Wins are a good thing, and by that standard Liverpool's performance against Bournemouth was perfectly adequate. Some shaky spots, but all told it was a competent display away in cup competition, and they're now onto the round of 16 after exorcising any demons left over from last season's loss at Oldham. But in the broader context of Liverpool's season, it was a performance that led to more hand-wringing, and the furthering of concerns that could have a significant impact on the club's top four aspirations.
Liverpool 2: Moses 26', Sturridge 60'
In a fascinating and all too familiar turn of pre-match events, Brendan Rodgers set his side up exactly the way he did in the first half against Aston Villa, with only Steven Gerrard and Jordan Henderson in the midfield and a top-heavy attacking contingent of Philippe Coutinho, Victor Moses, Daniel Sturridge, and Luis Suarez just three days before what many feel is the most important Merseyside Derby in recent memory. So.
And Bournemouth were the better side in the opening twenty minutes, with Liverpool looking out of sorts and incapable of putting together more than a few passes at a time. The hosts won a few corners early and forced Brad Jones into a couple of nervy moments from set pieces, and other than the odd break or two, the visitors had little to shout about.
We've come to expect that in recent weeks given Rodgers' confusing selections, but in the 26th minute they took the lead anyway, with Victor Moses--who had a few decent attacking sequences to that point--firing a low shot through two defenders and past Lee Ward after a cross-field pass from Suarez. The celebrations that followed were somewhere between non-existent and disappointed, which sort of fit the tone of the occasion despite the fact that Liverpool were 1-0 to the good.
The rest of the first half was notable only for the fact that it was something that happened, and the second started in similar fashion, with only slightly more interest shown by Liverpool. Martin Skrtel clashed heads with a Bournemouth player and required stitches and a skull cap, and a few minutes later Liverpool were 2-0 up through Sturridge. Suarez played his strike partner in with a nice through ball, and the Englishman finished coolly with his right foot to effectively kill the match off with half an hour to play.
It could have been far better, and as we've learned in seasons past, it could have been far worse. Sturridge got on the score sheet again, his third goal in three games since returning, and we also got to see Jon Flanagan back from injury ahead of a likely appearance in the derby. Martin Kelly got an extended run-out, imperfect as it might have been, while Victor Moses had one of his most effective appearances in a Liverpool shirt since the first few weeks of his loan spell.
And yet it all feels a little hollow given the aforementioned context; Everton will feel heartened by Liverpool's displays in the past two weeks despite their own worries with form and injury, especially the amount of space gifted to the opposition on between the back four and what's passing as a midfield. Steven Gerrard and Jordan Henderson were again inconsistent, with Gerrard slightly better on the day, but it's clear that neither is entirely comfortable with the current setup, and while Rodgers' hand is forced due to lack of fitness in the squad, you'd hope there is some sort of solution on the immediate horizon.
We knew it would be like this once Liverpool got themselves at and around the top of the table; consistent success is not something the club have experienced in years, and it feels like every performance, every decision, every result has so incredibly much riding on it. And it does, of course, but the emotional strain of that is exhausting, and if things continue to trend positively, it's only going to get worse as it gets better. If that makes any sense at all.
Onto the Fifth Round of the FA Cup. Fourth in league. Time left to improve the squad. Merseyside Derby on Tuesday with a chance to pull ahead of Everton in the race for fourth. Breathe.