Wing worries for Liverpool

November 22, 2006
By Richard Jolly
(Archive)

It was typical, all-action stuff from Steven Gerrard: tracking back to aid Steve Finnan when the right-back was outnumbered, sliding in for a predictably forceful challenge and getting up to berate a team-mate.

GettyImagesGerrard: Better in the middle or the right?

It served as a microcosm of Liverpool's midfield: no sooner does Gerrard solve one problem than another is highlighted.

Without Mohamed Sissoko, he has been restored to his preferred position in the centre of midfield, but that means Rafael Benitez now has to perm two from his collection of unconvincing wingers. Jermaine Pennant maintained his place on the right and was on the receiving end of a Gerrard blast for his failure to support Finnan.

He may have neglected his defensive duties, but Pennant was still prominent.

One burst to the byline was an example of old-fashioned wing play. But when, minutes before, he had the presence of mind to lay the ball back to Gerrard, the resulting cross, bent in beautifully, was superior to anything Pennant produced and a reminder why Benitez appears to consider his captain his finest right winger.

A trademark Gerrard goal, displaying assurance with his finish after powering forward to meet Dirk Kuyt's clever ball after the Dutchman turned Alex neatly, showed why many consider him Liverpool's best central midfielder.

It was only Gerrard's second goal of the season, but that is two more than Pennant. Examinations of what his contribution amounted to, either in a defeat of PSV Eindhoven that was completed by a late Peter Crouch goal, or in his brief time at Liverpool, are inconclusive.

It may be an inappropriate description, given his colourful past, but the jury is still out on Pennant as, indeed, it is on Mark Gonzalez.

The Chilean's finest piece of play resulted in his departure. Accelerating past Jan Kromkamp with sufficient ease to provide a reminder why few lamented the sale of the Dutchman, he supplied the most inviting of crosses.

But for the awareness of Alex, Crouch would have had a tap-in. However, in the process, the summer signing hurt his hamstring and was stretchered off, head in hands.

Pennant switched flanks immediately, bur a reluctance to use his left foot meant he had a tendency to drift infield into a crowded midfield, and he had to return to the right while Luis Garcia roamed around the left.

Then, when Pennant's evening was curtailed by a hamstring spasm, enter Craig Bellamy as an auxiliary winger, the fourth of the night, while a fifth lurked infield as a result of other injuries.

When Xabi Alonso hobbled off disconsolately to join Sissoko on the treatment table, on came Boudewijn Zenden. He may prefer a central role nowadays, but his suitability for it is less obvious.

Sissoko can trace his heritage in the Liverpool midfield back to competitors of the calibre of Steve McMahon and Graeme Souness in a way the more lightweight Zenden cannot.

Benitez said: 'It was our idea to finish at the top of the group [which Liverpool have guaranteed now]. The first thing is that we are really pleased with the victory, but it came at a price.

'It was really difficult to manage in a game where you lose two players in the first half. In the end, we played with Bolo and Steve and two very offensive wingers and Luis was not 100 percent fit.'

GettyImagesLiverpool's wing woe. Pennant was not Benitez's first choice.

And while wingers abounded, the contenders for the cross of the match were delivered by Gerrard and Finnan, opting for his left foot and headed inches over the bar by Crouch.

It is often said that, his height notwithstanding, Crouch is not a great header of the ball. This was an instant that shows he has both the leap and the technique to be; it is a consistent demonstration of such prowess that eludes him.

His goal, when it finally came, hardly required such finesse. Garcia, whose aptitude for the European stage is well established, delivered a deep cross that Kuyt headed back across goal and Crouch forced in from all of a yard.

It was his fifth European strike of the season and, by some distance, Crouch is Liverpool's leading scorer in the Champions League. It suggests continental defences are yet to understand the difficulties of dealing with his unique frame.

If Crouch is a one-off, his partner may not be.

Ignore the blond mop and concentrate on the way he uses his body to shield the ball and there is a hint of Mark Hughes about Kuyt. Certainly, like the Welshman, he seems capable of creating as many goals as he scores. At least Kuyt's many attributes, illustrated by his two assists, guarantee him a place in attack.

And in a team where there are few automatic choices, that is to his credit.

He stands in contrast to Liverpool's many wide men. Benitez began with too many options on the flanks. Because of three injuries, he ended with too few, but with the question of his first-choice wingers is still frustratingly unanswered.

MAN OF THE MATCH: Steven Gerrard
He dominated the first half but, after Alonso's injury, unselfishly adopted the anchor role in midfield for much of the second. 'The quality of Gerrard was outstanding tonight,' said Ronald Koeman, who is no mean judge. A demanding Benitez added: 'He played well, but he is a very good player and he can play much better. And he knows he can play much better.'

INJURY NEWS: Alonso was reported to have a dead leg, while Pennant suffered spasms in his hamstring. So Gonzalez, with a torn hamstring, is the most serious casualty. 'Two weeks, for sure,' said Benitez.

LIVERPOOL VERDICT: They merited their victory, but it was the kind of performance that both served to show why their record is so impressive at home and so lamentable away. It still remains to be seen quite what the sum of their many parts equates to.

PSV VERDICT: The left-back Carlos Salcido produced some wonderful passes with either foot and threatened Jose Reina's goal with a deflected, dipping effort from fully 40 yards. PSV has proved a fertile hunting ground for the European giants over the past couple of decades, and the Mexican could be the next to tempt them.

DID HE REALLY SAY THAT? According to our translator, Koeman commented that 'Liverpool is a different kettle of fish in comparison with Galatasaray and Bordeaux.' There may have been some licence with that translation.


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