Liverpool without Steven Gerrard. A bit like a roast dinner without gravy, only more noticeably weak. Take the skipper out of Rafa Benitezï¿½s plans and watch them unravel. Right?
The press has been full of it. Michael Essien apparently is the sole reason Chelsea were able to stifle Liverpool at Anfield in midweek, his diligent midfield work squeezed the life out of the Redsï¿½ number eight and set Guus Hiddinkï¿½s side on the way to a resounding Champions League quarter final win. The message was clear. Stop Gerrard, stop Liverpool.
How refreshing then to see Benitezï¿½s side respond to their midweek night-class at the hands of Hiddink & Chelsea with a display that not only brushed aside Blackburn, but also this silly notion that Gerrard is indispensable to Liverpool, even in this sort of run-of-the-mill home fixture.
Ok fair play. Blackburn are not Chelsea. Paul Robinson is not Petr Cech. David Dunn is not Frank Lampard (just donï¿½t tell him that). Tugay is not Michael Essien (more like Michael Douglas these days), and Christopher Samba is certainly not Didier Drogba.
But just because Sam Allardyce selected a side with a centre back at left back, a left back in centre midfield, a centre midfielder at right back and a Christopher Samba in attack, does not mean that plaudits should deflect away from Liverpool. Here they were, days after the kind of defeat that threatened to derail Manchester Unitedï¿½s Greatest Ever Squadï¿½ a month ago, responding in style. Responding, dare I say, like Champions?
Liverpool make it look so simple
Five minutes was all it took to extinguish the early nerves. Fernando Torres, just as on Wednesday, breaking the Anfield Road net with a superb finish off his right foot. But unlike Wednesday, there was to be no inexplicable implosion from Liverpoolï¿½s reshuffled defence. Emiliano Insua & Daniel Agger had replaced Fabio Aurelio & Martin Skrtel, but there were no signs of rustiness from either.
Without Gerrard, Dirk Kuyt & Yossi Benayoun took turns apiece to play the withdrawn striker role behind Torres, whilst behind them Xabi Alonso assumed the mental of driving force with a display of genuine world class alongside the Energizer bunny that is Javier Mascherano.
Against Chelsea on Wednesday, Alonso found himself struggling against the Blue tide that descended on the midfield from about the quarter of an hour mark. With only the ineffective Lucas beside him, Alonso found himself chasing rather than scheming, tackling rather than creating.
Here, with his enforcer next to him, he tucked the game up neatly in his back pocket from the word go. Sam Allardyce probably helped him, Tugay & Dunn look like a midfield pairing for which the term ï¿½have seen better daysï¿½ was invented for, whilst the South African Aaron Mokoena looked like he was playing with blinkers on before his merciful half-time withdrawal.
It all meant that the lone ï¿½strikerï¿½ Samba was left to forage for possession against Carragher, Agger and co with minimal success. He may well be 6ft 5in, but when you have no-one to head the ball to, and Alonso and/or Mascherano snapping at your heels as soon as you even think about chesting the ball down, you are not going to have much joy. One shot on target was all Blackburnï¿½s attack mustered.
Liverpool by contrast were pinging the ball round at will. Alonso played with 360ï¿½ vision and utilised beautifully the space afforded to Insua & Albert Riera down the left, Riera had one of his better games attacking the vulnerable Keith Andrews time and time again, whilst Benayoun & Kuyt caused problems either down the right flank or drifting infield.
Both could have had their names on the scoresheet in one move, Kuyt heading at Robinson from point blank range before Benayoun blazed the rebound off target. It took Torres to add the second, a fine header from Alonsoï¿½s whipped free kick, and Liverpool- like their fans- had the deckchairs and Bermuda shorts out before half time, allowing Agger & David Ngog added the icing in the second half as Blackburn downed tools. It was a walk in the park, just what the doctor ordered.
Rafa’s rotation policy finally works
Benitez takes plenty of criticism for his rotation policy. His argument has always been that it is necessary to take risks early in the season to avoid burn-out later on.
In previous seasons this theory has proven hard to justify seeing as though Liverpool have usually been out of contention for league honours by January/February and therefore able to rest and rotate their squad as and when needed, but with this seasonï¿½s title challenge threatening to linger on into May, the Spaniardï¿½s analysis seems bang on. Liverpoolï¿½s players look hungry, they look focused, they look super-fit.
One incident in the second half summed this up. Mascherano, just ten days after an oxygen-sapping defeat with Argentina in the Bolivian mountains, charged forty yards to throw himself into a (admittedly needless) challenge on Andre Ooijer. He missed, but was up in a flash and launching himself back into nick the ball away for Riera. The Kop loved it, they always do. It was an indication that this side is not prepared to fold and blame fixture congestion or lack of rest.
In the end Gerrard wasnï¿½t even required to do much more than excite the Main Stand with a gratuitous jog down the touchline, with Lucas sent on for man-of-the-match Alonso late on. It may only have been a patched up Blackburn- they will stay up but god they were awful yesterday- but Liverpool sent out two clear messages yesterday.
One is that this is a side that is strong enough physically and mentally to withstand setbacks and pressure, the other is that Steven Gerrard is not Liverpool FC, he is just the best bit…
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