Dogged Liverpool close the gap on rivals
The gloom that has descended over Anfield in recent months appeared to lift ever so slightly last night.
After enduring months of endless storms, Liverpool appear to have finally discovered the path leading towards a serene sky.
It is essential that the club now puts a consistent run together if they harbour any ambitions of rescuing an abysmal season and qualifying for next year’s Champions League. Without a win in three, they came within a matter of minutes of a vital win last Saturday at the Britannia Stadium.
Even after Robert Huth dealt a cruel blow to the visitors, Dirk Kuyt had the chance to ensure the Reds emerged from the clash with three points. The Dutchman was subjected to much criticism for his glaring miss but Benitez persevered with the striker who repaid the manager’s faith last night.
Many thought Tottenham Hotspur would be capable of returning to London with all three points. The notable absences of Gerrard, Torres, Benayoun and Agger from Benitez’s starting line-up supported this theory.
However the Dutch striker made amends for his hapless finishing against Stoke with a brace against Spurs. It guaranteed a weather-beaten home side secured a precious victory in the club’s pursuit of fourth spot.
Speaking to the press after the match, Tottenham manager Harry Redknapp said that his side had ‘missed a glorious opportunity’ to inflict more suffering on an under-strength Liverpool and increase their advantage to seven points over the Anfield club.
Once again, Spurs faltered against a fellow top four rival.
The industrious attitude of the 11 players donned in Red was crucial to denying Spurs any share of the spoils. They outfought the visitors; it would not have been unfair to brand their playing style as ugly, but it certainly was effective.
Jamie Carragher was made skipper for the night in the absence of Gerrard. Before kick-off the television cameras captured the talismanic defender delivering a rousing speech which clearly aroused the desired response from his peers.
Carragher was designated the right back role, the captain led by example launching into two successive biting challenges, winning the ball from Wilson Palacios before fouling Niko Kranjcar.
It set the tone for the rest of the night.
Without their glamorous players Liverpool reverted back to basics. Mascherano and Lucas hounded the opposition with Degen and Kuyt working tirelessly.
In an interview with Sky Sports before the match, Alberto Aquilani revealed that he doesn’t seem himself as a direct replacement for Xabi Alonso, but covets the attacking midfielder role. Benitez deployed the Italian behind Kuyt and he produced his best performance to date.
He played a crucial role in creating Liverpool’s first. He displayed a quick shift of feet before laying the ball off to Kuyt who placed his shot into the bottom-left corner of the net.
The arrival of David N’Gog in the second half gave the home side added impetus. The Frenchman won a penalty as the game edged into injury time after a reckless challenge from substitute Bassong. Kuyt duly converted the spot kick.
Redknapp was livid that Jermaine Defoe had a legitimate goal disallowed for an apparent offside. Inevitably Liverpool’s gremlins would have returned and not many would have discounted Spurs conjuring up a winner.
Yet the negligence of the linesman allowed Reina and Kyrgiakos to escape unpunished for a casual back pass intercepted by the prolific Defoe.
Apart from that minor blip Liverpool coped with the threat from Defoe and Crouch adequately. Kyrgiakos managed to limit the danger of Crouch and thus disrupted the Spurs’ partnership.
In recent weeks Liverpool have stumbled over the finishing line and one could sense the nervous tension from both the players and fans. The penalty quelled any such fears and guaranteed that Liverpool would not surrender their lead.
Rafael Benitez insisted after the match that Liverpool are ‘back on track’. He believes his side will ‘improve over the second half of the season’ and remain in the race for fourth.
It is crucial that Liverpool build on this victory. Reds fans will remain grounded over their prospects after experiencing several false dawns already this season.
The sub-plot to the main event, the battle for fourth place is simmering nicely with Tottenham Hotspur, Manchester City, Liverpool and Aston Villa all set to stake a claim for Champions League football next season.