21 April 2013

Liverpool 2-2 Chelsea

Oscar 26'
Sturridge 52'
Hazard 57' (pen)
Suarez 90+7'

The Luis Suarez show. And not in the good way. Well, some in the good way – an assist for Liverpool's first equalizer, and a goal for the second equalizer with the last touch of the game – but much, much more in the bad way.

Because it sure looks like Luis Suarez bit a guy. He also conceded a penalty for Chelsea's second, an understandable if slightly harsh call, but more importantly, he bit a guy. For the second time in his career. Words fail me.

The man just cannot avoid the headlines. We've been spoiled because he's been in the headlines for the right reasons this season, but we've been here before and it's not fun.

Also, a football game happened. A game where Liverpool were very disappointing and deserved to be behind after the first half, but merited the draw with its second half performance. Please remember that when we spend the next week talking about Suarez's extracurricular vampiric activities.

Liverpool were decent, if cagey, in the first five to ten minutes, culminating in an excellent Johnson chance toe-poked wide. But from there, Chelsea grew in stature, thanks as much to Liverpool's disconnect in attack as their own improvement. And in the 26th minute, Liverpool conceded the exact goal they conceded in the reverse fixture. In November, John Terry eluded Agger and Carragher to slam in a near-post header in the 21st minute. Today, Oscar eluded Agger and Carragher – mostly Agger – to slam in a near-post header in the 26th minute. Set plays remain a soul-killing, heart-stopping experience.

And Liverpool were lucky not to concede three minutes later when Reina spilled Luiz's fierce effort but regrouped just before the ball crossed the line. The Reds didn't register a first shot on target until the 42nd minute, from – who else – Suarez, saved at the near post, quickly followed by a second on target just before the interval from a similar angle on the opposite side of the pitch.

I compared Benitez's Chelsea to Pochettino's Southampton in the match preview, which turned out depressingly accurate, at least in the first half. With both Henderson and Coutinho supremely wasteful, Liverpool's final third pass accuracy was 55.6% in the opening 45 minutes. The only time Liverpool were less accurate in the final third over a full match was against Pochettino's Southampton.

But it was a very different Liverpool which retook the field after halftime, and Sturridge replacing Coutinho made all of the difference. Within a minute, Sturridge created a wonderful chance for Gerrard, remarkably saved by an outstretched leg from Cech. A minute later, Sturridge spun away from a defender and lashed a rocket off the post. And five minutes after that, Sturridge notched the equalizer, a wonderful move from back to front: Reina to Carragher, over the top to Downing, flicked directly into the path of Suarez, who sumptuously crossed first-time to an open Sturridge at the far post, tapped past Cech from six yards out before the keeper could slide over. Always play players against their former club...

But the joyous reprieve lasted just five minutes. Mata's clear dive won a deep free kick (and got Lucas booked), which resulted in a Chelsea corner. And from that corner, Suarez handled; Kevin Friend immediately pointed to the spot. I'm in the minority, but – surprise, surprise – I thought it was a harsh decision. Admittedly, arms above head will almost always get called, but that Suarez's arms were above his head seemed an involuntary reaction to being pulled off-balance by Torres grabbing his kit. It was literally the only positive thing Torres did all match. Regardless, Hazard stepped to the spot after a couple of minutes of arguing and coolly sent Reina the wrong way.

Unsurprisingly, the concession killed any Liverpool momentum. Back to square one despite all the good that came in the 12 minutes before. It's probably not coincidental that an aggrieved Suarez bit Ivanovic soon after the penalty concession; we've long known how frustrated the Uruguayan can get when things don't go his way. Which is not an excuse. It was disgusting, and I could probably use even harsher language to condemn it, but children might be reading this. Suarez deserves to be punished by the FA and by Liverpool. And Liverpool are supremely lucky that Friend didn't see it. Although maybe they aren't; Jermain Defoe bit Mascherano a few years back but escaped punishment because the referee booked him. I doubt anyone in the media will mention that this week.

From there, with Liverpool still stuttering, Benitez looked to kill the game: Benayoun, Moses, and Lampard replaced the more attacking Hazard, Oscar, and Mata (memories...), while Liverpool's response was to send on Shelvey for Downing. It was another positive change from Rodgers, leading to Liverpool's chances in the last ten minutes, but Shelvey wasted two – one a sitter – while Henderson's fired wide from Suarez's lay-off and then Suarez blasted a shot straight down Cech's throat. It seemed that Liverpool would again fail to find the needed last minute goal, which has happened all too often whether needing a winner or an equalizing, yet another marginally undeserved loss to a side ahead of them in the table.

But in the last act of the game, Liverpool scored, with roles reversed from the first equalizer. Sturridge's wonderful right-sided cross connected with Suarez's run to the near post between Ivanovic and Luiz, with Cech unable to keep out the close-range header. Because of course him. We've rarely had such a clear dichotomy of the good Suarez and bad Suarez as today. Also, let's not lose sight of Sturridge's role in both goals. He was absolutely outstanding in his 45 minutes. Suarez will get the headlines, good and bad and more bad, but Sturridge was the difference. He'll have to keep that up for the rest of the season with an inevitable Suarez suspension looming.

The struggles from the starting XI in the first half disappointed, especially Coutinho, Henderson, and Downing, but the way Liverpool and Rodgers responded in the second half was reassuring. We haven't seen enough meaningful in-game changes from the manager or the team this season. We also haven't seen enough of Liverpool responding to adversity. And we haven't seen enough of "good Liverpool" against teams ahead of them in the table.

Those are all good signs. Pity that they'll all be forgotten and ignored because of Suarez's moment of indefensible stupidity.


MechaDG said...

Doot! Doot! Doot-de-doo-doot-doot! Lu-is Sua-rez! Huh? Who's with me?

Ivanovic wouldn't let go FFS!

Ryan McKain said...

I reserve comment about de kaannibal except to say that Ivanovic has Evander Holyfield's number.

For the game, I'm surprised you don't question the starter/substitution pattern again. Why keep you best lineup (Sturridge) on the bench for the first half? Rodgers reminds me of the ambidextrous fencer who leads with his slightly inferior hand just for the surprise of switching midway. No me gusta.