14 February 2015

Liverpool 2-1 Crystal Palace

Campbell 15'
Sturridge 49'
Lallana 58'

The first half could not have been more infuriating.

It was the same old trauma at Selhurst Park: dominating possession but utter frustration in the final third. A moment of insanity from Martin Skrtel on an aimless long ball allowing Gayle a shot and then Campbell the easy rebound, Crystal Palace scoring from Crystal Palace's first attack.

And Palace easily soaking up Liverpool's response: 17 first half shots, but just four on-target. Eight were blocked. Nine of 17 came from outside the box, and only two of the eight inside the box were on-target: Lallana and Coutinho's efforts which were admittedly well saved. And a referee bound and determined to keep little Palace in the competition, highlighted by a remarkable non-decision for a blatant penalty on Sturridge.

The second half could not have been any different from the first.

An excellent start to proceedings, prompted by Rodgers' change in tactics, bringing on Balotelli for Markovic and shifting to a 3-5-2 with Lallana at right wing-back. Liverpool scoring twice within 15 minutes, from Liverpool's first two chances of the half. The first came from sustained possession, Allen's pass to Henderson, Henderson's chip over the back-line, Sturridge's unerring finish. The second came from Balotelli's free kick (which Balotelli won); Speroni's saved Balotelli's effort, but Lallana was quickest to the rebound.

And from there, Liverpool absolutely controlled the match – controlling the ball, the tempo, the tenor – continuing to monopolize possession but without allowing counter-attacks. Not necessarily needing to attack anymore, Liverpool didn't push too hard, didn't turn the ball over unnecessarily, taking just two shots in the 30+ minutes after the second goal. It was Joe Allen's time to shine; he wasn't Liverpool's best player, but he does exactly what Liverpool needed in that situation – keep possession, keep it simple, spread play to the open man, lather, rinse, and repeat.

A double change with 12 minutes left consolidated Liverpool's stranglehold, Lambert and Lovren replacing Sturridge and Coutinho, giving Liverpool even more protection at the back, an outlet for long balls upfield, and allowing Liverpool's two key attackers a slight bit of rest prior to Besiktas on Thursday. The only frightening moments in the final few minutes came from unnecessary fouls conceded by Can and Skrtel, both fairly soft, but both came to nothing.

Which is a handy segue into complimenting Liverpool's goalkeeper. Simon Mignolet's long interview in the Independent today was timely. Crystal Palace had 10 corners and six or seven free kicks in Liverpool's half. Liverpool dealt with all of them fairly competently, and Mignolet was central to it; it seemed as if he punched all of them clear. There was little he could do about the goal conceded, and actually did well to save Gayle's initial effort. And added two other spectacular saves, both on Gayle shots, in the 41st and 51st minutes. It's probably a very different match if Palace take a 2-0 or 2-1 lead.

In the third round, Liverpool won 2-1 at Wimbledon after conceding a soft equalizer. In the fourth round replay, Liverpool won 2-1 at Bolton after conceding a stupid penalty for the opener. And in the fifth round, Liverpool won 2-1 at Crystal Palace, a ground that's haunted them in the last two visits.

Despite my natural pessimism, it felt as if Liverpool should, could, and would win all three of those matches, despite the setbacks. And they did. This team is still not perfect, still fairly far from perfect, but it has confidence, even arrogance, in its assumption that it'll come good. That's no small matter.

And it's very much a landmark change from where Liverpool were on this ground three months ago.


hUssUn said...

Back 3 need a rest. Lovren and Kolo to start against Besiktas. Lets get out of that competition ASAP

Anonymous said...

Skrtel had to run about 8 yards back to our goal to deal with the Ledley 40 yard long ball. Skrtel then gets bumped from behind by Gayle while he is in the air to head a clearance. The bump was not enough to foul him, given the size difference, but it undercut him enough to have the ball skim off his head and loop towards goal. Gayle heads it on goal out of the air off Skrtels head then clatters Mignolet while he saves it. Campbell volleys the ball off Mig's save. The ball never hit the ground from leaving Ledley's foot, to Skrtel's weak header, to Gayle's headed shot to Campbell's volley into the net.

I guess Skrtel gets the blame, but it's not easy to produce an imposing jump for the header when your momentum is from running "backwards" to goal and have to turn and jump in one motion.

Gayle should have scored from 8 yards in the 41st minute. He had the entire right side of the goal to aim at. Migs does a really nice job of reading the play, closing down the space, staying on his feet, and saving with an outstretched left boot. If Palace goes 2 - nil up at the half, that second half has an entirely different feel to it. Palace has their tails up and we may not have come back.

The Balotelli sub at the half gave us a little more cutting edge in the final third. It was good to see Mario enjoying his football again. Seems like he finally feels that he fits in with the group. Palace were doing their best to wind him up but he just smiled and the wind-up went the other way.

The free kick for the 2nd goal must have come right off the training ground. Skrtel and Sturridge in the wall peeling away as Mario hits a hard, low shot. Mario's shot going through the vacated space in the wall. Lallana making a run at the wall, watching the ball, and breaking to goal on Mario's contact leaving the Palace defenders as flat footed spectators. Lallana cooly taps the deflected shot off the keeper into the side netting.

The only part that I'm not so sure came off the training ground is Lallana's run. He has a high enough footballing IQ to come up with that little bit of improvisation on the fly.

It will be good to have Ibe back on Thursday to terrorize Besiktas with his speed, shooting and ability to beat defenders with ball skilz and pace. We went from having a nothing January transfer window two weeks ago to having picked up an important player in the squad. What a difference two weeks can make, eh? My biggest fear in January was that the transfer committee would bring in a Borini quality striker. It all worked out just fine. Ibe is quality and Mario is starting to strut his stuff.

Champions league here we come. Fingers crossed. Onward and upward.