Thursday, February 2, 2012

Liverpool's Cup Runneth Over

photo by Esther Gibbonsvia PhotoRee

Columnist Scott makes as much sense as a Liverpool fan can:

It seems Liverpool can get up for the big games and even win them, as long as a Cup is involved.  Before Liverpool hosted Manchester United in the 4th round of the FA Cup, I was reflecting on (basking in?) their elimination of Manchester City in the semi-final of the Carling Cup and it occurred to me that if a victory were secured, they might be destined for two Cup titles this season, despite their sluggish League play. 

While the first part of that speculation may be wishful thinking, as there will be 15 other teams in the 5th round of the FA Cup, the description of their League play is accurate.  I have previously grumbled extensively on these pages about Liverpool’s inability to win the games they should win, consistently dropping points to the likes of Norwich City and Swansea at home (not to mention that disaster at Bolton).  They are unable, at present, it seems, to maintain the concentration and level of intensity required to be consistently successful in the slog of the EPL.  Is that a coaching issue?  Can they turn that around in the second half of the league as they did last year?  I don’t know, but they did squeak out a win against Manchester United in the FA Cup!

Kenny Dalglish started with another defensive formation that counted on Martin Kelly and Jose Enrique to push up the flanks to provide a portion of the attack.  He also went with the lumbering Andy Carroll instead of the speedy Craig Bellamy up front, since he couldn’t swap Carroll for Carlos Tevez, according to the rumors.

The first 15 minutes of the match were pretty even in terms of play and possession, although I was ashamed of the fans who would loudly boo Patrice Evra whenever he received the ball.  Even Luis Suarez, scowling in the stands, knew enough to keep his mouth shut.  Antonio Valencia almost silenced the crowd in the 17th minute when his speedy run with the ball resulted in a well-driven shot off the post, Pepe Reina thoroughly beaten.

But Liverpool responded shortly after by pressing forward and winning a corner.  Steven Gerrard’s service was good, but it seemed the bewildered David De Gea could have done much better with it, allowing the streaking Daniel Agger to head in over his head.  It was the beginning of a very shaky day for the Spaniard.

It was a mixed bag, however, from Gerrard.  His passes always seem to create space and have purpose, but he has not fully reclaimed his touch.  After a brilliant control and chest turn by Carroll in the 24th minute, Gerrard took over the ball and, smelling blood in the water from Agger’s goal, shot from distance but flubbed badly.  Not as influential as we fans would hope, he was ultimately replaced by Bellamy in the 72nd minute. 

Although forcefully contested, the referee did well not to let things get out of hand.  Agger’s foul on Welbeck was silly because he could have taken the ball cleanly, but chose to take the United forward out bodily, despite not being in a dangerous position, the subject of a pushing debate between Jordan Henderson and Antonio Valencia.   

And I would say the referee was right not to send off Gerrard in the 61st minute when the Liverpool captain tackled with both feet.  The whole thing looked to be in slow motion and more of a caress than a tackle as Gerrard seemed to realize his error even while he was making it.

Toward the end of the first half, Liverpool was defending more and more as Manchester United began to control the game.  Liverpool was unable to sustain any forward momentum, and was forced to resort to counter attacking when possible.  Manchester United, meanwhile, continued to poke around with their possession until breaking through in the 38th minute, when Raphael da Silva found Ji-Sung Park who put on a clinic with his finishing technique.  Thereafter, Manchester United’s grip on the game tightened even more.  Dalglish would have to regroup at halftime.

The second half started with United possessing more again, but now Liverpool were aggressively pressing defensively, even in the offensive third of the field.  This pressure nearly paid off in the 56th minute, when De Gea’s horrible pass was intercepted and nearly converted.  After this, the game began to even out with lots of back and forth.  When Maxi Rodriguez and Jamie Carragher stepped aside for Charlie Adam and Dirk Kuy around the 60th minute, Liverpool seemed to be back in the game, even if not ahead on possession.

Liverpool’s acceleration of play and intensity could be clocked: back in the game at 60 minutes, looking better at 70 minutes and looking far more likely to score at 80 minutes.  At the 80 minute mark, Manchester United was packed in and reduced to counter attacking as Liverpool began to dominate but couldn’t get a clean shot through the thicket of defense growing in the penalty area. 

When Welbeck couldn’t even hit the target on a counter in the 83rd minute and Reina launched himself for another outside-the-area-clearance header in the 86th, destiny seemed to favor Liverpool, but would time run out?  That question was answered merely a minute later when the Liverpool number 1 booted to Carroll, who flicked beyond the napping Evra to Kuyt, who powered by the hapless De Gea at the near post.

An encore was nearly provided right after, as Carroll headed strongly off the woodwork but Kuyt failed to finish the rebound.  Manchester United now on the ropes, Sir Alex Ferguson went for the Hail Mary (to thoroughly mix the sports metaphors) by inserting Dimitar Berbatov with only seconds to go in the game.

But it was way too late, as Liverpool deservedly defeated yet another Manchester team in Cup play.  While surrendering possession for large portions of the game (only 43% possession), Liverpool’s shots on goal were 3 times as many as Manchester United’s (9-3).  And I’ll take shots on goal over possession any day of the week – especially on Saturdays.  If only they could do that in the league….

This is farlieonfootie for February 2.

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