Wednesday, April 18, 2012

¡Viva Liverpool!

photo by deanwissingvia PhotoRee

The dream is still alive for Columnist Scott:

The length and complete silence of the tribute paid to the victims of the 1989 Hillsborough disaster, prior to Saturday's FA Cup Semi-Final game between Liverpool and Everton, was poignant and admirably respected by every single one of the over 87,000 fans in attendance. My condolences to the families of the victims and my respect to the fans.

The game itself, however, was far from silent, which is not surprising given the rivalry of these two Liverpool teams.  This was the 5th Merseyside derby at Wembley Stadium and proved to be a thriller, with the Reds coming out on top with a bit of luck.

That bit of luck was needed after the previous fortnight of Liverpool goalkeeping problems.  First, there was Pepe Reina being dismissed from the Newcastle game for a forehead brush deemed a headbutt.  Then there was his replacement, Alexander Doni, being dismissed from the Blackburn game after being forced, compliments of John Flanagan's horrendous back pass, into a lunging effort that floored Junior Hoillet.  His replacement in that game, Brad Jones, for whom the erring Flanagan was sacrificed, then proceeded to see a yellow card that could have been red when he tumbled Yakubu Aiyegbeni while attempting to recover his bumbled catch.  Andy Carroll scored the winner at Ewood Park that day to foreshadow the events that would unfold at Wembley.

Back to the game at hand - a curious starting lineup was put forth by the under-fire Kenny Dalglish.  Jose Enrique was absent ,as were Dirk Kuyt and scoring-machine Maxi Rodriguez.  At the back, Daniel Agger was out wide on the left with Glen Johnson on the right to bookend Jamie Carragher and Martin Skrtl.  Andy Carroll got the starting nod along with Luis Suarez up front, while they were supported in midfield by Jordan Henderson, Stuart Downing, Jay Spearing and Steven Gerrard.  Brad Jones, by default and only after Alexander Doni's red card appeal failed, manned the goal.

The game turned out to be a tale of two halves - the first half with more back and forth but with Everton looking the more dangerous and the second half in which Liverpool dominated from start to finish.

With Everton pressing more strongly throughout the first period, Liverpool seemed content to consistently work the ball from front to back before their Australian 'keeper would boom it back to the front again in search of Carroll's head.  This pattern did not go unnoticed by the commentators, who beat that issue into the ground, dug it up, lit it on fire and then beat it some more.

But the real beating should have been reserved for Carragher, who played the Polite Game with Agger ("No,no, you kick it - I insist") despite being in the better position to clear the ball in the 24th minute.  Pathetically, he fell to the ground while kicking straight at Tim Cahill who will win the Most Unintentional Assist award for being the object from which Carragher's attempt ricocheted, said ricochet falling deliciously for the salivating Nikica Jelevic, who finished well.

David Moyes led the ocean of blue in ebullient celebrations after that bit of fortune, giving the Everton faithful something to do besides boo Suarez every time he touched the ball.  The scene was grim for the Reds ,who seemed bitten by the bad luck bug again with no relief in sight as their chances were getting fewer and farther between.  Everton was controlling the midfield, Gerrard was not being effective, Agger was failing to link up with Downing as Jose Enrique typically can and the central defense looked suspect at best.  Dalglish needed to shake the snowglobe.

Fortunately, with under 10 minutes to go in the half, the Liverpool manager obliged with a tweak consisting of switching Downing to the right to swap with Henderson.  The move paid immediate dividends as Downing was able to get a good cross in with his side now pressing more.  Still, after Suarez and John Heitinga took a couple tumbles in the grass together, the half ended with the Reds down a goal.

Dalglish must have dusted off an effective motivational speech for halftime because Liverpool came out with a vengeance in the second half.  And only two minutes in, they should have leveled when the industrious Downing played a beautiful cross to an open Carroll who seemed to try too hard as he missed the frame, prompting more discussion of his transfer fee and Liverpool's poor season.  Would it be one of those days again?

Trying to answer that question, the Reds turned up the energy and creativity even more.  So it was unfortunate when Spearing's through ball to Suarez was too hard, as the Uruguayan was through on goal.  But fortune did smile on them in the 61st minute when Sylvain Distin did the opposite - failing to pass hard enough back to Tim Howard.  Suarez pounced on the error and cooly finished with the outside of his foot past Everton's American goalkeeper.

It was a horrible mistake and incredible luck for Liverpool, but the team seized that fortune and amped up the momentum even more, brimming with confidence.  And even though Everton got a few more licks in, such as when Leon Osman got a wicked shot on target that was saved by Jones in the 77th minute, Liverpool continued to press and dominate.  A minute later, Carroll again had a chance to get on the scoreboard but put his effort wide of the post.  The 82nd minute saw Jelavic shoot into the side netting but that was to be the last of the Toffee's real chances.

Liverpool however, still had tricks in the bag.  When Craig Bellamy came on for Downing in the 84th minute, after Maxi Rodriguez had previously come on for Henderson, the game seemed poised for a big event.  It nearly came a minute later when Bellamy was away to goal after a Carroll flick on, but the Welshman was pulled back even though it was not called.  Bellamy offered his thoughts to the referee in typical fashion - with his lips and teeth clapping together as if applauding the parade of profanity marching out into the Wembley air.

Real applause soon followed, though.  When Gerrard won a free kick near the penalty area, Bellamy delivered perfectly for Carroll to head home, his second late winner in the last week.   With this VERY big goal, Liverpool were deservedly ahead and Carroll chipped away just a bit more at the skepticism surrounding his worth.  The balance of the game saw Howard put on a goalkeeping clinic as he kept out Maxi's point blank shot from Suarez' well-placed cross, and then saving again during extra time.

The final whistle faded into a loud sigh escaping my lungs, as warm relief soothed the prickly nerves that had commandeered my emotions since Everton's goal.  Now the only FA Cup question to be answered is: Will Liverpudlians be celebrating with Mexican-Americans (albeit for different reasons) on Cinco de Mayo?  ¡Viva Liverpool! 

This is farlieonfootie for April 18. ¡Ole!

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