28 April 2009

A page from Benitez’s book

I’m sure you’ll find more thorough Barca/Chelsea discussion at a variety of other blogs. The Barca and Chelsea Offside sites are probably good places to start.

But I had to point something out about Chelsea's draw at the Camp Nou. Not only was the physical, pressing defensive performance reminiscent of past Liverpool displays in Europe (although Liverpool usually offer more in attack – the 2005 match at Juventus not withstanding), but Messi was also kept similarly quiet.

The coincidence? A right back played at left back, which nullified Messi’s specialty: cutting in onto his left foot. Boswinga was there today, mostly out of necessity with Cole suspended, and the little Argentinean found little joy. In 2007, when Liverpool beat Barca, Arbeloa (in one of his first matches) was at left back (with Riise in midfield), and he completely silenced Messi.

But really, Barca couldn’t make the breakthrough because Chelsea were happy to put so many men behind the ball, Cech played well, and Barca were absolutely profligate, especially in the final few minutes. Simply out of spite, I’d rather see Barca beat any of the English sides, but congrats to Chelsea for stifling Europe’s most impressive club. However, I’d still warn that there’s a lot of work to be done – even after Liverpool’s 2-1 win in Barcelona in 2007, the Catalans won 1-0 at Anfield.

25 April 2009

Liverpool 3-1 Hull

Arbeloa Skrtel Carragher Insua
Kuyt Mascherano Lucas Benayoun

Alonso 45’
Kuyt 63’ 89’
Geovanni 73’

The scariest 3-1 win against ten men ever. An absolutely awful, uncoordinated, embarrassing first half capped off with a brilliant strike by Alonso in the 45th – a strike that Liverpool should never have had the chance at. And after a red card, after a second goal, Liverpool still found a way to make hard work of it.

The opening 10 minutes of the first half were pretty much par for the course: a couple of early chances (a fancy Torres strike just tipped over in the 7th and a mazy Benayoun run ending with a shot chipped onto the roof of the net three minutes later) and a bit more possession than the opposition. And then it all went to shit.

The defense continued to frighten as routine clearances became a Sisyphean task. And Hull were reclaiming possession as the three-man midfield was increasingly overrun. Reina had to claim a dangerous cross in the 14th before Carragher’s header out fell to Geovanni, whose return volley wasn’t far wide of the top corner.

The defense looked shakier and shakier as Hull continued to press, and Lucas and Mascherano began retreating deeper to block off the build-up – which worked to a certain degree, but meant Liverpool was less of a threat in attack as the formation became something like a 4-3-2-1 Christmas tree. Unsurprisingly, Kuyt and Benayoun both drifted centrally to fill the void, which meant Liverpool also had little width. But by the 30-minute mark, the away side at least looked more secure, and it became one of those fun, cagey games that look a certain 0-0 – until a free kick won in the 45th paid dividends.

Mascherano strode forward unconvincingly on the break, eventually tripping over Hull’s bumpy “pitch.” But Atkinson saw it as a foul against Boateng. And although Alonso slammed the free kick against the wall, he made no mistake when the ball rebounded to him, volleying in beautifully, giving Myhill no chance.

With a goal lead, Liverpool started the second half in that probing, patient manner we’re all familiar with. Much more possession, but overcautious and overplaying in the final third. And then Caleb Folan had a moment a madness, earning a red card for kicking out at Skrtel after being rightfully blocked off. Didn’t take long for Hull to be punished.

The home side made two quick changes (one to prevent Fagan from being sent off as well), but in the 63rd, following a Liverpool corner, Skrtel mishit a shot toward goal, and Kuyt was in the right place to head in. At 2-0, it should have been done and dusted. Hell, at 1-0, against the 16th-placed team with 10 men, it should have been over. Nope.

Defensive mistakes and uncertain play crept back in, and in the 73rd, Mendy hit a long crossfield ball to Cousin, who got past Skrtel and centered. It missed Marney, but Insua (sigh – the first time I can remember him responsible for a goal) failed to track Geovanni’s run, and the Brazilian couldn’t have missed from six yards.

I’ve never been so distressed over or disappointed in Liverpool’s defense. The combination of mental and physical tiredness and the lack in confidence following four goals conceded in the last two games has to be the cause of it, because all of these defenders are better than they played today. Every set piece and long ball hoofed forward frightened, which wasn’t helped by the fact that Liverpool couldn’t convert excellent opportunities at 2-1 – Lucas badly mishit a shot after Torres’ excellent pass (shooting with his right instead of the better left-footed option) in the 76th, and Torres headed off the bar in the 79th.

But Liverpool never broke. Thankfully. And in the 89th minute, Kuyt was again in the right place at the right time to seal it. Arbeloa was allowed the freedom of the box, and his deflected shot rebounded off Myhill to Kuyt to hammer in. Phew.

The eight days before the next match are warmly welcomed. This team needs to regroup, and needs Gerrard back. I’ve spent a lot of time complaining about a win; the three points are really all that matters. And this game needs to serve as a warning. None of the next four matches will be easy, no matter the opposition.

24 April 2009

Liverpool at Hull 04.25.09

10am, live in the US on Setanta

Last 4 head-to-head:
2-2 (h) 12.13.08
4-2 Liverpool (h; League Cup) 09.21.99
5-1 Liverpool (a; League Cup) 09.14.99
3-2 Liverpool (a; FA Cup) 02.18.89

Last 3 matches:
Liverpool: 4-4 Arsenal (h); 4-4 Chelsea (a); 4-0 Blackburn (h)
Hull: 0-1 Sunderland (a); 1-3 Boro (a); 0-0 Pompey (h)

Goalscorers (league):
Liverpool: Gerrard, Torres 13; Kuyt 8; Benayoun 6; Alonso, Riera 3; Aurelio, Babel, Ngog 2; Agger, Arbeloa, Carragher, Dossena, Hyypia 1
Hull: Geovanni 7; Cousin, Turner 4; Fagan, Manucho, Mendy 2; Ashbee, Barmby, Folan, Garcia, McShane, Windass, Zayette 1

Referee: Martin Atkinson

Guess at a squad:
Arbeloa Carragher Hyypia Insua
Alonso Mascherano
Kuyt Benayoun Riera

So, what are the odds on a third successive 4-4 result?

Maybe I shouldn’t test my luck by mentioning a draw, given the 2-2 scoreline in the reverse fixture.

I think the line-up pretty much writes itself with eight days before the next match and Gerrard still out. The only real questions are in defense, which has let in four goals in successive games.

I’d pick Insua here even if Aurelio didn’t have a mare on Tuesday. The young Argentinean needs to be further bedded in, and past performances have shown he’s no liability. I reckon I don’t need to reiterate my regard for the player, but he just seems to fit with the side.

In addition, it’d be odd to see Skrtel left out of two straight games, but this seems one tailor-made for Hyypia. Although I’m not sure if the Finn’s fit after picking up a knock with Finland; I haven’t seen any news other than he supposedly made the squad for Arsenal (according to the BBC), but wasn’t on the bench. Seems like it has to be one of those two paired with Carra, and I like the idea of having the old wily veteran next to Insua.

I think recent results have proven that Liverpool’s more dangerous with Benayoun in the middle when Gerrard’s absent. Torres and Kuyt up top in a 4-4-2 has worked in some games, but Benayoun’s been the better option. And it’s not as if Kuyt’s disappointed on the right – on form alone, he’s made that flank his own – and I’m glad to see him quiet the naysayers.

Admittedly, this is a different Hull than the one faced in December. They were sixth at the time, having taken 26 points from 16 games. They’re now 16th, with eight more points than before that match in December (where they picked up one), and winless in six, having lost four of those games.

But obviously, given this unpredictable nature of this team and this club, anything can happen. I find it hard to believe Liverpool would underestimate any side at this stage in this season, with this much to play for. Especially one that they drew in December, two points they should be very aggrieved about.

22 April 2009

Justice for the 96

I have no desire to write about Steven fucking Cohen, the co-host of the World Soccer Daily radio show. The man is an embarrassment to American soccer fans, end of.

But, unfortunately, that prat is the face of the Prem in the US for many. And if I can convince just one American to never listen to his show again, it’s worth having a post with that malignant fucker’s name in it.

The Gaffer at EPL Talk has two comprehensive smackdowns, which are much appreciated given his audience.

Paul Tomkins also eloquently kneecapped the bastard.

The RAWK thread, as usual, is worth the read.

And Phil Scraton, an authority on the subject if there ever was one, wrote an outstanding post on RAWK, which I want to copy in full here because every person possible should read every single word.
Dear Steven Cohen,

I have read some of your recent unsubstantiated allegations regarding 6 to 8,000 ticketless fans at Hillsborough and your comments conflating Heysel and Hillsborough. I have researched the Hillsborough disaster since late 1989, written two reports on the disaster and its aftermath, numerous articles and the book Hillsborough: The Truth. I attended the Taylor Inquiry, the Coroner's Inquests and the trial of the two senior officers. I also gave written evidence to the Stuart-Smith Scrutiny in 1998.I have read hundreds of statements including every single statement made by all police officers on duty on the day. I also interviewed many of those in authority at Hillsborough on the day including the senior South Yorkshire Police investigating officer. It was my work that uncovered the fact that all police statements had been 'reviewed and altered' by a team of six senior officers in collaboration with the South Yorkshire Police solicitors. The terms 'review' and 'alteration' are theirs not mine. The 'cover-up' and the deliberate transference of blame to the fans was orchestrated at a senior level in the SYP and involved briefings given to the media and to the Prime Minister at the time, Margaret Thatcher. The alteration of statements was known to the investigating police (West Midlands), Lord Justice Taylor, the Coroner and the Home Office.

Undoubtedly there were ticketless fans on the day, as there are at all matches, but there is nothing at all in any witness statements to suggest that their numbers were unusual. The build-up at the turnstiles was caused by the following: the 'corralling' (their word, not mine) of fans by the police and escorting them from coachparks and the railway station in the hour before kick-off; the failure to 'filter' the crowd into the known bottleneck at the turnstiles (I uncovered an internal SYP memo from a senior officer in the SYP written in 1986 warning of this very danger); malfunctioning turnstiles. As had happened previously at several other capacity matches, processing over 25,000 fans (North Stand; West Stand and Leppings Lane Terrace) through 27 old turnstiles in an area no bigger than a school playground was a serious danger. After a close call on the Leppings Lane Terrace at a semi-final in 1981 Hillsborough had been stood down as a venue.

What happened next on 15 April 1989 is well-known. The Match Commander opened the exit gate to relieve congestion outside and fans walked (I have all this on the CCTV tapes) down a 1 in 6 gradient tunnel into the back of two already overcrowded central pens. There was no opportunity to move sideways or onto the perimeter track. The ground had no up-to-date safety certificate and the police operational order for the day gave no details of emergency response. The Match Commander had full view of the pens from the control box at the end of the terrace yet he failed to close the tunnel, as had been done by his predecessor in 1988. He then lied to the Chief Exec of the FA that Liverpool fans had broken down the gate and caused an 'inrush'. This deceit was passed to the awaiting media as fans were dying in the pens ... it was also given to the Prime Minister the following day. According to correspondence wuith her press secretary, the PM was told that a 'mob, tanked up on drink' had caused the disaster.

Steven, everyone is entitled to their opinion, but it is unacceptable to broadcast ill-informed opinion as fact when the evidence, amassed over years, has exposed your assertions as false. I feel that the least you might do is to retract.


No matter where you’re from, where you live, or even who you support, no true football fan should abide by this. Doing anything else makes the words “Justice for the 96” meaningless.

21 April 2009

Liverpool 4-4 Arsenal

Arbeloa Carragher Agger Aurelio
Benayoun Mascherano Alonso Riera
Kuyt Torres

Arshavin 36’ 67’ 70’ 90’
Torres 49’ 73’
Benayoun 56’ 93’

Amazing. Pity that for the second game in a row, it’s not enough.

Three mistakes for three Arshavin goals – and a fourth added in the 90th on the counter – and that’s two points thrown away in a game where Liverpool dominated. And it’s only two points thanks to the brilliance of Torres and the perseverance of Benayoun. Oh yeah, and it’s probably the end of the title race (although that’s at least the fourth time I’ve written that). Awesome. It wasn’t Michael Thomas, but it sure wasn’t fun either.

Sadly, the last two games have been a perfect metaphor for the season. Liverpool repeatedly hauls themselves back into it, only to fall short both times. Today, Arsenal’s opener looked to be a dagger after Liverpool dominated for 35 minutes, but two goals in eleven minutes after the break looked to set Liverpool on their way. So much for that.

The home side controlled possession in the first half, had three or four very good chances (with Torres looking like a live wire), but couldn’t open the scoring as both Toure and Fabianski were impressive. And Arsenal struck with their first real chance, on Arshavin’s second or third touch of the ball, in the 36th after a Mascherano dawdled on the ball in his own box and Nasri nipped in to steal.

But the superb start to the second half should have made all the difference. And it was a key change made by Benitez – not a substitution, but shifting Benayoun into the middle and moving Kuyt out right – that made it possible. It was Kuyt’s cross in the 49th that Torres buried, and in the 56th that Benayoun fearlessly headed over the line (receiving a kick in the face from Sagna for his trouble).

And at 2-1 up, with all the momentum, Liverpool should had the three points. But two stupid mistakes in three minutes appeared to sound yet another death knell. First, Arbeloa was the one to dawdle, allowing Arshavin to nip in and rifle an unstoppable rocket past Reina. Then, in the 70th, Aurelio somehow cleared it right to the Russian, who was basically standing unmarked on the penalty spot. You can imagine the result.

But, once again, that man Torres responded three minutes later, deliciously turning Silvestre before stop-starting into space and firing past Fabianski. And at 3-3 with around 20 minutes left, you had to fancy Liverpool’s chances. But they only truly tested Arsenal in the 82nd, when Gibbs incredibly cleared Torres’ header off the line. Increasingly desperate, Liverpool sent men forward in droves, and were punished in the 90th when Walcott had the entire pitch to himself after a Liverpool corner was cleared, eventually finding Arshavin for his fourth. His fourth. I mean, fuck.

Unsurprisingly, Liverpool found a way to give me another heart attack in the third minute of injury time when Benayoun slotted home after Mascherano’s header in caused a scramble. But even with six minutes added on, Liverpool couldn’t find the winner – although an almost handball on Diaby in the last seconds sure got me out of my seat. And even though mathematically Liverpool’s not out of it, United would have to lose two of their final seven games. Not bloody likely. This was always going to be the toughest test of the run-in. For all that was good, Liverpool still failed.

Obviously, I’m pissed now, but when cooler heads prevail, I’ll be proud of the fight in this team. Unless something astonishing happens, bad draws, bad luck, and bad mistakes will end up costing them title, but no one in this squad ever gave up. In all honesty, they’ve overachieved – yes, even though we’re all disappointed in how the season’s ending.

But even though I’ll write ‘the title race is over’ on the Internet, there’s no way the team believes that. Benitez won’t let them. Gerrard (who would have made so much difference today) and Carragher surely won’t let them. All Liverpool can do is be perfect for five games, and hope United gives them an opening.

20 April 2009

Liverpool v Arsenal 04.21.09

3pm, live in the US on Setanta

Last 4 head-to-head:
1-1 (a) 12.21.08
4-2 Liverpool (h; CL) 04.08.08
1-1 (a) 04.05.08
1-1 (a; CL) 04.02.08

Last 3 matches:
Liverpool: 4-4 Chelsea (a); 4-0 Blackburn (h); 1-3 Chelsea (h)
Arse: 1-2 Chelsea (a); 3-0 Villareal (h); 4-1 Wigan (a)

Goalscorers (league):
Liverpool: Gerrard 13; Torres 11; Kuyt 8; Benayoun 4; Alonso, Riera 3; Aurelio, Babel, Ngog 2; Agger, Arbeloa, Carragher, Dossena, Hyypia 1
Arse: Adebayor 10; Van Persie 9; Bendtner, Nasri 6; Denilson, Eboue 3; Arshavin, Diaby, Gallas, Silvestre, Walcott 2; Clichy, Fabregas, Song, Toure 1

Referee: Howard Webb

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

Feels like I’ve written ‘this is the most important game of the season’ for over a month now. That’s the fun of an honest-to-goodness title race, I guess.

This is Liverpool’s last game against a “big four” club, and Arsenal’s the only team they’ve failed to beat, having done the double over both Chelsea and United. And four of the last five encounters between the two have ended 1-1.

Other than the absence of Gerrard, the line-up seemingly writes itself. Maybe we’ll see the same as against Chelsea, with Lucas in Gerrard’s role and Benayoun on the left, but I reckon this is more likely. In my mind, the only real questions are over Skrtel and Aurelio, who could be replaced by Agger or Hyypia, or Insua or Dossena respectively. But more often than not, especially in the big games, those two are the starters. Aurelio’s got far more experience, and Skrtel has the blend of aerial prowess and speed.

It’s an utter pity that the captain will miss out, but not entirely surprising. It’s never smart to look back and wonder over injuries, but both he and Torres have struggled with niggling ones all season long. Obviously, the most important thing is to rest Gerrard now, no matter the opposition, and hope to have him healthy for as many games as possible.

Which, unsurprisingly, is what Liverpool’s doing – and that shows Benitez’s faith in the squad. In seasons past, I guarantee Gerrard would have played against Chelsea and/or Arsenal if the situation arose. But now, Rafa’s confident in the likes of Benayoun, Kuyt, and Riera, and it certainly helps that Torres has found goal-scoring form.

It’s sacrilege to suggest, but Liverpool’s missed Torres more than Gerrard when they’ve been injured this season. Gerrard is the heartbeat of this club, the pulse of Liverpool. But Torres’ goals have been far harder to replace.

And while Liverpool can certainly complain about injuries, Arsenal assuredly has it worse. The BBC’s reporting that Van Persie, Adebayor, Clichy, Gallas, and Almunia will all miss out. Fabianski had a howler against Chelsea on Saturday, but that probably means he’ll play out of his mind tomorrow. Regardless, Liverpool’s should test him right out of the blocks, and the recent direct style of play should help in that regard.

Six more matches. Make them count.

17 April 2009

Too funny

With no game until Tuesday, I'll probably continue to be MIA until the preview on Monday. End of the semester crush and all. But I had to make a quick pop-in for a link and question.

Ferguson turns heat up on Benitez

Sir Alex Ferguson is showing no sign of letting up in his war of words with Liverpool boss Rafael Benitez.

Blackburn boss Sam Allardyce has also criticised Benitez, but the Spaniard has "laughed off" the duo's attacks.

I'm sorry, someone has to remind me who's obsessed with whom. And who's the manager that keeps looking over his shoulder?

Gonna be a fun few weeks.

14 April 2009

Liverpool 4-4 Chelsea

Chelsea wins 7-5 on aggregate

Arbeloa Skrtel Carragher Aurelio
Kuyt Mascherano Lucas Benayoun

Aurelio 19’
Alonso 28’ (pen)
Drogba 51’
Alex 57’
Lampard 76’ 89’
Lucas 81’
Kuyt 83’

Holy shit. One goal away from winning it twice – at 2-0 in the first half and 4-3 in the second. So close, and yet so far.

No Gerrard, but not much difference to the formation either. Lucas slotted in, with Liverpool basically 4-2-3-1 when defending and 4-1-4-1 when attacking, with Alonso sitting deeper and orchestrating play.

And for 30 minutes, it worked a treat. Chelsea seemed happy to sit back, unwilling to believe Liverpool could breach the defense three times. Ha. Within 13 minutes, Torres went close to putting that notion to bed, with Chelsea opened up by a lovely backheel by Benayoun, only for the Spaniard to narrowly miss the far post with a left-footed shot. And Chelsea marched right down the field, with Lampard smashing a free kick just wide. It was never going to be a cagey game.

In the 19th, Liverpool got the early goal, bamboozling Chelsea with a free kick of their own. The home side suspected a cross into the box, and Aurelio embarrassed Cech with a low drive into the near post, reminiscent of Gary Macca’s winner versus Everton eight years ago this week. And nine minutes later, with pressure still constant, Stamford Bridge was stunned silent when Ivanovic hauled down Alonso in the box. Not many referees would have called it – grabbing in the box happens all the time, although I clearly think it was the right call – but not many referees are as fussy as this one.

The second goal finally woke Chelsea up. And the entrance of Anelka, in the 35th for Kalou definitely helped matters. They threatened in the 31st when Ivanovic went looking for a make-up penalty, and 38th, when Reina did well to claim Alex’s header down from Lampard’s free kick. But Liverpool could have gotten the third in the 45th against the run of play when Cech saved Kuyt’s header and then missed a cross moments later, with Torres unable to make contact during the scramble.

But the second half was all Chelsea’s until – like against Bolton – they fell asleep having thought the game over. And Liverpool were quickly punished. Reina was wrong-footed by Drogba making contact with Anelka’s low cross after a clever, strong run by the Frenchman in the 51st (don’t blame Pepe – those goals happen), and six minutes later, Alex thumped in a 25-yard free kick (what seemed to be Chelsea’s 50th or so set piece).

Liverpool had a couple of chances – in the 63rd when Cech spilled Mascherano’s shot but Benayoun couldn’t take advantage, and in the 70th when Torres turned dangerously outside the box and fired a yard wide. But Chelsea seemingly sealed it in the 76th when Alonso’s stray pass only found Ballack. He found Drogba, barely onside, who centered for Lampard.

Honestly, the game seemed to turn four minutes later, when Liverpool withdrew Torres for Ngog. The French striker didn’t do it on his own – although he was willing to mix it up – but the move, obviously to protect Torres, made Chelsea think that it was over. Within three minutes, Liverpool had tallied twice.

First, Lucas scored his first in the Champions League when his shot deflected in off Essien’s shoulder, a deserved goal for a diligent if unspectacular job filling in for Captain Fantastic. Barely a minute later, Riera (who came on for Mascherano in the 69th, Rafa’s first throw of the dice) got by Ivanovic and put in an inch-perfect cross for Kuyt to head home from two yards.

But Chelsea got the all-important next goal. A quick throw found Anelka cutting in from the right, and again Lampard was the beneficiary, with a hard shot clattering in off the post. Fittingly for this game, Ngog almost scored within a minute, but Essien cleared his stab off the line.

Obviously, the loss is disappointing, but take nothing away from this team. No scapegoats. No finger-pointing. The resilience shown by this team is a credit to everyone at the club, and has to serve as a morale booster for the last six league games. There was no quit in this team – needing two goals, Riera and Benayoun were still working the one-two and running all out in the 93rd minute.

Chelsea did what they had to. They held on, and kept Liverpool from crossing that line. Alex’s goal was simply fierce. Lampard scored two crucial ones when it mattered most. But they also dove all over the place (unsurprisingly Drogba, who showed his pace and power with his goal, the most), taking advantage of a referee who was inclined to keep his whistle in his mouth anyway.

Although I’m sure every fan would rather remain in the Champions League, this makes the league the sole focus for the rest of the season. And there are a ton of positives to take away. Almost everyone, me included, questioned Liverpool’s chances. But the team scored four goals at Stamford Bridge. Without Gerrard, and with Torres barely getting a touch, well-marshaled by Alex and Carvalho. No one’s heads dropped. No one expected to lose, no matter the scoreline. At the end of the day, that’s all you can ask for; I couldn’t be prouder of the team.

Keep that up.

13 April 2009

Liverpool at Chelsea 04.14.09

2:45pm on espn2. Chelsea lead 1-3 on aggregate.

Knockout Rounds:
Liverpool: 4-0 Real (h); 1-0 Real (a)
Chelsea: 2-2 Juve (a); 1-0 Juve (h)

Group Stage:
Liverpool: 3-1 PSV (a); 1-0 Marseille (h); 1-1 Atletico (h); 1-1 Atletico (a); 3-1 PSV (h); 2-1 Marseille (a)
Chelsea: 2-1 Cluj (h); 1-1 Bordeaux (a); 1-3 Roma (a); 1-0 Roma (h); 0-0 Cluj (a); 4-0 Bordeaux (h)

Last 3 matches:
Liverpool: 4-0 Blackburn (h); 1-3 Chelsea (h); 1-0 Fulham (a)
Chelsea: 4-3 Bolton (h); 3-1 Liverpool (a); 2-0 Newcastle (a)

Goalscorers (Europe):
Liverpool: Gerrard 7; Kuyt, Torres 2; Dossena, Babel, Benayoun, Ngog, Riera 1
Chelsea: Drogba 4; Anelka, Ivanovic, Terry 2; J Cole, Essien, Kalou, Lampard, Malouda 1

Referee: Luis Medina Cantalejo (SPA)

Guess at a squad
----Skrtel Carragher Agger

All the news today, whether it’s BBC or the official site, suggests Gerrard will be fit to start. And whether he starts will show how serious Liverpool’s taking this game and how serious his injury is. I've got a sneaking suspicion that these reports are subterfuge from Liverpool, and if Gerrard’s truly got a niggling injury, it’s right to save him for the league. And that makes me think that we’d see something completely out of left field, a la Pompey in February. Chances are I’m wrong, but it’s an interesting idea to contemplate.

What I don’t want to see is the same line-up – plus Mascherano, who would make a difference – as went out last Wednesday. Chelsea had a plan to stifle it that worked, and Essien was especially effective on Gerrard. If Liverpool does play 4-2-3-1, and if Gerrard does start, that the line of three will have to use much better movement, with Kuyt, Gerrard, and whomever switching regularly.

Babel’s probably the biggest reach with this guess – outside of the formation – but both Benayoun and Riera played 90 minutes on Saturday, Riera’s been hit and miss of late, and Babel’s pace could be crucial in overturning the deficit. Plus, the faith to start him in a game like this could do his confidence a world of good.

And yes, I’m actually suggesting Liverpool go to Stamford Bridge and play three at the back. Both Arbeloa and Aurelio can get forward, but five players will add extra steel to Liverpool’s defense. And no, I don’t think this is too defensive a formation when the team needs three goals; it has the potential to switch to attack very quickly.

I don’t want to seem like I’m giving up hope, because that truly isn’t the case, despite the opening sentence of the last leg match review. But unless Gerrard is 100%, I really wouldn’t start him here; yes, the league is that much more important. And if Liverpool’s narrowed the gap in the second half, he’d be available off the bench.

Whatever line-up starts tomorrow has a shot at overhauling this deficit. Bolton scoring three in eight minutes adds some hope, but it’s not as if Liverpool hasn’t overcome worse situations – especially in cup competition.

11 April 2009

Liverpool 4-0 Blackburn

Arbeloa Carragher Agger Insua
Benayoun Alonso Mascherano Riera

Torres 5’ 33’
Agger 83’
Ngog 90’

That’s an acceptable response to Wednesday. It looked like it’d be a 2-0 hammering for the majority, but two more in the last ten minutes made the scoreline representative of the match.

I am running out of ways to praise Fernando Torres. Simply stating that he’s the best #9 in the business is insufficient. Acknowledging that when he’s on song he’s an absolute artist isn’t good enough either. That boy is special. And thanks to his early strike, which is leading candidate for goal of the season, this game was never in doubt.

No matter how many words I use, I’ll never be able to do the opener justice. Carragher found Torres over the top, and back to goal, he controlled brilliantly with his chest, directing it to the right to take it away from Nelsen. And although it looked like the touch took him too far from goal, he hit it beautifully, looping a shot over Robinson and inside the far post. Simply outstanding, and he made it look so easy.

Liverpool could have been 3-0 up before 30 minutes were off the clock, but they had to settle for 2-0 at halftime. With Christophe Samba as a lone striker, Blackburn had little relief from the pressure, with clearances hoofed forward returning quickly.

In the 16th minute, a break nearly cut through Blackburn like butter, as Kuyt stormed up the left, and tried to find Mascherano running through the middle. The pass was slightly behind, but Masch controlled (and stayed up despite a challenge on his ankles), only he couldn’t open his body enough to direct it either side of Robinson. And then Torres skied the follow up. The chance in the 27th was just as wasteful – Kuyt heading directly at Robinson from four yards out despite an inch-perfect cross from Insua and a free jump.

However, that man Torres got the second six minutes later. Alonso put a free kick into a dangerous area, and the striker rose highest while holding off 6’5” Samba. From there, Liverpool were on cruise control, content with shots from distance and chances on the break. The finishing wasn't the best, especially from Kuyt and Riera, but Blackburn didn’t look like upsetting the balance – it took until the 77th minute for them to threaten, when Samba slipped in the box while shooting, sending his strike straight at Reina. He should have been flagged offside anyway.

And I reckon that scare prompted a Liverpool response. Robinson had to save Masch’s point-blank effort after El Zhar couldn't get a shot off, and Riera’s header from the resulting corner was cleared off the line. But just two minutes later, Agger got the return he deserved with a carbon copy of his first goal for the club, striding forward and smacking an unstoppable shot from 35 yards – another strike that’ll show up on goal-of-the-season lists. Ngog, on for Kuyt in the 84th, iced the cake with his second league goal after Carra’s deep cross and Lucas’ header into the danger area.

That’s exactly what Liverpool needed, and credit to manager and players for responding in the right manner. Liverpool were up for it, knew they would have to break down a side determined to defend, and got right down to business. Torres’ brilliance made 11 men behind the ball a moot point, and from there, Liverpool smothered Blackburn into oblivion.

I have to highlight Mascherano’s contribution. Missing for the last two matches, he returns and Liverpool delivers another four-goal performance. He kept running for 90 minutes, didn’t give Blackburn a moment’s peace when anyone in blue and white was on the ball, and was unlucky not to notch a goal.

Insua was also excellent today. Aurelio is the best left back at the club, and can conjure awesome plays – think the free kick against United and setting up Torres’ goal at Inter last year – but Insua often seems to mesh better in the team. Riera showed flashes of the form he hit against Villa, and I doubt it’s coincidental. I’m tempted to update this post about Liverpool’s left, but I think I’ll wait until the end of the season. And to top it all off, we got Danny Agger back, hard as nails and looking to get forward. I try not to let my personal biases blind me (Agger and Insua are two of my absolute favorite players), but I adore when Agger’s in the team.

Liverpool didn’t get the wanted result in the Champions League. It’ll be tough to rectify on Tuesday, but on the basis of this performance, there’s always the possibility. But more important is keeping pace in the league, which they did with aplomb today.

10 April 2009

Liverpool v Blackburn 04.11.09

7:45am, live in the US on Setanta

Last 4 head-to-head:
3-1 Liverpool (a) 12.06.08
3-1 Liverpool (h) 04.13.08
0-0 (a) 11.03.07
0-1 Blackburn (a) 12.26.06

Last 3 matches:
Liverpool: 1-3 Chelsea (h); 1-0 Fulham (a); 5-0 Villa (h)
Blackburn: 2-1 Spurs (h); 1-1 West Ham (h); 0-4 Arse (a)

Goalscorers (league):
Liverpool: Gerrard 13; Torres 9; Kuyt 8; Benayoun 4; Alonso, Riera 3; Aurelio, Babel 2; Arbeloa, Carragher, Dossena, Hyypia, Ngog 1
Blackburn: McCarthy 8; Roberts 7; Santa Cruz 4; Andrews, Warnock 3; Derbyshire, Ooijer, Samba 2; Diouf, Dunn, Emerton, Tugay

Referee: Mike Riley

Guess at a squad:
Arbeloa Carragher Hyypia Insua
Alonso Mascherano
Benayoun Kuyt Riera

With Gerrard having a scan yesterday on a supposed thigh strain, I’d be surprised if he was fit to start tomorrow. He’s been named to the squad, but I reckon he’ll start on the bench. If Liverpool sticks with the 4-2-3-1, Benayoun will be a straight replacement, but it could also be 4-4-2 with Yossi on the right and Kuyt up top. If Gerrard could only play one game this week, tomorrow would be my choice rather than next Tuesday, but I doubt Rafa sees it like that.

On the plus side, tomorrow will finally see the return of Mascherano after missing the last two games. Finally.

Two days after the fact, I’ve still got no excuses as to why the defense was so poor against Chelsea. I wouldn’t be surprised to see either Agger or Hyypia drafted into defense, and possibly both will be. But given Carra’s omnipresence, it’ll probably be either Agger or Hyypia, and while my heart says Agger given I still fear his exit, smarter money is probably on Hyypia. At the same time, I’d hope Insua’s drafted in at left back.

Blackburn’s currently 14th, better under Allardyce but only five points above the relegation zone. Roberts and Santa Cruz should still be out, and we might get Samba up front as an emergency striker, as against Tottenham. Pedersen’s struggling with a calf strain as well, which saw former red Stevie Warnock line up in left midfield last time out.

As Carragher told the official site
, "In the 13 years I have been involved in the first team this will be the biggest league game I've played in – it really is that important. If we win we can go top of the league with just six games to go and if someone would have told us that we would be in this position when the season started we would have all been delighted.”

I think that about sums it up.

08 April 2009

Liverpool 1-3 Chelsea

Arbeloa Skrtel Carragher Aurelio
Lucas Alonso
Kuyt Gerrard Riera

Torres 6'
Ivanovic 39' 62'
Drogba 67'

Well, admittedly, I'm prone to exaggeration after a bad result, but I'm pretty sure that's the Champions League done and dusted. Liverpool got what they deserved, as did Chelsea. A dream start, and the team threw it away.

So much for a cagey match – we got the high tempo from the whistle and an early goal. And that was about it. High tempo for six minutes doesn’t beat high tempo for 86. Guus Hiddink 1, Rafa Benitez 0.

It looked like it would be Liverpool’s day after the aforementioned six minutes. A good start was quickly followed up by a Torres goal – Kuyt delightfully took the ball down and backheeled to Arbeloa, who centered to Torres in acres of space. Sidefoot, 1-0.

Unfortunately, the goal didn’t send Liverpool on their way. For once, the opposite happened, and Chelsea were catalyzed. They could have equalized through Drogba almost immediately, thanks to a giveaway by Aurelio, but the striker shot straight at Reina. Liverpool’s defense, so often the strong suit, was the downfall today, at six and sevens for long stretches.

It’s too painful to give a blow-by-blow. Long story short, two Lampard corners, two Ivanovic headers, two goals. Yes, Liverpool's defense was surprisingly shocking for most of the game, and Chelsea strikes always looked like coming, but set piece goals are especially infuriating. I can’t wait to hear the pundits fall all over themselves to blame zonal marking – which didn't seem to be much of a problem over the last four games. That both goals came from Ivanovic, who’s rarely played and only started because Boswinga was ruled out, twists the knife.

Complete shell shock after the second goal led to a quick third, from Drogba, to twist the knife even more, and Liverpool pretty much played out the final 25 minutes. It could have been more than 3-1. It could easily have been. One shot on target in the entire second half, at Anfield, in Europe. You have to be kidding me.

I’m struggling to sum up this result. What sticks out most in my mind is how seriously Mascherano was missed. Ballack and Essien bossed the midfield – Essien had Gerrard in his pocket all game long.

Almost to a man, Liverpool disappointed – Reina’s probably the only one truly exempt. Torres looked dangerous early on, but faded fairly quickly. Kuyt was decent in the first half. And that's the sum of Liverpool's positive performances. As said, Essien owned Gerrard, while Riera and Aurelio were utter shadows of themselves. It's unfair to single one player out, but this was probably Aurelio's worst game in a red shirt.

Liverpool’s come back from greater halftime deficits in the Champions League before. But they’ll have to deliver one of their best performances ever under Benitez. In the meantime, Saturday cannot come soon enough.

07 April 2009

Liverpool v Chelsea 04.08.09

2:45pm on espn2

Stupid Wednesday games. Another one for the DVR. Will probably have a review up by 8pm or so local time.

Knockout Rounds:
Liverpool: 4-0 Real (h); 1-0 Real (a)
Chelsea: 2-2 Juve (a); 1-0 Juve (h)

Group Stage:
Liverpool: 3-1 PSV (a); 1-0 Marseille (h); 1-1 Atletico (h); 1-1 Atletico (a); 3-1 PSV (h); 2-1 Marseille (a)
Chelsea: 2-1 Cluj (h); 1-1 Bordeaux (a); 1-3 Roma (a); 1-0 Roma (h); 0-0 Cluj (a); 4-0 Bordeaux (h)

Last 3 matches:
Liverpool: 1-0 Fulham (a); 5-0 Villa (h); 4-1 United (a)
Chelsea: 2-0 Newcastle (a); 0-1 Spurs (a); 1-0 City (h)

Goalscorers (Europe):
Liverpool: Gerrard 7; Kuyt 2; Dossena, Babel, Benayoun, Ngog, Riera, Torres 1
Chelsea: Drogba 3; Anelka, Terry 2; J Cole, Essien, Kalou, Lampard, Malouda 1

Referee: Claus Bo Larsen (DEN)

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

These two teams met in the semi-final in 2005, 2007, and 2008, as well as in the group stage in 2006. I reckon it’s just not the Champions League without a Liverpool/Chelsea match-up.

Riera returns from a one-game ban, but Mascherano, who missed Saturday’s match, is suspended. Which means Lucas should get a second consecutive start after a patient, composed display against Fulham. Once again, maybe we’ll get Aurelio in midfield, with Dossena at left back (as Insua isn’t in the CL squad), but I think that’s the less likely option. Otherwise, the line-up basically writes itself.

Liverpool beat Real 4-0 by keeping them on the back foot from the off. Chelsea may not be as overwhelmed by Anfield, having visited so often in the past few years, but Liverpool will still need to jump on them when the whistle blows. Given past history between these two sides, a cagey, midfield battle is probably expected. Fuck that. Take advantage of being at Anfield and any early nerves. The pace in the first 30 minutes of the game is what led to the big victories over Real, United, and Villa.

I would really have preferred to see the second leg at Anfield, but of course, I would have preferred to avoid English opposition all together. The fact that Liverpool did the double over the Blues means little here, and probably gives Chelsea more ammunition.

But this is the Champions League. Where Liverpool has consistently been the best team over the past 4-5 years. Let’s see it again.

05 April 2009

Late winners 08-09

Last season, I fawned over the number of late goals Liverpool conjured. Through 29 games (in all competitions), Liverpool scored 23 goals after the 75th minute. In the second half of the season, they added 14 more, for a total of 37 in 59 games.

Liverpool hasn’t quite kept up that pace this season; in 46 games this year, the team’s scored 27 with less than 15 minutes remaining.

However, where they’ve improved is in late winners. 12 games have been won thanks to goals scored after the 75th, and 10 of those were in the league – compared to nine in all competitions last season. Benayoun, Kuyt and Torres are joint-top scorers with three each. Plus, a point was saved with late goals against City (Kuyt 78’) and Atletico (Gerrard 90+4’ pen).

8/16 Sunderland – Torres 1-0 83’
8/23 Boro – Gerrard 2-1 90+4’
8/27 Liege – Kuyt 1-0 118’
9/13 United – Babel 2-1 77’
10/5 City – Kuyt 3-2 90+2’
10/18 Wigan – Kuyt 3-2 85’
10/29 Pompey – Gerrard 1-0 (pen) 75’
12/6 Blackburn – Benayoun 2-0 79’
2/1 Chelsea – Torres 1-0 89’
2/7 Pompey – Torres 3-2 90+1’
2/25 Real – Benayoun 1-0 82’
4/4 Fulham – Benayoun 1-0 90+2’

Never say die, indeed.

04 April 2009

Liverpool 1-0 Fulham

Arbeloa Skrtel Carragher Insua
Lucas Alonso
Kuyt Gerrard Dossena

Benayoun 90+2’

What are the symptoms of a heart attack?

The announcers keep telling me that’s Liverpool’s eighth stoppage-time goal of this season, and I believe it. I guess Benayoun was fit after all.

This game should have been dead and buried by halftime. Four times the woodwork saved Fulham, while Schwartzer saved them twice. Chances were harder to come by in the second half, and the game became a carbon copy of the previous at Anfield. Until Yossi, off the bench for Kuyt in the 76th, won it at the absolute death for what seems to be more than the eighth time this season.

For the first 20 minutes or so, Fulham displayed the type of form that saw them stun United. It was a fairly open game, as Zamora and Johnson tested the offside trap and Dempsey and Konchesky looked to get down Liverpool’s right. But the away side still had the better chances, with Dossena testing Schwartzer, who made a fingertips save in the 10th, and the Italian flicking Skrtel’s drive off the crossbar from the resulting corner.

Fulham could have pulled one over in the 16th when a hospital ball from Skrtel allowed Zamora to run at the defense, but his pass to Johnson didn’t find its target. And the mistake seemed to catalyze Liverpool; from there, the home side barely got a sniff.

And Liverpool really should have taken the chances provided by the increasing dominance. Schwartzer saved Torres’ low shot after the Spaniard linked up with Gerrard in the 23rd, and headed over in the 24th, but it looked only a matter of time.

From there, the woodwork was Fulham’s man of the match. Alonso hit the bar in the 32nd, Torres hit the post in the 35th after a stunning two-man break with Gerrard, and Dossena went back to the crossbar with a diving header in the 37th. If I didn’t have enough on my plate, I’d be tempted to go back and check all my match reviews. I’d bet those four near-goals have doubled the number of times that Liverpool’s hit the woodwork this season.

The second half was every inch the frustrating 0-0 draws of yore until injury time. Unlike the first half, it was standard park-the-bus by the home side. Liverpool had chances, but too often the move broken down in the final third. Still, Torres headed straight at Schwartzer in the 54th, Gerrard’s dangerous cross missed Torres, Kuyt, and Babel in the 73rd, Benayoun deflected Gerrard’s shot just wide in the 81st, and the Israeli shot into the side netting in the 91st. But Benayoun certainly made all the difference at the end, slamming across Schwartzer when the ball fell to him on the right side of the box.

I can’t help but think this match only strengthens my hypothesis that it all comes down to luck, those little inches that decide games. Honestly, in the first half, Liverpool weren’t much worse than in the last three games, which they won by a combined 13-1 margin, and the difference is probably just down to the international break, as per usual. But the frame of the goal stood in the way four times, not to mention the two nice saves by Schwartzer. On any other day, one of those would have gone in. As would one of the opportunities in the second half, although Liverpool clearly grew more frustrated as the match went on.

Dossena starting on the left in attack was a surprise, but he didn’t disappoint, although it would have been nice if one of his three excellent chances went in. He also linked up well with Insua, who delivered another consistent performance. Yossi’s man of the match for the winner, while Gerrard and Torres were involved in the team’s best moments, but Insua deserves to be in contention. Seems as if Benitez was resting both Aurelio and Riera with an eye on Chelsea, and Liverpool didn't suffer for it.

Yossi will get the headlines, and rightfully so, but both he and Babel (who came on for Dossena in the 65th) improved the team. Babel - who played his part in the winner upsets the defense with his pace, and you can’t help but feel he’ll find the final touch he needs.

There’s clearly something special about this team. Going top of the table doesn’t mean much with United’s two games in hands, but it certainly sends a message that the late winner only reinforces. This match can serve as both a huge boost in confidence and a warning to the side. There’s a thin line between success and failure.

So far, there’s been no quit in this team. Let’s hope it lasts over the final seven games.

03 April 2009

Liverpool at Fulham 04.04.09

12:30pm, live in the US on FSC

Last 4 head-to-head:
0-0 (h) 11.22.08
2-0 Liverpool (a) 04.19.08
2-0 Liverpool (h) 11.10.07
0-1 Fulham (a) 05.05.07

Last 3 matches:
Liverpool: 5-0 Villa (h); 4-1 United (a); 4-0 Real (h)
Fulham: 2-0 United (h); 3-1 Bolton (a); 1-2 Blackburn (h)

Goalscorers (league):
Liverpool: Gerrard 13; Torres 9; Kuyt 8; Alonso, Benayoun, Riera 3; Aurelio, Babel 2; Arbeloa, Carragher, Dossena, Hyypia, Ngog 1
Fulham: Johnson 7; Dempsey 5; Murphy 4; Davies, Gera, Nevland, Zamora 2; Hangeland, Kamara, Konchesky, Seol 1

Referee: Steve Bennett. Oh goody!

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

12 players (Gerrard, Torres, Alonso, Riera, Reina, Arbeloa, Kuyt, Mascherano, Benayoun, Agger, Skrtel, and Hyypia) featured for their international clubs over the break. Two of those – Yossi and Sami – assuredly won’t play due to injury. And after returning from Bolivia’s high altitude, where Argentina lost 1-6, I worry whether Mascherano will as well. Hopefully he’s so enraged by the loss he’ll insist on playing, but we rarely see Masch right after he plays for his country. Maybe Aurelio will fill in, with Insua covering at left back (both stayed at Melwood), but Lucas seems more likely.

(EDIT: I probably should have checked the Echo and Daily Post before writing the previous paragraph. For what it's worth, the Daily Post is reporting that no matter Masch's trip, he'll keep his place against Fulham.)

It was one of the worst possible times for a break with the form the team was in. And Liverpool will undoubtedly shuffle the pack somewhat to compensate for international duty, as well as the upcoming three games in one week. But a fair few players kept up momentum: both Riera and Kuyt continued their scoring form following Villa, while Alonso also tallied from the spot on Wednesday. Gerrard played well in both of England’s qualifiers, and Torres made it through Spain’s unscathed (which is all that matters).

The trickiest line-up question comes in defense. Agger or Skrtel? Both played two matches for their countries and Agger’s only recently back, but I think the Dane will start. We’ve seen more stories about Agger’s return to fitness (like this one), and I think Liverpool would benefit from having Agger’s ability on the ball against what’s likely to be a compressed Fulham side.

Fulham’s up to 9th after beating United (thanks, by the way) before the break, and have also upset Arsenal at Craven Cottage. And held Chelsea to a draw. In fact, they’re fourth in the home league table, behind United, Liverpool, and City, with 9 wins, 3 draws, and 3 losses.

Not to mention the little factor of a 0-0 draw last November. This was one of those poor home results that still irk, and still linger in the memory. Fulham will be a tough side regardless, but Liverpool certainly have extra incentive to get one over on the opposition.

I always worry after an international week. The team hasn’t played for two weeks. There’s always some sort of hangover. But three points are beyond essential. I can’t think of a more crucial eight-game stretch than the one on the horizon.