Newcastle 0 Agger (og) 25'
The first Friday night league game in England in over twenty years hardly started well for Liverpool, following the pattern set by matches against Blackburn, Wigan, and Fulham in recent weeks. But just when it seemed as though another poor result at Anfield was inevitable, a pair of pivotal moments in the second half alongside a well-taken Craig Bellamy brace means Liverpool instead head into 2012 on a high after managing their first two-goal victory at Anfield since August.
With Luis Suarez serving his one game ban for giving Fulham fans the finger and talk of Steven Gerrard perhaps being fit enough to start, the match seemed set to be a blueprint for the immediate future—for both good and ill. In the end, Gerrard's involvement would have to wait until the second half, though despite the cheer that rang out for Andy Carroll when his name was announced before the match, the striker tasked with replacing Suarez up front for Liverpool could only manage to convince observers that he remains very much a work in progress. In some ways, his night may have even represented a regression, a largely forgettable ninety minutes filled with embarrassingly heavy touches, poor movement, and missed opportunities.
Especially in the first half, Carroll showed that nearly a year after arriving at the club he remains no closer to answering questions as to how he fits into the side, with the worst moments coming off a pair of Stewart Downing runs on the right. On both occasions Downing, in an especially lively mood, was shown room to the inside by a shaky Ryan Taylor. And on both occasions he took that space and drove towards goal. Which led to him quite nearly running straight into Andy Carroll on the edge of the penalty area, the big striker seeming completely lost when Liverpool's wide-man chose to head inside instead of driving to the byline to whip in a cross.
It was the kind of basic movement and interplay one would expect any striker in the Premier League to be able to manage. If one were looking to be kind, both Carroll's static play and that it at times seemed as though he must have flubber stuffed in his boots might be excused as a combination of dipping confidence and that it was a hugely important match against his former club. His most embarrassing moment of the night might even support the idea, when in the second half he made a brilliant headed goal line clearance from a corner—the only problem was that it was a Liverpool corner and he seemed to have momentarily forgotten that he didn't play for Newcastle any more. Still, even if one were to accept such reasoning, it can hardly be encouraging for Carroll, the coaching staff, or the fans who hope that the still young and unfinished player can come good at Liverpool.
Carroll, though, at least has time on his side, while the same cannot be said for Charlie Adam, who had his fourth poor game in a row for Liverpool. More encouraging was the play of Jay Spearing alongside him, as the young Liverpudlian not only unsurprisingly outperformed Adam in Liverpool's end but also with the ball at his feet, keeping possession ticking over and changing things up with the occasional flashy ball over the top. In the meantime, Jose Enrique and Glen Johnson also continued their strong play in the fullback positions, interchanging well with the more advanced Bellamy and Downing to good effect, with Johnson posing more of a direct attacking threat and Enrique whipping in crosses in the forward third while dominating any Newcastle attacker who came near him in defence.
Also putting in another strong display were Daniel Agger and Martin Skrtel, even if it seems likely that Newcastle's goal early in the first half will go down as an Agger own goal after Liverpool's centre back pairing failed to mark either Demba Ba or Yohan Cabaye especially well during one of visiting side's few offensive forays. Still, the duo more than made up for any early miscues, with Agger rampaging forward and cutting through Newcastle's lines at will while Skrtel once again made a case for being one of the top defenders in the Premier League this season.
A well taken strike by Craig Bellamy when the ball fell to him on the edge of the area would see Liverpool go into the half level, but not until after Lee Probert took the unusual step of adding three minutes of stoppage time almost entirely for time wasting by Newcastle's Tim Krul, who appeared to think he was facing Brazil in the final minutes of a scoreless draw. On the whole, though, it had been another game of missed chances, possession without end product, and a pair of shockingly bad performances from two players who have been given a chance to make an impression in recent weeks.
And while the second half would start calmly enough, with Liverpool again controlling much of the action without it ever seeming as though they would take the lead, two moments would soon chance the game in Liverpool's favour. The first came on 59 minutes, when a clearly under-performing Charlie Adam found himself hooked before the match was two-thirds done and Steven Gerrard came on for thirty minute cameo. It would hardly be a quiet one, with the captain's off-the-bench impact matching his second half display against Napoli in last season's Europa League group stages.
Immediately, Liverpool's flagging squad was filled with life, players swarming to the ball and passes flying just that little bit faster while the Anfield crowd instantly doubled their volume in the background. Gerrard's first moment of brilliance would come five minutes after his introduction, with a ball over the top dropped perfectly on Andy Carroll's left toe. The striker was clear on goal with room to either compose himself for a shot or to hammer a first-touch volley, but instead the ball bounced off his foot as though it had hit a steel stanchion and rolled on to Krul.
Gerrard's second moment of brilliance wouldn't rely on anybody else's finishing, though Jay Spearing's well spotted pass to an advanced Jordan Henderson and then Henderson slipping Gerrard past rumoured Liverpool target Cheick Tiote both deserve credit in the buildup. With Gerrard then in on Krul and quickly running out of pitch to the left of goal, the captain slipped it left-footed underneath the Newcastle 'keeper from no more than two yards out to secure his spot on many man of the match lists despite only playing for a third of it.
Between Gerrard's two special moments were Liverpool's two other game winners. First was Craig Bellamy's literal game winning goal off a free kick in the 67th minute, with the fiery Welsh striker motioning Liverpool's captain away so that he could drive the ball past Krul from 25 yards out. However, alongside Bellamy's two strikes and Gerrard's two sublime moments of individual skill—and perhaps as individually important as the captain's introduction after 59 minutes—was Martin Skrtel's unbelievable goal line clearance in the 71st minute after only he and Demba Ba of all the players on the pitch recognised that there was the possibility for a goal from a nearly impossible angle.
With Ba's attempt heading towards goal with no one in sight to stop it, the Slovakian defender came charging back at full tilt and knocked the ball out of danger at a point when either a Ba goal or an own goal seemed the only possible outcomes. More often than not it is individual moments that win games, and though it won't show up on any score sheet, Skrtel's moment deserves at least as much praise as any goal that will be scored this season. And alongside those moments by Bellamy and Skrtel it was the return of Gerrard, too, with the captain adding his own brand of brilliance to the mix at a time when Liverpool seemed yet again destined to fall just short of putting all the pieces together at Anfield, to which Liverpool owes a rare home victory and the chance to head into 2012 with their heads held just a little bit higher.