Wednesday, February 20, 2008

'Pool Left It Late

UEFA Champions League
Last 16 First Leg

LIVERPOOL 2 - 0 Inter Milan

Liverpool bounced back from an utterly embarrassing result last weekend to put up a surprise 2-0 lead over Italian league leaders, Inter Milan. Rafa Benitez and his men were under intense pressure after they were knocked out of the English FA Cup by the unfancied Barnsley side.

Though considered giants in Europe, both teams were in different circumstances. Inter are currently the run-away leaders in the Serie A while maintained a wonderful record of 29 games unbeaten prior to the meeting at Anfield and they are the team to fear, with stars like Ibrahimovic and Figo, adding to their experienced squad.

Liverpool, meanwhile, are probably the most unstable club in England currently with the club's direction unclear. Whether Tom Hicks will sell his stake to DIC or not, remains a mystery and as long as that isn't cleared up, they are a rudderless ship with no direction.

Out of FA Cup and also having totally no chance in the domestic title, both teams have mixed fortunes and it's probably a mismatch at the moment, with Inter being a clear favourite and Liverpool, the wounded animal.

Yet it is in games like this that you see the best of Liverpool, adding to the mystifying questions surrounding Rafa Benitez and his men in red. Why are they so inconsistent? Why do they always perform when needed yet fail to accomplish task that many thought that they could?

Though the sending off of Marco Materrazzi in the 30th minute might have been the turning point of the game, it was the determination of the home side which enabled them to go into the second leg with much more confidence.

With 6 of the 11 starting players being defensive minded, you would've expected Inter to come to Anfield and try to neutralise Liverpool and hold on for a draw at the very least. The decision to play Javier Zanetti and Maxwell on the flanks was apparent that Roberto Mancini wants to let Liverpool have a go at them.

The 70-30 possession at the end of the game says it all about Liverpool's total domination of the match. 23 shots on goal to a meagre 2.

Inter didn't really bother, especially after the sending off of Materrazzi. Instead, it gave them an excuse to put 9 men behind the ball and hoped for the best. It actually did work for majority of the game but some inspired substitution from Rafa Benitez cracked the game open at the last moment.

His decision to bring on Jermaine Pennant and Peter Crouch were justified as both made their impact in the victory. Ryan Babel was very active throughout but he is never a out and out winger and therefore, limited when it comes to situations where he's not given too much space and opponents playing back against the wall.

Pennant, being a traditional winger, puts crosses in with fair amount of accuracy. Something which Liverpool didn't do throughout the game. His cross in the 80th minute found Dirk Kuyt, who duly delivered when called upon.

The plummet in form over the past few months was apparent but when he was called upon last night, he did the exact right thing and his volley went straight into the top corner. The Kop rejoiced.

For the previous 80 minutes, Liverpool toiled and threw almost everything at Inter as they gained control of the game totally. Yet their weakness was apparent and they just didn't have the cutting edge required to break down a world class defence, well marshaled by Ivan Cordoba.

It was a deja vu moment for most of the time as Liverpool forces Inter into the corner and yet couldn't find a way past Julio Caesar. Time and again, crosses were cleared and shots blocked. Peter Crouch and Fernando Torres both had great opportunities but failed to deliver.

It was just then, a moment of brilliance from the man under fire. His goal probably ease the pressure of another man under fire, Rafa Benitez. The very man who put in so much trust and faith and he really did him proud, like what a disciple would do to his master.

The game was then, beyond Inter as they were caught in no man's land. Should they attack and get the all important away goal? Or should they sit back and limit the damage?

At that point, doesn't matter really. Inter couldn't be bothered from the start and didn't bother even when Kuyt struck the goal. Star player, Zlatan Ibrahimovich, looked as hard working as Dimitar Berbatov ever was while Patrick Vieira didn't look like the player he once was.

Then came a moment of magic from the scouser magician, whom so often come up with the goods when expected. Mr Liverpool, Steven Gerrard, struck a wonder goal as the Inter defence watched in horror. It was totally out of the blues yet it is always the skipper who comes up with something extraordinary.

It really did send the Anfield faithfuls (or fans like me) into raptures. It was a special goal and it really gave Liverpool a huge advantage going into the second leg. Thought it will be held at San Siro in a fortnight's time, they would go into this game with confidence and also an apparent plan to stifle Inter in their own backyard.

Surely, that is something Liverpool would be good at? The very campaign which the Reds won the Champions League, they held on to a 2-1 lead at Stadio Del Alpi and against all odds, went through unscathed.

Could Liverpool make history repeat itself in Italy? It will be an intriguing one indeed.