22 May 2011

Liverpool 0-1 Aston Villa

Flanagan Carragher Skrtel Aurelio
Lucas Spearing
Kuyt Meireles Cole

Downing 33'

Conspiracy theorists: compare the last two games to the three or four before it. Do you think Liverpool really wanted to be in next year's Europa League?

We can argue the merits of that tournament until everyone asphyxiates, but there's no arguing Liverpool looked a different, weaker side against both Spurs and Villa. Surprise, surprise, an end-of-season match with nothing to play for was played at a flat, halfhearted pace. But once again, Liverpool were both wasteful and comprehensively mediocre, neither of which you'd like to end the season with.

Despite the initial stop-start snail's pace, Liverpool were marginally better for the opening 20 minutes, no matter Spearing's early injury which saw him replaced by Shelvey. Both Lucas and Meireles nearly opened the scoring in the 14th: the Portuguese midfielder had his shot on the turn deflected wide by Petrov before the Brazilian's prod from the subsequent corner was cleared off the line by Ashley Young. Lucas then nearly put Suarez through with a brilliant pass over the top, but the Uruguayan couldn't control, allowing Friedel time to scramble it away.

But around the 20th minute, Villa blandly seized momentum, even though Delph's injury prompted yet another stoppage and substitution. His replacement, Albrighton, and Downing caused problems with pace down the flanks, and Albrighton beating Aurelio lead to the first goal. The winger's cross sailed over Carragher and Skrtel to Downing at the back post, left open by a ball-watching Flanagan. Pity today saw the youngster's first costly mistake, last week's incorrect penalty not withstanding.

Switching to the more-familiar 4-2-2-2 after the interval, with Kuyt lurking behind Suarez and Meireles on the right, Liverpool were given chances by a deep-lying Villa back-line, but were prevented by a combination of incredible Friedel saves and last-ditch defending. Suarez found a wide-open Meireles in the 62th, but the midfielder's delay steadying himself gave Friedel time to scramble across (possibly aided by Dunne's arms). Shelvey's back-heel five minutes later again released the Portuguese, but in looking for the pass instead of shooting gave Reo Coker time to get back. Aurelio's 22-yard free kick whistled inches wide of the far corner in the 71st, and with two minutes to play, Friedel smothered a tame attempt from Suarez, set up by Flanagan.

Despite those chances, Liverpool were blunt, slow, and mostly dismal in attack. Once again, Suarez wasn't clicking on his United-Birmingham-Fulham apocalyptic level, and the side consistently broke down in Villa's end; he's become utterly pivotal to Liverpool's play in the final third. That Carroll, Maxi, and Johnson were all missing, all wrapped in cotton wool somewhere far away from the substitute's bench, left a massive hole – obviously further aided by Liverpool's already-lengthy casualty list. Joe Cole unsurprisingly created nothing, given a run out in the hopes someone might actually pay cash money for him in the summer, while Ngog's entrance for the Englishman in the 68th changed little.

Once the infinitesimal Champions League chance went up in smoke, Liverpool went into the tank. It's entirely possible that's coincidence, that a long, laborious, taxing campaign finally caught up with the team. But after Liverpool's near-miraculous renaissance from February through April, the last two results will unfairly linger in the memory this off-season.

Regardless, good riddance 2010-11, hurry up 2011-2012. It's going to be a very interesting summer.

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