30 October 2007

Liverpool v Cardiff City 10.31.07

4pm EST, not available on TV in the US

Liverpool hasn’t faced Cardiff City since 1959, in the old Second Division.

Previous Carling Cup matches:
Liverpool: 4-2 Reading (a)
Cardiff: 4-2 West Brom (a); 1-0 Leyton Orient (h); 1-0 aet Brighton (h)

Last 3 matches:
Liverpool: 1-1 Arsenal (h); 1-2 Besiktas (a); 2-1 Everton (a)
Cardiff: 1-1 Scunthorpe (h); 2-3 Wolverhampton (h); 0-1 Southampton (a)

Goalscorers (Carling Cup):
Liverpool: Torres 3; Benayoun 1
Cardiff: Fowler 2; Hasselbaink, Johnson, Sinclair, Wittingham 1

Referee: Peter Walton

Guess at a squad:
Arbeloa Carragher Hobbs Aurelio
Benayoun Lucas Sissoko Leto
Crouch Babel

The big story surrounding the game is Robbie Fowler's return to Anfield, but focus will also be on the strength of Liverpool's squad and who plays with the injuries currently facing the club. The "second team" must play well in case they're needed during the next month, when Liverpool's squad will be stretched thin.

I'm expecting mostly reserves tomorrow, but remember the strength of the team against Reading. However, there's more of a problem with injuries, the first-team defense all looks like they could use a rest (Carragher as well, but Liverpool will need his experience tomorrow, especially if Gerrard doesn't play), and no slight to Cardiff City, but Reading's a Premiership team and the game was at their ground.

It's probably too soon for the likes of Putterill, Spearing, and other graduates of the Academy. In addition, while I'd love to see Insua start at left back (even though we've rarely seen him this season, I'm still expecting big things), Aurelio is getting close to fitness and in need of playing time.

With Alonso suffering another injury to his metatarsal (as of writing this, I still haven't seen any word on the scan) it seems like Lucas and Sissoko have to start in the middle. I realize Gerrard is very rarely left out, but both Lucas and Sissoko will be called upon over the next month, and I'd like to see them get first-team action and play together as a pairing. And given the weakened state of Liverpool's squad and the amount of important games to come, I'll be very surprised if Gerrard features at all, either in the center or on the right.

I've said it for three straight previews now, but this has to be a game for Crouch with the injury to Torres and the amount of action that Kuyt and Voronin have seen lately. While he's been the 4th striker all season long, I'm still surprised at his lack of opportunities. And while he didn't get that much-needed goal, I was encouraged by his performance on Sunday.

And I'd like to see Babel partner Crouchy up top. Babel's seemingly seen less action as the season's gone on, mainly because he hasn't completely settled on the wing, but when he's played he's looked more threatening coming through the center, and playing as a striker (and playing well) could do wonders for his confidence.

Like against both Toulouse and Reading, I imagine Leto will receive another first-team start, but I'm also wondering if Kewell is fit enough for a run out. We've been hearing more about Kewell of late, and he played 45 minutes for the reserves on Thursday. I still think Leto will start, with Kewell off the bench around the hour mark, but I also wouldn't be surprised or upset if Kewell started on the right, as we know he can play on both flanks.

Despite the amount of money spent over the summer, bringing in Fowler, Trevor Sinclair, and Stephen McPhail, among others, Cardiff's not had the best results so far this season. Currently, they're lingering above the relegation places in 17th, and have won once in their last six games. Concerns over the club's finances still loom large as well. In other squad news, on-loan keeper Kasper Schmeichel won't start because Manchester City doesn't want him cup-tied.

The Carling Cup is still a distant fourth on Liverpool's list of priorities. The strength of the squad that turned out against Reading led me to believe that Liverpool would do their utmost to compete in all four tournaments, but with injuries and the troubles in the Champions League, I wonder if that strategy has changed at all.

If I’m being honest, I wouldn't be devastated if Liverpool were to go out against Cardiff. Naturally, I want Liverpool to win every game they compete in, but the Carling Cup could end up a distraction.

The most important thing for the team tomorrow is to get a good performance that builds on the confidence gained from a respectable draw against Arsenal, and for the reserves and youth players to get a decent run in the first team to show what they're capable of if Liverpool needs them.

29 October 2007

On the injury “crisis”

• Torres is out for 3 weeks
• Alonso may have re-broken a metatarsal, which would put him out for another 4-6 weeks at best
• Pennant’s out for 8 to 10 weeks
• Agger’s out for another week or two
• There are still long-term questions over Aurelio and Kewell
• Plus, the players who aren’t completely healthy (Mascherano) or returning to fitness (Gerrard, Arbeloa), but should still feature

It’s not a good time on the injury front.

Was it worth it? Torres and Alonso started and it paid dividends in Liverpool’s play, but now they’re both out for a few more weeks. Had Liverpool held on for the win it’d be easier to stomach, but seeing the two of them trot off with injuries, and then for Liverpool to give up the equalizing goal, is a kick to the midsection.

It’s easy to write in hindsight, but Torres should have never started. While I’m very disheartened to lose Alonso for longer, especially with how much better he made Liverpool look yesterday, starting him was probably the right decision; he passed all the fitness tests, made it through training, and was able to positively impact the outcome of the match. We’ve seen over the past year how touchy metatarsals can be.

I hope to see a bit more of Lucas during Alonso’s absence this time around. I’ll be stunned if Sissoko and Lucas aren’t the starting central midfield on Wednesday, but even in the Premier League or Champions League, I think that Liverpool needs to have Lucas and Mascherano in the middle as Alonso and Masch were yesterday, with Gerrard in a free role or on the right.

With Torres out, we may see more of the formation we saw yesterday. Well, at the least we might see Liverpool deploy a lone striker (Kuyt or Crouch) with Gerrard in support (I can do without Kuyt/Voronin out wide). A 4-4-1-1 or 4-2-3-1, however you want to draw it up.

For example:

Finnan Carra Hyypia Riise
Benayoun Lucas Mascherano Babel

In Babel and Benayoun there should be enough speed, width, ability to cut in, and crosses to support Kuyt and Gerrard. Kewell’s return would work in this formation as well, or Gerrard can play on the right with Babel or Benayoun coming off the bench. And while it’s down the list of options, Leto and Voronin, as well as Riise, can play on the left on midfield.

Admittedly, I’m worried by these injuries, Alonso’s and Torres’ most of all. But I listed 9 players at the top, forwards, midfielders, and defenders, and all are important to Liverpool’s season.

Liverpool bought players this summer with an eye towards strengthening the entire squad. This is where purchases like Leto and Lucas need to pay off. For the next month or so, Liverpool’s going to be stretched very thin. The fixtures over that period will be Cardiff City (h), Blackburn (a), Besiktas (h), Fulham (h), Newcastle (a), and Porto (h).

28 October 2007

Liverpool 1-1 Arsenal

Finnan Carragher Hyypia Riise
Alonso Mascherano
Kuyt Gerrard Voronin

Gerrard 7’
Fabregas 80’

Mixed emotions.

It was a game where Arsenal was probably the better side, and they've been playing out of this world as of late, but Liverpool will feel aggrieved having gotten a wonderful early goal from Gerrard’s free kick and having kept them out for 80 minutes. The team looked far better than in recent games, and were aided by the return of both Alonso and Torres. However, neither Alonso nor Torres were fully fit, and both were off the field before 70 minutes were up, which makes the draw a little tougher to stomach.

There were definitely surprises in Liverpool’s line-up. With three strikers on the team sheet, it may have looked like 4-3-3, but both Kuyt and Voronin played wider and deeper than usual. It was an experiment that didn’t quite come off; Kuyt was diligent down the right, but Voronin was mainly invisible on the left, and neither delivered the end product Liverpool needed.

What’s more worrying is that the formation leads to questions over how much Benitez trusts Babel and Benayoun. It’s probably more likely that Benitez wanted to use both as subs when Liverpool and Arsenal tired, which both did, but injuries to Alonso and Torres prevented that.

That Torres went off for Crouch at halftime, with Torres clearly not fully fit, and Alonso looked to suffer a problem after 68 minutes, with Arbeloa (neither Lucas nor Sissoko was on the bench) coming on, forced Liverpool into making changes they wouldn’t have otherwise made, and changed the shape of the entire team.

While Alonso didn’t have the best of games by his standard, he still made a huge difference in Liverpool’s fortunes, and it’s little coincidence that Arsenal got the equalizer after he departed. I sincerely hope he was taken off more as a precaution than because of any new injury, as Liverpool dearly need him in the team. Today’s much improved passing was evidence of that. Were he to be re-injured, I think that Lucas might end up seeing more time with Mascherano in midfield, as I think today proves Liverpool needs that composure in the center.

Of course, Alonso was helped by his partner in midfield. Mascherano was absolutely everywhere, tackled everything that moved, broke up Arsenal’s attacks time and time again, and was probably Liverpool’s man of the match. If it weren’t for Arsenal’s goal, I’d be tempted to include Reina in this discussion, as he claimed many of Arsenal’s crosses and came out to make himself big when warranted, but he could have done better on Fabregas’ strike.

Gerrard was much improved as well, scoring a cracker of a free kick and creating more chances, but he still sometimes took too much time on the ball or an extra touch that lost possession. But it was heartening to see the improvement, and the free role gave him much more license to create.

Crouch played well after he came on, troubled Arsenal’s defense, and only an outstanding save from Almunia prevent him a goal, but with Kuyt and Voronin (and then Benayoun) too far wide and Liverpool tiring, he was isolated too often.

The negatives, aside from the equalizer and injury worries, were how Arsenal got stronger as the game went on, and Liverpool’s tiring defense. Arsenal keeps the ball as well as any team, and deserves some credit for Liverpool wearing out, but the defense, specifically the speed of the defense, is still a bit worrying. Arbeloa’s return will help, as will Agger and Aurelio when both get fit, but it’s beginning to seem like Hyypia, Carragher, and Finnan haven’t coped well enough with the amount of time they’ve seen.

But, with as well as Arsenal played, the positives end up standing out more in my mind. Liverpool gave 100% the entire match, and looked far more like a team. Today can be a performance to build off of.

At the end of the day, it’s probably a fair result. It was an encouraging performance, and Arsenal certainly earned their point and could have scored more. However, Liverpool’s now drawn two games against the other big teams, and both happened at Anfield. There are still tough games to come at the Emirates, Old Trafford, and Stamford Bridge. And it’s annoying that Arsenal grew in ascendancy, and looked likely to get an equalizer as the game went on, as they’ve done in the past and is the mark of a good team.

But, again, it’s something to build off. The team’s working hard and creating more chances, and I do think that confidence and goals will follow. Hopefully, with players returning to fitness, it means that Liverpool is getting past the previous poor spell.

26 October 2007

Liverpool at Arsenal 10.28.07

12pm EST, live in the US on FSC

Last 4 head-to-head:
4-1 Liverpool (h) 03.31.07
3-6 Arsenal (h) 01.09.07
1-3 Arsenal (h) 01.06.07
0-3 Arsenal (a) 11.12.06

Last 3 matches:
Liverpool: 1-2 Besiktas (a); 2-1 Everton (a) 2-2 Spurs (h)
Arsenal: 7-0 Slavia Prague (h); 2-0 Bolton (h); 3-2 Sunderland (h)

Goalscorers (league):
Liverpool: Torres 4; Voronin 3; Alonso, Kuyt 2; Babel, Benayoun, Gerrard, Sissoko 1
Arsenal: Adebayor 6; van Persie 5; Fabregas 4; Rosicky 2; Diaby, Hleb, Senderos, Toure 1

Referee: Howard Webb

Guess at a squad:
Finnan Carragher Hyypia Riise
Gerrard Alonso Mascherano Benayoun
Torres Crouch

According to reports, Torres is fit and should start, Alonso may start, and Sunday will probably come too soon for both Arbeloa (who is in the squad) and Agger (who is not). Given Liverpool’s defensive struggles over the last few games, both of those players will be missed, but having both Torres and Alonso back will help the team to be sure.

I’m more than cognizant of what can happen when players are rushed back, and it’s only been 4-5 weeks since Alonso broke his metatarsal, but Liverpool desperately misses his steadying presence in midfield. And Torres’ merits can go unsaid, especially considering Liverpool’s goal return in the games he’s missed.

In the build-up to this game, one of the main things on my mind was last year’s 4-1 win over Arsenal at Anfield. Neither Liverpool nor Arsenal’s sides are radically different from that game.

First, and I hadn’t thought of it when writing the Besiktas preview, but Crouch could be likely to start Sunday based on his performance last season, which could explain why he only got around 10 minutes on Wednesday. He’ll come up against the same center-backs -- Toure and Gallas -- as last March, and Arsenal is vulnerable to height in defense. I considered including Pennant for this reason, and wouldn’t be surprised if he started, but having Gerrard, Alonso and Mascherano in midfield seemed more important to other parts of Liverpool’s game.

Last season, Crouch started alone up top with Gerrard in a free role behind. I don’t think that likely this weekend for two reasons: one, Liverpool hasn’t played that way all season, and two, Torres will be on the field if fit (and rightfully so).

But with Gerrard on the right, with Alonso and Mascherano in the center, Liverpool should be able to both restrict Arsenal in the middle and allow Gerrard a free enough role to influence proceedings as he does best. If Gerrard does end up in a free role from this position though, Finnan (and Carra, who almost always plays next to him) will have a lot to do to make sure the defense isn’t caught out down Liverpool’s right by either Hleb or Rosicky.

Two players who had a huge impact on last season’s game, Arbeloa and Aurelio, won’t feature on Sunday. Both did excellently getting forward from defense and providing crosses, and Liverpool will miss the presence of both. Arsenal, for all their strengths, can be taken advantage of on the flanks. It will be imperative for both Finnan and Riise to do similar, especially for Finnan to deliver crosses like the one for Torres’ equalizer against Spurs.

Admittedly, with both Agger and Arbeloa out, the speed of Arsenal’s attack worries me. Which is another reason for the inclusion of both Alonso and Mascherano, in addition to Gerrard on the right. Liverpool cannot let Arsenal play their style of football or let them get the first goal. We saw time and time again last season (three times, actually) what can happen when Arsenal do either. And with the confidence Arsenal have coming into this game, the first goal will be even more crucial.

There’s little to be said about Arsenal’s start to the season. Impressive sums it up adequately. They’re unbeaten and have only drawn once, away at Blackburn, which was over 2 months ago. I’m sure everyone’s aware that they won their last game 7-0. Fabregas has been one of the best, if not the best (my vote goes to Elano, but not by much) player in the league so far this season.

But they will miss van Persie. I’m not convinced they’ll be able to maintain this form all season. And they can be beaten.

Liverpool will be fully aware how important this game is to the rest of the season, and hopefully more than willing to put recent performances behind them. I don’t like hyping an October match any more than it should be, as it is still October, but this game will tell us a lot about the future.


25 October 2007

Predictions 10/27 – 10/28

Daylight Saving Time kicks in for the UK early Sunday morning, which is the reason for the odd times for that day's matches. Liverpool v Arsenal kicks off at 12pm.

Chelsea v Manchester City, 10am, FSC: Now we get to see how far City's really come. This will probably be a better measuring stick than the Manchester derby earlier in the season, which was at City’s ground and was when United had key players out. Now, Chelsea’s won their last four, hasn’t given up a goal in three games, and is starting to look like the Chelsea of old. Chelsea 2-1
Manchester Utd v Middlesbrough, 10am, Setanta: Ugh. United's rounding into form (but isn't even there yet), has scored 8 goals in the last two games, and is slowly but surely looking like the crushing machine they were last season. Yep, “ugh” suffices. Oh, and it's Boro on the road. United 3-0
Birmingham v Wigan, 10am: Two of the five teams currently on 8 points, and the game should be as close as the points total would have you believe. If Heskey were fit it might be a different story, but Sibierski’s not back to the form shown before his injury, and neither Bent nor Aghahowa have been getting goals in the meantime. 0-0
Reading v Newcastle, 10am: I’m following the template of Newcastle's previous away results with this prediction. Reading’s still losing games they at least drew last season, but they’re scoring goals, and I do not trust Newcastle away from St James', no matter how much better Michael Owen has looked, Barton and Emre’s return to fitness, or Newcastle’s good performance against Tottenham on Monday. 1-1
Sunderland v Fulham, 10am: Another match, like the Brum/Wigan game, which could go either way. Antti Niemi kept 10-man Fulham in their game last week, and the Cottagers could end up with a similar result Saturday. However, if Roy Keane’s Sunderland is to stay up, these are the games they must win, while they also need £5m striker Michael Chopra to pay back some of that transfer fee with goals. Sunderland 1-0
Portsmouth v West Ham, 12:15pm, FSC: No matter the fact that Curbs is finally getting West Ham to look like a team despite the exceedingly long injury list, Pompey’s playing like a team that deserves to be in 5th place, and I imagine that will continue. Portsmouth 2-1

Bolton v Aston Villa, 9:30am, Setanta: Normally when a new manager comes in, there's a distinct upgrade in the team's performance. I don't know if that will be the case with Gary Megson, and it doesn’t help that Bolton has a tough UEFA Cup game today against Braga. Villa 1-0
Derby v Everton, 10am: As much as I like to pick against Everton, and despite the fact that Derby was unlucky not to come away with a win at Fulham last week, this should be an easy win for the away side. Everton 2-0
Tottenham v Blackburn, 11am, Setanta Xtra: Blackburn’s been excellent this season, and I’ve had bad luck when I’ve picked Tottenham to get a result recently, but I think this is going to be similar to Spurs’ games against Liverpool and Villa, where they fall behind, but do enough to equalize and keep Martin Jol from being sacked for another week. 2-2 This is the first time I’ve done this (and chances are, it’ll come back to haunt), but I’m taking a mulligan here before the games start, as Martin Jol resigned before Spurs’ home loss to Getafe. If rumors hold, Tottenham will have a caretaker manager for the foreseeable future, until Juande Ramos finally comes over from Sevilla. Duly noted. Blackburn 3-1

Last week: 6-3
Season: 43-45

24 October 2007

Liverpool 1-2 Besiktas

Finnan Carragher Hyypia Riise
Pennant Gerrard Mascherano Babel
Kuyt Voronin

Hyypia (og) 13’
Bobo 82’
Gerrard 85’

Not happy.

Par for the course for Liverpool’s European campaign so far this season, and a new low at the same time. Falling behind to a “fluke” goal, sloppy and rushed passing, and an inability to take the few chances they got. Déjà vu all over again. For the last three seasons, Liverpool’s been near unbeatable in the Champions League. This year, they’ve put in some of the worst performances in recent memory and can’t buy a win.

Hyypia registered his second own goal in as many games in the 13th minute, and it was even odder than the one at Goodison. Carragher had made an excellent tackle on Bobo only to see his clearance deflect off Finnan’s shins back to Bobo, who slotted it to Serdar Ozkan. Ozkan’s shot looked as if it was going wide (as Andy Gray took great pains to point out), only to have it deflect of Hyypia’s leg, leaving Reina wrong-footed.

It was the same story as the Marseille match for the next 70 minutes. Liverpool was nowhere near their best, or even equal to their performances in the Premier League, and they struggled to assert any dominance or even look a cohesive unit. A small solace is that the effort was better, but that was about it.

There were chances in both the first and second halves, most notably through Gerrard (a volley wide and the keeper claiming with Gerrard running into the box twice -- and he did play better), but few were excellent opportunities.

Meanwhile, Besiktas earned opportunities of their own on the counter attack. After Besiktas took the lead, Bobo played as a lone striker for much of the game, but Liverpool’s defense never looked solid with the team stretched in search of an equalizer. In the 82nd minute, Besiktas, who hadn’t scored a goal in two previous group games, got their second. Following a couple of lovely long passes, Bobo got by Hyypia, and got the ball past Reina, who had come out to try and cut down the angle.

Gerrard pulled back a consolation and got his deserved goal in the 85th minute with a diving header, but despite increased pressure and four minutes of stoppage time, Liverpool couldn’t make up the deficit they gifted the opposition.

Credit to Besiktas; the team defended well once they got ahead, won much of the play in the air, and kept Liverpool from establishing any semblance of stability. After 90 minutes, they were the deserved winners. The Inonu was an absolute cauldron of noise, and the only time the fans were silent was for about a minute following the goal.

I don’t know how to explain Liverpool’s problems in the Champions League. We know that the team misses Alonso and Agger, and the biggest effect today was the rushed quality of play, while both those players are calm on the ball. You can’t fault Liverpool’s effort, but little came off and Besiktas made it difficult. In addition, for some reason, despite the fact that those two are two of Liverpool's best long passers, the team seems more reliant on long balls than ever.

But there’s more to it. No offense to Besiktas, but this Liverpool team should be able to triumph. No matter who’s injured, or that it’s away from home and a cauldron of noise, or the fluke goal.

At this point, I’m almost ready to throw my hands up and hope this Champions League campaign is an aberration. The only way that Liverpool’s going to qualify is if they win their last three games and other results go their way, which they didn’t today with Marseille and Porto drawing 1-1. Marseille’s on 7, Porto 5, and Besiktas 3, with Liverpool earning 1 point from 3 games.

The team is not playing well. There’s little point in singling out players; I saw every player on the pitch give away the ball cheaply, make poor passes, run down blind alleys, etc. And while I’m surprised Crouch didn’t start, I don’t know how much difference it would have made, with Besiktas so dominant in the air and Liverpool having such trouble getting crosses in from the wing. Otherwise, the team selection wasn’t that surprising.

And it’s not rotation, with only two changes (Pennant for Sissoko and Babel for Benayoun) from Saturday’s team. But Benitez is going to come under some stick, and rightfully so, because Liverpool looked tactically inept at times trying to break down the 10 men behind the ball.

One thing’s for sure, Liverpool cannot play like this on Sunday. This team is crying out for an excellent performance, much like the one at the end of March last season.

23 October 2007

Liverpool at Besiktas 10.24.07

2:45pm EST on Setanta

Besiktas is currently 3rd in the Turkish Super League. They beat Sheriff Tiraspol in the 2nd qualifying round and FC Zurich in the 3rd qualifying round to reach the group stage.

Group Stage:
Liverpool: 0-1 Marseille (h); 1-1 Porto (a)
Besiktas: 0-1 Porto (h); 0-2 Marseille (a)

Last 3 matches:
Liverpool: 2-1 Everton (a) 2-2 Spurs (h); 0-0 Brum (h)
Besiktas: 3-2 Trabzonspor (a), 1-0 Genclerbirligi (h); 0-1 Porto (h)

Goalscorers (Europe):
Liverpool: Kuyt 3; Crouch, Hyypia, Voronin 1
Besiktas: Delgado 3; Bobo 2; Koray Avci, Toraman 1

Referee: Claus Bo Larsen (Denmark)

Guess at a squad
Finnan Carragher Hyypia Riise
Pennant Gerrard Mascherano Benayoun
Crouch Kuyt

Torres, Agger, and Arbeloa didn’t travel due to injuries (nor did Aurelio), but Alonso is back in the squad. I still don’t necessarily think he’ll start though. I’m fully aware how important Xabi is to the team, but he’s been out for about a month, and there is the small matter of the Arsenal game on Sunday.

It’s tempting to think Lucas could start in his place based off of Saturday’s performance, and he is in the squad, but the bench is probably where he’ll stay for the time being. I do feel the need to reiterate that was more than impressed with him in the last match.

Even if Torres was fit, I still would have guessed Crouch to start. I know he’s come under a fair bit of stick, including from yours truly, as he hasn’t been at his best this season. But it’s an away game, it’s in Europe, and I doubt Besiktas’ defenders have come up against a striker like him often. If Crouch doesn’t play in a game like this, he’s not going to see much action at all. And the Kuyt/Crouch partnership had it moments last year, as well as against Toulouse at Anfield this season.

Admittedly, I know next to nothing about Besiktas’s squad, other than striker Bobo and midfielder Matias Delgado (who’s been compared to Aimar) can pop up with goals. Fans of Besiktas, in the Spyin’ Kop on RAWK (which can be incredibly helpful before a match like this), believe that the team will play narrow and compact in the midfield.

Having both Pennant and Benayoun on the field, with Riise charging up from defense, and Babel on the bench if needed, would ideally be able to exploit space on the flanks if the midfield is congested. But I truly believe tomorrow’s personnel depends more on how Benitez wants Liverpool to line up on Sunday.

Liverpool’s two group games so far have been abysmal by the standards set over the last three seasons. For all the talk about how the league is far more important this season (which it is), the Champions League is essential to both the financial health of the club and the morale of the team. And the last thing Liverpool needs is to finish third in the group and settle for a UEFA Cup run; 4th place in the group is almost preferable.

The draw at Porto was one thing. But the loss to Marseille at home means Liverpool needs to pick up all three points in Istanbul, which is never an easy place to go. Benitez has been quoted as saying 10 points is the bare minimum for qualification, which means that Liverpool needs at least 9 points from 4 games.

Also, and most importantly in my mind (despite the last two paragraphs), Liverpool needs to keep up the momentum following Saturday’s match into Sunday, at Anfield, against league-leading Arsenal.

21 October 2007

On Gerrard, substitutions, and the derby

The biggest talking point following Saturday’s match, outside of Mark Clattenburg, was the 71st minute substitution of Steven Gerrard for Lucas, who had yet to play a single minute of Premier League action.

In retrospect, it was the right move. The game was tied 1-1 when Gerrard exited. The game finished 2-1. Lucas was heavily involved, setting up an excellent chance for Voronin in the 77th minute, and taking the cool, composed shot in injury time that Phil Neville had to handle to prevent a goal.

And yet, because it’s Gerrard, and because Benitez has come under a lot of scrutiny recently, people seem upset with the decision.

I agree with many; Sissoko played far worse than Gerrard, and was far guiltier for the majority of Liverpool’s turnovers.

But this discussion really begins and ends with Benitez’s post-match comments:
“In this game, sometimes you need to play with the brain and we were playing with heart. We needed to keep the ball and pass the ball.”
Admittedly, that’s a bit harsh, and I’m surprised to see Rafa so forthright. But it’s true. For all of Sissoko’s faults, and believe me, many were on display, Gerrard tried to do everything on his own, when the final ball wasn’t coming off for him, and was breaking up Liverpool’s attacks as much as Sissoko’s giveaways.

If Lucas comes on for Sissoko, does the way Liverpool plays change at all?

Lucas would have been subservient (for lack of a better term) to Gerrard in the center, and the problems Benitez spoke about would have continued. Liverpool’s shape would have still been contorted, as Gerrard did not stay on the left or right, nor was there room for him in the center with both Mascherano and Sissoko involved. And while Sissoko did little different after Gerrard went off and missed a glorious chance in the 79th minute, Lucas’s disciplined involvement turned the game in Liverpool’s favor.

I don’t want to put the cart so far in front of the horse, but Lucas was Alonso-esque yesterday, and Liverpool needed that sort of presence.

How this affects Gerrard I’m less sure about. Hopefully not at all, or even better, it pushes Gerrard to improve. But I do fear being brought off could negatively affect his confidence at a time where he’s not had the best spell for either Liverpool or England. Which is why I was so heartened by the way he celebrated Kuyt’s second goal and after the match.

Look, the name of this blog is “Oh You Beauty” for a reason. Steven Gerrard can be an absolutely immaculate player, and has saved Liverpool’s bacon time and time again. Olympiakos, AC Milan, West Ham, Luton; the list goes on, and that’s just the last couple of years. And it’s hard to fault him, especially as a local lad, for doing all he could to try and beat the city rivals, especially with his CV. But, and I think even he’d admit it, he’s not been at his best since the Chelsea match, although he is getting back on form bit by bit.

And while it’s very strange to write this when talking about Gerrard, no player is bigger than the team. Liverpool winning is what matters. Usually, that means Gerrard has a role to play given his importance and influence, and we’ve seen him “take the game by the scruff of the neck” and lead Liverpool to victory. But yesterday, cooler heads were necessary, and Stevie tried to do too much on his own.

Also, for all the stick that Benitez gets over his substitutions, in hindsight the only thing he did wrong yesterday was not bringing on Pennant for Sissoko until around 5 minutes were left. Bringing on Babel, whose speed can turn a game, for Benayoun, was the right move. I hope I’ve explained why I believe bringing on Lucas for Gerrard was the right move. Pennant for Sissoko was also a smart substitution, even if I think it should have happened earlier.

Credit to Benitez; I’ve complained about subs in the past, but the way the bench was managed on Saturday won Liverpool this derby. Rafa spotted where a substitute could change the game, made the substitution, and the game changed for the better. End of.

If complaints like these arise when Liverpool wins a Merseyside derby at Goodison Park, I’d hate to see what would have happened had Liverpool drawn or lost.

20 October 2007

Liverpool 2-1 Everton

Finnan Carragher Hyypia Riise
Gerrard Sissoko Mascherano Benayoun
Kuyt Voronin

Hyypia (og) 38’
Kuyt 54’ (pen) 92’ (pen)

Too much. Sensory overload. I’ve gone through the entire gamut of emotions. I don’t know if I’m going to be able to do this justice or fully process it. Merseyside derbies can be incredible things.

Although it’s not how I usually write reviews, I guess the best way to go about this is step by step.

Liverpool lined up with no Torres, no Alonso, and a midfield pairing of Sissoko and Mascherano. Gerrard was ostensibly on the right, but he played through the middle more often than not in the first half, the result being Liverpool’s shape was a bit off. Voronin frequently compensated in attack, and Lescott was open too often down Everton’s left.

Liverpool came out pressing, and played quite well for the first 10-15 minutes, with Voronin getting a tame shot on goal within 5, but Everton soon established themselves the better side. The ball stayed in the middle of the pitch for the majority, leaving the keepers with little to do, but Everton earned an egregious number of corners, and it started to feel like the home side was going to make Liverpool pay for it.

In the 38th minute, after a scramble in the box following (you guessed it) a corner, Hyypia sliced the ball into his own net, and suddenly, Liverpool was behind. The goal did little to catalyze Liverpool, and the half finished in a similar fashion, with Liverpool sloppy in midfield, unable to establish real possession, and second best.

The team started to play better in the second half, and it wasn’t a surprise that Gerrard found himself more involved. It still wasn’t quite coming off, with passes a bit astray, but in the 52nd minute, his storming run through the center earned a penalty and Tony Hibbert saw red.

Liverpool hadn’t looked likely to get an equalizer, but Kuyt stepped up and sent Howard the wrong way with the resulting penalty. Not only was Liverpool back in the game, but also an extra man and the momentum.

Not surprisingly, the sending off changed the game. Liverpool saw more of the ball, and Riise, Voronin, and Sissoko all had excellent chances on goal, only to miss the target on each occasion. All of a sudden, the game had changed from being completely infuriating to just frustrating, with Liverpool unable to take advantage of the extra man or the opportunities at goal.

In the 71st minute, Benitez sent on Lucas for Gerrard, which for some reason absolutely floored the commentators. As Liverpool struggled to get the second goal, it looked like the commentators might be right, especially since Sissoko did not play well. He was responsible for the majority of Liverpool’s turnovers and guilty of missing Liverpool’s best chance up to that point. However, with the importance of the upcoming games coupled with the fact that Gerrard hadn’t had the best game either (outside of earning the penalty), it seemed the right thing to do at the time. The decision would end up being validated.

Going into injury time, the frustration mounted. I was still pleased with the fact Liverpool had gotten the equalizer when one hadn’t looked certain, but with the chances missed and Everton a man down, Liverpool’s wastefulness was coming back to haunt.

Then, in the 91st minute, there was a scramble in the box after Howard had come out to block Kuyt’s effort. The ball came to Lucas, and his shot had to be saved by the hand of Phil Neville. Of course it was Phil Neville. Kuyt stepped up to the spot a second time and put his penalty in the same place. Howard guessed right this time, but it still ended up in the back of the net.

And just when you thought it was over, Everton was able to get forward, and in the resulting scramble, it appeared that Carragher hauled down Lescott. Mark Clattenburg waved away Everton’s appeals, and moments later, blew the final whistle. And I sat with a stunned expression on my face, unable to move, for the next 30 seconds.

Sometimes you need a little luck. Sometimes you need a lot. And while if it wasn’t Everton, I’d almost feel sympathy, both of Liverpool’s penalties were rightly adjudged.

Okay, maybe Gerrard worked to earn his, and the fact that Clattenburg coupled a penalty with a red card was harsh, but it was the right call by the book. Neville definitely handled on the line, denying Lucas (who had played well since coming on for Gerrard, looking very assured in what had to be an amazing situation) his first goal. And Liverpool should have been up by that point, with the aforementioned excellent chances spurned by Riise, Voronin and Sissoko.

But Everton could have easily had a penalty of their own at the end. And they’ll undoubtedly be upset with the sending off. Gloating almost feels wrong, but at the same time, it feels so very right.

I honestly feel this could change Liverpool’s fortune. Sometimes you need the pieces to fall together like this, and after the last few games, the team will obviously be thrilled with 3 points no matter how they come. No one was spectacular, and there’s still a few problems needing fixing (sloppy turnovers in midfield and Liverpool’s profligacy being the main two, but Alonso’s return will help greatly), but a win like this still will boost the team going into the upcoming stretch of games. That a win like this comes over Everton, at Goodison, makes it that much sweeter.

3 points. 3 points won fortunately, but 3 much-needed points in the bag, against the city rivals, on their own ground. Delightful. Get the fuck in.

Now the team needs to carry this momentum into Besiktas on Wednesday and Arsenal on Sunday. Roll on Liverpool.

19 October 2007

Liverpool at Everton 10.20.07

7:45am EST, live in the US on Setanta Sports

Last 4 head-to-head:
0-0 (h) 02.03.07
0-3 Everton (a) 09.09.06
3-1 Liverpool (h) 03.25.06
3-1 Liverpool (a) 12.18.05

Last 3 matches:
Liverpool: 2-2 Spurs (h); 0-1 Marseille (h); 1-0 Wigan (a)
Everton: 2-3 Newcastle (a); 3-2 Metalist (a); 2-0 Boro (h)

Goalscorers (league):
Liverpool: Torres 4; Voronin 3; Alonso 2; Babel, Benayoun, Gerrard, Sissoko 1
Everton: Lescott 3; Osman 2; Anichebe, Johnson, McFadden, Pienaar, Stubbs, Yakubu 1

Referee: Mark Clattenburg

Guess at a squad:
Finnan Carragher Hyypia Arbeloa
Pennant Gerrard Benayoun Riise
Kuyt Voronin

Hear me out.

I know that a Gerrard/Benayoun pairing seems very unlikely for a Benitez-led squad. But Alonso’s injured, and while he’s close to fitness, may not play. Mascherano played two World Cup qualifiers (!) in South America over the past week. And I don’t know how to feel about a Gerrard/Sissoko pairing, especially in a game with a tendency for ugliness regardless of the players involved.

Also, Spurs game aside, there were frequent and loud complaints about Liverpool’s incisiveness, passing, and general creativity in central midfield. Benayoun has the potential to remedy that. It’s probably pushing it to suggest that Benitez will go with this line-up, at Goodison of all places, but I think it’s what I want to see. I’m not 100% sure about Alonso’s fitness, but there’s still the chance he, or Mascherano or Sissoko, would be available off the bench if Liverpool did start Gerrard and Benayoun.

In the end, maybe I hope I’m wrong. Given that I think a lot of those who didn’t feature this past week -- Pennant, Sissoko, even Benayoun (who only played once, against Croatia) -- and Benitez’ conservatism, Momo will probably play, and I hope he has a barnstormer like the matches against Barcelona. But previous performances this season leave me understandably anxious.

I also still have concerns over Gerrard, mostly those voiced in the review of the England/Russia match. He hasn’t been at his best, and I doubt whether he’s been fully fit at all since the Chelsea match. But he’s still Liverpool’s captain and talisman, and like Carragher, always seems to be up for derbies (sometimes too up, as he was at Goodison two seasons ago). Liverpool assuredly needs Gerrard to start finding his best form.

From all I’ve read, Torres is 50/50 to play. It’s clear he wants to start, but with the injury occurring a week ago and the concerns over Everton just kicking him all over the park, the bench is probably the best place for him. Maybe Babel will start up top in his place -- I’m interested to see Babel play as a striker with recent performances on the wing seeming somewhat disjointed -- but like other experimentation, I don’t know if the derby’s the best time for the first run-out.

I’ve seen even less news about the hamstring problem that ruled Kuyt out of both of Holland’s Euro 08 qualifiers this past week, but like Torres and Alonso, he’s been in training, and if it’s possible, I imagine he’ll be risked before either Torres or Xabi. I wasn’t thrilled with the Kuyt/Voronin pairing against Birmingham, but this will be a different game, and out of the possibilities if Torres is injured, I think this is the best one.

Everton could be missing two of the most influential players from last year’s match at Goodison as well. Andy Johnson is undoubtedly out, while Cahill is close to a return from a metatarsal fracture of his own. Also, while it might be tempting fate to say, Everton’s shipped 5 goals in their last two games, against Newcastle and Metalist, as well.

I’ve literally been on pins and needles for this match all week. I don’t need to reiterate how Liverpool’s disappointed over the last few matches nor do I need to endlessly write about how important an Everton match is. Both are well known. If this match doesn’t rouse the team out of this depression, I don’t know what will.

Roll on Liverpool.

18 October 2007

Predictions 10/20 – 10/22

I couldn’t be more thankful that we’re back to the important football.

I also feel a bit of back story is due, as I usually just jump right into the predictions.

Last year I started doing predictions for every Premiership game not involving Liverpool (I don’t guess scorelines for Liverpool games out of superstition) a few months into the season. The content doesn’t quite fit in with everything else I write, but after last year’s performance, I’m bound and determined to pick more than 50% of the games correctly. It’s become sort of a bet with myself.

So far, I’m 37-42 this season with 9 correct scores. Better than last year, and getting closer to that magic number. So if you come here for the Liverpool content, I almost feel an apology’s due, but I’m so close to .500, I can’t help but continue.

Arsenal v Bolton, 10am, Setanta: Van Persie’s out for the next month, and while he’s been a key performer for Arsenal, Adebayor and Fabregas have been even more influential. Bolton may get a “new manager” bounce, with Archie Knox in charge of his first match, as we’ve seen happen for so many other teams, but I doubt it will the way Arsenal’s playing. Arse 2-0
Middlesbrough v Chelsea, 10am, FSC: Drogba’s interview with France Football couldn’t have come at a worse time for Chelsea. Neither Kalou nor Sheva can hold a candle to his performances in the PL, and an unhappy Drogba will assuredly affect a Chelsea team that thought they might have turned a corner with away wins at Valencia and Bolton. I make my fair share of Boro jokes, but they've been decent at home, and while it may be more hope than anything else, I think this will be a lot like Chelsea’s first couple of matches under Avram Grant. 1-1
Manchester City v Birmingham, 10am, Setanta Xtra: I’m still surprised at how well City’s done. Results so far this season coupled with how “well” McClaren’s done as England manager is making me second-guess all my thoughts about Eriksson. My world has turned upside down. The scariest part is that I expect it to continue. City 2-0
Blackburn v Reading, 10am: I’m finding it hard to pick Reading in most games so far this season. I’m not especially surprised about their sophomore slump, especially after losing Steve Sidwell, but they’ve been worse than expected. They’ve picked up three wins this season, all at home, with the only “surprising” result a 1-0 win over Everton. With Blackburn’s form, especially at Ewood Park, that trend will probably continue. Blackburn 2-1
Fulham v Derby, 10am: Derby on the road. They’ve won no points nor scored any goals away from home. I had expected Lawrie Sanchez would get more out of this Fulham side, as results have been quite similar to those under Chris Coleman, but I’m not picking Derby on the road until they at least score a goal. Fulham 1-0
Wigan v Portsmouth, 10am: Without either Heskey or Sibierski, I doubt Wigan will have much luck in attack against Pompey. Marcus Bent played better than expected when I saw Wigan against Liverpool, but Aghahowa was absolutely gash. Portsmouth will probably continue to establish themselves amongst the European contenders, while Wigan’s lost their last three. Pompey 1-0
Aston Villa v Manchester Utd, 12:15pm, FSC: Outside of the Merseyside derby, this is the game I’m looking forward to the most. Villa at home has been a very tough ask, and Gareth Barry couldn’t be playing with more confidence. But United’s starting to click into gear; Rooney’s back amongst the scorers for both club and country, and United seem to have remembered where the goal is, putting 4 past Wigan in the 2nd half last time out. As much as I’d like to do the opposite, I just can’t go against United with the form they’re in. United 2-1

West Ham v Sunderland, 11am Sunday, FSC: West Ham may have lost their last three league outings, but two were on the road, and the home loss was against Arsenal, where they battled the whole way and only lost 1-0. Sunderland’s still getting goals (5 in their last three games), but not results. West Ham 2-1

Newcastle v Tottenham, 3pm Monday, Setanta: The best possible news for Spurs is that Robinson will miss this one with a calf injury picked up yesterday. It’s become too easy to take shots at Robbo, but I imagine that most Tottenham supporters will be pleased to see Radek Cerny get a run out. Newcastle still hasn’t lost at St. James’ Park (granted, one road win, and it was at Bolton in the first game), but with Tottenham’s improved results over the past couple of weeks, I think this one will end in a draw. 2-2

17 October 2007

England 1-2 Russia

For 69 minutes, England were playing the game they wanted. It wasn’t perfect, and the players were obviously uncomfortable with both the artificial surface and the opposition, but they were up 1-0 thanks to a superb Rooney goal and seemed to be in control. It was an exceptional goal by Rooney as well, wonderfully volleying home from a Michael Owen (!) header, but more important was how England were playing steadily, and bent but didn’t break against Russia’s attack.

And then, a penalty is given for a foul committed (by Rooney, who tried to escape blame with a hysterical swan dive) outside the box, and it’s level. 4 minutes later, substitute Pavluchenko, who tallied the penalty, scored again after Robinson’s save fell to his feet.

England had been under pressure in the second half, but while Russia was getting bodies forward and England was defending desperately, it still felt like they were going to hold on for the win. And now, not only is the team going home with a loss, qualification for Euro 08 depends on Russia dropping points against either Israel or Andorra.

England had two gilt-edged chances to go 2-0 in the second half. First, Barry’s free kick found Gerrard unmarked at the far post, only to see his volley tamely fly wide. Later, Micah Richards was unable to get on the end of Rooney’s flicked header, and Gabulov palmed the ball away.

The most frustrating part is that it’s “typical England.” The team played well; it might have even been their best performance until Russia’s goal, playing as well as they did in that hostile atmosphere and on a plastic pitch. An excellent win in Russia, and affirmation of McClaren’s regime was within their grasp. But in the end, they let in two goals they shouldn’t have, despite an excellent goals-against record, and now qualification hangs by a thread.

Missing out on Euro 08 would be an unmitigated disaster, and I’m obviously furious with this result, but there could be a silver lining.

I hate to kick a man when he’s down, and he’ll suffer an exemplary kicking this week, but McClaren’s not the answer for England. It’s almost a pity, because he’s gotten better results in recent games, making the correct decisions over Barry and Heskey and improving the team as a unit, but he’s never going to take England the necessary step further.

I find it hard to believe McClaren will be kept on if England fail to qualify, and England will have the opportunity to start anew, although I have no idea who they’ll turn to. I’d jokingly suggest Mourinho, but I still can’t decide if that’s sarcasm or not.

You only have to look at the changes made when England went 2-1 down. Admittedly, there wasn’t a lot McClaren could do with who was on the bench (Crouch, Lampard, Downing, Neville, Young, Shorey), but what he did was still baffling.

Waiting until there was 10 minutes remaining, McClaren sent on Crouch, Lampard and Downing for Cole, Wright-Phillips, and Lescott all at once.

I’ve praised and promoted Peter Crouch on many occasions. But this wasn’t the situation for him, and that he was the only striker on the bench is infuriating. He hasn’t been in the best of form for Liverpool recently, and he’s frequently struggled in international competition against physical defensives, where he gets more fouls called against him by touchy international referees (as happened today).

At the same time, Downing’s only a game-changer in McClaren’s mind (and he slotted in at left back), while there seems to be little use in throwing on Frank Lampard if Gerrard, who didn’t have the best of games, is still on the field. Although, I reiterate, the three unused substitutes were Shorey, Young, and Neville.

As to the other scapegoats, Gerrard will undoubtedly be one. Even ignoring the miss, he was below par today. In fact, his performance looked a lot like recent ones for Liverpool – every now and then he made a good tackle or a smart pass, or got himself into space for chances like the aforementioned one, but with no end product, and stretches of the game where he went missing. It’s not reassuring as a Liverpool fan by any stretch of the imagination, but he comes away from 180 minutes of international football uninjured, and hopefully with a chip on his shoulder for Saturday’s derby.

Paul Robinson, as usual, will be one of the others. He’s never been the most reliable, either for club or country, and the save that fell to Pavluchenko sticks out in the memory. I know England isn’t the deepest at the position, but at the least, I still find it unfathomable that Carson hasn’t seen more time over the past 3 months. Foster also has to be back in contention when he returns from injury.

Neither Cole nor Wright-Phillips played very well either, and if Lampard was going to be brought on while Gerrard stayed on the field, he should have come on for one of the two earlier, but neither stood out to the degree that either Gerrard or Robinson did.

Otherwise, certain players did do well. Barry’s been a revelation, and has to have cemented a place for the near future. Owen’s seemingly returned to fitness, and I still can’t believe that he won the header that led to Rooney’s stellar goal. Campbell and Ferdinand were a decent pairing, with Campbell making some excellent last-ditch challenges, while Richards gets better at international level in every game. But that more players disappointed than impressed is a big reason why England’s going home with a loss.

I honestly don’t know how England will react to this. Russia may well slip up in Israel; the Israelis have little to play for, but it’s never an easy place to travel to. I don’t see it though, and that means that England will fail to qualify for Euro 08, from a group they thought they’d waltz through. It may seem knee-jerk after all the good feelings in the last three outings, but something needs changing.

There were moments of brilliance, and over an hour of steady if not spectacular play, but that’s not enough for the amount of talent in the team and the importance of the sport in England.

0-0 draws against Macedonia and at Israel will linger longer than today’s loss, but all three results aren’t good enough. I almost hope Russia wins out as to not paper over the cracks, but I can’t root against England.

Either way, there needs to be changes. England isn’t good enough right now, and hasn’t been for too long.

15 October 2007

A brief word on Torres

I had ignored putting something up about Torres’s injury partly because it would only lead into another rant on the idiocy of midseason internationals, partly because I don’t like blaming any part of the team’s performance on injuries, and partly because I know people don’t come here for straight news, but the update posted on various sites today included a tidbit I couldn’t ignore.

Fernando sets sights on derby return

"I intend to be fit for Saturday," said Torres in an interview with Spanish radio station EFE.

"I don't want to miss out on the derby against Everton. I've been told how special the game is and I need to be ready in time.

I couldn’t possibly love him more.

Here’s a foreign player, in his first season at Liverpool and in England, and he already knows how important the Everton game is and will do all he can to be fit for it.

It’s that kind of mindset that has seen him adapt far quicker than I thought possible.

I’m still up in the air whether or not I think he’ll start, and will go back and forth in my mind all week long. It mainly depends on how his recovery goes, but Everton would kick him all over the pitch for 90 straight minutes if he starts, so maybe the best place for him is on the bench, to be used if needed.

But the fact remains that is the exact attitude you want in a player, and he’s said and done all the right things since moving to Merseyside.

Further apologies are due for the lack of content over the past week or so, but this international break has come at a time where a recharge of the batteries was warranted anyway.

I may have something up either before or after the England match on Wednesday, but normal service will resume later in the week when the important footie rolls back around.

12 October 2007

"Harry, Harry Kewell..."

The fact that Harry Kewell is supposedly soon to return to fitness has most around the internet making the usual “what, are we near a cup final?” and “he’s still on the team?” jokes.

In my weaker moments, I find myself of a similar mind.

But there’s a reason that Benitez, who has never shied away from being ruthless (Nuñez, Josemi, Pelligrino, Morientes, Gonzalez, Kromkamp, and Paletta, among others) has kept the faith with Kewell. That he hasn’t cut ties, despite the fact that Kewell’s gone off injured in two cup finals and hasn’t been healthy aside from an extended run in 2005-06, shows that Rafa still thinks that Kewell can contribute to the team.

The quotes Benitez gives in the article linked above bear some clues.
"Harry is very important for us. A player with pace and ability who can score goals and who can also play as a second striker is always going to be important."

"It's clear he's someone with great quality and experience and we need these kind of players for the rest of the season," he said.
He has the versatility to play in a number of positions (left wing, right wing, second striker), which is a quality Benitez clearly appreciates, having bought both Babel and Benayoun over the summer.

He can score and create goals from midfield, which Liverpool clearly needs (especially evident last season). He has massive experience in the Premiership. And he can be an excellent all-around player.

Because of the injury problems, people forget his one good season for Liverpool (although he played very well for the first few months under Houiller also), but I still believe that Kewell on the left was one of the main reasons for Gerrard’s success on the right in 05-06.

His pace opened up space on the left and drew defenders, making more room for Gerrard to cut in off the right, but Kewell was also a threat to cut in himself. Both Kewell and Gerrard have the passing ability to find the other making a run inside into space on the opposite side. Because of the two of them, Liverpool scored more goals from midfield in 05-06 than in any season under Benitez.

Kewell’s goals against Manchester City, Spurs, and Everton were crucial to Liverpool wins in those games. Both City and Spurs were 1-0 victories, while his goal against Everton capped one of Liverpool’s best displays that season, where they won 3-1 despite Gerrard being sent off after 18 minutes. Not to mention all the assists he put in from crosses and good work down the sidelines (I can’t find the requisite stats, but the work in creating the own goal for the sixth against Birmingham in the FA Cup in a perfect example of this).

Not to mention that it seems that Riise’s best form at left back coincidences with Kewell playing regularly on the left wing.

It was less than 6 months ago that I remember the majority of Liverpool fans clamoring for his inclusion in the Champions League final.

It’s somewhat taboo to admit these days, but I’ve been a big fan of Kewell’s ability since his Leeds heyday. He’s rarely shown that ability while at Liverpool, but Benitez has to have seen something in training and in Kewell’s work ethic to make him believe that Harry still has a future.

What annoys me the most is the constant slagging that Kewell receives from all corners. He’s not sitting on his ass on an Australian beach collecting a paycheck. If that were the case, I’ve no doubt that Benitez would ship him out sooner rather than later. Rafa does not suffer fools lightly.

But Kewell’s clearly been doing all he can to return to fitness, and Benitez believes that said fitness must be attainable. I don’t believe that Benitez has put all this time and effort into Kewell solely to re-inflate his price tag and ship him out at the first opportunity. The thought process seems to be that if Kewell can return to fitness, the wait will be worth it, which I’m in complete agreement with.

I personally can’t wait to see Harry Kewell in fine form in a Liverpool shirt, especially since Liverpool hasn’t gotten the most out of the left wing so far this season, despite the purchases of Babel, Benayoun and Leto and the return to fitness for Aurelio and Riise.

Have faith.

10 October 2007

Couple of links...

Normal service will resume shortly (stupid international breaks), but I really enjoyed this Tony Barrett article, and wanted to pass it along (although I imagine nearly everyone reads the official site).

I don’t agree with every word, but most of it is utterly spot on, and Tony Barrett is probably the best local Liverpool writer around.

So the message is simple - support the manager and support his methods. Let the critics have their say but never lose sight of the fact that we have one of the most tactically astute coaches in European football who has a record of success that few can get near and most envy.

Contrast that will the typical talking points promulgated by Kevin McCarra in the Manchester Guardian.

“The fear has re-emerged that the Spaniard's detailed, mechanistic approach is fitted to set-piece occasions but does not allow the spontaneity that made United champions last season and that has installed Arsenal at the head of the table.”

Ugh. Has he watched Liverpool on set plays?

07 October 2007

Liverpool 2-2 Tottenham

Finnan Carragher Hyypia Arbeloa
Pennant Gerrard Mascherano Riise
Torres Voronin

Voronin 12’
Keane 45’ 47’
Torres 90’

Disjointed and lucky to come away with a draw. And yet, it was progress.

Liverpool played better than in recent performances, but two things kept the team from coming away with all 3 points.

First, Liverpool could have been 3-0 up, if not more, before Keane’s strike on the stroke of halftime. Voronin took his chance in the 12th minute, on hand to tap in after Robinson parried Gerrard’s free kick, but Torres pushed a open shot wide from the top of the box, Gerrard hit the post with another free kick, and Torres, Voronin and Gerrard cut apart Spurs on the break, only to get too clever with the ball, and Gerrard had his strike deflected after Voronin passed instead of shot.

Second, Liverpool made two defensive errors, both of which Tottenham scored from. The first came with a minute left in the half, with Keane toeing the ball past Reina after getting between Carragher and Finnan, sent through by Berbatov’s flicked header. The second came in similar circumstances just after play resumed, with another flicked header from Berbatov from Robinson’s goal kick and a smart volley around Reina by Keane.

The high line did not work today. Both goals came from long balls pumped forward, Berbatov beating Hyypia in the air, and Keane getting behind the defense. Knowing Robinson loves to hoof it long, knowing Berbatov’s aerial prowess, and knowing how Keane can get into space, I have no idea how Liverpool failed to deal with the threat. I do know that Agger would have made a big difference; Carragher would have been the one contesting Berbatov in the air, and Agger would have kept a lot close to Keane.

I’ll reiterate that I thought Liverpool’s all-around play was better, but certain players’ were still below par.

Gerrard was influential in the first half, with the free kicks and his passing exemplified by the scoring chances listed above, but clearly faded in the second half, and clearly hasn’t been the same since the international break. Hindsight is a hell of a crutch, but he shouldn’t have taken the injection to play against Chelsea, even considering his assist for Torres’ goal in that game.

Carragher and Hyypia also weren’t at the races today, and neither did himself justice in Tottenham goals, while Riise hasn’t been at his best all season (although he did look better when he moved to left back when Babel came on for Arbeloa). Neither Pennant, Babel nor Benayoun was able to add an attacking threat when Liverpool needed it, and the most threatening play came either through the middle or from Finnan on the right.

But again, while a draw is infinitely frustrating (albeit better than a loss), and there are still many improvements to be made, Liverpool was better today. It was nothing like the Marseille game, where the team was absolutely diabolical. Players could actually put three passes together, they created more chances, got two goals, and all in all, aside from the defensive mistakes and missed opportunities (at least they’re finally getting into places to miss them!), it was a better display from top to bottom.

Two players stood out in my mind. In Voronin, Liverpool have a striker they’ve needed for a while, who gets into smart places for easy goals (whether they’re tap-ins like today or taking advantage of a lazy pass across the backline), for a few seasons now. He also worked his tail off for the 77 minutes he was on the field, especially in getting back to defend.

Finnan provided the cross (left-footed, at that) for Torres’ equalizer, and other than being partly at fault for the first goal, was very good today. He got forward more often and with better results than in earlier games this season, and actually got an excellent shot on target in the second half when Liverpool was struggling for opportunities.

Torres and Mascherano are also due a mention. Torres on the scoresheet, with a game-tying goal in the last minute, despite not having the best of games, is heartening, while Mascherano was absolutely everywhere on the field and almost got a goal of his own with a narrowly missed shot.

Liverpool’s league home record is draw, win, draw, draw, with the lone win coming against Derby. I know the away form was the biggest complaint last season, but it’s so strange to see the exact opposite happening this year. 3 draws out of 4 games at fortress Anfield? Had you said that to me before the season started, I’d have laughed for days.

There are very few positives from the results over the last few weeks. There is something wrong with this team, which is unacceptable with the amount spent and the talent available.

However, like the Villa and Wigan (and even Sunderland) games earlier, Liverpool could have easily come away with less. I realize I’m somewhat clutching at straws, but the fortitude required to get a last-minute draw is encouraging. This would have ended 1-2 last year, of that I’ve no doubt.

Maybe an international break will actually do Liverpool some good. A lot of the players will be away on international duty, but the team needs to have a look at itself and players need to get themselves sorted. I’m sick of writing how we know there’s talent in the team, how Liverpool is still unbeaten in the league, and how it’s only October. I still believe all of those things, but I’m also very unhappy with the way things are going.

The next game after the international break is the derby at Goodison. If there’s any game the players should be up for, that’s it.

05 October 2007

Liverpool v Tottenham 10.07.07

10am EST, live in the US on FSC

Last 4 head-to-head:
1-0 Liverpool (a) 12.30.06
3-0 Liverpool (h) 09.23.06
1-0 Liverpool (h) 01.14.06
0-0 (a) 09.10.05

Last 3 matches:
Liverpool: 0-1 Marseille (h); 1-0 Wigan (a); 4-2 Reading (a)
Spurs: 1-1 Famagusta (a); 4-4 Villa (h); 2-0 Boro (h)

Goalscorers (league):
Liverpool: Torres 3; Alonso, Voronin 2; Babel, Benayoun, Gerrard, Sissoko 1
Spurs: Bale, Berbatov, Kaboul, Keane, Malbranque 2; Bent, Chimbona, Gardner, Jenas 1

Referee: Mark Halsey

Guess at a squad:
Finnan Carragher Hyypia Riise
Pennant Gerrard Mascherano Babel
Torres Kuyt

Is this Liverpool’s best XI at the moment? There are arguments over both spots on the left flank, but otherwise, I reckon it is.

I’m not sure “best XI” is a relevant question for the modern Premiership, but it’s still a lot easier to pick one for United, Chelsea, and Arsenal than it is at Liverpool. That I set up these previews by trying to guess a squad, that there’s a site called “Fantasy Rafa” this season with something like 1500+ participants, and that seemingly no one can agree on a best team are topics that can’t be avoided as much when Liverpool’s struggling.

I still believe that rotation, which is a vastly overused scapegoat to begin with, works wonders in the fitness department. But those benefits are clearly being outweighed at the moment, and the injuries aren’t helping.

I guess I was blinded by Sissoko’s performances against Sunderland and Derby, but I think we can safely rule out any Gerrard/Sissoko combinations for the foreseeable future. I hope. Mascherano’s going to have to be the one that sits deep and links the play, which was Alonso’s forte, for the next few weeks. I had hoped that Sissoko would be able to combine with Gerrard, but every time the two have played in the middle, it’s been Momo that’s played further forward with Gerrard mopping up, and that simply doesn’t work.

Liverpool may not be there yet, but it might be time to think about playing either Benayoun or Lucas in central midfield. It’s most likely too soon for Lucas, as it was for Leto on Wednesday, but both of those players look able to play a pass in midfield without resorting to the long ball, which is something the team has dearly missed in Alonso’s absence. With Liverpool’s ability to keep possession (usually) and their talent from top to bottom, the team shouldn’t need a holding midfielder every time out, no matter how Benitez prefers to set up his teams.

I didn't think Babel was injured, but there’s no other explanation why he hasn’t started in the past three games, and only made the bench last time out. If he’s fit here, I hope he plays; probably either he or Benayoun will start, with the other coming off the bench if a spark is needed.

That Riise’s healthy may mean he could start in left midfield as well, but with Bale and Chimbonda likely to line up as full-backs, there will be space to exploit, as both push forward at every opportunity. Playing both Babel and Pennant will give Liverpool the best chance to exploit this space, especially on the counter-attack, and the fact that they’ve gotten more comfortable switching flanks when needed will be even more an advantage. Plus, Riise did score from LB last year against Spurs at Anfield (on the counter-attack).

That Spurs fans are more tortured than Liverpool’s at the moment is small consolation. The trendy pick for fourth prior to the season (including by yours truly) currently sits in 18th place with 6 points from 8 games. They’ve been better in their last few games, with manager Martin Jol under obvious pressure, most recently fighting back to earn a 1-1 draw in Greece (winning 7-2 on aggregate), and coming back from 3 goals down to beat a Villa team that thought they’d had it won before an hour was off the clock.

We know Spurs have goals in them. That’s rarely been the problem at White Hart Lane (incidentally, Spurs are also the only team that would buy Bent for £16.5m with Keane, Berbatov, and Defoe on the books). I’m knocking on wood furiously as I type this, but Tottenham’s not a bad team to come up against when the goals aren’t coming.

Results have gone Liverpool’s way the last three times the two teams have met, but I clearly remember Spurs being one of those teams that Liverpool always drew against the couple of years prior. Even the 3-0 win last season saw the game at 0-0 after an hour, with Jenas missing a sitter right before Liverpool got their first goal.

Spurs aren’t going to continue to struggle as they have over the first two months. We know that they have good players up and down the roster. Liverpool will need an early goal to settle both the team and the crowd after the last couple of performances. All in all, Liverpool needs a good performance to get the team back on track.

Just win. Please.

04 October 2007

Predictions 10/6 - 10/7

Manchester Utd v Wigan, 7:45am, Setanta: United will miss Carrick, who's now out for the next six weeks with a broken elbow, but (not counting Coventry) United's unbeaten over the last seven games, winning six of them 1-0. I was impressed by Wigan's resilience against Liverpool last weekend, but I doubt that resilience will be enough here. United 2-0
Aston Villa v West Ham, 10am, Setanta: The only time Villa's failed to come away with all three points at Villa Park was the first game of the season, while West Ham really should have done better in their last two games (Arsenal and Newcastle). And yet I can't help but think of how Villa threw away two points at Tottenham on Monday with a three goal lead, and wonder if, like last year, they're still the team that ends up drawing with all the other mid-table sides. 1-1

Arsenal v Sunderland, 7am, Setanta: Since I don't have much nice to say about either side, I'll just write that I'm fairly certain Arsenal's going to win this one at a canter, and I can't wait for October 28th. Arsenal 3-0
Reading v Derby, 9am: Billy Davies has come out today and said that he expects Derby to say up, primarily because it's October, and they're still not out of it. Um, okay. Reading hasn't performed to the standards they set last season, let in 7 goals last week, and won't be helped by the long-term injuries to Little and Cisse, but if I were Billy Davies, I'd hold off on making statements like that until Derby picks up their first points away from Pride Park. Reading 2-1
Bolton v Chelsea, 10am, Setanta: Yeah, Bolton's still amongst the relegation places, winless in their last 4 in the league, while Chelsea got their first victory under Avram Grant in the Mestalla against Valencia of all places. Maybe I'm hoping that Chelsea hasn't turned a corner and still thinking of last year's Bolton at the Reebok, but I think we're going to be treated to a similar Chelsea performance to that against Fulham. 0-0
Newcastle v Everton, 10am, Setanta Xtra: Newcastle at St. James' Park has been a different team than Newcastle away all season long. Like Villa, they're unbeaten at home, but Newcastle's also lost at Derby and was housed last weekend at City. Everton's still in the top five, but I still can’t believe they came back to win in the Ukraine today, and I think the long trip might take something out of the team. Newcastle 2-1
Blackburn v Birmingham, 10am: Birmingham may be the highest-placed promoted team, but that's not saying much at the moment. Blackburn’s struggled in Europe (going out of the UEFA Cup to Larissa despite winning at home today) but been tough to beat in the league, especially at home, and I imagine that trend will continue. Blackburn 2-0
Manchester City v Middlesbrough, 10am: I'll copy and paste what I wrote about Boro last week, as it's still relevant: "Yikes, Boro on the road, where their only win came against Fulham and was due to one of those disallowed goals mentioned above." In case you were wondering, Everton won that game 2-0. Yikes indeed. City 2-1
Fulham v Portsmouth, 11:10am: Draw written all over it. Fulham's been tough to beat despite only have 7 points on the board, and like last season, has earned good draws in tough venues. Portsmouth's a surprising sixth despite playing all of the "big 4," and should have enough to win given their line-up and form, but I can't bet against Fulham the way that Dempsey's playing and the fact that the game's at Craven Cottage. 2-2

03 October 2007

Liverpool 0-1 Marseille

Finnan Carragher Hyypia Aurelio
Benayoun Sissoko Gerrard Leto
Torres Crouch

Valbuena 77’

I know I’m stating the obvious, given that it’s Liverpool’s first loss of the season, but that was far and away Liverpool’s worst performance. Today couldn’t have been more frustrating. Liverpool was second best for nearly the entire match, lacked any sort of fluency, looked apathetic in the process, against a team that had been dire so far this season, and it all happened at Anfield.

Until Marseille scored in the 77th minute, with the move starting from yet another Sissoko giveaway and capped off by an amazing Valbuena strike from the top of the box that curled in off the crossbar, it looked like Portsmouth without the penalty save, Birmingham but with Torres in the line-up, and the first 75 minutes of the Wigan match. If only Liverpool were so lucky.

Don’t get me wrong, it was a brilliant goal, one that deserves to win a match, but also one that Valbuena would find hard to replicate. He could have easily spurned the chance and sent it into the stands, and we’d be talking about another frustrating but surmountable draw. Instead, it’s Marseille that took the opportunity, and Liverpool sits third in Group A, behind Marseille on 6 points and Porto on 4.

Just as infuriating is the fact that Liverpool came to life in stoppage time. The team that was so futile for 90 minutes managed to carve out three excellent chances in four minutes, only to see all three go begging. First, Hyypia missed with his second free header from a corner (up until that point, a Hyypia header from a corner was Liverpool’s best opportunity). Then, Benayoun’s header at the back post deflected out off a defender (it wasn’t handball). Finally, after a scramble where Gerrard was almost through on goal, Torres hits the post. Ugh.

I think very little of the blame can be placed on Benitez’s shoulders. Yes, the manager picks the team, and the manager is ultimately responsible for the team’s result. But players, all the players, are not doing their jobs. If not for some of Carragher’s defending and Reina’s save in the 13th minute, Marseille could have won by more. That’s about the only the positive that comes to mind.

Meanwhile, Torres was isolated and invisible. Crouch played better than in previous games, but wasn’t linking up with his strike partner and too often looked to head the ball back into midfield, where the play was congested and Liverpool was losing possession. Sissoko was probably the worst offender, giving the ball away more often than I can count, and what’s worse was that many of the turnovers came because he dallied in possession. It may be unfair to single him out because of his youth, but Leto was in over his head from the start, and that Benitez took him off before 50 minutes shows how frustrated he was with his performance. Gerrard’s still not playing to his best, and was bypassed by a lot of long-balls coming out of defense. None of the substitutes (Riise for Leto, Voronin for Aurelio, and Kuyt for Crouch) added much attacking drive. I mean, I don’t like to criticize player’s performances, but when everyone’s underperforming, I just can’t hold back.

It’s also odd that it’s Liverpool’s home form that’s deserted them. The draws at Portsmouth and Porto weren’t great, but Birmingham and today are the far worse results. The Derby and Toulouse matches aside (where Liverpool clearly outclassed lesser opposition), the team has not been good enough at Anfield.

I know, it’s one match, and there are still four group games left to be played. But this is the fifth game in a row, not counting Reading, where Liverpool has underperformed, and even worse, been absolutely abysmal in front of goal and in creating chances. This result has been coming.

We saw in the last 5 or so minutes of the game what Liverpool’s capable of when they’re pressing forward in desperation for a goal. Three clear chances were created in about as many minutes, and maybe it’s just that kind of night and they’re just not going in. But if Liverpool plays with that impetus and put teams under pressure like that earlier in the match, we’re not having this discussion.

I’m sick of saying that I know Liverpool can play better. I’m sick of saying that Liverpool clearly misses Alonso and Agger, because all teams have to deal with injuries. I’m sick of excuses over the amount of shots on target with the attackers in this squad. This was one of the worst Liverpool performances I can think of in the last couple of years from start to finish.

All I can say is that I hope this ends up being a lesson. Liverpool has Tottenham, Everton, Arsenal and a trip to Turkey coming up this month, with another despised international break in the middle of it, and they need to be better.

02 October 2007

Liverpool v Marseille 10.03.07

2:45pm EST on espn2

Marseille is currently 17th in Ligue 1.

Group Stage:
Liverpool: : 1-1 Porto (a)
Marseille: 2-0 Besiktas (h)

Last 3 matches:
Liverpool: 1-0 Wigan (a): 4-2 Reading (a); 0-0 Brum (h)
Marseille: 0-2 Auxerre (a), 2-0 Besiktas (h); 1-2 Toulouse (h)

Goalscorers (Europe):
Liverpool: Kuyt 3; Crouch, Hyypia, Voronin 1
Marseille: Cisse, Rodriguez 1

Referee: Konrad Plautz (AUT)

Guess at a squad
Finnan Carragher Hyypia Aurelio
Benayoun Gerrard Sissoko Babel
Crouch Voronin

I don't really have any firm logic behind the guess -- and I'm fully aware of how often I've said that Torres needs to play as frequently as possible -- but this seems like a game for Crouch and Voronin. It's always looked likely that Crouch will get more games in Europe than the league, and it's rare that Marseille comes up against a striker with his height and touch, even if Crouchy's underperformed in his last couple of outings. Voronin hasn't started since Birmingham (and hasn't scored since Derby), but he'll continue to get games, and I wouldn't be surprised if Benitez went with his "second-choice" pairing tomorrow.

Torres will be massively influential in the upcoming stretch of games against Tottenham, Everton, and Arsenal. Time and time again, Benitez has reiterated how he's going to use all four strikers, and I think that Liverpool will have Torres on the bench on Wednesday partly in preparation for those important games in the league throughout October. Plus, and this isn't meant as a slight by any means, but like against Birmingham, Liverpool should have enough talent to challenge Marseille's defense without Torres on from the start. Let's hope the result differs though.

With Pennant suspended, Benayoun has to be in for a start following his two goals in the last two games. He's been lauded as a super-sub because of how he changed the game at Wigan, but I'm certain he'll see a fair amount of starts as well -- probably about as many as Garcia did.

Gerrard, even though he could use the rest, will probably start in central midfield, with the captain returning to fitness following his toe injury and likely to play as many matches as physically possible. The question seems to be who will partner him, and I reckon it's going to be Sissoko in place of Mascherano. Marseille is strongest playing through the middle, and Sissoko will have his hands full keeping the opposition from settling into the game.

It could be either Riise or Aurelio at left back (I still think that Arbeloa has to be rested in some upcoming games), and while Riise is probably closer to full fitness, I'd like to see Aurelio in there for two reasons. First, he's an incredible boon on set plays and in crossing the ball, which Liverpool needs regardless, but it’s even more important when Crouch is on the field. Second, we've yet to see Aurelio play with Ryan Babel, who I think will start on the left flank, and I'm curious to see how the two combine on the flank.

Marseille may have been gash so far this season, with only 7 points from 9 games, but they will have a point to prove in their first game under new manager Erik Gerets. They looked a far different team against Besiktas in the Champions League than they have in Ligue 1, and they won't be any pushovers, even at Anfield.

Maybe it's because all former Liverpool players seem to have blinders going up against their former team, but I am very afraid of Cisse, especially on the counter-attack. If Agger were healthy it wouldn't be an issue, but we know Djibril has pace to burn against both Hyypia and Carragher. He wasn't a Benitez player by any means, and frustrated me even more than Baros did, but he single-handedly won the Super Cup, and the only ill will I'll bear against him is if he scores. I expect both he and Bolo Zenden to get a deserved warm welcome.

When all's said and done, you have to win your home matches in the group stage to advance. The only match that Liverpool lost at Anfield in last year's CL campaign was the 1-0 second leg against Barcelona, and Liverpool's got an excellent record against French clubs at Anfield (the only French side to ever come away with even a draw at Anfield was the 03/04 Marseille squad that lost in the UEFA Cup final to Benitez's Valencia).

With an away trip to Besiktas, which is never as easy place to travel to, up next in the Champions League, it’s imperative that Liverpool get all three points tomorrow to get to where they need to be in the group.

Roll on Liverpool.