Thursday, 9 April 2015

Reds secure narrow replay win over Rovers

A Philippe Coutinho goal 160 minutes into Liverpool’s FA Cup quarter final tie with Blackburn Rovers proved enough to seal a semi-final spot for the Reds and keep their season alive.

Seven points off fourth with only seven matches left to play, Champions League qualification is now a distant dream for Liverpool, so a defeat last night would have seen them embarrassingly knocked out of the FA Cup by lower league opposition and effectively end their season. Thankfully, though, despite a far from impressive display, the Reds ground out an important victory, setting up a semi-final against Aston Villa at Wembley on Sunday 19th April.

Following an abysmal defensive display at Arsenal on the weekend and with Emre Can and Martin Skrtel suspended, Brendan Rodgers reverted to four at the back, with Johnson coming in at right back and Lovren replacing Toure, who performed dreadfully against the Gunners.

Unfortunately, it wasn’t long before we saw the Ivorian again, as he replaced the injured Sakho on the half hour mark. He looked a little shaky, but was nowhere near as bad as he was against Arsenal, which isn’t saying much.

After having a taste of their own medicine against Manchester United and Arsenal, Liverpool returned to dominating possession and controlling the game in the first half against Blackburn, although they struggled to get their slick passing game going on a difficult Ewood Park pitch. They also failed to craft many decent goalscoring chances and were routinely frustrated by two banks of four that were tough to break down.

In fact, although Liverpool had the better of the opening exchanges, Allen skewing a volley wide after five minutes, Blackburn were handed the first real chance after a quarter of an hour by what was nearly a costly slip up from Sakho.

The French centre back dwelt on a hopeful punt forward from Rovers and almost allowed Craig Conway in as communication completely broke down between Sakho and Mignolet. He eventually recovered to make a decent block, but it was a sign that, for all their dominance going forward, Liverpool remained vulnerable at the back.

Sakho was also at the centre of Rovers’ next good opportunity, as Jordan Rhodes exploited the fact that his hamstring injury had left him hobbling back to get in a good position to head Conway’s left wing cross goalwards. Fortunately, the Scotland striker spurned a great chance, heading poorly well over the bar.

Sakho limps off injured
At that point, Sakho was substituted and, as the game approached half time, Liverpool began to produce a few more chances, Johnson lashing towards the near post from a tight angle and Sturridge trying his luck with a dipping effort that Eastwood dealt with well.

Coutinho, a key player in the Reds’ cup run, was at the centre of everything good about the Merseysiders’ performance, and he had the best chance to score ten minutes before the break.

Chaos ensued in Blackburn’s box following a corner, and the ball eventually fell to Coutinho. His low shot towards the bottom corner forced a good save out of Eastwood, whose view was obscured by two players in his line of sight. One of those players, Daniel Sturridge, tried and failed to get a touch on it that would have turned the ball home and given the visitors a crucial lead at the interval.

Coutinho had a couple more chances before the break, firing way over from 20 yards after the ball bobbled at precisely the wrong moment and also seeing another attempt blocked, but there was nothing Liverpool could do to avoid entering half time with the scores at a stalemate.

After the restart, Blackburn immediately came out with a far more attacking approach and had two great goalscoring opportunities within the first minute of the second half. First, Mignolet had to acrobatically turn Cairney’s effort over for a corner, which was subsequently turned goalwards by the head of Ben Marshall.

The Belgian stopper then produced another brilliant save, getting a firm left hand to it and thus turning the ball on to the post. There were questions as to whether the ball had brushed Joe Allen’s arm on its way through, but it would have been incredibly harsh had Kevin Friend pointed to the spot.

This was a great save from Mignolet
It was worrying for five minutes when Blackburn looked like they might take the lead, but, overall, it played into Liverpool’s hands, as space opened up for them to exploit in Rovers’ half. Despite that additional space, Liverpool still crucially lacked quality in the final third. That was, until Coutinho produced a piece of magic with twenty minutes remaining.

Coutinho played a clever one-two with Henderson after a short corner, allowing him space to drill an unstoppable shot across Eastwood and into the far corner. Coming only moments after Rovers’ substitute Rudy Gestede had caused some trouble up the other end; the goal came as a welcome relief and put the visitors firmly in the driving seat in the contest.

This little magician produced the goods in the FA Cup once again
Blackburn lacked the energy to mount a serious challenge during the closing stages, while Liverpool had a few chances to put the outcome beyond doubt, Lambert heading into the side-netting only moments after replacing Sturridge and Allen being denied a penalty despite Williamson’s foul on him in the box.

Liverpool did suffer one final fright in the dying seconds of injury time, though, as goalkeeper Eastwood raced forward for a long throw and ended up firing a decent effort goalwards. It took him two attempts, but thankfully Mignolet eventually dealt with the shot to deny Blackburn a fairy tale comeback story.

To be fair to Mignolet, although he worried me with Eastwood’s effort, he had a good game and made a couple of important saves, which turned out to be crucial in helping the Reds reach Wembley. Coutinho was the other stand-out performer, but most of his teammates were a level or two below their potential.

Improvement is certainly needed ahead of the semi-final versus Villa next weekend, but right now it’s just great to still have something to play for this season.


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