Liverpool face a further goalkeeping dilemma as Alexander Doni is sent off during an unlikely and eventful 3-2 victory over Blackburn Rovers.
Inevitably with one eye turned towards Saturday’s trip to Wembley, Liverpool boss Kenny Dalglish made six changes to the starting eleven that drew 1-1 with Aston Villa at the weekend. The headline absentees were skipper Steven Gerrard, who dropped out of the match day squad altogether, and Luis Suarez, who had to be content with a place on the bench. In to the side came Glen Johnson, returning from eight games out with a hamstring injury to provide cover at left-back, Sebastian Coates, Maxi Rodriguez, Jay Spearing, Andy Carroll and former Blackburn attacker Craig Bellamy.
An even opening spell saw record signing Carroll and reserve goalkeeper Doni featuring in equal measure. The striker successfully winning a number of flick-ons and the Brazilian understudy looking reasonably assured whilst claiming a couple of testing crosses.
Goal mouth action was however at a premium with the contest largely fought out in the midfield. That was until a lightning counter-attack by Liverpool put the visitors in front in the 13th minute. A superb ball out of defence from Martin Skrtel set Bellamy away and the Welshman in turn expertly picked out Maxi to tuck home from close range.
Less than three minutes later and the Reds doubled their lead. Great work by Shelvey won the ball in the middle of the park and after Paul Robinson had blocked his original shot, the ball ricocheted to Maxi to neatly side foot home, doubling his and Liverpool’s tally in the process.
The game really had burst into life and seconds later Blackburn had cause to consider themselves unfortunate not to be given a numerical advantage in their quest to get back into the match. Young Reds right-back Jon Flanagan, making his fourth consecutive start, had already been booked when he clipped Marcus Olsson on the far touchline for what looked likely to be a second yellow card. Referee Anthony Taylor showed a large amount of leniency in just giving the 19-year-old a final ticking off.
In the 25th minute Doni, only playing due to the continued suspension of first choice Pepe Reina, was not so lucky. A poor back pass by Flanagan allowed Junior Hoilett to advance into the area where the Canadian winger was bought down for a penalty. As the last man a red card was inevitable for Doni and consequently third choice shot stopper Brad Jones had to be introduced at the expense of the culpable Flanagan.
Unbelievably the Australian’s first act, of what will now be a busy week, was to dive to his right and save Yakubu’s weakly struck spot kick.
The incident inevitably led to a reshuffle for Liverpool with Henderson dropping to right-back and Carroll becoming more of an isolated presence up front. Another predictable consequence of going a man down was an increase in possession for the hosts.
It was little surprise therefore that Blackburn quickly pulled a goal back as Yakubu made amends for his poor penalty with a close-range header into the corner of the net, expertly dispatching David Dunn’s pinpoint free kick.
The Blackburn goal came in the 36th minute and the momentum was now clearly with Rovers as they dominated the remainder of the first half. Grant Hanley went close to bundling home after a goalmouth scramble but a relieved Liverpool successfully negotiated through to half-time with their lead intact.
Perhaps surprisingly the opening chance of the second period fell to Liverpool with Carroll throwing himself at a Bellamy corner but his diving header finished inches wide of the post.
Soon Blackburn were back on the front foot, although they could have been caught out on the counter-attack again had Bellamy produced a better touch in the 51st minute. Dunn had an effort from distance on target but the shot lacked sufficient power to trouble Jones.
The veteran midfielder was continuing to prove more of a threat from set pieces and his latest free kick delivery forced Jones into a decent diving stop to thwart Hanley’s header.
More goalkeeping related drama was to follow on the hour mark when Jones dallied and subsequently had his attempted clearance charged down. The ball looped towards goal and a backtracking Jones could only palm the ball straight to Yakubu before bringing the Nigerian striker down for another penalty.
For a split second it looked as though Liverpool may be reduced to nine men but fortunately Taylor was content with only showing a yellow on this occasion. Yakubu was less accommodating second time round however and made no mistake from the spot, calmly rolling the ball into the middle of the net.
At the other end, a clearly irrate Bellamy became the third Liverpool player to be booked for diving in consecutive games (following Suarez against Villa and Carroll on his recent return to Newcastle United).
Elsewhere Daniel Agger, introduced earlier to play left-back at the expense of Johnson, had a headed effort on target comfortably dealt with by Robinson.
The majority of the action was in the Liverpool half though and after Carroll had forced his own keeper into producing a fine fingertip save with a misdirected defensive header, Coates did well to make a sliding block to deny Hoilett.
With the 90 minutes ticking down, Blackburn began to pile forward in search of a much-needed three points given their current predicament in the relegation zone.
Despite the hosts’ greater need for the points, not to mention their long-term numerical advantage, it was incredibly the Merseysiders who had the final say in an eventful and exciting encounter. Agger flicked a lofted 91st minute pass from Coates into the path of Carroll who then headed the ball past a helpless Robinson from close range.
The injury time goal represented Carroll’s first strike since December and could prove invaluable to the future of Dalglish and some of his under performing players.
An absolutely crazy game. Credit to the players who kept going until the very end and showed great desire, resilience and commitment, which will put them in good stead for the future. Given the run we have been on, this is a crucial three points but I don’t think anyone could have predicted the circumstances surrounding the win. Doni’s red card is an issue but it could have been far worse had the replacement’s replacement, Jones, also received his marching orders. Promising youngster Péter Gulácsi will probably be recalled from his loan spell at Hull City to provide additional cover as we head into the Everton match on Saturday without both first choice goalkeepers through suspension. Hopefully the last gasp victory will give everyone a lift and the team can enjoy a more fruitful end to the season.
Liverpool’s Star Player
Doni, Flanagan (Jones 26), Skrtel, Coates, Johnson (Agger 53), Henderson, Shelvey, Spearing, Maxi (Enrique 77), Bellamy, Carroll.
Unused subs: Aurelio, Carragher, Suarez, Kuyt.
Click here to read Kenny Dalglish’s comments on the match
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