31 March 2007

Liverpool 4-1 Arsenal

Ahh, revenge. Sweet, sweet revenge. Pride can be a powerful thing to play for.

That is the Liverpool I want to see every time out. They made one mistake, a Kuyt misclearance from a corner, which Arsenal was able to take advantage of, making the game marginally more nerve-wracking than it should have been, but that was all the joy the Gunners had today and those nerves weren’t left wracking for very long. Not only was every single Liverpool player good, more importantly, there have been games they had more chances and didn’t score at all. With less shots on goal, recent performances aside, they scored on the ones they got, which is a rarity to be sure.

The line-up was a bit of a surprise, but one that worked exactly as imagined. Crouch came back early from surgery, Gerrard started in a role similar to Kuyt’s supporting him, Pennant and Gonzalez gave Liverpool excellent width and pace on the flanks (absolutely necessary when Crouch is the lead striker), and they were well supported in attack by Aurelio and Arbeloa.

So many players were special today, but everyone played well, so don’t look too deeply into any omissions, but I feel the need to single out a few. First and foremost, what can be said about Peter Crouch? First hat trick against Arsenal since Fowler’s, each goal scored differently (right foot, header, left foot). Each goal was superb as well. The first coming after a delicious one-two between Pennant and Arbeloa (backheeling the ball to each other), which led to a low cross from Arbeloa that Crouch got to before Toure. The second from a whipped cross by Aurelio that was perfectly placed for Crouch to attack with his head. He rounded off the day by showing off that great touch for a big man™; this time, the cross came from Pennant, but it was Crouch’s control before slotting it away that made the goal.

In between Crouchy’s second and third, Agger got in on the act, scoring from a free kick (you know it’s a good day when Liverpool is scoring from set plays). And even though they weren’t troubled that often, both he and Carragher were typically solid. Mascherano was the epitome of a holding midfielder, couldn’t have asked for more from passing, tackling or movement. He was also more than willing to chase anywhere to obtain position, without losing the shape of the team. Easily his best game in his short Liverpool career and showing all the promise he came to England with. As already said, all the wide players did their jobs to perfection; the width, pace, and crossing were all excellent. As with Mascherano, it may have been Aurelio’s best game in a Liverpool shirt, while Arbeloa showed why right back is considered his best position. I can effuse about players’ performances all day long.

Last season, Liverpool only took 4 points from games against Chelsea, United, and Arsenal. This season, it’ll be 6. Clearly, it’s not good enough, especially not for title contenders, but it’s an improvement nonetheless. Surely something to build on, and with Liverpool still in a fight for 3rd and with less points than last season, it’s at least one sign of progress.

This should be an excellent start to the close of the season, and should be a jumping off point for the final push, both in Europe and to finish the league. A game like this, especially one so tinged with revenge, can only be good for morale. And it was played in such a way, at such a high level, while still holding some players back. Gerrard was able to come off early for rest (replaced in the 57th minute), Kuyt featured as a sub, and Bellamy, Sissoko and Finnan were able to be left out. At the same time, new players such as Mascherano, Pennant, Gonzalez, Aurelio and Arbeloa, all in their first campaign, played some of their best football of the entire year.

This is exactly what Liverpool needed. Now keep it up.

Can’t wait for PSV on Tuesday.

30 March 2007

Liverpool v Arsenal 03.31.07

7:45am, available in the US on Setanta Sports.

Liverpool: 4th place; 54 points out of 30 games
Arse: 3rd place; 55 points out of 29 games

Last 4 meetings:
3-6 Arsenal (h) 01.09.07
1-3 Arsenal (h) 01.06.07
0-3 Arsenal (a) 11.12.06
1-2 Arsenal (a) 03.12.06

Last 3 games:
Liverpool: 0-0 Villa (a); 0-1 Barcelona (h); 0-1 Man Utd (h)
Arse: 0-1 Everton (a); 1-0 Villa (a); 1-1 PSV (h)

Goalscorers (league; more than one goal):
Liverpool: Kuyt 9; Bellamy 7; Crouch 6; Gerrard 5; Alonso, Fowler, Garcia 3; Gonzalez 2
Arse: Van Persie 11; Henry 10; Gilberto 8; Adebayor 6; Flamini 3; Gallas, Hleb, Toure 2

Referee: Steve Bennett

Guess at a squad:
Finnan Carra Agger Aurelio
Pennant Gerrard Alonso Riise
Kuyt Bellamy

Finally, a Liverpool game. It’s only been 13 days, seems like ages. And it very well may be for 3rd place in the Premiership.

It may not have seemed that bad a stretch with the high of progressing past Barca in the Champions League, but Liverpool is winless without scoring in its last three. Like last season, the team’s fallen into a patch of few goals. Normally when Liverpool has struggled this season, they’ve still created some chances, but not much has come off in recent games.

For that reason I’ve put Gerrard back in the center with Alonso. In the past games against Arsenal this season, it seems Rafa’s been hesitant to play Pennant against his old team, with his only start coming in the FA Cup. But Pennant looked one of the more lively players when he came on against Villa (although that’s not saying much), and given Liverpool’s recent impotence in attack (especially from midfield) in the last couple of games, Gerrard could do with a start in the center. Maybe his storming runs from midfield will help to remedy the situation. I also remember some of Kuyt’s best play coming when he was linking with Gerrard in the middle.

Of course, I also wouldn’t be surprised to see a midfield of Gerrard-Alonso-Sissoko-Riise/Aurelio. Sissoko does frequently play an important role in games like these, and he was out injured for the ones in January. Getting the ball away from and keeping it away from Arsenal is frequently how Liverpool attempts to beat them, and it’s been a useful tactic against Arsenal for others. But it hasn’t worked for Liverpool so far this season, and the lack of goals and overall lack of impetus in offense necessitates some sort of change. It may however be worth a mention that my guess is nearly the same lineup as in the FA Cup tie, without Dudek in goal, Aurelio in place of Garcia and Bellamy in for Crouch.

I believe Crouch is still out due to the surgery following his broken nose, so the frequent striker question is off the table. Fowler should surely be on the bench though; while I don’t know if he should start as he can’t be relied on for a full 90 minutes, if the game is tied or Liverpool is struggling to score, I’d hope he gets more than 5.

But it’s not as if Arsenal’s taking over the world at the moment either. The last month has seen them beaten in the Carling Cup final and knocked out of both the FA Cup and Champions League. There was the “unfortunate” incident that led to suspensions for Adebayor, Eboue, and Toure which only recently ended. At the same time, there’s somewhat of an injury crisis with Henry and van Persie out long-term, as is Walcott, with Eboue and Clichy also doubtful. But they have still managed to pass Liverpool into 3rd in the league.

I’ll be honest, and I mention this with reticence, because I don’t want to seem to be downplaying this match after building it up for so long, but 3rd place isn’t the end all, be all. Both 3rd and 4th qualify for the same stage of the Champions League, and I believe they get the same starting revenue. And while Liverpool is not in the best form, they are 7 points ahead of 5th place. With 8 games to go, it’s certainly not insurmountable, but it looks a healthy margin and regardless, unlike the difference between 3rd and 4th, 5th place most likely won’t be decided by this game.

Tomorrow seems more a matter of pride than anything else. Liverpool will not reach the points total of last year, thanks mainly to away form at the start to the season, and would probably like to at least reach the same league position. And then there’s the matter of the three previous games against Arsenal played this season. I don’t want to go into the gory details any further; I would hope the players remember them vividly enough.

Roll on.

29 March 2007

Prem Predictions 3/31/ - 4/02

Back on normal starting times, thanks to the UK catching up with the American time change.

Fulham v Portsmouth 10:00am, FSC: Easy to say with Fulham, who along with Aston Villa have the most draws in the league, but this one looks like a tie as well. Fulham is far better at Craven Cottage while Pompey’s nowhere near their form at the start of the season, but still, this one smells like a draw all the way. Of course, every time I say that with any certainty, the match finds a way to end without a tie. 1-1
Manchester Utd v Blackburn 10:00am, Setanta: Blackburn had United’s number last season and did the double over them, but lost 0-1 at Ewood Park in November this season. Also, I’m more than likely to continue my trend of picking a United win every time out for the rest of the season, which makes me feel like eviscerating myself. United 2-0
Newcastle v Manchester City 10:00am, Setanta Xtra: Two teams that can be utterly frightening to watch. Newcastle had steadied the ship earlier in the season despite a large number of injuries, while City can’t buy a goal to save their lives. Both backlines can be completely inconsistent and prone to lapses, but I think Newcastle will start to fix their form. Either that, or Roeder will be gone at the end of the season. Newcastle 1-0
Bolton v Sheffield Utd 10:00am: I’ve come to like Sheffield. Well, at least respect them, I don’t know if I can ever “like” a team headed by the ever-amusing Neil Warnock. But Sam Allardyce has had time to fix Bolton’s recent problems thanks to the international break, and Sheffield are going to severely miss Rob Hulse’s goals. If Hulse’s injury happened earlier in the season, Sheffield would probably be doomed. They are only 4 points above Charlton at the moment, but I think they should be able to scrape through the season. It’s worth remembering Hulse has far more goals as anyone else on the team, though. Bolton 2-0
Charlton v Wigan 10:00am: Another one that looks likely to end in a deadlock. Yeah, both these teams still hover around the relegation zone, and despite being unbeaten in 3, Charlton still look likely to go down a division, but both have been far better of late. While it’s tempting to think this will be an ugly, hard-fought game, I think we might actually see some football. 2-2
West Ham v Middlesbrough 10:00am: We’re full of possible ties this week. I just don’t trust Boro on the road, while I can’t go for West Ham. I know they’ve been better at Upton Park, I know Tevez is coming around, and the team is playing with a lot more heart than they had been, but I just cannot bring myself to pick a Hammers victory. And I wish I could; I’ve said it before and I’m sure it’ll be said again. West Ham is a team that deserves to be in the Prem. 0-0
Watford v Chelsea 12:15pm, FSC: Hey look, another 2-0 Chelsea prediction! Chelsea 2-0
Tottenham v Reading 11:00am Sunday, FSC: Spurs have looked very good at the Lane, and although a fair few of their players were away for the international break, Martin Jol will have them more than ready to face Reading, who are one of Spurs’ main contenders for a European place. Look for 7th placed Tottenham to put more distance between them and Reading, who sit a point behind them. Tottenham 2-1
Aston Villa v Everton 3:00pm Monday, FSC: Going back to the tried and true “Villa as draw specialists” narratives. Not only is it easy, it’s been true. As I can attest to as a Liverpool fan, it’s all too true. 1-1

Liverpool v Arse is at 7:45am on Setanta on Saturday

27 March 2007

98.6% and it's a done deal

Takeover’s finalized.
Further to the announcement made on March 13th that the offer for the entire issued share capital of Liverpool FC by George Gillett and Tom Hicks had been declared unconditional, the pair have announced today that the offer has now closed.

In a statement released on behalf of Kop Football Limited, Mr Gillett and Mr Hicks confirmed they had received valid acceptances in respect of 34,343 Liverpool Shares, representing approximately 98.6 per cent of Liverpool's issued share capital to which the Offer relates.

As a consequence, Mr Gillett and Mr Hicks intend to exercise their rights pursuant to the provisions of the Companies Act to acquire compulsorily the remaining Liverpool Shares.

The pair, who also intend to seek to re-register Liverpool as a private limited company, will be at Anfield this weekend for the visit of Arsenal.

Commenting on the announcement, Chief Executive Rick Parry said: "The incredibly high level of acceptance of the offer shows shareholders have faith in the vision outlined for the club by George Gillett and Tom Hicks."
There’s not much else left to be said. I don’t see it as a revolution like some, but neither am I a native Liverpudlian nor do I expect Gillett and Hicks to make a bunch of big money purchases.

I believe the on the field, Liverpool is very close to being title contenders, and not as many reinforcements are needed as people think. Off the field, this will clearly help Liverpool catch up, especially with the increased revenue from the soon-to-be-built stadium, but I believe the new stadium will be a far bigger change and chapter in Liverpool’s history than these two blokes.
“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.” – Bill Shankly
I do want to say something about the former minority shareholders. I feel for the fan who saved to buy a few shares, or just one, of the club to pass down through generations, as a piece of Liverpool. Those fans, and rightfully so, seem to be feeling forced to part with some of the club they love. Also, I do hope that the final 1.4% don't miss out on the offer for season and cup final tickets. But, and it’s coarse to say not being a shareholder, but it was necessary for Liverpool in this day and age of sport.

Yes, the investment is overdue and needed. But I really can’t wrap my mind it as an all-new era. Fans like to say no player is bigger than the club. Neither are the two men who own it. They seem to recognize this, or have been coached very well. They are custodians, and little more.

“We love you Liverpool, we do…”

England v Andorra 3.28.07

There's one way to avoid a repeat of the Israel debacle. Score goals.

I want to lay all the blame for England's problems, mainly the 1 goal in the last 5 outings, at the feet of Steve McClaren, who in any event hasn't helped himself. That'd be easiest, and despite the fact that there are very few English candidates in the pipeline, the manager is fairly easily replaceable (despite whatever payout the FA would be forced to fork over). But it's more than that. We were having all the same debates over England's woeful performances and the fact that their "world class" players can't replicate their club form for country while Sven Goran Eriksson was manager. Similar debates over positions (can we please solve the Gerrard v Lampard debate because they cannot play in the same midfield) have taken place as well.

Granted, McClaren was Sven's #2, and there are a lot of holdovers, in staff and style, from the previous regime. The only major change, dropping Beckham, was an easy decision with all the media already having sharpened their daggers for Golden Balls. Of course, now England's missing his set pieces enormously, but I agreed with dropping Beckham, because the line-up needs to be changed and younger players brought through. Maybe more should have been dropped. Maybe Beckham should have remained a squad player. Answers aren't easy to come by, but that's McClaren's brief in a nutshell. Make those tough decisions, Steve, do the job you were hired for.

But what it comes down to is England's lack of goals. Owen may be a long-term casualty along with Joe Cole, and there are goals in those 2, but failing to score against Croatia, Macedonia, and Israel is embarrassing, no matter who's missing. For a side that fancies themselves one of the best in the world (you're having a laugh…), it's completely unacceptable.

Tomorrow will be the game to remedy that. If England doesn't beat Andorra by a large margin, the knives will come out again, and deservedly so. England won 5-0 at home in September. Andorra lost 4-1 against Israel, 3-0 against Macedonia, and 7-0 against Croatia. Calling them a semi-pro side is rude to other semi-pro sides.

Every time I write something to post, I do my utmost to not be “knee-jerk,” which can be the hallmark of commentary on the internet. So let me be clear. I don’t believe it’s knee-jerk to knock the team for these sub par performances since last fall. And I don’t believe it’s knee-jerk to put a lot on McClaren’s head, especially if England screws the pooch against Andorra, despite the obvious failings of the players.

I apologize for not having a ton of confidence in the English national team right now. I wish this could be a more optimistic “preview.” But the team is sub-par, the manager’s done damn little to inspire any confidence, and I don’t see any better prospects for the future if England continues on the same path.

But that won’t stop me from rooting. Roll on England. Please.

26 March 2007


After watching the US demolition (honest, that’s no exaggeration and I’m as surprised as you should be) of both Mexico and Ecuador, it’s absolutely criminal that interim head coach Bob Bradley still has the interim tag.

In the last two games, the US men’s national team has looked more a “team” than at any other occasion I've watched them since the 2002 World Cup. Even with new players being bedded in and some regulars having sat out due to injuries or other matters, they look a far better unit than at any time during the 2006 World Cup.

I understand that both games were home matches, both games were “friendlies,” and that the real tests will come in the Copa America and Gold Cup, but it needs to be said. Bob Bradley is making all the right decisions, and has the team performing at a very good level. Not to mention the rebirth of Landon Donovan under Bradley, although we’ll withhold judgment on that until more competitive matches.

It seems the only reason Bradley still has the interim label is because of US chief Sunil Gulati’s obsession with a big name coach. First it was Jurgen Klinsmann; now, it’s ostensibly Carlos Quieroz or Gerard Houllier (run, run away screaming). Not only are these men pipe dreams, I fail to understand why Gulati has such a hard-on in courting them. Is it because they’ll give the US a bigger name and more PR possibilities? Is that really what matters here?

My main prerequisite in hiring a national team manager following Arena was familiarity with MLS, because for the time being, the national team will be reliant on players from that league. Bradley has impeccable credentials in that regard. Yes, the majority of the first team’s starting 11 is based in Europe, and I’m of the belief that if the US wants to have greater success internationally, more players should think of going abroad (I’m looking at you, Landon). But we’re not there yet. Bradley has the MLS qualifications, but just as importantly, he’s now proven he can manage the national team against their biggest rivals and a strong CONMEBOL outfit. That should have been the only reason why he had the interim tag in the first place, because he’s never held a top level international position. Now, he’s proven the jump to international stage isn’t so much of a leap.

I fail to see the hold up. The longer this goes on, the more this gossip will ratchet up. Please, stop this nonsense now. Klinsmann’s not coming, Quieroz’s not coming, Houllier’s not coming (for the love of God, I hope). Bradley has quickly proven himself to be the best candidate, end of.

The USSF did something right in hiring Bradley. Please don’t screw it up.

24 March 2007

England U21 3-3 Italy U21

Now that’s how you open a stadium. Yeah, it would have been better had England actually won, but what a cracking game that was. We saw six goals, including one after 20-odd seconds, and a hat trick by an opposition player. 3 times the game was equalized, and the match was hotly competed and close the entire time. Even the referee and linesmen were excellent. Defensive liabilities on both sides were evident, surprisingly for Italy although it was the Under 21s, but that made the game even more watchable, if frightening for the managers of both sides.

The story of the day is the stadium, and probably rightfully so. How great is it to see Wembley finally open? I was certain we’d be seeing Prince William handing off the FA Cup at Cardiff for the for the 7th straight year. But here we are, 5 years after the iconic two towers were demolished, and England has its national stadium back. Yeah, it’s about time, but now is not the time for complaints about the process. It’s time to use the re-opening as a morale boost for all levels of the national side.

But no matter how nice it is to see the ground re-open, we really were treated to an excellent game to christen the ground, and that’s as heartening as having Wembley back. There’s a lot of promise in the Under 21s.

What amazes me is how different England’s Under 21 side is than the senior squad. England’s best player today? David Bentley, a winger. He was utterly excellent; the strides he’s made this season are beyond adjectives. Crosses, beating his man, workrate, free kicks; he was the whole package. Not to mention today’s starting line-up saw Bentley, Richardson, Agbonlahor, and Routledge all start, with Young and Milner coming in off the bench. 6 players, arguably 6 of England’s best today, and they’re all wide players! Bodes well for the future, to be sure. And it certainly is a contrast to the first team’s logjam in central midfield. Also, it’s not as if Lennon or Wright-Phillips are geriatric. Hopefully one of these many wide players can bring that to the senior team’s left wing. Lord knows the help is needed.

It’s mean to say, but I hope the first team was watching before their preparations to take on Israel in a few hours. The Under 21s play together as infrequently as the senior squad, but look far more a team than the national side has in years.

But it’s not the time for cheap shots. Roll on England.

22 March 2007

Oh right, there's Euro 2008 qualifying matches...

Apologies for the lack of posting on my end, but another international break combined with utter silliness at work has brought us to this point.

That, and I just can’t get ginned up over England’s Euro 2008 qualifying matches, even though Saturday’s game against Israel is as make or break as one can get at this stage of qualifying. If England lose, they’ll probably sit in 4th place, possibly 5th, in the group with nearly half the games played and games still to come against all who would sit ahead of them (Russia twice).

Maybe it’s the fact England’s just as boring under McClaren as under Eriksson, but even less effective. Maybe it’s because based on past performances in the group, England probably doesn’t deserve to qualify.

My guess though is it’s because this is yet another stage in the squandering of an incredible generation of talent, and it’s getting really tiresome.

Gerrard, Rooney, Lampard, Terry, Ferdinand, Carragher, Ashley Cole, Joe Cole, Owen. These are “world class” players who play for some of the best clubs in the world, let alone England. You can even argue there are more names worth of being on that list. Why the hell can they not perform as a team??? And I don’t mean to be glib, but if you can name 4 Israeli players without looking up a team sheet, you’re more informed than I am. And Israel should probably be favored, even if they didn’t have home advantage, simply based on England’s form.

I understand the injuries. I understand that there’s an adjustment to a new manager, although that grace period is fading and the fact remains there’s been little change in style except for the absolutely abysmal attempt at 3-5-2. What I do not understand is no matter how well these players know each other, no matter how many times the exact starting line-up goes out, or how many younger players get a brief look in, the team has gotten no better. We’ve had the same “Gerrard v Lampard or both” debate going on for years now!

Of course, I’ll still await the result with interest; supporting the English team is what brought me to Liverpool and started my descent into being a huge football nerd. And I’ll be awaiting the result because I’m certainly not spending $20 to watch England flail through the match on pay-per-view. The alcohol that can be bought with that money will probably amuse me far more.

20 March 2007

Liverpool B in the Football League?

So Benitez wants the Football League to mirror Spain and let clubs field a reserve team in the Championship or League One.

Awful idea. There are very few times I’ll disagree with Benitez, but I’m firmly in the camp of the opposition. I’m glad the manager is acting in Liverpool’s best interest, but come on. This idea could literally destroy League football, no exaggeration. At the least, it will certainly pervert it. The rich get richer, and the poor get shunted aside.

There are 72 clubs fighting day in and day out to stay in the Football League, whether it’s in the Championship, League One, or League Two. These are clubs that are part of individual communities, and communities that should and need to have league football. You absolutely cannot punish one of these clubs so Liverpool or Chelsea can get their reserves more time. It shouldn't even be suggested.

Admittedly, I want Liverpool’s reserves to play more. Benitez has done well so far in changing the system and culture of the reserve team, turning it into something similar to Arsenal’s youth system, which obviously has its benefits for the future. And these players need time to develop; it’s true, 18 games is not enough time for a young reserve team player to be playing. But it’s not right for that reserve team to take the spot of a senior club. Not in the slightest.

The opponents to this plan are spot on. Right now, there's a perfectly practical option in loaning some of the young players to Championship or SPL sides, as is the case with Adam Hamill, Danny Guthrie, Lee Peltier, Scott Carson, Danny O’Donnell, Besian Idrizaj, Godwin Antwi, and surely others I’m forgetting. Would these players be better served staying with Liverpool coaches and staff? Certainly. But not at the cost of a place in the League for another club.

If the reserve system is broken, then find another way to fix it. This isn’t feasible, and more importantly, this is not right.

There’s got to be some fairness left in sport.

19 March 2007

Luis Garcia, he drinks Sangria, he came from Barca to bring us joy…

Liverpool 0-0 Everton
Liverpool 0-1 Manchester United
Liverpool 0-0 Aston Villa

This are the games I firmly believe Liverpool could have gotten something out of had Luis Garcia been healthy. Granted, aside from Newcastle, these are all the league losses and draws since Garcia’s injury in early January, but the point remains.

I hesitate to write this now as I hesitated to mention it in any of the match reports, because this is Liverpool, it’s not right to put any one player above the team’s performance. But after yesterday’s “game” against Villa I simply can’t help myself.

Without Garcia, Liverpool has little creativity and flair, the type of player who can break these deadlocks and dreary games. It’s not a matter of being able to grab the game by the scruff of the neck and drag the team kicking and screaming to a win, as Gerrard has been known to do on occasion, but more a player who has the required tricks and guile to unlock a stubborn defense when the game’s not going as planned. Garcia’s not a game changer, but he certainly can be a match winner.

All I could think of after yesterday’s game was the 1-0 win over Arsenal last year, when Garcia, coming off the bench, scored the winner three minutes from time by being in the right place (getting into the penalty box is a start!) at the right time for the rebound from Didi Hamann’s long-range effort. It’s one of my favorite qualities about Luis, and reminds me of a semi-famous Shankly quote: “Aye, Roger Hunt misses a few, but he gets in the right place to miss them.” Garcia gets in the right place to make things happen, whereas yesterday, Liverpool didn’t have anyone in the penalty box on a number of occasions, and were content to pass the ball around looking for an opening to develop, only to give possession away before that could happen.

Outside of Bellamy (who was bereft of service), Kuyt (no goals in his last 7 matches, and for all intents and purposes, was a midfielder against Villa), and Gerrard, Liverpool had no attacking options starting. I’m not including Riise, as he mainly played at left back with Aurelio in midfield, and nearly all of his goals this season have come when he’s been in midfield; I think the Community Shield was the only game where he scored from defense, and that was attacking quickly from a Chelsea corner. But against Villa, no one in the team who has Garcia’s trickery, intelligence, or any of the other qualities I’ve already gushed over.

You need players like Luis for games like these. All the times Garcia is slated for not fitting into the Premiership with his many attempts at being clever, you forget what he offers offensively. And it’s a quality that no other player has at Liverpool, outside of Harry Kewell, who obviously isn’t an option at this point.

For all the talk about needing a new striker, someone who can score 20 goals a season, what Liverpool really needs is a creative attacker who can play on the wings or through the middle. And that’s what Garcia is when healthy.

As frustrating as he can be, he’s also proven himself necessary.

Absence certainly makes the heart grow fonder.

18 March 2007

Liverpool 0-0 Aston Villa


Sloppy, sloppy, sloppy. And frustrating.

Frequently in away games where Liverpool disappoint, they still get the requisite shots on goal. Not here, with 3 on target in the entire game.

The best, and only real chance didn’t come until in the 89th minute, with Fowler forcing a save from Sorensen at the near post. That says enough. Kuyt’s mistimed header, a Gerrard shot wide, and Riise’s strike straight at Sorensen are the only other “opportunities” that come to mind.

Unforced errors that gave away possession defined this game. That and the lackadaisical pace with which the game was played. When Liverpool were in possession, they passed along the backline and midfield looking for an opening, only to give the ball away to Villa with an opportunity to counter. It’s a credit to Carra and Agger, the only players that stood out for me, that Liverpool weren’t caught out by the pace of Young and Agbonlahor in these situations.

I’m always hesitant to question tactics. Rafa Benitez is certainly a lot smarter than I am. But I do not understand Liverpool’s line-up, tempo, or substitutions today. With Villa always likely to play with 9 or 10 men behind the ball and rely on the counter-attack, I do not know why both Sissoko and Mascherano started in the center of a four-man midfield. The only thing I can think of is it was to give Alonso rest with important games against PSV and Arsenal upcoming, but as Liverpool haven’t played since the 6th and won’t again until Arsenal on the 31st (international games do not count!), I don’t understand that either. It didn’t seem as big a problem in the first ten minutes when Liverpool looked dangerous playing over the top to Bellamy bypassing the center of the pitch, but once Villa gave up defending with a high line and let Liverpool play in front of them, the pairing was never going to offer enough in attack.

The substitutions, Alonso, Pennant, and Fowler, all helped to open up the game to some degree, but it was a little odd to see whom they came on for. Alonso for Sissoko was obvious, but Pennant on for Bellamy and Fowler for Gerrard left me questioning. Bellamy had to have been protected because of his yellow, but even when less influential, he was still one of the better players on the pitch. And while Gerrard could probably use all the rest he can get, the commentators seemed correct to point out that Fowler links up with Gerrard better than anyone else on the team.

In keeping with the tone of the game, Lee Mason certainly had a stinker today as well. In place of Mark Halsay, he broke up Liverpool possession twice by getting in the way of play within 20 minutes, swallowed his whistle at points and gave harsh yellows (to Bellamy, Mascherano, and Petrov) at others. And Villa fans won’t be happy with him for ignoring what admittedly looked to be a penalty on Stilian Petrov right before halftime.

Credit where due, Villa did what was asked of them and defended doggedly. You always want to see a little more invention from opposition teams, especially when they’re the ones playing at home, but it’s not all that unusual or surprising. And you can’t real criticize the strikers when there are so few chances. The blame today falls in midfield, where nothing was created and possession was given away far too often when Villa defenders were sitting 3 yards off Liverpool players.

Past is past, and the team has to play better. A Champions League place is still more then there for the taking, and 3rd place is still readily achievable. Arsenal have a game in hand, and are 0-0 with Everton in the background as I write this, but do have a marginally more difficult run in. A lot will be decided in the next game, and it’s against a team that has already beaten Liverpool 3 times this year, twice at Anfield. If today’s performance isn’t enough motivation, that should be.

16 March 2007

Liverpool at Aston Villa 03.18.07

9:35am, available in the US on Setanta Sports.

Liverpool: 4th place; 53 points out of 29 games
Villa: 13th place; 33 points out of 29 games

Last 4 meetings:
3-1 Liverpool (h) 10.28.06
3-1 Liverpool (h) 04.29.06
2-0 Liverpool (a) 11.05.05
2-1 Liverpool (h) 05.15.05

Last 3 games:
Liverpool: 0-1 Barcelona (h); 0-1 Man Utd (h); 4-0 Sheffield (h)
Villa: 0-1 Arsenal (h); 0-2 Reading (a); 1-1 Fulham (a)

Goalscorers (league; more than one goal):
Liverpool: Kuyt 9; Bellamy 7; Crouch 6; Gerrard 5; Alonso, Fowler, Garcia 3; Gonzalez 2
Villa: Barry 8; Agbonlahor 5; Angel 4; Carew, Moore 2

Referee: Mark Halsey

Guess at a squad:
Carra Hyypia Agger
Finnan Gerrard Mascherano Alonso Riise
Kuyt Bellamy

Guessing the wingbacks, as Rafa is prone to trot this formation out for away games where Liverpool should still see a fair amount of possession. See Newcastle last year and Wigan this year. In similar situations (Watford and West Ham this season), Benitez has gone with all three strikers and three center backs, but with Crouch out for a month or so having undergone an operation to fix his broken nose, that set-up can safely be ruled out.

In all honesty, Liverpool shouldn’t need Sissoko as much as in games like Barcelona and United, where Liverpool put his hassling, tackling, and overall “enthusiasm” to good use. Alonso’s vision for the pass, however, will be essential in unlocking Villa’s defense. I’d also really like to see Mascherano. He’ll help in the passing department, and as a prototypical holding midfielder would firm up the three-man defense, but he could also use time to acclimate to the Liverpool midfield and the Premiership. Especially if he’ll be needed against PSV due to Sissoko’s suspension.

In addition, with Agbonlahor and Barry, Villa have pace and width on the wings, which will need to be countered. Finnan and Riise in wingback roles with 3 center backs could do this, but Rafa could also go with the pace of Pennant on the right with Riise, Aurelio, or Gonzalez lining up on the left.

Though my mention of Carew and Young every week in the predictions has turned into something of a running joke, they actually have improved a lagging Villa, even if it doesn’t completely show in the league table. Rafa is more than familiar with Carew due to their time at Valencia, and I’ve gone with three center backs partly out of respect for these two players. Hyypia’s height and aerial prowess to counter Carew, and Agger’s speed for Young.

Villa have been typified as draw specialists in the media, and despite the tabloids love of an easy narrative, this one’s duly earned. With 12 draws out of 29 games, they’re tied (ha!) for the most in the league with Fulham. However, Liverpool’s been successful at Villa Park lately, and played some of their best football of the season against Villa earlier in the season. And 3 points will put pressure on Arsenal to keep pace for 3rd place, as they’ll play the blue half of Merseyside later on Sunday.

Prem Predictions 3/17-3/18

Manchester Utd v Bolton (8:45am, Setanta): If United lose and Chelsea win, the gap between first and second will only be 3 points, with 8 games left to play. But I won’t be holding my breath. Not with United’s form, and Bolton’s recent indifferent play. Sigh. At least Larsson’s gone back to Sweden. United 2-1
Reading v Portsmouth (11:00am, FSC): Consecutive league losses see Reading hanging onto 7th and a narrow hope at a European place. But Portsmouth’s decline following an excellent start to the league campaign has been even sharper. Not coincidentally, they’re also dearly struggling for goals, having been shut out in five of their last six league games, with Kanu nowhere near as potent as he was to start the season. Reading 2-0
Chelsea v Sheffield Utd (11:00am, Setanta): Home win. “Boring, boring Chelsea…” Hopefully at the least Mourinho or Warnock will say something interesting in the post-match comments, but having seen the trouble Jose’s gotten himself into recently, I doubt he’ll be much fun. Chelsea 2-0
Middlesbrough v Manchester City (11:00am, Setanta Xtra): With City struggling for goals, and poor away from home, I honestly think the best they can hope for is a draw, and probably 0-0 at that. But I think the last time Boro was held scoreless at home was the draw against Liverpool in November, and they parked the bus in front of the goal in that game. I don’t reckon that will happen here. If anything, it will be Boro that has to unlock a team with 10 men behind the ball. Boro 2-0
Tottenham v Watford (11:00am): Berbatov will probably get the game off he was supposed to receive against Chelsea in the FA Cup, but that won’t stop me from singing his praises along with everyone else commenting on the Premiership. I’ve sung his praises before, but over the past month, he’s been truly special. Spurs have scored 17 goals in the last 5 games; Berbatov’s scored 4 and set up more, but both Keane and the midfield have gotten into the act. Tottenham 2-0
Wigan v Fulham (11:00am): Despite both managers forced to scour the world’s leagues for bargains due to their respective clubs’ financial restrictions, this should be a quintessentially English match: gritty, stuck-in, closely contested, and utterly impossible to predict. So I’ll go for the safe option. 1-1
Blackburn v West Ham (1:15pm, FSC): In the last set of Premiership predictions, I simply said “West Ham’s boned,” and for 89 minutes, I looked the idiot as they looked like turning over Tottenham. Admittedly, I may have underestimated the heart of players like Tevez and Mark Noble, but they’re still going down. Hopefully, for the sake of the club’s heritage, it will continue to be with a fight. Blackburn 2-1
Charlton v Newcastle (9:30am Sunday, Setanta Xtra): I don’t much fancy Newcastle after their ignominious exit from the UEFA Cup on away goals, where they lacked a cutting edge and the improved defending Roeder has brought about. Not to mention they haven’t been the best away from St. James Park. Whereas Pardew has Charlton on the up, even though they are probably too far behind City and Sheffield to make it interesting. Newcastle should still have enough for a draw though, if they can fix some of the defensive lapses that plagued on Thursday. 0-0
Everton v Arsenal (12:00pm Sunday, FSC): I’m never one to willingly root for an Everton victory, but Arsenal’s narrow win over Villa Wednesday saw them pass Liverpool into 3rd with a game still in hand. Situations merit what they must, but honestly, Everton at home do have the potential to turn over the Gunners. In addition, Arsenal currently suffering key injuries (Henry, van Persie, Clichy, Eboue) while Adebayor has one more game left on his suspension. Everton 1-0

Liverpool v Villa is 9:30am Sunday on Setanta.

14 March 2007

Platini's new proposals

Continuing on a topic we’re very interested in around these parts, newly-elected UEFA President Michel Platini spelled out some of the changes he’d been proposing for UEFA and the Champions League at a media briefing in London.

#1: Lower seeds from the major countries (England, Spain, Italy, France, Germany) will play each other rather than European minnows in the final qualifying round.

The centerpiece of Platini’s plan. He was elected by promising better Champions League representation for the smaller countries, and it seems this is how he plans on going about doing it. Well, it’s better than taking away England, Spain, or Italy’s fourth qualifying spot outright. I realize a lot of my complaining over this can be linked with Liverpool consistently finishing 3rd or 4th in the league, but it's more than that. Really.

Honestly, for neutrals, would you rather see Arsenal/Roma/Valencia (off the top of my head), or Liberec (Czech champions in 2006)/Legia Warsaw (Polish champions) in the group stage? I realize this sounds condescending, and I don’t mean it as so, but simply from a sporting perspective, the first group of teams deserves to be there as much as the second group. That’s what the qualifying rounds do now. These sets of teams already end up playing each other. The teams and federations involved in the CL are seeded, and the teams that deserve to progress out of the qualifying round do so by winning their games. Not because the UEFA President thinks we need more European countries represented out of some concept of fairness. I imagine you all are as sick of reading it as I am writing it, but it bears reiterating. Why kill the goose laying the golden egg? The Champions League is successful in the state it’s in.

#2: Establishing a UEFA strategic committee where UEFA, the European leagues, the clubs and the players' union FIFPro would each have an equal voice in deciding changes in European club football.

I can’t see what adding an extra layer of bureaucracy to the game’s overseers will accomplish, but it’s obvious Platini wants to lessen the power of the G-14 clubs at pretty much any cost. If Platini doesn’t stack the committee with allies, it may be beneficial involving the opinions of so many disparate bodies, but I’d be surprised if he didn’t. Nor do I imagine this body will be able to agree on much.

#3: Banning players going on loan to teams playing in the same competitions as the club that owns them.

Idiotic, simple as. Even if they don’t take into account domestic leagues, which the article is unclear about, a team would be prevented from sending a player on loan to another club if both were involved in the CL or UEFA Cup. How does this better the game, or the players involved?

#4: Preventing European clubs from signing players who are still owned by agents or companies.

Ah, the Tevez and Mascherano loophole. This is seemingly accounted for in the FA’s laws, with West Ham under investigation over the aforementioned players, but extending this European-wide, where it will have more of an effect in Spain and Italy, can only be more helpful in stamping out corruption and some of the seedier corporate aspects of the game.

#5: Backing the introduction of a rule where clubs can only spend a percentage of their turnover on player wages and transfers.

First step to a “salary cap,” to incorporate some American vernacular. Obviously, certain clubs’ spending is out of control (Hi Roman!), but the pros and cons of wage restrictions are far to numerous to spell out here. On face value, it still seems too much of a constraint on how clubs want to do their business. Using a percentage of turnover is a lot smarter than a set ceiling though, given the difference in finances between say a Manchester United and a Watford.

#6: Encouraging referees to abandon matches where there is overt racist abuse.

No brainer, and I hope they’re actually serious about this in certain countries. Kick. It. Out.

Let’s hope Platini has more planned for the future, because I’m distinctly underwhelmed.

13 March 2007

Prem and UEFA Cup predictions 3/14-3/15

Two Premiership games tomorrow, and in a valiant attempt to make up for the slacking off that led to no predictions for the FA Cup quarterfinals over the weekend, some quick UEFA Cup predictions that are pretty much guaranteed to be wrong. As an FYI, the early US daylight savings time continues to wreak havoc upon the usual starting times.

Aston Villa v Arsenal (3:45pm, Setanta): It’s tempting to think that Arsenal will rebound from the Carling Cup final and exits in the FA Cup and Champions League with a strong performance where they actually put away the chances they create. But I’ll go with the other tried and true cliché about Villa as draw specialists, with 12 ties out of 28 PL games. And yes, continuing on a theme I’ve harped on for a couple of months, I am still waiting for Carew and Young to bring Villa back up the table. There’s always next year… 1-1
Man City v Chelsea (4:00pm, FSC): Poor Psycho. Less than a year removed from speculation about being a future England manager, he’s already in hot water, and now City will play host to the two-time defending league champions. And then they’ll travel to the Northeast for games against Boro and Newcastle, which are never easy places to play. Pearce will probably end the season out of a job, and it will boil down to his failed striker signings, especially £6m (which City could hardly afford to blow) on Georgios Samaras. Oh, and Joey Barton was just arrested again, by the way. Chelsea 2-0

Bayer Leverkusen v Lens (agg 1-2), 1:15pm, Setanta: Bayer 1-0
Osasuna v Rangers (agg 1-1), 3:45pm: Osasuna 1-0
Werder Bremen v Celta Vigo (agg 1-0), 3:45pm: Bremen 2-0
Tottenham v Braga (agg 3-2), 4:15pm: Tottenham 2-1
Shakhtar Donetsk v Sevilla (agg 2-2), 2:30pm, Setanta: Sevilla 1-0
AZ v Newcastle (agg 2-4), 3:35pm: AZ 1-0
Espanyol v Maccabi Haifa (agg 0-0), 4:30pm: Espanyol 1-0
Benfica v PSG (agg 1-2), 5:00pm: Benfica 2-0

12 March 2007

Celtic JFT96 Banner

Posting this here, in case some don’t see it at the official site or any number of Liverpool forums, as I feel it’s more than important enough to merit it. And worth seeing it twice if that’s the case.

This banner hung during Sunday’s Old Firm derby. Good on you all Celtic supporters involved. Fantastic touch, class acts.

If anyone, American or not, doesn’t know what this is referring to, please please please visit the Hillsborough Justice Campaign.

FA Cup Semifinal draw

Blackburn v Chelsea or Tottenham
Watford v Middlesbrough or Manchester United


Chances are, Chelsea and United will win their replays. Boro and Tottenham had their opportunities for upsets, and neither took advantage, with both surrendering leads late. Tottenham will have more of a chance than Boro, as they’ll host Chelsea at the Lane, but usually when a bigger team is forced into a replay, they make it count.

And not to look past Blackburn and Watford (damn you for putting out Plymouth), who’ve done well to get here, but it’s still more than likely both Chelsea and United will advance to the final. And as I’ve complained about more than once, it’s been since 1991 that none of the “big four” made it to the final. I can’t see that changing. And in a year where the League Cup final was Chelsea and Arsenal, no less.

For the good of the tournament, we couldn’t have just fixed the draw a little bit? If you’re a neutral with no dog in this fight, you can’t tell me you wouldn’t rather see Blackburn or Watford make the final against Chelsea or United.

Admittedly, there’s little grousing going on here about the big four when it’s Liverpool going deep into competitions, but this year, it’s like 2005 all over again, when United and Arsenal met in Cardiff. Let’s hope we don’t have a similar game.

Wake me up when we’re there. But until then, we’re becoming big Blackburn fans around these parts.

09 March 2007

Champions League Quarterfinal Draw

Liverpool v PSV
Chelsea v Valencia
Man Utd v AS Roma
AC Milan v Bayern Munich

The draw for the rest of the Champions League took place this morning, with the quarterfinal match-ups shown above. The semifinals will be the winners of first and second games, and the winners of the third and fourth games.

I am about to throw a hex here, but I have to say, I’m more than pleased with the draw. Not so much because Liverpool will face a team they beat and drew in the group stage, although that doesn’t hurt, but more because all three English teams have been kept apart, at least for this round. And also simply because of the tastiness of all four contests.

I’ll admit it, I was absolutely dreading a match-up with the Mancs. I may be in the minority; I read a fair bit about Liverpool fans wanting United for revenge, much like the 5th round of the FA Cup victory over United last year and Chelsea in the CL semis in 2005 after losing in the League Cup Final. But honestly, I’ve seen enough of them for the season. And the point of European competition is to play teams that aren’t a few minutes down the M62 and your biggest rivals. Liverpool can’t face United unless both reach the final. Which would probably lead to the apocalypse. Or at least a full-scale riot. Probably smart to start praying for the Athenian police now, just in case.

But I really do believe that all four games should be decent ties. Milan and Munich are European mainstays, but both have been under par in their domestic campaigns, although Milan did have to cope with an 8-point deduction. An 8-point penalty doesn’t explain 30 points behind the league leaders, however, while Bayern still surprisingly sit in 4th in the Bundesliga, 6 points behind Schalke. Neither are used to being in those positions in their leagues, but both are more than familiar with this stage of the competition, and each other, having met in the round of 16 last season, where Milan won 5-2 on aggregate.

United will face an attacking team that could give them problems in Roma. In Totti, Mancini, and De Rossi, among others, Roma have players who can summon that moment of brilliance to turn a game, much like Ronaldo, Rooney or Scholes. There should be goals galore in this one, and honestly, despite United’s excellent season and the Roma’s manager’s wariness, I really can see this one going either way.

In the other half of the bracket (sorry, broke into American speak there), Chelsea will face Valencia. Of course, if Valencia are allowed to remain in the tournament after the fracas following the Inter Milan game, but I imagine we won’t see a similar situation to Tottenham’s bye through the UEFA Cup following Feyenoord’s dismissal for crowd trouble. I hate to look ahead, because Chelsea should be odds on favorites for this match-up and Liverpool still must get past PSV, but how entertaining would it be for Benitez to meet his old team in the Champions League semis? The media could be ever lazier than usual, with their narrative already completely written for them. I hope that Valencia can turn over the Blues, partly out of spite, partly hopeful for the semifinal match-up, but with all the money spent that I described yesterday, I can’t see Chelsea going out at this stage.

And there will be no underestimation of PSV, despite Liverpool probably being happy with the draw. Not only did PSV prevent Liverpool from making any real headway when they met at the Phillips Stadion, but Eindhoven’s manager, Ronald Koeman, will delight in the chance to face Benitez again, as he led Benfica last season, when they unceremoniously dumped out the reigning European champions. Mind you, Liverpool was probably happy with last year’s draw against Benfica as well. But I find it hard to believe the team could go into this match complacent, especially after the enormous win over Barcelona, and the fact that this is the last chance for a trophy this season.

The first leg of the round will take place April 3rd or 4th, with the return legs the following week.

08 March 2007

England in Europe

We’ve reached the second knockout round in both European competitions and 5 English teams are still alive: Chelsea, Liverpool, and Manchester United in the Champions League, and Newcastle and Tottenham in UEFA Cup ties, going on as I write. Chelsea, United and Liverpool, in that order, are the bookies’ favorites to win the Champions League. In addition, both Arsenal in the CL and Blackburn in the UEFA Cup qualified out of their groups only to lose in the first knockout round. Even Scotland's performed at a better level, with Rangers alive in the UEFA Cup and Celtic dumped out of the CL by AC Milan yesterday. Is this a special year, a little bit of luck, or simply a fluke?

I guess I’ll start from the beginning, with the opposition each faced in the group stages:

Chelsea: Barcelona, Levski Sofia, Werder Bremen
Liverpool: Bordeaux, Galatasaray, PSV
Man Utd: Benfica, Celtic, FC Copenhagen
Newcastle: Celta Vigo, Eintracht Frankfurt, Fenerbache, Palermo
Tottenham: Bayer Leverkusen, Besiktas, Club Brugge, Dynamo Bucharest

Admittedly, Liverpool had a fairly easy route out of the group stage. And despite being in marginally more difficult groups, both Chelsea and United were favorites to qualify from theirs. As were the teams involved in the UEFA Cup, even though, as history has proved time and time again, the UEFA Cup is much more of a crapshoot, especially in the group stages with the mix of home and away games. All around, it does seem as if English teams have had an easier path than in years past. But not by much. 3 of England’s big four qualified out of their groups last year. United crashed out of Europe last year with a similar group, and on paper, it seems a lot more likely that Liverpool would have beaten Benfica last year than Barcelona this year.

This has been a strange year all around. Both competitions, but especially the Champions League, have seemed far more by the book than in previous years. The UEFA Cup, with the insane amount of teams involved and far easier path for those who drop out of the Champions League after the group stage, always throws up some surprises but a recognizable winner. But the Champions League has been exceptionally “normal” this year. Porto in 2004, Liverpool in 2005, and Arsenal reaching the final in 2006 were all surprises to some degree. Now, it seems like we’re left with all big names and few surprises. Chelsea and Valencia are the sole teams remaining to never reach a European Cup final, and along with Roma, are the only to have never won one. More importantly, Chelsea and Roma are the only teams left not a member of the G-14.

It wasn’t my intention when thinking up this topic to finish with a rant on the commercialization of football and on the G-14. But it’s an unavoidable conclusion. Big money has become a necessity to compete at the highest level. While it’s been an issue domestically for a while longer, especially in England with the “big four” monopoly, it’s become more and more apparent across Europe competition as well. Chelsea and Roma may not be members of the G-14, but it’s not as if either are suffering for funds. And in the UEFA Cup, Spurs and Newcastle are more than well-financed, despite not being one of the big four.

I hate to use Chelsea as an example, but look at what they’ve done this past year. £30m plus for Shevchenko's transfer and an egregious amount of money in wages for Ballack. Not to mention something like £25m combined for Salomon Kalou and John Obi Mikel. All for a better chance at the trophy that has eluded Mourinho while in London, because I guarantee those purchases weren’t made for the Premier League.

England, at the forefront of this commercialization, is reaping the benefits in European competition. Admittedly, I am enjoying this year’s European competitions (even the UEFA Cup!) because of a greater familiarity with all the teams involved, but this is yet another example of what many have feared in the game. Money doesn't quite rule everything yet, as I'm fairly sure Barcelona's side is more expensively assembled than Liverpool, but we're not far away from that point, and it's not as if any of the teams remaining are checking under the sofa for loose change.

06 March 2007

Liverpool 0-1 Barcelona (agg 2-2)

Eidur Gudjohnsen had to make it nerve-wracking, but a 1-0 loss will more than suffice. Normally when Liverpool are dominant but don’t make their opportunities count, it’s a kick to the crotch, but the away goals rule is looking a pretty excellent rule right now. Liverpool had to defend staunchly, keep Barcelona from playing their game, control the tempo, and prevent two goals. They did all of those things, and it’s why they’re through to the next round.

But with 10 shots to Barca’s 1 in the first 45 minutes, you’d think Liverpool would have settled the tie before halftime. Riise narrowly missed wide and thundered another off the bar before 15 minutes were off the clock. The crossbar took another beating when Sissoko sent in a speculative volley with Valdes out of his goal, and later, Valdes was again called into action, saving from Bellamy and Kuyt before Puyol cleared Riise’s header off the line. All in the first half.

It took until Gudjohnsen’s entrance in the 71st minute for Barca to play with any real impetus. For the majority of the game, it looked as if Liverpool were the team behind. When Barca had possession, they frequently passed across the backline looking for an opening until the Anfield crowd started to boo. Ronaldinho’s chance in the 53rd minute, where he turned Carragher, ran past Arbeloa and hit the post, was the only other time Barca truly threatened until Gudjohnsen rounded Reina in the 75th minute. Which set up a fun final 15 minutes.

Even with the 0-1 scoreline, I feel secure in saying the team was excellent for the most part. Barcelona will continue to have nightmares about Momo Sissoko, who covered the entire pitch, closed down Barcelona players immediately, opened up the field with an improved eye for the pass, and made himself a general nuisance, to put it gently. It’s an absolute shame he picked up a yellow card that rules him out of the next match, but it’s a testament to his growing maturity that the early yellow did nothing to upset the rest of his game.

Carragher and Agger were also again immense at the back. For me it's a toss up as to who's man of the match, Carra or Momo. Carragher made his usual last-ditch tackles superbly and with aplomb, but Agger defendly strongly as well (Finnan too), and both were dominant in the air, an aspect of their games that had been questioned in the past. Gerrard was also excellent, bursting down the right early on, and driving Liverpool forward late in the game when Barca could have gotten a second. Liverpool got good work down both sides of the pitch; both Riise and Gerrard bombed forward, but got back to defend and in getting back to defend, prevented the triumvirate of Ronaldinho, Messi, and Eto’o from really getting into the game.

And I must mention Kuyt as well, who was another that was absolutely everywhere on the field. He needs to have a greater scoring return to be a truly world-class forward, but his defense from the front and overall work rate were outstanding today. Adjectives truly do fail me. His harassment of Barca’s backline and midfield was a key component in keeping the Catalans from implementing their style of play on the match, and only later on, when players began to tire, did the game open up for Barca.

When the draw took place, there were long odds on Liverpool to go through to the next round. Now out of both domestic cups and the title race, it’s a small consolation to have beaten the Champions League holders and progress to the final 8, but a consolation nonetheless. Friday’s draw will see who Liverpool face in the quarter-finals, but on the performance over the last two legs, they’ll be confident in whomever they face. Which can only be a good thing, both in Europe and to see out the rest of the league campaign.

05 March 2007

Liverpool v Barcelona 03.06.2007

2:45pm. Available in the US on espn2.

Liverpool leads 2-1 on aggregate.

Barca is currently 2nd in La Liga

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; Bellamy, Fowler, Gerrard 2; Gonzalez, Riise 1
Barca: Deco, Gudjohnsen, Guily, Iniesta, Ronaldinho 2; Eto’o, 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: Herbert Fandel (GER)

It’s seemingly easier to pick Barca’s line-up than Liverpool’s, as their line-up and formation is fairly set in stone when fit. I’d imagine it will look something like:

Oleguer Thuram Puyol Zambrotta
Deco Edmilson Xavi
Messi Eto’o Ronaldinho

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

In contrast, I’ve got little clue how Liverpool’s going to look. One thought is that there’s no reason to deviate from the squad that won at Camp Nou. Another is that Liverpool will play with a 5-man midfield and a lone striker in an attempt to better keep possession. However, I just can’t see Liverpool deviating from the 4-4-2 or maintaining the exact same squad. What worked last time won’t necessarily work at Anfield, with changes in Barca’s squad and a completely different atmosphere and motif for the game, but this formation is how Liverpool’s been the most successful this season. Yes, even with Gerrard on the right…

I’m also of two minds as to which forwards to play, as usual. Bellamy was the best player on the pitch in the last match, Kuyt is an ever-present, and Crouch, who had postponed surgery on his broken nose to be available for this game and the United debacle, is the leading scorer in Europe and would seemingly give Liverpool more opportunity to maintain possession. Because of Crouchy’s height and ability to hold up the ball, I’ve gone for him over Kuyt. Kuyt hasn’t sat out a game since the Carling Cup match against Arsenal, and even though I didn’t think he had a poor game against United (his first touch was actually better than it had been in recent matches), he’s the one I’m leaving out.

Both Aurelio and Arbeloa (included over Finnan) make my squad because of their familiarity and success playing Barcelona. No more, no less. And it's just a hunch. Finnan has started every first-team game I can think of, and it would be odd to see him dropped now, but Arbeloa arrived with fanfare for defending Ronaldinho, and not only does Aurelio offer another (much needed) option for free kicks, he’s also more than familiar with Barca’s attack.

As has been said since the final whistle last leg, this tie is far from over. Barca has the ability to score goals in buckets, no matter who they’re playing. And Eto’o will add another dimension to Barca’s attack that Liverpool must be ready for, full fitness or not. His movement with Ronaldinho and Messi offers so much more than Saviola or Gudjohnsen, not to mention he’s quicker and defends from the front better.

It’s been good to see both the team and fans both keyed up for and stoic about this game; the atmosphere at Anfield will really be a 12th man. I detest this cliché, but it’s true, it has influenced teams before, and it will here. And heads must be kept out of the clouds, as Benitez seemingly has done so far, because at 2-1, the tie is far from won.

Roll on Barca.

Quick CL Predictions

Last week’s CL predictions weren’t that far off (in contrast to how they usually go around these parts), so here’s this week’s match-ups, with the first leg score and US TV coverage. Quick picks, because not much has changed from last week in my thought processes. All games kick off at 2:45pm EST.

Games I’m looking forward to in addition to Liverpool/Barca are Bayern/Real and Milan/Celtic. With the 3 injuries Madrid picked up over the weekend (Beckham, Reyes, and Higuain), I think Bayern will be able to overturn the deficit and 2 away goals. The 0-0 draw Celtic earned at home has the potential to make this a close game, with Milan playing in front of a smaller crowd. But so far, Celtic’s been fairly dire away from home in Europe.

Chelsea v Porto (agg 1-1), Setanta; delayed 4:45pm ESPN Deportes, 5pm ESPN Classic - Chelsea 3-1
Valencia v Inter (agg 2-2), ESPN Deportes - Valencia 2-1
Lyon v Roma (agg 0-0), delayed 5pm Setanta - Lyon 1-0

Man Utd v Lille (agg 1-0), espn2 - United 2-0
Milan v Celtic (agg 0-0), Setanta PPV - Milan 1-0
Arsenal v PSV (agg 0-1), Setanta; delayed 4:45 ESPN Deportes - Arse 2-0
Bayern v Real (agg 2-3), ESPN Deportes; delayed 5pm ESPN Classic and Setanta - Bayern 3-1

Liverpool v Barca (2:45 Tuesday, espn2) preview up soon.

03 March 2007

Liverpool 0-1 Manchester United

This is going to be an awful review, but given the circumstances, I’m surprised I’m even attempting one.

United snatches it at the death, on an undeserved free kick. And it’s John O’Shea with the winner, when the ball bounces right to him after Reina blocked Saha. Awful memories of Ferdinand snatching one at the death two years ago, but even worse. Exponentially worse due to the fact Paul Scholes had been sent off less than 10 minutes earlier for petulantly attempting to punch Xabi Alonso (and missing), and Edwin Van der Sar making the save of the game on Crouch less than 5 minutes earlier. In a game where Liverpool were the better team for the majority, with Ronaldo and Giggs silenced until the late goal and Carra and Agger dominant with something like only three shots allowed. Liverpool’s first home loss since Chelsea in the fall of 2005, and the first goal given up at Anfield in over 15 hours. And it probably guarantees United their first Premier League title in 4 years. At Anfield. In the 91st minute. Life. Is. Not. Fair.

Anyone but United. Good god, why always against United?

I probably shouldn’t be writing anything about this at the moment, but I know if I don’t now, it won’t get written at all due to the fact this is at the top of the list of memories to repress. The quicker this is acknowledged and forgotten, the better.

And I hate writing in this state, knowing it’ll give undue comfort to the enemy, but well done to them (I will now slit my wrists with a rusty razorblade). But they (kill me now) deserve to gloat. They held on for the majority of the game. Liverpool wasted the chances they could carve out. Van der Sar’s save on Crouch. Bellamy’s goal (rightly) ruled out because Momo got a head on Riise’s shot. Any number of corners hitting the first defender and easily cleared. All the usual profligacy problems.

Utterly gobsmacked. And it’s too early to start drinking.

Can’t do anything but look ahead to Barca and then Aston Villa. Progress in the Champions League and cementing 3rd place. Both are still in reach. Heads cannot drop after this, despite overwhelming temptation. Not with Tuesday on the horizon and 3rd place eminently achievable.

I must mention the fans ringing out with You’ll Never Walk Alone after O’Shea’s goal. It’s become far too cliché, but the best fans in the world, hands down.

Roll on Barca. Tuesday can’t get here quick enough.

02 March 2007

Liverpool v Manchester United 03.03.07

7:45am, available in the US on Setanta Sports.

Liverpool: 3rd place; 53 points out of 28 games
United: 1st place; 69 points out of 28 games

Last 4 meetings:
0-2 United (a) 10.22.06
1-0 Liverpool (h; FA Cup) 02.18.06
0-1 United (a) 01.22.06
0-0 (h) 09.18.05

Last 3 games:
Liverpool: 4-0 Sheffield (h); 2-1 Barcelona (a); 1-2 Newcastle (a)
United: 3-2 Reading (a); 2-1 Fulham (a); 1-0 Lille (a)

Goalscorers (league; more than one goal):
Liverpool: Kuyt 9; Bellamy 7; Crouch 6; Gerrard 4; Alonso, Garcia 3; Gonzalez 2
United: Ronaldo 16; Rooney 10; Saha 8; Solskjaer 6; Scholes 5; Giggs 4; Fletcher, Vidic 3; Park 2

Referee: Martin Atkinson (Oh Martin, we’ve had fun together so far this season. Well, it’s far better than Graham Poll, who was originally scheduled, for sure.)

Guess at a squad:
Finnan Carra Agger Arbeloa
Gerrard Alonso Sissoko Riise
Kuyt Bellamy

Same exact line-up that went out at Barcelona. Why mess with what works?

I refuse to write this line-up with one eye on next Tuesday. Squad rotation and full fitness for the Champions League encounter hasn’t even crossed my mind. I would absolutely refuse to sacrifice anything in order to have a more rested first-team for Barcelona at Anfield. This game, even though the league is lost and the Champions League remains the final hope for a major trophy, is just as important. If this is the same team Rafa wants to go out against Barca, so be it. They can play 2 games in 4 days. Anything less than full-strength against United is completely unacceptable.

The midfield will be where this game is won, and it’s why Gerrard, Alonso, and Sissoko are all included. The supply line through Paul Scholes needs to be cut off and Carrick needs to be hassled as soon as he gets the ball. Frankly, all of United’s midfield needs to be harried as soon as they pick up possession. With time, United can tear through teams. This midfield line-up should give them as little time as possible. Given this, it’s going to be a massive game for Momo.

As for the strikers, while I clearly remember Crouchy’s goal winning the match for Liverpool last year, he’s the one left out here. I can’t see Liverpool giving all three strikers a run out given the emphasis needed to be placed on the midfield, and Kuyt and Bellamy will continue to be the first choice pairing. I also think those two have the best chance of troubling Ferdinand and Vidic. Given that Crouch has postponed surgery on his broken nose, he’ll have some part to play both here and against Barcelona (probably much more likely to start against Barca), but Kuyt and Bellamy win out for me, and Crouch will add another dimension off the bench.

My biggest question is can Arbeloa handle the pace of Cristiano Ronaldo? I’m fully aware the danger of giving a player his first league start against Manchester United, but with the lack of options on the left side, Arbeloa’s excellent performance against Barcelona, and the fact that Riise has been far better in big games in midfield, it seems the best option. Hopefully, Arbeloa can track one of the most dangerous players in the Prem as well as he did Messi. Because we all know how Ronaldo can change a game, not much else needs to be said on that.

It’s been far too long since Liverpool has beaten United in the league at Anfield. No matter the fact that progression in the Champions League is at stake next Tuesday. All focus will be on the task at hand: take three points off Satan incarnate. Nothing less will suffice.

01 March 2007

Prem Predictions 3/3 – 3/4

Newcastle v Middlesbrough, 10:00am, FSC: Newcastle had no midweek game, while it seems every single Boro cup tie has gone to extra-time, including penalties against West Brom on Tuesday. And the Geordies lost a close one to Wigan last time out that they'll want to avenge. Should be fun being a Northeast derby, but I’ll be very surprised if Boro comes away with even a point. Newcastle 2-1
Arsenal v Reading, 10:00am, Setanta: Even with all of Arsenal’s suspensions, they should still have enough to take Reading at the Emirates. As evidenced by Reading’s near-comeback after going 3-0 to Man Utd within 6 minutes on Tuesday, the Royals will never go down without a fight, but Arsenal’s first team is mostly rested and hungry after the kids played the Carling Cup final and in the loss to Blackburn Wednesday. Arsenal 3-1
Fulham v Aston Villa, 10:00am, Setanta Xtra: Look, it’s gonna happen. Carew and Young are going to make a difference in Villa’s season. I’ll keep saying it until I’m proved utterly wrong (even though it’s been over a month, that hasn’t happened yet, right?). Fulham rebounded last weekend far better than I thought, defended staunchly, and were unlucky to not come away with a point from United, but I still think Villa’s due for a good run. Villa 2-1
Manchester City v Wigan, 10:00am: Draw written all over it. Neither have been convincing, although Wigan’s been better of late and should have picked up enough points to see them clear of relegation. A couple of losses on the bounce could see them slide back into treacherous terrain, but I don’t see it happening Saturday. I do think we’ll be left wanting goals, however. 0-0
Sheffield United v Everton, 10:00am: Let’s hope Sheffield was utterly embarrassed by their performance last Saturday and will come out with guns blazing at Bramall Lane, where they’ve been very difficult to beat. Because it would greatly amuse me. 1-1
Watford v Charlton, 10:00am: It's wonderful to see Pardew back in form, as he was completely done over by West Ham and Eggert Magnusson. He cut a sad figure watching his new team embarrass his old one on Saturday, but Charlton is playing better and better as the season goes on. Having a healthy Darren Bent certainly doesn’t hurt matters either. Charlton 1-0
Portsmouth v Chelsea, 12:15pm, FSC: Pompey picked the wrong time to slip down the table. Fratton Park will be boisterous, but Chelsea should roll, whether John Terry is back or not. My big question is whether Drogba will hit 30 goals for the season on Saturday, or if we’ll be waiting one more week. And it's barely March. Yikes. Chelsea 3-0
Bolton v Blackburn, 8:35am Sunday, Setanta: Derby match, and usually a hotly-contested one. As with most Bolton matches, it won’t be the prettiest, but they’ll be looking to make up for a 4-1 shellacking at Tottenham. But Blackburn will be on a high from finally putting one over on Arsenal, and should be able to match Bolton step for step. 1-1
West Ham v Tottenham, 11:00am Sunday, FSC: West Ham’s boned. Dimitar Berbatov's good. That’s enough of a preview for this one. Tottenham 2-0

In case you’ve been living under a rock, Liverpool plays Man Utd Saturday at 7:45am, and I just might have something to say about it tomorrow.