31 October 2008

Liverpool at Tottenham 11.01.08

1:30pm, live in the US on FSC

Last 4 head-to-head:
2-0 Liverpool (a) 05.11.08
2-2 (h) 10.07.07
1-0 Liverpool (a) 12.30.06
3-0 Liverpool (h) 09.23.06

Last 3 matches:
Liverpool: 1-0 Pompey (h); 1-0 Chelsea (a); 1-1 Atletico (a)
Spurs: 4-4 Arsenal (a); 2-0 Bolton (h); 0-2 Udinese (a)

Goalscorers (league):
Liverpool: Torres 5; Kuyt 3; Gerrard 2; Alonso, Babel, Carragher, Riera 1
Spurs: Bent 5; Jenas 2; Bentley, Lennon, Pavlyuchenko 1

Referee: Phil Dowd

Guess at a squad:
Arbeloa Carragher Agger Aurelio
Mascherano Alonso
Kuyt Gerrard Riera

This is the match where I expect to see the same lineup that went out against Chelsea. Unless Torres surprisingly starts, my best guess for a change is Dossena instead of Aurelio, as Fabio’s played the last two games. But Aurelio and Arbeloa have been excellent at fullback in both of those matches.

And even if Torres is fit, I imagine he wouldn’t begin beyond than the bench. There seems little chance of him starting after he’s missed the last four matches, but if he’s recovered enough to train, he’s probably recovered enough to see 30 minutes as a sub if needed. With emphasis on the ‘if needed.’

Having been rested on Wednesday, Keane should be the focal point if Liverpool play with a lone striker up top. He was the difference in the 2-2 draw against Spurs last year, with quick goals on either side of halftime, and he’ll be raring to face his former club. I am curious to see the reception he gets at Tottenham; he didn't leave like Sol Campbell left, but with Spurs' start to the season, there might be some resentment.

If anyone’s getting a rest in midfield, it’s probably Alonso, who’s started every game since Crewe. But, again, he’s in superb form, and unless there’s a clear fitness reason, I have to imagine he will here as well.

Spurs, both the fans and players, will assuredly be up for it after the 4-4 draw on Wednesday (yes, it was a great game, but is a DVD release really necessary?). Redknapp’s restored a lot of belief, and – no offense to Ramos – will get a lot more out of the players in the squad. He’s gone in there and raised the confidence, which is the same thing he did on his return to Portsmouth to keep them from relegation, and it’ll make an enormous difference.

Evidenced by the four goals given up, Tottenham’s defense can be error-prone, with Gomes often looking incredibly sketchy in goal. However, I’ve seen rumors that the understudy Cesar will start in goal, and despite their league standing, Tottenham’s still a team that’s taken points off both Chelsea and Arsenal.

If we’re solely judging by Wednesday’s match, Redknapp’s arrival will do wonders for Modric, who looked a different player last time out. Chances are the Croatian will be marked by Mascherano, though, and I expect the Argentinean to stay with him step for step. Pavlyuchenko, Bent, Jenas, and Bentley are all attacking players that can strike with goals out of the blue as well.

This assuredly won’t be standard top vs. bottom fare, as I doubt Spurs under Redknapp will be propping up the table much longer. But belief is coursing through the Liverpool side as well, and Benitez will have the players ready for the opposition and focused on keeping up this form.

29 October 2008

Liverpool 1-0 Portsmouth

Arbeloa Carragher Hyypia Aurelio
Lucas Alonso
Pennant Gerrard Babel

Gerrard 75’ (pen)

Surprise, surprise, Liverpool leave it until the last 15 minutes to score the winner. And they have Papa Bouba Diop’s moment of madness – an attempt at a punched clearance from a corner – to thank for it. James guessed correctly on the subsequent spot kick, to his right, but Gerrard had hit it too hard into the bottom corner.

To be fair, Liverpool had upped the pressure before the penalty, with best two chances of the half coming in the minutes right before the goal. Benayoun should have slotted in Gerrard’s delicious throughball, but lingered just long enough to allow Distin the block before Aurelio’s wicked shot after a Pompey mistake led to the corner that Bouba Diop handled.

The first half was better fare, and once again, a team came to Anfield and put everybody but Crouch behind the ball. It didn’t help that another former Liverpool keeper was having an excellent match. James palmed Kuyt’s blast onto the post, smothered Carra’s shot from distance, and pushed out Gerrard’s effort from the right edge of the box, while Lucas headed over from a corner and Kuyt shot into the side-netting.

But Pompey, despite not offering a lot offensively, could have scored in the 26th when Bouba Diop got between Carra and Hyypia, but could only head directly at Reina.

Liverpool was on top throughout the second half with Pompey defending even deeper. But, the home side couldn't find the finishing touch (with Gerrard playing a couple of gorgeous crosses that Kuyt couldn’t get onto), it looked like it could be one of those days. Once again, it’s better to be lucky than good, no matter how good this team’s looked at times.

After the goal, Liverpool almost seemed content with what they had as Pompey started to press, with Defoe finally coming off the bench. Utaka should have made contact six yards out in the 83rd minute, but Liverpool, with 11 men behind the ball by the end, held on for the three points.

And for vast stretches, there really was only one team that looked like winning. There was a fair bit of Arsenal-esque poking and prodding, while the team was often narrow (although Kuyt as a lone striker isn’t really the best option for crosses coming into the box). But Pompey, even with a worse goals-against average of late than in seasons past, was stingy and resolute in defense. I guess Tony Adams has stamped his likeness of the team quickly. In addition, I also thought Lassana Diarra played well in midfield.

The penalty helps, but Gerrard was probably man of the match regardless. I don’t think it’s coincidence that he’s had two good games in a row playing in a freer role further up the pitch, even if the 4-2-3-1 formation has been more malleable than in last season. Alonso also kept up his form, and I have to say, I think it’s the beard. Hope it continues. I also thought Arbeloa was good getting forward and in the tackle today.

With Kuyt plowing a lone furrow up top, Liverpool looked toothless at times, but Torres should be back soon, and that rest should do Keane’s groin good.

Benitez rotated players as expected, and yes, Liverpool were probably lucky to come away with all three points. But, and it’s become something of a cliché with this team, today’s was a game that would have finished all even in previous years. And with the team on a roll, any win’s a good result.

Tottenham, which scored in 89th minute and again in injury time to draw with Arsenal 4-4 today, on Saturday.

28 October 2008

Liverpool v Portsmouth 10.29.08

4pm, live in the US on Setanta

Grad school and the time difference are going to make me miss proceedings tomorrow. If the game was at 3pm, I’d probably be okay. But since the match is on Setanta, chances are I’ll watch the full game archived on Broadband, but a review probably won’t be up until sometime Thursday.

Last 4 head-to-head:
4-1 Liverpool (h) 12.22.07
0-0 (a) 09.15.07
1-2 Pompey (a) 04.28.07
0-0 (h) 11.29.06

Last 3 matches:
Liverpool: 1-0 Chelsea (a); 1-1 Atletico (a); 3-2 Wigan (h)
Pompey: 1-1 Fulham (h); 0-3 Braga (a); 0-0 Villa (a)

Goalscorers (league):
Liverpool: Torres 5; Kuyt 3; Alonso, Babel, Carragher, Gerrard, Riera 1
Pompey: Defoe 6; Crouch 3; Johnson 1

Referee: Steve Tanner

Guess at a squad:
Arbeloa Carragher Hyypia Dossena
Benayoun Gerrard Lucas Riera
Kuyt Keane

With the games coming fast and think, Liverpool will make some changes, but who’s going to be rotated is the big question. I’ve guessed a fair few alterations, but I’m still hesitant do so because Liverpool needs to keep up the momentum they’ve built. However, if players aren’t rested, they’re more susceptible to injury, and it’s better that it's now instead of April. Even with changes, I still suspect Liverpool will play 4-4-2 at Anfield in the league.

Rafa says Torres will miss the match, but even if he were fit, I’d leave him out. To be honest, since he’s had hamstring problems in the past, I hope he stays out until Atletico next Tuesday at the earliest.

It’s hard to decide who to drop (sorry, sorry, “rest”) from the midfield, but something’s got to give. Alonso supposedly picked up a knock on Saturday, and rarely seems to play three matches in a row, while I don’t know if Mascherano’s defensive capabilities will be as needed at Anfield. Gerrard is an ever-present, while this seems like a game for Lucas. Both Alonso and Mascherano have been outstanding lately, but both could do with a break as well.

Benitez doesn’t like rotating defenders, but Agger hasn’t played a lot of games before the past few. Plus, Hyypia seemingly has to feature either tomorrow or Saturday since he’s not eligible for the Champions League. I worry about a striker like Defoe because of his pace with Agger out of the picture, but both Carra and Sami are outstanding defenders and Hyypia’s height will come in handy against Crouch.

Seeing as it’s Crouch’s first trip back to Anfield, I’m wary of the effect he can have. Both he and Defoe have been scoring of late, and they’ve gotten pretty much all of Pompey’s goals. But it'll be interesting to see how Crouchy responds to Redknapp's exit. He’s a big reason why the gangly handful went back to Portsmouth.

This will be Tony Adams’ first game on the sidelines, and there’s an excellent chance Pompey will look to shine for the new gaffer. Maybe they won’t have that boost because Redknapp leaving was a surprise, but I’m always suspicious of a team under a new boss.

After Liverpool’s big win against United, the team drew Stoke at Anfield. Anything less than three points tomorrow would render the Chelsea victory similarly meaningless.

Last time Liverpool were top of the table, for that brief period last September after beating Derby 6-0, this was the team that knocked them off after a 0-0 draw. But even with four changes, which is what I’m guessing, Liverpool should still have enough to see off Portsmouth.

26 October 2008

Liverpool 1-0 Chelsea

Arbeloa Carragher Agger Aurelio
Mascherano Alonso
Kuyt Gerrard Riera

Alonso 10’

So much for Liverpool’s league jinx at Stamford Bridge, so much for Chelsea’s 86-game home winning streak. And Liverpool deserved every moment of it thanks to an immaculate performance.

These games are always cagey, and it was a lot like past Champions League matches. The early goal, with an element of luck, set the tone, and Liverpool’s tactics went on to win the day. Chelsea can have no complaints about this result, but I’m sure Mourinho would have found a way to whine.

Both teams were looking for it from the opening whistle, and Alonso’s shot, from Kuyt’s header that Chelsea couldn’t clear, deflected off Terry and past Cech. From there, Liverpool were more inclined to allow Chelsea possession deep, but were utterly resilient in their own half.

And even though the home side saw more of the ball, Liverpool continued to get the better opportunities, although, as usual, neither team forced many chances. Outside of the goal, the best of the first half came when Gerrard’s left-footer from the top of the box forced Cech to tip it over in the 24th. Chelsea continued to put pressure on, with Liverpool more likely to attack on the counter, but the impenetrable defense kept Reina from needing to make a save.

I can’t say enough about Jamie Carragher, although the entire back line was on their game. But time and time again, Carragher was there to close down, block attempts, and head away. Anelka was in his pocket all game long. Carragher was simply superb and has to be the man of the match, although there are plenty of contenders.

No matter how excellent Liverpool’s defense was, it started at the top of the field. Keane was a willing runner, if isolated in attack, while Gerrard was at his best in a marauding free role, closing down midfielders and linking attack and defense.

Both Riera and Kuyt were strong, willing workers up and down both flanks; Kuyt continued his excellent form while Riera’s showed his strength on the ball and still looks an excellent addition.

And both Alonso and Mascherano were outstanding in midfield, with Alonso dictating the play (and chipping in with a goal) while Mascherano was his usual self in breaking up Chelsea’s attack. It’s not easy to pick who the best player was, although with a gun to my head I’d say Carragher, Alonso, and Gerrard, in that order.

In the second half, Chelsea became more desperate, and increasingly looked for shots from distance, with credit again going to Liverpool’s defense. And again, Liverpool had the best chance of the half, with Alonso careening a gorgeous free kick off the foot of the post in the 62nd.

With Chelsea hit even harder by injuries than Liverpool, their recourse was to bring on youngster Franco DiSanto and Belletti for Kalou and Malouda. And while DiSanto was good in the air for his size, neither was able to make much difference.

Unsurprisingly, Benitez brought on Babel for Keane in the 60th to try to spring the Dutchman on the counter-attack, and it was business as usual for the final 30 minutes as Liverpool continued to see off a good Chelsea side. Other than Ashley Cole’s mishit shot wide after running on for DiSanto’s flick, everything seemed to come from long-range, and little of it troubled Reina.

That’s 6 points from 2 games against Chelsea and United. Liverpool hasn’t taken 6 points off those two teams in a season since Benitez came to Anfield.

The pessimist that I am, I fear this result is going to spur too much ‘is this finally the season’ talk. I couldn’t be happier with the tactics, the team’s performance, or the result. It is an absolutely massive accomplishment, and that it came at Stamford Bridge, breaking Chelsea’s four and a half year streak, makes it even sweeter. And yes, Liverpool’s now top of the table, three points above the Blues and eight above United (although they have a game in hand).

But it’s October 26th. There are still 29 matches in this campaign. The next is against Pompey on Wednesday.

24 October 2008

Liverpool at Chelsea 10.26.08

9:30am, live in the US on Setanta

This is the week where daylight saving time screws up the five-hour time difference between the East Coast and the U.K. We get our extra hour of sleep after Saturday, November 1.

Last 4 head-to-head:
2-3 Chelsea (a; CL) 04.30.08
1-1 (h; CL) 04.22.08
0-0 (a) 02.10.08
0-2 Chelsea (a; League Cup) 12.19.07

Last 3 matches:
Liverpool: 1-1 Atletico (a); 3-2 Wigan (h); 3-2 City (a)
Chelsea: 1-0 Roma (h); 5-0 Boro (a); 2-0 Villa (h)

Goalscorers (league):
Liverpool: Torres 5; Kuyt 3; Babel, Carragher, Gerrard, Riera 1
Chelsea: Anelka 4; Kalou, Lampard 3; Belletti, J Cole, Deco 2; Boswinga, Carvalho, Malouda 1

Referee: Howard Webb

In case the appointment of Howard Webb – who’s usually one of the better officials, and was in charge of the win over United – seems too fortunate for Liverpool, don’t worry. Rob Styles is the fourth official. Yeah, that’s his punishment for blowing yet another penalty call. I can’t believe they’re letting him have anything to do with a Liverpool/Chelsea contest.

Guess at a squad:
Arbeloa Carragher Agger Dossena
Mascherano Alonso
Kuyt Gerrard Riera

Guessing the 4-2-3-1 again, because this seems a game tailor-made for it (especially with Torres absent), but Liverpool did end up playing just as much 4-4-1-1 on Wednesday. Of course, one of the benefits of the 4-2-3-1 is its adaptability.

There are still concerns over Keane, but Gerrard, and Alonso have been declared fit after all three were substituted on Wednesday. I’d still wager that the Irishman’s likely to lead the line.

I would imagine we’ll see Degen (or maybe, hopefully, Darby) sooner than later, because Arbeloa’s played every match except Crewe (and has the yellow cards to show it). He's looked tired on more than one occasion, and is committing silly fouls because of it. But I can’t see Benitez blooding Degen or Darby in a match like this unless he’s forced to.

There’s still a worry over the defensive lapses, but I can’t see Hyypia starting in place of Agger either. The way that Liverpool will get rid of these mistakes is by keeping Carra and Agger together so the Dane is given time to get match-fit and the two are allowed to re-establish their partnership from 06-07.

I can't understate how this is an absolutely massive game. Yes, yes, it’s still early, but these are the two teams that have started the campaign the brightest, and have the same number of points atop the league. Chelsea still has an unbeaten home league record stretching back to 2004.

Benitez is right to say that Liverpool will need a flawless 90 minutes to beat the league leaders.
Even with a fair few injuries, Chelsea dispatched Boro with ease at the Riverside. Drogba, Essien, Ballack, Joe Cole will all likely miss out, while Ashley Cole should return, but it’s not as if these absences have harmed Chelsea’s campaign so far.

But Liverpool's proven that you can’t overlook them this season, and no deficit seems like it can’t be overturned. But, and I mean this as no slight, going a goal or two down to Chelsea is a fair bit different that against Wigan.

Let’s see those perfect 90 minutes Rafa’s hoping for.

22 October 2008

Liverpool 1-1 Atletico Madrid

Arbeloa Carragher Agger Dossena
Mascherano Alonso
Benayoun Gerrard Riera

Keane 14’
Simao 83’

It’s a fair result, and one I would have taken before kickoff, with a vital league match four days away. But after the first half, it’s a bit annoying, especially since a defensive mistake led to Atletico’s equalizer.

Liverpool started the better side, and got the needed early goal through Keane. Without Aguero (Balague’s blog post was completely correct), Atletico looked like a team that had lost its last three games. And in the 14th minute, Gerrard’s through ball allowed Keane to easily slot past Leo Franco, although there was a hint of offside about the goal. It wouldn’t be the first contentious decision.

Keane should have had a second in the 23rd minute, but tried to be too fancy making contact with Gerrard’s inch-perfect cross, and the chance went begging. Little by little, Atletico began to see more possession, but it took until the 41st minute for their first chance at goal, with Forlan blazing a shot just wide.

However, it was two decisions which were more noteworthy. Riera should have had a penalty in the 38th, when an Atletico defender stuck his back leg out, but the ref gave the left-winger a yellow for diving. On the stroke of halftime, Maniche saw yellow for simulation as well, theatrically falling down after it looked like Arbeloa grazed his leg.

Aguero's introduction to start the second half, for Luis Garcia, made an immediate impact, but again, decisions from the officiating crew denied the goals, with Benayoun, Forlan, and Maniche all called offside. Both Benayoun and Maniche had the ball in the net, and all three calls looked dubious.

In addition, Reina had to make a fingertips save on Simao’s shot in the 57th, but around the hour mark, the pace began to die back down. Kuyt came on for Keane (in the 53rd) and Babel for Gerrard (in the 61st) as Liverpool looked to rest players, but the away side seemed to have settled themselves, and were content with the one-goal lead.

And in the 83rd minute, they paid for it. Carragher allowed a ball over the top to bounce, which Forlan collected and centered for a wide-open Simao. Babel nearly won it with a diving header in the 89th, but there was no late winner this time.

A draw isn’t a bad result. It’s the toughest opposition in the group at their place. But, shipping a late goal is always a kick to the groin, and it’s made worse by the sense that Liverpool could have finished the game early. It’s hard to see how a struggling Atletico could have come back if Keane made it 2-0 in the 23rd or Claus Bo Larsen would have given the rightful penalty in the 38th. But at least the refereeing was consistent in its awfulness.

No one had performances to write home about, although Alonso did himself the most credit (which is becoming standard this season), but no one had an especially torrid time either. It was surprising to see Kuyt left out – I didn’t think the Dutchman needed to be rested – and Benayoun didn’t make any great claim to the right wing berth. I’m also still concerned about defensive lapses like the one that gave away an equalizer.

Although I'm upset about the miss, it's great to see Keane keep scoring in the Champions League. Other than the 15-minute spell to start the second half, Masch and Alonso were on top in midfield, and Lucas looked good after he came on. Reina made some top saves. And Dossena seemed a lot more assured than he was in the last couple of outings.

To be honest, I’d be far more upset if I were an Atletico fan. Liverpool played with little urgency as the game went on, probably with an eye on Sunday, and were there for the taking in the second half (of course, it shouldn't have gotten that far). Much of Liverpool's second half attack was ‘hit and hope’ long balls. It took at least half an hour for Atletico to get their strikers in the game, and Aguero – while I can’t speak to his fitness (and he did slow down even though he only came on at halftime) – was a handful.

While the majority of this is coming off negative, I’ll reiterate that a point serves Liverpool just fine, and at least the team was able to give Kuyt, Keane, Gerrard, and Alonso some rest before Chelsea. Let’s hope it pays off on Sunday.

21 October 2008

Liverpool at Atletico Madrid 10.22.08

2:45pm, live in the US on espn2

Group stage so far:
Liverpool: 3-1 PSV (h); 2-1 Marseille (a)
Atletico: 2-1 Marseille (h); 3-0 PSV (a)

Last 3 matches:
Liverpool: 3-2 Wigan (h); 3-2 City (a); 3-1 PSV (h)
Atletico: 1-2 Real Madrid (h); 1-6 Barca (a); 0-1 Sevilla (h)

Goalscorers (Europe):
Liverpool: Gerrard 3; Kuyt 2; Keane 1
Atletico: Aguero 4; Forlan, Luis Garcia, Raul Garcia, Maniche, Maxi Rodriguez 1

Referee: Claus Bo Larsen (DEN)

Guess at a squad:
Arbeloa Carragher Agger Aurelio
Mascherano Alonso
Kuyt Gerrard Riera

I realize we haven’t see the 4-2-3-1 lately, but injuries, Chelsea on Sunday, and the fact that this is an away match in Europe leads me to think we might tomorrow.

I find it hard to believe that Mascherano would miss a second consecutive match, as he was rested Saturday after returning late. But Alonso’s been excellent recently, even if I have a sneaking suspicion Rafa may rest him with an eye on Chelsea. And if that’s the case, we may see a 4-4-2 with Gerrard and Masch in the middle, although it’s worth noting that it was Masch and Lucas holding in the 4-2-3-1 away to Marseille. But I’m assuming Benitez will find a way to have Gerrard, Xabi, and Masch on the pitch tomorrow.

I honestly don’t know if Aurelio’s fit again or not (with the amount he’s injured, it’s hard to keep straight), and I don’t mean to keep harping on Dossena (I may be disappointed with some of his performances, but it’s early in his adaptation and it’s not as if he’s hiding on the pitch). I just think that Aurelio’s a better fit for the team at this point, and most importantly, has linked better with Riera, who I’m still thrilled about (I’ve re-watched his debut goal at least ten times).

Atletico hasn't had the best of spells recently, losing their last three games. It looks like both Ujfalusi and Maxi Rodriguez will be out injured, while Guillem Balague’s reporting that Aguero may be rested as well. In that blog post, Balague reports that he expects this line-up: Coupet GK; Seitaridis (RB) Antonio López (LB); Domínguez and Perea (CB); Camacho and Maniche (CM); Simao and Luis Garcia down the flanks; with Diego Forlán and Sinama Pongolle in attack. It would be nice to welcome both Pongolle and Little Luis back, so long as they don’t hurt Liverpool.

But league results don’t always translate to the Champions League, as the 04-05 team proved. Atletico, with or without Kun, will still be a very dangerous side. As Liverpool fans, we know both Garcia and Pongolle are capable of pulling a goal from nothing (Garcia in Europe especially), while it’s not as if players like Maniche, Simao, and Forlan can’t change a game in their own rights.

Thanks to two wins from two to start the Champions League campaign, this isn’t a must-win match. But the more points Liverpool pile up, the better chance there is that Benitez will be able to rest players in the final group games, like against Galatasaray two years ago. And, with injuries taking their toll and some key matches in the Premiership on the horizon, the squad needs to be as fit and fresh as possible.

18 October 2008

Liverpool 3-2 Wigan

Arbeloa Carragher Agger Dossena
Pennant Alonso Gerrard Riera
Kuyt Keane

Zaki 29’ 45+2’
Kuyt 37’ 85’
Riera 80

This cannot keep happening.

So much for Wigan coming to Anfield and shutting up shop. They deserved to be 1-2 up at halftime for their willingness to get forward, but both goals were of Liverpool’s making. The away side seemed happier to stay behind in the ball in the second half, but another sending off opened up the game, and another two goals in the last 10 minutes won it.

Wigan were truly better throughout the first half. Liverpool couldn’t get a hold of the ball for the first ten minutes, and the visitors were far more comfortable in possession.

The first warning came after 23 minutes, when Reina had to save from Kapo and clear the potential rebound after the attacker was put through. Six minutes later, Agger dwelled in possession when Reina gave him the ball at the top of the box with Zaki ten yards away. The Egyptian hitman closed him down immediately (although the Dane’s touch didn’t do him any favors), stole the ball, and slotted past Reina. With the form Zaki’s in, it’s unforgivable to give him a chance like that.

It looked like Liverpool would turn matters around fairly quickly, and Agger was at the center of it. He worked hard to redeem himself, bringing the ball out of defense and continuing his run for a return ball from Riera Dossena, then beating a defender to get into space to cut it back for Kuyt, who made no mistake.

The goal settled Liverpool, and only Kirkland’s fingertips prevented Kuyt from securing the lead with a thunderbolt from outside the box in the 43rd. But Wigan struck again on the stroke of halftime. Dossena (along with Agger) was unable to close down Valencia or stop the cross, and Zaki bicycled a beautiful volley after Arbeloa drifted away from him.

And the second half was fairly standard fare until the 74th minute. Wigan were more content to sit back and soak up pressure, which they did (Kuyt had a great chance in the 58th, with Kirkland making another excellent save, but that was about it) until Valencia was sent off for a two yellows.

Bruce was infuriated, but he couldn’t have any complaints about the second yellow, which was an awful tackle on Alonso (how does he keep drawing these?). And the first was Valencia’s stupidity two minutes prior, finally booked after refusing to stay 10 yards away from a free kick.

Liverpool quickly took advantage. Benitez sent on El Zhar for Dossena and Benayoun for Arbeloa and it paid dividends right away. Riera gets full credit for the first, running through defense and getting a return ball from El Zhar after a pretty Gerrard dummy, which he side-footed in from the top of the box with his right foot.

And once again, Kuyt got the winner. Five minutes after the equalizer, the Dutchman met Pennant’s cross with an effort similar to Zaki’s acrobatic second. Unsurprisingly, Kuyt’s was far less aesthetically pleasing, but it was just as effective. That’d be his third late winner of the season, and his fifth goal in five against Wigan.

What can you say about this team? There was an element of luck with another sending off, and yes, for the first 70 minutes Wigan deserved their lead, but Liverpool still had to score the goals. Plus, Valencia earned his dismissal; the second yellow could have seen red itself.

But there’s a bit to worry about in defense. Agger wasn’t the most assured in his return (although I’m still very pleased he didn’t hide after his mistake, and was instrumental in the equalizer), and honestly, I thought Dossena was flat-out awful (and could have seen red himself, lucky to only get a yellow for a bad tackle in the 39th).

However, I can’t help but be happy. There are things to worry about, and I reiterate what I said in the opening – this sort of fortune isn’t likely to last forever. But it’s another never-say-die comeback win that Liverpool needed to keep pace with Chelsea, and it happened right after an international break and with Torres, Mascherano, and Babel all absent. That’ll certainly do.

17 October 2008

Liverpool v Wigan 10.18.08

10am, live in the US on Setanta

Last 4 head-to-head:
1-1 (h) 01.02.08
1-0 Liverpool (a) 09.29.07
2-0 Liverpool (h) 04.21.07
4-0 Liverpool (a) 12.02.06

Last 3 matches:
Liverpool: 3-2 City (a); 3-1 PSV (h); 2-0 Everton (a)
Wigan: 0-1 Boro (h); 2-1 City (h); 4-1 Ipswich (a)

Goalscorers (league):
Liverpool: Torres 5; Babel, Carragher, Gerrard, Kuyt 1
Wigan: Zaki 5; Valencia 2; Heskey 1

I reckon we’re far enough into the season where I can start listing the goalscorers. It’s about a month later than last year, but I’ve been waiting for someone other than Torres to have more than one.

Also, I’m fully aware that the first goal against Boro was given as an own goal to Pogatetz, but I still maintain it was Carra’s. I’m okay with this blog being the only place that lists it.

Referee: Alan Wiley

Guess at a squad:
Arbeloa Carragher Agger Aurelio
Benayoun Gerrard Alonso Riera
Kuyt Keane

With Torres and Babel out, I imagine the squad will look a lot like the one that won against United a month ago, only with Gerrard healthy and Skrtel absent. Liverpool will probably stick with the 4-4-2, Kuyt should shift up top, and Benayoun’s more likely than Pennant to replace him on the right.

There’s a chance Liverpool will rest some after an international break and with Atletico and Chelsea looming, but the team’s playing well, and Benitez will want to see that continue and keep the momentum going.

As Mascherano and Lucas are both coming back from South America, they’ll probably be restricted to the bench. I may be wrong, but I don’t think either has started after an international break. With Alonso in fine form, and the defensive duties of Mascherano less necessary, I think it would have been Gerrard and Xabi in the center anyway.

Similarly, I’m interested to see Kuyt as a striker. Don’t get me wrong, Torres is irreplaceable, but this is one of those games where Kuyt might not be the best option on the right. I’ve been thrilled with his performances, and the subsequent accolades, over the past few weeks, but he’s better on the right in a back-and-forth game where his work-rate is crucial.

No slight to Wigan, but this is at Anfield. Liverpool should be attacking from the off and is likely to see a fair bit of possession. Benayoun’s tricks from the right (where he’s usually better than on the left) could provide the creativity needed to unlock a packed defense, which we’ve come to expect when teams travel to Liverpool. Plus, Kuyt’s been getting goals recently, and a spell up front (where he saw some time for Holland on Wednesday) will hopefully keep them coming.

After two months of the season, it looks like if you can stop Zaki, you stop Wigan. And Zaki’s questionable having missed Egypt’s last match with a calf injury. But, having heard the ‘one-man team’ charge leveled at Liverpool for years, I’m always dubious of it. Wigan were unlucky to ship a late goal to Middlesbrough, and shut Chelsea down apart from a spectacular Deco free kick.

Both Palacios and Valencia can be dangerous on their day. Palacios just returned from South America, so he may not figure, but Valencia came back early after a red card over the weekend. And I have to mention Chris Kirkland, as he’s stayed healthy and been a big part of Wigan’s stinginess. Plus, ex-Liverpool keepers always seem to be immense when they come back to Anfield.

And I hate when Liverpool faces Steve Bruce-led sides. Benitez has never beaten a team managed by Bruce in the league – Brum did the double in 04-05, two draws in 05-06, and draws with Brum and Wigan last year. Here’s hoping that’s finally remedied tomorrow.

16 October 2008

More apologies for the absence, and further frustration with internationals

I am sorry for the radio silence – as usual, an international break combined with the middle of the academic term means I’ve been less likely to seek out topics to write about, and thankfully, there hasn’t been a ton of Liverpool news to begin with.

Until yesterday, that is. I don’t have any solutions and can’t do much else but bitch, but how many times is Torres going to come back from an international break injured?

16 minutes into yesterday’s match with Belgium, Torres clutched the back of his right leg and immediately motioned to be substituted. That’s the same leg he suffered a hamstring tear in against Villa, which kept him out of the United match.

I could rant about the early season international breaks for a 1000 words. It’s happened before. I still find it hard to understand why it’s so important to have them at this point of the season (almost all of the next WC qualifiers aren’t until March), with the World Cup over a year and a half away, but that debate’s been done to death.

What I will say is this. Fernando Torres needs a fucking rest. He’s basically been playing non-stop for over a year. He appeared 46 games for Liverpool last season, more than at any time for Atletico except the 04-05 season where he featured in 49. And then there was Spain’s Euro run.

When a player suffers minor injuries like this in quick succession, his body’s telling him something. I’m fully aware how crucial Torres is to Liverpool, but if he continues to be run into the ground, he’s going to miss a lot more time than three weeks (after the last tear) or ten days (hopefully, the extent he’ll miss with this knock).

To make matters worse, Babel was also injured yesterday. Like Torres, it was a recurrence of a previous injury, suffering ankle problems (he missed the Euros thanks to tearing ankle ligaments). As of now, I haven’t seen any indication of how long he’ll be out, but as with Torres, my sneaking suspicion is he was rushed back too quickly. I distinctly remember reading about how Babel returned faster than expected after the ligament damage.

All I can say is I sincerely hope they’ll both be back for Chelsea on the 26th, but maybe Torres should be held out for longer. It’s a shame that he’ll miss out on the trip to Atletico (which, thankfully, looks like it’ll take place in Madrid), but Liverpool should be able to cope for that and Wigan on Saturday. But Chelsea has started the season better than any other side, including Liverpool. The Reds will have to be at their best, even better than against United, to take points from Stamford Bridge.

Preview of Saturday’s game up sometime tomorrow.

05 October 2008

Liverpool 3-2 Manchester City

Arbeloa Skrtel Carragher Aurelio
Alonso Mascherano
Kuyt Gerrard Riera

Ireland 19’
Garrido 42’
Torres 55’ 73’
Kuyt 90+2’

This team is going to give me a heart attack, and I don’t mind. This really was a game of two halves (I love it when clichés come true).

Liverpool were on top for about eight minutes before City grew into the game. After Kuyt missed Liverpool’s best and only chance of the first half, ballooning over Riera’s pull-back, City made them pay – Ireland finished a fluid counter attack after Wright-Phillips stole the ball from Aurelio and Liverpool were unable to clear the danger.

For the rest of the first half, City beat Liverpool ends up at its own game. The home side hassled and harried the visitors every time they were on the ball, preventing them from making use of their edge in possession. And with players like Robinho, Jo, and Wright-Phillips, City were a threat every time they countered.

In the 42nd minute, they took full advantage of another mistake. Riera unnecessarily charged down Wright-Phillips on the break, and Garrido smashed the resulting free kick inside the near post through the middle of an awful two-man wall.

But a team has to do more to beat Liverpool this year. Kuyt could have had a penalty a minute in when it looked like Dunne clipped his heels, but Liverpool kept on the pressure, and Torres got one back after a flowing move – Arbeloa continued his run to get the return ball from Gerrard and centered for Torres to tap in Liverpool’s 1000th Premier League goal.

City reclaimed their bearings, with Robinho still threatening (and missing an excellent chance in the six-yard box when he should have been flagged offside), but Zabaleta’s two-footed lunge on Alonso’s standing leg brought a red card in the 67th minute. It didn’t take long for Liverpool to make use of the numerical advantage, with Torres rising highest to meet Gerrard’s corner with a free header.

The striker could have had a hat-trick in the 82nd, half-volleying over at the far post, and after Skrtel’s serious injury in the 87th made it 10-on-10, it looked like Liverpool might settle for a draw after hauling themselves back. But Kuyt was on hand for another late winner when Benayoun’s centered ball fell to him after Torres’ blocked shot. Fitting that he scored it after his late heroics against Liege, the miss in the 17th minute, and a Premiership goal drought that stretches back to November.

What a difference a season makes. These two teams scored five in their last seven meetings. And yet again, we’re congratulating Liverpool’s fortitude after another comeback win. Liverpool's won nine games this year; they’ve scored the winner after the 75th minute in five of them.

After the first half, I was all set to condemn the 4-2-3-1 for Torres’s isolation and Liverpool looking second best. But the second half was an entirely different story, even before the red card and Keane’s introduction.

And once again, it’s Torres who’s irrepressible. After struggling away from Anfield last season, he’s scored all five of his goals on the road this year. He can be frustrated for long stretches, but still finds a way to come alive when needed. There’s a reason Benitez recently said he wouldn’t sell him at any price.

But full credit to the whole team for turning it around today. City showed they are an excellent side, with Ireland and Wright-Phillips most impressive for the way they got back to hassle Alonso and Mascherano when Liverpool tried to set up possession in midfield. However, Liverpool had the guts and guile to leave winners, even if they had some help with the red card (the second-straight league game Alonso’s drawn a red).

There have already been murmurs, but this win will get the media talking about whether it could be the year. There’s clear progress, and I’m incredibly heartened by this team’s ability to turn around a deficit, especially since losing a lead was a big problem last year. You can’t underestimate how much games like this can boost a side’s confidence, but there’s an awful long way to go.

Unlike a month ago, the international break comes at an unfortunate time. The next game is in 13 days against Wigan.

03 October 2008

Liverpool at Manchester City 10.05.08

10am Eastern Time, live in the US on FSC

Last 4 head-to-head:
1-0 Liverpool (h) 05.04.08
0-0 (a) 12.30.07
0-0 (a) 04.14.07
1-0 Liverpool (h) 11.25.06

Last 3 matches:
Liverpool: 3-1 PSV (h); 2-0 Everton (a); 2-1 Crewe (h)
City: 2-1 Omonia Nicosia (h); 1-2 Wigan (a) 2-2 Brighton (a)

Referee: Peter Walton

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

You have no idea how tempted I am to guess the 4-2-3-1 again. There are all the reasons I’ve listed throughout the last few posts, as well as the fact that this will be a tough away game (that’s often very cagey) against a team with some offensive firepower.

But I’ve been wrong an awful lot lately. Not to blow my own horn, but wrong far more than is usual. So I’ve learned my lesson a bit, and will probably be guessing 4-4-2 until there's evidence we might see something different.

Which means that Torres and Keane will be up top again, and we’re starting to see signs of a blossoming partnership. Keane set up Torres for one of the derby goals, and Torres returned the favor against PSV.

In addition, I’ve been quite pleased with how Kuyt’s joined them in attack. Kuyt’s still a workhorse, getting up and down the flanks, but he’s been involved in a fair few of the goals lately. There was his opener against PSV, but he was crucial in the build-up to both of Torres’ against Everton: first, with his run to draw the defender so Torres had space, and second, with Jagielka making a last-ditch tackle on Kuyt in the box only for the ball to fall to Torres.

The above paragraph is the key to the 4-4-2. If Kuyt can support the attack, cut in, and add a third man in the box, Liverpool will score goals. And it’s especially helpful that there’s a player like Riera on the other flank to stay wide. As has happened in the past, Benitez looks like he wants one winger to stay wide and one that can cut in. Earlier in this season, when Benayoun and Kuyt were on the flanks more often than not, Liverpool was too narrow and suffered because of it. That’s not happening with Riera in the mix.

But, given that the new signing has started the last two games, I’d be surprised if he did for a third. He needs to be given time to adapt to the English game and to get to full fitness. I love what he’s added to the team, and I’m fully aware that my guess of Babel and Kuyt on the flanks somewhat contradicts the last paragraph, but it sort of seems too much, too quick. Plus, we haven’t seen enough of Babel lately, although I’m sure Riera is dying to play against his former club.

Even though Gerrard and Alonso have been excellent in the middle of late, I’ll be very surprised if Mascherano doesn’t return to the fold, especially after Benitez’s comments about keeping him out Wednesday so he’ll be fitter for Sunday. And with players like Robinho, Wright-Phillips, Elano, and Jo in the opposition, Mascherano’s defensive capabilities will be essential.

Even though City’s now the richest team in the world, they’re still beatable, evidenced by last weekend’s game against Wigan. Amr Zaki and Heskey both caused City problems, and Robinho et al struggled to break down a determined opposition. City will probably continue with the 4-5-1, with Jo; Robinho, Ireland, Wright-Phillips; Elano and Kompany. And Liverpool will have to find away to break through that midfield while mindful of the speed with which City can counter.

Sunday will be a stern test of Liverpool’s progress. But, so were the matches against Manchester United and Everton.

01 October 2008

Liverpool 3-1 PSV

Arbeloa Skrtel Carragher Aurelio
Kuyt Gerrard Alonso Riera
Torres Keane

Kuyt 4’
Keane 34’
Gerrard 76’
Koevermans 78’

It’s a win in Benitez’s 250th game as manager, Keane scored his first goal for the club, Gerrard scored his 100th, and Liverpool won easily. But I can still find a way to complain. Conceding a sloppy consolation right after the third goal may have something to do with it.

When the team scores within four minutes it usually sends them on their way, and this was no different. Torres’ volley from Gerrard’s corner was well saved, but Kuyt was there for the rebound and Isaksson could only palm his shot into the net.

But, with PSV insipid for the majority of the game (aside from Amrabat, who was a willing worker up front on his own), Liverpool had little impetus. I use the phrase “never took it out of second gear” every now and then, but the team was barely out of neutral for long periods today. And they still dominated.

Keane should have had a penalty in the 20th minute before he finally broke his duck after tremendous play from Kuyt and Torres on the right. Kuyt kept control through three defenders and pushed it wide for Torres, who beat his man and sent in a perfect cross for Keane to flick inside the far post.

And after that, Liverpool were home and dry. For long stretches, including most of the second half, Liverpool slowed the pace and it led to some sloppy play, which PSV were thankfully unable to take advantage of until the 78th minute.

In the 76th, Gerrard smashed a gorgeous free kick past Isaksson for a deserved century of goals, but within 90 seconds, PSV went down the field and Skrtel couldn’t keep up with substitute Koevermans, who poked the cross past Reina. Carragher went ballistic, and rightfully so. That was PSV’s first and only shot on goal.

Don’t get me wrong; I’m quite happy with the result. Liverpool were always comfortable, and a win was never in doubt. Keane’s goal will take a huge weight off his shoulders, Kuyt continues to score in Europe, Gerrard’s was an absolute stunner, and Liverpool’s now got six points from six.

Maybe I’m asking too much, but Liverpool had PSV in the palm of their hands today, yet were sloppy and conceded a unnecessary consolation. At the same time, Torres could have had a hat-trick on his own but for Isaksson’s save in the 4th, a missed free header from a corner (when did Liverpool start threatening from corners?), and chipping a shot wide over the keeper when a PSV mistake put him through. However, that happens to the best of strikers, and in his defense, it looked like an awful rainy day where players were sliding all over the pitch. Plus, with his hand in all three goals (he won the free kick which Gerrard scored on), it’s not as if he had a bad day.

No one had a bad game per se, and that had a lot to do with PSV's performance (as well as Liverpool starting to gel as hoped), but you could see the team just going through the motions at times, and putting the opposition to the sword could have built up some more momentum to push on from.

I guess we’ve got an answer about the 4-4-2. Torres and Keane continued to blossom as a partnership, Kuyt and Riera patrolled the flanks, and Gerrard and Alonso were again dominant in midfield, even if Gerrard sat deeper than expected against a team that offered little in attack. With the team playing well, Benitez has been hesitant to rotate. In three games (Stoke, Everton and PSV), Liverpool’s made one change: Aurelio for Dossena today.

We’ll see what happens on Sunday, though. Manchester City at the Eastlands will undoubtedly be a sterner test.