Liverpool’s spine beginning to take shape again

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Match Report
Liverpool 2-0 Wolves
Saturday, 26th December 2009

Second half goals from Steven Gerrard and Yossi Benayoun granted Liverpool fans the perfect Christmas present of three points at Anfield on Boxing Day.

Encouragingly Rafa Benitez chose to field a strong, attacking line-up against newly promoted Wolverhampton Wanderers. Alberto Aquilani – making his first Premier League start – partnered Lucas in midfield, in the absence of Javier Mascherano. With Fernando Torres, Steven Gerrard and Yossi Benayoun were all included in attack.

The Reds struggled to find the creative spark required to break the visitors down dispite dominating possession for much of the match. And it was not until Wolves were reduced to 10 men, by a questionable second booking, that Liverpool were able to assert some measure of dominance over the opposition.

With key players, such as Torres, Gerrard, Aquilani and Glen Johnson still searching for peak match fitness, as well as a general lack of confidence throughout the side, it is understandable for the Reds to not be playing their best football at the present moment. The most important thing here was to secure the three points following on from some inconsistent form and recent poor performances.

The Liverpool line-up seemed far more balanced than has often been the case during recent matches. Aquilani still seemed rusty on occasions – as would be expected – but overall his touch and vision looked good in a promising performance. The Italian, playing in a more advanced role than Lucas, looks to provide the link between midfield and attack which has been so often absent this season. Aqulani appeared to form a good understanding with his Brazilian midfield partner, contributing to much greater balance in the centre of the pitch.

The Reds dominated possession early on, with Aquilani consistently looking for possession in midfield and an improved performance from the captain Gerrard asking questions of the Wolves defence. However a general dearth in confidence, combined with a lack of speed and fluidity in the build-up play often hindered Benitez’s side once again.

Johnson perhaps should have done better with an opportunity when he found himself in some space on the right. Before Torres toyed with the Wolves defence and forced Marcus Hahnemann into a decent fingertip save. Whilst on other occasions during the opening period the final ball was found wanting when the Reds had worked themselves into positions around the visitors box. Torres is not as sharp as we all would wish at present. And Fernando Torres on top form would almost certainly have helped Liverpool pose a more concerted threat to the Wolves goal. However the simple presence of the lethal Spaniard on the pitch will have been a consistent worry for Mick McCarthey’s men.

Despite the home sides early control over proceedings, as has often been the case in recent home matches, with confidence in short supply and tension rising in the stands, Wolves were allowed into the game. And the Reds could have been punished on a couple of occasions but for a lack of quality. Kevin Doyle headed wide when he should have tested Pepe Reina from close range, before Kevin Foley failed to control in the box when left in space by some inadequate defending.

Ultimately it took some intervention from referee Andre Marriner to finally turn the tide in Liverpool’s favour in this game. The second half began in much the same vein as the first half ended. Stephen Ward’s push on Lucas when the Brazilian broke away down the right in the 52nd minute seemed fairly innocuous. However, with the defender already correctly cautioned for a foul on Benayoun by referee Marriner, once the referee interpreted the foul as another bookable offence, Ward’s game was at an end. Yet the game descended into farced when Marriner inexplicably elected to show the yellow card to the wrong Wolves defender. It took intervention by Liverpool’s players, including goalkeeper Reina, and the assistant referee to get the decision correctly overturned.

The away fans strangely opted to vent their anger at the dismissal towards Reina, who had ran the length of the pitch to protest about the decision. As opposed to the referee, who was probably harsh in his decision to issue a second yellow card, before some how proceeding to book the wrong player. However the numerical advantage proved to be somewhat of a turning point as the Reds were finally able to find the breakthrough.

Emiliano Insua’s defending has been vulnerable on a number of occasions recently. Although with Fabio Aurelio often deployed on the left wing he has very little pressure on his position in the team. However one thing that should be noted is the attacking dimesion which he can provide down the left. And it was a cross from Insua which lead to the opening goal. The young Argentine swung a cross in from the left flank and raw determination from Gerrard to get to the ball ahead of the defender allowed the skipper to send an excellent header beyond Hahnemann.

Gerrard has found the net this season as often as his exceptional record would dictate, and his recent form along with that of others has been brought in to question. But there is no doubt that improved performances from the captain, such as this one, will go a long way towards helping the Reds move up the table in the remainder of the season.

With the deadlock broken and Wolves down to 10 men, the game opened up during the final half an hour. Reina was forced to turn the ball over his crossbar, but it was Liverpool who created the bulk of the chances. And Benayoun all but finished the game with the second goal after 70 minutes. A quality cross from Aurelio found Benayoun in space, and the Israeli’s shot took a deflection off Karl Henry on its way into the net.

The second goal allowed the Reds some breathing space – a rare commodity in recent months – and Benitez was able to make some changes. Dirk Kuyt’s recent below-par form had resulted in the Dutchman being named amongst the substitutes for this match. Although he was granted a chance to prove his manager wrong when introduced for Aurelio after 75 minutes. But it was the arrival of young Spaniard Dani Pacheco which was one of the greatest positives to take from the match. Pacheco had been impressive on debut as a substitute against Fiorentina a couple of weeks ago and the encouraging signs continued here. The 18 year-old replaced Aquilani after 84 minutes and looked bright and lively. He may only be small in stature but he looked confident and was constantly demanding possession, with quality on the ball to accompany it. Pacheco looks to have the potential to be the sort of creative player which the Reds have lacked very regularly this season, and for that reason alone should be given more opportunities over coming games.

Liverpool were able to see out a comfortable 2-0 victory in the end. Although performances may well need to be taken up a level if they are to achieve a similar result in the next match against Aston Villa. The most encouraging aspect to derive from this win has to be and evident improved balance and quality through the spine of the team. Perhaps the most significant reasoning for Liverpool’s demise this season has been the stark contrast in the strength and consistence of the spine of the side between last season and this. However with Aquilani seeming to provide the missing link between defence and attack in midfield, and Gerrard and Torres back on the same pitch, hopefully the Reds now have something to build on.

Man of the Match
Steven Gerrard
The captains form has undoubtedly been below his exceptional standards for much of this season. However he demonstrated that a return to former levels may be on the horizon with this performance. Gerrard’s header for the first goal was magnificent and his all round involvement was encouraging. The ball just seemed to be falling more kindly for him. An on form Steven Gerrard can be pivitol.

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