Reds Salvage a Win in Return to Europe

Originally published on 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.

Decisive victory at White Hart Lane

Originally published on website.

White Hart Lane was always going to prove a good early test for both clubs, as Liverpool returned to the ground that essentially unlocked their title-contending season.

Dispatching Spurs with an emphatic 5-0 battering that triggered a second Premier League mid-season sacking for Andreas Villas Boas, this time looked to be different. Yet the opening ten minutes might have had everyone rethinking just how different would it be.

In the second minute Daniel Sturridge sent a dangerous cross from the left wing into his new strike partner Mario Balotelli, who headed it down on goal but into a scrambling Spurs’ keeper Hugo Lloris. A minute later Gerrard sprayed the first of a number of deep diagonal passes into Spurs final third, this one to new boy Alberto Moreno in the left corner who would lose it and spark a short run of play for Spurs as they tried to get a foothold in the match.

Then in a precision sequence reminiscent of last year’s Liverpool,  Jordan Henderson won a scramble deep in the right side midfield, playing Sturridge forward down the wing. Sturridge made a slippery run feinting inside and beating two down the wing, returning it to Hendo, making a scything run deep into the penalty, where he would slot it across the area to an onrushing Raheem Sterling to wrap it up with a clean and tidy finish.

Within a couple of minutes, Emanuel Adeboyor nearly equalized, catching Dejan Lovren unable to cover and Simon Mignoet in no-man’s-land, but lofted it on to the roof of the net.

Again, a couple of minutes later Sturridge wriggled away from a couple of markers to flash one past the right post, capping what was a bracing first eleven minutes with Liverpool up 1-0.

Soon, the match settled and Liverpool let Spurs have the ball for long stretches, content to break with the lightning counter pace that became their hallmark in the last campaign.
Around a half an hour, debutant Balotelli started to show why he was brought into the fold, playing a nifty backheel to Sturridge who then took a speculative left footed curler from just outside the right corner of the penalty area. Then he showed his power and strength, holding up Younes Kaboul before turning him hard and flicking a ball to advance Sterling, which brought Lloris far outside his area for a errant clearance that fell back to Balotelli. Unfortunately, Balotelli hooked the return far wide of the mark, but his presence was an obvious positive.

This likely looked like the defense that many a Reds fan has been waiting to see with Alberto Moreno, Mamadou Sakho, Dejan Lovren, and Javier Manquillo across the back line. Despite a few errant passes and miscommunication between Sakho and Lovren, to be expected in their first pairing, the defense held firm. Collectively, as a team, the Liverpool pressing continued to slow Spurs attack into the break.

Conversely, Liverpool effectively beat Spurs’ pacey pressing, moving the ball at speed to beat the Spurs press sliding up the pitch repeatedly.

A couple minutes after the break, Spurs’ Eric Dier naively pulled at Joe Allen, as Allen broke behind in the in the penalty area, giving an arguably soft but certain penalty. After Gerrard cooly slashed the ball into the lower left corner past a correctly guessing Lloris, Liverpool stood 2-0 after 47 minutes and went into cruise control.

While new hope manager Mauricio Pochettino made a couple of substitutions, Andros Townsend for Christian Eriksen and Mousa Dembele for Nabil Bentaleb at 59 minutes, it would all unravel. On Townsend’s first touch, Moreno, at his pick-pocket best, stole the ball, streaked down the left side, angling into the box, and pinged it off the right post for the third goal. With that, the game was nearly sealed.

Then Brendan Rodgers countered with two substitutions of his own, subbing Lazar Markovic for Balotelli and Emre Can for Allen at 60 minutes for the restart.
Quickly warming to the action, Markovic made an early splash working a break down the flank with Manquillo that resulted in a corner. Then remained fairly quiet.

However in minute 69, Can made a ruggedly, strong run straight up the middle, finding Sterling, who then went on an exceptionally poised run, slashing open Spurs entire four player back line in the area, only to come up empty without a finish. With an end product it would have been the goal of the season already, but he may just have had too much time to think.

Beyond that there were a couple of near chances, but Sturridge seemed to lack some shooting sharpness today, despite being able to work the ball for a lane in tight spaces.

Liverpool always looked to get forward in possession but showed great progress in maintaining their defensive shape as a group, routinely getting ten men behind the ball and forcing Spurs into a predictable pattern of swinging the ball from one side of the field to the other with no real effect.

As the match wound toward an end, Spurs Ben Davis came on for and injured Danny Rose in minute 71. And Jose Enrique came on for a cameo, giving Sterling a breather after 85 minutes.

It was an impressive rebound for Liverpool, away from Anfield, especially after a tough loss to defending champions Manchester City. Better still, this match showed glimpses of the team that Reds fans have been waiting to reappear this campaign. Plus, the clean sheet should give Rodger’s newly minted defense and a slightly shaky Simon Mignolet some confidence as they head into an international break. Not quite the shelling of last season’s mid-season clash, but a decisive victory nonetheless.