Praesidium

Saturday, January 07, 2006

Luton 3-5 Liverpool (FA Cup)

What a match! Probably the best I’ve seen since May… Was surprised by how strong a line-up Benitez used: bar Carson in goal, pretty much our strongest. I’d have expected to see some fringe players like Pongolle, Traore, Warnock, etc (though Benitez’ rotation policy means we don’t have so recognised ‘fringe’ players any more – the reserves are primarily full of youngsters). Once Gerrard curled the ball into the top corner in the 16th minute, I thought we’d wrap things up by half-time and make changes.

Luton though had other ideas. A deserved equaliser, and another good goal, and they went into half-time in the lead. We hadn’t been our best, but they were giving us a real game. I was surprised at their quality.

Liverpool were definitely more aggressive in the second half. I thought Kewell and Gerrard had fluffed it when clean through, but we were given what may have been a pretty ‘soft’ penalty after Gerrard tumbled. Kewell’s pass wasn’t the best, and maybe too far in front of him, but with the goal gaping I don’t think he’d have fallen without contact, so I was happy enough. One question is why if it was a penalty the defender wasn’t sent off…

I wasn’t sure who was to take it though – Cisse I believed was our first choice penalty taker when on the pitch – so despite Gerrard having scored from the spot versus Bolton Cisse stepped up. I said to my flatmate he didn’t look confident, and it was an awful penalty – about midway between the centre of the goal and post, at a comfortable height. The Liverpool website suggests their ‘keeper was off his line, but no surprise to see him save a terrible effort.

Soon down the other end more controversy, as Luton got a penalty of their own. Hyypia was robbed of possession allowing a striker through on goal. Carson rushed to the edge of the area and seemed to bring him down. It was a heart in mouth moment, but thankfully only a yellow card, albeit with a penalty too. That had looked a fairer decision, but from subsequent replays it wasn’t so obvious. Firstly any contact may have been outside the box, and secondly it looked like Carson initially missed, before the player stood on him and fell over. If anything, it could’ve been the striker booked. Still, the penalty converted, Liverpool were 3-1 down and things not looking good.

Rafa made a bold substitution, bring on Pongolle – though without Morientes, he was pretty much our only option – and replacing Sissoko (who hadn’t been any good, and wasn’t much use at 3-1 down anyway). Pongolle, or FSP, is generally either ineffective, as at Bolton, or a match-turner (most notably, against Olympiacos in last season’s CL group). Today it proved an inspired move, as within five minutes he ran onto Gerrard’s pass to pull a goal back.

With Gerrard restored to centre-midfield alongside Alonso, and FSP joining Crouch and Cisse in a three-pronged attack, we looked much more dangerous. I think Luton were starting to tire, having used so much energy in the first half, and the game became much more open, swinging Liverpool’s way. Alonso scored an equaliser from 40 yards, with a dipping shot, and then FSP (of all people) rose to head us in front again. Within about 12 minutes, a complete turn around and the scores at 4-3 to Liverpool.

To their credit, Luton heads didn’t drop. The game continued to be competitive, although from this point you always fancied Liverpool to win. A Luton corner near the death caused some nerves but – with the game in the 92nd minute – their goalie came up, allowing Alonso to score a 60-yard goal on the break (well, from our half really…) and that wrapped things up, 5-3.

It’s good to know that we haven’t lost the ability to come back into games after our long run of clean sheets – two equalisers against Bolton, and fighting back from 3-1 today. FSP was particularly impressive – it’s easy to see why several clubs (Nice, Auxerre, Man City, Real Betis and Nancy amongst those mentioned by rumours) have apparently expressed an interest in his services this month, but I’d definitely keep him. On today’s display, he should be well above Cisse in the pecking order.

The fact we were out-played for much of the first-half by Luton is worrying, as is the vulnerability of our defence. I couldn’t really put it down to Carson. He didn’t make any glaring errors, but he never seems to keep clean sheets, so maybe he just doesn’t inspire as much confidence in his defenders. The need for a new centre back is more obvious than ever though.

Still, while it was a shame we couldn’t rest some key players, it was a cracking game. One of those ties that’s just difficult enough to be awkward, though everyone knows you should win. Hopefully we’ll draw easier opposition Monday, so we can give some youngsters a run out in the first team. For now, well done lads.

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