After a week that saw their manager deny reports that he was off to take the hot-seat at Juventus, their captain claim that they were well and truly out of crisis mode and their fans once again attempting to rid the club they love from the clutches of those who don’t have its best interests at heart, defence is understandably making the headlines at Liverpool at the moment. On the pitch, it’s working perfectly.
Saturday’s 2-0 victory over Bolton Wanderers at Anfield was the Reds’ fifth clean sheet in their last six league games. They kept Stoke out for 89 minutes of the only game of that run in which they conceded, with the return of defensive solidity one of the more welcome aspects of a troubled campaign. It seems as though everyone has played their part. There is Pepe Reina of course – one of the greatest goalkeepers in Liverpool’s history and – in this writer’s humble opinion at least – the best around in the current Premier League. The Spaniard is one of the leaders of Rafael Benitez’ squad. He’s a motivator, a crowd favourite and one of the most solid last lines of defence that you will find anywhere. An uncertain start to the season has been replaced with a new confidence, and Reina is commanding his defence in the manner that supporters know he can. When he’s been called upon to make saves he’s made them, and he once again showed his bravery when rushing out to block a Tamir Cohen effort early on Saturday afternoon. Ahead of him, they aren’t doing too badly either.
At the beginning of the season, most supporters would have chosen Fabio Aurelio, Daniel Agger and Glen Johnson in their first choice back four, but the absences of all three in recent matches has seen others come to the fore. Emiliano Insua is a name that fans have known about for a long time, and despite some patchy form at times this season, the 21-year-old Argentinian has deservedly made the left-back position his own. Small, powerful, and capable of producing both excellent crosses and long range shots, Insua was at his best at the weekend, offering terrific support down the left flank to Albert Riera – who in turn was allowed to head infield and cause Bolton problems. It was from one of these situations that Liverpool took the lead, as Riera found himself in the centre of the Bolton half and clipped a ball out to the left to the advancing Insua. The left-back found Alberto Aquilani, who picked out Dirk Kuyt, and the rest is history, while the Argentine’s involvement in the Reds’ second goal was even more obvious.
These strikes might have been academic if it wasn’t for the intervention of Sotirios Kyrgiakos midway through the first half. Chung-Yong Lee had produced what is now commonly referred to down at the Anfield Road End as ‘doing a Walcott’ in bursting past several Reds challenges on his way to that particular goalmouth, and the big Greek’s clearance off the line was as stunning as it was terrific. It was just the latest piece of impressive play from a defender who is quickly earning a cult status amongst supporters thanks to his uncompromising style and fine form, and the man who was signed as merely a body to fill the squad is quickly becoming an integral part of the Reds defence, particularly with Johnson injured and Jamie Carragher forced to play at right-back.
Alongside Krygiakos stands Martin Skrtel, whose displays in recent weeks have been a vast improvement on his showings for the majority of the campaign. The Slovakian is another who takes no prisoners, and his improvement could largely be put down to the influence of Kyrgiakos alongside him. Kevin Davies didn’t get a sniff on Saturday (apart from when he was deflecting efforts towards his own goal) and that can largely be put down to the displays of Liverpool’s new centre-back pairing. Agger was on the bench at Anfield, but on current form it could be a long time before he gets his place in the team back.
The Reds’ attacking play could still use a lot of work – the fact that Tom Hicks appeared to fall asleep during the contest at the weekend would suggest that – but it seems as though the club have finally got their defensive house back in order, and not before time too. The clean sheets continue to stack up, and the more of them that Liverpool can keep then the more chance they have of salvaging something from the campaign.