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Friday, October 26, 2012
Tactical experiment pays off for Rodgers

Mike Whalley

A recent episode of the TV documentary 'Being Liverpool' saw Stewart Downing's attacking prowess mocked during a squad game of ten-pin bowling. As the game began, Downing's team-mates typed his name into the scoreboard as 'left-back'. Whether it was a reference to his poor goal record since moving to Anfield, or to manager Brendan Rodgers' suggestion that the winger's future might lie in defence, it certainly wasn't intended as a compliment. But as it turns out, a left-back can be a potent attacking threat. Against an Anzhi Makhachkala side lacking attacking ambition until the final 15 minutes, Downing made the difference, having moved from the right wing to the left side of defence in a half-time tactical switch. His goal, early in the second half, was sweet, as he collected Jonjo Shelvey's pass on the left wing, cut inside on to his right foot and lashed a shot across goalkeeper Vladimir Gabulov into the far corner. Anfield showed its appreciation, and manager Brendan Rodgers made sure that Downing was aware of it, pointing him towards the Kop's ovation at full-time. A player who is still awaiting his first Premier League goal following a 20 million move from Aston Villa 15 months ago could enjoy one of his better nights in Liverpool red. "It's been difficult for Stewart since he's been here," Rodgers said. "I think the Kop realised it was a wonderful goal at their end, and if he can get applause from them, then that would mean a lot to anyone - player, manager, coach, whatever. They gave him a great round of applause, and hopefully that will help him going forward." The goal was good for Liverpool's state of mind too, as it maintained hopes of extending their stay in the Europa League beyond Christmas. With Udinese surprisingly losing in Switzerland against Young Boys, Rodgers' side have jumped from third to first in Group A. Downing's display was by no means perfect. A casual pass across his own penalty area put Martin Skrtel in trouble and resulted in a passage of confusion that gave the isolated and largely ineffective Samuel Eto'o a chance to equalise, but his shot was straight at Brad Jones. It was that sort of night for Liverpool; edgy and uncomfortable, with odd moments of promise dotted amid long periods of frustration. But the result was a second 1-0 victory inside a week, and a third successive clean sheet. The Rodgers revolution appears to be finding its much-needed edge of pragmatism. His decision to bring out his big names, Steven Gerrard and Luis Suarez, had been justified. Both men came close to scoring in the second half, minutes either side of Downing's winner, but one goal turned out to be enough for victory. And a victory over Anzhi Makhachkala is no easy achievement. The Russian league leaders with the bulging bank balance had lost only one of their 21 league and cup fixtures this season. But at Anfield, tradition won out over new money. A club celebrating the fact that they will be staying at a ground that has been home since the 1890s defeated a club who didn't even exist at the start of the 1990s. Anzhi's rapid rise from Russian second-tier football to the European stage, backed by the fortunes of billionaire oligarch Suleyman Kerimov, has made them the big curiosity of this season's Europa League. Eyebrows were raised when team director Roberto Carlos declared before the match that Anzhi wanted to sign Wayne Rooney. Manager Guus Hiddink played down those claims afterwards, and perhaps wisely. They may have risen rapidly, but on the evidence of their display at Anfield, they still have far to go. Hiddink rejected a suggestion that his team were tired - not an unreasonable one, given that his players fly 1,000 miles in from their training base in Moscow for each home league game - and also dismissed the idea that their performance at Anfield was evidence that the Russian Premier League is not as good as it likes to think it is. "The Russian league is not, for me, overrated," Hiddink said. "We gave Liverpool's first team a good game, particularly in the second half." For all Hiddink's protestations, Anzhi did not live up to their billing. In a scrappy, cagey first half, they were happy to put 10 men behind the ball. Liverpool struggled to come up with an answer. Glen Johnson had Liverpool's best first half chance, taking a return pass from Suarez and advancing past Anzhi right-back Kamil Agalarov, only to miss his shot seven yards from goal. That followed an earlier miss by Shelvey, who lofted a shot into the stand from the edge of the penalty area after Suarez had used a judicious nudge to escape Joao Carlos and set up the chance. The game had its physical moments. Martin Skrtel got away with planting his studs into the small of Fedor Smolov's back early on. Christopher Samba was not so lucky when he ploughed into Suarez's calf, collecting a yellow card. Smolov went close in first-half stoppage time, but Anzhi's best spell came in the final quarter-of-an-hour, as Liverpool laboured and failed to put the game out of reach, and goalkeeper Jones was rarely tested. There was one late moment of comedy, when Daniel Agger headed the ball from keeper Gabulov's outstretched palm and thumped it into the net, in the same way that Gary Crosby once scored a controversial goal against Manchester City. In 1990, it was a legitimate way to score a goal. In 2012, it brought Agger a booking. Football has changed plenty in the last 22 years. In different ways, Liverpool and Anzhi can both testify to that.

MAN OF THE MATCH: Jonjo Shelvey - the midfielder was the creator of the goal, and of several other Liverpool chances as they sought to break down Anzhi's defence. On a night when victory had to be ground out, and no player was truly outstanding, Shelvey's spark was much needed.

LIVERPOOL VERDICT: A solid performance for 75 minutes, a nervy one after that, with a late wobble threatening to undo all their hard work. Manager Brendan Rodgers highlighted a third successive clean sheet afterwards, a sign that he believes his players are starting to marry fortitude to flair.

ANZHI MAKHACHKALA VERDICT: Disappointing. Even allowing for the fact that Guus Hiddink's side were weakened by the absence of injured midfielder Lassana Diarra, they looked nervous and overawed by the occasion for long spells. Only in the closing stages, with nothing to lose, did they truly emerge from their shell.

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