Late Cup Winner Boosts Reds

Originally published on LFCOnline.com website.

Having gone over two games without scoring at Anfield and still struggling to find a solid eleven, Brendan Rodgers had a challenge in rotating a Liverpool squad for a midweek cup clash against Swansea City.

The Swans beat the Reds the first time Rodgers’ old team faced his new team in the League Cup and, after Marvin Emnes’s fortunate goal, a repeat looked likely. Yet, Liverpool rallied in the final ten minutes to come from behind, scoring seconds before the stoppage time whistle for a 2-1 Capital One Cup victory.

Liverpool started the far better side, generating some early shots but unable to break down Swansea’s defense. The brightest force for the home side, Philippe Coutinho started strong, creating chances for himself and others.

In the 27th minute, Coutinho started a sequence that offered potential signs of shaking the scoring drought, when he linked with a driving Jordan Henderson, who slipped the ball left to Lazar Markovic racing in behind the defense only to send the ball wildly into the crowd. It was the Reds’ best chance of the opening half.

Still, Liverpool continued to press defensively and try to force the issue in attack. Fabio Borini nearly manufactured a chance out of nothing when he picked off a Jonjo Shelvey back pass in the 34th minute and cut into the penalty area, forcing a save from Swans goal keeper Gerhard Tremmel. The industry of Coutinho, Henderson, and Borini continued to suggest the Reds might break the tie open.

As the second half continued scoreless, and Liverpool found penetration difficult, the away side grew in confidence and began to get on the ball with longer stretches of possession. Then Swansea benefitted from a series of unfortunate deflections to open the scoring.

In the 65th minute Henderson blocked a Shelvey pass that landed in the path of  Neil Taylor, as he surged toward the box met by a Borini challenge, resulting in the ball rebounding up and over a slowly reacting defense, right onto Emnes boot. The Swansea forward capitalised, finishing fast and flawlessly. The goal was against the wider run of play and created an even greater sense of urgency for the home side.

Within five minutes Glen Johnson advanced to lash a hard, dipping shot from 22 yards out, forcing a Tremmel save and Taylor denied Borini’s attempt to convert the rebound. On the ensuing corner, Coutinho served a ball Kolo Toure reached with a header that flashed to Rickie Lambert, who had an attempt headed off the line by Jay Fulton, leaving Liverpool still searching for a finish.

In the 74th and 75th minutes of play both Lambert and Coutinho found room to shoot from the edge of the box, respectively. Neither could find a way past Tremmel and Liverpool continued to struggle creating any penetration.

Then Mario Balotelli entered the game for Lambert in an effort to manufacture an equaliser. It came in the 86th minute, when the Italian beat Angel Rangel to a Borini cross, just right of the penalty spot, for a classy finish.

As the match looked like it was heading into extra time, Swansea’s Federico Fernandez received a very harsh straight red card. It was a stoppage time surprise that would only be eclipsed moments later when Coutinho delivered an excellent free kick from the left touch line to the back post, where Dejan Lovren headed into the net in the dying seconds of the match.

It was a dramatic recovery and redeeming for the two Liverpool scorers who came through and delivered a needed result to capitalise on a quality performance. The joy of the win was clear, and two goals within ten minutes relieved the mounting frustration for the team and pressure being felt by newcomers Balotelli and Lovren. It was a much-needed victory with a trip to Newcastle, riding two wins, waiting for the weekend. Progress is yet in store for the back of this busy period of fixtures.

Desperation Only Increases

Originally published on LFCOnline.com website.

The Reds started another league fixture flat and slow, spluttering to a frustrating 0-0 draw against Hull City at Anfield.

Brendan Rodgers altered the side in an attempt to successfully navigate the third of seven matches in 21 days. After the masterclass in precision and professionalism Liverpool received at the feet of Real Madrid midweek, the home crowd was hoping to see their side recover against the Tigers. Yet, this match always looked like two mid-table teams slogging away in an anaemic attacking display.

Hull City controlled things from the opening whistle for nearly the first 10 minutes. It forced Liverpool onto the back foot and unable to get on the ball or a foothold.

After Liverpool won a corner in the 10th minute and Dejan Lovren’s header was cleared off the line by Ahmed Elmohamady, the Reds started to warm into the contest. Moments later, Sterling worked a nice turn to find Balotelli on a diagonal run right of goal, where the striker lashed a laser shot on-target, forcing a save. It was well-worked and well-struck but a tight angle.

In the wake of that chance, supporters began chanting and urging the players’ performance. For a time, Liverpool’s defensive press surged with greater urgency. As they saw more of the ball, the pace of play started to increase on the attack as well. Yet, there were far too few opportunities of quality for the rest of the half.

Despite improving play, Liverpool continue to look like a side with too many players unclear of exactly what they are supposed to be doing. Lack of certainty about individual responsibilities, indecisive runs, lack of awareness where teammates are likely to be continued to amplify the collective anxiety and hesitation. Add to that touches that lack in required sharpness, everything seemed a struggle. With far too much frequency, balls were played just sightly off the mark, too soft, too high, or too late. It all contributed to costly delays, allowing Hull to close down and pressure the ball with even greater strength and effectiveness in dulling Liverpool’s attack.

Emre Can struggled to make an impact, after returning bravely from an ugly early ankle turn. Javier Manquillo was routinely caught high up the pitch. Both Raheem Sterling and Adam Lallana were accordingly muted and Balotelli continued to go missing for stretches and push far too much when he was involved.

The malaise and lack of clear cut chances continued to leave Liverpool looking increasingly desperate. So much so that every time a player fell over too easily in the area it seemed to nullify any potentially proper penalty call. Twice in the first half Neil Swarbrick looked the other way, once early and once late.

In the eighth minute, Sterling was barged over from behind in the right corner of the penalty area and the assistant referee pulled him up for his subsequent reaching out and grabbing the ball with his hand on the fall.

In the 36th minute, Lallana broke free scrappily in the left side of the area and was brought down with a late challenge, after barely flicking a cross over the goal mouth.

As the first half closed, Hull regained control. Jake Livermoore had a shot from a snap pass by Hatem Ben Arfa, who had slipped and benefitted from Liverpool’s defense switching off with three minutes left to play.

Liverpool’s return to the way they began the game found them late and chasing, as Hull looked lively with a sequence of clever layoffs that finally found Tom Huddlestone slashing a shot that was deflected for a corner. Ultimately, it was unthreatening and generally symptomatic of Liverpool’s play.

The second half began with no changes for either side and a similar listlessness. As the match advanced, Hull settled into the away side spoiler role, repeatedly challenging with late tackles, many due to Liverpool’s own poor passes. However, the toll sapped and compounded the lack of fluidity for the home side.

Neither goalkeeper was truly challenged for two thirds of the match. Then, in the 61st minute, Philippe Coutinho and Rickie Lambert entered the match for Joe Allen and Adam Lallana. The changes enlivened Liverpool, with Coutinho making an almost immediate impact with his quick one-touch passes and clever runs.

In the 64th minute, Gerrard sent a corner kick to the near post that Can flicked to the far side, where Balotelli was crashing to the net but missed the header entirely. In fact, Balotelli’s frustrations nearly boiled over multiple times in the second half, as the frustration felt by both him and fans intensified. Playing as a single striker has not aided his floundering form and the addition of Lambert up front turned the match in Liverpool’s favour.

Pressure began building, as the Reds probed, and finally pinged passes around the pitch. Lambert showed some composure, holding up the ball and laying it off with greater strength and touch. Hull struggled to regain possession and the Anfield faithful once again rose in songs of support, desperately urging the Reds forward for a deadlock-breaking score.

In the dying minutes, Liverpool tried to oblige, but it was never meant to be. In the 88th minute another potential penalty was waived off, when Balotelli was pushed from behind in the box. While it would have been a soft penalty, it illustrated how many decisions the referee did not make, but even more just how desperate Liverpool as a team have become to score goals.

In the final action, Gerrard nearly found his way through a blockade of defenders in the box, Coutinho miraculously hung onto the ball atop the area, firing a shot, but both efforts resulted in mere corners kicks.

The two combined again to free the Brazilian on the left, racing into the box. He passed to Balotelli, who in an near repeat of the QPR ending, tried to flick in a winner, but Eldin Jakupovic was equal to it.

Frustration and questions continue to mount with little relief and few answers. No goals were conceded but neither were any scored. Ultimately, Liverpool struggled against a mediocre team in mediocre fashion. Rodgers continues to tinker but cannot seem to find a side that clicks. In most matches this campaign at least one player has been clearly off their game. This match saw multiple muted performances. Despite Rodgers’ suggestion that they deserved three points the desperation only increases.

A Half Step Is A Gulf Too Wide

Originally published on LFCOnline.com website.

The supporters were buzzing around Anfield in full voice for a beloved European night, chanting and urging them home.

Yet, despite the opening 20 minutes of a high tempo and aggressive pressure Liverpool were undone by the tournament’s defending champions Real Madrid.

The opening 20 minutes of the match were more than encouraging for the Reds. A frenzied pace and persistent pressure characterized Liverpool from the opening whistle. Within the first minute Jordan Henderson put a marker tackle on Cristiano Ronaldo, suggesting what kind of night might be in store. However the Merseysiders could not find a finish to capitalize on the hungry start.

Real Madrid patiently waited for their chance to gain some possession, despite Liverpool preventing them from finding any kind of rhythm. After the initial phase waned, the Reds found passing out of their half more difficult. The pace of the game slowed slightly, allowing Madrid half a step more when on the ball.

That half step would prove enough. For in the 23rd minute, Ronaldo drifted inside and started a sequence of play that included passing to James Rodriguez, before driving hard right through the middle of Liverpool’s defense. Rodriguez then chipped a sublime ball, beating five players, including splitting the center halves, back through to Ronaldo. From there, Ronaldo picked it on the bounce and spun a class finish to the far post, beyond an outstretched Simon Mignolet. It might have seemed against the run of play, but that was all it would take.

Madrid grew stronger with the goal. The visitors started to take control, possessing and probing the Reds defense, pinning them back in their defensive third. Liverpool tryed to maintain their shape, but were unable to maintain the high press against the pinpoint passing of the Madristas.

In the 30th minute, Karim Benzema doubled the away advantage, beating Glen Johnson in the air from a deep diagonal Toni Kroos cross. Essentially unchallenged, the Frenchmen climbed high and delicately looped a header up and over Mignolet, descending into the far back corner of the net. It was another class finish from the Spanish giants.

With a second goal, Real Madrid settled into cruise control, swarming defensively initially and fouling any hint of penetration from the Reds. Kroos’ yellow card for knocking Raheem Sterling off the ball before posing any genuine threat in the 35th minute illustrated Madrid’s level of tactical nous and confidence. Liverpool were too easily defused.

Liverpool were nearly exposed again, playing a high defensive line and allowing Ronaldo a chance to get in behind. Instead, Johnson surrendered a corner. Liverpool’s inability to defend set pieces was cruelly exposed again. Benzema pounced on a loose ball in the box from a corner kick in the 41st minute for his brace. Conceding another corner, this one was the result of three Madrid touches in the box before it found the back of the net. At 3-0 down the match was essentially finished.

A couple of minutes later, Joe Allen nearly found the far post from a quick Mario Balotelli cross, but Ilker Casillas flashed a glove and could have reached it, but did not need to as it was always hooking wide.

Then, in stoppage time, Philippe Coutinho nearly got on the scoresheet, rattling a shot off the far post from distance in the final seconds of the half. In many ways, the moment illustrated the night – a half chance from distance that could not be finished.

The second half was far less eventful, apart from Mario Balotelli getting substituted at the break in favour of Adam Lallana. The attacking tempo and quick passes returned in Balotelli’s absence. Apart from a few more half chances, the Reds may have been able to get on the ball but could never pose much genuine threat. Madrid dropped into game management mode.

Ronaldo nearly had a brace in the 64th minute, when he pulled down Benzema’s cross and was in one-on-one with Mignolet. However, the keeper got a foot on the shot deflecting out of play.

As the game wound down, the Anfield crowd rallied their voices again in an attempt to raise the home side, which was wracked defensively and in serious need of confidence. Granted the overcoming the Galaticos was always going to be a big ask, but the Reds are reeling presently and desperately in need of solutions that seem just out of reach.

There were some positives but not enough of them to counterbalance the sheer quality of the ten-time European Cup winners. Coutinho looks closer to his former self. Sterling clearly remains the Reds best player on the pitch. Meanwhile, Lallana will make more of an impact as the season continues. Even newcomers, Emre Can and Lazar Markovic showed that their futures are bright. Still, it does not seem enough, nor does the potential look to be realised as quickly as needed.

Balotelli being pulled at the half, after another display plagued by poor decisions and ineffectiveness, only highlights the precarious lack of positive moves available. Brendan Rodgers will need to secure another league win against Hull City this Saturday in the hope of salvaging belief.

Patience, already in short supply, will only become more strained if Liverpool cannot find a way to grind out results against mid to low table teams. The danger of falling too far off the pace is real in this current crucial run of fixtures. Thoughts of how early it still is in the season can simply no longer apply.

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