30 March 2008

Liverpool 1-0 Everton

Carragher Skrtel Hyypia Riise
Alonso Lucas
Kuyt Gerrard Babel

Torres 7’

When Torres opened up the scoring within the first ten minutes, it looked like it could be one of those days. No such luck in the derbies.

In the 7th minute, with Liverpool taking the game to Everton from the opening whistle, Alonso stripped Yakubu following Gerrard’s corner, Kuyt fed Torres out wide, and Liverpool’s top scorer beat Howard inside the far post for his 28th of the season.

To their credit, Liverpool were in control for the rest of the half: keeping possession, creating chances, and limiting Everton to next to nothing, with Yakubu completely isolated as a lone striker. It’d be little exaggeration to say the home side could have gone into halftime two or three to the good.

In the 25th minute, Gerrard’s corner eluded both Kuyt and Lucas in the six-yard box, followed by Babel unable to get on the end of Riise’s cross minutes later. Before the end of the half, Gerrard’s superb volley struck the foot of the post while Kuyt volleyed wide from Torres’ layoff soon after.

But despite their dominance, Liverpool was unable to get the second goal that would have seen the game off, which, unfortunately, is a story we’ve heard before.

Although it looked like a matter of time before Liverpool notched another in the first half, the second was a different matter. For all of Liverpool’s possession in the opening 45, it was Everton who dictated the tempo and stretched the field in the latter, with Liverpool seemingly content to soak up pressure and forage for a second on the counter. But Liverpool didn’t force Howard into a save until the final five minutes.

However, for all of Everton’s possession, they also created little of their own. For all the time on the ball and all the free kicks and corners, their lone clear chance came in the 59th minute, when Osman’s diving effort from Arteta’s corner sailed wide.

But it was still edgy, and it felt like it could have been avoided with some substitutions, especially with Lucas clearly tiring early in the second half and Alonso less influential as well.

Admittedly, Liverpool was restricted by who was available (the bench was Itandje, Finnan, Crouch, Benayoun, and Pennant), but it didn’t seem coincidental that Liverpool’s two best chances of the second half came in the final five minutes, after Benayoun had come on for Babel and Pennant for Torres. In addition, had Mascherano been available, Everton assuredly wouldn’t have had anywhere near as much time on the ball, and today was a clear demonstration how he’ll be missed. No matter how few chances they created, given Everton’s amount of possession and the fact that anything can happen in a derby, it still felt like they could nick one if given an opportunity.

The main reason they weren’t given that opportunity was Martin Skrtel, who’s probably the man of the match. Although Yakubu operating as a long striker didn’t help matters, Skrtel (who played 90 minutes midweek for Slovakia) kept him in check all game long, and made some timely interceptions when Everton looked to go long or break.

Adding his pace to a defense that’s lost a step this season (and has been further hurt by Agger’s absence) is a big reason why Liverpool’s still in 4th place. But credit goes to the entire defense as well, allowing Everton nothing from their multiple set pieces, with additional plaudits for Riise, who was composed all game long and put in some dangerous crosses in the first half.

Gerrard also had an excellent first half, although his influence diminished with Everton’s increased possession and he wasn't helped by Alonso and Lucas being bypassed by much of the play. But earlier in the match, he, Alonso, and Lucas bossed Carsley and Neville (with both Everton’s central midfielders picking up bookings within 20 minutes), and the captain showed some immense vision in his long-range passing. When he’s on his game, he can turn defense into attack in the blink of an eye, so critical to the quick-strike counter that Torres feasts off of.

And that man Torres merits another mention as well, again scoring the winner (his sixth-straight game with a goal at Anfield in the league), while Kuyt, although spurning a couple of good chances, got the assist and was absolutely everywhere on the field, superbly defending from the front.

No matter the nervousness and scrappy play in the second half, a win in the Merseyside derby is sweet no matter how it’s earned. And doing the double over Everton makes it even sweeter, especially after last season’s debacles.

Liverpool’s now five points clear of fifth place with six games to play. Roll on Arsenal, Arsenal, and Arsenal.

28 March 2008

Liverpool v Everton 03.30.08

11am EST, live in the US on FSC

Last 4 head-to-head:
2-1 Liverpool (a) 10.20.07
0-0 (h) 02.03.07
0-3 Everton (a) 09.09.06
3-1 Liverpool (h) 03.25.06

Last 3 matches:
Liverpool: 0-3 United (a); 2-1 Reading (h); 1-0 Inter (a)
Everton: 1-1 West Ham (h); 0-1 Fulham (a); 2-0 Fiorentina (h)

Goalscorers (league):
Liverpool: Torres 20; Gerrard 10; Babel 4; Benayoun, Kuyt, Voronin 3; Alonso, Crouch 2; Aurelio, Hyypia, Mascherano, Pennant, Sissoko 1
Everton: Yakubu 13; Cahill 7; Johnson, Lescott 6; Osman 3; McFadden, Pienaar 2; Anichebe, Arteta, Carsley, Jagielka, Neville, Stubbs, Vaughan 1

Referee: Howard Webb

Guess at a squad:
Carragher Skrtel Hyypia Aurelio
Alonso Lucas
Kuyt Gerrard Babel

I don’t want to rehash the last meeting between these two teams, with controversy galore, two penalties, and two sending offs, but there’s one key difference between that game and Sunday’s. Fernando Torres was injured in October.

Liverpool’s line-up in the last encounter was Reina, Finnan, Carragher, Hyypia, Riise, Gerrard, Sissoko, Mascherano, Benayoun, Kuyt, and Voronin. Sunday’s team will have at least five changes from that, we should see the 4-2-3-1 again, and Liverpool will assuredly be better for it, as results (aside from last Sunday’s, naturally) over the past six weeks have demonstrated.

But Torres will be the biggest difference, and I’ve little need to explain why. Not only is he Liverpool’s top scorer by some distance, but there are also few strikers in the league like him, and he’s got the potential to give both Jagielka and Yobo fits, although Lescott played in central defense in Everton’s last fixture.

And while I think Lescott would match up with Torres best out of Everton’s defenders, I’m still hoping Lescott starts at center back. You saw his capability to threaten Liverpool down the left in the last match, as he’s done all season, rightfully earning himself appearances with the national team.

Another key difference from the last meeting is Mascherano’s suspension. News today is that Mascherano’s accepted the charge of improper conduct and will have a personal hearing April 3rd, where he could receive a further two-match ban. Hopefully admitting the charge will ease any punishment; I’ll be honest, I was hoping he’d appeal the charge, even though he could receive an extra game punishment, so he’d be available for the Arsenal match next week.

And while Liverpool will always miss Mascherano, the team has a ready-made replacement in Lucas, who saw his first Premiership action in October’s meeting and forced the handball which led to Liverpool’s winning penalty. He has the intelligence and ability to step right into the side with maturity beyond his years, already a Brazilian international at the age of 21.

As mentioned earlier, Joleon Lescott is one of the players Liverpool will have to keep an eye on. With six goals this season (tied with Laursen for most by a defender), he’s done well joining the attack from defense, but a bigger worry will be his effectiveness on set plays, which is something Liverpool’s struggled against of late. That’s the main reason why I’m hoping Hyypia plays with Skrtel in central defense, with Carragher at right back -- to have more capable defenders strong in the air in the box on set plays.

Cahill will miss the rest of the season due to injury, and both Andy Johnson and Pienaar may be absent on Sunday as well, although Pienaar is more likely to feature than Johnson.

Liverpool has to get last week’s result out of the minds as quickly as possible, and having a Merseyside derby, one of the most important matches of the season no matter either side's league standing, to focus on should help. There has to be a positive response to last Sunday’s loss with this match crucial in the battle for 4th and three matches against Arsenal on the horizon. The winner of this game will definitely be odds on favorites for the last Champions League place. But as the second half against Everton last time out demonstrated, Liverpool cannot force the game and must keep their composure as well.

And finally, no matter the result in October, I still very much remember last season’s 0-3 at Goodison. I’d hope the players do as well.

27 March 2008

Predictions 3/29 – 3/30

British Summer Time begins before the Sunday games, so kickoffs are back to their usual hour.

Derby v Fulham, 11am, FSC: FSC’s getting all they can out of the Americans as both sides look likely to be relegated. Given their respective seasons so far, and that Derby’s at home, it feels like this will end level. 1-1
Bolton v Arsenal, 11am, Setanta: Arsenal may have struggled of late in the league, and the news that Sagna will be out for the next three weeks doesn’t make things easier, but Bolton’s not helped themselves much recently in their fight to stay in the Prem. Arsenal 1-0
Sunderland v West Ham, 11am, Setanta Xtra: If Sunderland can beat Villa at Villa Park, their first road win of the season, they should be able to do it against West Ham at home, despite West Ham’s well-earned draw at Everton last week. Sunderland 2-1
Birmingham v Manchester City, 11am: Were McFadden fit, I’d think Brum could take this with the way City’s been playing on the road. But even still, the home side should get a draw. 1-1
Portsmouth v Wigan, 11am: I fear Portsmouth will have an eye on next week’s FA Cup semifinal. 1-1
Reading v Blackburn, 11am: After falling amongst the relegation places with an eight-game losing streak, Reading’s responded well and played some good football at the Madjeski. Reading 1-0
Manchester Utd v Aston Villa, 1:15pm, FSC: Villa’s small squad is finally taking its toll, while I wouldn’t bet against United -- no matter the opposition -- with the way they’re playing. United 2-0
Chelsea v Middlesbrough, 8:30am Sunday, Setanta: Chelsea at the Bridge. Chelsea 2-0
Tottenham v Newcastle, 10am Sunday: Hey, Keegan got a win! Tottenham 3-1

The Merseyside derby is on FSC at 11am Sunday.

26 March 2008

Links, etc 3.26.08

Another international break (official site’s report on who’s in action where), in the midst of a crucial run in the league, has meant there’s been little Liverpool news to discuss. And since the England/France friendly costs something like $25 on PPV (ha!), I won’t be seeing that.

But I can’t stand to see “Liverpool 0-3 United” at the top of the blog any longer. So here’s what I’ve found interesting today. I’ll also apologize in advance for writing even more about Mascherano.

• It’s been fairly quiet on the part of the owners, but MLS Rumors reports of an article in the Canadian press (which, unfortunately, is in French) claiming Gillett wants to be part of a Montreal MLS team. He's got Montreal ties with ownership of the Canadiens, but it's still strange given he’s supposedly financially-strapped. That is, unless he planned on selling the shares of one of his other “franchises.” There’s an English translation of the article in the post. Update: And now there's an English version.

• Surprise, surprise, Masch was officially charged with improper conduct. We’ll find out Friday if he’s suspended further and for how many games. Personally, and I’m clearly aware of his reaction, I’ll be interested to see how leaving the pitch within 30 seconds of being shown the red card is an “indecent amount of time” and how he acted "aggressively." Being aggressive is a bit different than being furious and needing to be pulled off the pitch. I mean, even Andy Gray defended Mascherano (the video’s been taken down, but RAWK’s helpfully provided a transcript).

FA Chair Lord Triesman thinks Steve Bennett did the right thing. I’ve said enough as it is, but I’ll add that it’s little surprise he chose to give the interview to a reputable publication like the Daily Mail.

Hyypia’s signing a new deal, which is excellent news. Since a couple of shaky moments and strange own goals soon after Agger’s injury, he’s adjusted to playing regularly and probably been Liverpool’s most consistent defender. Although I imagine he’ll see a lot less time next season, with Skrtel settling in and Agger hopefully healthy, it’s reassuring to know he’ll be there if needed.

Kewell’s injured again, and it’s another groin problem. I’ve written a lot of stupid things this year, but this Kewell post welcoming his “return” and imagining his impact was probably the most misguided. There’s a reason Benitez let him travel to Australia at this stage of the campaign, the same reason Kewell’s only had 15 appearances (9 starts) this season and hasn’t played since coming on against Barnsley.

The top-20 Premiership underperformers according to Who Ate All the Pies. Voronin’s way too high, given that he was a free transfer and always going to be 4th choice striker, while it’s sad to see Alonso on the list, but otherwise I can’t argue with much.

• Finally, while there’s no specific post to highlight, I want to link Unprofessional Foul, which is a blog I’ve really enjoyed recently. As they’ve been around for a few months now, I’d imagine most, if not all of you visiting this site have seen it, but if you haven’t, it should be a daily visit.

Predictions for this weekend’s games tomorrow. Everton preview Friday.

23 March 2008

Liverpool 0-3 United

Arbeloa Carragher Skrtel Aurelio
Alonso Mascherano
Kuyt Gerrard Babel

Brown 34’
Ronaldo 79’
Nani 81’

The final result’s harsh, but it’s not that shocking considering Liverpool played with 10 men for over 45 minutes already down a goal.

Every time Liverpool loses to United, I find far too many ways to complain about it. Today’s no different, but it’s unavoidable after such a display.

Brown’s goal in the 34th minute was little surprise. United had started off the better team, dominant in possession and creating more chances, with Reina twice stopping Rooney in the first ten minutes. However, after those two good saves, Reina disappointed. His distribution, so often a benefit, was poor throughout the first half, he nearly put Giggs’ effort into his own net in the 33rd minute, and shared fault for Brown’s goal with Skrtel, with Brown out-jumping/climbing over Skrtel and Reina unable to get a fist to it.

In nearly every match between Liverpool and United under Benitez’s tenure, the winner has been scored by an unlikely source. John O’Shea, Mikael Silvestre, and Rio Ferdinand are three from recent meetings, and Wes Brown’s goal was in the same vein.

But the Mascherano sending off in the 44th minute still completely changed the match. At 0-1, even with United better, Liverpool always had a shout, especially with Torres and Gerrard on the field. But it’s a totally different ask with 10 men.

Mascherano had picked up an arguable booking in the 11th minute, late in the tackle but clearly trying to pull out of it, while both Anderson and Vidic were let off with warnings in similar circumstances. But the yellow card didn’t change Mascherano’s tactics at all -- if anything, he began to run his mouth even more, which isn’t completely out of character, if a dumb move.

And it’s an even dumber move with a disciplinarian like Steve Bennett, a referee who’s had it out for Liverpool since giving two penalties against Sheffield United last season. The only favor Steve Bennett did Liverpool all game long was blowing the final whistle four seconds before the added time was up.

When Torres picked up a booking for dissent, again quickly given, Mascherano ran across the pitch to argue and Bennett immediately produced a second yellow. Mascherano had to be dragged off the pitch, I thought Benitez was going to throttle the fourth official, and now Mascherano misses the Merseyside derby.

Running over to argue with the ref when you’ve nothing to do with the play and on a yellow is simply stupid, but Bennett has to show some common sense. A second yellow there is just cruel, especially after already booking Torres for dissent, and I’d say that whether I rooted for Liverpool or not. Against a side with the quality of United, on their pitch, the match was done and dusted.

The thing is the entire display is out of character for the entire team. Both commentators made a point of noting that Bennett may have been responding to Chelsea’s theatrics last week and setting an example, but that makes it even tougher to swallow. Liverpool is one of the best-behaved sides in the league, topping or near the top of the fair play table every year under Rafa. You want to punish a side for theatrics, punish Chelsea, United, or Arsenal. You know, for a change.

Despite Reina atoning for his errors with excellent stops on Ronaldo in the 47th, Rooney in the 56th, Tevez in the 74th and Ronaldo in the 79th, United finally got their second from the resulting corner after the save in the 79th. And it was Ronaldo again, ghosting past Alonso for a header with Reina slow to come out, his first in eight matches against Liverpool.

Nani’s goal two minutes later put even more gloss on it, touching Rooney’s throughball into space and slamming in from outside the box. Liverpool had some decent moments in the second half; the away side was more resilient, Reina made some outstanding saves, and Torres worked hard to find an opening with Ferdinand and Vidic hanging all over him. But once United got a second, Liverpool players were just wishing the game to end.

I’m obviously not thrilled with the performance, and my complaints over the dismissal obscure the fact that United were better throughout. The home side had all the better chances before the opener and before the dismissal, with Liverpool struggling to keep possession and few opportunities created. Brown’s goal was in keeping with recent history, and had Mascherano stayed on, I’m sad to say I wouldn’t have been surprised with a 0-1 loss.

As tough as it is to write, Liverpool still isn’t as good as United. Make no mistake, I’ve been postponing writing the inevitable, but United will win the Premiership this year. Arsenal’s streak of draws has made it more assured, but with the form they’re in, the title was United’s for the taking the entire time.

If we’re being unbiased (and I do try), United’s the better side from top to bottom. Only Chelsea can compete with the squad they have, and it’s no coincidence those are the two richest teams in the league.

No matter the scoreline, no matter the fact that a 0-3 loss is the worst defeat to United in five years, I’m not going to condemn the team or manager, other than Mascherano for losing his head, which was unforgivable. Players still gave it their all until the second goal, Liverpool’s still improving, and their fate for next season is still in their own hands.

This run of games was always going to be tricky. Everton’s draw with West Ham keeps Liverpool two points ahead in 4th. The failure to at least get a point from today’s match has just made next week’s derby that much more important.

21 March 2008

Liverpool at United 03.23.08

9:30am EST, live in the US on Setanta

Last 4 head-to-head:
0-1 United (h) 12.16.07
0-1 United (h) 03.03.07
0-2 United (a) 10.22.06
1-0 Liverpool (h; FA Cup) 02.18.06

Last 3 matches:
Liverpool: 2-1 Reading (h); 1-0 Inter (a); 3-0 Newcastle (h)
United: 2-0 Bolton (h); 1-0 Derby (a); 0-1 Pompey (h)

Goalscorers (league):
Liverpool: Torres 20; Gerrard 10; Babel 4; Benayoun, Kuyt, Voronin 3; Alonso, Crouch 2; Aurelio, Hyypia, Mascherano, Pennant, Sissoko 1
United: Ronaldo 24; Tevez 11; Rooney 8; Saha 5; Ferdinand, Giggs, Nani 2; Carrick, Hargreaves, Park, Scholes, Vidic 1

Referee: Steve Bennett

Guess at a squad:
Carragher Skrtel Hyypia Aurelio
Alonso Mascherano
Kuyt Gerrard Babel

Once again, I’m guessing a 4-2-3-1, given that Liverpool’s used that formation in the last seven matches (eight if you don’t count Barnsley). I’ve little need to rehash the positives, but Alonso sums it up nicely on the official site today, unequivocally stating, “We are playing our best football of the season." Alonso, much like Benitez, doesn’t make statements like that lightly, and knowing how well Liverpool played in August and September, his outlook is significant.

I imagine it will be very similar to the squad that went out against Inter, with Alonso for Lucas the only obvious difference, which would make Hyypia for Arbeloa the lone change from the Reading match. The only other change I think possible would be Riise instead of Aurelio, given some of his past heroics versus United, but Aurelio’s been better when he’s been fit and Riise certainly hasn’t had a season to write home about.

With the way Liverpool has been playing, it’s little surprise that Torres and Gerrard will be crucial on Sunday. Liverpool hasn’t beaten United in the league under Benitez, and hasn’t scored at Old Trafford since O’Shea put one in his own net in 2004. But both Gerrard and Torres are tallying regularly of late and have been effective on the counter. The fast-paced attack that’s come with this formation will be essential, as it’s similar to the way United can strike out of the blue. And Liverpool will need the goals; not only is the match at Old Trafford, but there’s a long history of United nicking at least one against Liverpool.

The other key will be the battle between Mascherano and Ronaldo, as it was in the last match between the two sides. At this point, Torres is Ronaldo’s only competition for player of the season; Ronaldo has simply been lights out so far. As much as I dislike the player, both for whom he plays for and how he presents himself, he’s the best in the world at the moment. There’s mountains of statistics to point out, including the number of spectacular free kick goals, but the fact that he’s got 24 in the league as a midfielder is amazing in and of itself.

But Mascherano did excellently against Ronaldo in the first meeting this season, and there’s no one else I’d rather have as holding midfielder against the likes of United. He has the speed to catch and keep up with United’s attackers, even Ronaldo, while the addition of Alonso in midfield will give Mascherano license to chase the ball, and United’s players, all over the pitch. But he must get help from the full backs, who’ll have to keep Ronaldo (and either Giggs or Nani) from exploiting gaps on the flanks (another reason I think it’ll be Aurelio over Riise).

In the same vein, the defense has to be better. All too often of late, we’ve complained about set piece defense (against Reading, Bolton, and Boro, just to name a few), while it was a goal from a corner that gave United the win at Anfield in December. But like at the San Siro, Liverpool’s players have the potential to raise their game for a huge match, and it’s part of the reason I’m hoping for the same back line that went out against Inter. It’ll be essential for Liverpool to treat this all-important match like those massive one-off European nights.

In team news, both Ferdinand and Van der Sar could miss out through back injury
. I doubt they’ll rush Van der Sar back with Kuszczak having returned from suspension, but the loss of Ferdinand could be massive for United. Rio did a very good job on Torres in the match at Anfield, and his replacement would be the seldom-used Gerald Pique. But knowing United, chances are Rio will make a miraculous recovery.

While I don’t honestly believe Liverpool has any feasible shot at the title, I’ve been pleased to see that talk reappear for the first time in over 4 months. It’s a sign of the confidence the team has, and the confidence of the manager in the team, which is warmly welcomed after the off field “crisis” and the loss of form over the winter.

This is football; anything is possible over the last 8 games. But it won’t be viable in the slightest if Liverpool can’t finally get one over on their bitter rivals from down the M62.

20 March 2008

Predictions 3/22 – 3/23

Tottenham v Portsmouth, 8:45am, Setanta: As surprising as it is, especially after the fight back against Chelsea yesterday, I reckon this one will end honors even. Spurs have had a nasty habit of underperforming in the game after a good display. 1-1
Newcastle v Fulham, 11am, FSC: This’ll be the last time I predict a Newcastle win this season if they don’t beat Fulham, even though I do think the return of McBride will improve the Cottagers. Newcastle 1-0
Aston Villa v Sunderland, 11am, Setanta: Sunderland on the road. Villa 2-1
Bolton v Manchester City, 11am, Setanta Xtra: Bolton’s lost their last five in the league, whereas City gave an improved, battling performance against Spurs last time out. City 1-0
Blackburn v Wigan, 11am: Even though Wigan’s unbeaten in four (including against Arsenal and at City), now 6 points above 18th place, Blackburn should still be too much at home. Blackburn 2-1
Middlesbrough v Derby, 11am: Derby on the road. Boro 1-0
Reading v Birmingham, 11am: Relegation six-pointer, with Reading 3 points and Brum 2 points above the drop zone. These almost always seem to end in draws. 0-0
Everton v West Ham, 1:15pm, FSC: Although I’m trying my hardest to get to .500 with these picks, I’m going to keep guessing Everton to win solely in the hope of jinxing them, like against Fulham last week. Which pretty much sums up both my luck and the quality of these predictions. Everton 2-0
Chelsea v Arsenal, 12pm Sunday, FSC: After four straight league draws, Arsenal must win. With Chelsea two points behind them, a loss here would make a title challenge, and possibly even second place, a very big ask. And it’s Chelsea at the Bridge, after twice losing a lead to Spurs on Wednesday. Chelsea 2-1

Liverpool at United is on Setanta at 9:30am Sunday EST.

Season: 133-137, with 29 exact scores

As an addendum, a very happy 24th (that's right, only 24) birthday to Fernando Torres. It'd be nice to see it marked with a goal on Sunday.

19 March 2008

Quick Predictions 3/19

Well, since my predictions have been atrocious of late, chances are I’ll be doing them with less and less commentary. And yet, the next thing I’ll probably post will be predictions for the upcoming weekend tomorrow. I still haven’t given up on he goal of being over 50% for the season, but after the last couple of weeks, I’m 6 games below .500. Sigh.

Manchester Utd v Bolton, 4pm, FSC: United 1-0
Tottenham v Chelsea, 4pm, Setanta: 1-1

18 March 2008

More fun facts about this season

In the same vein as the earlier Torres post, highlighting tidbits I’ve found interesting, here are a few more things that have struck me recently. Most of these facts are the ones brought up in the mid-season review.

• In 30 games so far this season, Liverpool’s scored 55 goals. Liverpool scored 52 in 04/05 and 57 in both 05/06 and 06/07. With eight games to go, Liverpool is only 3 goals away from the high water mark of Benitez’s tenure.

• Conversely, Liverpool conceded 41 in 04/05, 25 in 05/06, and 27 in 06/07. They’ve conceded 21 so far this season. Similarly, Liverpool kept 7 clean sheets in 04/05, 22 in 05/06, and 20 in 06/07. There have only been 14 kept this campaign.

• After 30 games, Liverpool had 47 points in 04/05, 58 in 05/06, and 54 in 06/07, finishing 5th, 3rd, and 3rd respectively. They have 59 so far this season, the highest ever under Benitez at this point of the season.

• Liverpool has eight games remaining: United (a), Everton (h), Arse (a), Blackburn (h), Fulham (a), Brum (a), Man City (h), and Spurs (a).

Birmingham was in the Championship last season; in the other seven games, Liverpool only earned 8 points, with losses to United, Arsenal and Fulham (late in the season, when nearly the entire first team was rested), draws against Everton and Blackburn, and wins against City and Spurs.

16 March 2008

El Niño es la diferencia

I’m fully aware I’m stating the obvious, but this season could have been a lot different were it not for Fernando Torres. But I’m not going to bang on about the 27 goals in 36 appearances (with 20 in the league) or how amazing his accomplishments are for a player in his first season in English football.

I want to focus on one thing. Pundits have a tendency to pontificate about ‘game-changing’ players, as they have about Gerrard for years now. Fernando Torres has been the epitome of a game-changing player.

Torres has scored the winning or equalizing goal in nine of Liverpool’s games this season. Nine games that could have gone a different way were it not for Liverpool’s #9.

4-2 Reading (League Cup) 09.25.07: Torres notched a second half hat-trick, his first for the club, after it was 1-1 at halftime.
2-2 Spurs 10.07.07: A last minute header rescued a point at Anfield.
1-0 Fulham 11.10.07: With 20 minutes to go, Torres came on in his first game back from injury with the game tied 0-0. Ten minutes later, he latched onto to a route 1 ball from Reina. Liverpool ended up winning 2-0.
2-1 Porto 11.28.07: After 45 minutes with the score 1-1, in a game that Liverpool had to win to keep hopes of progression from the group stage alive, Torres broke the deadlock, turning past Stepanov to fire home in the 78th minute (he also scored the opener). Liverpool scored two more in the last ten minutes to finish 4-1.
1-1 Boro 01.12.08: In a game where the team struggled, during the shaky stretch where Liverpool couldn’t buy a break, a superb strike from distance in the 70th minute earned a needed point.
3-2 Boro 02.23.08: Torres’ second hat-trick for the club, scoring all three goals in a 3-2 win.
1-0, 2-0, and 3-0 West Ham 03.05.08: A second straight home hat-trick, in a match he was rumored to miss due to illness, before Gerrard added a fourth in the 83rd.
1-0 Inter (CL) 03.11.08: Another quick strike counter attack, and Torres’ 61st minute goal sealed qualification for the quarterfinals.
2-1 Reading 03.15.08: The most recent heroics. After Liverpool gave up another soft early goal and Mascherano had equalized, Torres’ second half header won the three points.

While three of those matches have been in the last two weeks, he’s been doing it all season. And this doesn’t take into account games like Chelsea and Wigan at Anfield, where Torres scored the opening goal only for Liverpool to concede an equalizer.

It can be shown with a number of stats from this campaign and it’s easy to ramble in praise of him, so to make a long story short, El Niño is simply special.

15 March 2008

Liverpool 2-1 Reading

Arbeloa Carragher Skrtel Aurelio
Alonso Mascherano
Kuyt Gerrard Babel

Matejovsky 5’
Mascherano 19’
Torres 48’

That Reading came to Anfield and looked to attack Liverpool, as more teams have this season, is what kept the away side in the match for the entire 90 minutes.

There were signals of some of the old defensive mishaps within the first few seconds, when Aurelio gave the ball away after kickoff, only for the resulting cross to be blocked for a corner.

And it only took five minutes to punish Liverpool. Hunt and Arbeloa, who clashed all match long, fought for a ball down the flank, and it appeared Arbeloa had tackled away for a corner, only for Marriner to blow for the free kick.

From there, Reading took advantage of Liverpool’s set-piece defense. Shorey’s centered free kick found Matejovsky in acres of space just outside the box, and the resulting shot was a dazzling goal. Credit to Reading for attacking from the off and the quality of the strike, but Liverpool will certainly be aggrieved with the decision leading to it.

The goal prompted the correct response from the home side, with Liverpool’s midfield increasingly pulling the strings and Torres dangerous on the break. But more casual defending nearly led to Reading’s second in the 17th minute, with Shane Long’s pass just too heavy for Oster in the end.

And less than a minute later, Liverpool got the equalizer when Mascherano received the ball in space, beat Hunt, and fired an unstoppable shot past Hahnemann from five yards outside the box. His first goal for the club has long been coming and the joy with which he celebrated, in front of the Kop, was little surprise.

From there, Liverpool began to dictate proceedings, and finished the half the far stronger side.

Both Alonso and Mascherano were spraying passes all over the pitch (Mascherano’s long passing seemed much improved today), with Babel the most likely recipient. With his usual willingness to run at defenders, Babel forced Hahnemann into a brilliant save from a snap shot in the 30th minute and had the ball in the net after the resulting corner, only to be rightly ruled offside. Kuyt and Alonso also had noteworthy chances, but the half ended deadlocked with Liverpool unable to turn their superiority into a lead.

However, less than 3 minutes after the restart, Torres was the difference once again, giving Liverpool the lead when he escaped Bikey for a free header from Gerrard’s free kick (after Babel again drew a foul from Rosenior). It didn’t take long to hit 20 goals in the league, and nine in the last seven games might have something to do with that. The ease with which he scores has made what’s he done almost less impressive; he’s had an absolutely remarkable campaign for a 23 year old in his first season in English football.

With Liverpool in position to seal the game with a third goal, some of the old problems arose. The next two opportunities came at Liverpool’s end, and both came because of mistakes. Another Aurelio giveaway forced Skrtel to track back and ease Doyle out of the way (it was never a penalty), followed by Gerrard’s back pass almost letting in Long, only for Reina to come out well to deal with it.

From there, Liverpool settled, but still never found a third goal, and honestly rarely looked like getting one. Until the final few minutes, Reading’s only opportunity was dealt with by Carragher – holding off Doyle so Reina could claim after Liverpool again failed to clear (and again, never a penalty) – but a one-goal advantage made Anfield rightfully edgy. Despite the current seven-match win streak, games like West Ham away and Wigan at home still linger in the memory.

Making things more nerve-wracking were the two soft free kicks Reading picked up in added time, with both again troubling the defense. The first led to a scramble, which ended with Gerrard blocking Kitson’s attempt (incidentally with his arm, trying to bring it into his body, and for the third time, never a penalty), while the second was bobbled but claimed under pressure by Reina.

No matter how they’re earned, it’s still a much-needed three points. But the inability to kill off the game and shakiness on set pieces are worrisome. Liverpool truly could have been punished with either of those two late free kicks. In addition, neither Arbeloa nor Aurelio had the best games; Reading’s willingness to go forward with both fullbacks looking to attack as well left gaps in the defense. Both those problems lead me to think we’ll see a lot of the backline that went out against Inter over the coming stretch of games.

However, some of those problems, especially the quality in the last quarter of the game, can also be put down to tiredness after the Champions League match on Tuesday. Indeed, any win after a midweek away game in Europe is a good win.

And there were still positives to take away. It’s the usual suspects for man of the match, which probably goes to Mascherano for a simply fantastic first goal for the club and an excellent range of passing, but Torres, Skrtel, and Carragher all had good games as well.

The willingness to counter, with Gerrard and Torres (and Babel to a lesser extent) again linking up well, and the pace of Liverpool’s attack are both excellent signs. This formation, and the personnel deployed, has led to a quick-strike counter-attack the likes of which Liverpool hasn’t had in ages. Much of it has to do with Torres, but his partnership with Gerrard (aided by Gerrard in a free role thanks to Alonso and Mascherano covering) has certainly helped.

Another three points in the bag, Liverpool’s fifth successive league win. Eight days until the trip to Old Trafford that begins the crucial, and grueling, next three weeks.

14 March 2008

Liverpool v Reading 03.15.08

11am EST, live in the US on FSC

Last 4 head-to-head:
1-3 Reading (a) 12.08.07
4-2 Liverpool (a; Carling Cup) 09.25.07
2-1 Liverpool (a) 04.07.07
2-0 Liverpool (h) 11.04.06

Last 3 matches:
Liverpool: 1-0 Inter (a); 3-0 Newcastle (h); 4-0 West Ham (h)
Reading: 2-0 City (h); 1-0 Boro (a); 1-2 Villa (h)

Goalscorers (league):
Liverpool: Torres 19; Gerrard 10; Babel 4; Benayoun, Kuyt, Voronin 3; Alonso, Crouch 2; Aurelio, Hyypia, Pennant, Sissoko 1
Reading: Kitson 9; Doyle, Harper, Hunt 5; Long 3; Ingimarsson, Shorey 2; Bikey, Cisse 1

Referee: Andre Marriner

The same referee as in the first leg of the fixture. You know, the one that gave Reading their debatable penalty and ignored at least two Liverpool claims. Outstanding.

Guess at a squad:
Arbeloa Carragher Skrtel Aurelio
Alonso Mascherano
Kuyt Gerrard Babel

There’s a week before the next match after this one, against United at Old Trafford, so I doubt there will be much rotation. Hopefully, we’ll see nearly the same side that’s become Benitez’s preferred XI.

The front six has been fairly set in stone. We might see a few changes – Benayoun, Pennant, and Lucas all appear to be possibilities – but it’s looking more and more likely these are the strikers and midfielders Benitez favors.

Again, like last week against Newcastle, I wonder if the most likely change will be Pennant or Benayoun for Kuyt. I still don’t think Kuyt’s a bad option on the right (in this system), but I wouldn’t suggest he’s a long-term solution there either.

Both Pennant and Benayoun have attributes that would seem fit into the formation, and it’d be helpful for them to get time out there with the run of games coming up. But it’s worth remembering that Benitez usually sticks with one winger who can stay out wide and one who prefers to cut in (i.e., Kuyt and Babel, and Pennant and Benayoun), which has been a characteristic that’s remained no matter the formation used.

News today is that Agger will miss the remainder of the season, undergoing further surgery on the Jones fracture in his fifth metatarsal. Looking into what a Jones fracture actually is, Wikipedia (naturally, the best source for reliable medical information) confirms that it’s one of the tougher fractures to heal, and one that frequently sees complications. With the addition of Skrtel, it’s for the best to shut him down for the season, hopefully to return fully fit in the summer.

Otherwise, only Voronin and Finnan, both close to returning, should be the only other absentees. Alonso’s back with the team after the birth of his son.

"I was preparing a new contract for his son," laughed Rafa.

"It is just in case, because his father was a good player, he is a good player and maybe his son will be a good player, so it's important to sign the players early."

Not a bad idea.

Reading is still without Murty and Little due to long-term injuries, while both Gunnarsson and Fae will also be absent. Prior to the last two games, they were on an 11-match winless streak that saw them drop amongst the relegation places. But having beaten Boro at the Riverside and Man City at home, they’re back up to 14th, and playing far better than they were in January and February.

I assume the squad and all the fans remember the reverse fixture at the Madejski. We saw the first signs of this 4-2-3-1, but the front six were Torres, Voronin, Crouch, Gerrard, Sissoko, and Mascherano. 1-3 may have been a harsh scoreline, especially with some of the decisions, but by the full 90, Reading were deserved winners. While it was Liverpool’s first league loss of the season, it started that precipitous period that I’ve little desire to rehash.

Following this match comes the run of games mentioned in the last post: United, Everton, Arsenal, Arsenal, and Arsenal. It will be a crucial time, not only for the remainder of the league campaign, but the entire season. Coming away with all three points won’t only serve as revenge for the loss in December, but it’ll continue the momentum built up over the past few weeks.

Champions League Quarterfinal Draw

1 Arsenal v Liverpool
2 Roma v Manchester Utd
3 Schalke v Barcelona
4 Fenerbahce v Chelsea

Semifinal draw:
1 Arsenal/Liverpool v Fenerbahce/Chelsea
2 Schalke/Barcelona v Roma/Manchester Utd

So now, Liverpool plays Arsenal on the 2nd and 8th of April in the CL quarterfinals, and in the league on the 5th. Three matches against the current league leaders in a week. The run of games for that time frame will be United (A), Everton (H), Arsenal (A – CL), Arsenal (A), and Arsenal (H - CL) in the space of 17 days. Super.

I’d written that the results over the past month had set Liverpool up nicely for the tough streak at the end of March into April, but now, this will be an utterly hellish run, and it’ll go a long way towards deciding how people judge the season as a whole.

If Liverpool manages to get through, chances are it’ll be Chelsea in the CL semis for the third time in four years.

And while it’s supremely early to even contemplate, the draw sets up so it’s a possibility that United and Liverpool meet in the final. Which I’m sure would be a sparsely attended and serene final in Moscow.

So not only is it one of the toughest possible draws for Liverpool, United’s on the other side of the bracket, drawn against a team they beat 7-1 last year, and with a possible tie against Barca in the semis.

I mean what I wrote when I said that Liverpool shouldn’t fear anyone in Europe with their record and how they’ve played against Inter. But this is probably the draw I’d least prefer.

I’m surprised Platini couldn’t find a way to get all four English squads on the same side of the bracket, but three out of four isn’t bad.

At least Liverpool’s home in the second leg of the quarterfinals.

13 March 2008

Predictions 3/15 - 3/17

Derby v Manchester Utd, 11am, Setanta: Derby’s objective, and I mean this in the nicest way possible, will be to lose by less than 3. United 4-0
Sunderland v Chelsea, 11am, Setanta Xtra: Sunderland’s home form should make the game closer than it appears on first glance, but I doubt it’ll be enough. Chelsea 2-1
Portsmouth v Aston Villa, 11am: Both teams are similarly placed in the league and in the hunt for Europe. Given Villa’s penchant for ties, having drawn their last two and finishing level against Arsenal, Liverpool, and Chelsea on the road, I’m guessing it’ll end with honors even. 1-1
West Ham v Blackburn, 11am: Curbs and West Ham are under loads of pressure, with three successive 0-4 defeats, and one would imagine they’d have some response. Although Blackburn are currently in 8th, they haven’t been as impressive as I’d thought this season, and underperformed against both Newcastle and Fulham recently. 1-1
Arsenal v Middlesbrough, 1:15pm, FSC: Not only does Arsenal need a win in the league, I’m sure the squad still remembers their first loss of the season at the Riverside. Arsenal 2-0

Fulham v Everton, 9:30am, Setanta: Fulham’s won once in 2008. The return of Jimmy Bullard, who’s one of everyone’s favorites, should help (as it did against Blackburn), but Everton should be up for it after going out to Fiorentina, despite having played 120 minutes. Everton 2-0
Wigan v Bolton, 11am: Ahh, Lancashire derbies… 1-1
Manchester City v Tottenham, 12pm, FSC: City’s struggled of late, but Spurs went 120 minutes yesterday only to lose on penalties and have played 4 games in 2 weeks. Something has to give. 1-1

Birmingham v Newcastle, 4pm, Setanta: Keegan just has to get a win sooner than later, and this has become one of those relegation ‘six-pointers.’ Newcastle 1-0

129-130, with 29 exact scores so far this season.

Liverpool v Reading is 11am Saturday on FSC. Preview, and probably something about the CL draw, tomorrow.

11 March 2008

Liverpool 1-0 Internazionale

Carragher Skrtel Hyypia Aurelio
Lucas Mascherano
Kuyt Gerrard Babel

Torres 64’

With Inter players sent off in both legs, the focus will probably, and unfortunately, be on the referees. It should be on the immaculate performance over two matches against arguably the best side in Serie A.

With Liverpool staying with the 4-2-3-1 formation, many pre-match commentators (including those of us in the States subjected to Tommy Smyth) believed it to show Liverpool shaking off its conservative nature and going for the goal. Which wasn’t exactly the case.

4-2-3-1 is what’s been working for Liverpool, and one of its fun facets is it can easily be either a 4-3-3 (well, 4-2-1-3 in Liverpool’s case) or a defensive-minded 4-5-1. It’s not as if Liverpool was going to change its stripes overnight, and soon after the opening whistle it became apparent that the pre-match talk from Liverpool and Inter would hold true. Inter would press in search of the needed goals, and Liverpool would live and die by their defense and counter-attack.

And from the Liverpool point of view, the plan worked to a tee. The away side was under pressure throughout the first half, but didn’t allow Inter an opener and looked to quickly spring the break when given the chance.

Reina was key in the first half, making two terrific saves on Julio Cruz, turning his low shot from distance around the post in the 9th and keeping out a flick reminiscent of Babel against Besiktas in the 43rd. The Argentinean striker also put his shot wide when through on goal (and with Stankovic lurking wide open) in the 29th minute.

Throughout the first 45 minutes, Liverpool bent, but did not break. Pepe was the hero with those two saves, but other than a Skrtel mistake in the second half that put Ibrahimovic through (again, to shoot wide), everyone in a red shirt played their parts. Carragher also deserves special mention in defense for keeping Ibrahimovic quiet throughout, but from strikers to keeper, everyone came through.

There were sniffs of an away goal on the counter, with the best chance coming when a mistake by Cambiasso opened it up for Torres, only for Cesar to make the save from a narrow angle, but chances were limited, and Inter were keeping possession well, with Zanetti in midfield their most influential.

But less than five minutes after halftime, Burdisso picked up a second booking for colliding with (and with what looked to be a high boot on) Lucas, and Inter were again down to 10 men. I had to go back to my notes to remember Burdisso’s first (unnecessarily fouling Kuyt on the sideline 34 minutes in), but with the way the referee was calling fouls and handing out cards, both it’s little surprise he saw yellow for either. It’s one thing to say that the second yellow was harsh because Burdisso was already booked, but that shouldn’t come into consideration when handing out cards.

Don’t get me wrong, the sending off certainly didn’t hurt matters for Liverpool, but it didn’t completely change the game either. Liverpool always looked capable of snatching a goal, especially with the streak Torres is on, while Inter didn’t look like they could score two.

And then that man Torres made his mark again. Although Burdisso was sent off, Liverpool hadn’t changed their plan of attack. Inter couldn’t offer the same amount of pressure with 10 men as in the first half, but Liverpool was still content to soak it up and spring forward on the counter. And the break looked far more incisive with a man-advantage, with Torres getting the goal that would seal the match in the 64th minute, when Aurelio’s accurate early cross found him with space to turn around Chivu and fire into the net. It’s a sign of just how good Torres is that he made the goal look as easy as he did.

And from there, with Inter needing 4 goals to advance, Liverpool simply killed off the game. Maicon’s blazing shot-cum-cross went wide in the 79th minute and Ibrahimovic skied over through on goal (playing the offside trap beautifully but fouling up when it counts) seconds later, but that was about it. There was a section of play where Liverpool must have strung 20-plus passes together in their own half, with the away fans duly shouting "olé," late in the match.

There’s one way it could have been different for Inter though. No matter how well Liverpool was playing, the away side was always going to rack up the fouls with Inter in need of goals, a stern referee, and Inter’s inclination to dive like it’s going out of style. By my count, Inter had at least 8 free kicks within 35 yards of goal. And all of them were atrocious.

The one thing I worried about in the preview was Liverpool’s vulnerability from set plays, demonstrated by this backline against Bolton. And it’s not as if it was a closely guarded secret. More specifically, Liverpool’s shaky when it comes to second balls and when there’s a scramble in the box. But it seemed every single free kick was blasted over the bar by Ibrahimovic, Cruz, or Chivu, and had the situation been reserved, I’d be utterly livid at the wastefulness.

But that’s a pretty large if, and I certainly don’t mean to take anything away from the victors. Liverpool deserved to be winners and deserved the 3-0 aggregate. There’s no point trying to pick a man of the match. Reina made those saves, Torres keeps scoring (his 26th), and Mascherano was Mascherano. Skrtel continues to improve (and on his European debut, in the San Siro), Gerrard and Babel habitually threatened on the break, and Aurelio was solid at left back and provided a gorgerous assist.

If Liverpool can play like this in the quarterfinals, it doesn’t matter who’s drawn in the next round.

The draw’s on Friday. Reading on Saturday.

10 March 2008

Liverpool at Inter Milan 03.11.08

Liverpool leads 2-0 on aggregate.

3:45pm on espn2

Inter is currently 1st in Serie A

Group Stage:
Liverpool: 4-0 Marseille (a); 4-1 Porto (h); 8-0 Besiktas (h); 1-2 Besiktas (a); 0-1 Marseille (h); 1-1 Porto (a)
Inter: 1-0 PSV (a); 3-0 Fenerbahce (h); 4-2 CSKA (h); 2-1 CSKA (a); 2-0 PSV (h); 0-1 Fenerbahce (a)

Last 3 matches:
Liverpool: 3-0 Newcastle (h); 4-0 West Ham (h); 3-1 Bolton (a)
Inter: 2-0 Reggina (h); 1-0 Napoli (a); 1-1 Roma (h)

Goalscorers (Europe):
Liverpool: Gerrard, Kuyt 5; Crouch 4; Babel, Benayoun, Torres 3; Hyypia, Voronin 1
Inter: Ibrahamovic 5, Cambiasso, Cruz 2; Crespo, Jimenez, Samuel 1

Referee: Tom Henning Ovrebo (NOR)

Guess at a squad
Carragher Skrtel Hyypia Aurelio
Alonso Mascherano
Kuyt Gerrard Babel

I’m guessing nearly the same line-up that went out against Inter at Anfield, but with Alonso in place of Lucas, and Carragher at right back.

The 4-2-3-1 has become the regular system over the past month, and it seems certain Liverpool will stick with it. Most important will be Mascherano in front of the defense and the defense itself, as first and foremost, Liverpool needs to protect the two-goal advantage.

Having suffered a dead leg late against West Ham, Masch wasn’t in the squad over the weekend. But he traveled with the team today, and if he’s at all healthy, he’ll assuredly feature. I can’t imagine Liverpool leaving the best holding midfielder in the world out when trying to maintain a two-goal lead against the Serie A leaders if it can be avoided.

With Finnan injured and not making the trip, Liverpool’s limited at right back, with Arbeloa and Carragher the two options. Don’t get me wrong, I’d have no problem if Arbeloa started (we saw his capability in Europe against Barca, for one), but I’ve been impressed with the backline when Carragher, Skrtel and Hyypia have all played, despite the shakiness on set plays shown against Bolton.

Hyypia was rested on Saturday with what I’d have to believe was an eye on tomorrow’s match, Skrtel has been excellent of late, and Carragher is, well, Carragher. Tomorrow will mark his 100th appearance for Liverpool in Europe, the first Liverpool player to reach that number.

I’m guessing Alonso to be in the line-up, but forum gossip today claims that Radio City announced he didn’t fly out with the squad due to his wife giving birth, although I haven’t seen that posted anywhere else online. If true, the line-up will end up even closer to that in the first leg, when Lucas paired Mascherano in central midfield.

It’s little surprise that much of the pre-match talk has centered on Gerrard and Torres. Some quotes from Stevie:

"He's brilliant, fantastic. I wouldn't swap him for any other striker anywhere," said Gerrard.

"He has been massive for us and gives us so many different options up front. He's banging them in and always looks a threat every time he plays.

"The lad who comes into their side for Materazzi will not be looking forward to his 90 minutes against Fernando.

"We will be looking to hit them on the counter-attack and Torres plays that game better than anyone around.

"Not only can you stick the ball over the top and let him chase it, but he can make things happen himself like he did against Marseille earlier in the tournament, when we needed to win in France to go through to the last 16.

"He roasted Materazzi in the first-leg. He (Materazzi) might think he was hard-done-by to be sent-off but he could have been booked for a bad tackle before he had one yellow, never mind the second one.

"It shows how easy Torres' pace and strength unsettled a World Cup winner.

"You can play him on his own or with a partner and he just adapts perfectly.”

The counter-attack is the key part of that, and will be crucial on Tuesday with Inter in need of at least two goals. Torres and Gerrard absolutely flayed Newcastle on the break Saturday; Torres’ goal, from Gerrard’s first-time throughball, will assuredly be on my ‘goals of the season’ list. You can see the progression in the partnership in every game, and there’s little reason to believe it won’t continue.

And I’m writing this while knocking furiously on wood, but Inter has issues in central defense. Materazzi is suspended because of last match’s sending off. Cordoba picked up an injury late in the first leg (before Liverpool scored their two goals), while Samuel is a long-term casualty, but it looks like Chivu will return to partner Nicolas Burdisso. However, it’s not out of the realm of possibility that Inter plays five in midfield and three at the back either.

Little else needs to be said in conclusion. We’ve been waiting for this match since De Bleeckere blew time for the first leg. The two goals, by no means assuring a result, set Liverpool up nicely to progress.

But Inter aren’t leading Serie A by default, and the San Siro will be a daunting venue. Nevertheless, Liverpool’s been in this position before, and are well aware what’s needed on these European nights.

Quick Wednesday Predictions

Portsmouth v Birmingham, 3:45pm, Setanta Xtra: Pompey 2-1
Aston Villa v Middlesbrough, 3:45pm: Villa 2-0
Chelsea v Derby, 4:00pm, Setanta: Chelsea 3-0

09 March 2008

Is this the best FA Cup ever?

The headline’s a bit misleading, because the best FA Cups are the ones Liverpool win, but this year’s tournament is making headlines for all the right reasons.

Either there’s less of a disparity between divisions than was thought, or Premiership teams thought they could progress simply by showing up.

For the first time since 1995, none of the “big four” will hoist the FA Cup. Portsmouth is the only Premiership team left in the semifinals.

United, Chelsea, and Boro, the other holdouts, all exited in the quarterfinals, and only United went out to Premiership opposition. Chelsea, Liverpool, Everton, Blackburn, Manchester City, Boro, Birmingham, Bolton, Fulham, and Derby all lost to lower-league opposition. That’s half of the division.

The semifinals, with the draw taking place tomorrow, will be made up of Portsmouth, Barnsley, Cardiff City, and West Brom. Portsmouth’s currently 9th in the Prem. West Brom’s 4th in the Championship, Cardiff 14th, and Barnsley 19th.

And if a team other than Portsmouth wins, it’ll be the first time since 1980 that a lower-league club lifted the trophy. In fact, since 1888-9 (when the Football League began; the FA Cup started in 1871), it’s only happened 8 times, with Barnsley’s lone win in 1912 one of the eight.

Portsmouth’s reached 3 finals, the last being 1939, their lone win. Cardiff won in 1927 and were runners-up in 1925. Barnsley’s reached 2 finals, 1910 and 1912, with the aforementioned win in 1912, where they beat West Brom.

West Brom’s the team with the most history in this tournament. From 1871 to 1888, they reached 3 finals, winning once, and they’ve won 4 times since (1892, 1931, 1954, 1968) in 8 finals. Like Barnsley, one of their wins, 1931, was as a lower-league side.

And West Brom is the only team to get this far without beating Premiership opposition, with wins over Bristol Rovers, Coventry, Peterborough, and Charlton.

Portsmouth beat United, Cardiff beat Boro, and Barnsley notably beat both Chelsea, Liverpool. Not to jinx it, but it’s little surprise that I’m rooting for Barnsley the rest of the way.

Anyone who saw those two Barnsley wins doesn’t need reminding of the ‘magic of the FA Cup’ cliché. The last ten minutes against Chelsea, with Barnsley camped in their penalty box and Chelsea bombarding, were some of the most exciting scenes (outside of Liverpool, naturally) there have been this season. And the fans celebrating on the pitch with their team was one of the most poignant.

As a Liverpool fan, I’m lying if I say I want anything other than Liverpool lifting the trophy every season. But if that can’t happen, this is the ideal situation. Upset after upset, in every round, and with someone other than the usual suspects, is exactly what the FA Cup, and English football, needed.

With Tottenham taking home the Carling Cup, both domestic trophies will be won by a team other than Arsenal, United, Chelsea, or Liverpool. To keep tossing out dates, that hasn’t happened since 1991. But if Liverpool maintains their 2-0 lead against Inter on Tuesday, those four teams will all be in the Champions League quarterfinals.

08 March 2008

Liverpool 3-0 Newcastle

Arbeloa Carragher Skrtel Riise
Lucas Alonso
Pennant Gerrard Benayoun

Pennant 43’
Torres 45+1’
Gerrard 51’

Other than a fairly dreadful first 40 minutes, that pretty much went according to plan.

Liverpool won easily in the end, scored at least 3 goals for the 4th straight game, and was able to rest both Gerrard (66’) and Torres (72’) for much of the second half.

But it took some time for Liverpool to open up the opposition. Newcastle offered little in attack, with Michael Owen a lone striker, but they were getting chances via corners. Liverpool dominated in possession but had only carved out two opportunities, with Harper denying Torres’ narrow shot and Gerrard’s attempt after a quick free kick. Again, Liverpool’s passing in the final third needed improvement and they were giving the ball away far too cheaply.

And then, as against Bolton, there was a fortunate opener. With Pennant putting pressure on what looked an unlikely chance, Jose Enrique (who had been unsteady throughout) sent a clearance off Pennant’s shin that looped over Harper from a tight angle.

Much like when United played Newcastle 2 weeks ago, the first goal brought about more. 3 minutes after the first, Gerrard and Torres led the break, and Gerrard’s perfectly laid throughball put Torres in, rounding the keeper to score his 25th on the season.

Six minutes after the break, Torres returned the favor. Again breaking down the pitch, Torres ran with the ball until putting Gerrard through, with the skipper delicately chipping over Harper. It could have been four in similar circumstances in the 57th, with Torres laying off for Gerrard, but Harper made another save, with the Newcastle keeper the reason the scoreline was only 3-0.

With Gerrard and Torres substituted, Liverpool took the foot off the gas, although there were still a few opportunities, most notably in the 83rd when Harper prevented both Kuyt and Riise from increasing the lead. Newcastle’s only real chance of the half came in the 70th, when Martins saw Reina off his line, only for his 40-yard effort to careen off the crossbar. Once Liverpool got two goals in quick succession with halftime imminent, the rest was a formality.

But for the first 40 or so minutes, there were some worrying aspects. Newcastle, especially Jose Enrique at left back, was shaky at fullback, but it wasn’t coming off for Liverpool on either flank. Riise and Benayoun were not a good combination, with Yossi seemingly uncomfortable on the left and looking to cut in, and Riise so limited to his left foot. I don’t mean to harp on it, but after Wednesday’s match, today was more in line with the rest of Riise’s season. And it wasn’t much better on the right; at least Pennant was making himself available, but more often than not the final ball was poor.

Which is why it’s pleasing that Pennant was the beneficiary of Enrique’s misfortune. That’s only the second goal of Pennant’s Liverpool career, and no matter the circumstances, it can only do his confidence good.

The goal led to Newcastle heads dropping, and a second was always likely. Once again, it’s Torres and Gerrard who are the difference. Both world-class attackers, and with Gerrard in a free role with two midfielders behind him, they’re linking up wonderfully on the break. The two goals were both things of beauty, showing the partnership they’re capable of, and Gerrard was unlucky not to get a second. The best thing about the 4-2-3-1 formation is the way it allows these two to play together.

Alonso had a good game as well, one of the few whose passing was on target in the first half and quickly returning to the form we know he’s capable of. Lucas was an able deputy for Mascherano; although his touch let him down in the final third, I hope it doesn’t dampen his willingness to get forward. And while they weren’t under the most threat, both Skrtel and Carragher were solid at the back. Since his debut against Havant, Liverpool’s only allowed one goal when Skrtel’s started, against Bolton last Sunday.

At the end of the day, it’s exactly what was hoped for. A fourth win in a row, 12 points from 12 in the league between the European ties. Benitez stayed with the same formation and played both Gerrard and Torres, and both Gerrard and Torres were able to come off with Liverpool in control. The spine stayed the same, but players like Lucas, Pennant, and Benayoun were able to see action in the 4-2-3-1.

I hesitate to say it’s set up nicely for the team, but they’ve done exactly what’s needed before the trip to Inter and in the fight for fourth with the difficult league stretch coming up later in the month.

07 March 2008

Liverpool v Newcastle 03.08.08

10am EST, live in the US on Setanta

Last 4 head-to-head:
3-0 Liverpool (a) 11.24.07
2-1 Newcastle (a) 02.10.07
2-0 Liverpool (h) 09.20.06
3-1 Liverpool (a) 03.19.06

Last 3 matches:
Liverpool: 4-0 West Ham (h); 3-1 Bolton (a); 3-2 Boro (h)
Newcastle: 0-1 Blackburn (h); 1-5 United (h); 1-4 Villa (a)

Goalscorers (league):
Liverpool: Torres 18; Gerrard 9; Babel 4; Benayoun, Kuyt, Voronin 3; Alonso, Crouch 2; Aurelio, Hyypia, Sissoko 1
Newcastle: Martins 6; Viduka 5; Owen 4; N’Zogbia 3; Butt, Milner 2; Barton, Beye, Cacapa, Emre, Feye, Taylor 1

Referee: Peter Walton

Guess at a squad:
Arbeloa Skrtel Hyypia Riise
Alonso Lucas
Pennant Gerrard Babel

With Liverpool playing as well as they have, with 12 goals in the last 4 games, consistency is just as important as keeping players fit for the trip to Italy on Tuesday. There will definitely be changes, but I don’t expect many.

Knock on wood, but Liverpool can take off Torres and/or Gerrard after getting the goals. And if it’s still 0-0 into the second half, it’s that much more impetus. If there were any changes to the front six, I’d imagine it’d be Mascherano, and possibly Kuyt or Torres. Again, I’m afraid of jinxing it, but Newcastle’s defense has been abysmal at times, and Liverpool’s been scoring with this line-up.

With Mascherano suffering a dead leg late against West Ham, he’s the most likely to be rested. And he will be needed against Inter trying to hold a two-goal lead; you can’t overemphasize his importance in Tuesday’s match. And with Lucas getting sustained time in the first-team, Liverpool has a ready-made replacement.

It’s purely a hunch, but I’d like to see Pennant get a start in what's been Kuyt’s role. That Kuyt’s started every game since Sunderland is part of it, but this is as good a chance as any to see Pennant in this formation, and it’s even better it’s before the Inter match. Benayoun could play as well, and Pennant’s gotten far more time as a substitute lately, but the option should be explored.

Torres looked fatigued by the end of the last match, calmly celebrating his 3rd goal, but, as Benitez said, he’s been absolutely on fire lately. Out of context, this looks like a game where Crouch would start, but it seems impossible to leave Torres out with the scoring streak he’s on.

After getting 45 and 60 minutes for the reserves, I’m hoping Agger will be on the bench, but it’s surely too soon for a start. With Hyypia rested mid-week, he’ll probably come back into the side, with either Skrtel or Carragher making way. Skrtel’s adapted well, and Carragher’s started more games than any other player this season (and, like others, could probably do with the rest before Inter). But regardless of who plays, the defense will have to be wary of Michael Owen.

This will be Keegan’s return to Anfield, still winless in this stint at Newcastle. In addition, the terms of Barton’s bail prevent him from traveling to Merseyside, while Viduka, Emre, and Carr are injured. It’s been a season to forget for Newcastle, which is probably the only club that’s had a worse ride in the media than Liverpool this season.

They may have had an awful season so far, but how many times has Liverpool expected to win games and disappointed? No matter how poorly Newcastle’s been playing, if they see names like Gerrard and Torres left off the team sheet, they will be invigorated. It seems like every league game’s a cup final recently, and with Liverpool’s standing in the table, that’s how every game should be treated.

06 March 2008

Predictions 3/8 - 3/9

Four Premiership teams (Chelsea, United, Pompey and Boro) are involved in the FA Cup this weekend, and I still don’t do Liverpool predictions, so only five games below.

US Daylight Saving Time goes into effect on Sunday, which is why the times are odd that day. Europe goes into DST on March 30th, so if I mess up kickoff times in the next three weeks, forgive me. Math was never my strong suit.

Blackburn v Fulham, 10am, FSC: Poor Fulham. It’s going to be a lot harder for FSC to showcase all those Americans when they’re in the Championship, and with Fulham now six points behind 18th, relegation is getting closer and closer. Blackburn 2-0
Reading v Man City, 10am, Setanta Xtra: Reading picked up their first win in 11 last Saturday, while City’s only won one of their last 6 (albeit against United). Given City’s better at home than on the road (despite their last three home matches) and the fact Reading crucially needs points to get out of the drop zone, I think this will end with honors even. 1-1

Tottenham v West Ham, 11am, Setanta: Even though it’s a London derby, which are frequently close and contentious, I can’t see Hammers getting anything when they’ve lost their last two by an 8-0 margin. Spurs 2-1
Sunderland v Everton, 11am, Setanta Xtra: Sunderland’s reliant on their home form for points, but with Everton’s recent run, the home side’s going to be in for a fight. Everton 2-1
Wigan v Arsenal, 12pm on FSC: There’s something familiar about a team that’s recently underwhelmed in the league, but puts on a performance in Europe like Arsenal did against Milan. For Arsenal’s sake (and as someone who would rather avoid seeing United lift the Premiership trophy again), I hope that European performance can turn around that league form. Arsenal 2-0

For the first time this season, I’ve fallen below .500 (currently 125-126, with 29 spot on). Time to make up ground.

Liverpool v Newcastle is on Setanta at 10am Saturday.

05 March 2008

Liverpool 4-0 West Ham

Arbeloa Carragher Skrtel Riise
Alonso Mascherano
Kuyt Gerrard Babel

Torres 8’ 61’ 81’
Gerrard 83’

Despite rumors of Torres being sick, the lone changes were Arbeloa and Riise coming in for Hyypia and Aurelio. And after that performance, it’s hard to believe Torres’ health was ever in doubt.

That would be his third hat-trick of the season, and he’s now up to 24 goals on the season (18 in the Prem), with 12 in his last 11 matches. Two of those hatters have come in the last two at Anfield, where a player hasn’t gotten back-to-back hat-tricks since 1946 (although Rush did get two in a row against Everton and Coventry in 1982). It’s the most goals he’s ever scored in a season, and unlike at Atletico, none of them have come on penalties.

The highest compliment I can pay, which I’ve said of Mascherano this season, is that it’s getting to the point where there’s no other player I’d rather have in his position. And it’s easy to forget that Torres, like Mascherano, is still only 23 years old.

The first came in eight minutes in, seconds after Torres put a header over the bar, when Kuyt’s cross found its way through (aided by a deflection) for a beautiful volley that gave Green no chance.

But instead of opening the game up, it got scrappier following the goal. West Ham nearly equalized in the 13th minute when Boa Morte, through on goal, rounded Reina, only for Arbeloa to get back to clear. But other than that, Liverpool continued to be the better side, with far more possession and a heap of corners and free kicks. But they were wasteful from those set plays, and the home side only forced one save out of Green for the rest of the half, stopping Gerrard’s close range shot from Babel’s cross, with Skrtel’s header over the bar the only other opportunity of note.

Mindful of the matches where Liverpool’s had a lead and ended with a draw, the team came out intent on finding another goal, which they got a third of the way through the half. Following yet another corner, Kuyt danced free for room to cross, and Torres’ perfectly placed header left Green flat footed. After nearly completing his hat-trick with a diving header that rebounded off the post in the 66th minute, Torres’ control left Lucas Neill for dead in the 81st, and he was able to fire past Green from an acute angle.

Gerrard added gloss two minutes later with his 18th of the season, delivering a trademark belter after a mistake gave him the ball in West Ham’s half, with Alonso and Crouch’s runs giving him the space to shoot. 4-0 was a deserved result; I don’t think West Ham got a shot off in the entire second half.

I’ve few complaints with any in the squad, but some players merit particular mention (outside of Torres, naturally). Once again, Skrtel’s solid at the back in both tackling and positioning, and shows he can bring the ball out of defense. Alonso’s returning to his usual self, spraying passes around the pitch and pulling the strings, and the play of Masch and Xabi’s allowed Gerrard a more attacking role. Kuyt’s also adapting well, with 2 assists and another good game on the right. And both Arbeloa and Riise (one of Riise’s better all-around performances) did well to support the attack all night long.

Continued consistency in both the team and formation has certainly aided this recent run. The team’s scoring goals (10 in the last three), having started the same four attackers (Torres, Kuyt, Babel, Gerrard) in the last four games, and Liverpool’s kept their first clean sheet since the Inter match.

Now Liverpool’s won the game-in-hand, and is back in fourth on goal difference. So far, the team’s done what’s necessary since going out of the FA Cup and getting back to the form that raised hopes so high early in the season, no matter the recent “developments” off the pitch. Now, it’s Newcastle on Saturday before the return leg at Inter next Tuesday, and Liverpool must build on this platform they've given themselves.

04 March 2008

Liverpool v West Ham 03.05.08

3pm EST, live in the US on Setanta Xtra and Setanta Broadband. Delayed showing on Setanta at 6pm, which is probably when I’ll see the match.

Last 4 head-to-head:
0-1 West Ham (h) 01.30.08
2-1 Liverpool (a) 01.30.07
2-1 Liverpool (h) 08.26.06
3-3 Liverpool aet (FA Cup Final) 05.13.06

Last 3 matches:
Liverpool: 3-1 Bolton (a); 3-2 Boro (h); 2-0 Inter (h)
West Ham: 0-4 Chelsea (h); 1-0 Fulham (a); 1-1 Brum (h)

Goalscorers (league):
Liverpool: Torres 15; Gerrard 8; Babel 4; Benayoun, Kuyt, Voronin 3; Alonso, Crouch 2; Aurelio, Hyypia, Sissoko 1
West Ham: Ashton 5; Bowyer 4; Cole, Etherington, Solano 3; Bellamy, Ferdinand, Noble 2; Ljungberg, McCartney, Parker, Upson 1

Referee: Steve Bennett

Guess at a squad:
Arbeloa Carragher Hyypia Aurelio
Alonso Mascherano
Benayoun Gerrard Babel

With Newcastle on Saturday before the Inter match in a week, I imagine Benitez will ring more changes over the weekend than he will tomorrow. We’ve seen much more consistency in both the team and the formation over the last few weeks, since Liverpool exited both domestic cup competitions.

In that vein, I’m hoping for much the same line-up as the last couple of matches. Other than Finnan and Voronin, Liverpool has no injury worries, but with Agger starting for the ressies tonight, he’ll miss out as well.

I think there’s a future for the 4-2-3-1, with Torres leading the line, Gerrard more influential in a free role, Alonso and Mascherano a fearsome pairing, and Kuyt getting more comfortable as a wide attacker (although I still think both Pennant and Benayoun are options on either flank, even in the 4-2-3-1).

And hopefully, players like Kuyt, Benayoun, Pennant, Babel, Lucas, and Crouch will complement that spine, and will rotate (as an aside, it’s embarrassing how “rotate” now feels like a dirty word) game-to-game depending on form, fitness, and the opposition.

It’s been said often of late, but this is another big test of Liverpool’s league capabilities. The team’s on a three-game winning streak in all competitions, and hasn’t lost in the league since the match at Upton Park a little over a month ago. Points are essential with Everton still on excellent pace in the race for fourth.

This is the game-in-hand that’s been a saving grace when looking at the table over the past few months, and Liverpool has to take advantage. And Liverpool will have even more incentive for all three points after the stomach-punch loss last month thanks to an unnecessary late penalty.

West Ham’s something of a wounded animal recently, smashed by Chelsea by 4 goals at home over the weekend, and leveling off around 10th place in the league. There’s always the chance for a reaction after a bad loss that catalyzes the team. Were Bellamy fit, I’d be even more worried, but the Hammers are still a very good counter-attacking team, and the defense will have to be better than they were against Boro (and on set plays against Bolton).

It’s starting to feel like I’m counting my chickens before they’re hatched, hoping for 12 points from 12 between the Champions League ties. And West Ham will be no walkovers, as the match in late January proved.

But with the way the team is improving, and becoming more consistent, Liverpool’s more than capable of doing the necessary job tomorrow.

02 March 2008

Liverpool 3-1 Bolton

Carragher Skrtel Hyypia Aurelio
Alonso Mascherano
Kuyt Gerrard Babel

Jaaskelainen (og) 11’
Babel 60’
Aurelio 75’
Cohen 79’

Sometimes that bit of luck is all the difference, and it could have been very different inside the first 11 minutes.

Bolton has two clear-cut chances within the first ten. Piling up the set pieces early on, Diouf’s 5th minute free kick eluded everyone, bouncing through the box only to careen off the bar. Four minutes later, Joey O’Brien’s flick from a corner went past two Bolton players in the six-yard box before being cleared.

And then Liverpool got that slice of luck in front of goal that’s been sorely lacking. Gerrard’s speculative effort looked to be going wide, but when Jaaskelainen dove for it, it ricocheted off his face and bounced backwards into the net. That’s the sort of good fortune Liverpool’s been on the wrong end of recently, and that it’s on the other foot is a good omen.

Bolton had other opportunities in the first half, most notably when Reina made a magnificent save on Davies’ point-blank header in the 27th. To their credit, Bolton kept going forward, in need of points to keep them out of the relegation zone, but it opened up space for Liverpool, and the away side increasingly dictated play and looked to attack on the break. Babel forced Jaaskelainen into two saves and was unlucky when Cahill got a toe on his chipped shot, while Gerrard began pulling the strings in the middle of the park.

And once Liverpool saw their way through the first 45 minutes, it gave the team the needed confidence to increase their foothold and further set the tempo. Within 15 minutes, Babel finally got his deserved goal, beating Jaaskelainen at the near post when the ball was cleared to him after Kuyt hit the foot of the post.

15 minutes after that and Liverpool finally made use of one of their many corners (it was 10 or 11 at that point) when Aurelio scored a brilliant first goal, chesting down Skrtel’s header and volleying past Jaaskelainen with his preferred left foot. Superlatives don't do it justice; it was a masterful goal, and more proof that despite the look of him, Aurelio is actually Brazilian.

Bolton got their consolation soon after when they finally made use of one of their set pieces, with Cohen’s free header beating Reina from Taylor’s quick corner. Had the game been closer, Liverpool would have had a real grievance, as it looked like Kuyt had cleared the ball before the assistant (who couldn’t have had a clear view) blew for a corner. But with Liverpool 3-0 up and barely 10 minutes to play, it had little impact, although Reina was clearly upset about losing the clean sheet.

Aside from the first 10 minutes, Liverpool was fairly comfortable throughout, and that’s a welcome sight considering the team’s league struggles and their record at the Reebok.

The midfield three was the key to the game. Gerrard, Mascherano, and Alonso were all influential, and their command of the center of the park was the key to Liverpool setting the tempo and tone in the second half. That all three players were on the pitch at the same time and performed well is an excellent sign for the future.

In addition, the defense was miles better, even considering the first 10 minutes, Bolton’s consolation, and the home side rarely threatening in the second half. Skrtel again showed his quality with some excellent tackles and positioning and a willingness to bring the ball out of defense, while Carragher did well joining the attack up the right.

Defending still needs to be better on set plays, evidenced by the consolation, but it will improve as defenders return to fitness, and there are less forced changes at the back. Plus, despite Liverpool’s flaws, they still only gave up one goal from multiple free kick chances, and Bolton can be deadly when given those opportunities.

Babel also played well, and was a constant threat. Bolton may claim Steinsson went off in the 42nd due to injury, but it’s more likely because Babel tortured him throughout the first half. It’s been welcome to see Babel get consecutive starts, especially in the league. He’s obviously brimming with talent, but still makes mistakes, and needs the game time to improve, which he’s been doing. There was little to choose from between Babel, Gerrard, and Skrtel for man of the match in my opinion.

It was one of Torres’ quieter days, with the striker going off in the 78th minute with an eye on Wednesday’s match, but they can’t all be three-goal performances.

That’s 6 points out of 6 during the spell between Champions League games. Liverpool’s scored 3 goals in both, and with Carragher and Skrtel returning, looked more solid in defense. Getting two wins sets the team up well for the matches against West Ham and Newcastle, both at Anfield.

In 3 days comes the much-discussed game-in-hand against West Ham, where a win would see Liverpool continue the push for fourth. But I’m already sick of focusing on the table; Liverpool simply needs to keep winning, and the league position will sort itself out.