Reina (og) 90
Prior to kick-off on Sunday, a fair amount of Liverpool fans probably would have taken a point against the ever-dangerous Arsenal. This was even truer at half-time, as the Reds trudged off following a first 45 minutes which saw debutant Joe Cole sent off and the Gunners dominate possession.
Yet, by the final whistle, there would not have been a Reds fan in the land who did not feel robbed of all three points, following a bizarre 89th minute own goal from the usually reliable Reina. Ultimately, it was a strange display from Liverpool, who demonstrated (at least in the second half) that they are headed in the right direction, but failed to completely dispel the questions which surrounded the side during Rafael Benitez’s reign.
During the first half, the Reds looked worryingly like the ineffectual side they were for much of last season. Despite being at home, they were penned into their own box early on, conceding a flurry of corners. In typical fashion, Arsenal did an excellent job of retaining the ball, and Liverpool found themselves frustrated in trying to win it back, and then rash in keeping hold of it. Cole – clearly intended to be the side’s primary creative outlet – was invisible for much of the half, barely picking a pass. Meanwhile, Jovanovic and Kuyt’s propensity for cutting infield (combined with Agger’s refusal to even attempt the overlap) narrowed the room in which the Reds had to play, meaning Gerrard was restricted to searching balls over the top which usually found the isolated N’Gog in an offside position. By the point the half-time whistle came, Cole’s sending off – a reckless and needless lunge which fully deserved a red, even if, as the Sky Sports team insisted on repeating, ‘he’s not that sort of player’ – was the closing moment in what had been a pretty uninspiring first 45.
However, N’Gog’s well-taken goal a minute after the break seemed to revitalize the Reds. Despite being a man down, they showed a fighting spirit that was lacking too often last season, and even looked better going forwards. They defended resolutely in two banks of four – Gerrard adapted well to a role that required him to break up play more often than create it, and Mascherano produced an admirably determined performance (seen on this Guardian chalkboard) for a player apparently desperate to leave – and by the close, probably deserved the three points off the back of what was a spirited defensive display with 10 men.
All in all, the opening day will have left Roy Hodgson with lots to ponder. Cole’s 3-match ban is something of a spanner in the works, but his relative anonymity (seen on this Guardian chalkboard) prior to the sending off was perhaps more worrying. Similarly, although Jovanovic had a decent game, a proper left-back willing to support him from a crossing position is badly needed. But on the whole it was a unified, tactically disciplined and gusty display from Liverpool, in which N’Gog proved yet again that he is capable of playing second-string to Fernando Torres, and Gerrard played with a hunger that was all-too lacking last season. Hodgson’s Liverpool are not the finished article, and some of the old problems persist. But a point against Arsenal is never a bad result, and despite the cruel finish, the Reds can take heart from a display in which they looked like a team enjoying its football again.
2 Johnson – 23 Carragher – 37 Skrtel – 5 Agger
20 Mascherano – 8 Gerrard
18 Kuyt – 10 Cole – 14 Jovanovic
65 – 17 Maxi on for Jovanovic
74 – 9 Torres on for 24 N’Gog
78 – 21 Lucas on for 20 Mascherano