Friday, 2 January 2015

Gerrard penalty brace not enough as Foxes fight back

Liverpool let two precious points slip at home to Leicester City on New Year’s Day.

In truth, however, they were lucky to even get a point, as the Foxes were the better team for large spells and were unfortunate to concede two first half penalties due to dubious and debateable handball decisions. To their credit, the bottom of the table side showed great spirit to bounce back and score twice in two minutes in the second half to secure a point and halt Liverpool’s recent run of encouraging results.

Returning to the starting line-up, Steven Gerrard, who would later announce his decision to leave the club when his contract expires at the end of the season, showed his class, converting the two penalties with ease. Kolo Toure also came in for the suspended Martin Skrtel in the only other change to the team that produced the Reds’ best performance of the season against Swansea on Monday night.

Frustratingly, though, Liverpool failed to replicate that display against Nigel Pearson’s side. Probably suffering from fatigue following a busy festive season, the Reds lacked intensity in their play, and the pressing that re-emerged against Swansea after characterising the 2013/2014 season was absent against the Foxes.

To be fair to Leicester, they were highly impressive, and proved that there are no easy games at this level. From the first to the final whistle they threatened, Mahrez unexpectedly curling a free kick against the post and then firing just over the bar from Schlupp’s left wing cross during the opening exchanges.

To get into the game, Liverpool required a helping hand from referee Mike Jones, who awarded the hosts two highly controversial spot kicks. The first came after a quarter of an hour and quite clearly shouldn’t have been given.

Sterling's cut back clearly hit Morgan in the face
Raheem Sterling got to the by-line and, as he attempted to pull back a cross, Leicester captain Wes Morgan slid in and was hit flush in the face by the ball. However, Jones judged that it had hit his hand, and thus pointed to the spot. Morgan, who must hate facing Liverpool after he was also sent off in the reverse fixture at the King Power a month ago, complained vociferously, but, as always, it made no difference whatsoever, as Gerrard stepped up to score from 12 yards.

Undeterred, Leicester continued to press aggressively, Schlupp sending a fierce shot over the bar. However, they were harshly treated once again five minutes before the break. Philippe Coutinho weaved magnificently through Leicester’s defence and was eventually halted as the ball sprung up off the turf and hit Mahrez’s hand.

The handball was unquestionable, but the Foxes’ number 26 was so close to Coutinho that there was very little he could do to prevent the ball hitting his hand. Moreover, Mahrez was moving his hand out of the way of the ball, so the visitors received unduly tough treatment from the officials.

This time, Steven Gerrard went in the opposite direction, striking into the bottom left hand corner with aplomb to give Liverpool a 2-0 half time lead that they scarcely deserved.

Gerrard converts his second spot kick
Unfortunately, Liverpool failed to raise their game after the restart, and they could only rely on favourable officiating for so long. Eventually, a sense of fairness was restored as the away side superbly fought their way back into the match with two goals in two second half minutes to restore parity.

A combination of brilliant attacking football from Leicester and abysmal defending from the Reds facilitated the Foxes’ comeback. Their first goal owed more to the former, as Nugent stunningly sent a volleyed effort into the net from just outside the area, although there was confusion between Sakho and Toure in the build-up.

Moments later, Jeff Schlupp levelled for Leicester on the hour mark, striking low into the bottom corner from the edge of the box. It was a good effort on goal, but Liverpool’s defence gave him too much time in a dangerous position and Mignolet should have done better in goal.

Nugent pulled one back for Leicester...
...before Schlupp levelled
Liverpool tried to create chances in search of a winner in response, but they were stifled by Leicester’s disciplined and resolute defence, Lucas shooting straight at Hamer before he was replaced by Markovic as Rodgers sought to change things a little. Leicester still posed a threat going forward, and looked just as likely to nick a winner as Liverpool, an excellent last ditch challenge from Sakho required to stop Nugent on 73 minutes.

At the other end, Borini fired high over the bar from close range to conclude a good move before then inadvertently blocking Coutinho’s goal-bound effort, while Markovic disappointingly headed just wide of the goal when well placed. Ultimately, however, Liverpool were unable to find the winner that they did not merit and that would have been extremely harsh on a brilliant Leicester side.

The only consolation that the Reds can take from the New Year’s Day fixtures is that other top four challengers slipped up as well. Arsenal lost, while Manchester United and West Ham drew, which means that Liverpool remain within touching distance of Champions League qualification, although they obviously still have a lot of work to do to close the seven point gap between themselves and fourth placed Southampton.


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