Liverpool 2 Maccabi Haifa 1: Victory For 'New' Reds

Posted by Paul Tomkins on August 9, 2006, 11:14:21 PM

A rather mixed performance from the Reds in seeing off the Israelis, with the disconcerting concession of an away goal, but there were quite a few positives to take from what was still far from vintage fare.

This game always seemed like a potential banana skin. Maccabi Haifa are not a great side by any stretch of the imagination, but they are probably the best team Liverpool have faced at this qualifying stage, superior to FC Haka, GAK and CSKA Sofia. Any team that has beaten Manchester United 3-0 in the Champions League deserves respect, even if it was a United not needing the points at the time. Haifa have been picking up a nice amount of European experience in recent years, and that's what made them dangerous.

The Reds' pre-season form, while affected by training shortly the day of playing games (and thus leaving little in the tank), has still been disconcerting, if not as downright alarming as some believed. Despite losing three on the spin in Germany in the last 10 days, in competitive games that's now 'unlucky 13' out of the way in the run of consecutive wins.

It was a tricky situation with the returning World Cup players, as they clearly needed a rest after nearly 12 full months of solid football, following on from a late and intense end to 2004/05 as well. The long-term view of this season had to be taken into account, rather than aiming to get everyone super-fit for this contest. They won't have lost as much fitness as the others, so coming back late won't have been a big problem in that sense, but they will be rusty.

It was a stronger side than Rafa has tended to put out in qualifying games, with no rookies on display, but he also has more depth to the squad these days. With Robbie Fowler's injured knee and Peter Crouch being eased back into proceedings, it was an unusual front pairing on display.

While he's better coming from deeper, Gerrard can be effective off the main striker, but he needs someone to link with; Bellamy offers no physical presence, so he's not suited to role of lone spearhead. The game was crying out for Crouch, especially with some quality crosses sailing in, and with Bellamy making some great runs down the channels, but at the expense of his presence in the area. Once he did come on, Crouch helped pin the Israelis back and get a number of efforts in on goal; how he dovetails with Crouch will be fascinating.

It's now easy to see how Jermaine Pennant put in 497 crosses last season; his performance tonight was a masterclass in how to deliver a ball from all sorts of situations. It was also one of the most promising debuts I can remember from a Red.

He appears to have double-jointed ankles, in that he is able to disguise the direction of his passes, or flick the ball around a full-back when it doesn't look possible. He can also wrap his foot around a ball to deliver a cross when it looks like he's run out of space. Four or five stinging early centres fizzed past the strikers, on top of those that were connected with but not converted, and when the front men can better read his intentions the goals will flow as a result.

Another plus with Pennant, as witnessed in the pre-season games, is his passing. For a player who has done some pretty stupid things in the past he has great footballing intelligence, no doubt helped by his apprenticeship under Arsene Wenger. When the cross wasn't on he was happy to pass infield to find an unmarked red shirt. While Djibril Cissé could at times be effective on the wing, his decision making was far inferior to that exhibited by the new man, who is a total natural in the role.

What Pennant will struggle to do is to match Cissé's goals output from the right-hand side. However, he looks capable of creating twice as many, and as long as the team scores more that's all that matters.

It's particularly important for new attacking signings to score early after joining a club, to settle their nerves and get their tails up. We saw with Peter Crouch last season how a failure to open his account gradually affected his all-round game. Once Crouch scored last season he spent the next two-thirds of the season notching at a decent rate.

Craig Bellamy, as a striker, needed a goal the most, and would have felt a weight lift from his shoulders once it went in, especially with it being an important goal in the context of the match. But after a couple of invisible 45 minutes in pre-season, Mark Gonzalez was already being written off by some fans, as hard as that is to believe. To score within two minutes of making your debut is fairytale stuff.

Both finishes were very assured, and that bodes well – the new players were always going to be important in terms of the team's tactics; the higher their confidence the more quickly they can settle (although confidence appears to be something the little Welshman doesn't lack).

We've seen players stand on ceremony as far as Steven Gerrard is concerned, and while Bellamy clearly respects his captain it was great to see him push him out of the way to score, knowing it was he himself who had the best chance of converting it. It showed a single-mindedness he will need to succeed at Anfield, as well as the bottle to take on the opening rather than defer to his superior. (That's not to say that scoring early offers any guarantees; El Hadji Diouf got two on his home debut, and only another four in the next 62 games.)

Bellamy has been scoring nicely for a few years now, and has improved season upon season, while Mark Gonzalez proved in his spell with Real Sociedad that he not only scores goals but scores important goals. In the last two seasons in La Liga he managed a league goal approximately every 270 minutes; in other words, one for every three full games. That's a fine ratio for a winger. Last season his key goals helped keep Socieded up.

The jinking runs of Luis Garcia was another plus point tonight, as was Momo Sissoko's all-round performance. However, there were a few alarming signs, although it's impossible to tell at this stage of the season if it's down to anything more than ring rustiness. Time will tell.

The Reds remain vulnerable to the dinked pass in between the centre backs and full-backs, but that's the gamble of holding a high line. While always likely to provide the opposition with an opening, 33 clean sheets last season also proved it can work. Getting back to racking up clean sheets is the next task, starting on Sunday.

With the Haifa tie poised at 2-1 it means the team can't relax for the second leg, and that's maybe no bad thing. Had it been 3-1 following all the late pressure it might have offered a false sense of security, but of course it would have ideally been wrapped up 5-0, in order to offer a run-out for the reserves in Cyprus.

© Paul Tomkins 2006

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