Just like that, Liverpool's preseason matches are done, and we can put to rest the conversation about whether or not the results matter. From here on out, it's all for real, and there's little time left to get themselves sorted before Sunderland visit in a week's time. Exciting, yes, although it's also a little nerve-wracking given the questions created by some bumpy preseason performances. Better today, and some encouraging signs from those involved, but still plenty left to do.
It was as full-strength a squad as you could hope for from Liverpool right now---with Steven Gerrard, Raul Meireles, and Martin Skrtel still out through injury, Kenny Dalglish's eleven included three of the four summer additions and a strangely experienced and skilled back line. Pepe Reina started in goal behind Glen Johnson, Jamie Carragher, Daniel Agger, and the recently fit Fabio Aurelio, giving Liverpool their strongest-looking defense of the preseason. A central midfield pairing of Charlie Adam and Jay Spearing were tasked with most of the organizing, Stewart Downing, Alberto Aquilani, and Jordan Henderson were further advanced from left to right, and Andy Carroll started as the lone man up top.
As you'd expect in the first and only home match of the preseason, Liverpool came out the gates on the front foot, winning an early corner from a Glen Johnson forward run and getting a near-chance from an excellent Stewart Downing cross. Downing set up another chance shortly after, with Aurelio playing him down the left, but the resulting cross was just out of reach of Caroll in the box.
The front man wouldn't have to wait very long to connect, though, as David Albelda's errant back pass left Carroll clean through on goal. His first shot was ricocheted off Diego Alves' left leg and caromed from the post across the goal mouth, leaving Carroll with a chance to tuck away on the far side. It ended up at a narrow angle, and Alves nearly recovered, but Carroll pushed it across to give Liverpool the early lead.
From there things died down for the rest of the first half---Stewart Downing provided most of the impetus getting forward on both flanks for the hosts, but few chances were left for Liverpool as Valencia gained more of possession. The only real talking point in terms of match action was the altercation between Andy Carroll and Adil Rami; Carroll again had a look at goal from distance but felt he was fouled, and he almost immediatly produced a terrible tackle on the defender worthy of at least a yellow. He found himself on the receiving end minutes later, as David Albelda clattered into him around midfield. Not the type of involvement anyone was looking for, and he was lucky first not to be sent off, and subsequently not to come off injured.
Halftime saw only a few personnel changes, with Lucas making his preseason debut in place of Jay Spearing and Jack Robinson spelling a surprisingly still-fit Fabio Aurelio. The biggest change came off the pitch, with the club announcing the sale of Daniel Ayala to Hull City. Not a huge shock given the talk in recent weeks and his time spent there on loan, and a good move for his career, but slightly questionable timing for the announcement. Andwhile he wasn't likely to see any action this season, one less central defender for a squad whose defense has looked both shaky and lacking in depth.
The second started as the first half had wrapped up, as the guests again saw more possession with Liverpool looking to find balance. Jack Robinson's cross to Downing at the far post was the only forward move to speak of; a slew of changes on 58 minutes (Ngog-Carroll, Kuyt-Downing, Maxi-Aquilani, Cole-Henderson) saw a surge of energy up front, with Dirk Kuyt's cross reaching Maxi within a minute after coming on. The Argentinean's volleyed cross back across goal found Ngog, but the resulting effort was pushed wide. Some slick moves by Daniel Agger followed shortly thereafter, but the match again settled into a slower pace, with Tino Costa's free-kick from distance the only effort at either end to speak of.
Sotirios Kyrgiakos was Liverpool's last substitution after John Flanagan came on for Charlie Adam, replacing Daniel Agger in the 79th minute. The Greek was involved somehow in the final goal; a scramble in the box after Joe Cole's free kick left Kyrgiakos and Kuyt just off the goal line, and both looked to bundle it home for Liverpool's second. Kuyt was credited with it, though, and the home side saw the match out with little incident.
I suppose today was about as encouraging as a relatively dull 2-0 victory over talented Spanish opposition could be. It was clear that Valencia had little urgency for most of the match, which you can either credit to Liverpool's defensive effort or the fact that it's still preseason. It was better from the hosts at the back, and it was a team effort for most of the 90 minutes---aside from Andy Carroll, most of Liverpool's front four spent considerable time in their own half on a day that Pepe Reina had little action to speak of.
Stewart Downing was far and away Liverpool's top performer on the day; he got forward confidently and nearly set up two goals in the opening minutes, and he was the only consistently positive attacker when Liverpool looked mostly out of ideas. He was just as impressive tracking back, assisting Fabio Aurelio on the left before switching flanks and turning in a similarly impressive, if less prominent, display on the right.
There's less to shout about for the other summer signings, as Charlie Adam wasn't terrible but looked somewhat lost deeper in central midfield, and Jordan Henderson struggled to exert any influence on the match despite his best efforts. I don't know that either slide directly into the starting eleven in a week's time, as Lucas and Jay Spearing are the more effective central midfield pairing and Dirk Kuyt experienced more success on the flank after coming on (and is a nailed-on starter for most anyway). There's indications that both Adam and Henderson will have a positive impact, but right now only Stewart Downing looks like a marked improvement to last year's front six.
The rest of the squad varied, as Reina had little to do, Agger and Aurelio stayed fit and were consistent, and Andy Carroll scored but showed a reckless streak during the five minutes that saw him booked and nearly injured. It was nice to see Lucas back, Spearing was solid during his time alongside Adam, Kuyt showed the class and composure that were lacking during Henderson's time on the pitch, and Joe Cole showed that he's remarkably adept at inappropriate backheels and changed nobody's mind about where his future lies. Not the flashiest performance from anyone involved, but if steady and consistent is what we were looking for after shipping 15 goals in five matches, today was a success.
And any way you cut it, even with the anxieties and unanswered questions, we're only a week away from the opener. After a summer that, at times, seemed like it was crawling along, that's a good thing.