IN a previous Live4Liverpool match report, we discussed the pitfalls of the Europa League, and how the competition had become devalued by the growth of the Champions League and its own change in format from the old UEFA Cup.
However, the further Liverpool progress in this competition, and the bigger the opposition they face, the more those thoughts are likely to be pushed aside, in their place a longing desire to reach the Amsterdam final in May (nothing to do with the venue or anything).
Liverpool edged a step closer to that dream tonight with a professional and determined 1-0 victory in Udine, the winning goal from none other than much-maligned midfielder Jordan Henderson. It was no more than this gutsy display deserved.
The game started fairly quietly, the contest unaided by the half-empty stadium (Udinese had been knocked out after the last round of fixtures) and the damp, drab weather conditions.
Liverpool settled quickly into their tidy passing game – as usual – but looked alarmingly bereft of creativity or guile in the final third.
The home side had what was probably the best opportunity of the first quarter when Pepe Reina was forced to scramble towards his goal-line and tip the ball over the bar after a Roberto Pereyra chipped effort.
On 23 minutes however, Liverpool responded by grabbing what turned out to be the winning goal.
Stewart Downing’s out-swinging corner from the left-hand side was met by a miscued Luis Suarez header, but the ball fell straight to Suso, who with his back to goal laid the ball off to Jordan Henderson, and whilst many would have ballooned over from his position, he done well to squirm a side-footed shot through Daniele Padelli’s legs.
The goal will do the world of good for Henderson’s confidence (his single biggest problem) and you could see how much the goal meant to him. Let’s hope it’s not another false dawn – a horrible term in Liverpool’s modern history, for its teams and signings alike.
Liverpool rode out the remainder of the first half in a professional manner and almost doubled their lead with the last kick of the half when Luis Suarez’s acrobatic overhead kick was tipped over by Padelli (the Italian stopper ‘tipping over’ became a re-occurring theme in tonight’s encounter).
The Reds’ failure to stretch their lead almost came back to haunt them just before the hour mark when Mathias Ranegie’s bullet header from a left-wing corner barely cleared the crossbar.
Liverpool took the warning on board and although Udinese were growing into the game, they managed to fashion another chance on 65 minutes. Jose Enrique – impressive again, this time playing left-back – chipped in a fine cross towards Henderson and his side-footed volley was tipped over the bar superbly by Padelli.
Not long after, another chance for Liverpool. Joe Allen won the ball superbly in midfield and picked out Stewart Downing; he threaded a fine through-ball into Suarez, who ghosted into the right-hand side of the box, cut past one, then feinted past another, before his left-footed shot was tipped over by a strong Padelli right hand. Another great save.
Just when Liverpool fans were fearing the worst, a bonus arrived in the form of Giovanni Pasquale’s sending off on 79 minutes. He picked up a second yellow when he took down substitute Raheem Sterling.
Liverpool dug in for the last ten minutes but failed to gain a consistent hold of the ball. Although Udinese didn’t create anything of note in the second half, you felt something was coming, especially when Antonio Di Natale entered the fray as a substitute on 85 minutes.
So it proved. In the dying seconds of injury time, Udinese passed and probed before Di Natale received the ball on the right-hand side of the box – time almost stood still when the classy Italian took aim, but his powerful half-volley flashed just over Pepe Reina’s crossbar.
Liverpool were through, and there was an added bonus. Young Boys’ defeat of Anzhi left Liverpool top of the group, meaning they will avoid the Champions League drop-outs in the draw for the next round.
Watching Liverpool tonight was like old times. Their defensive fortitude and professionalism was a hark back to the Houllier and Benitez eras.
But it wasn’t just the team’s solidarity that impressed, they continue to outshine opponents in terms of recording the more clear-cut, and also the higher quantity, of goalscoring chances. Yet again, if one were being harsh, you could point to their wastefulness in front of goal.
However, this is a young Liverpool side who will benefit enormously from this performance and experience. The standard of opposition and their status prior to tonight’s game should be a consideration of course, but this was a very encouraging display and should be the catalyst for continued improvement.
Put simply, there is something satisfying in knowing that Liverpool did what they had to do: win. Never a bad thing.
L4L Man of the Match: Joe Allen. A timely return to form for the young Welshman. His tackling and smart use of the ball provided Liverpool with a solid platform and his performance should restore some confidence after a patchy run of form.
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