30 November 2007

Liverpool v Bolton 12.02.07

10am, live in the US on Setanta

Last 4 head-to-head:
3-0 Liverpool (h) 01.01.07
0-2 Bolton (a) 09.30.06
1-0 Liverpool (h) 04.09.06
2-2 (a) 01.02.06

Last 3 matches:
Liverpool: 4-1 Porto (h); 3-0 Newcastle (a); 2-0 Fulham (h)
Bolton: 1-1 Aris Salonika (h); 1-0 United (h); 0-0 Boro (h)

Goalscorers (league):
Liverpool: Torres 5; Gerrard 4; Kuyt, Voronin 3; Alonso, Babel 2; Benayoun, Sissoko 1
Bolton: Anelka 7; Braaten, Campo, Helguson, Nolan, Speed 1

Referee:Steve Bennett

Guess at a squad:
Finnan Carragher Hyypia Arbeloa
Benayoun Gerrard Mascherano Kewell
Torres Crouch

Since 02-03, when I started being completely obsessive over Liverpool, Bolton’s been one of my least favorite teams to see on the schedule. Partly Sam Allardyce’s style, partly because Bolton always had the potential to be one of those ‘bogey teams’ (like Birmingham), and partly because of some of the decisions that have ruined Liverpool’s chances in the past (like Reina’s “handball” in the 0-2 loss at the Reebok last year).

This year had looked to be different, but Megson’s gotten them back to their brand of football, ever so evident in the 1-0 win over United last Saturday. They are still a physical side that’s an utter pain to play against. But with 17 goals in the last 4 games, I’m less afraid of Liverpool being unable to break down the opposition (knocking furiously on wood), and an early goal will go a long way towards getting Bolton out of their shell.

Which is why I’m guessing an attacking line-up, with Torres, Crouch, Benayoun, and Gerrard all on the scoresheet recently, as well as Kewell, who's returned to fitness and continues to be an important part of the team. I know we’ve yet to see Crouch get an extended run with Torres (or even an extended spell in the starting line-up), but there’s been a growing clamor for the partnership, and despite the physicality of Bolton, Crouch played well against them the last time the two teams met.

Last season, the key to beating Bolton 3-0 on New Year’s Day was Liverpool’s width on the flanks and persistence in getting attempts on goal. Both Pennant and Crouch played a big part (as did Kuyt) as Liverpool kept driving forward, and finally broke down Bolton’s resistance after 60 minutes. It's my hope that both Yossi and Kewell will be able to emulate Pennant's performance from the last time these two teams met.

I also hope it doesn’t take as long to break Bolton down on Sunday, as they will grow in stature the longer they keep Liverpool out, but we’ve seen against both Fulham and Porto that Liverpool’s been able to keep putting pressure on the opposition and get the late goals when the team’s been unable to make a breakthrough or get a second.

Anelka will be Bolton’s target man, and he’s behind only Benjani on the top scorers table with 7 in the league. Otherwise, I imagine we’ll see the other 10 men behind the ball. It’d be nice if Agger were back, as his pace would help against Anelka, but the backline has been the stingiest in the Premiership, only allowing six goals so far this season.

Liverpool’s defense, outside of a bad 30 minutes against Porto, has been excellent over the past month. With Aurelio again absent and Riise not in the best form, Arbeloa’s made the left back position his own, while I’ll reiterate that I thought Finnan put in his best performance of the season on Wednesday. Hyypia’s put the own goals behind him to turn back the clock in the past few games, while Carragher’s as reliable as ever.

Nolan and Nicky Hunt are suspended for Bolton, while on-loan Guthrie’s ineligible. McCann looks likely to start for Bolton despite the injury picked up yesterday. Agger, Alonso, Pennant, and Aurelio are all ruled out through injury for Liverpool.

I’ve really tried not to sound too confident, despite Bolton’s struggles and Liverpool’s play over the last month (and really, all season long in the league). Bolton has the potential to beat anyone, as shown last week, and they make the opposition suffer every time out.

But I also don’t fancy Liverpool to slip up either. The team’s worked so hard to get themselves right in the Champions League and stay unbeaten in the Prem, and the goals are finally coming, while players are returning to fitness. It’s essential Liverpool keep on this run prior to Marseille on the 11th and United on the 16th.

29 November 2007

Predictions 12/1-12/3

Chelsea v West Ham, 7:45am, Setanta: It's a London derby, so you can sort of throw the form book out the window, but there are still a couple of unavoidable truths. One, Chelsea's hasn't been beaten since the United game in September. Two, no matter that Carlton Cole's finally adapted to being one of West Ham's only fit strikers, he will not find it as easy to break through Chelsea's back line as say, West Ham did against Derby last week. Until further notice, I think I may be back to picking 2-0 Chelsea wins pretty much every time out. Chelsea 2-0
Wigan v Man City, 10am, FSC: Another new manager, and another game I think it'll have a big difference. I've been guessing City to start their decline for a few matches now, and while they haven't been at the form of a couple of months ago, they've haven't lost since the drubbing at Chelsea. But I think Steve Bruce might have a shock or two in for them. Wigan 1-0
Blackburn v Newcastle, 10am, Setanta: Newcastle looked utterly lost last Saturday. Blackburn was drubbed at home yesterday, but I imagine they'll have an easier time bouncing back that Sam Allardyce's men, who were completely dishelved at home against Liverpool. Blackburn 3-1
Sunderland v Derby, 10am, Setanta Xtra: This prediction party is full of new manager talk, and once again, I think it'll have a positive impact. But a positive impact for Derby on the road is probably at best a point; they've been dire away from Pride Park and are still without a goal on their travels. Maybe I'm putting too much stock in Paul Jewell, as an ex-Red and Scouser, but Sunderland has to be demoralized following the 7-1 thrashing last week, and despite the best efforts of Roy Keane, I don't know how they'll rebound. 0-0
Portsmouth v Everton, 10am: I don't know how much impact the Redknapp/bung situation will have on Portsmouth, and they're very good at Fratton Park. But coming off a 7-1 win and with no European game today, Everton will be ready for the challenge. And since it'll be an important game for both, with Pompey in 7th and Everton 8th, I reckon a draw's the most likely result. 1-1
Reading v Middlesbrough, 10am: Well, Reading's at home, Boro's on the road, and Gareth Southgate's waiting by the newswire for word of his eventual firing. Reading 2-0
Aston Villa v Arsenal, 12:15pm, FSC: I'm admittedly stunned at how Villa took Blackburn to the woodshed yesterday at Ewood Park, and it was their fourth straight league win. During this streak, they've gotten themselves up to 6th, and O'Neill's named an unchanged side in the last four games. But Arsenal rested many players against Sevilla with an eye on this one and I doubt they'll disappoint. I'm still waiting for the stretch where Arsenal starts to drop points, but with the way they've been playing, it hasn't looked like happening. Arse 2-1
Tottenham v Birmingham, 11am Sunday, FSC: And yet more new manager talk. With McLeish just installed, I'm very tempted to think Birmingham will punch above their weight here. Ramos is in the process of changing Tottenham's fortunes, and the defense already shows signs of improvement, but Birmingham's not a bad side anyway, and with McLeish in his first match, the team will be raring to go, no matter the fact the game's at White Hart Lane. 2-2
Manchester Utd v Fulham, 3pm Monday, Setanta: Not only did United rest some players in their Champions League match on Tuesday, there will undoubtedly be a reaction to the 1-0 loss at Bolton last weekend. Fulham's been better than expected recently, with a win, 2 draws, and only 1 loss in the last 4 (the draw against Blackburn being the best result), but I doubt they'll have much success at Old Trafford. United 2-0

28 November 2007

Liverpool 4-1 Porto

Finnan Carragher Hyypia Arbeloa
Babel Gerrard Mascherano Benayoun
Torres Voronin

Torres 19’ 78’
Lisandro 33’
Gerrard 84’ (pen)
Crouch 88’

Don’t let the scoreline fool you; this game could have gone a lot differently.

Liverpool began well enough, and looked to have a dream start with Torres’ free header (thanks to a Lucho Gonzalez slip on a wet night) from Gerrard’s corner after 19 minutes. Although Porto looked to slow the tempo and keep possession, Liverpool increasingly gained a foothold, especially after the opener, and truth be told, Porto didn’t look much like getting into the game after the first 30 minutes.

But in the 33rd, after excellent work by Kazmierczak bullying his way past Mascherano down Liverpool’s right, Lisandro got free from Arbeloa and replied with a header of his own, Porto’s first real shot on target.

And for the rest of the half, Liverpool was completely at sea. The team looked shell-shocked, and was lucky not to concede again, with a last ditch tackle by Finnan preventing Quaresma from getting a shot off, and Lisandro spurning an excellent chance after getting behind the defense, amongst other opportunities.

By halftime, Liverpool had started to settle (and looked to counter to finish the half, only for the referee to strangely blow for halftime on exactly 45:00, despite the two goals), and after the break, the game looked like it could go either way. Liverpool still wasn’t clicking, but at least they had collected themselves and Porto threatened far less. After Benitez made a couple of excellent substitutions (Kewell for Voronin, Crouch for Benayoun) while Porto began to wear down, the floodgates finally broke.

First, Kewell put Torres through (although Torres’ strength and turn created the chance) in the 78th. Four minutes later, Stepanov (who had been excellent until this point) handled Gerrard’s free kick in the box under pressure from Hyypia (it was a penalty, and it wasn’t a foul by Sami). Despite Torres on a hat trick, Gerrard stepped up, and scored his 7th goal in the last 8 games.

Out of the game by that point, Porto’s heads dropped, and Crouch got in on the act from another Gerrard corner (3 goals stemming from set plays?). Again the goal was contested, with Porto players pleading for infringement on Kuyt, but it stood, and the scoreline was complete.

The two-goal performance of Torres (his first two goals in the Champions League) will get the headlines, but I thought Finnan was extraordinary today. Nothing spectacular, but a couple of last ditch tackles, excellent positioning, covering, and overlapping with whomever was on the right at the time (usually Babel, but Voronin, Benayoun and Kuyt all occupied the flank at some point). Easily his best game of the season, and making me feel like an idiot for questioning his inclusion.

Gerrard will also get a lot of the plaudits, and deservedly so. He’s returned to form over the past month or so, and continues to be Liverpool’s talisman. Torres again showed why Liverpool shelled out a record fee for him (and what Benitez can do when given significant money). It’s great to see Crouch continue to score. And despite the shakiness following the equalizer, the rest of defense had their moments, and it’s worth noting that Liverpool’s nemesis in the last match, Ricardo Quaresma, was quiet no matter where he popped up on the pitch.

I am a bit afraid that the final score will overshadow some of the problems. It was very worrying to see Liverpool’s collapse following Porto’s equalizer, and I can’t emphasize enough how lucky Liverpool was not to concede a second. Too many passes went astray, Liverpool was unable to get their wits about them and reestablish possession. After they had steadied themselves in the second half, the team tried to be too intricate in unlocking the defense, and frequently broke down in the final third without getting a good chance at goal.

Voronin and Babel, and Mascherano and Arbeloa to a lesser extent, all could have had better nights as well. None were bad, but none were up to their standards either, and I think Voronin’s invisibility (although that’s a bit harsh) hurt Liverpool when they were unable to settle after Lisandro’s goal, while I still believe that Babel is more suited to a substitute role, although Kewell filled that role well tonight.

But more importantly, Liverpool didn’t concede a second. And with past complaints over creating goals in the latter stages, Liverpool scored 3 in the last 15 minutes. There are lessons to be learned from the match, but on the whole, something to be positive about. Porto is a very good team, and it’s a credit to them they kept Liverpool on the ropes for nearly half the game. But bad teams don’t score 4 against Porto either.

This result, even with Besiktas’ win against Marseille, doesn’t change an awful lot. Thanks to Marseille’s win at Anfield, Liverpool still need to win in France to go through. Porto leads the group on 8, both Liverpool and Marseille follow with 7, and Besiktas still in contention on 6. (Edit: Whoops. If Besiktas beat Porto in Portugal and Liverpool draw, Porto, Liverpool and Marseille will all be on 8 points, and it'll go to goal difference.)

But again, at the end of the day, it’s a very good result. Liverpool’s scored 17 goals in their last 4 games. It was an emphatic reply to the media turmoil of the last week, especially by the fans, who chanted “Rafa, Rafael” all match long. And Liverpool can still qualify for the money-spinning knockout stage with a win in Marseille December 11th.

And if this is the result following a sub-standard performance, I can’t wait until they click more often.

27 November 2007

Liverpool v Porto 11.28.07

2:45pm on Setanta

Porto is currently 1st in the Superliga

Group Stage:
Liverpool: 8-0 Besiktas (h); 1-2 Besiktas (a); 0-1 Marseille (h); 1-1 Porto (a)
Porto: 2-1 Marseille (h); 1-1 Marseille (a); 1-0 Besiktas (a); 1-1 Liverpool (h)

Last 3 matches:
Liverpool: 3-0 Newcastle (a); 2-0 Fulham (h); 8-0 Besiktas (h)
Besiktas: 2-0 Vitoria Setubal; 2-2 Estrela Amadora (a); 2-1 Marseille (h)

Goalscorers (Europe):
Liverpool: Benayoun, Crouch, Kuyt 3; Babel, Gerrard 2; Hyypia, Voronin 1
Besiktas: Gonzalez 2; Lopez, Quaresma, Sektioui 1

Referee: Roberto Rosetti (ITA)

Guess at a squad
Arbeloa Carragher Hyypia Aurelio
Gerrard Lucas Mascherano Kewell
Kuyt Torres

Outside of the likely return of Mascherano to the starting line-up, I don’t know how different the team will look from that on Saturday.

Another change could be the inclusion of Crouch, as it’s Europe and he might have only played 10 minutes on Saturday with an eye on this game. Guessing Crouchy to start has gone poorly for me recently, and if Liverpool plays in a similar formation to that at Newcastle, I don’t know where Peter will fit in, but it is still European competition, and continental teams don’t come up against a striker like Crouch often. However, Kuyt scored in the away fixture, and has three goals in the CL, and the team played cohesively against Newcastle 3 days ago.

Then again, maybe Rafa will throw us for a complete loop, remembering how Torres marked out of the game in Portugal and is still without a goal in Europe. Also, Voronin played very well against both Besiktas and Fulham before the break. It’s nice having four strikers capable of starting, but it certainly doesn’t help trying to forecast the team.

And I still think Liverpool’s going to look a lot like they did at St James’ Park. I’ve written up the formation as a 4-4-2 for simplicity, but there were similarities to 4-3-3 (4-3-2-1, whatever) with Kuyt and Kewell playing off of Torres, and 3 “central” midfielders.

Gerrard was massively influential in this formation, able to pop up all over the pitch and with the freedom to orchestrate the game as he saw fit. Bringing Mascherano in for Sissoko would allow Liverpool to have someone in there to break up Porto's attacks through the middle, but Mascherano is still more assured and composed on the ball than Sissoko, and Liverpool’s ability to retain possession is going to be extremely important, especially given how Porto controlled the game in Portugal.

Babel’s played well of late, but I still believe he’s more suited to coming off the bench at his age and with his skill set. I admittedly am worried about Kewell starting twice in a week, but he only played 58 minutes against Newcastle. Benayoun may be back on the right, as Benitez only said that Agger, Alonso, and Pennant are assuredly out (relatedly, that Finnan picked up a knock last time out and was tormented by Quaresma in the away leg is why I'm guessing Arbeloa on the right), but after missing the last three weeks, I don’t know if Yossi will go straight back into the line-up.

My biggest fear is Porto’s ability to control tempo and possession, although that should be partly allayed with the game at Anfield. Plus, the form Liverpool’s been in over the past few matches is markedly different from when these two teams last met. But in the last meeting, Liverpool got the fewest shots on goal and had the least amount of possession so far this season. Liverpool started exceptionally poorly, and it set the tone for the rest of the game. The group standings make it imperative for Liverpool to attack, attack, attack, but given how the last match between the two went, it’d probably be a good idea anyway.

But I don’t need to say much more about how Liverpool must win, not only to keep progression in the Champions League alive (and all the lovely money that comes with it), but to put this nonsense surrounding Benitez behind us as well.

Completely unrelated, but I want to get a prediction for Blackburn v Villa (3pm, not on TV in the US) on record in my attempt to forecast every non-Liverpool Premiership game (65-59, with 16 exact so far).

Blackburn 2-1

26 November 2007

Has it really come to this?

I can’t believe we’ve gotten this far, where I actually feel the need to write this, but anyone who believes that Rafa Benitez should be sacked needs to have their head sorted out immediately, whatever their nationality.

I don’t know where this “crisis” came from. I don’t know why this is hitting the papers now. I don’t know why it’s taken the hold it has. But the forums have exploded, and all the media is running with it. And it’s infuriating, especially when you get articles like that written by Bascombe at the NOTW yesterday. Maybe it’ll start to blow over, with the Liverpool Echo articles that came out this morning, but I truly don’t know.

It can’t all be because of 3 sub-par Champions League games, and a failure to qualify for the knockout stages (after making the final twice in three years!) would be no excuse for Benitez’ ouster. And while I’ll grudgingly admit that Benitez has been too public with his comments recently, that’s no reason either.

Hicks and Gillett can’t possibly be so shortsighted and dim. More than a few fans have been looking for reasons to condemn the new owners. This would give them all the ammunition needed and more, and rightfully so, if it comes to that.

Which I still can’t believe is possible. The team is built in Benitez’ image, and sad to say, but more players have links to him than to Liverpool.

I don’t know what to believe anymore, but if the new owners really think that Benitez can leave and they’ll hire someone else with no repercussions with the players, and the supporters, they’re sadly (very, very sadly) mistaken.

If Gillett and Hicks truly understand the club and are “custodians,” as they claimed to be when the takeover occurred, they need to get to Liverpool and get this behind the club a lot sooner than mid-December.

24 November 2007

Liverpool 3-0 Newcastle

Finnan Carragher Hyypia Arbeloa
Gerrard Sissoko Lucas Kewell
Kuyt Torres

Gerrard 28’
Kuyt 46’
Babel 66’

3-0, and the scoreline flatters Newcastle. Liverpool never really took it out of first gear, and was far too sloppy and wasteful at times, but still dominated both possession and the game. I don’t believe Newcastle had a shot on goal all match long.

In the first half, Liverpool was hindered by sloppiness in the final third, with Sissoko the main culprit. In the second, the profligacy of Fernando Torres meant that Liverpool had to settle for only tallying twice more, and it’s with little exaggeration I say that Torres could have scored 5.

As said, Liverpool should have been up more than 1-0 by the end of the first half. They were utterly dominant in possession and totally in control, but were also far too casual at times.

Consequently, Liverpool only ended up with two good opportunities at goal in the first half: Gerrard’s free kick in the 28th minute (his third free kick goal in 13 league games), and Torres hitting the post in the 45th. In Torres’ defense, Given should have been called for handball outside the box (it hit him on his upper arm, not his shoulder), but Torres’ subsequent attempt ricocheted off the post.

Kuyt’s goal, from a corner (two goals from set plays?) at the start of the second half made the result a foregone conclusion. And after the second goal, Liverpool was far more content to sit back, stifle Newcastle, and hit back on the break, which led to Torres’ multiple chances. Babel, coming on for Kewell in the 58th minute, assured the result after a fantastic 1-2 with Gerrard, but honestly, the result was never in doubt.

Despite frustration at some of Liverpool’s play, and the fact that I’ve complained about both Sissoko and Torres’ performances, Liverpool was the only team at the races, and it was heartening to see the players respond after the international break and the gossip over Benitez’s relationship with the owners.

Although Gerrard rarely stayed on the right, he was influential all game long, and probably the man of the match with the opening goal and an assist on Liverpool’s third (seriously, thanks for booing him Geordies, as if he needed more motivation). It was a belter of a free kick, and he’s added the ability to consistently create efforts from set pieces. And thanks to the scoreline, Benitez was able to rest him for the final 10 minutes with an eye on Wednesday.

Despite Newcastle’s lack of sustained pressure, both Hyypia and Carragher were outstanding. Carragher made a couple of lovely stops under threat from either Martins or Viduka, while Hyypia’s positioning and cutting out of throughballs was simply immaculate. After that stretch of games with two own goals and some other frights, Hyypia’s been thoroughly dominant.

Kewell was quiet at times, but played some lovely passes to unlock the defense, and was active down both flanks, while Babel was a lightning rod off the bench in his place, especially as the game opened up and Liverpool looked to attack on the counter. Both Finnan and Arbeloa looked to push forward, and I reckon that it was Finnan’s best performance so far, echoing his form last season when I thought he was Liverpool’s player of the year. And despite the criticism and the dry spell suffered since scoring two penalties at Goodison, Kuyt was all-action as usual and got on the scoresheet, his 6th of the season.

While Sissoko gave the ball away far too often, especially in the final third, both he and Lucas were a big reason why Newcastle was unable to establish possession through the middle. I also thought that Lucas, although having some of the problems putting passes together in attack that Sissoko had, was steady and assured in his first league start, and it’s clear why he’s come with so much hype.

Newcastle may not have offered much opposition, and weren’t helped by the fact the crowd was on edge the entire time. They’ve given up 7 goals in their last two games at St James’. But you can only beat what’s in front of you. And Liverpool certainly did that. Plus, it was fun to see Allardyce disconsolate on the sidelines after running his mouth about Benitez and Liverpool all season long.

Despite the international break, despite the rumors surrounding the camp, and despite key players absent, Liverpool ran amok. 3 goals and a clean sheet, on the road (Liverpool still has the best away form in the Premiership) is an excellent result to take into Wednesday’s crucial Champions League game against Porto at Anfield.

23 November 2007

Liverpool at Newcastle 11.24.07

7:45am, live in the US on Setanta

Last 4 head-to-head:
1-2 Newcastle (a) 02.10.07
2-0 Liverpool (h) 09.20.06
3-1 Liverpool (a) 03.19.06
2-0 Liverpool (h) 12.26.05

Last 3 matches:
Liverpool: 2-0 Fulham (h); 8-0 Besiktas (h); 0-0 Blackburn (a)
Newcastle: 1-1 Sunderland (a); 1-4 Pompey (h); 1-2 Reading (a)

Goalscorers (league):
Liverpool: Torres 5; Gerrard, Voronin 3; Alonso, Kuyt 2; Babel, Benayoun, Sissoko 1
Newcastle: Martins 4; N’Zogbia, Viduka 3; Milner, Owen 2; Butt, Cacapa, Emre 1

Referee: Alan Wiley

Guess at a squad:
Arbeloa Carragher Hyypia Aurelio
Gerrard Sissoko Mascherano Kewell
Crouch Torres

Now then, back to the real football. And of course, it’s an early kick-off away from Anfield following an international break.

On the injury front, Torres should return, and after last Saturday’s performance, should go straight into the starting line-up. It’s still too soon for Alonso or Benayoun, and it will come down to a late fitness check for Agger. I’ll be surprised if he starts, despite the fact that his pace would be useful against the likes of Obafemi Martins.

I have to believe, but maybe it’s just hope, that Crouch will lead the line along with Torres. He’s played well of late, and was probably the only player who could leave with his head held high after England’s performance on Wednesday.

Similarly, I truly hope that Gerrard won’t suffer a let down following England’s failure to qualify for Euro 08. He worked so hard to get himself back into form following the extended toe injury, and he’s a confidence player. I have him on the right partly because of the injuries to Benayoun and Pennant, but partly because putting him on the right can be similar to putting him in a free role behind a lone striker. But with both Crouch and Torres starting, there’s no room for that.

I do believe that Sissoko and Mascherano will start as well. Masch played two qualifiers for Argentina in South America during the break, but without Alonso in addition to the other injuries, he’ll be needed. In addition, we haven’t seen Sissoko and Gerrard together in the center since the abysmal game against Marseille.

I went back and forth over whether I thought Babel or Kewell would start on the left, but since Harry only played one friendly, against Nigeria in London, and made it through the 90 minutes unscathed, I think he might be in for his first start in ages. Which would boost Liverpool – Kewell’s an excellent foil on the left if Stevie’s on the right, and if Geremi starts at right back, Harry has the pace and tricks to run circles around him.

Newcastle, as usual, has a lengthy injury list with Owen, Taylor, Faye, Carr, Cacapa, Babayaro, and Duff out, but with Barton and Emre in the center along with Martins and Milner in attack, there will be physicality (it is an Allardyce team) and the capacity to get something from nothing on the break. Liverpool’s backline will have to be wary of conceding goals like the two given up to Tottenham last month.

The best way to get past the idiocy I wrote about earlier is to win. I realize that G&H’s statement focused more on the Champions League, but the same goes here. There’s far less conflict, and the media’s far less apt to look for/make up problems when everything’s firing on all cylinders. Plus, if Benitez wasn’t already fired up, we know there’s little love lost between he and Allardyce.

St James’ Park is never the easiest place to play, and Liverpool was turned over there 1-2 last season, but it’s imperative Liverpool continue on unbeaten, especially with the game against Porto coming up on Wednesday.

Roll on.

I heart Transfer Season

I guess I’ll just get the regrettable bit out of the way. Over the last couple of days we’ve had a very strange press conference from Rafa, a heavy-handed ultimatum from Gillett and Hicks, and a mountain of media speculation. I never want to read too much into these things, but every outlet has carried the same narrative, and the original article was by Tony Barrett, who’s easily the best Liverpool writer around.

My 2 cents is this: Rafa is a very political manager compulsively focused on winning at all times. It’s little surprise that he’s already planning transfers for January. Meanwhile, Gillett and Hicks want Liverpool to qualify for the Champions League before transfers and budgets are spoken about. Which again, is no surprise (they are businessmen, nationality doesn’t even come into play) it even if I don’t like it.

And I will side with Benitez 11 times out of 10. He’s that good of a manager. But you have to remember, whether the media/fans have exaggerated what they’ve done or not, Gillett and Hicks have so far done what they’ve promised.

I don’t like that they aren’t currently in Liverpool, or at the very fucking least, having Foster Gillett or someone else in Liverpool able to handle transfers (where has Rick Parry been in the last two days, by the way?). I don’t like that Benitez has to wait until mid-December to tie up any deals, and said deals might be contingent on Champions League money. I really, really don’t like that we’re seeing speculation over Benitez.

But it’s not as if football clubs, both big and small, have inner arguments over fiduciary matters. They usual just, you know, stay in house. Which, and it takes a lot for me to criticize the great man, you can blame Benitez for thanks to yesterday’s theatrical presser.

However, my main thought is that it’s probably a tempest in a teapot, despite the fact that there are real, negative undertones present. The best result would be qualifying for the knockout stages, and having the finances less of a question.

And although it may be misplaced hope given what’s been written, I still think that Benitez will be here for years to come. This is the man who less than a week ago said “But even if I was approached I would tell whichever club it was that I am really happy with my club, my squad, my supporters and my city. There are still many things which I want to do here, so I am planning on being here for a long time.”

Letting him leave would be utter madness. Give him a blank checkbook and go away. But until then, deep breaths coupled with belting renditions of “Rafa, Rafa Benitez.” Oh, and ignore the British press, who’s hunting around for further casualties following Wednesday’s performance.

Back with the Newcastle preview shortly.

22 November 2007

Predictions 11/24-11/25

Hope everyone is having/has had a happy Thanksgiving.

I haven’t been able to bring myself to suffering through an elegy of England’s campaign, but the preview of Saturday’s Liverpool at Newcastle game (7:45am, Setanta) will be up sometime tomorrow morning.

Arsenal v Wigan, 10am, FSC: Even if Steve Bruce had been allowed to assume control on Monday, I’d have favored Arsenal here, new manager boost or not. But it looks like Wigan will continue with a caretaker manager and has shipped 6 goals while scoring none in their last two games, while Arsenal is, well, Arsenal. Arse 3-0
Bolton v Manchester Utd, 10am, Setanta: Three good draws for Megson and Bolton last three times out, but it won’t continue here. United might be troubled by injuries, especially that to Rooney, but they’re still on a hot streak and Ronaldo’s scored 4 times in the last 3 games. United 3-1
Everton v Sunderland, 10am, Setanta Xtra: Fantasy team pro-tip: Cahill’s return will assuredly improve Everton, you only saw the first glimpse of that with the late goal at Stamford Bridge last time out. As much as I’d like to see Keano get more points on the board, and expect his team to be full of fight, as usual, Everton should come away with all three points. Everton 2-1
Birmingham v Portsmouth, 10am: I’ve seen the suggestion that Birmingham should replace Bruce with McClaren, who’s in need of a job, but I’ve my doubts. The Yeung takeover talk (or lack thereof recently) must have been unsettling, because Bruce has had time at Brum to assemble a team of his own, and they have looked capable of staying in the Prem. But after losing the manager, and up against an in-form Pompey, I can’t see a home win. Portsmouth 2-0
Manchester City v Reading, 10am: Just when I thought Reading might be close to turning a corner, they’ve lost their last two, although the last 3-1 loss was at the Emirates. And while I still think we’ll see a dip in City’s fortunes compared to a month or two ago, they should still have enough to win here. City 1-0
Middlesbrough v Aston Villa, 10am: Villa may be the better team, but too often they’ve ended up with a draw on the road, Boro’s nowhere near as dreadful at home, and both Carson and Barry could see the effects of Wednesday’s match linger. 1-1
Derby v Chelsea, 12:15pm, FSC: So far, Derby has lost 4-0 (at Spurs), 5-0 (to West Ham last time out and at Arsenal), and 6-0 (at Liverpool). Not a good sign when they’re coming up against a team with the firepower of Chelsea, at Pride Park or not. Chelsea 4-0
West Ham v Tottenham, 8:30am Sunday, Setanta: Juande Ramos has improved and will continue to improve Spurs, but it’s a London derby, and West Ham’s coming off a 5-0 win. Even with the injuries to their front line, the Hammers should be able to tally, and Upton Park should be rollicking. 1-1
Fulham v Blackburn, 11am Sunday, FSC: Fulham’s more apt to get wins at Craven Cottage than they were last season, and Healy’s in fine form and full of confidence following his international performances (Simon Davies has been excellent for Fulham recently as well), but I expect Blackburn to continue pushing on for a European place. Blackburn 2-1

21 November 2007

England 2-3 Croatia

No matter what I wrote yesterday, I’m absolutely gutted.

Much of that scribbled yesterday turned out to be wrong; some was right, but all that’s important is England will miss out on the European Championships. Kudos to Crouch and Beckham for that goal (the lesson, once again, I’m an idiot), and the team for trying to haul themselves back into it, but Croatia were too much, and England’s missteps, both earlier in the game and campaign, were too much to overcome.

I don’t really care to single out players. You all know who was gash, either by watching the game or via match reports. You have enough choices to choose from, at the least. England only conceded 4 goals throughout qualifying, and with a makeshift backline, they conceded three today. And while I’d love to excoriate McClaren’s tactics and managerial capabilities, it’d be beating a dead horse into oblivion. He’ll obviously be sacked, and I can’t imagine who’ll be hiring him next.

I truly feel for Scott Carson, who shouldn’t have been put in that position. I’ve been calling for Robbo’s replacement for months now, but this was absolutely the wrong time to make the switch. Carson’s first competitive cap, and it’s in the game that determines whether England will qualify, in front of an expectant Wembley. It’s little surprise he had a stumble within the first ten minutes, and despite that and some other frightening moments, he showed his quality later on with a couple of saves. I truly hope he isn’t pilloried beyond belief for today’s result. He’s still young, and he should still have a tremendous future for both England and club (although it’s clear that club won’t be Liverpool).

And while it’s not a time for laughing, I do find it funny that the NFL game between the Giants and Fins a couple of weeks back did such damage to the Wembley pitch that it impacted this match. Good work FA; I hope the quid were worth it.

That McClaren will certainly lose his job and that English Liverpool players will have the summer off are of little consolation. I care far more about Liverpool’s results than England, and will admit to being exceptionally frustrated with pretty much every facet of the national team, but as a fan, I’m beaten into submission and disappointed.

I’d also love to see Croatia do well at Euro 08; they’re a team that deserves to, who were playing their hearts out on the stage. And I also hope that their manager, Slavan Bilic, starts being considered for Premier League jobs when he’s ready, as he stated earlier in the week. He’s a hell of a manager.

I may have a longer requiem of both the game and England’s future, but now’s not the time.

20 November 2007

England v Croatia 11.21.07 -- Crouch as a lone striker?

Guess at a line-up
Richards Campbell Lescott Bridge
Beckham Gerrard Lampard Joe Cole

I have a bad feeling that after the sense of relief following Israel’s victory, something could go wrong at Wembley tomorrow. Maybe it’s just the pessimist in me, but even though Croatia have already qualified, they will still be a threatening team, and it’s still England we’re talking about.

A draw will suffice. And while we’ve seen England do enough to grind out a 0-0 against every type of opposition, with Croatia’s talent (Da Silva has 10 goals in qualifying, plus Modric and Kranjcar have been known to pop up), England will want a goal to settle the nerves, the sooner the better. Which has gotten slightly more problematic with the injuries and lack of depth up front.

I’m rarely prone to taking shots at Liverpool players, but I can’t help but thinking starting Crouch as a lone striker is going to end badly.

And I like Peter Crouch. He’s an easy target and a frequent magnet for stick, even for Liverpool fans, and a frequent scapegoat for poor performances, rightly or not. I’ll continue to maintain Crouch has a place and purpose in a Liverpool squad that’s meant to be competing for the title.

But Crouch as a lone striker doesn’t always come off as hoped. He can be very effective, the best example being the 4-1 win over Arsenal. But pace and width from the wingers, fullbacks getting forward, and Gerrard in an advanced position with both Alonso and Mascherano covering were utterly essential to success in that game.

Despite his great touch for a big man™ and goal-scoring record for England (13 in 23), Crouch is best at holding up play and bringing the midfield into attack. And while this isn’t a slight on Crouch’s talent, his inclusion can lead any team to shift to route 1 football at the first sign of trouble, something England is too apt to do anyway. And Croatia has a stingy and physical defense in Corluka, Kovac, Simic, and Simunic, although they’ve conceded two more goals than England in qualifying (3 to Macedonia, 3 to Israel).

Which leads me to believe that England’s best chance for success with Crouch up top is with players like Wright-Phillips and Joe Cole on the flanks, and players like Ashley Cole (who, along with Terry, probably shouldn’t feature even if they’ve declared themselves fit, given both haven’t played in over a month) and Richards getting forward from defense. And yet, all the talk is about Beckham possibly seeing a start.

It’s tempting to think Beckham should feature to ping crosses into Crouch, as Golden Balls supplied assists for Crouch against both Estonia and Austria, but Crouch is admittedly not the best with his head despite his height, and England will need to have other goal threats in the box to support. But I have to believe it’s going to be Cole – Lampard – Hargreaves – Gerrard – Beckham, which incidentally is the same midfield that lost to Portugal in the World Cup (as I’m sure you’ve heard).

Admittedly, England has few other options, with Bent, Defoe (both of which have spent the majority of the season on Tottenham’s bench), and Alan Smith the other recognized strikers. And I’d really rather avoid a discussion about the strength and future of the national team, which is a subject that’s been steeped in landmines all week long. But I’m still afraid England will find a way to fail to qualify after being handed second chance after second chance on a silver platter, and what sticks out to me is that I don't know if England have, or will play, players suited to support Crouch in what's going to be a 4-5-1 or 4-1-4-1.

Look, I hope I’m wrong. I’ll happily eat crow if England win, and Crouch and Beckham are essential to it. I’ll be rooting for it to happen. Maybe Gerrard and Lampard will be able to work together with a lone striker, and supply the other attackers that England will need.

But I do worry.

16 November 2007

Another round of applause for mid-season international breaks

As usual, an international break leads to tumbleweed rolling through these parts. This week’s led to me paying less attention to news around the football world than usual during these breaks, what with the media vacillating between doom and gloom and burying their heads in the sand over England, a shed-load of meaningless friendlies (and Liverpool players playing in said friendlies), and Gerrard’s lovely condemnation of foreigners in the press (let's call a spade a spade).

I did however watch today’s under-21 England match. Which was fairly boring outside of Theo Walcott’s play and Agbonlahor’s possibly serious injury (gotta love the international break). But it did give me the chance to see Nikolay Mihaylov for the first time.

Despite letting in two goals, I thought Mihaylov played well, and showed some of the reasons why Benitez went after him this summer. There was little he could do about England’s first, and he went the right way on Milner’s penalty only to see it slip under him. He made a great save on Walcott, showed good positioning, and came off his line well. The couple of bobbles under pressure on corners were just a symptom of his age. And yet I don’t know if we’ll ever see him play for Liverpool.

It might be reading too much into it, but in the articles recently regarding the sale of Carson, Benitez said "At the moment we have Pepe, Charles Itandje and David Martin as goalkeepers so we can manage the situation okay." I know Mihaylov has work permit issues, and his loan to FC Twente lasts until the end of the season, but it looks like Rafa’s saying the keeper position is set for the near future.

Martin and Mihaylov are close in age and experience. With the youth and potential of the two, it makes little sense to have them both on the books, even if one will end up on loan for the next couple of seasons. Not to mention that Hansen, Gulacsi, and Bouzanis are on the books as well.

I have a sneaking suspicion Mihaylov was bought to replace Carson when he went on loan, and once the work permit became an issue, Benitez shifted his attention to Itandje. However, given Mihaylov’s age and Benitez’s apparent desire to buy young keepers like they’re going out of style, I might just be making something out of nothing.

But then again, if this new rule that Liverpool’s captain supports comes into effect, the team will need players like Martin to satisfy the quota. And who knows what his valuation would rise to then, being English and all. Sigh. It's times like these I'm thankful for the European Union.

England’s just started one of those meaningless friendlies I referenced above, which I refuse to spend money on to watch or even recognize the outcome of. I may pop back in after Israel/Russia tomorrow and assuredly before England/Croatia on Wednesday, but otherwise it’ll continue to be quiet around here until the next weekend’s fixtures unless something newsworthy actually happens.

12 November 2007

Football 1, Platini 0

Platini abandons cup winners plan

Domestic cup winners will not get to play in the Champions League after a proposal from Uefa chief Michel Platini was rejected, BBC Sport understands.

But the team finishing third in the Premier League will now go straight into the group stages and the fourth team will face two qualifying rounds.

The new changes will be ratified at Uefa's executive committee meeting in Lucerne on 1 December.

BBC sports editor Mihir Bose said: "Platini wanted the new club champions to come in from the less privileged parts of Europe.

"He has got that part of the plan through - six new clubs will come in.

"But the other part of the proposal, which involved the cup winners, has been completely abandoned."

The meeting's other significant outcome was the automatic qualification of the team finishing third in the top leagues, including the Premier League.

"The Premier League has won a thumping victory over Platini," added Bose.

It’s of little interest to see me continue to crow over keeping the status quo, and an end to Platini’s proposal to give a Champions League place to domestic cup winners.

What is interesting is the “compromise” plan to allow the 3rd placed team directly into the group stages and make the 4th placed team play an extra qualifying round. And why we hadn’t heard about it sooner, because it actually is a fair compromise.

I am surprised that 3rd placed teams will go straight into the group stage proper, but an extra qualifying round for the 4th placed teams isn’t too much to ask in exchange for 6 spots in the group stage secured for Platini’s pandering to the smaller nations. It will satisfy Platini by getting more champions of smaller leagues in the competition proper, while I don’t imagine it’ll prevent the worthy 4th placed teams from qualifying.

And let’s be honest. This has actually been a good year for the underdog, with Rosenborg’s performance, Besiktas’ win over Liverpool, and Shakhtar Donetsk above both Celtic and Benfica in Group D.

But there’s also been games like the reverse of the Besiktas/Liverpool fixture, United putting 4 past Dynamo Kiev while resting players, and Arsenal’s 7-0 hammering of Slavia Prague.

Yes, every now and then someone might pull a surprise, usually at home where it’s a tough place to travel, but more often than not, there’s a clear gulf between the sides. And despite my allegiances, I firmly believe the best teams -- the ones with an actual chance of winning the competition -- should be playing, no matter how harsh that comes off.

There’s always been interesting proposals voiced about returning to a 64-team straight knockout competition, including on last week’s Guardian podcast, but I haven’t been able to envision a feasible way for it to come off. There would have to be some kind of qualification, because if math serves, there were 76 teams in the CL this year if you count all 3 qualifying rounds, as well as the issues with seeding and sponsors (TV won’t be happy about the number of games unless they’re staggered).

Please forward any suggestions to UEFA, but right now, I’m not convinced there’s much better than the system in place.

Besides, these changes, while satisfying UEFA, should be mild enough to prevent any showdown with the G-14 or a European Super League, as Gordon Strachan was musing about earlier. Which I think everyone would like to avoid.

And just as a final aside, I have to say, the tone of the BBC’s article, in “breaking” the story and gloating about the Premier League “thumping” Platini, is an absolute riot.

10 November 2007

Liverpool 2-0 Fulham

Arbeloa Carragher Hyypia Aurelio
Benayoun Gerrard Mascherano Riise
Crouch Voronin

Torres 81’
Gerrard 85’ (pen)

Fernando Torres, how we have missed you. Now that’s what a match winner can do.

Of course Benitez named an unchanged side for what I think is only the second time in 4 seasons. And of course it led to Liverpool playing excellent football, but unable to break down Fulham until the last ten minutes.

Fulham was always capable of this. It’s become common for them to be solid for the first half and frequently take a lead, only the struggle as the game goes on. Healy and Dempsey are lively on the counter, and Bouazza provided more of the same after he came on.

And I guess it’s little surprise that Liverpool would struggle to break the deadlock after winning 8-0 last time out. It’s not as if Liverpool was poor -- it was just the too-frequent struggle to break down the opposition, even if the movement and passing wasn’t much worse than Tuesday’s performance. It’s just that Fulham are completely different opposition than Besiktas were. There was nowhere near the amount of space or bit of luck (Crouch hit the crossbar in first half injury time) that Liverpool had on Tuesday, and Antti Niemi did his part in goal as well, with excellent saves on attempts by Hyypia, Aurelio, Voronin, and Benayoun.

But Liverpool stepped it up in the second half, and the substitutions put Liverpool over the top. Babel (for Riise), Torres (for Voronin), and Lucas (for Mascherano) all played their parts. None more so than Torres.

In the 81st minute, with Liverpool pressing forward without pause and Fulham struggling to keep pace, Reina’s long ball over the top found Torres. With some fancy footwork he carved out space for the shot and sent it inside the near post. The difference a £20m striker can make.

The first goal always changes the game. Always. The longer Fulham was able to keep Liverpool out, the more it reinforced their belief and the more desperate the home side became. And less than 4 minutes after the opener, Gerrard had slotted home a penalty won by Crouch’s run onto Babel’s throughball (yes, contact started outside the box, but it continued into the penalty area, which is where Crouch went down), and the match was done and dusted.

After 80 minutes, I (along with everyone else I imagine) was frustrated beyond belief. Despite the amount of possession, despite the fact Liverpool was trying to play pass and move football, and despite the fact they utterly bossed the match, it was still 0-0, and we’d been here before.

But again, that’s the difference that Torres can make. It’s also worth noting that last week I was complaining about Liverpool’s inability to get the late goal in a deadlock, which is a trait the team needs to have on a consistent basis.

It’s even more relieving that Liverpool comes away with all 3 points because the players’ performances absolutely merited it. Much like after the Besiktas match, I’ve little to complain about. Some players may not have played to Tuesday’s level, but all of them were up for it.

I’ve already said enough about Torres, but the other subs deserve plaudits as well. Babel may still have a tendency to run down blind alleys, but his pace is blistering and he clearly troubled Fulham’s defense. Lucas again demonstrated his cool head, and has an excellent eye for the pass, especially in the opposition’s half.

Once again, Voronin had an outstanding match. Along with his much-lauded workrate and vision, his strength continues to amaze. Time and time again he muscled defenders off the ball and kept or won possession for Liverpool. Crouch didn’t get as many opportunities on goal, but was a willing runner, especially out wide to try and bring others into the attack. And Gerrard is finally looking his usual self again.

The few times that Fulham did threaten -- and they had a chance within the first minute through Danny Murphy -- Carragher and Hyypia were there to cut out the threat. Both were immense today, and despite Torres’ goal, Hyypia’s probably the man of the match. Reina also had to make a couple of tough saves, most notably on a couple of Murphy attempts, and did so with aplomb. In addition, his assist highlights how effective he can be distributing the ball.

Once again, the international break comes at an inopportune time. The team’s playing good football, and players are either back to fitness or nearing it. It’s almost the middle of November, and Liverpool’s still unbeaten in the league.

It goes without saying how important it is that players return from international duty intact, and Liverpool continues in this vein of form. Newcastle on the 24th.

09 November 2007

Liverpool v Fulham 11.10.07

12:15pm, live in the US on FSC

Last 4 head-to-head:
1-0 Fulham (a) 05.05.07
4-0 Liverpool (h) 12.09.06
5-1 Liverpool (h) 03.15.06
0-2 Fulham (a) 10.22.05

Last 3 matches:
Liverpool: 8-0 Besiktas (h) 0-0 Blackburn (a); 2-1 Cardiff (h)
Fulham: 3-1 Reading (h); 1-1 Sunderland (a); 0-0 Derby (h)

Goalscorers (league):
Liverpool: Torres 4; Voronin 3; Alonso, Gerrard, Kuyt 2; Babel, Benayoun, Sissoko 1
Fulham: Dempsey 4; Davies, Healy 3; Bouazza, Kamara, McBride, Murphy, Smertin 1

Referee: Steve Tanner

Guess at a squad:
Arbeloa Carragher Hyypia Aurelio
Benayoun Gerrard Mascherano Kewell
Crouch Voronin

As much as I’d love to see Liverpool keep faith with the same line-up as Wednesday’s, I know it probably won’t happen, although I am picking Kewell as the lone change. Admittedly, maybe I’m just hoping, or maybe I just fear the reaction to a host of changes and a poor performance, but my best guess is that the line-ups will be fairly similar.

I know it’s Benitez, and the media’s got us trained to expect rotation at every turn. And I will almost always defend what he does, because there’s almost always a clear reason for it. But when the team’s flowing with as much confidence as it was on Tuesday, and there’s a two-week break coming up, I can’t see that many alterations.

You can divine a lot from Rafa’s pre-match interviews.

One, Benitez has a lot of time for Voronin after his performance on Tuesday. Two, Torres seems certain to play some part. And three, Rafa’s well aware that a draw is as bad as a loss, and I’d assume that means he’ll send out a side able to put Fulham to the sword.

In-form and confident strikers are hard to come by. With both Crouch and Voronin excellent on Tuesday, I’m hoping they’ll be given the chance to reprise their performance. There’s been a lot of talk about Torres returning to the line-up, but given how he was rushed back last time and the fact that there’s an international break on the horizon, I’m hoping he’ll be used as off the bench, if at all.

Kuyt is rarely left out two games running, so he has to be in contention. I don’t mean leaving him out as a slight, and Kuyt/Crouch was Liverpool’s best partnership at home last season. But Crouch and Voronin both look in-form and capable of scoring, and should be given another run out.

Maybe it’s too soon to expect Kewell to start the match, as it is Torres, but he’s had 3 good runs off the bench now, and he’d add another attacking dimension to the team. Plus, if this is the team, both Babel and Riise could be available off the bench if needed.

I’m hoping to see Arbeloa and Benayoun down the right, and Aurelio for a second consecutive match. Yes, Finnan’s coming up against his old club, and being rested on Tuesday means he’s likely here, but Arbeloa and Benayoun worked so well with each other against Besiktas, and the thinking is in the vein of “why change it?” that’s permeated this entire preview.

Fulham has shown they can be a decent attacking side, with American Clint Dempsey and David Healy able to get goals from nothing, while Simon Davies has been banging them in from free kicks. But Fulham’s also winless on their travels this season, and I fear that Sanchez might go into damage control, and play with the team camped in their own half.

But with the players Liverpool will have on the pitch, and the confidence hopefully flowing through the side, the team should be able to carve open a stingy defense. The key, as always, is get pressure on from the off, and get the early goal.

The team knows how important a win is. To better the tally in the league, to turn around Liverpool’s home league form, to continue the momentum from Tuesday’s win, and to put the team in a good position going into the two-week break.

Roll on Liverpool.

08 November 2007

Predictions 11/10 – 11/12

Sunderland v Newcastle, 7:45am, Setanta: It’s a fierce north-east derby, and Newcastle’s away from home. Allardyce will have his players ready to go after the utterly dismal loss to Portsmouth, but Sunderland’s played decently in their last couple of games, getting a draw against Fulham and making City work very hard for a slim 1-0 win. 1-1
Derby v West Ham, 10am, Setanta: Even though Carlton Cole and Henri Camara are the only healthy strikers, and Derby’s home, which means they might actually have some goals in them, I can’t see West Ham slipping up here. West Ham 1-0

Birmingham v Aston Villa, 8am, Setanta: Another local derby, which will be intense given it’s the first derby between the sides since Birmingham’s relegation. It’ll obviously be contentious, and the play probably won’t be the best, but Villa should have enough quality to win, even though Birmingham’s been the most consistent promoted team. Villa 2-1
Chelsea v Everton, 9am, Setanta Xtra: Chelsea will miss Cech and Terry, as they did last season, and honestly should have lost to Schalke mid-week, while Everton’s won their last four. But we’ve seen Chelsea play some lovely attacking football (I still can’t believe Abramovich may have been right) of late in the league. Chelsea 2-1
Bolton v Middlesbrough, 10am, Setanta: I still reserve the right to bash Megson when the opportunity presents itself, but Bolton earned an impressive point today at Bayern Munich. Plus, Boro’s been utterly dire on the road and can’t buy a goal. It baffles me how we’ve heard more about Benitez being “under pressure” than Gareth Southgate. It’s a strange world. Bolton 1-0
Manchester Utd v Blackburn, 10am, FSC: United is on a utter tear, scoring 22 goals in their last 5 games. They put 4 past Dynamo yesterday while resting Giggs, Hargreaves, Anderson, Brown, and Ferdinand. So much for the “poor” start to the season. Blackburn’s exceeded expectations, and I’m hoping they can be United’s bogey team as they were in 05/06, but I wouldn’t be surprised if United stays on form. United 3-1
Tottenham v Wigan, 10am: The fact that Spurs won an away game in the UEFA Cup today in Israel has to be a sign that Tottenham might be turning a corner, despite how poor the opposition was. At the same time, Wigan’s truly struggling, and probably won’t have named a replacement for Chris Hutchings by kick-off. Tottenham 2-0
Portsmouth v Manchester City, 11am: I know how good City’s been so far, but I think the Chelsea match was the start of the down-slide. City struggled to break down Sunderland at the home ground last week, while Portsmouth’s looked very good of late and is still unbeaten in the league at Fratton Park. Portsmouth 2-1

Reading v Arsenal, 3pm, Setanta: Despite Reading’s sophomore slump, they’ve still been a tough team to beat at the Majeski, with West Ham and Chelsea the only opposition to win there. But you’ve all seen Arsenal this season. As much as I’d love for them to drop points, I find it hard to believe it’ll happen. I mean, they’re on such a hot streak that Wenger saw fit to play his Carling Cup squad in yesterday’s Champions League match. Arsenal 2-0

Liverpool v Fulham is on FSC Saturday at 12:15pm

Big wins and rotation

6-0 Derby:
Goals: Alonso 26’ 69’, Babel 45’, Torres 56’ 77’, Voronin 76’

Finnan Hyypia Agger Arbeloa
Pennant Alonso Mascherano Babel
Kuyt Torres

Subs: Benayoun for Pennant (61’); Voronin for Babel (73’); Sissoko for Mascherano (77’)

8-0 Besiktas:
Goals: Crouch 19’ 88’, Benayoun 32’ 52’ 56’, Gerrard 69’, Babel 78’ 81

Arbeloa Carragher Hyypia Aurelio
Benayoun Mascherano Gerrard Riise
Crouch Voronin

Subs: Babel for Aurelio (63’); Kewell for Voronin, Lucas for Gerrard (72’)

It’s one thing to get a big win once a season. It could be just a one-off occurrence where everything just clicks, like winning 7-0 in the FA Cup against a team that’s going to be relegated and is being booed by their own fans with every step.

But few teams win 6-0 and 8-0 in a little over 2 months. Even fewer do it with entirely different line-ups.

Only 4 players -- Reina, Hyypia, Arbeloa, and Mascherano -- started both matches, with Arbeloa at left back against Derby and right back against Besiktas. 3 others -- Babel, Benayoun, and Voronin -- featured in both. All in all, Liverpool used 21 players in the two games, with 7 different goal scorers. This is where I should make some smart-ass remark about rotation not working.

It’s the first stage of the process, but Benitez is starting to institute a ruthless streak in Liverpool fitting of his malevolent-looking goatee and the past Valencia teams frequently likened to “crushing machines.” Step one is being able put over-matched opposition to the sword.

And it’s only fitting that Liverpool is capable of doing it while utilizing the entire squad.

07 November 2007

On Aurelio and starting the attack

This isn’t meant at the expense of any of the other players on the team, because as frequently reiterated, everyone played well yesterday, but I’ve been surprised to see so little acclaim for Aurelio’s contribution to the result.

In Alonso and Agger’s absences, the onus on starting the attack has fallen to Carragher, Hyypia, and Mascherano. While Mascherano has resumed playing some lovely short passes to open up space in the last few games, none of these three has the long-range passing that’s in either Alonso or Agger’s locker. In the past few games when Liverpool’s struggled, it’s been Carra and Hyypia pumping long balls forward out of defense to varying degrees of success.

This is where Aurelio shined last night. I’m going to crib a couple of images from the invaluable flash stats at the bottom of the Daily Telegraph’s match report to illustrate.

The preferred passes category illustrates the point perfectly:

Look at the number of passes Aurelio played to Crouch compared to other players. Crouch also received the ball from Aurelio more than anyone else. In addition, Aurelio received the ball from Carra and Hyypia more often than not, showing he was a frequent pivot between defense and attack.

Admittedly, Crouch’s availability as a target-man and his ball retention played a big part in the success, but it was Aurelio who usually found him with the pass.

Too often against the likes of Marseille and Besiktas away, Liverpool lost possession when they hoofed it out of defense, and when they struggled, they ended up resorting to this option more in spite of a lack of success. But with Aurelio’s excellent long passing, coupled with Crouch’s ability to collect the ball, Liverpool was able to set up attack after attack against Besiktas.

Again, this isn’t a slight on Carragher and Hyypia. Both are superlative defenders, and both are rightful legends of the club. But I also think both would admit bringing the ball out of defense and long-range passing aren’t their fortes.

I for one am thrilled to have Aurelio back in the team.

06 November 2007

Liverpool 8-0 Besiktas

Arbeloa Carragher Hyypia Aurelio
Benayoun Mascherano Gerrard Riise
Crouch Voronin

Crouch 19’ 89’
Benayoun 32’ 53’ 56’
Gerrard 69’
Babel 79’ 81’

Well, that was an emphatic response to the request for more goals and the previous European performances. Much like in the Derby game, when the goals come, they come in bunches. This was a performance that deserved to set the record for the biggest win the Champions League.

The team was simply on-form, and it didn’t hurt that luck was on their side as well (Babel scored the 7th goal with his back!). Liverpool could have had more than 5 after the first half, and it’s with little exaggeration that I say Besiktas was lucky not to concede double-digits. After 45 minutes, I was afraid the result might paper over some cracks, with 5 good chances not taken, but the second half certainly allayed those fears.

I realize that there was a distinct gulf in class between the sides, Besiktas came to defend, not play football, and everything went Liverpool’s way, but this was also the best performance of the season.

The most encouraging thing is that Liverpool’s chances came from different styles of play. Aurelio and Arbeloa were active on the wings and drove forward at will. Aurelio was able to pump in crosses (and Liverpool has missed his long range passing, especially in Alonso’s absence), while Arbeloa and Benayoun combined brilliantly down the right. Crouch laid off knock-downs, Gerrard stormed through the middle. Babel and Kewell looked to beat defenders. We even saw some of the old ‘pass and move.’ Liverpool did everything today, and did it well.

The difference was the four players who returned to the starting line-up today: Crouch, Voronin, Arbeloa, and Aurelio. The fullbacks were integral parts of the attack, as both players are wont to do (although Besiktas camping in their own half helped). Voronin got two assists (one of which was an insane back-heel to put Gerrard through), showed up everywhere in the final third, and deserved a goal of his own, while Crouch made his case for inclusion with a brace. More surprisingly, I don’t think Crouch committed a foul today, and he drew a few free kicks of his own; he held up the play beautifully and filled his role to a tee.

Don’t get me wrong -- everyone played well. Yossi got a hat-trick from midfield, two of which came from rebounds in the box (3 of the goals came from spilled saves, which showed how many players Liverpool was able to get in the box), and picked up two assists with crosses for Babel’s first and Crouch’s second.

Babel’s first goal, back-heeled in to the net from Benayoun’s low cross, was absolutely out of this world. Henry-esque is the only way to describe it; I still can’t believe he tried it or that it came off. It's amazing what can happen when the team's brimming with confidence. His second came thanks to a stroke of luck, with a clearance ricocheting into the net off his back, but only the crossbar prevented him from a hat-trick of his own as a substitute.

Kewell got another 20 minutes off the bench, made some mazy runs, and looked to beat his man at every opportunity, while Gerrard scored his 4th in five games. Mascherano held it all together in the middle and played those short, incisive passes to open the attack. I can go on and on with praise for individual performances (and that of the manager, who deserves the credit when it goes right as he has to suffer so much stick when it doesn't).

But no matter the euphoria of today’s performance, with Porto’s win over Marseille, Liverpool will still need help from other results. Porto’s now 1st with 8 points, while Marseille’s still on 7. That help will probably need to come from today’s opponents. If Besiktas is able to take points off Marseille (in Istanbul) or Porto (in Porto), Liverpool’s still in with a shout if they win out.

I am admittedly worried that this result will gloss over some problems. Besiktas were not good today and for all intents and purposes gave up after Gerrard’s goal, while Liverpool did get lucky at times today, and absolutely everything that could go right did.

But if Liverpool continues to play like this, they can beat any opposition. Any. Opposition.

Now let’s see it in the league on Saturday.

05 November 2007

Liverpool v Besiktas 11.06.07

2:45pm on espn2

Besiktas is currently 4th 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: 1-2 Besiktas (a); 0-1 Marseille (h); 1-1 Porto (a)
Besiktas: 2-1 Liverpool (h); 0-1 Porto (h); 0-2 Marseille (a)

Last 3 matches:
Liverpool: 0-0 Blackburn (a); 2-1 Cardiff (h); 1-1 Arsenal (h)
Besiktas: 1-2 Fenerbahce (a); 0-0 Buyuksehir BSK (h); 2-1 Liverpool (h)

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

Referee: Markus Merk (GER)

Guess at a squad
Arbeloa Carragher Hyypia Aurelio
Gerrard Sissoko Mascherano Kewell
Crouch Voronin

After seeing the formation deployed in the last two league games, I'm wondering if the 4-2-3-1 is here to stay. I think it might be in the league, especially when Torres returns, but I think the team will line up in the familiar 4-4-2 tomorrow. Liverpool will need to as many men forward as possible and take the game to Besiktas, who will undoubtedly play with 10 men behind the ball.

Surprisingly, the media’s reporting that Torres is in the squad, but I find it very hard to believe he'll play any part. We saw what happened when he was rushed back against Arsenal; after Saturday's game against Fulham is a two-week international break, and I almost hope Torres won't return until after that. Plus, if he doesn't feature for Liverpool, it's far easier to tell Spain he's unavailable for their games.

Guessing Crouch and Voronin to start up top isn't a reaction to Kuyt's performance on Saturday. Those two strikers have scored in Europe, and I think both will be able to take advantage of Besiktas tomorrow, despite Liverpool's recurring problems in front of goal.

The main reason for Crouch's inclusion is that Besiktas will be missing their best aerial defender, Gokhan Zan, through injury. I know we've only seen Crouch and Voronin paired in the games at Toulouse and against Portsmouth, and while neither striker covered themselves in glory in either game, I still think the pairing has potential. Plus, both Kuyt and Babel would be available off the bench if necessary. Although I'm well aware that this is the 4th preview in a row I've picked Crouch to start (and it hasn't happened yet).

If Liverpool does play in a 4-4-2, I expect to see Gerrard on the right, with Mascherano paired with either Sissoko or Lucas in the center (I'm guessing Sissoko solely on experience). Gerrard's looked far better in the free role in the last two league matches, and he’s played in a similar manner when on the right. Especially if Kewell starts on the left, evidenced by the 23 goals Gerrard tallied in 05/06 when Kewell was healthy and the two were the usual starters on the flanks.

Kewell looked handy in his 25 minutes against Blackburn, and I'm interested to see if he can do it from the start. I truly don't think it's too soon for him to play more than 60 minutes at a minimum; he's looked fit and raring to go in his two substitute appearances and should be healthy enough to play more than an hour, as he's been involved in training for a couple of weeks now.

As Arbeloa was held out against Blackburn last weekend, I would imagine he'll start tomorrow, and hopefully, Aurelio will be on the opposite flank. We saw against Arsenal last year that when both play, both support the attack from defense very well. Plus, Aurelio is one of the best crossers in the team, and if Crouch does start, I'd hope Fabio is there to whip them in from the left. Also, Arbeloa's quicker than Finnan, which could be necessary if Gerrard does play on the right, as he can be drawn out of position if playing in a freer role, and Liverpool has to be wary of Besiktas (especially Bobo) on the counter.

I'll be blunt. Failure to win tomorrow means Liverpool will not qualify for the knockout rounds. Even with a win, Liverpool will still need help from the Marseille/Porto game, but first things first.

The team will want revenge for the loss in Turkey. They'll know they need to win the next three Champions League games to even have a shot at progressing. And playing at Anfield will be far different than playing in Istanbul; the Besiktas fans were assuredly a big help in the last match.

We've heard enough platitudes since the 2-1 loss. Let's just see the improvement in Liverpool's European performances.

03 November 2007

Liverpool 0-0 Blackburn

Finnan Carragher Hyypia Riise
Benayoun Sissoko Mascherano Babel

Liverpool was lucky in the first half that Blackburn hit the post on two occasions, while Liverpool was only able to fashion 1 shot on target. But after the second half, it’s Blackburn who was lucky to come away with a point.

In the last 15 minutes, after an ugly game with few opportunities and Blackburn looking the more threatening (which isn’t all that surprising for Liverpool at Blackburn), Liverpool carved out 5 excellent chances, all of which went begging. Twice Gerrard was denied by Friedel (who had an excellent game, as all former keepers do against Liverpool), twice Kuyt missed the target in the penalty area, and Bentley cleared Crouch’s header off the line.

Until those chances, Liverpool offered little in attack despite a similar formation to that against Arsenal last Saturday. Babel and Benayoun replaced Kuyt and Voronin on the wings, Kuyt replaced Torres up top, and Sissoko came in for Alonso. But Liverpool was unable to get forward as they did against Arsenal, and all too often play broke down in the final third.

As said earlier, Babel’s effort on target in the 42nd minute was Liverpool’s first and lone sight of goal in the half. Liverpool was far too content to pass backward and prod for an opening, which didn’t look like coming the way Blackburn defended. Liverpool’s front six sat deeper than they did against Arsenal, especially the wingers, which limited the possibilities going forward.

Even when chances came in, Liverpool still didn’t get past Blackburn’s back line, and played with defenders in front of them and/or back to goal, while Blackburn carved out two good opportunities where Liverpool looked shaky -- Bentley got by Riise in the 35th minute only to send it off the outside of the post and Dunn’s volley rattled the crossbar with Reina beaten in added time.

What changed the game was the introduction of Crouch and Kewell in the second half, for Benayoun and Babel respectively. Crouch is much better suited to play the target man in this type of formation (although he’s best with another striker around him to pick up the knock-downs) and Kewell looked more of a live-wire and more likely to beat his man than either Babel or Benayoun did. But Liverpool was still unable to get the goal.

A lot of the blame for Liverpool failing to score will fall on the shoulders of Kuyt. Only some will be warranted. Again, I’m a bit surprised Kuyt played as the lone striker. We saw this tactic in last year’s Champions League final -- it works for controlling the tempo and possession, but there’s nowhere near enough attacking impetus. Neither Babel nor Benayoun were able to chip in as hoped from the flanks, and while it’s harsh to put too much weight into because of his age, Babel too often lost possession running down dead ends.

Kuyt will also be blamed for the two late misses. One of which was tough to swallow, when he spooned a shot over the bar in the 88th minute after Kewell’s persistence won possession. The second, shooting wide in injury time, was from a difficult angle at full speed, and was one of those chances Kuyt creates through his hard work.

He did not do himself justice today, and yes, some of the criticism will be warranted, but the way the team played today didn’t do his talents justice either. He drops too deep to be a lone striker, has also started looking to play down the flanks more often this season, and needs someone to play off of when he gets possession in the final third. And as always, even if the end product wasn’t there, Kuyt was still the hardest worker on the field today.

Had one of Liverpool’s chances gone in, it’d be an entirely different match report and entirely different emotions. Ewood Park is never an easy place to play, and a draw isn’t an unfair result. Blackburn must be given their due -- they defended very well, looked to take advantage of Liverpool on the break, and didn’t crack under the late pressure. But they were there for the taking by the end of the match, and Liverpool failed to take advantage. Considering that while realizing both Manchester United and Arsenal scored in the last 10 minutes of their game today isn’t reassuring.

I don’t want to come off as a complete apologist, even though I frequently do, but a draw isn’t the end of the world. Liverpool could have won, Liverpool should have won, and it’s incredibly demoralizing they didn’t, but Blackburn’s a team in form, and Liverpool’s still missing 3 key players.

Results will improve. As pissed as I am, I’m almost certain the post-match reaction that slams the performance, players, and manager will infuriate me more. The team did not play badly outside of the late-game wastefulness, and Blackburn proved why they’re a point ahead of Liverpool and unbeaten in 8 games. This past month was a very tough stretch of games, and was played without part of the spine of the team in Alonso, Torres, and Agger. And they’ve gotten through it unbeaten.

I’m not happy with the result, but I’m still optimistic things are and will be better than many make it seem.

02 November 2007

Liverpool at Blackburn 11.03.07

1:15pm EST, live in the US on FSC

Last 4 head-to-head:
1-0 Blackburn (a) 12.26.06
1-1 (h) 10.14.06
1-0 Liverpool (a) 04.16.06
1-0 Liverpool (h) 10.15.05

Last 3 matches:
Liverpool: 2-1 Cardiff (h); 1-1 Arsenal (h); 1-2 Besiktas (a)
Blackburn: 2-1 Pompey (a); 2-1 Tottenham (a); 4-2 Reading (h)

Goalscorers (league):
Liverpool: Torres 4; Voronin 3; Alonso, Gerrard, Kuyt 2; Babel, Benayoun, Sissoko 1
Blackburn: McCarthy 5; Santa Cruz 4; Bentley 2; Derbyshire, Dunn, Samba, Tugay 1

Referee: Martin Atkinson

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

Last week, Liverpool went up against an Arsenal team that had only drawn one game so far this season. This week, they travel to Blackburn, which has won their last seven, and is the only other team to have taken points off of Arsenal this season.

And Liverpool does it without Torres, Alonso, Agger, and Pennant. It looks like Arbeloa, Aurelio, and Mascherano will be fit, and Kewell may even make an appearance on the bench, but those are 4 very influential players Liverpool will be without.

In Torres’ absence, I’d be surprised if Benitez reverted to the formation used last week against Arsenal. If any striker, Kuyt, Crouch, or Voronin, plays alone up top, there’s an excellent chance that Samba and the rest of Blackburn’s stingy defense would be able to mark them out of the game. While a Kuyt/Crouch partnership isn’t the most prolific on Liverpool’s roster, I think it gives the team the best opportunity to pierce Blackburn’s back line. And I think Crouch has earned another start after the last two games, especially with Torres out.

Gerrard did play excellently in the free role last week, but he also played well in central midfield against Cardiff, scoring his 3rd goal in 3 games. It’s been more than encouraging seeing the captain returning to form, despite the number of games he’s played recently. If Sissoko is still out sick, it seems most likely that Gerrard will start in the center, as I don’t know if Benitez will be comfortable pairing Lucas with Mascherano behind Stevie at this stage of Lucas’ career.

If Kuyt and Crouch do start (or Kuyt and Voronin for that matter), it’s tempting to think Benitez will go with two wingers capable of chipping in goals in Babel and Benayoun. However, with the form Blackburn’s in and the fact it’s at Ewood Park, I think Liverpool will be a bit more conservative, with Riise in midfield now that Arbeloa’s returned and Benayoun on the other side, as he’s got experience in tight Premiership games like this and didn’t start on Wednesday. But that could also change if David Bentley isn’t fit to terrorize down Rovers’ right side, although it looks like both he and Mokoena will be available after going off injured mid-week.

This game will close out a tough month for Liverpool. Aside from the struggles in the Champions League, the results’ haven’t been that bad, but it’s clear the team’s not at it’s best. However, unbeaten in the league when you’re not playing the best isn’t a bad thing; all teams go through spells, especially when the spine of the team is beset by injuries.

Were Liverpool to take points off of Blackburn, who currently sits one point and one place high than them in the table, it would put the team in an excellent position for the next run of games, and after the international break in a couple of weekend, Torres, Alonso, and Agger should all be back.

But Blackburn is one of the hardest places to travel to in the Premiership. They’ve always been a physical, tough side to play, but in Santa Cruz, Bentley, and others, they can out-play teams now as well. Liverpool will have to be on song if they’re to take anything away from this match, and the team desperately need a result to keep pace with the leaders and get back to the early-season form that was so promising.

01 November 2007

Predictions 11/3 – 11/5

This Daylight Saving Time nonsense is nearly over. Saturday’s games will be an hour later than usual, including Liverpool v Blackburn (1:15pm, FSC), but we’ll be back to normal come Sunday.

Arsenal v Manchester Utd, 8:45am, Setanta: With both teams playing so well, it seems like this has to end with honors even. My hope is that we’ll get an all-action and exciting game like Liverpool against Arsenal last week, but I have a bad feeling this one will be cagey, and both teams will end up settling for the draw. 1-1
Newcastle v Portsmouth, 11am, FSC: No matter how well Pompey’s playing of late (I wouldn’t put too much stock in the home loss to Blackburn in the Carling Cup yesterday), Newcastle’s still unbeaten at home. 2-1
Wigan v Chelsea, 11am, Setanta: Did you see Chelsea last week? Chelsea 3-0
Middlesbrough v Tottenham, 11am, Setanta Xtra: Juande Ramos will make a difference in Tottenham’s fortunes, if only to catalyze the players into action, as it seems Jol lost control of the dressing room. Boro’s not a bad side at home, and Ramos won’t work miracles right away (especially in Spurs’ defense), but this is a game Tottenham should be winning. Spurs 2-1
Aston Villa v Derby, 11am: Again, I reiterate, Derby on the road. In case you’re wondering, they still haven’t scored away from Pride Park. Villa 2-0
Everton v Birmingham, 11am: Birmingham’s been the best of the promoted teams, and they’ve done it by beating those near them in the table (Wigan, Bolton, Derby), but Everton at Goodison is probably too tough a mountain to climb. Everton 2-1
Fulham v Reading, 11am: With the number of Americans involved in this game, I'm stunned it's not on FSC. Reading’s playing better of late, but Fulham still looks likely to pick up draws at home more often than not. 1-1
West Ham v Bolton, 11am Sunday, FSC: I still don’t trust Gary Megson to be the answer at Bolton, but with the amount of injuries West Ham’s suffering, especially on the front line, I think Bolton might get their 2nd point of the season on the road. No matter how Bolton’s playing, Anelka certainly looks like he’ll continue scoring. 1-1
Man City v Sunderland, 3pm Monday, Setanta: City will be out for revenge following the drubbing they suffered last week. Under Erikkson, it looks like City’s going to continue to play an attacking, expansive style, and few teams will be able to punish them as Chelsea did. City 2-0

Liverpool 2-1 Cardiff City

Arbeloa Carragher Hobbs Aurelio
El Zhar Gerrard Lucas Leto
Crouch Babel

El Zhar 48’
Purse 65’
Gerrard 66’

I hate not seeing a Liverpool game.

Having only seen about a minute’s worth of highlights, I’m absolutely unqualified to say much more about the match other than I’m surprised both Carra and Gerrard started (although Stevie played because Sissoko was still sick), and there were a few things that pleased: Babel got a chance to play as a striker, Hobbs got his first team debut, Leto and Lucas got more first team action, El Zhar scored a peach of a goal (as did Gerrard, his 3rd in 3 games), and Liverpool’s in the draw for the last 8.

As I don’t have much else to say, I’m going to put up a bunch of different links to match reports, etc as I did for some games last season to compensate. I’d add the goals, but I’m sure the links would be gone within hours, and I’m sure the lot of you are resourceful enough to find them on your own.

If I do get a chance to see the full game, I’ll add more.

Official site: Match Review
Official site: Rafa reaction
Official site: Rafa on Gerrard
Official site: El Zhar reaction
Liverpool Echo write-up
BBC write-up
Guardian write-up
The Times write-up
Daily Telegraph write-up
The Independent write-up
Sky Sports match review
RAWK post-match thread