15 March 2010

Liverpool 4-1 Portsmouth

Johnson Carragher Agger Insua
Maxi Aquilani Gerrard Babel

Torres 26’ 77’
Babel 28’
Aquilani 32’
Belhadj 88’

Catharsis. Sweet, sweet relief. Someone was due a hammering; obviously, we just wish it came sooner.

Just as you can’t overreact after an out-of-character abysmal spell (even if it’s lasted for months), you can’t get carried away after hammering a relegation-bound team in administration. Pompey’s late consolation, with Liverpool basically at walking speed, certainly annoys, but it’s a slight, and pretty much the only, complaint. For once.

Despite what looked to be a clear penalty when Rocha handled in the 4th minute, Pompey defended well early on and posed half a threat when Piquionne or Dindane countered with Liverpool sending as many forward as possible. But a fortunate goal, brought about by hard work and a team effort, broke down the brick wall with a sledgehammer. Liverpool had two on the board two minutes later and three within six.

Finally full of confidence running rampant against a clearly disheartened side, they should have had a fourth by the 35th with the game already out of sight. It took more than 40 minutes to get that fourth, unsurprisingly through Torres with the foot long taken off the gas. Sadly, the consolation was also unsurprising with Liverpool clearly ready to go home after scoring the fourth. I am surprised it wasn’t more than 4-1, but you can’t be greedy. We only have to look back to the run of form after beating Hull 6-1 for evidence of that.

It was an attacking line-up, exactly as hoped. I’ve drawn it up as 4-1-4-1, but it was just as often 4-2-3-1 or 4-4-1-1. What mattered was Liverpool almost always had seven men in the final third: the front five and the fullbacks. Both Aquilani and Babel started and both Aquilani and Babel scored. The signs were there from the start with that penalty shout and some really nice interplay between Rodriguez, Gerrard, Aquilani, and Torres.

And it was Liverpool determination, with three of the four aforementioned players involved, which opened the scoring. Gerrard closed down Ashdown after a soft back pass, blocking the clearance. Maxi picked up the loose ball and looked up, finding Torres on the spot for a tap in.

It was the epitome of opening the floodgates. Liverpool kept pouring forward, and Johnson – a constant threat down the right in a game tailor-made for him (not only was the opposition pegged back from the start, it was his former club) – sent in a cross that was flicked on to Torres. Dancing in the box looking for an opening, the striker eventually cut back for Babel, shifting onto his right and slotting past Ashdown. Four minutes later, Liverpool scored the pick of the three, and not only because it was Aquilani’s first for the club. Gerrard to Torres, who back-heeled towards the spot, dummied by the captain and finished by Aqua. Six crazy minutes, indeed.

Torres cutting into the box and pinging a wonderful curler off the inside of the far post, followed by Johnson reclaiming and finding Maxi, who cutback for Gerrard from the byline only to see the captain shoot wide, should have brought the fourth, but by that point it was moot. And despite nearly constant Liverpool possession in Pompey’s half, the team mostly attacked like it was moot.

A stretch five minutes after the restart nearly saw another goal, with Gerrard’s narrow shot blocked by Ashdown, Babel’s stinging drive tipped onto the crossbar, and Gerrard's curler high and wide. But right after that spell, Pompey could have scored their consolation half an hour earlier if not for Reina, shooting up a strong right hand to keep out Michael Brown’s close-range effort, again on the counter.

Had Gerrard displayed his customary finishing touch, he could have bagged three or four and we’d really be talking about a rout, but again, can’t complain. What you can complain about is Gerrard’s petulant forearm on Brown in the 72nd (to be fair, everyone wants to elbow Michael Brown, who went unpunished for smashing Alonso’s face in a couple of seasons back), which luckily only led to a free kick, followed by Gerrard soon substituted for Benayoun (he probably would have gone off anyway with the game secure and three matches in six days). Soon after came Liverpool’s fourth, Torres’ second (and his fifth in five games against Pompey), when Aquilani’s wonderful throughball after a quick free kick put the striker one-on-one with the unfortunate Rocha.

Ngog soon replaced the star striker, with Kelly having earlier come on for Johnson, both substitutions also with an eye on Lille and United, as Liverpool coasted to the win. The cost of coasting was losing what would have been Reina’s joint-league-leading 13th clean sheet, a record kept despite Liverpool’s form. Pepe deserves better, but again, small peanuts in a 4-1 win.

Maybe it’s my inherent pessimism, but I still expect criticism after this victory. And it’ll probably center on scapegoating Kuyt and Lucas when rightfully praising Aquilani, Maxi, and Babel. Those three were the key players along with Torres, the four attackers with the most to prove. But Liverpool won’t be able to attack with such impunity against most opponents, even if Benitez does need to loosen the shackles during the run-in. However, Aquilani definitely stood out – man of the match just over Torres and Maxi – and I’d be surprised if he was left out on Thursday. But it’s almost certainly Lucas/Mascherano, as well as Kuyt, against the Mancs.

Just as Liverpool’s struggles have been a perfect storm of woes, today was an example of everything clicking and playing the “right” opposition. Portsmouth in the league isn’t Portsmouth in the FA Cup, where they’re rightfully backs-against-the-wall. And this isn’t a line-up or formation that’ll work against every club in the league. But it’s definitely nice that it worked today.

It’s still an uphill struggle for fourth, dependent upon winning every game possible and hoping others stutter. But it at least looks a bit brighter than it did last week.


keith.cygan said...

Nate -- when you say:

"But it’s almost certainly Lucas/Mascherano, as well as Kuyt, against the Mancs"

is this what you would do or what you expect Benitez to do? I'm of the opinion that at this point, Liverpool can't really worry about playing cautiously. Although bringing this exact same starting 11 into Old Trafford increases the chance of a big night for the Mancs, it also increases the chance of Liverpool having a big offensive night, and I'd say that the benefit of getting all three from OT is much greater than the risk of losing or drawing. Don't get me wrong -- I don't dislike Lucas or Kuyt. I just think it's silly to go back to the well that has produced little to no offensive consistency this season.

Regarding this game, I think this is the result that we've all been waiting to see. Not only did they score four goals, but they missed several other good opportunities and had three legit penalty shouts (seriously -- how unlucky was it that Liverpool wasn't even granted one?). It was an absolutely clinical performance, and throwing most-everyone forward is almost certainly worth the opposing team's counter opportunities, at least from an aesthetic point of view.

nate said...

It's what I expect Benitez to do, unless Aqua has an absolute blinder against Lille. What I'd do is insignificant. He's obviously better in the final third than Lucas, but his defense is still suspect looking iffy in the past and not being tested in that department today. I do hope Rafa keeps the same system, if not the same players (outside of Kuyt or Yossi for the ineligible Maxi) on Thursday.

Plus, Lucas and Masch (and Kuyt) have started in the last two wins over United, including an away victory with the same scoreline as today.

drew said...

Easiest ticket of the year by some distance. I know Pompey couldn't have brought but maybe 400 with them so there were plenty of extras on the Anny Road end. Had a wonderful view from there and then of course we kick off into the Kop.

So we saw plenty of Piquionne and not much else--he does look a useful player though. And then Torres' lovely second. (Watching him you understand why defenders are kicking him constantly, because if you're not kicking him then he's got enough space to score on you.)

And then Gerrard twatting Brown--well-deserved that, though risky as hell with United coming up. But even Brown's teammates hate him (O'Hara gave him a black eye in training last month), so hoping they don't put in an appeal to the FA.

Still fuming over the goal though. Pepe Reina deserves better than that.

Marc said...

WHAT A DAY. Home from work and was able to catch the whole thing in HD. Hallelujah.

Aquilani was superb offensively, just a delight. I really enjoyed that hug with him Gerrard, Torres, and someone else (Maxi maybe?) after one of the goals -- it looked like Gerrard said something to them as part of an awesome bonding moment.

All of the good has been covered here, and I can't stress enough that this was an A+ performance. But it wouldn't be the internetz if there wasn't quibbling to be done, so:

1) We need to stop acting like it's unusual for Gerrard to be totally off on his finishing this year. He is a mess when it comes to shooting. Everything else is fine, but he cannot fire the ball to save his life right now.

2) Insua was awful on at least six occasions, especially and including that weird header that gave away an unecessary corner late-ish in the second half. I thought Carra was gonna upchuck.

Gerrard made a lot of plays today, so I'm hardly trying to rubbish his whole performance, just worried about his yips.

Going forward, I would love to see the same lineup against Lille because we need 2 goals at home, and that's only if they don't score. So I hope we roll out the same squad, maybe resting one of the CBs for Kyrgiakos.

But if we do that, we'll definitely need to rest some dudes at OT, and that's cool b/c our more physical lineup totally flustered the Mancs earlier this year.

Maybe the best blend would be to run out Kuyt vs Lille then bring Maxi back in on Sunday since he and Torres are telepathically linked. Then use Aquaman and Babel off the bench if we fall behind.

It's funny how much we talk about the lack of depth on this squad, but it's really only at striker, isn't it? We have wingers/midfielders in excess now - Maxi, Kuyt, Babel, Riera, Benayoun, Aquilani, Masch, Lucas, and the skipper.

Last note: do you think it's any coincidence we look awesome in the final third now that Johnson's back up to full speed? B/c I don't...

Here's hoping Adam Johnson catches a 2-month cold.

vinnie said...

"it looked like Gerrard said something to them as part of an awesome bonding moment."

not in the public, boys...i'll see you guys in the locker room after the game :P

i've only got the chance to watch the highlight, i have to say i'm pleased with gerrard's performance even though he's not scoring. he definitely opened up pompey.

however, i have a bad feeling against lille and united. we have a chasing game against lille and what's the odds of doing doubles over united in 2 successive seasons? fingers crossed

nate said...

Few responses:

• Yeah, Insua was not good. Wonder if Rafa regrets selling Dossena now? Didn't see any of that money (unless it went to contract renewals) and a struggling Emmy is the only LB with Aurelio injured again. I still think Insua's getting a short stick – he's young and overworked, like most freshmen in college basketball for a current American parallel, it doesn't mean he has no future – but I do wish there was an alternative.

• I do think the improved attack and Gleninho back is partly coincidence. The next two games will be far more important tests. Johnson got forward well yesterday, but Pompey was pegged back from the off. If there was any game where Johnson would shine, it'd be yesterday.

• Highlights would make Stevie's performance look better than it actually was. Don't get me wrong; it was wonderful to see him so involved with Torres and Aquilani, and the dummy for Aqua's goal was marvelous. But his shooting boots were obviously left at home, and that elbow on Brown (which probably should have been a red card and could still see him suspended) was yet another sign of petulance which Liverpool really doesn't need.

• I really want to see, and will probably predict, the same line-up against Lille except with Kuyt for Maxi. Aquilani absolutely needs to play again unless he doesn't recover in time.

Earl said...

TV said they brought 390. Good guess.

Tivo screwed up, so I missed the first half. Pissed off when the recording light wasn't on when I walked in, but it was still a great feeling to frantically flip it on and then see that 3-0 scoreline at the half.

Anonymous said...

Let's face it, Portsmouth ain't no ManU or Lille, but at least we weren't struggling to score the goals -- and that should give the boys more confidence as we head ever closer towards the final stretch of games.

It's natural that Reds finish rather strongly towards the end of the season where rotation policy ensured fresh legs, but we probably have the least *koff* good senior players this season.

Babel definitely should partner Torres upfront more often, as they both pull defenders all over the place. In fact, Torres+Gerrard+Aquilani+Babel pulls defenders and defensive midfielders all over the place.

In any case, I'd still prefer to see a 4-4-2 or 4-1-3-2 considering the potential of attacking talents at our disposal.