Liverpool 1, Portsmouth 0: Gritty display gets the job done

By Ian Doyle on Oct 30, 08 09:44 AM in Journalists

IT may not have carried the lusty appeal of a record-breaking triumph in the capital, but the message was similarly loud and clear. Liverpool mean business.

The manner in which Chelsea were put to the sword may have sent out a bold statement of intent but last night simply getting the job done was the most important aspect.

Liverpool got there in the end, and in doing so confirmed they can still be in the mix when the season reaches its conclusion.

Make no mistake, if the collision with Portsmouth had gone the same way as the tussle with Stoke City last month then Rafael Benitez would have been left fielding the same old questions about his team's championship credentials.

But Steven Gerrard's coolly converted penalty 14 minutes from time extended Liverpool's best-ever start to a Premier League campaign as they remain three points clear of Chelsea at the top of the table.

Sure, there was a helping hand from Portsmouth midfielder Papa Bouba Diop, who inexplicably fisted clear Fabio Aurelio's corner to leave referee Steve Tanner no option but to point to the spot.

But this was an evening when the prime objective was to ensure the momentum of Sunday's historic victory at Stamford Bridge wasn't immediately lost.

Last season's title challenge floundered on an unacceptable number of home draws.

And with Liverpool having found Stoke impossible to break down the week after the defeat of champions Manchester United, Portsmouth arrived in the image of their newly-appointed manager Tony Adams; dogged, resolute and difficult to topple.

For much of the game it seemed those qualities would be enough to ensure Adams's reign began by landing a damaging psychological blow on Benitez's side.

Liverpool's frustration at their inability to find a way through was never more apparent as when Xabi Alonso and Dirk Kuyt both attempted to strike the same ball and remonstrated with each other.

The pair quickly made up but that lack of cohesion, particularly concerning the final pass, consistently undermined their efforts to punch holes in a surprisingly well-drilled Portsmouth back line.

The manner in which Liverpool finally found a way through will have done little to quell the curiously growing band of critics that dismiss their fine start as purely 'lucky'. But the Stoke game may have been different if Gerrard's early free-kick had not been incorrectly disallowed. Swings and roundabouts, as they say.

After the exertions in ending Chelsea's 86-game unbeaten record, it was perhaps inevitable that Benitez's side were a little jaded last night.

And with the Spaniard making four changes from the team that won at Stamford Bridge, it was an opportunity for Liverpool's fringe players to prove Benitez is right to insist his squad have the necessary strength in depth.

Their performances, though, were largely underwhelming. Lucas was neat and tidy in the first half before fading badly, while the recalled Jermaine Pennant and Ryan Babel were both infuriatingly inconsistent before being substituted.

Babel's pace caused continued alarm for the visiting defence, typified by one incisive first-half run that saw him go beyond two Portsmouth players before being hounded out on the edge of the area.

But too often the young Dutch forward seemed reluctant to back himself in good positions. It's a failing that Babel must address if he is to realise the high expectations of his manager.

Only Sami Hyypia, revelling at being restored at centre-back alongside Jamie Carragher to deal with height of the returning Peter Crouch, could feel satisfied at his evening's work.

Buoyed by their historic weekend win, Liverpool started brightly before becoming ensnared in a midfield battle with obdurate opposition.

Kuyt, leading the line with Robbie Keane fit enough only for bench duty, came closer than anyone to scoring before the break when, in the 10th minute, Alvaro Arbeloa rolled the ball back into his path to strike an angled drive from 20 yards that Portsmouth goalkeeper David James palmed on to his right-hand post.

A minute later, Lucas should have done better when good movement in the area allowed him to meet Fabio Aurelio's left-wing corner but the midfielder sent his header wastefully over.

When Gerrard, again operating behind the lone forward, had a free-kick charged down, Jamie Carragher thrashed a low shot from 30 yards that James did well to hold.

Kuyt then hit the side-netting, while Noe Pamarot was alert to hack away from the incoming Dutchman after James could only parry Gerrard's cross-shot and Arbeloa, keen to augment the attack at every opportunity, curled an effort narrowly wide.

Diop had the visitors' only decent first-half chance, nodding a Sean Davis cross straight at Pepe Reina when completely unmarked inside the area. It wasn't the first time Diop would let Liverpool off the hook.

Benitez's side were guilty of some chronic over-elaboration around the box when a good old fashioned shot would have sufficed.

Liverpool hit the woodwork for a second time in the 59th minute when Hyypia met Gerrard's left-wing corner but his header struck the outside of the post.

Home frustration grew in the 73rd minute when substitute Yossi Benayoun raced on to Gerrard's fine throughball but an unnecessary extra touch allowed Sylvain Distin to make an excellent sliding block challenge.

Aurelio then forced James to turn behind a piledriver from range and, from the Brazilian's subsequent corner, Liverpool were gifted their winner when Bouba Diop, while challenging Hyypia for a header at the near post, bizarrely met the ball with both fists.

Gerrard kept his nerve to convert into the bottom corner despite James going the right way.

Nadir Belhadj's left-wing cross caused hearts to flutter before a late cavalry charge from the visitors led to a nervy closing moments, although substitute Keane almost snatched a second with a late effort.

Benitez believes Liverpool must be "almost perfect" this season if they are to end their championship drought.

This performance may have been far from perfect. But the result was all that mattered.

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