An already crowded fixture list has just been added to with a FA Cup 3rd round replay at the Macron Stadium, against Neil Lennon’s Bolton Wanderers, once a bogey team of the Reds during the Wanderers’ Premier League era. On the face of it, this seems like the second worst possible result for the Reds; but fortunately for Brendan Rodgers and his Reds side, several factors have spared Liverpool’s blushes.
The plethora of shocks on Saturday alone have probably already filled this year’s quota for FA Cup magic. Chelsea and Manchester City both lost at home to lower league opposition, Tottenham took the lead only to fall to a late winner from Leicester City’s Leonardo Ulloa, and third placed Southampton were overturned by Alan Pardew’s Crystal Palace side. To top that off, ten-men Swansea City lost at Blackburn, while even Manchester United was forced to an Old Trafford replay against Cambridge United on Friday night. So it seems Liverpool did well to avoid a defeat against lower league opposition.
Taking into account the second leg of a semifinal that could send Rodgers’ to his first Wembley final with the Reds, the Liverpool boss could have been forgiven with most of his team selection. With Rodgers hoping to emulate Bradford City in overcoming Jose Mourinho at Stamford Bridge, it was no surprise he chose to rest captain Steven Gerrard and Martin Skrtel.
Having to try to get recently returning players match fit would also have been on Rodgers’ mind, and for that, it was acceptable that Glen Johnson and Joe Allen, to a lesser extent Adam Lallana, were handed starts too. What was not acceptable was playing Johnson as the right-sided central defender of the three-men back line. The last time the Englishman played there was during the defeat at United, and surely Rodgers has to see that Johnson is not only unsuited to play as a centre-back, but that Johnson would be more effective and even comfortable as a rampaging right wing-back. Allen playing 60 minutes before being replaced by Lucas was probably pre-planned, but Lallana’s overall performance from the start was disappointing.
Against opposition from the Championship, it would have been best to start Rickie Lambert up front, with his vast experience playing in the lower leagues, and Bolton’s deployment of three towering centre-backs would have further vindicated this decision. Whether or not Raheem Sterling should have started is another issue, but Lambert would have been a good foil for a deeper-lying Sterling to work off and that the former Southampton man would have taken most of the physical heat off Sterling. And when it was clear Lallana was losing steam and clearly lacking his touch, Lambert should have been called from the bench.
Of course, there are some positives to take from this with the decider for the other domestic cup coming up. The decision to deploy Emre Can as the middle of the back three was surely made by Rodgers to get the versatile German more used to the defensive facets of the game, and throughout, Can looked strong and very composed on the ball, while dealing with Bolton’s veteran duo. Lazar Markovic’s impact from half-time was much more positive and encouraging than that other time against FC Basel, and Markovic’s darting run and fine touch past Bolton defender Matt Mills should have resulted in the latter incurring a second yellow, but for the referee’s poor decision due to his inability to properly keep up with play. Fabio Borini’s latest appearance off the bench was as lively as ever, and he was unfortunate not to have break the deadlock with a fine curling effort that man-of-the-match Adam Bogdan clawed away at full stretch, while the Italian had a header just wide.
Unfortunately for the Reds, they have to find a way to be more clinical in front of goal, and not just place all their faith and dependence on a striker that is still to return – Daniel Sturridge. Borini, for all his endeavour and commitment, has to improve on his technique and composure, while Lallana and Coutinho have to chip in with more goals in the way Sterling has done; and hopefully Markovic’s renewed confidence, as seen by his impressive direct runs at the Bolton defence, will be rewarded with a couple more goals.
Rodgers will be hoping for a continual improvement at Stamford Bridge, and hopefully the disappointment of being forced into an FA Cup replay will end with a guaranteed trip to Wembley come Tuesday night.