Kelly Kyrgiakos Agger Wilson
Kuyt Meireles Cole
Just enough. Barely. But just enough will do.
There were a lot of similarities to the last leg except where it counts, in the result. Liverpool deployed a similar 4-2-3-1 formation, with key players still absent. It was a more open game, and the home side were "better" on balance, but Liverpool remained disjointed and erratic. Until the 86th minute, when Dirk Kuyt again popped up with a yet another crucial European goal.
It could have been wholly different had the referee given Liverpool a penalty within two minutes. Whiffing on an attempted clearance, the ball ricocheted off Pamic's outstretched arm, but the referee waved play on. Three minutes later, Cole – starting his first match under Dalglish – broke down the left and over-hit a cross which turned into a shot, requiring Blazek to palm over at the last second. The referee gave a goal kick. It'd be a recurring theme.
After the promising opening, Liverpool reverted to last week's stuttering form, while Sparta grew in confidence. Kadlec volleyed over in the 12th and headed too close to Reina a minute later, before Reina's flap at Vacek's corner required Wilson to clear from the six-yard box in the 22nd. Liverpool still created the better chances of the half, as Kyrgiakos' header required a diving save in the 16th, Meireles narrowly volleyed Kelly's cross over in the 22nd, and Ngog shot straight at Blazek after an excellent break from Agger and Kuyt in the 36th. However, Sparta reminded of the perpetual threat right before the interval when Kusnir was in acres of space down Liverpool's left, only to see his cutback lead to Matejovsky's shot blocked.
During the break, Kelly, Liverpool's best player in the first half, was forced off with a slight injury, replaced by Carragher. Removing the lone attacking fullback clearly dented Liverpool's already-diminished firepower, and the home side created even fewer chances with play trapped in midfield as it was in Prague. Spearing replaced the less-than-ineffective Poulsen with 25 minutes to play, and the home side slowly upped the pressure, finally spending the majority of time in Sparta's half in the final 15 minutes, at least earning dangerous corners and free kicks, one of which would finally provide the winner.
When Agger pulled up with an injury, clutching the back of his left leg with 10 minutes to play as Kyrgiakos was already off the field receiving stitches, it appeared that extra time was imminent. At best. But seconds after Skrtel replaced the Dane, following a free kick and two corners, Kuyt finally made the break-through, losing his marker in the six-yard box for a point-blank header. The 8th corner of the day was the charm. Liverpool should have extended the lead in the dying seconds, as both Ngog and Cole spurned injury-time chances, but the one was all that mattered.
With 24 shots at Anfield against Sparta Prague, you'd expect a better result than a narrow, late win from a set play. That's not to diminish the opposition, who battled for the full 180 minutes, but expectations were far higher going into this round. They probably shouldn't have been. This was an under-strength side, as has been commonplace in the Europa League this season, most generously described as diligent. Dalglish has been a revelation, but the most we can expect is evolution, not a revolution. If anything, the Europa League has highlighted Liverpool's lack of depth.
Kuyt was excellent, again thriving in ugly, important games such as these. The defense was sturdy over both legs, despite worrying injuries to two defenders today. Kelly again impressed in his 45 minutes, and it's crucial that he's not out for long. Fabio Capello was in the crowd today, and Kelly had to be the focus on his attention. After an iffy first half, Cole also grew into the game, clearly lacking in confidence and match fitness, but never stopped trying. Meireles was Meireles, spreading play well, even after being shifted out to the right in the second half as Liverpool switched to 4-4-2.
The side are through to the last 16 in the Europa League, to face the winners of Lech Poznan versus Braga. It goes without saying that there's room for improvement, but as long as the results stay the same, performances like these – however uncomfortable they are to watch – will suffice all the way to Dublin.