by Anthony Jones at Talklfc
This season the number five has held a special place in the thoughts of Liverpool fans. By winning in Istanbul, Liverpool claimed their fifth European Cup and last night they were back on the trail to add another. Again five featured prominently as the club recorded their fifth clean sheet in a row, maintained an unbeaten streak that now stretches back five games and significantly have qualified for the next stage of the competition after just five games of the group.
Liverpool's efforts to progress to the knock-out stages of the competition this season have been far less troublesome than this time last year. Had it not been for Betis beating Chelsea in the previous match week, Liverpool would have already have established themselves amongst the last sixteen. As it was, a single point was all that was needed to ensure safe passage. To that end, Benitez selected a side with a solid base. Riise was selected at left back joining the usual suspects in defence, who were to be shielded by Sissoko and Hamann. Gerrard moved back to the right of midfield with Zenden retaining his starting place. Upfront there was another shuffle of the pack as Crouch was this time partnered by Morientes.
The tactics which Benitez had adopted quickly became obvious. Betis are a team known for their ability to hit teams on the break. Consequently, Liverpool sat deeper than they had done in previous games, conceding ground in front of them but crucially giving up few opportunities for opposition raids to get in behind them. At the other end the pair of Crouch and Morientes had clearly been selected for their aerial ability, with Crouch in particular being dominant in competing for the high balls.
As a result of the shape of the two teams this was very much a nearly game throughout. Liverpool nearly put their opponents away, creating enough chances but failing to put them away whilst Betis kept the ball well but rarely failed to cut open the defence. Once more the focus of attention was on Peter Crouch and he performed extremely well for the side, heavily involved in the majority of the good attacking play to come from the Reds. Sadly it was another frustrating performance in the opposition penalty area. In one short spell he failed to convert four chances of varying ease, a header from a floated Gerrard corner was directed downwards but skidded just wide of the post whilst another diving header from a more dangerous cross was also diverted wide. As if to prove it was not Crouch's day, later in the game a vicious goalbound volley from Crouch was stopped by the elbow of Rivas.
It was not just Crouch who was failing to take the chances. A sharp move from Liverpool saw the ball worked out to Gerrard, who was influential throughout, who drove a fierce shot that Doblas did well to save. The rebound fell to Sissoko who showed remarkable footwork to skip past three players whilst off balance but could not steady himself for the shot. At the other end Liverpool were occasionally pushing their luck with the off-side trap but were generally keeping Betis at bay. The Spanish side were moving the ball around at pace away from goal but could not match that the closer they got to Jose Reina. There was one moment of brilliance as Joaquin played the ball through Riise's legs and ghosted past him but he then attempted to beat another man, who turned out to be Carragher who saw the ball out of play.
It was much the same in the second half as Morientes was given a chance in the opening seconds. Gerrard played the striker through and with the goal at his mercy he crucially hesitated allowing Doblas to get close enough to block the shot. It was Morientes' half to come close to scoring. A cross from the right found Crouch moving away to the far post who headed down for his strike partner. Morientes had shown good instincts to get into the right place, but under pressure he could not wait for the ball to come down to an easier height to hit and his curling volley was the wrong side of the post.
Morientes was soon replaced by Benitez who brought on Cisse who drifted out to the right wing in a move no doubt designed to further strengthen Liverpool's defensive resolve. Benitez would later replace Crouch with Kewell whilst Gerrard was given the a standing ovation as he was withdrawn in the final minutes to be replaced by Potter. Before leaving the field had one last opportunity, diving to head a low cross from Cisse but it would have been an incredible effort just to get the ball on target. There were times when Crouch's desperation to score clouded his judgement, one moment in particular where he headed goalwards from an impossible distance rather than heading back to Gerrard who had made a good run. That said, his alround game was once again a key factor in the game.
Liverpool managed to create a further chance and Kewell slipped the ball through to Gerrard who cut in from the left but failed to deliver the telling finish. In stoppage time Liverpool looked a little nervy but managed to hold out to the final whistle. The result ensures that the trip to Chelsea is merely academic in terms of qualification and given Liverpool's congested fixture list might provide an opportunity to rest one or two key players.