Thursday, August 30, 2012
Reds edge past brave Hearts
Richard Jolly, Anfield
Many a newcomer at Anfield has arrived eager to taste Liverpool's traditions but they are not always something to savour. For Brendan Rodgers, this was almost an unwelcome experience to produce a place on the roll of dishonour. For three minutes, this threatened to be his Northampton, his Reading, his Barnsley, his Grimsby, his unwanted cup exit to unfancied opponents. Then Luis Suarez shimmied, sprinted and shot from an acute angle.
Extra-time and embarrassment were averted, the job was done. Liverpool, the five-times champions of Europe, had reached the Europa League group stages. Hearts were heartbroken yet proud, their hosts relieved. "We achieved the objective," Rodgers said, draining the drama from the occasion with business-like language.
He was more effusive about Pepe Reina - "brilliant since I came here," - but the bastion of reliability has become decidedly error-prone. Following an awful season last year, a second mistake in five days cost his side a goal. David Templeton's crisply-struck shot should have been held. Instead, it squirmed from the Spaniard's grasp and over the line.
If Suarez came to Reina's rescue, the narrow margin of victory highlighted a lack of strength in depth. It is not news to Rodgers, but it set the scene for the final 24 hours of the transfer window. Whereas Sunday's draw with Manchester City heralded a new era, in one respect this was a sequel to last season: a home draw notable for profligacy and a strange ability to strike the woodwork. In another, however, the changing of the guard continued.
Minus the £35 million man, Liverpool had the 18-year-old in attack. Andy Carroll's loan to West Ham was ratified during a first half that debutant Adam Morgan began. If Carroll comparisons were inevitable although, short and sharp, Morgan is more the youth-team Suarez. Cutting in from the right flank, the teenager offered energy and enthusiasm and almost added a goal. For an instant, he thought he had scored, converting Suarez's cross before a raised flag denoted that the ball had gone out. If perpetual movement is one of Rodgers' requirements in a forward then Morgan fits the bill and he received a generous ovation. "Young Adam did really well," his manager said after the game.
The most prominent member of the strikeforce, Suarez had a header cleared off the line, hit the post and was denied by goalkeeper Jamie MacDonald. He also thwarted Steven Gerrard, who displayed his dynamism when Liverpool trailed and twice came close. "We were a wee bit wasteful," Rodgers said. "We created chances and could have put the game to bed a lot earlier. Luis took his most difficult chance with a wonderful run and finish."
Suarez's supply line has been reorganised. On the day Kenny Dalglish's biggest signing was exiled, the most expensive recruit last summer was rebranded. Goodbye, left winger. Hello, left-back. Such are the sacrifices Dalglish's disappointments can have to make to survive the Rodgers revolution. While Carroll headed to Upton Park, Stewart Downing was experiencing pastures new himself.
Having long had a sense of defensive diligence that has endeared him to managers, he started in the back-line. While more adventurous opponents are likelier to determine if he understands the nuances of his new position, he overlapped willingly. Indeed, he was perhaps helped by the way Jordan Henderson, another of the costly misfits, was uncomfortable as an auxiliary left winger, as he advanced into the space the younger man vacated to provide crosses.
He sent in 55 in the league in his maiden season on Merseyside but, along with his 72 shots, each was equally fruitless in a goalless and assist-less year. His relocation makes him an unlikely successor to another native of the North East who is indelibly associated with shooting.
It may only be a temporary move he can console himself that a rather more celebrated Liverpool left-back had a rather worse start there. While Bob Paisley became Anfield's most decorated manager, he was not its most famous wit, a title that belonged to his predecessor, Bill Shankly. Nevertheless, he once turned to his newly-recruited left-back and said: "They shot the wrong Kennedy."
Paid to stop goals, Alan Kennedy became known for two efforts that entered the net and earned him immortality, the winner in the 1981 European Cup final and the decisive penalty in the shootout when Liverpool conquered the continent again three years later. The heights of 1984 seemed distant days when they edged into the last 48 of the Europa League. But it could have been a lot worse.
MAN OF THE MATCH: Marius Zaliukas. It was a real collective effort so it may be unfair to single out one of the Hearts rearguard but Zaliukas capped a fine display by clearing off his own line.
LIVERPOOL VERDICT: Joe Allen was again assured in possession and Jonjo Shelvey also impressed with his distribution, but the overall pattern was of passing without penetration until Suarez struck. The benefit of the squad rotation is that Glen Johnson, Daniel Agger and Fabio Borini should be fresh for Arsenal's visit on Sunday, along with the ineligible Nuri Sahin, who watched from the stands.
HEARTS VERDICT: They did well over both legs. Given the gulf in resources, a 2-1 aggregate defeat is very respectable. Organised and industrious, the SPL side defended well and while goalkeeper MacDonald made several fine saves, but he was well protected by his back four. They posed a threat on the break, too, with Callum Paterson threatening with an early shot, and then Templeton shocking Anfield.