Dunne OG 66'
Vargas 87' 90+2'
Caulker OG 90+5'
There are times when football makes absolutely zero sense. Today was one of those times.
Liverpool had no right to win that match. Liverpool had that match won twice and threw it away twice and still somehow took all three points.
QPR should have been three up at halftime. Liverpool coupled the same defensive mistakes – even more of them! – with two different, inferior fullbacks and a change in midfield which wholly disrupted the side. We're not at a loss for choices, but the first half was, by far, the worst half Liverpool's played this season.
With a eye on Madrid, Rodgers rested both Manquillo and Moreno, the first time both Johnson and Enrique have started since the 1-0 win over United on September 1 2013. After seeing Gerrard and Balotelli link up to near-acceptable effect when West Brom were chasing the match two weeks ago, Gerrard started as the #10, the first time that's happened since very early in Rodgers' first season.
Neither alteration worked. In the slightest bit. It could and should have been Aston Villa or West Ham all over again. But Austin shot into the side netting after Johnson couldn't clear and Skrtel couldn't clear and Mignolet parried his first effort straight back into his path. Leroy Fer hit the bar twice, the first after Zamora got behind both Lovren and Enrique, the second from Zamora's cross, with Johnson blocking a rebound on the line and Skrtel somehow scrambling clear. QPR clearly targeted Liverpool's left, especially with Fer tucking in on the opposite flank in a very unbalanced 4-4-2, and it should have paid dividends if not for the crossbar. But, to be fair, the crossbar has owed Liverpool for some time now.
Meanwhile, Liverpool's only effort of note was Balotelli's chance created for Gerrard in the 44th minute, the captain controlling well to make space in the box but shooting narrowly wide. Otherwise, lots of Balotelli isolated, a handful of the usual shots from distance nowhere near threatening. When Liverpool actually had possession in QPR's half.
So it was no surprise that Liverpool reverted to the more usual midfield to start the second half, with Henderson and Can ahead of Gerrard. And Liverpool were marginally better, although QPR continued to have the better chances: a massive save from Mignolet on Sandro's shot, Austin's effort from no angle skittering across the face of goal.
Balotelli should have opened the scoring in the 61st minute, ballooning an open goal rebound after good work from Sterling and Lallana, but Liverpool didn't truly improve until Coutinho and Allen replaced Lallana and Can in the 66th minute.
Still, it was both coincidental and lucky that the opening goal came a minute after the substitutions. A free kick won by Sterling quickly taken, Johnson's cross towards Balotelli poked into the net by Richard Dunne, with Balotelli not even paying attention until just before Dunne redirected the pass. It is better to be lucky than good, but it would be nice if Liverpool were good for a change.
So, how were Liverpool going to throw it away, as they did against Boro and Everton, as they nearly did against Ludogorets and West Brom? Well, for 20 minutes, it didn't look like they would, with Liverpool surprisingly secure – well, secure for Liverpool – and Mignolet making two more good saves on Austin and Traore. But then QPR's substitute striker struck, again a goal conceded from a half-cleared set play, aided by some absolutely horrific defending from Enrique. Enrique half-cleared. Enrique over-ran when trying to defend Vargas, allowing the cross. Enrique didn't track Vargas' run, perfectly placed for Austin's header back across goal. It was auspicious, to say the least. And QPR nearly took the lead two minutes later from a similar situation, with Skrtel making a last-ditch clearance just in front of Vargas. It would have seemed fitting.
But then, a ray of hope. The first time Liverpool have clicked on the counter-attack this season. A break after clearing QPR's corner, Sterling excellent run then to Gerrard then to Coutinho, the Brazilian cutting inside from the left with his shot partially deflected past McCarthy. About damn time.
Phew. Just like Ludogorets. A dumb late mistake somehow saved. Shut up shop, take the undeserved three points, do better next time. Ha. Hahahahaha.
Because QPR were again level two minutes later. Stop me if you've heard this before, but it was from a set play: Phillips' corner headed by Vargas at the near post, somehow getting through both Henderson and Gerrard and between Allen's legs on the post. Utterly, indescribably comical. More bad set play defending, but also Allen making the schoolboy error of spreading his legs while on the post, then screened by two players late to react to Vargas so he saw the ball too late to react.
One point would have been more than Liverpool deserved. But the insanity wasn't over. Another QPR set play, again cleared. Another Liverpool counter-attack featuring Coutinho, this time starting the move after Lovren's header out and playing a delicious, last season-esque throughball to Sterling, whose centered pass towards Balotelli was redirected by Caulker. In the 95th minute. Absolutely unbelievable. And, yes, it's probably for the best the pass didn't reach Balotelli. Every set play in the final 10 minutes seemed to lead to a QPR goal or a Liverpool counter-attacking goal. Feast or famine, and no in-between.
Make no mistake. If Liverpool play like that on Wednesday, they will be thoroughly curb-stomped by Real Madrid. Thoroughly. There is a reason why QPR are currently propping up the table. Multiple reasons, actually. Almost any other side would have punished Liverpool, like Villa punished Liverpool, like West Ham punished Liverpool, etc, etc. QPR did not deserve to lose that game, but it couldn't have happened to a better manager than Harry Redknapp. It almost makes up for the 2-3 loss at Loftus Road in 2012 which helped doom Dalglish.
And Liverpool did not deserve to win that game. The negatives were set play defending (obviously), the fullbacks, Rodgers' initial tactics, Balotelli's decision-making and finishing, the continued disconnect in attack, and a fair bit more. The few positives were Mignolet, Coutinho off the bench, Lovren at times, and those two late counters with the game more open than a pervert's trench coat.
And, I guess, Liverpool's resilience. For all that bad play, Liverpool didn't give up, and somehow scored twice after the clock struck 90. That's no small matter. That sort of resilience has started winning streaks in the past. Liverpool are, almost unbelievably, in fifth, only outside of the Champions League places on goal difference, at least until United play tomorrow, ahead of Arsenal, Spurs, and Everton.
But resilience alone will not be enough against better opposition. Not if Liverpool continue to play like this.