Liverpool end their run of defeats but are still held to a 1-1 draw by Aston Villa at Anfield.
Under pressure Kop boss Kenny Dalgish was forced to hand Brazilian backup Alexander Doni his debut in goal with Pepe Reina starting the first of his three-match ban. Other changes from the 2-0 defeat to Newcastle United last weekend included Jordan Henderson and Dirk Kuyt starting at the expense of Jay Spearing and Andy Carroll. Stewart Downing also came into the team with Craig Bellamy relegated to the bench and there were further starts for youngster’s Jonjo Shelvey and Jon Flanagan. Villa had Liverpool old boys Emile Heskey and Stephen Warnock in their injury hit line-up.
The first opening fell to the hosts following great work by Downing down the left. After beating Alan Hutton, the former Villa winger delivered a fantastic ball into the box where Kuyt was on hand to steer the cross goalwards from a tight angle. Shay Given’s alertness and the post combined to deny Liverpool a potentially crucial early goal. Some replay angles later suggested the ball may have crossed the line but at the time it was understandable that the officials did not award anything.
It didn’t take long for Given’s opposite number Doni to be involved too. A dangerous 10th minute cross by Warnock was palmed away by the 32-year-old, under pressure from Heskey, into the path of Marc Albrighton who turned the ball back for the onrushing Chris Herd to sweep home. A sucker punch to Liverpool’s hopes of ending their abysmal run of form.
The Reds responded well to going behind and quickly had a strong penalty appeal as Herd almost turned from hero to Villain. Shelvey did well to win possession and pick out Luis Suarez and the Uruguayan’s pullback appeared to hit the arm of Herd but referee Michael Oliver was unmoved and Liverpool had to be content with a corner.
Liverpool continued to threaten an equaliser and enjoyed the vast majority of possession and territory in the process but as with a number of previous matches there was seemingly a lack of cutting edge in the final third.
Villa almost doubled their lead via a Barry Bannan corner which centre-back James Collins headed only inches wide. The 22nd minute corner had been awarded after Skrtel did well to block a Heskey shot from distance.
Set pieces also looked the most likely way to goal for Liverpool; Skrtel going close to converting a Steven Gerrard corner around the half hour mark.
With half time approaching Liverpool appeared to have an even more clear-cut penalty shout ignored by Oliver. A good passing move preceded a one-two between Suarez and Kuyt before El Pistorero’s progress was seemingly impeded by Hutton. To add insult to the decision, on this occasion the Merseysiders did not even receive a corner.
Suarez was involved in practically everything good the hosts were producing at this stage. His purposeful run and cross down the left found its way to Gerrard at the back post. The skipper’s cross/shot then landed at the feet of Kuyt but somehow the Dutchman missed the target from only a yard out when it looked easier to score. The ball did come at pace but it was still an awful miss by a player linked with a move away from Anfield this summer.
The start of the second half was largely uneventful in terms of goalmouth action before a wonderful 53rd minute cross by Gerrard was brilliantly glanced towards goal by Suarez for what looked like being the equaliser. Unfortunately for Dalglish’s side the effort struck the inside of the post and although it looked likely to ricochet in, fine reactions from Given then managed to scoop the ball away from danger.
Shortly after the introduction of Carroll and Bellamy for Downing and Shelvey, Liverpool had a third credible penalty shout turned down. Bellamy’s deep cross was expertly controlled by Kuyt before Villa’s American full-back Eric Lichaj appeared to make contact with the ball using his arm as the two players tussled. The incident was not as clear-cut as the earlier appeals and given Kuyt still managed to get a dangerous cross away the decision was understandable on this occasion.
By now the Reds were peppering the opposition goal with efforts from all angles. Bellamy struck the crossbar with a fierce angled drive before Collins almost diverted a Suarez prod into his own net.
Despite an improved showing, with the clock registering 82 minutes, Liverpool looked destined to register a fourth successive defeat; a result that could have signalled the beginning of the end of Dalglish’s second reign in charge.
Suddenly a cross whipped in by Gerrard was headed against the crossbar by Agger, making his comeback from injury as a late substitute for Jose Enrique, but this time the luck was on the Carling Cup winners’ side as the ball bounced down invitingly for Suarez to nod home. The equaliser was well deserved with the hosts laying siege to the visitors goal for large periods of the contest.
As Liverpool pushed forward in search of a late winner they almost conceded a penalty of their own. A mazy run by Samir Carruthers beat Gerrard before the youngster appeared to be caught by Agger in the area. Not only was a penalty not forthcoming but also the late Villa substitute was harshly handed a yellow card.
Efforts at the death by Carroll, Gerrard and Agger all went close to snatching the three points but the Villa defence and Given in particular kept them out to earn a vital point for Alex McLeish’s struggling side.
A much improved showing which was more reminiscent of games earlier in the season than those of the awful run we’ve been on of late. A combination of great goalkeeping, the woodwork, missed chances and arguable refereeing decisions conspired to deny us the three points. The second half performance especially was full of the desire and commitment that had been unacceptably missing in recent defeats. If we continue to play in a similar vein then victories should soon return. Although we first play Blackburn Rovers on Tuesday night, the FA Cup semi-final against neighbours Everton is becoming an even more crucial game than it first appeared. A defeat and it may not just be the playing side that faces a summer overhaul.
Liverpool’s Star Player
Doni, Flanagan, Skrtel, Carragher, Enrique (Agger 76), Henderson, Gerrard, Shelvey (Bellamy 65), Downing (Carroll 65), Suarez, Kuyt.
Unused subs: Jones, Aurelio, Coates, Maxi.
Click here to read Kenny Dalglish’s comments on the match
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