Carragher Skrtel Kyrgiakos Insua
Degen Aquilani Riera
Kuyt 6’ 90+3’ (pen)
Even with this season’s horrors, Liverpool hasn’t done too badly in ‘statement games.’ Admittedly, basically every game’s a statement game with the shape the side’s in, but 2-0 wins over United, Everton, and now Spurs (and a 1-0 win at Villa) are nothing to sneeze at.
Kuyt’s early goal certainly brought a lot of relief, but also some wary memories of this match at the Lane last year and the league loss to Arsenal in December. This season’s seen me revert to my natural pessimism, but Liverpool finally were able to hold on to a lead, and finally able to add a second to seal the game, even if it came in injury time.
With few changes to the line-up (starts for Aquilani and Riera, and Kuyt shifting up top as expected), Liverpool used similar tactics to those against Stoke. Yes, shutting up shop against Spurs at Anfield, hoping to counter, is what we’ve come to. But it worked. It finally worked.
The first half saw each side limited to a single shot on target. Liverpool made theirs count. Breaking after Reina claimed Bale’s dangerous cross, Aquilani (despite being fouled) teed up Kuyt, who firmly and accurately placed the ball low in the corner. Spurs' five-game clean sheet streak didn’t last long.
And the game settled into Liverpool easily soaking up Spurs attacks. With Modric and Krancjar on the flanks, and Tottenham frequently looking for balls up to Crouch for flick-ons, the home side smothered a narrow opposition. Kyrgiakos was again influential, combating Crouch's height as he did against Sidibe at Stoke.
The final five minutes of the half saw what was arguably Liverpool’s best stretch so far, with mounting pressure leading to a Kyrgiakos volley over and a tame Kuyt header off the line after a corner fell to the striker, with Skrtel blasting the rebound over. But Tottenham’s best came with the last kick of the half, a flowing move ending with Modric through, only to shoot too close to Reina.
Controversy arose soon into the second half, and of Liverpool’s own making. Kyrgiakos’ back pass put Reina under pressure when hassled by an offside Defoe, only to see the referee finally stop play after Defoe had the ball in the net. I thought Defoe was flagged for a foul on Reina. The Sky Sports commentators seemed certain it was for offside, despite Kyrgiakos’ touch to the keeper. Who cares. Either decision pales in comparison to being scored on by a beach ball.
And from there, Tottenham were fairly impotent. It’s nice to see the chess master’s return, although it should have happened over the weekend were it not for a regrettable late equalizer. Thankfully, that wasn’t the case today.
After the disallowed goal, Liverpool had five better chances to score before winning a penalty in the 91st minute, compared to two half chances for Spurs that happened before the hour mark. First, Riera’s header was touched onto the bar in the 51st. Then, Degen should have taken advantage of an excellent Kuyt break in the 66th after the striker broke out and found him in acres of space. He steadied himself… and cut back for Kuyt. And it was behind the striker. Meanwhile, Modric and Jenas forced saves from Reina in the 54th and 58th – Jenas’ fierce strike from distance causing marginally more trouble – but that was about it for opposition efforts.
In contrast to previous efforts, Tottenham saw less and less of the ball as the game went on. Bringing on Ngog for Aquilani (79th) and Maxi for Riera (81st) helped, but it looked as if Spurs simply decided they were beaten. The final five minutes saw Liverpool’s best spell of the game, and the second goal was surely deserved. Gomes saved Ngog’s shot after the striker got around Bassong in the 85th, Kuyt missed a sitter seconds later, shinning Ngog’s flick-on over, and Kyrgiakos, staying onside, shot directly at Gomes after Tottenham couldn’t clear a free kick in the 88th. And when the two substitutes combined in the first minute of injury time – Maxi finding Ngog – Bassong clattered the Frenchman. After reenacting the Lampard penalty shenanigans from a few weeks ago, with Kuyt having to retake a made spot kick, the Dutchman sent Gomes the wrong way for a second time. Game over.
Get used to seeing a lot of tight matches, strangulation, and – yes – some frustration and nerves. That this game looked a fair bit like Stoke’s despite the difference in opposition is no coincidence. Benitez is nothing if not pragmatic, and this style of play gives Liverpool the best chance to win given the casualty list. That Aurelio didn’t even make the squad was the only real surprise, and as he’s made of glass, that isn’t even a surprise anymore.
Considering their respective ages and experience levels, Kuyt will probably start up top over Ngog more often than not. It was a big game for him – and there will be a lot of big games for him with Torres and Gerrard missing – and he came up with two goals, including the all-important first to set the perfect tone. I was surprised to see Degen feature on the right again, but he did little wrong other than egregiously pass up that shot. We’ll see more Maxi as Benitez has a better gauge of his fitness levels, and he’s already contributed, providing the pass that lead to the penalty.
Aquilani also looked brighter in a more advanced role, with a clever assist despite being fouled to send Liverpool on its way. The Skrtel/Kyrgiakos pairing has been surprisingly effective in these last two games, with Carragher still a big contributor from right back. I fear how it’ll fair against a frontline with pace, but Defoe was mainly kept under wraps.
We’ve seen more than one false dawn so far this season. And, to put it politely, there are still 16 games to fuck it up. But there are also 16 games to make it right, and now that Liverpool’s firmly amidst Spurs, City, and Villa, they’ve the chance to.