Strength in depth takes the Reds a step nearer Wembley
Carling Cup Quarter Final – Result
Chelsea 0 Liverpool 2
ACCORDING to some, November is supposed to be Liverpool’s bad month. It probably has been at times, although last season it was maybe the best month out of all the dreadful ones under the manager the club had started the season with. This season the month got off to a bad start with a performance described by Kenny Dalglish as “unacceptable” in a goalless home draw against Swansea – and the fixture list showed two Chelsea games plus one against Manchester City to come before the month was out. An international break left a 15-day gap until the next match; poor planning by the football authorities left a 48-hour gap between the last two games of the month.
The worriers were worried, the pessimists were pessimistic, the critics had their knives sharpened and at the ready.
Those knives are back in the drawer now, November 2011 has ended well – those difficult games went Liverpool’s way. Manchester City might have beaten last season’s champions 6-1 on their own turf but, like last season’s champions, they left Anfield far happier with a draw than Liverpool were. The other two games, both at Stamford Bridge, ended in victory for Liverpool. Chelsea’s boss is the one under pressure, Liverpool are in the semi-finals of the League Cup and improving with every game.
Having shown the rest of the league how to deal with Manchester City Kenny took his squad to London on the train, less than 24 hours after they’d walked off the pitch at Anfield. Another 24 hours later and they were at Stamford Bridge for the League Cup clash.
Dalglish had eight experienced players available who hadn’t started on Sunday; he used seven of them for the Carling Cup game. The one to miss out was Jon Flanagan and that was because he was one of two right-backs in the eight. The others Kenny brought in were Kelly, Carragher, Coates, Spearing, Maxi, Carroll and Bellamy. None of the changes were changes for the sake of it; all were first-team players who’ll play again in the league this season should form, injuries or suspension open the door for them.
Dalglish changed where he could. Kuyt and Suarez made way for Bellamy and Carroll. Downing and Adam made way for Maxi and Spearing. Martin Kelly came in for Glen Johnson, Carragher and Coates came in for Martin Skrtel and Daniel Agger
Agger and Johnson have suffered from more than their fair share of injuries since arriving at Anfield and it was no surprise to see both kept out of the 18-man squad. Fatigue is only one issue when two games are close together – more worrying is the massively increased risk of injury. Agger’s centre-back partner Skrtel was kept out of the starting line-up but was on the bench.
Only Jose Enrique remained from the back four that had started the last four league games – but Enrique was the only fully fit and experienced left-back at Kenny’s disposal. Enrique was one of only four players to keep their places from Sunday, alongside Pepe Reina, Jordan Henderson and Lucas Leiva.
There were worrying scenes 20 minutes from the end when Lucas went off on a stretcher and now there’s an anxious wait to find out the extent of the injury. Kenny wouldn’t be drawn into guessing how bad it was: “Lucas has damaged his knee. We don’t know what the problem is, we’ll get it looked at and take it from there. Rather than speculate we’ll wait until we get a medical update tomorrow. We’ll let everyone know in due course.”
Lucas, who left the ground on crutches, asked his Twitter followers to think positive: “Well done everyone tonight. I will have the scan to see how bad my injury is. Just send positive energy, I hope it won’t be too bad.”
Carragher played like he’d never been away, a quality that Liverpool will come to rely on in the same way they relied on it from Sami Hyypia as he moved towards the end of his Liverpool career. Coates looked very assured and the two incidents that he could be criticised for shouldn’t be allowed to overshadow a performance that made it easy to forget how young he is and how new he is to the English game. David Luiz was booked for a dive after a Coates challenge in the penalty area, had he not been so obviously looking for the penalty he might have actually got one. Coates got a yellow card of his own for knocking Torres away from the ball but it was one of those rare moments where the former Liverpool striker looked like his old dangerous self and the booking was arguably worth taking.
Martin Kelly had another excellent performance and didn’t just help this changed back four to keep a clean sheet but got the first goal of his senior career. Glen Johnson will almost certainly get his place back for the league game next Monday but he knows that he’s got competition for his place.
Craig Bellamy didn’t play on Sunday because Kenny Dalglish gave him compassionate leave following the death of his friend Gary Speed that morning. Craig had to wipe away tears after the minute’s applause that rang out in memory of the former Welsh manager before kick-off and like all the other players wore a black armband. His performance in the game was inspirational – not just because he set up both goals – and the standing ovation he got from the equally inspirational travelling Kop when he went off was thoroughly deserved.
Kenny said afterwards: “We know Craig is a fantastic footballer, he had a hugely disappointing day on Sunday. He regarded Speedy as a mentor. For any of the players who have been a friend of his who played over the weekend or tonight elsewhere, speaks volumes for them because he was very well liked and very well respected.
“It was great for the wee man, making the first goal. For the second he took the free-kick. He told Martin to leave it, it was going in!”
The Liverpool supporters followed their ovation for Bellamy with chants of “There’s only one Gary Speedy”, a tribute that also spoke volumes about the respect for the former Everton player and childhood Evertonian.
Kenny was full of praise for the supporters who’d made the journey down to London for yet another game at Stamford Bridge: “The supporters have always have been and always will be an integral part of us. Everything you see on the pitch reflects how they feel.
“For us, they’ll never ever be taken for granted. They always will be an integral part of anything we do or try to do.”
There was also a reminder of the damage the infighting did to the club as a battle for ownership or control of the club was fought alongside battles for control of the academy. The unity is back but it’s important it’s never lost again: “As long as everybody is as one unit then the club as a whole has a good chance. Once you start getting divisions in football clubs, you start getting problems – we haven’t got that.”
Many ‘neutral’ observers will struggle to praise Kenny Dalglish and his staff for the work they’ve done to make Chelsea look so ordinary. They’ll find it easier to criticise Andre Villas-Boas than to consider the idea that Dalglish is still as good at this management game as he used to be.
Kenny won’t let the success, so far, go to his head: “I don’t know if we took them apart but we were delighted with the way we played. We made changes and most of the lads who played have played in the earlier rounds of the cup, so for us it was right they played again. They were brilliant the way they went about their work. Jose played 48 hours ago, Jordan played and Lucas played and the way they went about their job playing in their second game as quickly as they did was fantastic. We’ve had a good day and I think we deserved to go through.
“We’ve been delighted with the attitude of every single player. All of them were brilliant. Seb stood up to the plate. Even the penalty miss, Andy was brilliant for us. He really formed part of the team and worked for the team. He was fantastic.”
The opener for Liverpool came after a great pass from Henderson put Bellamy in a position to set up Maxi Rodriguez. Maxi scored the opener in the league fixture nine days before – and Liverpool have never lost a game Maxi has scored in. Also like the other fixture the second goal came from the LFC full-back – but this time Martin Kelly was the full-back and his goal was headed in from Bellamy’s free-kick.
What matters to Kenny is the bigger picture of how much better Liverpool are starting to get. He also had a swipe at football’s powers-that-be for their attitude towards a once-important competition: “The way we’re progressing is more significant than reaching the semi-final of a cup that’s been cheapened by the actions of the people who run it, but that doesn’t mean to say we wouldn’t love to win it. We’ll just brush ourselves down, we’ve got our reward and we’ll look forward to the next game.
“Three teams in the quarter-finals have problems with fixtures. Do us a favour! I’m not clever but I think I could have avoided that. The solution is to get someone a brain,” he suggested.
When Kenny sees the replay of the penalty award he’ll see a blatant handball, as his players did, but after the game he was relying on their word. “I didn’t see what happened with the penalty,” he said, “which is unusual when it’s a penalty for you, it’s usually when it’s against you that you don’t see it!
“The boys were emphatic; he’s gone up and punched it. Maybe if we hadn’t got that one we’d have got the other one when Andy was pushed, but we’ve got to the semi-final of the Cup and we’ll take what we’ve got. The referee’s exactly the same as us; he gets some right and some wrong.”
Liverpool have won their last six away games but have drawn their last four home games and Kenny was asked why the Reds seemed to be playing better on their travels: “I don’t think we’ve played badly at Anfield either, there’s only Swansea where we’ve not reached the heights of what we reached in every other game. Every other game at Anfield we could have won, we haven’t done it because of inspired goalkeeping against us. Whatever the fixture, we’ll do our best to win it.”
Meanwhile Chelsea’s manager feels his own side are doing better away from home but he is in that more difficult position of trying to find positives from another defeat: “Away from home we’ve been more solid statistically and as a team. At home we just haven’t been good enough.”
With Liverpool fans having a party inside Stamford Bridge the home fans started leaving early in their droves and Villas-Boas called on them to show more support in the coming weeks: “We need to get our fans behind us and get the emotions right. You can feel Stamford Bridge has become anxious. We therefore need support. We need atmosphere to get us past this period. We have two big games at home where we need our fans behind us and I’m sure they’ll do exactly that.”
He said his players just didn’t play well enough: “Our performance was not good today. Our best period was when it was already 2-0. Liverpool came very strong in the second half and caused us many problems. It’s a pity because we had a good chance to progress at home, but Liverpool were superior.”
The draw for the semi-final is tonight after the Manchester United v Crystal Palace game, with the winners joining Liverpool, Manchester City (who beat Arsenal) and Blackburn’s conquerors Cardiff City in the hat.
Liverpool play Bolton away on the Saturday before the second leg, on January 21st, and that game is already selected as a televised game by ESPN. This means it should remain a Saturday game and so Liverpool should be guaranteed a reasonable gap before contesting that second leg.
There may yet be a problem with the first leg, however. The draw for the FA Cup 3rd round will be made on Sunday (please not another trip to Chelsea) and those fixtures are set for the weekend of the 7th and 8th of January. The League Cup semi-final first legs are scheduled for week commencing 9th of January. If as much thought goes into the planning of Liverpool’s two fixtures there’s a likelihood that they’ll be playing in the FA Cup on Sunday the 8th and the League Cup on Tuesday 10th. Expect fireworks if that happens.
Chelsea: Turnbull, Bosingwa, Alex, Sideshow Bob, Bertrand, Romeu, McEachran (Ramires, 41min), Lampard, Malouda (Anelka, 64), Lukaku (Mata, 64), Torres
Subs not used: Hilário, Ivanovic, Ferreira, Kalou
Booked: Sideshow Bob, Alex, Malouda, Bertrand, Ramires
Liverpool: Reina, Kelly, Coates, Carragher, Enrique, Henderson, Spearing, Lucas (Adam, 70), Maxi (Skrtel, 89), Carroll, Bellamy (Kuyt, 79)
Subs not used: Doni, Suárez, Downing, Flanagan
Goals: Maxi 58, Kelly 63
Referee: Phil Dowd