Thursday, 11 February 2010

Striker light LIVERPOOL FC exposed at Emirates

Football - Arsenal v Liverpool Barclays Premier League

Arsenal 1 Liverpool 0
IT'S three weeks until Fernando Torres is expected to return to the Liverpool first team. On the evidence of the Reds' performance at the Emirates, those three weeks can't come quick enough

In a remarkably frank interview last week, Steven Gerrard confirmed what any regular watcher of Liverpool has known for weeks - the results have improved but the football - frankly - hasn't.

The run of five wins and two draws prior to this defeat at Arsenal was built on spirit, fight, organisation and being hard to beat.

After the shocking run of results and cup exits that came prior to that string of results, no-one can blame manager Rafa Benitez for taking that road to improvement.

As Gerrard said himself: "The team has been a lot more solid. It’s stopped us being a little bit more ambitious, but I understand where the manager is coming from."

But against better opposition character, strength and battle need to be allied to skill, creativity and guile.

At the Emirates there was plenty of the former, but little of the latter.

The solidity remained and Liverpool looked confident in the early stages without ever truly threatening the Arsenal goal.

Maxi Rodriguez started brightly before fading as the game wore on, and his shot, deflected off Arsenal's Thomas Vermaelen, was the closest Liverpool came to a goal in a turgid opening half.

The Gunners were not much better and struggled to cope with Liverpool's impressive backline and hardworking midfield. Nicklas Bendtner was the only player who came close to seeing the whites of Pepe Reina's eyes, but the Dane blazed his effort high over the bar from just inside the area.

The entertainment levels rose above drying paint in the second half with chances at either end. After Lucas had driven an effort over the bar from 18 yards, David Ngog was slid through by Steven Gerrard, only to have the ball nicked from his toes by an excellent William Gallas tackle as he lined up a shot.

Seconds later Tomas Rosicky closed in on goal for Arsenal but inexplicably miscontrolled at the vital moment to allow the ball to trickle into Reina's hands.

The enforced substitution of Jamie Carragher who felt a strain in his groin upset Liverpool's defence, with his replacement Phillip Degen turning in a horrendous cameo performance.

Not only was he the wrong side of Abou Diaby when he nodded home the winner from Rosicky's cross, the Swiss right back's night to forget also included an unforced failure to trap a superb 60-yard pass from Gerrard and needlessly getting caught offside to prematurely end a promising Liverpool move.

Ngog also looked out of his depth. While the Frenchman can look back on a great season for experience and Benitez can afford himself a smile for picking up the 20-year-old for a bargain £1.5million, the fact remains that Liverpool need more up front than a rookie striker - particularly against the Premier League big boys.

Too often, Ngog was bullied off the ball, while other times his decision making let him down at crucial points in the build-up play.

But Benitez's attacking options are limited to say the least. With Torres, Yossi Benayoun and Glen Johnson still sidelined, he has little option but to stick with the former PSG man.

The only other option right now is Ryan Babel. The enigmatic Dutchman added to his mystique last night by first uncharacteristically using his strength to retain possession before driving at goal and thumping what looked certain to be the equaliser only for the usually average Manuel Almunia to pull off a great reaction save to tip the effort on to the bar.

It was an excellent attempt by Babel who, just days earlier, had looked anonymous after coming on as a sub against Everton.

That shot came in the 85th minute. Nine minutes later, deep into injury time, Gerrard, who while improved is still lacking that extra drive of his former self, won a free kick 20 yards from goal.

As he lined it up, memories of Aston Villa at Villa Park in 2007 came to mind, when a stunning Gerrard free kick nicked all three points in the 87th minute.

This effort wasn't bad either, and it looked goalbound too until Cesc Fabregas's blatant handball under the nose of ref Howard Webb deflected the shot to safety.

Amazingly, the official gave nothing, instead choosing to blow the final whistle.

But the referee is only a small part of the story. Liverpool need goals - especially away from home in the Premier League.

An eighth league defeat of the season is sorry enough in itself. But further analysis of the Premier League table makes for grim reading in the 'away' column - 13 games, six defeats and, perhaps most worrying, just 12 goals.

With a trip to top four rivals Manchester City up next a week on Sunday, it's time for a rethink.