A rough-and-tumble-and-painful match was probably always on the cards against Hull City today, and it certainly lived up to the billing. Liverpool players picked up a lot of bruises to go along with their 2-0 win, but three points is three points and the squad has gotten off to a positive start in the new year.
Liverpool 2: Agger 36', Suarez 50'
To say that the match got off to a dire start is to experiment in the most extreme of understatement. Glen Johnson contrived to take one of the worst shots you'll ever see and managed to hurt himself in the process of doing so. Coutinho did... something... that wound up with him propelling the ball in to his own face. The squad as a whole was doing a fair job at keeping possession, but couldn't do much with it once they crossed the halfway line. It wasn't exactly encouraging to see as a "bounce back" from two straight hard-fought losses.
The first significant moment of the match came when Philippe Coutinho delivered a sensational ball on a free kick that Luis Suarez latched on to and put in to the back of the net. An early lead was not to be, however, as the play was called off thanks to the side ref calling offsides on Suarez. It was an extremely tight call, but on replay it appeared to be the correct one.
That free kick was one by an early indicator of what would become a disturbing trend throughout the match: Hull defenders pounding the stuffing out of Suarez. Referee Craig Pawson was leading his fifth Premier League match of the season and just the sixth of his career, and his inexperience showed in a big way. He was frequently late making calls, and consistently missed fouls on Suarez in particular. That lead the visitors to play hack-a-Suarez, which frustrated the Uruguayan and fans alike, especially when several clear yellow card fouls went completely unpunished.
Fortunately, other Liverpool players were able to earn fouls, and on 36 minutes Coutinho served up another beauty of a free kick. Daniel Agger got free in the box and powered home a header through traffic to put Liverpool up 1-0. It was wonderful to see the Dane wheel away in celebration; it's been a tough season for Agger, and to see him score that was almost relieving in a way.
The rest of the first half would pass largely uneventfully, though not without one bit of controversy. Alex Bruce, son of Hull's manager Steve Bruce, kicked Suarez high in the chest while Liverpool built up an attack, and the "challenge" went unwhistled. How that wasn't a foul, much less a yellow card at minimum, is beyond me. Considering that Bruce was already on a yellow, Pawson making the correct decision there would have made the rest of the match easier for Liverpool, but it was not to be.
The second half started with a bang. Liverpool generated a lot of pressure early in the half, most notably on a counter that sprung Raheem Sterling down the left side. Unfortunately, the chance was left wasting as Sterling got the ball stuck under his feet and couldn't pick out Suarez, who was running down the middle in support. A minute later, another Hull hack at Suarez was finally called for a free kick, and the Uruguayan stepped up to take the kick himself. He unleashed a beautifully driven shot from the left side of the goal that perfectly curled in to the nearside top corner, leaving Hull's keeper flapping helplessly at the ball to put Liverpool up 2-0.
After that, the squad largely took their foot off the gas, putting together some good chances, but rarely really threatening the goal. Coutinho getting over-eager in his shooting didn't help, though he did just miss out on a goal after a brilliant run at the death of the match. The second half did see another head-scratcher from the referee: Sterling was clearly and obviously hauled down by his shirt, but was somehow whistled for a foul. The young winger's confused reaction to the call was utterly priceless, though not repeatable in polite company.
In the end, it wasn't exactly pretty, but a win is a win is a win. Liverpool earned three vital points to return to the top four and keep pace with Arsenal, Manchester City, and Chelsea. As long as they stay close to those three clubs, this season has a chance of ending well for Liverpool fans. Next up is a visit from Oldham in the FA Cup on Sunday. Hopefully we'll see some significant rotation as there are some extremely tired legs in the squad, and a rested and eager side takes the match to Stoke on the 12th.