Saturday, April 4, 2009

Liverpool Leave It late At Cottage And Go Top Of The Table

Liverpool reclaimed leadership of The Premier League thanks to a goal from substitute Yossi Benayoun two minutes into time added on at the end of the game in a 1-0 win at Fulham.

A 4-1 rout at Old Trafford and a 5-0 romp over Aston Villa had re-engendered belief that a first title since 1990 was possible, but after a first half where the visitors struck the woodwork four times, their conviction appeared to waver.

That was until deep into stoppage and until Benayoun had dispatched a shot high into the top corner past a flailing Mark Schwarzer.

Liverpool’s coaching staff swarmed the pitch to celebrate the goal that sees The Reds overhaul Manchester United ahead of the champions' match against Aston Villa on Sunday.

Such dramatics seemed unlikely during a first half bossed by The Reds.

There was a sedate start to the match but as the shadows lengthened on the Craven Cottage pitch, Liverpool imposed themselves more forcibly.

Andrea Dossena, a surprising starter wide on the left, forced a save from Mark Schwarzer after Fernando Torres had befuddled John Pantsil. From the subsequent corner, Martin Skrtel’s shot flicked off the Italian’s head and hit the bar.

Torres called Schwarzer into more pressing action in the 23rd minute. Picking up a pass from Gerrard, the Spaniard espied the far corner of the Australian’s goal but was thwarted by the left hand of Schwarzer and a subsequent clearance from Konchesky.

Alonso then rapped the crossbar with a dipping first-time shot from the edge of the area.

Liverpool’s flirtation with the woodwork continued agonisingly when Torres sped away after Gerrard’s slide-rule pass. Taking the ball wide, possibly too wide of his intended target, the Spaniard’s shot trickled past Schwarzer but struck the base of the post.

Agony was bordering on astonishment when Liverpool struck the frame of the goal for the fourth time in 37 minutes.

Alonso’s crossfield pass was bettered by Steven Gerrard’s whipped ball in and Dossena was perfectly placed but put his header against the bar.

If Fulham’s goal was a coconut shy, then Pepe Reina’s box came to resemble the fairground attraction that no-one had come to see.

Roy Hodgson’s side had barely ventured into the opposition’s box let alone forced a save from Liverpool's goalkeeper.

Hodgson has made fewer alterations than any other Premier League manager but familiarity occasionally breeds contempt.

His team began the second half with more purpose and a little more composure on the ball but the visitors still possessed a more obvious threat.

Emiliano Insua’s pitched cross was perfect for the head of Torres, but the Spaniard’s normally reliable radar was found wanting and the ball was in the grasp of Schwarzer.

That effort aside, a fragmented start to the second half saw Liverpool lose their direction and Rafa Benitez called for the runaway train of Ryan Babel with 64 minutes played.

Gerrard’s passing, purposeful and unerring in the first half, found a white shirt with increasing, frustrating regularity but the England international led the breakaway 20 minutes from time and gave Babel room to accelerate. The rapidly retreating John Pantsil was the man on the line to block the cross-shot.

Another cross from Gerrard narrowly eluded the blond head of Torres shortly before Benitez made his second change of the game, introducing the sublety of Benayoun for the graft of Dirk Kuyt.

Benayoun’s heel almost diverted Gerrard’s cross inside the far post after Babel ran into traffic when a shooting opportunity presented itself to the Dutchman.

Usually it is Gerrard Liverpool turn to in the dying stages, but Benayoun was to be Liverpool’s saviour on this occasion.

The Israeli had already sent a shot from a tight angle into the side netting when he picked up a pass from Gerrard and sent a shot arrowing.

Cue an exhale of breath from the away supporters amassed in the Putney Stand and a scene of jubilation transmitted immediately to Liverpool's normally reserved coaching staff.

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