Liverpool win 4-0 on aggregate
Johnson Carragher Skrtel Kelly
Pacheco Cole Jovanovic
Gerrard 40' (pen)
Not a bad first match at Anfield for Roy Hodgson.
Just like in the last leg, a 2-0 win is a little misleading. But unlike in Macedonia, where Liverpool scored on what were pretty much their only two opportunities, I'm amazed that the home side didn't put more past a dire side that were almost always on the defensive.
Liverpool set the tone from the opening whistle. Cole and Jovanovic were beyond lively, Gerrard sprayed passes of every length from every angle. Ngog had a 7th minute "goal" ruled out for offside and should have opened the scoring seven minutes later, failing to round the keeper when set up by Cole's wonderful vision, backheeling to Gerrard in space for a throughball. But the young French striker again struck in the 21st, with Cole again the provider – this time following a short corner, a whipped-in cross leading to a bullet header. And it was Ngog who won a spot kick five minutes before the interval, cleverly controlling around the defender before being pulled out, with Gerrard easily slotting in after sending the keeper the wrong way.
The second half was mere formality, but it's not as if the first-half wasn't with a two-goal advantage and Rabotnicki rarely getting the ball out of their own half. Liverpool were able to play however they wanted whenever they wanted, and it was only a six-man (at least) line in front of the penalty box that prevented more goals. Hodgson used his substitutions early in the second half, bringing on Aquilani, Maxi, and Spearing for Gerrard, Jovanovic, and Lucas before the 73rd minute, and Liverpool saw out the game on cruise control. The home side still tested the keeper, but were also increasingly over-intricate and casual with the tie in the bag. Mortifyingly, Rabotnicki nearly pulled one back on the break in the dying seconds, first seeing Kelly get back to prevent a tap-in header on the goal line before Petkovski hit the post from a corner. That certainly would have taken some of the shine off.
Unlike in the last leg, there's no way I can rehash every scoring opportunity. Ngog should have had a hat-trick – at times looking like a world beater, and at others looking like the raw 21-year-old he is – and should have won a second penalty in the 77th. I have no clue how Joe Cole didn't open his Liverpool tally, and it would have been more than deserved after his man of the match performance. Pacheco, Maxi, and Jovanovic had multiple excellent chances blocked, usually by the resilient Belica.
The front four were incredibly fluid – Pacheco and Jovanovic switched flanks at will – and passed and moved exceptionally. I can't wait to see similar with Torres and Kuyt (among others) back in the side. Lucas was everywhere in midfield while Gerrard was buoyant, obviously pleased to be in his self-proclaimed preferred position – both looking to get forward more than the central midfielders usually did under Benitez, but that's partly down to the quality of opposition. And special mention also goes out to Martin Kelly. The 20-year-old's already played right-back, center-back, and left-back so far this season, and has looked assured in all three. Yes, he had very little defending to do, but sent in dangerous crosses with either foot and bombed forward at every occasion. And unlike Liverpool's other full-back, he got back when he needed to.
Sure, a few more goals would have been nice as well as deserved, while Rabotnicki were probably the worst side Liverpool's faced since having to play three rounds of Champions League qualifying in 2005. But Liverpool did exactly what was needed in both legs, while we saw some sumptuous football today, especially in the first half. It's just the start that was needed.
But let's not get carried away until they do it against tougher opposition. Which Arsenal should provide in ten days time.