With Manchester City and Tottenham Hotspur having already registered victories prior to kick off at Anfield, a win for Liverpool against Blackburn Rovers was a must, as the race for the final Champions League qualification spot continued. And that was achieved, thanks to first half strikes from key duo Steven Gerrard and Fernando Torres.
The return of Torres to the Reds starting line up manifested a buzz amongst the fans inside Anfield. And the Spaniards return was marked with what was ultimately the winning goal after 44 minutes.
Goals have been in short supply in recent weeks, so a return to goal scoring form for both Torres and Gerrard will be a particular point of encouragement. No one is in any doubt that the aforementioned players have been the main source of goals for the Reds over the last couple of seasons. Whilst the fact that only one Liverpool player has found the net in any of the clubs last 6 league games – Dirk Kuyt – serves to underline the significance of having the pair on the pitch and scoring goals for the remainder of the campaign.
Rafa Benitez decided to make a number of changes to his line up despite the comfortable mid week victory over Unirea Uriziceni. With Martin Skrtel out injured and Sotirios Kyriakos still unavailable, Jamie Carragher switched to partner Daniel Agger at centre back. Many had expected Martin Kelly to earn a first Premier League appearance at full back but instead the manager opted to shift Javier Mascherano to the vacant right back position.
Fabio Aurelio also came in for the rested Emilliano Insua and Maxi Rodriguez replaced Ryan Babel. With Benitez for once opting for a change from his usual system in favour of a more standard 4-4-2 formation, as the Reds sought a return to winning ways in the Premier League.
Dealing with the physical, direct nature of Sam Allerdyce’s side was always likely to be a key factor in achieving a result. And Blackburn set their stall out exactly as anticipated. There is little love lost between Benitez and Allerdyce and the feud between their contrasting styles and personalities, which has been ongoing throughout Benitez’s time in England, continued in the build up to the match.
The refereeing of Alan Wiley did not help the Reds efforts to counter the physical approach of the visitors. On a few occasions the official seemed rather lenient towards challenges by Blackburn players.
Benitez was particularly irate on the touchline at what he perceived to be persistent fouling from Rovers. And the tempestuous nature of the afternoon also occasionally spilled on to the field of play, especially during a spat between Gerrard and ex-Red El-Hadji Diouf at the conclusion of the first half.
However the Reds were able to gain a measure of control over the match in the opening half. Martin Olsson and Nikola Kalinic – after Lucas was caught in possession – both had early efforts for Blackburn without testing Pepe Reina. But Liverpool dominated much of the early posession.
Yet it wasn’t until the 20th minute that the Reds were able to produce the sort of football capable of unlocking the visitors defence. And when an excellent flowing move involving Gerrard, Dirk Kuyt and Yossi Benayoun found the captain in space in the penalty area, he was able to evade the Blackburn defence – courtesy of a bit of luck – and expertly loft the ball over Paul Robinson for 1-0.
Having taken the lead the Reds appeared to assert some control over proceedings and seemed capable of adding to their advantage. But it was Blackburn Rovers who found a route back into the game after 40 minutes. Jamie Carragher could perhaps feel a little unlucky when Alan Wiley elected to award a penalty for hand ball. Although when the defenders hand made contact with the ball whilst on floor, Keith Andrews was presented with the chance to equalise from the spot.
However Blackburn were level for no more than a few minutes, as Torres struck the crucial blow moments before the break. An excellent defence splitting pass from Lucas – who has quietly been making an increasing and important contribution to the team over recent games – played in Torres. Christopher Samba’s challenge only succeeded in playing the ball to Maxi and the Argentine winger coolly played the ball across for Torres to slot home, with the Rovers defence caught out.
It was a goal at a vital time for the Reds and ultimately turned out to be the winning one. Although the home side were far from allowed to cruise to victory by the visitors.
At the interval Liverpool were in control and probably should have gone on to finish the game off. However, having failed to do so, Blackburn’s direct, uncompromising tactics began to cause the Reds problems in the closing stages. They had Reina to thank on at least a couple of occasions for maintaining their narrow advantage. Not least a fine full-stretch save from the head of Samba late on.
Liverpool should have made this victory more comfortable. And their route to victory should perhaps have been made easier, had referee Wiley sent Blackburn midfielder Steven Nzonzi from the field early in the second half from obviously and mindlessly raising his hands to Lucas’s face.
Nzonzi pushed the Brazilian to the floor off the ball and was luck not to receive a red card rather than the yellow he was shown. Particularly when you consider that Lucas received the same punishment for merely kicking the ball away later in the half.
It wasn’t a victory which was gained with the sort of ease and comfort that many would have hoped. But it was a vital one nonetheless. The Reds occasionally displayed a sharper attacking edge then they have done for much of the past couple of months, if only in fleeting moments. And with all of the teams key attacking players now available, this result will hopefully be the start of improved fortunes in the weeks and months ahead.