Liverpool were made to fight for their right to progress to the last 16 of this seasons Carling Cup last night. As a solitary David N’Gog strike sealed the Reds passage into the 4th round at the expense of League One outfit Leeds United at Elland Road last night.
Rafa Bentiez had predicted a tough battle against the League One table-toppers, bolstered by a first sell-out crowd since their relegation from the Premier League 5 years ago. And that is exactly what ensued, as a much-changed Liverpool line-up were made to worry for long periods against a well organised and hard working Leeds side.
Benitez made 9 changes from the weekend victory over West Ham United, with only stand-in captain Jamie Carragher and Javier Mascherano retaining their places in the starting XI. Jay Spearing made a first senior start in a three man midfield, which also included fit-again Fabio Aurelio on the left. Liverpool began the match with a three man attacking trio of Ryan Babel, Albert Reira and young French striker David N’Gog through the middle.
Both sides gave away little in the opening period, in front of a rapturous atmosphere created by both the home support and the near 5,000 travelling Liverpool contingent. Leeds succeeded in gifting Liverpool little space in a congested midfield. The Reds struggled to take control of the gameand suffered from a lack of cohesion and fluidity between the front three in the early exchanges, perhaps stemming from a lack of minutes playing together.
Liverpool created few opportunities of note in the first half. Babel had a effort on goal and a Reira header was saved on the line by goalkeeper Shane Higgs. But the Yorkshire men came closest to scoring.
Michael Doyle went close with a header, before a header by Lubomir Michalik found the back of Diego Cavalieri’s net via a perceived touch from Jermaine Beckford, on 12 minutes. The goal was disallowed for offside – replays proving that the decision was marginal. But, more pertinently, Liverpool were again vulnerable to set pieces; having already conceded 8 out of 9 goals from similar situations so far this season.
Many people have been quick to criticise the zonal marking system, but it is important to notice that – looking at the statistics – zonal marking has been very effective in previous seasons. Whether it’s the system or personal not doing their jobs properly, it is certainly an issue for Rafa and his backroom team at the moment.
The crafty and hard working Robert Snodgrass and the much-hyped Beckford occasionally caused the Reds concern throughout the 90 minutes. But Carragher and Soitiros Kyrigiakos were largely solid and Cavalieri wasn’t tested too regularly in the opening period. Having struggled to assert their influence in the first half, the mix of fringe players and first team regulars began to find their feet as the game progressed.
Academy graduate Spearing was tidy if less effective in an over-congested midfield during the first half. But Rafa’s decision to push the youngster further forward of Mascherano, in support of N’Gog, in the second period, paid off. Spearing used the ball well on a number of occasions and began to display his quality as the game opened up.
Although Leeds again came close to breaking the deadlock early in the second half. Beckford had a great chance to further enhance his reputation but shot tamely at Cavaleiri after running on to a long punt upfield. And Leeds were made to pay after 66 minutes, as N’Gog showed Beckford how its done. Mascherano’s seemingly wayward shot after the ball was cleared from a corner found its way to N’Gog, who instinctively turned and cooly placed the ball beyond Higgs from an angle.
It was an impressive finish from the France U-21 striker, who is showing clear signs of improvement into his second season at Anfield. He was given a tough task on the night, playing as a lone striker against the physically imposing Leeds defence. But he stuck to the task, worked hard and, after a lot of running, was ultimately rewarded with his fifth goal in a red shirt.
Liverpool were able to take control and eventually see out the game after taking the lead. Although the threat from Leeds was reaffirmed as Benitez felt the need to introduce three of his first-team stalwarts to help see out the game. Glen Johnson, Steven Gerrard and Martin Skrtel all came of the bench and Liverpool even finished the match with no recognised forwards after N’Gog and Babel were withdrawn.
But it was the away side who went closest to adding to their total in the later stages. Babel flashed a shot just over the crossbar after creating some space in the box, with Leeds pushing forward. And substitute Gerrard had a thunderous effort from the right of the area palmed away by Higgs.
As anticipated, the Reds came through a tough contest at Elland Road. This was never likely to be a straightforward task, against a resurgent Leeds United. Ultimately a weakened Liverpool side were able to get the job done, whilst a number of fringe players were able to get some important playing time. With the Reds eager to get their hands on some silverware this season, they have taken a step closer towards the first trophy on offer.
Man of the Match
The young French striker didn’t find it easy operating as a lone striker against a commanding and physical League One defence. But he didn’t shirk the challenge and covered a lot of ground and put in plenty of Hard work, before getting his reward with the match winner. Showing signs that he may just be able to provide some much needed support for Fernando Torres.