Dirk Kuyt was Liverpool’s saviour as they narrowly overcame the challenge of Sparta Prague to progress to the last 16 of this season’s Europa League. The Dutchman – so often reliable on a European occasion – bagged his 15th goal for the Reds in continental competition, with just 4 of 180 turgid, tense minutes remaining.
If the first leg in Prague a week before was a drab affair; at times this was not much better. Just a solitary goal from Kuyt decided the contest in the end. But, an admittedly weakened, Liverpool side had laboured for long periods of both games before ultimately overcoming average Czech opposition.
The unusually early kick-off did not deter a sell-out Anfield crowd. And they were eventually rewarded for their patience at the end of an Anfield European evening which will probably not live too long in the memory – in keeping with most in this season’s Europa League.
Kenny Daliglish said that he was pleased with Liverpool’s persistence and work ethic and also spoke of his pride at managing the Reds in European competition at Anfield for the first time. Although he will surely be desperate for the opportunity to test himself against sterner opposition in the more illustrious continental tournament sometime in the near future.
And with that in mind the manager selected a rather experimental starting line-up against the Czech opponents. The likes of Danny Wilson, Christian Poulsen, Joe Cole and David N’Gog were all granted starts.
But Liverpool struggled to find any fluency in their play. Too many of the fringe players who have been utilised in European games this season have failed to genuinely make an impression. As much as anything else, this tie against the Czech champions will have proved Dalglish that many of his squad players are not of the required standard. Although he is never likely to suggest it publicly. Significant investment is certainly still required come the.
David N’Gog gave Liverpool very little in the way of physical presence or goal threat upfront. In the continued absence of Andy Carroll and with Luis Suarez ineligible in this competition, this was N’Gog’s chance to stake a claim. Yet the misfiring French forward too often appeared off the pace and seems to struggle with the responsibility of playing as a lone striker.
I doubt he will be getting many more opportunities to impress between now and the end of the season, once both Carroll and Suarez come into the equation.
Although it was not just in the forward position that a weakened Reds were lacking on the night. Lucas Leiva is a player who has rightfully been receiving credit as one of Liverpool’s better performers this campaign. But, beyond breaking up play and providing simple passes and linkup play, the Brazilian’s game is limited.
Put Christian Poulsen alongside him – a player who possesses similar attributes to Lucas but is not as good a player – and you have a rather limited midfield partnership and a fairly soft centre. Neither is a great passer of the ball in a progressive sense and neither is likely to be demanding possession.
Without a Steven Gerrard or Raul Meireles – who was again deployed in an advanced position – to dictate play in midfield, it can become difficult for find general fluidity in their play or gain a measure of control over the game when playing in this formation.
To that end, a well-organised and battling Sparta side were able to gain some joy over their hosts – particularly in the first half. Sprata forward Libor Sionko went close a couple of times early on. First, sending a lob on the stretch over the bar in the opening few minutes, after Sotirios Kyrgiakos failed to clear. Then, sending a header again over the bar. Before Sionko’s cross from the right resulted in Pepe Reina making the first meaningful save from Vaclav Kadlec.
Liverpool, though, were once again solid defensively. Having conceded just one goal in their last seven matches in all. The partnership of Daniel Agger and Kyrgiakos, in particular, excelled in the heart of the defence.
The Reds were struggling for momentum early on and lacking a leader to take control of the ball and make an attacking statement. To be fair though, Dalglish’s men slowly began to grow into the game.
Right-back Martin Kelly was actually the home sides main source of attacking threat, prior to his unfortunate withdrawal through injury at the interval. Kelly’s crossing ability and forward forays have become something of a trademark in recent weeks. From one such opening Meireles had perhaps the best chance of the first half. Kelly’s rightwing delivery was met first time by the Portuguese. But he could only direct his effort over from ten-yards.
Kyrgiakos – a constent threat from set-pieces – forced Blazek into a save from Meireles’ corner. Before Kuyt dispossessed Thomas Repka and found N’Gog in space. But the striker’s effort was too easily saved by Blazek; whilst Cole was not brave enough with the rebound in face of the onrushing ‘keeper.
With Liverpool losing Kelly at half-time things did not improve markedly after the break. Jamie Carragher was introduced for an historical 137th European appearance. However the veteran defender does not provide the same level of attacking threat. With Wilson also more comfortable when defending than attacking on the left.
The Reds continued to labour though and persisted in their pursuit of what seemed like an ever more unlikely opening. N’Gog squandered the best chance. He completely miscued his shot when found by Kuyt in the box.
But, with the game seemingly destined for unwanted extra-time, it was Kuyt to the rescue. The Dutchman adjusting his position well to nod a quality Meireles corner beyond Blazek on 86 minutes. And send the crowd into both relief and joy.
N’Gog and particularly Cole could have done better with late chances to put the game beyond any doubt. But the Reds had just about done enough.
The Europa League is a competition in which Roy Hodgson persisted with a policy of experimentation and squad rotation in its early stages. In both games against Sparta Prague Dalglish has confirmed that his sees a similar policy as the right way to go.
It will be interesting to see if manager sticks to his guns now that the competition is facing its latter stages. Liverpool have somewhat stumbled into the last 16 of the competition, without having to produce their best football and often without risking their key players. Yet, as the one remaining chance of tangible success this season, the Europa League certainly holds some significance – both for a club which has not claimed any silverware for four and half years and for a manger who is eager to further enhance his claims for the role on a permanent basis.
Man of the Match
Even though he had to be withdrawn at the break, he was Liverpool’s main attacking threat. Which perhaps says as much about Liverpool’s forward players on the night.