Liverpool 3 Wigan Athletic 2 : Kuyt rises to the occasion for Liverpool
Dutchman's scissors kick helps Benitez's men keep pace at the top after Valencia red card turns game
Sunday 19 October 2008
The Liverpool programme is, as you would expect, on message. "Impossible is nothing" it preaches in a style that would win nodding respect from Peter Mandelson, and to be fair to the team they are doing their utmost to live up to the slogan.
After a last breath winner against Manchester City in their previous match, they achieved this victory over Wigan Athletic with a goal scored with the relative comfort of five minutes to go. Relative being the apposite word, because this was a desperately close thing.
Behind to two goals from Amr Zaki - the second a beautifully executed scissors kick - Liverpool clawed themselves back to points parity with Chelsea at the top of the Premier League with second half goals from Albert Riera and Dirk Kuyt, who also scored in the first half.
It was a harsh outcome for the visitors who were the better team in the fist half and would have fancied their prospects of at least holding out for a draw but for the sending off of Antonio Valencia for two bookable offences with 16 minutes to go.
That proved to be the turning point, and one vigorously contested by the Wigan manager Steve Bruce who believed both cautions were wrong, particularly the first when Valencia was booked for encroaching at a free-kick. "We have been harshly treated and robbed in my opinion," he said. "Xabi Alonso pretended to take the free-kick and our players tried to block him which is normal. But Valencia did not encroach until the ball is kicked. He was going backwards and sideways to try to get to the ball but not forward. That was a big, big decision that the referee got wrong."
Bruce estimated that Wigan were the better side for 70 minutes and it was difficult to argue with him. Wilson Palacios and Lee Cattermole eclipsed Steven Gerrard and Xabi Alonso's usual dominance at Anfield and the soundtrack for the first half was Jamie Carragher's booming instructions to his stretched back four.
His guidance was followed more or less until the 29th minute when a crass error gave Wigan the lead. Reina passed to Daniel Agger, who lazily turned with the ball only to find Zaki bearing down on him. Even then the Danish centre-back had the chance to hoof the ball clear, but he tried to dribble his way out of trouble, was caught in possession and Zaki shot into the corner of the net with a sniper's precision.
Agger made amends eight minutes later with a run that began midway in his own half. Wigan retreated, he rolled forward and, after he had exchanged passes with Andrea Dossena, he was suddenly in a position to cut the ball back to Kuyt, who beat Chris Kirkland with a low shot from eight yards.
Anfield relaxed, Liverpool began to purr and Kuyt almost scored again with a thunderous shot from 20 yards that thumped against the Wigan bar. The scare was over surely? Not with Zaki lurking.
With the game entering stoppage time before the interval there seemed little danger as Agger and Dossena shepherded Valencia towards the corner flag. The winger from Ecuador escaped this trap thanks to a combination of his trickery and a lucky rebound, however, and his cross looped to the far post where Zaki leapt and in mid-air hit a scissors kick beyond Reina's dive. It was a brilliant piece of improvisation and Zaki deserved every bit of milked applause as he race the length of the pitch to celebrate in front of the Wigan fans.
Titus Bramble hit a post in the 55th minute and Wigan were looking comfortable until a lunge from Paul Scharner on Robbie Keane on the edge of the Wigan area led to a bout of pushing between players in the wall that culminated in Valencia getting booked for charging the free-kiick. Tempers flared and within seconds Valencia jumped into a tackle with Alonso, got his second caution and was sent off.
With a numerical advantage, Benitez made the gambler's throw of withdrawing both fullbacks for Yossi Benayoun and Nabil El Zhar - "We had to do something," he said - and the latter was instrumental in Liverpool's second goal, after 80 minutes. Riera passed to the left, El Zhar pulled the ball back and Riera drilled the ball low into the corner.
Liverpool were charging now and they got their winner with five minutes to go. Jermaine Pennant crossed from the right, Kuyt excecuted a scissors kick that lacked the grace of Zaki but got enough purchase on the ball for it to hit the ground with enough force for it to bounce over Kirkland's dive.
"Kuyt is a player every manager would want in his squad," Benitez said. "We have been talking about him not scoring in the Premier League but today he scored twice. His understanding with Robbie Keane was very good." Could Liverpool keep doing the improbable? "I'll talk to my doctor,: he replied.
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