DECEMBER began more or less how November finished ‘“ with a whimper. West Ham and Fulham’s journeys seemed almost parallel. Both had Liverpool old boys in their ranks, both parked themselves in front of their own goal-line and both managed to escape with a point.
On December 1 our first chance to build some momentum was squandered as the Hammers forced a goalless draw. It was hard to bear for a Liverpool fan considering we were supposedly on the march at the summit. Liverpool were in typical control from the word go but it was ex-Liverpool striker Craig Bellamy that perhaps came closest when he hit the post in the first half. The game fizzled out in the end and we didn’t make our lead count at the top.
Liverpool had another chance to rekindle hope against Paul Ince’s struggling Blackburn Rovers at Ewood Park. Another frustrating display was endured but patience ultimately allowed Xabi Alonso to slot home a simple finish in the 69th minute. Yossi Benayoun scored the pick of the goals with a darting run and finish ten minutes later. Roque Santa Cruz gave Blackburn hope with a header but any hopes of a comeback were quashed after a Robinson mistake allowed Gerrard to add a third. As an overall performance it wasn’t top class but Liverpool were still winning games and beginning to earn some plaudits.
Liverpool 0-0 West Ham
Blackburn 1-3 Liverpool
PSV 1-3 Liverpool
Liverpool 2-2 Hull
Arsenal 1-1 Liverpool
Liverpool 3-0 Bolton
Newcastle 1-5 Liverpool
Our last Champions League game of the year came against PSV Eindhoven away. Stephen Darby, Jay Spearing and Martin Kelly all made appearances as Liverpool romped to a 3-1 victory. It was an encouraging night for many reasons. It meant that Liverpool qualified for the next round in first place and a glittering tie with Spanish champions Real Madrid. It was also an excellent opportunity for youngsters and out of form players to throw down a gauntlet. Ryan Babel had a good game which included equalising Lazovic’s opener with a header on half time. Albert Riera was also in superb form and scored a scintillating, well-placed shot with 20 minutes to go. Robbie Keane also had a good performance. The jury was still out on whether Robbie was right for Liverpool but it was his fantastic pass that allowed young Daniel Ngog to slot home and wrap up the game.
The next job was Hull City at home, an interesting proposition for many reasons. Despite pre-season relegation worries, Phil Brown’s men were more than holding their own up in the top half of the table. Brown also promised to take the game to Liverpool rather than park the bus as many teams had elected to; it worked. Within 12 minutes Hull were ahead as poor marking allowed Paul McShane to head home. It only got worst as Jamie Carragher suffered his second own goal of the season with an awkward ‘˜clearance’ into the top corner. 2-0 down at Anfield to a new Premier League outfit wasn’t good enough but the response was imminent. Steven Gerrard made use of gaps at the back to grab a goal back with the outside of his foot. It was again Stevie who provided the equaliser 7 minutes later. Liverpool had fought back but only to where they were at the start of the game, and it stayed that way. The second half performance was much like previous nil-nils with plenty of chances but nothing to convert. Hull held on and fans were left scratching their heads again.
With Torres and Mascherano both out, Liverpool looked fragile as they made the trip down to the Emirates Stadium. Rafael Benitez was also not on the trip after a kidney stones operation and Sammy Lee was left in charge. Arsenal had been in poor form and needed a result but it was Liverpool that started the better. Gerrard and Keane both missed early chances before Arsenal‘s Robin Van Persie rifled in a superb strike in the 24th minute. Keane’s equaliser silenced the boo boys though with an equally impressive half-volley in the 42nd minute. Liverpool came away with a point which from the outset looked a good result but after Emmanuel Adebayor was sent off in the second half, Liverpool were expected to push forward for the win. The response was poor but in the end it was a fair result. There were definite positives as well with Robbie Keane on the score sheet and Emiliano Insua justifying his selection at left back.
Insua also started against Bolton at home on Boxing Day. This time Liverpool struck before the half hour mark through a Riera header at the front post. Robbie Keane also added to his goal return with two very good goals within 5 minutes. It was an encouraging sign that Liverpool were beginning to convert their chances. However not many people expected the extraordinary thrashing at Saint James’s Park.
There was a sense of confusion before the game with Robbie Keane being left out despite scoring in his previous two games. We had no cause for concern as the Reds ran riot against Newcastle. It was a miracle that Newcastle were still in the same game as Liverpool by the half hour as Shay Given made a string of superhuman saves to keep it at 0-0. Eventually Gerrard curled a shot home to settle any doubts before terrible marking from Newcastle allowed Hyypia to head in a second from a corner. Let’s not make any bones about it ‘“ Newcastle played dreadfully ‘“ but Liverpool’s first half performance didn’t warrant the 2-1 scoreboard at half time after David Edgar got one back. Any worries were soon forgotten as Ryan Babel tapped in after comical defending on the line from the Magpies. The game was wrapped up after a terrific pass from Lucas allowed Gerrard to chip home and even receive applause from the home crowd. Eleven minutes later Alonso converted a fifth from a penalty.
The 5-1 win was the last game of the year for Liverpool and arguably one of the best as the Reds went into the New Year in first place. Not all was well off the pitch; Steven Gerrard was arrested for assault after a baffling early morning brawl and concerns about Benitez’s contract continued. Rafa also lost patience with Sir Alex Ferguson after a seething outburst which was followed by a disappointing draw at Stoke. As we head towards back-to-back derbies with United on our tail it is a mystery on which Liverpool team will play out the obstacles that wait in 2009. Will it be the side that came unstuck against Stoke, Fulham and West Ham or the team that thumped Newcastle and took 3 points off United and Chelsea? Liverpool fans hope it will be the latter as the battle for number 19 continues.