Thursday, 18 December 2014

Sterling the star as Reds reach semis

Liverpool successfully negotiated a tricky trip to Bournemouth and claimed a confidence boosting win that sealed their place in the semi-finals of the League Cup last night.

Heading into the League Cup quarter-final on the back of crashing out of the Champions League and losing 3-0 to bitter rivals Manchester United, many Kopites expected their team to struggle on the south coast against the table-topping Championship side. In fact, one could make the argument that Eddie Howe’s Cherries, who had been on an unbeaten streak stretching back to the end of September, were the favourites going into the contest, despite their billing as underdogs.

Thankfully, Liverpool showed their superiority, put in a promising performance and avoided slipping up on a huge banana skin. Victory was ultimately secured thanks to two goals from Raheem Sterling, his first since September, sandwiched in between the ever-improving Lazar Markovic’s first goal for the club. Former Evertonian Dan Gosling pulled one back for the hosts with a little help from Brad Jones, but, after a troubling ten minute spell, the Reds weathered the storm and emerged as worthy winners.

Sticking with the 3-4-3 formation that he employed at Old Trafford on Sunday afternoon, Rodgers picked a strong starting line-up as he could not risk another defeat. Victory was vital, so there was no room for resting star players, as Gerrard, Henderson, Lallana, Coutinho and Sterling all started. It was perhaps a little surprising that Balotelli was not on the bench after arguably one of his better performances against United. It was downright shocking to see Fabio Borini, long presumed dead due to his inexplicable absence, among the substitutes, and he even got a few minutes of action during injury time.

Bournemouth came out of the traps quickly, Callum Wilson missing a massive chance as he shot wide from six yards after easily beating Skrtel and Lovren only four minutes in. However, Liverpool responded two minutes later through Lallana, who tested Artur Boruc with an impressive 20 yard drive, and then proceeded to dominate the rest of the first period.

The visitors benefitted from the hosts’ noble but misguided insistence on trying to play their usual attractive brand of passing football; this meant that they did not have to deal with tough physical opponents willing to get in their faces and pressurise their fragile defence. Instead, they engaged in a tactical chess match with the Championship side, which suited the Merseysiders down to the ground.

Moving the ball quickly from side-to-side and monopolising possession, Liverpool had their hosts exactly where they wanted them. Skipper Steven Gerrard, who looks much more assured and confident with Lucas rather than Allen alongside him, was particularly influential, seeing plenty of the ball and pinging about passes in his typical manner.

Importantly, unlike against United, Liverpool capitalised on their early dominance on 20 minutes when Raheem Sterling concluded a magnificent 52-pass move by opening the scoring. Markovic had switched play to Henderson, whose clever headed assist was deftly turned home by the head of the newly bald Sterling. It was a great goal, and fitting reward for both Liverpool’s evident superiority and the youngster’s perseverance in the face of unfair criticism in recent weeks.

Seven minutes later, Liverpool crowned another clever move with a fine strike from someone else who has come under fire so far this season. The ball bounced favourably for Lazar Markovic after Coutinho had cut in from the left and tested Boruc, and the Serbian midfielder sent a powerful side-footed strike into the net from the edge of the area to bag his first goal in a Red shirt.

Sterling opened the scoring...

...and Markovic added a second soon after
Ironically, a whistle from the home crowd had decisively distracted their defender Tommy Elphick in the build-up to the goal, but the Bournemouth number five’s decision to play to the wrong whistle couldn’t detract from Markovic’s joy at what was a well-taken goal.

Liverpool were enjoying 73% of possession and appeared comfortably in control, but they gave Bournemouth a chance to get back into the match with the final goalscoring opportunity before the break on the half hour mark. Simon Francis burst down the right and pulled the ball back to the unmarked Yann Kermorgant, who had a clear sight of goal from ten yards out. Liverpool were let off the hook, though, as the 33-year old Frenchman lent back and thus smashed over the bar when he had to score.

It was a warning to the Reds that a single goal was all that Bournemouth needed to change the course of the game and swing the momentum back in their favour. Thankfully, Liverpool seemed to heed that warning as they continued from where they’d left off at the start of the second half, Sterling scoring his second of the evening six minutes after the restart to put the Reds in the driving seat.

Unlike his first goal, which was the culmination of patient passing, Sterling’s second strike came at the end of a quick and direct counter attack. Bournemouth lost the ball high up the pitch and, two passes later; Sterling was sliding a shot into the corner of the net after turning Tommy Elphick inside and out.

At that point, Liverpool hoped to enjoy a comfortable second half in which they could continue to build their confidence by keeping a clean sheet and maybe adding a couple more goals to their tally. That plan went out the window when Bournemouth pulled one back six minutes later through Dan Gosling, whose low left footed shot from 12 yards somehow found a way into the net, despite Jones getting a lot on it.

Sterling seemed to have put the match beyond Bournemouth...

....but Brad Jones let the hosts back in
The Aussie keeper should have done so much better, and his mistake meant that the Cherries sensed a route back into the contest. They pushed hard for 10-15 minutes, Wilson claiming for a penalty after clashing with Sakho, Fraser flashing a header across goal and Gosling smacking a shot against the woodwork, but Liverpool weathered the storm and looked surprisingly comfortable in the closing stages.

At the other end, Sterling should have had a hat-trick but somehow contrived to miss the target from six yards out after a delightful flick from Lallana. It would have been nice to see Sterling take home the match ball, but ultimately Kopites can have few complaints following a refreshingly positive evening for Liverpool, who now face Chelsea over two legs in the semi-finals in January.

Those ties will be by no means easy, but right now the Reds have to take one game at a time and focus on taking this form into their game at home to Arsenal on Sunday. If this win is to provide anything more than temporary respite for Rodgers and his team, they must get something against the Gunners.


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