Rather sensibly I opted not to comment on our first game of the new season right after the Spurs debacle at the weekend, although let me assure you it wouldn’t have made for pleasant reading!
The biggest issue I had was centred on the potential damage that may be caused to our season by the loss of Alonso, since we appeared to be creating little or nothing from midfield and as has already been mentioned on the site, Lucas and Mascherano seem far too similar to play alongside each other in the centre of the pitch. Cue calls for Gerrard to be moved back (at least until Aquilani is fit) and Babel to be banished to the depths of the reserves while promoting the excellent Benayoun to ‘˜first team regular’.
The Stoke performance, however, has changed my mind somewhat, as it should the handful of Liverpool fans that claimed the season was over already, after the first game.
Rafa, admittedly, made one important change last night by replacing the hapless Babel with haptically-assured Bennie, and indeed his touch and game intelligence certainly seemed to make a difference. The general feeling I got from the Stoke game though, is that the team got a right good rollocking from the gaffer and perhaps realised that the sort of lackadaisical performance seen against Spurs can not be tolerated if we are indeed to secure that elusive 19th league trophy.
We seemed to have so much more about us last night, from clever movement and assured touches (Gerrard’s touch and assist for our third goal was beyond world-class), renewed confidence and an air about the team that is oh-so-familiar from the last two months of the previous season.
This is exactly what I wanted to see after finishing so strongly in the last campaign, and we can but hope that over the next four or five games we will build a head of steam that will make our Chelsea encounter on October 4th a tie to salivate over.
Before I get onto today’s highlights I’ll put in a mention for Lucas here, and this might be a little shocking to read, considering the timing, but aside from boosting his confidence I really don’t see why Rafa is making such an effort to big the player up. He was fine today, nothing spectacular, nothing awful, just fine. This, apparently, is cause to praise the guy to the high-heavens and I seem to be in the minority in arguing that I really can’t see what he brings to the team. Stable and solid seems to be about the best we can expect from the guy.
I’ll draw a comparison with someone infuriatingly inconsistent, such as Babel, here, by arguing that at least in his case we’ve seen the ‘˜potential’ of what he can offer the team, whether or not this will be realised on a consistent basis. Lucas on the other hand, has never really shined in any game that I can remember, and I’m not quite sure what qualities he possesses that Rafa is expecting to develop over the coming games. He’s a fair tackler and does try to get involved, but doesn’t have a particularly good touch, doesn’t seem to have a great eye for a pass, a great shot, a lot of pace or a great football brain, so what area of his game are we expecting to improve to the extent that he can be a genuinely useful addition to the team? The guy is an enigma, and while I feel he is a decent ‘˜backup’ midfielder I see no place for him in our title-winning eleven, now or in the future.
On to more positive things, and surely the most obvious of these has to be Glen Johnson’s performance last night. What a player this guy could be for us. In two short games he has already shown exactly why Rafa spent so much, and why he was convinced that he was worth the extra outlay over Arbeloa, who is a player I had a lot of respect for as a solid defensive base. Johnson has so much more though, and his attacking ability combined with Deadly-Dirk’s tireless running on the right offers us a fantastic combination of talents on that side of the pitch. Alvaro would never have made the run the got us the penalty against Spurs and wouldn’t have been loitering in the box to score our second against Stoke with a fantastic overhead kick. I have extremely high hopes for our new right-back and have no doubt that Rafa’s money was well-spent, even at these early doors.
In conclusion, Stoke was a great night for the Reds and it truly looked like, after a fairly poor pre-season and first game, we have suddenly recovered the confidence and free-scoring form from the tail-end of last season. The impetus now will be on keeping this going, and provided we’re capable of playing the sort of confident, high-pressure football we displayed today over the next few games, we might well be able to cope with a lack of creativity in midfield until Aquilani turns up and hopefully, proves his worth.