Wednesday, August 06, 2008

A Spanish Conquest

Gareth Barry may not have been in Oslo last night, but there was no getting away from him.

If it wasn’t an injury scare to Steven Gerrard which suggested a move for the Aston Villa man might need to be completed sooner rather than later, it was the imperious form of Xabi Alonso which begged the question of why Liverpool remain ready to spend around £18m on a central midfielder.

Should Tom Hicks and George Gillett get their act together and finally give their approval to the proposed deal, Barry could be a Liverpool player before the week is out.

What that would mean for Alonso is unclear, with a likely need to balance the books putting his Anfield future in doubt, but at least the stylish midfielder is making it hard for his manager to allow him to depart by showing Rafa Benitez exactly what he would be missing if he decided to let him go.

The debate about whether Barry is a better player than Alonso or would better complement the current Liverpool side is likely to go on for some time and, if letters pages and internet message boards are anything to go by, the fans are yet to be convinced that he is.

But what cannot be doubted is Alonso’s enduring professionalism and willingness to give his all for the team even when his own future at the club is shrouded in such severe doubt.

Against Valerenga, he swept the ball about with consummate ease, protected his back four and popped up on the edge of the box to score with the kind of precise finish only players with studious technique can even contemplate.

If there is a criticism of Alonso, it is that he hasn’t done this more often, particularly when he can hit the ball at least as sweetly as any other member of the current Liverpool squad.

It could be argued that the fact that his Anfield status is threatened has actually brought out the best in him because against Rangers at the weekend and the Norwegian outfit last night he adopted a shoot on sight policy which has brought him two goals and could easily have brought him even more.

Had it not been for a sloppy goal conceded just after half time when Liverpool’s defence totally lost its shape, the symmetry with Saturday’s game at Ibrox would have been complete.

As against the Scots, Liverpool scored once in the first half and three times in the second. Even the identity of the goalscorers was identical, with Alonso being joined on the score sheet by Fernando Torres, Yossi Benayoun and David Ngog.

A similar gulf in class was evident also with the Reds having far too much for their willing, but limited, opponents in front of a crowd which could not have been more partisan in favour of Benitez’s side had it been played at Anfield.

The backing of the Norwegian fans is nothing short of a phenomenon, you only have to witness the huge numbers wearing newly-acquired Liverpool shirts on the streets of Oslo to realise that.

But they also have a commitment to the club which easily exceeds the stereotype of so many out of town supporters – they even sing Scouser Tommy in an almost Scouse accent.

Their vocal and vociferous backing meant Liverpool were not going to do anything other than put on a show and at times their football was excellent, underpinned by an eagerness to attack at every opportunity and a fluidity of movement which has allowed the team to express itself more and more as pre-season has worn on.

There is still no genuine width and the idea of having Robbie Keane stationed on the left wing is one which will take some getting used to, but, in the absence of players who get chalk on their boots, Liverpool are still managing to use the central areas of the pitch to good effect.

Such an approach relies on imaginative movement of course and Torres in particular is adept at finding space and creating it for others to often devastating effect.

But if there is one weakness which the current pre-season programme has thrown up it is that Liverpool still do not possess a player who is likely to get to the byline and get crosses in.

Modern football lacks such players, and Benitez would dearly love to have one at his disposal if he could find, and afford, one.

In the absence of a top-class winger, Andrea Dossena is being asked to get forward from left back at every opportunity and after a difficult start to his time in a red shirt the Italian is now settling in well and is undoubtedly a threat when he joins the attack.

Yossi Benayoun is certainly enjoying working with an overlapping full back as his second half strike illustrated as he moved inside from his station wide left and produced a jinking run and finish which brought the Ullevaal Stadium to its feet.

That goal was sandwiched between a brilliant strike by Torres and a calm and assured finish by French teenager Ngog, who has certainly impressed in his last two outings.

Besides the poor goal they conceded, the only other worry for Liverpool was their continued inability to deal with set pieces played into their own box.

Having plagued them for much of last season, this recurring problem is still to be eradicated and at times last night Valerenga caused chaos just by floating a high ball to the back stick.

If a side as limited as Valerenga is having this effect then you can bet your life that the Premiership big guns will be rubbing their hands in glee at the prospect of Liverpool’s Achilles heel still being on show when the Premiership season kicks off in less than two weeks time.

But the positives far outweigh the negatives at present and Liverpool’s commitment to attacking football looks greater now than it has at any stage in Benitez’s tenure.

He now wants Gareth Barry to add to what he’s already got and it is now down to Messrs Hicks and Gillett to decide if they are willing to back their manager’s judgement.

VALERENGA: Perkins, Storbaek, Reid, Muri, Jepsen, Berre, Haestad, Strand, Zajic, Holm, Shelton.

LIVERPOOL: Cavalieri (Reina, 46), Arbeloa (Darby, 67), Carragher (Hyypia, 46), Agger, Dossena (Insua, 67), Kuyt (El Zhar, 75), Gerrard (Spearing, 27), Alonso (Plessis, 53), Benayoun (Pacheco, 67), Keane (Ngog, 67), Torres (Nemeth, 67).

REFEREE: Tom Henning Ovrebo.


No comments: