If you’d believed all you’d read in the past couple of days, it wasn’t worth Liverpool showing up to face Internazionale tonight, after all, having seen their Premiership challenge fail to last the winter (again), and then their FA Cup ambitions go up in smoke at the hands of Barnsley at the weekend, a game against the side eleven points clear at the top of Serie A, and unbeaten since September 29th in all competitions, was hardly the ideal fixture, especially in front of an increasingly expectant and impatient Kop.
But as it happened, for Rafa Benitèz and his men it WAS the ideal fixture. From the moment the overly fussy Belgian referee Frank De Bleeckere blew his whistle to start proceedings at Anfield, Liverpool were everything the fans believe they should be every week- sharp, focused, committed, energetic, and probing. It was the Liverpool that had been noticeably missing since sometime at the end of November, and it was a wholly more enjoyable sight than the lethargic side that has been masquerading as Premier League challengers for the past couple of months.
Inter had come to Merseyside with the aim of keeping the crowd quiet by playing a patient game, and with the hope of nicking that most precious of European football commodities, the away goal, but their plans were thrown into turmoil with the harsh dismissal of defender Marco Materazzi before the half hour mark for a pair of questionable bookings. With ten men, Inter were unable to offer a sustained goal threat, and seemed content to hang on for a goalless draw. They looked set to manage it too until first Dirk Kuyt and then Steven Gerrard found a way past Julio Cesar in the final five minutes to leave the Italian champions with it all to do in the second leg at the San Siro in three weeks time.
Benitèz opted for an attacking line up, as expected, with Fernando Torres returning after his thigh injury, and Ryan Babel’s pace and dynamism preferred to Harry Kewell’s…erm….reputation on the left, there was also a place for young Brazilian Lucas Leiva, who was preferred to an out of form Xabi Alonso, whilst Fabio Aurelio got the nod at left back ahead of John Arne Riise. Inter welcomed back their first choice strike pairing of Zlatan Ibrahimovic & Julio Ricardo Cruz, who had been rested for their weekend game with Livorno, whilst former Arsenal favourite Patrick Vieira was amongst their substitutes, alongside fellow Champions League luminaries Luis Figo & Hernan Crespo.
The opening exchanges were frenetic, as many would have predicted, with Liverpool’s attacking quartet of Babel, Torres, Gerrard & the much maligned Dirk Kuyt enjoying plenty of possession without looking overly threatening. Indeed the first real chance fell to, of all people, Jamie Carragher, as he was left alone in the box twelve yards out from Gerrard’s right wing corner, but his scuffed volley was blocked on the six yard line by Ivan Cordoba- with an arm, but it would have been a ludicrously harsh penalty.
Carragher’s defensive colleague Sami Hyypia was the next to find space in the penalty area from another Gerrard corner, with his header turned over the bar by Julio Cesar as Liverpool looked to make their early dominance of possession and territory count. The Italians cause was not helped by early bookings for their defensive pair Chivu & Materazzi, the latter for an innocuous looking clip of Torres’ heels as the Spaniard ran across his path down the right hand channel, and soon these would come back to haunt the Italians as Materazzi was given a second yellow on 29 minutes for another minimal-contact foul on Torres.
The look of disbelief on the former Everton defender’s face was not an unfamiliar sight, but in this instance it seemed pretty much the uniform reaction to the decision. It didn’t appear to knock the visitors off their game too much for the remainder of the first half, Chivu slotted in alongside Cordoba at centre half, with the Brazilian Maxwell dropping back in to left back, and the reshuffled defence coped pretty comfortably with Liverpool, despite plenty of endeavour and energy from the hosts, with Mascherano & Lucas in particular seeing a lot of the ball. A wild 20 yard effort from Babel was the only significant effort on goal before the break, although Gerrard almost unlocked the Inter defence in first half stoppage time with a trademark burst into the box from deep, but his squared cross was too far ahead of Torres, and Maicon was able to scramble the ball to safety and ensure the Italians reached half time on a level footing score-wise, if not man-wise.
The expected second half onslaught in front of the Kop End took a little while to materialise in the second half, and indeed it was Liverpool who started a little edgily with a lack of communication between Hyypia & Pepe Reina eventually resulting in Esteban Cambiasso slashing a shot wide from the edge of the box. The response was immediate however, as a fine one-two between Mascherano & Steve Finnan saw the Irishman’s driven low cross cleared from inside his own six yard box by Chivu, before Kuyt’s persistence allowed him to charge down Patrick Vieira’s attempted pass, and the ball ran through between the two centre halves for Torres, the Spaniard’s pace took him clear but his well struck low drive was brilliantly touched round the post by the fully-extended Julio Cesar.
It was enough to get the crowd as noisy as they had been all night, and from the resultant corner Hyypia should have done better with a header from 8 yards that landed on the top of the net. Gerrard was growing into the game, and it was his surging run down the right moments later that brought about the second controversial decision of the evening from De Bleeckere, the Reds skipper lifted the ball over the head of Vieira as he reached the by-line, and the Frenchman responded with a raised arm that stopped both Gerrard & the ball in their tracks. De Bleeckere ignored the cries from players and fans alike, signalling for a corner, although replays showed his assistant in a perfect position to see what was a pretty blatant handball.
Unperturbed, Liverpool continued to boss the game with their numerical advantage, and Torres was within a whisker of breaking the deadlock with a fine shot on the turn from 20 yards that fizzed past the scrambling Cesar’s right hand post. Reinforcements arrived soon after, with Peter Crouch sent on for the impressively composed Lucas, and it didn’t take long for the England man to make an impact, as he collected Cordoba’s weak headed clearance, but dragged his hurried half-volley wide of the post from the edge of the box.
Inter’s diminutive centre half pairing struggled to cope with the new aerial threat, and Crouch worked himself another half chance with some deft control to bring down Aurelio’s cross from the left, but his shot was charged down by Maxwell, with Finnan blazing the loose ball high into the Kop. It was beginning to look like it would be a missed chance, against ten men, for Liverpool to gain an advantage in the tie, but with six minutes remaining substitute Jermaine Pennant swung in a cross from the right that was more hopeful than measured, the ball bounced behind Crouch for Kuyt lurking beyond the back post, and the Dutchman produced a composed first touch before firing in a volley that skimmed off the bottom of Maicon’s foot and flashed over Cesar’s head into the net to send Anfield into raptures.
It was a deserved breakthrough for Benitez’s men, albeit slightly fortuitous in its arrival and execution, Kuyt’s celebration mixed joy and relief as the Dutchman looks to recapture some semblance of form in a season that until now has delivered so little. Benitez was patrolling the technical area immediately after the goal, imploring his side to keep pushing on for a second goal and berating the fourth official as a break in play ran down a good minute and a half of such precious time. Perhaps he sensed a chink in Inter’s armour, and so it proved in the final minute as Pennant found Gerrard on the right hand corner of the penalty area, and his skipper arrowed a fierce low drive across a crowded box and into the net via the far post.
Cue delirium from all in red, whilst Inter’s body language suggested they were already contemplating the scale of the task facing them in the return leg. Put into context, a goal for Liverpool in the San Siro three weeks from now would mean Inter would need to score four times to progress. It really is hard to overstate the importance of that second goal. Although Inter will justifiably argue that the importance of their chief defender’s dismissal deserves equal emphasis (ironic really as the Nerazzuri have spent the past few weeks reading about how much favouritism they receive from referees in Serie A).
Inter were not great here even with eleven men, Cruz & Ibrahimovic failed to trouble Liverpool’s backline, whilst Cambiasso comprehensively lost the battle against his Argentine international team-mate Mascherano, ably assisted by the developing Lucas. On the positive side, Cesar was in fine form, and both Chivu & Cordoba turned in decent performances, but a man down it was always a big ask to keep out a wounded Liverpool side, and Benitez ensured his side took full advantage, and may well have just kept their season alive in the process.
Who’d have though it eh? Barnsley a better side than Inter Milan!