30 November 2006

Is it that close to the silly season so soon?

Is it just me, or is there even less patience for players to settle in the Premiership this season?

One of the headlines on BBC Football today has been Shevchenko brushing off speculation that he’s on his way out of Chelsea barely 3 months after a £30m move. He isn’t the first new signing to have to defuse idle transfer gossip, but he’s the most expensive and highest profile.

The Argentinean lads at West Ham are the other main example, having been rumored to be leaving basically since they arrived. Granted, Kia Joorabchian’s failed takeover changes the matter slightly, but when have two foreigners of undoubted talents with such hype been deemed disappointments after so short a time? Especially when they are as young as Tevez and Mascherano are.

I’ve read it on a smaller scale about Liverpool players as well, specifically Gonzalez and Aurelio. Little matter than Gonzo’s only 22 and Aurelio’s been injured the majority of the time.

Making judgments on players after so short a time in the league seems insane. Granted, when the player is so completely out of his depth it’s recognizable to everyone (Souness' signing of George Weah’s “cousin” Ali Dia laughingly springs to mind), but I don’t think that’s the case with players like Gonzalez or Tevez, and I’m fairly certain it’s not with Shevchenko.

I thought at the time that Sheva wouldn’t be the success in the Premier League that he was at AC Milan. Yes, he's getting up there in years, but also the pace and style of the Premier League are far different than Serie A and I don’t think Chelsea play to his strengths. But to suggest he’ll be off is ludicrous. Chelsea would look the fool after shelling out so much money, and Sheva’s reputation would never be the same.

Long story short, please, just give players time to adjust. I guess since the sack race has gone fairly quiet since Dowie, there needs to be something similarly inane to gossip about.

Liverpool v Pompey, the day after

Official Site: Match Analysis
Official Site: Rafa reaction
Youtube “highlights”
BBC write-up, with video from Benitez and David James
Guardian: Match write-up
The Times: Match write-up
Daily Telegraph: Match write-up
The Independent: Match write-up
Eurosport stats and match commentary
Sky Sports: Match write-up
Sky Sports: Player Ratings
RAWK: Post-match thread

29 November 2006

Liverpool 0-0 Portsmouth

This game fits the definition of dropped points. I can toss around phrases like “lack of cutting intent” and “wasteful in front of goal,” but that doesn’t go far enough. How this game ended 0-0 is unexplainable. Liverpool dominated, with 16 shots (only 4 on target), 11 coming in the first half, compared to Portsmouth’s 4. The side netting and advertising boards took a battering today.

To make matters worse, Bolton, Villa, Everton, and Arsenal, the teams around Liverpool, all lost. With all 3 points, Liverpool could have moved up to 3rd, tied with Bolton on goal difference. Granted, they are only 2 points behind 3rd with less than half the season played, but the gap between 3rd and 13th is 6 points.

I understand the side is depleted through injuries, and Bellamy’s pace would have been helpful, but Liverpool should have won today. That’s been said far too often, and it’s even less acceptable at home. Like many other sides, Pompey played not to lose, but Liverpool must be able to overcome that.

The injuries forced a strange bench, and ignoring the result, it was nice to see Nabil El-Zhar get a run out for the last 20 minutes, even if it was an act of desperation. He’s gotten rave reviews in the reserve team, and I believe it’s the first time a youngster has played in the league this season. Guthrie joined him for the last 10 minutes, but neither of the kids was able to provide a dream debut.

A couple of other points. One, Pennant was off his game tonight. Less worrying is the lack of form, as I still think he has quality and the ability to spray in crosses from the wing, evident last season at Birmingham. But his lack of confidence and immaturity is not good; his rash tackle on Matty Taylor resulting in a yellow card and his subsequent substitution summed up his night. Two, I don’t understand why Crouch is frequently the first player substituted when Liverpool is chasing a game. He runs an awful lot, but I find it hard to believe he’s frequently spent by the 60th minute no matter how often he’s playing. Pretty much every team, if they’re fighting for the win in the last few minutes, will force the long ball into the box, which seems perfectly suited to Crouch. And it’s not as if he was taken off for pace, although Fowler is far and away a more natural goalscorer.

Anyone who knows me knows I’m rarely an optimist. When it comes to sports, it’s frequently a forced faith that supersedes my cynicism. And while there’s little evidence of it coming on, I’ve got a good feeling about the upcoming run of games. Granted, it’s an easier schedule than what Liverpool’s faced over the last month or two, but this is the time of year the team gets it together. In a month, it may look like false hope with egg on my face, but I really don’t want to succumb to the frustration voiced in the media and over the rest of the internet. There's far too many drastic, and patently false, things being said. I know this team has the talent to come good.

Roll on Wigan.

All-Premiership XI

I try never to bump Liverpool previews off the top before the game occurs, but late last night, amidst a fair amount of lager, friends and I attempted to name an all-Premiership XI. Not content with shouting the team at one another, I’m putting up the squad I came up with for you all to question.

I did not intend to use players solely from the “big clubs,” and only realized that 15 out of the 16 listed came from Arsenal, Chelsea, Liverpool or United after the fact. Which I reckon says a lot about the state of the league, more so than the aside about the gap between the rich and poor from a couple of days back.

So, with the groove fully in gear, I decided to play the same game, without any players from the big four clubs.

What amuses me most about the second exercise is the amount of Englishmen in the side compared to the other XI. In the first team, there are 4 starters. In the second, there are 8.

As always, remarks, revisions, and hate mail emphasizing how little I know is more than welcome.

28 November 2006

Liverpool v Portsmouth 11.29.06

3pm. Available in the US live on Setanta Xtra (DirecTV only). Replayed on Setanta Sports at 5 and 11pm.

Liverpool: 9th place; 21 points out of 14 games
Portsmouth: 4th place; 23 points out of 14 games

Last 4 meetings:
3-1 Liverpool (a) 05.07.06
2-1 Liverpool (a; FA Cup 4th round) 01.29.06
3-0 Liverpool (h) 11.19.05
2-1 Liverpool (a) 04.20.05

Last 3 games:
Liverpool: 1-0 Man City (h); 2-0 PSV (h); 0-0 Boro (a)
Portsmouth: 0-1 Newcastle (a); 2-1 Watford (h); 1-1 Fulham (h)

Goalscorers (league):
Liverpool: Kuyt 5; Crouch 2; Agger, Alonso, Bellamy, Fowler, Garcia, Gerrard, Gonzalez, Riise 1
Portsmouth: Kanu 8; Benjani 3; Cole, LuaLua, Todorov 2; Pedro Mendes 1

Referee: Alan Wiley

Probable squad:
Finnan, Hyypia, Agger, Riise
Pennant, Gerrard, Garcia
Kuyt, Crouch

In addition to Alonso out for another week, and Sissoko out into the New Year, Zenden’s now also out for around six weeks with a knee injury. Not the same knee injury that saw him miss the majority of last season, mind you. Meaning Gerrard’s the sole central midfielder (okay, let’s not open that can of worms again) in the first team fully fit. Hot gossip is that Liverpool will start Carra in the holding role, similar to what Sven Goran Eriksson (ugh) asked of him during the run up to the World Cup.

I would prefer to see either Agger or Danny Guthrie in midfield. Agger seems more suited to the role of a holding midfielder, with his ability to bring the ball out of defense, his distribution, and his wicked left foot shot. But Carra’s been in the position before, and has experience galore as a utility player, which is why I reckon he’ll be picked. Even more though, I would rather see Liverpool play its center backs as center backs, and bring in Guthrie, who is a natural central midfielder.

For those who don’t know, Guthrie’s a 19-year-old Academy graduate. Became a regular in the reserve team last season, now frequently captains them. He made his debut as a sub in the Carling Cup match against Reading, and also came on in the next round at Birmingham. It’s been awhile since an Academy player broke into the first team, especially when you consider the success in the 90s bringing through Fowler, Owen and Gerrard. I am still hoping to see Paul Anderson, Adam Hamill, and Guthrie get time in the first team this year. Seems as if an injury crisis such as this would be the perfect time to blood a youth player.

Portsmouth have injury problems of their own at present, with Dejan Stankovic, Matt Taylor, Glen Johnson all out, LuaLua and Sean Davis possibly out, and talk of Andy Griffin being recalled from his loan at Stoke. They are also somewhat of a paper tiger in regards to their league placement; their only win against a top 10 side is home against Reading.

Despite the injuries and lack of central midfielders (and a natural left winger), I still imagine Liverpool will come out looking to take the game to Portsmouth. As I mentioned in the Man City review, it is imperative for Liverpool to score the first goal, and hopefully score it sooner rather than later, as the first goal usually settles the team down well. Not to mention Portsmouth will have a difficult time pulling goals back at Anfield.

Quick Prem Predictions

12 teams in action mid-week, mostly tomorrow, but with one game today.

Watford v Sheffield United (Tuesday, 3:00pm, Setanta): Can’t see where goals are coming from with Marlon King out for the season, and Ben Foster’s absence doesn’t help Watford either. This game will go a long way in deciding if either of these sides can earn enough points to avoid relegation. 1-0 Sheffield

Aston Villa v Manchester City (2:45pm): Eek, Man City on the road, run away. And yes, I remember last Saturday, but that was the best performance both Distin and Dunne gave all season, and I can’t see it happening twice in a row. 2-0 Villa

Fulham v Arsenal (2:45pm): After a loss to Bolton, I expect one of those games where Arsenal bounces back stylishly from a poor result. Thierry Henry looks to still be out with a neck injury, however. 2-0 Arsenal

Bolton v Chelsea (3pm, FSC): Tough game for both. Bolton hosted Arsenal last weekend and 4 days later welcomes the two-time defending champions. Chelsea is coming off a trip to Old Trafford, and now has to travel to the Reebok, which is never an easy place to play. The only way I see Bolton winning here is if Anelka plays as well as he did against Arsenal, because Bolton are going to need his goals, as I imagine they’ll play with a lot of men behind the ball and look to score on counter-attack. I also find it hard to believe that Chelsea will drop points in successive matches. 1-0 Chelsea

Manchester United v Everton (3pm, Setanta): While I agree with Mourinho that United will rue the two points lost by drawing with Chelsea, they still (sigh) look to be the team to beat this year. It’s sad that it’s not even November and I’m rooting for them to drop points, and even sadder I’m relying on Everton for United to drop said points. Funny game this soccer is. 1-1

Liverpool v Pompey preview up this evening.

27 November 2006

Foreign Investment in the Premiership

With Eggert Magnusson and his Icelandic consortium’s takeover of West Ham going through last week, 6 Premier League teams currently have non-British owners: Chelsea, Manchester United, Portsmouth, Aston Villa, Fulham and West Ham. I don’t really know whether or not to count Fulham; Mohammed Fayed isn’t a British citizen, and seems to view Fulham as a rich man’s plaything, but he’s been based in England since the 70s. Regardless, Fulham has never been mentioned in the same breath as the other clubs in regards to foreign ownership.

A quick look at the Premier league table: Manchester United 1st, Chelsea 2nd, Portsmouth 4th, Aston Villa 5th. Chelsea and United are business as usual, but Villa and Pompey have been two of the surprises of the season. It’s still early days, but you just have to look at the results from any of these clubs since the foreign ownership took over.

Aston Villa: Villa is a tougher club to justify, as American businessman Randy Lerner bought the club right at the start of the season, after O’Leary was fired and O’Neill brought in. Nonetheless, the improved atmosphere following the departure of Doug Ellis must count for something. Not to mention Lerner’s said all the right things so far about money in the transfer coffers. Villa certainly appears to have stabilized, and it's a combination of Lerner and O'Neill (more O'Neill, to be sure) that's gotten them there.

Portsmouth: Milan Mandaric got Pompey into the Premiership, but since Alexandre Gaydamak took over in January, they’ve seemingly established themselves as a Premier League side. The funds released by Gaydamak saw them purchase Sean Davis, Pedro Mendes, and Noe Pamarot, as well as bring Wayne Routledge and Andres d’Alessandro in on loan. This year, they’ve brought in two former English internationals in Sol Campbell and David James, as well as Kanu, Andrew Cole, and Manuel Fernandes. I don’t expect them to finish fourth, but their run over the past calendar year has been impressive.

Chelsea: Do I really need to go through this? Since Abramovich bought the club in 2003, they’ve won the League for the first time since 1955, setting a points record in the process, and then won it again the following year. Nearly every squad member is also their respective international squad. They’ve also spent something like £120m+ on transfer fees, incidentally, not even mentioning some of the wages the likes of Terry, Lampard, Ballack, Sheva, Essien, etc, etc are on.

Manchester United: It’s easy to make the argument that foreign investment hasn’t changed United one way or the other, and this is where they’re expected to be. Fair enough. However, considering all the melodrama when Glazer et al bought the club, you certainly can’t complain about where the club’s gone on the pitch. They’ve retained spending power in spite of all the worries, having the money to splash out £15m or so on solely Carrick. Alex Ferguson, to the chagrin of everyone not at United, remains the manager with the full backing of the owners. An American owning Manchester United hasn’t brought about the collapse of Old Trafford. If anything, it’s resuscitated and prolonged the Ferguson era of (sigh) dominance.

Granted, I may enter into this with a few biases, as by this classification, I’m a foreigner as well, but it’s hard to argue that any of these teams are poorer due to foreign investment. Please be conscious I’m not making any argument as to its impact on soccer in general. I’m fully aware of the corrupting influence of business in sport, and the possibility of ignoring and betraying the traditions of a club. Chelsea has single-handedly finished what Real Madrid started, and utterly decimated the transfer market. The gap between the rich and poor in soccer continues to grow, to the detriment of competition. We read about everyday fans feeling alienated from the local club they support, and few teams are made up of players from the local community, let alone the country. Soccer becoming a business has changed the game for good, and it’s probably not for the better. But foreign investment is an effect of this, not a cause. I’m solely arguing that the results have improved on the field for every single club since the foreigners took over.

25 November 2006

Liverpool 1-0 Manchester City

Teams have realized the best way to play Liverpool at Anfield is to park the bus in front of the goal, put 10 men behind the ball, and play for the 0-0 draw, with maybe a hope to nick one on the counter. City did just that today, and if not for Kuyt’s awareness and opportunism, and a moment of brilliance from Gerrard, the plan would have worked. Stuart Pearce and his side will rue the goal as a mistake by Joey Barton, but there was still much to do by both Gerrard and Kuyt, and Liverpool merited the win.

Despite having the worst away record in the Premiership, City made Liverpool work for it today. There were chances to go ahead, with Garcia, Gerrard and Crouch all going wide, but Liverpool never looked comfortable, or even fully into the game until Gerrard’s goal (first in the league, and a second straight game with a goal) in the 67th minute. Many of the frequent complaints applied. Liverpool wasn’t doing enough to break down the other side, who were clearly content with a draw. They were wasteful from corners, with too many short ones resulting in squat. They weren’t taking the few chances they got.

For some reason, Liverpool always looks a better side after a goal. At home, the crowd gets more into it to be sure, but it usually settles the team as well, and it seems as if a goal frequently prompts smarter play. Reina was forced to make a couple of good saves, but it never felt like City was getting back into it.

Surprised to see the lineup I thought would play on the team sheet name for name, but it didn’t come off. Liverpool was far more effective after Crouch and Garcia were substituted, and the formation looked more like Liverpool usually plays. Even though the side was supposedly playing with wing backs, Pennant’s arrival for Garcia added width; not long after Gerrard’s goal, I remember him earning a free kick because of his willingness to get to the byline.

The substitutions were actually quite important today. Neither Crouch nor Garcia were up to their usual standards today, and both changes improved the overall play. I mentioned Pennant’s influence, but also City’s big center backs, Distin and Dunne, were able to keep Crouch mostly contained, and Fowler’s entrance led to less long balls that City quickly cleared.

In a way, it’s gratifying to see Liverpool win, even if only 1-0, when the team’s not at it best. In other games, especially away from Anfield, this would have ended 0-0 or with City stealing one of the few chances they got. Winning games you don’t necessarily deserve to is a quality that saw Chelsea become ever so successful the past two seasons. Also, this is the third successive clean sheet the defense has registered and the fourth successive at Anfield, which makes me hope that the shaky moments and liabilities that plagued earlier in the season might be a thing of the past.

Roll on Pompey.

MOM: Gerrard

24 November 2006

Liverpool v Manchester City 11.25.06

10am. Available in the US on Setanta Sports.

Liverpool: 10th place; 18 points out of 13 games
Manchester City: 12th place; 16 points out of 13 games

Last 4 meetings:
1-0 Liverpool (h) 02.26.06
1-0 Liverpool (a) 11.26.05
1-0 Man City (a) 04.09.05
2-1 Liverpool (h) 08.21.04

Last 3 games:
Liverpool: 2-0 PSV (h); 0-0 Boro (a); 0-3 Arsenal (a)
Manchester City: 3-1 Fulham (h); 0-0 Newcastle (h); 0-1 Charlton (a)

Goalscorers (league):
Liverpool: Kuyt 5; Crouch 2; Agger, Alonso, Bellamy, Fowler, Garcia, Gonzalez, Riise 1
Manchester City: Barton 3; Corradi, Samaras 2; Dunne, Richards 1

Referee: Rob Styles

The squad I’d like to see:
Carragher, Hyypia, Agger
Finnan, Gerrard, Zenden, Garcia, Riise
Kuyt, Crouch

Evidently, Stevie Warnock is going to miss out due to a groin problem, so there goes my master plan of shifting him to LB with Riise at LM. I still have no clue what is going on with Fabio Aurelio. He hasn’t been listed in the squad for a few games now, but I’ve seen nothing as to an injury update other than to say he’s out.

So, I’m taking the liberty here, and naming the first 3-5-2 formation of the season. I have no idea if this will actually happen. Liverpool’s used it before; I clearly remember the hurrahs following its successful deployment against Newcastle last season. But the injuries to Sissoko, Alonso, Gonzalez, and Pennant leave little other option. There’s always the alternative of putting Bellamy on the right wing or going with a 4-3-3 formation, but I think these possibilities less likely, especially with Benitez’s interview earlier in the week where he claimed "Craig’s no wide boy."

Finnan and Riise are well suited to the wingback role as well. Both like to get forward, can cover a lot of ground, and are excellent crossers. Carra and Agger are quick enough to compensate for any gaps left by the wingbacks pushing forward, but I also don’t know how much City will offer in attack, as they haven’t yet won away this season (sound familiar?).

The game marks Didi Hamann’s return to Anfield as well. The Kaiser left during the off-season, first to Bolton for a few minutes before realizing he’d have to play for Sam Allardyce, and then on to Manchester City. He’s underwhelmed at City, as he’s been injured off and on, but also isn’t the player he was 5 years, 2 years or even a year ago. Didi was never blessed with pace, but in a struggling City side, he’s been even more exposed. He hasn’t made the subs bench since last month, but he’s making the trip tomorrow, and he’ll definitely receive the welcome he deserves.

Premiership Prediction Party 11/25-11/26

I hope all on this side of the ocean had a lovely Thanksgiving yesterday; I’m just now fully recovering from the food coma (and relatives…).

Charlton v Everton (7:45am, Setanta): Les Reed is not saving Charlton from relegation, while Everton seemed to cope fairly well with Tim Cahill last week at Bolton. Pretty much any game with Charlton this season and the prediction writes itself, until I see any progress. I’m not holding my breath. 2-0 Everton

Aston Villa v Middlesbrough (10am, Setanta Xtra): I’m still upset over the fact Liverpool was unable to breach Boro’s defense last week, but I certainly don’t think that Villa will have that problem, especially at Villa Park. Boro may be boosted by the news that Gareth Southgate will be allowed to manage from the rest of the season, but that wouldn’t reassure me much. Also, in lieu of any other “information,” let me reiterate my crush on Gabriel Agbonlahor. 2-0 Villa

Fulham v Reading (10am, FSC): I really want to know how FSC decides which games it will be airing. As much as I like Fulham and appreciate Reading’s start to the season, I find it hard to believe they’d rather show this game than Liverpool/City or Villa/Boro. But this will be the game the majority of soccer viewers in the States will see at 10am tomorrow. I doubt it will be pretty soccer, but it should be a close game; Reading always finds a way to threaten, but Fulham’s been a decent side at home. 2-2

West Ham v Sheffield United (10am): West Ham will be on a high after finally finding resolution to the take-over rumors, with Icelander Eggert Magnuson’s consortium finalizing the deal earlier in the week. The Hammers, at home, will come out looking to impress the new boss, and I don't know how much Sheffield's going to be able to do about it. 2-1 West Ham

Bolton v Arsenal (12:15pm, FSC): Opposites in action here; the best passing team in the league versus the epitome of rough and tumble English football. Bolton’s been on a poor run of late (losses to Everton, Wigan, and Man U with a draw at Sheffield United) after finding themselves in 3rd at the start of the month, but I think they’ll keep Arsenal from playing the game they want, and nick one at the Reebok. 1-0 Bolton

Newcastle v Portsmouth (8:30am Sunday, Setanta): Michael Owen, Shola Ameobi, Celestine Babayaro, Craig Moore, and now Damien Duff are all still out with injury. Emre, Stephen Carr, Obafemi Martins, Nicky Butt, and Scott Parker all also have knocks, but will probably play. It’s just not the Premier League if Newcastle’s not going through an injury crisis. But hey, Kieron Dyer’s back! 2-1 Portsmouth

Tottenham v Wigan (10am Sunday): Tottenham’s inconsistent at home, poor on the road, and fantastic in Europe. Your guess is as good as mine as to which team’s going to show up Sunday. Meanwhile, Wigan looks to be long past the stage in the season where we all were talking about a sophomore slump. But this feels like another game where we’re not going to see a winner; we seem to be having a lot of those this week. 0-0

Manchester United v Chelsea (11am Sunday, FSC): The match of the weekend, possibly of the season. I frequently decry the pundits deciding the title race before the end of the year, but if one side gets all three points from this fixture, it will go a long way. I don’t think we’re going to get that sort of resolution however; we’re probably on pace for a cagey draw, with all still to play for (hopefully). Both sides will see this more as a game not to lose than one where they want all 3 points for themselves. 1-1

Liverpool v Manchester City is Saturday, 10am on Setanta. Preview later.

22 November 2006

Liverpool 2-0 PSV

For 60 or so minutes, I was getting ready to write a reprise of this weekend’s Middlesbrough review, the only difference being injuries to 3 Liverpool players (which I’ll return to). The game looked certain to finish 0-0, with neither site creating any great opportunities. PSV was content to sit back with 10 men behind the ball, and Liverpool was unable to break through. Same old, same old, except for the fact now the game was at Anfield.

Liverpool finally turned it on in the 65th minute. Kuyt, who probably had his worst game in a Liverpool shirt until then, spun away from Alex (PSV’s Brazilian, and arguably best, defender) magnificently, and laid a perfect pass for Gerrard to run on to. Typical Stevie finish, slotting the ball in the bottom right corner for his second goal of the season (both in Europe).

Liverpool’s second came right before injury time, and was close to the team at its best. It was a fairly quick attack, but had a lot of passes and players involved. Reina hoofed the ball long, it fell to Zenden who beat two men through the middle, passed it out to Garcia, who crossed into Kuyt, who knocked it back for Crouch to head into an open net from maybe a yard away. I’m certain Rafa was quite pleased with the move that sealed the game, even though PSV was never likely to get a goal back.

Another clean sheet in the books, as well, which is comforting. PSV played defensive soccer to be sure, but Arouna Koné was dangerous as usual, and a clean sheet’s a clean sheet. No one had a bad game; I say Kuyt was off, as his first touch and movement wasn’t what it usually is, but he still gave his all (as always) and ended up with 2 assists.

There’s always something to complain about however, and the leg injuries to Xabi Alonso, Mark Gonzalez, and Jermaine Pennant make this game no different. Pennant is okay, with Benitez quoted afterwards saying it was simply a spasm. However, Alonso and Gonzalez are far more serious; Gonzalez appeared to have a hamstring tear, and Alonso’s been reported to have anything from a dead leg to a severe ankle or hip injury, and was seen leaving Anfield on crutches.

Nothing will match Benitez’s first season for injury woes; I remember both Salif Diao and Igor Biscan (I loved Igor, but really…) starting games in central midfield. But having both Xabi and Sissoko out at the same time will clearly impact Rafa’s plans. Gerrard and Zenden seem certain to be the central pairing for the foreseeable future. Gonzalez’s injury doesn’t help matters either. Thankfully, Garcia’s getting back to fitness, but I think I’m going to get my wish, and we’ll see more of Riise at left midfield, with Warnock or Aurelio (if he’s ever healthy) slotting in at left back. Pity the hand is being forced, however.

This is why Benitez has gone out and bought so many players, why Liverpool has so many “possibilities.” The squad should be able to cope with the absences; there is enough depth and enough talent. What bothers me is now Liverpool’s seemingly set in a line-up; I reckon it’ll almost always be Gerrard and Zenden in the center and some combination of Riise, Pennant, and Garcia on the flanks until Alonso and Gonzalez return. And while admitting that Liverpool misses the players, critics should be pleased that the line-up is now mainly set in stone, after slagging the rotation policy for long. I’m pretty sure Liverpool will be poorer, not only for losing the players, but losing the possibilities as well.

But I refuse to end on a down note after a 2-0 win. Not after a resilient performance that saw Liverpool assure themselves of qualifying top of the group, and two winnable games at home in the league coming up.

Roll on Man City.

MOM: Crouch

21 November 2006

Liverpool v PSV 11.22.2006

2:45pm. Available in the US on Setanta Sports.

Liverpool drew PSV in their group game in Eindhoven on September 12th. PSV currently sits 1st in the Dutch Eredivisie.

Champions League Group Stage results:
Liverpool: 3-0 Bordeaux (h); 1-0 Bordeaux (a); 3-2 Galatasaray (h); 0-0 PSV (a)
PSV: 2-1 Galatasaray (h); 2-1 Galatasaray (a); 1-0 Bordeaux (a); 0-0 Liverpool (h)

Goals leaders (Europe):
Liverpool: Crouch 4; Garcia 3; Bellamy, Gerrard, Gonzalez 1
PSV: Koné 2; Kromkamp, Simons, Väyrynen 1

European History:
Liverpool: European Cup/Champions League 1977, 1978, 1981, 1984, 2005; UEFA Cup 1973, 1976, 2001; UEFA Super Cup 1977, 2001, 2005
PSV: European Cup/Champions League 1988; UEFA Cup 1978

Referee: Domenico Messina (ITA)

Key players for PSV:
Jefferson Farfan: Peruvian striker who is the top scorer for PSV so far this season, and one of the most prolific strikers in the Eredivisie. Both he and Arouna Koné are dangerously fast forwards who have the ability to punish any defensive mistakes that Liverpool makes.
Phillip Cocu: Cocu is probably the most recognized name on PSV’s teamsheet. The midfielder both starred for the Holland national team and played for Barcelona from ’98-04. Cocu missed the last game against Liverpool, but is expected to return tomorrow, and despite his age (recently turned 36), still makes PSV tick.
Jan Kromkamp: This group has been interesting as it’s seen both Vladi Smicer and recently-transferred Jan Kromkamp return to Anfield. I still think with more time Jan would have settled into the PL and made a decent squad player, unlike some who seemed to actively cheer his exit. However, he’s much more suited to the Dutch league, and has looked far better for PSV than he did at any time last season, even popping up with a goal in PSV’s last Champions League game.

My guess of a lineup:
Finnan Carragher Agger Warnock
Pennant Gerrard Alonso Riise
Crouch Kuyt

Liverpool and PSV have both qualified out of the group already. Both sides have made the usual noises about wanting to finish first and control their own destiny, but it’s always hard to tell how much that means. Of course both will want to win (duh), but more priority will be put on resting players and avoiding suspensions and injuries than if all was still to be decided.

A return to Anfield after three questionable games also brings the squad rotation back into question. We’ve all agreed, Liverpool’s far better at home, and that might come into the equation in giving certain players a rest. For example, Garcia returns from a niggling hamstring injury, and he could go into the squad, as Little Luis loves European nights and given the play from the flanks recently, but it’s more likely he’s feature as a sub.

However, we’ll still probably see (and I hope to see) a mostly full-strength line-up. Liverpool’s still too inconsistent, and the key players need to get a consistent run of games. It’s the best hope of improvement.

I fear to imagine the backlash if Crouch doesn’t start. Now that the press has decided that moving Stevie into the middle isn’t the answer, the next target will be Rafa’s rotation of the forward line. Crouch’s impact at the end of the Middlesbrough game clearly set the stage for this, and while the BBC’s preview claims that Bellamy’s in line for a start, I’d be surprised to not see Crouch and Kuyt paired up top, which was the preferred pairing for the streak of home wins Liverpool went on a few weeks back.

Additionally, while I love John Arne Riise, he’s one of my favorite characters on the team, he’s been skinned far too often, and it’s become obvious Liverpool needs to defend better on the wings. Riise offers far too much to be left on the bench, but this is the reason I’ve included Stevie Warnock in my proposed lineups the last couple of times out. Warnock’s reportedly one of the best tacklers and the toughest players in practice, and I’d like to see him get a run out.

Liverpool needs to reassert itself here. The loss at Arsenal and draw at Boro went a long way towards canceling out the run of five wins that Liverpool went on. Now that Liverpool's back at Anfield for a spell (v PSV, Man City, and Portsmouth), it's time to reestablish the form that had many forgetting about the questionable start to the season and build from there.

Champions League Matchday 5

I need to practice better time management, seeing how it’s less than 2 hours until most of these games begin, and the CSKA Moscow v Porto match has already started. Life lesson, and all…

Predictions in bold.

Tuesday, 21 November 2006:
• CSKA Moscow v FC Porto (12:30pm, Setanta and ESPN Deportes); no prediction, Porto’s currently up 1-0
• AEK Athens v AC Milan (2:45pm); 0-3
• Arsenal v Hamburg (2:45pm Setanta); 2-1
• Benfica v FC Copenhagen (2:45pm, Setanta PPV); 2-0
• Celtic v Man Utd, (2:45pm, espn2); 1-3
• Lille v Anderlecht, (2:45pm); 0-0
• Real Madrid v Lyon (2:45pm, ESPN Deportes); 3-3
• Steaua Bucharest v Dynamo Kiev (2:45pm); 0-1

Wednesday, 22 November 2006
• Bordeaux v Galatasaray (2:45pm); 0-1
• Inter Milan v Sporting Lisbon (2:45pm, Setanta PPV); 2-1
• Levski Sofia v Barcelona (2:45pm, ESPN Deportes); 0-2
• Shakhtar Donetsk v Roma, (2:45pm); 0-2
• Spartak Moscow v Bayern Munich (12:30pm, ESPN Deportes);0-2
• Valencia v Olympiacos (2:45pm); 3-1
• Werder Bremen v Chelsea (2:45pm); 0-2

No espn2 game tomorrow because of college basketball’s Maui Invitational. ESPN’s coverage has gotten far better, but I reiterate, why buy the CL rights if you are going to preempt it every chance you get?

Liverpool/PSV (Wednesday 2:45pm, Setanta) preview in a couple of hours.

20 November 2006

On Freddy Adu...

I prefer to leave MLS commentary to those more capable, but I can’t let the beginning of Freddy Adu’s "trial" at Manchester United pass without a mention.

If the United States wants its national team to succeed at the highest levels, its stars must be playing abroad. Hopefully, in a few years, that won’t be the case anymore. But it is now. Nearly every single nation has its best players plying their trade in Europe, no matter their geographic origin; currently the Premiership has players from Togo, China, Oman, and Chile among others. Perusing Yanks Abroad, the exodus from MLS has increased, and most of the players are better for it. Don't be fooled by the results from the last World Cup, the national team is too.

I’m firmly convinced Freddy Adu is the exception to that rule, at least at this stage. Age is the main factor in the equation. On a personal level, I think he’s still too young to go abroad, end of. He’s only 17; no matter the work permit considerations, just remember yourself at age 17. But it goes farther than that.

There will be an enormous weight on the boy’s shoulders when he goes abroad. He would be the highest profile American ever to play overseas. I fear too much would be expected too soon, and he’ll barely be 18 when the next season starts in Europe. That’s something few 18 year olds would or should be able to bear.

Since the age of 14, Freddy Adu has had “LeBron” levels of hype (if you don't get the reference, lucky you). The fact that soccer remains somewhat of an unknown in America seems to be the only thing keeping Nike from trying to make him a major marketing phenomenon. And I don’t believe he’s ready to live up to the hype that would be created when he goes.

Granted, he’s made great development this season with DC United, more than I thought he would. His talent is obvious, and it’s little wonder that the Uniteds and Chelseas of the world are sniffing around him; especially when you see the money splashed around at Theo Walcott and John Obi Mikel. The trend is long in place where the big clubs get at the prodigies as young as possible, and I’m not surprised Freddy’s fallen in that line. Doesn’t mean I agree with it, mind you.

Not to mention it’s in Freddy’s, and the US’s, best interests to have him seeing regular first-team action. That’s not going to happen at any of the big clubs in Europe. Adu’s development may be shockingly quick, but it’s nowhere near complete. While playing against better competition would help, the most important thing is to be playing regularly. And I’m not counting a youth or reserve side as regular competition.

Also, and I hate to look at it from a commercial angle, but when you see so much gossip about MLS needing a marketable star, and the “Beckham rule” looking to bring its namesake or Luis Figo to these shores, I find it hard to believe MLS is thrilled about the prospect of Adu leaving, especially so soon.

Please stay in MLS, Freddy, because you need it as much as it needs you.

18 November 2006

Liverpool 0-0 Middlesbrough


I don’t know what’s worse. The fact that Liverpool dominated possession but were unable to carve out enough serious chances, which is all too familiar, or the fact that this is an improvement upon recent away games.

The first quarter of the match was unsteady at best. Middlesbrough looked the better side, and Boro nearly opened up Liverpool twice. First, sloppy defending led to Carragher barely tackling the ball away from Yabuku in the box, leading to Boro shouts for a penalty (which it wasn’t). Then, Agger misplayed the offside trap to let Jason Euell in, but he was unable to take advantage.

For basically the rest of the game, Liverpool was far and away superior. Unfortunately, the only thing missing was still the goal. As you'll hear over and over again this week, Liverpool has now gone over 9 hours, since the first game of the season at Sheffield, since scoring away.

Kuyt had the best chance early on, steering the ball wide after Bellamy’s chest down, but like Liverpool, Dirk seems only at his best at Anfield. As usual, he worked his socks off, running after every ball, but the flicks and passes didn’t come off as they usually do, he wasn’t as threatening in front of goal, and it seemed he was too quick to pass the ball back into midfield when he received it with his back to goal.

Crouch came on for Kuyt in the 78th minute, and immediately threatened, with Woodgate’s clearance off the line the sole reason the scoreline ended at 0-0. Which begs the question as to why Benitez didn’t bring him on sooner. My guess is that in the past when Crouch has been brought on as a sub, Liverpool ended up playing Route 1 football, relying solely on long passes to Crouch that finish fruitless, and Benitez wanted to use this only as a last resort. But Peter’s immediate impact, and the trouble that he caused Boro’s backline will lead to a lot of questioning. Especially given that Crouch was so influential in away games last season, and the theory that he was brought to help Liverpool retain possession on the road.

Steven Gerrard made his much ballyhooed return to the center of the park, with little effect. There were flashes of brilliance; most memorable was the picture perfect pass to Bellamy leading to Kuyt’s shot, which really should have led to a goal, but it seemed that he was too deep in midfield to really influence play and was getting the ball too early in the attack.

Right now, Liverpool’s attack is toothless away from home. They were unable to break through Boro’s packed midfield much of the time. When the ball did get out onto the flanks, it seemed that far too often, the crosses were misplayed, especially from Mark Gonzalez. Liverpool had 12 corners (12!), and I can’t remember one decent shot on goal resulting from them. There is too much lateral passing and not enough incisiveness when teams pack the midfield against them, which they always seem to do when Liverpool is away. Too frequently they saw no outlet pass, and sent it back to Reina or a central defender instead of moving up the field.

In addition, Boro did an excellent job defending from the front. Liverpool prefers to build its attack from the back, with the central defenders or Alonso starting the play from their own half, but the Boro front line hassled and harried, and didn’t give the time to carve out openings.

I’ve done more than a fair share of complaining, but there was progress. A clean sheet is progress. Fewer defensive mistakes are progress. But it’s all wiped away when you cannot score. I honestly do not know what the answer is. I’m tempted to believe it’s mostly a lack of confidence, and when the first one goes in it will make a world of difference, but that can’t be the sole factor. The play on the flanks today was not good enough, it’s where a lot of attacks went to die today, and it’s been a problem all year. Gonzalez could not get a decent cross in to save his life, and seemed too quick to fire off an unsuccessful shot instead, but Pennant didn’t have much better luck beating his man on the right. It’s telling that I both yearn for a healthy Harry Kewell, and think that Liverpool could have gotten more out of the right flank with Stevie’s crossing instead of Jermaine’s, but Stevie on the right this year hasn’t been the same as last season’s. Hopefully the far more intelligent football minds on the staff have answers to these problems, because I’ve none.

So yes, all in all, frustrating sums it up nicely.

17 November 2006

Liverpool at Middlesbrough 11.18.06

12:15pm. Available in the US on Fox Soccer Channel.

Liverpool: 9th place; 17 points out of 12 games
Middlesbrough: 13th place; 14 points out of 12 games

Last 4 meetings:
2-0 Liverpool (h) 12.10.05
0-0 (a) 08.13.05
1-1 (h) 04.30.05
0-2 Boro (a) 11.20.04

Last 3 games:
Liverpool: 0-3 Arsenal (a); Birmingham 1-0 (a); Reading 2-0 (h)
Middlesbrough: 1-0 West Ham (h); 0-2 Watford (a); 0-1 Man City (a)

Goalscorers (league):
Liverpool: Kuyt 5; Crouch 2; Agger, Alonso, Bellamy, Fowler, Garcia, Gonzalez, Riise 1
Middlesbrough: Yakubu 4; Viduka 2; Downing, Maccarone, Morrison, Pogatetz 1

Referee: Lee Mason

The squad I’d like to see:
Finnan, Carragher, Agger, Warnock
Garcia, Gerrard, Alonso, Riise
Kuyt, Bellamy

I think everyone’s going to get their wish, and as I said last weekend, Steven Gerrard seems likely to start in the center. The press has already begun the celebrations, and I believe there will be a parade through London Sunday to commemorate the event.

Playing Gerrard in the center tomorrow makes sense, much more so than in the last game. Middlesbrough is nowhere near as dangerous as Arsenal through the middle, will probably play a 4-5-1 formation with only Yakubu up top, and derives most of its attack from Downing and Morrison on the flanks. Unlike against teams like say, Arsenal, I don’t think Middlesbrough will be able to exploit the gaps in the middle that Stevie will leave when he pushes forward or roams in a freer role, as he is wont to do; the same gaps that Sissoko is usually in there to seal.

As much as I cheerlead for the Kuyt/Crouch pairing, I think this is a perfect opportunity for Bellamy to get a start and further boost his confidence. He played very well and got a goal during Wales’ midweek game, and will be looking to continue that form. His speed and intelligent runs should cause bags of problems for Woodgate and Huth in Boro’s back line, and on paper, a partnership between Bellamy and Kuyt should disturb that defense all day long.

It’s time for Liverpool to get back on track, and prove that they can win away from Anfield. They couldn’t have asked for a better fixture in which to do so. The Riverside hasn’t been the best venue for Liverpool, with no goals there since 2002, but inconsistency has been the rule for Boro so far this season. With the talent in the squad, and with the need to prove a point, Liverpool should be able to take advantage of their weaknesses, and hopefully go some way in ending the negativity surrounding the team.

Ferenc Puskas

RIP Ferenc Puskas, one of the best that ever played the game. Pity it's so hard to find video of those days.

BBC Obituary
BBC: Contemporaries on Puskas
Goal v England, 1954
Other Youtube goals
Wikipedia biography

Premiership Predictions 11.18-11.19

Manchester City v Fulham (7:45am, Setanta): City’s been far better at home than away this season, and they deserved more than a draw from last week’s match against Newcastle. But I’ve been more than impressed with Chris Coleman’s Fulham side, especially their improvement on the road, and look for them to frustrate City tomorrow. 1-1

Sheffield Utd v Manchester Utd (10am, FSC): I keep predicting losses for Sheffield United while mentioning I think they’ll be relegated, and they continue to work hard and get results, with a draw against Bolton and a win over Newcastle in their last two matches. The run ends here, up against the most in-form team (sigh) in the League. 3-1 Man Utd

Chelsea v West Ham (10am, Setanta): I’m holding out hope that West Ham can repeat the success of the last London derby (1-0 over the Arse), but I certainly wouldn’t put money on it. It’s dependant on other results, but a loss here could send the Hammers back into the drop zone. 2-0 Chelsea

Arsenal v Newcastle (10am, Setanta Xtra): Life’s not getting any easier for the Geordies. Winless in their last 8 in the Prem, they travel to Arsenal, who are coming off an absolute demolishment of Liverpool. I’m predicting 3-0 simply because it’ll completely frustrate me if Newcastle gets a better result at the Emirates than the Reds did. 3-0 Arse

Everton v Bolton (10am): Everton is going to sincerely miss Tim Cahill over the next 6-8 weeks. They’re now completely reliant on Andy Johnson for goals. Bolton will look to reassert themselves after disappointing performances against Sheffield, Wigan, and Charlton. Chances are, this won’t be a demonstration of “the beautiful game.” 1-0 Bolton

Portsmouth v Watford (10am): Aidy Boothroyd’s done very well with a Watford side that wasn’t even expected to be promoted, but they’ll rue the loss of main goal-threat Marlon King (out for the rest of the season), and Fratton Park has become a very difficult place to play away. 2-1 Portsmouth

Reading v Charlton (10am): A new manager isn’t going to stop the bleeding at the Valley. Les Reed's managerial brief is solely focused on keeping Charlton above the relegation zone. My suspicion is he won’t be successful. 1-0 Reading

Blackburn v Tottenham (8:30am Sunday, Setanta): Two weeks ago, Tottenham looked to have turned a corner with a hard-fought 2-1 win over Chelsea. But they were completely unable to capitalize on this, with Reading coming back from a goal down to beat Spurs 3-1 the next week. While Blackburn hasn’t played well of late either, I have a feeling Tottenham’s going to be further frustrated during their visit to Ewood Park. By the way, I’ve been quite impressed with how Benni McCarthy has settled into the league.1-0 Blackburn

Wigan v Aston Villa (11am Sunday, FSC): Wigan’s four-game win streak versus Villa’s recent drop in form (since the loss of Luke Moore, honestly). No matter, I still fancy Villa to take this, I think the speed of Agbonlahor, plus the return to fitness for Gareth Barry, will be too much for Wigan to handle. 2-1 Villa

Liverpool v Boro (12:15pm Saturday, FSC) preview later.

16 November 2006

Assorted Fun

Okay, I was planning on doing a roundup of all Liverpool players in action yesterday in the European qualifying and friendly matches. The official site beat me to it.

In lieu of this, I’ll point you to a couple of things around the soccer blogosphere that I’ve found interesting recently. And I’ll apologize for the lack of words on my end; don’t fear, I’ll return to my usual, excessively verbose self by the weekend.

EPL Talk, an excellent site with an excellent blog and podcast, is making the trip across the pond to see 4 games, highlighted by Manchester United at Chelsea. Not content to simply write about the experience, the Gaffer will be uploading tons of photos, and doing frequent podcasts from England, all in the hopes of showing American fans the experience of live Premier League soccer. Fantastic idea.

One thing I found fascinating in the build-up of this trip is the Gaffer’s difficulty in obtaining Liverpool tickets. Local Liverpool fans complain about troubles obtaining tickets (and rightfully so), but I can personally attest how difficult is it for visitors to get to games at Anfield. Despite living in England for over 6 months, the only time I was able to see Liverpool play was at Upton Park. The fancard process does not work unless you live in the area, and/or attend a number of games. The fact remains there’s simply not enough seats at Anfield to satisfy everyone. This is a roundabout way of saying it, mostly in the hopes of avoiding all the sentimentality surrounding the debate, but it’s simply another example of the need for a new stadium with a greater capacity.

• I’m bad at keeping completely up to date on the MLS, and it shows in the content I put up here, but the MLS Cup that took place over the weekend is worth mentioning. Which is why it’s nice that du Nord, the New England Revolution blog My Very Brain, and The Dcenters have it more than adequately covered.

• Soccernista goes some way in explaining why many, like I, are so bad about following the MLS. First, the MLS institutes the so-called “Beckham rule,” in an attempt to get star players on this side of the ocean. And it appears its first use will be to sign the long-past it Luis Figo, who’s looking for a last big payday and won’t get it from many other places.

•Meanwhile, in Liverpool news, the doctors are claiming Momo Sissoko’s operation was a success, and we’ll know the exact time-table for his return in a few days

15 November 2006

Compare and Contrast

Okay, remind me again, which player has been at Liverpool for over 5 years, and which is in his second season?

Reina: We have to keep fighting
"Fourth place is our target now, we have to fight for that. The Championship is probably too far away for us because mathematically Manchester United and Chelsea are very superior.

"We have a lot of confidence in Europe and that is a target as well. We are probably a better team in the Champions League than in the Premiership."

Riise: We're not giving up
"We never give up. Cowards give up," said the Norwegian left-back.

"Of course it will be hard to catch up with Manchester United, but at one point last season we were 27 points behind Chelsea, and in May we were only nine points behind."

This isn't a potshot, mind you. Just saying...

14 November 2006

England v Holland 11.15.06

No midweek club fixtures this week, as we’ve fallen face first into another international break.

In lieu of further complaining about midseason international fixtures, I’ll simply point to other articles that are assuredly of higher quality.

I will say this, however. I am quite pleased that Micah Richards and Andy Johnson are starting. I’m intrigued by the possible pairing of Johnson and Rooney, and it has the added bonus of frustrating Everton fans who will wonder what could have been.

In the case of Richards, this is exactly how international friendlies should be treated; giving quality youngsters that chance to show what they can do for England. In fact, I’m not sure why so many England regulars are starting. Why aren’t we seeing, say, Scott Carson, Michael Dawson or any others along those lines? Do Terry, Ferdinand, Cole, Cole, Gerrard, Lampard and Rooney all really need to be risked in a friendly against Holland?

Anyway, on to some links…

BBC team news/preview
BBC Sport 606: Friendly under fire
Football 365: England enigma needs variation
Goal.com preview
Guardian: Kevin McCarra on Steve McClaren
Guardian: Why Robinson is under the cosh
SoccerLens preview

13 November 2006

The race is over

And Iain Dowie is your winner. Congrats, Iain.

Charlton part company with Dowie

Charlton have announced that manager Iain Dowie has left the club.

Dowie took over from long-standing boss Alan Curbishley at the start of the season and has only been in charge for 12 Premiership games.

But the Addicks have only won two league matches and are currently bottom of the table with eight points.

The former Crystal Palace boss did lead Charlton to the Carling Cup quarter-final last week but it was not enough to save his job.

The club said on their website that they would make a full statement on Tuesday morning.

Dowie is the first Premiership manager to lose his job this season.
Stuart Pearce, Gareth Southgate, and Glenn Roeder's days were just made that much brighter. There's still ages of time left though.

Simon Jordan's also having a laugh, I'm sure.

Oh captain, my captain...

I’m sick of reading nonsense, and the only real reason I’m adding to it is because I’m partly guilty as well. All I’ve read since yesterday’s game is complaints about Steven Gerrard and about where he’s being played, and it’s gone past honest discussion over the team and the tactics and into the realm of personal attacks.

First, his position. It was odd to see reservations about him playing on the wing earlier in the season, as he played mostly on the right last season, scored 23 goals, and was named player of the season by the fans. People expected more from Pennant due to the sum paid for him, but as Rafa would say, his signing was all about adding “possibilities.” Alonso and Sissoko are clearly Rafa’s preferred central midfield, especially in games like Arsenal away, because of the roles he asks of them. Sissoko is there to break up play, and Alonso is there to open up the game with his passing. Benitez derives more of his attack from the wingers: ideally, the pace, trickery, and shooting of players like Kewell, Garcia, and Gonzalez, and the overlap given by Finnan and Riise. Which is why it’s made sense to put Gerrard on the right, even though he has basically a free role when Liverpool’s at their best.

Momo’s injury has created a conundrum. On paper, it appears Stevie should be moved to the center, with Garcia or Pennant taking his place on the right. I still don’t know if this would have been the best plan against Arsenal. Zenden’s role in the center was largely restricted on Sunday. He played the same position Momo would have, and I believe it’s a position that would have limited Gerrard. I wasn’t surprised with the line-up that went out at Arsenal; it was consistent with Rafa’s philosophy, especially this season. It was a safe line-up, with the two central midfielders sitting deeper than Gerrard likes to. There are always questions when the plan doesn’t work, which it obviously didn’t yesterday.

Say Gerrard plays in the center, and Arsenal still gets 2 or 3 goals from defensive lapses. What is said then? Does Liverpool get beaten more often down the right flank because Pennant’s not as good defensively? Is Gerrard effective enough playing a mainly defensive role in the middle? Does Liverpool play a completely different way all together to suit him? What if Crouch gets back onsides for the disallowed goal, or Arsenal doesn’t get a goal before the end of the first half; it certainly could have changed the final outcome. That’s soccer.

I still think we’ll see a lot of Gerrard in the center against weaker opposition during Momo’s absence. In fact, I expect he and Alonso will start as the central pairing against Middlesbrough Saturday, when Liverpool will look to control more of the game, and offer more in attack, because, honestly, Boro’s nowhere near the threat on the counter that Arsenal is. No more, no less. Unfortunately, the media will see this as an affirmation of their questioning of Liverpool’s tactics; I think it would have been the plan whether they won or lost at Arsenal.

Second, the attacks on Gerrard himself. Yes, it’s seemed he’s put his head down quicker when the going gets tough this season, and seemed he’s more prone to snap at teammates. He’s going through a tough spell at the moment, but it’s not as if he’s the only one.

I don’t claim to know all the hot gossip; it’s nice, but weird, living on the other side of the ocean. You vaguely get the rumors thanks to the internet, and don’t have to deal with a lot of the impulsive moaning if you don’t want to, but don’t get nearly all the salacious details and “inside information.”

Gerrard is the captain. Gerrard not being the captain isn’t an option. While I’ll admit (and this is as far as I’m willing to go) there may be players I consider better suited to be captain in an ideal world, as it stands, Gerrard should be the captain. He still can be the most influential player, can still be one of the best midfielders in the world, and is the most likely to grab the game by the scruff of the neck when needed. Olympiakos, AC Milan, West Ham. Take the armband off him now? To teach him a lesson? When he’s already prone to sulking and the media is looking for a reason to start Lokomotiv London or Real Madrid transfer rumors? Come on now.

This is Liverpool. Remember how pleased everyone was last season when Crouch was supported during his long goal drought, despite whatever anyone wrote about him when he played for Liverpool or England, and finally came good? No one complains about his goal scoring record now, and he’s something of a cult hero for the national team. And now it seems some are lining up to take shots at Steven Gerrard. Steven Gerrard?

Honest criticism is fair, warranted, and expected, but I’m of the opinion there’s no one removed from criticism following the yesterday’s game, and it's counter-productive to focus on one player's performance. Gerrard not only seems to be singled out, but unfairly so, with far too many complaints not focused on his actual performance. I get too worked up over the media and anonymous complaints over the internet, to be sure. But I can’t believe some people are even having this discussion.

12 November 2006

Liverpool 0-3 Arsenal

The scoreline says enough, but I’ll indulge in masochistic tendencies and add more. These are the times I absolutely detest writing reviews, but I feel duty bound. It’s not all sing when you’re winning, you know.

Arsenal well deserved the three points today. I don’t know how else to say it. Liverpool simply was not good enough to compete today.

I understand what Liverpool is trying to accomplish; the team, aside from Garcia failing a late fitness test, lined up as I had hoped. Two strikers up top, the preferred back four, Zenden in the center to stifle Fabregas and Arsenal’s play through the middle, and pace on the flanks in Gonzalez and Gerrard, with Gerrard seemingly given license to roam.

Pity it didn’t work out at all. Well, that’s not fair. For the first 40 minutes, the game went according to plan. It was evenly contested; Liverpool never seriously threatened, but neither did Arsenal. The two goals chalked off (and rightfully so) were the only real opportunities either side had. Arsenal had more possession, but that had to be expected at the Emirates. Had the game stayed at 0-0, I would have been very happy going into halftime.

It all changed with Flamini’s goal in the 41st minute, and it was the type of goal that Liverpool should have feared. Arsenal broke into space on the counter-attack; Hleb (who was easily Arsenal’s best player in the first half) found Fabregas, who had enough room to get it to Flamini with the goal at his mercy. Liverpool had to be tight defensively today, and the one time they fell asleep on the counter, they were beaten.

The second goal ended the game. Again, defensive mistakes led to Toure one-on-one with the goalkeeper, opened up by van Persie’s clever pass, and the defender did not err. The third goal was comical, as Gallas had an absolutely free header from a corner, which was the icing on the cake. Just to add to the criticism of Liverpool’s lifeless performance, now the zonal marking can be questioned as well.

Might as well spell out my biggest concerns. Liverpool clearly missed Sissoko. Zenden wasn’t as awful as he’ll be made out to be, but Bolo isn't Momo and yet he was still asked to do the exact same job. The defending down the left was shocking; Hleb skinned Riise and Gonzalez for fun. Stevie’s head went down too quickly after Arsenal’s first goal, and wasn’t able to pull Liverpool back in the game even when he moved back into his preferred position. It may be unfair to single people out, because no one had a good game today, but these three things simply stood out.

I often say that I hate questioning the manager when Liverpool loses, but the tactics did not work today. It feels odd criticizing the performance when the team and tactics turned out how I had hoped, but maybe I don’t know anything. It seems Liverpool is still progressing, and the team continues to play more and more like Rafa’s “crushing machine” at Valencia. It just isn’t working away in the Premiership, and they seem unable to deviate from that plan. When Arsenal got their first and second goals, Liverpool had no reply, and the changes in the second half, with Gerrard moving into the center and Zenden out to the wing, and the addition of Bellamy simply seemed to further unbalance the team, and heads went further down.

This is sounding far too much like a “goodbye, cruel world” commentary. It’s November. Arsenal was very good today, and they have the talent to take these opportunities when given them. Obviously, Liverpool doesn’t have enough in its locker right now to win the title, but it’s our own fault as fans and commentators for expecting and promoting the idea this early in the season, especially when the manager is still molding his team. We created the hype, not the players and not the manager.

I’m disappointed, but despite this setback, I still have faith in the gaffer, and believe the team can and will improve. The away form must, must, must get better, but the team has the talent to make it come good. The pundits who said that Liverpool hadn’t turned a corner were seemingly right, but I will continue to note how early it is in the season and the building process. I don’t think all is lost, I don’t think the team’s completely off the plot, and I do still see some progress, even in a game as bad as this. As a fan, you simply have to believe unless there’s no point in believing, and we’re certainly not there by any stretch. Hopefully the team will respond in the manner they have to: identify why the plan failed, do what you must to improve, and look forward to the next game.

Roll on Middlesbrough.

11 November 2006

Liverpool at Arsenal 11.12.06

11am. Available in the US on Fox Soccer Channel.

Liverpool: 9th place; 17 points out of 11 games
Arsenal: 6th place; 18 points out of 10 games

Last 4 meetings:
2-1 Arsenal (a) 03.11.06
1-0 Liverpool (h) 02.14.06
3-1 Arsenal (a) 05.08.05
2-1 Liverpool (h) 11.28.04

Last 3 games:
Liverpool: Birmingham 1-0 (a); Reading 2-0 (h); 3-0 Bordeaux (h)
Arsenal: Everton 1-0 (a); 0-1 West Ham (a); 0-0 CSKA Moscow (h)

Goalscorers (league):
Liverpool: Kuyt 5; Crouch 2; Agger, Alonso, Bellamy, Fowler, Garcia, Gonzalez, Riise 1
Arsenal: Henry 5; Van Persie 4; Adebayor 2; Gallas, Gilberto, Hleb 1

Referee: Mark Clattenburg

The squad I’d like to see:
Finnan, Carragher, Hyypia, Riise
Garcia, Gerrard, Alonso, Zenden
Crouch, Kuyt

The midfield could see Zenden, Garcia or Gerrard on the right or left, and/or either Bolo or Stevie replacing Sissoko in the center. Probably all of the above at different stages of the game; I hope to see a fluid, attacking midfield. The only one whose position we can be sure of is Alonso, as always.

Momo Sissoko will be dearly missed. He was out for last year’s game at Highbury, and Arsenal dominated possession and won the game. At Anfield, he was able to break up play, as he is wont to do, and prevent Arsenal from controlling the tempo, as they are wont to do, rendering Fabregas particularly ineffective.

Due to this, I have a suspicion that Liverpool might play five across the midfield, and hope to stifle the Arse that way. Honestly, while I’m not one to second-guess the manager, I sincerely hope it doesn’t play out that way. Liverpool’s played their best football over the past month in a fairly standard 4-4-2 formation. Now that they’ve figured out their most productive system, even if there’s still too much rotation for the media, I don’t want to see Liverpool deviate in trying to out-think Arsenal.

I understand why Benitez, and many other managers, favor a packed midfield away from home, but remembering recent visits to Highbury, I don’t think Liverpool can win by carving out a few chances against the run of play, which seems to happen when Liverpool plays only one up top. Games at Arsenal always seem to end up frustrating. Liverpool will need goals to win this game, or even earn a draw. I’ve been pleased with how the defense is regaining form, and cutting out some of the silly mistakes that plagued at the beginning of the season, but this usually is one of those games where keeping a clean sheet never seems to happen, no matter how well the defense is playing.

I firmly believe that Liverpool needs to take the game to Arsenal. The Gunners home form at the new Emirates Stadium isn’t spectacular, 4 wins and 4 draws. When Arsenal controls possession and the tempo, they will hurt you; there aren’t many games like the 0-0 draw they had at CSKA Moscow where they dominated, but nothing went in. Liverpool’s best option is seemingly to keep the ball away from them, and keep attacking their goal.

10 November 2006

Premiership Prediction Party 11.11-11.12

Manchester City v Newcastle (7:45am Setanta): City’s been inconsistent at best at home. Newcastle’s just been consistently awful in the league. This will probably be a close one; the question is whether it’s going to be close at something like 3-2 or 0-0. My suspicion is it’ll be the latter. 0-0

Chelsea v Watford (10am Setanta): I feel sorry for Watford. They just got their first win of the Premier League campaign last weekend, and now they’re up against Chelsea, who will be looking to avenge the surprise 2-1 loss to Tottenham last Sunday. Watford will be no match for a rampant Chelsea, especially at Stamford Bridge. 3-0 Chelsea

Everton v Aston Villa (10am FSC): I have a sneaking suspicion we’ll see amends made for all the talk of Andy Johnson being conspired against. For some reason, I’m certain Everton will get at least one key decision as some sort of karmic retribution. Or because the referee will be under orders to give them the benefit of the doubt thanks to Graham Poll screwing the pooch during the midweek Carling Cup tie against Arsenal. 1-0 Everton

Middlesbrough v West Ham (10am Setanta Xtra): Middlesbrough, while utterly disappointing, has been better at home than away. I hesitate to use the term “better” when talking about Boro, but they did beat Chelsea at the Riverside, which will continue to be Gareth Southgate’s claim to fame all season. But I can’t go against West Ham here, which is on somewhat of a resurgence, having picked up good wins against Blackburn and Arsenal in the last two games. 2-1 West Ham

Portsmouth v Fulham (10am): Fulham may have won at Everton last weekend, but I still have doubts over their away form. It really is a pity Jimmy Bullard’s lost for the season, because with Fulham’s improvement, Bullard could have made them a real threat. But I expect Portsmouth, which has also been pleasantly surprising, to return to winning ways. 2-1 Portsmouth

Sheffield United v Bolton (10am): No offense to Sheffield, which deservedly picked up its first win of the season last week at Newcastle, but the Geordies really should have done better. While I like Neil Warnock, as I have a soft spot for managers who’ll say exactly what they’re thinking, I still feel United is the weakest of the three promoted teams, and Bolton should be far too much for them. Especially a Bolton team that needs a win after home losses against Manchester United and Wigan. 2-0 Bolton

Wigan v Charlton (10am): With the way US television coverage usually is, I’m surprised this or the Bolton/Sheffield game isn’t the one on air. I firmly believe that Wigan is the superior team, and suspect that Charlton will have a tough time avoiding relegation, but we’re probably going to be treated to a draw, as Darren Bent always seems to sneak a goal in. 1-1

Blackburn v Manchester United (12:15pm FSC): Blackburn did the double over United last season, but I can’t see history repeating itself here. Not only is United one of the hottest teams in the league right now, but Ferguson will have screamed the paint off the walls, with his face redder than usual, after the mid-week loss to Championship strugglers Southend in the Carling Cup. 2-0 United

Reading v Tottenham (8:30am Sunday, Setanta): The last few weeks have not been good for Reading. After starting well in the league, they’re on a four-game losing streak. They’ve struggled with injuries to their small squad, the most significant being American Bobby Convey out indefinitely with a knee problem. Tottenham, on the other hand, is coming off their biggest win of the season away at Chelsea, and looks to be starting to play as the pundits expected. And yet, I don’t think they’re going to be pleased with this result; I expect to see the Spurs we saw earlier in the year, and a determined display from Reading. 1-1

Liverpool v Arsenal (11am Sunday, FSC) preview up sometime tomorrow.

09 November 2006

Liverpool News and Notes

Sissoko set to miss 3 months. Not. Good. I said a bit about this last night, and I’ll have more to say over the weekend about the impact this will have on the Arsenal game. I’m having a hard time coming to terms with 3 months. That means we won’t see Momo until February at the earliest. The only game Liverpool has against the ‘big 3’ over that period is Chelsea at home in January, and the Champions League knockout round doesn’t begin until late February, but this is still a massive, massive blow. He will definitely be out for the remainder of the League Cup and approximately 15 or so Premiership games by my count (about a 1/3 of the season), at the least.

With Hamann in the team, Liverpool would have a ready-made replacement, but now Liverpool will be heavily reliant on Bolo Zenden. Maybe Zenden will improve with more playing time; he was a lot better yesterday versus Birmingham, but playing well against a second-string Championship side isn’t the reassurance I’m looking for. I don’t reckon Rafa will frequently use Gerrard and Alonso together in the center unless they really impress or he really must.

Liverpool dismiss Benitez report. Evidently Rafa’s agent claimed that Benitez wants to manage in Italy, and would leave Liverpool to do so. That’s bad enough, and almost assuredly bollocks, but can someone explain to me why he’s telling this to The ***? Agents may do this all the time, and while it bothers me that the club is forced to come out every month or so and deny that their manager is going to Madrid or Italy, it’s par for the course when you have one of the best managers in the world. But his agent giving those quotes to THAT paper? Learn your history, Manuel.

Ipswich want Danny Guthrie on loan. I’d be surprised if this happens. Not only does the Sissoko injury leave Liverpool lighter in central midfield, but Guthrie has begun to get games in the Carling Cup, which is usually the first step towards breaking into Benitez’s plans. Of course, at age 18 (whoops, 19), more first team football would help his development, but I find it hard to believe that Rafa would want him to go or that Guthrie would spurn an opportunity for more playing time at Liverpool.

Daily Mirror claims Liverpool in for Valencia goalkeeper. Ah, the Mirror. Must be a slow news day. Liverpool seemingly can’t get enough keepers, with Reina, Dudek, Carson, David Martin, and David Roberts on the roster. News flash: Liverpool isn’t selling Reina. It’s not as if Benitez has lost faith in him, nor is it as if Rafa has a reason to lose faith in him. And Pepe’s the same age as this mystery keeper. More nonsense, what is it with today’s papers? I’ve never heard of Butelle, does anyone know who he is?

Liverpool v Birmingham, the day after

Official Site: Match Analysis
Official Site: Rafa Interview
Official Site: Agger Interview
BBC write-up, with link to audio from Steve Bruce
BBC: Sissoko injury report
Guardian: Match write-up
The Times: Match write-up
Daily Telegraph: Match write-up
The Independent: Match write-up
Eurosport minute-by-minute (no stats for league cup)
Sky Sports: Match write-up
Youtube video of the goal
RAWK Post-match thread

08 November 2006

Liverpool 1-0 Birmingham

No matter the scoreline, the main news of the match is the injury to Momo Sissoko. A tackle by Nafti (who could have been given a straight red for his challenge on Zenden earlier) left Momo lying on the ground for over 5 minutes, and he left strapped to a stretcher with his arm strapped to his chest. According to the team, he has a dislocated shoulder, and it will depend on the extent of the ligament damage as to how long he’ll be out.

Other than the injury, the first half was fairly uneventful until Agger broke the deadlock during the extended injury time at the end of the half, hammering home after a scramble from a corner. Birmingham did have a couple of chances in the earlier on, with a nice save from Dudek keeping the game at 0-0, and Liverpool was fairly lackluster. A 0-0 scoreline at the half would have been fair to either team, but Liverpool was able to take advantage of an opportunity.

While the first half was mostly disappointing, there are three things that were quite encouraging about the late goal. It was Pennant’s corner that led to the goal, which is reassuring because of Jermaine’s iffy form so far this season. It still wasn’t his best game, he still only showed flashes of what’s he’s capable of, but he’s making strides. His delivery on corners has been one of his better attributes, and to contribute to a goal against your old team has to be a lift.

It’s also good to see Liverpool score from a corner, and it seems that the team is making better use of deadball situations, which is necessary to get the needed improvement in the goal totals.

Finally, it was fitting Agger got the goal. He was easily the best player in the first half; along with Paletta and a great save by Dudek, he was a big reason that Birmingham was held scoreless. Again he shows the power he has in his shot. It wasn’t West Ham, but it was a good strike, especially for a defender. If he continues to improve his defending to go along with his passing, ability to bring the ball upfield, and ability to pop up with a goal now and then, he’ll more than justify the £5.8m Rafa paid for him.

The second half started as quietly as the first half, until Gonzalez’s excellent run led to a penalty after being brought down by Jaidi. Surprisingly, Bellamy stepped up to take it. I would have expected that Fowler, who’s been on penalty duty when he’s playing, would’ve taken it, but at this stage of his career, when Craig demands to take it, Robbie will step aside I reckon. Much like Crouch against Portsmouth last year, Bellamy tried too hard to break a goal drought, and had his penalty easily saved. I hope the fans stay behind him, and get him through this stretch as they did with Crouchy last year, but Craig wasn’t good today. Ran smartly and well, and worked hard, but utterly off in front of goal. He’ll find his feet, but he’s not looking likely to break up the Kuyt/Crouch pairing.

Kuyt came on for Fowler in the 72nd minute. He wasn’t able to add much, as Liverpool didn’t offer much. The win was pretty much assured by Dudek, who had a couple of good saves in the last 20 minutes. It was nice to see Jerzy play well in his first start of the season, especially considering his past inconsistency. I don’t enjoy these nail biters, where Liverpool fails to find a second goal and ends up under pressure to finish the game, but for some reason, it never felt as if Liverpool would let one in.

Maybe it’s because Dudek, Agger, and Paletta all had excellent games. But I suspect it might be because I care far less about the win than I do about the loss of Sissoko. I sincerely hope his absence doesn’t affect the progress the team has made over the past couple of weeks. Not only is Momo essential to the team with his energy and knack for breaking up play, the upcoming Arsenal game is crying out for his presence. He will be sincerely missed on Sunday, more so than he would be in most other games. Zenden played better in the center today than he had all season, looking more confident, tackling better, and smarter going forward. Hopefully, he’ll be able to step in and partly fill the void left by the injury, but I’ll be far happier when Momo returns.

5th round draw takes place Saturday before the Premiership games.

Liverpool: Dudek; Peltier, Agger, Paletta, Warnock; Pennant, Sissoko (Alonso 26’), Zenden, Gonzalez; Fowler (Kuyt 72’), Bellamy (Guthrie 88’)

Goals: Agger 45+5’

MOM: Dudek (could have been Agger or Zenden as well)

Liverpool at Birmingham 11.08.06

4th round of the Carling Cup. 3pm Wednesday. Available in the US on Setanta Sports

Birmingham currently sits 4th in the Championship.

Carling Cup results:
Liverpool: 4-3 Reading (h)
Birmingham: 4-2 Sheffield Utd (a); 4-1 Wrexham (h); 1-0 Shrewsbury Town (h)

Last 3 matches:
Liverpool: 2-0 Reading (h); 3-0 Bordeaux (h); 3-1 Villa (h)
Birmingham: 1-0 Plymouth (a); 1-0 Coventry (a); 2-0 West Brom (h)

Squad list, according to the BBC:
Liverpool (from): Dudek, Finnan, Peltier, Carragher, Agger, Paletta, Aurelio, Gerrard, Alonso, Sissoko, Bellamy, Fowler, Kuyt, Crouch, Gonzalez, Warnock, Zenden, Martin, Pennant, Alonso.

Guess of a lineup:
Peltier Carragher Agger Warnock
Gerrard Sissoko Alonso Gonzalez
Kuyt Crouch

Once again, I’m clueless as to whether Benitez will give the kids/reserves another Carling Cup opportunity, or if he’ll use this game as a chance to further settle the first team before Sunday’s game at Arsenal. I’d like to think that he’ll stick to his guns and continue to use the earlier rounds of the tournament to give experience to youngsters and to rest star players, but I’m far less sure than in the last round.

After starting to find their feet while on a 4 game home stand, Liverpool travels to St Andrews to start 3 matches away from home. It is absolutely imperative that Liverpool translates their excellent home form to the road. Only after this extended away trip will we know how capable this team really is, as Liverpool under Benitez has consistently been good at Anfield.

I don’t know whether to be pleased that this is the first match of the away games. On the one hand, it should be easier to replicate their form on a lesser stage, in a League Cup match, against a lower division side. However, does it really count if Rafa chops and changes, and the team sent out to face Birmingham is similar to the team that faced Reading in the last round?

No matter whom Rafa rotates in or out, I want to continue to see the pairing of Crouch and Kuyt up top. Fowler does deserve to play, and only Ian Rush has scored more League Cup goals than Robbie. But the pairing of Kuyt and Crouch has almost shown too much promise. No matter the health of Bellamy or Fowler, and no matter whom Liverpool is up against, I want to see Kuyt and Crouch start every game if they’re available. I really do think the pairing has that much promise.

Birmingham is on a run themselves of late. After a tricky start to the season, where manager Steve Bruce was again under fire (as he was at the end of last season), Birmingham has won 5 in a row. They will be looking not only to continue that streak, but to also claim another Premier League scalp (after beating Sheffield United in the last round) and make amends for last season’s FA Cup debacle against Liverpool. The Carling Cup is pretty low on my list of priorities for this season, but Liverpool has an opportunity to continue to cement their good run and to prove to some doubters that they are capable of playing the soccer we expect from Liverpool away from Anfield.

06 November 2006

Rebirth of Slick

Two of the biggest disappointments of the season so far have been two underachieving London teams. Tottenham and West Ham were both supposed to improve on the excellent seasons they had last year, and yet, as of last week, both sat in the bottom third of the league table.

Tottenham was unlucky to finish fifth last season, beaten to fourth place on the last day under what Spurs considers dubious circumstances by Arsenal. West Ham, widely thought likely to drop back down to the Championship, finished 9th and made it to the FA Cup Final. Both were expected to compete for European places this season; Tottenham could and should have qualified for the Champions League last season and only seemingly improved over the off-season, and West Ham, especially after signing Argentinean wunderkinds Tevez and Mascherano, looked likely to compete for a top six place as well.

However, both teams had probably the worst start to the season they could have imagined. Despite spending £10m+ on Dimitar Berbatov, while already having Jermain Defoe and Robbie Keane on the roster, Tottenham scored 2 league goals in all of August and September. West Ham’s troubles started before the campaign with the loss of Dean Ashton, but the signings of Tevez and Mascherano only further upset the balance of the team, and they went on to lose 6 of their first 9 games. Neither side looked capable of repeating last season’s accomplishments. Neither even looked capable of finishing in the top half of the table.

That all seemingly changed Saturday and Sunday. Both Tottenham and West Ham were expected to lose heavily in games against Chelsea and Arsenal respectively. West Ham beat Arsenal 1-0, thanks to a last minute goal from Marlon Harewood after a cagey match where the Hammers did well to keep the Gunners off the scoresheet. Tottenham, who hadn’t beaten Chelsea in the league since 1990, came back to win 2-1 after going a goal down in the first 15 minutes. Spurs were especially impressive, playing their best game of the season by far; Lennon, Keane and King were all simply outstanding. Beating Arsenal or Chelsea is always an accomplishment, for any team. It’s multiplied by the fact that neither Tottenham nor West Ham had looked coherent, disciplined, or capable of beating the best teams in the league until last weekend.

The next month will be crucial for both sides, and where we really find out if they’ve solved some of their problems.

Tottenham: Reading (a), Blackburn (a), Wigan (h), Arsenal (a)
West Ham: Boro (a), Chelsea (a), Sheffield (h), Everton (a)

Both teams will look at that schedule and see games they should be winning. But both have some tough trips coming up. West Ham’s game against Chelsea and Tottenham’s against Arsenal will be where we can truly see if these teams have turned a corner, or if their big wins were simply out of the ordinary upsets.

Maybe I am reading too much into last weekend. Both Tottenham and West Ham were at home. London derbies are always contentious, and frequently have surprising results. Arsenal, while more impressive recently than at the start the season, has still been wasteful in front of goal. Chelsea has already been beaten once this season, at Boro, in a similar fashion to the loss at White Hart Lane; they went up a goal early, but ended up losing 2-1.

The true test will be if they can continue to progress over the next month. But both camps will undoubtedly be happy at the improvement their teams displayed in two of the toughest matches they’ll face all season.