07 April 2012

Liverpool 1-1 Aston Villa

Herd 10'
Suarez 82'

Hey, at least it's not another loss! That's progress, right?

What, that's not enough consolation against a fairly dire, injury-ravaged 15th-placed side and when it's the ninth home draw of the season? Oh, right. Still, better than the alternative.

Nonetheless, it again proves overly difficult to fully stop the rot. Liverpool start well, are (arguably wrongly) denied a clear-cut chance to take the lead, and then concede on the opposition's first shot, mostly of their own making. And then completely fall apart once conceding despite the promising start. No matter the personnel, the script rarely changes.

Herd's 10th-minute goal – conceded on the break after Doni whiffed on a cross and Henderson failed to track the midfield runner – allowed Villa to play exactly how McLeish wants to play: with a narrow lead and ten men behind the ball. And Liverpool have found it difficult to break down open sides lately and packed defenses open at the best of times, so it wasn't surprising to see a struggle in this situation.

But morale clearly took yet another blow, and Liverpool failed to regain any semblance of momentum until the late in the half, with Skrtel's downward header from a corner, wide of the post, the only opportunity of note. Then came the final few minutes. First, Suarez could have had a penalty in the 39th, ignored because he took a step after clear contact before falling and because he's Suarez. After that, Liverpool should have equalized in the 44th, with Kuyt – the only player I didn't fantasize about throttling at that point – ballooning from two yards out after Gerrard's errant shot somehow found him in space. Which was followed by Suarez wriggling free but shooting straight at Given and Gerrard blasting over from a narrow angle.

Liverpool changed formation in the second half, reverting to a 4-4-2 with Kuyt joining Suarez up top and Gerrard (rather than Henderson) moving to the right. It nearly paid dividends within 10 minutes, as Suarez met Gerrard's dangerous right-wing cross, but directed his header onto the post with Given instinctively palming off the line. 13 minutes after that, Liverpool could have won its third penalty on a second possible handball, this clearer when Lichaj blocked Kuyt's attempt to control with an out-stretched arm. I fervently apologize for writing that I thought Michael Oliver was one of the league few capable referees.

Changes on the hour, with Carroll and Bellamy replacing Downing and Shelvey, helped matters, but Liverpool didn't furiously rally until the final substitution, when Agger replaced Enrique with 15 minutes to play. Bellamy then forced a near-post save from Given and Agger shot wide before the corner which led to Liverpool's equalizer . Regrouping after an initial clearance, Agger headed Gerrard's cross onto the bar, followed up by Suarez from inches out. Not quite fully deserved, as Liverpool's rarely gotten what it's deserved, and not assuredly coming given what's gone on before, but more than merited. Yet despite total possession, two chances for Carroll, and a couple of goal-mouth scrambles, Liverpool couldn't complete the comeback, with Villa hanging on for a point by its time-wasting fingernails.

Because it's Liverpool, there are excuses – could have had three penalties, Kuyt's 7th-minute shot looked over the line – but until the last quarter of the match, it was also another mostly-indefensible performance in a season overflowing with them. Which unsurprisingly makes said excuses somewhat less valid.

Still, Liverpool aren't going to revert to winning ways immediately. Not after how far they've fallen, how wrecked the side's confidence has been from top to bottom. So any sort of comeback, especially with the actually-not-quitting-for-a-change mentality displayed in the final 15 minutes, when the side easily could have seen out another pathetic loss, is marginally heartening. It's a start.

Other than that possible marginal morale boost, there were two other positives to be taken from today. The first was Agger's return; it's fitting he played such a large part in Liverpool's equalizer. The second was Gerrard's performance on the right, creating more chances than Villa did in total, and with the all-important cross leading to Liverpool's lone goal. Before the season, I rationalized Henderson's purchase with the belief he's Gerrard's long-term replacement. Well, at the moment, Gerrard can play the "Henderson role" in Liverpool's lopsided 4-4-2 far better than the ex-Sunderland midfielder. And, even with Adam and Lucas out, Liverpool have enough bodies in midfield where a shift in Gerrard's position would probably help rather than hurt the club. Of course, Benitez thought similar six seasons earlier.

That Liverpool have another match in three days is probably for the best, even considering the too-long casualty list. I'd imagine a fair few will be rested with an eye on Saturday's semi-final, but for the first time in a long time, Liverpool demonstrated a modicum of hope that the worst might actually be behind them.

1 comment :

fiji bill said...

Behind them? That's optimistic.