Reds Stop Slide in Sofia

Originally published on website.

Having lost four straight, Liverpool skidded into Sofia desperate to keep their Champions League hopes alive, while turning around their recent form and fortunes.

The night could not have started more poorly for Liverpool, when after three minutes their defense was scrambling all over the pitch and conceded the opener. Ludogorets advanced directly with pace. Kolo Toure could not clear and Marcelinho lashed 30 yard effort that bounced off Simon Mignolet, in a bungled save attempt. Dani Abalo knocked in the rebound, capping a dream start for the home side.

Five minutes later, Liverpool benefitted from some much needed good fortune when Ludogorets fullback Yordan Minev misplayed a cross, letting it bounce in the penalty area. The ball looped, giving Rickie Lambert time to snap a header across the face of goal and into the side netting.

Clear errors on both ends resulted in each of the first two goals.

For large portions of the first half the Bulgarian side gained the upper hand and looked to go ahead. At times, Liverpool could hardly string more than a pass together, struggling to regain their composure.

In the 37th minute,  against the run of play, Liverpool benefitted from another mistake. Ludogorets gave the ball away to Raheem Sterling, who raced down the left channel, before curling a cross low on the far post for a tight angle Jordan Henderson tap in. It was not an easy finish, despite Henderson making it look so.

The second half grew scrappier but produced little more than fits and starts. Apart from one dangerous chance for Sterling to seal it, neither side could craft any true threat.

However, Liverpool dropped deeper, yielding possession and absorbing the Bulgarian side’s pressure. For the final ten minutes, Ludogorets set up shop in the Liverpool defensive end, which would pay dividends.

In the 88th minute, Ludogorets equalized on a late corner. It was a poor kick towards the near post, but the flick by Svetoslav Dyakov found its way to Georgi Terziev, who smashed in a header at the far post. The Reds were beat to each touch in the sequence.

While a draw keeps Liverpool in the tournament with control of their own fate, this one has to feel like another defeat. The Reds were a few minutes away from grinding out the kind of away European win, upon which they could potentially build some confidence. However, the Merseysiders failed to hang on. They continue to miss opportunities but at least stopped the slide before hosting Stoke City at the weekend.

Reds Overcome Referee and Baggies for Needed Win

Originally published on 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.