31 December 2007

Midseason Review Part I

The more I think about it, the less I want to do an over-arching review of the season so far. I still maintain that by January the table doesn’t really lie, but there are still 19 more games to be played, and I’m not writing any requiems just yet.

This’ll be a two-parter. First, I’d like to point out some comparisons between the last two seasons. Later this week (most likely after the Wigan game) will be the mid-season “awards”/player ratings (I haven’t quite decided the format).

All of these stats are for the Premiership only. All of the preseason talk was on the importance of the league, and at the least, I want to point out where there’s been improvement (and where there hasn’t).

Points total after 19 games:
07/08: 37
06/07: 34

Results over 19 games:
07/08: 10 wins, 7 draws, 2 losses
06/07: 10 wins, 4 draws, 5 losses

League position after 19 games:
07/08: 4th place
06/07: 3rd place

# of points behind 1st place:
07/08: 10, with a game in hand
06/07: 13

Goals scored after 19 games:
07/08: 33
06/07: 28

Goals against after 19 games:
07/08: 12
06/07: 15

Goal scorers:
07/08: Torres 9; Gerrard 7; Babel, Kuyt, Voronin 3; Alonso, Benayoun 2; Hyypia, Sissoko 1
06/07: Kuyt 6; Bellamy 5; Alonso, Gerrard 3; Crouch, Garcia, Gonzalez 2; Agger, Carragher, Fowler, Riise 1

Clean Sheets:
07/08: 10
06/07: 10

# of games Liverpool failed to score in:
07/08: 5 [Pompey (a), Birmingham (h), Blackburn (a), United (h), City (a)]
06/07: 7 [Everton (a), Chelsea (a), Bolton (a), United (a), Arsenal (a), Boro (a), Portsmouth (h)]

Away form:
07/08: 6 wins, 3 draws, 1 loss; 21 points out of 30
06/07: 2 wins, 2 draws, 5 losses; 8 points out of 27

Home form:
07/08: 4 wins, 4 draws, 1 loss; 16 points out of 27
06/07: 8 wins, 2 draws; 26 points out of 30

The Wigan preview will be up sometime tomorrow, depending on the extent of my hangover.

Happy New Year, all.

New Year’s Day Predictions

Fulham v Chelsea, 7:45am, Setanta: Chelsea 2-0
Manchester Utd v Birmingham, 10am, FSC: United 3-1
Arsenal v West Ham, 10am, Setanta: Arsenal 2-1
Middlesbrough v Everton, 10am, Setanta Xtra: Everton 2-1
Reading v Portsmouth, 10am: 1-1
Aston Villa v Tottenham, 12:20pm, FSC: 2-2

Newcastle v Man City, 2:45pm, FSC: 1-1
Blackburn v Sunderland, 3pm, Setanta Xtra: Blackburn 2-1
Bolton v Derby, 3pm: Bolton 2-0

Liverpool hosting Wigan is on Setanta at 3pm on Wednesday.

30 December 2007

Liverpool 0-0 Manchester City

Finnan Arbeloa Carragher Aurelio
Benayoun Gerrard Mascherano Kewell
Torres Kuyt

Well, I’ll be having nightmares about Richard Dunne for the next couple of nights.

There’s usually very little between the sides when City and Liverpool play. Even when City was going through a tough spell last season, it was 0-0 at Eastlands and a narrow 1-0 win at Anfield.

But Liverpool should have won the game in the second half, and probably would have were it not for Dunne’s frequent intervention, and two excellent opportunities in quick succession spurned by Torres early in the second half.

There was little between the sides in the first 45. City threatened a couple of times when Liverpool’s defense looked unsteady, while Liverpool was limited to mainly long range opportunities, with Aurelio coming the closest, although last-ditch tackles by Richards and Dunne, and Carragher and Aurelio on the other end, prevented a couple of other chances.

But Liverpool should have broken the mark within 5 minutes of the restart. Games like this in previous seasons are why Torres’ arrival was so welcomed; a player of his class can be the difference in tight matches. But in the 48th minute, Torres let two excellent chances go begging. First, Kuyt dummied Aurelio’s cross into his path, only to see a tame shot sent straight at Hart. Seconds later, Gerrard put Torres through, and he got by Hart, but rolled the ball wide of the post.

It set the tone for the rest of the half, both in Liverpool’s growing supremacy and missed opportunities. The picture below says enough:

That graphic (from ESPN’s Gamecast) shows Liverpool’s 20 shots (11 on target) compared to City’s 4. 11 of those came in the second half.

I wrote earlier about Liverpool getting more late goals this season, and the effort was there today, but no end product. Outside of Torres’ 2 chances, the majority of Liverpool’s opportunities came as the game closed, with the home side under a mountain of pressure. Probably the best chance came in the 86th minute, when Dunne cleared off the goal-line after Hart saved Kuyt’s close-range header. But despite said pressure, a winner wasn't coming.

I give a lot of credit to Dunne, but Hamann was also excellent today shutting down Liverpool in City’s half and breaking up the play, while City's entire defense played well and Hart made the saves he had to.

As said, it wasn’t a bad performance, except in the final third. Carragher was immense in defense with some crucial tackles. Mascherano kept Elano silent all game and was excellent all-around. Aurelio showed that when fit he’s far and away the best left back in the squad. Although Kuyt will probably get some underserved stick for not putting away the header in the 86th and Liverpool’s inability to score, I thought it was one of his best performances of late. Gerrard was clearly fatigued, and didn’t get forward enough in the first hour or so, but displayed some outstanding long-range passing in a role similar to Alonso’s. Outside of Torres’ misses and a couple of scary moments for Arbeloa at center-back, there’s little to complain about over player’s performances.

I want to be positive. On face value, a draw at the Eastlands given past history between the sides and City’s home record isn’t awful. 7 points from 9 over the festive period isn’t either. It wasn’t a bad performance against a team in good form. And if it wasn’t for Richard Dunne, I’m fairly certain Liverpool would leave with all 3 points.

But once again, Liverpool’s unable to break down a cagey side seemingly content with a draw when they’re dominant, and it’s league points dropped when United’s already lost this weekend.

Halfway through the season, Liverpool’s got 37 points from 19 games. That’s only a 3-point improvement from the first 19 games last season (which is surprising, and I had to triple check my math to believe it). Halfway through the season, you can’t say that the table lies. Liverpool’s 10 points behind Arsenal, albeit with that game in hand. On form, Liverpool is probably 4th best in the league right now.

And frankly, that’s not good enough.

Yes, Liverpool is better from top to bottom this year, and I don’t think I have to reiterate my faith in Benitez, but I think it’s safe to say we all expected more of an improvement.

I’ll assuredly have more to say later in the week about the season so far, and some will probably contradict the frustration I’m venting now. I don’t know whether or not it’ll be before Wigan on Wednesday.

Happy New Year.

28 December 2007

Liverpool at Manchester City 12.30.07

11am EST, live in the US on FSC

Last 4 head-to-head:
0-0 (a) 04.14.07
1-0 Liverpool (h) 11.25.06
1-0 Liverpool (h) 02.26.06
1-0 Liverpool (a) 11.26.05

Last 3 matches:
Liverpool: 2-1 Derby (a); 4-1 Pompey (h); 0-2 Chelsea (a)
City: 2-2 Blackburn (h); 1-1 Villa (a); 0-2 Spurs (h)

Goalscorers (league):
Liverpool: Torres 9; Gerrard 7; Babel, Kuyt, Voronin 3; Alonso, Benayoun 2; Hyypia, Sissoko 1
Derby: Bianchi, Elano, Petrov 4; Geovanni 3; Ireland, Johnson, Mpenza, Vassell 2; Etuhu 1

Referee: Uriah Rennie. Sigh.

Guess at a squad:
Finnan Carragher Hyypia Arbeloa
Benayoun Gerrard Mascherano Kewell
Torres Kuyt

Although it was a stronger line-up than anticipated at Derby, I expect to see the few regular first-teamers who didn’t start: Kewell, Mascherano, Benayoun, Arbeloa (although he was out with flu), and Kuyt. But the spine of Reina, Carragher, Gerrard, and Torres seems to be pretty much ever-present.

Hyypia’s doubtful with an ankle injury, which is why he was subbed early in the second half against Derby, while there’s talk of Agger being “rushed back” (the BBC’s phrase) as he’s back in training. But if Hyypia can’t go, I expect to see Hobbs again; Agger’s long absence has definitely hindered Liverpool, but it’s been a slow recovery, and it’s been proven time and time again you can’t rush metatarsals.

Even though City’s winless in their last three, they’re still unbeaten at the Eastlands. Yesterday’s draw against Blackburn was the first time they’ve dropped points at home all season.

The key men for City will obviously be Petrov and Elano. Both have had excellent seasons, and the two summer acquisitions are the main reason for City’s league standing.

Petrov especially worries, which you could see in the way he tormented Blackburn down the left last time out. For that reason, I’m tempted to think Gerrard might play on the right, as we know he forms a good defensive pairing with Finnan. But I still don’t know if Alonso is healthy enough to start a second game this week, while Gerrard on the right frequently has license to roam and could leave gaps. Benitez’s conservative streak, especially in tough away games, makes the midfield even tougher than usual to predict.

I imagine it will be Mascherano’s brief to keep Elano under wraps, much like he did against Kaka in last year’s CL final. Elano is one of those players that operates between the lines behind a lone striker and sets up City’s attacking play, but Mascherano has proven time and time again he’s one of the best defensive midfielders in the world.

The aforementioned conservative streak may mean that Benitez plays something like a 4-2-3-1 (for example, Alonso-Mascherano; Benayoun-Gerrard-Kewell; Torres), which we’ve seen at times this season. City thrives on non-stop attack, especially at home, and with a five-man midfield and Torres up top, Liverpool could be dangerous on the counter. But with fitness concerns in defense and some crazy goals given up this season, I don’t know if soaking up City pressure and looking to break is the best way to plan for this match. Especially since Liverpool could end up playing narrow in that formation, while City’s strengths down the flanks have been evident.

I still feel stupid for questioning whether City would jell before the season, as that prediction flew out the window after the first week. A top 5 finish still seems somewhat optimistic, but the fact we’re debating it shows the strides Sven’s made (I’m still stunned I’m writing this).

It’s been written before, and it’s still true: this is the toughest game Liverpool will play over the festive period. So far it’s 6 points out of 6, whatever you feel about Wednesday’s performance. If Liverpool can continue picking up points, and show strength by beating a team 1 point below them in the table on their pitch, anything can happen in the second half of the season.

27 December 2007

Predictions 12/29 – 12/30

Chelsea v Newcastle, 10am, FSC: Even with Terry, Drogba, and Lampard injured and Carvalho and Ashley Cole suspended, I can’t pick Newcastle to get any points with the form they’re in, especially on a trip to Stamford Bridge. Chelsea 2-0
West Ham v Manchester Utd, 10am, Setanta: Not only has West Ham been dreadful at home of late, but United scored 4 on the road last time out, and have found their way to the top of the table after the start to the season that raised questions. United 3-0
Tottenham v Reading, 10am, Setanta Xtra: Fulham may have been gash on Boxing Day, but Spurs scoring five is still impressive. Reading’s unbeaten in the last five, but if Ledley King can stay fit and Tottenham can stay relatively secure at the back (ha), Spurs should have enough to keep their good play going. Tottenham 2-1
Birmingham v Fulham, 10am: Forssell’s return has helped in the goal tally, and McLeish is getting a handle on what he’s got in his squad, but more important is how poor Fulham’s been of late. Poor enough to get Lawrie Sanchez fired after saving them from the drop last season, and there’s been no improvement under caretaker Lewington. Birmingham 2-1
Portsmouth v Middlesbrough, 10am: Since drubbing Villa at Villa Park, Pompey’s only scored once in their last three. However, they’re home against Boro, who’ve only won twice (Derby, Fulham) on the road this season. Pompey 2-0
Sunderland v Bolton, 10am: Even though Bolton’s been better than Sunderland of late (I again apologize for mocking Megson’s hiring), I reckon Keane will light a fire under his squad after getting shellacked by United last time out and with the team currently in 19th place. 1-1
Wigan v Aston Villa, 10am: Although Wigan’s unbeaten in their last three, Villa showed incredible grit to come away from the Bridge with a point Wednesday. They certainly won’t give up 4 goals like last time out, and O’Neill will assuredly have his team fired up after the perceived wrongs suffered at the hands of the referee in the Chelsea match. Villa 1-0
Everton v Arsenal, 12:15pm, FSC: Everton was desperately unlucky not to come away with a draw against United last time out, while Arsenal’s last three league away games have been draw, loss, and draw. 1-1
Derby v Blackburn, 8:30am Sunday, Setanta: I’d feel bad that Derby came away from their last performance with nothing to show for it had it not been against Liverpool. And although Jewell has the team playing better, I still can’t predict them to come away with anything until they start getting the results. Blackburn 2-0

Liverpool at City is on FSC Sunday at 11am.

15 minutes remaining…

There are several differences between this year’s Liverpool team and last year’s. I just want to highlight one.

Through the 29 games so far this season, Liverpool’s scored 23 goals after the 75th minute. Through the same amount of games in 06/07, the team scored 11.

Villa 8/11 – Gerrard 87’
Sunderland 8/25 – Voronin 87’
Toulouse 8/28 – Kuyt 87’ 90’
Derby 9/1 – Voronin 76’, Torres 77’
Reading CC 9/25 – Torres 86’
Wigan 9/29 – Benayoun 75’
Tottenham 10/7 – Torres 90’
Everton 10/20 – Kuyt 90’
Besiktas 10/24 – Gerrard 85’
Besiktas 11/06 – Babel 78’ 81’, Crouch 88’
Fulham 11/10 – Torres 81’, Gerrard 85’
Porto 11/28 – Torres 78’, Gerrard 82’, Crouch 87’
Bolton 12/2 – Babel 85’
Marseille 12/11 – Babel 90’
Portsmouth 12/22 – Torres 85’
Derby 12/26 – Gerrard 90’

Maccabi Haifa 8/9 – Gonzalez 88’
Chelsea 8/13 – Crouch 80’
Newcastle 9/20 – Alonso 79’
Tottenham 9/23 – Riise 89’
Reading CC 10/25 – Crouch 77’
Bordeaux 10/31 – Garcia 76’
PSV 11/22 – Crouch 89’
Galatasaray 12/5 – Fowler 89’
Fulham 12/9 – Gonzalez 90’
Charlton 12/16 – Bellamy 82’, Gerrard 88’

It’s also worth noting is that Gerrard’s gotten 5 of them this season compared to only 1 last season, while Torres has scored 6 of Liverpool’s late goals. In fact, players bought this summer (Torres, Babel, Benayoun, and Voronin) scored 13 of the 29 goals after the 75th minute this season.

But more importantly, only 2 games during this span last season were won by the late goal -- the first two of the season.

So far this campaign, Liverpool’s scored late winners against Villa, Wigan, Everton, Fulham, Porto and Derby, while Torres’ goal in the 90th minute against Spurs saved a point.

Good teams win games they look like they’ve lost or drawn. Good teams aren’t beaten until the final whistle blows. How many games have Arsenal, United, or Chelsea snatched at the death over the last three seasons?

That Liverpool’s added this dimension to their game can only bode well.

26 December 2007

Liverpool 2-1 Derby

Finnan Carragher Hyypia Aurelio
Babel Gerrard Alonso Riise
Voronin Torres

Torres 12’
McEveley 67’
Gerrard 90’

Steven Gerrard. That is all.

Well, not quite all.

Liverpool was awful today. Just awful. I don’t want to downplay Derby’s second half, because Paul Jewell made some inspired changes, the fans rallied around the team, and Jay McEveley made Liverpool pay for Derby’s increased possession and Liverpool’s apathy, but outside of the home match against Marseille, this was the worse Liverpool performance I’ve seen in ages.

The first 15 minutes went according to plan. Liverpool pressed from the off, and a sublime individual goal by Torres got them off the mark after 13 minutes when dancing through the penalty area he nutmegged Darren Moore, stepped by Leacock, and slotted past Price.

But then it was almost as if Liverpool expected to stroll as they did at Anfield. But despite continued mistakes by Derby, Liverpool gave the ball away too cheaply and too often resorted to route 1 football, with little cohesion in their play. An involuntary change, bringing on center-half Michael Johnson for the injured Pearson tightened Derby at the back, but the real impetus began after halftime.

Buoyed by Liverpool’s inability to get the second goal, and with Jewell making two more changes before the 56th minute (Feilhaber for the inept Moore and then Earnshaw for Teale), Derby sprang to life in the second half. They saw much more of the ball, while Liverpool still defended and attacked casually.

In the 67th minute, Derby made them pay. Alonso was unfairly whistled for a handball, but Liverpool was unable to clear the resulting free kick (it looked like Aurelio missed his header, but I could be mistaken), and McEveley kept his cool to prod past Reina.

Unsurprisingly, the goal spurred Liverpool, but with numerous chances missed by pretty much every attacking player over the next 20 minutes and Liverpool still giving the ball away too cheaply, especially in the final third, my greatest fears seemed to be realized.

This would have been an implausible result. It certainly would have been the end of any talk about contending for the title. But then Steven Gerrard popped up in the 90th minute.

Derby will feel aggrieved that Mears didn’t draw a free kick in Liverpool’s half, but Gerrard stormed the length of the field on the break, found Benayoun who centered Torres, only to see Price make another excellent save. But Gerrard followed the play for the rebound, and Derby’s hearts were broken.

Liverpool was saved by the captain’s performance. He never gave up, even after barely missing the winner in the 88th minute when his cannon of a shot ricocheted off the crossbar. I’m without adjectives for the work Gerrard put in over the final 25 minutes, and you could see the fatigue on his face at full time.

But other than Gerrard’s late heroics and a moment of brilliance from Torres in the 13th minute, Liverpool were utterly dire. No one should be pleased with individual or team performances today. And Liverpool, to some surprise, lined up with a stronger team than expected.

I hate singling out players, and everyone needs to have a look at today’s performance, but Riise, Babel, and Voronin were especially disappointing. Babel looked lost on the right, made some questionable decisions in the final third, and was ineffective. Voronin, although taken out of the game by Derby’s relentless and uncalled fouls, wasn’t good enough in possession or a threat to the opposition’s goal. And Riise lost or misplayed the ball more times than I can count, and was no better when moved to center-back to rest Sami with an eye on the weekend.

I suppose I should be pleased that Liverpool played so badly and still won. The cliché that good teams find a way to win when they shouldn’t is still apt. But outside of amazement at Gerrard’s ability to snatch victory, relief is the only positive emotion.

Credit to Derby for their fight, but this was an insipid Liverpool performance. Maybe there’s a Christmas hangover coupled with an eye on the match at the Eastlands, but that’s almost as unforgivable. I don’t care about the opposition's points total; there are no easy games in the Premiership, and you can’t sleepwalk a win against anyone.

But a 2-1 win in injury time still gets the same amount of points as a 6-0 drubbing.

City on Sunday. A performance like today’s will not suffice.

25 December 2007

Liverpool v Derby County 12.26.07

10am EST, live in the US on FSC

Last 4 head-to-head:
6-0 Liverpool (h) 09.01.07
2-0 Liverpool (h) 04.20.02
1-0 Liverpool (a) 12.01.01
1-1 (h) 03.18.01

Last 3 matches:
Liverpool: 4-1 Pompey (h); 0-2 Chelsea (a); 0-1 United (h)
Derby: 2-2 Newcastle (a); 0-1 Boro (h); 1-4 United (a)

Goalscorers (league):
Liverpool: Torres 8; Gerrard 6; Babel, Kuyt, Voronin 3; Alonso, Benayoun 2; Hyypia, Sissoko 1
Derby: Miller 3; Oakley 2; Barnes, Howard, Todd 1

Referee: Alan Wiley

Wiley also had the 6-0 reverse fixture at Anfield this season.

Guess at a squad:
Arbeloa Hobbs Carragher Aurelio
Benayoun Alonso Lucas Babel
Torres Voronin

There’s little point in having a squad the size of Liverpool’s if you’re not going to rotate in a game like this. But at the same time, Liverpool can ill-afford to drop any points in the Premiership.

I do think Gerrard, among others, will be rested. We know he was ill last week and he wasn’t at his best against Portsmouth, while Alonso’s nearing fitness and Lucas has been deserving of more time. Gerrard’s the captain and Liverpool’s talisman, but Liverpool beat Derby in September without him, and his fitness for upcoming games is massively important.

But I fear the reaction if Torres sits and Liverpool struggles. He’s been crucial to Liverpool’s scoring streak, and if the number of matches were a concern, I’d hope he’s only subbed out early in the second half, after Liverpool’s gone goals to the good. But not until Liverpool’s gotten said goals; the criticism following the 0-0 draw against Birmingham certainly still lingers.

The BBC’s match preview suggests that Babel, Voronin, Lucas, Hobbs, and Aurelio are in line for a start, and I wouldn’t be surprised to see them all.

I still believe Babel’s best suited to come off the bench, but Liverpool’s options are limited on the left, and this is the type of game where he’d be well served to see as much time as possible. Voronin’s far better as a striker instead of on the wing (where we’ve seen him lately), links up well with Torres, and brings the midfield into attack. Hobbs looks likely to see time spelling either Hyypia or Carragher with Agger still not fit and three games in the next week, while Aurelio has the potential to be first-choice left back if he can get a decent run in the side.

Again there’s a chance of a 4-2-3-1 formation, as against Chelsea in the Carling Cup, but I still think Liverpool (especially with the forecasted changes) is more suited to 4-4-2, especially away from home.

There’s little point reiterating Derby’s season so far. They’re competing with past Sunderland squads for the worst record in Premiership history. But Paul Jewell’s slowly but surely putting his mark on the squad, and you can’t underestimate any away game in the league. They were better against Newcastle, and nearly got the first away win of the season, but still gave up two goals that shouldn’t be given up at this level.

This is a game where Liverpool should get three needed points. Obviously, it’s not in the bag, and Benitez will have to have the team focused on the opposition in front of them, but with this squad, and all that’s been written about them, there’s no way anything less than all three points is acceptable.

Boxing Day Predictions

Boxing Day is the greatest day of the year. Look at all those televised games...

Things are still hectic, and it worked well enough last weekend, so just predictions again this week. Most likely back to normal for the weekend.

Oh, and Merry Christmas.

The preview of the Liverpool at Derby (FSC at 10am) will be in between presents and bottles of champagne, so apologies for its quality in advance.

Chelsea v Aston Villa, 8am, FSC: Chelsea 2-1
West Ham v Reading, 8am, Setanta: West Ham 1-0
Tottenham v Fulham, 8am, Setanta Xtra: Spurs 2-0
Sunderland v Manchester Utd, 10am, Setanta: United 3-1
Wigan v Newcastle, 10am, Setanta Xtra: 1-1
Birmingham v Middlesbrough, 10am: 0-0
Everton v Bolton, 10am: Everton 2-1
Portsmouth v Arsenal, 2:45pm, FSC: Arse 2-1
Manchester City v Blackburn, 2:45pm Thursday, Setanta: 1-1

22 December 2007

Liverpool 4-1 Portsmouth

Arbeloa Carragher Hyypia Riise
Benayoun Gerrard Mascherano Kewell
Kuyt Torres

Benayoun 13’
Distin (OG) 16’
Benjani 57’
Torres 67’ 85’

Just so we’re clear, and with all this talk of crisis, this is the 8th time in the 28 games this season (4th in the last 7) that Liverpool’s scored four goals or more.

To be honest, it was a professional performance, but one where the scoreline may flatter. It’s not as if Liverpool weren’t clearly the better side on the day, but, and surprisingly given Pompey’s form and league position, the team never truly hit top gear either.

A sustained bit of pressure saw Liverpool go two goals up in the first 16 minutes, albeit a little fortunately. While Glen Johnson, who had made some excellent tackles in the first 10 minutes, was receiving treatment, Kewell’s cross found Benayoun open at the top of the box, and Yossi smashed an excellent volley into the net. 3 minutes later, Campbell did well to close down Torres in the box, only to see his tackle ricochet off Distin’s shin and into the net.

Once 2-0 up, Liverpool were content playing keep-ball for the majority of the time, and I don’t think Pompey had a real sniff at goal throughout the entire first half, with Liverpool dominating tempo and possession. Kanu’s introduction for Utaka at half-time gave Portsmouth more attacking prowess, and his cross plus excellent footwork from Benjani gave Portsmouth an opening. Duly, the next five to ten minutes were a bit nervy, but when given an opening, Torres soon put the game beyond doubt.

In the 67th minute, Mascherano’s long pass allowed Babel to put James under pressure, and Torres made no mistake when the ball fell to him at the top of the box. With 5 minutes remaining in normal time, Carragher found Gerrard in the box, Gerrard’s header found Torres, and Torres made no mistake on the volley. It's getting tiresome saying that's what a world class striker can do for a team, but it bears repeating again.

While Torres yet again proved how much better he makes Liverpool with his second half brace (8 goals so far in the league), the man of the match has to be Mascherano. He was outstanding in both defense and attack, and was the reason why Pompey barely had a shot on target through the first half.

I also thought both Kewell and Benayoun had good games, although both faded in the second half. Yossi gives Liverpool more goals from the flanks than they’ve had in previous seasons, while Kewell showed more willingness to take on a defender, was involved in much of the play in the first half, and delivered a cracking assist for Benayoun’s goal.

Babel also improved the team after coming on for Benayoun in the 63rd, not only in helping create the third goal and his obvious pace, but in his graft and work in tracking back as well. He was involved in the buildup of a lot of Liverpool’s counter-attacks, showing how deep he was when Pompey was in possession.

But Torres is going to be the talk of the day, and it’s understandable. He adds so much to the team. There are the goals and the havoc he causes in defense, but he’s unselfish, harries defenders on the ball at every opportunity, and chases down lost causes. He may have been out of it for periods, and Campbell and Distin did well in defense, but he still pops up with two crucial late game goals.

Before the match, Carragher was quoted saying Liverpool has to pick up all 12 points from the festive period. They can now cross one of the tougher games off the list. Pompey may not have done themselves justice today, but they’re still a top-six side that can challenge anyone on their day.

The game at Manchester City on Saturday will most likely be Liverpool’s toughest challenge over this period, but the team cannot look past the trip to Derby on Wednesday.

But for now, it’s time to enjoy the three points in the bag and the upcoming holidays.

21 December 2007

Liverpool v Portsmouth 12.22.07

10am, live in the US on FSC

Last 4 head-to-head:
0-0 (a) 09.15.07
1-2 Pompey (a) 04.28.07
0-0 (h) 11.29.06
3-1 Liverpool (a) 05.07.06

Last 3 matches:
Liverpool: 0-2 Chelsea (a); 0-1 United (h); 4-0 Marseille (a)
Pompey: 0-1 Spurs (h); 3-1 Villa (a); 0-0 Everton (h)

Goalscorers (league):
Liverpool: Gerrard, Torres 6; Babel, Kuyt, Voronin 3; Alonso 2; Benayoun, Hyypia, Sissoko 1
Pompey: Benjani 8; Muntari 4; Kanu, Kranjcar, Utaka 3; Hreidarsson 2; Johnson, Parmarot, Taylor 1

Referee: Mike Riley

Guess at a squad:
Arbeloa Carragher Hyypia Riise
Gerrard Alonso Mascherano Kewell
Kuyt Torres

If and only if Xabi’s ready after starting on Wednesday should he be on from the off Saturday. He may not be fully fit, but after putting in just 60 minutes against Chelsea, Benitez may feel he’s ready to do it again 3 days later, and we know how much the inclusion of Alonso improves the team. Otherwise, it’ll probably be Benayoun on the right with Gerrard and Mascherano in the middle.

But then again, we’ve seen a bit of 4-2-3-1 recently, and something like Alonso-Mascherano; Benayoun-Gerrard-Kewell; Torres wouldn’t be completely out of the blue either.

Ah, possibilities.

With players returning to fitness, it’s a guess of a similar squad to that against both Marseille and United; the only change would be Alonso for Benayoun. The full squad will definitely come into use for the amount of games over the festive period, but I wouldn’t be surprised if we start to see more continuity in some of the line-ups either.

Aurelio for Riise could be another possible change, but with Fabio’s injury record and the fact he played the full 90 against Chelsea makes me skeptical. And as far as I know, Finnan’s still doubtful from the knock picked up against Marseille.

I may have seemed forgiving of losses to Reading, United, and Chelsea, but that won’t be the case here. If I don’t bandy around terms like “must win” against United at Anfield, I won’t be doing it for Pompey, but this is a game where Liverpool should get all three points.

Portsmouth is a tough team and has the best away record in the Premiership, having picked up 19 points from 9 games. They’re assuredly competing for a UEFA Cup spot, at worst probably the 8th best team in the league (and closer to sixth, honestly), and Benjani and Muntari, among others, are playing out of their skin this season.

There have been too many 0-0 results against Pompey of late, both home and away. Liverpool owes them one for the results last season and the one earlier this year at Fratton Park.

The next 4 games (Pompey, @ Derby, @ City, and Wigan) are exceptionally important for the rest of the Premier League campaign. Maximum points would go a long way towards making all the noises about the campaign not being over after the loss to United seem valid.

07/08 CL Knockout Draw

Celtic v Barcelona
Lyon v Manchester United
Schalke v Porto
Liverpool v Inter Milan
Roma v Real Madrid
Arsenal v AC Milan
Olympiakos v Chelsea
Fenerbahce v Sevilla

When the choice is between Inter, AC, Real, Sevilla, and Barca, it’s always going to be a tough draw.

And honestly, the preeminent emotion is appreciation that Liverpool’s avoided AC Milan or Barca, where ‘revenge’ and the media narrative would play a large role. But no games at this stage are easy and Inter will certainly be no walkover.

Currently leading Serie A by 7 points and unbeaten in the league, they’ve also won 5 out of 6 CL group games, with a 0-1 result at Fenerbache in the first match the lone loss.

Their roster features Cambiasso, Vieira, Ibrahimovic, Suazo, Zanetti, Figo, and Crespo, among others. Torres will be marked by that peach of a human being, Marco Materazzi. It is a team-sheet filled with recognizable names, but Inter also has something to prove in Europe, having underperformed in the Champions League in the past.

And at the end of the day, this is Liverpool in the Champions League. Liverpool’s been “doomed” before: when they drew Juventus in 05 (which this draw has parallels with) or Barca in 07, or when they were down 3-0 at halftime to AC Milan. Not only can you throw the formbook out of the window in Europe, but Liverpool’s better when they’re the underdogs and up against a tougher team. It’s when Liverpool’s favored that there can be a let down, like Benfica in 05/06.

Liverpool’s only ever meeting against Inter was the 1965 European Cup semis, where Liverpool won 3-1 at Anfield only to lose 3-0 in Milan. The possibility of Benitez getting revenge on Shankly’s behalf is mouth-watering.

Unsurprisingly, the other British teams who finished second in the groups have tough matches coming up. Arsenal v AC Milan is probably the tie of the round, while Celtic won’t fancy their chances against Barcelona.

But United and Chelsea, who won their groups, have to be favored against Lyon and Olympiakos respectively.

As both the Milan teams have home matches in the second leg, Liverpool’s match at Inter will be a week later then the other second leg matches, to be played on March 11th. The first leg at Anfield will take place on February 19th.

I'll have far more to say in February when the matches near, and will probably spring some faulty predictions as well, but it's too soon to forecast two months in advance.

Preview of the Pompey match up in an hour or two.

20 December 2007

Predictions 12/22 – 12/23

No marginally sardonic statements of nonsense to go with the predictions this week. You can thank the holidays.

Normal service will resume for the preview and review of Saturday’s game against Pompey (10am, FSC) though.

Arsenal v Tottenham, 7:45am, Setanta: Arse 3-1
Aston Villa v Manchester City, 10am, Setanta: 2-2
Reading v Sunderland, 10am, Setanta Xtra: Reading 1-0
Bolton v Birmingham, 10am: Bolton 2-1
Fulham v Wigan, 10am: 1-1
Middlesbrough v West Ham, 10am: 1-1

Manchester Utd v Everton, 7am, FSC: United 2-1
Newcastle v Derby, 9am, Setanta: Newcastle 2-0
Blackburn v Chelsea, 11:10am, FSC: Chelsea 2-1

Bolton v Brum will be shown on Setanta at 12pm Saturday, Fulham v Wigan on FSC at 12pm, and Boro v WH on FSC at 4:30pm.

19 December 2007

Liverpool 0-2 Chelsea

Arbeloa Hobbs Carragher Aurelio
---------Sissoko Alonso
-----Voronin Lucas Babel

Lampard 58’
Shevchenko 90’

Outside of a moment of sheer idiocy from Peter Crouch and an unfortunate deflection off Carragher, I really can’t complain. Chelsea’s second in the 90th minute added a bit of injustice to the scoreline, but it was more to Liverpool’s credit they were able to keep them out for 30 minutes when reduced to 10 men.

The line-up was a bit of a surprise, but with the amount of games coming up and the importance of other competitions, it’s explainable. And coupled with the fact that the game was at Stamford Bridge, where Liverpool’s won once in 20-odd visits, pragmatism was always going to be the order on the day.

Despite Jorge Valdano’s past proclamations, the game was eminently watchable for the first hour. Few chances were created, although both teams had an excellent opportunity denied by the opposition keeper in the first half, but both also saw a bit of the ball and looked to move it around. Liverpool's plan appeared center on the counter-attack, and was playing good one-touch football at times, with Lucas involved in much of it.

Chelsea’s best chance of the first half came when poor passes from Hobbs and Arbeloa put Lampard through on goal, with but Itandje did well to come out and make himself big. Minutes later, some of that one-touch football led to Crouch putting Lucas one-on-one with Cech, only to see the keeper make an excellent save.

The second half started much like the first, with Itandje forced into another brilliant save, punching away Essien’s fierce shot within the first 10 minutes. But in the 58th, Lampard was lucky to see his shot take a nasty deflection off of Jamie Carragher, who doesn’t deserve the run of luck he’s had at times this season and defended manfully all game long. 1-0, deadlock broken.

90 seconds later, Crouch and Mikel, who battled all game long, were at it again on the sidelines, and Crouch lunged two-footed, in the air after losing out. Best-case scenario, it was an awful example of a striker’s tackle. Worst case, it was stupid, petty, and uncharacteristic. Mikel may have hammed it up, and Crouch may not have made much contact, but it was assuredly a straight red, and most likely down to frustration from the result, a lack of fouls called on the opposition, and his own underwhelming performance.

Babel, and then Voronin, tried to forge a path up top on their own, but with Chelsea in front and Liverpool down to 10 men, it was always going to be slim pickings. And with a bench composed of Martin, Hyypia, Riise, El Zhar, and Benayoun, there wasn’t much that could be done, although I’ll still argue it was right to rest the players like Torres, Gerrard, and Kuyt.

Credit to Liverpool that they held out for as long as they did, and Shevchenko’s goal, from a Ballack flick after Bridge somehow worked out a cross, was one of the few shots Chelsea had from inside the box with Liverpool down to 10 men.

I don’t want to downplay a loss, because (and I probably shouldn’t feel the need to reiterate this) you’re always rooting for your team to win. But it’s the Carling Cup, Liverpool obviously has their focus on other competitions, and all things considered, the team didn't play poorly.

Carragher was fantastic today and didn’t deserve to have the winning goal go in off him. He wore every tackle on his face, and gave his all despite clearly tiring in the second half. Injuries have forced him to play more games than he regularly would (he hasn’t had a game off since returning from injury in early October), and he’s had some bad luck with penalty decisions and today’s deflection, but he still gives his all and is crucial to Liverpool’s defensive success.

But aside from Crouch and some of Sissoko’s play (as usual, excellent in breaking up the opposition and everywhere on the pitch, some good passes to open up the attack, but offset by poor decision-making and misplays in Chelsea’s half), there are reasons to be pleased with performances. Lucas was excellent in a role similar to Gerrard's, unlucky not to score thanks to Cech, and everywhere in midfield. Babel showed the customary flashes of brilliance and ability to beat players with mazy runs. Alonso played 60 minutes, and although he’s clearly not match-fit, steadied the side. The defense limited Chelsea to mostly long-range chances.

I’m afraid to read some of the criticism following the match. A loss here can’t be considered in the same breath as to Reading or United. It was a second string team in a competition clearly lower down the list, against a nearly full-strength Chelsea side (although limited by injuries). Benitez didn’t get it wrong -- it’s always going to be a narrow game between Liverpool and Chelsea, and this side continued that trend. And more young and reserve players were able to get time on the pitch, with the performances by Lucas, Babel, Hobbs, and Itandje justifying it.

I do worry about 2 consecutive losses, and 3 in the last 4, but I also believe it’s an aberration, and the pragmatism here will pay off with players' fitness down the line.

The next chance to see if that holds any water is Saturday, when Portsmouth travels to Anfield, and Liverpool will look to make up for the 0-0 stalemate at Fratton Park.

18 December 2007

Liverpool at Chelsea 12.19.07

2:45pm EST, live in the US on Setanta Sports

This’ll be the third time Liverpool’s faced Chelsea in domestic cup competition since Benitez took over. Liverpool won 2-1 in both last year’s Community Shield and the 05/06 FA Cup semi-final, while Chelsea won 3-2 in the 04/05 Carling Cup final. In five European cup games against Chelsea, Liverpool has two wins, three draws, and one loss.

Previous Carling Cup matches:
Liverpool: 2-1 Cardiff City (h); 4-2 Reading (a)
Chelsea: 4-3 Leicester (h); 4-0 Hull (a)

Last 3 matches:
Liverpool: 0-1 United (h); 4-0 Marseille (a); 1-3 Reading (a)
Chelsea: 0-1 Arsenal (a); 0-0 Valencia (h); 2-0 Sunderland (h)

Goalscorers (Carling Cup):
Liverpool: Torres 3; Benayoun, Gerrard, El Zhar 1
Chelsea: Lampard 3; Kalou 2; Shevchenko, Sidwell, Sinclair 1

Referee: Martin Atkinson

You may remember Mr. Atkinson from the Carling Cup postponement and subsequent 3-6 loss to Arsenal last year. Sigh.

To be fair, he’s presided over the 4-2 Reading cup win and 0-0 Blackburn draw this season.

Guess at a squad:
Arbeloa Hobbs Hyypia Aurelio
Gerrard Lucas Alonso Leto
Crouch Babel

I think we'll see a line-up in tune with the past Carling Cup games for both sides. I can't imagine Liverpool or Chelsea will deploy a full-strength side, but neither will trot out a team filled with reserves either.

First and foremost for Liverpool is the news that Alonso's back in training and in contention for a start. Agger's still out and Finnan's still doubtful, but Alonso's return will be warmly welcomed; I've little need to write about how his passing and playmaking will improve the team.

Since it's the first time's Alonso's in contention since the Arsenal game where he re-aggravated the metatarsal injury, Benitez may find it safer to bring Xabi off the bench, but with all we've heard about Alonso’s recovery of late, I have to believe he'll feature from the off.

We can divine more of the line-up from who’s featured in the past two Carling Cup games. Crouch, Lucas, Leto, Arbeloa, Aurelio, Carragher and Itandje all started against both Reading and Cardiff City. I don’t know if Carragher (who really deserves a rest; the only games he’s missed were against Toulouse and Derby around the end of August), Aurelio (same health issues as always) or Leto (although he did miss the reserves’ friendly last night) will feature, but otherwise I expect all of those players to see time.

It’s also potentially another chance to see Babel up top. I can’t explain why, but I’m fairly sure he’ll start on the left or as a striker, and I’d rather see him play up top like against Cardiff. Crouch should start as well (he hasn’t gotten a ton of games and Terry’s injured), and I think Babel would be a useful foil playing off Crouch, as was the plan in the last round.

I’m guessing Gerrard on the right, as I have to believe he’ll play, but I also want to see both Lucas and Alonso in the center. Resting Gerrard, as happened against Reading and would have happened against Cardiff were Sissoko not sick, could come into play, but I half expect to see the captain no matter the opposition. Although it’s worth a mention that El Zhar frequently sees time in the league cup, and scored a peach of a goal in the last round.

Chelsea has their own injury problems at the moment, with Terry and Drogba assuredly out and Carvalho a possibility to return after a six-game absence. Ballack may return from his long-standing injury as well, but given he hasn’t played all season, I doubt his inclusion is something Liverpool will focus on. Like seeing who’s played both cup games for Liverpool, Chelsea’s started Cudicini, Belletti, Ben Haim, Wright-Phillips, Sidwell, Scott Sinclair, and Pizarro in both of their CC matches.

Liverpool’s somewhat in a catch-22 tomorrow. After losing to United, and despite the fact this should be a completely different line-up, to go out of the Carling Cup would raise further questions about the club’s situation. But if Liverpool wins, I’m sure the talk will be about how Chelsea played a weakened side (granted, the word “rotation” wouldn’t be mentioned).

And while the Carling Cup is still a distant fourth in Liverpool’s priority, it’s a quarterfinal cup game against one of the biggest competitors in the Premiership. I don’t believe that any Carling Cup game is a must-win game, and honestly, tomorrow’s performance is more important than the result, but I’m hoping both the performance and result will be replies to what happened last Sunday.

16 December 2007

Liverpool 0-1 United

Arbeloa Carragher Hyypia Riise
Benayoun Gerrard Mascherano Kewell
Kuyt Torres

Tevez 43’

Well fuck.

New season, same story. Liverpool dominant for stretches, not enough carved out in the final third but two good chances in the first 35 minutes cleared off the line, a goal against the run of play thanks to an error on a set piece, and Liverpool unable to break United down in search of an equalizer, with United soaking up pressure and dangerous on the counter.

The most depressing thing is that despite the money spent, and despite the free-flowing football and goals leading up to the game, it’s a script we’ve seen time and time again against United.

Until United’s goal against the run of play, Liverpool was the better team with more opportunities. But none were taken. In the 27th minute, after Carragher’s header created problems, Anderson cleared Kewell’s shot off the line, and although the rebound fell to Torres, under pressure from Anderson he put his header wide. Five minutes later, a collision between Van der Sar and Vidic allowed Torres to get a header on goal, but again it was cleared, this time by Evra.

And ten minutes later, United made them pay. In the 43rd minute, Giggs’s corner found Rooney unmarked at the top of the box, and his shot was turned in by Tevez, open just yards from goal when Benayoun stayed home at the far post.

The second half saw the narrative continue, with Liverpool pressing, but impotent in the final third with United defending expertly. Despite Liverpool’s time in possession, the away side probably had the best chance at a goal, with Rooney missing a sitter, found by Ronaldo on the break. United getting a second on the break, countering with Liverpool sending men forward and losing possession, was always a menace. Babel and Gerrard had chances in the last 15 minutes, but keeping in tune with the rest of proceedings, both narrowly missed the target.

At the end of the day, Liverpool wasn’t good enough, and that’s the hardest thing to acknowledge. Maybe the team gave the opposition too much respect, but there was a gulf in class between the two in the final third. United takes their opportunities; despite getting four goals against the likes of Porto, Marseille, and Bolton, Liverpool still spurns them too often top-quality domestic opposition.

It’s almost as if players are awed by United; I’m not singling people out after today, but many weren’t at the best, or even up to performances in previous matches. Liverpool did well keeping possession, and Mascherano was excellent keeping Ronaldo quiet for stretches, but none of the attack-minded players who had been in form of late had that needed bit of nous.

With the new owners watching and the much-written about summit between them and Benitez imminent, what’s clear is that despite what was spent in the offseason, United’s still spent more, and Liverpool’s still not at their level. This is why Benitez has been so adamant about the January window. As painful as it is, United is still a better team.

I don’t want to hear about zonal marking; it was a mistake that led to United’s goal, but Liverpool is far better defending on set plays because of the system. Rotation surely can’t be blamed, because there were no changes from the one that beat Marseille 4-0.

It is a bad loss, one that shows the distance between the two teams. But I have to reiterate that it is only December, as much as I don’t have very high hopes for overtaking United. Much can still happen with 22 games still left, but although this is a better side than in years past, it’s still not quite on a par with the upper echelon. This loss puts a lot of pressure on the away trips to Old Trafford, Stamford Bridge, and the Emirates.

I’ve been ignoring much of the off field turmoil between Benitez and Gillett & Hicks, and over the new stadium. But this result cannot be used against the manager in this upcoming meeting. I cannot emphasize that enough. Benitez is improving the squad, and if anything, the result shows that the team still needs improvement. Give Benitez free reign, stick to finding adequate funding for the stadium and Rafa’s purchases, and things will continue to improve.

I am utterly gutted and depressed over the result, and Liverpool's chances of being true title contenders this season. But it’s not all pessimism, despite the loss. United was admittedly a better team. But Liverpool’s a better team than last season, and the future’s not completely gray skies.


14 December 2007

Liverpool v Manchester United 12.16.07

8:30am, live in the US on Setanta

Last 4 head-to-head:
0-1 United (h) 03.03.07
0-2 United (a) 10.22.07
1-0 Liverpool (h; FA Cup) 02.18.06
0-1 United (a) 01.22.06

Last 3 matches:
Liverpool: 4-0 Marseille (a); 1-3 Reading (a); 4-0 Bolton (h)
United: 1-1 Roma (a); 4-1 Derby (h); 2-0 Fulham (h)

Goalscorers (league):
Liverpool: Gerrard, Torres 6; Babel, Kuyt, Voronin 3; Alonso 2; Benayoun, Hyypia, Sissoko 1
United: Ronaldo 9; Tevez 6; Rooney 4; Giggs, Nani, Saha 2; Ferdinand, Scholes, Vidic 1

Referee: Mark Halsey

Guess at a squad:
Arbeloa Carragher Hyypia Riise
Benayoun Gerrard Mascherano Kewell
Kuyt Torres

I guess I’ll just say it. I hate Liverpool/United games.

Yes, partly because United always seems to beat Liverpool while getting the rub of the green. United’s won two of the last four meeting in injury time, Liverpool hasn’t beaten them in the league since April 04. But it’s also because I’m a mess leading into the game; I know about the Derby, and it’s every bit as important, but this rivalry is something else, and always destroys the nerves. I guarantee I’m pacing throughout the match, and I’ve already apologized to housemates for the shouting to come Sunday morning, whatever the result.

But this is a different Liverpool team than the one United’s faced over the last couple of years. First, foremost, and unnecessary to reiterate, Fernando Torres. Liverpool hasn’t had a striker of his quality in ages, and he’s settled quicker than nearly any import, no matter the transfer fee. Ferdinand and Vidic are both exceptional defenders, but they will have their hands full on Sunday.

Once again, like stated in the Marseille preview, outside of Alonso, Agger, and possibly Finnan (who’s still struggling with the knock that precluded him from playing against Marseille), this is probably Liverpool’s strongest XI. In fact, this is the exact XI that turned out against Marseille. I’m fully aware of the whole rotation narrative, but Benitez will stick with a side if he believes it will work. Last season, the same side that beat Bordeaux lined up against Villa, and the same side that beat Besiktas 8-0 turned out against Fulham last month.

After rushing Alonso back against Arsenal, I’m wary of seeing him start here. His quality is undeniable, and he’d be an incredible boon for the team against United, but Xabi’s fitness is paramount. With metatarsals, there’s the possibility of further injury. I know it’s United, but there’s still 5 months left to play. We’ve seen it with the opposition’s #10; Rooney’s struggled with metatarsal injuries since Euro 04. But Benitez sees Alonso every day. If the gaffer thinks he’s fit, I hope to see him on the field.

In the same article, Benitez questions Finnan’s fitness as well. Were Finnan available, I’d assume he’d start with Arbeloa at fullback. The thought of Ronaldo running at Riise down Liverpool’s left certainly strikes fear, but Riise’s been better in his last two outings, and I’m not sure about Aurelio’s fitness either. Plus, I don’t believe we’ve seen Aurelio paired with Kewell on the left.

As much as it’s hyped, and as much as I’m on pins and needles, this game isn’t the end-all, be-all of the season. Again, I’ll rely on Benitez’s pre-match chat:
"It is an important game. You are calling this weekend the grand slam with Chelsea and Arsenal also playing, but it is only December and it's not a game that will decide the league title.

"We are closer to the top and we have eight more points than we did at this stage last season."
It goes without saying that this is an important game, even though we're less than halfway through the season. And surprisingly (knocking furiously on wood), I’m more confident than usual going into a United match. The team is better than Liverpool's had in recent campaigns. Outside of Reading, recent form is excellent. They’re playing well, and scoring at a much higher rate than in past years. Gerrard’s been simply world class over the past month, as has Torres. The defense has frightened more than usual, and Liverpool’s had a nasty habit of giving away unusual penalties, but only Chelsea has more clean sheets in the league.

Of course, I’m still counseling patience, and agree with the declaration that it’s only December. But a win would go so far in cementing the progress the team’s made, building the confidence needed to make a title run, quieting the critics, and getting the monkey off Liverpool’s back.

Let’s see and hear Fortress Anfield.


13 December 2007

On Fabio Capello

As an England fan, I couldn’t be happier about the hiring of Fabio Capello.

And even more surprisingly, the FA seems to have gone about it in the right way.

Jose Mourinho needed to be interviewed. I’m not surprised that in the end he didn’t want the job, but he could have been an excellent gaffer for the national team. He’s tactically astute, knows how to build a dressing room and create an 'us against the world' atmosphere, and knows English football.

However, I used the phrase "could have been" for a reason. There was also the question of how Jose would react to the media and vice versa. Everything Mourinho does is “news-worthy,” every problem a “crisis.” He may have taken some of the pressure off his players by being the main story, but there was also a very good chance he’d be a distraction as well.

Capello checks off many of the same boxes as Mourinho, but is nowhere near as controversial.

First and foremost, Fabio Capello suffers no fools. Not playing up to par or giving 100%? Dropped from the squad without a blink of an eye, which is exactly what England needs. The inmates ran the asylum under both Eriksson and McClaren, and that cannot happen anymore. And he will work the players incessantly, demanding the most from them out of every training session; Del Piero supposedly greeted the news of Capello’s exit from Juventus by saying “The era of terror in training under Capello has now gone.” England needs a bit of terror in their training sessions.

He’s certainly got the CV, with league titles at AC Milan, Roma, Juventus and Madrid and a Champions League at Milan in 1994, in one of the best performances ever over Barcelona. He’s managed the biggest names in football over his career, and dealt with some of the biggest egos.

Plus Capello is as tactically astute and as smart a psychologist/motivator as Mourinho, as that resume would confirm.

The only negative is his English, but with time for on the job training (England’s next match is a friendly in February) and Capello’s intelligence, I doubt the language will truly be a problem.

At this point, I honestly don’t care if the manager’s English, European, or from Mars. All I care is how he manages players and his team. Yes, being English is helpful in dealing with the psyche of a nation, but Capello’s proven he can coach in different countries, with players of different nationalities. Who’s the best English candidate anyway? Coppell? Allardyce? Redknapp?

Throughout the world there are countries with foreign managers that have had better results than England over the past few years. Portugal’s been led by a Brazilian (Phil Scolari, perhaps you’ve heard of him?), South Korea and Russia by Dutchmen. It happens in African countries all the time: Djukovic (Serbia) led Ghana at the World Cup, Michel (France) the Ivory Coast. It may hurt to see England (the home of football!) mentioned in the same breath as those countries, but that’s what we’ve come to.

It is an indictment of the culture of football in England that no English candidate stands out. But right now, none of them do, whereas Capello is head and shoulders above nearly everyone else in his profession. If all things were equal, of course I’d prefer an English manager. But everyone saw the results last time, where being English was the main qualification, and we got stuck with Second-Choice Steve.

Fabio Capello is no Steve McClaren.

Predictions 12/15 – 12/16

Forgive any absent-mindedness in this preview, but I’m already obsessing over Sunday’s match against Manchester United (8:30am, Setanta). Liverpool/United match-ups are the fixtures I look for first when the schedules come out, and my least favorite matches to sit through for the full 90. I’ll be a mess by Saturday.

Manchester City v Bolton, 10am, FSC: Elano’s still out, and Stephen Ireland’s suspension won’t help in midfield either. But City’s also still unbeaten at the Eastlands. Bolton under Megson is a physical, tough team reminiscent of Bolton under Allardyce, but they’ve not won on the road all season. 1-1
West Ham v Everton, 10am, Setanta: With these two teams playing each other twice in a week, I thought both would have kept cards close to the chest in yesterday’s Carling Cup match. But both deployed nearly full-strength line-ups and went all out, which shows how important the late-round League Cup games have become. And with the way both Everton and West Ham are playing of late, I think we’ll see a similar outcome. Everton 2-1
Portsmouth v Tottenham, 10am, Setanta Xtra: Portsmouth’s been excellent lately, but surprisingly, their best results have come on the road (3-1 Villa, 4-1 Newcastle). And although Ramos has improved Spurs (they were lucky to win against City, but it was an excellent first half performance), I still think Tottenham will find Portsmouth too tough an opponent. Pompey 2-1
Birmingham v Reading, 10am: Even though they’re away from the Majeski, I can’t go against Reading after their performance last Saturday. McLeish will do well at Brum, and they deserved something from the match at Newcastle last week, but Reading’s finding the form that saw them finish as last season’s surprise package. Reading 2-1
Derby v Middlesbrough, 10am: It’s hard to bet against Boro after they beat Arsenal last week, but I can’t help myself. I still think Paul Jewell will improve Derby, although not enough to steer them away from relegation, while it's still Boro on the road. 1-1
Sunderland v Aston Villa, 10am: Villa was gash against Pompey last week, when I expected them to continue the form that saw them beat Blackburn 4-0 at Ewood Park and push Arsenal at home, but despite how much Roy Keane frightens me, I’m still going with the away side. Villa 2-0
Wigan v Blackburn, 10am: With Bentley returning from a one-match suspension, Blackburn won’t be as toothless as they were against West Ham last time out. I had thought that Steve Bruce would be able to turn around Wigan’s fortunes, but they’ve only won 1 point from 3 games under Bruce, and haven’t won a match in the league since August. Blackburn 3-1
Fulham v Newcastle, 12:15pm, FSC: Newcastle on the road, and Fulham at home. I know Fulham hasn’t been the draw-specialists at Craven Cottage they were last season, but this one smells like a stalemate, despite Newcastle’s results in the last two matches (2-1 Brum, 1-1 Arse). 0-0
Arsenal v Chelsea, 11am Sunday, FSC: Although it seems like I’ve been picking a lot of draws this week, I think we’ll have another here. On form, Chelsea’s been better of late, and Arsenal dearly misses Fabregas (they’ve now lost and drawn their last two league outings), but without Drogba, and with van Persie returning to fitness, I think each side will cancel the other out. 2-2

11 December 2007

Liverpool 4-0 Marseille

Arbeloa Carragher Hyypia Riise
Benayoun Gerrard Mascherano Kewell
Kuyt Torres

Gerrard 4’
Torres 11’
Kuyt 48’
Babel 90+1’

Had I only seen Liverpool’s last three Champions League games, I’d absolutely refuse to believe that this team only took 1 point from the first three group matches.

Once again, Liverpool scored 4 in the Champions League, bringing the total to 16 over the final three group games. When backs are against the wall in cup competition, this is one of the toughest teams to come up against in the world.

After all the worries and chewed fingernails, it was over within four minutes when Givet hauled Gerrard down in the box (there will be a lot less talk about Gerrard buying penalties, as this one was clear-cut, but he also suckered Givet into lunging). Mandanda saved Gerrard’s resulting penalty, but Ste was first to the rebound. And the early goal completely took the wind out of OM’s sails.

Seven minutes later, Torres once again summed up his qualities, blowing by three Marseille defenders with a lovely run through the penalty area, making an absolute mug of Julien Rodriguez, before beating Mandanda inside the far post.

Marseille had no answer throughout, and Liverpool was happy to soak up pressure for the remainder of the half. Gerets attempted to change things up by brining Nasri on with 30 minutes barely off the clock, but the ‘new Zidane’ did little to alter proceedings.

An early goal three minutes after the restart made the second half a formality. Kewell kept the ball in on the left and sent in a blistering cross. Torres dummied, Kuyt was into space, and it was 3-0. Liverpool could have added more, but was on cruise control. Marseille rarely threatened, but each attempt was snuffed out.

Babel, who played as a lone striker for most of his 20 minutes after coming on for Torres, finally made it 4 (with yet another goal off the bench) in injury time, beating the offside trap and Faty for pace before rounding Mandanda to cap the game off. Gerrard could have summed up matters even further with a fifth in the last minute of stoppage time, but the shot went high and the referee put an end to the debacle.

After a performance like that, and even with Liverpool going through the motions for much of the match, I can spin effusive praise about all eleven players on the pitch. Mascherano cleaned up everything that came his way, and it was heartening to see him come back on after he looked to be injured going into the tackle with Hyypia. Kuyt gave his usual workman’s effort, and deserved his well-taken goal. Riise had one of his better matches of the season, and both he and Arbeloa supported well from midfield.

But I’ll reserve my most effusive praise for Torres and Kewell. What can you say about Torres? He was a constant threat, now possesses the deed to Rodriguez, and could have scored more. Worth every penny that Liverpool paid for him. He may miss some opportunities you expect him to convert after seeing what he’s capable of, but every time he does, Shankly’s quote about Roger Hunt pops into my head.

And Kewell is slowly proving Benitez’s faith in him. Two pinpoint assists, constant harassment down the left, looking to get to the byline, and a willingness to get back and defend if required. He’s still not fully fit, evidenced by the fact he hasn’t lasted much longer than an hour yet, but on form so far, he’s well on his way.

This is the best possible result after Saturday and before Sunday. It was a comprehensive win, but the team will also know that they can play better. Even with a 4-0 scoreline, some chances were spurned, and after the second goal, Liverpool had little impetus to play full bore. I hate to steal Bill Simmons’ jokes, but I can’t help but quote a Pulp Fiction line here: let's not start sucking each other's dicks yet.

So European football is on hold until February. Now, focus has to be on what’s been Liverpool fans’ main focus all season: the Premiership. A match against Manchester United at Anfield on Sunday can’t sharpen the focus much more.

10 December 2007

Liverpool at Marseille 12.11.07

2:45pm on espn2

Marseille is currently 13th in Ligue 1

Group Stage:
Liverpool: 4-1 Porto (h); 8-0 Besiktas (h); 1-2 Besiktas (a); 0-1 Marseille (h); 1-1 Porto (a)
Marseille: 1-2 Besiktas (a); 1-2 Porto (a); 1-1 Porto (h); 1-0 Liverpool (a); 2-0 Besiktas (h)

Last 3 matches:
Liverpool: 1-3 Reading (a); 4-0 Bolton (h); 4-1 Porto (h)
Marseille: 2-0 Monaco (h); 1-1 Lille (a); 3-1 Metz (h)

Goalscorers (Europe):
Liverpool: Crouch 4; Benayoun, Gerrard, Kuyt 3; Babel, Torres 2; Hyypia, Voronin 1
Marseille: Niang 2; Cisse, Rodriguez, Taiwo, Valbuena 1

Referee: Terje Hauge (NOR)

Marseille’s probable team, according to Reuters:
30-Steve Mandanda; 3-Taye Taiwo, 4-Julien Rodriguez, 32-Gael Givet, 24-Laurent Bonnart; 28-Mathieu Valbuena, 19-Lorik Cana (capt), 7-Benoit Cheyrou, 6-Karim Ziani, 10-Boudewijn Zenden; 11-Mamadou Niang.

Of course, Reuters’s probable team for Livepool has Babel and Kewell on the flanks, and Riise at left back, so fair warning. Samir Nasri, Marseille’s main figure, is in the squad, but having just returned from a lengthy injury, is doubtful to play according to Erik Gerets. But, being a Liverpool fan and knowing the mind games managers play with team selection, Nasri’s exclusion is nowhere near certain.

Guess at a squad
Finnan Carragher Hyypia Arbeloa
Benayoun Gerrard Mascherano Babel
Kuyt Torres

Not much of a preview is needed for this one.

With Agger and Alonso out, it’s arguable that this is Liverpool’s strongest XI. The only differences I contemplated were Kewell for Babel (I’ll still argue that Babel is better served coming off the bench, but he didn't feature at all on Saturday) and Voronin for Kuyt, as Voro’s done well in previous European games.

Of course, that means this probably won’t be the team, but I can’t see that many changes even if it’s not. Other than Babel and Voronin, Lucas and Riise are probably in contention, but I don’t see room in the starting line-up for say, Crouch or Sissoko, both of whom played 90 minutes on Saturday. We certainly won’t see a line-up like the one against Marseille at Anfield.

Marseille, despite their league position, won’t be pushovers. They’ll have the crowd behind them from the off knowing qualification for the knockout stages could be achieved (Marseille hasn't qualified for the knockout rounds in over 10 years) and are unbeaten domestically since October 30th, having won 3 out of the last 4 games. They haven’t been beaten at home since September 15th, before Erik Gerets was hired as manager.

But we also know how Liverpool can respond when backs are against the wall, especially in cup competition. Olympiakos, Istanbul, Luton, the FA Cup final, Chelsea in both the CL and FA Cup. Even the results in the last two Champions League games, where the team knew a loss would mean an exit from the competition.

And I don’t put much stock in Saturday’s result. A below-par league performance and away loss was always coming, and it’s a credit to the team and staff it took until December 8th to occur. It will be a different team that turns out on Tuesday, with much different motivation.

There’s little point reiterating all that surrounding this match: progression into the knockout stages and CL revenue, morale going into the match against United, and Benitez vis-à-vis the owners. This is a crucial time for the club, both for the rest of the season and the long-term. You know it, and more importantly, the players know it.

I will be on pins and needles for the next 24 hours.

08 December 2007

Liverpool 1-3 Reading

Arbeloa Carragher Hobbs Riise
Sissoko Mascherano Gerrard
Voronin Torres Crouch

Hunt 17’ (pen)
Gerrard 28’
Doyle 60’
Harper 67’

Now we get to see the character of this team.

Games like this happen. The scoreline isn’t representative of the match, and Liverpool will rightfully have grievances with Andre Marriner’s performance, but Reading had a plan and took their chances.

It could have been a lot different. Reading’s penalty was questionable, Liverpool had two clear penalties denied, a tackle on Sissoko on the stroke of halftime could have earned one as well, and Liverpool hit the woodwork twice.

It’s hard to complain about Reading’s opener; Carragher’s foul did take place outside the box, but when Gerrard’s gotten penalties for continuation in the past, it’s still open for discussion until the laws are clearer.

And Liverpool’s reply -- Torres controlling a long ball and centering for Gerrard, who took a step forward and fired past Hahnemann -- was well deserved, and looked to steady the side. But as Liverpool looked to take control and get a second, Marriner’s stamp was imprinted on the outcome.

Torres was denied two clear penalties today, one in each half, before Reading’s two second half strikes. The second, which saw Torres hacked down in the box, led to him coming off after 60 minutes right after Reading scored their second. Besides the non-calls, every 50/50 ball today went Reading’s way, and Liverpool’s luck had vanished as well.

Nothing seemed to come off for Liverpool after Gerrard’s goal -- not the bounce of the ball nor any of the referee’s decisions. It’s tough to draw parallels to matches in previous seasons, but this feels a lot like the loss at Bolton last year.

And like that match, at the end of the day, it’s hard to argue Reading wasn’t worth their win, although I’ll continue to be aggrieved over it. Doyle’s goal was soft (and reminiscent of Alonso’s free kick against Derby), while the third, seven minutes later, came on a counter attack where Reading cut Liverpool apart because so many players were forward in search of an equalizer.

Some of Liverpool’s tactics today were questionable, but when all’s said and done, Reading won the game. They may have had some help from the referee, but Liverpool’s tactics didn’t lose it for them.

Benitez seemingly sent out a 4-3-3 to pack the middle and soak up Reading’s pressure, with Torres and Crouch the outlets on the counter. But Reading was able to get the first goal. Yes, it was a questionable decision, but Reading had spread the field well and were causing Liverpool problems from the off.

And Liverpool’s tactics worked with the equalizer, and sustained pressure for the rest of the half. Reading never truly let Liverpool play their game, but for stretches of the first half and until Reading’s second, Liverpool looked the better team. Then, clear penalties were ignored, Liverpool conceded a soft second and had to send even more men forward, and they paid the price.

Another point of criticism may be the substitutions of Torres and Gerrard (minutes after Reading’s 3rd). I know Torres suffered that knock, and I'm worried sick over its seriousness, but it didn’t look great taking off the biggest goal threat as soon as Liverpool went behind. After the Reading’s 3rd and with the points in the bag, Gerrard was taken off as well.

Both substitutions were understandable with the upcoming week, even though Gerrard and Torres were probably the only two who had good performances today. But, and it’s becoming an annoying excuse when Liverpool slip up, they should have been able to win with the players deployed. And if I hear one negative word about rotation, I take no responsibilities for my actions. You didn’t hear a peep about rotation, which still took place, when Liverpool had won their last 5 while scoring 21.

Obviously one eye was on the upcoming week. And games like this happen. Losing your first game of the season on December 8th, with some arguably extenuating circumstances, isn’t the worth thing in the world. But this performance cannot be repeated in the next two games.

I firmly believe this team is mentally and physically strong enough to pick themselves up from this loss and make Marseille pay for it.

Now let’s see it.

07 December 2007

Liverpool at Reading 12.08.07

12:15pm, live in the US on FSC

Last 4 head-to-head:
4-2 Liverpool (a; Carling Cup) 09.25.07
2-1 Liverpool (a) 04.07.07
2-0 Liverpool (h) 11.04.06
4-3 Liverpool (a; Carling Cup) 10.25.06

Last 3 matches:
Liverpool: 4-0 Bolton (h); 4-1 Porto (h); 3-0 Newcastle (a)
Reading: 1-1 Boro (h); 1-2 City (a); 1-3 Arse (h)

Goalscorers (league):
Liverpool: Torres 6; Gerrard 5; Babel, Kuyt, Voronin 3; Alonso 2; Benayoun, Hyypia, Sissoko 1
Reading: Kitson 5; Doyle 4; Harper, Hunt, Long, Shorey 2; Bikey 1

Referee: Andre Marriner

Guess at a squad:
Finnan Hobbs Hyypia Arbeloa
Gerrard Sissoko Mascherano Kewell
Kuyt Torres

Liverpool obviously can’t look past this match -- every away game in the Premiership is both tricky and of the utmost importance -- but the matches in Marseilles on Tuesday and against United next Sunday will assuredly impact on Saturday’s lineup.

Most noticeable among the suspected absences is Carra, who would miss the United game were he to be booked here. The injury he went off with against Bolton isn’t a concern, and I would imagine Carra’s clever enough to avoid a booking were it to be necessary for him to play. But Hobbs looked assured off the bench last time out, and with Agger assumed to be out for a little while longer, could do with more first team experience, especially with an old hand like Hyypia able to guide him through the match.

I was all set to guess Torres’ absence as well (yes, despite the League Cup hat trick), until the glut of articles this morning in which Benitez stated Torres is fit enough to play all 3 games next week because of his month out due to injury. This may just be mind games, and Torres might just come off the bench, but I doubt it; when Benitez says something this definitive the day before a match, it usually happens.

But I also can’t understate his importance against both Marseille and United, especially remembering how Reading’s defenders kicked him all over the pitch in September. Plus, he’s started the last three since returning from injury against Fulham, and is a player not used to playing more than 40 games a season. But, then again, he’s also Fernando Torres, certified genius, and he should have space to operate against Reading's high backline.

All 4 strikers, as usual are in contention. Kuyt scored 3 goals of his own against Reading last season, including both in the 2-0 home win. Crouch has gotten a lot of press lately, and played well starting with Torres last time out. Voronin combines well with Torres, can punish a defense’s mistake in an instant, and links up play well. A plethora of riches is probably pushing it, but I’m certainly not complaining about the inability to guess which of Liverpool’s four strikers will be deployed.

In the article linked above, Benitez also singles out Sissoko as one with the energy and fitness to play 3 games in a week at a high tempo, which I reckon is another clue as to who will start tomorrow. I’m hoping that Gerrard and Sissoko aren’t paired in the middle, as Liverpool have had some poor performances when that’s happened, and Gerrard in a free role on the right will give him the opportunity to pop up on the pitch wherever he can find space. Plus, Kewell’s done well down the left when Gerrard’s been on the right.

I’m guessing Mascherano to partner Sissoko in the middle, but with the games coming up, it easily could be Lucas as well, and the Sissoko/Lucas midfield did look a viable pairing at Newcastle. Plus, aside from Masch in for Lucas and Hobbs for Carra, my guess of a lineup is very similar to that which went out at St James’ Park.

Guessing all these changes and talking up the importance of future fixtures during the preview for a different match really doesn’t give Reading enough credit. Despite some surprising struggles this season, Reading can still be a very dangerous team. So far, they’ve beaten Everton and drawn United at Old Trafford, although they’re currently three points above the drop zone. But Kitson and Doyle are still scoring, Convey can be a hell of a talent when he’s healthy, and as said earlier, all 11 players will come ready to do battle and kick shins.

But there has to be a pragmatic approach to certain games when you’re involved in four cups and (knocking furiously on wood) potentially competing for the title. Hopefully this combination of changes and regular starters will be enough to get all three points. Again, knocking furiously on wood, but it should be.

Chances are I’ll be wrong with at best a few guesses, but I’m positive there will be some rotation, which unfortunately is still some sort of dirty word. I hope it doesn’t come back to haunt Liverpool, especially since the media will be more than happy to return to the “rotation is ruining the team” narrative, but some changes will be necessary. The games are going to come fast and thick, with the two oft-mentioned games next week before the rash of matches during the festive period.

And every one of them is important to Liverpool’s season.

06 December 2007

Predictions 12/8-12/9

Of course I follow up a non-post that turned out to be egregiously wrong (not that I’m complaining, mind you) with more predictions. I can’t help that I’m a slave to routine.

Speaking of which, the preview of the Liverpool at Reading game (12:15pm Saturday, FSC) will be up sometime tomorrow morning.

Aston Villa v Portsmouth, 7:45am, Setanta: Although Pompey's unbeaten in the league their last 10, not losing since the trip to Arsenal on September 2nd, I've been far more impressed with Villa over the last couple of weeks. A 4-0 rout of Blackburn at Ewood is an exceptional result, while they were unlucky not to take a point away from the match against Arsenal. Given that it's an early game between the 6th and 7th placed teams, a draw seems the most likely, but I'm sticking with Villa with the form they're in. Villa 2-1
Chelsea v Sunderland, 10am, FSC: News today that Drogba may miss the next month-plus if he has to undergo a knee operation won't be welcomed by Blues fans, but Chelsea should still have enough to beat struggling Sunderland at Stamford Bridge. Even if this doesn't lead to an opening for Shevchenko to get some starts, I've been impressed by Salomon Kalou over the last couple of games. Chelsea 2-0
Manchester Utd v Derby, 10am, Setanta: It's anyone's guess as to how many United will put past Derby. Liverpool put 6 past them at home, Tottenham 4, and Arsenal 5. It may be different days under Paul Jewell, but United will still probably roll, even considering that they'll probably rest players. United 3-0
Everton v Fulham, 10am, Setanta Xtra: I'm sort of surprised that my "fantasy pro-tip" about Cahill a couple weeks ago turned out to be correct, as I’m usually quite wrong when making that type of declarative statement, but not really. The shadow-boxing moron is an incredible boon to their midfield, and allows Arteta to do what he does best by giving him a goal-scoring foil in midfield. And as much as it pains me, I expect that trend to continue. Everton 2-0
Newcastle v Birmingham, 10am: Congratulations are in order for Newcastle’s performance yesterday, but I don't know if they're out of the woods yet. We've seen other false dawns over the last couple of years, and I still think Alex McLeish will do well at Brum. If Newcastle play like they did against Arsenal yesterday, they'll win here, but I think there will be a little let down, and Birmingham under McLeish can’t be overlooked. 2-2

Middlesbrough v Arsenal, 8:30am, Setanta: No matter how pleased I am to have been wrong about Arsenal keeping up their torrid pace at Newcastle, I still reckon they'll come away with 3 points from this trip to the Northeast. I will be stunned if Arsenal pass Boro to pieces, especially considering they'll be furious for dropping those 2 points. Maybe Fabregas' absence means Arsenal are a completely different team, as neither Gilberto (who's lost a step) nor Diarra fill the midfield as Cesc does, but they still have to be favored here. Arsenal 2-1
Bolton v Wigan, 10am: Truth be told, the only thing keeping Wigan from a win in Steve Bruce's first match was Titus Bramble. However, despite the fact that the Premier League table says differently, I think Wigan will find an away trip to Bolton more difficult than a home match against City. Plus, it’s a Lancashire derby, so sumptuous football probably isn’t on the cards. 1-1
Tottenham v Manchester City, 10am: Well, I'm still expecting City to drop points and keep earning more draws than wins, like against Wigan last week and Pompey a couple before, and they'll undoubtedly miss Elano's influence. I'm also expecting Ramos to continue to improve Tottenham, but last week's late loss to Birmingham and the fact they gave up 3 goals is worrisome (that's 5 shipped in 2 games). I should probably wait until I watch today’s UEFA Cup match at Anderlecht, as Spurs have had some good European performances that have made me change my mind before, but if nothing else, college taught me to stick with my first guess. 1-1
Blackburn v West Ham, 11am, FSC: Blackburn's been on a slide of late; the win over Newcastle last time out is their only victory since the end of October. Meanwhile, the Hammers have smashed Derby, drawn Tottenham, and narrowly lost to Chelsea at the Bridge in their last three. But the game is at Ewood Park, while Bentley played absolutely out of his mind last week, and my fantasy team hopes that continues. Blackburn 2-1

05 December 2007

Nothing to see here

Sorry for the recent silence, but more musings to come later in the week, with Liverpool having no mid-week game for the last time until the second week in January.

From my understanding, the reason that Liverpool’s game in hand against West Ham isn’t being played, while Arsenal’s at Newcastle is, is because of Everton’s UEFA Cup home tie against Zenit St. Petersburg tonight.

The reason for this non-post is to get the prediction out of the way for this afternoon's Premiership game, which I reckon Arsenal will stroll 3-0, despite it being at St James', and all the rumors about Allardyce's position. Sorry Big Sam.

02 December 2007

Liverpool 4-0 Bolton

Arbeloa Carragher Hyypia Riise
Benayoun Lucas Gerrard Kewell
Torres Crouch

Hyypia 17’
Torres 45’
Gerrard 56’ (pen)
Babel 85’

I’d like to thank the media, and possibly the owners (we still haven’t heard the full story) for catalyzing the team, staff, and fans. Liverpool’s now won the last 5 games by a margin of 21 to 1.

Liverpool deployed an attacking line-up, and began the game accordingly. They could have been up 1-0 within 5 minutes, with Michalik clearing Crouch’s shot off the line, but Bolton also could have had one of their own within 10.

The opener arrived after 17 minutes, with Hyypia deftly heading home Gerrard’s free kick, but a second wasn’t coming right away despite sustained pressure. 30 minutes in, and Liverpool started to suffer from some of the same doldrums as those against Porto, and Bolton should have been level after 38. Anelka was through after Carragher and Reina collided at the top of the box, only to send his shot into the side netting. It was a horrific miss, and was also the last real chance Bolton would get.

Torres made certain of the result on the stroke of halftime, his fourth in four games. An inch-perfect Gerrard throughball sent him in on the right, and his chip over Jaaskelainen iced the match. At 1-0, there was always a doubt, but it would have taken a lot for Bolton to overcome a 2-0 deficit at Anfield with the form Liverpool’s in.

10 minutes after the restart, Crouch won a penalty that Gerrard converted (taking his scoring streak to 8 in 9), which completely killed off the game. Liverpool continued to create chances, but took the foot off the gas. The introduction of Babel returned some impetus, with the super sub (4 of his 5 goals have come off the bench) netting in the 85th with a rebound from Kuyt’s effort, and unlucky not to get a second, having his effort cleared off the line by Meite minutes later.

Despite the scoreline, it was typical Bolton until Liverpool’s third. They were physical and kept themselves in the game. Had Anelka scored, it could have been a completely different story. Of course, it could have been even worse for Bolton had Diouf been rightfully sent off for his tackle on Arbeloa earlier on. But the point is that it’s a credit to the strides Liverpool has made that they dispatched the opposition as comprehensively as they did today. Bolton under Megson is a different proposition than under Sammy Lee, and I feel fairly confident in saying that they’ll avoid relegation.

That Jamie Carragher went off in the 51st minute clutching his ribs (the second time this season he’s been injured in a collision with Reina) takes a bit of the gloss off the result, but hopefully it was very precautionary with Liverpool in control, and it was good to see Hobbs get time with the first team, although Bolton rarely threatened.

As Liverpool was so dominant, there’s little to complain about in the player’s performances. Once again, Gerrard’s proved his quality; he’s been unstoppable of late. Absolutely unstoppable. Yes, a couple of his goals have come from penalties, but the rest of his game is there as well. With Lucas (who continues to play above his age, and was again very good today) in the team, Gerrard sat deeper in a role similar to Alonso’s and clearly relished it. He had a hand in all of Liverpool’s goals, and it’s no exaggeration when I say his pass to Torres for the 2nd was perfect.

Crouch and Torres, two strikers who like to lead the line, finally got their first start together in the league, and we weren’t disappointed. Torres again showed his quality with his goal, and should have scored more, with his pace and movement threatening Bolton’s back four time and time again. Crouch was unlucky not to score, with a shot cleared off the line and a couple of free headers off target, but he made intelligent runs to create space for Torres, and the pairing shows promise.

Both Kewell and Benayoun were active and threatening on the wings, cutting in and staying wide. I know I keep saying it, but Kewell’s return to fitness will greatly improve Liverpool. He’s not quite there yet, but he looks to take his man on and looks to stretch the field, but still has the ability to cut inside and shoot. Plus, Babel for Kewell is a natural substitution, and we’ve seen how good Babel is off the bench, especially when the team’s ahead. His pace is unnatural, but there are times he needs to be even more direct, and he’s clearly still learning.

Arbeloa and Riise did well in supporting them from defense, but I still can’t help but thinking that Riise is too wasteful in possession offensively. Don’t get me wrong though; he did a lot of things right today, and his ability going forward kept Kevin Davies playing farther back than he wanted to.

It has been good times on the pitch of late. There’s little that needs to be said about a team that’s won their last five 8-0, 2-0, 3-0, 4-1, and 4-0, while (gasp!) still rotating. You can say it’s been against weaker opposition, but Porto are no mugs, there are no easy away games, and Bolton is a team that beat Manchester United last week. It’s of little use thinking of them as the relegation strugglers they were a couple of months back, despite the fact heads clearly dropped after Liverpool’s third.

But there are harder games to come: a trip to Reading, which can’t be overlooked, before Marseille and Manchester United. It’s an excellent time to be hitting this form, but it’s even more imperative that it continues.

30 November 2007

Liverpool v Bolton 12.02.07

10am, live in the US on Setanta

Last 4 head-to-head:
3-0 Liverpool (h) 01.01.07
0-2 Bolton (a) 09.30.06
1-0 Liverpool (h) 04.09.06
2-2 (a) 01.02.06

Last 3 matches:
Liverpool: 4-1 Porto (h); 3-0 Newcastle (a); 2-0 Fulham (h)
Bolton: 1-1 Aris Salonika (h); 1-0 United (h); 0-0 Boro (h)

Goalscorers (league):
Liverpool: Torres 5; Gerrard 4; Kuyt, Voronin 3; Alonso, Babel 2; Benayoun, Sissoko 1
Bolton: Anelka 7; Braaten, Campo, Helguson, Nolan, Speed 1

Referee:Steve Bennett

Guess at a squad:
Finnan Carragher Hyypia Arbeloa
Benayoun Gerrard Mascherano Kewell
Torres Crouch

Since 02-03, when I started being completely obsessive over Liverpool, Bolton’s been one of my least favorite teams to see on the schedule. Partly Sam Allardyce’s style, partly because Bolton always had the potential to be one of those ‘bogey teams’ (like Birmingham), and partly because of some of the decisions that have ruined Liverpool’s chances in the past (like Reina’s “handball” in the 0-2 loss at the Reebok last year).

This year had looked to be different, but Megson’s gotten them back to their brand of football, ever so evident in the 1-0 win over United last Saturday. They are still a physical side that’s an utter pain to play against. But with 17 goals in the last 4 games, I’m less afraid of Liverpool being unable to break down the opposition (knocking furiously on wood), and an early goal will go a long way towards getting Bolton out of their shell.

Which is why I’m guessing an attacking line-up, with Torres, Crouch, Benayoun, and Gerrard all on the scoresheet recently, as well as Kewell, who's returned to fitness and continues to be an important part of the team. I know we’ve yet to see Crouch get an extended run with Torres (or even an extended spell in the starting line-up), but there’s been a growing clamor for the partnership, and despite the physicality of Bolton, Crouch played well against them the last time the two teams met.

Last season, the key to beating Bolton 3-0 on New Year’s Day was Liverpool’s width on the flanks and persistence in getting attempts on goal. Both Pennant and Crouch played a big part (as did Kuyt) as Liverpool kept driving forward, and finally broke down Bolton’s resistance after 60 minutes. It's my hope that both Yossi and Kewell will be able to emulate Pennant's performance from the last time these two teams met.

I also hope it doesn’t take as long to break Bolton down on Sunday, as they will grow in stature the longer they keep Liverpool out, but we’ve seen against both Fulham and Porto that Liverpool’s been able to keep putting pressure on the opposition and get the late goals when the team’s been unable to make a breakthrough or get a second.

Anelka will be Bolton’s target man, and he’s behind only Benjani on the top scorers table with 7 in the league. Otherwise, I imagine we’ll see the other 10 men behind the ball. It’d be nice if Agger were back, as his pace would help against Anelka, but the backline has been the stingiest in the Premiership, only allowing six goals so far this season.

Liverpool’s defense, outside of a bad 30 minutes against Porto, has been excellent over the past month. With Aurelio again absent and Riise not in the best form, Arbeloa’s made the left back position his own, while I’ll reiterate that I thought Finnan put in his best performance of the season on Wednesday. Hyypia’s put the own goals behind him to turn back the clock in the past few games, while Carragher’s as reliable as ever.

Nolan and Nicky Hunt are suspended for Bolton, while on-loan Guthrie’s ineligible. McCann looks likely to start for Bolton despite the injury picked up yesterday. Agger, Alonso, Pennant, and Aurelio are all ruled out through injury for Liverpool.

I’ve really tried not to sound too confident, despite Bolton’s struggles and Liverpool’s play over the last month (and really, all season long in the league). Bolton has the potential to beat anyone, as shown last week, and they make the opposition suffer every time out.

But I also don’t fancy Liverpool to slip up either. The team’s worked so hard to get themselves right in the Champions League and stay unbeaten in the Prem, and the goals are finally coming, while players are returning to fitness. It’s essential Liverpool keep on this run prior to Marseille on the 11th and United on the 16th.

29 November 2007

Predictions 12/1-12/3

Chelsea v West Ham, 7:45am, Setanta: It's a London derby, so you can sort of throw the form book out the window, but there are still a couple of unavoidable truths. One, Chelsea's hasn't been beaten since the United game in September. Two, no matter that Carlton Cole's finally adapted to being one of West Ham's only fit strikers, he will not find it as easy to break through Chelsea's back line as say, West Ham did against Derby last week. Until further notice, I think I may be back to picking 2-0 Chelsea wins pretty much every time out. Chelsea 2-0
Wigan v Man City, 10am, FSC: Another new manager, and another game I think it'll have a big difference. I've been guessing City to start their decline for a few matches now, and while they haven't been at the form of a couple of months ago, they've haven't lost since the drubbing at Chelsea. But I think Steve Bruce might have a shock or two in for them. Wigan 1-0
Blackburn v Newcastle, 10am, Setanta: Newcastle looked utterly lost last Saturday. Blackburn was drubbed at home yesterday, but I imagine they'll have an easier time bouncing back that Sam Allardyce's men, who were completely dishelved at home against Liverpool. Blackburn 3-1
Sunderland v Derby, 10am, Setanta Xtra: This prediction party is full of new manager talk, and once again, I think it'll have a positive impact. But a positive impact for Derby on the road is probably at best a point; they've been dire away from Pride Park and are still without a goal on their travels. Maybe I'm putting too much stock in Paul Jewell, as an ex-Red and Scouser, but Sunderland has to be demoralized following the 7-1 thrashing last week, and despite the best efforts of Roy Keane, I don't know how they'll rebound. 0-0
Portsmouth v Everton, 10am: I don't know how much impact the Redknapp/bung situation will have on Portsmouth, and they're very good at Fratton Park. But coming off a 7-1 win and with no European game today, Everton will be ready for the challenge. And since it'll be an important game for both, with Pompey in 7th and Everton 8th, I reckon a draw's the most likely result. 1-1
Reading v Middlesbrough, 10am: Well, Reading's at home, Boro's on the road, and Gareth Southgate's waiting by the newswire for word of his eventual firing. Reading 2-0
Aston Villa v Arsenal, 12:15pm, FSC: I'm admittedly stunned at how Villa took Blackburn to the woodshed yesterday at Ewood Park, and it was their fourth straight league win. During this streak, they've gotten themselves up to 6th, and O'Neill's named an unchanged side in the last four games. But Arsenal rested many players against Sevilla with an eye on this one and I doubt they'll disappoint. I'm still waiting for the stretch where Arsenal starts to drop points, but with the way they've been playing, it hasn't looked like happening. Arse 2-1
Tottenham v Birmingham, 11am Sunday, FSC: And yet more new manager talk. With McLeish just installed, I'm very tempted to think Birmingham will punch above their weight here. Ramos is in the process of changing Tottenham's fortunes, and the defense already shows signs of improvement, but Birmingham's not a bad side anyway, and with McLeish in his first match, the team will be raring to go, no matter the fact the game's at White Hart Lane. 2-2
Manchester Utd v Fulham, 3pm Monday, Setanta: Not only did United rest some players in their Champions League match on Tuesday, there will undoubtedly be a reaction to the 1-0 loss at Bolton last weekend. Fulham's been better than expected recently, with a win, 2 draws, and only 1 loss in the last 4 (the draw against Blackburn being the best result), but I doubt they'll have much success at Old Trafford. United 2-0