Match report by Anthony Jones at Talklfc
Some days you just have to applaud your opponents. Watford wanted to put in a performance at Anfield and they did just that. Liverpool were a million miles off the pace for most of the first half and parts of the second but that should not detract from the efforts of the Championship side.
It could have been so different. Liverpool started brightly with Nunez on the right flank looking far more composed than he has done on any previous occassion in a Red shirt. Watford were unable to close him down, and given the space he put in a couple of dangerous crosses. Sinama-Pongolle was just a few inches short from getting on the end of one of them which would have given Liverpool a deserved lead.
Then something unusual happened. Having started so well, Liverpool just dropped off the pace. The back four dropped deep, the midfield failed to cover the hard yards, whilst upfront Sinama was struggling to get into the game, whilst Mellor displayed an inability to get clear of his marker. Watford were visibly lifted, with their travelling support in good voice, they started to play football and attacked with verve, especially down their right flank.
Benitez had brought Traore into the centre of defence to replace Hyypia who had been struck down by flu. Riise lined up on the left of the back four, with Garcia ahead of him. Watford seized on the chance to tes the reorganised defence and caused real havoc. With Garcia getting caught a couple of times early in the half which seemed to badly unsettle him, Liverpool were struggling. A great ball in from the right found Bouazza but on the stretch he was unable to control the volley, the ball however was quickly worked out wide again and crossed to Helguson who headed wide of Dudek, but the Pole was across quickly to save.
It should have been a warning to the Reds, but they continued their slumber. Watford were tackling feverishly in the centre of midfield. Liverpool appeared to be playing with a look ahead to Saturday's game, showing a lack of respect for their hard working opponents. Watford continued their attacks down the right with more crosses coming in but Liverpool were hanging on, just. At the other end, a Gerrard through ball found Mellor who's first touch was good, but his lack of pace allowed the defender to tackle back before he got into a dangerous position. Nunez delivered a few more crosses, whilst a Hamann cross from the left found Mellor, but his header lacked conviction.
Liverpool were glad to make it into the half time break. Watford had given them the chase around and they hadn't looked up to it. According to Gerrard's post match comments, Benitez reminded his players that there was a game that needed winning and that Watford deserved more respect.
It had the desired affect as Liverpool flew out of the traps playing the ball more and at pace. Gerrard was far more effective, increasing his work rate to what we've come to expect of him. A curling effort went just over. Mellor had a chance, the ball was played to Sinama who, seeing the run of Gerrard, dummied the ball for his captain. Gerrard ran on and slipped the ball into Mellor who had a chance to shoot but carried the ball on and was caught which prevented him from getting enough power on the shot.
It was Mellor's last action of the game as he was replaced by Baros. It was a move that paid almost instant dividends. Having been on the field for just a couple of minutes he created the goal. The ball was flicked on by Garcia around halfway to Sinama who's touch was brilliant. Spotting the perfectly timed run of Baros he played him in down the left flank. The Czech striker on his return moved down the wing and then drilled in a low cross which bounced out to the edge of the box via Jones and Cox. Gerrard running forward side footed the ball goalwards and whilst Cox got his head to the ball he could only deflect it into the opposite corner of the goal.
Liverpool continued to push forward. It was far from a dominant performance but it looked like it might result in another goal. However Watford were defending well, although Baros' all action approach was causing all kinds of problems. Sinama also looked far more effective given the greater space, whilst Garcia appeared to get over his problems of the first half.
A free kick was earnt by Garcia on the left flank after some nimble footwork that resulted in a booking for Chambers. The ball was rolled to Gerrard who from some 35-40 yards hit it low and hard at goal. Jones was forced into a scrambling save and could only parry, but he was pleased to see the ball bounce to Cox.
Watford had their chances. Good control from Helguson gave him the chance to play in Bouazza, but the striker was unable to control his shot, blasting over when composure was needed. Helguson also came close late on, a ball over the top was misjudged by Carragher and the Icelandic striker was through. However with the ball bouncing up, he hesitated waiting for a chance to strike and Djimi Traore slid in to save the day.
Watford fans can be proud of their players who have ensured that the second leg will remain interesting. Liverpool fans will be concerned by this performance, though in truth it has to be taken in the context of the competition and the match to be played on Saturday.
Liverpool manager Rafa Benitez: "I am happy with the result but not the performance. We knew it would be difficult for us and it's very difficult to win comfortably. We started well but then Watford controlled the game and they were organised and ran a lot and had some chances."
"In the second half I decided to change it and put Milan on and we played better. I don't think we were complacent but we lost the ball too easily at times. We have another game to play and I am always confident about my team."
Watford manager Ray Lewington: "Our first-half chances were the best of the match and unfortunately they didn't go in. We've done tremendously well. We worked hard and didn't let them get into their passing game. We got lots of tackles in in the first half and I think we just disrupted them a bit."
"We've come here trying to get something to take back to Vicarage Road and we think we have. It's going to be a real good game and we're going to go at them. We've got everything to play for now. We probably won't have the size of the crowd, but our lot will make some noise and it'll be a fantastic atmosphere."
Liverpool skipper Steven Gerrard: "Watford deserve a lot of credit as they came here and worked hard and made it difficult for us and it's going to be a tough second leg. The manager was concerned with our attitude in the first half and he wanted us to pass it a lot quicker and match them and we did."
"Hopefully the whole squad will realise what a tough game we'll have in the second leg now. We've won the game, which is the positive we will take from it, but we know it will be tough. Watford will go away from here with a lot of credit."
Liverpool striker Milan Baros: "I've been out for a few weeks and hopefully will be okay for the rest of the season - but it's going to be difficult down at Watford."