Saturday, 6 December 2014

Liverpool 0 Sunderland 0 - Dour Goalless Draw as Reds Frustrated Again

After a good, solid 3-1 win against Leicester City, it had seemed like the Reds had turned a new page. With 2 wins in as many games after no win in 7, the team morale appeared to have risen. With this, Liverpool were fully expected to go on and get the job done against Sunderland at Anfield. Despite performing admirably against leaders Chelsea, this was a Black Cats team with only one win in 5 games. Captain and leader Steven Gerrard, fresh from a goal against Leicester was left on the bench in anticipation of the crucial Champions League tie against FC Basel. Phillipe Coutinho came in his place. This was one of two changes, with the other being young Right Back Javier Manquillo replaced by his compatriot Alberto Moreno. There was a visible change in formation with Lucas Leiva and Jordan Henderson playing together behind the trio of Lallana, Coutinho and Sterling with Rickie Lambert at the top. With all the changes, the expectation was still to win.

The game itself was a bit anticlimactic to the buildup, resulting in a mundane goalless draw with few chances. There was no creativity or incision, which has been the bane of Liverpool's season with the Anfield crowd always restless in the background. This was summed up when Henderson and Lucas exchanged at least 15 passes between them before kicking the ball out. There was no belief that Brendan Rodgers' men would go on and get the vital goal. Opposing goalkeeper Costel Pantilimon was barely tested having only two saves to make. While it was a spirited defensive display from the Mackems, their workload was mitigated by Liverpool's lack of a cutting edge. These dire games are in stark contrast to last season's relentless entertainment and excitement. While last season opposite teams did not know what to expect, this season the play is predictable and pedestrian. Teams know exactly how to deal with the Reds attack and this has been shown numerous times over the last few games. The irony is that Sunderland could have even won the game with a strong case for a Connor Wickham penalty and numerous awkward situations from corners. But, while everything does seem doom and gloom, this is a relatively stable position compared to Liverpool's state before. There were also some positives despite the palpable negatives.

Raheem Sterling trying to win a penalty when challenge by Wes Brown
The obvious one is that Liverpool kept a clean sheet, which has not been a regular occurrence. While Sunderland did have chances, the defence was solid and relatively untroubled. Kolo Toure has revitalised the defence with his commanding presence and knowhow of what to do with the ball. He should continue with his place because even the error prone Martin Skrtel seems more composed. Simon Mignolet had a quiet game with only a single save to make. But, what was good to see was that the perennial dily-dallying in Mignolet's game was not visible today. Everytime the ball came to him, Mignolet did the right thing and punted it up the field. So often, back passing has caused unnecessary problems for the defence. If this continues, Mignolet's confidence will build because of less pressure on his goal. Even the much maligned Glen Johnson has experienced a resurgence with some marauding runs and an unexpected composure in possession. The defence does look to be improving and that can only be a good thing in the future. If you do not concede, you cannot lose. Another positive was the return to form of Raheem Sterling who displayed his blistering pace and trickery on a number of occassions and after a few insipid displays, he looks to be back to his best. This is vital because Sterling is pivotal to Liverpool's future endeavours. But, without doubt, the biggest shining light was that of Lucas Leiva. The almost ostracized defensive midfielder showed that he still has much to offer with a very solid performance and not the first. His constant pressing and harrying of the Sunderland players lead to many openings and he was never beaten or passed by. He has shown that he is more effective than Steven Gerrard in that position so it would be a travesty to drop him now.

Rickie Lambert trying to encourage his teammates on a frustrating afternoon

A majority of Liverpool's problems lie in the attack. While Rickie Lambert has shown himself to be a dependable asset and one to play for the team, he cannot be expected to play games at such a high frequency and intensity, given that he is already 33. His performances have waned and the fatigue is clearly showing. Even in his Southampton days, Lambert was often rotated and kept on the bench during the busy Christmas period so it would be unrealistic to think that he can handle it now. Mario Balotelli has not shown much and even then he is injured and expecting a prospective ban from the FA. Fabio Borini is nowhere in the scene at the moment. He was not even on the bench in today's game. So, if Liverpool is expected to prosper during this period, Rodgers will have to pull the archetypal 'rabbit out of the hat'. Another problem is the inexperience of the team and the lack of awareness in the final third. Quite often, the players do the hard work and get the ball into the 18 yard box but look mystified when deciding what to do. So many times we have seen the players take the wrong option like passing when a shot was appropriate and vice versa. While this has been adversely affected by the losses of Luis Suarez and Daniel Sturridge, the blame has to lie with Brendan Rodgers in his waste of funds. He had the resources to bring in quality and he did not. Even a player like Loic Remy, who is warming the bench at Chelsea could have been an effective option with Lambert and Sturridge. The upcoming January window is vital and nothing less than a quality striker is acceptable. But, the main problem for me is the reliance on Steven Gerrard. This is a player who is past his prime years and his body has started to wane. He cannot cope up with the pace of the game as he could. But, still, when he came on, everybody tended to look to him for inspiration. This is a big problem because this shows a glaring lack of belief in the team that they still have to look to Steven Gerrard for help. Liverpool are in stern requirement for leaders like Gerrard and Jamie Carragher and then only can they reach the road to glory. There is no player who can take a game by the scruff of the neck and win it single handedly. That is a big problem. Manchester City and Chelsea have many players like that and if Liverpool is to compete with them, they need these players.

Steven Gerrard trying to make an impact after coming on as a substitute

Next up for Liverpool is a crucial do or die tie against FC Basel before the big game against Manchester United at Old Trafford. Liverpool do not look to be in good shape at the moment but all is not bad. If they can find inspiration from somewhere, I think Liverpool can compete. The Anfield crowd will be loud on Tuesday night and this might charge the players up or has been the case before, an unexpected hero might rise. The games are coming thick and fast and only time will tell if Liverpool will make it through the period unscathed and in contention for a top four berth. It will not be easy and will take a lot of effort and determination but despite being a herculean task, it is not impossible. We just have to wait and see...

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