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.

Reds Overcome Referee and Baggies for Needed Win

Originally published on LFCOnline.com website.

Calling Liverpool’s home fixture with West Bromwich Albion a must-win match might have been overstatement, but not much of one. The Reds, clearly struggling with injuries and form of late, notched a much needed 2-1 victory at Anfield.

From the opening moments, Liverpool looked like they recognized the urgency required to find their form. There was more movement, quicker touches, and defensive pressure from the start. Better still, Philippe Coutinho started showing hints of his enormous creative capacity with his best performance of the season yet. Adam Lallana continued playing himself into increasingly better form, also looking to be a link-up man and creative threat.

In the 7th minute, the first solid sequence of play included Alberto Moreno playing a quick pass to Lallana, who found Jordan Henderson centrally, just outside penalty area, in the arc, where he was quickly fouled. Steven Gerrard’s free kick would not lead to anything, but the quick passing, attacking intent was clearly visible.

Five minutes later, the Reds yielded their first corner to West Brom, making for an early defensive test. On the ensuing corner, Simon Mignolet raced off his line to palm the ball away high and wide. While he might have been able to haul it down, his commitment was obvious and the ball was cleared from danger. Mignolet would produce another near copy of the play in the 20th minute.

Getting his first start, Rickie Lambert looked lively and fit, providing good lateral movement up front and making himself available for more through balls from the midfield. In fact, Lambert nearly notched his first goal as a Red, when Martin Skrtel played a long, vertical ball, beating the entire Baggie side, to the diagonally running striker. With an exquisite first touch, Lambert slid behind the defense and into the penalty area, right of goal, firing a shot, only to be denied by a strong save from Ben Foster.

After the first half-hour, Liverpool continued to miss that needed bit of quality in the final third. Errant touches and uncertainty still held back an attack that was showing signs of life. Again, the Reds seemed to be playing a man down, at times, with Raheem Sterling looking as though a much needed break is in order. Sterling’s touch troubled him often, and West Brom made certain to close him down early and often. To his credit he played through the difficulty and managed to make the best of what was clearly an off day.

West Brom began to cause problems as the first half waned. In the 35th minute Baggie’s striker Saido Berahino unleashed a stinging shot that forced a Mignolet save.

Later, in the 42nd minute Sébastien Pocognoli worked downfield to cross the ball into the dangerous Berahino. Neither Skrtel nor Dejan Lovren got a head on the cross, each seeming to wait for the other to take command. It was a scene that would be repeated a few times throughout the match.

Even Stéphane Sessegnon tried to get in on the action, sending a dipping shot from 20 yards, in the 44th minute, for a workmanlike save from Mignolet.

Then, just before half-time, Adam Lallana showcased the class Reds fans have been waiting to see. In a run of play that he would start and finish, Lallana drew three West Brom Defenders, just outside the area on the left, before working a one-two with Henderson to break through and scythe one into the far-side netting. The combination of silky skill by Lallana and a nifty behind-the-leg flick from Henderson opened West Brom up with the kind of creative, lightning strike Reds fans have been craving.

At the beginning of the second half, it was clear Liverpool were eager to press their advantage. Finding their rhythm, the Merseysiders again moved the ball with multiple sequences of one-touch passing, ratcheting up the speed of play and pushing forward.

In the 47th minute, Henderson again, would find himself dangerously open at the top of the box, this time receiving a Gerrard pass, although a poor touch would lead to nothing.

In the 55th minute, Liverpool’s suspect defense would be revealed when when Lovren chopped down Berahino on edge of area. Despite being clearly outside the area, referee Michale Oliver pointed to spot. It was a bad call but a panicked decision by Lovren. Berahino buried the equalizer for West Brom.

The Reds, however, rallied. Five minutes later Sterling surged toward the endline before being taken down by Craig Gardner for what should have been an obvious penalty, but Sterling’s instant recovery  led to a drop pass to Henderson, again at the top of the box. This time Henderson coolly side-footed a shot through the crowd and into the far side of net for the go-ahead goal.

With a one goal advantage, Liverpool looked to finish off the game. Substitutions Mario Balotelli for Lambert and Glen Johnson for Javier Manquillo helped freshen the home side for a strong stretch of play. In fact, in the 76th minute Balotelli would release Sterling with a brilliant through ball, that any other day would have ended the affair. However, a heavy touch from Sterling would send the ball directly into Foster’s hands.

Even though West Brom remained in the match until the end, Liverpool earned their first league victory since their away win at Spurs in August.

Another international break looms with terrible timing for Liverpool still searching for league form. However, this was precisely the kind match that Liverpool must grind out to stay in the mix at the top of the table. Most encouraging for the Redmen was a rediscovered approach to the game. the steady rise of Lallana, redeeming performance from Coutinho, and surging presence of Henderson all point toward better results as injured players begin to return. This team might not be last year’s team, but they look like they may be playing their way through a bad run of form. How things look two weeks from now may be the best indicator, but Liverpool importantly secured all three points today.

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