Liverpool 1: Sterling 29'
There weren't any significant changes to the outfield portion of Brendan Rodgers' first eleven back from the international break--things were unchanged in front of goal, with Glen Johnson on the left side of defense and Andre Wisdom on the right, Daniel Agger and Martin Skrtel in the middle, and a midfield three of Joe Allen, Nuri Sahin, and Steven Gerrard. Luis Suarez again found himself flanked by Liverpool's two teenaged talents, with Suso right and Raheem Sterling left; no surprise there, but slightly confusing was the absence of Samed Yesil, who many assumed would be elevated to the bench after Fabio Borini's injury. The biggest change was obviously in goal, where Pepe Reina was deemed unfit to play, which meant that Brad Jones started for the first time in a Premier League match for Liverpool.
The start was fast and open, with both sides exchanging possession somewhat carelessly in the early going before Liverpool settled into dominance. It resembled the Stoke match at times, with Reading content to sink back deep in their own half and pack the penalty area, forcing Liverpool to create something beyond extend spells of possession and chances on the periphery.
A number of chances were wasted by indecision, with Raheem Sterling offending on at least two occasions and Luis Suarez finding space but not the target. The Uruguayan couldn't force Alex McCarthy into more than one save on the day, but did come close on a lob from the edge of the area and managed to set up Nuri Sahin with two chances in a matter of minutes.
Thankfully Sterling got what proved to be the eventual winner just inside of the half-hour mark, as a lovely one-touch dinked ball over the top from Suarez sent him into space beyond the Reading defense. There was plenty left to do, however, and the young winger did well to outpace a defender and get a shot off. His effort actually went through the legs of Shaun Cummings and beat McCarthy at the far post, giving Liverpool the lead and Sterling his first competitive goal in a Liverpool shirt.
Chances came in the time remaining of the first, with a strike across goal from Suarez that narrowly missed the pick of the lot, and Liverpool entered the break well on top but without a comfortable cushion. They carried the upper hand into the second half, with chances again coming for both Sterling and Suarez. As is so often the case, it looked only a matter of time, but as the minutes wore on and without a second goal upon which to rely, only a matter of time swung in the direction of a Reading equalizer.
The visitors mostly took their chances on the break and from set pieces, with a free kick after a soft booking for Daniel Agger providing the first nervy moment of the half. That came with more than thirty minutes remaining, and it was a trend that would continue--shaky moment at the back or in possession, Reading coming forward in numbers, and a finish that seemed just around the corner.
Liverpool huffed and puffed at the other end, with Jonjo Shelvey (who'd come on for Nuri Sahin) failing to control a wonderful cross-field ball from Suarez just in front of goal and McCarthy denying Glen Johnson at the near post after Daniel Agger very nearly poked in. The introduction of Jose Enrique gave Liverpool's attacking hopes a boost, with the freshly-fit Spaniard creating a handful of chances shortly after coming on.
Just as frustrating as it was that the inevitable Liverpool second never came, it was relieving that Reading shared their host's profligacy, and a number of confident Brad Jones saves and clearances saw out the match safely, with Liverpool getting just their third Anfield win in the calendar year.
Unremarkable doesn't have to mean disappointing, and on a day that Liverpool managed to get all three points, there's not too much room for rock-kicking and pouting. It was a match we expected them to win (I think), and--despite a number of problems that continue to linger--they did, and in a season that's seen struggles and errors lead to dropped points on far too many occasions, today's win is something to be celebrated.
That doesn't mean the problems or shortcomings are overlooked; as far as celebrations go, this one's accompanied more by relief than unbridled joy. Death by football is a wonderful idea and something the club will certainly aspire to, but at a time when wins have proven hard to come by and reasons for optimism are obscured, death by hanging on by the skin of their teeth will do.
No surprise that nearly all involved had their ups and downs, as that produced a display from the collective that was simultaneously encouraging and unnerving. From front to back it was the case--Sterling was the best up front but lingered too long at times, Suarez only got one of ten shots on the target, and Suso, while showing some wonderful decisions in the passing game, isn't yet ready to occupy a flank on his own without increased support from the fullback.
Nuri Sahin was invisible other than the chances he missed, and while neither of Joe Allen and Steven Gerrard were poor, neither exerted the type of influence they're capable of. Liverpool were at their best at the back; Wisdom did very well yet again, Daniel Agger and Martin Skrtel were solid if a little spacey at times, and Glen Johnson had another very good performance at both ends. Jose Enrique had a resurgent performance on the left in a more advanced role, and it'll be interesting to see what happens over the next few weeks as he works his way back. Most of the plaudits are reserved for Brad Jones, who won't keep Pepe Reina out of the team once he's fit but managed to put in his most confident performance in goal for Liverpool yet, keeping just the second clean sheet of the season in the process.
There weren't any fireworks, and this wasn't a win for the ages. But it was a win for right now, and that's what Liverpool are in need of. Good start to the weekend, and a great way to start to build momentum ahead of a busy two-month stretch.