It was the start of a busy and potentially decisive week for Liverpool. And it began with a comfortable win and much improved performance against bottom club Portsmouth.
A brace from Fernando Torres, one from Ryan Babel and a first goal for the impressive Alberto Aquilani won it for the Reds. But it was the manner it which they achieved this result which will be more encouraging.
Admittedly this was only a win against Portsmouth, a club in the midst of turmoil and seemingly destined for the Championship next season, if indeed they survive at all. Yet, how many times this season have the Reds made very heavy work of similar matches against sides intent on a draw. And at this moment in time any convincing victory is a blessing.
This was the first time Liverpool had scored more than 2 goals in a single Premier League match since late September. And perhaps the only blemish on the evening was some lax defending late on which allowed Nadir Belhadj to collect his second goal against the Reds this season with a late consolation. Robbing Pepe Reina of another clean sheet.
Under the circumstances, few were particular confident prior to kick-off, even considering the lowly opposition. However the Reds were improved in many departments here. Torres, often frustrated since his return from injury, was back to his lethal best here, grabbing two goals. There were also improved displays from Babel, Maxi Rodriguez and Steven Gerrard. But it was the performance of the crafty Italian Aquilani which was most encouraging.
Aquilani had thus far showed very few signs of living up to his reputation since returning from injury in the autumn. But the former Roma man’s game seemed to finally click into place here. This was a rare occasion on which Rafa Benitez elected to omit Lucas from the starting line up in favour of Aquilani. And the difference was indisputable.
The Italian plays his football at least 10 yards further forward than Lucas at all times. That only makes a difference. And there was not better illustration of that than his first goal for the club; scored from inside the penalty area after 32 minutes. Aquilani’s partnership with Javier Mascherano provided a far greater balance in midfield. Allowing Mascherano to sit deeper and do what he does best. Whilst Pompey afforded Aquilani the space to utilise his often excellent movement and passing in advanced areas of the field.
The Reds dominated proceedings from the offset. With Portsmouth allowing the home side time and space on the ball, Liverpool were able to piece together some encouraging attacking moves. Whilst rarely testing stand-in goalkeeper Jamie Ashdown in the opening minutes.
There were appeals for a penalty when a ball directed towards goal made contact with Ricardo Rocha’s hand in the penalty area. And there were signs of what was to come when an incisive and well worked one touch move found Aquilani in the box and his first time effort flew across the face of goal. But it was the opening goal after 26 minutes which laid the way to victory for the Reds. The goal was somewhat fortuitous, although Gerrard deserves credit for his desire in chasing down Ashdown’s clearance. And the ball eventually found Torres, who stroked home nonchalantly with Pompey’s defence absent.
Liverpool went on to score a further 2 goals in the subsequent 6 minutes and effectively end the game as a contest before the half time whistle. First Torres took the ball down at the far post and fed Babel, who escaped the attentions of visiting defenders and did well to slot the ball past the keeper. Then- with Portsmouth seriously under the cosh – came Aquilani’s first for the club. The south coast sides defending was growing increasingly poor with mounting Liverpool pressure and Aquilani took advantage when Torres’s clever back heel found him with the space to confidently slot past Ashdown.
The Reds were growing in confidence and playing some of the best football they have displayed in a while. They could have added to their advantage before the interval. An excellent curling effort from Torres struck the post, whilst Gerrard went very close moments before the break.
The second half became something of a formality for the Reds with the three points already safely secured. This was the first time in too long that the home fans were able to enjoy the remainder of a Liverpool match safe in the knowledge that a win was already secure.
Papa Bouba Diop’s chipped ball over the Reds defence gave Pompey their first real glint of goal early in the second half. Frederic Piquionne found himself in space at a tight angle and the Frenchman fired a shot across goal and just wide of the far post. Before Reina was forced into an good finger tip save from Michael Brown’s effort.
Gerrard tested Ashdown and Babel forced an excellent save from the keeper from distance. As the away side struggled to cope with the Reds movment. Liverpool probably should have been granted an opportunity to add to their lead when Belhadj fouled Glen Johnson in the area, yet the referee waved away the appeals.
But the fourth goal eventually arrived with 13 minutes remaining. Torres hadn’t been involved much in the second period. Although when the Spaniard peeled away from Rocha to receive Aquilani’s pass, the striker was able to cut inside in clinically fire home his second and Liverpool’s fourth.
Torres was not allowed the time to complete his hat trick, however, as he was replaced by David N’Gog with Lille in mind. And Liverpool perhaps became a touch lethargic and complacent in the dying moments. Allowing Belhadj to slot home from Piquionne’s ball across the face of goal, much to the frustration of Reina.
A comfortable win for the Reds and one which could have been achieved by an even greater margin. However this will only be considered meaningful if the Reds can translate this result and performance into some critical upcoming games, as the matches come thick and fast.
MAN OF THE MATCH
Has certainly taken his time to find his feet but looked impressive and effective here. Perhaps not helped by a lack of opportunities; should surely be given a run in the team now. Very encouraging.