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.

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.

Reds Salvage a Win in Return to Europe

Originally published on LFCOnline.com website.

After a five year absence, Merseyside finally hosted a long-awaited European night in the Champions League.

Anfield was clearly buzzing with anticipation as the Reds hosted little-known Bulgarian champions Ludogorets. Yet the crowd would have to wait for a flurry of action in the final minutes to see Liverpool salvage a 2-1 victory.

The match started some pace and urgency for the first few minutes before fouls started to slow things slightly. It only took six minutes before the first yellow card of the match when Aleksandar Aleksandrov tripped Raheem Sterling on the left touchline ending a potential break.

With the early energy and anxiety yet to burn off, Liverpool pressed hungrily to regain possession whenever they lost the ball and looked to get forward quickly in the early going. However, classy touches were in short supply until things would settle.

Ten minutes into the match Alberto Moreno streaked down the left flank, penetrating into the box before launching a cross well high and beyond the goal. It was indicative of most early crosses overhit with the surge of Champions League circumstances. Still, Moreno began well, routinely overlapping Sterling, to lash crosses into the penalty area.

Fifteen minutes in Liverpool had a half chance as Adam Lallana found Mario Balotelli centrally in the penalty area with his back to the goal. Unfortunately, his first touch left him wanting and the set-up was squandered.

Ludogorets would prove that there are few easy fixtures in the Champions League and gave the Reds an early scare as Junior Caicara worked a nice give-and-go and drove deep into midfield before sending a curling whipped ball in behind the Liverpool defensive line, just missing an onrushing striker Roman Bezak. It was the kind of splitting pass, straight through the central defense, that would nearly haunt the Reds. The visitors began growing in some confidence after that gaining some time in their attacking third briefly midway throughout he opening half.

In the twenty-first minute, Sterling lead a flurry of Red attempts with Balotelli breaking free at the top of the penalty area for a shot that deflected to Lallana who drove into the right side of the box, firing a shot that was saved before bouncing out to an offside Sterling. It was the first spark of Liverpool getting bodies crashing forward.

A few minutes later, Dejan Lovren nearly gave away what would have been a soft penalty, but Ludogorets by now had found some positive energy to carry them forward with al little more intent. Having not capitulated to the early Liverpool press, and helped by a spell of poor passing from the Reds, the away side showed resolve and refused to be intimidated but he occasion or the ground.

Despite surrendering a handful of corners, the Reds defense looked strong defensively. Simon Mignolet, in particularly was taking command of the area and securing the ball with poise.

Perhaps the best attack of the half came in the thirty-seventh minute when Sterling released Phillipe Coutinho on the left side. Racing forward Coutinho found Henderson cutting into the box. Although Henderson could not find a shot, he found Lallana who pulled a quick shot that deflected back to him for a second effort only for it to be smothered by the defender, spinning out for a corner.

With the opening of the second half, Liverpool looked to move the ball with more purpose and intent,  but still lacked the quality of the final touch to spring any clear cut chances, much like their weekend stumble against Aston Villa.

As second half settled, Ludogorets looked more and more at sitting deep, blunting attacks with tactical but not reckless fouls, and then counter with pace down the flanks. They continued to get at least eight men behind the ball and proved difficult to break down.

Despite a sustained push by Liverpool, in the 64th minute a quick Ludogorets throw nearly caught Liverpool, as Bezjak surged forward only to find the post after putting the ball passed a stretched Mignolet.

A couple of minutes later, Fabio Borini entered the match for Lallana and Lucas for Coutniho. The team shape would adjust as Borini would push higher to pair with Balotelli and Sterling slid centrally in the hole behind the strikers.

The match began to turn with less than ten minutes to go, beginning with Moreno streaking in for a match-winning challenge in the Reds box, then working his way to the other end of the pitch to cross an excellent ball into Balotelli who knocked it down and finished with a classy outside-of-the-foot flick  at the Kop end for his first goal as a Red.

Balotelli did give a ball away that started a Ludo burst forward until Lucas fouled to give a central free kick about 30 yards from goal.

Ludogorets swapped Svetoslav Dyakov for midfielder Fábio Espinho in the 82nd minute and Younes Hamza for Bezjak in the 86th.

In between the subsitutions, Balotelli pushed into the box from the left and unleashed a blistering shot that forced newly signed keeper, Milan Borjan, to parry, with Sterling unable to find the rebound.

In what seemed like the closing minute of the match, Caicara dispossesd Sterling just outside visitor’s the penalty area and found Hamza, who spuns and delivered a splitting through ball between Lovren and Mamadou Sakho. Ludogorets’ striker Dani Abalo slipped behind Lovren and had an easy time finishing as Mignolet madly raced out and into no-man’s-land, exposing an open goal.

Less than a minute later, Javier Manquillo’s pressed the Ludogorets’ keeper Borjan, along the right  edge of the box, into a desperate and poor challenge, winning a penalty. Gerrard ensured the win, slotting a penalty into the lower right corner.

Despite surrendering an away goal to the Bulgarians, Liverpool earned a victory in what could only be described as a scrappy and challenging match. The Reds still look like a side trying to find their way back to the swashbuckling form they exhibited last season, with fits and starts, but struggling to find the familiarity and fluidity needed to reduce touches and anticipate movements of teammates.

They certainly had moments of pinging the ball back and forth in the midfield, probing for depth and using the width, but they again struggled to find ways behind a disciplined, low, and retreating defensive block. It is a problem for which they will need to find a solution sooner rather then later to continue winning with consistency over a crowded cluster of fixtures.

css.php