10 April 2012

Liverpool 3-2 Blackburn

Maxi 13' 16'
Yakubu 36' 61'
Carroll 90+1'

Knowing the result beforehand, inevitably succumbing to spoilers, makes this review both less joyous and less frantic than it should be. Removing much of the roller-coaster emotion from that result removes much of what makes sports brilliant, and today's spectacle aptly demonstrates why I'd far rather read bloggers' match reviews that the mainstream media's. Dispassionate analysis is usually better analysis, but frantic and joyous is what that insanity deserves.

For the first 16 minutes, it was a totally different Liverpool than we're accustomed to. And it wasn't just the starting XI, which featured more changes than expected and the welcome return of Glen Johnson. It was the fact that Liverpool attacked twice and scored twice in those first 16 minutes. Liverpool taking advantage of chances created, especially early chances, is not the Liverpool we know.

The simplest explanation is Maxi's return to the line-up. And it's hard to refute Occam's Razor. But Maxi hasn't been as impressive in his few appearances since, say, December as he was during the run-in to last season, and wanting to play "the future" rather than a player certain to leave in the summer makes sense, especially in the long-term. Well, performances like the first 16 minutes makes one say 'screw sense, give him another year's contract and play him as much as his legs allow.'

All too often, Liverpool just don't have enough men in the box. Or ones who take up intelligent positions in the box. Maxi Rodriguez makes it his job to be in the box, and usually in the perfect position to score. And he did just that twice within three minutes. First, Skrtel released a remarkable clearing pass from his own box to a wide-open Bellamy, as Blackburn unforgivably failed to retreat from a blown set play. Bellamy raced down the right, and there was Maxi at the back post, easily tapping in the winger's low cross. Soon after, Shelvey smartly stole the ball off Dunn in midfield, but saw his shot saved and Carroll's rebound attempt blocked. No matter. There was Maxi, somehow standing right where the blocked ricochet fell, coolly firing into an open net.

Of course, since it is still Liverpool, it didn't stay that easy. Absolutely nothing has come easy this season. And it wasn't easy because of a yet another self-inflicted wound, one that unfortunately came from a young player who was an absolute liability. Flanagan could have been sent off for two yellows minutes before his under-hit back pass, one which forced Doni to fell Hoilett, earning yet another keeper red card. But Yakubu, who's scored 14 league goals with four from the spot this season, sent the tamest penalty possible at third-string Brad Jones, who replaced the struggling Flanagan. It was the first time an opposition player has missed a spot kick against Liverpool in almost 17 months.

Liverpool rejigged, with Henderson shifting to right back in a 4-4-1-1, but the reprieve didn't last long, from another regrettable error as Carroll completely lost Yakubu on a free kick, conceding a free header from eight yards out against a player who thrives on those chances. Spoiler alert: thankfully, redemption was just an hour away, especially since Carroll's usually excellent at defending set plays.

Otherwise, Liverpool did an impressive job stifling the opposition despite the numerical disadvantage. But Liverpool's usually better when on the back foot, containing and controlling rather than frustratingly committing seppuku against less-fancied opposition. Dunn had a couple of half chances from distance easily smothered on either side of half-time, but Liverpool should have extended its tenuous advantage soon after the interval. However, that man Carroll missed a close range header from Bellamy's corner when it looked easier to score. Spoiler alert: thankfully, redemption was just 45 minutes away.

And then Blackburn equalized. And again, it was a solitary brain fart. Multiple, in fact. Jones lingered on a back pass, had his clearance blocked by Yakubu, flapped at the deflection, just about handing it to Yakubu, then softly pushed the rather large man over. The whole sequence basically demanded Yakety Sax playing in the background. Luckily, as with Flanagan, Anthony Taylor took sympathy on Liverpool and refused to send off another goal-keeper. But this time, Yakubu made no mistake with his penalty.

In the 74th minute, soon after Agger (who came on for Johnson in the 53rd in a planned substitution) had a header from a corner cleared off the line, the match commentator Alan Parry said, "Liverpool would accept the draw at the moment." And, despite Blackburn's lack of chances (which would come in the subsequent minutes), it would have been totally understandable, not only because a far more important match on Saturday but also all the pain – fair and unfair – that's come before. But Liverpool didn't. That they didn't is even more heartening than the three points.

The 10-man away side survived the marginal onslaught over the next five or so minutes – Hoilett was offside and failed to connect with a dangerous low cross, Jones tipped over a potential own goal from Carroll, Hanley headed high at the back post – and finished the stronger side, rallying furiously for the win in the final ten minutes, with Enrique's fresh legs (on for Maxi in the 77th) also a factor.

Few would have bet that Carroll would score the winner, even before his miss in the 48th or the almost own goal in the 76th. And given the club's current situation, he'll assuredly score more important goals in his Liverpool career, no matter how long it lasts. But I doubt he'll score many more meaningful, at least to him. Saying that Carroll needed that goal barely suffices. He nearly burst out of his skin after tallying the winner, fed by Agger's header from Coates' punt back into the box, leaping to cannon a header through Robinson's hand. His relief was still tangible through the television two hours after the fact and from an ocean away. And while you rarely get what you deserve, he deserved that, not only for the frustration that's come before but his overall hard work as a lone striker, fighting for everything in the air everywhere on the pitch.

Since we've deservedly criticized Dalglish's tactics often this season, he deserves credit today. Moving Henderson to right back was a stroke of genius, possibly the best he's played all season, and probably man of the match because of the enormity of his performance in an unfamiliar position. Shelvey and Spearing were also an excellent partnership, full of much-needed running; Shelvey's intermittent pressing in Blackburn's half was especially impressive. Johnson and Agger were managed perfectly, both getting needed time prior to Saturday, and Agger boosting a potentially flagging side in the final 35 minutes. Skrtel also seemed to thrive as captain, managing an unfamiliar and inexperienced back four and managing multiple conversations with the ref. Other than the earlier-mentioned unfortunate scapegoats, we saw some brilliant individual performances and as a comprehensive side.

But Liverpool's tactics usually work fairly well when the opposition forces the side to be reactive. Both Chelsea matches, City in the Carling Cup, United at home and in the FA Cup, Arsenal away, etc. It's when they have to be proactive that they frequently shit the bed. This team is infinitely happier when it's the underdog, which probably helps explain why they've dropped 15 points to the bottom six sides. But when Liverpool had a full complement of players, Liverpool scored twice away from home against one of those lower-placed sides which they usually fail against, which was also a welcome change.

Today was and wasn't great preparation for Saturday's semi-final. Running furiously, chasing chasing chasing when down to 10 men for 65 minutes, certainly isn't helpful, even if a fair few of these players won't feature against Everton. But the boost to confidence, one of those intangibles we've harped on all season, can't be measured – both for individuals who need it, like Carroll and Henderson, and for the team as a whole. As I wrote after Liverpool marginally improved in the second half against Villa, "fighting back" for the draw, morale is the most important improvement needed over the rest of the league campaign. Whether Liverpool finish seventh or ninth doesn't really matter in the greater scheme of things. But how Liverpool finish certainly does.

1 comment :

ErictheRed said...

After having to document so many terrible things this season, I am really sorry you didn't get to experience this live.

Atta boy Andy, way to keep working son.

I don't know why, but this was the first time in I don't know how long where I actually had the feeling something good was going to happen at the end. I didn't dare hope that it would be something as monumental as Carroll getting the winner. But I did have hope, and that's something, right?