21 September 2011

Liverpool 2-1 Brighton

Bellamy 7'
Kuyt 81'
Barnes 90' (pen)

We'll preface this with "any win after two losses is a good result" and "this was an archetypal banana skin cup tie and Liverpool advanced." Just in case.

All the arrows in the above formation don't do the team justice. From the opening whistle, Bellamy combined with Suarez, Kuyt, and Maxi just as hoped, all moving in different, unexpected directions and leading to the early goal which appeared the beginning of the flood. Sustained, constant possession in Brighton's half ended with Suarez finding Bellamy's smart run behind three cramped defenders, cleverly finishing low inside the far post.

However, that sustained pressure couldn't have been achieved without Brighton's willingness to stand off, giving Liverpool players all the time (and more) that was lacking on Sunday. And the away side had multiple opportunities to take advantage, with only luck and what I assume is a thicker-than-regulation goal frame to blame for Liverpool holding such a slender lead.

Kuyt's 18th-minute effort following Ankergen's miscue was barely cleared off the line. Suarez put Kuyt's throughball just wide in the 26th and glanced a header off the outside of the post in the 31st. Bellamy nearly broke the crossbar with a 40-yard bazooka free kick in the 41st, and Spearing's low shot was barely pushed onto the post by Ankergen three minutes later. Like against Sunderland, Exeter, and Bolton, a second goal seemed only a matter of time, but given past precedent, you couldn't help but worry at the same time. And the precariousness of Liverpool's lead was demonstrated in first-half injury time, when an unfortunate deflection off Coates allowed Mackail-Smith to find an open Noone in the box. Reina could only fumble the strike in his goalmouth, saved by Kelly's diving clearance in front of Buckley.

Brighton unsurprisingly grew in confidence after the interval, only down by one and so nearly level, and Poyet made the necessary tactical changes, ensuring that Liverpool players didn't have that time on the ball. Pressing furiously made all the difference; Brighton had more possession and all the early opportunities after the interval. Coates nearly handed Noone an equalizer straight away – one of his few mistakes – with a cross-field pass to the former Liverpool youngster, who cannoned a shot off the same crossbar Liverpool hit in the first half. Seven minutes later, an excellent one-touch passing move ended with Sparrow's tame shot too close to Reina. Liverpool couldn't find the ball or their breath.

Unlike against Stoke or Tottenham, Liverpool didn't cheaply concede, at least until they were two goals to the good. Liverpool settled, if still second-best, while Gerrard's 75th minute entrance for Suarez buoyed hopes, the captain clearly champing at the bit. Six minutes later, Liverpool had that needed second, finally unlocking Brighton on the break. Bellamy, the lone outlet at that point, held up play well and cleverly found Maxi with a perfectly-timed pass, allowing the Argentinean to stride forward and subsequently find Kuyt on the right, beating Angerken low, again just inside the far post.

Unfortunately, once again, Liverpool couldn't keep the clean sheet thanks to another late late unnecessary penalty. For some reason, Spearing tried to keep the ball in and slipped, giving Vicente possession, and Carragher dove in to concede. Substitute Barnes, Brighton's top scorer, made no mistake with an unstoppable blast into the top corner.

Any port in a storm is one of my most-frequently used clichés, but it seems apt yet again. A result is a result is a result. The first half, specifically first 44 minutes, saw the renaissance we'd hoped for; the second half the failings we're all afraid and aware of. Bellamy-Suarez-Kuyt-Maxi were a revelation, then Bellamy-Suarez-Kuyt-Maxi weren't good enough. Same old, same old. Most worrying – more than Brighton's inevitable pressure, more than the late consolation – was how tired certain players looked as the game wore on, especially Lucas. The one player in the squad with no clear-cut replacement.

Simply put, there are no easy answers or quick-fix substitution solutions (although it's lovely to have Gerrard back). Confidence can be sapped in a moment's notice but takes multiple games to rebuild. Liverpool is still a long-term project, no matter the money spent or having the right man in the managerial hot seat. Despite moments of magic, which we've seen in every match bar Sunday's, it takes time for players to settle and teams to gel. Only Bolton has been a comprehensive victory, and – surprise, surprise – that was the one match where Liverpool's summer signings looked their best. This side, this squad, can look brilliant and hapless in the blink of an eye. It is a work in progress. And it is progressing.

Liverpool are in the fourth round. That's all we have a right to expect.

Wolves on Saturday.

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