30 January 2009

Liverpool v Chelsea 02.01.09

11am, live in the US on FSC

Last 4 head-to-head:
1-0 Liverpool (a) 10.26.08
2-3 Chelsea (a; CL) 04.30.08
1-1 (h; CL) 04.22.08
0-0 (a) 02.10.08

Last 3 matches:
Liverpool: 1-1 Wigan (a); 1-1 Everton (h); 1-1 Everton (h)
Chelsea: 2-0 Boro (h); 3-1 Ipswich (h); 2-1 Stoke (h)

Goalscorers (league):
Liverpool: Gerrard 9; Keane, Kuyt, Torres 5; Alonso 3; Babel, Benayoun, Riera 2; Arbeloa, Carragher, Hyypia 1
Chelsea: Anelka 14; Lampard 9; Kalou 4; Belletti, Deco 3; Boswinga, J Cole, Malouda 2; Alex, Carvalho, Drogba 1

Referee: Mike Riley

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

Any takers on whether this match will end 1-1?

Maybe the chess games that got Benitez in trouble against smaller teams recently will bear fruit against a big club, as has happened in the past. They work differently against teams who actually want to win the game.

Even though I’m very tempted to guess a squad different than usual – like Gerrard on the right in the 4-4-2 – this has to be a game for the 'tried and true' 4-2-3-1. I’m also tempted to guess Benayoun ahead of Kuyt, as he was one of Liverpool’s few dangerous attackers on Wednesday, but, again, this is a game that suits Kuyt down to the ground. It's one of those where I actually feel pretty safe in guessing the line-up. Which means I’m probably wrong again.

I’d be surprised if Chelsea didn’t play a similar formation – something along the lines of 4-5-1 with Anelka as the spearhead and Kalou, Malouda, Deco, and Lampard in support, with Obi Mikel holding. Joe Cole and Essien are long-term casualties, while Carvalho will miss out with a hamstring injury.

In an ideal world, this game comes at a perfect time. Liverpool needs to step it up a gear, make a statement, and save the season – and you’d think they’d be raring to do so at home against another of the top clubs. And, knock on wood, Chelsea's been gash against the “big four” this season, picking up only one point out of a possible 12. But since “Rafa’s rant,” it’s become impossible to predict what this team will do, unless you’re just guessing they’ll draw.

Hopefully, Sunday will mark a turning point that we’ll look back on fondly come May. Lord knows we fans need it.

29 January 2009

Every season’s month of madness

So, still mulling over a poor result, as I’m prone to do, I was struck by a similarity from past seasons. It seems that Liverpool has a recent history of shitting the bed, for lack of a better term, for about a month in every campaign under Benitez save one. One month where Liverpool’s results are well below average. And I reckon we’re currently in the midst of that month.

Now, the rub of the matter is whether the month “started” with the most recent draw against Stoke, or back at the end of November/beginning of December with the draws against Fulham and West Ham (with the Blackburn, Bolton, and Newcastle wins simply aberrations).

08-09 – 11.22.08 or 1.10.09 – ???
11.22.08 – 10 league matches: 3 wins, 7 draws
1.10.09 – 3 league matches: 3 draws

07-08 – 12.30.07 – 01.30.08
5 league matches: 4 draws, 1 loss

05-06 – 09.10.05 – 10.22.05
6 league matches: 1 win, 3 draws, 2 losses

You’ll notice that I didn’t include 06-07, as there wasn’t a spell like in the other three seasons (I’m also not counting Benitez’s first season, because, well, it’s self-explanatory if you remember the side that Houllier left). That season was doomed not by a truly bad month, but the first seven away games where Liverpool only took two points.

Here’s hoping this campaign’s poor streak really started back in November (which, admittedly, would be longer than usual, but tempered by those three wins), and we’re close to a light at the end of the tunnel. Otherwise, as I wrote yesterday, we might really be in for a long few months until May.

28 January 2009

Liverpool 1-1 Wigan

Arbeloa Carragher Skrtel Aurelio
Mascherano Lucas
Benayoun Gerrard Babel

Benayoun 41’
Mido 83’ (pen)

Fine. It was a fun few days with hope still lingering. Now that’s the title “challenge” finished.

If it weren’t so devastating, it’d be comical.

How many times can Liverpool dominate possession, but fail to carve out enough opportunities on target? If it wasn’t for Benayoun’s quick feet and guile from the tightest of angles, Liverpool wouldn’t have even scored.

How many times will it take Benitez to learn that a one-goal lead is never enough in the Premier League?

And how many times can a team that’s built its reputation on defense give up a soft equalizer? It’s very tempting to heap all the blame on Lucas for giving up the penalty, but there’s not one scapegoat today. This whole team, and the manager, has failed keep their nerve when they were at the top of the league to start the New Year on the back of two good wins. But since that 5-1 victory at Newcastle, Liverpool's drawn all three league contests. Nice job handling pressure, guys.

Once again, I’ve shown no ability to guess Rafa’s line-ups, and we got the 4-2-3-1 with no Keane (or Alonso, for that matter). It looked to work at the onset as Liverpool played keep-away from Wigan and pressed from the off. But other than a 13th minute Torres header glanced off the post from Gerrard’s cross, Liverpool again had no thrust to go with their control.

Same story, different day. Until Benayoun’s smart move, running onto Mascherano’s throughball, rounding Pollitt, and netting from an impossible angle. That Liverpool got the first half goal looked to make the difference, and Gerrard almost added a second on the stroke of halftime, sending a nearly 40-yard free kick just over the bar.

But with the start of the second half, it was back to the disappointing ways. Credit to Bruce for bringing on Koumas and Rodallega to go for it, but it wasn’t as if he was going to keep shop shut up when a goal down.

Wigan became more dangerous the longer they remained just a goal down, and had to be heartened when Torres went off for Riera in the 71st. I understand that Torres is recently back and will be needed on Sunday, but a striker for a winger at that point in the game – even with Babel moving up top – makes little sense. Gerrard almost made it a moot point three minutes later, narrowly missing the far post after collecting Benayoun’s flick on the break, but Liverpool struggled for chances there on out.

And when Wigan broke forward in the 82nd minute and the ball was swept out to Koumas on the left, Lucas, charging back to cover, unnecessarily hacked down the Welshman even though there were defenders to cut out any danger. A minute later, Mido slammed a penalty past Reina for his second goal against the team this season.

Liverpool’s response? Taking off Gerrard for Keane, an awesome substitution that had to be pre-planned, and yet wasn’t changed in the aftermath of the equalizer. Take a guess as to how many times Liverpool tested Mike Pollitt in the final ten minutes. It’s not hard.

At least Rodallega’s ferocious free kick ricocheted off the crossbar in injury time. See, your mother was right – things could always be worse.

Nothing else to say that hasn’t been say it earlier match reviews borne of the same frustration. This sucks. The cutting edge sucked, the confidence sucked, the lack of luck sucked, the substitutions sucked, and the result really, really sucks.

Now Rafa looks like Kevin Keegan part II (at least Keegan’s rant about United was amusing), the team’s confidence is probably irreparably damaged, and it’s (kill me now) even starting to feel like the last days of Houllier. I hate this. I hate this so much. This isn't 'Rafa out' – I'm nowhere near there – but to say he's had an atrocious January is putting it nicely.

It’s going to be a hard, long slog for the next few months just to see the season out if things remain the same.

27 January 2009

Liverpool at Wigan 01.28.09

2:45pm, live in the US on FSC

Another game I’ll miss because of class and watch on DVR. Review should be up late evening.

Last 4 head-to-head:
3-2 Liverpool (h) 10.18.08
1-1 (h) 01.02.09
1-0 Liverpool (a) 09.29.07
2-0 Liverpool (h) 04.21.07

Last 3 matches:
Liverpool: 1-1 Everton (h); 1-1 Everton (h); 0-0 Stoke (a)
Wigan: 0-1 City (a); 0-1 United (a); 1-0 Spurs (h)

Goalscorers (league):
Liverpool: Gerrard 9; Keane, Kuyt, Torres 5; Alonso 3; Babel, Riera 2; Arbeloa, Benayoun, Carragher, Hyypia 1
Wigan: Zaki 10; Valencia 3; Camara, Taylor 2; Boyce, Bramble, Cattermole, Figueroa,

Referee: Phil Dowd

Guess at a squad:
Arbeloa Carragher Skrtel Aurelio
Kuyt Gerrard Alonso Riera
Torres Keane

Benitez doesn’t change his stripes to satisfy one player, but I’ll still be very, very surprised if Robbie Keane doesn’t start. Whether it’s with Torres or not – and again, in what formation – seems to be a bigger question.

With Torres playing 90 minutes three days ago and only recently back from injury, he may make way, which would mean either Keane as a focal point at the top or paired with Kuyt. Obviously, I’m dearly hopeful that won’t be the case, and we get to see El Niño continue to play, but it’s something to be wary of.

Despite my previous post (and many before that), I reckon we’ll see some good old 4-4-2 tomorrow. My best guess is that either Alonso or Mascherano misses out as Benitez uses both Keane and Torres, shifting Gerrard deeper into central midfield. Even though comments since Sunday about getting the Gerrard-Torres partnership back on track seem to imply different, it’s unlikely that Keane will fail to start in a second straight game.

Georger brought up Gerrard on the right of the 4-4-2 in the comments in the previous post, and I’ll agree wholeheartedly – I’d love to see it attempted with Torres and Keane up top and Riera staying wide on the left – but I doubt it’s forthcoming.

And it’s worth noting that it was 4-4-2 in the reverse fixture with Kuyt and Keane up top, Alonso and Gerrard in the center, and Riera and Pennant (one of two league starts) on the flanks.

In that last meeting, Liverpool threw on two attackers, playing a sort of 2-5-3 formation, which turned a 1-2 deficit into a 3-2 victory. Zaki was masterful in that match, but hasn’t been able to keep up the scoring pace he started the season with. And even though the last two results haven’t gone their way, Wigan are still a dangerous team, winning six of seven before those last two to take them up to seventh in the league.

But the sales of Heskey and Palacios will have an impact. Wigan’s bought replacements in Mido (who’ll at least be on the bench – and scored against Liverpool for Boro in August) and Rodallega (who still needs international clearance), but it’s probably (knock on wood) too early for them to make an impact. Regardless, I’m always fearful when Liverpool faces Steve Bruce-led sides, which always seem to give Benitez trouble.

It goes without saying that Liverpool’s drawn too many matches of late. The official site’s headline of an interview with Hyypia is spot on, stating that every game’s must-win from here on out. Hopefully, away from Anfield, where the teams’ drawn four out of the last five, will relieve some of the pressure, allowing for a good result before hosting Chelsea on Sunday. But Liverpool’s can’t look past the tricky trip to Wigan trip.

26 January 2009

Gerrard, goals, and tactics

So, still frustrated following Sunday’s match and with questions over the tactics, I went back to see where Gerrard’s played when he scored, seeing as he has the most goals by a healthy margin. In addition, what formation and with what players on the field when Gerrard, and Liverpool, have scored said goals.

But before I get to the stats, I’m going to toss out a few disclaimers. First and foremost, it’s dumbing it down when I write about ‘4-2-3-1 v 4-4-2.’ It’s really a debate over two “holding” midfielders with Gerrard or two strikers in front of him. Take Blackburn for example – Gerrard, Alonso, and Masch all started, but Alonso played as far forward as Gerrard for the majority, and it could just as easily be described as 4-1-4-1. And 4-2-3-1 with Riera and Benayoun on the flanks is different than Babel and Kuyt. It’s also very, very different when Torres isn’t the lone striker.

So I reckon the clearest way to label it is “two holding midfielders with Gerrard” and “Gerrard as a central midfielder with two strikers.” Just so we’re clear.

These stats only include games where Gerrard’s started, which is 27 out of 34 games. He came off the bench in the draw against Liege and the win against United, and missed Villa (draw), Crewe (win, Carling Cup), Spurs (loss, Carling Cup), Fulham (draw), and PSV away (win). Liverpool’s record in games where Gerrard’s started is 17-9-1 with 48 total goals scored.

With two holding midfielders – 12
1-1 Everton 01.25.09 – draw
1-0 and 4-1 Newcastle 12.28.08 – win
1-2 and 2-2 Hull City 12.13.08 – draw
3-1 Blackburn 12.06.08 – win
1-0 Marseille 11.26.08 – win
2-0 Bolton 11.15.08 – win
1-1 (pen) Atletico 11.04.08 – draw
1-0 (pen) Portsmouth 10.29.08 – win
1-1 and 2-1 (pen) Marseille 09.16.08 – draw

Record: 9-6-1
Total Liverpool goals: 27
All Scorers: Gerrard 12; Alonso, Kuyt, Torres 3; Keane 2; Babel, Benayoun, Hyypia, Riera 1

As a central midfielder – 3
1-0 Everton 01.19.09 – draw
3-0 PSV 10.01.08 – win
2-1 Boro 08.23.08 – win

Record: 8-3-0
Total goals scored: 21
Scorers: Keane 5; Kuyt 4; Gerrard, Torres 3; Riera 2; Arbeloa, Carragher 1

Understandably, the three penalties don’t care as much weight as the other goals. But it’s worth noting they were three out of the four penalties won all season, and all penalties were won in that formation.

I can’t go without discussing Torres, who has a huge impact on both Liverpool’s fortune and tactics. He’s started 15 games this season. Nine – five wins, three draws and a loss – were with another striker and six – three wins and three draws – on his own up top.

So, what does any of this mean? Like the majority of Liverpool’s season so far, I’m left with more questions than answers. Gerrard’s at his most dangerous in a free role, but Liverpool’s totaled more draws and scored less goals per game. And most of those games have been without Torres. Keane, on the other hand, is top scorer when Liverpool uses Gerrard in a 4-4-2. Torres has played more games with another striker (usually Keane) than alone up top.

I’ll end with one final stat. There have been four games this season where both Gerrard and Torres have started with two holding midfielders. Liverpool’s won three of those (Marseille twice and Manchester City), with the lone draw coming in the last match.

25 January 2009

Liverpool 1-1 Everton

Arbeloa Carragher Skrtel Dossena
Alonso Mascherano
Kuyt Gerrard Babel

Lescott 27’
Gerrard 54’

Yet another home draw. Frustrating to be sure, but somehow less so because the team came from behind and a replay’s on the horizon. But Liverpool’s still not doing enough to break down resilient teams. And one win in five at Anfield is dreadful any way you slice it.

However, what more can you say about Steven Gerrard? Yes, Howard made a hash of the goal, but that’s two in two derbies, and he’s the sole reason Liverpool’s taken anything from these matches. He has not and will not give up in these matches, and that's an admirable quality. Too bad it wasn't enough.

Liverpool may have had 75% of the possession in the first quarter of the match, but it was Everton that opened the scoring, and in an unforgivable manner. After the sucker punch to end last Monday’s match, it is unfathomable that Tim Cahill should somehow get open for a free header.

But Liverpool conceded a corner, Cahill ghosted towards the penalty spot from the far post, and while Alonso assumed he’d continue a run towards the near post, he pulled back and was open to direct the ball towards goal. Lescott, from point blank range, did the rest. Clever run to be sure – it’s what the annoying twit is best at – but not learning from one’s mistake is a sign of either stupidity or laziness. Neither is a good thing.

And the rest of the half was just like the last match and the two before it. Liverpool had more of the ball, Liverpool struggled to create chances, etc etc etc. Even though the team returned to the 4-2-3-1, with Gerrard playing further forward and Babel on the left.

Thankfully, the captain pulled the team’s fat from the fire nine minutes after the restart thanks to some lovely interplay with Torres – which does seem to happen more frequently in this formation. Gerrard won the header, flicking on for the Spaniard, who showed one of the moments of brilliance we so dearly missed. In three movements, Torres controlled the ball, chested it up, and deftly flicked a waist-high backheel for Gerrard to run onto. Liverpool were lucky to see the ball go under the diving Howard, who should have kept it out, but by getting shots on target, you make your own luck.

Howard made amends three minutes later, saving Gerrard’s shot from ten yards out after Babel, Kuyt, Torres and the skipper all got a touch in the box, but Liverpool didn’t threaten the keeper for the next 20 minutes despite overwhelming possession. Yes, yes, credit to Everton’s durable defense, especially Jagielka, but when it happens time and time again to this team, it’s not all down to the opposition.

Kuyt could have been the hero in the 80th minute, receiving the ball from Gerrard on the break, but shot straight at Howard, summing up his day. All hard work, no end product. Just like the team as a whole – although Kuyt and Babel were the worst culprits by far. Torres’s shot blocked from Gerrard’s cutback and a decent long-range effort from Dossena were the sum of Liverpool other chances for a winner.

Possession-wise, this was the most one-sided derby I can remember. And yet it’s still ending level. Similar to after the 0-0 at Anfield in ‘06-07, Benitez excoriated Everton’s tactics after the match, sniping that the only time his sides have played like that was when he managed the tiny Spanish club Extremadura. And while he’s got a point – you do expect more from Everton in a derby – the tactics worked. They frustrated Liverpool into a replay on their ground, got the kind of goal they’ve been scoring of late, and would have won if it wasn’t for Gerrard and Torres.

Oh, and the omission of Robbie Keane – not even on the subs bench – is sure to raise some fun questions to mull over through the media for the next few days.

As some sort of consolation, I do think it was a better performance. Sadly, probably the best since Newcastle. Liverpool did come back from a goal deficit, it was nice to see Arbeloa back, and Alonso and Mascherano were in charge of midfield (although they had tons of time and space for the most part).

A replay at Goodison (a week from Wednesday) isn’t the worst thing in the world – an extra game’s annoying, but a good performance away from Anfield, where Everton will be forced to come out of their shell a bit more, could provide some needed momentum. But of course, a good performance can’t be taken for granted considering recent results.

The winner of the replay faces the winner of Doncaster/Villa at Villa Park. There’s starting to be an echo in here, but it bears repeating that Liverpool will have to find more of a cutting edge to advance.

Wigan in three days.

24 January 2009

Carra in the Guardian

On the insanely small chance that anyone who reads this blog would somehow not catch the Guardian's interview with Carragher otherwise, I'm posting a link here.

Because he's always that compelling of a read. Just an absolute legend; probably the only player who can wipe away any fears about his play simply by reading about him. I can't wait until I finally get his autobiography.

23 January 2009

Liverpool v Everton 01.25.09

11am, live in the US on Setanta

I won't have a match review up for a few hours after the final whistle, as I won't be able to see this live. Normally it'd take a natural disaster to make me miss a derby, but with season tickets for the local college basketball program (currently ranked in the top 10!), which plays at 12pm, I don't really have a choice. Thank god for my DVR.

Last 3 matches:
Liverpool: 1-1 Everton (h); 0-0 Stoke (a); 2-0 Preston (a)
Everton: 1-1 Liverpool (a); 2-0 Hull (h); 1-0 Macclesfield (a)

Goalscorers (all competitions):
Liverpool: Gerrard 14; Keane, Kuyt 7; Torres 6; Riera 4; Alonso, Babel 3; Hyypia 2; Agger, Arbeloa, Benayoun, Carragher, Lucas, Ngog, Plessis 1
Everton: Arteta, Cahill, Yakubu 5; Fellaini, Osman 4; Lescott, Saha 3; Anichebe, Castillo, Gosling, Jagielka 1

Referee: Mr. Impartial, Steve Bennett

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

Full strength please, but it’s not as if that’s meant much over the past few matches.

With a match against in-form Wigan on Wednesday, followed by Chelsea next Saturday, there’ll be some temptation to rotate. But it’s weeks like these for which Liverpool’s rotated throughout the first half of the season. All three of these matches are crucially important, and I hope to see fairly few changes to the team in each.

Yes, the league is the overriding objective. But after a disappointing draw against the city rivals last time out, this match has taken on an added edge – and it was already massive, with this being the 20th anniversary of Hillsborough, where these two teams met in the FA Cup final.

If I had to guess which senior outfield players would be rested, I’d probably wager on Alonso, Aurelio, and Riera, but I’d still rather all three on the field. It wouldn’t surprise me to see Lucas, Dossena, and Babel in for those three respectively – and with the law of averages – at least one will probably start, but the three I’ve guessed to start have played better and been more important to Liverpool’s successes. But all three also seem to be rested more frequently when Liverpool has a number of games in a row.

In addition, as it’s a domestic cup match, Cavalieri may come in for Reina. The Brazilian had his best game for the club in the last round, but keepers (including Reina) seem twitchier in these derbies, and I’d rather Pepe’s safe hands.

Agger is supposedly fit against after the calf injury that kept him out recently, but I’d be surprised if he started in his first game back, especially since Arbeloa should return, which will allow Carragher to move back into the center. And if you think Carra’ll miss a Merseyside derby, you’re mad.

Even with Fellaini back from suspension, I’ll be surprised if Moyes changes his team from last match. They were (sigh) successful in their aims – limiting Liverpool’s chances, keeping the battle in midfield, and eking out a point in the end – and they’ll try and do similar on Sunday.

This debate over 4-2-3-1 v. 4-4-2 – better known as “why did Liverpool buy Robbie Keane?” – is going to continue as long as Liverpool underperforms.

Recent results have pushed me even further in the direction I’d already been leaning in. I like Robbie Keane as a player. In an ideal world, I’d love to see him succeed at Liverpool. But I’m quickly losing faith that he can with the other attackers in the team, and the quest to wedge him in has cost Liverpool valuable points.

Even though they’ve been given fewer opportunities than hoped thanks to injury, he and Torres have rarely clicked. Keane’s runs have been going unnoticed and the Irishman often seems disillusioned, especially as the game nears the hour mark. He needs a striker like Berbatov (or coughHeskeycough – who’s going to Villa) to play off of, and pick up the flicks that put him in on goal so often for Spurs. Meanwhile, the partnership between Gerrard and Torres that blossomed last season hasn’t been replicated as the skipper’s moved deeper into midfield.

I’m hoping to be proven wrong; it wouldn’t be the first time by any means. But I’m losing faith in Keane fitting in as we’re all losing faith in the title campaign as it slips away two points by two points, thanks to the eight draws incurred so far this season.

But before we can worry more about the league, Liverpool needs a win on Sunday. Yes, we’d all rather #19, but beating the hated neighbors in another derby can boost the confidence enough to reclaim form in the Premiership.

19 January 2009

Liverpool 1-1 Everton

Carragher Skrtel Hyypia Aurelio
Kuyt Gerrard Alonso Riera
Keane Torres

Gerrard 68’
Cahill 87’

Draws at home. Draws at home. Draws at home.

There. I wrote the season review. And it’s January 19th.

And it’s Everton, on a late goal, on a set play, in the dying minutes, that’s made me contemplate getting out the razor blades. Splendid.

Merseyside derbies almost always play to the same pattern – contentious, tight, with few chances and the home side marginally on top. Each carved out a couple of openings, but Liverpool easily had the best of the first half, and should have gone one up in the 28th. And it was Torres missing the kind of chance he thrives on: receiving a wonderful throughball from Hyypia and outpacing both Jagielka and Lescott, but he dinked his shot over Howard off the post. When he’s match-fit, he doesn’t miss those, so maybe that’s a ray of optimism.

The second half was more akin to the recent games where Liverpool’s stuttered. Other than a contentious penalty not given in the 48th (I truly think it was, with Jagielka clipping Torres, but I’m obviously biased), and Howard’s save on Gerrard followed up by Baines making a tremendous tackle on Hyypia’s attempted rebound eight minutes later, the home side found it harder to get through despite increased possession.

It was the unfortunate same old until Gerrard popped up in the 68th, receiving the ball from Riera in the middle of the pitch, striding forward, and unleashing a trademark effort past Howard for his fourth in a derby. He hasn’t had his most consistent season, but he’s got at least double the goals of everyone else in the team. And those goals have been needed.

But then, with Everton in need of an equalizer and more willing to press forward, Liverpool invited them on. Instead of fortifying the defense, the substitutions of Benayoun for Keane (which happened before the goal) and Lucas for Torres seemed to help the visitors by removing two attacking outlets.

And in the 87th minute, it happened. Benayoun dove into a poor tackle near the byline, Arteta accordingly sent in a dangerous free kick, and there was Tim Cahill. Of course.

For once, the media has a right to complain about the zonal marking, which absolutely broke down. Cahill drifted in unnoticed behind Hyypia, with Skrtel unwilling to follow the Australian, while Riera didn’t step forward enough to clear before the ball got through.

And with defense substitutions already made, only Kuyt as a striker, and already on the back foot, there wasn’t going to be any late heroics. Babel came on in the 90th minute in a clear case of too little, too late.

And the sad thing is, this was Liverpool’s strongest “attacking” line-up. 4-4-2, Torres and Keane up top, and Mascherano left out for Gerrard and Alonso in midfield. It was pretty much the same line-up as at Goodison, with only changes in defense (Hyypia and Aurelio for Arbeloa and Dossena). But Liverpool still could only register one goal, Torres and Keane again struggled to link up, and a late goal from a set piece means yet another draw.

Reiterating earlier worries feels like a bad case of Monday morning quarterbacking after a result like this. But this game only brings more questions about whether Torres and Keane can work together, and I worry that the £20m spent over the summer – money that’s desperately needed – is actually what’s going to keep Liverpool from winning the title.

Today, long balls forward for Torres were aimed with the intent of the Spaniard flicking on for Keane. The throughball from Hyypia sending Torres on a run, which led to Liverpool’s best chance, was the exception rather than the rule. That isn’t playing to Torres’ strengths, and Keane, so dangerous in similar positions playing with Berbatov last season, was no great shakes feeding off those balls.

There are lots of qualifiers. Torres is just back from a long-term injury. The two have only had something like six games together as a pairing. And Keane, already under pressure, has been in and out of the squad himself – although that’s down to Rafa’s selection.

But history’s seemingly shown Torres is best as a lone striker running through the middle with the ball at his feet, and shown that he and Gerrard do well with the captain playing further forward. And with the team on a poor run and a title chance slowly slipping out of the fingers, I’m losing faith in a Torres/Keane pairing at an alarming rate.

Admittedly, matches against Everton that end like this make me even more pessimistic than I usually am. Level on points with United, although the rivals have a better goal difference and game in hand, it’s nowhere near over mathematically. Liverpool have to do four points better than United over the next 16 matches. That’s not unheard of.

But other than the two games between Christmas and New Year’s Day, this team has shown damn little over the past month. League winners don’t draw four matches out of six, against teams in 9th, 5th, 19th, and 6th. League winners don’t draw five out of eleven home matches. League winners don’t give up a goal like this in the dying minutes of such an important match.

And that it’s Everton that seemingly put the foot on the throat with a draw at Anfield earned in the 87th minute is an added kick to the nuts, to say the very least. But some semblance of revenge can be reaped in six days.

16 January 2009

Liverpool v Everton 01.19.09

3pm, live in the US on Setanta

Last 4 head-to-head:
2-0 Liverpool (h) 09.27.08
1-0 Liverpool (h) 03.30.08
2-1 Liverpool (a) 10.20.07
0-0 (h) 02.03.07

Last 3 matches:
Liverpool: 0-0 Stoke (a); 2-0 Preston (a); 5-1 Newcastle (a)
Everton: 2-0 Hull (h); 1-0 Macclesfield (a); 3-0 Sunderland (h)

Goalscorers (league):
Liverpool: Gerrard 8; Keane, Kuyt, Torres 5; Alonso 3; Babel, Riera 2; Arbeloa, Benayoun, Carragher, Hyypia 1
Everton: Arteta 5; Cahill, Fellaini, Yakubu 4; Lescott, Osman, Saha 3; Anichebe, Gosling 1

Referee: Howard Webb

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

Arguably, and in my opinion, this is the best team that Liverpool can put out.

Both Torres and Alonso have declared themselves fit to start, and given their respective importance to the team, I’m hopeful they will. Arbeloa’s also back in the squad and liable to start, but I’ve been pleased with Carra at right back and reckon Alvaro will be eased back after missing the last four matches. And, it’d give us a chance to see Skrtel and Agger as a central pairing, which I’d be even happier to have after a week of unwanted rumors about the Dane's future.

A couple of days ago, Liverpool legend Ian Rush gave a well-publicized interview about the Torres/Keane pairing, saying that Liverpool needed to use the two together and give them an opportunity to form a partnership if the team had any chance of winning the title. And while I hesitantly agree in theory, I'm still of the opinion that Torres if often best as a focal point in the 4-2-3-1, and Mascherano/Alonso as a midfield pairing is crucially important to Liverpool’s spine, especially in games like Monday’s will assuredly be – tough, closely-fought contests where possession will be one of the keys to the match.

Despite having no recognized strikers over the past few matches, Everton’s on a hot streak. Arteta’s been amazing – scoring three goals in the last two league matches. Anichebe looks likely to return to lead the line, but the Blues are still missing Vaughan, Yakubu, and Saha through long-term injury. They’ll also be without suspended midfielder Fellaini, who caused Liverpool problems earlier in the season when playing for Standard Liege.

Last week should be ancient history by now. All focus needs to be on the two matches in a week against the neighbors. It’s easy to overstate the importance of a single match (or two matches), but this week will be crucial. It’s the time of year where the team needs to kick it up a gear, and how Liverpool fares against arguably their biggest rivals could set the tone for the next few weeks. And a win on Monday would assure that last Saturday is ancient history.

15 January 2009

Seek and ye shall recieve, I reckon...

Abhiram's comment from the last post:
Hey Nate, a new post with Liverpool transfer rumors and Alonso injury update will help now. There seems to be a lull created here after a hectic discussion in the aftermath of the Stoke game :).
I had an answer all typed out in the comments, and it's mostly in regards to Agger, but it started to get long, so I reckon I'll put it up as a new post. 25 comments on the last one really is too much to scroll through anyway.
In regards to Liverpool's transfers - as a warning, this is me writing out of my ass, but that's what blogging's all about. And here's what I see. Aside from other teams' silliness (wtf Man City!?!), I'm barely paying attention to the window.

I don't expect Liverpool to buy anyone, nor do I expect Liverpool to sell anyone unless a team's dumb enough to pay cash for Pennant, whose contract expires at the end of the season.

Maybe my biases show in this, because Agger is absolutely, unconditionally, my favorite defender on the team, but I do not believe he'll be sold. Every interview he's said he wants to stay at Anfield, and from what I've seen, he only wants a pay raise to £70k a week, which doesn't seem exorbitant. I truly think this most recent Milan talk, with his agent seen talking to AC club officials, is just his agent stirring up trouble. I am always inclined to believe Tony Barrett in the Liverpool Echo.

And £7.5m is a fucking laugh. A. Fucking. Laugh. With 18 months left on his contract, Dan Agger is worth at least double that on his worst day. Especially if Milan starts rolling in that filthy lucre from selling Kaka. Which is yet another reason I've been hesitant to believe these rumors.

Admittedly, I am furiously knocking on wood as I write this, and there seems a good chance it could come back to bite me. The owners rarely have two nickels to rub together (if they're even on speaking terms), Rick Parry's incompetent when it comes to transfers, and the rumors have picked up pace. Danish media are treating this as if it's going to happen.

If it's not just about money, the only thing I can think of is Agger and his agent are concerned by the hold-up over Rafa's new contract. Which, admittedly, frightens me more than anything.
For the upcoming week: I'll have the Everton preview up tomorrow, the usual match review after the fact, and a post with a bunch of book reviews sometime next week.

10 January 2009

Liverpool 0-0 Stoke

Carragher Skrtel Hyypia Aurelio
Lucas Mascherano
Benayoun Gerrard Riera

Well fuck. I hope Stoke get relegated – not out of spite, but because they’ve evidently become one of those lower table clubs that frustrates Liverpool every time out. It looked a lot like last time these two met, and even with the differences in line-up, it’s the same result. Super.

I try not to armchair manage, but this is why I didn’t want to see a similar attack as against Newcastle, despite Liverpool scoring five goals in the last league game. Stoke does not play like Newcastle. At St. James’ Park, Liverpool was always going to have space, even at 0-0, and midfielders like Gerrard, Riera, and Benayoun got the opportunities and space to bomb forward in support of the deep-dropping striker.

But against Stoke, space was always going to be at a premium. Today, they made it nearly impossible for Liverpool to break through. Man-marking Gerrard into invisibility for almost 80 minutes and cramming as many men behind the ball as possible, Liverpool struggled create chances or make it into the final third. This was one of those games that's crying out for crafty strikers who can create that space or get that beautiful touch from nowhere. Players like Torres and Keane. And honestly, Stoke could have been 2-0 up at halftime, although 0-0 was the rightful scoreline.

The match started off as expected. For the first 10-15 minutes, Liverpool had something like 80% of the possession, but with only a mishit Kuyt header wide to show for it. But Stoke started to threaten on occasion, and could have had the opener in the 17th minute, when Delap ended up with the ball in the box (after the linesman ignored three Stoke players offside), but slammed his effort against the crossbar, and Cresswell could only chest the rebound wide.

Kuyt tested Sorenson in the 23rd with a close-range shot at the near post, but that would be the last time Liverpool worked the keeper in the half. And eight minutes later, Shawcross headed the ball in the net for Stoke, only to be rightfully ruled offside. Although it was their only clear-cut effort of the spell, Stoke looked the better side for about 20 minutes, which was another worrying sign.

I don’t know about other fans, but when the team’s struggling, I’m often rooting for halftime changes. And it felt like this game was crying out for it – with Torres or Keane replacing Benayoun or Riera. But Benitez doesn’t work that way.

Again, I’d take Benitez’s word over mine, but it seems like he’s become formulaic with his substitutions when it’s 0-0, and it’s detrimental. To win the league, you have to win these games, and Benitez can’t always hope that the team he’s put out will come good. It’s become routine: Riera or Benayoun (usually Riera) will come off around the hour mark, another change will happen around the 75th, and maybe the final last gasp after the 85th. And again, that’s what happened: Torres came on for Riera in the 61st and Babel for Benayoun in the 76th, while Keane was left head in hands on the bench.

Accordingly, until the last ten minutes or so, Stoke had the better chances. A poor clearance by Reina put the ball at Kitson’s feet five minutes after the restart, but the striker gave himself a narrow angle trying to get around the keeper and could only shoot into the side netting.

Liverpool’s best chance until Gerrard popped up at the end of the match came in the 67th, but Lucas headed across to an offside Hyypia instead of going for goal from the tight angle. Stoke almost took advantage off one of Delap many long throws through Kitson in the 74th, but his header sailed just over, and Whelan’s 78th minute free kick was narrowly wide of the post.

As often happens in these frustratingly tight games, Liverpool got their best chances in the final ten minutes, and both came through the man who often creates the late magic. First, Gerrard hit the crossbar with a free kick from the left edge of the box in the 84th, and then hit the post in injury time running onto Torres’ flicked header. But no luck this time. And once again, Liverpool’s ruing a draw against a team in the bottom half of the table, and we’re hoping United and Chelsea continue to drop points (here’s wishing for a draw tomorrow!).

I don’t know what else to say. Liverpool were sloppy all over the pitch, misplacing passes, especially those in the final third - but I'm unwilling to place all the blame on Alonso's absence. But be certain, none of the front six played well.

It’s odd – Liverpool has their highest points total in a Premier League campaign to this point, and yet I can’t remember being so frustrated by these 0-0 draws, even though I know that there have been less at this point than in the past two seasons. It’s just that we’re watching Liverpool lose precious points. And when they’re competing for their first league championship in 19 years, it’s that much harder to take.

A win in the Merseyside derby in nine days time would wash a bit of that taste out of the mouth, though.

09 January 2009

Liverpool at Stoke 01.10.09

12:30pm, live in the US on FSC

Last 4 head-to-head:
0-0 (h) 09.20.08
8-0 Liverpool (a; League Cup) 11.29.2000
2-1 Liverpool (h; League Cup) 10.25.1994
3-2 Liverpool (a; League Cup) 10.09.1991

Last 3 matches:
Liverpool: 2-0 Preston (a); 5-1 Newcastle (a); 3-0 Bolton (h)
Stoke: 0-2 Hartlepool (a); 1-2 West Ham (a); 0-1 United (h)

Goalscorers (league):
Liverpool: Gerrard 8; Keane, Kuyt, Torres 5; Alonso 3; Babel, Riera 2; Arbeloa, Benayoun, Carragher, Hyypia 1
Stoke: Fuller 6; Sidibe 3; Abdoulaye Faye, Olofinjana 2; Delap, Higginbotham, Lawrence 1

Referee: Lee Mason

Guess at a squad:
Carragher Hyypia Agger Aurelio
Mascherano Lucas
Kuyt Gerrard Riera

Alonso’s still injured, but Benitez says that Aurelio, Skrtel, and Torres are healthy enough to start. And while it’s probably a leap to suggest Torres will start after only one game off the bench, Liverpool need his goals, and that he’s available leads me to believe (hope) he’ll be on from the opening whistle.

With Insua off to the South American U-20s, it’s a good time for Aurelio to return to fitness. We’ll see some of Andrea Dossena during this month, but more often than not, Aurelio will be the left back. And it’s nice to see he’s looking forward to linking back up with Riera, who continues to improve every time out.

I still think Liverpool will line up 4-2-3-1, with Masch and Lucas holding. Kuyt should replace Babel on the right, and if Torres is healthy, it would mean Keane would miss out. I’ve seen posts suggesting Kuyt would start up top on his own, with Yossi on the right, in Torres’ absence, but I hope that’s not the case. Yossi’s been excellent recently – and I wouldn’t be opposed to seeing him on the right – but Liverpool always seems to score less with Kuyt as a lone striker, and against a team that’ll be as stingy and sturdy as Stoke, it doesn’t seem the right move.

And make no mistake, Liverpool will hopefully be looking to run riot over the opposition, to make amends for the draw at Anfield in September, the first of the four exasperating draws at home. Stoke, on 20 points in 18th place, haven’t had the best of runs recently, losing their last four and winless since November 22nd. But form’s gone out the window when the top of the table travels to the bottom sides before.

Etherington, recently acquired from West Ham, will start on the left (and I’m obliged to point out that he, along with Benayoun, was West Ham’s best player in the 2006 FA Cup final), which is where Delap and his long throws usually play. Delap will probably have to move to central midfield, where he’s done a job in the past, if Liam Lawrence is fit enough to start. Striker Ricardo Fuller is still banned after slapping captain Andy Griffin at the end of December.

Top of the league in January, and with players, the manager, and the media starting to discuss a title shot in earnest, Liverpool will have targets painted on their backs for the rest of the season. Stoke will be narrow, Stoke will be happy to sit at least nine behind the ball, and Stoke will be tough to break down, especially with their own fans backing them. But Liverpool needs three points as often as possible in order to try and pull away from the chasing pack.

The race to May 24th pretty much starts tomorrow.

03 January 2009

Liverpool 2-0 Preston North End

Carragher Hyypia Agger Insua
Mascherano Alonso
Babel Gerrard Riera

Riera 25’
Torres 90+3’

Liverpool, despite the strong line-up, certainly made hard work of that.

Outside of Cavalieri for Reina and Babel for Kuyt, this was as strong as team as Benitez could name. And it was one-way traffic in the first half after the 10th minute, but the away side only had a goal to show for it at the break. Wallace demonstrated Preston's intent in the 5th minute, forcing Cavalieri to push a free kick around the post (even though it looked to be going wide), but Liverpool soon looked likely to seal the game by halftime.

Keane, who had one of those games where little went right, mishit Liverpool’s first opportunity wide in the 12th, while Gerrard tested the keeper a couple of times before Riera opened the scoring in the 25th. Alonso’s corner ended up at the winger’s feet on the right, and he danced inside past defenders and unleashed a wicked shot which Longeran couldn't get to.

Liverpool continued to press, and both Babel and Gerrard spurned chances, but the rest of the half will be remembered for Keane’s misses. Both Alonso and Gerrard released the striker with gorgeous passes, but when his good control took him through in the 38th, he shot at the keeper, and when the captain’s cross found him open in the box in the 45th, he put it wide with the goal gaping. And with those chances affecting his confidence, he pulled it back for Riera in the first minute of injury time when the better option was to shoot. I don’t mean to harp on Keane – he’s getting in the right place and has always been a streaky scorer – but Liverpool should have been two or three up, and he was the main culprit. And to add injury to insult, Alonso was hurt following up the final chance, and ended the half getting treatment, with Lucas coming on for him in the second.

It’s little coincidence that Preston were able to come back into the game after Alonso was forced off. Liverpool had two opportunities early on, with Keane again misfiring and Agger putting a free header wide, but the home side looked better after the break. Longeran made a spectacular save on Gerrard on the hour mark, and Riera fizzed a shot across the face of goal two minutes later, but from then on, Preston looked the most likely to score. And sadly, as a Liverpool fan, it truly started when Stephen Elliot replaced former red Neil Mellor, giving the home side a different option up front.

Center back Sean St. Ledger had an equalizer in the net in the 64th, but it was rightfully ruled out for a silly Parkin foul on Carragher, holding him down as the ball came into the box even though Carra was probably unable to affect the result. So, thanks, Jon Parkin.

Fortunately, Preston’s increased possession led to few opportunities, with St. Ledger's touch wasting their best, from a corner in the 75th, and Torres’ entrance for Keane in the 73rd gave Liverpool some relief as an outlet. The striker soon demonstrated both his talent and rustiness three minutes after his introduction, when he deliciously turned Mawene, but could only fire wide from outside the box.

Aurelio came on for Mascherano in the 83th, with the Argentinean also picking up an injury, which saw Babel move up top and give Liverpool a relief valve on the break. Seeing out the final minutes, that relief valve came good as Babel flicked a long ball on for Gerrard, who raced towards goal, waiting for Torres to join the attack so he could square the ball to him for an easy goal. 2-0 flatters Preston’s first half performance and probably doesn’t do justice to their second half display.

I’m admittedly surprised that Benitez fielded a full-strength team – no Lucas, El Zhar, Skrtel or Aurelio in the starting line-up – but with a week in-between games (as well as the catcalls the manager faced after losing to Burnley at this stage in his first year), I probably shouldn’t be. And that full-strength team was needed as Preston made Liverpool work for it in the second half.

I truly hope Alonso’s injury isn’t too serious. The official site’s saying little so far, other than he had stitches, and we saw conflicting images on television. He came out midway through the second half in an air cast but was smiling, and soon after, we saw him signing autographs for fans. Obviously the air cast is frightening, but those glimpses of his mood don’t show a lot of seriousness.

Had Alonso played the full 90, I’ve little doubt he’d be my man of the match. Preston’s ascendancy in the second half tells the story in and of itself. He controlled play and was involved in all of Liverpool’s build-up. When he’s on song, as he’s usually been this season, he makes Liverpool tick. Time and time again, he’s shown his importance, and has made everyone speculating on the Barry transfer (me included) look like an idiot. And that’s why an extended spell on the sidelines worries me.

Lucas didn’t play badly – he’s often good in possession and the tackle, and plays those prodding passes (and then moves into the space!) Benitez loves so much. But he’s not Alonso, and when teams are pressing and pushing for a goal, Xabi’s steady head and range of passing are needed.

In lieu of Alonso, I’m probably going with Riera for star performer. It was a wonderfully taken goal – his fourth of the season, which is the kind of goal return Liverpool needs from the left flank. He and Babel switched flanks throughout the second before the Dutchman went up top, and was less influential on the right, but constantly looked for an opening and tried to get at defenders, providing a few clever mazy runs.

In addition, I thought the backline played well, especially in the face of pressure. Hyypia again proved needed against a striker as burly as Parkin, and Agger mopped up well throughout. Both Carragher (he’s done well at right back in every game he’s played there) and Insua supplemented the attack, and both were challenged by Preston on the flanks, especially by Wallace down Liverpool’s right.

And at the end of the day, while the wastefulness’s still worrying and until we know more, Alonso’s injury is downright frightening, Liverpool’s through to the next round after a tricky away cup tie. It’s another win to keep momentum, and a return to the field and the scoresheet for Torres.

Stoke City in a week.

02 January 2009

Liverpool at Preston North End 01.03.08

12:25pm, live in the US on FSC

Last 3 matches:
Liverpool: 5-1 Newcastle (a); 3-0 Bolton (h); 1-1 Arsenal (a)
PNE: 1-1 Barnsley (a); 2-0 Derby (h); 2-3 QPR (a)

Goalscorers (all competitions):
Liverpool: Gerrard 12; Keane, Kuyt 7; Torres 5; Alonso, Babel, Riera 3; Hyypia 2; Agger, Arbeloa, Benayoun, Carragher, Lucas, Ngog, Plessis 1
PNE: Mellor 8; Brown, Chaplow, Elliott, Nicholson, Parkin, St. Ledger, Wallace 3; Davidson, Jones 2; Mawene, McKenna, Sedgwick, Whaley 1

Referee: Martin Atkinson

Guess at a squad:
Darby Skrtel Agger Aurelio
El Zhar Gerrard Lucas Babel
Keane Ngog

The cup runs always bring changes to the team, but it seems like Benitez is going to pick a stronger side than lost to Spurs in the 4th round of the Carling Cup two months back, according to comments today.

Gerrard will start, Torres will be available (and almost certainly will begin on the bench), and Aurelio and Skrtel are in contention as well.

Playing Gerrard is the right thing to do. As Benitez says in the article, he hasn’t played a ton of games this season – unlike players such as Kuyt and Carra – and getting right back on the pitch should help him focus on football instead of the impending court case. I suspect Lucas, who’s played very well in his last two appearances, will partner the captain in midfield, giving Alonso and Mascherano a game off, but it is worth noting that Alonso didn’t start in the last match against Newcastle.

Hopefully, both Skrtel and Aurelio will return in defense. As Carra’s played nearly every game, either at center-back or right-back, this should be one he misses. And Hyypia’s played a fair few as well. Which would give Benitez the opportunity to start both Agger and Skrtel – arguably Liverpool’s center-back pairing of the future.

As Insua’s started the last three, if Aurelio’s ready to go, he should be back as well. And to be honest, since I’m expecting Darby on the right with Carra rested and Arbeloa still out, I’m hopeful Dossena won’t start. I haven’t given up on the Italian, but two untested fullbacks in a game where Liverpool will be challenged by a side with little to lose seems like too much change in the backline.

Yes, it’s an away game, but I’d still like to see Liverpool line up in the 4-4-2. The extra midfielder shouldn’t be as necessary against a Championship side, and it’d allow both Ngog and Keane to start up top. Robbie will assuredly play after sitting out the Newcastle match, and an early round FA Cup match seems like another good opportunity to blood the young Frenchman. And, whether or not Liverpool's ahead, behind, or even, I’d like to see Torres replace either of those strikers for some of the second half.

Make no mistake; Preston won’t be pushovers. 7th in the Championship, and only out of the playoff places on goal difference, Alan Irvine (Moyes’ former right-hand man) has his team playing well. That the game’s on their ground benefits them, and at the least, their top scorer, Neil Mellor – the former Liverpool trainee – will certainly be up for it.

Liverpool ended the year in perfect fashion: a 5-1 win away from home to finish 2008 top of the league. Now, let’s see them start the new one in the same manner.