IT was billed as The Battle for the Player of the Season Award: Luis Suárez, current top goalscorer in the league, versus Gareth Bale, Welsh wizard who has been scoring spectacular goals for fun. Remarkably, both had scored 14 goals in their last 14 games before this fixture; both would make their mark in a thrilling encounter on Sunday.
Liverpool lined up in a 4231 formation to accommodate the return from injury of striker Daniel Sturridge, with midfielder Joe Allen dropping to the bench after starting the previous game. The only other change from the line-up against Wigan was goalkeeper Brad Jones, who came in for Pepe Reina after the Spaniard failed to recover from a calf strain.
To paraphrase a cliché, “it was a match of two halves – within two halves”. Liverpool started the game at a higher tempo than Spurs, who initially looked a bit leggy after their Europa League match against Inter Milan three days before. The holding midfield duo of Steven Gerrard and Lucas, along with Suárez, Stewart Downing and the diminutive Philippe Coutinho, pressed doggedly whenever Spurs’ midfield had the ball, causing many mistakes and initiating attacking moves on transitions. Reward for the early pressure and high work-rate came in the 21st minute, when a flowing move involving Coutinho and José Enrique saw Suárez prod the ball past goalkeeper Hugo Lloris to score his 15th goal in 15 games.
After that, though, Spurs started coming back into the game, urged on by dynamic midfielder Mousa Dembélé (my man of the match for Spurs; Liverpool just could not deal with the Belgian). It was another Belgian who opened Spurs’ account though, and on the stroke of half-time too. Defender Jan Vertonghen beat Glen Johnson, who focused more on trying to put Vertonghen off rather than challenge for the header, to powerfully head in a cross from that man Bale after a Spurs free-kick was cleared.
In the second half, Spurs came out flying. Bale’s pace caused problems as usual, and it was the Welshman who won the free-kick that led to Spurs’ second goal. Vertonghen showed great technique to put the ball in the back of the net after Daniel Agger failed to clear the danger. Liverpool’s continued failure to deal with crosses into the box is a worry that needs to be addressed by manager Brendan Rodgers and his technical team.
Rodgers’ decision to take off the impressive but tiring Coutinho for Allen proved a masterstroke as the Reds reclaimed control in the middle pitch, reverting to the more familiar 433 played throughout the campaign. But it was a horrible back-pass from Spurs right-back Kyle Walker that got Liverpool back into the game. Lloris failed to clear the danger, and Downing went on to drive the ball, luckily, through Vertonghen’s legs to score.
Downing’s equaliser provided the impetus to push on for a winner, roared on by the home supporters, and this came in the 82nd minute when Suárez was bundled over by Benoit Assou-Ekotto in the box after another horrible back-pass, this time from striker Jermain Defoe. Gerrard made no mistake, wrong-footing Lloris to put the resulting penalty away. Dutch conditioning coach Raymond Verheijen’s study of 27,000 football games showed that Europa League teams have 40% less chance of winning on the Sunday, scoring 70% less & concede 75% more in the final 30 minutes. Two goals from concentration errors from tired players was no coincidence.
Midfielder Jordan Henderson was brought on for the largely ineffective Sturridge to help the Reds close up shop for the last 12 minutes, and when the referee blew the final whistle, it was to large sighs of relief. It was a brilliant, pulsating affair, each team controlling the game for different periods, with the Reds capitalising on a couple of mistakes to emerge victorious in the end.
Will the Reds go on to claim the all-important Champions League spot they so desperately want? It’s a possibility but it’s highly unlikely. If the last few games are anything to go by, and if Rodgers is trusted to continue moulding the team in the way that he sees fit with talented young technical players, Liverpool should definitely be on their way to being a part of the Premier League’s elite once again.
Jones: Looked shaky throughout, but dealt with all that came his way in the end. 6
Johnson: At fault for Spurs’ first goal, didn’t get forward as much as he usually does either, and when he did, it came to nothing. 6
Carragher: Solid performance in his 500th league appearance besides a couple of misplaced passes. Kept Defoe relatively quiet too. A contender for man of the match. 7
Agger: Another good showing from the Dane but lost some vital battles against Dembélé and Bale, and should have done better when dealing with the free-kick that led to Spurs’ 2nd goal. 6
Enrique: Fantastic first half in which he pressed, pressured and probed, and also got the assist for the first goal, calmly picking out Suárez’s run. His second half left a lot to be desired though, especially after Coutinho was subbed, with whom he seems to enjoy playing. He gave the ball away carelessly a few times. 7
Lucas: Hassled and harried to no end and did a good job of it, but misplaced far too many passes for any momentum to be gained from his 6 tackles and 4 interceptions. 6
Gerrard: Worked his socks off alongside Lucas, with some great Alonso-esque raking balls through to Suárez and Sturridge. 7
Downing: Another tireless performance from the rejuvenated winger, defending and attacking in equal measure. Rewarded with a goal, even if he was lucky to see it go in. His 96% pass success rate shows how well he looked after the ball – crucial against a counter attacking team like Tottenham. Best all-round performer on the day for me, and my man of the match. 8
Coutinho: His involvement in Suárez’s goal was magic, and pressed as well as anyone during the first half, making a nuisance of himself where possible. Still not quite match fit, as seen by his tired second-half display before being substituted. His first half display was as good as any player in red. 8
Suárez: Vintage Suárez performance – worked his socks off harrying opposition whenever they had ball, scored a goal, won a penalty, and had some asides with Parker, Dembélé and the referee. Had more of an impact on the game than Bale did for Spurs too, in my opinion. 7
Sturridge: Looked decidedly rusty after returning to the side from injury, and only a few days of training. He tended to lose possession in good positions too often. His worst performance for Liverpool so far perhaps. 5
SUB - Allen: Did very well when he came on, won some vital challenges in a midfield battle that desperately needed winning at the time, helping the Reds to regain control of the game and eventually go on to win it. 7
SUB - Henderson: In the short time he was on the pitch, his biggest contribution was conceding a free-kick in a dangerous area; thankfully, it came to nothing. Neverthless, a very useful and versatile substitute option. 5