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Liverpool 2-2 Aston Villa: Positives and Negatives from Reds’ Anfield Draw

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Michael Regan/Getty Images

This Saturday, Liverpool hosted Aston Villa at Anfield in what turned out to be a thrilling Premier League match, as Andreas Weimann and Christian Benteke had the visitors storming into a first-half lead before the Reds mounted a comeback via Daniel Sturridge and Steven Gerrard.

Under pressure right from the start of the match, Liverpool got what their sloppy and uncertain play deserved when Weimann nipped in to score from a Gabby Agbonlahor cross, before Benteke doubled Villa’s lead 10 minutes after their first.

Sturridge’s finish to cap off some excellent combination play from the hosts was what they needed right on the stroke of half-time, and Gerrard calmly slotted away a penalty after Brad Guzan was adjudged to have fouled Luis Suarez in the box.

Here are eight positives and negatives from Liverpool’s draw at Anfield. Let us know your thoughts and views in the comments below.

 

The First Half Was an Indication of What Liverpool Still Lack…

All throughout the season, Liverpool have generally been solid against most opponents; their fourth-place standing in the Premier League will be an accurate reflection of that.

But against a certain style of team, the Reds have encountered an almost fatal Achilles’ heel: pace and power on the break, through the middle of the park.

So it’s no surprise that, after a comprehensive home defeat at the hands of Mauricio Pochettino’s Southampton and Arsene Wenger’s Arsenal, an unfancied Aston Villa side led by Paul Lambert were just one goal short of taking all three points at Anfield on Saturday.

To be sure, Brendan Rodgers’ tactical experiment backfired spectacularly—and we’ll have more on that later—but the deep prompting of Ashley Westwood and the power of Fabian Delph, allied with the pace of Agbonlahor and the industry of Christian Benteke and Andreas Weimann, meant that the hosts just didn’t have enough in the tank to deal with an impressive first-half performance from the visitors.

If the Reds’ back four were on a whole unconvincing, it was the midfield that allowed Villa to storm in. After 22 league games, this remains a glaring problem for Liverpool.

 

…But the Second Half Showed How They Have Grown

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Michael Regan/Getty Images

All the same, credit must be afforded to the way the home side came back in the second half.

A flowing move deep in stoppage time in the first half, featuring an exquisite Jordan Henderson back-heel assist, ended with a clinical Sturridge finish and sent the Reds back to the dressing room with some encouragement.

And while Rodgers erred with his starting lineup, there was no prolongation of the same old problems when Lucas was introduced at the expense of Philippe Coutinho, which helped restore balance in the Reds’ approach play.

More importantly, and perhaps the silver lining from the game, was Liverpool’s mental resilience in mounting their comeback in the second half.

Regardless of whether their penalty was from a Guzan foul or a Suarez dive—and the debate will rage on for some time yet—a newfound aggression, not to mention familiarity with the system, was evident in the second 45 at Anfield.

 

The Midfield Is Still Alarmingly Short of Real Options…

But back to the midfield, which, when the dust settles from the two dropped points, is ultimately the root of the Reds’ current troubles.

The current senior central midfield lineup at Anfield stands as thus: Steven Gerrard, Lucas Leiva, Jordan Henderson and Joe Allen.

Glaringly missing from the quartet is a specialist defensive midfield with pace and capable of breaking up attacks and clean, crunching tackles to start counterattacks. The role of such a player cannot be understated: He provides the shield in front of the back four and alleviates both the midfield and defence by providing an additional safe outlet in the middle.

While all the noise after last weekend’s victory at Stoke City was about Steven Gerrard’s new role as holding midfielder, and while he even replaced Lucas in the latter’s now customary position, it was evident from the first 45 minutes that the captain just doesn’t have the legs or the cautiousness to excel in that role.

Henderson, tasked with being a defensive option, a midfield runner and an advanced attacking outlet, was simply overawed.

 

…But in Jordan Henderson and Raheem Sterling They Have the Future

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Michael Regan/Getty Images

On the bright side, Henderson replied to those who leveled at him the criticism that he shies away when his captain is in the same side with a mature and intelligent performance in the heart of the midfield.

While taking on the three aforementioned roles simultaneously was always going to be hard, he showed good responsibility tracking back and also inventiveness going forward, as shown clearly from his sensational back heel to set Sturridge up for Liverpool’s first goal.

So besides his famous work rate and never-ending harrying of his opponents, Henderson has also added flair and guile to his game.

Alongside him was another young starlet who had been written off for the majority of the 2013 calendar year. Raheem Sterling has been in exciting form since returning to Rodgers’ first team in December, and against Villa he turned in a performance that will have justified his manager’s continued faith in him.

Probably one of the few positives of the first half, Sterling then went on to cope well in a less familiar role at right wing-back in the second half, but yet he still timed his forward runs perfectly and showed his maturity and strength on the ball while doing his defensive work.

While the midfield is clearly in need of quality additions, in Henderson and Sterling—if they can keep up their development under Rodgers—Liverpool already have two key cogs in their ever-developing machine.

 

Brendan Rodgers’ Tactical Naivety Cost Liverpool Two Points…

Rodgers has rightly received many glowing plaudits from the way he has managed and grown this Liverpool side into genuine top-four contenders this season, yet Saturday will have been one of his lowest points as a Reds manager.

If not for the sheer reason that he couldn’t continue Liverpool’s momentum and home form, then definitely because it was his tactical naivety and proneness to tactical experimentation that cost his side two points.

The same fixture last season ended in an embarrassing 1-3 home loss to the Villans, and while Sturridge’s early goal handed Liverpool all three points at Villa Park back in August, the second half also saw the Reds kept at bay against an incessant and dominant Villa side.

After suffering the same fate against similarly fast and physical teams this season, Rodgers yet again faltered in selecting a weak midfield core of just Gerrard and Henderson, and in going with a conventional 4-4-2, left his left flank exposed with the rapidly deteriorating Cissokho and the weak Coutinho.

 

…But He Will Have Learned Painful Lessons

So Liverpool fans will be hoping Rodgers has come away from the draw thinking not only about their spirited second-half comeback but their shockingly disjointed first-half performance.

Twenty-two games in is not necessarily the time for Liverpool to be experimenting with new tactical systems, especially when their previous one had been working so well. They had just started seeing some impressive results.

Rodgers will also realize the importance of Jose Enrique and even Jon Flanagan’s imminent returns from injury, while Joe Allen can’t come back into the side quickly enough. And while Lucas might not be the best specialist defensive midfielder, it was his introduction that restored a sense of balance to the team in the second half.

A switch out to the left for Suarez with Sturridge as the central striker also didn’t have the desired outcome, though it was Suarez, of course, who won the equalizing penalty.

Having a fit and firing strike duo of Suarez and Sturridge would be the dream of many a Premier League manager, yet Rodgers needs to find a formula that can keep them scoring and assisting each other without adversely affecting the points on the board.

 

The Top-Four Race Has Now Been Blown Wide-Open Again…

In the immediate aftermath of the game, Liverpool remain fourth in the Premier League standings with 43 points on board.

With third-placed Chelsea on 46 having played a game less, there is already a small gap between the Reds and the top three of Arsenal, Manchester City and Chelsea, but Rodgers will now be looking nervously over his shoulder.

For both Everton and Tottenham can come dangerously close to Liverpool—and in the former’s case, even overtake their Merseyside rivals—if results go their way in the remainder of this Premier League weekend.

And if David Moyes finds a way to end Jose Mourinho’s impeccable home record at Stamford Bridge on Sunday, Manchester United will suddenly storm back into top-four contention.

It’s a tight league this season, and the constant stress can’t be doing any good for everyone, especially the Liverpool manager.

 

…And Next Week’s Merseyside Derby Will Be Massive

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Alex Livesey/Getty Images

As Tottenham look to continue their resurgence and possibly end Week 22 level on points (but with a vastly inferior goal difference), Liverpool will know that their main rivals to date are still Everton, who have impressed many pundits and fans with their enterprising and aesthetically pleasing style under Roberto Martinez this season.

Which makes the upcoming Merseyside derby on January 28 arguably one of the most important in recent seasons, simply because of the potential ramifications.

A thrilling 3-3 draw in the reverse fixture in November could well have ended in three points to the Red side if Allen had converted his easy chance, but it also showed the propensity of the Blues to score and come back. Liverpool required a returning Sturridge to save a point off the bench at the death.

While in reality there are only ever three points at stake, the proverbial “six-pointer” game applies more aptly to the 222nd Merseyside derby.

Liverpool’s next fixture will be an FA Cup tie against Bournemouth, but Brendan Rodgers can be forgiven if he is already setting his sights on the following Tuesday. It could define Liverpool’s season—and, indeed, even their short-to-medium-term future.

 

This article first appeared on Bleacher Report, where I contribute regularly on Liverpool and the Premier League.

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Aston Villa 0-1 Liverpool: 6 Positives and Negatives

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An exquisite goal from Daniel Sturridge sealed the points for Liverpool in what was a hard-fought afternoon at Villa Park, where the Reds managed to brave a second-half Aston Villa onslaught to take home a 1-0 win.

After their impressive opening weekend win against Arsenal at the Emirates Stadium, Villa put in an impressive performance against Chelsea, only to end the match empty-handed.

But Paul Lambert’s young side had already shown that their energy and pace would have the potential to cause opponents problems this season.

Liverpool traveled to Villa Park on the back of a 1-0 home win over Stoke City on opening day, an arena where the home side had secured just one victory in their last 15 meetings.

With the maximum six points after two matches, Liverpool have secured their best league start in five years, with Sturridge getting match-winners on both occasions.

What else did we learn from Liverpool’s victory on Saturday? Read on for our take on the positives and negatives from the match, and let us know your opinions in the comments below.

Daniel Sturridge with Yet Another Match-Winning Performance…

It’s tempting to say that it was all Philippe Coutinho, who allowed the goal to happen with his expert dummy on Jose Enrique’s pass, but in reality it was all Daniel Sturridge.

One shimmy, two shimmies, another rounding of the keeper, and—just as the ball looked like it was forced a little too wide—a quick swish of the outside of the left boot. 1-0.

More than a few shades of Luis Suarez to the goal, but for Liverpool fans, this shouldn’t be news anymore.

Daniel Sturridge has produced the goods time and again since his January move to Anfield from Chelsea, and after his blistering match-winning strike against Stoke last week, it was yet another Sturridge beauty that won it this time around.

However, it wasn’t just the goal that set Sturridge apart.

It was his hunger, his attitude, his work rate and his overall movement across the pitch, chasing down balls in the second half when Aston Villa had the majority of the possession.

But it will be his expertly taken goal that sticks with everyone until the visit of Manchester United, and rightly so.

Brendan Rodgers has since claimed, via the Telegraph, that Sturridge has all the tools in his locker to become the best English striker in the Premier League.

And why not?

On this form, Sturridge should be wearing the No. 9 shirt leading the line for England at the World Cup next summer, if passage to Brazil is secured.

…But Philippe Coutinho Must Learn to Deal with Extra Attention

If Sturridge stole the limelight and Philippe Coutinho seemed to take more of a backseat on Saturday, that’s because, in many aspects, that was indeed what happened.

The Reds came flying out of the blocks, and for the opening 40 minutes they took the game to Villa, playing an enjoyable possession-based style of football, but Coutinho was noticeably subdued.

Full credit to Paul Lambert and his charges, who already showed their admirable work rate and intense midfield pressure on Arsenal talisman Jack Wilshere at the Emirates last weekend. At the weekend, they appeared to replicate this tactic on that most influential and unpredictable of playmakers, Coutinho.

That his touch seemed to be slightly off didn’t help his cause, and that he helped create an exquisite goal by not touching the ball in the build-up further reflected an altogether quiet showing from the Brazilian starlet.

In a high-tempo match against a high-energy Villa team, Coutinho put in an admirable shift doing the defensive work, especially after Liverpool ceded possession of the ball to the hosts.

His tracking back was important, and his work off the ball will have impressed Rodgers.

It’s not just about the flashy stuff all the time, but Coutinho must surely be wising up to the fact that he’ll be attracting much more attention in his first full campaign in English football than he did in his first half season.

But that just shows the impact he’s made since arriving from Internazionale—and even good players are allowed a quieter game once in a while.

Kolo Toure and Simon Mignolet Impress Again…

Since the turn of the year, Liverpool have enjoyed an impressive league record—losing just three out of 20 matches in the 2013 calendar year—and January signings Sturridge and Coutinho have captured most of the headlines.

But their new signings this summer will claim a bigger say in what happens for the second half of the year, and in these first two showings, Kolo Toure and Simon Mignolet have already established themselves as fan favorites.

Let’s start with Kolo Toure, who followed up a strong performance against Stoke with another commanding display on Saturday.

Against the considerable pace, energy and power of Christian Benteke, who has carried last season’s form into this, Toure was impeccable. He also kept Benteke’s forward partners Gabby Agbonlahor and Andreas Weimann quiet.

His pace, positioning and experience were on full display as he was at the center of a resolute Reds defence, especially in the second half when Liverpool sat back and defended more deeply.

His use of the ball and his passing game also caught the eye in the aesthetically pleasing opening 40 minutes.

Having earned Liverpool two points with his double save at the death last weekend—one of which was a penalty save against Jonathan Walters—Mignolet displayed his considerable shot-stopping abilities with impressive stops on Saturday, including a thrilling near-post parry of a powerful Benteke low drive.

So much for the negative impact that Jamie Carragher’s retirement and Pepe Reina’s loan departure to Napoli was supposed to bring.

In fact—whisper it quietly—maybe their replacements have even been an upgrade.

…But Lucas Exposes Himself as the Weak Link in the Team

Yet another Liverpool upgrade on show at Villa Park was defensive midfielder Lucas Leiva: He has seemingly recovered from his injury nightmare, and his performance levels have stepped up a notch from the unconvincing displays in the second half of 2012/13.

The problem is, even an improved Lucas has his faults, and more often than not, it was Lucas who threatened to shoot his team in the foot with a series of mistimed challenges and poor positioning in the midfield.

It is commonly said that Liverpool are another attacking player away from assembling a much more accomplished side capable of challenging for the top four—Brendan Rodgers has claimed, through the Guardian, that he is still on the lookout for a left winger—but reality dictates otherwise.

With Luis Suarez still to return, and Kolo Toure and Aly Cissokho providing experienced additions to the backline, Liverpool are balanced across the team, with the notable exception of the central midfield line.

The easiest reference was on show at White Hart Lane on Sunday. Tottenham Hotspur’s midfield trio of Mousa Dembele, Paulinho and Etienne Capoue provided pace, energy, tackling, positional nous and attacking threat in a dynamic Spurs performance, even if life after Gareth Bale wasn’t the most inspiring in terms of chances created.

With Lucas marshaling the defence against Villa, it was his mistakes that led to a succession of set pieces that troubled the Liverpool box, while Benteke and co. were put through because of his lack of positioning.

If Liverpool are to build a competitive side capable of sustaining a challenge near the top of the tree, they must acquire an upgrade in the defensive midfield area. A decent squad player Lucas might be, but a top-four starter he is not. Etienne Capoue only cost Spurs £9 million.

Brendan Rodgers the Realist…

For the first 40 minutes or so at Villa Park, Liverpool were the embodiment of a Brendan Rodgers ideal:

Positive attacking movement, dynamic interchanging across the midfield and forward lines, patient distribution at the back, impressive maintaining of a high line of defence, constant pressing to win back lost possession and composed clearing of the lines across the floor.

Given the way that they sat back and absorbed the incessant pressure with a defensive line after the 40-minute mark, one could be forgiven for thinking that the players let complacency set in, never seized the initiative back, and had to ride out the storm as a result.

That would’ve been cause for an internal inquisition from Rodgers and his backroom team after the final whistle had gone.

Not so.

As it turned out, sitting back and defending more deeply was part of Rodgers’ game plan against a threatening and pacy Villa side, according to this BBC Sport report. Liverpool’s aim was “to just to keep our lines tight together and deny them many chances”—and they did just that.

Which is yet another encouraging step in the evolution taking place at Anfield since Rodgers’ appointment last summer.

From a team setting out to play a possession-based game perhaps a bit too stubbornly, Liverpool developed into a fearsome counterattacking unit with the help of January arrivals Sturridge and Coutinho.

And now they’ve even added a mean streak to their game that sees victory as the most important aim of all.

Brendan Rodgers, the philosopher, the ideologue…the realist? Who would’ve thought it?

…But Winning Ugly is Better Than Not Winning at All

As Liverpool prepare to take on Notts County in the second round of the League Cup on Tuesday, a sobering reality sets in: They are in this position because they didn’t manage to qualify for any European competition this season.

Or in other words, last season’s seventh-place finish was simply not good enough.

As club owner John Henry jetted in to deal with the Luis Suarez situation a few weeks ago, he will have reminded Rodgers of his objectives this season.

Indeed, in this Telegraph report, just as telling as his stance on keeping Suarez was his public pronouncement that he had high expectations and intended to “surprise people this year.”

Small wonder, then, that Rodgers has developed and integrated a more pragmatic side that sees victory just as important as the football.

To date, the 2013/14 Premier League campaign has yet to see the scintillating football that resulted in high-scoring margins like the 6-0 win at Newcastle United’s St. James’ Park, and Daniel Sturridge is the only player to have scored in a Red shirt this season.

But a win is a win is a win. And three points is three points is three points.

As they look to progress through to the third round of the League Cup and then onwards to prepare for the visit of Manchester United this weekend, they’ll be aiming not to appear in the second round again anytime soon.

This article first appeared on Bleacher Report, where I contribute regularly on Liverpool and other Premier League-related matters.

Liverpool 1-0 Stoke: 6 Things We Learned

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Clive Brunskill/Getty Images

 

Kicking off the 2013/14 English Premier League season, Liverpool secured their first win of the new campaign. The victory came in their first game against Stoke City on Saturday, courtesy of both Daniel Sturridge’s sublime 25-yard strike and Simon Mignolet’s thrilling double save right at the death.

In the process, the Reds finally ended their opening-day hoodoo: This was Liverpool’s first opening-day home win in 12 years, and while it was done in style, it wasn’t without its fair share of drama.

But Brendan Rodgers will have been delighted to see his new signings come through the game in fine form, and he’ll have been happy to end the first week of league action with three points and a clean sheet.

Here are six things we learned from Liverpool’s 1-0 win over Stoke. Enjoy and let us know your views in the comments below.

Kolo Toure: One of the Best Signings of the Summer

Let’s start with the individuals, and one of the standout performers on Saturday was Liverpool’s new No. 4, Kolo Touré.

Slotting seamlessly into the heart of the Reds defence, Touré was at his imperious best, closing down attacks, moving the ball purposefully and committing whole-hearted tackles. More importantly, he ensured that the retired Jamie Carragher wasn’t a big miss.

His presence alongside Daniel Agger ensured that the high defensive line was a success, and allowed full-backs Glen Johnson and José Enrique to bomb down their respective flanks at will.

On the attacking side, there was also his scintillating charge up-field on an attack that he instigated; he ended up inside the box as an unorthodox forward option as Daniel Sturridge opted to shoot.

And if it weren’t for the crossbar at the Anfield Road end, Touré would’ve opened his Reds account on his debut from a first-half Steven Gerrard corner.

Add his wealth of experience and the fact that he’s clearly already gained the trust of his manager and teammates, and Touré represents a fine addition to Brendan Rodgers’ squad.

At a total transfer cost of zero, Kolo Touré, who joined Liverpool on a free from Manchester City, might turn out to be one of the best signings in the whole of the summer transfer window.

Jordan Henderson Fully Deserves Brendan Rodgers’ Faith

Throughout preseason, Joe Allen earned rave reviews from his manager, colleagues and fans alike for his hard work and improved showings compared to last season, and was widely expected to have forced his way into first-team contention in one of the advanced midfield positions.

So it came as something of a surprise that Jordan Henderson was the one chosen to start alongside Philippe Coutinho and Iago Aspas behind lone striker Daniel Sturridge on Saturday.

Perhaps this was a decision taken with the opposition in consideration: After all, Joe Allen’s form went downhill after he nearly suffered humiliation against the towering Marouane Fellaini in the Merseyside derby against Everton last year.

But Henderson’s performance proved that it was much more than that. In a performance showing plenty of energy, hard work, useful movement and goal threat, the No. 14 was one of the most impressive Liverpool players on the pitch.

And if he had shown a bit more composure in a one-on-one against AsmirBegović, or curled his shot just an inch closer to bounce in off the woodwork instead of back out, Henderson would have notched the goal that his performance deserved.

A far cry from his status last year as a makeweight in a player-plus-cash deal to Fulham for Clint Dempsey, and from his reputation as yet another big-money flop from the Damien Comolli-Kenny Dalglish era.

It seems that even Brendan Rodgers has been won over by the enthusiastic and professional Henderson. If he keeps up his form and confidence, any new attacking signing—and Luis Suarez—might face a fight to take his place from Henderson.

Await Lucas and Daniel Sturridge’s Return to Full Fitness

There was a period last season when Liverpool looked just a bit too lightweight in the center of midfield: Following Lucas’ enforced absence due to injury, Joe Allen, who was carrying a shoulder injury, had to deputize in a defensive midfield role that ultimately became the undoing of his early promising reputation.

And even when Lucas returned to the first-team fold, he was nowhere near the Lucas that Anfield had come to know and love.

Too many times he was found wanting in the midfield, seemingly having lost his pace, acceleration and tackling nous due to lack of match practice. And his absence of mind and body was to blame for one of the most embarrassing goals Liverpool conceded last season—a simple stroll through the middle of the park by Southampton’s Jay Rodriguez.

Fast forward a few months, and Lucas has seemingly returned. His tackling and positioning were much improved against Stoke, and even if he still had the tendency to commit a needless foul or to be just slightly too reactive, the defensive midfield area became much less of a liability.

Leading the line was another player stepping up his return to full fitness.

Daniel Sturridge, who had only made his first-team comeback in a preseason friendly a week prior against Celtic, scored two goals in a behind-closed-doors midweek friendly against Newcastle United. He also fired in the winner on Saturday with a rather sumptuous strike from 25 yards out.

There was still room for improvement: Sturridge’s movement, pace and strength still seemed a bit rusty, but a Sturridge on his way back to full fitness still proved the difference on the day.

A few weeks down the line, Brendan Rodgers could well have a fully fit Lucas and Sturridge in his side. That would be a massive boost to the team, judging from Saturday’s display.

Simon Mignolet Passes His First Test

It’s never easy for a goalkeeper making his home debut at Anfield, especially a new first-choice keeper.

For the best part of eight seasons there has been one main man between the sticks. That man was Pepe Reina, who signed for the Reds in the summer of 2005. He has since departed on loan to Napoli.

Simon Mignolet certainly had the hearts of most Liverpool fans in their mouths as his early flap at a deep cross allowed Robert Huth to hit the bar with a fierce volley.

A solid flying save from Jonathan Walters later, and Mignolet soon rediscovered his confidence, and never looked back.

And he passed his Anfield test with flying colors as he became Liverpool’s first-ever goalkeeper to save a penalty on his debut. His stop from Walters’ last-gasp spot-kick was as thrilling as it was important, and his instinctive save from the follow-up ensured that the Reds would end the day with three points instead of one.

A special mention to Mignolet’s opposite number, Asmir Begović, who, barring a fine match-winning strike from Daniel Sturridge, kept Liverpool at bay time and again with a series of excellent stops.

That Liverpool were linked with both Mignolet and Begovićc this summer will have been encouraging in hindsight to Liverpool fans: Both showed their undoubted quality on Saturday and either would have represented fine signings by Brendan Rodgers.

A Nervy Win That Should Become Routine

As usual, Liverpool’s opening goal was met with a series of attacks from the opposition in response.

Last season, the period immediately following the Reds taking the lead was the period that Liverpool were the most vulnerable to conceding a goal.

Against a physical Stoke City side, Liverpool fans could have been forgiven for worrying that the equalizer would come immediately—or indeed would arrive inevitably as Begović represented a one-man wall preventing the home team from extending their lead.

Sure enough, Daniel Agger obliged with a handball inside his own penalty area, and Brendan Rodgers had Simon Mignolet to thank for saving the day: The fevered celebrations from his outfield colleagues in the immediate aftermath were a sight to behold.

But as the game wore on and became increasingly nervy, it looked more and more like the type of game that Liverpool would have thrown away last season.

Instead, they held on to preserve the narrow one-goal lead, and in the process ensured that this season’s start—unlike last year’s 0-3 capitulation against West Bromwich Albion at the Hawthorns—would ultimately be an encouraging one.

With the first potential banana skin out of the way, Rodgers needs to ensure that this mentality persists in his young side. Their attention must now turn to transforming those narrow leads into routine wins.

A Result That Bodes Well for the Future

It is precisely the end result that may shift the expectation from an inevitable dropping of points to a routine three points on the board.

A young and technical Liverpool side, especially one playing a higher defensive line, had always been susceptible to a physically dominant team: Stoke’s 3-1 win over the Reds just over half a year ago was testament to this.

If the relentless and eye-pleasing attacking can be turned into three points, and if the dominance in possession and shots on goal can be translated into match-winning goals, then Brendan Rodgers will have added the all-important end result onto his formula.

With the arrival of Coutinho and Sturridge, Liverpool have had to rely less on the talismanic Luis Suarez, and if Iago Aspas and company provide further upgrades to Rodgers’ squad options, this could be a Reds side that has access to further victories.

Perhaps it is too early to draw definitive conclusions for the season to come from their opening game, but it’s clear that the signs at Anfield were encouraging.

Now for the hard part—ensuring that they can sustain this for 38 games over the course of a season, starting with a visit to Villa Park this coming Saturday.

As Rodgers will remember well, a certain Christian Benteke tormented them at Anfield last December.

 

This article first appeared on Bleacher Report, where I contribute regularly on Liverpool and other Premier League-related matters.

Manchester City 08/26/2012: The Glass is Half Full

Martin Skrtel and Luis Suarez got the goals for Liverpool—and what brilliant goals they were—but Brendan Rodgers’ side were culpable for the two goals they conceded to Manchester City in a pulsating 2-2 draw at Anfield on Sunday.

This was far removed from last Saturday’s calamitous showing at West Brom, with Liverpool exhibiting some impressive build-up play throughout the encounter with the Premier League champions.

But the old problem resurfaced again—that of Liverpool being the better team but failing to get all three points.

And now: the positives and negatives from Sunday’s matchup from Liverpool’s point of view:

Just the One Point to Show for It…

Once again, as so often was the case under Kenny Dalglish last season, Liverpool spent most of the 90 minutes as the better team.

But once again, we didn’t come away with the three points to show for their performance.

This time it wasn’t for a lack of Liverpool goals, but rather two uncharacteristic gaffes at the back.

Either way, Brendan Rodgers will have to work on setting a balance between an efficient attack and an efficient defence.

Otherwise, for a sloppy defensive error to once again take away almost all the good work Liverpool did in the midfield and up front would be a massive shame.

And it would contribute to them falling further behind in the league table.

…But the Passing Play and Closing Down Were Very Encouraging

But no way was this draw as hard to take as the opening-weekend defeat at West Brom, because the silver linings were that obvious.

If Rodgers and his squad wanted to prove that last Saturday was just a “one-off,” they put in a collective display that went lengths in doing just that.

Minus the Hawthorns collapse, Liverpool have seemed to take to Rodgers’ system very quickly.

Overall, the crisp passing play and tenacious closing down exhibited all over the pitch should bode very well for the future, even if they have only yielded the one point in two games.

Even when Carlos Tevez pounced on Martin Skrtel’s back-pass to equalize for City, Liverpool never looked settled for a point.

It’s this desire—if not the profligacy—that Rodgers and we hope will bode well for the future.

Defensive Lapses Cost Liverpool Two Points…

Back to the defence, because it deserves a portion of the limelight in the post-match wake.

There has been a vicious cycle at work at Anfield for the best part of a year now.

The lack of goals is being compounded by some glaring defensive lapses that are costing Liverpool points simply because of a relative lack of concentration from the back.

Given the eye-gorging scoreline at West Brom, this was exacerbated and seared in recent memory by the tireless running and pressing of Shane Long, but this goes back to last-gasp goals like that conceded to Manchester United’s Javier Hernandez last season.

Rodgers declared after the City game that Skrtel had the right idea in passing back to Pepe Reina for the Tevez goal, and that punting it forward would have been the simple option.

Except that the right idea was not accompanied by the requisite awareness, and that the simple option could have brought him two more points.

…But We Now Have a Real Third-Choice Central Defender

Martin Skrtel enjoyed an otherwise productive day against City, not least because of his frankly brilliant header to open the scoring.

But enough of him for now—some credit should be paid to his central defensive partner for the day, Sebastian Coates.

For all of his lack of match fitness, and for all of Daniel Agger’s classy defensive play, Coates showed on Sunday why he should absolutely have climbed over Jamie Carragher in the pecking order of center-backs.

To be sure, Coates did show moments of hesitation, including one in the first half that allowed Mario Balotelli to nip in and steal the ball, forcing Martin Kelly to concede a free kick.

But Coates put in enough well-timed tackles and good linkups with Kelly, Skrtel and Reina to show that all the hype surrounding his arrival at Anfield might not be unjustified after all.

No Goals from Open Play Yet…

The other side to the 2-2 draw, the other side to the two goals scored by Liverpool, is that we still haven’t notched from open play yet.

Perhaps this had to do with Fabio Borini’s narrow miss after Raheem Sterling’s brilliant cross from the left wing.

Or maybe to do with Luis Suarez’s still-profligate finishing in open play.

Or maybe, still, to do with Suarez’s poor decision making from the flanks, often leading to mishit crosses or mistimed passes.

The fact remains that, with Andy Carroll seemingly out of favor under Rodgers, Liverpool’s strikers just aren’t clinical enough at this stage.

…But Finally Some Set-Piece Threats

There’s a new-found set-piece prowess, though, that finally brings some variety to Liverpool’s goals.

Against Manchester City, Steven Gerrard delivered a picture-perfect corner that was met with a picture-perfect bullet header from Skrtel to open the scoring.

And, just minutes after conceding to Yaya Toure, Luis Suarez delivered a picture-perfect free kick that Joe Hart couldn’t do anything about.

This on the back of an inventive piece of set-piece play that Liverpool showed in a preseason friendly against Bayer Leverkusen, which was supposed to set Suarez up for a goal, but ended up leading to the rarity that is a goal from Lucas.

All without the £10 million left foot of Charlie Adam.

Lucas Got Injured…

Speaking of Lucas, Rodgers will be hoping that his injury troubles don’t resurface.

Having worked so hard back to full fitness—and indeed making it back to first-team football a couple of months before he was scheduled to fully recover from an anterior cruciate ligament injury—Lucas pulled a muscle just minutes into Sunday’s game.

The loss of Lucas back in November last year and its impact on the rest of Liverpool’s 2011-2012 season has been retold countless times.

While this muscle pull might not and should not be on the same scale as his injury last season, Lucas has become such an integral part of the Liverpool midfield that his loss would be felt all the same.

…But Joe Allen and Jonjo Shelvey Fit Right In

Of course, all this might sound a tad melodramatic, especially given the way Joe Allen performed having been moved into Lucas’ sitting role and Jonjo Shelvey’s encouraging shift in center midfield as Lucas’ substitute.

To say they equipped themselves well would be an understatement.

Allen, with his pinpoint passing, classy distribution, decision making and closing down, showed all of Anfield why Rodgers went all out for his signature this summer. He looks to be Liverpool’s best passer of the ball since Xabi Alonso.

Shelvey shelved his enthusiastic attacking instincts and the rawer side of his physical game to fit in perfectly with short, crisp passes, as well as good positional awareness.

With new loan signing Nuri Sahin looking on from the stands, Charlie Adam and Jordan Henderson will have every reason to fear for their first-team places this season.

Early Nerves from a Young, Young Liverpool Side…

For all of Liverpool’s excellent display against the reigning champions, we started off nervously, and the stray passes in the midfield showed their nerves.

It might have been a sign of the players still taking to Rodgers’ ideas, but it probably had more to do with the fact that Liverpool played their youngest starting XI since 2003.

The average age of the Liverpool players that took to the Anfield pitch on Sunday was 24 years and 364 days.

This could have backfired spectacularly against an experienced, world-class City team.

But in the end, it almost brought Rodgers three points, and indeed heralded the beginning of a new Liverpool era.

…But for Once, Some Young Talents to Really Get Excited About

A new Liverpool era that will be spearheaded by the likes of Allen, Coates, Shelvey and Borini.

And Raheem Sterling. (You were wondering when his name would be mentioned, weren’t you?)

For all those who weren’t aware of Sterling’s burgeoning reputation, this was a warm welcome to this exciting young talent.

Chosen rightly (or should that be leftly?) in place of the continually hapless Stewart Downing, Sterling stayed on for the full 90 minutes on his first league start for Liverpool; a sign of his stamina and energy, yes, but also a sign of his maturity.

And it was a maturity that saw some exquisite first touches, good linkup plays with Glen Johnson down the left and, perhaps most importantly, a continual drive to stay on his man and close down on the opposition.

He won’t be starting for Liverpool every week, but he will be one to watch this season and for years to come.

Conclusion

All in all, a good performance from Rodgers’ charges, but still plenty of work to do to turn performances into points.

The glass has suddenly become half full.

 

Original article from Bleacher Report

West Brom 08/18/2012: What Went Wrong?

After the opening weekend of the English Premier League season, Liverpool find themselves third from bottom in the league table, courtesy of a 3-0 loss against West Brom at the Hawthorns.

Perhaps equally memorable for Zoltan Gera’s long-range strike as it will be for Liverpool’s double-penalty farce, the game marked Liverpool’s worst-ever start to a Premier League season.

The saving grace is that Brendan Rodgers has time to turn it around, but in an increasingly cutthroat Premier League, the Reds must rebound quickly.

Hindsight is 20-20, but let’s now consider five things that Rodgers got wildly wrong in an embarrassing result for his new club.

1. Failing to Set Up His Defence Against Shane Long

The first error was made painfully obvious even from the opening whistle.

Shane Long has been known for his industrious work rate leading the West Brom line, and the partnership of Martin Skrtel and Daniel Agger just didn’t do enough to contain his threat up front.

Taking their time on the ball and not being mindful of Long’s presence, Skrtel and Agger were at fault for the goal that secured West Brom’s eventual victory and for Agger’s sending off.

Whether the red card and the two penalties would not have been given in an alternate universe remains up for debate, but if Skrtel and Agger had so much trouble against a harrying Shane Long, how can they be expected to contain the likes of Carlos Tevez, Edin Dzeko and Mario Balotelli for Manchester City this coming Sunday?

2. Throwing Lucas Back into the Deep End

Last Saturday marked Lucas’ return to the starting lineup in a Premier League game for the best part of nine months.

Which in itself is commendable on Lucas’ part—but in hindsight perhaps Rodgers could have done more to ease him back into the team.

That Rodgers had no qualms about slotting him straight back into his starting XI was perhaps a testament to his faith in Lucas and Lucas’ own ability. While his partnership in central midfield with Joe Allen had plenty of encouraging signs, they were ultimately overrun by a physical duo of Youssuf Mulumbu and Claudio Yacob.

The argument for Lucas’ extensive gametime is perhaps that he has featured all throughout Liverpool’s preseason, but the EPL is a whole different beast.

3. Playing and Sticking with Stewart Downing

Stewart Downing was rewarded for his fine preseason displays with a starting berth on the right wing in a front three; only for Downing to reward Rodgers’ faith with a typically anonymous performance with no end product.

If there is one thing that Rodgers should take away from his opening-day loss, it should be that Downing only delivers in games against lower-league opposition (see his dazzling cup performances last term) and those with little to no implication (see his preseason displays and that in Belarus against FC Gomel, with whom a second leg at Anfield beckoned).

Time and again the ball fell at Downing’s feet, only for him to waste crossing chance after crossing chance, or to halt the play completely while he switched back onto his favored left foot (also known as his only operable foot).

Perhaps his replacement after Agger’s sending off—Jamie Carragher—could’ve done a better job.

4. Switching Luis Suarez and Fabio Borini’s Positions

After an eye-catching display against FC Gomel, Fabio Borini emerged as a decent goalscoring option for Liverpool, and his dovetailing with Luis Suarez seemed to be an encouraging prospect.

The Suarez-Borini partnership was going swimmingly until Rodgers decided to tinker with it by switching their positions.

Previously granted the freedom of the left wing, Suarez was utilized in a central striking role against West Brom, which allowed the opposing defenders to focus their attentions on him.

While his trickery and unpredictability still ensured that they had to endure an uncomfortable night, he failed to display the finishing composure that should be expected from a central striker.

By contrast, Borini, who previously excelled at finding the space that a predatory striker thrives on, was shunted out to the wing, where he, with lesser dribbling and outright pace, failed to trouble the West Brom defence.

Together with Downing, Borini formed an anonymous wing partnership and a toothless alliance with Suarez.

5. Delaying Andy Carroll’s Introduction

The nature of a Plan B is that it should be used if Plan A doesn’t work out.

But in the case of Andy Carroll, he might not even have taken to the Hawthorns pitch if it weren’t for Joe Cole’s hamstring injury just minutes after Liverpool’s No. 10 came on as a substitute himself.

In delaying Andy Carroll’s introduction, Rodgers seemed to tread in Kenny Dalglish’s footsteps, and that hesitancy and reluctance in making key substitutions will not augur well for both the Liverpool fans and for Carroll himself.

There is perhaps a case against sending on a striker—and a big targetman at that—when you are 3-0 down, but had he been introduced early, he would have given the West Brom defence something else to worry about against a 10-man Liverpool—and an extra outlet for the Reds attack.

The Silver Lining…?

The silver lining in Saturday’s cloud, of course, is that it was Brendan Rodgers’ first league game in charge of Liverpool.

The Rodgers revolution was always going to take time, and if anything, the West Brom result perhaps served to bring expectations down to earth, albeit in an extremely sobering manner.

Perhaps it will have taken such a result for Rodgers to realize some of the points made above.

Hindsight is 20-20, but retrospect is only useful when you act on your mistakes to tackle problems in the future.

The 3-0 loss against Steve Clarke’s side will have been for nothing if Rodgers doesn’t make changes accordingly in the games to come.

 

Original article from Bleacher Report

Wigan 3/24/2012: That’s It For Now

Liverpool used to embody everything I aspired to be.

When I first watched Michael Owen in my early years, I wanted to be like him. Young, talented, successful, and with never-ending potential. I wanted to make things happen.

When I then recognized Steven Gerrard’s importance in the Liverpool team, I found the idea of being a creator even more appealing. The energetic, creative, hardworking team player who thrives on giving others opportunities. With an unparalleled ability to handle pressure and stress. That was true leadership. Not by words, but by example. As I grew into Liverpool during my high school years and became a fully-fledged diehard in college, Steven Gerrard was the very embodiment of the kind of person I wanted to become.

When I saw Rafa Benitez, I saw an intelligent and versatile manager who could work around problems and come up with ways to get over obstacles. Someone who could make do with having less talent at his disposal, but able to make up for lost ground simply through strategy.

When I watched Xabi Alonso play, I saw someone so classy he was able to make some of the hardest tasks look routine and effortless. Someone so humble and down to earth about his abilities, and so keen to give others credit. Someone whose contribution and talent he never needed to acknowledge, because everyone would realize even more during his absence.

When I fell in love with Fernando Torres, I wanted to be effective, composed, and so in tune with a collective cause that I’d be willing to sacrifice short-term gain for a long-term vision. In Pepe Reina I saw someone who championed the value of the team so highly that he would be the first to celebrate David Ngog’s clincher against Manchester United, that he would be so selflessly professional in giving Iker Casillas penalty tips.

And finally, when I watched Liverpool, I realized and connected to the importance of never giving up. Sure, Liverpool loved to do things the hard way – extra-time goals, last-minute goals, penalty shootouts. There would be frustrations along the way, but finding everything I connected to in the team and on the pitch every week, despite some trials and tribulations, was worth rooting for to the very ends of the earth.

If you know me personally, you’ll know that I’m not one to wear my heart on my sleeve. But it was the fact that I felt so in tune with Liverpool Football Club that I’d proudly wear my Liverpool shirt to class and around campus on the day of a Liverpool game, leave lectures early and run back to my dorm for a live Champions League broadcast, and wake up at 7 in the morning every weekend for Premier League action.

It was a love affair that I never thought could end.

But now, I see my erstwhile beloved team wilt away in the face of adversity.

I see them give up when the going gets tough.

I see them continue to come up with excuses to mask over problems.

I see them stay stubborn and not address areas that need substantial improvement.

I see them freeze when there are so many options to take, when they should be ecstatic at the sheer possibilities of what they can do.

I see them lie down and be unsportsmanlike.

I see a Liverpool Football Club that, contrary to what the coaches and the players claim, is heading further and further into the foggy realms of mediocrity.

And as I watch a Liverpool Football Club that used to promise so much and mean so much in my life, I’m getting more and more disillusioned and apathetic.

Because how can you muster the commitment and passion to follow a team when they don’t reciprocate that commitment and passion?

How are you supposed to buy into a club anthem that tells us to walk on with hope and to walk on through the wind and the rain, when those associated with the club don’t have that hope, and aren’t willing to battle the elements?

The Liverpool Football Club that I knew and loved is no longer.

And until that fire within me is rekindled and my support is once again deserving of its “unconditional” status, this will be it from me for now.

Everton 03/13/2012: That’s More Like It

Finally, three points to show for a dominant performance.

And what a performance.

Liverpool barnstormed to a Steven Gerrard-sized destruction of Everton in the Merseyside derby last night. The skipper’s hattrick marked an emphatic return to winning ways, and in some style.

Every single player on the pitch – even Stewart Downing, who played much more central than normal and was much less effective than he’s threatened to be in the past few weeks, and Jordan Henderson, who went through the motions of an insipid and uninspired first half – was excellent.

So where would we start?

Perhaps with Martin Kelly. Given the quality that we’ve always known to exist within Kelly, perhaps it’s a blessing in disguise that Glen Johnson is still out injured. With pace, power and positional awareness, Kelly put in a top-class performance as a marauding full-back. He might not have the close dribbling and guile that Johnson has, but he’s a handful all right. Would have made the England squad by now if it weren’t for Johnson’s form this season.

Or Jose Enrique. More evidence of his pure physical strength was on show last night as he bulldozed Everton’s right side to submission time and again. But this is what we’ve been accustomed to for most of the season. Shouldn’t be a surprise.

How about Jamie Carragher and Martin Skrtel? The much-maligned vice-captain came in and looked like he’d never left. He even cut out the long ball over the top to Carroll – I would’ve offered to eat my hat if anyone predicted that before the game. Skrtel was shifted to Daniel Agger’s usual left side, but he didn’t care. It was just business as usual as he proceeded to dominate all the one-on-ones and aerial battles that came his way. The considerably bulky Victor Anichebe and Denis Stracqualursi were reduced to nothingness and substituted having made zero meaningful contributions to the Everton attack.

And Jay Spearing? The Liverpool lad always saves something extra for the derbies, and what he lacks in pure technique and finesse, he makes up for in passion. A ubiquitous showing from the covering defensive midfielder – though, of course, we have to recognize that he can’t be the long-term back-up for Lucas.

Luis Suarez was back to his mesmerizing best, and he ripped Everton’s defence open with two assists for Gerrard. He was played largely in a supporting role behind Carroll, and that’s where he should be in the long run. Cut down on the theatrics, and we’d really have a gem on our hands.

Andy Carroll wasn’t half bad either. In fact, he was pretty darn good. Who would’ve thought he’d dominate almost all his headers against the man mountain that is Sylvain Distin? Or that he’s actually capable of Peter Crouch-esque great-touch-for-a-big-man flicks and turns? Or – I can’t believe I’m about to say this – that he can pick out a pass from the midfield like Xabi Alonso once did?

Okay, maybe I’m getting a bit over-excited, but this is some sort of minor vindication for all the support I’ve given Carroll (and all the flak I’ve taken for doing so). But seriously, it was so pleasing to see that he is actually capable of playing in a pass-and-move team. There’s plenty of hope in him yet.

And then we arrive at Stevie G.

What words can I use to describe this man that I haven’t used before?

Of course, this is the same man who’s powered me through an entire workday on the back of less than four hours of sleep – I certainly don’t regret that sleep lost its battle against a 4am match.

This was Gerrard at his midfield general, talismanic best. Putting his body on the line with some great tackles and blocks, and driving through the midfield like the Gerrard of old, he delivered a true captain’s performance. It’s not one we should be getting used to, given his advancing years, but one up there with his best, and one we should treasure. Truly first-class, and his link-up play with Carroll and Suarez was a joy to behold as well.

In case this wasn’t clear enough already – it’s been a while since I’ve felt so good about a Liverpool display.

Sure, the Carling Cup win was great, and to see some silverware was definitely satisfying – but the shootout win over Cardiff was more a relief than anything. As with so many other wins this season, because it’s been a year of such fine margins that goals have more often been greeted with relief rather than pure joy.

Not last night.

Finally, the performance we’ve almost trademarked at times this season has yielded the three points that we’ve always threatened to come away with, but have never actually succeeded in doing.

It might be too late to salvage a Top Four finish, but it’s never too late to salvage pride.

Arsenal 3/3/2012: Over and Out

Same old Anfield, just without a point.

Once again, Liverpool won in all the statistical battles but came out inferior in the most important one of all.

Perhaps, with two posts hit, a penalty missed and a few fine stops from Arsenal’s Wojciech Szczesny, Liverpool were unlucky to win. But with a total goal tally of 30 (Robin van Persie has 25 himself), Liverpool are just not doing the business in front of goal.

Which means our unimpressive home record this season is a deserved result from such a profligate attack. No two ways around it.

It certainly didn’t help that Craig Bellamy, arguably Liverpool’s most effective player this season, and Andy Carroll, who would have enjoyed a field day against Arsenal’s porous and ponderous backline, weren’t thrown on until it was too late for them to have any sort of significant impact.

Not that the defence are to be absolved any blame. Far from it.

To say that the two goals conceded were not a result of a defence falling asleep would just be a false statement.

Liverpool proved that Daniel Agger will be a massive loss over the next few weeks. Without his cultured style, Liverpool resorted to Jamie Carragher’s long-ball-first strategy that was as unfruitful as it was unpretty. As far as Carragher is concerned, his performance was one that fully justified why he’s been left out of the starting eleven this season. It was his poor positional play that led to van Persie’s first goal, and he didn’t look convincing at all in the Liverpool defence.

And it’s not that Liverpool didn’t want the result, either.

The players played their heart out today. Jay Spearing and Dirk Kuyt summed up Liverpool’s desire to get something out of the game with a typically wholehearted and never-say-die performance. When game-changing genius like van Persie’s is in short supply, it is at least comforting to see that the players want it as much as we fans do, but only somewhat.

Because alas, work ethic is just not enough at the top level.

But at least it’s better than whining and exaggerating, the kind of play that Luis Suarez has come to perfect in recent months.

By making himself the center of negative attention in every play he’s involved with, he’s making the same mistake that Fernando Torres used to make during his time at Anfield: spending an inordinate amount of time each game trying to win fouls, protest decisions and generally not being constructive. What happened to getting up and getting on with it? Where are his priorities?

Suarez is definitely not in a purple patch right now. Unfortunately, it just seems that there will be no period this season when Liverpool as a team will be on form.

Just ask Charlie Adam.

His £10-million corner kicks once again came to nothing against Arsenal. And not only did he fail to create any set piece threat, he didn’t manage to trouble the Arsenal defence at all. He showed a lack of inexperience at the top level and a serious deficiency in decision-making as he broke down Liverpool’s attacks time and again, choosing the wrong pass option and going for a Hollywood pass instead of a more constructive one.

If he’s to be the crux of our midfield play and creativity, he’s got a damn long way to go yet to fill the humongous shoes of Xabi Alonso.

At this point, I’m getting so tired and so used to the fact that our attack almost seems unwilling to score and put away chances that I’d be surprised if we got out of Anfield with anything more than a point. I’d even guessed that it’d be another bore draw for both teams, which would’ve been bad enough for both teams.

I just never thought we’d come away with nothing.

 

Modified from a Bleacher Report article

Cardiff 2/26/2012: Looking Forward

Well. Kenny Dalglish and the boys were never going to heed my advice, were they? Liverpool were always going to do things the hard way, weren’t they?

It’s never a Liverpool cup final unless it involves heart attacks and last-minute drama, and so it proved.

That makes it three out of three for me in terms of cup finals, and three of the most epic yet: Istanbul, Cardiff and now Wembley.

I have to say up front that this was not the trophy-winning team I had dreamed of seeing for Liverpool. My all-time favorites remain the spine of Rafa Benitez’s glory days, those years with Javier Mascherano marshalling the defence, Xabi Alonso dictating play, and Steven Gerrard in perfect tandem with Fernando Torres, and I maintain that if we had that as our current spine, we’d be further up the League table right now.

Much as I wanted to see a Liverpool trophy win, it wasn’t really with this team in mind.

For all of Dalglish’s man management genius, I hadn’t seen him do the business in Europe like Rafa did. Charlie Adam is no Alonso. Jordan Henderson and Stewart Downing have been so woefully below-par that I didn’t want to see them on the field, especially when much more capable replacements were on the bench. And Luis Suarez – or should that be Andy Carroll? – is no Torres.

I was looking forward to the final, but not excited. This was supposed to be a routine win over Championship opposition, surely a much easier opponent than Manchester City or Chelsea.

But of course, the romance of a cup competition took over – and what a performance Cardiff City put in.

And as I was increasingly irate at the ease with which Cardiff cut Liverpool open for the first goal, the infuriating anonymity of Henderson – both of our goals, and the majority of our good attacking play, came after he was taken off – the ineffectiveness of Suarez, even the declining shooting ability of Gerrard – so too did I start to play for the shirt.

Because, amidst all the frustration and the impatience, I also saw Downing put in his best shift in a Liverpool shirt – and believe me, given all I’ve thrown his way this season, he was phenomenal against Cardiff – and I witnessed, for the umpteenth time, the heroics of Dirk Kuyt.

We should have known. This was a man who has always placed team ahead of self, the man who, purely based on workrate and positional awareness, found himself in the right place at the right time, pulling off the right shot with the right accuracy. Liverpool’s resident clutch master. This was a man who, after seeing his captain miss the first penalty in the shootout, encouraged him and told him his team would be back in it. The captain’s captain. This was a man who, knowing he had to score his penalty, brushed aside the pressure and coolly slotted home his. The nerves of steel.

To be sure, the poor (though heart-stopping) manner of this victory continues to paper over the cracks that have troubled the team this entire season. On a day where Cardiff scored 2 from 7 shots on goal and 11 in total, Liverpool registered the same goal tally while hitting 19 on goal and 39 in total. When the confetti has settled and the champagne has dried, everyone will recognize again that this profligacy is simply not good enough.

And it certainly seemed that Liverpool were intent on making things hard for themselves, that they play better as the underdogs. Penalty shootouts might have been kind to Liverpool over the years, but it won’t remain that way every time.

But when that kickoff whistle blew, I threw myself into the game, cheering every constructive move and protesting every bad play. When Martin Skrtel hit his equalizer, I matched his fervor in celebrating. When the penalties were missed, I held my head in my hands and lamented. And when Anthony Gerrard missed the last penalty, I ran around the house with my arms raised.

Because winning is winning is winning.

All that matters now is where Liverpool go from here and how we do it. Looking forward is always the priority.

Except, of course, we now have the English calendar’s first trophy behind us.

What a relief.