DUE to the stop-start nature of Liverpool’s league campaign, there have already been a few instances this season where the players and supporters are entering certain games in the knowledge that victory is absolutely essential.
The away trip to Norwich and the home game against Wigan instantly spring to mind. Fortunately, the Reds were able to record wins on those occasions, and after an impressive but slightly wasteful performance yesterday, they also secured a victory here.
Daniel Agger headed a winning goal just before half time, but it should have been a far more comfortable afternoon.
In his post-match press conference, Brendan Rodgers described Liverpool’s first half performance as their best this season. It is difficult to argue with such an assessment – their passing and movement was superb to watch, but instead of sitting back and enjoying the display, the fans actually became frustrated at the team’s inability to place the cherry on top of the cake.
Such was the degree of Liverpool’s dominance, it was a source of anger that it took so long to open their account. Indeed, the home side spurned several chances before the winning goal.
It was actually Southampton however who had the first meaningful shot on goal. Lucas – on his welcomed return to the starting line-up after three months on the sidelines – was dispossessed in midfield by Liverpudlian Rickie Lambert who then aimed a vicious half volley which flew just wide of the Kop’s right-hand post.
Liverpool responded well and went close on 19 minutes when their well-worked corner routine ended up with a fierce Steven Gerrard shot blocked well by Morgan Schneiderlin near to the goal-line.
Luis Suarez had a frustrating afternoon overall, but he could have made it 11 Premier League goals for the season on 26 minutes after a fine one-two with Joe Allen gave the Uruguayan a chance to shoot, but his powerful half-volley went straight at Paulo Gazzaniga.
Just after the half hour mark, Liverpool came even closer. Reina’s long ball was brought down effortlessly by Suarez, he then aimed an outside-of-the-foot through ball to Jonjo Shelvey. The England international’s resulting ball into the box was poor but the clearance fell straight to Steven Gerrard, he then put Shelvey back in on goal, and from a tight angle he aimed an absolute thunderbolt across goal and the ball crashed against the inside of the upright.
That post will be sore this morning.
It looked like one of those days – yet again. But, on 43 minutes, the deadlock was finally broken. Ironically, it didn’t come easily and the woodwork had a role to play once again.
Suarez’s superb bending free-kick struck the bar, the ball looped to Glen Johnson who managed to gain control and find a yard of space before chipping in a left-footed cross straight onto the head of Daniel Agger, who guided a fine header into the top right-hand corner.
A tangible sense of relief reverberated around Anfield.
The second half performance – thanks to Liverpool’s lack of ruthlessness in the first half – lacked the same fluency and it became a slightly cagey affair. That said, the Reds had a great chance to stretch their lead on 68 minutes.
Jose Enrique embarked on one of his trademark marauding runs – this time from his reverted position of left-back – and played a fine one-two with Suarez leaving him clean through on goal; his attempt to nudge in a right-footed shot took a slight nick off Luke Shaw and the ball went out for a corner.
On 81 minutes, Liverpool pieced together a brilliant attacking move which included Johnson, Sterling and Gerrard; eventually, the latter pulled it back from the touchline to Suarez – who, unable to get another part of his body onto the ball to guide it into the net, held out a hand and pushed the ball over the bar.
A deliberate handball spotted by referee Michael Oliver, who had no choice but to book Suarez and confirm his suspension for Liverpool’s trip to West Ham.
Whilst there are several positives to take from the game, such as Liverpool’s first half performance, a clean sheet and Lucas’ return to the team, there was a real sense of frustration around Anfield that Southampton were not put out of sight.
In a pattern that has dogged the club all season, Liverpool’s fine approach play was not matched in quality by either their final ball, or in the event their final ball was sufficient, their finishing. This isn’t a case of bad luck, poor refereeing or some other outside agency, it’s a lack of skill.
Luis Suarez is obviously immune from this assessment, but the likes of Raheem Sterling (harsh as that sounds on an 18-year-old), Jonjo Shelvey, Steven Gerrard and Joe Allen need to improve their final ball or finish.
One can’t help but think that all of the above players are capable of much better in this department and it’s more a psychological issue. For example, after fifteen years of brilliant goals and countless assists, we know for sure that Gerrard in particular is capable of many more goals.
In an attempt to explain the potential psychological issue, the players must know what the widely reported shortfalls of the team are i.e. a lack of finishing prowess. With that at the back of their minds, it must create tension when the players have opportunities to score.
Only a run of victories with a few goals for good measure can chip away at this lack of confidence.
In Luis Suarez’s absence next week, the problem will either be exacerbated, or on the other hand, it may be an opportunity to show that the remainder of Liverpool’s attacking contingent are not too bad at scoring goals after all.
L4L Man of the Match: Daniel Agger. Not just for his winning goal, although that helps of course. The Dane’s all round performances at the moment are quietly superb. His reading of play, aerial ability, firm tackling and well documented footballing ability put Agger in an elite band of central defenders.
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