31 March 2013

Liverpool 2-1 Aston Villa

Benteke 31'
Henderson 47'
Gerrard 60' (pen)

The 15 minutes after halftime were the difference between a win today and the loss in the reverse fixture. The first half was all too similar to December's meeting: Liverpool possession and a couple of decent opportunities, mostly resulting in blocked shots by Villa's deep defense, but the opposition also created chances thanks to their direct football and Liverpool's all-too-worrying defense, especially when dealing with long balls and crosses.

And again, right around the half hour mark, Benteke scored the opener. It was in the 29th minute at Anfield, a hammer strike starting from a Suarez giveaway in midfield. It was in the 31st minute today, a hammer strike starting from a Suarez giveaway in midfield, set up by Agbonlahor's layoff from Westwood's hoof downfield with Benteke first to the second ball, catching both Johnson and Carragher flat-footed. Deja vu all over again.

There was one other crucial difference, though. The last time Liverpool conceded just once when conceding in a league match was 21 matches ago, a 1-1 draw at Chelsea on November 11. Since then, Tottenham, West Ham, Villa, United, Arsenal, City, West Brom, Tottenham, and Southampton have scored at least one more after scoring a first, with the majority of those goals coming in the first half.

Unlike the last meeting, Villa couldn't add a second before the interval – Benteke's 38th minute header straight at Reina was the closest they came – while Liverpool actually responded, as only Guzan's heroics kept either Suarez or Gerrard from an equalizer before the break. It wasn't pretty, and it wasn't cohesive, but it was enough.

And then Liverpool completely turned the match around by the 60th minute. The equalizer was a sumptuous break-out: Gerrard's accurate clearance from Liverpool's defensive third spread out to Coutinho, who played an outstanding throughball to meet Henderson's outstanding run into the box, and then a finish that topped all the good that came before it, a supremely classy chip that gave the diving Guzan no chance.

The onslaught continued. Coutinho should have added a second, timing his run perfectly to stay onside for Suarez's throughball but putting his shot just wide of the far post, quickly followed by Johnson's deflected effort cannoning off the woodwork. But Liverpool got the needed goal while on top when Baker stupidly lunged in on Suarez at the byline; Suarez is the most dangerous player in the world in that position, but it seemed the Uruguayan was going nowhere. So soon after hitting the woodwork, a missed penalty might have been fitting – that's assuredly what would have happened last season – but Gerrard's spot kick was hit firmly and placed perfectly, finding the target despite Guzan's dive in the right direction.

More than anything else today, Villa will regret not equalizing in the subsequent 10 minutes; they certainly didn't lack for chances. An open Weimann thundered a shot well over from Sylla's center, Gerrard made an indescribably outstanding clearance off the line to prevent Benteke's header, and Reina did well to tip Lowton's deep shot/cross over the bar. Frightening Liverpool was back again.

But from the 70th minute on, we got the sterile domination that was needed. Villa had the edge in possession, but struggled to create anything from it, often closed down when getting into dangerous areas, especially by Enrique and Agger. Suarez should have sealed the game in the 83rd minute, somehow wriggling into the box but losing possession as he rounded the keeper, then taking the ball away from the better-placed Sterling.

Injury time saw a Westwood tackle that should have seen red quickly followed by the ball in Liverpool's net, but put there by a very offside Benteke. Liverpool's defense caused worries until the last second, but did *just enough* for the final 30 minutes, the game sealed by scary scramble, but a scary scramble that led to a well-held offside line. Just enough will do.

Liverpool weren't great by any definition, whether individually or as a team, but they're taking all three points against a side that beat them 3-1 on their ground earlier in the season. Rodgers had never beaten a Paul Lambert side in the Premier League, whether in the reverse fixture or when the two were at Swansea and Norwich last season. Henderson and Coutinho were probably the pick of the bunch, so crucial in scoring the first goal. Henderson was Liverpool's most accurate passer in midfield, assuredly covered the most ground, and led the team in interceptions. Coutinho has now scored twice and assisted three goals since he joined the club, averaging a goal contribution every 73 minutes. Reina was also one of Liverpool's best, making some crucial saves, seemingly finally back to the form we know he's capable of, while both Gerrard and Lucas improved in the second half (seriously, can't say enough about Gerrard's goal-line clearance), and Enrique was very good in defense.

Prior to this season, Liverpool hadn't come back to win an away game since Rafa Benitez was manager. They've now done it twice under Rodgers, and have come back to win two of its last three games. That's the sort of mental strength we hadn't seen enough of in Benitez's last season, under either Hodgson or Dalglish, or earlier in this campaign.

If Liverpool aren't at their best, at least they've become resilient on a much more frequent basis. That's progress too, progress that's been as needed as the improvement in attack and in the personnel.


suley said...

So glad we won however it all could have been so different... everytime they get a cross in or a corner my heart just stops... And Carragher really showed his limitations today in my opinion. Skrtel needs to be back starting.

nate said...

Skrtel started in the last meeting. Villa had vastly less possession in that match, completed less than half as many passes, but won more aerial duels and somehow took more shots. And scored two more goals.

Carra didn't cover himself in glory on Villa's goal, but Liverpool's defense was much better today than in the reverse fixture. Which was at Anfield.