An intriguing meeting of current and past Top 4 football clubs in England took place Sunday, as Tottenham Hotspur edged Liverpool in the waning minutes to continue their push towards the top.
Tottenham and Liverpool both assembled 4-4-2 formations. Peter Crouch and Rafael van der Vaart were Tottenham’s strikers from the open, but in the 11th minute van der Vaart re-aggravated a lingering hamstring injury and was forced off for Jermain Defoe. For the Reds, David Ngog and Fernando Torres played up front, with support from wide midfielders Dirk Kuyt and Maxi Rodriguez.
The game had a wonderful flow about it, especially in the first half. The midfield attack for both teams was churning at full gear, and both teams showed initiative on offense. The best first-half chance for Tottenham came off a throw-in, as Luka Modric darted past Martin Skrtel towards the goal line. His cross to Crouch was thwarted by goalkeeper Pepe Reina, but he couldn’t contain the rebound. The ball settled to Defoe’s feet at the 6 yd line, and the only obstacle that prevented a goal was Jamie Carragher’s well-placed left foot.
Liverpool had plenty of opportunities as well, but they were forced to wait until the 42nd minute to open the book. Off a Raul Meireles free kick just inside the center line, the ball was jostled around off Skrtel and Ngog near the 6 yd box. The ball dropped to Skrtel’s feet, and he deposited the ball past Heurelio Gomes. This gave Liverpool a 1-0 lead at the half.
Tottenham had already used two substitutions for injury (Defoe for van der Vaart, and Sebastian Bassong for Younas Kaboul), so they couldn’t afford to make a positive personnel adjustment after halftime. If there was any adjustment, Liverpool’s Kuyt and Maxi played more of a level midfield line on defense, making two solid banks of 4 for Tottenham to try to break.
This less-aggressive midfield tactic allowed Tottenham to seize control of the play. In fact, Liverpool’s only on-target shot after half came from Torres, and that was from 40 yards, and it didn’t test Gomes. Spurs poured it on, and Liverpool held their lead for 20 minutes, which included a penalty miss by Defoe off a wall handball by Ngog.
In the 65th minute, Modric took advantage of a misjudgment by Carragher. Carragher tried to close him down outside the area, and Modric jetted around him. At the 6 yard line, Modric crossed towards Crouch, but Skrtel’s effort to block the cross pushed it past Reina and into the goal. His own goal brought the game even.
What I believe to be the most important moment in this match came around the 87th minute. Carragher was forced off with an arm injury, and Sotirios Kyrgiakos came on to relieve him. Spurs manager Harry Redknapp must have seen an opportunity for Crouch to use his height to gain an advantage on Kyrgiakos, because long balls from left-back Benoit Assou-Ekotto to Crouch became the favored vehicle towards the end of the match. 2 minutes into stoppage time, this strategy paid off. A long aerial from Assou-Ekotto was won by Crouch, and the ball came directly to right wing Aaron Lennon. As he trapped the ball forward with his chest, he motored past Paul Konchesky, and send the Reds back to Liverpool dejected with a well-placed right foot, 2-1.
Liverpool appeared to be willing to sit on a 1-0 away lead in the second half, and it cost them in the end. While Torres was effective at times, Ngog seemed off the pace in this match, and he should have cost the Reds the lead with his silly penalty. Manager Roy Hodgson’s defensive second half came apart when the Spurs speedy midfielders took advantage of flatfeet in the backfield. Both Carragher and Konchesky were unprepared for the pace that hit them on the two Tottenham goals. In addition, Assou-Ekotto had been relatively successful throughout the contest in getting balls forward to Crouch, but perhaps the rushed way Kyrgiakos came onto the pitch gave Redknapp the idea to test him. Carragher showed visible disdain at the fact that Kyrgiakos wasn’t prepared to enter. Perhaps the lack of time to stretch and prepare for battle against Crouch became the undoing of Liverpool.
Regardless, it was an entertaining match. There wasn’t a lot of tactical wrangling to be had, but in the end the speed of Modric and Lennon overcame a slightly less positive 2nd half approach by the Reds, and gave Spurs the comeback victory.