Thursday, 27 August 2009

Liverpool 1 Aston Villa 3

Premiership Match report
Reporter: The Main (Stand) Man

I’ve held off writing this for a couple of days, in the hope that time might give me a little more perspective when reflecting on events at Anfield on Monday evening. It hasn’t. I’m still rattled by the outcome and more importantly the underperformance of the reds against a team that was beaten 5-0 here last season and who lost their talisman and captain in the summer. Whilst none of this is ever going to guarantee a victory, of course, Liverpool should have been heartened by their hammering of Stoke City a few days earlier and been right up for this one from the first whistle, but what the crowd actually got was a disjointed, submissive and uninspired 90 minutes of football from the home side. We were criticised last year for the seven home draws that ultimately cost us the league, and the hope was that this season would see us turn them into wins to give us that extra push up the league into top spot. On this showing it’ll go the other way and we’ll be lucky to get into the top four.

Benitez brought back Martin Skrtel to replace the impressive Daniel Ayala, who had made such a strong debut against Stoke. No other changes were necessary, with Riera and Babel being kept company on the bench by some of the youngsters on the fringe of the first team squad.

Surprisingly enough, Liverpool started the stronger of the two teams, going close after just thirty seconds. Torres cut in from the right and, looking up, he saw Benayoun making a run in behind the defence. He lobbed the ball up and the diminutive Israeli got to the ball in front of Brad Friedel but nodded it just wide of the post. Some of the issues began to show through soon after, however, when Villa were ludicrously awarded a corner despite Agbonlahor clearly pulling Skrtel’s shirt as he attempted to shepherd the ball out for a goalkick. As it came across, the reds crowd was amazed to see Fernando Torres virtually on his own goal-line to head clear. As the clearance came back across, there were three Villa players waiting to head the ball towards, but in the end Liverpool were lucky that Curtis Davies’ effort was directed straight at Reina.

Liverpool went up the other end, and promptly saw fit to deny Rafa’s insistence this week that we need to be more clinical in our finishing. Three reds players had a total of four chances within the space of five seconds to put the ball in the back of the net, with Torres, Benayoun and Gerrard (twice) being the culprits. The last, in all fairness was an excellent save from Friedel as he spread himself desperately in front of Gerrard to try and deflect it away from the goal. In general, though, the first 15 minutes served only to hide what was coming, with Liverpool marginally the better of the two sides going forward.

Villa soon began to put some passes together, and started to gain some momentum. In fact, it was Liverpool who were responsible in part for this as they began to give the ball away time and time again. Torres also went against Benitez’s advice as, sometimes justifiably, he started compaining to the referee about challenges from the Aston Villa defence rather than looking to play the ball. As the clock ticked round towards the half hour mark, the crowd were beginning to sense that all was not right in the Liverpool camp, with the away supporters beginning to be heard in their devoutly religious version of ‘Kum Ba Yah’ in which they seem to just recite a list of their players names.

On 32 minutes came the first goal of the game, and once again it was the reds who presented Villa with the means by which to score it. A run from Petrov towards the Liverpool box found him devoid of ideas and looking for a way to either release the ball or turn into space. As he slowed down, Lucas took the bait and challenged, with Petrov only too happy to hit the ground given his lack of options. From the freekick, it was the Brazilian who was made to pay for his error, as Ashley Young’s effort deflected off him and gave Pepe Reina no chance to save.

Liverpool, to their credit, did fashion their best chance of the half a few minutes later as they attempted to get back on terms. A (for once) good passing move saw the ball find its way out to the right flank with Benayoun, and he found the run of Glen Johnson with an intelligent backheel. When Johnson found Torres in the box, the Spaniard took one touch and fired towards goal, only to find Friedel perfectly positioned to parry the ball for a corner. With the last effort of the half, though, Villa double their lead.

When Sidwell took a potshot at goal, the ball went about 20 yards wide of the goal, and the Anfield crowd thought that a goalkick would be the final kick of the first half. When Sidwell appealed, however, the referee inexplicably saw fit to award a corner as he deemed that the ball had been deflected off Martin Skrtel. The ball was swung across and Curtis Davies found himself unmarked after no-one tracked his run to the near post, and he was able to glance the ball past Reina to leave Liverpool bemused.

No changes at half time, and Liverpool kicked off the second half heading towards the Kop end, with no-one under any illusions as to what was required. In truth, the second half would prove to be better with regard to the number of chances created, but still the inability to keep possession was evident for all to see.

Within the first couple of minutes, Johnson again went surging forward and found a clever through ball to Gerrard, but the skipper’s shot was at a good height for Friedel to pull off a smart reaction save. Mascherano’s long range follow up shot went straight into the keeper’s arms. Friedel then denied Kuyt from a Liverpool corner, tipping the ball over the bar when the Dutchman met the ball with the centre of his forehead. From the second corner, Kuyt hit the post as he stooped to head the flick on from Benayoun towards goal, and the ball ran for a throw in to the visitors.

With 25 minutes left, Liverpool had a decent shout for a penalty turned down, when Johnson slid the ball through for Torres inside the box. Facing away from goal, Reo-Coker came in seemingly from behind Torres, but the referee waved away the shouts of Liverpool players and fans. Voronin replaced Lucas soon afterwards, with Rafa looking to apply more pressure in the final third than the Brazilian had shown during the game. Gerrard stung the palms of Friedel shortly afterwards with a rasping shot from 25 yards out, and just a couple of minutes later Liverpool got the goal that brought them back into contention for the available points.

Some slick interpassing from Benayoun and Kuyt just outside the area left the ball running directly into the path of an excellent forward run from Insua. The young Argentinian found himself on the edge of the six yard box, and he had the presence of mind to play the ball across the face of the goal. Fortunately for Liverpool, Torres was standing just five yards out with no Villa player in his vicinity, and he rifled the ball into the roof of the net to give hope to the home crowd. Unfortunately, however, the game’s resurrection did not last five minutes before a moment of madness put the game beyond the reach of the reds.

Playing the ball across the field, Villa created some space outside Liverpool’s 18 yard area into which Reo-Coker made a clever run. Having effectively lost control of the ball with his touch, Gerrard came flying in with a lunge from yards away, which upended the Villa man and left the referee with no option but to point immediately towards the spot. The response from Benitez was to bring Ryan Babel on for Benayoun.

Villa were now content to sit back and let the Liverpool shirts come forward at them, a ploy which with some better finishing could have been disastrous for them. As the final ten minutes began, Torres went close from an Insua cross and then Kuyt was unable to convert a decent chance from a Babel cross. A flying run down the wing from Jamie Carragher then almost found a breakthrough, he slid the ball across the goal and Ryan Babel slotted home unchallenged, but the defender had been flagged offside after being unable to check his run for long enough. Torres again went close with his head, but found Friedel in exactly the right place again, and then a piledriver from Glen Johnson was again beaten away by the ex-Liverpool keeper.

Despite the chances, however, most Liverpool fans understood that the team from Birmingham had been far more clever in their approach to the game, and that tactically Martin O’Neill had outwitted Rafa. Again the problem with defending set-pieces was highlighted for all to see, with the zonal marking system obviously coming under heavy fire. The state of the substitute’s bench also showed the weakness in the strength of the overall squad, and if Liverpool fans expect to win the league then we need more inspiration to come off the bench. The two changes that Benitez made in the game saw Voronin and Babel come on. The Ukrainian in particular is clearly not of the required standard to play in a Liverpool shirt, and he never looks like producing a moment which can change a game. My thoughts on Babel are well documented by those who know me, but a player unwilling to challenge for the ball or even jump for a header has no place on the Anfield turf and should be sold for as much as we can get for him. Even the forward runs he undertakes seem to resemble the headless chicken more than the headstrong youngster, and after so long to develop since Benitez saw whatever he saw and signed him, it is time to admit defeat in our efforts to develop him into a top class player.

There were positives, however, to take from the game. The performance of the two full backs, Insua and in particular Johnson, was notable. Both were willing to get forward and support the attacking efforts without sacrificing their positional responsibilities in defence. Aurelio may well have a fight on his hands to retake the left back role from Insua. Another positive should be taken from the second half performance, which, whilst lacking the quality and penetration, at least displayed some drive and determination in the efforts to get back into the match.

A final word to the fans who saw fit to leave after the Aston Villa penalty, seventeen minutes from time. The sight of this kind of desertion provides a detriment to the club’s name. As we all know and have seen countless times over the years, magical things can happen on the field when Liverpool are playing, cast your mind back to Istanbul where three goals in six minutes won us the European Cup for the fifth time, the two goals scored in the last three minutes versus Charlton a few seasons back, and the similar effort in the home game against Middlesbrough at the start of last season. Next time, don’t bother spending your money on a ticket which could be happily filled by someone who understands the meaning of ‘You’ll Never Walk Alone’.

Match time and date: KO 20:00. 24 August 2009
Goals: Lucas 34(og), Davies 45, Torres 72, A Young 75(pen)
Yellow cards: Liverpool Reina, Torres, Skrtel; Aston Villa A Young, Reo-Coker
Referee: M Atkinson (Yorkshire).
Attendance: 43,667

Liverpool (4-2-3-1): Reina; Johnson, Carragher, Skrtel, Insua; Lucas (Voronin, 66), Mascherano; Kuyt, Gerrard, Benayoun (Babel, 75); Torres. Substitutes not used: Cavalieri (gk), Riera, Kelly, Dossena, Ayala.

Aston Villa (4-5-1): Friedel; Beye, Cuellar, Davies, Shorey; Milner, Reo-Coker, Petrov, Sidwell, A Young (Heskey, 80); Agbonlahor. Substitutes not used: Albrighton, Delfouneso, Delph, Guzan (gk), Gardner, Lowry.

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