After agreeing to give up on watching the Reds play against Steaua Bucharest on Thursday – the missus had other plans for the evening in connection with that all important day commonly referred to as Birthday – I was looking forward for the next Premiership home tie against Aston Villa, one which I confidently assumed would be an easy corner to negotiate. The signs of improvement have been there since the Reds’ capitulation against Stoke. The boys played an excellent game against Spurs but were ultimately undone by a team in a much better shape and consistency. A similar performance followed against Villa and the Red men now seem to understand what Hodgson expects in terms of positional play, passing and marking – three ingredients which were missing early in the season. True to say that Villa were oblivious all throughout, seemingly uninterested in giving the Reds a good run. This was epitomized early on in the first half when Brad Friedel uncharacteristically turned his back to his defenders after resuming play.
Villa’s lack of will made it look easy for Liverpool, but with the big three missing – Carragher, Gerrard and Torres – it was natural for Liverpool fans to wonder who would come up with the goods against a team in dire need of the three points. The game, played in apparently biting cold conditions, was an emotional event with ex-Liverpool boss Gerard Houllier and ex-players Gary McAllister, Stephen Warnock and Brad Friedel showing up at Anfield with the home support sporting banners in support of the well respected Frenchman. Fernando Torres was a late exclusion from the team after news broke out that his wife was close to giving birth to the couple’s second child. At the time of writing I haven’t had any updates about the new addition to the Torres’ family so here’s hoping all went well and both mum and child are keeping well.
Yesterday’s game provided fringe players such as Babel and Ngog the opportunity to show off their skills infront of the home crowd from minute zero. Babel’s contribution lately has been positive, setting up Jovanovic with a pin-point pass from the right which the Serb brilliantly converted for Liverpool’s opener in Bucharest. Babel was highly influential and hard working against the Villians and gave Liverpool a two-nil cushion with a neat but powerful angled shot. Still not totally impressed by the Dutchman who gave us a glimpse of what he is capable of in the second half with some nice twists and turns. Ryan tends to lose the ball frequently, similar to Ngog, the only difference that the latter gets muscled off, whereas Babbel tends to lose track of the ball during dribbling attempts. Two deficiencies which can only – and must – be improved during training.
A player that has been receiving a fair share of stick lately has been Konchesky. Konchesky is the typical tough and robust English defender who can safely tackle and dispossess players. However, he lacks that burst of speed for recovery and prefers the long ball to playing it on the ground. Konchesky will sprint forward on the wing but speed is picked up gradually. Two weak points which can be rectified, so less of the useless high balls and more decisive one-twos is what is expected from Konchesky going forward.
Hodgson fielded a typical 4-4-2 line-up with Babel and Ngog playing off Kuyt and Maxi supported by Lucas and Miereles in midfield. Johnson was asked to tone down his attacking sprints during the first half since midfield cover on the flanks – in the form of Maxi and Kuyt – was not always to be guaranteed. It was only when Villa threw in the towel early in the second half and after conceding the third goal, courtesy of a text book counter attack finished brilliantly by Maxi, that Johnson was given license to move forward and how motivated the England man was! Glenn could have added to Villa’s misery on more than one occasion, Friedel coming to the rescue frequently.
My man of the match was again Lucas who again was instrumental in linking the defensive four to the attacking side of the Liverpool team. Heavily active in link-up play and attack break-down, Lucas was constantly on the move swaying from left to right tracking down opponents and initiating attacks, feeding balls forward. Miereles was restricted to midfield duties given the attacking presence of Babel, Ngog, Maxi and Kuyt. Nonetheless, he was pivotal in spraying passes around and taking ownership of corners and free kicks.
Important to point out the evident double marking style of play which Hodgson seems to have introduced and which is now starting to pay dividends as the Liverpool players fine tune their play to suit the inner workings of this brilliant tactic which requires stamina but is suffocating for opponents. One could notice Krygiakos and Johnson working in tandem on the right hand side with Skrytel and Konchesky doing the same on the left.
A word of praise has to go to Pepe Reina for managing one hundred clean sheets in record time. Pepe has been a worthy ambassador for Liverpool, a ‘keeper once in the shadows of Iker Casillas when called to join Spain on International duty. Reina – an entertaining character off the pitch – has matured a great deal during his time at Liverpool and has, on many times, produced masterclass saves. On a few occasions he has fumbled shots and one must remember that a hard-working player will capture headlines more often than not following blunders. So it’s a huge thumbs up to the stand-in captain.
Next up is a tricky game against Newcastle who have just been thrown into turmoil with the unexpected, probably unwarranted and surprising dismissal of manager Chris Hughton. Under Hughton Newcastle managed convincing wins against Arsenal at the Emirates and Sunderland, the latter derby match ending 5-1 to Newcastle. Chelsea were dumped out of the Carling Cup by the Magpies at Stamford Bridge, however results haven’t been good as of late and notable defeats to Bolton, Blackburn and West Brom have taken the club a few steps back after the positive start to the season. Liverpool will want to take full advantage of the psychological blow to the players who will be asked to get over their ex-manager as quickly as is reasonably possible by caretaker boss Peter Beardsley. It won’t be easy for Newcastle to focus on football matters and the Reds know this is the best time to play the Magpies. Gerrard and Torres back should put us in pole position to secure the three points and get us back to winning ways on the road. Never be complacent and the match will be hard fought but I’m convinced the boys can win this and win in style. Incidentally and regrettably, I shall not be following the match live as a certain David Knopfler will be performing live in Malta’s historic Manoel Theatre and this is an event I certainly cannot miss.
Needless to say, good luck Reds.
See you next time.