28 February 2007

Fowler to MLS?

Disclaimer: I absolutely adore Robbie Fowler. I wholeheartedly and fully subscribe to all the feelings that have led the Kop to call the man “God.” He might be the most natural finisher I’ve ever seen. Ever. Please keep that in mind throughout the rest of this.

I have absolutely no desire to see Fowler in MLS, which is seemingly hot news and only a matter of time with all this paper talk. None. In fact, the prospect downright frightens me. An ex-Liverpool player, one of that stature of Fowler, in my backyard? How could it be bad? Easy.

Yeah, it’d be nice to see Fowler link up with Stevie Nicol, in my home country, where I’d have the chance to see him just as much, if not more, than I do now, and certainly more than if he moved to, say Qatar or Dubai (the other paychecks for pensioners footie hubs).

But it boils down to one thing. Would Robbie Fowler care enough to make it work?

Fowler’s mini-resurgence is down to one thing: desire. The only club he could have seen a return to form at was Liverpool, where personal pride and love of the club gave him the ambition to work his ass off (literally) getting into shape. I fear he’d have none of that desire in the USA, and it’d be a return to the Fowler of Leeds or Man City, with diminishing ambition and diminishing returns.

Even in shape, as Robbie is now, you can see that when he gets the full 90 minutes, as against Sheffield United, there’s an awful lot of walking around involved. He was never the quickest or fittest, but age is catching up with Robbie as well. He’s still got the touch, as shown with two smart penalties, but you’re never going to get an outstanding work rate due to fitness levels.

And upon seeing the level of competition in MLS, without the additional drive of wanting to make it at Liverpool, I fear Robbie would pack it in and coast through games. And the absolutely last thing I want to see is big-name footballers coming to the US to coast. That one of those footballers would be the legendary Robbie Fowler, jogging around Gillette Stadium at a half-canter, is even more a dismaying prospect, and nowhere near the finish Fowler deserves for his career.

The last thing I want is for MLS to turn into a catchword like Qatar or Dubai, where footballers go for that last big paycheck. We’ve seemingly come to the conclusion that financially it won’t hurt the MLS as it did the NASL for a variety of reasons, but where it will hurt the league is in appearance. If Fowler comes on the back of the Beckham hoopla, and doesn’t perform to his abilities or appears to coast through games, how is it going to look when MLS signs more name players over 30? Because as of now, those are the only players giving MLS the time of day.

That’s not what MLS needs. That’s not what Robbie Fowler deserves.

26 February 2007

Carling Cup Final Notes

I would have liked to write an over-arching review like those for Liverpool games, but the game itself was disappointing, and I’ve got little to say that can be expressed in a coherent piece. Many of the game’s talking points had little to do with the football, anyway. However, there are a few things I want to touch on.

- Arsenal has no complaints about losing this game. Yes, Drogba’s first goal was offsides, and Arsenal was in the game throughout, but when you start a lineup where not including the goalie the average age is 21, you should not be surprised when they fail to seal the game against the two-time league champions. Just saying. Not that it stopped Wenger’s usual post-match whining, but it would have been nice to see Arsene not blame everyone else for once. The future may be bright for the youngsters, especially Diaby, Walcott, Fabregas (more later) and Traore (Denilson’s been singled out as well, but I have to say, I’m not sold), but I’m stunned Wenger kept the faith with them. It will probably pay off when a few make the first team on a regular basis, but it wasn’t going to in what was the first major final for the majority of them.

- Didier Drogba is the best player on the planet right now. It hurts to say it, and surprising given Drogba’s first season in England and propensity for falling over, but it’s the case now. He has 28 goals and it’s not even March. In addition, he’s the proud owner of Phillipe Senderos, has the deed and everything. I bet Senderos is getting absolutely sick of "marking" him.

- John Terry is a cyborg. Has to be. Accidentally kicked in the head by Abou Diaby so hard he was knocked unconscious and swallowed his tongue around the 60th minute, and back at the stadium celebrating the win a little over an hour later. Stunning. I’ve got little time for Terry as both a player and a person, but that incident was utterly horrifying and it’s good to read he was out of hospital so soon.

- It was completely unsurprising to see a full-on melee at the end. Two teams with an inferiority complex and a maturity problem, led by egomaniacs, at the end of a closely fought final. Truth be told, Mourinho and Wenger should have touchline bans as long as the players red carded. Neither needed to come onto the field, neither came out with the intention of calming things down, as each went to the other’s players and started pointing fingers, and their involvement served no more than to keep tempers inflamed. Good work, guys, class acts. Although there’s no surprise there.

But the real cause of the breakdown were the egos of Cesc Fabregas and Frank Lampard, and both should have seen straight red as well. Both came thundering in, pushing, shoving and shouting, when cooler heads and the initial parties (Mikel and Toure) separated would have ended the matter then and there. But neither would let it end, everyone ended up involved following the lead of the main players (Toure was Arsenal’s captain, Lampard Chelsea’s stand-in captain, and Fabregas thinks he’s captain). And it ended up killing off any chance of Arsenal making a game out of it at the end, as they had done against Wigan recently and Man Utd earlier. Cesc is one hell of a talent, which is why I’m singling him out, but sometimes it seems he’s gotten far too big for his britches this season.

And Emmanuel Adebayor had every right to be furious. From everything I saw, he did little different from every other player involved that stayed on the field. All it took was a couple of words from a linesman who evidently can’t tell the difference between certain players (draw your own conclusions from that) and he was off, because Ade wasn’t going to be sent off before that. I thought Howard Webb, who is a ref I (used to) have a lot of time for, was smarter than that. I still firmly maintain video replay for in-game usage would slow the game down far too much, but a fourth official at a monitor watching incidents like this, and for example, the Zidane incident during the World Cup Final, makes a lot of sense, and would keep completely idiotic errors like this from happening.

It disappoints me that I spent so much time talking about parts of this game that had nothing to do with football, but those were the talking points, it was what everyone’s paying attention to today, and, like a car-wreck on the highway, it was a spectacle you couldn't avert your eyes from.

However, if I could have picked two teams to have a contentious, ugly, and draining game, these two probably would have been my choices, save maybe Manchester United. Even though Chelsea won and Arsenal played the reserves, this game should impact the rest of their seasons. The suspensions certainly will. And Arsenal’s fixture calendar is going to start to give them problems as well.

I guess that what I’m saying, despite the spectacle, despite the quality of play, despite the result, this game did end up making me smile.

24 February 2007

Liverpool 4-0 Sheffield United

That certainly was an odd match. 4-0 is always more than an acceptable scoreline, but it never felt like a four-goal performance or that easy of a game. But with all the changes from the Barcelona game (starts for Pennant, Hyypia, Gonzalez, Crouch, Fowler, Dudek, and a debut for Mascherano), even more changes than I thought likely, a more disjointed performance was always going to be the case.

The game was over by the 25th minute after two Robbie Fowler penalties. Yep, two penalties, both given for fouls on Gerrard, before the game was a third completed. That's pretty much what made it odd. It's worth noting that Gerrard fouled and Fowler scoring the penalty is how Liverpool got their goal at Bramall Lane in August.

Both penalties were deserved. The first, admittedly, was quite soft, but replay showed that Rob Kozluk brought Gerrard down, and that Stevie hilariously played up every moment of it. Tussling before a corner, with the referee less than 2 feet away, Gerrard has his hands in the air, doing the full-on ‘look at how much he’s grabbing me’ routine. Kozluk doesn’t stop, puts his arms around Gerrard and starts to pull him down, and Stevie goes down while appearing to shout for the ref's attention. I’m sorry, that’s not in the same category as Drogba or Ronaldo avoiding contact and theatrically diving through the air, that’s clever. And amusing. Fowler stepped up, Paddy Kenny guessed correctly and dove to his left, but Fowler’s shot was too powerful.

During the corner kick that led to the penalty, Rob Hulse accidentally kicked Crouch in the face, and with blood everywhere from a gash on his eyebrow, he was substituted for Kuyt. It’s a pity, because Crouch had finally gotten a start, and the few times he saw the ball he looked useful, but at least it doesn't look like he'll be on the sidelines for long.

Less than five minutes later, we had a second penalty that was absolutely certain. From a throw-in, Kuyt flicked-on for Gerrard to run onto, and with two hands, Nick Montgomery pulled him down. Kenny guessed left again, but this time Fowler chipped to his right for two-nil. Liverpool had been the better team, but had never really seemed to take it out of first gear, and didn’t have much impetus to now that they were two up. Warnock, in an effort to stop the damage, brought on Kazim-Richards, who did help Sheffield offer more, but there was never a real threat to Liverpool’s goal, which featured Dudek in his first league start this season.

Liverpool was better in the second half, but never truly dominant except for a three-minute spell that saw them register the two other goals. The third again came from a corner, when Hyypia was there to slam in a ball skittering through the penalty box. The fourth goal was Liverpool’s best, with Gerrard deservedly getting on the scoresheet after being put through by Fowler, who had been found in space by Mascherano.

With Gerrard earning two penalties and scoring the fourth, he’s got to be the choice for man of the match, but it was more than those three instances. Throughout the game, he was at his rampaging best, making surging runs, unlocking the defense with passes, and getting back to defend when required. Much will be made that he played in the center, but as I’m getting tired of reiterating, Gerrard in the center isn’t necessarily better than Gerrard on the right. As people should know with Benitez, different games merit different styles. Different possibilities.

Other players' performances also merit a mention. Hyypia stepped back into the side with ease. Sheffield gave Liverpool’s center backs a ton of time, but aside from a couple of wayward passes, Hyypia’s distribution in bringing the ball out of defense was superb, and his aerial presence was again excellent. Pennant also put in another outstanding performance. Much is made of his crossing and beating his man to the byline, which he did to decent effect, but what was most impressive here was the way he got up and down the wing. He got back to defend, with pace, every time it was needed, and got back up the sideline just as quickly. The entire game he was running hard, which was reassuring to see, to say the least.

In addition, Javier Mascherano made an excellent debut in which he played the full 90. In the first ten or fifteen minutes, I distinctly remember being frightened, with a couple of misplaced passes, mistimed tackles, and otherwise anonymity. But he certainly grew into the game, getting better by the minute. By the end he was tackling United players all over the pitch. It’s obvious he’s still lacking match fitness with some of his timing issues, but the quality is utterly evident. Either there are some serious extenuating circumstances (there must be), or West Ham has no idea what they had.

This was exactly what was needed. There’s always the potential for a hangover after a win like that at Camp Nou, especially with a team as dogged as Sheffield United, who can epitomize a bogey team. But even with the amount of changes, and with the team never showing the drive they had against Barcelona, they won going away, which will serve to give even more confidence leading up to next weekend. Bring on the Mancs.

23 February 2007

Liverpool v Sheffield 02.24.07

10am, available in the US on Setanta Sports.

Liverpool: 3rd place; 50 points out of 27 games
Sheffield: 15th place; 30 points out of 27 games

Last meeting: 1-1 (a) 08.19.06

Liverpool beat Sheffield over two legs in the 2003 League Cup (which Liverpool won) semifinal, and before that, hadn’t played United since 1994.

Last 3 games:
Liverpool: 2-1 Barcelona (a); 1-2 Newcastle (a); 0-0 Everton (h)
Sheffield: 2-1 Tottenham (h); 1-2 Blackburn (a); 2-0 Fulham (h)

Goalscorers (league; more than one goal):
Liverpool: Kuyt 9; Bellamy 7; Crouch 6; Gerrard 4; Alonso, Garcia 3; Gonzalez 2
Sheffield: Hulse 7; Jagielka, Webber 3; Gillespie, Nade, Quinn, Stead 2

Referee: Steve Bennett

Guess at a squad:
Carragher Hyypia Agger
Finnan Gerrard Alonso Sissoko Riise
Kuyt Bellamy

Back to reality. And back to using wingbacks?

There’s an excellent chance Benitez will use this game to rest players with Manchester United and return leg of the Barcelona tie coming up, despite a lengthy time off prior to the Barca match. And there’s also an excellent chance we could see all three strikers, as Liverpool did against Watford, West Ham, and Everton. But that would mean leaving one of Sissoko (who should be available despite going off with injury), Alonso, and Gerrard out, and after how all three played against Barcelona, I can’t see that happening. Gerrard’s isolation on the right flank and his inability to force things in the Barca game leads me to believe he’ll play more towards the center (that does not mean he should not play on the right, mind you) in what would appear to be a five-man midfield, but as Jamie Redknapp said in Sky Sports’ post-match coverage, when Liverpool’s on, Gerrard is more a cog in the machine than the basis for said machine.

At Anfield, Liverpool should be able to take the game to Sheffield. Whether that’s in the form of three strikers, or a five-man midfield with three center backs, Liverpool should set the tone and the impetus. Bunching up the midfield, with Sissoko breaking up play, Alonso distributing, and Gerrard setting up the attack, should let Liverpool retain possession at Anfield most easily, and allow them to send wave after wave toward United’s goal. Liverpool had their chances at Bramall Lane in August (double Sheffield’s shots on goal), but did not really create enough or take enough, and were reliant on an iffy penalty to equalize. I think this formation goes some way towards remedying that.

But we all know there’s no predicting Benitez. And we haven’t seen Pennant, Crouch or Gonzalez start in a while, Arbeloa played very well for a starting debut against Barca, and we’ve been expecting Javier Mascherano’s debut (there was talk he’d play against Barca and was on the bench). Must be nice to have so many “possibilities.”

Liverpool will also be looking for revenge for the away draw suffered on opening day of the league campaign, a draw that set the tone for away games to come. But don’t think that I am underestimating Sheffield. Neil Warnock’s got his usual well-drilled side, and despite a rash of predictions to the contrary, they look certain to stay up, which (and really, no offense meant) is an accomplishment looking up and down the team sheet. But that’s what Neil Warnock can do -- motivate a side into a tightly-drilled, backs against the wall outfit.

A win will put Liverpool 4 points ahead of Arsenal. However, Arsenal will have two games in hand, as they’re out of league action again this week with the Carling Cup final. Anything less than the full 3 points will give Arsenal even more of an opportunity to overtake 3rd place. And I’m sure Benitez will have that drilled into his team before kickoff.

Prem (and League Cup) Predictions 2/24-2/25

Fulham v Manchester United (7:45am, Setanta): As much as it pains me to say, Fulham were utterly dire defensively in their last game. Knowing Chris Coleman as a former defender and as a motivator, I’d hope that wouldn’t be the case here, but more likely it’s a trend for the rest of the season. They should have enough points to escape a relegation battle, however. Not to mention that United have been in fine form, and even when they’re not, they’ve the ability to create a goal out of nothing, as they did against Lille. And sorry, but that was a legal free kick by Giggs, as stupid as the 'wait for the whistle or don't' rule is. United 2-0
Charlton v West Ham (10:00, FSC): There’s a ton of storylines in this one. Alan Pardew used to manage West Ham, Curbishley was at Charlton for ages. Both are in the relegation places and they’re tied on 20 points, with West Ham in 18th on goal difference. With the talent they have and the money spent during the transfer window, West Ham shouldn’t even be in this position, but nothing seems to be able to keep them up. Charlton’s gotten the better results recently, and being at home seals it. Plus I'd love it if Pardew could stick it to Curbs, Magnusson, and West Ham. Charlton 1-0
Middlesbrough v Reading (10:00, Setanta Xtra): Based on the last six games, Reading’s been the best team in the league, and despite Boro being marginally better at the Riverside, the Royals really should take this one. Unfortunately for Reading and the Americans following them, Bobby Convey’s going to be out for the rest of the season, while both teams will also have an eye on FA Cup replays next Tuesday. If Reading do win, they’ll only be one point behind Bolton in 5th. Reading 2-1
Watford v Everton (12:15, FSC):: Loathe as I am to predict a Toffees win, especially away from home, one seems likely here. Aidy Boothroyd’s done an excellent job with the morale of his squad so far this season, but it’ll be tough to keep their heads up after failing to capitalize against ten-man Wigan mid-week. In addition, recent England international keeper Ben Foster will be out for Watford. A loss here would probably seal relegation. Everton 2-1

Wigan v Newcastle (8:00am, Setanta Xtra): Despite Newcastle’s fine form, a slow return to fitness, and a big win in Europe mid-week, I still think Wigan will be able to build on their 10-man draw from Wednesday. If, that is, more referring decisions don’t cost Paul Jewell’s team; I firmly believe Styles sent off Fitz Hall mainly because of Jewell’s complaints about Phil Dowd. Which is a hell of an accusation to level, but one I certainly wouldn’t put past Rob Styles. In any event, Alan Wiley’s referring this game, and he is one of the best. Wigan 1-0
Tottenham v Bolton (10:00am, delayed at 11am on FSC): Are we going to get the Tottenham that lost 4-0 at home to United or the one that strolled 4-0 at Fulham in the FA Cup? Bolton’s had the better season, and honestly, is probably a better unit thanks to Sam Allardyce, but Tottenham should be higher than 10th place, and coupled with their play in two good wins the last two times out, I think they’ll move up the table here. Tottenham 2-1
Blackburn v Portsmouth (10:00am delayed at 1pm on FSC): Pompey’s been sliding back down the table, and we’re getting to the point where the table doesn’t lie anymore. Blackburn, on the other hand, have still underachieved in the league, and will also be looking to put the UEFA Cup behind them, going out after a 0-0 draw to Bayer Leverkusen yesterday. This one has draw written all over it. 1-1

Chelsea v Arsenal (9:30am, Setanta): Extra League Cup Final fun. I was wavering over this game until John Terry was ruled out with ankle ligament damage. As you’ve undoubtedly already heard, Chelsea only have one recognized center back, Carvalho, and will probably be forced to drop Essien into defense. Arsenal have had some of the frequent troubles putting the ball in the back of the net recently, most notably against Blackburn, and while the kids will probably continue to play in the Carling Cup, I think the Gunners take it here. Besides, who wants to see Mourinho win another Carling Cup? Arsenal 3-2

Will be done with the Liverpool v Sheffield (10am Saturday, Setanta) shortly.

21 February 2007

Liverpool 2-1 Barcelona

How do I phrase this? I’m fucking ecstatic. Yeah, that’ll do.

The formation was a bit of a surprise, once again proving Rafa Benitez is completely unable to predict, and a fairly good tactician to boot. It looked like a standard 4-4-2, with Gerrard on the right, Riise in midfield, and most surprisingly, Arbeloa at left back. In my defense, I had no clue Arbeloa’s versatility extended to playing on the left flank, and there was also the hype from his last time out against Ronaldinho. This is why I very, very infrequently question the gaffer, especially in Europe.

But early on, questions over the starting line-up, which Sky Sports incessantly harped on before the game, looked valid. Honestly, it seemed like it could be a horror show the way it started. Liverpool had an opening in the first five minutes, but after that Barca looked like they could run riot. In the 14th minute, with Liverpool scrambling at the back, Arbeloa was drawn inside and Riise couldn’t get back quick enough, and Deco put a free header into the bottom right corner from Zambrotta's pretty cross.

And the onslaught didn’t stop. Barca continued to look dangerous, Liverpool continued to rack up silly fouls giving Barca free kicks (how fussy was that ref?), and a second goal looked likely. But against the run of play, two minutes before halftime, Liverpool drew level. After another nothing foul, this time going Liverpool’s way, the free kick found Ronaldinho lagging in getting back, and the cross in from the right, in acres of space, found Bellamy at the back post. His header caught Valdes off-balance, and both the keeper and the ball slid backwards over the line. In any event, Kuyt was there for the rebound. Poor keeping, but Liverpool will obviously take it any way it comes.

The goal certainly unsettled the home team, and they were never able to impose themselves as they did in the first half. And Liverpool took advantage. They grew in stature throughout the second half, and the summation of Barca’s disarray was in the 68th minute, when Victor Valdes picked up a back pass in his penalty area. Gerrard’s free kick was saved, Kuyt then headed over, and there was always the feeling Barca could nick one on the counter (an omnipresent feeling when Barca’s playing and when Liverpool’s away), but the second goal came soon after in the 72nd minute. Marquez attempted to head clear after Kuyt’s first touch was blocked off by Valdes, and it fell right to Bellamy, who coolly found Riise open, and John Arne made no mistake.

And how lovely is it that Bellamy and Riise scored the goals, with Bellamy assisting on Riise’s. Just goes to show that the Liverpool tradition of bust-ups before big wins lives on. It had to be them, didn’t it? And Riise with his right foot…

As before the second goal, there was still a fear Barca could snatch one. As happened the majority of the game, they received free kicks for offenses that certainly wouldn’t be fouls in England, and Deco put one off the post, but it wasn’t to be, and Liverpool held on for the final 20 or so minutes.

It’s tough to pick out a man of the match, but I’m going with Sissoko, who did everything asked of him in midfield. Barca got very little in the center of the park after halftime. Both Xavi and Motta were taken off, and it was partly due to his influence, although Rijkaard is going to be absolutely excoriated in the Spanish media for his changes. But Sissoko tackled like a madman, and it was utterly frightening to see him go off with 10 minutes left. I’ve not seen anything on his injury yet, let’s hope it doesn’t take the gloss off of tonight.

Also, Carragher was also immense at the back, cutting out a lot of opportunities, while Reina was also quick to the ball and in form. Bellamy looked threatening running at pace at Barca's backline, and it was a superb assist for Riise's goal, in addition to his own. Arbeloa and Riise made up for early mistakes, and Riise once again showed he’s better in big games and up in midfield. Agger showed a much cooler head and quicker feet than against Newcastle. There’s little criticism of anyone in the team today, and it’s hard to single players out for praise. Pleased all around.

This is a great result for Liverpool, and I’m absolutely over the moon, but it’s worth remembering there’s still a second leg. Yes, it’s to be played at Anfield, but this is Barcelona we’re talking about. They have the ability to undo anyone, anywhere. But a 2-1 advantage is a far shout better than 1-2, 0-0, or 1-1, any of which I probably would have taken before the game. Thankfully, you can't settle for scorelines beforehand.

The second leg should certainly be a treat.

20 February 2007

Liverpool at Barcelona 2.21.2007

2:45pm. Available in the US on Setanta Sports and ESPN Deportes.

Barca is currently 1st in La Liga on goal difference.

Champions League Group Stage results:
Liverpool: 2-3 Galatasaray (a); 2-0 PSV (h); 3-0 Bordeaux (h); 1-0 Bordeaux (a); 3-2 Gala (h); 0-0 PSV (a)
Barca: 2-0 Werder Bremen (h); 2-0 Levski Sofia (a); 2-2 Chelsea (h); 0-1 Chelsea (a); 1-1 Bremen (a); 5-0 Levski (h)

Goal scorers (Europe):
Liverpool: Crouch 5; Garcia 3; Fowler, Gerrard 2; Bellamy, Gonzalez 1
Barca: Gudjohnsen, Guily, Iniesta, Ronaldinho 2; Deco, Eto’o 1 Messi, Puyol 1

European History:
Liverpool: European Cup/Champions League 1977, 1978, 1981, 1984, 2005; UEFA Cup 1973, 1976, 2001; UEFA Super Cup 1977, 2001, 2005
Barca: European Cup/Champions League 1992, 2006; Cup Winners Cup 1979, 1982, 1989, 1997; UEFA Super Cup 1992, 1997

Referee: Kyros Vassaras (GRE)

Feels like there’s little need to do a “key players” section for Barca. I imagine you’ve heard of Ronaldinho, Deco, Xavi or Puyol. Eto’o is nearing full fitness, and despite the spat with Rijkaard over whether or not he’s ready to play in the past two games, he should play here, if only as a sub due to a lack of match fitness. This game is probably why he’s wanted to rest. Messi’s also returned from injury, coming on as a sub in the last two matches.

My guess of a lineup:
Finnan, Carragher, Agger, Riise
Gerrard, Alonso, Sissoko
Kuyt, Crouch, Bellamy

Fair warning that this is more of a complete shot in the dark than this guessing game usually is.

It looks like a 4-3-3 but it probably won’t be. Bellamy and Kuyt should play wider than usual and all three strikers will probably defend more often, and if we’re sticking to description by formation, it would look like 4-3-3, 4-4-2, or 4-5-1 depending on the situation. Due to the injuries on the left side, and the fact that games don’t come much larger than this, these are the 11 best players in the squad and they should be on the pitch. The formation will work itself out as long as everyone knows their roles. Which Benitez usually makes certain.

But just to hedge my bets, I’ll also mention that I debated guessing a nominal 3-5-2, with Hyypia in for Crouch and Finnan and Riise in wing back roles. I still could go either way, and expect the real line-up to be one of the two options. But Hyypia’s pace worries me, because if Carra and/or Agger push too far up the field to support the attack, the speed of Barca’s attack could undo the defense in a flash.

In addition, this formation would necessitate one of the three strikers on the bench, and honestly, I can’t bring myself to leave any of them out. Even though it’s probably unfair given his goal drought in Europe so far, I always see Kuyt as one of the first names on the teamsheet. Crouch was bought for games like this, critical away games where holding up the ball is essential. Also, he’s played far more often in Europe as of late, where his height is more of an advantage than in the physical Premier League. And Bellamy should figure (despite whatever nonsense you’ve read recently) due to Liverpool needing to use his pace on the counter attack (over/under: 4 offsides) and Barca’s vulnerability to speedy forwards. Valencia playing long balls over the top was their main line of attack on Sunday, and I imagine Bellamy will be employed in a similar manner.

As an aside, Mascherano has finally received clearance from the FA, but I highly doubt he’ll make his debut in this game.

I really do feel that this line-up gives Liverpool the best chance of an away goal, which will probably be essential. Of course I’d be more than satisfied with a 0-0 draw, but when Barca is under pressure, as in the Champions League games against Chelsea and Bremen to close out the group stage, they’ve come through. An away goal will give Liverpool another advantage and even more of an opportunity to turn over Barca at Anfield.

19 February 2007

Champions League Knockout Round

Feels like there have been a lot of prediction posts lately. Pity they’re frequently so off…

All games kick off at 2:45 pm eastern.

PSV Eindhoven v Arsenal, espn2 - PSV’s recently found themselves in an actual fight for the Eredivisie. They’ve won the last two league titles, and looked to be going away with this one, but have only won one out of their last four matches. Drawn into the same group as Liverpool, PSV never looked likely to turn over the Reds, despite holding them to a 0-0 draw (during one of the many bad away spells) at the Phillips Stadion.

Once again, it’s going to come down to whether or not Arsenal can put away their opportunities. Because they should get the opportunities. If Arsenal can get over their frequent wastefulness, which was on full display against Blackburn, they should be able to cement the tie before it moves back to England. PSV’s strikers, Farfan and Kone, are dangerous on the counter-attack; Kone had the best chance during the Liverpool match on the break but failed to score. But Arsenal should be able to contain them. Arsenal 2-0

Real Madrid v Bayern Munich, ESPN Deportes – When the draw was made, I promoted Bayern as a sleeper team. Yet more proof I have little idea what I’m talking about, as Bayern are having one of their worst Bundesliga campaigns in recent memory. Not that Real Madrid are world-beaters at the moment mind you (last 5 matches: WLLWD), but I’ve come to expect underperformance from them. Bayern always dominates the German league. What’s worse is their weakness has been their away form, which bodes poorly for them here.

If we’re lucky, maybe we’ll have another David Beckham sighting. So much for Capello refusing to play him ever again. It’s greatly amusing to see the focus once again on Golden Balls; he couldn’t get out of the spotlight if he tried (which he isn’t). Capello will probably see the ax before the season’s out given Madrid’s position, but taking into account Bayern’s away form, they should take this match. Although I imagine it will end close enough to give Bayern a glimmer of hope going back to Germany. Real 2-1

Lille v Manchester United, 2:45pm Setenta - Here’s hoping for a repeat of last season, when Lille beat United at home and drew at Old Trafford and were the main reasons Manchester failed to qualify for the knockout stages. Given Lille’s run again this year, and that they sit 2nd in Ligue 1, deja vu could be on the cards, but as I’ve ending up writing far too often, United look very hard to beat.

I imagine they’ll be little parking the bus in front of the goal and hoping to bring the tie back to Old Trafford for United. Don’t mind the draw against Reading at the weekend given all the players they rested. They have the ability to cement the tie in Lille, and Ferguson will probably have they all riled up with revenge too. United 3-1

Celtic v AC Milan – Milan’s put their 8 point deduction pretty much behind them, but still only sit in 6th in Serie A. With the addition of Ronaldo, who scored a hat-trick his last time out, they have starting replacing the goals that were lacking following the sale of Shevchenko.

Gordon Strachan’s worked wonders with a Celtic side that’s been running away with the SPL since September and has qualified for the CL knockout stage for the first time since the change in format. But I don’t know if they’ll have enough to beat Milan. It will come down to whether or not Celtic can take advantage of an aging and under-par (by Milan’s standards) defense. As Milan will be allowed to host their leg at the San Siro (whether or not at full capacity remains to be seen), Celtic will need to get goals and hold Milan to have a chance to advance. Milan 2-1

Porto v Chelsea, espn2 - Well, at least there’s the storyline of Mourinho returning to his old team, because honestly, this match-up doesn’t hold much interest for me. Porto’s currently leading the Portuguese league, but unlike the team that won the UEFA Cup and CL, they’re without any big name players. English fans will remember Helder Postiga (as Spurs fans shudder), but other than that, not many most will be familiar with.

And with Chelsea back on a winning track, John Terry healthy (although still light in defense with another injury to Bouhlarouz), Carvalho and Ferreira boosted by returning to Porto, and Drogba’s all-around brilliance this year, it’s hard to see anything other than a Chelsea victory in both legs. Chelsea 2-0

Roma v Lyon - Houllier’s Lyon were doing all in their might to throw away a seemingly unassailable gap in Ligue 1 (granted, still with a 13 point lead), winning 2 of their last 7. However, a win away at 2nd place Lille over the weekend has probably sealed another domestic title. But before this slide, Lyon were a hot pick to win the Champions League. Roma never wowed in the group stage, but this game looks a lot more competitive than when the draw came out.

Knowing Houllier, I’d imagine Lyon would certainly settle for a draw, and will probably play for a 0-0 one at that. Roma’s only lost once at home this season, in all competitions, to Inter Milan in September. Remembering Liverpool’s tactics games like that, Lyon will probably set up shop in their own half and rely on Fred on the counter-attack. But if Lyon can bring this tie back to France on level terms, with any away goals an added bonus, they’ll be confident of progression. But I think Roma can undo them at least once. Roma 1-0

Inter Milan v Valencia - Another interesting match-up between two in-form teams. Valencia’s still in the La Liga hunt, 4 points behind joint leaders Barcelona and Sevilla, and having just won over Barca yesterday. Meanwhile, Inter is absolutely running away with Serie A, 14 points ahead of 2nd place Empoli, unbeaten in Serie A, and without a loss since Bayern in the CL in September.

Given Inter’s dominance this season, I can’t see Valencia turning them over in this leg. The key will be damage control, and if they can get an away goal, all the better. You can’t discount Morientes, who has remembered how to score goals now that he’s back in sunny Spain, but how can I predict against a team who hasn’t lost since September when they’re at home. Inter 3-1

Even if the game you want to watch isn’t televised, it’s online on pay-per-view through ESPNsoccernet at $10 a pop. I’m always skeptical of these things, so if it’s actually worth it, do tell.

Barca v Liverpool (Wednesday, ESPN Deportes AND Setanta!) preview Tuesday.

18 February 2007


So Liverpool have supposedly signing Andrey Voronin from Bayer Leverkusen on a pre-contract agreement. 4-year deal, and given his contract will be up, he should be coming on a free in the summer.

Many Liverpool fans are questioning the deal. Whether it’s because they expect (wrongly, I might add) a big name like David Villa to bolster the front-line following the takeover, whether they’re questioning Voronin’s goal return for Bayer (27 in 69 games), or they don’t see where he’ll fit into and what he brings to the striker corps.

Seeing as how I’ve seen Voronin in maybe 4 Bayer games (including the two during Liverpool’s ‘05 CL run) and at the last World Cup, I’m uncomfortable commenting on his ability. And normally, that'd keep me from commenting about it, but seeing the reactions scattered around the internet today, I felt the need to join the chorus. I’m not so opposed to the signing as others seem to be.

It’s fairly obvious that Fowler’s off after this season. I’m pretty sure Voronin won’t be replacing Crouch, Kuyt or Bellamy, and I do think those players are at Liverpool for the long haul, barring any unforeseen problems. And from what I’ve seen and know, his game is different than those players.

It’s become far too easily to blindly state “In Rafa we trust” and expect that to settle an argument, but in this case, it’s where I’m ending it. He’s obviously seen something in the striker making this deal worthwhile. It’s a free transfer, and I highly doubt his wages are going to be prohibitive. It’s seemingly about replacing Robbie, and more importantly, adding another “possibility.”

Wait and see before knee-jerking, please. And don’t slaughter a player before he’s even put on a Liverpool shirt.

Update: Found this, thought it worth a note.
"...Voronin had to be content with a place on the substitutes’ bench for the early qualifiers. By dint of patience and hard work, the Bayer Leverkusen striker has become a key component in Oleg Blokhin’s system. Since his international debut in March 2002, Voronin has frequently been used as a ‘supersub’, fully justifying his coach’s faith in him whenever called upon."
If that's not a key quality in a 4th striker, I don't know what is. Also merits a mention the same article says that he's experienced playing on the left wing.

16 February 2007

FA Cup 5th round predictions

Arsenal v Blackburn, 7:30am, FSC: Both teams will have changes, with both in action last Wednesday and a European game coming up. But no matter who Arsenal puts out, they’ve shown when they’re on their game, they have the class to carve through any defense. And with the profligacy on display against Bolton (2 missed penalties!), they’ll be looking to take more of their chances. Arsenal 2-1
Chelsea v Norwich, 10:00am, FSC: Norwich barely got by Blackpool in the last round, winning after extra time in the replay on Tuesday. Even though Chelsea will probably rest players with an eye on the Champions League game midweek, I imagine they’ll have little problems here. By the way, Chelsea hasn’t yet been away from the Bridge or played Premiership opposition in the FA Cup. Chelsea 3-0
Middlesbrough v West Brom, 10:00am: Bristol City made Boro work far harder than they would have liked to advance to the 5th round, while West Brom is one of the form teams in the Championship, now up to second following Tony Mowbray’s appointment in October. I imagine Gareth Southgate gave them a bollocking following the Bristol City game, but I think he’ll be shouting at the end of this one too. West Brom 2-1
Plymouth v Derby, 10:00am: I know Derby’s played well under Billy Davies, but other than that, I’ve got few clever insights. But given the opportunity, I am never, ever picking against Ian Holloway. Ever. Argyle 2-1
Watford v Ipswich, 10:00am: Given Watford’s all but mathematically eliminated from staying in the Premiership, it’s fair that they drew an Ipswich side struggling in the Championship. Against bigger teams, Watford is frequently forced to play on the back foot, but against Ipswich they should have the opportunity to take their game to the other team. Watford 2-0
Manchester Utd v Reading, 12:15pm, Pay-per-view: This is turning into something of a grudge match. Reading’s played United close twice so far this year, drawing 1-1 at home and only losing 3-2 at Old Trafford. And considering Coppell’s history at United, Reading will certainly be up for this one as well. But United has still been too strong at home this year, and the fact that they had no midweek game means they’re more likely to include players that wouldn’t normally feature, while Reading’s priority will remain keeping up their pace in the league. United 3-1

Preston v Manchester City, 8:10am, delayed on FSC at 11am: It’s gotten to the point where City’s taken Emile Mpenza on trial because their striking corps is so depleted, with Vassell and Dickov injured and Corradi misfiring. But I don’t want to take away from Preston. They are still prospects for promotion and have a hell of a striker in David Nugent, even if he is a blue. If this quote is true about him wearing an Everton top under his Liverpool kit while he was at the Academy, I do hope awful things happen to him. But one of these games has to go to a replay, and this one seems to have the best chance. 1-1
Fulham v Tottenham, 11:00am, PPV: Tottenham’s had a tough go of it recently, losing their last three, two of which were on the road, while Fulham’s been good at home. It’s gotten to the point where Fulham is only one point behind them in the league. The two drew at Craven Cottage earlier, and Fulham’s been notorious for draws this season, but I think they could take this one. Fulham 2-1

15 February 2007

The truth reveals itself in mysterious ways

Looking for something completely unrelated, Google’s search engine took me here.

That’s not nice.

Either the lot of you are having too much fun with google bombs, or Google’s algorithm has gotten remarkably good.

Poor Harry. I still wish he was in the squad, he’d be dead useful on the left this season.

Five referees vs. video technology

So new UEFA President Michel Platini’s solution to controversial refereeing decisions is adding two more officials instead of video technology?

Surprisingly, I agree.

I’m still grappling with the issue of video technology. It works to varying success in sports from American football, rugby, hockey, basketball, and tennis, but footie is a different breed. Instant replay does have the potential to slow the game down far too much, or at least at inopportune moments, where the stoppage in play could stop a possible counter attack in its tracks. And in moments such as, say, Luis Garcia’s goal against Chelsea in the 2005 CL semifinals, no amount of replays will give a definite answer.

But something needs to be done to lessen the number of those moments. While video replay would probably conclusively settle more cases than additional officials or linesmen, the costs are probably too high.

Granted, having more referees on the pitch would necessitate UEFA and the nationals FAs spending more money on grassroots training for referees. The FA’s refereeing courses need to be more widely available, and more emphasis (although I know emphasis has grown in recent years) placed on recruitment. It would also help if there was a greater consistency in the application of current laws, but now I’m getting delusional. Quality officials aren’t a dime a dozen; it’s why we’re still stuck with the likes of Uriah Rennie and Graham Poll, and former referee Jeff Winter has recently come out and criticized the current lot.

Although I’m skeptical of this talk about putting them in the penalty box. Has UEFA seen English football? There are already enough people in a confined area. But say an extra referee (one for each half), an extra linesman on the opposite sideline, or an assistant on each goalline? I’m all for looking into it.

14 February 2007

Midweek Cup Nonsense

Back into Europe in the next couple of days, with UEFA Cup matches taking place today and tomorrow. The full line-up with US kickoff times and TV availability:

Bordeaux v Osasuna, 12:00pm
CSKA Moscow v Maccabi Haifa, 12:00pm
Shakhtar Donetsk v AS Nancy, 12:00pm
Bayer Leverkusen v Blackburn, 12:15pm, Setanta Sports
Fenerbahce v AZ Alkmaar, 1:00pm
Hapoel Tel-Aviv v Rangers, 2:05pm, Setanta PPV
Werder Bremen v Ajax, 2:30pm
AEK Athens v PSG, 2:45pm
Livorno v Espanyol, 2:45pm, Setanta Sports
Benfica v Dinamo Bucuresti, 3:00pm, Setanta PPV

Spartak Moscow v Celta Vigo, 11:00am
Steaua Bucuresti v Sevilla, 1:30pm
Braga v Parma, 2:00pm
Lens v Panathinaikos, 2:45pm, Setanta Sports
Zulte-Waregem v Newcastle, 2:45pm

The three ties involving British teams (Spurs have received a pass on to the next round after Feyenoord was thrown out of the tournament) all look tasty, and all three teams have bettered their league form in European competition. But none have an easy game this time around, and all are away from home in this leg, as all won their group in the last stage. And with all the English teams currently out of the European places for next season, it should add even more interest to the ties.

The other match that should be on the telly is Bremen v Ajax; 2nd place in the German league (above Bayern!) versus an Ajax team unbeaten in 7 games and improving with Edgar Davids back in the fold. On paper, easily the best looking match-up, although honestly, all of this round's matches should be decent, and it's a good looking year for the UEFA Cup.

In addition, the replay of the 4th round FA Cup tie between Bolton and Arsenal also kicks off today at 3pm, available on FSC here in the States.

I can’t decide who I’d like to see come away with that one. I’m still furious at Thierry Henry’s self-righteous showboating against Wigan, where despite their fortitude, I will still maintain that Arsenal were lucky to come away with any points, and Phil Dowd should be one of the first names on the Christmas cards list this year. No, I'm not easily letting this go...

But Arsenal’s exit from the FA Cup would allow them greater focus on the league, even though they are still in two other competitions. And a close or tough loss, even if they do rest a lot of senior players, as has been done in both the Carling and FA Cups so far, would probably spur them on even harder.

Not to mention I’ve never been the biggest fan on Fat Sam’s “style” of play.

It’s nice there’s a fair amount of football televised over the next couple of days; it’s been too long since Liverpool’s played, and we still have a week to go until Barca. Sigh.

12 February 2007

Liverpool v Arsenal, what's left?

With Arsenal one point back with one game in hand, I thought it’d be useful to see the remaining games for both teams. I refuse to be drawn into prognostications, I’m just laying out the schedules and the current league positions of the opponents in question. Decide for yourself who has the easier run in. Liverpool’s remaining away games do demonstrate how many difficult road fixtures they had earlier in the season, but it remains to be seen if they can take advantage.

It certainly would have been nice if Wigan had held on yesterday, though. Pity Heskey's reputation for falling in a stiff gust of wind, as Wigan should have had a penalty opportunity while it was still 1-0. But it also shows the difference in the two teams so far this season. Up against the wall, Arsenal scores 2 in 10 minutes late on twice in the last month, while Liverpool flails in futility against Blackburn and Newcastle.

I still say the season will probably be decided on March 31st.

Sheffield (2/24) - 15th
Man Utd (3/3) – 1st
Arsenal (3/31) – 4th
Boro (4/9) – 12th
Wigan (4/21) – 17th
Charlton (5/13) – 19th

Villa (3/18) – 13th
Reading (4/7) – 6th
Man City (4/14) – 16th
Pompey (4/28) – 7th
Fulham (5/5) – 14th

Man City (2/28) – 16th
Reading (3/3) – 6th
West Ham (4/7) – 18th
Bolton (4/14) – 5th
Fulham (4/28) – 14th
Chelsea (5/5) – 2nd

Villa (3/14) – 13th
Everton (3/18) – 8th
Liverpool (3/31) – 3rd
Newcastle (4/9) – 9th
Tottenham (4/21) – 11th
Pompey (5/13) – 7th

10 February 2007

Liverpool 1-2 Newcastle

A return to the bad old away days? Dominate for the majority of the first half, but wasteful, with only one goal scored and a solitary mistake leading to an equalizer. Let the opposition grow in stature in the second half, and cheaply give away the game-winning goal. Awesome.

The game was defined by the weather it was played in. It may have made it eminently watchable for the neutral, and full credit for the grounds crew for it even able to be played, but the conditions impacted every single thing the teams tried to do. Passes skidded across the ground at lightning speed, players were unable to get even a semblance of traction, and it was wide-open football because of it.

It was a seemingly a game tailor-made for Craig Bellamy, and that it was against his old club made it even more so. He was easily the most threatening player in the first half, looking to run past Newcastle’s back line at every opportunity. He could have had four in the first alone, but was limited to a lone goal, coming in the 6th minute. A misplaced clearance by goalkeeper Harper sent the ball directly to Pennant, who beat his man to the byline and cut it back for Bellamy to slot in the net.

Newcastle equalized against the run of play in the 26th minute. It was an unfortunate goal, but I don’t necessarily blame Reina for it. Martins had Agger beaten; I was screaming for Pepe to rush as soon as the ball was hit, it’s one of the things he does best. It was just unlucky that the clearance a) went right at Agger and b) bounced ever so cleanly for Martins to walk into the empty net. Unfortunately, things like that happen in conditions like those.

Liverpool had many chances to get the second goal, but nothing came of it. Opportunities weren’t easy to come by in the conditions, but there were opportunities to be had. Harper saved on a Zenden breakaway that would have made 2-0 and seemingly sealed it in the 13th minute. Bellamy had two opportunities in the space of a minute around the 30th minute. Early in the second half, Kuyt toe-poked it wide from a tight angle after turning the Newcastle defender. Despite Newcastle coming out from halftime as the better team, with all the opportunities Liverpool had, it always seemed the second goal was coming.

But Liverpool paid for their profligacy. Newcastle made use of their increasing edge in possession, and in the 69th minute, Riise clearly fouled Steven Taylor in the box. Solano stepped up to take and sent Reina the wrong way. Liverpool again had the majority of possession in the final quarter of the game, sending Guthrie, Arbeloa (making his debut) and Crouch on in an attempt to get an equalizer, but despite the pressure, Newcastle’s back line held firm. Don’t take this as sour grapes, but yes, I’m as surprised as you that I’m writing that about Newcastle’s defense. But Taylor, Bramble, and Babyaro all made key interceptions, while Onyewu showed why he’s already so highly thought of on this side of the Atlantic.

I frequently say I don’t like to criticize individual players, but I can’t help it after a loss as disappointing as this. Agger, Riise, and Zenden all underperformed today. Partly the conditions, partly because of the way Newcastle played, but below par all the same. Agger could not keep up with Martins or Dyer, and was playing both far too tight for what the conditions required. Riise was gash for the majority of the game, gave away an unnecessary penalty, and didn’t even get forward with his usual aplomb. Not only did Zenden miss Liverpool’s best chance outside of the goal, he was invisible the majority of the game and offered little down the left; it was telling he was replaced by Guthrie as the first substitute, making only his third appearance in the league. Liverpool also dearly missed Alonso’s playmaking. I will say Bellamy and Pennant had good games, Carragher cut out a lot at the back with his usual cool head, and Sissoko was in form in his first game back, tackling with the best of them and showing a good range of passing. But it wasn’t enough.

Thanks to Chelsea’s win, second place is becoming a tougher and tougher ask. 10 points over 11 games isn’t insurmountable, but it’s a large gap. If Arsenal win tomorrow, they’ll be one point back. The game at Anfield at the end of March is looking larger and larger. That and the United game in 3 weeks will pretty much define the rest of the league campaign.

Time for different thoughts, though. Bring on Barca.

09 February 2007

Liverpool at Newcastle 2.10.07

10am, available in the US on Setanta Sports.

Liverpool: 3rd place; 50 points out of 26 games
Newcastle: 10th place; 33 points out of 26 games

Last 4 meetings:
2-0 Liverpool (h) 09.20.06
3-1 Liverpool (a) 03.19.06
2-0 Liverpool (h) 12.26.05
0-1 Newcastle (a) 03.05.05

Last 3 games:
Liverpool: 0-0 Everton (h); 2-1 West Ham (a); 2-0 Chelsea (h)
Newcastle: 1-2 Fulham (a); 3-1 Villa (h); 2-2 West Ham (h)

Goalscorers (league; more than one goal):
Liverpool: Kuyt 9; Bellamy, Crouch 6; Gerrard 4; Alonso, Garcia 3; Gonzalez 2
Newcastle: Martins 9; Dyer 4; Ameobi, Milner, Parker, Siberski 3

Referee: Mark Halsey

Guess at a squad:
Finnan, Carragher, Agger, Aurelio
Pennant, Gerrard, Sissoko, Riise
Kuyt, Bellamy

Alonso is ruled out due to his 5th yellow of the season, picked up against West Ham, while Sissoko should return from his long-term shoulder injury. That doesn’t necessarily mean he’ll start, as he hasn’t seen first-team action since Birmingham in the League Cup. I’m almost tempted to believe Zenden would get a look before Momo, because he’s been healthy for marginally longer, but I’d rather see Sissoko in the team, rusty or not.

The mid-week international games should also affect the line-up. Gerrard, despite a slight knock, only played 45 minutes for England, so he should be available, but with Crouch getting a full 90 minutes, I’d be surprised to see him start. In addition, Gonzalez was late returning from the Chilean side (I had thought he would refuse to turn out for the national team, but he has), which was in South America.

Liverpool played with three center backs at St. James’ Park last season to good effect, but I’d be surprised to see it here. Although, I did say that about the West Ham game as well. In certain games - and I believe this will be one of them - the natural width and attacking sensibilities of players like Pennant, Riise and Aurelio will help Liverpool spread the defensive and keep pressure on Newcastle.

Newcastle will probably hand a second start to American destroyer Oguchi Onyewu, who made his debut last time out against Fulham. He may not have a huge impact on this game, although he played well his first time out, but I felt the need to make a mention. Onyewu will be one of the cornerstones of the American national team for a long time to come, and is certainly one to watch for the rest of the league campaign. At the least, he will certainly bring steel to Newcastle’s permanently troubled backline. As has been the case all season, the Geordies are still struggling with injuries, with Given, Owen, Emre, Carr, Ameobi, N’Zogbia, and Ramage all ruled out.

With Arsenal home against Wigan, and Bolton (and to a lesser extent, Reading) still within range, it’s essential that Liverpool continue the play that’s seen them go top of the Premiership form table. Last week’s draw while both Chelsea and United won didn’t help matters, but second isn’t out of the question, although the title race is seemingly over (had it restarted?). The recent Newcastle fixtures have been good for Liverpool. Long may it continue.

Roll on Geordies.

08 February 2007

Premiership Predictions 2/10 – 2/11

Reading v Aston Villa (7:45am, Setanta): No matter how good Reading’s been (and they’ve been very good, a promoted team amongst the European places), I still believe Young and Carew will get Villa back on track. Being able to win away at the Majeski, which has been a difficult place to play (United only picked up a point there), would be a start to that. Villa 2-1
Manchester United v Charlton (10:00am, FSC): On current form, Charlton look the mostly likely on the bottom three to avoid the drop, but seriously, there’s no way you could bet against United taking all three points at Old Trafford, especially on the backs of two successive 4-0 victories. United 3-0
Chelsea v Middlesbrough (10:00am, Setanta Xtra): John Terry’s back, and honestly, Ballack's thigh injury may be a blessing in disguise, as it’ll remove some of the selection headaches in midfield. I firmly believe his continued inclusion is the main reason for Chelsea’s unbalanced midfield and the deviation from last season’s successful formation. Boro’s on the up, but I doubt they’ll see much go their way at the Bridge. Chelsea 2-0
Everton v Blackburn (10:00am): This won’t be like the 1-4 thrashing at Goodison in the FA Cup. Everton have Johnson, Arteta and Cahill back, and will have vengeance on their minds. And being at home, hopefully they’ll attempt to come out of their own half, unlike last week. Everton 2-1
Sheffield United v Tottenham (10:00am): If Martin Jol hopes to get Tottenham above mid-table (we’ve been saying that all season it seems), these are the sort of games they should be winning. But given Tottenham’s repeated disappointments and Sheffield’s strength at home, I’m going for a draw. 1-1
West Ham v Watford (10:00am): Payback for the FA Cup defeat or another step closer to relegation for the Hammers? The next two games will go a long way towards deciding the bottom three; after Watford, West Ham travels to Charlton. It would probably be helpful if any of their first-choice defenders, including the two recently acquired, were healthy. 1-1
Portsmouth v Manchester City (12:15pm, FSC): A home draw against Boro and a loss at Wigan has seen Pompey slide out of the European places, and they haven’t won in the league since Boxing Day. Luckily for them, City hasn’t had the best away record and, like Portsmouth, has been struggling for goals. And no matter Pompey’s form, Fratton Park is always a difficult place to play. Portsmouth 1-0
Bolton v Fulham (8:30am, Sunday, Setanta): Bolton’s 1-0 win over Watford last Saturday was their first of 2007, while I still maintain Fulham’s January transfer period was as good as any other club in the Premier league, but I just can’t see the Cottagers picking up any points at the Reebok. Bolton 2-0
Arsenal v Wigan (11:00am, Sunday, FSC): I was pleased to see Wigan pick up a win last week, seeing them move ever so slowly towards safety in their second Premiership season. However, I doubt they’ll have as much fortune at the Emirates (where Arsenal is still unbeaten), against an Arsenal team smarting from a disappointing performance and draw against Boro last weekend and looking to keep 3rd place within touching distance. Arsenal 3-0

Liverpool at Newcastle is on Setanta at 10am on Saturday. Preview later.

US v Mexico minute-by-minute

I have been contemplating doing one of these for a Liverpool game for a while now. However, I figured I’d test it out on a game where there’s less of a chance of me throwing things at the television. Plus, there’s the fun of my unfamiliarity with and moderate ambivalence to the national team.

Pre-match - Bruce Arena is frightening as a commentator. And he’s joined by Eric Wynalda and Dave O’Brien. Awesome. Also, I find it hard to believe Bob Bradley’s future will be decided by this and only this game, but that’s what we’re being told.

2’ - And we’re off to a flying start. And by that I mean about 6 throw-ins and 2 goal kicks deep. Evidently, we’ll be in this stage for a while, according to Arena. I think he means all game long.

4’ - Yikes. US can’t clear, a header puts Howard under pressure, and he fumbles, leaving Conrad to clear for a corner.

5’ - Ref already talking to, and separating Borghetti and Conrad.

7’ - Bornstein outruns Medina (is this why the soccer blogosphere loves him?) breaking up Mexico’s attack, but the US can’t fully clear.

8’ - The US’ first real attack, with good ball movement, but it breaks down when Clark can’t find Donovan.

10’ - That’s the Landon Donovan that shows up every blue moon. Sublime first touch bringing down the long ball, but it only serves to juice him up, and he tries to split 3 defenders unsuccessfully. Calm down, son.

10’ - Bornstein yellow, given for pulling Blanco down. Never a yellow, especially this early in this game.

11’ - And Chris Rolfe has decided to join us, forcing a foul from Salcido, and drawing a make-up yellow card. Convey’s inswinging free kick goes nowhere though.

14’ - Dempsey shows his skills as well, doing well to keep the ball in play. Very slick, although it leads to naught.

14’ - Nice job by Albright to cut out Medina’s cross. Good positioning.

16 - Another Pardo foul while the US is trying to break out, this time on Convey. He’d better be careful, the Canadian ref seems to like his cards.

18’ - Medina does a ton of work to get the ball to Blanco on the left flank, but his cross is atrocious. Way too long, and Borghetti was available in the middle. Poor.

20’ - For a big lad, Marquez sure falls over easy. Yeah, foul by Convey, but come on Rafa.

22’ - Bornstein again does a good job beating his man, but he’s got nowhere to cross it to. Rolfe and Donovan are invisible. The ‘Kenny Cooper’ chant I’ve started in my living room doesn’t seem to be working either. He's the hot trend, right? All I know is he used to be a Manc.

23’ - Mastro and Clark have started to boss the midfield. Tackling and marking have been quite good, although the passing is worse than poor. When Mexico looks dangerous, it’s balls over the top (usually from Marquez) behind the back line.

28’ - By the ref’s standards so far, Torrado should have seen yellow for his foul on Dempsey. Sweet, let's add inconsistency to being quick with yellows.

30’ - Convey’s threatening run is shut down before he can get in a cross.

30’ - The US would be a lot more effective if they were playing strikers. Just an idea.

31’ - Just to torment me, this time Convey gets the early cross in, but almost takes out the line of cameramen.

33’ - Yellow for Mastro for a foul on Marquez. Mexican free kick and subsequent corner lead to zilch.

35’ - 3 players miss Dempsey’s tantalizing low cross across the face of goal. Super.

36’ - The US is really lucky that Borghetti was flagged for offside there, it really looked like Conrad played him on.

37’ - Wynalda just called Rolfe’s performance “miserable,” moving him up a notch in my book. That brings his total to one notch.

38’ - I think Convey has some sort of deal where he gets paid per second he’s on the ball. Pass, dummy!

39’ - Free kick from the left flank taken by Donovan. It sucked. Hit the first defender and easily cleared.

41’ - Rolfe on a threatening run, beating two defenders before getting a rush of blood to the head, and he’s closed down. Pass, dummy!

42’ - Bocanegra carded. Arena seems to think it’s for shirt pulling.

43’ - And we’re having a second conversation between the referee, Borghetti, and Conrad.

43’ - Ooooh. Borghetti’s header just misses the back post. Should have been 1-0.

44’ - Landon picks up a turnover, and runs past the defender into the box. Tough angle, and his shot is saved. First shot on goal for the US. Yay!

HT - These are the games that are politely described as “cagey.”

46’ - Mexico makes three changes. Guardado for Medina, Bautista for Blanco, and Fonseca for Morales. Shows what I know; I thought the few times Mexico looked dangerous on the ground, it was from Medina.

49’ - Guardado absolutely embarrasses Albright, dribbling past him a couple of times before putting the cross into the box. Great positioning from Conrad to cut it out.

50’ - Mexico’s fourth offside to none for the US (granted, Eddie Johnson’s not in the game yet). They’ve looked much more dangerous since the subs.

51’ - Not enough power on Bautista’s 30+yd shot on goal. That and it was right at Howard.

52’ - GOAL - US. Conrad hits a free header from Donovan’s outswinging corner. Picture perfect corner by Donovan, but abysmal marking by Mexico. I’d claim it was a good use of the US’ height advantage, but Conrad was absolutely wide open.

54’ - !!! Convey tracks back ever so well to break up a Mexican attack. I love defense like that from offensive-minded players.

57’ - Arena just claimed Beasley wasn’t in the team because he’s busy establishing himself for his new team, Manchester United. And I nearly swallowed my tongue. The former US national team manager, ladies and gentlemen!

58’ - Oh wow, what a through-ball and cross across the face of goal by Mexico. Defense cleanly and clearly beaten. Surprise, surprise, it comes from the US’ right side. No one home though. That stings if you’re a Mexico supporter.

60’ - Donovan fouled on a breakaway by Torrado. Yellow, and a smart yellow. Free kick, from the left corner at the top of the box leads to squat.

62’ - Conrad saves a goal, blocking Fonseca’s shot for a corner. Bravo on for Torrado, giving Mexico yet another striker. The corner’s cleared.

64’ - Johnson finally on for Rolfe. Wynalda seems so happy to shit-talk Rolfe. To be fair, he was awful though.

65’ - Damn, Bornstein is fast.

66’ - Oh, a gorgeous throughball to Bravo, deflected wide.

67’ - Another Mexico corner leads to Howard catching the ball right before it’s over the line. Close call again.

68’ - Howard deflects another shot by Bravo. The US is living dangerously, while Mexico is making full use of the 17 strikers they have on the field.

68’ - Gross on for Albright. Better than the Denmark performance, but still much to be desired.

71’ - Smart counter-attacking one-two between Dempsey and Johnson leads to a shot on target by Eddie, but it’s easily saved.

73’ - Yet another Mexico corner, 7 to 2 on the night.

74’ - Ugh. Convey stole the ball in the box, had all the time in the world, but it’s saved by Sanchez. The one time he should have taken more time on the ball. Silly.

75’ - Carroll on for Dempsey. Fulham would like their new player back in one piece, thanks.

76’ - Guardado is still embarrassing folks down the US’ right side.

78’ - Carroll took 3 minutes to pick up a yellow card. Welcome to US v Mexico, lad.

80’ - US needs to keep possession and slow the game down, but they can’t. It’s going to go up and down the field for the next 10 or so minutes as it has for the last 20 or so, but looks to be another narrow US home win.

84’ - Good tempo change by Convey earns a free kick on Mexico’s left flank but nothing comes of it.

86’ - Bravo gets free on the right but the pass is way too long. Think he would have been offside anyway.

87’ - Strong shot by Guardado, too close to Howard though, who knocks it down and smothers.

87’ - Typical Eddie Johnson. Silly step and a half offside when if he slowed down and actually looked at the defense, it’s a second goal.

88’ - Yet another close call. Fonseca should have scored, Howard was beaten. Killer cross from fairly far upfield that Fonseca whiffed on. Tough angle to judge, though.

90’ - 4 minutes of added times?

90+1’ - Hahaha. Donovan breaks away after the ball hits the ref, storms downfield, rounds the goalie, and easily makes it 2-0. To be honest, Golden Balls’ Mini-me has had a decent game, although I've taken my fair share of potshots at him.

90+2’ - Holy shit. The replays show Sanchez half-tried to slide tackle Johnson after the goal. Eric Wynalda’s going to blow a blood vessel, and rightfully so. FIFA should be calling in the morning, even if the US Federation has to mail them the tape themselves.

90+4’ - A couple of late half-chances for Mexico, but full time.

FT - 2-0 is kind of flattering, but the US earned the win. And it was a far better game in the second half. Maybe the announcers were right (gasp!); I actually am more inclined to see the “interim” tag removed from Bradley’s title after that game.

Conrad was easily the man of the match, even discarding the goal. His positioning, defensive heading, and ability in bringing the ball out of defense were superb. Probably the US’ best passer as well. Why isn’t he the captain?

Congrats if you’ve actually made it this far. Hope you did too, because taking these notes actually amused me, so there’s a fair chance you’ll see it again.

06 February 2007

Last (foreseeable) takeover post

Okay, time to step back and make a few points. Hopefully this will elucidate where I stand on this and why, and will be the last of it for a while.

- As said earlier, the new owners have said all the right things. Whether it’s about the fans, Liverpool's tradition and legacy, how they are only “custodians” of the club, the status of Parry, Benitez, and Moores, or the new stadium. The verbal gaffes, calling Liverpool a franchise or getting the positions wrong only comes with a lack of familiarity with the sport and culture, which both men will readily admit anyway. But they appear to want to learn, and meeting with Rafa, Gerrard, and Carra before the deal was finalized demonstrates that. We’ll see if words match actions, but I will say I was impressed with both the press conference and interviews.

- Financially, it was the best deal for the club. It’s one of the least of my concerns, but it bears mentioning. They were offering more per share, and Gillett also claims they’ve put no debt onto the club with this purchase. That’s important, and in contrast to the way Glazer leveraged the United takeover. The new owners refused to say if the stadium would be funded in a similar manner, but even then, that's the way Arsenal funded the Emirates and it hasn’t turned out wrong so far.

- Let’s also not forget who the other parties involved were. The earlier suitors ranged from downright frightening (former Thai PM) to never getting off the ground (Kraft, Jefferies). And the way DIC dithered, never proved they were in it for the long haul, and ultimately had the temerity to give Liverpool ultimatums makes them look awful in comparison after the fact. And I don’t believe it’s the fault of Parry or Moores that these were the only other suitors. While it’s frustrating that Liverpool fans were forced to wait three years for this, it’s not as if serious investors with the actual capability to take Liverpool to the next level fall out of trees. I’m willing to give both the Chairman and Chief Exec the benefit of the doubt here.

Of course I’m worried it could all go ass up. I’m skeptical of PR speak, and gents described as “hard-nosed businessmen” in general. As an American, I’m also afraid of incurring animus from Liverpudlians, who I’m certain are skeptical of foreign investment, and rightfully so given the heritage of this club. For some reason, the fact it’s Americans seemingly makes it worse, whether it’s because of Glazer or the fact that some of us (especially those in power) seem to think we’re the end-all be-all of the world.

And as an American, the last thing I want to do is appear to disrespect those concerns or the traditions of the club. As always, there’s a fine line commenting on the Premiership from across the ocean, even more so when the party involved is a Yank.

But the fact remains that foreign investment was an inevitability. And while there’s a lot to be proven over time, and we should all hold off final judgment until then, I’m cautiously optimistic that this was the right deal.

Huge thanks to Moores for all he's done for the club, duly rewarded with a position as honorary President for life, and thanks as well Parry for all the work that went into the takeover. Now we watch.

Takeover nearing completion

I'll have more to say on the conclusion of proposed takeover later. The board has unanimously recommended the offer to the shareholders, and the BBC is starting to treat it like a done deal. News conference is in an hour and a half.

In keeping with last night, for now, I'll just add one more Shankly quote.
"At a football club, there's a holy trinity - the players, the manager and the supporters. Directors don't come into it. They are only there to sign the cheques"

Update (2pm): The official site is the best place to go for information. I'm still processing this, and I'll probably update a few times more, but for now, I highly recommend reading both the interview that LFC.tv has done with the new owners and the rest of the information that the site has surprisingly organized into a single section.

The interview does a bit to allay some of my fears. Granted, these men are well-trained businessmen, they know when and how to say the right things. But the fact remains, they have said all the right things so far.

05 February 2007

Derby Wrap-up

Not much left to be said about this weekend’s derby, especially now that it’s a few days after the fact. Disappointed in Everton’s tactics, but their defense was excellent and did everything they needed to. Liverpool should have done more to break them down, and as can happen, ended up resorting to the long ball, which Yobo and Stubbs ate up. Blah.

More timely, and vastly more amusing, is the “war of words” that’s developed between the clubs.

I just want to highlight a few quotes.

Rafa Benitez:
"When you play against the smaller teams at Anfield you know the game will be narrow."

Everton chief exec Keith Wyness:
"Of course, Mr Benitez is entitled to his opinion but I suspect he is in a minority of one in believing Everton is, in any respect, a small football club

"Somehow we just expect more of a Liverpool manager."

Bill Shankly:
“In my time at Anfield we always said we had the best two teams on Merseyside, Liverpool and Liverpool reserves.”

“If Everton were playing at the bottom of the garden, I'd pull the curtains.”

“I know this is a sad occasion but I think that Dixie would be amazed to know that even in death he could draw a bigger crowd than Everton can on a Saturday afternoon.”

“The difference between Everton and the Queen Mary is that Everton carry more passengers!"
Were Shankly to be managing today, I think the internet would explode. Deep breaths, people…

02 February 2007

Liverpool v Everton 2.03.07

7:45am, Setanta.

Unavoidable travel, and it comes on the weekend of the derby. Hopefully it will bring the same luck as missing the Bolton game did. My best to you all (except the blue half of Merseyside) this weekend.

Liverpool: 3rd place; 49 points out of 25 games
Everton: 8th place; 35 points out of 24 games

Last 4 meetings:
0-3 Everton (a) 09.09.06
3-1 Liverpool (h) 03.25.06
3-1 Liverpool (a) 12.28.06
2-1 Liverpool (h) 03.20.05

Last 3 games:
Liverpool: 2-1 West Ham (a); 2-0 Chelsea (h); 3-0 Watford (a)
Everton: 2-0 Wigan (a); 1-1 Reading (h); 1-4 Blackburn (h)

Goalscorers (league; more than one goal):
Liverpool: Kuyt 9; Bellamy, Crouch 6; Gerrard 4; Alonso, Garcia 3; Gonzalez 2
Everton: Johnson 8; Arteta 6; Cahill 5; Anichebe, Beattie, Osman 2

Referee: Alan Wiley

Guess at a squad:
Finnan, Carragher, Agger, Riise
Pennant, Gerrard, Alonso, Gonzalez
Kuyt, Bellamy

Aurelio being out again (this time due to a foot injury) puts a crimp in my proposed line-up. While it’s always an educated guess, it seems a lot more likely we’ll see the 4-4-2 this go-around. As much as I’d like it to be so, Everton isn’t West Ham or Watford.

That said, Aurelio’s absence limits the options on the left. I’m almost tempted to put Zenden in, and that’s considering his performances this season and the fact that he’s just returned from injury. I’m not yet willing to write off Gonzo, but he’s still adapting to the Prem, and this isn’t a game in which to find your feet. That said, he’s still seemingly the best option with Kewell and Garcia still out long-term in addition to Aurelio’s most recent malady. There’s always a small chance Bellamy could play left wing, as he did for Newcastle, but that’s opening a can of worms I would like to avoid.

Which brings us to the ever-present question of the striker pairing. Crouch had a tough game at Goodison, and Yobo (who I’ll rarely if ever talk up) can defend against Peter’s height adequately. Kuyt is one of the first names I jot down when I write this up, and while Joleon Lescott’s had an excellent season for the Blues, I think Bellamy’s pace could give Everton problems.

There’s little else needed to be said about the importance of this game. It’s the Merseyside derby. Yes, Liverpool needs 3 more points to keep up their run of form and keep pace with Chelsea, but there’s no extra motivation needed when Everton’s coming up at Anfield. Especially after the last match.

“Liverpool are magic. Everton are tragic.”

Premiership Predictions 2/03-2/04

Aston Villa v West Ham (10am, FSC): West Ham were better defensively against Liverpool than I thought they’d be, and after a sub par first half, they battled until the end. It’s a matter of the team being on their game and Curbs getting the line-up right, once he decides what it is. But despite losing to Newcastle, I still expect Villa to start to turn things around. As a sign of things to come, Ashley Young did get his first Villa goal Tuesday.Villa 2-1
Charlton v Chelsea (10am, Setanta): Away win. But congrats to Charlton for holding on for a draw at the Reebok last week. They are only 2 points behind Wigan and safety from relegation. Chelsea 3-0
Fulham v Newcastle (10am, Setanta Xtra): Chris Coleman was obviously disappointed in his team following their loss to Sheffield United mid-week, and I imagine he’ll bring better out of them this time. They’ll need it against an in-form Newcastle side that’s moved into the top 10 and signed the monster that is Oguchi Onyewu. But I still think that Fulham will be able to secure a draw, as they are apt to do at Craven Cottage this season. 1-1
Blackburn v Sheffield United (10am): I’ve got a hunch that Blackburn are due another good showing like those against Everton and Manchester City recently. Sheffield has been excellent at scrapping for a result, and I habitually underestimate them, but it feels as if Blackburn could put a few by the Blades. Blackburn 3-1
Manchester City v Reading (10am): I look for City to put in another decent performance at home as they did against Southampton last weekend. On a related note, it’s nice to see DaMarcus Beasley healthy and getting a consistent run-out, returning the favor with two goals in the past month. But Reading always seems likely to earn at least a point, and somewhere along the line, Lita or Long will probably pop up. 1-1
Wigan v Portsmouth (10am): Both teams will be looking to stop a poor run of form, with neither having won in the league since 2006. Wigan looks to be in a bit more trouble, sitting in 17th two points clear of relegation while Pompey clings to a European place, but I have a sneaking suspicion the Latics could earn a much needed point here. 0-0
Watford v Bolton (10am): Bolton is another team winless in 2007, but they should be able to pick up three points at Vicarage Road. Every week in these predictions, I end up treating Watford more harshly than I intend, but it’s fairly obvious they’re consolidating for the Championship and relying on the personality of Aidy Boothroyd for any hope of staying up. Bolton 2-0
Middlesbrough v Arsenal (12:15pm, FSC): After a 5-1 drubbing of Bolton, the Boro we know seems to be back (sometimes dour, frequently inconsistent) in the last two games. After letting the reserves have a run out to some success against Tottenham mid-week, Arsenal’s first team should be well rested. Arse 2-0
Tottenham v Manchester United (11am Sunday, FSC): I’m hoping that someone will be able to take points off United, and on face value, Tottenham aren’t a bad candidate. Spurs had been very good, and have beaten Chelsea, at White Hart Lane, except they’ve lost their last two in the league there. And suffered a fairly tough defeat to Arsenal on Wednesday. Sigh. United 2-1

01 February 2007

Takeover news and notes

Nothing concrete (unsurprisingly and unfortunately), but more news on Dubai Investment pulling out of the deal and on Gillett's proposal.

First, ESPN is reporting that Tom Hicks, owner of the Texas Rangers and Dallas Stars, has joined Gillett's consortium.
In what could be a first for North American sports franchise owners, Texas Rangers and Dallas Stars owner Tom Hicks reportedly will join Montreal Canadiens owner George Gillett Jr. in his bid to buy one of the most storied teams in Premier League soccer.

Hicks has entered into a 50-50 agreement with Gillett to purchase the Liverpool Football Club for $450 million, the Dallas Morning News reported Thursday morning, citing an unnamed source. An announcement could come as early as next week.

Hicks was expected back in the United States late Thursday after spending the week in the United Kingdom.

If Hicks' ownership of the Texas Rangers, and his handling of the Alex Rodriguez saga (Step 1: outbid yourself, when you're the only serious bidder, in the free agent market by a significant amount. Step 2: sell the player in a bungled deal a couple of years later for 50 cents on the dollar) is any indication, that's awful news.

It's one thing to be familiar with sports and sports franchises, which is all well and good. But it's more important that the group in discussion actually runs the franchises well. DIC, and their world-renown stables on one hand. The Texas Rangers and Dallas Stars on the other...

Chief Executive Rick Parry's also been making the media rounds this morning, justifying the club's position in regards to DIC withdrawing (there have been more than enough "DIC pulls out" jokes, thank you very much) from the proposed takeover.

Astonishingly, I do believe Parry. It seems insane that the main focus would be an extra £8m. After all this time, I doubt it's about a few more quid in Moores' pocket. The club and the board do have a duty to examine all offers presented to the club, and if DIC gave a 12 hour deadline, so be it. But after x number of years, it's tough to stomach talk of Liverpool wary of 'rushing into a decision.'

To me, DIC has looked the better proposal, and more importantly, the better consortium since they put in a bid. I trust that the board will make the right decision, but the waiting has gone on long enough. The worst thing that could happen would be the club rushing into an offer because there's no others on the table, but new owners need to be found, as the new stadium needs to built.

January Transfer Dealings (updated)

Well, it took a while for the transfer dealings to come together, and Mascherano's move still must be approved by the Premier League. Now that FIFA has ratified the deal, I can't see what's holding up the league, but with all that has gone into the deal so far, and the fact that Liverpool's all but announced it on the official site, it seemingly has to go through.

Alvaro Arbeloa (wiki)
Astrit Ajdarevic (wiki)
Jordy Brouwer (wiki)
Francisco Duran (wiki)
Emiliano Insua (wiki)
Javier Mascherano (wiki)
Daniele Padelli (wiki)

Salif Diao (wiki)
Adam Hammill (loan) (wiki)
David Mannix (wiki)
Darren Potter (wiki)
Stephen Warnock (wiki)

Now, hopefully I'll be able to add some news about the takeover rumors later today, because if we don't get some good news on that front, I may go certifiable.