By Oliver Platt
Liverpool have still not won a game against a top-half team in the Premier League this season, but the most oft-repeated statistic in the top flight should not feel like a burden after their latest failure to do so.
As was the case in the reverse fixture at Anfield, the Reds can consider themselves unlucky to have been held to a 2-2 draw by Manchester City on Sunday. Again, a late error cost them; then, it was Martin Skrtel’s horrendous back pass. This time, it was Pepe Reina’s mystifying decision to vacate his goal to hunt a ball that Sergio Aguero stole and dispatched in some style.
Until that point, Liverpool had played superbly considering the opposition and venue. Only Manchester United have won at the Etihad Stadium since the beginning of the 2011-12 season. It is true that they needed two long-range strikes of tremendous quality to twice take the lead but they have consistently threatened from those distances, scoring more goals from outside the penalty area than any other Premier League team this season.
Those spaces were worked on more than two occasions, too. Both of the goal scorers, Daniel Sturridge and Steven Gerrard, saw further thunderous attempts blocked by diving blue shirts, with Luis Suarez and Stewart Downing frequently supplying passes inside that simply asked to be hit.
The movement and vibrancy of Liverpool’s front five was extremely encouraging and was evidence of an attack that is finding balance, belief and variety. Suarez carried the Reds through the first half of the season, allowing them to come through their teething problems under Brendan Rodgers with a chance of reaching the top six still intact, but now there are other threats on offer.
Downing and Jordan Henderson were both made available for transfer following Rodgers’ arrival and the former admitted in December that he had been told he could leave the club before winning back his place in the starting XI. The latter, meanwhile, was offered to Fulham as Liverpool chased Clint Dempsey. Both have large transfer fees to live up to but now they have the manager’s confidence and the difference in their performances is immeasurable.
The lack of a fresh slate afforded to some players was a mistake by Rodgers but over the course of the season he has integrated these cast-offs back into the starting XI. Now they have not only a team but a squad, with the revivals of Henderson and Downing allowing Rodgers to rest Joe Allen and Raheem Sterling when they have sorely needed it.
Mention must go, of course, to Sturridge, who took further strides in his latest impressive display. The 23-year-old immediately added pace and invention to the Liverpool attack but, while he scored against Manchester United, he was also guilty of what could kindly be described as over-enthusiasm and more harshly be labelled as selfishness. Here, he was more sensible and shone even after sustaining an injury to his thigh that bothered him the second half.
Rodgers was predictably effusive in his praise. “It was an outstanding performance at a notoriously difficult place for teams to even score a goal. What was important for me was to see the confidence of the players, the desire, the quality and the efficiency of their game. I don’t think anyone would deny that we probably deserved to win that game,” he said.
Only for so long, though, can Liverpool continue to be pleased with a good performance when they have failed to achieve the result they deserve. Rodgers has spoken in grand terms of his ambitions for the Reds but they continue to be detached from the division’s top clubs because of the costly errors they commit.
The conundrum for Rodgers in this respect is much the same as Arsene Wenger’s. Will the errors eliminate themselves over time – “we will [cut them out], there’s no question about that,” he claimed – or must he question more fundamentally the quality of the players committing them?
It is becoming increasingly difficult to mount a defence of Reina, who has been guilty of making eight mistakes that have led directly to goals since the start of last season. The defensive core of the Spanish goalkeeper, Skrtel and Daniel Agger simply has not been as good as hoped. Jamie Carragher, at the age of 35, has come into the side and looked like the Reds’ best option at centre-back but, while his longevity is commendable, it says something about the shortcomings of Rodgers’ first choices.
After the draw against City at Anfield, Rodgers had time to be patient with the flaws in his side. Now, with this accepted season of transition closing, he will need to think and act more decisively. Liverpool looked a truly entertaining team on Sunday and it would be a shame to see that progress go to waste.
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