Yossi Benayoun collected the ball and dragged it past the Portsmouth defender, pushing into space in the far left corner of the box. His short cross floated into traffic, but as the defenders shifted forward, Liverpool’s Fernando Torres held his ground, allowing the space to be created for him, rather than carving it out for himself. It was a subtle act of instinctive genius and it gave the Spanish striker the perfect angle to head the ball with such strength and accuracy, keeper David James could do nothing but push it into the top of his own net. This was one minute into stoppage time, and the sixth time Liverpool were able to secure maximum points in the final minutes of a league match this season.
The contests against Sunderland, Middlesbrough, Manchester City, Wigan Athletic, Chelsea and Portsmouth all included a winning goal in the 83rd minute or later. In the case of Chelsea, Liverpool won two-nil, but both Torres’ goals came after the 89th minute. Four of these matches were come-from-behind wins with the equalizers also coming late in the match. Last season’s Liverpool would not seem likely to pull out these last gasp winners, but now there seems to be an underlying diligence to Liverpool’s play as the pressure of a dwindling clock imposes itself. While the Reds have dropped some surprising points (nine draws), the fact they can pull out the win in the dying moments, when the results look certain, shows they may well have the spark needed to finally end the eighteen-year title drought.
Torres has often been the key to these late wins. He’s contributed six goals to the matches mentioned above. He has a gift for turning the smallest of opportunities into an explosive goal, which has made all the difference as the clock winds down. Dirk Kuyt has made an impact as well. The Dutchman is not known for being prolific since he moved to England, but lately he has a knack for getting on the sheets when it matters most. He’s only had a handful of goals this season, but most of them have either put Liverpool level after being behind or have secured the win in late drama.
Much criticism has been levied upon Liverpool for missing chances and squandering potential in a season that has been full of promise. And surely supporters kept hoping for a late goal when Liverpool dropped points against Villa, Stoke, Tottenham, Fulham, Hull, Arsenal, Stoke again, West Ham and Everton. With these disappointments, Liverpool will be seven points behind Manchester United if the champs win their match in hand against Fulham on Wednesday. This is still the best start Liverpool have had to a season since they last won the league in 1990, but there is little room for error. Manchester are not going to drop many points in the remaining months: Liverpool cannot afford too many more mistakes.
The season itself may become a reflection of a come-from-behind match. Right now Liverpool are a goal down in the table. Though the season’s clock ticks down, there is still time enough for a couple of late miracles. With the knowledge they can pull these wins out of nowhere, Liverpool need to call up the essential grit throughout the upcoming matches, not just in the final minutes. If they play like they’ve played in the dying moments of these dramatic matches for an entire ninety minutes, they will have a clear and convincing chance to win the league. The form is there. Liverpool just need to maintain the winning mentality.
The Reds have consistantly played their best against their biggest rivals, winning once against Manchester United so far and twice against Chelsea. Liverpool thrive against the sides who attack. As long as they don’t give up too many goals, Rafa Benitez’s men can take advantage of the space left by the forward-minded teams, and at the same time, Liverpool are pushed to play at a higher level by the energy and imperative spirit of a big match. The ten-men-behind-the-ball sides are the ones who give Liverpool the most problems. When the space closes up in the attacking third, Liverpool cannot seem to find ways to break defenses down.
But this was Liverpool’s problem last season as well. The Reds struggled with many senseless draws in the 2007/08 season, finally finding consistent, successful form in the later part of the season after a brilliant win against Inter Milan sparked a fantastic fun of results both in Europe and at home. Perhaps the recent two-nil toppling of Chelsea followed by the great win against Portsmouth will prove to be the ignition point for Liverpool’s current season. The difference between this year and last is the top of the table is not yet out of sight. If Liverpool can find the winning formula and break down the sides who come to play for a draw, there is still time to catch up with Manchester United. Even as the clock ticks down.