Liverpool 2 Wanderers 1
IT’S tempting to look for someone else to blame after a week in which Wanderers have been cruelly denied two momentous results.
But Owen Coyle is canny enough to know he’ll have to look closer to home if he’s going to keep his threadbare side among the European contenders.
Two late winners by Florent Malouda at Chelsea, and Joe Cole at Liverpool, had more than a whiff of offside about them. But in the political minefield that is the modern day offside rule, both calls seem to have been deemed correct, leaving the Whites with two very bitter pills to swallow.
For 45 minutes, the bravado displayed in bucket loads at Stamford Bridge on Wednesday night had kept Roy Hodgson scowling on the Reds bench and Fernando Torres’ hands placed perpetually on his hips.
Kevin Davies had silenced the Kop by getting on the end of Matt Taylor’s perfectly delivered cross and in Mark Davies and Rodrigo, the Whites looked well capable of inflicting another blow to Liverpool’s hellish season.
Something changed at the break, however, and whether it was the toll of three games in seven days, or the fact that Coyle was down to his last 15 fit players, the second half performance was simply not of the same standard.
Everyone of a Wanderers persuasion will have breathed a sigh of relief when they saw that Steven Gerrard had been rested on the bench, just as they will have uttered a sigh of disappointment when he rose off the bench after only 20 minutes for the injured Raul Meireles.
And just as he has done in the past, the talisman of the Kop proved an irresistible force, creating a sublime equaliser for Torres before having a major hand in Cole’s hotly disputed winner two minutes into injury time.
While everyone thought the January window would be more about keeping hold of prized assets such as Gary Cahill and Johan Elmander, it’s looking increasingly like Coyle will have to pull out yet another rabbit from the hat in the transfer market to keep Wanderers ticking over.
To come from Chelsea and Liverpool upset at not claiming a point is proof of how far the club have come.
But Coyle doesn’t do standing still, and it’s a fair bet that a couple of the names on his shortlist will be making their way towards Phil Gartside and Eddie Davies at some point this week.
Naming just four substitutes, the Wanderers boss laid bare his need for new blood.
Paul Robinson’s suspension handed Marcos Alonso a league debut at full back, and while there were times that the youngster appeared to be running in treacle, he still pulled out some brave tackles in the last quarter of the game that suggest he is more than capable at this level.
Considering the game took more than half an hour to warm up, we were treated to some truly breathless stuff at the end.
The nervousness around Anfield was there for all to see, particularly before Gerrard’s arrival off the bench, but Maxi Rodriguez could have settled things with a far post header that looped off the top of the bar.
The Argentine caused most of the early problems, and forced Taylor into a great clearance after seizing on a loose ball in the area and drilling a low shot towards the far post.
Wanderers had played their part, with Rodrigo particularly impressive on the right.
Taylor had several attempts to get his eye in at set pieces, including one that dipped into the side netting, but he got one dead right two minutes from the interval, putting it on a plate for Kevin Davies who had got past Glen Johnson with consummate ease.
Lucas should have squared the game before Kevin Friend’s half time whistle brought about a chorus of jeers, somehow contriving to put his shot on the stretch wide from six yards out.
But the Reds showed no signs of the negativity getting to them, and four minutes after the restart, Gerrard was given ample time in midfield to craft a perfect lobbed pass over the top, and Torres suddenly burst into life, volleying past Jaaskelainen from 10 yards out.
The Spaniard had looked a shadow of his former self to that point but was soon causing problems for Cahill with his movement.
Wanderers defended for their lives at times, with Zat Knight turning in a near faultless display in the middle. Yet they still continued to carve out chances of their own, with the tireless Taylor pulling a low shot inches wide and Mark Davies unlucky on a couple of occasions.
The former Wolves midfielder got a slice of good fortune towards the end of the game, however, as he got an unwanted touch on Fabio Aurelio’s cross from the left, sending it inches wide of the far post.
Coyle may have had only half his complement on the bench, but he still showed an ambition to go and win the game, sending on Ivan Klasnic and Martin Petrov to try to snatch something at the end.
Klasnic nearly managed it, but perhaps his lack of first team football just recently has dulled his razor sharp finishing as he twice failed to beat Reina in the dying throes of an intriguing game.
The killer moment came deep into injury time, and it won’t have escaped Coyle’s attention that Cole’s winner emanated from the half way line where substitute Petrov had needlessly conceded possession.
Gerrard again had the freedom of Anfield to launch a ball forward, and in a cruel replay of Wednesday night, the intricacies of the offside rule seemed to have proved Wanderers’ undoing.
Cole was offside as Gerrard passed towards Rodriguez, but was able to tap home after the ball deflected off Elmander. Backed up by the endless by-laws about phases of play, it seems impossible to take the hump with officials over such a call nowadays. One wonders how many times out of 10 the goal would have been cancelled out.
It was the first back-to-back defeats since April, and a fourth successive one on the road, where the Whites’ good fortune really does appear to have dried up.
Now it is back to the sanctity of the Reebok for Wigan’s visit on Wednesday night, where Coyle’s hard work begins again.