30 December 2011

Liverpool 3-1 Newcastle

Agger (og) 25'
Bellamy 29' 67'
Gerrard 78'

Another tepid, frustrating, harsh 1-1 at Anfield. Until Gerrard came on at the hour mark.

As usual, Liverpool were the better side from the start, but neither keeper had a save to make in the first half. More often than not, Liverpool's possession ended at the edge of the final third, mainly with shots from distance charged down by Newcastle defenders or crosses just too high/far for Carroll. And as in Liverpool's last home frustration, the undeserving away side took the lead thanks to a more-than-fortuitous own goal. This time, too many Liverpool players shut off after Johnson's cross ricocheted off Vuckic's jaw as the young striker waved to the sidelines for treatment. Ryan Taylor didn't, crossing for Cabaye, whose flicked header veered past Reina off Agger's shoulder.

Just like when Liverpool went behind to Blackburn (and City), it didn't take long to level. Four minutes later, Taylor headed Enrique's cross to Adam at the back post. Tiote cut out the Scot's low cross to no one, but Bellamy was on hand for the rebound at the penalty spot, doing well to place his shot past three or four defenders on or near the goal line.

But to continue the infuriating Blackburn parallel, Liverpool rarely looked like converting a quick equalizer into a definitive advantage. Newcastle started the second half the stronger side, with concrete, tangible spells of possession in Liverpool's half, if still wholly starved of chances by Skrtel, Agger, and Spearing.

Then Gerrard replaced Adam, with Liverpool more a 4-3-3 as both Henderson and Captain Fantastic pushed forward. Seven minutes later, Liverpool had the lead, coming back from a deficit in a league match for the first time under Dalglish. Agger bombed forward on another trademark run, tripped by Tiote, and Bellamy's free kick eluded Williamson, Simpson, and Krul with Carroll causing statuesque havoc in front of the trio.

But if not for Martin Skrtel, Newcastle would have scored their second almost immediately after, on Demba Ba's (and Newcastle's for that matter) only true sight of goal. Cabaye's perfectly-timed throughball released Ba behind Agger before Reina could close down, but Skrtel heroically flew into the goal mouth to clear the striker's insanely smart flick. Indescribably important, and yet more evidence of just how immense Skrtel has been this season, up there with the best center-backs in the league.

Carroll could have increased the gap in the 73rd, hitting the woodwork for the 1776783rd time when out-jumping Williamson to meet Gerrard's cross. It was the captain who sealed matters in the 78th, put through by Henderson's blind through following a nice set-up by Spearing, sliding the strike under Krul from the acutest of angles after a dictionary definition run into the box. From there, 15 or so minutes of exceptionally-welcome cruise control as Liverpool finally saw out a win under no pressure.

If we're being churlish, we could complain about how Newcastle could have seen two players sent off: Cabaye's stamp on Spearing and Coloccini's elbow to Bellamy's brow line. It's the first time this season that Liverpool have overcome a referee's potentially game-altering errors. That's heart-warming in and of itself. Something along the lines of "you make your own luck" seems fitting here.

Bellamy and Skrtel were both fantastic, each deserving of man of the match. Bellamy scored twice, a typical abrasive handful, while Skrtel trapped Ba in a closet for 89:50 of 90 minutes. Nonetheless, it's impossible to look past Gerrard's cameo, arguably a more important substitute appearance than last season's hat-trick against Napoli. Just having Gerrard on the pitch was enough to make other raise their games, while Kuyt also put in a shift when replacing Bellamy off the bench. His goal was one of those Liverpool have dearly missed, midfielders supporting strikers with dangerous runs from deep, but his crossing was just as impressive. More than any other, Carroll should massively benefit from his return.

Meanwhile, defending Carroll has become like defending Heskey under Houllier – a comparison that will reassure no one, I'm sure. It's fairly easy when Liverpool win. It's a lot harder when they're struggling for goals. His hold-up play was hit and miss, his movement questionable, and his touch in front of goal terrible. But his positioning on Liverpool's goals shows how he helps the team even when wholly goal-shy: a general handful who creates space for others by occupying defenders. Liverpool far need more than a spearhead decoy during this goal drought, but at least there are signs of potential. And while it's not a very good excuse, he remains unfortunate; few if any strikers even reach the chance he headed off the bar with Williamson draped all over him. He looked far, far, far more dangerous with Gerrard whipping in crosses.

Liverpool scoring three was a long-delayed inevitability. That it was against Newcastle, no matter their form, should surprise no one. Liverpool have now scored three against the Geordies in the last four matches at Anfield, winning the last seven by at least a two-goal margin.

At the same time, it's another good performance against good competition. Newcastle are still seventh after all. Playing up to the opposition's level hasn't been an issue – see Arsenal, Everton, United, Chelsea (x2), and City for other examples. It's still, and will remain still, beating the sides Liverpool are supposed to beat, especially at Anfield.

Regardless, there are multiple good signs leading to Tuesday's trip to Manchester City. None more so than Gerrard's barnstorming comeback.


Nigel Humphreys said...

Andy Carroll had about three chances from about three quality/early crosses into the box by Gerrard. He said after the game that you need to give strikers the right kind of service. It begs the question why Downing/Henderson/Adam/Johnson and Enrique can't manage something approaching the same.

Scott said...

Neither here nor there, but Lucas live-tweeting the match may make me happier than the match itself.