Liverpool 3 Maxi 13', Maxi 16', Carroll 90'
With Luis Suarez, Steven Gerrard, and Jamie Carragher rested with an eye to Saturday's FA Cup semi-final against Everton, Martin Skrtel captained an under-strength Liverpool against Blackburn. Of course, given that many of the names left out of the starting eleven in favour of youngsters like Sebastian Coates, Jonjo Shelvey, and Jay Spearing have too often failed to impress this season, one might argue that any idea of this Liverpool having a best eleven is a rather shaky one.
Along with a lineup heavy on youth and fringe players, it marked a return from injury for Glen Johnson, though with Jose Enrique desperately in need of rest and Jon Flanagan having put in a series of decent performances it wasn't entirely surprising to see the England right back on the left while the youngster kept his place on the right. Meanwhile, Craig Bellamy and Maxi Rodriguez both returned to the starting lineup to flank Andy Carroll, with the target-man making his fiftieth start since arriving at Liverpool from Newcastle.
And in the early going it seemed as though the radical changes were just what Liverpool needed, as for one of the first times in the midst of a tough second half slump that has seen them ahead of only Wolves in the form table since the end of December they finally managed to both dominate an opponent and put away a few of the chances that came about because of that dominance. Of course, being Liverpool, even that success would have to lead to questions.
In this case, when Martin Skrtel sailed a perfect long pass to Craig Bellamy as he charged down the right channel and Maxi Rodriguez side-footed the resulting cross into the net, it couldn't help but leave people wondering why it was only the Argentine attacker's eighth appearance in the league this season. When three minutes later he scored a poacher's goal as the scrambled ball fell to him at the back post, it only reinforced such questions.
Certainly it was great to see Liverpool confidently attacking an opponent. And certainly it was great to see them scoring when they were ahead in the run of play. But it was frustrating to see the best performances coming from players who have often seemed misused—if they've been used at all—throughout the season while management has stuck with often underwhelming options.
In addition to Maxi, Jordan Henderson was calm and authoritative in midfield, keeping the ball ticking over in possession and playing confident one- and two-touch football, while in his second start in recent weeks Sebastian Coates was once again impressive in defence. It wasn't all good in the early going, though, with the biggest warning signs coming whenever Blackburn attacked down their left flank. Shortly before Maxi's first goal, Jon Flanagan lingered on the ball and was put under pressure by Martin Olsson. First he conceded possession, then he dragged back the Blackburn winger and earned himself an early yellow card. Then, shortly after Maxi's second goal, he easily could have had his second card of the night with a clattering late tackle when Olsson once again got the better of him.
Twenty-five minutes in, Flanagan would make his third and final mistake of the night with a poorly weighted back-pass that fizzed between Liverpool's centre backs and was picked up by a streaking Junior Hoilett. It forced Doni to charge towards the edge of the area, and as Hoilett got there first the goalkeeper slid to try to take it off his toe. Doni failed, Hoilett fell, and Liverpool was rightly down to ten men.
Flanagan would be the man to make way for Brad Jones off the bench, with the Australian keeper making his league debut and third overall appearance in his second season with the club. A poor effort by Yakubu went straight at Jones when he guessed the right way, giving a short-lived boost to both Jones and Liverpool. Though when considering longer term implications, one has to worry about the impact the opening twenty-five minutes of the match may have on Jon Flanagan's development, a spell of futility for a Liverpool player this season perhaps only equaled by Charlie Adam against Tottenham in the Autumn—only this time around, it was Flanagan's manager taking him off the pitch and not a referee's red card.
As the initial burst of adrenaline earned by the saved penalty wore off and the home side remembered they were in fact up a man, the tide began to turn. Increasingly, Liverpool hit the ball long to a largely isolated Andy Carroll, turning it over repeatedly to a Blackburn side more and more willing to attack in numbers. If the first quarter of the match had made Liverpool victory seem inevitable, the final three quarters seemed poised to re-write the narrative.
Thirty-six minutes in, Yakubu made up for his earlier poor penalty and confirmed the growing feelings of dread amongst Liverpool supporters when he was left completely unmarked in the area to knock home a free header. Though Livepool went into the half still a goal to the good and having found their feet somewhat, given their struggles in recent months it was hard to imagine any kind of sustained pressure from Blackburn after the break could be resisted.
When the second half kicked off, though, things didn't quite follow the expected narrative, with Liverpool largely avoiding the urge to hit the ball long to Andy Carroll and instead focusing on keeping possession in an attempt to compensate for their numerical disadvantage. It seemed as though it should have paid off when in the forty-eighth minute Andy Carroll found himself free in space in front of goal off a Liverpool corner. Unfortunately he couldn't make clean contact with the ball, and instead of finishing Blackburn off could only manage a glancing blow that sent it out for a goal kick.
His increasing isolation as Liverpool focused on keeping their shape and holding onto the ball was perhaps inevitable and hardly the big striker's fault, but it was a poor moment for a man who up until that point had done little with what chances he had been given, with his movement off the ball often languid and his heavy touch causing a number of moves to break down. And it was one more reason for everybody watching to assume Blackburn would eventually pull level—and then perhaps pull ahead.
When ten minutes later Brad Jones made a series of errors that led to a second Blackburn penalty, it only seemed the fitting conclusion to everything that had happened starting when Flanagan sent Junior Hoilett in on goal and Doni saw red as a result. With the ball sent back to Jones, the Liverpool keeper drilled it against a late-arriving Yakubu. With the ball popped straight up into the air, Jones then managed to fluff what should have been an easy catch as Yakubu followed the blocked clearance towards goal. When Jones then shoved Yakubu over to prevent him from getting to the loose ball, it seemed another red was imminent.
Referee Anthony Taylor, however, seemed to take pity on the Liverpool keeper and only showed him yellow, allowing Liverpool to avoid becoming the first side in the Premier League to have two goalkeepers shown red in a single match and also ensuring they would have at least one senior keeper to start against Everton on Saturday. Yellow or red wouldn't matter in the moment, though, as Jones went the wrong way and Yakubu scored despite an even poorer effort than the first time around.
It seemed inevitable. And it had all seemed increasingly surreal. But somehow, on this night, Liverpool didn't completely collapse when everything was going wrong. A lot of that was thanks to an inspired performance by Jordan Henderson, shunted into an unlikely role at right back after Flanagan was sent off in the first and only looking more energised as the game wore on and he continued to shuttle tirelessly up and down the pitch. At times, despite being the right back, he in fact seemed Liverpool's main attacking threat. Even if that perhaps spoke as much to the continually ineffective Andy Carroll and a midfield more concerned with not conceding, it was still an impressive performance—and more than a touch unexpected.
In the end, though, it was the otherwise anonymous Andy Carroll who popped up to win the game in stoppage time. Sebastian Coates and Daniel Agger also played key roles in the goal, the latter having come off the bench to replace Glen Johnson shortly after the fifty minute mark with both mens' minutes being managed as they work back from injury. Thanks largely to the four men making up Liverpool's rather odd backline, the game reached stoppage time with it appearing that the visitors would at least manage to take a single point back to Liverpool with them—a disappointing result given how the game had started, but perhaps better than the result they had seemed destined to from the moment Doni got sent off.
A late push up the pitch, though, would earn Liverpool a corner. It was cleared, but with Blackburn slow to set their defensive line it allowed Coates to find Agger inside the penalty area with a long vertical ball. Agger flicked it into the middle, and Andy Carroll was there unmarked to drive it home with his head. It was a much harder chance than the one he had spurned earlier, and as the players, coaches, and travelling supporters celebrated it meant that Liverpool would take all three points from one of the more bizarre games they've played in recent years.
It also further established Andy Carroll's standing as an enigma Liverpool seem unable to entirely figure out, as after having one of his least effective games since arriving and at times not even showing the effort he did early in the season he managed to pop up in stoppage time to win the game. Meanwhile, a number of players who too often haven't been given the chance their play deserves this season once again made a strong argument for inclusion by showing they could keep their nerve while the more regular starters too often have collapsed at the slightest excuse.
In the end it was a frustrating game sandwiched by a strong opening and an unlikely ending, and despite going home with three points it only seems to leave more questions than it answers when it comes to just what direction this particular Liverpool side is heading in, who should be playing, and exactly what the coaching staff's role in the various goods and ills of this season are. Perhaps all that can be said in the end is that hopefully it will give the entire squad a boost heading into Saturday, and that three points are always better than one or none.