29 June 2008

Spain 1-0 Germany

Torres 33’

The first thing I voiced after starting these Spain reviews was the worry that my support for the Spanish squad would jinx their chances. After the conclusion of the tournament, I’m happy to say the opposite turned out to be true.

As I’m sure you’ve read multiple times by now, this is Spain’s first major trophy in 44 years. And the man who scored the goal that sealed the title was Fernando Torres, the reason I started the endeavor of examining Spain’s performances. After misfiring for much of the tournament (and the first 30 minutes of today’s match), Torres produced a moment of brilliance like the many he performed for Liverpool time and time again this season.

For the first 10 minutes of the game it looked as if Germany might overrun the Spanish. Having been in this position before, the Germans seemed to start with less weight on their shoulders, were denying Spain the ball, and pushed towards Casillas’ goal. But like in the last match against Russia, Casillas was rarely threatened, and as the game progressed, the Spanish became more dominant.

Indeed, Spain nearly opened the scoring in the 13th minute when Iniesta’s shot deflected off Metzelder, forcing Lehmann into a reaction save to prevent an own goal. Nine minutes later, Torres did well to get on the end of a Ramos cross, only to see his header cannon off the foot of the post, which summed up how most of the tournament has gone for the #9.

But ten minutes following that chance, Torres finally found his Liverpool form with a goal straight out of Benitez’s playbook. Xavi’s throughball put Torres one-on-one with Phillip Lahm, but Torres was left with ground to make up to get on the end of it. But the striker out-paced the quick fullback and deftly chipped over an on-rushing Lehmann to give Spain the lead.

And it was a lead that would last for the rest of the final. Spain continued to turn the screws, although Germany remained tough to break down. Silva had a chance to get a second minutes after the opener but screwed his volley high and wide.

The Germans brought on left back Jansen for Lahm at half-time in an attempt to change proceedings. Which it didn’t. Kuranyi came on the 58th minute for Hitzlsperger, bringing on a striker for a midfielder, and while it brought the Germans more possession, they still weren’t creating chances.

Ramos should have sealed the game in the 66th minute, sending a free header straight at Lehmann from Xavi’s free kick after the German defense completely fouled up the offside trap. But that was one of the few times the German defense was caught asleep; their resilience was the reason Spain only scored one.

Although there’s always a danger of giving up a soft equalizer, Germany rarely looked like getting it. Iniesta continued to threaten, forcing Frings to clear off the line and eliciting a save from Lehmann minutes later, while Senna nearly got on the scoresheet after Guiza’s knockdown into his path in the 80th, only for the ball to bounce unkindly.

As the minutes wore away, the Spanish simply tried to keep possession and prevent the Germans from getting something undeserved. And if there’s any team in this tournament who can pass the ball around all day long, it’s Spain, leading to a final 10 or so minutes that progressively disheartened the Germans.

One of the best things about Spain’s victory is that it demonstrates that the team with the most eye-catching football can win this trophy. To be honest, after Greece’s victory in 2004 and seeing the Russians and Turks do so well this time around, I feared that the most cohesive “team” would succeed, no matter their strategy. But Spain’s victory is a victory for pretty football, and hopefully it’ll set a precedent for the future.

It’s tough to pick a man of the match, especially when Torres gets the winner, and I’m automatically drawn towards him. But I have to highlight Marcos Senna, as Spain wouldn’t have won anything without him. He’s been a superlative holding midfielder: breaking up the play, protecting the back four, and providing a platform for players like Xavi and Fabregas. Throughout the tournament he gave an absolutely master-class performance, but because of his position in the team, it has been overshadowed by the likes of Villa, Torres, and Fabregas.

But I’ll finish on a selfish note. No matter how happy I am for Spain, and I truly am pleased with their performance and that they broke such a long-standing jinx (next up, England’s 42-year drought!), most important to me is that the four Liverpool players in the squad will come back to Anfield brimming with confidence and with the Euro trophy in the cabinet. And hopefully, none more confident than the game-winning Fernando Torres, who continues to show he can score goals on any occasion.

27 June 2008

On Dossena, fullbacks, and the 4-2-3-1

While we’d seen the media treat Dossena like a done deal since his medical, the first hint we’d gotten about it from the official site came yesterday morning in an article where Finnan says he’ll fight for his place. A couple of hours later there’s a statement from Rick Parry saying that the signing should be confirmed next week. I imagine we’ll get the usual parade at Anfield with both Dossena and Degen soon after the official opening of the transfer window.

So now seems as good a time as any to write more about why the upgrades at left and right back could be the most important part of the summer transfer business. I started to hit on this in the Degen post and the ‘season review,’ but with the second signing of a fullback most often described as “attacking,” some elaboration is warranted.

These signings assume that Benitez will stick with the 4-2-3-1, a formation that got the best out of Torres and Gerrard in the second half the season and ended up leading to the most Liverpool goals scored in a season in seven years.

With Babel and Kuyt both better at cutting in than supplying crosses, it’s essential for the fullbacks to add to the attack, especially from wide positions. And having the fullbacks supply crosses with the outside attackers cutting in means there should be enough men in the box to confuse defenders and make targets for said crosses. Having more men in the box and getting the fullbacks forward is essential against the 16 or so teams that usually pack their own half when they come to Anfield, where Liverpool drew six games this season.

Even though Benitez has consistently bought wingers (Nuñez, Gonzalez, Pennant, Zenden, Leto), he’s never spent big money on the position and usually seems to use those types as squad players. That in addition to Liverpool hopefully using the fullbacks for width makes me think the club won’t spend big on a Silva-type this summer. Which means the fullbacks will be that much more important.

Then there were Liverpool’s problems in defense last season. To be fair, the injury to Agger hurt more than anything else, but Finnan, Arbeloa, and Riise didn’t play to their capabilities either, and the combined result was Liverpool’s worst defensive record since Benitez’s first season.

I realize complaining about the defensive record while praising the signing of an attacking fullback seems contradictory, but the more consistently Liverpool attacks, the easier it will be to defend. Especially if you’re adding a quicker defender who can play a high line, as Liverpool often does. Plus, I’m going to be stereotypical here and assume that all Italians are bred to be excellent defenders, some Euro 2008 performances not withstanding.

For all the attacking Riise did, he still shot from distance where passing could have opened up the opposition (and retained possession) more often than not and was shockingly one-footed. I realize I’m trashing JAR a week after writing a fond farewell, but it was what it was.

With Dossena, Liverpool hopefully have a better passer, and more importantly, crosser to help make better use of their possession. In addition, Dossena’s also played in left midfield when Udinese’s gone 3-4-3, so he’s seemingly as versatile as Aurelio and Riise.

I admittedly haven’t seen as much of Dossena as I’d like, catching parts of a few Udinese games on FSC this season and watching the requisite YouTube clips. Much of my optimism comes from the reports in media and various forum posts, my favorite being:

A description of him from a Milan fan: ''Dossena is absolutely tough as nails, left footed, highly skilled but still thuggish in terms of tackling, certainly tactically astute, pace, power, puts in a great ball with his left foot, extremely accurate passer, gets forward, runs all match, etc ... just a top player tailor made for your league.''

Of course I can’t promise it’s true, but it’s ever so much fun to read.

These reviews, the fact that £7m is a record fee for a defender, and that AC Milan, Juventus and Fiorentina were rumored to be in for him, while I’ve wanted Liverpool to sign quality at left back, is enough to make me so optimistic.

Besides, with the sale of Riise to Roma and the fee for Dossena quoted at £7m, it’s only a net £3m for a player that, at the age of 26, should just be hitting his peak.

Italians are rarely renowned for their travels. Only three from this year’s Euro squad (Grosso, Zambrotta, and Toni) ply their trade outside Serie A, there have been few in the Premiership (outside of Chelsea around the turn of the century), and the only other Italian to play for Liverpool was on-loan goalkeeper Daniele Padelli, who started the last game of the 06/07 season at Charlton. However, that Dossena turned down interest in Italy to sign for Liverpool shows the scope of his ambitions and his belief that he can succeed abroad.

Chances are it’ll take time for the player to settle. Those like Torres (and Skrtel for that matter) are aberrations; most foreigners take time to adjust to the style and speed of the English game. Which makes Aurelio of the utmost importance for Dossena’s first few months.

With Arbeloa/Finnan/Degen and Aurelio/Dossena, Liverpool have at least two players for both fullback slots, and Benitez can use each as opposition, injuries, and playing style dictates. Each player brings a different dimension to the team, and creates “possibilities” for Benitez. Plus, having two viable options at left back is a necessity given Aurelio’s injury history.

In addition, I obviously can’t forget Insua, but at 19 he’s still more likely to get starts in the Carling Cup or even go out on loan (although I’ve seen nothing rumored). As much as I like the little Argentinean, 19 is almost always far too young for a Premiership left back. But when Insua is 23, Dossena will be 30 and Aurelio 32.

Granted, I won’t be satisfied if Dossena is the biggest name brought in this summer. But with Dossena and Degen signed, the fullbacks are taken care of for the summer. If both players can add the attacking dimension hoped for and gel with Carragher, Agger, and Skrtel, that alone will make Liverpool more competitive than they were last season.

26 June 2008

Spain 3-0 Russia

Xavi 50’
Guiza 73’
Silva 82’

One couldn’t have expected another three-goal margin of victory for Spain, especially with the way the Russians consummately dispatched the Dutch last Saturday. And for the first 45 minutes, it certainly didn’t look happening.

Once again, Spain started well enough, dominating possession and tempo but with little to show for it. Berezutski, who marked Torres very well, and the rest of the Russian defense weren’t giving Spain any openings to put their possession to use, while Akinfeev was making the few saves he needed to. An injury to Villa, who appeared to hurt himself taking a free kick and went off for Fabregas in the 34th, didn’t help matters either.

But at the same time, Russia offered next to nothing in attack, and Arshavin, the man who had been so impressive in their previous two games, was often invisible. Casillas didn’t have a save to make in the entire first half, with Russia’s lone chance coming when a Pavlyuchenko free kick sailed over the bar 16 minutes in.

But five minutes after the restart, Spain’s pressure paid dividends and an early goal sent them on their way. Iniesta, who played mostly on the left, cut inside, and appeared to aim a shot at the far post. It was going wide, but Xavi had continued his run and was able to redirect it past a sprawling Akinfeev.

From there, the game opened up a bit with the Russians in need of an equalizer. Torres had two decent chances, coming in the 62nd and 63rd minutes -- first unable to get a cross on target from a narrow angle and then getting stuck between a volley and a header on another Ramos cross, only to knee it helplessly wide. The latter was a chance he would have buried in a Liverpool shirt, but even with the striker misfiring he still looked dangerous.

But then, again, Aragones saw fit to take him off, bringing on Guiza (and Alonso for Xavi) in the 69th minute. However, this time it worked exactly as the manager drew it up, with Guiza getting his second goal of the tournament four minutes after coming on. In a goal made by substitutes, Fabregas delicately lobbed the ball over the top for an onside Guiza to chip over the keeper.

The second goal took all the wind out of the opposition, and Spain was able to drop the tempo and play keep-away. When the Russians got possession they had to send as many forward as possible in order to get one back, and Spain was able to take advantage in the 82nd, with Iniesta brilliantly finding Fabregas on the left with a long pass out of defense. Cesc took a touch and slide-rule centered for Silva to control and slot past Akinfeev.

Sychev nearly got a consolation in the 88th but for an excellent save from Casillas (with a free header from a free kick, something that the Spanish will have to improve on and how Germany was able to punish Portugal), while Guiza was denied a fourth in the 90th to keep the score at 3-0.

I still maintain the scoreline flatters the Spanish, but they were far and away better today than against the Italians, and it was the improvement from the likes of Iniesta and Ramos that was a big reason for it. Throughout the game Ramos was more composed and made no silly challenges, but was still able to get forward to put in threatening crosses. Meanwhile, as the game went on, Iniesta was more and more effective playing inch-perfect long balls, including the one that set up Fabregas to assist on Spain’s third goal.

Spain’s midfield, especially when it was 5 vs 5, bossed Russia’s, kept them from playing the football that beat the Dutch, and Fabregas was the centerpiece of it. The substitute was probably the man of the match for his two-assist performance and the way he was able to replace the tournament’s leading goalscorer off the bench. He directed traffic, linked the play, and popped up left, right, and center. I’d be stunned if he doesn’t retain his place if Villa isn’t fit.

This will be Spain’s first major final since Euro 84, and the players did well to not succumb to nerves today having made it this far. There was a mountain of pressure in finally making a semifinal and being favorites, with the Russians unfancied even after their win over Holland. But Germany will be a very different, and tougher, proposition -- not only because of their experience (this will be their sixth Euro final, having won three) but also their aforementioned capabilities on set pieces.

22 June 2008

Spain 0-0 Italy; Spain win 4-2 on penalties

You couldn’t ignore the omens. All three group-winners had gone out of the competition in the quarterfinals. Spain hadn’t beaten Italy in a competitive fixture in 88 years. There’s the precedent of Spain stumbling in the knockout rounds after an impressive group stage, while the Italians often start slow only to improve as the tournament progresses. And the Furia Roja had been knocked out of international competitions on June 22nd on penalties at the quarterfinal stage on three separate occasions -- World Cup ’86 and ’02 and Euro ’96.

You almost knew how this game was going to play out before the whistle blew. Spain was going to have the majority of possession, but Italy would pack bodies in defense and throttle the life out of the Spanish attack. After eking through a tumultuous group stage, the Italians probably would have settled for penalties from the get-go. And for 120 minutes, that’s exactly how it played out.

It doesn’t do the cliché justice to say chances were at a premium. With Italy content to let Spain have the ball, but relegate their possession to midfield and the wings while swiftly shutting down any attacker with the ball in the final third, the Spanish had to be content with mostly long-range efforts throughout the first half. David Silva threatened the most often, but with Panucci, Chiellini, De Rossi, and Ambrosini quick to close down the ball Buffon was rarely tested.

Spain could have had a couple of penalties, with Grosso pulling Torres’ shirt and Ambrosini chopping down Villa a minute later, but Herbert Fandel ignored both. Which wouldn’t have been all that surprising (although Villa probably did deserve his shout) if Fandel wasn’t blowing his whistle at every opportunity when it was outside the box, especially for Spanish fouls on the Italians. By the end of the match, Andy Gray was beside himself with the referee, which always makes for amusing commentary.

Only twice in the second half did the script deviate from the first, with each side nearly getting a goal in a match where one goal always looked enough. In the 61st minute, a ball over the top created a scramble in the Spanish penalty area that Camoranesi got on the end of, only to see Casillas get back into position to make an excellent instinctive save with his left leg. In the 81st, with Spain still resorting to deep shots, Buffon fumbled an excellent long-range effort from Senna, but instead of rolling over the line it bounced back to the keeper off the post.

Aragones attempted to change the game with the same substitutions as against Sweden, with Cazorla on for Iniesta and Fabregas for Xavi, but they failed to make the same impact. In addition, with five minutes left in normal time, Spain’s last roll of the dice was to remove Torres for Dani Guiza. I may be incredibly biased, and Torres didn’t have his best game (he was better in the second half), but the move seemed insane. Liverpool fans excoriated Benitez for taking Torres off in extra time of the Champions League semi-final, and at least then Torres was arguably injured. It makes zero sense to take off one of the best strikers in the world when you need a goal, and Spain nearly paid for it during penalties.

Once the teams made it to extra time, with both sets of players tiring, penalties looked inevitable (although penalties looked inevitable throughout the contest). Italy sent on Del Piero with their last substitution, but chances were still few and far between, with the best coming at the death when Cazorla tried a shot, putting it wide from a tough angle, when centering across the six-yard box would have led to a certain Villa goal.

By going to penalties it looked like history would repeat itself once again, and Spain would lose on spot kicks on June 22nd for the fourth time. But, finally, all those years of history were avenged.

Villa, Grosso, and Cazorla netted before De Rossi’s decent effort was well saved by Casillas. Both Senna and Camoranesi scored before Guiza’s tame penalty was easily stopped, bringing the Italians back into it. I’m fairly certain Torres’ would have offered a bit more. But luckily, Di Natale’s for Italy was just as tame and Fabregas sealed it with Spain’s fifth, breaking all those jinxes listed earlier and setting up a semi-final against the Russians.

The semi-final will be completely different from the first meeting where the Spanish rolled. First and foremost, Arshavin is back for Russia, and he’s been one of the stars of the tournament in the two games he’s played. Without him, Russia probably wouldn’t have made it out of the group and certainly wouldn’t have beaten the Dutch. Hiddink has his entire side playing well, but Arshavin is the centerpiece.

And the Russians will probably replicate what the Italians did today, which was quite similar to how Russia played Holland yesterday. Defenders will pack the middle and Russia will look to attack on the counter, which they’ve done better than the Italians all tournament long. Russia assuredly won’t play as openly as they did in the first meeting.

In the last three games, Spain has squeezed by teams in tight games where they’ve been able to play possession football but haven’t created numerous chances on goal. They’ll have to do it again on Wednesday against an in-form side full of confidence after beating the tournament favorites.

20 June 2008

George and Tommy, sitting in a tree…

Gillett went on Canadian radio yesterday and gave a master’s course in corporate communication, saying little concrete (and absolutely nothing about the stadium) other than some talking points on how great the Liverpool fans are (heard that one before) and the “substantially improved” communication between the two owners, which certainly can’t be good for those of us who want both out of the club.

One of the biggest hopes during the DIC saga a few months back was that Gillett, on account of his silence, was looking to sell out. We read that he and Hicks weren’t getting along, it was Gillett/Parry v Hicks/Ayre, and George wanted to get away from Tommy Boy and recoup his investment because he didn’t have enough funds to take the club further (which was the reason Moores sold up).

After yesterday’s interview, that doesn’t seem to be the case at all. The co-owner did his best to say as little as possible, but reading between the lines, we’re stuck with them for the long haul.

And all the reassurances over focusing on the transfer window aren’t worth squat when you look at what’s been rumored in the press since the end of the season.

I know it’s only June and the window doesn’t open for another two weeks. But you’ve all seen the Liverpool transfer talk. While I highly, highly recommend taking said gossip with multiple grains of salt, there’s also a modicum of truth buried in there somewhere. Especially when we’ve seen the same narrative throughout all the dealings.

It certainly looks like Liverpool’s struggling for funds, to put it as tamely as possible. We’ve heard that Rafa needs to sell to buy, and Alonso, Crouch, Pennant, Carson and others have been rumored to leave, while Riise’s already gone for £4m. We’ve seen Liverpool bid for transfers with player-swaps instead of straight cash. We’ve seen three bids for Gareth Barry rejected as insufficient despite the player clearly wanting to leave. And we’ve seen the club linked with those who are arguably ‘squad players’ while the likes of Spurs are spending millions on players such as Modric and Dos Santos.

Yes, G&H getting along is probably better than them not speaking at all, as the club still has to operate. And yes, there’s a small possibility Liverpool will have more funds than we think, as happened with the purchases of Torres and Babel last summer and another £24m or so for Masch and Skrtel in January. But I’m obviously skeptical, even though Liverpool looks to have signed Andrea Dossena for £7m (talks have gone quiet, but he had his medical and went on honeymoon, and it seems a done deal), which would be another record fee for a defender.

But this is getting to be a farce. The only spade stuck in the ground at Stanley Park has been by the Spirit of Shankly organization, and Gillett flat out ignored a question about the new ground when it was brought up in the interview.

The two were brought in by Moores and Parry to take the club forward by building the new stadium and increasing the transfer budget. It’s still likely that the augmented spending last summer came from the Champions League run and upswing in television revenue, and other than that, they’ve fulfilled absolutely none of the promises spouted when they bought in, which was something like 16 months ago.

Liverpool continues to spend less than their rivals, take in less match-day revenue than their rivals, and the stadium still isn’t any nearer. But don’t worry, the owners are on speaking terms again!

Also, if I were Rick Parry, I wouldn’t take news of this détente well. Hicks has seemingly wanted him out for months now, and if Georgie’s back on Tommy’s side, Parry’s days have to be numbered.

Some choice quotes from my quick transcript:
“Absolutely right, it really is an amazing responsibility… we really hold these assets in trust for the fans, and we have an obligation to the fans and we feel that very strongly both in Montreal and in Liverpool.”

Q: “Have there been any developments since we last spoke.”
A: “No, nothing that either I would talk about or would be worth talking about. There has been… the communication between the Hicks and the Gilletts has been substantially improved and I believe that it will be for the benefit of the club.”

“Time is a healer and there were things that had happened previously the other way as well. It took a while for both of us I think to realize…I think that we both realized that perhaps we weren’t communicating very well...the huge responsibility we have to the fans and to do the right thing for the club. I believe that the Hicks’ are communicating better with us and we’re communicating better with them and that will be much better for the club.”

Q: “Has the for sale sign, for lack of a better phrase, been taken down”
A: “I’m not going to comment on anything specifically”

Q: “Are things still moving forward, in a theoretical sense, with the stadium?”
A: “In the sense that all of us are focused on the transfer window coming up and so forth. We want to be ready for that and we want to have adequate resources and good communication with Rafa and our hope is we’re making that kind of progress.”

18 June 2008

Riise signs for Roma

It was news we knew was coming, and frankly, news that I’m okay with, but it’s still a bit sad to see one Liverpool’s longest-serving players (only Carra, Gerrard and Hyypia have more appearances) leave the club.

The BBC is reporting the fee was £4m, while Roma’s official website says 5m euros (just under £4m), but either way it’s good value for a left-back on the final year of his contract, and honestly more than I was expecting given how sales are usually conducted at Liverpool. What’s annoying is that Roma claims the fee will be paid in installments through 2010 (it’s on their website, albeit in Italian), with add-ons of 300,000 euros max if Riise makes a certain number of appearances and 100,000 euros in 09/10 and 10/11 if Roma's in the CL, but that’s not out of the ordinary.

I’ve crucified him enough for his play over the past year, including that infamous own goal and tendency to shoot like Row Z is the goal. But now that he’s on his way out, the proper thing to do is celebrate his seven years of superlative service for Liverpool.

Obviously, first and foremost in any tribute will be that goal against the Mancs. But he was also a part of Liverpool’s stifling defense in 05/06 (for a couple of years he was one of, if not the best LB in the Prem), scored some amazing goals, put in that cross for Gerrard’s header in Istanbul, and had an amazing game against Barcelona at the Nou Camp, among many other moments. He was a true Red, a fantastic servant for the club, who left everything on the field after 90 minutes.

No one can dispute the heart or work he’s given. And it’s even more of a bonus Liverpool won’t have to come up against him in the Premiership. All the best, John.

John Arne Riise
Ooh, ahh
I wanna know
How you scored that goal

Spain 2-1 Greece

Sergio Garcia-De la Red-Fabregas-Iniesta

Charisteas 42’
De la Red 61’
Guiza 88’

With 10 new faces in the line-up (including 3 Liverpool starters), it was always going to be a tighter game for the Furia Roja. And with nothing left to lose in the competition, going out at the group stage despite being the holders, Greece was willing to attack, although still as difficult to break down as always.

Not only was Xabi Alonso the captain of this revamped line-up, he was also the focal point. Today we saw Alonso near his best, setting the tempo in a deep-lying role, pinging both long and short passes, and nearly scoring from his own half (as he did against both Luton and Newcastle) in the 24th minute, only to see his shot go inches wide.

Even though the game was more lively than you’d expect, with Greece headed out and Spain playing the second string, there were still few opportunities for either side, with Alonso’s long range effort probably the best of the lot.

But in the 42nd minute, the Greece from Euro 2004 reappeared. Having picked up a number of free kicks throughout the half, they finally took advantage of one from the left flank, with Karagounis curling in a ball for Charisteas to head home. It looked like Arbeloa lost his man, although the fact that he didn’t even make the run with Charisteas makes me question who was supposed to mark him. Either way, it was another moment of shaky defending for the Spanish, and they paid for it. There was little Reina could do about it.

The second half saw much of the same, with Alonso still creating Spain’s best chances, most notably with a shot from distance that crashed off the inside of the far post in the 54th. But soon after, Guiza’s skillfully knocked down a long ball into the path of De la Red, who make no mistake with an unstoppable shot from just inside the box. Nikopolidis got a hand to it, but there was no way it was staying out.

It looked likely to end level, which wouldn’t have been an unfair result, but Spain’s increasing pressure finally paid off in the 88th minute when Guiza, who had struggled as a lone striker, got away from his marker to head in an inch-perfect Garcia cross.

Once again, Spain had problems breaking down a packed defense, and Greece is one of the best at getting bodies in front of attackers and closing down the space in the final third of the pitch. Like against Sweden, Spain were too intricate at times, and moves would break down when they approached the Greek goal. One moment stood out when Guiza and Fabregas linked up well on Garcia’s long ball, but it was one pass too many when Fabregas touched it back to Guiza instead of shooting, and nothing came of it. In addition, Dani Guiza is certainly no Torres or Villa, and Spain weren't getting anywhere near enough from the lone striker; they've looked far, far better playing two up top.

But like against Sweden, they held on in the end, and came up winners thanks to taking the game to their opponents for the full 90 minutes and getting a late goal. And surprise, surprise, it came from the player I thought did the least for his chances. Even though Sweden has been better than the Greeks (despite Sweden’s capitulation to Russia today), it’s arguably more impressive today as Spain came back from a goal down and were playing the B-team.

But now the fun starts. No matter how disappointing the Italians were in the group stage, I’m sure they're a team Spain wanted to avoid in the quarter-finals. This tournament is spookily shaping up like the last World Cup: Spain was outstanding in the first game and the best side in their group, only to be matched up with an experienced, if underperforming, big side in the knock-out round. Let’s hope history doesn’t continue to repeat itself.

But to conclude I want to go back to Alonso, who was arguably today’s man of the match, as this is still a Liverpool blog. Today re-raised all the questions that have surfaced because of the supposed Barry for Alonso switch. When Alonso plays like he did today, he looks like he could go straight into any side in the world (he was probably the only player today who forced himself into contention against Italy, and I think he should be starting ahead of Senna, especially with the way the Italians have been playing). He sets the tempo for the entire team and can seemingly complete any pass (if given the time and space to do so).

But he’s been showing less and less of that for Liverpool this season. I’m well aware his injury played a huge part in that, but even after returning to fitness, the first leg against Chelsea was the only match where he truly excelled. And given Liverpool's problems in the league, I completely understand purchasing players with an eye on the Premiership. Alonso rarely, especially after the damage he did in his first season, gets that time and space he needs in England.

I will be devastated to lose Xabi. He is one of my favorites, and I’ve got a lot of time for players who know how to control the tempo and have that range of passing. But I’ve got even more faith in Rafa Benitez. If Benitez feels like Barry, who can link up excellently with Gerrard, is better on set plays, and has an excellent passing sense of his own, is a player than can improve Liverpool in England, so be it. Benitez is renowned for collecting central midfielders (he’s purchased Alonso, Sissoko, Mascherano, Lucas, and Plessis), and knows exactly what he wants out of the position. Plus, the relationship between Alonso and Benitez has always seemed close, so if Benitez is ready ship the player out, he has to feel secure with the decision.

But today’s game showed exactly why I’ll always follow the career of Xabi Alonso, no matter where he plays.

15 June 2008

Spain 2-1 Sweden

It took me a while to see the entire match as I only saw the first half live, but I can’t quit doing these write-ups after only two games.

Sweden’s defense is better than Russia’s and it showed all match long. But Torres certainly started out the brightest, with an excellent run inside three minutes, and deserved his goal 15 minutes in. It was a gorgeously worked corner, short along the byline for Villa, moving it to Silva at the top of the box, who put in a smartly weighted ball in over the top that Torres got a leg on to in front of Hansson.

Also, once again, Villa rushed over to Torres and literally dragged him onto the ground and mounted him. Their celebrations are bordering upon illegality in at least 13 states, and I’m getting to the point where I’d kill to see the two together at Anfield.

But Sweden’s didn’t relent after the opener, getting a couple of opportunities through Elmander and Larsson before Ibrahimovic equalized in the 34th minute.

It didn’t help that Puyol (who is clearly the cornerstone of the back four) went off injured in the 24th minute, and Spain’s defense is living up to its shaky reputation, but the fault for the goal lies with Ramos. It’s getting uncomfortable bashing him in two straight articles, but I have no idea what was he thinking on Sweden’s goal. Admittedly, the move started when Torres’ shot was blocked and Sweden countered, but Ramos was still late getting back, allowing Ibra the space to control Stoor’s cross, and then dove in early, allowing space for the shot. Casillas didn’t do himself justice either, but it shouldn’t have even come to that.

Sweden’s goal wobbled Spain for the rest of the half, and they were nowhere near as effective as in the first 15 minutes. But they still should have been leading at halftime when Elmander clattered into Silva in the box, nowhere near the ball and never looking at anything but taking out the player. However, Pieter Vink had no problems with it (I’m sure Gooners remember the one he didn’t give against Kuyt), and Torres had to lead teammates away from the referee when he blew for halftime moments later.

The second half saw Spain suffer through what we’d worried about before the tourney: they had all the possession and were passing well, but with little end product. Spain prodded and pressed, but the final ball was lacking, resulting in only two really good moments. In the 62nd minute, Silva was denied by Isaksson, who also blocked Villa’s rebound. Although Villa was still able to pull it back for Torres, Andersson blocked that shot. The other was in the 67th, when Senna’s vicious dipping strike from distance after a nice run was palmed away.

But at least Spain were trying to win the game. Sweden certainly were hurt by Ibracadabra going off at halftime, and offered much less in attack because of it, but they still seemed content with a draw, unlike the Spanish.

And in the 92nd minute the tournament’s top scorer struck again, assuring the three points and top spot in the group. Capdevila sent an accurate long ball out of defense that Villa was able to latch on to, masterfully controlling the ball before getting by Hansson by poking the ball through the defender’s legs and shooting past Isaksson from corner of the six-yard box.

It’s still very early, and Spain’s notorious for bottling it after the group stage, but from what I’ve seen in the past this is an excellent result, even if they struggled for it. Aragones made smart substitutions in midfield (bringing on Santi Cazorla for Iniesta on the right and Fabregas for Xavi), and while Spain was nowhere near as successful as against Russia, they still ended up getting the second goal. Sweden were also far more hesitant to attack than Russia, especially in the second half, and it showed in the scoreline. Plus, Spain should have had a penalty, especially with the ones given against Poland and Italy recently.

Now, with top spot and qualification assured, I imagine they’ll rest a few for Wednesday’s match against Greece. Obviously, I still hope to see Villa and Torres leading the line any chance I can get, but I wouldn’t be surprised to see at least one rested.

13 June 2008

The much-malinged Dirk Kuyt

Little has pleased me more than Kuyt’s performance this past week. One goal and two assists so far (in 134 minutes), and he’s been a standout for one of the top three teams (along with Spain and Portugal). It’s not as if Holland has done it against lightweights, beating both the World Cup finalists by three goals.

But most importantly to me, he’s been doing it in a position similar to the one he plays in at Liverpool.

de Jong - Engelaar
Kuyt - van der Vaart - Sneijder
van Nistelrooy

Alonso - Mascherano
Kuyt - Gerrard - Babel

Kuyt clearly improved as the season went on (with his low point coming during the poor winter, when he couldn’t buy a goal), growing into his role in the 4-2-3-1 on the right wing as well as could be expected. And he did it in the big games, scoring against Inter Milan, Arsenal and Chelsea. That he continues to do the same for Holland can only be a good thing for Liverpool.

The fact that Holland scored three, winning 4-1, after Kuyt went off isn’t a knock on the player. There’s a reason van Basten, who’s proving himself an excellent (and brave) manager, left both Robben and van Persie on the bench: not only were both just returning from injury, but their speed and ball control were the difference against a tiring France that had to chase the game. And they were chasing the game because of Kuyt's early goal, which was an excellent header, out-fighting Malouda for the corner.

If anything, today’s game was an argument for having players of both stripes in the squad, as Kuyt plays a vital role for both Liverpool and Holland. With the number of attacking players in the Dutch team, Kuyt’s industry and workrate are needed for balance, especially if the fullback he’s partnered with bombs forward. And if you look at the attack Liverpool’s building (Torres, Babel, Gerrard, and possibly an addition or two this summer, plus purchases at fullback which seem to show that’s where Benitez wants to get width from), he has a similar role to fill.

I’m not saying he’s the end all, be all on the right wing, and it’s not a surprise that we’ve seen Liverpool linked with attackers like Bentley, Downing, Riera, Milner (sigh), and Villa (I wish). But if he continues to play like this, he’ll continue to get games for Liverpool.

A quote from Torres last week is insight into what his teammates think of his role:

"This Liverpool side also works its socks off. Dirk Kuyt, for example, is spectacular in how cleverly and how hard he works to make sure I get top-quality possession near goal."

Torres obviously isn’t going to bash his teammate, but the interview wasn’t about Kuyt, and it’s noticeable that’s who he singled out. Kuyt’s two assists and workrate (especially in defense) in the first match against Italy are those parts of his game at their best.

One of the complaints about Kuyt this season has been his first touch, which hasn’t really been an issue in the last two games and contrary to the fact that he’s often the one receiving a long goal kick for the Dutch. His crossing also seems to be better, although the Dutch fluidity in passing and movement is something Benitez would love to bring to his team. Kuyt does need a better goal return, even more so if he’s playing as a striker, but when he’s out on the right it’s far less of an issue, especially if he continues to pop up with a goal when it matters.

During the course of today’s match, Adrian Healey asked Andy Gray whether or not Kuyt’s unfairly criticized in the Premiership, which was a laugh given Gray’s habitually one of his critics. But today Gray sang a different tune, comparing Kuyt to Ray Kennedy, who was a center forward for Arsenal before becoming one of the best left-wingers Liverpool’s ever had. That’s an enormous stretch -- surprising that Gray’s complimenting Kuyt but unsurprising in his hyperbole -- but if that comes anywhere close to fruition, we’ll won't hear the complaints about Kuyt anymore.

10 June 2008

Spain 4-1 Russia

Ramos Puyol Marchena Capdevila
Iniesta Xavi Silva
Villa Torres

Villa 20’ 45’ 75’
Pavlyuchenko 86’
Fabregas 90+1’

Although Torres was only on the field for 54 minutes, and David Villa was truly the star of the show, today demonstrated just why so many Liverpool fans are looking for those two to recreate their partnership on Merseyside.

This is what I’d hoped to see after last week’s Spain/USA match. While you can never put too much stock in friendlies, and I’ve made it clear I haven’t seen Spain enough to have a concrete opinion, Torres was all too often isolated in a 4-1-4-1 and Spain struggled for goals despite a clear edge in possession. But with Torres and Villa paired up top, that was never an issue today.

It’s easy to get ahead of one’s self after a 4-1 win, but this isn’t the first time Spain’s started a major tournament well. They put four past the Ukraine in the first match at the 2006 World Cup and were still dumped out by France in the first knockout round. But today’s performance was still far better than last Wednesday’s display and even better than expected.

Torres and Villa combined well from the off and Spain had their usual dominance in possession, but Russia looked lively on the counter attack, which is always frightening given Spanish liabilities in defense. But an early goal can take the weight off a team, and that happened today after Villa’s first in the 20th minute.

Capdevila was able to pick out a streaking Torres with a long pass from deep in his own half to put Torres one-on-one with Kolodin (Torres tormented Kolodin throughout his time on the pitch), and the striker took advantage of the defender to get through on goal, only to cut it back for Villa to slot in an empty net.

That goal alone demonstrated how well the two strikers can link up (Torres knew exactly where his strike partner was while barely having a look up) but both made excellent runs to draw defenders throughout the first 45, freeing up space for the other. Torres usually lurked down the left channel into the center, as he often does for Liverpool, while Villa played mostly through the middle.

Russia nearly equalized in the 23rd minute when Zyrianov hit the post after a flowing move and more lackadaisical defending, but Spain took advantage of their profligacy on the stroke of halftime with another lovely counter-attacking move. Breaking out after an awful Russian corner, Capdevila found Iniesta, who put Villa in with a lovely throughball, with the striker nutmegging the keeper for his second.

With a two-goal lead, Spain began to slow down their play, and took Torres off for Fabregas nine minutes into the second half, ostensibly to protect him after he suffered an ankle knock in training last week. But the change didn’t slow Villa down much, as he continued to threaten looking for his hat-trick, while Akinfeyev prevented both Senna and Silva from tallying a third in the 67th minute.

But with 15 minutes left, Villa finally got his hat-trick. Once again, it came on the counter, with Russia stretched looking for a way back into the game. Storming up the field, Fabregas picked out Villa on the run with a perfect slide rule pass, and Villa was able to cut inside away from the defender and shoot past the keeper inside the near post.

And Liverpool fans had to enjoy Villa’s celebration, as he ran to the Spanish bench to embrace Torres. Let's hope there was an ulterior motive behind it. I’m still trying to avoid writing about Liverpool’s financial situation (as it depresses me so much), but it’s an absolute shame it looks like Liverpool would be priced out of a move for Villa, especially with Valencia seemingly willing to sell.

Russia added a consolation in the 86th through Pavlyuchenko’s header from a corner (with Capdevila losing him after a flick-on), but Fabregas got a fourth in the first minute of injury time, and surprise, surprise, it again came on the counter. Villa broke down the field and held up the ball well waiting to bring others into play, finally chipping into the box to set up Xavi. His shot was saved, but Fabregas was there for a header on the rebound, although he looked offside on the replay.

I'd be remiss if I didn't mention the similarities between Spain today and what Benitez is trying to build at Liverpool. All of Spain's goals came on the counter-attack and were quick strike, which is what Benitez has tried to do at Liverpool with the addition of Torres and the use of a 4-2-3-1 formation. Yet another reason to dream about getting Villa in a Liverpool shirt.

Alonso was the only other Liverpool player to see time on the pitch, coming on for Silva in the 77th minute, and playing in the holding role with Senna moving further right. Meanwhile, although I haven’t seen enough to say conclusively, Sergio Ramos didn’t impress me today. He’s excellent going forward and can certainly deliver a cross, but his defensive positioning is questionable at best (although compromised by how often he gets forward) and he commits far too many unnecessary fouls. His defending, along with the rest of Spain’s backline, which has the propensity to switch off at unfortunate moments, will have to improve if Spain is going to challenge for the trophy.

But if Spain continues to attack like they did today, they can beat any opposition in this tournament, and I’m including both Germany and the Netherlands in that despite how impressive both looked in their opening matches. Spain really was head and shoulders above an improving Russian team, albeit a team that clearly missed both Arshavin and Pogrebnyak. But we’ve seen also before that in Spain’s first match, most notably in the last World Cup.

The next match, against the Swedes, is Saturday at noon.

08 June 2008

A note on Euro 2008 announcing

Despite this blog’s name, I’m often annoyed with Andy Gray, mainly for his anti-Liverpool bias. He likes individuals such as Torres and Gerrard well enough, but is frequently quick to criticize the club as a whole, and seems to enjoy every second of it. He’s still getting mileage out of slamming Benitez for rotation and zonal marking, although he's certainly not the only one. And while I definitely don’t go so far, I was thoroughly amused by the campaign to remove him from Liverpool games on Sky after the first leg against Inter.

But his addition to the booth (and recap show) for ESPN’s Euro coverage has been a godsend. I’m not embellishing when I say he and Adrian Healey might be the best pairing I've heard on US television. When he’s unbiased, Gray usually knows what he’s talking about (a large step-up from most US coverage of European football) and has already developed a decent rapport with Healey. Admittedly, I like Healey more than either Rae or Dellacamera to begin with, but I’ve still been surprised at the quality of the combination.

And I was very, very worried about ESPN’s coverage of this tourney, especially after the debacle that was World Cup 2006 (I certainly don’t miss Balboa or O’Brien). If the network only sprung the cash to have the commentators on site...

It’s sort of sickening to praise an Evertonian like Gray to the hilt, but he really has made the games he's done that much better.

Now if we could only muzzle Tommy Smyth.

04 June 2008

Spain 1-0 USA

Yep, it looks like I might jinx it. Aside from a moment of brilliance from Xavi, it was a sub-par game with little offered in front of goal by either side, and was about as lackluster as England’s matches last week. I was hoping this wouldn’t be the case, and I apologize in advance to true Spanish fans.

Admittedly, in their final match before Euro 08, Spain were nowhere near guns blazing, while the US was vastly improved from last week’s performance at Wembley. But the first half, which is when both Torres and Alonso were on the field, was nearly unwatchable.

While I’m hesitant to put much stock in it, as it’s the first time I’ve seen Spain since the World Cup and it was, after all, a warm-up friendly, Spain looked very one-dimensional, reliant on their passing game to cut the opposition apart. And the US defended well, better than against the English despite deploying the same back line, and with a number of players crowding out Spanish attackers trying to pass through the center of the pitch.

All too often, Torres was isolated (but a willing worker, showing no effects of the ankle knock), while Capdevilla and Sergio Ramos provided the width from fullback with Alonso, Fabregas, and Xavi frequently congested in the midfield. Outside of Xavi’s header from a Ramos cross and a Torres turn and shot, I’m hard-pressed to think of any concrete chances.

Much of the reason for the US improvement was Adu starting in place of Wolff behind Johnson as a lone striker. Adu, and the US as a whole, looked more composed on the ball in the first half, with Adu creating a memorable moment with an excellent long pass out of defense to Johnson, who surprisingly contrived to scuff the shot. In addition, I though both Eddie Lewis (in place of Beasley) and Maurice Edu (in place of Clark) were upgrades from the last match.

The second half saw a number of changes for both sides, with Guiza and Senna on for Torres and Alonso and Guzan, Hedjuk and Beasley on for Howard, Cherundolo and Adu, and with Adu seemingly forced off at halftime, the US had far less attacking impetus. Spain were able to keep possession and put the screws to the US, although they continued to struggle breaking through the US backline.

While both Xavi and Senna hit the woodwork, the longer the second half went on, the more it looked likely to end even, especially with the US seemingly content with 0-0. But in the 79th minute, Fabregas fed Xavi, whose delightful turn got him past Bradley and Bocanegra. The captain eluded Onyewu and Hedjuk as well before slotting past Guzan. I’m not doing the goal justice by any means; it was a fantastic run and a stunning individual goal. Here’s hoping it’s replicated often in the coming weeks.

As it relates to Liverpool, only Reina saw no action out of the four in the Spanish squad. Both Torres and Alonso played the first half, and neither had much to write home about. As said, Torres was often isolated, but got off one shot from a trademark quick turn and looked fully fit. Alonso had a few pretty long-range passes playing as the deepest midfielder (in the role that Senna’s usually in), but as he’s been for Liverpool this season, was wild in the tackle at times. In addition, the trio of Alonso, Xavi, and Fabregas didn’t link up as well as hoped, and while it’s unfair to single out Xabi, both Cesc and Xavi were more influential when Senna was on the field. Arbeloa came on for the last few minutes, with Sergio Ramos pushing up to midfield.

While I watched this game paying closer attention to Spain, I admittedly grew more interested in the US’ progression from last week’s match. Adu was excellent in the first half (as was Lewis), the defense did well to close down Spain’s line of attack, and despite the loss, it wasn’t a bad result for a young team looking to do battle against established international sides.

And with that said, even though this was a friendly, and it’s mid-season for the MLS players, I think this match meant more to the US. They feel they have a point to prove to the footballing world, while Spain was content to use this as a warm-up and get through it unscathed. For the most part, both teams did what they set out to do.

Spain’s first group game, against Russia, is next Tuesday at 11:50am on espn2.

03 June 2008

Viva España

It’s been nice, but weird, having little to say in regards to either Liverpool (possibly Dossena and/or Barry soon, with Alonso and Crouch looking more likely to leave. Woohoo.) or England (man, those friendlies were the opposite of encouraging). Plus it’s been nice to somewhat recharge the batteries after the season past. But with the Euros coming up, I’ll have far more to write about.

If there is any Liverpool news, I’ll have something up, but for the most part, I’m going to focus on Spain for the next few weeks (as if they need another jinx). With England done for the summer, I’ll need another team to distract me, and just like this Torres Nike ad shows, most Liverpool fans will be cheering on the Spaniards (I can watch this commercial over and over again. Pity about the subtitles though. Edit: Found an English version. It's even better). I hope I’m jumping on the bandwagon before it careens out of control.

Yeah, I’m rooting for Spain mainly because of Torres, while Alonso, Reina, and Arbeloa are also in the squad (although none are likely starters). But I’m also interested to see if Xavi’s still the main pivot for Spain’s play, how Fabregas does seeing extended time in a major tournament for the national team, how Torres and Villa pair up after the season El Niño’s had, and if Aragones implodes yet again.

So join me as I attempt to follow a national team I’m less than familiar with. It’ll be like when I write about the USMNT, but with far fewer cheap shots at Eddie Johnson or Sunil Gulati.

The Spain/US friendly is tomorrow at 4pm, but in their wisdom, espn2 is showing it on tape delay at 5:30. Lord knows we can’t interrupt NFL Live, Rome is Burning, Around the Horn, PTI, or the French Open.

In the meantime, here’s a few Euro 2008 links to get the juices flowing, led off by the always enjoyable That’s on Point.

That’s on Point: The Big Eur-bowski
200percent has excellent previews of the four groups
Unprofessional Foul’s team previews
The Offside’s Euro 2008 Blog
Guardian UK’s Euro 2008 page