A vibrant, effervescent performance last night saw Liverpool officially book their place in the play-off round of the Europa League. It must be stressed at the outset that the opposition would struggle to beat a League 1 side. But nevertheless, an Anfield just over two-thirds full would have been pleased to see signs of real promise for the future.
This tie was effectively over at full time last week in Skopje. Then, Roy Hodgson was forced to field a relatively inexperienced line-up. Yet, with a friendly against Borussia Monchengladbach at the weekend behind them, the Liverpool manager was now able to unleash some of his World Cup heavyweights. Steven Gerrard, Jamie Carragher and Glen Johnson all returned to the team. And making his first competitive start for the Reds was Joe Cole, and he proved to be the star turn of the evening.
With a slight tactical change from the first leg, moving his two wingers a little further forward from a 4-4-1-1 into a 4-2-3-1 formation, Hodgson saw his side assert complete control over the game almost immediately. The attacks of the Macedonians, making one change with Adem coming in for Sekulovski at left-back, could be described as sporadic at best throughout as Liverpool set up base camp in their opponent’s half.
Cole, operating between Rabotnicki’s defensive and midfield lines, was a menace from the first minute to the last. Afforded far too much time on the ball for a player of his technical ability, he was at the heart of everything good about the home side. Of course, he needed to be fed the ball to weave his magic. This role fell to a deeper-lying Gerrard, acting as quarterback, fully understanding of how to set a game’s tempo.
An early link up between the two set up David N’Gog, but the striker rather dithered when through on goal. Gerrard tried his luck from outside the box, but his shot was turned away by Bogatinov at his near post. Yet, the pressure was mounting and it only seemed a matter of time before Rabotnicki succumbed.
From the resulting corner, so it proved. Gerrard took a short one to Cole. He chipped the ball, straight onto the head of N’Gog in the box. 1-0. The tone was set. Liverpool’s play was fluid, dynamic. Cole and his new teammates were quickly on the same wavelength. Cue tricks and cheeky flicks. Johnson was essentially playing as a right winger, driving in-field as he loves to do.
Soon, Liverpool had another goal to show for their performance. N’Gog was unceremoniously wrestled to the ground in the area by Fernando Lopes. Gerrard calmly side-footed the penalty into the corner of the net. There should have been a third by half-time as N’Gog unselfishly passed when through one on one, but scuffed the attempted ball to Gerrard.
The trend continued in the second-half as more chances were created. Cole clipped the bar from an attempted cross, Milan Jovanovic asked a question of Bogatinov from long-range. The Serb, like Cole a free transfer, was also catching the eye, with runs that combined good acceleration with adroit close control.
But the former Chelsea man was stealing the show. He seemed to be everywhere, even preventing a Rabotnicki break from a Liverpool corner. Twice he tested Bogatinov at his near post, but was denied. He combined with Jovanovic to set up N’Gog, whose profligacy in front of goal continued as he sent his free header wide. And again with substitute Maxi Rodriguez whose shot was blocked.
To their credit, the away side finished the match well. Mojsov had a penalty claim against Skrtel turned down whilst Petkovski hit the post from a corner. But the scoreline would remain as it was, and the Kop would have a new hero to acclaim.