For the first fixture in arguably the most critical run of matches for Liverpool this calendar year, the Reds steal a desperate and undeserved 3-2 victory away against bottom-dwellers Queens Park Rangers at Loftus Road.
The Reds began in remarkably lackluster fashion, looking very much like a side struggling to find their form and showing the wear of playing with increasing desperation. In truth, Liverpool needed all the luck they could gather to win with all the frenzied action happening from the 90th minute and stoppage time with three goals inside four minutes.
To their credit, Queens Park Rangers established themselves early. In the third minute, the Hoops created the first chance of the game when Bobby Zamora held off Dejan Lovren at the top of the penalty area, chesting a ball to an onrushing Charlie Austin who overhit the shot high into the stands. Then seconds later, Rangers sent a long diagonal free kick that Zamora headed into the area from the right side.
While neither chance prevailed, QPR’s tactics were clear. They would control possession for most of the first half, targeting Jose Enrique on Liverpool’s defensive left side, threatening with ariel service, and controlling the match. In combination with Liverpool’s poor play, these were early themes that would characterize the entire match. Looking up from the bottom of the table inspired far more fight in the home side.
Rangers would create three genuinely strong chances to the Reds one near opportunity in the first half.
Nine minutes in Charlie Austin benefitted from poor Reds defensive passing, as the ball ricocheting around the final third, fell to him freely breaking behind and into the box where Simon Mignolet stood strong, stopping the initial shot but giving a rebound, which a falling Austin could not finish.
In the 28th minute Leroy Fer ripped a clearcut chance off the crossbar, overhitting a cutback cross from Zamora who had broke into the area again on the right with pace and strength.
Six minutes later, poor defensive passing helped Fer hit the crossbar again, this time from a header, which touched off a mad scramble in front of the Reds net. With Mignolet caught off the line, Austin and Sandro collided on the line and Glen Johnson was able to steward the ball out of danger.
Only in the dying minutes of the first half did Liverpool nearly snatch one, when Mario Balotelli threaded a ball to Steven Gerrard, who plowed forward into center of the area, finding a half yard to shoot, and bending one just outside the far right post. It was by far the best chance of the half for the Reds.
The second half began all square and scoreless, much as the first, with Liverpool chock full of errant touches and unlucky bounces, while QPR looked to press every advantage for an opener.
Two minutes into the half, Liveprool again failed to clear defensively and Sandro drove a wicked, low drive across the face of the goal from the right, forcing Mignolet into a strong, stretched save.
It took nearly two thirds of the game before Liverpool looked like they were even in the match. They began to string together some brighter sequences of play, before QPR’s Sandro had to be treated a subsequently substituted by Armand Traore.
In the 61st minute, Baloteli missed an absolute sitter from fortunate run of play. Raheem Sterling penetrated, looking for Balotelli, when Adam Lallana became recipient of a deflection and shot. The rebound landed right in front of Balotelli five yards from the frame where he missed very, very badly, in Torres-like fashion. It was one of many signs that the Italian is feeling the pressure and not perceiving it as much a privilege. He looked more jaded in the match than any he has played in red.
In an attempt to try and take control of the game, Brendan Rodgers sent Philippe Coutinho and Joe Allen on for Lallana and Emre Can respectively. Both were immediately lively, with Coutinho threading passes that threatened to give the Reds and attacking advantage. Sterling too seemed to respond, finding another gear and some graft to begin opening up QPR’s defense.
Sterling’s pace and intelligence would be rewarded after he was fouled just outside the box on the right and quickly restarted play to Johnson. Benefitting from a QPR side that was completely switched off, Johnson drilled a low and hard cross into the box which a slowly recovering Richard Dunn deflected in for an own goal.
The goal seemed to breathe even more life into the Reds, who started to find a bit more pace and punch in their attack.
Then in the 85th minute Traore would preview what was to come, pouncing on a ball floating in the Reds’ defensive third from a series of weak headers, he found Mignolet equal to the task for another strong save.
No less than two minutes later, in what seemed a near repeated sequence of poor clearance headers, QPR’s substitute Eduardo Vargas had a ball fall to him inside the six-yard box that couldn’t be missed, as he smashed home the equalizer.
Yet the Reds countered with a mad break, started by Sterling, who found a surging Gerrard, in turn, who slipped the ball to Coutinho on the left of the area. Coutinho darted centrally, beating two and got a favorable deflection on his shot that spun into the side of the net.
It looked like the winner.
However, moments into stoppage time Liverpool conceded another corner, which served only to highlight just how poor their defense had been in the air and on set plays. None other than Vargas beat every Red to the near post to flick a header home and equalize again.
Within seconds of the restart, Liverpool nearly found another winner from a desperate rush forward, but Balotelli could not find the net with his near post flick.
Then in the 94th minute, Liverpool mounted another break. This time Coutinho released Sterling, streaking behind the defense and looking to cross to Balotelli, but Steven Caulker reached out in-stride and knocked in an own goal in the dying seconds. Liverpool received another most fortunate gift.
Sometimes it is better to be lucky than good. Still, Lady Luck is a fickle female and while she seemed to reward the visiting side, certainly Mario Balotelli has only received scorn. This was a match the Reds should have lost, potentially triggering the entire campaign coming off the rails, but, they escaped with three points and moved five rungs up the table.
Just how fortunate they were cannot be dismissed as they prepare to face European giants and defending Champions League winners Real Madrid midweek.
No shortage of questions can be posed to Brendan Rodgers, but to be fifth in the Premier League after playing as poorly as they have for so long, with all the contributing factors, has to be taken as some measure of encouragement.
Nevertheless, answers cannot come soon enough. Nearly every player was looking to give Balotelli his first goal, almost to devastating effect. The sooner he and Lambert break ducks and Sturridge returns cannot come soon enough for a team scrambling to stave off a crisis.