Before yesterday I knew about as much about Debreceni VSC as I know about the Faint Object Spectograph on the Hubble Telescope. They are among the “new kids” in the Champions League and not knowing anything about their club (or their league) forced me to underestimate them greatly. I assumed this would be an easy win for Liverpool. Oops.
Rafa Benitez started the XI I would have started under the circumstances. Fabio Aurelio and Javier Mascherano were on the bench just coming off injuries. Gerrard was in the midfield with Lucas. An in-form Benayoun started as did Kuyt, Torres and Riera: all four ready to get the scoring going.
The pub where I watch was quieter yesterday than the weekend before. The Champions League matches kick off at 2:45 p.m. our time and many folks with nine to five jobs save their “denist appointments” and “aunt’s funerals” for later in the season, hoping Liverpool make the semifinals and beyond.
But three-dozen or so of us amassed. And I don’t think I was the only one taken aback by Debrecen’s play .
The Hungarians were strong and pushed hard. Their pressure was relentless. As the minutes ticked by and Liverpool fought and fought, it seemed the first goal would never come. At one point, the camera cut to Kenny Dalglish and Ian Rush who were seated together watching the match. This is the kind of moment where my friend Niall likes to yell: “Lace ’em up!” Usually he’s directing it at Sammy Lee. “Lace ’em up, Sammy! Get in there!” I wanted Kenny or Rushie to lace ’em up right then and there. Get in there. And why not? (No, seriously: why not? Neither of them would be slower than Voronin and they’re both more likely to take a shot on goal than the Odessit “supersub”. Somebody get Rafa on the phone. This is brilliant.)
Thankfully the Hungarian attackers were not in the mood to finish. They got the ball forward with plenty of resolve but couldn’t find a goal any more than we could. Althought, on thirty minutes Debrecen’s Peter Czvitkovics fires a rocket on target. Pepe Reina had to stretch to get a hand to it. Great shot. Great save.
We were playing well considering how fierce our opponents proved to be. Gerrard was having trouble getting forward at times, but I still think this is the right lineup for us with Xabi gone. Hopefully Mascherano gets to play alongside Stevie when he comes back fully fit. Then I think this system will really flourish.
We had some good attacks but that final ball just wasn’t coming. Balls went over. Balls went wide. The worst was the perfect cross Riera put in with Stevie steaming into the box. It was one of those balls you just can’t see Steven Gerrard missing. Sure goal. Nope. He kicked it wide.
Thankfully Torres got a chance just as the half time whistle was about to go. A fine shot. The keeper parried but there was Dirk Kuyt (not much of a surprise since Dirk Kuyt was – as usual- EVERYWHERE) and he kicked it in.
We all expected things to open up then. But – as with Burnley – since Debrecen were already attacking us, there was nothing to open up. They kept playing a stiffling game in the second half and we kept missing our chances.
They won some corners and I die a little bit inside everytime Liverpool defend a corner. We are that bad at it. But yesterday the corners were cleared. Pepe kept his clean sheet. The final whistle blew. One-nil.
It wasn’t the most convincing win. Torres doesn’t look his ussual self when he gets on the ball. He’s taking to long and letting defenders crowd him out when normally he’d leave them in the dust. The kid needs a brace or a hat trick against West Ham just to get his fires going again.
The good thing I took from the match (apart from the points) came from something my friend Jamie said afterwards. He said this was the first day he didn’t miss Xabi. It was the first day he didn’t feel that absence. True enough. We missed Xabi in the league. Especially against Spurs and Villa, but against Debrecen we showed we could play without him.
Lucas still isn’t my first choice for midfield, but he did well enough – he dug in, he made good tackles, he mostly made clean passes. But the real key to getting over Xabi is Stevie. He made up for not getting forward by imposing himself on the middle. He’s one player who can consistently send that all-seeing-eye ball from deep and have it find its man.
And he’s got choices.
Riera was on fire, especially in the early parts of the match. His movement was fluid and he had some chances himself. I almost certain he was going to score. Benayoun is still flying off the form that brought him his hat trick last weekend. Kuyt – as I said – is everywhere at all times. And Torres – while he needs to switch on – was sucking up defenders like a giant Spanish sponge. He opens up space for everbody else so even when he’s not scoring he plays his part. And even Babel looked good when he came on for the last ten minutes. I didn’t think I’d ever hear myself type those words again. (I’m chosing not to worry about how much sense that statement probably doesn’t make: I like it.)
But Babel’s movement was intelligent and balanced. His normal problem is he holds onto the ball too long and runs down a dead end street. But he was turning players and picking his moments. Good control and calm buildup from a player who can be rash and bumbling.
Thankfully we got the points, but I expect Debrecen to put up an even fiercer fight in their home ground. There will be some noisy Hungarians in the stands that day.