30 January 2007

Liverpool 2-1 West Ham

A 2-1 win, and I’m not happy. Maybe that’s a good sign. They do say a hallmark of a good team is winning the game where you’re not at your best.

But I wasn’t pleased with the first half, wasn’t pleased with the refereeing, and wasn’t pleased that Liverpool was under the cosh for the last 15 minutes because the linesman couldn’t tell that Kepa Blanco was a yard offside.

Liverpool totally dominated possession in the first half, but was unable to utilize it. It was nice to see Rafa come out with three strikers, showing that Liverpool was going to attack despite being away from home, but it seemed as if Kuyt was playing too deep to be effective and Finnan (who I rarely, if ever, have complaints about) wasn’t doing enough to get the ball in the box from the right flank. But Liverpool wasn’t getting much from either flank, in contrast to the way they played at Watford. Liverpool also lost possession far too often, but with the way players (and the manager, try and find the video) were slipping all over the pitch, that could be expected.

Couldn’t have asked for a better start to the second half, though. West Ham came out from the half late, and was caught unaware before 15 seconds were off the clock. Liverpool kicked off, Alonso played a long pass to Crouch, who chested down and squared it for Kuyt to angle (from outside the box) into the back of the net. Exceptional technique on a gorgeous shot by Kuyt, and in the back of the net before the Hammers knew what hit them.

The second goal was even better. Seven minutes later, after another nice series of moves, Riise pulled it back for Crouch (happy birthday, Peter) to side-foot past Roy Carroll. Superb team goal, pretty one-touch passing, and another fine finish. West Ham looked flailing, and it looked done and dusted. It should have been done and dusted.

Liverpool could have had more, but after not getting the third, they seemed to let West Ham back in the game. The first fifteen minutes of the second half might have been the best Liverpool’s played away from home all season, but then it seemed they shifted into neutral. Curbishley’s striker substitutions, Cole and Harewood off for Blanco and Zamora also helped the Hammers.

But Blanco’s goal, on 77 minutes after some casual defending by Liverpool, should have never stood. Not by a long shot. In addition to the offside, Pennant was fouled on the change of possession. That would be the second goal (one of Baptista’s many in the Carling Cup as well) Martin Atkinson’s allowed that was clearly offside. Now that Uriah Rennie’s been demoted, I think I might have a new favorite ref.

The last 15 minutes saw Liverpool hang on for dear life, West Ham throw everything they could at the opposition’s goal, and the loss of all my fingernails. But the three points were secured, and Liverpool is 2 points behind Chelsea (with the Blues to play Blackburn tomorrow). Not to mention that both Arsenal and United lost at Upton Park. That will do.

MOM: Hyypia. Cleared absolutely everything in the air, even though I don’t think Carlton Cole ever moved faster than a light jog. Agger, Alonso and Reina also deserve mentions, all played very well. Pepe especially pulled off some nice saves.

29 January 2007

Liverpool at West Ham 01.30.07

2:45pm, live in the US on Setanta.

Liverpool: 3rd place; 46 points out of 24 games
West Ham: 18th place; 20 points out of 24 games

Last 4 meetings:
2-1 Liverpool (h) 08.26.06
3-3 (3-1 pen) Liverpool (FA Cup) 05.13.06
2-1 Liverpool (a) 04.26.06
2-0 Liverpool (h) 10.29.05

Last 3 games:
Liverpool: 2-0 Chelsea (h); 3-0 Watford (a); 3-6 Arsenal (h)
West Ham: 0-1 Watford (h); 2-2 Newcastle (a); 3-3 Fulham (h)

Goalscorers (league; more than one goal):
Liverpool: Kuyt 8; Bellamy 6; Crouch 5; Gerrard 4; Alonso, Garcia 3; Gonzalez 2
West Ham: Zamora 6; Benayoun, Cole, Harewood, Mullins, Sheringham 2

Referee: Martin Atkinson (you may remember him from a postponement earlier this season)

Guess at a squad:
Finnan, Carragher, Agger, Aurelio
Pennant, Gerrard, Alonso, Riise
Kuyt, Bellamy

I’m conflicted.

On one hand, I’d like to see the same lineup that went out at Watford, using all three strikers to take the game to the opposition relentlessly. West Ham’s not been the best defensively, and the 3-4-3 (well, that’s the formation it most resembled) would put pressure on them from the start.

However, with Pennant’s recent form, especially given the Chelsea match, I can’t see him being left out. Yes, it wouldn’t do wonders for his confidence to leave him on the bench, but that’s not the primary concern, as the team’s always going to come first. Pennant truly has made Liverpool a better side in the past few games he’s started with his crossing, pace, and most impressively, his vision in picking out the right pass.

Therefore, I’m going with the same lineup that went out against Chelsea, expect for Bellamy in for Crouch, although none of the options would surprise me. I think that Belllamy’s pace will have the best chance of unhinging West Ham’s defense. Ferdinand, Gabbidon and Collins are all out with injuries, leaving new-boy Calum Davenport to be paired with Jonathan Spector or Christian Dailly. In addition, leg-breaker and all-around jerk Lucas Neill is out with an ankle sprain or something (karma). On paper, it looks like the backline is there for the taking, although it merits a mention that Curbishley’s teams have always been solid at the back. And once again, it’s Crouchy who appears to be odd man out.

Most of the others write themselves. Sissoko and Zenden may return by the derby, but the central midfield looks to be Gerrard and Alonso for the foreseeable future. Aurelio and Riise combined quite well against Chelsea and I expect, as in that game, Riise will play ahead of Fabio for the majority of the match. Meanwhile, the backline looks to have returned to the form displayed last season, as the goal given up to Blackburn is the lone league goal scored by opposition since November.

As many, including Benitez, have said over the past week, beating Chelsea will have meant little if a win isn’t picked up tomorrow. Liverpool must continue the form they’ve shown if there’s any hope of narrowing the gap with Chelsea and United. Not to mention that Arsenal’s right on their heels. A win tomorrow will keep up the pace needed to compete for second, in addition to providing morale and momentum going into this weekend’s derby, where revenge will be on the minds.

Predictions 1/30-1/31

Portsmouth v Middlesbrough, 2:45pm, FSC: I’ve been slamming Boro lately, and they’ve started delivering results like last week’s 5-1 affair over Bolton. If Downing plays as he did in that game, Boro’s a much different, and much better, team. Fratton Park’s a difficult place to play not even considering Pompey’s form (they’re still in 5th, mind), so if Boro’s playing well, a draw seems the most likely result. 1-1
Reading v Wigan, 3:00pm, Setanta Xtra: Wigan’s barely hovering above the drop zone, and if any of the teams below them go on a run, the Latics could be in for trouble. Seven successive defeats in the league haven’t helped either. Reading’s been this season’s version of last season’s Wigan (such a handy narrative…), and we’ll see similarly scrappy styles, but Reading looks to have the edge on form and morale. Reading 2-1
Sheffield United v Fulham, 2:45pm: I’ve been ever so pleased with Fulham’s moves this transfer window. Montella (who I will continue to rave about), Dempsey, Smertin, and even Simon Davies add something to this squad, and I think the spending shows al-Fayed’s faith in Chris Coleman. That said, Sheffield is and will continue to be difficult to beat at home. 2-2

Chelsea v Blackburn, 2:45pm, FSC: Blackburn was rampant over a poor Luton in the FA Cup, but Chelsea also rolled over an awed and out of sorts Nottingham Forest. Wednesday is too early to expect John Terry to return, but Mourinho’s been seen smiling again and Chelsea look likely to be back on track. And if not back on track, at the least I highly doubt we’ll ever see their backline as suspect as it was against Liverpool. Chelsea 2-0
Newcastle v Aston Villa, 3:00pm, Setanta Xtra: Villa’s spent as much as any team in the Prem outside of West Ham, although mainly on one player. Both Ashley Young and John Carew will help Villa greatly, as they’ve been missing goals since Luke Moore’s injury. Newcastle’s still hit or miss, more often hit at home than miss (let’s not count the FA Cup game, shall we?), but I think Villa will start to return to the form they began the season with. Villa 2-1
Bolton v Charlton, 3:00pm: Winless in the last three in the Prem, Bolton will look to give 19th placed Charlton a thrashing at the Reebok. If they’re going to survive the drop, Charlton will have to play as they did against Portsmouth in all their away games, and I don’t see that happening here. Bolton 2-0
Manchester United v Watford, 3:00pm: One would think that getting a good 1-0 win over West Ham in the FA Cup would boost Watford’s morale go into their next match. Pity that match is against United, at Old Trafford. United 3-0

Arsenal v Tottenham (agg 2-2), 2:45pm Setanta: Bonus Carling Cup action, with all to play for in the second leg for the right to meet Chelsea in the final. If Tottenham had been able to hold onto the 2-0 lead they took into halftime in the last match, we’d have a completely different game here. But Baptista scored twice in the second half, and Arsenal has firm control of the tie with the away goals advantage and this leg at the Emirates. Arse 3-1 (5-3 agg)

Liverpool at West Ham is on Setanta at 2:45 Tuesday. Preview up later.

28 January 2007

How much would you pay?

A completely arbitrary exercise created by an overload of transfer speculation. What would Liverpool expect to get if they sold any of the first team? Thankfully, Liverpool isn't a selling team.

Remember, these are completely arbitrary, made up by me, off the top of my head, with no transfer rumors or speculation attached. The insanity of the window prompts this disclaimer.

Yes, I know I overrate some (most). Gerrard and Alonso aren't them, though.

Reina = £10m
Dudek = £2m
Finnan = £7m
Carra = £15m
Hyypia = £3m
Agger = £8m
Riise = £8-10m
Aurelio = £3m
Pennant = £8m
Gerrard = £50m
Alonso = £35-40m
Sissoko = £10m
Gonzalez = £5m
Garcia = £7m
Crouch = £12m
Kuyt = £12-15m
Bellamy = £9m

26 January 2007

FA Cup 4th round

No Premier League this weekend due to the 4th round of the FA Cup. This is too long to wait between Liverpool games.

In coping, here are some random predictions (honestly, the best part about the FA Cup is the fact it’s impossible to predict for the first few rounds and guarantees some upsets and replays) to try and hold me over.

Outside of the big names, I’m most interested in Fulham v Stoke and Bristol City (playing very well of late in League One) v Boro. Both feel as if they could be upsets, but Boro has been on a goal-scoring streak of late with Downing’s resurgence and Fulham’s fortunate to being playing at home.

Luton v Blackburn, 7:30am, FSC: Blackburn 2-0
Tottenham v Southend, 10:00am, FSC: Tottenham 2-0
Barnet v Plymouth, 10:00am: Plymouth 2-1
Birmingham v Reading, 10:00am: Brum 2-1
Blackpool v Norwich, 10:00am: Norwich 1-0
Bristol City v Middlesbrough, 10:00am: 0-0
Crystal Palace v Preston, 10:00am: Preston 2-1
Derby v Bristol Rovers, 10:00am: Derby 3-0
Fulham v Stoke, 10:00am: Fulham 1-0
Ipswich v Swansea, 10:00am: Swansea 3-2
West Ham v Watford, 10:00am: West Ham 1-0
Manchester United v Portsmouth, 12:15pm, Setanta PPV: United 2-0

Wolverhampton v West Brom, 7:00am: 0-0
Chelsea v Nottingham Forest, 9:00am, FSC: Chelsea 3-1
Manchester City v Southampton, 10:00am: City 1-0
Arsenal v Bolton, 11:00am, Setanta PPV: Arse 2-0

Someone outside of the big four really has to win the FA Cup this year. I can’t see Chelsea, United or Arsenal losing at this stage, but there’s always hope. Since 2000, Chelsea, Liverpool, Arsenal, Arsenal, United, Arsenal, and Liverpool have lifted the trophy. So long have we heard about the magic of the cup, for the sake of the mythology, I’m really hoping someone else gets a shot this year. By the way, the last time an FA Cup final took place without any of those four teams was 1991.

Meet the new boss, same as the old boss?

Michel Platini was elected President of UEFA ahead of incumbent Lennart Johansson this morning. I can’t say I’m thrilled (I certainly would have voted for Johansson), but hopefully, Platini will come to realize it’s a figurehead position and won’t attempt to bring his proposed changes to the European game.

The cause for this concern is Platini’s constantly stated proposal to limit countries to three teams in the Champions League. According to the incoming President, England, Italy, and Spain should no longer receive 4 Champions League places, TV revenue and G-14 be damned. This year, Arsenal, Osasuna, and Chievo Verona wouldn’t have made the Champions League. Osasuna and Chievo were admittedly surprises, and on face value, might not deserve to be in the tournament as neither qualified for the group stages, but it’s hard to say that they took a spot from a team more deserving.

Look at the usual suspects from the national leagues. Competition for Champions League places in these organizations is already heated. And now, one of United, Chelsea, Arsenal and Liverpool would miss the CL every season. In Spain, there are Real, Barca, Valencia, Sevilla, and Villarreal, among others. In Italy (after Juve returns from Serie B), there’s AC Milan, Inter, Roma, and Juve. Every year, one of the biggest names in club football, if not more than one, will miss out on its biggest tournament.

It wouldn’t kill the competition, but it certainly wouldn’t help competition or revenue. As Johansson himself repeatedly said, why change a success? Why try and kill the goose laying you golden eggs?

I still find it hard to believe that the G-14, the organization made up of the largest clubs and stalking horse of European football, would agree to or ever allow this to happen. Their clubs would be those that will lose places and revenue. England especially, as the bulk of television revenue comes from the UK.

I’m sincerely hoping Platini’s proposal is campaign trail talk and nothing more. Pleasantries and empty promises to encourage the smaller national associations to vote for him. Because I firmly believe that it would be to the detriment of the tournament to take these teams out of the Champions League. Primarily, you’re losing a big name that will bring fans and revenue to the tournament, more so than any team that would replace them, but it’s more than that.

It will not help winners from smaller nations last longer in the Champions League. Chances are, those teams will still lose to bigger opposition, whether it’s the 3rd or 4th placed team from said country. And it will not increase the visibility and viability of the UEFA Cup. There will always be only one Champions League.

Not to mention that traveling down this road will bring UEFA in direct competition with its biggest clubs and the G-14. Fostering these divisions cannot be good for the game, simple as.

If Platini’s proposal was already law, Liverpool wouldn’t have won the CL in 2005. There would have been no Garcia wonder-goal against Juve, no ‘did it cross the line?’ controversy against Chelsea, and no greatest comeback in European Cup history. Liverpool fan or not, there’s reason enough.

But hey, Sepp Blatter fully supports and endorses Platini, so everything must be fine.

23 January 2007

January in East London

It’s amazed me how many times I’ve seen West Ham’s name come up in transfer dealings and speculation. Eggert Magnusson will seemingly sign anyone in the hopes of staying in the Premier League for next year’s television money bonanza. West Ham is spending money hand over fist so far, and the transfer window still has a week to go.

Luis Boa Morte - ~£5m (undisclosed)
Calum Davenport - ~£3m (undisclosed)
Lucas Neill - ~£1.5m (undisclosed)
Nigel Quashie - £1.5m
Kepa Blanco – loan, option to buy in June

In addition, Ashley Young turned down an £8m+ move, and West Ham has had bids of £4m and £6m rejected for Matty Upson. Including the money for those two players, West Ham’s spending would have totaled somewhere near £25 million, not including wages. As it stands, it’s closer to £11m. Still no small change, especially after you've already dropped over £85m to purchase the club.

Curbishley has identified where he sees weaknesses in West Ham, but will it do them any good? On paper, Boa Morte should bring goals, Neill solves the right back problem, Davenport will be cover for Ferdinand and Gabbidon, and Quashie is a veteran of relegation struggles (a backhanded compliment if I’ve ever written one), but will they settle, will they fit with the rest of the squad?

The biggest fear is West Ham will dole out this money in fees and wages, and still go down in May. It would leave the club in a far worse situation than when they were relegated in 2003. Not only due to the loss of TV revenue (this year the winning club will get £30m, next year’s last-placed side will earn that), but I don’t know if they have the assets of the 2003 squad. Money lost through relegation was recouped by the sales of Cole, Defoe, James, and Carrick among others. Ashton, Reo-Coker, Benayoun and Anton Ferdinand may garner the same, but it would severely deplete the club and squash their promotion hopes for at least a season.

The Hammers currently sit in 18th among the relegation places, and look at the games they still have to play. They are still to face all the top-five sides, although they’re only away to Arsenal and United. Against direct relegation competition, they have to travel to Sheffield, Wigan and Charlton; the only home game against a team with a similar league position is against Watford.

But what are their options? It all comes down to Magnusson. To make a difference, it has to be silly money; the January transfer market almost always brings inflated costs and second-choice signings. He made the first step in firing Pardew and shelling out for Curbishley, and since he’s already started down the road, it makes sense to continue.

His other option was to sit back and hope for the best. Pray that the talent already in the side would be enough to see the season out. Start saving money and selling assets now, also known as the Watford method. Hammers fans would have never accepted that, not to mention how ridiculous it would make his original investment in the club look.

So really, the point of this wasn’t to question spending. Magnusson has to spend for the sake of the club, there’s no other choice thanks to West Ham’s start to the season. I don’t know if I would spend in a similar manner; I can pick flaws in each of the signings, but as has been said, you make the most out of what’s available in January, as you don’t always have the pick of the player.

I just don’t know if it will turn their season around. That's the $64,000 question. Watford, Wigan, and Charlton seem more likely prospects for the drop, especially with their play of late, but West Ham has been contravening expectations all season.

We will, however, get to see if Curbishley is the miracle worker he was made out to be at Charlton.

22 January 2007

On Stephen Warnock

It’s with sadness that Liverpool sees Stephen Warnock on to Blackburn. His transfer was a long time coming, and honestly, was a piece of business Liverpool was always going to do, but Warnock will still be missed.

The boy simply oozed passion for the club, and not only because he was a local lad. It was the way he always played; you couldn’t ask for a better attitude. He came back from two broken legs and a number of loan spells, and never gave up the belief he could and would make it in Liverpool’s first team. Like many others who have now left the club, he also played his part in the Champions League run in 04-05.

As it stands, Warnock won’t be a first team regular for Liverpool. A number of interviews with current players see them name Warnock as one of the hardest tacklers in the team, which isn’t surprising given his attitude, but his positional sense has never matched his desire. Riise and Aurelio are both ahead of Warnock on the depth chart and look to remain there. They offer more options in the position, and both are better suited for the game Benitez plays.

This move should be exactly what Warnock needs. He’s a Premiership-level defender, and has been capped as a full English international; there was never a chance he’d end up back at Coventry or in a similar situation. He’s still fairly young at 25, and will get the playing time necessary to improve his game. And in Mark Hughes he’ll have a tough-nosed manager who’ll match his passion.

Below, Warnock’s only goal for Liverpool, is a perfect example of how much the lad wanted to do well for the club. Just look at the ecstasy in his celebration despite the fact it’s a late goal in a game long won.

Good luck, Stevie.

20 January 2007

Liverpool 2-0 Chelsea

Kuyt 4’
Pennant 17’

The only difference from my proposed line-up and the actual was Crouch in for Bellamy. And it’s the reason Rafa’s the manager, and I’m some schmuck writing on the internet. Using Crouch instead of Bellamy was the reason Liverpool was able to start as effectively as they did. The height and strength of both strikers clearly unsettled Chelsea’s already makeshift defense early and often, and that set the tone for the rest of the game.

Liverpool got off to a quick start, and as frequently happens, the early goal got the game going in the right direction. Carragher’s long ball caught Chelsea’s defense wrong-footed, and Crouch’s flick-on allowed Kuyt to control and fire in before four minutes were off the clock.

Riise should have doubled the lead minutes later, but Cech, in his first start since his head injury, got down quickly to cover. However, less than ten minutes later, Pennant soon took advantage of being left completely wide open and fired in a splendid dipping shot from outside the box that just made it under the cross bar. Cech could do nothing about either goal, and honestly, was impressive considering he's just returned from so serious an injury.

Chelsea’s defense, or lack thereof, in the first half will be the main talking point from the match. Players were already out of position before Carvalho was ruled out due to sickness this morning. Chelsea’s central defensive pairing was right back Ferriera and midfielder Essien. To be sure, their regular defense might have prevented both of Liverpool’s goals, but credit must be given to the way Liverpool played, and controlled, the rest of the game.

The all-around defense was superb today; it may well have been Liverpool’s best performance of the season. But special mention is reserved for the defense on set plays. Chelsea has an uncanny knack for making the most of few opportunities and using their set plays to the fullest, and Liverpool did not give them the opportunity today. Chelsea had more free kicks and corners and did absolutely nothing with them, typified by Ballack completely losing the plot when he and Drogba tried to pull off a trick from a free kick.

It was also easily Aurelio’s best defensive performance, and may have been the best defensive performance by any Liverpool left back this season. Neither Wright-Phillips nor Kalou got past him more than once today. He played at left back for the majority of the game, allowing Riise to get forward to uncork a few close efforts, but later on showed his versatility, swapping positions with Riise and frequently making himself useful the few times Liverpool counter-attacked.

Any one of Aurelio, Crouch, Carra, or Kuyt could be man of the match, so I’ll mention them all. Aurelio for the reasons above, Crouch and Kuyt both for their ability to upset Chelsea’s defense, their touch and their workrate, and Carra for having Drogba in his pocket all game long, letting very little get behind him. But really, everyone played well; no one had an off game at all.

It’s wonderful to have no complaints following a game, even better to have no complaints following a Chelsea game. Every single player deserves a share of the credit. Yes, Chelsea was hit by injuries, and I can’t wait to hear Mourinho complain about it. It’s not as if Liverpool hasn’t been hit with injury problems as well, Jose. And how much did your bench cost, let alone your full squad? And to top it all off, maybe we’ll stop hearing about Liverpool’s inability to beat the big teams.

Liverpool now sits only 5 points behind Chelsea. Manchester United and Arsenal are playing each other tomorrow, and both are still to come to Anfield. I know for a fact that every Liverpool fan would take this situation compared to a couple of months ago when Chelsea and United were running away with the league.

19 January 2007

Liverpool v Chelsea 1.20.07

7:45am, live in the US on Setanta.

Liverpool: 3rd place; 43 points out of 23 games
Chelsea: 2nd place; 51 points out of 23 games

Last 4 meetings:
0-1 Chelsea (a) 09.17.06
2-1 Liverpool (Community Shield) 08.13.06
2-1 Liverpool (FA Cup) 04.22.06
0-2 Chelsea (a) 02.05.06

Last 3 games:
Liverpool: 3-0 Watford (a); 3-6 Arsenal (h); 1-3 Arsenal (h);
Chelsea: 4-0 Wigan (h); 1-1 Wycombe (a); 6-1 Macclesfield (h)

Goalscorers (league; more than one goal):
Liverpool: Kuyt 7; Bellamy 6; Crouch 5; Gerrard 4; Alonso, Garcia 3; Gonzalez 2
Chelsea: Drogba 14; Lampard 8; Ballack, Shevchenko 3; Carvalho, Robben 2

Referee: Rob Styles

Guess at a squad:
Finnan, Carragher, Agger, Riise
Pennant, Gerrard, Alonso, Aurelio
Kuyt, Bellamy

Thirteenth time that Liverpool has faced Chelsea in the two and a half years Benitez has been in charge. Liverpool’s unbeaten in Cup matches; Chelsea’s won every single league outing.

It doesn’t look likely that Benitez will use 3 strikers as he did last weekend at Watford. If Chelsea plays with Lampard, Ballack, and Makalele, as they are wont to do, the ball will get congested in the midfield, and I fear that Liverpool would end up resorting to the long ball. The BBC is claiming that John Obi Mikel will get a start in place of Makalele, which could easily lend itself to a 4-3-3, but the real question is whether Shevchenko will start alongside Drogba or not. In addition, John Terry still hasn’t returned from his back injury, while I find it hard to believe Cech will start after resuming training earlier in the week.

It seems that Liverpool would be far better served to utilize the full width of the field. Games like this, against top-level opposition, worry me in regards to Pennant, as the lad has had a habit of forcing things in these situations, but he’ll be needed tomorrow. If he can turn in a performance similar to his outing against Bolton, it will go a long way. He wasn’t bad against Chelsea earlier in the season; he caused them trouble down the flanks but was below average delivering the final cross. Garcia and Gonzalez (Gonzo’s included in the squad, but I find it hard to believe he’ll start or even feature so soon) will be sorely missed on the left, but Aurelio has played better of late when he’s gotten opportunities, and I’d be surprised if he and Riise didn’t comprise the left flank.

Agger’s included over Hyypia simply because I still have nightmares of Drogba running at Sami in the 4-1 victory at Anfield last season. He also started with Carra against Chelsea in September and played well, but Drogba was as a lone striker, whereas I expect to see Robben or Kalou/Mikel, if not both, start for Chelsea tomorrow.

There’s a lot of recent history in this fixture. I can rattle off things like Tiago’s handball, Mike Riley in general, Essien’s tackle on Hamann, 6 minutes of stoppage time, and the red card on Reina, and Liverpool fans should immediately know what I mean. At the same time, all you have to say to a Chelsea supporter is “it was over the line” to start an endless debate.

I hate to put a lot in one game, especially with home fixtures against United and Arsenal still to come, but this is easily one of the most important games left in the season. It’s dangerous to believe, but playing Chelsea could come at a worse time too. It’s hard to believe a media claiming the team’s in crisis when they’re second in the league, unbeaten in however many matches, and easily progressing in the Champions League, but it’s readily apparent Chelsea is more beatable this season than last, and at this stage in the season than earlier on. Liverpool has had trouble taking advantage of, and winning games against, the best league opposition. Let’s see that change.

18 January 2007

Prem Predictions 1/20-1/21

Newcastle v West Ham (10am, FSC): Forget Newcastle’s abysmal performance in the FA Cup midweek. Birmingham played some spectacular football, did whatever they wanted to do, and Newcastle was beyond atrocious. It shouldn’t happen again. Despite the fanfare surrounding Curbishley’s appointment and the first win against United, West Ham still hasn’t turned the corner. And sadly, probably won’t. Newcastle 2-0

Fulham v Tottenham (10am, Setanta): Well, now I'm afraid to ever bet against Vincenzo Montella. Granted, it was a 3rd round FA Cup replay, against Leicester, but he single-handedly won Fulham that game. His goals in the league, when they start coming (and they will come), will be vital to Fulham’s second half of the season. Tottenham’s been great at the Lane but iffy away from home, and given the added bonus of this being a London derby, it’s going to be closer than it looks on paper. 1-1

Aston Villa v Watford (10am, Setanta Xtra): Watford’s relegated, it’s a done deal, but excepting last week’s dire performance against Liverpool, they’ll battle the entire way and make you work for the win. Meanwhile, Villa’s had a torrid last couple of months, plummeting down the league table while struggling for goals due to their thin squad, Luke Moore’s injury, and Baros and Angel being Baros and Angel. Nevertheless, while Watford will make them work for it, Villa should still be able to see 3 points from this one. Villa 1-0

Middlesbrough v Bolton (10am): Bolton will not fail to break down Boro as they did City last weekend. It can’t happen. Doesn’t matter how much better Boro is home than away, or that they put 3 goals past a struggling Charlton side last weekend at the Valley. Bolton will simply out-ugly Boro even if they don’t put 2 or 3 past Mark Schwarzer, which the Wanderers are easily capable of doing. Bolton 2-0

Portsmouth v Charlton (10am): Chances are, if you’re reading this, you don’t need me to spell it out for you, but here goes anyway. Never bet on Charlton. Do not put any of your hard-earned money anywhere near this team. They are going down with Watford, but at least Watford will (usually) battle you the entire game. Alan Pardew will probably bring them right back up the next season, but this one looks a lost cause. Hopefully, the players haven’t realized that or we’re in for 4 months of ugly and cynical football, but it’s the truth. Portsmouth 2-0

Reading v Sheffield United (10am): Dave Kitson will soon return from injury, and Leroy Lita has looked better recently, but Reading will dearly miss Kevin Doyle. To make matters worse, Sheffield has become a very tough team to beat, which should be no surprise given Neil Warnock's the manager, and have strengthened over the transfer window, bringing in 5 new players so far. 1-1

Manchester City v Blackburn (12:15pm, FSC): Should look a fair amount like City’s last game against Bolton. I expect a firm defensive showing by both sides, with chances few and far between. There’s an excellent possibility someone like Benni McCarthy or Darius Vassell could pop up to nick an opportunity, but it seems much more likely that this one will end up scoreless. 0-0

Wigan v Everton (8:30am, Sunday, Setanta): It’s been over 2 months since Wigan earned all 3 points from a league match. That streak looks unlikely to end. Arteta will be back from suspension in addition to Cahill recently returning from injury, Victor Anichebe’s settling into the league, and Andy Johnson got back on the scoresheet last weekend. Everton 2-0

Arsenal v Manchester United (11am. Sunday, FSC): Along with Liverpool v Chelsea, this is the game of the week, and one which will go a long way towards figuring out how the final table will shake out. Both teams are on hot form, United having been on all season, and Arsenal looking impressive in every game since the New Year. Arsenal’s win over United at Old Trafford back in September, when the Gunners were very successful in keeping the ball from United and refused to let Manchester play the game the way they wanted, is also worth a mention.

It’d be easy to predict these two teams playing a cagey game and canceling each other out. However, despite United’s form and the fact they seem to be close to running away with the league, I’m going to go for an Arsenal win here. Both teams have been able to put them in the back of the net of late, but with Arsenal having home advantage and the team stepping up their level of play over the past month, Arsenal could and should sneak one. Arsenal 2-1

Liverpool v Chelsea (7:45am, Setanta) up sometime tomorrow.

16 January 2007

To Mascherano or not to Mascherano

While it’s been rumored for a while now, news has come out today that Liverpool have written FIFA for special dispensation to sign Javier Mascherano from West Ham, needed because recently implemented FIFA rules prohibit a player from featuring for more than 2 clubs in one season. Which leads to the question, why would Liverpool want to sign a player who has seemingly failed at adapting to English football?

First, Mascherano’s failure to settle in at West Ham certainly doesn’t mean he’ll fail any at English club. His qualities were obvious at the World Cup, and there’s a reason teams across Europe were rumored to be after his and Tevez’s signatures.

West Ham is obviously a different case than a number of Premier League sides. Not only do they rely on British players more than most larger PL teams, but they’ve been involved in a battle to stay in the league from the moment Mascherano and Tevez signed. Trust me, he and Tevez didn’t sink West Ham’s season; they’ve been singled out as scapegoats by a voracious media whose primary goal is to single out scapegoats. Mascherano hasn’t played 10 minutes since October, has seen only 5 Premier League games in total, and people have already decided he can’t and won’t fit in the league?

West Ham had a manager in Alan Pardew who vocally preferred English players, but also didn’t seem to know how to handle players, especially foreign players, with the stature of Mascherano and Tevez. Despite my affection for Pardew, I’ll readily admit he literally looked lost dealing with his squad this season. That won’t be the case at Liverpool.

But most importantly, I sincerely believe he could improve Liverpool. He’ll provide what Benitez lovingly calls “possibilities.” With the addition of Mascherano to a midfield of Gerrard, Alonso, and Sissoko, Rafa will have even more midfield combinations for different games, and at least two players for any central midfield role he devises. Mascherano is a defensive midfielder (and with Alonso and Sissoko, we’ve seen that Rafa prefers to play with two holding midfielders in the center), but a defensive midfielder in a different mold than Sissoko.

When paired with Alonso, he’d allow Xabi further up the field to open up passes in the final third and allow him the opportunity for more long range shots. The same goes for Gerrard; because of Mascherano’s tackling ability, both Gerrard and Alonso would have to track back less, and at the same time, his range of passing is far superior to Sissoko’s. I’m certainly not suggesting he’ll walk into the side, or be better equipped to start ahead of Momo, let alone Xabi or Gerrard, but it’s easy to see the logic behind the move.

Not to mention Benitez’s obsession with Argentinean players. First Pellegrino, then Paletta, now Insua and maybe Mascherano. He’s building Buenos Aires East, I tell you.

I have no doubts that Mascherano has the ability to make it at Liverpool and/or in England. Ability is the key word. I’m not certain that he will make it (you never can be with foreigners, for the usual litany of reasons), or that he’ll even come to Anfield (like FIFA's actions are ever predictable), but the ability is certainly there. And the fact that this is rumored to be a loan deal insulates Liverpool should he not fit in.

My main and really only concern is with MSI and the odd bunch that own Mascherano’s rights. I’m always wary of Pini Zahavi and Kia Joorabchian, and I’m sure whatever strings are attached to Mascherano’s contract wouldn't be favorable. Similar gossip to that which came out when the lads signed for West Ham. But I trust Liverpool, and the men on Liverpool’s side making the deal, whether it’s Rafa and his staff on the football side of the equation, or Parry and the moneymen on the financial.

Needless to say, I want this to go through. I simply fail to see how getting a potentially great player, with few strings attached (on loan and possibly permanently for a small fee, as £5m was discussed when Juventus were in the mix) could be a bad thing. If he doesn’t pan out, Gerrard and Alonso are still first choice, Sissoko will be back to fitness in a little over a month, and Mascherano will be gone after 6 months. These men are professionals; I doubt competition for places will upset any team harmony. And if it does pan out, Liverpool’s getting the quality signing that the fans have been clamoring for at a far less cost. Low risk, but high reward. My favorite kind of deal. It’s worth the chance.

13 January 2007

Liverpool 3-0 Watford

Bellamy 34’
Crouch 39’ 48’

It was a dominating, professional, if slow-paced performance in which Liverpool never really got out of 1st gear. It took a little over 30 minutes to break Watford down, but Liverpool scored two more within 20 minutes, and the game was over long before Crouch’s second goal.

Partly due to injuries, and partly due to the need for goals, Liverpool came out with three strikers, three center backs, and Aurelio and Finnan in wingback roles. Both defenders turned in excellent games on the wings, joining the attack well but getting back to defend the few times Watford actually pressed forward. Kuyt, Bellamy and Crouch all linked up well, with the latter two combining on two of the three goals. Bellamy in particular was at his predatory best, with a goal and two assists.

For the first Bellamy found Crouch, who pushed through the box towards Foster, his hard work giving Finnan the chance to perfectly center the ball for Bellamy to side foot in. Finnan had turned away arm raised in celebration before the ball had even reached Bellamy.

All three strikers were in the mix for the second. Kuyt headed the ball through to Bellamy, who forced Foster into a tough save, the rebound falling for Crouch to head in easily. Minutes after halftime, Crouch again had a empty net to fire into, this time with some brilliant counter-attack play after Watford had opened the second half pressing forward. Gerrard cleverly found Aurelio out on the left, who played in Bellamy with a one-touch pass, with Bellamy delivering a lovely centering pass to Crouch. The third goal was the final nail in the coffin, and honestly, the two teams pretty much saw out the rest of the game.

Although Watford played their strongest after going down three goals, they never looked likely to score save one moment of brilliance from Jordan Stewart, who hit a dipping shot that luckily bounced off the crossbar. They also looked a team likely to be relegated. Despite their resilient back line and the pace of Young and Bouazza, they play far too conservative, even at home, and at this stage with this squad, they cannot compete at the Premier League level. No matter the grit of your efforts, if you invite teams like Liverpool onto you, this is what happens. It sounds harsh, and it certainly isn’t for their lack of trying, but I fear it’s the truth. Although it was nice to see American Jay DeMerit put in another strong performance.

Despite the disappointments in the two cups, Liverpool’s now lost only once in the last eleven league games, giving up only one goal in the process. With games, albeit home games, against Chelsea and Everton, it will be necessary they keep up that form. With this win, they continue on in 3rd place in the league, with 2nd place not entirely out of sight. This win was the first step in the process of putting the last week behind, and seeing out the rest of the campaign on a high note. There’s still much to fight for in the league, and in addition, it’s essential to be in form when the team meets Barcelona in a little over a month with progression in the Champions League, usually Benitez’s most successful tournament, at stake.

12 January 2007

Premiership Predictions 1/13-1/14

Chelsea v Wigan (10:00am, FSC): Wigan’s had an absolutely terrible last couple of months, winless since early November. They did give Chelsea all they could handle last month, with Chelsea barely scrapping a win through a last minute Robben strike at the JJB. I don't know if Terry will return after missing the last month due to keyhole surgery on his back, but honestly, I don’t know if it matter to the scoreline, despite Chelsea frailties during Terry’s absence. Chelsea 3-1

Manchester United v Aston Villa (10:00am, Setanta): Can’t seem fair to Villans that they have to play United twice in less than a week (but you’ll get little sympathy from a Liverpool fan). Villa battled exceptionally hard in the FA Cup 3rd round, but with Petrov out and considering United’s dominance in the league, I imagine a similar result to last weekend. We’ll see if Larsson keeps his place after scoring over the weekend. United 2-0

West Ham v Fulham (10:00am, Setanta Xtra): I don’t know if it’s too soon to expect to see Clint Dempsey, but I’m thrilled he’s finally getting the chance to play in England, even if it is for America East in Fulham. Playing against better competition will do wonders for Deuce’s game, and his improvement is absolutely necessary to the national team’s success. Curbishley’s had a torrid time trying to improve West Ham’s results, with 3 losses and a draw (at Fulham) since beating Manchester United in his first game. The interesting subplot to this London derby will see Luis Boa Morte play against the side he used to captain for the first time. 1-1

Bolton v Manchester City (10:00am): Insert usual “not for the faint of heart,” “I expect Bolton to grind out a result” prediction here. Despite picking up two wins in the last two away games (and three wins in the last three games), City has been atrocious on the road for most of the season while Bolton is exceptionally tough to beat at home, so chances are Bolton will do more than grind out a result, but the game should still be less than aesthetically pleasing. Bolton 2-0

Charlton v Middlesbrough (10:00am): Now this one’s not for the faint of heart. Pardew’s still in the process of weeding out Dowie’s dead weight and Charlton still look to be favorites for the drop, while Boro has made Man City look like road powerhouses, still winless away for the entire season. Boro beat Charlton at home less than a month ago, but Charlton should put in a better performance at the Valley, especially, one would hope, with the season increasingly on the line.0-0

Sheffield United v Portsmouth (10:00am): No matter the fact that Sheffield’s played better as the season’s gone on, Portsmouth is still playing excellent soccer and look to remain amongst the European places in the top 6. The fact that this is in Sheffield means we should see a closer scoreline than the last time these teams met (3-1 Portsmouth), as Portsmouth’s much more beatable away from Fratton Park. Portsmouth 2-1

Blackburn v Arsenal (12:15pm, FSC): Two teams not high on my list of favorites right now. Blackburn will stifle and hope to frustrate Arsenal at Ewood Park, but I can’t pick against the Gunners after the scoring prowess they’ve displayed over the past week (shut up). Arse 2-0

Everton v Reading (8:45am, Sunday, Setanta): Everton will want to put the shocking 4-1 loss to Blackburn in the FA Cup behind them, while Reading is coming off a 3rd round victory and a 6-0 demolishment of West Ham in the league. No matter. Everton has been excellent at Goodison Park, and will come out looking to score early and score often. Everton 2-1

Tottenham v Newcastle (11:00am, Sunday, FSC): The match these two put on last month was excellent, and we should see another closely contested affair. Tottenham has been beaten only once at home since September (gee I can't seem to remember by whom), while Newcastle has shown the utmost resiliency in continuing to deliver results despite the injury list, and they should honestly be higher in the league table. Now that the Geordies are getting healthy, I can see them getting at least a point at the Lane. 2-2

11 January 2007

Beckham to LA Galaxy (for how much???)

This is why soccer failed in the US in the past. The documentary on the NY Cosmos and the NASL, Once in a Lifetime (which should be required viewing), showed exactly what happened the last time this was tried. And honestly, that's probably the best case scenario for the MLS if they continue on this path.

The Galaxy (AEG and MLS by default) are paying $250 million for a player only 31 and already past it, who has suffered his worst year in the sport this past year. A player who isn’t being offered a contract any longer than one year by European clubs, no matter the spin being put on it. And no matter the quotes about improving the visibility of soccer in America, this is a player who’s looking after his payday and his image rights, not his sport.

MLS has decided the best way to increase revenue is to try the Cosmos method, buy big names at the end of their careers and hope it pans out. Alexi Lalas said as much in November when this story first broke; he said, in his own words, he wants LA to become MLS’ first “super club.” Beckham supposedly brings the credibility that MLS wants so badly.

Well, this is going to sound egotistical, and I don’t mean it to be, but I watch soccer. I’m exactly who the MLS is trying to get to be a regular viewer. I’m fanatic, for lack of a better term, about European soccer, and yet fairly clueless (comparatively speaking) when it comes to the MLS. And yet, this brings no credibility to the MLS in my eyes. None.

What it tells me is they’ll spend any amount of money, stupid money in fact, in the hopes of fooling people into thinking they’re a big league. Well, soccer fans know David Beckham. They know he was a one-trick pony in his prime. They know he’s here for the paycheck and here for Hollywood. How that supposedly brings credibility, and more importantly, stability (which really is the most important thing, look at the history of failed leagues, and not just soccer, in this country) to the MLS is beyond me.

Who wants to take bets on how long the hype lasts? How long will the Galaxy see increases in revenue from jerseys and ticket sales? Will it be worth it? What happens when the hype subsides? Who’s going to be paying off Beckham’s contract when he’s not playing anymore, because with the amount of money involved, it seems it would have to be staggered over a number of years. Will Becks resist Hollywood’s siren calls that long?

It’s funny, but nowhere in this post have I asked how Beckham will fit with the Galaxy, how he will co-exist with Landon Donovan, so long used to being the biggest fish in his pond, or anything else related to on the field play. Because, honestly, that’s secondary to this deal. And, sadly, it’s probably secondary to this deal in the eyes of Lalas, AEG and MLS. Which is certainly not the way to make a better product.

09 January 2007

Liverpool 3-6 Arsenal

I don’t know what to say. On the one hand, it was such a disappointing performance that you want to scream. Not to mention giving up six goals at Anfield is completely unacceptable. But on the other, it was such an odd game, with questionable decisions, awful decisions, little defense, a penalty save out of nowhere, and two potentially bad injuries, you just put it out of your mind and move on.

Let’s go down the list.

First goal was pushed in by Dudek’s arm after a blown offside trap.

Two poor decisions then led to Arsenal set plays from which they scored. One left Dudek absolutely flat-footed in no-man land (granted, quality strike), the second bounced off of Alex Song’s arm after Dudek completely flapped at it.

Baptista played a one-two with a clearly offside Aliadere for the fourth. Not even questionable.

And that was only the first half.

Baptista and Aliadere absolutely embarrassed the defense today. Both looked great, and I don’t really know if they both had the games of their lives or the shaky backline made them look better than they are. Too often, the offside trap was beaten or Paletta or Peltier was out of position or misplayed the ball. The two Arsenal reserves pranced through Liverpool’s final third as if they were out for a quick stroll in the park.

Liverpool attempted a comeback in the second half, although it’s right difficult to call it an attempt when they were two or three goals back the entire time. But the introduction of Alonso and Gerrard single-handedly trying to conjure something from nothing (his consolation screamer was a goal that deserved to be more meaningful, absolutely stunning) wasn’t enough. As the game opened up, Liverpool pulled two back, but Arsenal added two more in the second half. Julio Baptista, who can’t even get a game in the league, scored four. Four. At Anfield. Unacceptable.

But in all honesty, that can happen when the backline has so many changes, especially with how much Liverpool relies on the offside trap. Similar missteps and lack of concentration almost cost Liverpool the game against Reading in the 3rd round. It’s disappointing as a fan and disappointing as it cost Liverpool their best chance at silverware for the season (not counting the Community Shield, naturally). But, unfortunately, not completely surprising.

Which leads us to the inevitable moaning about team selection. I’m literally frightened of reading what the pundits will say simply from hearing Andy Gray et al prattle about Benitez’s team selection throughout the match. But I wasn’t that surprised at the team that went out. Disappointed that Dudek started, and that Kuyt didn’t play with Bellamy to try and use pace to unhinge Arsenal’s young defense. The line-up didn’t work, but it’s not as if Rafa pulled the team out of nowhere, and yet, I still think we’re going to hear unfounded questioning of the gaffer.

Arsenal’s reserves (plus Fabregas) beat Liverpool’s reserves (plus Gerrard). We’ve learned Arsenal’s reserves are better than Liverpool’s and the young defenders cannot pull off the trap against a team with the speed of Arsenal. That’s all. The only way this can and will affect the rest of the season is if the players let it affect their confidence. They worked so hard to put the early season difficulties behind them to build up a decent run of form, and given that they are professionals, I would hope that it wouldn’t.

I’d also like to think Watford are in for a bashing Saturday. Roll on Hornets.

08 January 2007

Liverpool v Arsenal 01.09.07

Quarterfinal round of the Carling Cup, 2:45pm Setanta.

Carling Cup results:
Liverpool: 1-0 Birmingham (a); 4-3 Reading (h)
Arsenal: 1-0 Everton (a); 2-0 West Brom (a)

Last 3 matches:
Liverpool: 1-3 Arsenal (h); 3-0 Bolton (h); 1-0 Tottenham (a)
Arsenal: 3-1 Liverpool (a); 4-0 Charlton (a); 0-1 Sheffield Utd (a)

Goalscorers (league cup):
Liverpool: Agger, Crouch, Fowler, Paletta, Riise 1
Arsenal: Aliadere 2; Adebayor 1

Referee: Martin Atkinson (same referee that postponed the last match)

Arsenal (from): Almunia, Eboue, Poom, Lehmann, Hoyte, Toure, Senderos, Clichy, Hleb, Silva, Flamini, Rosicky, Henry, Walcott, Van Persie, Baptista, Djourou, Diaby, Fabregas.

Neither BBC nor the official site had Liverpool’s squad list.

Guess at a lineup:
Peltier Hyypia Agger Warnock
Pennant Gerrard Alonso Aurelio
Kuyt Bellamy

What's the old expression? Familiarity breeds contempt? It's not to the level of ending up against Chelsea in every competition there is, but we're getting close.

Gone with a mix of resting certain players, but at the same time including more of the first team than if Liverpool had won on Saturday. For example, had Liverpool won I couldn’t see both Gerrard and Alonso starting, but with the Carling Cup taking on that much more importance, and both midfielders being so important to Liverpool’s attack, I’d imagine both will play. But players like Carra, Finnan and Garcia, especially the defenders who've gotten a lot of games so far this season, should see some time off.

Yesterday’s news saw Rafa announce that Dudek was the first-choice keeper for all domestic cup competitions. Hopefully this is more putting him in the shop window than attempting to keep his confidence up and making promises over playing time. Not only is Reina the in-form keeper, Dudek didn’t inspire the utmost confidence over the weekend. Granted, that’s how Jerzy’s always been, scary for 89 minutes and utterly brilliant for the other, and he'll forever be a hero for the moments of brilliance in Istanbul, but Reina’s been more reassuring from day one.

There’s a decent likelihood that Aurelio could start at left back with Gonzalez at left wing. However, not only did Aurelio look dangerous when he came on Saturday, but it still seems that at this stage of his adaptation to the English game, he offers more in attack than in defense and could be a liability with the speed Arsenal attacks on the counter. If Warnock is fit, which honestly always seems to be a crapshoot, I’d like to see him get a start and be assured there’s a tough tackler on the left flank.

It appeared that Bellamy was left on the bench in the second half to rest him with an eye on this game, but if his hamstring is still flaring up, he’s not worth risking. Kuyt and Crouch could get another go at the Arsenal defense, but Fowler's also started every Carling Cup game so far.

We saw what Arsenal’s capable of last Saturday. By the look of the squad list the BBC has named, we’ll see a fairly similar side Tuesday, with the addition of Fabregas. But it’s not as if Liverpool was completely out of it, and a 2-goal margin flattered the victors. It comes down to being more potent in front of goal and returning to the consistently stout defense that had seen Liverpool go however many games unbeaten at home. Obviously, much easier said that done. But either Bellamy’s pace or Fowler’s trickery should add a different option in attack and I find it hard to believe that the defense won’t learn from past mistakes.

07 January 2007

3rd Round FA Cup Musings

I realize it’s only a 3rd round FA Cup game at home against a struggling Villa side, but my fears are quickly becoming realized with Henrik Larsson’s first goal for Manchester United. He missed a couple of good chances in the first half, but made no mistake 10 minutes into the second, smashing a volley into the net. Larsson also linked well with an underperforming Wayne Rooney and showed as much ability in setting up an opportunity as striking one. Not good.

There have been complaints that Larsson’s signing on a short-term loan demonstrates United’s limited budget and the fiscal restraints that Glazer’s debt has incurred. While that will come back to bite the club in other matters, regardless of the financial situation, Larsson’s signing is smart business. He is proven quality on every stage he’s played on, and the fact he started so quickly in England bodes poorly.

I still believe United is thin in both midfield and defense. They’ve been able to keep up their excellent form partly because of luck with injuries. If/when there are injuries, they could be in trouble in these areas. But with a strike force of Rooney, Saha, Solksjaer and now Larsson, they’re well insulated, even if it is for the short term. With United still alive in both the FA Cup and Champions League, that depth will be necessary.

In other results, two Premier League sides were beaten by lower-division sides: Nottingham Forest over Charlton and Swansea over Sheffield United, while Birmingham, Hull City, Leicester City, Cardiff City, and Sheffield Wednesday held on for replays against Newcastle, Middlesbrough, Fulham, Tottenham, and Manchester City respectively. Sheffield was the only PL side named above beaten or drawn at home.

Full 3rd round results (ties to be replayed in italics):
Bristol Rovers 1-0 Hereford
Stoke 2-0 Millwall
Birmingham 2-2 Newcastle
Blackpool 4-2 Aldershot
Bristol City 3-3 Coventry
Chelsea 6-1 Macclesfield
Chester 0-0 Ipswich
Crystal Palace 2-1 Swindon
Derby 3-1 Wrexham
Doncaster 0-4 Bolton
Hull 1-1 Middlesbrough
Leicester 2-2 Fulham
Liverpool 1-3 Arsenal
Nottingham Forest 2-0 Charlton
Peterborough 1-1 Plymouth
Portsmouth 2-1 Wigan
Preston 1-0 Sunderland
QPR 2-2 Luton
Sheffield United 0-3 Swansea
Southend 1-1 Barnsley
Tamworth 1-4 Norwich
Torquay 0-2 Southampton
Watford 4-1 Stockport
West Brom 3-1 Leeds
West Ham 3-0 Brighton
Wolverhampton 2-2 Oldham
Cardiff 0-0 Tottenham
Everton 1-4 Blackburn
Man United 2-1 Aston Villa
Sheffield Wednesday 1-1 Man City

Reading v Burnley and Barnet v Colchester take place on Tuesday after being postponed.

The draw for the 4th round is Monday.

06 January 2007

Liverpool 1-3 Arsenal

I wish I could be angrier, but honestly, Arsenal were the better team. They came out looking to soak up Liverpool’s pressure and grab their goals on the counter-attack, and they did it to full success. They defended exceedingly well, rarely let Liverpool take a shot despite the advantage in possession, and when Liverpool made two defensive mistakes, Arsenal made them pay.

Much like at the Emirates in November, Liverpool was the better team for the majority of the first half until Arsenal got a goal against the run of play. There’s little to complain about here, in contrast to the later goals, in that nothing could be done about Rosicky’s wonder strike. Perhaps Dudek could have gotten a hand to it with quicker reactions or Gerrard should have been closer to close the shot down, but it was a top class finish.

The second goal, however, was utterly disappointing. Rosicky was allowed to dance through defenders to release a low shot that skittered past Dudek’s outstretched arm. He should have been closed down far sooner, and should have never gotten the shot off, let alone should the shot have crept into the corner.

Going into the half 2-0 made Liverpool’s task extremely difficult, but they again came out looking the better side after halftime, and after 25 minutes of increased pressure, they finally got off the mark. Kuyt was quick to react to flick-on a Crouch’s header from a corner, played onside by Justin Hoyte sitting on the near post. It was a deserved goal, but soon after, Henry took advantage of Liverpool pressing forward, beat Carragher to the ball, and was through on Dudek, sending a shot under his sprawling body. It was the summation of what was certainly a frustrating day.

Arsenal deserved the victory simply due to the fact they were brilliant in defense. Liverpool didn’t play badly; they could have done more with the final ball and should have gotten more efforts on goal, but Arsenal was quick to close men down and even better at shutting off passing lanes. Liverpool was forced to send so many men forward that it was only a matter of time before they were caught out on the counter. It’s disappointing to see the defensive errors in the build-up to the goals, but the goals were coming. That’s how ruthless Arsenal can be when they’re on, and they were on today.

It’s the same old story in defeat; not good enough in the final third, even if some of the build-up play was excellent and Arsenal were better than usual defensively. The gap between a great team and a good team was demonstrated today. Granted, Liverpool’s far more consistent, especially at home, than Arsenal, but you saw the gulf in class when they’re at their best.

A couple of other points:

Arsenal was certainly sticking in their tackles, which teams have to do when they come to Anfield. The game got chippy, elbows were flying left and right, and Bennett was ineffectual in calming the game down, handing out yellow cards with little rhyme or reason.

To continue with the ref bashing, Alonso never deserved the yellow he got for diving. It may not have been a penalty, but there certainly was contact, and the yellow prevented him from tackling as intensely as usual. Kuyt, on the other hand, should have earned a penalty at 3-1 when barged over in the box.

In addition, Kuyt and Alonso were the best players today; Alonso saw a lot of the ball in the middle and was good with his passing, both long and short. Kuyt gave his usual performance, capped off by a poacher’s goal. Aurelio also deserves a special mention; his entry for Riise after about an hour made Liverpool more dangerous, and he put some good balls into the box.

Time for payback in a few days. Roll on Carling Cup.

05 January 2007

Liverpool v Arsenal 01.06.07

Full apologies for the lack of posts. Writer’s block has come at the same time as other busyness, while the transfer window has yet to fully kick into gear. Hopefully the silly season will furnish some material, but of course, it’s also an FA Cup weekend. All the choice games, save Liverpool/Arsenal, seem to be Sunday. Thanks Sky Sports.

12:15pm. Available in the US on Setanta Premium (bars) or Pay-per-view.

3rd round of the FA Cup.

Last 4 meetings:
0-3 Arsenal (a) 11.12.06
1-2 Arsenal (a) 03.11.06
1-0 Liverpool (h) 02.14.06
1-3 Arsenal (a) 05.08.05

Last 3 games:
Liverpool: 3-0 Bolton (h); 1-0 Spurs (a); 0-1 Blackburn (a)
Arsenal: 4-0 Charlton (h); 0-1 Sheffield United (a); 2-1 Watford (a)

FA Cup Winners:
Liverpool: 1965, 1974, 1986, 1989, 1992, 2001, 2006
Arsenal: 1930, 1936, 1950, 1971, 1979, 1993, 1998, 2002, 2003, 2005

Referee: Steve Bennent

Guess at a squad:
Finnan Carragher Agger Riise
Pennant Gerrard Alonso Garcia
Kuyt Bellamy

With two games against Arsenal in less than a week, which game sees the first team and which features mostly reserves? Is more emphasis placed on the Carling Cup because it’s at the quarterfinal stage, or is the 3rd round of the FA Cup more important because it’s the FA Cup, not to mention Liverpool are holders? I’m assuming that the FA Cup will carry more weight; I shudder to remember the reaction after Liverpool went out at this stage to Burnley in Benitez’s first season.

That said, this is still a complete guess at a squad. Even if the first team is used for this game, there are still a number of possibilities (which, as we all know, is how Rafa likes it). Bellamy should be fit again, but both Crouch and Kuyt had excellent games last time out. It just seems more likely Crouch will feature with Fowler on Tuesday.

In the same vein, we could see any combination of Riise, Aurelio, Gonzalez, Pennant, and Garcia on the flanks. I find it hard to believe that Pennant would be left out with the way he’s been playing or Garcia because of his history against the Gunners, but honestly, any arrangement wouldn’t surprise me. But if Liverpool are playing a strong XI, I truly do believe Pennant and Garcia are the best options against Arsenal.

Arsenal will also seemingly put out a formidable line-up, but they will be without key players as well. Cesc Fabregas is suspended (there's some confusion whether or not van Persie's suspended; Liverpool's official site has him suspended, other sources have him suspended, but the BBC has him included in the squad list and Arsenal's official site has no mention either way) while Gallas, Adebayor, Walcott, and Ljungberg are still injured. However, key players like Henry, Gilberto Lehmann, and Toure are all named in the squad and figure to start.

No matter that this is a 3rd round Cup game. This game will be fairly important for both morale and form. Arsenal embarrassed Liverpool in the league earlier in the season, and the home side will be looking for payback. Not to mention that as holders, Liverpool have that much more incentive to do well. As the game is at Anfield, Liverpool will look to set the tempo and style of the game, and impose themselves on Arsenal, in contrast to the second half of November’s game at the Emirates. If Liverpool can play their style of soccer while continuing the touch in front of goal displayed against Bolton, Charlton, and Fulham, there’s more than a good chance of advancing to the next stage.

02 January 2007

Liverpool 3-0 Bolton

Maybe I should miss matches more often.

Considering the game was scoreless at halftime, maybe the result seems to flatter Liverpool, but this was probably the best league performance since the 3-1 win against Villa. It took time to establish the pace and tempo and come to grips with a Bolton side that would have been content with a 0-0 draw, but once Liverpool got going, there was no looking back.

The first goal was created by the two stars of the match, Kuyt and Pennant. Great work by Kuyt, who hustled around and through defenders, gave him space to find Pennant on the right, who crossed for Crouch to create a carbon copy of his Galatasaray goal. It was a delightful finish for a player low on confidence and without a league goal since October, and maybe Crouch should go for the overhead kick more often. I don’t know how a 6’7” striker is better at bicycle kicks than headers, but that’s Crouchinho.

Seconds after the restart, the two were at it again. Pennant, after intercepting, played a one-two with Kuyt, who again found open space and crossed brilliantly for Gerrard, storming into the box, to side-foot an outstanding volley between two defenders. Both strikes were absolutely sublime, but the vision and intelligence by Pennant and Kuyt to set them up was simply superb, and something that hadn’t been coming off as hoped. Jaaskelainen, who was easily Bolton’s best player having made a number of good saves to keep them in it, could do little about either, and it was the play to set up the goals just as much as the strikes themselves that saw Liverpool take the lead.

Soon after, Bolton was lucky not to be down to 10 men. Graham Poll, whose referring (as usual) was confusing at best, didn’t send Abdoulaye Faye off despite the fact he managed to ring up three offenses at once. He followed up his foul on Crouch by chest-bumping Poll and then kicking the ball away while Poll was getting his card out. Petulant and stupid. The commentators attempted to pass it off as sensible referring due to Bolton having just gone 2-0 down in a matter of minutes, but the fact remains Faye should have been off, no questions asked. It doesn't matter how frustrated he was, and it shouldn't matter how well Bolton was doing.

In the 83rd minute, Garcia cleverly released Kuyt, who was playing off the shoulder of the last defender, to completely finish off the game. It was the goal that Kuyt's performance merited, capping off Liverpool's day and hopefully setting the tone for the new year. It’s always great to beat Bolton, another of Liverpool’s bogey teams, but to beat them 3-0, especially after the game at the Reebok earlier in the season, was welcomed to say the least.

Great crossing and increased width won this game for Liverpool, and it’s why Pennant’s my man of the match, even though it’s incredibly hard to argue against Kuyt’s contribution. Pennant has been slated far too often for someone who’s just joined the team (despite the fact Pennant’s familiar with the league, it still takes time for a player to settle into a new side), and while his crossing was what Liverpool had hoped for when signing him, it was his vision and intelligence that set him apart today. He picked out the right option nine times out of ten, made very smart runs off the ball to open up space, and fully utilized the width of the pitch on the right. If he keeps this up, £6 million will look a bargain.

This makes 27 games at Anfield in the league without a loss, something that hasn’t been done since 1981. A true test comes in the next home league outing, when Liverpool will host Chelsea. Benitez has never beaten the Blues in the league, and we’ll see how good Liverpool can be against the best of the best, as true title contenders needed to take points off of teams like Chelsea and United, which Liverpool has had trouble doing. First though, two matches against Arsenal (also at Anfield) in the Carling and FA Cups and Watford away.

Roll on Gunners.

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