Monday, 3 August 2009

Espanyol 3 Liverpool 0

Pre-Season Match 2009

The Main (Stand) Man has returned from sunning himself in Catalonia and delivered his match report on last nights disappointing pre season friendly against Espanyol.

Easily the strongest starting line-up of the pre-season so far took to the field for the first game at Espanyol’s brand new stadium. A packed house saw the line up of Reina, Johnson, Insua, Carragher, San Jose, Lucas, Mascherano, Gerrard, Kuyt, Benayoun and Torres begin the game, which was to prove the most disappointing of the games thus far. Given that the Spanish side only began training 15 days after the reds began their preparations, Rafa would have been expecting much more from this experienced eleven than they could produce on the night. The home side fielded some good quality and well known players of their own such as Ivan de la Pena, Shunsuke Nakamura and Ivan Alonso, who once scored for Alaves in that thrilling night in Dortmund in 2001.

The reds began positively enough, Glen Johnson surging forward from right back and almost finding himself in the clear after a clever passing move. Reina was soon called into action at the other end, however, after de la Pena set up Ivan Alonso, whose drilled shot was well held by the Liverpool goalkeeper without too much difficulty. A highly dubious freekick was then awarded following Glen Johnson’s ‘challenge’ on Nakamura, but the resultant cross from Luis Garcia (no, not the ex-Liverpool man) was ably defended by Liverpool’s new signing himself before the referee saw the linesman flagging for offside anyway. A Gerrard freekick for the reds was then swung dangerously into the box, but an excellent piece of goalkeeping saw off the challenge from Torres.

The game was being played in a very open manner, something which was always likely to suit the Spaniards rather than the compact operating system preferred by Rafa’s men. A corner on 10 minutes found Reina flapping at the ball without making contact, and Carragher was forced to nod the ball only marginally wide of his own post in order to retrieve the situation. A link up between Gerrard and Torres then threatened to provide Liverpool’s first real effort on goal before the move was eventually snuffed out, although the skipper went within a whisker of putting the reds in front after 18 minutes. Picking the ball up from Benayoun about 25 yards from goal, Gerrard was not closed by the defence and struck a beautiful shot with the outside of his right boot. With the keeper well and truly beaten, the ball smacked against the crossbar and rebounded to safety.

Within moments of this scare, though, Espanyol went down to the other end of the pitch and scored the opener. A hopeful ball from the back found men in blue and white pouring forward, and while Carragher was able to head the ball back, it fell to Nakamura. His ball into the box found Luis Garcia whose deft control and turn left the Liverpool defence for dead and he was able to slide the ball past Reina into the bottom corner. Liverpool’s passing had been OK for the first 20 minutes, but it must be said that the home team had shown far more adventure in their forays forward and deserved to take the lead.

The reds were looking to make a quick response, and when Gerrard’s pass sent Torres racing forward his touch put the ball past Pereia who promptly bundled him over. Had it been a competitive match, it is likely that he would have been sent off as he was clearly the last defender. The freekick was taken by Gerrard who, with the Espanyol wall clearly encroaching within the required ten yards, was still able to bend the ball round the side of the onrushing players. Again the keeper was well beaten but again the woodwork proved an effective last line of defence, the upright this time denying the Liverpool captain his reward. Soon Benayoun initiated another attack when he picked the ball up in his own half. Sprinting into the opposition half, he slid the ball to Gerrard who soon returned it. The Israeli’s quick one-two with Torres on the edge of the box then looked to have set him through, but he tried to turn back inside onto his right foot which gave the defenders time to recover and clear.

Espanyol had the ball in the Liverpool net again with five minutes left in the first half. A cutting throughball from Pereia found Raul Tamudo who had turned San Jose with too much ease to latch onto the pass. A dubious offside flag, though, rendered his superb shot academic as the referee accepted the linesman’s decision. The rest of the half then wound down without further incident, and in all truth the score could have been 2-0 either way or even 2-2, however the home side walked off with the single goal advantage. Benitez will have been happy with the way his team reacted to going a goal behind, as well as with the fitness benefits undoubtedly brought by playing a relatively high-tempo 45 minutes in the Barcelona heat.

Just four changes for the second half, with Ryan Babel, Andrea Dossena, Philippe Degen and Jay Spearing all coming on, replacing Benayoun, Johnson, Insua and Mascherano. Perhaps the use of Spearing ahead of Xabi Alonso can be taken as an indication that the Spaniard will certainly be leaving the club following his transfer request last week. The changes, however, did not make the impact that Rafa would have been looking for in the early stages of the second period. Indeed, it was Reina who was called upon first, tipping over a 25 yard strike from Verdu. The reds found themselves chasing the ball too often as the assured first touch and accurate passing play of the home side ensured that Liverpool spent long periods looking to regain possession. Some more good approach play led to a chipped ball from Callejon looking for the run of Ivan Alonso. Again the inexperienced Mikel San Jose was caught too stationary, and the Spaniard was only just unable to latch onto the pass with his outstretched foot.

Liverpool were finding it difficult to get their rhythm going in the second period, failing to add to their shots tally in the first 15 minutes of the half. Shortly after the hour mark, this poor period was made worse as the home team scored a relatively easy second. Some good work from Chica just inside the right hand side of the Liverpool half eventually saw him cut inside and slide the ball to Callejon. His pass along the ground was inch perfect for Sahar who calmly slid the ball past Reina with the keeper exposed. In truth, Philippe Degen was far more interested in appealing for offside than continuing to close down the striker and make the finish more difficult, a fact that will not have escaped the watchful eye of Mr. Benitez. Such a lack of concentration and endeavour cannot be seen as the mark of a player worthy of the red shirt, and in truth his all round play throughout the pre-season has done nothing to encourage me to say otherwise.

From this point onwards, there was only ever going to be one winner of this match, with The ‘Paraquitos’ (Parakeets), as they are nicknamed, dominating statistics for both possession and chances. The introduction of Riera, Ngog, Voronin and Plessis with 20 minutes remaining did little to change this, particularly as they were replacing players that Liverpool turn to for inspiration in times of trouble such as Gerrard, Torres and Kuyt. Whilst acknowledging that these mass substitutions do not make it easy for those entering the fray to make an impact, the resultant eleven left on the field will hardly be one that strikes fear into the hearts of many opponents.

From this point, the game began to drift aimlessly towards the final whistle. Liverpool were unable to provide any clear chances, and Espanyol continued to look dangerous on the counter-attack without being able to add to their tally, but the fragile looking Liverpool rearguard was unable to hold out until the end of the match.

Just three minutes were left of the 90 when Espanyol netted for a third and final time. It was San Jose who lost possession to Chica on the edge of his own box and when his shot ricocheted off Reina straight into the path of Sahar who scored slotted home his second of the night. The forward could have had his hat-trick shortly afterwards, but San Jose was able to get back and clear off the line after Sahar had rounded Reina.

The referee called a halt to proceedings with barely twenty seconds of injury time played, and Liverpool had been well beaten by a side that should not have been able to show more energy and creativity than a visiting side who will begin their Premier League campaign a full two weeks before La Liga restarts. Worrying signs for Rafael Benitez, with the performance of San Jose showing that he is not yet ready to take the step up into the first team as cover, and others, in particular Degen, not showing either the desire or talent of players looking to establish themselves as first team regulars.

In all truth, the first half was played by a team which will not be far away from that to start against Harry Redknapp’s side on 16th August, and this was by far the better period for the reds. Again the strength in depth of the squad has to be called into question, however, given the performance of the replacements brought on before and during the second 45 minutes. At this point in pre-season, Liverpool should be looking to improve results rather than concentrating on fitness which should by now be approaching the levels required of the Premier League, a point which will make this result even more disappointing for Rafa. Of particular interest will be the recovery times for Agger and Skrtel to return to the squad. If Daniel Agger has even half of the injury worries that he has over the past season and a half, then the absence of Sami Hyypia will begin to show. Reliance on Jamie Carragher as an almost ever-present in the side cannot continue forever, and the lack of qualified cover should worry Benitez even if there are other areas of the pitch that need recruitment more urgently. It is to be hoped that this result gives a wake up call to the Liverpool side, who will now travel to Norway to face Lyn Oslo on Wednesday night. Only this match and the home fixture versus Atletico Madrid now stand between Liverpool and the opening League fixture, and plenty of improvement is needed before the reds can go to White Hart Lane with any great deal of confidence.

Match time and date: KO 20:00. 2 August 2009

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