29 November 2008

10 years of magic

Today’s the 10th anniversary of Steven Gerrard’s Liverpool debut, as I’m sure you’re aware since the official site’s been touting it for the last two weeks. And rightfully so. The man’s an utter genius at football, one of the absolute best players I’ve had the chance to see in their prime. He’s single-handedly won innumerable games for the club, and has probably already sealed his place in the all-time best Liverpool XI. And as Benitez said today, there’s still room for improvement.

So in celebration, here are 10 of my favorite Gerrard goals.

My video collection is somewhat lacking, so the earliest goals are from Benitez’s first season. Which means we’re without the screamers against Southampton and United, among others. This video has many of the best from those years, except for his first goal for the club.

Chances are I’m still missing a few from those four-plus seasons, but these ten sure are super. No prizes for guessing the top two.

Here’s hoping for another 10 years.

• Aston Villa 04.29.06
• Newcastle 11.24.07
• Bolton 01.01.07
• Marseille 09.16.08
• Arsenal 01.09.07
• AC Milan 05.25.05
• Aston Villa 08.11.07
• Boro 04.30.05
• West Ham 05.13.06
• Olympiakos 12.08.04

28 November 2008

Liverpool v West Ham 12.01.08

3pm, live in the US on Setanta

Won’t see the game live – stupid Monday class (last week of classes!) – but Setanta Broadband’s usually excellent about archiving matches so hopefully I’ll have a review up late evening.

Last 4 head-to-head:
4-0 Liverpool (h) 03.05.08
0-1 West Ham (a) 01.30.08
2-1 Liverpool (a) 01.30.07
2-1 Liverpool (h) 08.26.06

Last 3 matches:
Liverpool: 1-0 Marseille (h); 0-0 Fulham (h); 2-0 Bolton (a)
West Ham: 1-0 Sunderland (a); 0-0 Pompey (h); 1-3 Everton (h)

Goalscorers (league):
Liverpool: Kuyt, Torres 5; Gerrard 3; Keane 2; Alonso, Arbeloa, Babel, Carragher, Riera 1
West Ham: Cole 3; Ashton, Di Michele, Etherington 2; Behrami, Bellamy, Collison, Davenport, Mullins, Neill, Noble 1

Referee: Peter Walton

I wanted to get this preview up before the weekend even though the match isn't until Monday. So the YNWA ref preview isn't up yet, but I'll add a link when that's posted.

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

Just in case you were getting too optimistic, Torres hurt his right hamstring again and will miss another 2-3 weeks at the least. Oh, and Aurelio’s calf injury will keep him out for a similar length of time. Super. And yet, I’m still leaning toward a 4-4-2, similar to the team deployed against Wigan after Torres was injured during the internationals.

The 4-2-3-1 is assuredly a possibility, but since Mascherano’s looked gassed in the last two matches and Liverpool could do with two strikers up top as the side’s struggling for goals, I think it’s less likely than the alternative. Plus, although this hasn’t been a precedent so far this season, the match being at Anfield should mean Masch’s defensive capabilities will be less necessary. Given the results against Fulham and Stoke, it seems likely West Ham will see parking the bus as their best chance for a much-needed point.

In the couple of matches together up top – like the one against United – Kuyt and Keane have looked useful as a pairing. Unlike last season, Kuyt’s been scoring on the regular, and Keane’s better when he has a partner to work off of. And Kuyt playing up top should give him a bit of a breather compared to the amount of work he puts in when on the wing.

Babel may well have a role to play from the start, on either flank or up top, but because of that versatility (and since we haven’t seen an awful lot of him outside cameo appearances), he’ll probably come off the bench. But Riera has played a lot of matches lately, and Benayoun’s rarely certain to start.

With Aurelio injured, I’d rather Benitez gave Insua a chance, especially considering Dossena’s form, but the manager (understandably) hasn’t written the expensive Italian off yet. Dossena will have a few games before Aurelio returns to make a mark, and this’ll be a crucial period for him.

With the injuries and spat of games, I’m sure Benitez is pleased this match isn’t until Monday. It’s not even December and I’m sick of writing that this’ll be a crucial contest, as Liverpool needs goals and needs to rack up points in the league to keep pace. And hopefully, the team won’t have forgotten the abhorrent 0-1 loss to the Hammers last year, when Liverpool hit bottom before clawing back to finish the season stronger.

26 November 2008

Liverpool 1-0 Marseille

Arbeloa Carragher Agger Aurelio
Mascherano Alonso
Kuyt Gerrard Riera

Gerrard 23’

Another frustrating performance, but it’s job done. A Gerrard goal in his first game back, the first clean sheet of the group stage, and four wins from four to seal qualification for the knockout rounds. But if not for that Gerrard goal, today looked a lot like last Saturday’s against Fulham.

For the first 30 minutes, Liverpool seemed certain to win at a canter. Players swarmed forward, kept Marseille on the back foot, and Gerrard opening the scoring in the 23rd after some suspect defending. The captain took a corner from the left, and although it was cleared, Liverpool reclaimed possession. Three Marseille defenders switched off on Gerrard’s presence, and he easily headed in at the back post after Alonso picked him out with a beautiful cross from the opposite touchline.

But around the half hour mark, the tables began to turn. Liverpool couldn’t keep hold off the ball and the away side started sensing an opportunity, led by Ben Arfa. In the 36th minute, Taiwo forced Reina to palm a low free kick off the post before Zubar put a header wide from the resulting corner.

And the second half was almost all Marseille’s. I’m not pleased with another shaky performance, but credit to Marseille for looking to pass the ball and press forward. And credit to Liverpool’s defense for standing firm and preventing an equalizer. Niang was a frequent threat, while Reina had to make smart saves on two free kicks: first on Ben Arfa’s curler from the right followed by Ziani’s effort which went through the pack.

Dossena came on for Aurelio at halftime, supposedly for precautionary measures, which limited Benitez’s options off the bench (and while he wasn’t the sole cause of the poor second half, Dossena didn’t cover himself in glory either). Benayoun was brought on for Riera in the 63rd, and Lucas for Kuyt in the 85th to add another body in midfield. That Rafa left both Keane and Babel on the bench with Liverpool clinging to the 1-0 lead probably shows what the objectives were for this match.

With the way the home side played, a draw wouldn’t have been an unfair result. But despite Marseille’s possession, pressure, and opportunities, Liverpool held on for the victory. And that’s always a positive.

But it’s still worrisome seeing the side struggle for goals, and even more so to see them lose out in midfield. That’s not a frequent occurrence; Liverpool often had scads of possession even when they struggled to break down sides in previous seasons.

For the first time that I can remember, Mascherano had two off days in a row (although he has played a fair few games recently), and that had a lot to do with Marseille winning the middle. But giving the ball away too frequently didn’t help matters, and that went for pretty much everyone in the side.

Even though Gerrard’s just back from injury, while this is only Torres’ third start after missing six matches, I’d hoped they’d click better with the team back in the 4-2-3-1. And that Benitez returned to this formation, while leaving Keane on the bench for the duration, raises a few questions.

I’m still not sure how much of this was the team switching off after going a goal up, knowing they just needed a draw to advance, and how much was Marseille’s good work. But coming after the Fulham, Spurs, and Atletico (to a lesser extent) matches, it’s frustrating all the same.

Five days until West Ham on Monday.

Happy Thanksgiving.

25 November 2008

Liverpool v Marseille 11.26.08

2:45pm, live in the US on Setanta. I’m still not sure if I’ll be able to catch this match live, but at the worst I’ll see the replay at 9:15pm and have the review up by the morning.

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

Last 3 matches:
Liverpool: 0-0 Fulham (h); 2-0 Bolton (a); 2-4 Spurs (a)
Marseille: 2-2 Lille (h); 2-3 Lorient (h); 3-0 Grenoble (a)

Goalscorers (Europe):
Liverpool: Gerrard 4; Keane, Kuyt 2
Marseille: Niang 5; Cana, Cheyrou, Kone 1

Referee: Olegário Benquerença (POR)

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

Yeah, this might not happen, but I miss the 4-2-3-1. And if Gerrard’s back, I reckon this formation’s the best bet for more goals, which Liverpool clearly needs. Aside from Alonso for Lucas, this would be the same front six that faced Marseille in September.

But with Liverpool looking to get Torres and Keane on the same page, the 4-4-2’s still more likely. And if that’s the case, I expect Masch will be left out after last Saturday’s performance. Either way, there probably won’t be any changes to the backline.

Riera’s played a lot of matches lately, so even though Babel’s been no great shakes off the bench, I’m hoping he’ll get the nod. Maybe being on the pitch from the start, at Anfield on a European Cup night, will help push him toward the progress we’ve hoped to see from him this season.

A win here would seal qualification for the knockout rounds, while a draw would probably accomplish the same, depending on PSV’s result behind closed doors at Atletico.

But Liverpool can’t play it safe. The team’s been struggling to score, and Marseille has dangerous attackers in Ben Arfa, Niang, and Kone. Even after beating OM in the past two meetings, I still can’t purge last year’s 0-1 loss at Anfield from my memory. Valbuena, the goal scorer in that match, will miss out through injury, but Marseille still has enough skill and guile in their squad to punish Liverpool for any profligacy.

22 November 2008

Liverpool 0-0 Fulham

Arbeloa Carragher Agger Aurelio
Kuyt Lucas Mascherano Riera
Keane Torres

0-0 at Anfield to both Fulham and Stoke. And it’s not even December. Fantastic.

The first half was absolute dross, with Liverpool actually overrun in midfield. The second half was marginally better, with the expected pressure and the away side parking the bus, but the scoreline tells you how effective Liverpool was.

I understand why Alonso was left out. He played 90 minutes for Spain and will play 90 against Marseille on Wednesday. And if Gerrard misses that match too, Alonso will be essential. But neither Lucas nor Mascherano played well in his stead, and central midfield is where Liverpool lost two points today. It only took half an hour for fans to start singing for the Spaniard.

Both Masch and Lucas sat deep, leading to disconnect between midfield and attack, and Fulham filled the space. Kuyt and Riera often cut in to the center to try to link play, but to little effect, and Liverpool struggled to keep hold of the ball in the first half. Too many hopeful long passes were pumped out of defense, and with the 6’5” Hangeland marking the strikers, most were futile and ended up conceding possession.

Liverpool’s backline limited Fulham to one good chance, with Reina expertly palming Bullard’s blast away in the 35th, but it’s not as if Liverpool created many of their own – Schwartzer making himself big to deny Keane from close range in the 29th was the nearest to breaking the deadlock.

Unsurprisingly, Liverpool asserted themselves after the restart, but still couldn’t get the needed goal. Alonso’s entrance in the 64th minute was the biggest difference, with Mascherano making way – again, ostensibly to rest him for Marseille – but it was too little, too late as Fulham stood firm with 10 men in their own half and with Johnson and Zamora doing well to hassle high up the pitch. Schwartzer saved two stinging shots from Torres (51’) and Kuyt (70’), but Liverpool never did enough to open the scoring.

It’s not good when the lone consolation is that Chelsea dropped points at home to Newcastle as well. Yes, Liverpool kept another clean sheet, Reina’s ninth in the league. They should be keeping a clean sheet at home against Fulham.

Keane and Torres continued to misfire as a pairing, even though both, especially Torres, worked diligently. It was a big game for Lucas in place of Alonso and he disappointed immensely, although he wasn’t helped by one of Mascherano’s tamest performances. Neither Babel nor El Zhar was able to get into the game and make a difference off the bench. The brevity of the review should demonstrate how little there is to take away from this match.

Yes, at least Liverpool’s kept pace with the Blues. But with Chelsea’s draw, it’s even more a missed opportunity. And if the team continues to struggle to score as they have for most of this month, they won’t be keeping pace for long.

21 November 2008

Liverpool v Fulham 11.22.08

10am, live in the US on Setanta

Last 4 head-to-head:
2-0 Liverpool (a) 04.19.08
2-0 Liverpool (h) 11.10.07
0-1 Fulham (a) 05.05.07
4-0 Liverpool (h) 12.09.06

Last 3 matches:
Liverpool: 2-0 Bolton (a); 2-4 Spurs (a); 3-0 West Brom (h)
Fulham: 2-1 Spurs (h); 2-1 Newcastle (h); 0-1 Everton (a)

Goalscorers (league):
Liverpool: Kuyt, Torres 5; Gerrard 3; Keane 2; Alonso, Arbeloa, Babel, Carragher, Riera 1
Fulham: Johnson 4; Murphy 2; Davies, Dempsey, Gera, Hangeland, Ki-Hyeon, Zamora 1

Referee: Mark Halsey

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

So, with Gerrard ruled out (guess he’s not making it up then, eh Capello?), I’d be very surprised if this wasn’t the line-up. Arbeloa returns from suspension, so that should be the backline, and everyone seemingly came through the internationals okay (with no long trips across the ocean). Maybe there’ll be more changes with the Champions League in mind, but as focus should be on the league and with Liverpool joint top of its CL group, I don’t expect it.

If Gerrard were fit, it’s the old debate between 4-2-3-1 and 4-4-2, and whether Keane (who’ll be available after pulling out of the Irish squad) or one of Alonso/Mascherano is left out. But we’ll save that for another day.

Even though I’m not thrilled he played for Spain, Torres couldn’t have had a better night Wednesday on his road to recovery. He didn’t start, but scored as a sub and capped the evening by taking the captain’s armband when Villa went off. All of that should do his confidence a world of good, and it’s nice to see the striker come back from international duty uninjured for once.

Riera and Alonso played the full 90 for Spain, while Arbeloa and Reina also came off the bench. I know it’s a friendly, but Liverpool had five players in the Spanish team, two more than Valencia or Villareal. Insane. Meanwhile, Kuyt also kept up his scoring streak, netting in the 90th minute in Holland’s 3-1 win over Sweden.

Last week, Fulham did what Liverpool’s failed to twice this season – beat Tottenham. Andy Johnson’s (sigh) gotten the better of Liverpool before, and Danny Murphy’s still class, especially on set pieces (as is Jimmy Bullard). They’ve taken 11 points in their last five games, although they’re still not the most dangerous away from Craven Cottage, having scored two goals on their travels this season.

It took until the 81st minute to break Fulham down in last season’s match at Anfield, and it was a long clearance by Reina up to Torres, who had come off the bench to provide his usual moment of brilliance, to do it. Once again, Liverpool will have to be canny enough to break down a dogged side at Anfield. And with all the talk about the importance of the league, even coming off an international break, it’s imperative we see the best out of the team.

20 November 2008

I sell out, one of you benefits (but not as much as I do)

So I reckon I’ll be as transparent about this as possible.

About a week ago, I received an email from SoccerPro.com asking if I’d review a Liverpool jersey and some other gear if they sent it to me. And given that I’ve made all of $200 for one ad over the space of two and a half years, I agreed.

So, they sent me a brand new Adidas Liverpool FC Away Jersey,
the Adidas Liverpool FC Training Jacket (which is seriously awesome), and the official history of Liverpool DVD. And I am thrilled. Because I am a whore for free clothing.

But I wouldn’t have agreed if I didn’t love the product or believe in their web site. So yeah, it should go without saying, but all of this is absolutely my own opinion.

Soccer jerseys and other soccer gear make up a fair bit of my wardrobe, and I wouldn’t be surprised if the same was true for a lot of you. Not only is it one of the few ways (and a very, very American way – God bless capitalism) for those of us on the wrong side of the pond to show support for the team we follow so closely, it’s also a way to identify other members of the same tribe.

I’ve lived all over this country – in big cities, college towns, and rural areas – as well as in London. And everywhere I’ve been, soccer gear has been a conversation starter. I’ve made friends on campus, both as a grad student and an undergrad, because they were wearing a Liverpool jersey. Or an England jersey. Or a Holland jersey. Yes, I really do have that many jerseys; you don’t know the half of it.

It goes without saying that I wouldn’t be writing this if it weren’t for the deal graciously provided by SoccerPro, but jerseys truly are great gifts. And given that SoccerPro has free shipping on everything besides enormous stuff like goals (the stuff got here in less than four business days), I don’t feel awkward recommending them even though I’ve been paid off. Such is the way of the world, I’ve learned.

And since soccer DVDs give endless amusement and because I feel marginally guilty about reaping all of the benefits, I’m giving the DVD away to whoever wins this year’s fantasy football contest. I’ve been monstrously busy of late, and I can’t remember the last time I’ve logged in to check or change my team, so chances are, I’m not winning the competition. And even if I do, second place will get the prize. So for the 23 of you, there’s a bit of added incentive.

Gangly Handful FC is currently in the lead, but Torres' Tories, Chinaman FC, and Wyckyd Sceptre aren’t far behind. 12 of you are less than 100 points behind the leader. So, to the winner go some of the spoils. And if the winner already has it or doesn’t come through on getting said spoils, I’ll think up another way to give it out. Plus, this good fortune has the wheels turnings as to other contests I could have on this site, no matter my financial situation.

So support your freeloading, unpaid blogger. Go to SoccerPro.com, buy stuff, and come back sometime tomorrow for the preview of the Fulham match, which is 10am Saturday on Setanta.

15 November 2008

Liverpool 2-0 Bolton

Carragher Hyypia Agger Aurelio
Alonso Mascherano
Kuyt Gerrard Riera

Kuyt 28’
Gerrard 73’

That was far, far scarier than it should have been. And it’ll be remembered for the six arguable sitters missed, four coming from Liverpool.

Bolton started out pressing, with Liverpool players slipping all over the pitch, but that lasted less than five minutes, and it soon settled into the home side parking the bus in their own half. Surprise, surprise.

Kuyt nearly opened the scoring in the 22nd, crashing a shot off the bar, but got his seventh goal of the season – and fifth in the league – six minutes later with a brilliant header from Aurelio’s cross that gave Jaaskelainen no chance.

And two minutes after that, Keane should have iced the game then and there. Kuyt centered the ball across the box, but the Irishman somehow failed to make contact from a yard out. It wouldn’t be the last jaw-dropping miss.

Bolton put up marginally more resistance until halftime, but Liverpool were still on top until another talking point right before the break. Bolton earned their first corner of the half, McCann sent a good ball in, and Cahill put it in the back of the net. The commentators seemed fairly aggrieved when it was chalked off, but last I checked, three players caging Reina, with Nolan getting a substantial push on the keeper, wasn’t legal. And the whistle was blown before Cahill headed in.

Megson brought on Gardner at halftime and it completely changed proceedings. The left midfielder immediately earned a free kick, and should have scored in the 52nd, rounding Reina after getting behind the defense, but slipping when he tried to shoot from a narrow angle.

Bolton continued to threaten, and arguably was the better side, but Gerrard should have gotten the much-needed second in the 62nd when Alonso stole the ball and slid it through to Torres (who came on for Keane on the hour). The striker centered perfectly for the captain, but Gerrard could only direct it wide – again, from about a yard out.

But in the 73rd minute, the substitute helped seal the game, and this time Stevie buried it. Torres controlled a long ball, stole away from Andy O’Brien (who should have cleared, but again, seemed to slip), and crossed for Gerrard, who made no mistake with a header down into the far corner.

I still can’t figure out how we didn’t see a goal in the final ten minutes, but after Liverpool scored a second the three points were never in doubt. In the 80th, Torres couldn’t round Jaaskelainen, who did well to push the ball away, and the Bolton keeper made a great save on Alonso’s bullet from long range seconds later.

Gardner missed again in the 85th after he latched onto a chipped ball over the top, but fired over with Reina making himself big. Torres somehow hit the post with the goal gaping in the 87th after Lucas got to the byline when a Bolton defender slipped. And Lucas finished off the incredible misses in the last minute of injury time when he could only head Gerrard’s cross wide from close range.

I don’t usually write this much about missed opportunities, but the amount of chances that should have been goals was utterly egregious. On another day, it easily could have been a 6-2 win.

It’ll certainly be argued, but I think Bolton’s “goal” was rightfully ruled out (I actually thought Styles surprisingly had a good game, although I’m admittedly biased). But the first 25 minutes of the second half were far too frightening. It really looked like Liverpool’s inability to kill the game was going to cost them again.

But Reina, who’s my man of the match, with close competition from Alonso and Kuyt, did very well, and even though Bolton was finally winning in midfield, the defense held firm.

Reina doesn’t get enough credit for, and because of, his positioning. Bolton had chances at goals throughout the spell where they were on top, but Reina was usually in the perfect position to collect the flicks, crosses, and shots. Plus, his handling was superb (even if his distribution was questionable) in difficult conditions; I can’t emphasize enough that the slickness of the pitch caused a few of those misses.

Whenever Liverpool took the game to Bolton, Alonso was in the middle of everything, and was unlucky not to get a goal thanks to Jaaskelainen’s excellent save. He was awesome today, but he's been in awesome form for over a month now. Kuyt put in his usual diligent shift, and scored with an absolute peach of a header, one of the best I’ve seen since Garcia left the club. Riera was a constant threat in the first half, but faded as the game went on. And the makeshift defense, with Carragher on the right, still kept a clean sheet despite the pressure.

I was fairly furious with the performance around the 60-minute mark. After the Spurs games and the Atletico draw at Anfield, the pessimist in me saw it coming again. But at the end of the day, Liverpool got the goal they needed, kept a clean sheet, and earned the three points. Torres looked better in his 30 minutes off the bench than on Wednesday, and aside from Agger losing a tooth, and getting on with it regardless, Liverpool had no injury worries.

And the win provides more momentum that Liverpool undeniably needed going into a short international break before playing host to Fulham next Saturday.

14 November 2008

Liverpool at Bolton 11.15.08

7:45am, live in the US on Setanta

Last 4 head-to-head:
3-1 Liverpool (a) 03.02.08
4-0 Liverpool (h) 12.27.07
3-0 Liverpool (h) 01.01.07
0-2 Bolton (a) 09.30.06

Last 3 matches:
Liverpool: 2-4 Spurs (a); 3-0 West Brom (h); 1-1 Atletico (h)
Bolton: 1-0 Hull (a); 2-0 City (h); 0-1 Everton (h)

Goalscorers (league):
Liverpool: Torres 5; Kuyt 4; Gerrard, Keane 2; Alonso, Arbeloa, Babel, Carragher, Riera 1
Bolton: Davies 4; Taylor 2; Cahill, Elmander, Gardner, Steinsson 1

Referee: Rob Styles

Getting all the good refs! At least it’s not Steve Bennett…

Guess at a squad:
Carragher Hyypia Agger Aurelio
Kuyt Gerrard Alonso Riera
Torres Keane

I think there are two options in both attack and defensive that Benitez will choose from, and honestly don’t know which is more likely in either case.

Torres or Mascherano will probably be left out of the front six. If Liverpool plays 4-4-2, it’s a choice between Alonso and Masch in the middle. Alonso’s on form and Bolton will mainly attack through the air, which eliminates some of the need for Mascherano’s defensive capabilities.

But Benitez might want to take it slow with Torres. He did look rusty against Spurs, and I wouldn’t be opposed to easing him back since this isn’t his first hamstring injury. Plus, there's a midweek international break coming up, and leaving him on the bench here could give reason to keep him out of the Spanish squad. And if that’s the case, Liverpool will probably line up in the 4-2-3-1 with Keane as the spearhead, as they did against Atletico and Chelsea, among others.

I’m hoping there are only two options in defense, but that assumes my rant about Degen after the Carling Cup match comes true, and either Carragher or Darby starts at right back. It’d probably be Carra, since coming on in the 84th minute on Wednesday is Darby’s lone appearance. Also, Degen might be ruled out anyway due to the foot injury that forced him to come off in the last match.

After struggling for results, Bolton’s won their last two against Hull and City. Those six points have pushed them up to 11th, even though the team’s been goal-shy for the majority of the season. I honestly thought Elmander would have a larger impact – and, hands up, so far I've been wrong – but of course, writing this means he’ll probably start to make that impact tomorrow. In addition, captain Kevin Nolan will probably return from injury, and he’s a player that’s haunted Liverpool in the past.

After a stellar September and October, results have started to slip in the past couple of weeks: two losses against Spurs (although one barely counts) and a hardly-deserved home draw against Atletico. But the league is what counts, and the Tottenham match was the only Premiership slip-up since the September draw against Stoke. A win tomorrow, in a difficult venue like the Reebok, against a gritty team that’s usually tough to keep down, would keep momentum going and restore any confidence that's been lost in the last couple of matches.

12 November 2008

Liverpool 2-4 Tottenham

Degen Hyypia Agger Dossena
El Zhar Lucas Plessis Babel
Torres Ngog

Pavlyuchenko 38’ 52’
Campbell 42’ 45’
Plessis 49’
Hyypia 64’

Worst Liverpool defending I have ever seen. You can look at the changes in the back five and draw your own conclusions. That scoreline’s probably closer than it should have been, even considering yet another Mike Riley special in the 82nd minute, ignoring a fairly clear penalty.

It’d be duplicitous for me to complain about the result after writing that this competition's essentially meaningless. But I’ll still complain about the performance; the first 60 minutes were simply god-awful and the rest was barely mediocre.

Spurs dominated the first half. They out-worked Liverpool, had scads of possession, and used the entire field to keep the away side on the back foot. Only a last-ditch block by Agger prevented the opener in the 19th minute, while Liverpool didn’t have one shot, let alone a shot on target, for the first 45.

For the first third of the game, it looked like Spurs wouldn’t reap a reward for their dominance. And then, seven absolutely awful minutes saw Tottenham put three past Liverpool.

First, Frazier Campbell shrugged off Hyypia, who looked like he thought it’d go out for a goal kick, to cut back for an unmarked Pavlyuchenko parked on the penalty spot.

Then the provider turned scorer twice in three minutes after more abysmal defending. Cavalieri should have never come for the first – a long ball towards Campbell – and collided with Degen, leaving an empty net. Then, Lennon got yet another dangerous cross in (seriously, the fullbacks were both atrocious), and Dossena wandered away from Campbell, leaving the striker wide open for an easy header.

Liverpool got a lifeline in the 49th when Gomes made a mess of a corner, gifting Plessis his first goal for the club, but Spurs restored the three-goal advantage immediately as Zokora ran away from Hyypia and again found an open Pavlyuchenko two yards from goal. Liverpool couldn’t mark a statue tonight.

Gomes blundered another corner in the 64th, with Hyypia heading in after the keeper missed his punch. Two shots, both on target, two goals. And both from corners. After Spurs had already put four past Liverpool. Somehow, I’ve ended up in a parallel universe.

The second goal actually prompted better play, and Insua coming on for Torres and Alonso for Plessis certainly helped. But when Gomes’ injury in the 69th led to an extended stoppage (and there wouldn't have been an injury if Degen actually run onto Lucas’s lovely pass), Liverpool lost all momentum.

The only other opportunity, despite nine minutes of added time, was the penalty that wasn’t. Degen (to give a little credit, he actually tried to get forward in the second half) was brought down by Bale, but Riley waved play on and gave that shit-eating smile and I had to stop myself from punching my monitor.

I don’t care how meaningless the competition is or who's lined up for Liverpool. That first half was unforgivable; I feel bad for the fans who paid money to travel to London for this.

I’m glad that Benitez left everyone on the pitch for the second half to fix their own mistakes, and the team was marginally better after the break, but it’s still hard to find positives. I guess Torres getting 56 minutes and coming through unscathed was good, Insua and Alonso played well off the bench, and Babel took two nice corners that led to goals, but that’s about it.

Tottenham passed around Liverpool throughout the first half and had excellent width where Liverpool had none. And when Liverpool had the ball, lazy play led to giveaways, which put more pressure on an already shaky defense. Poor passes, little movement, isolated strikers – all the things you hate to see.

Yes, it’s like his second game for the club, and I try never to single out players. But I do not want to see Degen anywhere near the pitch on Saturday even though Arbeloa’s suspended. Play Carra at right back, or even Darby. But not Degen.

Everyone’s going to credit Redknapp for this 'miraculous turnaround,' and another four-goal performance is certainly an improvement over Ramos. Coming in and telling the players how wonderful they are definitely helps when the last manager barely spoke the language after a year in the job. But Liverpool’s backline was simply awful, and Tottenham could have had more.

It’s still the Carling Cup, and it’s not the loss that bugs me. It’s the performance, and more importantly, the attitude that’s so infuriating. And if the team doesn’t learn a lesson or two, and lets this result affect their confidence in the league, it'll be far worse than getting dumped from the fourth-choice cup.

11 November 2008

Liverpool at Tottenham 11.12.08

2:45pm, live in the US on Setanta (at the least, on Setanta Broadband)

Last three matches:
Liverpool: 3-0 West Brom (h); 1-1 Atletico (h); 1-2 Spurs (a)
Spurs: 2-1 City (a); 4-0 Dinamo Zagreb (h); 2-1 Liverpool (h)

Carling Cup goalscorers:
Liverpool: Agger, Lucas 1
Spurs: O’Hara, Pavlyuchenko 1

Referee: Mike Riley!

Guess at a squad:
Degen Hyypia San Jose Dossena
Pennant Lucas Plessis El Zhar
Ngog Babel

So, from the official site today, there’s word that Gerrard and Keane definitely won’t play, and it looks like Kuyt, Alonso, and Carragher are in the same boat.

But the fact that Torres is in the squad arouses an irrational fear that he might start tomorrow, as he did at Reading in last year’s tournament. He does need playing time after missing six matches in a row, but I’m also afraid (and I’m knocking furiously on wood as I write this) that something bad could happen in what’s essentially a meaningless game. Hopefully he’ll come off the bench as he did on Saturday, and will return to the starting line-up in four days against Bolton.

Aside from San Jose for Agger (who’s started the last three matches, and San Jose’s my best guess out of the reserve team defenders) and Dossena for Insua (as Dossena hasn’t featured much of late, even though this would mean Insua will miss out, which irks me), this would be the same side that faced Crewe in the last round.

I want to see Liverpool win every match they play – that’s pretty much the definition of a fan. But in a season where there will probably be 60-plus games, you have to prioritize. And this game’s not a priority.

That doesn’t mean it won’t be significant for players like Lucas, Ngog, Pennant, and the rest. All these players will have roles to play this season, and the Carling Cup is important to both their development and fitness. These are the games where they get the necessary experience before being fully plunged into the first team.

I’d rather see Darby in place of Degen, as the youngster’s gotten good reviews in the reserves and looks like one for the future, but Degen seemingly has to play here having not gotten much time since signing over the summer. And with Arbeloa’s suspension looming thanks to a fifth yellow card over the weekend, Degen needs playing time for when he has to step into the first team.

As Tottenham are the defending champions in the competition and on a roll, I wouldn’t be surprised to see them deploy a strong team. Redknapp’s continued to work his magic, with Spurs unbeaten in the five games since he was named manager. But that shouldn’t affect how Benitez sets up his side.

While revenge for the loss a week and a half ago would surely be sweet, it’s less important than resting key players for the league campaign and getting the reserves/youngsters time in the first team.

08 November 2008

Liverpool 3-0 West Brom

Arbeloa Carragher Agger Aurelio
Benayoun Gerrard Mascherano Riera

Keane 34’ 43’
Arbeloa 90+3

Keane scored a brace, opening his Premier League account, Liverpool controlled proceedings for long stretches, Torres made his return, and Arbeloa added gloss with a spectacular finish in the third minute of added time. Three goals – all fairly sexy – and another clean sheet. That’ll do.

After a loss at Spurs and the draw with Atletico, it was imperative Liverpool got the right result today. While West Brom refreshingly looked to take the game to Liverpool at the start (thank you for coming to Anfield and not parking the bus in front of goal!), the home side quickly found their feet. Keane’s snap shot at Carson, after a nice throughball back in by Mascherano, set the tone for the rest of the half.

It took until the 34th minute to break the deadlock, but that was partly down to Peter Walton, who had a stinker of a game and denied a fairly clear penalty when Benayoun’s shot was partially blocked by Carson and Olsson’s hand prevented it from trickling through.

But in the space of nine minutes, Keane put the game to bed. First, he lifted Gerrard’s deliciously weighted ball over Carson and a defender with his left foot to break his league duck. In the 43rd, Liverpool broke from a West Brom corner, and Aurelio’s long ball was perfectly placed for Keane. The striker rounded Carson (who, for some reason, charged out of his area), and scored his second with his weaker foot. You could see how the first goal invigorated Keane, who threatened throughout with his pace and perception. Hopefully, that’ll open the floodgates. At this point in the game, players were queuing up to shoot, and it looked as if this could be like the past matches where Liverpool’s hammered the Baggies.

But the away side was more resilient in the second half, and Felipe Teixiera for Kim and Luke Moore for Bednar in the 56th minute helped as well. West Brom could have pulled one back in the 58th when both Carra and Agger left a long ball which fell to Ishmael Miller, only the striker was caught unaware and was unable to control in the pouring rain.

Babel came on for Riera in the 66th and Torres for Keane in the 72nd, but Liverpool still couldn’t punish the opposition as they did in the first half. Torres’ best chance came in the 79th, when he ran at two defenders and fiercely shot from the top of the box, only to shoot too close to Carson.

Another Albion sub, Chris Brunt, delivered a smashing free kick as soon as he came on in the 72nd, but just missed the near post. The Baggies earned a fair few corners in the final 15 minutes or so, but Liverpool never looked in jeopardy. And in the 93rd minute, Mascherano found Kuyt, who pushed it to Arbeloa on the right, with the fullback stepping in and unleashing a gorgeous left-footer that curled inside the far post. The perfect way to end the game.

With Liverpool dominant for most of the first half, I’m marginally disappointed they didn’t win by more. A ruthless demolition of the opposition is always good for morale. But it was a professional performance, and after Keane’s two goals, the result was never in doubt.

I thought Arbeloa was fantastic today, and if it weren’t for Keane’s strikes, the late goal would probably get him my man of the match. Both he and Aurelio were tireless and dangerous up and down the flanks. It’s a shame Arbeloa finally picked up the fifth yellow that will rule him out for a match, especially when it was a debatable foul Walton shouldn’t have given in the first place.

I also thought Kuyt, Benayoun, and Mascherano were excellent. Kuyt, along with Alonso, has been the player of the season so far, while Benayoun tried to make things happen on the right. And Mascherano was imperious in front of the back four, rarely giving West Brom a sniff at goal. Both Gerrard and Riera looked tired and weren’t at their best, but both should get a breather on Wednesday.

3-0, and rarely on top form will certainly do. That’s exactly the result Liverpool needed after the last two matches. Now, an incidental Carling Cup visit to Tottenham before back to business in the league against Bolton.

07 November 2008

Liverpool v West Brom 11.08.08

12:30pm, live in the US on FSC

Last 4 head-to-head:
2-0 Liverpool (a) 04.01.06
1-0 Liverpool (h) 12.31.05
5-0 Liverpool (a) 12.26.04
3-0 Liverpool (h) 09.11.04

Last 3 matches:
Liverpool: 1-1 Atletico (h); 1-2 Tottenham (a); 1-0 Pompey (h)
West Brom: 2-2 Blackburn (h); 1-2 Newcastle (a); 0-3 Hull (h)

Goalscorers (league):
Liverpool: Torres 5; Kuyt 4; Gerrard 2; Alonso, Babel, Carragher, Riera 1
West Brom: Bednar 4; Miller, Morrison 2; Brunt, Olsson 1

Referee: Peter Walton

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

For the third match in a row I’ll start by saying I hope to see Torres on the bench. Maybe he'll start, but after missing six matches, I'm not so sure. I’m glad he didn’t play on Tuesday if he didn’t feel ready to, but Liverpool has certainly needed his goals in the last two games.

It doesn’t help that neither Keane nor Kuyt is best used as a lone striker, unlike Torres. But the midfield’s been strong in the 4-2-3-1, and Alonso’s been superlative. I doubt Gerrard will be shifted to the right, which would keep both Masch and Alonso on the field. It’s definitely arguable whether Liverpool needs Mascherano against West Brom, and Gerrard paired with Alonso and Pennant or El Zhar on the right is a better option, but that seems less likely. Of course, I’ve been wrong before.

With the League Cup match against Spurs next week, I imagine we’ll see a fairly strong line-up, with most rested next Wednesday. My guessed changes are Dossena for Aurelio, as Rafa seems willing to rest the Brazilian in the hope of keeping him fit, and Hyypia for Agger. I doubt Agger needs to sit with a broken finger (which is worst-case scenario), but giving him a few days to recuperate shouldn’t hurt.

I’m also tempted to guess Babel over Riera, as the Dutchman could run at West Brom’s defense (which has the highest goals-against record in the league), while Riera’s looked tired in the last couple of matches. But again, I reckon that change will come on Wednesday.

Once again, Liverpool will face a former keeper in Scott Carson, sold over the summer for £3.25m. I hate when Liverpool faces former keepers.

West Brom started the season better than their league position would suggest. But they lost three straight following the most recent international break, before Blackburn drew level with an 89th minute goal last Saturday. Prior to the season I thought the Baggies were the most likely of the promoted sides to stay up. With Stoke 12th and Hull 6th, it shows what I know.

But, they have played some nice football at times. Having followed Liverpool for long enough, I know teams like that can haunt at Anfield. And Tony Mowbray has been an excellent manager; I’m hoping his preference for attacking football will keep Albion from parking the bus, but I’m not holding my breath either. At the least, I expect to see a very crowded midfield, which is probably an argument for Pennant-Gerrard-Alonso-Riera with Kuyt and Keane up top.

Past isn’t enough of a precedent to guarantee victory. Liverpool needs to respond well after losing to Spurs and a fortunate draw against Atletico. It’s not far from hyperbole to suggest every game in the Premiership is do-or-die.

04 November 2008

Liverpool 1-1 Atletico Madrid

Arbeloa Carragher Agger Aurelio
Mascherano Alonso
Kuyt Gerrard Riera

Maxi Rodriguez 37’
Gerrard 90+4’ (pen)

Lucky, lucky Liverpool. I almost feel bad reveling in this draw.

It looked like Atletico would deservedly hold on, packing 10 men behind the ball after Maxi Rodriguez’s wonderful 37th-minute goal, but Gerrard got a gift of a penalty call in the third minute of injury time after colliding with Pernia during yet another last-ditch attack. The captain made absolutely no mistake with his perfect penalty, but the call was only marginally more a penalty than the one I lambasted Rob Styles for giving to Chelsea a little over a year ago.

With the way Atletico defended, Liverpool really are lucky with a point. It’s not as if Liverpool played badly, except in front of goal. Yes, it was a scrappy game for much of the first half, with Keane narrowly missing Liverpool’s best chance after he beautifully controlled Alonso’s long ball, but shot just wide of the post. But on the whole, this team is playing better football than past squads. They've just lost some of the cutting edge in the last couple of matches.

And once Atletico scored – Lopez, wide open on the right, cut the ball back for Maxi Rodriguez, who controlled around Carragher as if he wasn’t even there and slotted in the far post – they were content to sit back and soak up pressure, which they did manfully for the most part. It was an utterly stunning goal, and combined with the excellent defense over the next 55 minutes, one that deserved to win a match.

Much like against Tottenham last Saturday, Liverpool kept the pressure up for long stretches, but failed to find the final touch. In the 51st minute, the home side should have had a clear penalty when the ball hit Perea’s hand in the box, but the referee appeared unsighted and played on. In addition, Liverpool lobbied for a penalty in the 2nd minute after Agger claimed a foul in the box on the first corner, but that one would have been harsh.

Liverpool created chances, but not enough. Agger had three decent opportunities in the second half – explained by the vast number of Liverpool corners (13 by my count, most of which came to nothing) – but headed wide, over, and stretched for a shot that was too close to Franco. A pretty move by Keane and Gerrard to unlock the backline in the 70th ended with the captain shooting over. And Ngog, coming on for Keane in the 71st after the Irishman pretty much ran himself into the ground, had a couple of his own, but couldn’t find a debut goal.

It looked like Atletico, unlike Liverpool, would be able to see out the one-goal lead on the road, but the make-up call to end all make-up calls allowed Gerrard the opportunity to level in the last minute of added time. Liverpool should have had the spot kick in the 51st, but got it in the 94th. Gerrard’s been questioned about diving in the past, but I don’t that’s the case here. He was trying to get on the end of the ball, came together with Pernia (who was trying to do the same), and hit the turf. It's not like he fell as if he was shot (coughRonaldocough). But seeing three Madrid players booked, two for petulance after the penalty, shows how the decision was welcomed on their end.

So now, with four games gone in the group, Liverpool and Atletico both sit on eight points, with Marseille and PSV on three. Qualification’s not assured, but it looks like these two teams are likely to advance.

I’m not going to look a gift horse in the mouth, but Liverpool have to realize how lucky they were. Once again, it looked like without Torres, Liverpool could not unlock a tricky defense. The effort’s there, even if some of the passing was sloppier than usual today, and there has been some sumptuous build-up in the last two matches. But Liverpool will be punished for being goal-shy. Benitez cannot allow the late penalty to paper over the cracks. They’re very fortunate they weren’t punished today.

update: One thing I forgot to elaborate on. The reason Liverpool's played some sumptuous football at times is Liverpool's #14. Yet another game he's man of the match. I eat every single question I asked of him over the summer. He's responded brilliantly, and has easily been Liverpool's best player over the first three months.

03 November 2008

Liverpool v Atletico Madrid 11.04.08

2:45pm, live in the US on espn2

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

Last 3 matches:
Liverpool: 1-2 Tottenham (a); 1-0 Pompey (h); 1-0 Chelsea (a)
Atletico: 2-0 Mallorca (h); 1-0 Osasuna (a); 4-4 Villareal (a);

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

Referee: Martin Hansson (SWE)

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

Once again, I’m guessing the same line-up that went out against Chelsea, which is the team that lost at Tottenham on Saturday except for Aurelio in place of Dossena.

RAWK exploded yesterday with rumors that Torres had a setback recovering from his hamstring injury. But both the official site and the Echo report he’s close to returning. With Benitez saying he “has a 70 percent chance of featuring in the game,” I imagine we’ll see Torres on the bench, to be used if needed, but that’s what I thought going into the Spurs game.

I’m actually more wary of this match than the fixture in Madrid. Atletico, with players like Aguero, Simao, Maxi Rodriguez and Pongolle, are built for quick attacks, and have the speed and nous to take Liverpool apart on the break. They’ll be under less pressure away from home, and will be boosted by recovering for a result two weeks ago. Unlike last time, Aguero is almost certain to start, which will have a huge impact. The little Argentinean scored both goals in Atletico’s last league match. In addition, there’s always the question as to how Liverpool will react after a loss.

With a win here, Liverpool would have 10 points with two matches left in the group. We’re all aware how much more important the league is this season, and 10 points would probably seal qualification for the knockout rounds, allowing Liverpool to focus on the Premiership for the next couple of months. It’s imperative that Liverpool put out a strong side and play well to put Saturday’s performance behind them.

01 November 2008

Liverpool 1-2 Tottenham

Arbeloa Carragher Agger Dossena
Mascherano Alonso
Kuyt Gerrard Riera

Kuyt 3’
Carragher (og) 69’
Pavlyuchenko 90+1’

It was a disappointing, wet night in London after 90 minutes. It’s an abomination of a result after injury time ended. So much for Liverpool’s late heroics.

When Kuyt scored in the 3rd minute, after Keane turned two defenders and directed the ball towards Kuyt in space, and he made no mistake from a narrow angle, it looked like Liverpool would be on their way. The home side struggled to get possession for the first 15 to 20 minutes, the conditions increasingly made matters worse, and it could have been 2-0 by the 6th when Bent turned a corner onto his own post.

But Spurs grew more confident as Liverpool failed to notch a second. Liverpool resorted to long diagonals over the top, mostly for Kuyt matched up against Assou-Ekotto, but couldn’t carve out any concrete chances. And Spurs only had one of their own in the 41st, when Modric got the shot off in a crowd of defenders, but Reina was able to palm it away despite seeing it late.

For the first 15 minutes of the second half, it looked a matter of time before Liverpool scored. Although Tottenham brought on Pavlyuchenko for O’Hara to partner Bent, and Hutton for Assou-Ekotto to stiffen the defense, Liverpool bombarded the home goal. Gerrard was first denied by Gomes’ fingertips (and a King deflection, off his arm) pushing it onto the post, and then the crossbar when he tried to audaciously chip the keeper. Alonso and Kuyt were also in on the action, both missing decent chances wide.

But the home side started to click around the 60th minute, and I don’t think that it’s coincidence it happened when Babel came on for Keane, as Liverpool were less able to hold onto possession when the ball was played forward. And Tottenham got the luck they needed in the 69th minute, when Bentley’s corner went in off Carragher under pressure from King.

Unlike in previous games, Liverpool were unable to claw their way back. They created few opportunities after the equalizer, and by the last 10 minutes, Tottenham were on top. In the first minute of added time, Bentley cut in from the left and sent in a wicked shot that Reina did well to parry. But Bent was able to keep it in and direct it to Pavlyuchenko, who got there in front of Agger to stab in.

Luck was bound to turn against Liverpool, and both goals against had a hint of fortune, but the team was punished for not going two goals up. It's that simple. Credit to Redknapp for making changes at halftime, but this isn’t completely down to Harry’s magic. Liverpool need to kill games when they’re the better side. Other than the match against PSV, they haven’t put any team to the sword. And now, they’ve paid for it. I guess it’s a positive that we’ve only seen a couple (if you count Atletico and/or Stoke) of these matches so far this season, and it’s November, but that’s little consolation.

It’s still stunning that the same Liverpool side lost a lead against Tottenham after keeping it against Chelsea last weekend. And it’s basically the same side that beat United, so it’s not all down to Torres’ absence, even though he would have made a massive difference today. Liverpool’s luck finally ran out, and they paid the price.

The team was never going to stay unbeaten, and of course, I feel like I’ve jinxed it talking about the table in the last few days. The maxim that it’s a long season still holds true, and it’s still the best 11-game start to a Premier League campaign. Yes, it’s three points thrown away, but the reaction matters more than the defeat. Now we get to see the resiliency of this side.