YOKOHAMA — European champion Liverpool went through to the Club World Championship final and set a new club record with its 11th-straight clean sheet as it beat Deportivo Saprissa 3-0 at International Stadium Yokohama on Thursday.
Two goals either side of the break from summer-signing Peter Crouch and a wonderful first-half volley from captain Steven Gerrard secured the victory for the Reds, but they had ‘keeper Jose Reina to thank for the new record as his string of saves late in the second half kept out Saprissa.
Liverpool returns to the same venue on Sunday evening to battle with South American champion Sao Paulo.
Liverpool manager Rafael Benitez was happy with the performance, but knows his players face a much tougher test against the Brazilians.
“They are a good team with experience and we will have to play much better against them,” Benitez said.
The festive season may be approaching, but the Scrooge-like Liverpool backline was in no mood to give away presents as the European champion extended its run of clean sheets to 11 games, beating the club-record mark set by Kenny Dalglish’s title winners in 1987-88.
“It’s always nice to break records,” Gerrard said, “but the most important thing is to keep on winning.
“We’re happy to be in the final. It’s going to be a tough match, but hopefully we can win it for the fans here in Japan,” he said, paying tribute to the noisy Liverpool faithful among the crowd of 43,902.
Liverpool’s cosmopolitan lineup comprised Spanish, Malesian, Norwegian, French, Finnish and English players, a situation watching FIFA president Sepp Blatter was bemoaning prior to the tournament due to teams’ lack of “national identity.” In stark contrast were the side known as the Purple Monsters who, dictated by club policy, were Costa Ricans to a man.
The gulf in class was all too apparent as well, with the Reds dictating the pace from the off. Saprissa’s Ronald Gonzalez had declared the game “the most important of our lives,” but the Costa Ricans seemed overawed by their time in the spotlight.
Crouch got the Reds off to a flyer on 2 minutes. John Arne Riise’s left-wing cross found French international Djibril Cisse and his cushioned layoff was met by Crouch, who showed great technique to guide his half volley past stranded ‘keeper Jose Porras.
“Conceding early changed the complexion of the game,” Saprissa coach Hernan Medford said. “We knew we had to rebuild.”
Spaniard Xabi Alonso dictated the tempo throughout the night with his measured passing, and it was his wonderful 40-meter ball that triggered Liverpool’s next chance, Cisse gathering and crossing to Riise, whose header was well saved by Porras.
If the winter chill swirling around the stadium hadn’t woken up the jet-lagged Reds, Saprissa’s first chance certainly did. The twin towers of Jamie Carragher and Sami Hyppia were caught flat footed by a clever through ball from Randall Azofeifa, but Alvaro Saborio flashed his shot wide of Reina’s left-hand post.
Normal service resumed on 32 minutes. Gerrard, imperious throughout, met one of Riise’s many excellent crosses on the edge of the area, and the England international fired in a stunning volley that flew past Corras.
Liverpool’s superiority didn’t diminish in the second half, with Cisse flashing a header wide from a Gerrard free-kick seconds after the restart.
Crouch did make it 3-0, though, on 58 minutes. Gerrard found a surging Riise, who bundled the ball between two Saprissa defenders and beanpole striker Crouch calmly slotted the ball home.
“Hopefully I can go on a bit of a run of goals now,” ex-Southampton forward Crouch said, who broke his long-running duck for Liverpool in the Premier League against Wigan before jetting out to Japan.
The game may have been won, but Reina was in no mood to let the clean-sheets record slip through his fingers. As Saprissa made inroads against a tiring defense and peppered the Liverpool goal, he was ready, not least when he produced a wonderful reflex save from a point-blank Saprissa header.
Reina, the ‘keeper signed from Spain’s Villareal in July, is now eyeing his compatriot Abel Resino’s 1,275-minute world-record shutout for Atletico Madrid.
Liverpool has twice been to the finals of the Toyota Cup, the forerunner to the Club World Championship. It lost 3-0 to a Zico-inspired Flamengo in 1981 and 1-0 to Independiente three years later.
Saprissa plays Asian champion Al Ittihad in the third-place playoff at International Stadium Yokohama prior to the main event. The fifth-place playoff is decided Friday at Tokyo’s National Stadium between Kazuyoshi Miura’s Sydney FC and Egyptians Al Ahly.
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