Last night, Liverpool Football Club exacted revenge on Tottenham Hotspur for their opening day defeat to the Spurs—a defeat that began what has turned out to be a season of disappointed and unfulfilled promise.
The men from Anfield came into this match on the back of a morale-sapping draw with Stoke City, having once again conceding a goal very late in the proceedings.
Liverpool, and in particular Rafa Benitez, needed a performance that would stem the tide of negativity emanating from all corners of the media and ebb the flow of pessimism beginning to encircle the club.
With Steven Gerrard and Fernando Torres not available again, the energetic Dirk Kuyt was asked to lead the line with Alberto Aquilani playing just behind.
Sotirios Kyrgiakos retained his place in the heart of the defence, as Benitez played an unchanged defensive quartet from the Stoke City game.
On the right side of midfield, Philipp Degen kept his place after an impressive outing in the last game, with Albert Reira returning to the left wing.
Jamie Carragher, captaining the Reds in Gerrard’s absence, brought his teammates into a huddle prior to the kickoff, in which he could be seen vociferously demanding passion, commitment, and urgency.
Liverpool needed a performance that showed the league and the media that their season was far from over, as so many pundits had been reporting. The wolves were clawing at the gates of Anfield, and the Reds (in particular their beleaguered manager) needed a battling show of resilience to keep them at bay.
Anfield held its collective breath as the referee, Howard Webb, got the game underway.
What followed was a Red assault. Liverpool came out of the blocks flying, like a coiled up spring let loose. Like a greyhound out of the traps, they went after Spurs as if the team from London were the rabbit.
Such was the hunger and desire, the intensity and passion of the men from Anfield to prove their doubters wrong, that Tottenham were simply too shocked to adequately cope with the Red tide that flowed towards the Kop end.
Within six minutes, Liverpool had taken the lead. Good skill from Aquilani at the edge of the area set up Kuyt, whose first-time shot was too accurate and powerful for Gomes' desperate dive.
Kuyt wheeled off towards the Kop in ecstasy and joy, the emotion and release of tension written all over his face.
But with confidence low within the team, a display of calm assured football from the Reds was not to be expected. This was a game of passion, grit, and guts. Tackles flew in all over the pitch with the men from Anfield hunting down Tottenham players in packs.
Mascherano hassled, harrie, and tackled like a man possessed. He had come out in the media in solid defence of his manager, saying that the players needed to stand up and be counted. And he himself led by example.
But Tottenham, under Harry Redknapp, have rekindled their football swagger. As the half settled, Spurs started passing the ball around with some aplomb and looked like a real threat when going forward.
With a direct style of play, Tottenham looked to hit Peter Crouch at every opportunity. He obliged by winning ball after ball in the air and bringing his fellow teammates into play time and time again.
Kyrgiakos did a gallant job against the former Reds’ lanky striker, and his physical presence did knock Crouch off his stride at times. But it was Tottenham that played the better football and at times cut into Liverpool’s defence with slick passing and movement.
Liverpool, however, were in no mood whatsoever to be beaten. The work rate and commitment of the team was immense. This was not a game where Liverpool were looking for a good performance; they were looking for three points and nothing less.
The team’s passion was epitomised by the enormously fit Kuyt. This man has the lungs of a marathon runner, and the heart of a lion. His tireless team play and running is an example of total commitment to the Liverpool cause.
With his work-rate infectious, Liverpool were tenacious. Quality was in short supply from the Reds, but their commitment and desire more than made up for it.
Tottenham played the better football by far and controlled large slices of the game. A look at the possession statistics shows Spurs having 55 percent to Liverpool’s 45 percent of the play. One must look long into the record books to find a match where Liverpool have had fewer possessions than their opponents when playing at Anfield.
With legs getting heavy as the game entered the final 10 minutes, Benitez replaced Aquilani with Ngog and Reira with Maxi. This proved to be a tactical masterstroke.
Rather than going into a defensive shell to protect what they had, Rafa decided that the best way to protect his lead and avoid another last minute spoiler was to attack.
For the final 10 minutes Ngog was a constant threat. In the 90th minute, it was his run into the box that led to the penalty, and Liverpool’s chance to seal the points.
Kuyt was asked to beat Gomes twice as Howard Webb disallowed his first spot kick for encroachment by Lucas. His second was as emphatically struck, this time in the opposite corner.
A performance of passion and heart gave the Reds their first win of 2010 and put themselves firmly back into the mix of teams battling for fourth place and Champions League qualification.
More than anything else, the nature and manner of these three points was a message from Rafa Benitez and the Liverpool Football Club to the rest of the league and the media. We are not dead and buried yet, far from it.