Wednesday, 28 August 2013

Reds pay high price to scrape into third round

That was almost exactly what Liverpool weren't hoping for.

The Reds may have well progressed into the third round of the Capital One Cup last night but they paid a high price to get there. Injuries to Aly Cissokho, Joe Allen and, most significantly, Kolo Toure, who had to be stretchered off the pitch, leave Liverpool’s squad depleted ahead of the visit of Champions and arch-rivals Manchester United in the Premier League on Sunday lunchtime, while the rest of the team are likely to be more tired than they otherwise would have been after they required half an hour of extra time to finally defeat League One outfit Notts County.

The evening all started so well, as Liverpool’s customary dominance paid dividends, goals from Raheem Sterling and- you guessed it- Daniel Sturridge giving the hosts a healthy first half lead that was richly deserved. Frustratingly, though, Brendan Rodgers’ men once again failed to fully kill off their clearly inferior opponents and allowed their persevering visitors back into the game after the break, Yoann Arquin pulling one back on the hour mark before super sub Adam Coombes levelled late on. To the relief of the majority in attendance at Anfield, extra time strikes from Sturridge and Henderson spared the Merseysiders’ blushes.

Brendan Rodgers selected a surprisingly strong starting line-up, with skipper Steven Gerrard, star striker Sturridge and first choice keeper Simon Mignolet all starting alongside youngsters Sterling and Ibe and debutants Cissokho and Alberto. The idea was that Liverpool’s big guns would get the game won and then be taken off during the second half to enjoy a well-earned rest.

It seemed to work as well after only four minutes, as 18-year old Raheem Sterling opened the scoring in style, firing low into the bottom corner after impressively gliding past County’s stationary back line. The downside of picking a strong starting line-up was demonstrated only six minutes later, though, as loan signing Aly Cissokho sustained an injury and had to be replaced by Daniel Agger.

In the absence of Coutinho, Gerrard and Sturridge were inevitably the heart of the Reds’ attack and worked tirelessly to create opportunities, the former pulling the strings with clever short and long passes and the latter terrifying the away side’s defence. On 19 minutes, Agger headed Gerrard’s devastating set piece against the post, before Sturridge took control of a fantastic through ball from the skipper and fired across the keeper and into the net to round off a superb attacking move also involving Alberto and Allen.

Sturridge looks to the heavens after opening the scoring

Sturridge celebrates in his usual manner
Firmly in the driving seat, Liverpool set about trying to bag further goals to build up confidence ahead of their clash against United. Agger headed another Gerrard cross goalwards, this time seeing Bartosz Bialkowski punch clear, while Sturridge and Sterling combined to set up Gerrard, whose shot hit the post. Even Kolo Toure, a player hardly renowned for his goalscoring prowess, joined in the fun, firing a 40 yard shot that was blocked after the Kop had urged the Ivorian to have a pop from distance.

Things all changed after half time, however. Whether due to complacency or simply the interval naturally disrupting their momentum, the Reds took their foot off the gas and invited Chris Kiwomya’s side back into the contest.

The away side appeared more adventurous after the break and, after Dumbuya fired a weak effort straight at Mignolet, the marginally onside Yoann Arquin jumped highest to head home a cross and reward County’s purple patch of form, raising their confidence and the noise level of their supporters.

Toure flicked the ball against the post and Sturridge shot wide after they were both cleverly found by captain Gerrard, but they could do nothing to reverse the flow of momentum and kill off Notts County, who bagged what had earlier seemed an extremely unlikely equaliser six minutes before the end of normal time. Adam Coombes, who only moments earlier had replaced David Bell, drilled an effort into the back of the net after the Reds’ defence left him unmarked in a dangerous position.

It was a massive setback for Liverpool, who had hoped to win the match as soon as possible and then rest players, but instead found themselves exerting an extra half hours’ worth of energy to defeat opponents they should have beaten with minimal effort.

It seemed like it was just going to be one of those nights when Kolo Toure was forced to leave the pitch on a stretcher after 100 minutes, leaving Liverpool without their promising new centre back against Manchester United and, more immediately, down to ten men as they had no substitutions remaining.

Coombes' late leveller sent the visiting fans crazy

Toure will be missed
Fortunately the nightmare ending for Liverpool and fairy-tale finish for the minnows, which seemed destined to occur at that point, didn't happen. Rather than struggling to hold out for penalties against an increasingly confident and assertive away side, Liverpool showed why they are the superior side.

First, Daniel Sturridge- who else? - found the net from a narrow angle after Coutinho’s through ball had set him in on goal. Then, Jordan Henderson netted an excellent individual effort, nutmegging his marker and calmly slotting into the Anfield Road end net to avoid the lottery of a penalty shootout and put Liverpool through to the third round of the League Cup.
"The most important thing was to get through. We didn't expect it to be like that but we got through so we're in the hat." Brendan Rodgers
Although Liverpool’s problems are so glaringly obvious even Stevie Wonder could see them, there remain positives to take from last night’s match. Yes, it demonstrated that the Reds’ cutting edge is so blunt that they can’t even kill off League One opposition and the injuries sustained will give Rodgers a headache, but Sturridge showed that he is in scintillating form that will frighten David Moyes’ back four on Sunday. With four goals in three matches, Sturridge is on fire this season and Suarez may well struggle to win back his place as the main striker when he returns from suspension. Moreover, Liverpool’s youngsters also took the opportunity to impress, Sterling making a particular impact with a well taken goal early on and selflessly filling in at right back when the hosts were down to ten men in extra time.

Ultimately, however high a price the Reds had to pay to progress in the Capital One Cup, it was probably worth it. The humiliation of ending one of only two Cup campaigns at the second round stage would have been almost unbearable and would have completely destroyed the momentum gathered from two opening victories in the Premier League.

Kudos must also be given to Notts County. They were resilient and performed ably, while their supporters played their part in creating a thoroughly entertaining, if infinitely irritating, Cup tie.

Liverpool have been drawn to face Manchester United at Old Trafford in the third round of the League Cup. It may well be Luis Suarez's first match back from suspension. That should be interested. 


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