Reds final pre-season fixture ends in defeat
It was billed as the Dublin Decider. But all Liverpool FC’s trip to Ireland underlined was there remain many uncertainties for Brendan Rodgers to ponder ahead of the coming campaign.
Such was the inevitable conclusion after the Anfield outfit’s warm-up programme ended in underwhelming fashion at the Aviva Stadium on Saturday.
The alarm bells will not have been sent ringing by defeat to a largely second-choice Celtic. But the manner of the defeat will have triggered some nagging doubts in the mind of Rodgers.
Here was a flashback to the Liverpool that struggled through much of the early stages of last season: loose in defence, overpowered in midfield and profligate in attack.
Yes, it was only a friendly. Yes, Liverpool appeared jaded after much jetting around in recent weeks. And yes, it’s all about preparation for the main event that starts next weekend.
But if any supporters were foolish enough to be carried away by the previously unbeaten pre-season, their enthusiasm will have been dampened by this dose of realism.
Liverpool have worked brilliantly to expand their global brand and have won many new friends on their summer travels.
However, the opposition has, putting it kindly, not been the strongest.
Celtic, though, are a different proposition. And even missing so many big names, they offered something more similar to the physical challenge Stoke City will pose in their Premier League opener at Anfield on Saturday.
Liverpool couldn’t find the answer. And with each missed opportunity, so the thought of a certain Uruguayan kicking his heels back at Melwood sprung to mind.
At least there was the significant bonus of a return to action for Daniel Sturridge. The striker emerged at half-time for his first pre-season appearance having suffered ankle ligament damage while on international duty in May.
Sturridge may not be match fit but he appeared sharp during his 45-minute run-out and was much more of a threat than Iago Aspas who, in his first real test against the type of burly centre-back he will regular oppose in the Premier League, found Celtic’s man-mountain Steven Mouyokolo difficult to conquer.
Aspas, though, will have to adjust swiftly, given he is likely to start against Stoke with Rodgers reticent to rush Sturridge back into the fray.
Philippe Coutinho was the only other significant positive, far more dangerous during the second half when moved into a central role behind Sturridge following Joe Allen’s substitution.
“That is his best position,” admits Rodgers. “He played from the side at Inter Milan and played a lot of his career from the side, but absolutely no question his best position is the number 10.
“That is where he affects the game the most. When we get the right type of quality on the sides, he will play in there. We are looking for someone top left with pace and who can score goals.”
Indeed, the entire left flank remains a problem area for Rodgers, with Jose Enrique suffering an untimely evening to forget on Saturday given Liverpool’s pursuit of a left-back.
There were other concerns in defence, with centre-back pairing of Kolo Toure and Andre Wisdom failing to convince. Rodgers must surely hope Daniel Agger or Martin Skrtel are available for the weekend, while the unused Sebastien Coates was given another indication, if it were necessary, his future is elsewhere.
The uncertainty at the back was exposed for the only goal of the game in the 12th minute. In attempting to make a tackle on the Liverpool right, Stewart Downing inadvertently found Amido Balde who, having outfoxed Wisdom with a clever piece of skill, fired a shot that hit the body of Simon Mignolet and looped into the net.
In truth, that was all Celtic mustered going forward. However, their mixture of fringe players and youngsters – manager Neil Lennon rotating his resources after their Champions League qualifier in midweek – were organised enough to keep Liverpool at bay, although they were indebted to a fine display from first-half goalkeeper Lukasz Zaluska and some indifferent finishing.
After Mouyokolo blocked a Downing effort from a tight angle, Zaluska saved from Coutinho, Downing and Johnson, albeit helped in the latter case by the right-back shooting too close to the keeper.
Sturridge’s introduction gave Liverpool extra zip, the strike shooting wide with practically his first touch after good approach work from Johnson.
But Rodgers’ men continued to be wasteful. Downing, who was a lively starter despite West Ham United holding talks over a possible transfer, saw a cutback completely missed by Coutinho before Kolo Toure headed in a Steven Gerrard free-kick only to be correctly ruled offside – a point lost on the excited stadium announcer who declared the Ivorian had equalised.
Sturridge solicited a decent stop from Celtic substitute keeper Fraser Forster at the near post, Toure failed to connect properly with a free header to Gerrard’s right-wing corner and Coutinho skewed his shot horribly wide after the Celtic defence had parted.
Substitute Jordon Ibe was denied by a last-ditch block from Stuart Findlay before Sturridge lobbed agonisingly wide having been found by Coutinho and was then inches away with a 25-yard piledriver.
Any sense of complacency within the Liverpool camp after six straight friendly wins has surely been banished by this defeat.
The phoney war is over. Now the real battle begins for Rodgers and his players.