuyt, you Sloth looking bastard, just a fraction off. Now I know what other fans felt like after all of Liverpool's late heroics. Horrible yellow card on Lucas, but not a penalty either.

Ngog plays like a 12 year old girl, what an utter waste. When he wasn't getting pushed off the ball he was giving it away. How can he be your 2nd best striker? At least Voronin is gone so I don't have to watch that, but damn. Babel? He better be either sold or used. How about some new blood in there. I agree he shouldn't be such a whiny bitch, but Rafa is a stubborn mofo who is fast losing(lost) the benefit of the doubt.

Anonymous said...

Agree completely with everything Earl said.

That was U-G-L-Y to watch and any Liverpool fan could see the equalizer coming from miles away. Kuyt missing his header was just as predictable.

Also, it wasn't a penalty on Lucas, but it was a very harsh yellow for diving. He pulled the same move that Rooney does all the time...anticipate contact and start to go down early. Of course he's a foreigner, and only Englishmen get that call. Gotta love the xenophobia that exists in English football, from the media to the referees.

Even if you thought it was a penalty, I feel like we were lucky to win the free kick that resulted in the goal, so I guess you could argue that things evened out.

Also, we just aren't going to get the benefit of the doubt on questionable penalties for awhile after Ngog's dive against Birmingham (again, xenophobia rearing its ugly head...see Eduardo's ordeal against Celtic earlier this season). We just have to deal with it.

One last thing regarding Stoke's infamous long throws. I know that they're like 98% of Stoke's attack, but here's my beef with them...it's so ridiculously shady that they have a ball boy give them a towel to dry off the ball before every long throw. That's a blatant unfair advantage that should not be allowed.

How about some sort of time limit on throw-ins in the opposing team's half? My idea? When a ball goes out, the linesman is the only one who can touch the ball before the player who makes the throw, and as soon as he gives the player the ball, he has 5 seconds to to put it back in play, just like basketball.