Johnson Carragher Agger Insua
Maxi Aquilani Gerrard Babel
Torres 26’ 77’
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.