Vital Liverpool match reporter Antony Johnson reports on a surprisingly nervous Europa League play-off second leg against Hearts at Anfield and also gives his views on the Reds’ current goalscoring issues. Brendan Rodgers’ side needed a late Luis Suarez strike to avoid extra-time.
Ruthlessness. A commodity that Liverpool sorely lacked last season. Unfortunately, it would appear to be conspicuous by its absence in this campaign also.
To varying degrees, West Brom, Man City and now Hearts have all been let off the hook by Liverpool’s profligacy in front of goal and scares such as tonight and the wasting of league points will happen time and time again unless Liverpool buck the very frustrating trend of largely dominating games but not scoring enough goals.
As expected, Hearts treated the second leg of this Europa League play-off like a lower league team would a third round FA Cup match against a Premier League giant. However, Liverpool could have easily wrapped up the tie in the first half.
First, on 14 minutes, Luis Suarez had a header cleared off the line after Stewart Downing’s cross and Adam Morgan’s nod-back; secondly, Steven Gerrard had a left foot clipped effort from ten yards saved well by Jamie MacDonald after a brilliant mazy run.
Liverpool passed the ball reasonably well in the first half but probably weren’t as fluent in their play as Brendan Rodgers would have liked. Predictably – after everything documented about the manager’s methods – Liverpool worked frantically without the ball.
At times you wonder whether this eagerness could lead to a badly mistimed challenge, but it’s always nice to see such hard work for a new manager, which is often a sign that he has gained an eager-to-please type respect from the players.
Adam Morgan – living the dream and making his full debut at a sold out Anfield – worked his socks off and probably tried too hard at times (which is often a point made about fledgling youngsters given their chance in the first team). He also got caught offside on a few occasions, perhaps this is a result of the step-up in class, where top tier defenders get into position more efficiently.
Nevertheless, he still looks to be a player with good potential but whether he proves to be as good as the likes of Robbie Fowler or Michael Owen is very much open to debate. It won’t be through a lack of trying that’s for sure.
In the opening stages of the second half, Liverpool played with more rhythm and some of the combination play in the middle and final thirds was very intricate and pleasing on the eye. The chances continued to come and go, Suarez missing the first golden opportunity of the half on 63 minutes.
After a clever Jordan Henderson through ball, he rounded the keeper with ease, but instead of pulling the trigger, he delayed and ended up trying to fire the ball through the legs of his marker, who had by then recovered into a decent position.
Suarez is no doubt a world class footballer, he is a rare breed in that he has immense natural ability whilst also being an extremely hard-working team player. He could well be Liverpool’s best signing for a decade (or more) and his dribbling skills can often create chances out of nothing, and indeed, it can create chances for himself.
But, his decision making and/or execution of the final touch, whether that be a pass or shot, is the one slight weakness in his game. (It would be all too easy to highlight his goal in response to this point, but generally speaking there appears to be a consensus amongst fans and in the media that, at the moment, Suarez doesn’t score as many goals as his talent would appear to allow).
Whereas the likes of Fowler would slam the ball into the corner before the goalkeeper had even set himself, or where Owen would neatly tuck the ball into a corner the goalkeeper couldn’t reach, the Uruguayan often delays his decision or picks the wrong option completely. This didn’t appear to be a problem during his time at Ajax so perhaps this is a confidence issue or maybe he is over-burdened in the goalscoring department (he doesn’t have great support here after all).
Picking holes in Suarez is like highlighting a missed stroke on a da Vinci masterpiece, and he has produced the goods to some extent with one goal in the last two games, but this – at the moment at least -is a slight flaw all the same, every player has at least one and his occasional wastefulness encapsulates the main overall deficiency in Liverpool’s game in the last 18 months.
A minute after the above miss, he spurned another chance – his final effort this time was probably the correct choice but the execution lacked accuracy and his left footed drive flashed wide of the post. Steven Gerrard then hit the side netting from six yards a few minutes later after a brilliant turn and dribble by Suarez.
Up to this point, Hearts had performed like a journeyman boxer with a great chin but very limited knockout power, however, Liverpool had became a little scrappy in their play and perhaps even complacent after a fruitful spell in the initial stages of the second half.
Inevitably then, the same old story transpired on 85 minutes when David Templeton – who was by far Hearts’ most impressive performer – jinked past Raheem Sterling and fired in a shot from 25 yards; Reina had a bit of work to do due to the power of the shot, but spilling the ball over the line was a horrendous error and Hearts were back in the tie.
With incredible irony however, wasteful Liverpool and the main culprit Suarez, responded almost immediately. Instead of reacting calmly to their equaliser, Hearts somewhat endearingly continued to pile players forward in search of a winner and Liverpool caught them with a swift break three minutes after their goal.
The ball broke to Fabio Borini just inside Liverpool’s half who played it quickly into Suarez; the combination of a brilliant turn and his marker’s slip left him sprinting towards goal. Using his momentum, he glided to the outside left of Hearts’ last defender and slotted in a low left footed shot from an acute angle, that actually went behind MacDonald and into the Kop net, putting Liverpool through to the group stages.
As is often the case, Suarez dispatched his most difficult chance of the game.
Liverpool played some good football at times tonight and worked incredibly hard without the ball. However, missing goalscoring chances and not capitalising on dominant periods is an exasperating trait underpinning almost all of their displays. Whilst playing good football and creating chances is an art-form in itself, it is almost a cliché that putting the ball away is the hardest thing to do.
Recently, Andy Carroll has probably enjoyed the most support he has ever received from Liverpool’s fans, so moving him on to West Ham, when goalscoring appears to be a massive problem, is an enormous gamble by Rodgers who clearly isn’t afraid to make big decisions (playing Raheem Sterling against Man City is a case in point).
To prevent personal culpability for this ongoing issue, the manager will need to bring in players who can help with the goals tally or at the very least undertake some influential work on the training ground with his current crop, who no doubt have the potential within themselves to improve in this regard.
Liverpool’s Star Player
Jonjo Shelvey. There was a confidence about Shelvey which suggests that we may be about to see the best of him in the oncoming months (his best could be exceptionally good). His passing was a joy to watch at times – especially some of his threaded swipes out wide – and it is easy to forget that he is only 20 years old.
Reina, Kelly, Skrtel, Carragher, Downing, Allen, Henderson (Borini 76′), Gerrard, Shelvey, Morgan (Sterling 62′), Suarez.
Unused subs: Jones, Johnson, Enrique, Agger, Coates.
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About the author: Antony Johnson is a fanatical Liverpool supporter and keen writer. A season ticket holder who has lived in the city his whole life, Antony currently works in the construction industry but continues to pursue a sports journalism career in his spare time. You can contact Antony via email and follow him on Twitter.