Carragher Skrtel Kryrgiakos Insua
Degen Mascherano Lucas Aurelio
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.