Liverpool can't go one game without giving me a heart attack, but other than a marginally frightening last half-an-hour, culminating in King's extra-time consolation, a radically different XI performed more than adequately. It wasn't quite last week against Stoke, but it was certainly enough.
We knew there'd be changes, but 10 different players from the side which started against Dortmund still surprised. A full debut for Danny Ward, a Premier League debut for Connor Randall, a first league start for Brad Smith, a second league start for Kevin Stewart and Sheyi Ojo, Jordon Ibe's first league since January, and a Lucas-Toure center-back pairing.
So, unsurprisingly, the first 40 minutes looked like an away match which featured a radically different and incredibly young XI against diligent opposition. Because Liverpool is still Jürgen Klopp's Liverpool, the side still pressed well from the front and defended well enough at the back. Liverpool limited Bournemouth chances, doing well to stifle a side that often starts matches quickly.
And because Daniel Sturridge is still Daniel Sturridge, Roberto Firmino is still Roberto Firmino, and Sheyi Ojo is tons of fun, Liverpool created at least a little bit in the opposition half. Pressure from Firmino led to Sturridge's second-minute half-volley at Boruc; Ojo and Ibe's pace led to chances for Ojo and Randall blocked in the 24th; Allen's sumptuous chip to Sturridge three minutes later was saved by Boruc after a clearance deflected off the striker.
They were mostly half-chances, and not occurring with the frequency we'd prefer, but, again, that's little surprise. And then, with five minutes left until halftime, Liverpool's class up front decided the game. As in the 24th minute, the build-up from Ojo and Ibe created the initial opportunity, the latter finding Sturridge in the box with his back to goal. Somehow the striker fired off a fierce, blind back heel, well saved by Boruc, but with Firmino first to the point-blank rebound. Five minutes later, Ibe won a free kick, Ibe took the free kick, and Sturridge jinked away from Elphick to flick a 12-yard header low into the corner.
It was the fifth set play goal that Liverpool scored in the last three games; they'd scored 13 through the first 51 matches this season. It was the fifth headed goal that Liverpool scored in the last three games; they'd scored seven through the first 51 matches this season. When it rains, etc.
Liverpool, rightfully so, remained wary of a two-goal lead at a south coast side, and kept going for a potential third after the restart. Firmino acrobatically shot wide from a scrambled corner, then Sturridge hit the foot of the post with a delightful chip. Ibe fired over after cutting inside, then Firmino fired straight at Boruc after cutting inside.
But by the hour mark, Bournemouth increasingly pushed Liverpool back. They'd switched to a 4-4-2 to start the second half, replacing Stanislas with Grabban, but subs didn't truly change the game until Pugh replaced Gradel in the 59th, with Lucas put under increasing pressure by Josh King and Sakho needed to cover for an injured Toure. From there, it was Danny Ward's time to shine, with two saves on King and two on Grabban – all very good, but the fourth, on Grabber's header from Francis' cross, the most impressive.
Liverpool had a few minutes reprieve from defending beginning in the 83rd, as Sturridge again hit the post – released by Allen, turning his marker, and hammering off the upright – then fired over on the break from Lallana's throughball five minutes later, but Bournemouth quickly resumed their pressure in added time. It seemed too little, too late until King's shot from nothing – a lofted long ball out of defense, shrugging off Lucas far too easily before a 20-yard half-volley. And, of course, because Liverpool, that got the heart racing, and Liverpool immediately conceded a free kick in the final minute of injury time. Just like against Dortmund. Thankfully, just like Dortmund, Liverpool survived, the chance untaken as Cook headed Pugh's cross over rather than in.
We should expect nothing less from Bournemouth, having over-performed all season and having already given Liverpool two tough matches. Eddie Howe again demonstrated he's a more than capable manager, each substitution making Bournemouth more dangerous. The home side will also rue three possible handball penalties. I'm obviously biased, but I don't think any should have been given: Lucas and Toure had the ball flick onto their arms from next-to-no distance – seen and uncalled in more than a few matches – in the 45th and 61st minutes respectively, while Smith controlled a Bournemouth cross with his chest before the ball *might have* rolled down his arm in the 86th.
By the end of the match, Liverpool had had to defend for long stretches. Bournemouth's 18 shots were the joint-most an opponent's taken against Klopp's Liverpool, the same total as at West Ham and against Tottenham. Liverpool blocked eight of the shots, the joint-most they've blocked in a match this season, the same total as at Everton back in October. Liverpool were away from home with four unfamiliar starters in defense, after all.
But in the end, Liverpool did enough. On another day, Sturridge could have had a hat-trick. Joe Allen was everywhere in midfield. Ward, Ojo, and Stewart were the most promising of the kids – especially Ward – and for the first time in too long a time, Jordon Ibe looked capable of becoming the player we envisioned last season.
A much-changed side did enough. Liverpool won a third consecutive match, its fifth win in the last seven league matches. Since losing at Leicester at the start of February, Liverpool have lost just three of the last 16 matches: an FA Cup match at West Ham in extra time, the League Cup final against City on penalties, and the fluke-that-shall-not-be-named in the league a month ago. Liverpool are in a Europa League semi-final and in shouting distance of a Europa League place for next season.
Liverpool are slowly rounding into form, from the usual starters to the substitutes to the infrequent reserves to the rarely seen young players. Most importantly, these wins over Stoke and Bournemouth have demonstrated that Liverpool might actually have a reasonably full squad rather than needing to rely on the usual suspects.