AVB frustrated as Reds snatch the spoils
Merseyside has become a place of nightmares for Andre Villas-Boas. Tottenham's manager had not suffered a Premier League defeat since a late and painful loss at Everton in December. On Sunday, in the red half of the city, he saw a repeat performance.
As at Goodison Park, this was a game Tottenham should have won. Leading 2-1 thanks to two Jan Vertonghen goals, they had Liverpool just where they wanted them. Then they self-destructed. Kyle Walker's inexplicable backpass gave Stewart Downing the chance to equalise before Benoit Assou-Ekotto fouled Luis Suarez and Steven Gerrard sent Hugo Lloris the wrong way from the penalty spot. A 12-match unbeaten league run had gone up in smoke.
"It's very difficult to take," Villas-Boas said. Not that he or his players have much time - or need - to feel sorry for themselves, with a 3-0 lead to take to Inter Milan for a Europa League last-16 second leg on Thursday. Third place in the Premier League is still theirs and so too, barring accidents, should be a Champions League spot.
But if this was a setback that Tottenham should be able to overcome, it was a watershed victory for Liverpool. For the first time under the management of Brendan Rodgers, they beat a side in the Premier League's top four. The victory, their third league win in a row, also lifted them above Everton for the first time this season. On Merseyside, this has been a bad weekend to be a Blue and a great one to be a Red.
"All season, people have talked about us not having won against anyone in the top 10, then it was the top eight, the top six and the top four," Rodgers said. "In some of the other games we've had in this little run, and the quality we've shown, it's always been about the other teams not playing well. The players didn't quite get the credit for the way they have been performing. Today was going to be a real test, and they came through it."
Liverpool's victory was a triumph for resilience, for hanging in there despite losing their way. Tottenham had a 20-minute spell in the second half in which they could, and should, have established a match-winning lead.
At 2-1 up, with just under an hour gone, Gareth Bale sprinted past Jamie Carragher down the right and crossed from the byline, finding an unmarked Gylfi Sigurdsson with time to control and shoot at the far post. His shot was deflected onto the post by Brad Jones, deputising for calf injury victim Pepe Reina. Liverpool would probably not have come back from 3-1 down.
"The Sigurdsson chance that hit the post could be the moment of the game," Villas-Boas acknowledged. "It's a pity we lost control of the game when things appeared to be going our way."
Spurs had been forced to graft their way back into the game to reach that position of superiority against a Liverpool side who started with a burst of energy. Philippe Coutinho had already stretched the Spurs defence with a couple of clever through-balls and gone close with a 20-yard curler when a moment of genius began the move that led to a 21st-minute opener for Suarez.
The Brazilian produced a brilliant flick to send Jose Enrique in from the left flank. The full-back's through pass did not give Suarez much of the goal to aim at, but he somehow found the angle to slot the ball underneath the advancing Lloris for a gorgeous goal.
Coutinho, a signing of immense promise from Inter Milan, later had a penalty appeal rejected when Walker dragged him back as Lloris beat away a Suarez cross-shot. Liverpool often looked short of attacking options earlier in the season. That is not the case now.
A match billed as a battle between Suarez and Bale, the two likeliest contenders for the PFA Player of the Year award, had featured little of the Tottenham man at that point.
But that changed when Bale took an almighty whack in the back from Gerrard as they went up for a header just before half-time. The Welshman needed treatment and took a while to get to his feet, but it seemed to knock him back into gear. Within seconds of rejoining the action, he delivered a wonderful inswinging cross from the right for Jan Vertonghen to glance in.
Bale had a part in Tottenham's second, too, taking the 53rd-minute free-kick that Liverpool failed to clear, enabling Vertonghen to steer in from 15 yards for his third goal in four days.
That Spurs allowed all three points to slip from there was a source of immense frustration to their manager. Walker's dreadful attempt at a long-range backpass from the halfway line was seized upon by Downing, who broke Lloris' challenge on the edge of the box and then steered the equaliser through the legs of Vertonghen on the line.
And it was Liverpool's two main men who had the final word, as Suarez was fouled and Gerrard scored the penalty. It is a win that - just about - keeps Liverpool's Champions League hopes alive. But even though they are now only seven points behind a Chelsea side who still have to visit Anfield, Rodgers is cautious about setting public targets.
"I'm not thinking of that," he said. "We'll just keep collecting points and see where it takes us." If it takes them into Europe from here, Rodgers will be able to look back on his first Anfield season with satisfaction.
MAN OF THE MATCH: Luis Suarez. Liverpool's player of the season could yet be English football's Player of the Year, and he was key to his side's victory. His 22nd Premier League goal of the season got their afternoon off to a good start and, having moved out to the left from a second striker role to accommodate a tactical substitution, won the decisive penalty too. "He's an outstanding talent and a real pleasure to work with, and knows the trust I put in him," Rodgers said. "That gives him the platform to perform."
LIVERPOOL VERDICT: Started and finished with great energy, but looked like being overwhelmed in the opening 20 minutes of the second half as Tottenham got on top. Rodgers' side got lucky by being gifted an equaliser out of nowhere, but deserve great credit for their commitment and persistence.
TOTTENHAM VERDICT: Sluggish in the opening stages, Spurs needed a little while to shake Inter Milan out of their system. They recovered well to take a deserved lead, but never looked entirely assured when their defence was put under pressure. Two errors at the back cost them a game they should have won.