Liverpool’s first home game of the new Premiership season was to Gareth Southgate’s Middlesborough side. The Teeside club won their opening day fixture 2-1 to Tottenham and came to Anfield full of confidence. We ourselves had won our opening game to Sunderland but didn’t look as comfortable in doing so.
We made two changes from the side that started the game at Sunderland a week earlier. Sami Hyypia had injured himself while on international duty with Finland so Slovakian centre half Martin Skrtel was to partner Jamie Carragher at the heart of our defence, while the central midfield pairing also changed with Xabi Alonso coming into the side at the expense of Damien Plessis who found himself amongst the substitutes. The starting XI also provided home debuts for Andrea Dossena and Robbie Keane.
The match itself started quickly with both sides playing to a very high tempo. Dirk Kuyt’s long-range effort was the closest we came in the early goings. Both Keane and Benayoun had sights at goal but both missed the target and after Fernando Torres’ penalty claims were turned down by referee Mike Riley it seemed luck wasn’t with us today.
Clear cut chances were few and far between for both sides but after combining well with Keane it looked as if Fernando Torres was going to add to his goal against Sunderland yet he was to be denied by Robert Huth. Huth’s last-ditch tackle epitomised our first half display. We just weren’t hitting top form.
The Anfield crowd was expectant of goals in the second half but they would have to be patient as the early going of the second half saw our visitors find another gear. Their confidence was rising throughout the match and once Tuncay had magnificently turned Carragher it looked as if we were to be 1-0 down. Fortunately the Turkish international’s shot was straight at Reina and the game remained goalless.
This was a sign of things to come though. The Middlesborough back line kept us at bay and only to long-range efforts. They also had an effort from distance but theirs flew into the bottom corner of the net. Mido picked the ball up outside the box and saw nothing was on in front of him so tried his luck. Pepe Reina was at full stretch but it wasn’t enough to prevent the away side taking the lead.
With time running out Rafa Benitez decided to throw young Moroccan winger Nabil El Zhar on for the last ten minutes or so. This was our last substitution as Babel and Aurelio had already been brought on. El Zhar looked lively and was chasing down the ball well. It was El Zhar’s persistence that won the ball with five minutes left on the clock. He played it back to Xabi Alonso who hadn’t had a great game and again Alonso failed to cross the ball successfully but the rebound fell to Jamie Carragher who belted it from the right of the box. The ball flew through the air and after a deflection of ‘Boro captain Emanuel Pogatetz hit the back of the net. Such an unlikely hero like Jamie Carragher had rescued a point for Liverpool.
Although the drama wasn’t finished just yet and with both sides looking to steal all three points it came down to just one man. Steven Gerrard, who’d pulled us out of trouble so many times in the past, was about to do it again. A long hopeful ball from Alonso saw Robbie Keane and David Wheater tussle over the ball. Neither really made proper contact with it and the rebound fell to Gerrard’s very trusty right foot. He hit the ball so cleanly into the top corner of the net and sent us to the top of the table with maximum points out of our opening two games. It always looked like one of those games where a spark of magic would win it. That spark of magic came from our skipper Steven Gerrard.
It was a game that we didn’t deserve to win in all fairness. Middlesborough proved a tough test for us and gave a good account of themselves, I think they’ll be bitterly disappointed not to have got at least a draw out of today. But for us it’s another game that we’ve shown great character to fight until the last minute and not let our heads drop. It was the sort of game last year we’d have drew, this year we’re showing that resilience not to accept a point when all three are available.
Our minds can now focus on Wednesday night where we play Standard Liege in the second leg of our Champions League qualifier. A must win game for us and with two difficult wins under our belt the mood in the camp must be sky high.