Tuesday, March 3, 2009

Liverpool back to winning ways

Liverpool discovered an unlikely new hero as they finally gave manager Rafael Benitez something to smile about following a 2-0 win over Sunderland.

French teenager David Ngog, making his full home debut, scored one goal and helped create the second for Yossi Benayoun as Liverpool cut Manchester United's lead at the top to four points.

Of course Chelsea did the same by winning at Portsmouth, but what was Liverpool's second home league win since Boxing Day lifted the gloom that has descended on Anfield following the shambles at Middlesbrough at the weekend.

Benitez had looked like a man with a huge weight on his shoulders before this match, but he found some comfort in a decent display ahead of next week's Champions League showdown with Real Madrid.

Manchester United may well have two games in hand on Liverpool, but at least the title race is not a procession just yet.

Benitez made four changes from the side that lost to Middlesbrough.

And he chose to use Argentina midfielder Javier Mascherano at right-back.

Left out were Sami Hyypia, Fabio Aurelio, Ryan Babel and Nabil El Zhar, with Albert Riera, Yossi Benayoun, Emiliano Insua and David Ngog in the starting line-up.

Sunderland made only one change from the side that drew at Arsenal last time out, with Grant Leadbitter taking over from the injured Teemu Tainio.

Benitez is clearly running out of options at right-back with Alvaro Arbeloa still injured. Jamie Carragher seems not to fancy the job any more so Mascherano was removed from his critical ball-winning midfield role to fill the void.

It left Liverpool with almost a 4-4-2, with Steven Gerrard and Xabi Alonso in centre of midfield. Dirk Kuyt's roving role behind Ngog meant the French youngster was left on his own against Danny Collins and Anton Ferdinand.

And he did pretty well at times. His pace and energy not quite able to make up for the loss of Fernando Torres' brilliance, but Ngog certainly showed spirit.

Sunderland should have been ahead after just four minutes when Kenwyne Jones ran clear after Martin Skrtel's slip, but Jose Reina saved well to his right.

Gerrard, twice, Ngog and Riera all had shots charged down, while Marton Fulop saved well to his left to keep out a Dirk Kuyt drive.

Ngog's enthusiasm got the better of him when he was then booked after 15 minutes for a foul on Tal Ben Haim.

Fulop made an outstanding save after 31 minutes, finger-tipping the ball away at full-stretch from his right post, when Riera's low drive was deflected off Leadbitter.

Mascherano then saw a dipping 30-yard effort graze the bar, before Insua, Xabi Alonso and Gerrard all tried their luck with Sunderland increasingly forced back into their box on defence.

One break inspired by a fine Gerrard tackle on Kieran Richardson allowed Ngog to set up Mascherano on the right, but his drive was into the side-netting.

Liverpool started the second period at a higher tempo, with Benayoun willing to run at defenders.

And it was Benayoun who swept the ball out to Riera on the left to pave the way for Liverpool to take the lead after 52 minutes.

Riera sent over a deep cross that Gerrard headed back into the six-yard box for Ngog fire home his first league goal for the club.

Sunderland were forced to come forward, and Steed Malbranque saw a shot from the right fly over the bar.

After 62 minutes Sunderland brought on Djibril Cisse for Leadbitter, the former Liverpool man getting a rousing reception from the Anfield crowd.

Four minutes later Liverpool got their second. Again Ngog was involved, hooking the ball back across goal for Fulop to palm away only as far as Benayoun, who punished the error.

The next ovation was for Ngog. He had been struggling with cramp and was replaced by Lucas after 71 minutes.

Lucas, with a header, and Babel - shooting from the edge of the box - threatened to extend the lead, before El Zhar came on for Benayoun in the final minute.

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