The tension at Anfield must have been palpable as the Reds stepped on to the pitch to face off against a resilient Aston Villa on Monday night.
The Liverpool faithful made their feelings toward the team’s current American owner duo perfectly clear. Every other cheer from the Kop end was directed at Hicks and Gillett and finished with the loud demand, “Get Out of Our Club“! Speculation has surrounded Hicks in particular this week, as it was reported that the determinedly interested Dubai International Capital (DIC) made a bid for Hicks’ shares of the club.
While the fans faith must be shaken by the team’s thus far lackluster Premier League campaign, they stood behind their boss, Rafa Benitez, who must be seen as the protagonist in their struggle against the club’s ownership. Benitez, never ceasing to mystify his club’s fans and the rest of the soccer world, opted to start Harry Kewell over the in-form Ryan Babel. Kewell, who has played reasonably well since returning from his long-term injury spell, has not contributed the same kind of firepower that Babel has. The young Dutchman has tallied seven goals and 2 assists in his 29 matches with the club, 16 as a substitute, the most sub appearances for any Red this season.
Noticeably absent from the Aston Villa side throughout the match was their skipper Gareth Barry. The top Villan has been pivotal in the team’s efforts to rise up the Premier League table. He has guided the Midlands side with his precision passing and playmaking, as well as demonstrating strength and maturity in pressure situations (e.g. several big spot kicks). He was sidelined with a bruised pelvis which he sustained during training. Craig Gardener filled the vacancy.
The visiting Aston Villa fans were bemoaning the absence of their captain as Liverpool largely controlled the first half. Villa continually coughed up the ball in the midfield, never allowing the potent strike force of Agbonlahor and Young to catch their stride. The young Englishmen have added pace to Villa’s wings, supporting John Carew’s usual power in the middle. Failing to utilize his size, Carew played like a mouse.
Liverpool outworked Aston Villa for the ball. This was most noticeably seen in the matchup between John Carew and Sami Hyypia. Both are larger footballers, but when push came to shove, Hyypia was cleverer about his positioning and balance and outmaneuvered the Norwegian forward.
The Reds controlled the pace of the game, but settled for squirrelly long-range efforts in the opening 15 minutes. Soon after, they started to look more fluid, linking strings of sharp and cute passes that led into the box. One such effort finally finished successfully as Yossi Benayoun was fed in the box and battled three Villa defenders, ushering the ball passed Stuart Taylor and a few more diving defenders.
Benayoun has been a surprisingly solid piece of transfer business for Rafa Benitez’s squad. Acquired over the summer from West Ham, the Israeli midfielder had only produced 8 goals in 63 appearances for the Hammers. He had more productive seasons earlier in his career with home country sides Hapoel Be’er Sheva and Maccabi Haifa. I watched a few of his performances for last years dismal West Ham team, but they were certainly nothing that I thought deserved the attention of a Big Four club. So needless to say, I was surprised when Liverpool forked over between â‚¤4-5 million pounds for him. Not so surprisingly, Rafa has proved to be wiser than I, as Benayoun has chipped in 7 goals in less than 30 appearances.
The half finished with a glimmer of offense from Villa as Carew flicked on a long ball forward to an attacking Agbonlahor, only to have it swiped away by Carragher. The two sides emerged from the half unchanged.
Liverpool put together some decent spells of offense that saw Torres and Kuyt piecing together passes that opened up some more shots on goal. Meanwhile, Villa took off Barry replacement Craig Gardener in favor of Villa’s ex-Hammer addition Marlon Harewood.
Harewood got involved immediately with a run up the left. He provided a spark to a Villa side that was losing its steam. Harewood slid a cross past Arbeloa and another Liverpool defender that found John Carew in the box. Carew was able to gather and turn, but his shot lacked the power to truly test Reina, who gathered it easily.
Only minutes later, Villa received a free kick for a foul on Stiliyan Petrov. The free kick found Martin Laursen, the league’s top scoring centre-back with 6 goals, who headed across the box to find Harewood who coolly while under pressure found the back of the net with a semi-overhead kick to draw Aston Villa level.
Benitez took the opportunity to take off a struggling Arbeloa and hand a Premier League debut to his newest signing, 23-year old Slovakian defender Martin Skrtel, recently acquired from Russian Premier League Champions Zenit St. Petersburg.
Only two and half minutes had passed since Harewood’s finish when Liverpool found themselves again defending a Villa free kick. This time Arbeloa found himself too bunched in the center of the box, leaving Mellberg alone on the right of goal. Mellberg misfired a shot that appeared to be heading left of goal. Reina had stepped out to attempt to handle it, but before it could get to him it managed to deflect off of Arbeloa’s hands into the net.
Arbeloa’s defense had been unsteady the entire game. He looked entirely unsure of himself when he was on the ball, having been stripped of it on a couple of occasion, one instance left Gardner dangerously alone in an advanced position. His own goal had left Liverpool facing an embarrassing defeat at home in front of an already disgruntled crowd.
Benitez immediately began warming up his attacking options, Babel and Crouch. As I mentioned earlier, Babel should have started in place of Kewell, which is eventually the move that Benitez made first. Babel was involved from the word “Go”. Liverpool was back on the attack but was still lacking a finishing touch.
Liverpool’s goalscorer Benayoun was replaced in the 80th by Crouch. The 6’7″ striker who, for a footballer of his ability, has been unusually accepting of his role at Liverpool provided the prowess in box that Liverpool had been lacking. It seems like every time I watch Peter play, he scores. Being 6’5″ myself, I enjoy seeing the tall and lanky guy score. He may look like a baby giraffe out there, but the guy knows how to find the net. He cleaned up a scramble in the box in the 89th minute saving the Reds from what likely would have been a hefty home crowd booing as they left the pitch.
Liverpool averted disaster on home soil, but find themselves outside of the Champions League place that as a Big Four club they have come to accept as a given. With questions about their ownership looming overhead, one has to wonder if or when it’s really going to start raining on Liverpool’s season. Captain Stevie G has admitted that the team is being affected.
Gillett and Hicks are going to have to figure out how they can contribute to salvaging this season, whether that means stepping back and letting Rafa have more hold of the reins or stepping in and getting down to business on the front lines themselves. Something needs to be done or else make room for Dubai.