A Return to the Good Old Days for Liverpool

LONDON — Not since 1990 has Liverpool’s stadium been known as Fortress Anfield. The stadium has barely changed since then, and the 44,000 fans who feed off hope are still there every match day.

But now, with a side too young to have witnessed the days and nights when Liverpool regularly stormed European soccer, there is reason to believe that the good times can come again.

On Saturday, Liverpool knocked Arsenal off the top of the Premier League.

It was a sacking rather than a mere victory. The Liverpool coach, Brendan Rodgers, had asked his side for intensity, great vigor and relentless attacking and not to let Arsenal settle into its own serene passing rhythm.

The start was as overwhelming as the rains that keep battering England. Four times within the first 20 minutes, Liverpool had penetrated Arsenal’s defenses, and the eventual 5-1 final score was almost a reprieve for Arsenal’s overwhelmed defense.

The key was youth and exuberance, aided and abetted by some woefully slow, surprisingly negligent Arsenal defending. The first two goals, following a free kick and a corner kick, were both scored by Martin Skrtel, the big, powerful Slovak who is built for defending. The next two, still within the opening 20 minutes, were finished off by fleet-footed English players, Raheem Sterling and Daniel Sturridge. And shortly after halftime, young Sterling outran the Arsenal central defense yet again to make it five goals.

Arsenal was simply blown away. The attacks abated before the storm did, but that was more because Liverpool seemed satisfied with its own supremacy. Many on this Liverpool team — along with many of the supporters in the stadium — were not even born the last time the red tide was in such flow.

Sterling is just 19, and Liverpool’s last English championship was in 1990.

Philippe Coutinho, the architect of so many of Liverpool’s moves, is a 21-year-old from Rio de Janeiro whose slight built is outweighed by his sleight-of-foot passes.

Yet, even in the English game, which is still more physical than most around the world, this young Brazilian stands out. He is barely 5-foot-7, but what does physical stature matter when the brain, the eye and the feet can turn midfield into a goal-scoring opportunity at a single stroke? Coutinho’s pass for the Sturridge goal was struck — no, caressed — from the halfway line. It divided Per Mertesacker and Laurent Koscielny, the big German and the swift Frenchman who have been quite effective this season in Arsenal’s defense.

And Sturridge, a Chelsea reject, was so fleet of foot, and so sure of his finish with the left foot, that the Arsenal keeper Wojciech Szczesny might as well have stayed in London and not made the journey north for this encounter.

Poor Szczesny. He is having his best season, and he pulled off a magnificent two-handed save to prevent a cunning free kick by Luis Suárez from entering the top corner of his net.

However, before Christmas, Arsenal conceded six goals in a loss to Manchester City, just down the road from Liverpool, and now it was giving up five.

The consolation of a penalty goal for Arsenal’s Mikel Arteta came too late, and it was far too little to paper over the cracks for Arsenal’s nondefense.

“Congratulations to Liverpool,” the Arsenal manager Arsène Wenger said in his televised postgame press conference. “They played very well, but the performance from us was not acceptable.

“It raises some questions. We were caught many times, and we were a bit naïve defensively. Every acceleration from Liverpool seemed deadly for us. We have to make sure it doesn’t happen again.”

Indeed they must, because next Sunday the teams meet again in the fifth round of the F.A. Cup, at Arsenal’s Emirates Stadium.

This is how February has become for the Gunners of North London. They have to work out how to counter Liverpool’s quicksilver counterattacks within a week, but before that Arsenal meets Manchester United in a league match on Wednesday. And a week after that, Arsenal hosts Bayern Munich, the European champion, in the Champions League.

The defensive instability could not have come at a worse time, and Arsenal’s own stylish attacking game has been disrupted by injuries to Aaron Ramsey and Theo Walcott, and to a loss of form, an apparent tiring both mentally and physically, by Mesut Ozil.

Ozil’s physical stamina was often questioned by Coach José Mourinho, who substituted the playmaker before most games ended last season when both were employed by Real Madrid.

Both have moved on to England, Ozil to a faster and physically more demanding league, and Mourinho back to Chelsea. And it is Chelsea, despite Mourinho’s insistence that it cannot win the Premier League this season, that is now in the top spot.

After mastering Manchester City last Monday, Chelsea devoured Newcastle United 3-0 in London on Saturday. Eden Hazard, the Belgian who can do no wrong on a soccer field at the moment, scored all three and took home the match ball.

Swift, superbly balanced, and single-minded, Hazard is one of the Belgians tipped by many to excel at the World Cup in Brazil.

Right now, the tournament seems a world away. Hazard, just 23, is Chelsea’s star by a distance. He revives memories of the way that the Dutch winger, Arjen Robben, danced his way to match-defining performances during Mourinho’s first spell in charge of Chelsea.

Maybe Robben had more tricks. But when Hazard cuts in from his wing, his finish comes with such calm deadliness. The Belgian is, in short, everything that Mourinho wants — a game winner who buys in to his work ethic.



http://www.nytimes.com/2014/02/10/sports/soccer/a-return-to-the-good-old-days-for-liverpool.html?_r=0