27 May 2008

FIFA’s 6+5 rule, a new low for England, and Liverpool FC

Headline news on BBC Sport shows both FIFA’s insistence in pushing a 6+5 rule as well as a study stating that Premiership teams fielded an all-time low number of English players this past season.

My silence thanks to a lack of topics during the past week, coupled with a fervent dislike of the 6+5 rule (plus a fondness for poking and prodding Blatter’s FIFA), means I’m using these two stories to hit at a larger issue. Fair warning, this is long.

I guess I’ll start with FIFA.

For those unaware, FIFA has been trying to cut down on foreign players since the beginning of Blatter’s reign. The newest manifestation of this pursuit is the aforementioned “6+5 rule,” which looks to be endorsed by FIFA’s Congress later this week.

As demonstrated by the name, the rule moves towards a goal of at least six “homegrown” players in every club side, leaving no more than five foreigners. According to Blatter, it would be implemented step-by-step, with four required in 2010/11, five in 2011/12, and six by 2012.

It’s worth noting that there are differences between FIFA and UEFA’s definition of homegrown players. FIFA’s means those eligible for that country’s national team while UEFA’s means those trained a club as teenagers. As Reuters explains:

“Under rules introduced by UEFA three years ago, home grown players are not necessarily nationals of the countries they are playing in.

If a player spends at least three years at a club or in an adopted national association between the age of 15 and 21 he is termed as home grown.”

Loath as I am to prefer anything Platini suggests, I’m far more in favor of his version if one has to take hold, mainly because it would protect teams like Liverpool who scour the globe for young players and train them in their academies. But it also contravenes the exact point Blatter is trying to make: FIFA wants club leagues to be primarily made up of players from that country and Platini’s plan doesn’t do that. Players like Fabregas, who joined Arsenal at 16, would qualify as homegrown. Although article after article, especially those put out by FIFA’s press shop, states that Platini would go along with FIFA’s plan.

According to FIFA, the rule wouldn’t violate European law because it doesn’t restrict the free movement of workers. Clubs are still able to buy as many foreigners as they like, but they’d have to have six players on the pitch eligible for that country’s national team.

Of course, the European Union has been hinting differently and earlier this month the European Parliament voted 518-49 against the FIFA proposal, with a majority backing UEFA’s proposal (and we in the US complain about Congress getting involved in sports).

This news comes hand-in-hand with a study stating the number of English players in the Premier League is at an all-time low, and it seems more than coincidence that both stories came out on the same day.

According to the report, there are 37 less English players in the Premiership than there were seven years ago (170 compared to 207), down 21 from last season. It is a new low for Englishmen, with the former mark coming in 02/03 with 179 (numbers had slowly risen in the four years following that nadir). And aside from the usual ‘woe is England, woe is John Bull' overtones, it’s an interesting piece.

Unsurprisingly, Arsenal has the lowest number of English players, with only .34 (a third of a player?) on average in their starting line-up. Liverpool comes in next with 2.34, and West Ham is the highest with 6.61 (Villa are the only other team above six with 6.42). On average it’s 4.038 Englishmen per side throughout the league.

And it’s pervasive from top to bottom in the league. Contrary to my expectations, two of the relegated teams (Reading and Birmingham City) are in the ‘bottom of the table,’ with the 7th and 8th lowest numbers respectively (Fulham, who finished 17th, are even worse, barely above Liverpool with 2.42 per game).

One of the main reasons that the Premier League has less and less English players is that there’s little value in it. Look at the exorbitant amounts paid for Englishmen: Darren Bent for £16m, £16m for Carrick, £18m for Hargreaves, and £10m for an unproven (but admittedly talented) Walcott. You can even see it in the price quoted for the English players supposedly coming to or going from Liverpool this summer: £15m for Bentley or Barry or Crouch? You’re having a laugh.

That’s why teams from top to bottom are searching for foreigners; when you’re shopping on a budget (which at least 17 out of 20 teams are, and I’m including Liverpool in that), buying English is the absolute opposite of cost-effective.

And it’s little coincidence that Manchester United has the most English players out of the big four. They have the money to spend £16m on Carrick and £18m on Hargreaves just as they can spend a combined £30m on Anderson and Nani or something like £27m for Rooney at the tender age of 18. Chelsea has that sort of money too, and you can see it in the premiums they pay for English players (Cole, Cole, and Wright-Phillips for example), but having an English spine is one of the least of Abramovich’s concerns.

Meanwhile, it’s little surprise that the two teams trying to keep up with United and Chelsea financially, Arsenal and Liverpool, have the fewest English players.

Despite the recent fortunes of the national team, which I’m certain was the impetus behind this study, I don’t necessarily agree that it’s bad for football. It’s arguably been a good thing for club football, evidenced by the fact the Premiership spins as much money worldwide as it does. Of course it’s also evidenced by the fact I’m writing about it despite being an ocean away, and the sustained interest in the league from countries around the world.

With the dearth of English players in the first team sides, you’d expect to see similar in the reserves and academies of Premier League clubs. And Liverpool should be a prime example of it given Benitez’s worldwide scouting network, an influx of young foreigners, an emphasis on using young players in the reserves, and the need to be cost-efficient with player transfers. But the disparity isn’t as big as I’d imagined before looking at the numbers.

Not counting players who spent the majority of the season on loan, there are currently 6 reserve team players from England, 4 from Spain, 3 from Hungary, 2 from Argentina, and 1 each from France, Holland, Morocco, Paraguay, Scotland.

I realize the reserves are fairly fluid, but for argument’s sake, here’s a usual starting line-up: Martin; Darby, San Jose, Huth, Insua; El Zhar, Plessis, Spearing, Flynn; Nemeth, Brouwer. That team wouldn’t qualify according to FIFA’s plan, with only Martin, Darby, Spearing and Flynn eligible for England.

The Under-18 team from the Academy (I’m counting those who played more than 5 games for the U-18s) contains 11 from England, 3 from Ireland, 2 from Sweden, and 1 each from Australia, Denmark, Germany, Ireland, and Scotland. (FYI: There are a number of players who played for both the Reserves and Under-18s. I’m counting them in the team for which they played the most games.) It’s more multinational than it was under Heighway, but the vast majority are still from the Home Nations, if not eligible for England.

As for those on loan (Anderson, Antwi, Carson, Guthrie, Hammill, Hobbs, Roque, and Threlfall), six are English, with Antwi Ghanian and Roque Spanish.

I realize Liverpool is an “extreme” example, and of course recognize the oddity of an American writing about this from the other side of the ocean, but those numbers in the youth set-up don’t appear overwhelming. England is still the most represented, with the Academy having far more English players. But at the same time, Liverpool are adequately planning for the future by poaching (yes, poaching) young foreign talent so they don’t have to pay ridiculous fees in a few years.

Look, regardless of supporting Liverpool, I don’t believe instituting player quotas is going to fix the problems with the English national team. That needs to be done by improving grass-roots football, aiding and improving lower-league clubs’ academies so they can identify and nurture young English talent, and even re-opening an FA Center of Excellence, such as the much-discussed Burton National Football Centre.

But England also needs to understand that with the globalization of sport and the increasing quality coming out of the Americas and Africa that the country isn’t an automatic world-beater anymore, if they ever were. And, despite my nationality, I say that as an England fan for nearly 20 years now, more than two-thirds of my life. Plus, as pointed out by a Premiership statement in the BBC article, England struggled to qualify for a number of tournaments in the 70s and 80s, when this certainly wasn't an issue in the old Division 1.

The FIFA rule might narrow the gap between the ‘big four’ and the rest of the league, which is one of the intended goals of the directive. But given United and Chelsea’s ability to pay whatever they want for English talent (and Arsenal will be there soon given the increasing match-day profits thanks to the Emirates), it could also create a greater disparity between the big and small clubs.

More clubs would lose talent like, to make a cheeky example, Gareth Barry, a club captain for Villa who’s been rumored to be joining Liverpool. And the smaller clubs would be further punished by their inability to pay the higher costs for English talent. I may be an idiot when it comes to economics, but I think I have a grasp of supply and demand, and I’m pretty sure it’s applicable here.

Admittedly, something needs to be done to lessen the gap between the big four and the other 16, as well as something to improve the fortunes of the English national team. But I firmly believe FIFA’s quota will do neither. Creating a further premium on English talent while restricting the number of foreigners any side can play probably won’t increase competition the Premiership at all. I hate to suggest American “remedies” for European sport, but either a salary cap or a luxury tax/redistribution of profits would do far more to increase parity.

And might not even help the national team, given those players could be up against a diluted Premiership. Teams from top to bottom, from Arsenal and Liverpool to relegation candidates, would suffer, and those staring for the English national side would be up against lesser competition. You can’t tell me that players like Gerrard, Terry, et al don’t improve by playing with and against the world’s best week in and week out. Players who deserve to play in the Premiership and players who deserve to play for England still get their shot for both big and small clubs in the league.

To make a long story short, please, Blatter, Platini, FIFA, etc, keep your politics out of football.

20 May 2008

On Phillipp Degen and free transfers

Long-rumored news has finally been confirmed today with the signing of right back Phillipp Degen on a free transfer.

Unsurprisingly, and much like the Voronin transfer last season, it’s prompted a range of reactions. Just surf message boards like RAWK, RAOTL, and TLW for starters.

Despite seeing most of Switzerland’s games at the World Cup, I can’t say anything concrete about Degen. If not for seeing pictures of him with every article I couldn’t pick him out of a line-up. But I also absolutely detest seeing players criticized before they’ve even pulled on a shirt.

Liverpool needs help at full back on both flanks, which was highlighted in the season review. However, Arbeloa (plus Finnan for at least one more season) is more than a capable defender and will continue to play a number of games. Which is why it’s reassuring to see the quotes from Benitez in today’s piece.

"He [Degen] is an offensive player with great energy and a winning mentality. His strength is going forward and I am confident he will be prove to be a quality addition to our squad."

He added: "Sometimes you can find these players on the market. When you find a player like him who costs no money it means you can use money for improving other parts of the squad."

Liverpool needs a player like that, especially in the 4-2-3-1, where much of the width is provided by the full backs. Of course I’m not convinced he’ll settle or slide right into the side, but the fact that Benitez wanted the player and that he’s more an attacking full back (in contrast to Arbeloa) are good signs, no matter the player’s transfer fee. To paraphrase a favorite Benitez euphemism, 'he will provide possibilities.'

Plus, and as noted by Benitez, signing the player on a free leaves the transfer budget (whatever it may be) intact for other signings. And no matter the ownership uncertainty, it appears there will be some funds. Everybody’s probably seen the Bentley, Barry, and Dossena rumors, among others, and I’d be very surprised if Liverpool doesn’t sign at least one (if not more) of those players.

Admittedly, Benitez doesn’t have the best record with free transfers (Pellegrino, Zenden, Fowler, Aurelio, and Voronin), but who does? While none of those players were world-beaters, all filled a needed role (and some were shipped out when Liverpool bought better replacements).

Pellegrino was essential in spelling Hyypia for the Champions League in 04/05, Zenden and Fowler played their parts in 06/07, Aurelio has the potential to be a world-class left back if he can stay healthy, and, well, we’ve debated the merits of Voronin all season long. Free transfers may not be the big name signings we’ve hoped for, and won’t win the league on their own, but more often than not they fill a valuable purpose.

No one’s pretending Degen’s going to be the end all, be all of summer signings. But he has a role to play, in a position where Liverpool’s lacking, and I’d hope he at least gets the chance to show what he can do before he’s derided from all corners of the internet.

16 May 2008

Liverpool Season Review 2007/08

We’ve sure come a long way from those heady days in August when Liverpool was top of the league and threatening to mount a challenge for a 19th title.

For all the complaints over a fourth place finish (which are justified), and the relief in seeing this season finally in the books (mostly due to the ongoing off-field circus), there are still many positives to take away.

First, the arrivals of Torres, Skrtel and Babel, as well as a long-term deal for Mascherano, yet more signs of the ongoing improvement of the squad. Despite finishing fourth, a spot lower than last year (although eight points higher than last season’s total), Liverpool has more and better players at their disposal. In addition, Benitez has seemingly found a formation that caters to the talents of both Gerrard and Torres. It’s been said far too often, especially after last season, but it truly does feel like Liverpool isn’t that far away from the top two.

It’s nearly impossible to do Torres’ season justice, while Mascherano will be a cornerstone for years to come (the fact that Liverpool spent somewhere in the region of £18m on the player hopefully demonstrates that the purse strings aren’t tied too tight), but I want to focus on Skrtel for a second, who was almost as important to the second half of the season as both Masch and Torres.

I’m bordering on hyperbole, but Skrtel played a huge part in Liverpool finishing fourth and qualifying for next year’s Champions League. Look at the statistics posted yesterday; a big reason Liverpool struggled this year was the fact that they gave up more goals and kept less clean sheets (although Reina still won the golden gloves).

While the offense drastically improved thanks to Torres (as well as Babel and Benayoun), the defense was the worst since Benitez’s first season. I didn’t include it in the statistics post, but Liverpool also gave away more penalties this season than in the previous three seasons combined.

But even more important was the fact that Liverpool lost a lead six times this season: Chelsea (h), Tottenham (h), Arsenal (h), Wigan (h), Aston Villa (h) and Arsenal (a), all of which ended in draws. That only happened once in each of the past two seasons: a loss to Newcastle after going up 1-0 in the 6th minute in 06/07 and a 2-2 draw against Birmingham in 05/06.

Five out of those six games came before Skrtel signed, with only the Chelsea match coming before Agger’s injury. And to make matters worse, five of those six games listed this season came at Anfield. Had Liverpool kept a lead in all of those it would have been an extra 12 points. They finished 11 behind Manchester United.

The biggest factor is most likely Agger’s long-standing injury -- not only is he an outstanding defender and partners Carra very well, but he brings the ball out of defense excellently and pops up with goals now and then -- but, and it truly saddens me to write this, Carragher, Hyypia, and Finnan are all showing signs of age, while Riise had his worst season in a Liverpool shirt.

I firmly believe with Agger returning to fitness (providing Carragher and Hyypia more rest to be fresher) and some money spent at fullback (plus the continuing development of Insua), this won’t be an issue next season. Defense is what Benitez has built his reputation on, and I highly doubt he’s lost the plot in that area. It’s about finding the balance between attack, which has vastly improved this season, and defense.

But just as important as the squad improvement, if not more so, is that Liverpool survived. Despite the off-field turmoil, Liverpool’s qualified for next season’s Champions League and made it to the semi-finals this year. Lesser teams would have succumbed to the first three group stage games, the injuries to key players (especially in defense), the poor league spell in the winter, or any time during the Gillett/Hicks/DIC fiasco. But this side didn’t.

And just as importantly, Benitez survived. At nearly any moment during this crisis, Benitez could have walked away and it would have been understandable, with the ownership issue hanging over the club like the Sword of Damocles, Benitez’s mysterious November press conference and January transfer saga, and the Jurgen Klinsmann farce. And it would have set Liverpool back years.

Much of the Spanish contingent probably would have angled for an exit, as could other players signed by Rafa. It could have been Gerrard’s prime and Carragher’s final years wasted. And so much for the youth development set up by Benitez: Insua, Plessis, Nemeth, San Jose, Pacheco, and Bruna, just to name a few.

There may have been moments of wavering during the poor spell through the winter, but I firmly, firmly believe Benitez is the right man to take Liverpool forward. Yes, all the way to the Premiership title. If you could combine the defensive record of 05/06 with this year’s attack, it probably would have already happened.

Liverpool had fewer losses than last season, a vastly improved away record (34 points this season compared to 22 points in 06/07), more goals scored (119, the most since 2000/01) and double-digit goal scorers (Torres, Gerrard, Kuyt, Crouch, Benayoun and Babel), and a better record coming from behind. Plus, there was the double over Everton, which was much better than last season’s performance in the derbies.

The failings were more draws (but, again, fewer losses), a worse Anfield record, a worse defensive record, and finishing a spot lower in the league. But I do believe all of those are remediable, and without spending a ton of money.

Now we just need to settle this ownership nonsense and then roll on August.

15 May 2008

Season Review - Statistics

I’ll have a long-ish overarching season review up either tomorrow or Saturday (okay, Monday at worst), but I want to post some statistics to keep in mind as a preface. I’m well aware of the old chestnut “lies, damned lies, and statistics,” but I think all these facts merit a mention. But including them in the same post as a season-long review is probably too much.

I’m including the numbers for all of Liverpool’s seasons under Benitez as a comparison, because we’ve heard that Liverpool hasn’t made enough progress under Benitez so often this season. Judge for yourself.

Liverpool’s league record under Benitez:
Home: 12 wins, 4 draws, 3 losses
Away: 5 wins, 3 draws, 11 losses
58 points
Home: 15 wins, 3 draws, 1 loss
Away: 10 wins, 4 draws, 5 losses
82 points
Home: 14 wins, 4 draws, 1 loss
Away: 6 wins, 4 draws, 9 losses
68 points
Home: 12 wins, 6 draws 1 loss
Away: 9 wins, 7 draws, 3 losses
76 points

In the past three seasons, Liverpool’s only lost one game at Anfield in each. It was to the eventual league winners in all three.

League goals for and against:
04/05: 52 scored, 41 conceded (82 for in all competitions)
05/06: 57 scored, 25 conceded (104 for in all competitions)
06/07: 57 scored, 27 conceded (90 for in all competitions)
07/08: 67 scored, 28 conceded (119 for in all competitions)

Liverpool only conceded 7 league goals at Anfield in 06/07 compared to 13 this year.

Top scorer:
04/05: Milan Baros - 9 in the league, 13 in total (Gerrard and Garcia also finished the season with 13 goals)
05/06: Steven Gerrard - 10 in the league, 23 overall
06/07: Peter Crouch - 9 in the league, 18 overall (Kuyt was top scorer in the league with 12)
07/08: Fernando Torres - 24 in the league, 33 overall

Clean sheets:
04/05: 7 in the league, 18 overall
05/06: 22 in the league, 33 overall
06/07: 20 in the league, 28 overall
07/08: 18 in the league, 25 overall

Points behind the league winners:
04/05: 37
05/06: 9
06/07: 21
07/08: 11

14 May 2008

Liverpool goals of the season 07/08

I’m doing this a bit different than in the past, in the hopes that the videos I’ve linked won’t be deleted (as in the past). Plus, not all the goals are still online. So I’ve gone through everything I have and created one big clip of all 10 goals.

Hopefully the YouTube video will stay up, but in addition, if you want to download it, there’s a link at the bottom of the post. The quality’s not the best but there’s only so much I can do with clips of different sizes and compression.

10) Lucas v Havant & Waterlooville – I went back and forth over putting this or El Zhar’s first goal against Cardiff here, but Lucas barely edges it for me. Both goals were classic shots from outside the box, but Lucas’ was arguably more important, as Liverpool had struggled to penetrate Havant’s defense to that point, and I imagine we’ll be seeing a lot more like this from the player.
9) Torres v Chelsea – I almost put his last goal against Spurs in this spot, as they were quite similar and he arguably embarrassed Dawson even more than Ben Haim, but I’m going with the one for two reasons. One, it set the tone for things to come and two, what a pass from Gerrard.
8) Torres v Newcastle – Can’t say much else besides, “Wow, Torres and Gerrard have an incredible partnership.”
7) Aurelio @ Bolton – Another cracker of a first goal. Great control, even better strike.
6) Torres @ Boro – Without this moment of magic, Liverpool assuredly would have lost this game. And it shows the best thing about Torres: he can score every single type of goal. He’s utterly peerless, such a special player.
5) Gerrard @ Newcastle – No matter how often he scores from distance or how many amazing free kicks he hits, they’re all still stunners. Captain Fantastic indeed.
4) Babel v Besiktas – This one’s for Manton (as it’s prompted a debate whether it was better than Henry’s noteworthy back heel), but I’d have included it regardless. The fact that Liverpool put 8 past a comprehensively beaten Besiktas shouldn’t diminish from the goal by any means. It takes a lot of talent to pull off a trick like that, and it was a clever run into space to get into that position.
3) Gerrard @ Villa – Simply stunning free kick, and in the dying minutes of the first match of the season after Villa had equalized on an iffy penalty kick (by Gareth Barry…). Pity it didn’t set the precedent for the season that we’d hoped.
2) Torres @ Marseille – More than a few of Torres’ goals have come when he’s broken the ankles of defenders to beat his man, but this is my favorite simply for the way he embarrassed Julien Rodriguez. Normally a defender only throws him arm in the air like that when he has a case for offside…
1) Gerrard v Besiktas – Again, I am a complete sucker for pass and move team goals, especially ones that are set up by exceptionally clever back heels.

Honorable mention:
El Zhar v Cardiff
Benayoun @ Reading (Carling Cup)
Torres @ Derby
Babel v Derby
Torres’ 2nd v Boro

Download from Mediafire here

13 May 2008

OYB Awards 07/08

I’ll be doing more post-season wrap-ups and other assorted fun in the coming days, but I wanted to start out with a list of “awards” for the season.

Leave your own in the comments.

Player of the season:
1) Fernando Torres
2) Javier Mascherano
3) Steven Gerrard

Most pleasing result of the season:
1) Liverpool 4-2 Arsenal
2) Liverpool 2-1 Everton
3) Liverpool 4-0 Marseille

Most entertaining game of the season:
1) 8-0 Besiktas
2) 4-2 Arsenal
3) 2-3 Chelsea (yes, I know, despite the result)

Most underrated player:
1) Martin Skrtel
2) Sami Hyypia
3) Dirk Kuyt

Young player of the season (PFA does 23 or younger, I’m using 21):
1) Ryan Babel
2) Lucas
3) Damien Plessis

(Torres turned 24 in March, Mascherano will be 24 in June, and Skrtel will be 24 in December)

Best Signing:
1) Torres
2) Skrtel
3) Yossi Benayoun

Best Goal:
1) Gerrard v Besiktas
2) Torres at Marseille
3) Gerrard at Villa

Worst performance of the season:
1) 0-1 Marseille
2) 0-0 Birmingham
3) 1-3 Reading

Stomach punch of the season:
1) 1-1 Chelsea (h; CL)
2) 2-3 Chelsea (a; CL)
3) 0-1 United (h)

Daylight Robbery:
1) 1-1 Chelsea (h)
2) 0-1 West Ham (a)
3) 1-1 Wigan (a)

11 May 2008

Liverpool 2-0 Tottenham

Arbeloa Skrtel Carragher Insua
Kuyt Gerrard Mascherano Babel
Torres Voronin

Voronin 69’
Torres 74’

As predicted, the first half was the epitome of an end-of-season match. Thankfully, it picked up the pace in the second, with two good goals by the strikers and entertaining play to boot, to end the season on the right note.

It was a slightly different formation than usual, with both Torres and Voronin up top and Gerrard deeper in midfield, but players were moving around the pitch, and even in the first half it was end-to-end despite a sloppiness in the final third from both sides.

Crouch, Riise, Pennant, and (unfortunately) Alonso were noticeable in their absence, and that none even made the bench says a lot about the summer plans. Supposedly, Alonso missed out through injury, but remembering Gerrard’s “neck injury” a few weeks back, I’m still both skeptical and worried. The departures of the first three listed wouldn’t surprise me, but losing Alonso, despite the fact he hasn’t been at his best for most of the season, is something I still have to get my head around.

Even considering back and forth nature of the game, neither side created many chances in the first half. Voronin and Babel both tested Cerny in the first 15 minutes, but the best chance of the half came from Berbatov’s header from a corner 25 minutes in, with Reina making an excellent reaction save to keep the Bulgarian from tallying in what may be his last game for Spurs. But other than that, little was coming off for either side in the final third and it really was a sub-par first half for both sides despite the openness of the game.

Gerrard did well to pull the strings in midfield, but had less influence sitting deeper and far less of a combination with Torres than usual. Meanwhile, Tottenham only really threatened through their corners (they had eight in total, with the majority coming in the first half, and their best stretch of pressure came during a run of three straight, culminating with the aforementioned Berbatov chance).

However, playing for pride, both teams came out better in the second. Liverpool again had the first opportunity, with Gerrard further forward and linking up with Torres, only for Cerny to block the Spaniard’s effort with an outstretched leg five minutes in. From there though, Tottenham had their best spell of pressure of the match, more successful in their passing and in keeping the ball away from Liverpool.

But in the 69th minute, Skrtel’s long ball out found Torres, whose flicked header put Voronin in on goal. The oft-criticized (and frequently rightfully so) Ukrainian controlled well, avoiding Dawson and slotting past Cerny for the opener (and it’s worth noting he opened the scoring against Spurs at Anfield as well) for his fifth in the league.

Spurs almost had an immediate reply through Berbatov’s excellent volley, which was well-saved by an acrobatic Reina, but five minutes after the opener, Torres got the goal that gave him the record for most in a debut season by a foreigner. One-on-one with Dawson after Benayoun got him the ball, Torres looked like cutting inside, but opened up and sprinted past the centerback to slot through Cerny’s legs, eerily similar to his first goal for Liverpool against Chelsea. He truly has had an amazing season, and at age 24, he’s only going to get better.

From there, Liverpool could have had a rout. Hutton nearly scored a spectacular own goal, Woodgate put in a last ditch tackle on Gerrard with the captain almost through, and then Torres cheekily chipped over Cerny only for the effort to careen off the bar. Late on Benayoun nearly got a goal of his own, stinging the keeper’s palms, but the home side was able to keep it at 2-0.

After all the drama of the season, Liverpool end the campaign with 76 points, their second-highest total under Benitez. Gerrard, as usual influential in midfield, was probably the man of the match, but today was Torres’ day. Even after watching him all season long, I still find it hard to believe how much of an impact he’s had. Few players take to the Premiership so quickly: 24 goals in the league, 33 in all competitions, and he’s still only 24 and improving in every match. This was only his third goal away from Anfield in the league this season, and that’s where I expect him to improve the most next year.

I also have to credit the defense today. In the last game of the season, this is the first time Tottenham’s been held scoreless at White Hart Lane. As mentioned, Spurs had a number of corners, while Liverpool has struggled on set plays and in defense this season. But it was another clean sheet kept, the 18th of the season, and Reina’s again going home with the golden gloves. Obviously, I’m also going to make mention of Insua, who struggled against Malbranque at times (it was little surprise Carragher played on the left of defense to support him), but got forward well and was increasingly assured as the game went on.

Where Liverpool struggled today was on the wings, and I doubt it was a coincidence that both goals came after Benayoun came on for Babel. Babel continues to show flashes of brilliance, especially when the ball’s at his feet and he’s running at defenders, but he still floats in and out of the game and has questionable decision-making. But he’s still finding his way, and it’s a credit to the manager that he’s used him more and more as the season’s gone on. I expect big things from the Dutchman next season as he continues to adjust to English football.

So that’s this season in the books. Admittedly, after the turmoil that’s gone on, part of me is happy to see it come to a close, but Liverpool finished strongly, unbeaten in the league in the last seven matches, with the lone loss in the last 11 coming in the Champions League semi-final at Stamford Bridge.

But we’ve also seen where Liverpool need to improve. Despite clean sheets in the last two and Reina’s golden gloves, the team’s given up the most goals since Benitez’s first season, while Liverpool still need to get more from the wide players, both in midfield and from the fullbacks.

With those positions marked for the off-season transfer window, plus the on-going ownership saga, it’ll assuredly be an eventful summer.

I can't wait until August.

09 May 2008

Liverpool at Tottenham 05.11.08

10am EST, delayed in the US on FSC at 7pm. Weak -- a few days ago it was supposed to be on at Noon. Meanwhile, FSC’s website says that the Boro/City game will start at 6:30pm. So yeah…

Last 4 head-to-head:
2-2 (h) 10.07.07
1-0 Liverpool (a) 12.30.06
3-0 Liverpool (h) 09.23.06
1-0 Liverpool (h) 01.14.06

Last 3 matches:
Liverpool: 1-0 City (h); 2-3 Chelsea (a); 2-2 Brum (a)
Spurs: 1-0 Reading (a); 1-1 Bolton (h); 1-1 Wigan (a)

Goalscorers (league):
Liverpool: Torres 23; Gerrard 11; Crouch 5; Babel, Benayoun, Voronin 4; Kuyt 3; Alonso, Pennant 2; Aurelio, Hyypia, Mascherano, Sissoko 1
Spurs: Berbatov, Keane 15; Bent 6; Defoe, Jenas, Malbranque 4; Huddlestone, Kaboul 3; Bale, Chimbonda, Lennon 2; Dawson, Gardner, Gilberto, O’Hara 1

Referee: Uriah Rennie

Shockingly, Rennie’s been given the fewest fixtures of any Premiership referee this season (tied with Keith Stroud on six). This will be his last game in the Premier League, as he’s retiring due to age at the end of the season.

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

Even though it’s the last match of the season, with little to play for and the game likely to be representative of that (like last week’s home finale against City), I still think we’ll see a fairly strong side, if not what’s become Benitez’s “favored” XI.

Given that Torres is a goal away from breaking van Nistelrooy’s scoring record for a foreigner in a debut season (and two more would catch Adebayor for top scorer as a striker), he has to be a nailed-on starter. Similarly, Reina will have played in every minute of Premiership if he completes the game on Sunday, and has now won the golden gloves for most clean sheets (David James, one behind, looks set to miss Pompey’s match).

Meanwhile, I’m not sure how many reserves (including Lucas) will feature after winning the reserve championship on Wednesday. Hopefully Insua will, as Riise is expected to leave the club, but I wouldn’t be surprised to see the Norwegian receive one last bow (although the fact he didn’t get one at Anfield makes that somewhat doubtful). And honestly, despite the season he’s had, there’s no way one could argue Riise doesn’t deserve a final appearance if he is on his way out.

It could also be the last match for a few others. You’ve probably seen the rumors surrounding both Crouch and Pennant, while today brings “news” of Juventus' interest in Alonso. I’ve said before and I’ll say it again -- I’ll be stunned if Alonso departs (I definitely don’t want him to), and if he leaves, it’ll be of his own accord. But of the others mentioned, I have to believe at least one or two will exit.

Both Aurelio and Agger returned to training this week, but I’d be very surprised to see either risked.

On the official site today, Benitez made mention of dropping “silly points” in the reverse fixture at Anfield and little could be closer to the truth. In the lead after 13 minutes through Voronin, Liverpool gave up two identical Keane goals from long balls and Berbatov flicks on either side of halftime before Torres equalized in injury time. It wasn’t the first time Liverpool were susceptible to defensive miscues this season and it wouldn’t be the last.

Make no mistake, even with Berbatov seemingly on his way out he’ll still probably play, and Liverpool will still have to be wary of both his and Keane’s prowess in the box.

Spurs will look to close out the season on the right foot at home, even though they’ve seemingly mailed it in since winning the Carling Cup. Four out of their last five games have ended 1-1 (Blackburn, Boro, Wigan, Bolton) before beating Reading 1-0 last week, while Liverpool’s unbeaten in their last six in the league.

A win on Sunday would see Liverpool reach 76 points, their second-highest total under Benitez and an increase of eight points from last year’s mark, despite all the insanity surrounding the club. It’s not what we’d hoped for by any stretch of the imagination, but after Benitez’s exit looked possible in the fall and the dire league stretch throughout the winter, it’s not a bad outcome either. I’d imagine many fans will be happy to see the end of this campaign (I certainly will be), but it’s still imperative that it ends on the right note.

Last predictions of the season

So with one week of fixtures left I’m one game below the goal of 50% for the season, and that’s only because I went 7-2 last week. I’m fully aware I’ll probably end up missing it regardless. The current tally is 166 right and 167 wrong, with 37 spot on.

Chances are we won’t be doing this again next season either way.

Chelsea v Bolton, 10am, FSC: Chelsea 2-0
Wigan v Manchester Utd, 10am, Setanta: United 3-1
Birmingham v Blackburn, 10am: 1-1
Derby v Reading, 10am: Reading 1-0
Everton v Newcastle, 10am: Everton 2-1
Middlesbrough v Manchester City, 10am: 1-1
Portsmouth v Fulham, 10am: 1-1
Sunderland v Arsenal, 10am: Arsenal 2-0
West Ham v Aston Villa, 10am: Villa 1-0

It’s in Fulham’s hands thanks to a superior goal difference over Reading (Birmingham can still go down even if they win if either Fulham or Reading do the business), but traveling to Derby is a bit different than traveling to Fratton Park, even if Portsmouth will be focused on the FA Cup final and have lost their last three. Pompey certainly won’t want to go into the cup final winless in their last five.

If these predictions bear out, Reading would escape relegation by beating Derby, with 36 points compared to Fulham’s 34 and Birmingham’s 33.

Personally, I’d love to see Fulham stay up. Danny Murphy, Clint Dempsey, Brian McBride, and Jimmy Bullard are all players I really like, not to mention I lived nearest to Fulham when residing in London and saw games at Loftus Road (it was the year Craven Cottage was being renovated) on a few occasions, but there’s a lot to be said about playing the worst team in Premiership history on the last day of the season, even if it’s at their ground. But I have been known to make predictions in the hopes of jinxing results, much to the detriment of my predictions record.

Why there are no games on Setanta Xtra when they’re all playing at the same time is beyond me. Nice going, US television.

08 May 2008

Is this thing on?

I apologize for the nearly week-long radio silence, but we've pretty much hit the off-season. However, as it’s still early May, I’ve little desire to wade into transfer gossip I usually ignore when we’re actually in the full-fledged silly season: Crouch has a £15m price tag, the Barry talk has hit a fever pitch (and is giving O’Neill fits), Crouch, Carson, Riise, Pennant and others are rumored to be on their way out, while Benitez has confirmed Kewell will depart.

Have I mentioned that there’s still a round of fixtures left? Sigh. Hopefully this means business will be done sooner rather than later, but after the mess at boardroom level all season long, I'll believe it when I see it.

On the good news front, Agger's back in training (mentioned in the long Benitez interview that's the Crouch price tag link), the new stadium plan’s been approved (for the third time; now it's been pushed back until maaaaaaaybe 2011/2012) and congratulations to the reserves, who won the league championship over Aston Villa thanks to goals from Nemeth, Brouwer, and Lucas. Special mention goes out to Gary Ablett, who’s in his first season as reserve manager.

Back tomorrow with the final Premiership predictions and a preview of the Liverpool/Spurs match.

04 May 2008

Liverpool 1-0 Manchester City

Finnan Carragher Hyypia Insua
Lucas Mascherano
Kuyt Gerrard Babel

Torres 58’

For the first half, it was both a typical encounter between these two sides and a cagey end of season match. But in the second Liverpool kicked it up a gear, culminating with Torres’ 32nd goal of the second, yet another match-winner by the Spaniard and his eight-consecutive at Anfield in the league.

Neither side provided much attacking impetus in the opening 45 minutes, but Liverpool were the better side throughout, while City struggled to get Benjani as a lone striker into the game. But outside of a superlative strike by Gerrard, going for a curler into the far corner from Insua’s set-up and forcing Hart into an outstanding save, there were few chances on goal to write home about.

Gerrard was the key man throughout the half with that effort on goal, another low effort just wide of the post, and attempting to find Torres on a number of occasions, while both Lucas and Mascherano were excellent in midfield, but it was little surprise when the half ended 0-0. All too often, Liverpool were looking to attack City’s fullbacks (Ball and Jihai, Jihai more often than not), but there weren’t enough men in the box to take advantage of any crosses sent in.

However, Liverpool made use of their edge in possession and began to take the game to the opposition much more in the second half. Less than two minutes after the restart, Gerrard flicked a delightful pass with the outside of his foot to put Torres through, but the striker sent his shot wide of the far post from a tough angle.

Elano’s swerving free kick in the 51st minute, just hitting the outside of the post, reminded of the possibility of a goal against the run of play, which has been an all-too-often occurrence at times this season and one of the main reasons Liverpool's sitting in fourth.

But in the 58th, Kuyt headed Michael Ball’s mishit clearance towards Torres, and the striker beat Dunne one-on-one, similar to his first goal for the club against Ben Haim and Chelsea, to slot through Hart’s legs for the opener. Yep, another strike in front of the Kop. Long may it continue.

Liverpool really should have added a second within the next 10 minutes, with Hart making a wonderful save on Kuyt’s volley and keeping out Lucas’s subsequent bicycle kick, Kuyt heading off the bar and then too close to Hart, and a lovely run and cutback by Torres spurned by Babel inside the six-yard box.

Soon after, City brought Hamann on to shore up the midfield and keep the ball away from Liverpool, and while it worked to a certain degree, the home side still had chances on the break, most notably when Mascherano blasted a decent shot from distance that Hart saved, but with Torres in acres of space on the right waiting for the pass.

Outside of 30-yard free kick by Benjani parried away by Reina in the 81st, City was limited to little in attack, and even with Liverpool holding a narrow one goal lead, which hasn’t been enough far too often this season, the result was rarely in doubt.

Though Liverpool rarely took it out of second gear, I was pleased with many of the players’ performances. It’s easy to let heads drop and just go through the motions after a loss like the one suffered on Wednesday and with fourth place assured, but the team responded well enough.

As said, Gerrard was probably the best player in the first half, and continued his influence in the second before being substituted with 10 minutes left to play. Mascherano was everywhere in midfield, as usual, but also sprayed some cross-field passes across the pitch reminiscent of Alonso while Lucas did well playing from box to box. Kuyt also put in another workman-like performance, but was much more of a goal threat and should have scored, having chances with that lovely volley and something like five headers towards goal that were either saved, wide of the target, or ricocheted off the bar.

In addition, I can’t go without a mention of Insua in his first start of the season. I’m well aware I’m prone to exaggeration when it comes to the player, but I thought he was solid and steady throughout. He didn’t bomb forward as often as in the reserves and I’m still concerned about his height as a Premier League defender, but defensively he was better than expected. Up against a wily veteran in Vassell he kept the right winger quiet for much of the match.

Outside of not getting a second goal that would have sealed the match, this is pretty much what was hoped for following the Chelsea match. Liverpool played a marginally stronger side than I imagined, but it shows that this is pretty much the team Benitez plans to go forward with.

What was surprising was no place on the bench for Crouch, Riise, or Pennant. I’m loath to read too much into this things, but at the very least I’d have expected to see Crouch at some stage, if not from the start. In addition, that neither Nemeth nor Plessis was available as a sub is slightly disappointing, but I’m still fairly sure both will be bedded in with the first team next season.

Now, another performance like this at Tottenham next week will close out the season as well as can be expected with Liverpool out of the running for a trophy. And it’s crucial the team finish the season as strongly as possible to build a platform for 2008/09.

02 May 2008

Liverpool v Manchester City 05.04.08

11am EST, live in the US on FSC

Last 4 head-to-head:
0-0 (a) 12.30.07
0-0 (a) 04.14.07
1-0 Liverpool (h) 11.25.06
1-0 Liverpool (h) 02.26.05

Last 3 matches:
Liverpool: 2-3 Chelsea (a); 2-2 Brum; 1-1 Chelsea (h)
City: 2-3 Fulham (h); 3-1 Pompey (h); 2-1 Sunderland (a)

Goalscorers (league):
Liverpool: Torres 22; Gerrard 11; Crouch 5; Babel, Benayoun, Voronin 4; Kuyt 3; Alonso, Pennant 2; Aurelio, Hyypia, Mascherano, Sissoko 1
City: Elano 7; Vassell 6; Petrov 5; Bianchi, Ireland 4; Benjani, Geovanni 3; Gelson, Johnson, Mpenza 2; Etuhu, Onuoha, Sturridge 1

Referee: Mark Halsey

Guess at a squad:
Arbeloa Carragher Hyypia Insua
Plessis Lucas
Pennant Gerrard Babel

Torres and Skrtel both trained today after going off with injuries on Wednesday, but I’d still be surprised to see either start.

I’ve no desire to see an under-strength side, as in the last couple of league games or like the end of last season’s campaign, with Liverpool now out of the Champions League, but at the same time, some the young players need to be given a go, and key players like Torres and Skrtel shouldn’t be risked even though we’re so close to the summer.

First and foremost among the reserves, I sincerely hope we see Insua from the start. With Riise likely to leave and Aurelio injured, Insua has to be given games. He simply has to, even if Liverpool are looking to sign a left-back in the off-season (relatedly, yes, I saw the Barry article in the Echo and now BBC, but no, I’ve nothing new to say about it).

In addition, I’d hope to see Lucas or Plessis, or ideally both, in central midfield. The two played well as a unit in the reserves, and both look likely to see much more first team action next season. And it would be both Insua and Plessis' first game at Anfield. However, I also wouldn’t be surprised to see either Lucas or Plessis paired with Alonso, first because it’d be a sign that Xabi would be likely to be here next season, and second because he’s still playing his way back to form.

We also could see Mikel San Jose, who’s made the first team bench before this season, step into one of the center back spots. Maybe even Nemeth on the bench (hopefully), but I’ve been burned saying that in the last couple of previews.

But I hope to see established starters like Gerrard, Carragher, and Babel play as well.

For City, Richard Dunne should return from injury, but it’s most likely too soon for Micah Richards, Bojinov, or Garrido. Sven will most likely deploy a 4-5-1, as he has all season long, and it wouldn’t surprise me if they used Corluka to shadow Gerrard, as they did in the reverse fixture and similar to Makelele’s role in the CL semis.

There have been 4 goals scored in last six meetings between the sides, while the last two games have ended 0-0. With Liverpool playing out the season and City in some disarray following rumors of Sven’s sacking, there’s a good chance it’ll be another cagey display. But the opposite could easily happen: Liverpool looking to get back on the front foot after going out of Europe, while the City players try to save Eriksson’s job.

With fourth place assured, we’re all well aware that Liverpool’s pretty much just playing for pride. But pride can still be an excellent motivator, while some in the squad, both young and established, are playing for a place in the side next season. Plus, this is the last game at Anfield for the season, and I'd hope the team send the fans away happy.

These two games do matter. Not as much as we hoped at the beginning of the season, but they matter nonetheless. It’s crucial Liverpool end this troublesome season on as high a note as possible.

Predictions 5/3 - 5/5

Manchester Utd v West Ham, 7:45am, Setanta: United 3-1
Reading v Tottenham, 10am, FSC: 1-1
Fulham v Birmingham, 10am, Setanta: Fulham 2-1
Aston Villa v Wigan, 10am, Setanta Xtra: Villa 2-0
Blackburn v Derby, 10am: Blackburn 3-0
Middlesbrough v Portsmouth, 10am: Boro 1-0
Bolton v Sunderland, 12:15pm, FSC: Bolton 1-0
Arsenal v Everton, 8:30am Sunday, Setanta: Arse 2-1
Newcastle v Chelsea, 11am Monday, Setanta: Chelsea 2-1

Losing time to get to .500, 6 games behind with two weeks to go. Sigh.

159-165; 37 correct scores