Sunday: The first half against Aston Villa delivered some of the best football I’ve seen Liverpool play. Slick dispossessions. Smart passes. An insistent yet controlled tempo. If you blinked you’d miss the moment where each promising Villa attack was transformed into a Liverpool assault. Where Liverpool inhaled Villa’s momentum and turned it the other way. It was as if the only point of Villa’s plunges into the Liverpool end were to cock the spring back for the next Red counterattack.
At first, Liverpool could not turn all the beautiful, dynamic approach play into a beautiful, dynamic goal, but none of the supporters watching with me in the pub seemed worried. The football was so gorgeous and convincing, we were content to enjoy the show. Besides, all this brilliance had to translate into a goal at some point. We just knew it.
“What are we watching?” my friend Jamie kept asking. It certainly didn’t look like the Liverpool we’d been watching all season. True, Liverpool had done the double over Chelsea, United and Real Madrid so far, but the flair and panache they were now using to continually strip the ball off Villa before express mailing it up the pitch into deadly positions seemed to exist on an entirely different level. We joked that this was Barcelona disguised in Liverpool kits or that Fox Soccer Channel was experiencing technical difficulties and was airing a tape of Liverpool c. 1978 in place of the live match. We were watching Dalglish, Heighway, Kennedy, Hughes and Clemence even if the names on the backs read Torres, Gerrard, Riera, Carragher and Reina.
But this was no illusion. It was today’s Liverpool, riding the wave of the eight goals they scored in the matches against Real Madrid and Manchester United. Liverpool felled two of Europe’s giants within a week and now they eager to bag maximum points against Aston Villa.
This is not to say Villa are a bad side or they didn’t come to Anfield full of resolve. All the contrary. Villa have had an outstanding season and can only blame their recent slump on a lack of depth. Gabriel Agbonlahor. Gareth Barry. Luke and Ashley Young (no relation). John Carew. Villa are full of talent and have deservedly spent much of the season flirting with next season’s Champions League qualification. Their recent rut has coincided with a burst of good form for Arsenal and Villa have dropped down to fifth place. So they came to Anfield with a fight in them. Ashley Young and Gareth Barry both made decent pushes into threatening areas. Two Young crosses looked threatening, but none of the Villa attackers could find a finish off them.
Villa’s willingness to attack was a boon to Liverpool. Though the Reds have had many senseless draws against defense-minded sides, they have absolutely thrived against attacking opponents. The space left in the wake of Villa’s attacks gave Gerrard, Torres, Riera et al. the room to carve out serious chances. For the first minutes Liverpool’s game had everything but the finish.
Then in the eigth minute Xabi Alonso got his head to the ball after Gerrard’s well taken free kick. Some in our pub began to cheer as the ball looked on it’s way in. But it bounced off the post. Before the emtpy feeling of a miss could sink into our bodies, Dirk Kuyt ate up the ball with a sharp, angled kick. Brad Friedel, Villa’s American keeper, had no chance as the ball careened into the net.
The pub bounced in unison. Though there was 82 minutes to play and Villa would create some threats, we somehow knew the seal had been broken and all Liverpool’s fine build-up play would now lead to an onslaught of goals. Though the commentators kept saying Villa were still in it, it didn’t feel that way. One-nil felt like an insurmountable lead. If Liverpool kept playing like they had in the opening minutes there could be no recovery for the visiting Villans.
The next big moment wasn’t sport. It was art. A long brush stroke across Anfield’s green canvas followed by a burst of pure poetry at the end. Reina kicked the ball upfield where Albert Riera and Fernando Torres were running for the goal. On the bounce, Torres could see the ball was going to fall to Riera so the striker shifted to the right to wait for a cross or a rebound. Neither would come. Riera’s first touch was a perfect shot. He caught the ball on the half volley and sent it sailing. It bounced off the crossbar and landed in the goal.
Riera, who’d looked all but invisible in recent matches, was on fire, tearing into space and outfoxing defenders. On thirty-eight minutes he took down another longball and charged into the box, deftly keeping the ball just out of Nigel Reo-Coker’s reach. Reo-Coker tried to stay close and ended up fouling Riera, sending the winger tumbling. Steven Gerrard soon stepped to the penalty spot and added a third goal to the tally.
The second half was not as impressive in terms of execution, but two more spot kicks would see Liverpool put the match well out of reach for the visitors. On forty-eight minutes, Gerrard converted a free kick from just outside the box, putting it low in the opposite side of the net. Friedel had just started to go in the wrong direction. By the time he corrected himself he had no chance to reach the shot.
Then in the sixty-second minute, Torres found himself one-on-one with Friedel. Once again the keeper’s hesitation was his undoing. Rather than going straight for the ball, he gave Torres enough time to get an extra touch in. The Spaniard tried to maneuver around the keeper who could only hold his ground with no chance on the ball. Torres tumbled over him and the whistle blew.
Now, I love a good opposition sending off. They can be as thrilling as a goal. And the sending off of a keeper is a truly exhilarating thing because of its relative rarity. But considering Liverpool had already won the match at this point, and considering Villa’s next match is against league leaders Manchester United, when the ref held the red card before Friedel’s face, I was devastated.
Despite Villa’s slump, they are one of the sides most likely to cause problems for the Mancunian giants. Manchester will be without Rooney, Vidic and Scholes due to suspension. With these setbacks, top-four hopefuls Villa could at least hold the Red Devils to a draw. Perhaps better. But as I watched their first choice, well-seasoned keeper take the long walk, and their backup keeper, Brad Guzan take to the pitch for his first Premier League appearance ever, I felt disheartened. I almost (almost) wanted Guzan to stop Gerrard’s penalty kick as a sign that he’d be able to keep United out of his goal in two weeks’ time. But as Gerrard fired, Guzan dove the wrong way, so his first League moment was conceding a goal and allowing our captain a hat trick. I was elated for Stevie. But this gave me no extra confidence in Guzan. It was bittersweet.
Five-nil would be the final scoreline. For now, Liverpool have a better goal differential than Chelsea and United and they’ve scored a whopping fifteen goals since their stunning loss to Middlesbrough. They’ve played with such resolve and drive it’s more baffling than ever to think back to the draws against Fulham, Stoke, Hull, etc. and fathom how such a brilliant set of players could have dropped any points this season.
But supporters must wait and hope. Hope that somehow United shed some points and hope that Liverpool can keep this drive alive, keep this momentum going.
Today, Villa won their appeal regarding Friedel’s red card. He’ll be on against United. I can go back and enjoy the replay of his sending off as an isolated event, knowing the consequences have been erased by the FA.
Hopefully, Liverpool can recall that first half against Villa. The deftness and brilliance would give them victory over any side. The question is, will we see it again?