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Spurs 2 : Liverpool 1 - Better Performance, Bitter Result

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hodge

Everyone I know in football respects the job I’m doing here and aren’t too surprised it hasn’t been an easy start. In fact, 95 per cent would have predicted it as Mourinho did. "Liverpool will get worse and worse" is what he said and if the great man Mourinho says it, I don’t know why you don’t quote him!

With a quote like that coming out in the lead-up to the match, one could have been forgiven for thinking things could only get worse against the attacking Spurs. Great man Mourinho? Excuse me while I wash the vomit out of my mouth. Thankfully, despite everybody's subterranean expectations, things got better from a Liverpool perspective once the match kicked off and early signs suggested a side willing to play football from the back on the road. Unfortunately, in the end it all amounted to the same thing: another loss on the road. And so an old feeling returns, the feeling that sometimes it's just not meant to be.

Early pressure from Liverpool and a bit of wonderful footwork from Torres and Maxi resulted in the consciously narrow winger sending a shot spinning just past the post before the fairly open match saw an immediate chance at the other end when Crouch headed down to van der Vaart. Unfortunately for Spurs the creative Dutchman pulled up lame, straining his already damaged hamstring and leading to an early substitution for Defoe. With the free-roaming attacking midfielder off for a forward, Spurs lost their numerical advantage in midfield and what had been an open but largely evenly played match shifted towards Liverpool as Meireles and Lucas showed just how effective they can be as a central pairing and began to boss the midfield. With Kuyt industrious on the right, Maxi playing narrow with Konchesky on the overlap, and N'Gog often dropping deep on the left to build play, Liverpool looked surprisingly fluid and adventurous in what appeared more than anything an inversion of the typically imbalanced 4-2-2-2. It was a system similar to what had been seen against West Ham, with an honest attempt at maintaining possession long enough to get the fullbacks forward while keeping the ball on the ground, though this time around the pairing of Kuyt and Johnson set out in a slightly more defensive stance on the right to protect against Bale while Konchesky at least made an effort to take up a more advanced position on the left. It was unfortunate that while Maxi looked a constant threat from his tucked in position on that side, Konchesky looked serviceable at best while under little pressure offensively or defensively, leading to little joy in areas Liverpool were left free to exploit.

Still, a number of threats on Spurs' goal followed--the best when Kuyt looked up from his wide position to find four red shirts in the box with an unmarked Torres waiting for the pull-back, only for him to pull the ball behind all of them and set the Lillywhites off the other way--ending in a quick succession of corner-throw-corner-throw for Liverpool's attackers before Spurs finally grew back into the game around the thirty minute mark. Referee Atkinson, at the start of what would quickly become a comically bad performance, helped get things going when he showed Meireles a yellow card based on Gareth Bale's reputation. The Portuguese midfielder cleanly stabbed the ball away from the charging Spurs winger on the break, but since everybody knows that nobody on Earth could hope keep up with the Welshman in full flight the official wrongly decided it must have been a foul. Atkinson briefly redeemed himself when he ignored right back Hutton's audition for the Olympics as the Spurs player, completely untouched, flopped around in the box. It should have been a yellow for simulation, but at least no call is better than a penalty against, and given the rest of his performance it seems a minor miracle in retrospect that he didn't award one.

Spurs' run of dominance ended around the thirty minute mark after Carragher earned his starting role clearing a goal-bound attempt off the line and Torres headed up the pitch to cannon a long range effort off Kaboul's thigh and send a second Tottenham starter to the bench in the first half. With Tottenham still on the back-foot from that second forced substitution and the half winding down, a free-kick from a central position led to panic for Spurs as Meireles put some curl on the delivery and Skrtel powered a header into N'Gog's back. The ensuing scramble caught the unprepared Spurs defenders ball watching and gave Skrtel time to reacquire possession and find the back of the net for only the second time in his Liverpool's career. More surprising than the goal perhaps was that Liverpool then showed no signs of shifting into a defensive shell, with Lucas, Maxi, and Torres neatly combining to get the ball back to Maxi in space soon after. Unfortunately the Argentinean flubbed his lines and lost control. It was to be the first of a series of poor misses by Liverpool, and when Maxi sprung Torres clear to end the half with another missed opportunity you had to worry that it would come back to haunt them.

And it did, despite a bright start to second with Torres charging at Spurs' goal again right out of the gate. Torres' half-chance fizzled when the striker held the ball too long, driving towards the end line before being fouled, but despite the defender getting man before ball the striker didn't complain and the trailing Atkinson was excused from having to make a decision. After a spell of possession by Spurs, Liverpool again took control of the game with stretches of possession on the ground, midfield confidently anchored by Lucas and Meireles and supported by wide players, fullbacks, and even a Jamie Carragher suddenly willing to keep it on the ground, and for a time it was easy to forget the wasteful efforts in front of goal and to simply bask in a Liverpool side playing attractive, attacking football with the lead on the road against a top-half club.

The good couldn't last, though, and it all started to come apart when David N'Gog covered his face to block a dangerous Bale free kick. It looked to be clearly just outside the box, but Atkinson got another major decision wrong and awarded Spurs a penalty. As such it was only justice when Defoe screwed shot well wide of Reina's right post, but from that point forward Liverpool always looked to be in trouble, and not long afterwards all their missed chances caught up to them with a Skrtel own goal. That was followed up with Atkinson getting it wrong yet again when he denied Liverpool a clear penalty. All of a sudden it felt more like the Liverpool of old: a solid, at times even dominant, performance thoroughly undone by an inability to put chances away and officiating so horrible one began to question if there was even any pretense at objectivity. It certainly didn't feel good, that last quarter or so of the match, but at least Liverpool had been up for it and this time there was an obvious target for the anger not named Roy Hodgson. Of course, if Maxi and Torres hadn't missed their glorious chances Atkinson never would have been in a position to decide the outcome of the match. Fairer officiating likely would have seen Liverpool leave with three points, but when a team has chances to put the game away and doesn't then you can only really blame the players who missed those chances at the end of the day.

In the end, then. Maxi's final effort was blocked down in a scramble on 90 minutes with five more up on the board and the match opening up as both sides looked for three, but with increasing space on the counter Lennon slid past an unforgivably napping, flat-footed Konchesky to put the dagger in and deliver three points to Spurs that had seemed to be coming for quite some time. It wasn't the result Liverpool deserved, but it had seemed almost inevitable from the Defoe penalty onwards. Still, when Hodgson talks about solid performances and unfair results this week he will actually be right to do so.

For all that the final score was hard to take, this was better. It was promising. For long stretches we saw what we all want to see on the road against any and every side. And yet in the end the result just wasn't there. These sorts of loses always hurt, though perhaps it would hurt less without memories of City and Northampton and Everton and all the rest. Still, this is a hard one to lay at the feet of Roy Hodgson as the team really did seem up for it and willing to attack. Blame missed chances, blame Torres looking off for long stretches despite getting good support, blame Atkinson's general incompetence, but it's hard to blame the manager for this one outside of his faith in a clearly lacking left back. It hurts to see what should have been three points turn into none just like that, but at least it's a better sort of hurt than all the matches we've seen when Liverpool didn't deserve anything to begin with.

If we've been saying all along that it's not the results, it's the performances, then it's only fair to acknowledge that at least this was a promising performance, even if it was the bitter, bitter result.