28 February 2010

Liverpool 2-1 Blackburn

Mascherano Carragher Agger Aurelio
Maxi Lucas Gerrard Benayoun
Kuyt Torres

Gerrard 20’
Andrews 40’ (pen)
Torres 44’

Last season’s fortitude beats this season’s pervasive bad luck. Oh, and a fit Fernando Torres might have had something to do with it too. Pepe Reina’s not bad either.

Despite the change in formation, despite Mascherano at right back, Benitez had nearly a full compliment of players to pick from, and it led to three deserved points. Blackburn made a real fight of it, especially over the last half an hour – partly down to their fortitude, partly down to Liverpool unsteadiness, and partly down to Alan Wiley loving him some Blackburn today – but the result's justified.

And the away side started on the front foot, creating pressure and winning corners (two in the first three minutes) – one of which Samba had a free if difficult header on that he tamely hit straight at Reina. It took Liverpool nearly five minutes to establish any sort of possession and 20 to create a flowing attacking move.

But they scored from that first attacking move, and what a move it was. Gerrard started it in midfield: Gerrard to Kuyt to Gerrard to Benayoun to Gerrard. The captain received the ball back from Yossi when striding through the box, his touch taking it past defenders then cleverly lofting over Robinson. That’s what you get from Gerrard in midfield – a surging, beautiful move capped with a goal when running in from deep. But you also get more gaps in midfield, even if they’re not necessarily the captain’s fault. Liverpool was just as open in the victory over Wigan in December, the last time they played this formation. Blackburn having more possession than opponents usually do at Anfield wasn't coincidence.

And Blackburn didn’t go away after the opener, as Pedersen forced two saves from Reina in quick succession a minute later. However, Liverpool were clearly growing in confidence and time of possession, while Blackburn reverted to type even quicker than usual, hoofing and barging when with the ball.

But they didn’t deserve the equalizer. Benayoun sloppily cleared the ball straight to Pedersen, who found Kalinic surrounded by four defenders. He looked to be muscled out, but somehow Carragher slipped and handled, and Wiley immediately pointed to the spot. To compound the stomach punch, Reina went the right way only to see Andrews’ penalty squirm under him.

Based on the majority what we’ve seen this season, you’d expect the team to fold after conceding such a soft equalizer in front of the Kop. But it took less than four minutes to reclaim that lead, thanks to that man Torres. Lucas’ tremendous long distance throughball nearly found the striker, and Samba’s clearance fortunately fell to Maxi. And when Robinson strangely decided to jog out to no man’s land, the winger easily found Torres to tap into an open net.

That Liverpool couldn’t find a third goal to open the gap and seemingly seal the game caused problems throughout the second half, and may have caused a few heart attacks on Merseyside, especially given this season’s proclivities. But Wiley’s leniency for anyone in blue and white is what kept Blackburn with a full complement of players.

Nzonzi should have marched for petulantly pushing Lucas to the ground after fouling the midfielder five minutes after the restart. Chimbonda should have marched for karate-kicking Maxi after being fouled in the 80th. And somehow the likes of Kalinic, Salgado, and Diouf failed to pick up second yellows. Diouf should have been sent off for simply being Diouf. How Liverpool picked up six bookings last week compared to how this game was refereed baffles the mind.

Blackburn’s bullying tactics started to pay dividends around the hour mark, when Andrews volleyed Agger’s clearance wide before Hoillet shot straight at Reina after a quick passing move, and Liverpool spent most of the last 30 minutes defending. After a “lull,” Blackburn again upped the pressure with ten to play, when the likes Torres, Benayoun, and Maxi were clearly gassed. Babel and Ngog came on for the first two (in the 78th and 90th, while Insua replaced Aurelio not long before the Blackburn’s goal after Aurelio tore his right thigh edit: Commentators lie. Quad strain according to Rafa.), and Liverpool began to sit deeper and deeper, which obviously raised the heart rate.

It looked as if Liverpool would hold on without a serious threat to Reina, as Blackburn hoofed and hoped and Liverpool ultimately cleared, until the second minute of injury time. Here’s where we thank Pepe Reina. Another deep Blackburn free kick after another nothing foul (in contrast to how Wiley saw Blackburn offenses) finally found Samba in the area, but somehow Reina stretched across his goal to keep the header out with his fingertips. Amazing. Immaculate. And absolutely saved two points.

It would have been nice to see Liverpool hammer a league opponent, and the game could have turned out that way had Carragher not slipped in the box or had Wiley correctly sent off Nzonzi with 40 minutes to play, but this type of win might be more reassuring. Liverpool didn’t fold under the weight of an unfortunate equalizer and didn’t fold under constant late pressure like we’d seen all too often this season.

That both Gerrard and Torres scored is probably the most heartening player statistic. But Mascherano continued his immense form, probably man of the match, this time in an unfamiliar right back role (last seen in the 2-0 win against Sunderland last season that started the closing run). It was easily Maxi’s best game for Liverpool and he earned his first assist. And outside of the penalty, the backline stayed firm despite frequent physical pressure (although Kyrgiakos would have been helpful today).

It’s probably not coincidental that the final score was the same as when Liverpool last played 4-4-2, against Wigan in December. And coincidentally, they’re also the next opponents. Both wins were more workman-like than impressive, with Liverpool marginally more threatening in attack but also more open in midfield. Torres even scored the winner in both. Obviously, there are trade-offs, and that Benitez has been more willing to “experiment” in recent games probably shows we’ll see the team adapt tactically to the opposition, like Rafa was wont to do earlier in his Liverpool career. Again, back to basics during a difficult stretch.

Now, all eyes are on staying fit during this midweek break before the aforementioned Wigan match in eight days.


Mike Georger said...

Am I the only one who was freaking the hell out about our substitution policy (yet again)? Blackburn brought on three fresh players in like fifteen minutes and were completely controlling possession, so Rafa brings on two strikers instead of a defender? Why not take Torres off for Kelly or Ayala and push Masche back up so he could snuff out the midfield, and just put Kuyt up top?

nate said...

Thought about this too, and players were definitely tiring, but Benitez had the players he wanted out there, and the bench was young/inexperienced and not really physical (Kelly, Ayala, Ngog, Aquilani). Having either Skrtel or Kyrgiakos available would have made a world of difference.

Plus, an early substitution (in the 40th for Aurelio) always means Benitez will hold onto his last two as long as possible just in case. And it was almost needed when Reina worryingly hurt his shoulder in the second half.

Rafa figured it was safer to leave the players out there. I thought both Babel and Ngog would come on marginally earlier, but otherwise, not really surprised in retrospect.

Mike Georger said...

Guess that makes sense. I'm just still in the mode from early in the season where he was willing to throw in Kelly and Ayala no matter what and now can't mesh that with his reluctance to do so. Our clearances were really frightening.

nate said...

Oh, I'm very surprised (shocked, even) that Kelly didn't start. I was vehement about it in the Unirea review and this match preview. But starting and coming off the bench are two different things. Had Rafa's hand been forced, Kelly's a definite possibility, but Masch was playing well at RB (except when he ran across the back four, took the ball off Insua, and conceded a throw late on) and it really can be hard to get into the flow of a game. And while Kelly doesn't look like a shrinking violet, he is young, and Blackburn's a bit rougher than Lyon.

Ayala's completely different though. He started against Stoke, and made the bench today, only out of necessity. He's not fallen out of favor, but he's definitely behind Carra, Agger, Skrtel, and the Greek. That the latter two weren't available is why he was on the bench today, and I'm certain the only way he would have played is if someone got injured.

Fan Futbol said...

A bit of a nail-biting win, I'd say, but 3 points is 3 points. And Wiley really was letting Blackburn get away with all sorts of stuff.

Nate -- just want to say again, as I've said in the past, your site and post-game write-ups are absolutely the best around. Superb stuff. I never miss a write-up.


drew said...

I seriously thought the old fella sat next to me was going to keel over when Samba hit that header in extra time, fortunately Pepe was able to claw him back away from the light.

Also fuck Sam Allardyce, the muppet, him and his carefully assembled squad of cunts. A few times I thought Sammy Lee was going to haul off and smack him, would've been the biggest cheer of the day.

Mike Georger said...

Yeah I was wondering how the announcers knew what the injury was, that seemed really sloppy.

Son of Anonymous said...

Lemme just say: I'm a regular reader of this blog, and Drew's comments make it just *that* much more entertaining - so I'd like to second "...fuck Sam Allardyce, the muppet, him and his carefully assembled squad of cunts."

I thought there was a real lack of respect for Liverpool among Rovers players in this match, and they should have finished it with 9 men. For all the talk of "Gerrard and Torres to the rescue again", Liverpool deserved this one 100%.

Ravi said...

I really wish Liverpool get some momentum going and finish in the fourth place.

Anonymous said...

Not a great 2nd half..But a WIN is a WIn!Walk on...

Marc said...

Felt GREAT about this game. Blackburn came out with anything but a fair fight on their minds, and this felt nearly as rough as our Everton skirmish a few weeks ago.

The build-up and score by Gerrard felt like a distant memory come back to life; I hope we see more of that rampaging in the weeks to come. And while Carra's mistake was childish, but our response was fairly swift. And yeah, never hurts to have Torres at the end of our passes into the box.

Speaking of, it probably felt good for Maxi to have int'l teammate Masch behind him and former Atletico teammate Torres up front. He seemed more comfortable beyond his excellent assist.

I'm a bit afraid that Man City is a much better team with Tevez back, so I can't say the weekend left me thrilled with the chances of finishing top-4. But we can only worry about what Liverpool does, and as long as they show this kind of fight and (occasional) finish, I'm good.