12 August 2012

Liverpool 3-1 Bayer Leverkusen

Sterling 3'
Lucas 30'
Carroll 65'
Sam 75'

That was more like it, a much more reassuring friendly than the three in the USA. Which may have had something to do with the stronger XI, not all that different from the one which faced Gomel on Thursday. It was far stronger than expected, with Gerrard, Suarez, and Lucas all surprise starters. Those left out were those who'll play in international fixtures during the week, most notably Skrtel and Agger (along with Reina, Adam, Carroll, and Coates); only Borini and Johnson didn't feature despite no international duty.

And Liverpool reaped the benefits immediately, with Sterling scoring his first senior goal – if only in a friendly – after just 128 seconds. Liverpool had kept possession since the opening whistle, on the right flank and in its own half before Shelvey spread play wide to Enrique, whose through ball was perfectly weighted for Sterling, bum-rushing past Schwaab to pick up possession and cut inside, unleashing an unstoppable rocket into the far corner. That's his game-changing potential aptly demonstrated and a concrete indication as to why we'll probably see a fair bit of him over the course of the season.

To be fair, Leverkusen responded well, taking the game to Liverpool for the next 20 minutes. Kadlec, Schürrle, and Kießling all had strikes at goal, but all failed to find the target as Liverpool's defense bent but never broke. Leverkusen are the best opponents Liverpool have faced so far under Rodgers, with a starting XI as close to full-strength as Liverpool's, and a response was always coming. But after 30 minutes, Liverpool added a second, somewhat against the run of play and from a well-worked set play. Suarez broke down the field following a Leverkusen corner, winning a free kick just outside the box. Rather than going for goal, Gerrard touched it off to Downing, who cleverly fed Suarez on the penalty spot rather than blasting into the wall. Suarez's first touch made it look an opportunity lost, but Kadlec's rushed clearance fell straight to an otherwise-offside Lucas for a tap-in. Matches where Lucas scored are simply better than other matches. Look it up. It's science.

From there, Liverpool were able to control proceedings, keeping possession, poking and prodding at Leverkusen's defense, albeit with little success. Still, the increased confidence following the second goal – and resulting drop in confidence for the opposition – was clearly evident. Goals do change games after all, and Liverpool desperately needs to improve on last season's scoring totals. Nonetheless, Leverkusen had its best chance of the half just before the interval, a intricate passing move between Rolfes, Kießling, and Schürrle that ended with yet another Kießling shot off target from ten yards out.

The tempo unsurprisingly dropped in the second half, partly due to the established lead, partly due to the half-time changes. Liverpool made all five of its substitutions during the interval, as much to experiment as to rest the likes of Gerrard, Suarez, Lucas, Downing, and Enrique. Most notably, Shelvey went to the right flank, the same position he played on loan at Blackpool, while Adam was the most-advanced of the midfield three. Andy Carroll also received his best chance to impress, getting 45 minutes after just 20 at the end of the dismal Tottenham friendly.

And Carroll made the most of it, scoring Liverpool's third in the 65th. Carragher intercepted Kießling's pass, quickly spreading play to Shelvey on the flank. After taking the air out of the ball, with Adam, Henderson, and Kelly interchanging passes, Spearing fed Adam, whose clever, quick, one-touch back-heel opened up space for Carroll. With defenders backing off, the striker took a fierce shot from the top of the box, one which probably should have been saved but squirmed under the unfortunate Leno. Maybe we can credit the power of the strike rather than an egregious goalkeeper blunder.

Unsurprisingly, Liverpool did change its style of play after Carroll's introduction, far more content to cross towards the gargantuan striker, but Carroll didn't look wholly out of place either. His movement was better than expected – although expectations are admittedly low, especially in a friendly – pressing encouragingly, chasing back to defend, and holding up possession well to involve Sterling and Shelvey in the attack. Adam also did better than expected in a more advanced role; the move further forward required him to play quicker passes than he'd prefer, evidenced by his assist on Carroll's goal. It's when he's given time and space in a deep-lying role that he can kill Liverpool's momentum, even if that's also when he has a better chance of playing those jaw-dropping, sometimes successful Hollywood passes.

Leverkusen pulled one back 15 minutes from time, an unbelievable screamer from substitute Sidney Sam after the winger received possession 30 yards from goal, bounced off of Carragher's tame tackle all too easily, and blasted past Reina from the top of the box. I also doubt Rodgers will fail to notice that the attack started when Carroll sloppily lost possession just inside the opposition half, allowing Leverkusen to counter at pace with Liverpool players out of position. Liverpool nearly conceded a second soon after when Coates lost his mind, dwelling in possession deep in Liverpool's half before blasting an insane over-hit back pass just wide of the near post, but those were the only two moments of madness in Liverpool's defense. Otherwise, the tandem of Carragher and Coates played well, with Carragher notably at left-sided center-back, as he has been with Skrtel in previous friendlies, in contrast to how he and Coates played when paired last season.

As against Gomel, other than conceding the late consolation, it was what we'd hoped for from a Liverpool match, miles different than the three matches on the American tour. Those three preseason fixtures (as well as the first leg against Gomel) prompted a concern over Liverpool's competence in front of goal, which hasn't looked anywhere near a concern since Gerrard and Suarez returned to the XI. Liverpool have been far more threatening and far more clinical with those two on the pitch, and that the goals came from unlikely scorers such as Lucas and Sterling is definitely reassuring. However, I still think Liverpool will go as far as Gerrard and Suarez – the only two attacking game-changers on the books – can carry them.

Gerrard reveled in an attacking role yet again, and I can't describe how reassuring it is to see him back in that position. Suarez was less influential than on Thursday, but there was nowhere to go but down after that performance and, yes, today was a friendly. I'd be hard-pressed to pick three players I'm happier to see on the score-sheet; the goal will do both Sterling and Carroll's confidence a world of good, while Lucas deserves it for his continued all-around brilliance and importance. Both Kelly and Reina clearly benefited from the playing time, the two who've needed it most. Shelvey and Sterling also both looked increasingly comfortable the longer they've played.

More importantly, Liverpool again looked capable of implementing Rodgers' playing style, impressively in the first half but even in the second with the likes of Carroll and Adam heavily involved. There will undoubtedly be growing pains, most likely sooner rather than later, but almost every player looks more confident in the last two matches than they did at almost any point last season.

Six days until the season truly starts against West Brom.


Daki4 said...

I really really hope that Gerrard will play the 'attacking' role that is clearly his best position (I don't care what he or the media thinks, the results speak for themselves) for the majority of the season.


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