Gerrard victorious; it’s been a long time since we could say that.
It just had to end up like this. No, I’m not talking about The Reds’ win; I’m talking about this rather impressive scoreline. On Tuesday, Liverpool and Tottenham battled it out in a five-goal thriller that saw a total number of 30 shots fired and a non-stop box-to-box action from both teams. Aside maybe from the final 10 minutes of the first half, when players started waiting for a break to come, it was as action-packed as it gets on a football pitch. And, truth to be told, anyone could see it coming: recently, Liverpool sets itself up so offensively that they’re leaking goals in pretty much all games they play, whereas Spurs, with Rose playing more like a winger and Walker often having trouble with anticipating things – they don’t look solid at the back either. In addition to that, Tuesday match was a bad experience for Mamadou Sakho and Eric Dier. The Frenchman kept missing tackles and tripping on the ball, putting extra burden on Can and Skrtel, whereas Dier, who had to take care of Daniel Sturridge, was consistently outpaced by his opponent and although his tackling looks quite spectacular at times, he still has a lot to learn regarding positioning. All of that combined plus many decent attacking players on the pitch – and we were all set for a scorefest.
Another thing were the stakes of this battle. Take a look at the table: the winner of this fixture would massively, massively improve his position in a tough battle for European qualification. If this was Tottenham, they’d preserve one-point lead over Arsenal they’ve rightfully earned this weekend; if Brendan Rodgers emerged victorious – his team would join the pack of four teams that all have the ambition to be third-place finishers. Thus, Rodgers took risks. Having three players at the back and a lone striker, he fielded no less than four attacking midfielders, including Raheem Sterling’s body double – Jordon Ibe, who’s been creating scoring chances for Championship side Derby County just a month ago. Playing wide, far at right-hand side, this 19-years old winger did an impressive job, dribbling like a seasoned veteran and forcing Rose to stay back much more often than he did against Arsenal. Ten minutes into the game, Ibe won a free-kick from a good position and Steven Gerrard nearly bagged a goal with a curling shot that went slightly over the bar. Later, the lad set up Sturridge twice for good chances and only bad fate prevented him from ending this game with an assist.
Regarding Sturridge: this guy must be the unhappiest man on the planet right now. He had it all given on a silver platter as big as Premier League striker can imagine – and he blew it. Set up for a pure poachers’ role, he constantly positioned himself at the most perfect place in-between Spurs’ skippers and received gift after gift: way too many any striker on this level should ever get. At least two sloppy, inaccurate back passes from Mason saw him running away with a ball like a rocket into positions in which one dribble, one good body balance trick separated him from scoring a certain sitter. But he never went for it. The intelligence was there, the pace was there, but the right decision was never coming. Most of Sturridge’s shots were too obvious not to be stopped either by Dier or by Lloris – and he ended this game only with an assist and one shot at the post blasted at Tottenham in first half’s stoppage time: a perfect moment to hit the team that’s looking forward to get off the pitch for a while. Compared to Harry Kane, who might not be as quick and active as his older fellow, but has all the confidence in the world – Sturridge has a lot of form rebuilding to be done before he gets back to shape we’ve seen him in last season.
While Liverpool’s most reliable goalscorer was slumping, it was time for others to step out from the shadows. Brendan Rodgers must be finally content: the legion of players he brought in to compensate for Luis Suarez’s departure, finally starts paying off the credit of trust given to them. After all, Lazar Marković, who’s been invisible early this season and embarrassed himself with a red card against Basel in Champions League, this time opened the scoreline with an awkward shot, badly mishandled by Lloris. Emre Can, brought initially to strengthen The Reds’ midfield, had another brilliant game as a centre-back, winning 2 tackles, 2 aerial duels and having enough stamina to run forward late into the game, when other players were already exhausted and he had to take over Steven Gerrard’s duties as the captain left the ship because of hamstring injury. A lot of good moments were also provided by the most consistent of all Rodgers’ acquisitions: Alberto Moreno. This Spanish left-back has always been keen to run into the attacking third, providing crosses or shooting himself. Until he was turned into a wing-back and, eventually, a proper winger he is now. At times, Kyle Walker didn’t stand a chance against him!
But Spurs weren’t without their own strengths. Even though Ryan Mason had a game so bad that he nearly sabotaged the efforts of his comrades, Dembélé, Kane and Eriksen all displayed the fighting mood we’ve seen from them consistently this year. It’s quite amazing actually, that with this much of a quality upfront, Spurs aren’t occupying clear 3rd position in Premier League already. However, it’s even more amazing that players like Danny Rose or Kyle Walker were not exposed that much before Liverpool clash, as the have a dangerous tendency to let their man past them by avoiding the tackles, even must-make ones. The team that used to have full-backs like Steve Carr, Benoit Assou-Ekotto or Vedran Corluka in the nearest past, certainly deserves more than it’s being offered by Walker and Rose. They do have the pace, they can play a good long ball (Walker) or sprint forward and aid the attack (Rose), but against this level of commitment to the wing play Reds displayed on Tuesday – they’re not good enough. And it’s not like they’re getting much of a cover from anyone other than Vertonghen, either.
Overall, the game turned out to be a bloody mess, but if anyone, it was Liverpool, who were slightly in control of it and should’ve really saved themselves a horror of surging ahead only to suffer two equalizers. What hurt them badly was a first strike by Kane. It all started with Lamela running down the middle and me thinking that Spurs cannot possibly get anything from this kind of move, as there were about six red shirts in front of them and the only one who’s been in motion was the Argentinian. Wrong! Lamela, who’s been far from the greatest form these days and got easily outshined by many of his teammates, this time posed a real threat and after exchanging one-touch passes with Eriksen, knocked the ball towards the only player he could possibly pass to. And it was Kane. And it was Sakho who tried to keep tabs on him. The outcome could not possibly be good for the home side: Sakho first stepped away from his man, then he tried to jump back to him, slipped worse than Gerrard did last season against Chelsea and Spurs’ striker had a free shot. He didn’t finish it in the cleanest way, putting the ball below Mignolet’s right thigh, but it was enough to register his 21st goal this season.
They just keep on coming: another HK’s celebration.
Alas, Kane needed at least one more brace that day, as it was Liverpool, who was creating more and more trouble, mostly thanks to the clever through balls against the defenders, who were constantly pushing too far up only to fail catching Reds’ players offside. Two or three times, Lloris had to wander very far from the goalline to sweep those passes. In view of that, it’s ironic that the second kill did not come from one of these situations in which Tottenham defenders were in a no-man’s land – quite the opposite. Sturridge eventually abused the overly careful marking by multiple players, as he dribbled past Ryan Mason only to be immediately brought down by Danny Rose. Too all doubters: the referee did not screw up this time: it was a clear, misjudged tackle that never had a chance to clear the ball and obviously brought down LFC striker. But. The real screw-up happened later, when at 2-1, Eriksen took a venomous shot from one of the few free-kicks Spurs had. Mignolet let the ball go, Kane picked it up and quickly crossed it to Dembélé, who just tapped it in. Brilliant? Hardly: this time, Harry was offside and it was much more visible than Özil’s offence during the weekend. Will those linesmen ever learn?
Once Dembélé leveled it up to 2-2, everything was set for Tottenham to enter their well-known comeback mode. Just couple minutes before the equalizer, they had Lamela’s superb long shot that was parried excellently by Mignolet and one more chance after Coutinho’s blooper that went south due to Dembélé’s indecisiveness. So, after their efforts finally got rewarded, it should’ve fired them up even more, right? Well, not this time. Oddly enough, every time Spurs scored, it was Liverpool who received a confidence boost and it’s the home side, who reclaimed the control over the game. On this occasion, however, it’s Rodgers who gets the credit ahead of his players: somehow, he brought in substitutes who made bigger impact than Chadli, Paulinho and Soldado did. Eventually, the subs ended this colossal struggle. To be precise: Balotelli did it. It took no less than 13 games and 769 minutes of playtime for a £16 million Italian to finally score in a Premier League game for Liverpool. Mario did it by tapping in a cross from the other sub Lallana that ended the fine right-wing move. As usual, he didn’t smile. And rightfully so: his status of a gigantic flop will need much more than this match-winner to reverse itself.
Another glance at EPL table after Tuesday and it takes some heavy blinking before one realizes what’s going on. Numbers can be truly amusing. After this win, Liverpool, underwhelming and constantly boring for the most of this season, is only one point away from catching up with rather brilliant, vigorous and incisive Tottenham. Yet, it’s still an uphill struggle for them: in ten days, The Reds will be knocking their heads against Southampton’s defensive wall only to be faced with Manchester City threat on the first Sunday of March. Picking up less than three points from those two games will reduce their realistic chances for 3rd to minimum – especially if Saints take them out. At the same time, Spurs shall meet West Ham, who, by the looks of it, are “The Proper Stoke City” of this season: the team that nobody enjoys playing against. They can’t afford dropping points either, as their upcoming run of games is going to be fairly comfy before it gets seriously worse. Spurs’ actual moment of truth was scheduled for late April, when they’re facing Southampton, and, immediately afterwards… Manchester City. Will Harry Kane still be fit to play and in-form when they need them the most?
Hopefully. May both these teams still be in the race for 3rd once the spring comes. It would be a shame to see the insipid Red Devils taking that spot just by the virtue of even weaker play from everybody else.