Liverpool 2 Aston Villa 2

Barclays Premier League – January 21st 2008 – Result

Liverpool 2 Aston Villa 2

The protests at Anfield were the main focus of attention tonight as Liverpool supporters showed the world that they really do not want the current American owners at the helm any longer. New songs were given an airing, accusing the owners of lying and not caring about the fans, and were soon picked up by large parts of the crowd. Expect louder renditions at future games as more supporters get to know those songs.

The match itself was almost the sideshow, with very little discussion pre-match about the actual fixture itself. When the game kicked off, the Liverpool players showed that they wanted to take their minds off the mess in the press. For the most part the players performed well, and deserved the 1-0 lead they went into on 19 minutes when Yossi Benayoun hit home the rebound from his saved shot. The goal was set up by Dirk Kuyt, who performed well in the first half compared to recent games. His confidence at least in a support role seemed to be coming back.

Unfortunately for Kuyt it’s not his part in setting up the opener that he will be remembered for tonight, he’ll be remembered for one mistake. Out on the right-hand side of the area early in the second half he was unmarked and shouting for the ball. Gerrard played a perfect pass to him, but like any striker stuck in that vicious circle where a lack of confidence sees chances missed, but where only goals can bring the confidence back, Kuyt’s first touch let him down. It took him wide of the goal, left him with a narrow angle, and faced with a tall goalkeeper he just fluffed his shot. The dilemma Rafa has with Kuyt is that he’ll not get his confidence back until he scores, and he can’t score unless he plays – but can Rafa afford to persevere with him?

A lot of supporters feel that the first-choice strike partnership should be Fernando Torres, who had a quiet night last night, and Peter Crouch. Crouch came on with ten minutes left and scored the equaliser the Reds now needed.

As well as Kuyt’s error, Torres and Kewell had forced saves from keeper Taylor who was standing in for Scott Carson, the on-loan Liverpool keeper unable to play due to Premier League rules. But try as they might, none of the chances went in. As ever, the one goal lead was vulnerable, and as has happened a lot this season, the equaliser came against the run of play when sub Harewood scored with what was his first touch, an overhead kick following a free-kick conceded by Alvaro Arbeloa who was waiting to go off with an injury. He conceded the free kick because he was not in a fit state to chase his opponent, but Villa are the set-piece specialists this season. Harewood scored, Arbeloa was substituted, another free kick was conceded and Villa scored a second. All in the space of three minutes. Villa had looked unlike scoring at all, but now they were in front.

Babel was brought on for Kewell, who had shown some signs, perhaps not enough, of why Rafa rates him so highly. Then on came Crouch for Benayoun and Liverpool just kept on and on attacking the Villa goal, all out attack which left them exposed at times to the counter. It paid off in the end, Crouch got the equaliser, and had there been more time than the two minutes of normal time and three minutes of stoppage time perhaps Liverpool would have gone on to win. Instead it was their fourth league draw in a row, meaning they’ve picked up four points out of a possible twelve.

Rafa’s critics would find it hard to fault him for this game. At least for the first half his selection of Dirk Kuyt ahead of Crouch was paying off. Fernando Torres started, as the critics demand he always must, but he was pretty much kept out of the game. The Harry Kewell who’s getting towards the end of his career and has missed most of the past few years of it through injury is certainly no worse than the still-learning Ryan Babel. Yossi Benayoun is not a winger, and his tendency to come inside so much leads to more criticism of the team because they seem to play so narrowly – but Yossi scored the first goal and played well for a large portion of the match. Javier Mascherano was arguably Liverpool’s man-of-the-match, winning the ball with precision tackles and allowing Gerrard to go forward. Gerrard himself had a bit of an off-day, certainly from the point of view of his attempts at goal, none of which he quite managed to hit right. It’s hardly Rafa’s fault, and Gerrard scored a hat-trick last week. Whether he’ll get to play against Havant at the weekend remains to be seen, but if he does then the non-league side’s goalkeeper better be on his guard. Liverpool were playing such an attacking game, Alavaro Arbelao and Fabio Aurelio were seen more in the Villa half than their own.

There’s no doubt that had Rafa had the confidence of the owners from before the season started that he would still have made some mistakes in selection or tactics, that games would have been lost thanks to missed chances or poor refereeing, just like matches would have been won thanks to opposition mistakes or poor refereeing. Rafa’s not had the chance to select from his full squad all season, Daniel Agger missed much more than perhaps some realise due to the way Liverpool play when he’s in the side. It sounds like a string of excuses, and most of those problems would still be there even if the owners hadn’t undermined Rafa from the off. But the owners’ way of running the club has had a huge impact.

Even if the owners had been honest about transfer funds from the first time they met Rafa, the season would have been quite different. by being told what his budget was, Rafa would have the choice to either work with that budget or move on if he felt strongly enough. If he’d chosen to stay his first moves for players within that budget would have come much earlier, and so tranfer fees would have arguably been lower and players would quite likely have joined the Reds before other clubs could come in and offer higher wages. The lack of action frustrated Rafa, and it all turned out to be because the owners were trying to work out how to tell Rafa he couldn’t have what they’d agreed to earlier.

Expectations would have been lower too. Most fans, disappointed as they might have been, would have accepted an honest statement that the level of transfer spending wasn’t going to grow significantly until the stadium was built. As a result a challenge for the title was going to have to be something we could only consider ourselves to have an outside chance of being in. Instead, thanks to increased TV money and a long Champions League run, a striker was signed for a record fee, but much lower than that stated, which gave Tom Hicks the opportunity to say Liverpool were now in a genuine position to challenge for the league. This was something he knew was not the case, not according to the manager. Once a large group of fans and the press started to believe that, the expectations were set too high, and Rafa was under pressure. The pressure was increased by the vibes Rafa was getting from owners who were looking to get rid of him. And although it’s hardly the fault of the owners or the manager, Liverpool really must insist in future that any games in hand that come up due to having to play in other competitions are played as early as possible. All season Liverpool’s league position has been slightly misleading, because they’ve had this game in hand on the teams above them. They might end up drawing that too, but at least if it had been played early in the season the league table would show Liverpool’s true position.

The target for this season now has to be to start fighting back and get themselves that fourth place for the end of the season. Uncertainty has cost enough points to put Liverpool out of the chase, a chase we should not have expected ourselves to be in yet. The owners need to stop this messing around – either move on or stop telling lies. Then we can try and get back to what we should have been doing tonight – talking about a game of football, not a game of cat and mouse between the American owners and DIC. Next season, if Rafa stays, if he’s still happy to stay, he needs to be given clear targets and a season of support. If he’s not happy with his transfer budget, he can either move on or work with that budget. He needs to make clear to whoever owns the club whether he feels the targets given to him are compatible with the budget. Overall, when next season begins we need a manager who has the full backing of whoever owns the club, a manager who knows he’s got the full season to show what he can do, and a manager who knows just how much money he can spend on his squad. The manager needs to be able to decide who gets sold too, another one of the blocks that the owners needlessly put on the manager. This season was lost in the boardroom, so let’s ensure next season’s isn’t.

Back to the game itself, Martin Skrtel made his debut, moving into Carra’s centre-back place when Arbeloa went off, Carra having to play in a full-back role for the last twenty minutes.

Liverpool: 25 Reina, 17 Arbeloa (37 Skrtel, 70), 23 Carragher, 4 Hyypia, 12 Aurelio, 11 Benayoun (15 Crouch, 80), 20 Mascherano, 8 Gerrard, 7 Kewell (19 Babel, 74), 18 Kuyt, 9 Torres
Unused subs: 30 Itandje, 14 Alonso
Booked: Arbeloa 69, Mascherano 71
Goals: Benayoun 19, Crouch 88

Aston Villa: 13 Taylor, 4 Mellberg, 5 Laursen, 15 Davies, 3 Bouma, 26 Gardner (9 Harewood, 66), 19 Petrov, 20 Reo-Coker, 7 Young, 10 Carew (16 Knight 90), 11 Agbonlahor
Unused subs: 1 Sorensen, 21 Cahill, 27 Osbourne
Bookings: Laursen 74, Young 88
Goals: Harewood 69, Aurelio 72 (og)

BBC Stats: (Liverpool – Villa)
Possession: 50% – 50%
Shots on target: 7 – 4
Shots off target: 10 – 1
Corners: 8 – 3
Fouls: 11 – 15

Setanta Stats: (Liverpool – Villa)
Possession: 66.4 – 33.6
Shots on Target: 4 – 3
Shots off Target: 11 – 3
Blocked Shots: 7 – 2
Corners: 8 – 2
Fouls: 12 – 18

Referee: Mark Clattenburg
Attendance: 42,590