Another year, another chance to see whether Liverpool really do have a side capable of prolonging a Premiership challenge beyond the first round of carol singers. And on today’s showing at the Stadium of Light, where Fernando Torres’ 81st minute thunderbolt secured a scarcely deserved three points, it is tempting to conclude that for all the talk of Liverpool’s extra “cutting edge,” the same old problems persist with Rafa Benitez’s side.
Benitez had admitted in the week that he had been surprised and disappointed by his side’s insipid performance away to Belgian champions Standard Liege on Wednesday and, predictably, made two surprising alterations from that lineup.
If Steven Gerrard’s inclusion from the start was hardly a shock, the fact that it was Damian Plessis – and not Xabi Alonso – who partnered him raised more than a few eyebrows. The other surprise starter was the old warhorse himself, Sami Hyypia, with the highly rated duo of Daniel Agger & Martin Skrtel having to settle for a place on the new seven-man subs bench, with debuts handed to new signings Andrea Dossena (£8m from Udinese) & Robbie Keane (circa £20m from Spurs).
Speaking of former Spurs players, Sunderland have been busy hovering up any other players that Juande Ramos has been careless enough to leave lying around, with debuts given to Pascal Chimbonda, Teemu Tainio & Steed Malbranque, as well as former Liverpool forward El-Hadji Diouf, who partnered Daryl Murphy in a somewhat makeshift forward line, which looks especially light in the absence of the talismanic Kenwyne Jones.
Indeed, Diouf’s contribution, despite the initial enthusiasm of the crowd, was limited to his usual repertoire of pouting, protesting and general dissatisfaction, with Murphy hardly any more effective in spite of an admirable work ethic.
But despite these misgivings, both Diouf & Murphy were given sights at goal in the opening exchanges, with Diouf latching onto Hyypia’s woeful back-header but seeing his attempt snuffed out by the covering Jamie Carragher, and Murphy sending a free header straight at Pepe Reina from ten yards after a smart first-time cross from his Senegalese strike-partner.
Liverpool, meanwhile, were looking a little off-the-pace, with neither Keane nor Torres, nor even Gerrard for that matter, able to lift their performances above average. Keane did provide one glimpse of his talent, a bit of ball-juggling on the edge of the box followed by a left footed snap-shot that flashed wide of Craig Gordon’s right hand post, whilst there were appeals for a penalty when Chimbonda barged into the back of Yossi Benayoun as the Israeli looked to collect Gerrard’s reverse pass in the penalty area, but referee Alan Wiley opted to blow for a foul on the Reds skipper outside the box instead, and the resultant free kick was blocked comfortably.
Benitez wasted little time in withdrawing the ineffective, and seemingly overawed, Plessis, sending on Alonso for the young Frenchman at half time. And immediately the Spaniard, persistently linked with a move away from Anfield this summer, started to add a bit of zip to the visitors’ passing game. But it was Sunderland who created the first chance of the second half, with Murphy whipping in a dangerous low cross from the left that found Diouf in plenty of space, but the former Bolton man’s left foot shot lacked power and was easily fielded by Reina on his goal-line.
It was to prove to be virtually the last sight of goal that the Black Cats created, as Liverpool began to assert their authority on the game. Gerrard had already had two sighters from long range which Gordon was able to watch past his post, before Benayoun forced the first meaningful save from the Scotland number one with a steered low strike from 25 yards that Gordon managed to push out, and Danny Collins blocked Keane’s follow up, before the Israel skipper released Gerrard, whose cross-shot was hacked clear from inside the six yard box by Nyron Nosworthy.
It seemed a goal was coming, the laboured-looking Kuyt cutting inside onto his left foot and seeing his deflected shot stopped by Gordon, with Keane incredibly getting in the way of Torres’ follow-up, to the delight of home fans, Evertonians and cynics alike. Next to try his hand was Alonso, in the most audacious of manners, as he attempted one of his trademark sixty-yard efforts with Gordon way off his line, but with the keeper furiously back-tracking, the superbly struck effort drifted inches wide of the post.
But with Sunderland still counting their blessings from that let-off, Alonso fizzed a pass into the feet of Torres, and the Reds’ top scorer got it out of his feet nicely to fire an unstoppable low drive into Gordon’s bottom right hand corner from 25 yards.
It was a quite stunning goal, and so typical of the Spaniard, who had up until then endured a frustrating afternoon against two decent performances from Collins & Nosworthy, but who used the one occasion where he was allowed time and space to devastating effect. His side had not been at anything like full tilt, but the wise old owls of football will always tell you that three points is pretty much all that matters at this stage of the season, and that’s what Liverpool got.
Yes, the problems were still visible – Kuyt & Benayoun are not natural wide players, and as such Liverpool often lacked real width in the final third, with Kuyt’s lack of pace and finesse, and Benayoun’s tendency to look to come inside, leaving gaping holes on the flanks, which the full backs – Dossena and particularly Arbeloa – were too often unable to fill.
Plessis’ inclusion was certainly a surprise, suggesting Benitez still fails to truly trust Alonso and Gerrard as a central midfield partnership. And whilst Alonso was as guilty as anyone against Standard Liege in midweek, it was his introduction at half time that brought about a change in tempo from his side, with passes played more purposefully, and the confidence gradually spreading. Gerrard in particular looked a lot more willing to get forward knowing that Alonso was covering rather than the athletic but rather tame looking Plessis.
The other worry, which grew as the game wore on and Liverpool hunted the winner, concerned the full backs. Arbeloa picked up a European Championship winners medal in the summer, yet still he fails to convince me. Steve Finnan is rumoured to be close to the Anfield exit, after reportedly growing tired at being used as a pawn in the marathon chess game involving Gareth Barry, yet still most Liverpool fans would select him ahead of the Spaniard, preferring his superior crossing, discipline and covering.
On the other flank Dossena has arrived from Udinese with a decent reputation, an Italian international who has put in some very good performances in the last couple of seasons in Serie A, yet today, as on Wednesday, he looked a little bit susceptible against genuine wide players. On more than one occasion he was caught out of position, either infield or upfield, and it took the immense Carragher to mop up the danger. Nevertheless, his left foot looks useful, and he certainly seems less willing than Riise to go down the “hoof it and see” route when in possession. Maybe his failings thus far can be forgiven as he adapts to a new style of football, and attempts to slot into a very finely tuned defensive system. In fact, make that definitely.
It may sound like I am being rather negative here, after all Liverpool did win, and did keep a clean sheet. And there were some plus points, Hyypia and Carragher continued where they left off for most of their careers – solid as a rock at the back albeit against a powderpuff frontline; Pepe Reina remains one of the most commanding keepers around, and with Agger & Skrtel to come back into the side at any point, Benitez’s side’s fine defensive record (more clean sheets in the Premier League than any other side in each of the last three seasons) should continue.
Torres might not have been at full throttle for the entire game, but when it mattered, he came up with the moment of class to win the game, and also showed that his Premier League goals – despite common consensus – do not come exclusively at Anfield.
His partnership with Keane is still in its infancy too, and will certainly only improve as two highly gifted and intelligent footballers start to work out their understanding. With Gerrard providing, and both Mascherano and Babel (and to a lesser extent Lucas) to return from the Olympics soon, Liverpool’s midfield will soon have a more threatening and secure look to it than it did today – and that’s without even mentioning Gareth Barry… which I just did, apologies.
So, all things considered, I wouldn’t go writing the obituaries for another Liverpool title bid just yet. If only they could find another Steve Nicol and John Barnes from somewhere….