Community Spirit: Liverpool 2 Chelsea 1

Posted by Paul Tomkins on August 13, 2006, 07:09:40 PM

Fourteen competitive wins in a row, and the latest addition to that impressive run coming against Chelsea – who also happened to be the eighth scalp on that list. Not bad at all for a Sunday stroll in the (Arms) park.

What's more, their players were riled during the match, with two lucky to not be sent off (in Essien's case his crime was no lesser than Pepe Reina's against Chelsea in February), and their manager riled afterwards. It made the victory a little sweeter, as they clearly cared.

It doesn't mean the Reds will finish above Chelsea, as they're still rightly favourites for the title – and with a get-out-of-jail-free card like Shevchenko in their ranks they will always be dangerous – but it was a nice little marker to put down. Especially when they put out a strong starting XI, and Rafa rested some of his key men. The only thing Chelsea rested were their fans, with 12,000 of them 'dropped' for the big occasion.

Already there looks a lot more options for Liverpool players when on the ball. The addition of pace in wide areas, allied to intelligent movement, gives anyone in a red shirt someone to aim at. The only quick attacker for the Reds last year was Cissé, and despite some very good work at times, his movement often lacked the necessary intelligence.

The biggest thing Pennant and Gonzalez have done – even without touching the ball – is open up the pitch. With the best trio of central midfielders in England, and possibly the world, the space for them to play has been created with the natural width. Pennant was so wide at times on Wednesday he looked like he was part of the crowd.

Pennant's movement for Riise's opening goal was not the only example, but it was a prime one. It reminded me of a run Steve McManaman made at Old Trafford in 1995/96, when a tired Michael Thomas rolled him the ball late in the game, and Macca drove forward, squaring for Fowler to score (after sending Gary Neville the wrong way). Except on this occasion the run was ignored, becoming a mere decoy as Riise drove infield into the space Pennant's movement created as he ran across the line of the Norwegian.

For the second game running Momo Sissoko, another quick youngster with an engine like a top-range Mercedes, was just awesome. His skill and passing ability was always there; but his decision making could often be too rash. Now he looks calmer in possession while still being a monster without the ball.

Dan Agger, another 21-year-old, was also exemplary. I'm not sure how much he's trained, but he's missed all the summer games (with a facial injury, I believe). Every time I see him I like him more. He's quick, strong, good in the air, has a superb left foot and most crucially for a young centre-back, can actually read the game. This will have done his confidence the world of good.

You look at the squad, and even with quality players like Kewell and Fowler absent it looks like there are no glaring weaknesses. The only gap is a fourth striker, but two goals in each of the first two games, and the way they've been created, suggest that the Reds can make use of the more space they are creating in the final third. It means creating clearer chances, that are harder to miss.

A big bonus has been that the new acquisitions have been superb, all appearing to settle quickly – although I'm sure I said the same about Josemi.

Bellamy was electric when he came on today. At Anfield on Wednesday there wasn't as much space to run into, with the Israelis defending fairly deep, but in his hometown he had acres in which to sprint past defenders. He timed his run from deep to perfection in the build-up to the winning goal, and showed a lot of maturity on the ball. A goal and an assist in his first 100 minutes in a red shirt: a great start.

I felt pace on the break would be a major improvement this season; even in my wildest dreams I didn't expect a full-back to run 70-yards and pop in a cracking goal like Riise did. An area of weakness for the Reds last year was a lack of goals from defenders, including Riise himself in his 'dry' stints at left-back, so this was an instantly encouraging sign.

I read that Riise had trained hard over the summer, to cope with the arrival of Fabio Aurelio, and there can be no better testament to competition for places; fair play to Riise for putting in the extra effort.

It was also good to see more evidence that Peter Crouch can be a real threat in the air, despite the stick he gets. Since last December he's scored nine headers for club and country, out of 20 goals in that time; he has some technical deficiencies in his style, but I doubt any other English-based player has scored as many headers in that period. He still needs to convert more, of course, but that was a good start to the season.

What I liked most about his winner against Chelsea was how, with Bellamy sensibly delaying, Crouch peeled away from John Terry to find a couple of yards of space. Once the cross came in there was almost no missing. But it was down to a moment of quick-thinking allied to an inch-perfect cross.

Of the other new-boys, Fabio Aurelio looked very tidy when he came on at left midfield. He was very composed on the ball, and comfortable going forward; he also looked less worried by the tackles flying than Gonzalez, who tentatively dangled a foot a couple of times. Given his Brazlian nationality I was automatically under the impression Aurelio was merely a skilful defender, so it's nice to see him get stuck in a little. He's missed some of the pre-season programme, so he'll only get stronger.

Jose Mourinho, beaten by the Reds for the second consecutive game, put it all down to his team's inferior conditioning, in his usual graceless way. Of course, it's only one week before the league campaign, and the Reds have only played a single competitive game – hardly that far advanced. And it was a Liverpool team with many of its best players on the bench, largely due to having played in that Maccabi Haifa game. You can't blame Jose for trying to con everyone, but more and more people are seeing through his 'psychology'.

I think the basic thing you can take from today's game is that Liverpool are capable of challenging for the title. Whether the Reds actually go on to do so is another matter; a lot depends on injuries, form, and of course, luck. But the potential is there. With Manchester United and Arsenal also beaten during this calender year, the tide is turning a little in the games against the biggest teams – an area where the Reds had been found wanting in Benítez's first 18 months.

The next challenge is to see Jose Mourinho looking grumpy and making excuses in May 2007. If the Reds just happen to make next month's visit to Stamford Bridge the 19th win in a row, who knows?

© Paul Tomkins 2006

'Red Revival', 'The Red Review' and 'Golden Past, Red Future' available to order from www.paultomkins.com


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