Saturday, January 03, 2009

Preston 0-2 Liverpool (FA Cup)

Doesn't Deepdale sound like somewhere from Lord of the Rings, rather than a football ground?

Anyway, respect was due to the Championship team and - with the luxury of a week's breathing time before and after this game - Rafa named virtually the strongest team that he could, with the exceptions of Cavalieri in goal and Babel in place of the rested Kuyt on the right. In ordinary circumstances, I'd have been very tempted to rest Gerrard, but after recent events it may have been just as well to keep his mind on the football. I'd also have liked Darby, El Zhar and Ngog to get a chance, but obviously it wasn't to be (perhaps if we get an easier draw in the next round...)

After taking a few minutes to get into our stride - and facing an obviously fired up team of opponents - we soon picked up where we left off against Newcastle and dominated most of the first half. Sadly Keane, despite three goals in his last two starts, was back to looking like the big flop who missed relatively easy chances - though in truth Gerrard also failed to convert a few (though he came closer). The two basically started as our attack, in what could be described as a 4-2-3-1 or 4-4-1-1, and to be honest it didn't fill me with confidence. Both are good, intelligent players and obviously confident of weighing in with goals, but I'd feel more confident with an out-and-out finisher, or at least a big target man, leading the line. Thankfully, Torres was finally back on the bench, for the first time since November.

The goal we wanted actually came in the first half-hour. The ball fell kindly to Riera - or, at least, in a position that would have been kind had he got a right foot to pull it back. As it is he, like Babel, had to cut back to his favoured side, but as he darted back across the penalty area he fired in a left-foot shot into the far corner.

It would have been easy for Preston heads to go down but, to their credit, they emerged after half-time clearly fired up and it was a much more even contest from then on - although perhaps that was in part because of the withdrawal of Xabi Alonso with a cut foot, which had better not be serious given how much he dictates our play... Perhaps Preston didn't create too many chances, but they did get the ball in the net only for it to be ruled out - striker Parkin holding Carragher on the floor.

Certainly, after what happened to Chelsea earlier in the day, going into the final five minutes or so was a nervy time - despite the introduction of Torres, whose only contribution had been one good run followed by a rusty finish. Worryingly, Mascherano had also been withdrawn holding his hamstring, so in the end Gerrard had to sit alongside Leiva in midfield and Babel pushed up-front in an attempt to threaten with pace (which, sadly, wasn't much threat as Babel was, again, poor).

Nerves were only finally settled in injury time when, with Preston pushing forward for that equalizer, Gerrard and Torres were allowed to break - almost alone in the Preston half (except for the 'keeper). Though he could have finished, or at least shot, himself Gerrard unselfishly ran the ball close to the 'keeper on one side, then squared for Torres to tap in at the far post. A gift, but hopefully a goal on his return will help Torres hit the ground running. This time last season, apparently, he'd already scored 16 goals - whereas I believe this was only his sixth this term. Imagine where another ten goals could've put us (ok, five if we substract those Keane has scored in his stead).

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