30 April 2007

Liverpool v Chelsea 05.01.07

2:45pm. Available live in the US on espn2.

Chelsea leads 1-0 on aggregate.

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

1st Knockout Round results:
Liverpool: 0-1 Barca (h); 2-1 Barca (a)
Chelsea: 2-1 Porto (h); 1-1 Porto (a)

Quarterfinal results:
Liverpool: 1-0 PSV (h); 3-0 PSV (a)
Chelsea: 2-1 Valencia (a); 1-1 Valencia (h)

Goal scorers (Europe):
Liverpool: Crouch 7; Garcia, Gerrard 3; Bellamy, Fowler, Riise 2; Gonzalez 1
Chelsea: Drogba 6; Shevchenko 3; Ballack, Essien 2; Joe Cole, Lampard, Robben, Wright-Phillips 1

European History:
Liverpool: European Cup/Champions League 1977, 1978, 1981, 1984, 2005; UEFA Cup 1973, 1976, 2001; UEFA Super Cup 1977, 2001, 2005
Chelsea: Cup Winners’ Cup 1971, 1998; UEFA Super Cup 1998

Referee: Mejuto González (SPA)

You may remember him from the Champions League Final in 2005. More ammunition for Mourinho's moans, but mind you, I still think Gattuso should have been sent off.

My guess of a lineup:
Finnan Carragher Agger Arbeloa
Pennant Gerrard Mascherano Riise
Kuyt Crouch

Keep it bloody simple.

Half the fun of these things is trying to out-think the opposition, Rafa and myself. Not this time. Straight forward, and probably the best eleven.

Pennant and Crouch are two of the most in-form players. Kuyt also on in an advanced role, because it’s essential to have two strikers on the pitch in search of the goal(s).

Gerrard in the center. I would have thought him paired with Alonso, as that pairing has the most experience in games like this and in my opinion, they are the two best midfielders at the club, but Xabi played on Saturday and hasn’t looked up to snuff for a couple of games now. Hopefully, Mascherano will be there to sit in the holding role, allowing Gerrard free license in his favored position.

Riise has a knack for scoring big goals from the wing, and I don’t really like the idea of him in defense, with Chelsea always likely to be on the counter attack and Riise even more susceptible to players (especially Drogba) running at him when Liverpool’s stretched than Agger was last Wednesday.

Finnan hopefully back in defense, with Arbeloa on the other side, as had been desired last time. Carra, Agger, and Reina write themselves.

For Chelsea, Essien is back from suspension, but both Carvalho and Ballack will miss out due to injury.

Let’s twat these bastards.

29 April 2007

Allardyce resigns from Bolton with immediate effect

Stunning news on the front page of BBC Sport. Bolton boss Sam Allardyce has quit with 2 games left in the season, the day after an excellent draw at Stamford Bridge saw Bolton move one step closer to UEFA Cup qualification.

I am flabbergasted. Completely baffled by this turn of events, and Bolton fans have to be utterly gobsmacked. With European qualification not yet secured, I'm amazed he's stepped down now, but the rationale that the new manager will need time to settle and get match-day experience makes some sort of sense. Bolton's final two games will be at West Ham and against Aston Villa.

Part of me wants to be pleased, because Allardyce's Bolton teams are perpetually a thorn in Liverpool's side, but you have to respect the job he's done over the past 7 or so years, turning a club that had bounced in and out of the Premiership after an extended period in the lower leagues into a top 10 side every season. That's an outstanding accomplishment, especially in this day and age where money rules all.

The BBC article speculates that Sam's got his eye on Stuart Pearce's job at City, but with Pearce narrowly steering his side away from relegation, I'd be surprised if he got the sack, even with Allardyce available.

What I had been hoping, if the English national team's results say along the same vein, would be that Allardyce replace McClaren if it came to that, as has been suggested at times and despite the overwhelming fan opposition to him when McClaren was named manager. His strong-willed personality and take no nonsense approach could be a tonic for a side that seemingly lets the inmates run the asylum. The next England match is against Estonia in June, and it's the only match (not counting the friendly against Brazil that will christen Wembley) until September.

In the meantime, I firmly hope former Liverpool great and current Bolton assistant Sammy Lee gets the job. He certainly deserves it, Sammy is top class.

Strange day this is.

28 April 2007

Liverpool 1-2 Portsmouth

As a fan, I hate seeing any Liverpool loss, but Rafa Benitez is a very pragmatic man, and this result isn’t entirely unexpected, even if it is unwelcome.

Given the game on Tuesday, the squad wasn’t that much of a surprise, although a start for Emiliano Insua and Bellamy relegated to the right wing for the first hour was a bit shocking. However, for the first half an hour or so, the game went pretty much as expected. Liverpool had more possession and Fowler had the ball in the net after 12 minutes, but it was rightfully ruled offside, and for the most part, Liverpool was unable to maintain any fluency with all the changes in the side.

After 27 minutes though, the game was turned on its head. Benjani was released over the top thanks to Paletta out of line with the offside trap, he got between Paletta and Dudek, chipped the ball over the keeper, and slotted it in the net. Less than five minutes later, the offside trap was again blown (this time it looked to be Hyypia), and Kranjcar, who came on for an injured Matty Taylor, gave Dudek no chance. 32 minutes in, and the reserves looked to be in trouble. Right before the stroke of halftime, Zenden hit the bar with a beautiful dipping volley, but that was all of Liverpool’s first half response.

However, the team came out better in the second half, cemented more possession, and looked marginally more flowing. On 59 minutes, with the increased pressure starting to pay dividends, Liverpool pulled one back through a Hyypia header from a Fowler corner. After the goal, Bellamy, who had been fairly anonymous on the right, came through the middle, and Liverpool looked more threatening.

But Portsmouth held on. Pennant came on for Gonzalez, and played on the left to offer Liverpool a different option going forward, and Nabil El Zhar also saw his second Premier League game, coming on for Sissoko in the 80th minute, but Liverpool carved out very few chances in the last quarter of the game. Fowler had a weak shot on goal that was saved by James and Paletta put a header wide from a corner in the final minute of injury time, but that was about it, and by the end of the game, Pompey again looked the better side.

I will never forget Dudek for his heroics in Istanbul, he’ll forever be a legend for that, but I will also be happy to see the back of him. He made an excellent save to keep Pompey from getting a third before Liverpool’s first, but was almost completely at fault for the first goal, caught in no man’s land even more than Filan was for Wigan against Liverpool last week. He’s more a confidence keeper than Reina, but he’s not getting any real playing time (and rightfully so). The time for him to go has long passed. I’d rather Padelli, who’s never seen first team action before, gotten the start, and it’s essential Scott Carson returns as back up next year.

Yes, it was nice to see Paletta start today and given more time to adjust to English play, but he was poor today. He looked lost at times, and inspired fear every time Benjani, Kanu, or LuaLua was running at him. I’m always hesitant to criticize a young player, and given the situation, I’m glad he got playing time, but he hasn’t looked up for it in his appearances so far this season. In theory, I’d like to see him loaned out to get first-team time next season, but given his nationality and youth, I don’t know how well he’d cope.

I’d also like the body-snatching alien who has replaced Alonso to give us our Xabi back. I’ve never seen him look this disillusioned. Portsmouth should be given credit for keeping a man in front of him at all times, severely limiting his options, and crowding the midfield throughout, but he truly didn’t look the same player today, summed up by the complaining and petulance which earned him an unnecessary yellow near the end of the first half.

There was one main bright spot in my mind though. From now on, you will all have to deal with my gigantic man crush on Insua. It might end up being a problem, so I’m apologizing for it now. He’s only 18, made mistakes today and will almost certainly make more, but I am in love with the glimpses he showed of speed and a footballing brain, which was even more heartening because of his youth. He likes to get forward, but always seemed to have his head up and made smart runs, but still got back the majority of the time. I immensely look forward to seeing more of him.

I’ve done a fair bit of complaining, rightfully so in my opinion, and I could probably keep going on about things that irked me today. But credit to Portsmouth, who did what they had to, hassling Liverpool players immediately, packing the midfield, and creating opportunities over the top. And honestly, this is a game that could be lost (I know, heresy). I don’t want to be accused of downplaying a defeat or of being an apologist for the team, but I can’t help but think that Rafa’s not all that displeased. Champions League football is secured for next season. Young and reserve players got time today, and the staff got more on an idea of what they and the team in general is capable of. Plus, there’s the matter of the game on Tuesday, and key players were able to be rested today.

74 hours (or so) until Chelsea.

27 April 2007

Liverpool at Portsmouth 04.28.07

10am, available live in the US on Setanta.

Liverpool: 3rd place; 67 points out of 35 games
Portsmouth: 8th place; 50 points out of 35 games

Last 3 meetings:
0-0 (h) 11.29.06
3-1 Liverpool (a) 05.07.06
2-1 Liverpool (a; FA Cup 4th round) 01.29.06
3-0 Liverpool (h) 11.19.05

Last 3 games:
Liverpool: 0-1 Chelsea (a); 2-0 Wigan (a); 2-0 Boro (h)
Portsmouth: 0-0 Villa (a); 2-1 Newcastle (h); 2-4 Watford (a)

Goalscorers (league; more than one goal):
Liverpool: Kuyt 12; Crouch 9; Bellamy, Gerrard 7; Alonso, Fowler, Garcia 3; Agger, Gonzalez 2
Portsmouth: Kanu 10; Taylor 8; Benjani 5; Cole 3; Lua Lua, Parmarot, Pedro Mendes, Primus, Todorov 2

Referee: Steve Bennett

Guess at a squad:
Arbeloa Hyypia Paletta Riise
Pennant Sissoko Mascherano Gonzalez
Bellamy Fowler

I obviously expect to see changes prior to Tuesday’s match, and the BBC is reporting that Gerrard, Carra, Finnan and Reina haven’t even traveled, and Alonso and Agger are unlikely to feature. If that’s the case, it’s a little surprising to see so many ruled out from the start, but not all that surprising given Rafa’s love of rotation and the importance of the Chelsea match. It also gives us a few clues as to who’ll start against Chelsea, and I have to say, I’m pleased on that front.

Hopefully Finnan is left out here just for the extra rest after this injury, and not because the neck injury is still bothering him. I’m not in the mood to rehash the bloody details, but suffice it to say, I truly hope he starts against Chelsea. Would have been nice to see him get some time tomorrow, whether starting or on the bench, to pick up some match fitness following his absence though.

With Pennant on the wing so important for Tuesday’s match, I’m up in the air over whether I think he’ll start here. Honestly, so much rotation has me a little confused, as usual. In theory, starting two games in 4 days shouldn’t be a big ask, but with Benitez, you never do know. But with Gerrard not traveling, I can’t see who else will play, although last year’s youth cup hot prospect Paul Anderson is in the squad.

There’s every chance in the world Zenden will start ahead of Mascherano, and I’m well aware of all the complaining I’ve done about the pairing of Momo and Masch, but after this week, I’m okay with not seeing Bolo for a while, even if the aforementioned pairing is more lacking offensively. Sorry.

Given all those left out of the traveling party and those unlikely to figure anyway, this will probably be one of Fowler’s last starts in a Liverpool shirt. With Gerrard and Carra out, chances are he’ll captain the side as well. Enjoy it. I reckon he’ll feature with Bellamy simply because Crouch and Kuyt are probably first choice versus Chelsea, and it’ll be interesting to see how the two will play together, especially if Bellamy is on his way out as well, as rumored.

You always want 3 points, every time out, but with Tuesday’s importance, a fair few players seemingly in need of a rest, and Champions League football for next season secure, I’m confident about and almost pleased with an under-strength. Portsmouth’s had a very good season by most people’s standards, let alone their performance over the past few seasons, and Fratton Park is never an easy place to play, especially with Pompey’s crowd. No disrespect meant, but Tuesday is clearly more important to the club, and additionally, I’m excited about possibly seeing players like Paletta and Anderson get first team football, as well as one of the last Fowler sightings.

Roll on Saturday

26 April 2007

A nice precedent for next week?

Well done to the Under-18s, who won the FA Youth Cup for the second year running. They beat Manchester United, who held a 2-1 advantage after the first leg, at Old Trafford.

In solidarity with their first-team brethren, they took it to penalties to win the Cup, holding off United through the rest of the match and extra time following Robbie Threlfall’s lone goal in the 55th minute.

Keeper Dave Roberts, who was the starter last year but played today because of an injury to Martin Hansen, saved the first penalty. Liverpool made all four of their attempts, and United’s captain Sam Hewson missed on the 5th.

Congrats lads, hope to see a few training with the first team in the future.

Also, congrats to Steve Heighway, who’s retiring as director of the Academy, and announced it on air post-match. Nice way to go out. An absolute legend of the club.

Match report - Official site

Prem Predictions 4/28-4/30

Chelsea v Bolton, 7:45am, FSC: Not really in the mood to talk about Chelsea, but suffice to say I highly doubt they’ll drop more points in the league after last week at Newcastle. Chelsea 2-1
Everton v Manchester Utd, 7:45am, Setanta: If Everton can get anything here, it’ll certainly make waves in the title race, as well as taking them one step further in the hunt for a UEFA Cup place. And Goodison should be full of it (as full of it as Goodison gets, mind you) following the sad loss of Alan Ball. But again, I don’t think one of the league leaders are going to lose pace tomorrow. United 3-1
Middlesbrough v Tottenham, 10am, FSC: Good news for Boro in signing Woodgate permanently, which Southgate has been trying to do all season, but I can’t help but think that now Woody’s locked up long-term, he’s going to break down again. Not that it’s quite meaningful for this match, though, just on my mind. Tottenham needs points and quick to get back into the European places, which, looking at their team sheet, they need to be amongst, but Boro can be very resilient at home. 1-1
Wigan v West Ham, 10am, Setanta Xtra: Outside of Liverpool’s match, this is the one I’m most interested in. If either team can get all 3 points, it will go a long way towards securing their safety. Heart says West Ham, given my sympathies towards the club, their play last weekend against Everton, and that this is probably their most winnable out of the last three games, but head says Wigan. They’re the home team, and West Ham have seemingly followed up all their moral victories with disappointments. Wigan 1-0
Blackburn v Charlton, 10am: There’s very little rhyme or reason to it, outside of liking Pardew and respecting what Charlton have done over the past 10 or so games, and especially given how they took advantage of being at home against Sheffield last week, but I think Charlton will surprise people here and give themselves hope of staying up. Blackburn’s been better of late, and even have an outside shot at a European place, but I am heartened by the fact that Charlton did beat them at the Valley in December. And with this prediction, I’ve contradicted what I wrote about the relegation race less than a week ago. I knew that would happen. Charlton 1-0
Manchester City v Aston Villa, 10am: City can’t score at home. Villa can’t do anything else but draw. Hmm, what to predict? 0-0
Sheffield Utd v Watford, 10am: With Watford relegated, they’ve got little to play for, but that could go the other way and free the reins a little bit. It’s alluring to again go against what I wrote earlier in the week and predict some Watford points, but I reckon Neil Warnock’s a good enough manager to have his side keep their foot on the gas. And yes, that sentence is me tempting fate. Sheffield 2-1
Arsenal v Fulham, 11am Sunday, FSC: Tough game for Fulham, who's still trying to avoid being drawn into the relegation fight. Tough game doesn’t even really cover it, no matter how disenchanted Arsenal’s looked during this poor spell. Also, the memory of Fulham beating Arsenal earlier in the year, which was probably Chris Coleman’s biggest ever win, just made me sad. I hope Cookie gets a decent job, and soon. Arsenal 3-0
Reading v Newcastle, 3pm Monday, FSC: Newcastle’s gash on the road, whereas Reading just keeps defying convention. That was a hell of an away win at Bolton last week, too. I know I said it just last week, but I want to reiterate it: I love watching Stephen Hunt play unless he’s playing against someone I root for. Reading 2-0

Liverpool at Pompey is at 10am Saturday on Setanta.

25 April 2007

Liverpool 0-1 Chelsea

Well, it’s not the end of the world, but it’s certainly an unwelcome result. The main redemption, sadly, is it could have been a lot worse.

Unfortunately, and it kills me to say it, but Chelsea was the better side the entire game. Although I’m obviously not thrilled with the performance, and parts of the first half were dire, Liverpool didn’t truly play badly. Chelsea just played better. While they would have wanted at least another goal, it was Mourinho’s game plan that won out.

Lining up in a standard 4-4-2, Kuyt and Bellamy led the line with Zenden on the left flank and Stevie staying fairly wide on the right. It was fairly obvious that Liverpool’s main focus in attack would be Zenden on the left, trying to take advantage of Ferreira and trying to get crosses into Gerrard cutting in from the right. Unfortunately, Ferreira was more than up to the task, and Liverpool was fairly well deprived of service. In fact, all of Chelsea’s defenders were up for it today.

The home side started out more dangerous. Reina was forced into a fantastic save on Lampard after 7 minutes and a couple of other attempts were sent wide, but as the game went on, Liverpool established more possession and got what seemed to be a better grip on the game. But after 29 minutes Chelsea caught them on the counter. Carvalho sent a superb ball up Chelsea’s right to Drogba, who got around Agger to deliver a centering pass that Joe Cole stuck away, his fourth against Liverpool since Benitez and Mourinho took over their respective clubs.

And despite better intentions in the second half, Liverpool could not get that precious away goal. Cech made an incredible save from a Gerrard volley, and Kuyt, Gerrard, and Riise carved out a couple of half-chances, but other than that, it was tough work for the visitors to create anything.

Liverpool really missed Steve Finnan today. With Arbeloa playing at such a high (surprisingly high) level, we hadn’t really noticed Finnan’s absence with a neck injury. It wasn’t the best time for Arbeloa to have his worst performance in a Liverpool shirt. He was at the most fault for the goal, but credit to Joe Cole for getting into a better position. Arbeloa didn’t have the same confidence at either end of the pitch, and had Chelsea been more threatening down their left, it could have been an even longer evening. Sad to say it because Arbeloa has been such a revelation, but it’s the first game that Liverpool has truly missed Finnan.

Finnan’s absence forced Arbeloa in at right back, and had Finn been healthy, I do think Arbeloa would have slotted in on the left. But this change forced Riise in at left back and Benitez went with Zenden’s experience over Gonzalez’s speed. Rafa is infinitely smarter than I am, which makes me hesitant to question anything, but post-match, I’m left wondering about that decision.

As said, credit to Ferreira for playing his part, but Bolo didn’t have the speed to create enough space on the left to get the cross in that Liverpool was desperately searching for, and Riise was unable to do enough in support from defense. I want to reiterate that although Bolo will be an obvious scapegoat in the media, Ferreira did very well, and quickness down the flanks doesn’t seem to be the strongest part of Zenden’s game.

Bellamy was off the pace as well. It was a bit surprising to see him included, but it wasn’t surprising to see him pulled off for Crouch after 50+ minutes. He was fairly anonymous, and again (sadly), credit to Chelsea for doing their jobs.

I’m focusing on the disappointing performances because I’m upset with the result, but some did have decent games. Reina came up with some jaw-dropping saves, and can’t at all be blamed for the goal. There can’t be any complaints about Kuyt’s touch after this game; despite not creating any real chances (more the team’s fault than his own), he looked threatening and worked very hard in trying to create when given the opportunity. Gerrard came up with much of Liverpool’s best play, had Liverpool’s best scoring chance (were it not for the brilliance of Cech) and if he could have gotten the ball more often (mainly due to Chelsea’s good defense), Liverpool might have gotten something. Drogba and Joe Cole continually threatened, but Carra and Agger’s resolute defense kept the margin at one. Alonso’s range of passing was at times breathtaking. Liverpool looked better with Crouch, and once again, European refs have no idea how to play him, with Merk calling a foul on Peter at every opportunity. But at the end of the day, Chelsea did more, and has the goal advantage.

It is however, only halftime. And Liverpool could be going back to Anfield with a greater deficit. A 1-0 scoreline on Merseyside certainly isn’t out of the question, and Liverpool did win 2-0, admittedly against a different Chelsea team, in January. And the Kop will be out of this world. But the team will have to play better. It shouldn’t be as much of a problem at home, but Liverpool will need to deliver much more of a goal threat, which looks a tough ask against a stingy Chelsea side.

Chelsea may still end up ruing not putting more distances between the sides in a game they were better in. Anfield on a Champions League semi-final night is going to be absolutely rocking.

Roll on Tuesday.

24 April 2007

Liverpool at Chelsea 04.25.07

2:45pm. Available live in the US on espn2.

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

1st Knockout Round results:
Liverpool: 0-1 Barca (h); 2-1 Barca (a)
Chelsea: 2-1 Porto (h); 1-1 Porto (a)

Quarterfinal results:
Liverpool: 1-0 PSV (h); 3-0 PSV (a)
Chelsea: 2-1 Valencia (a); 1-1 Valencia (h)

Goal scorers (Europe):
Liverpool: Crouch 7; Garcia, Gerrard 3; Bellamy, Fowler, Riise 2; Gonzalez 1
Chelsea: Drogba 6; Shevchenko 3; Ballack, Essien 2; Lampard, Robben, Wright-Phillips 1

European History:
Liverpool: European Cup/Champions League 1977, 1978, 1981, 1984, 2005; UEFA Cup 1973, 1976, 2001; UEFA Super Cup 1977, 2001, 2005
Chelsea: Cup Winners’ Cup 1971, 1998; UEFA Super Cup 1998

Referee: Markus Merk (GER)

My guess of a lineup:
Finnan, Carragher, Agger, Arbeloa
Gerrard, Mascherano, Sissoko Alonso, Riise

Formatting on the internet doesn’t do this line-up justice, but admittedly, it’s a very defensive one.

But with the game at Stamford Bridge, and given Chelsea’s recent run, I hope that Benitez does pack the midfield, giving Chelsea a lot less room to operate and hopefully less room to do any damage.

Not only do I expect Sissoko to reclaim his place in the side, but also to return to the form that he’s been so lauded for. This is the type of game he excels in. Even though Ballack will miss out due to injury, it's worth mentioning that Momo absolutely owned him during the Community Shield as well, although admittedly, that was also 8 months ago. But him combined with Mascherano and Alonso in the middle, with Gerrard given license to roam, and Riise, who always seems to do well against Chelsea, seems to give Liverpool the best chance of keeping Chelsea from getting into any rhythm.

I’m up in the air over Pennant though. He was one of Liverpool’s best against Chelsea in January, and has been one of the most consistent and dangerous players recently, but he has seen a full 90 minutes in the last two games and is one yellow away from a ban. Seems he’ll be needed much more in the game at Anfield, where Liverpool will have to score, as well.

As usual, the back four writes pretty much writes itself. I love Hyypia, but Drogba’s run circles around him in the past, and both Carra and Agger are quicker and better able to deal with him and either Sheva or Kalou. Finnan’s fit again after a neck injury, but Arbeloa's inclusion also seems necessary. If Wright-Phillips plays, I’ll be marginally worried how Arbeloa will cope with a player who will want to stay wide on that side, but Alvaro should be more adjusted to playing on the left side of defense than he was when he went up against Guily as a sub in the Barca tie.

For Chelsea, Essien will miss out, serving a one-match ban. Cech, Joe Cole, Diarra, Lampard, and Robben are all a yellow away from suspension. Ballack’s injured as well, but Carvalho, who had been a doubt, trained today. That’s two or three key players missing for the Blues, and even more who will have their status in the back of their minds, but their roster will still read like a murderer’s row. Joe Cole, recently back from long-term problems, specifically frightens me. If he lines up on the left, both Gerrard and Finnan must deny him space to create the tricks he so loves.

Not much motivation needs to be written as a closing. It’s Chelsea. In the semifinals of the Champions League. Again.

I cannot wait until tomorrow.

23 April 2007

Champions League Semi-final, day 1

Obviously, my focus is on Liverpool’s tie with Chelsea on Wednesday, but the other semi-final match-up, between Manchester United and AC Milan, takes place tomorrow.

The first leg is at Old Trafford, which should be to United’s benefit. You never like having the second leg away from home, but in this case it should give United the chance to assert themselves in the round. Despite Milan’s pedigree, United should and will be favored in this match. If they do the business and come away with an advantage, it will position them nicely to do what they must in Italy. And given United’s supporter trouble in Rome, it’s probably for the best they don’t start the semi-final in Italy, as it could pre-occupy the minds of those at the club -- fans, players and staff.

Given United’s play in all competitions, they’ll be the all-around favorites as well. First place in the league, in the FA Cup final, and in the last four of Europe; it’s an impressive season for a team that appeared content with their lone trophy from the Carling Cup last year. On the other hand, Milan hasn’t recovered from the effects of deducted points and the corruption scandal, and currently sits 4th in Serie A, which would be their lowest league finish since 01-02.

United also has a number of attacking players that will strike fear in the Milan side. What more can be said about Cristiano Ronaldo’s season? The PFA Player of the Year and Young Player double will be the first of many individual trophies the 22 year old will pick up this summer. And Rooney, Ronaldo, Giggs, Scholes, and Carrick are no slouches either. While Maldini, Nesta, Costacurta, and Kaladze have mountains of European experience, they aren’t getting any younger or faster (it’s required to question the stamina and youth of Milan’s defense anytime they’re written about).

However, AC Milan also has a player preeminent among others: Kaka. He will be the key to everything Milan does offensively. I hate to use Liverpool to try and explain how I think the game could go, but bear with me. Kaka was the reason Milan went 3-0 up in the first half of the Champions League semi-final. With Liverpool lining up with an attacking squad, there was no one to mark Kaka, who loves to operate in the space between the midfield and defense. For 45 minutes, he cut through Liverpool with ease. However, when Didi Hamann came on in the second half and sat in front of the back four, that space wasn’t there anymore. And Milan didn’t score again.

United doesn’t have any player to fill that role. Neither Carrick nor Scholes, United’s starting central midfielders, can or will do it. Kaka should have the space he so loves. And United will be living dangerously the entire time. Granted, Manchester plays a different style of football than most; their defense is their attack. But without someone to mark Kaka, and with the entire United first team defense probably out through injury as well, they will have to be ready to be challenged.

In spite of that warning, I still expect United to take a lead to Milan. In fact, any away goal that Milan picks up will be a bonus. I love to take shots, and have to question parts of their game, but United is a very good team playing at a very high level. And so far this season, they've shown that they can repeat their league form in Europe, which is a very scary prospect and without recent precedent. Milan will have to be at their bests to compete.

United 2-0

22 April 2007

How the other half lives

In 20th place, with the draw against Manchester City yesterday, Watford’s long-assumed fate in dropping back down to the Championship was sealed. I will be very surprised if they don’t return within 3 seasons at the most.

However, the rest of the weekend’s games involving teams at the bottom of the table have made the relegation fight a touch more interesting. First and foremost, Sheffield’s draw at Charlton.

If any of the three teams who’ve inhabited the relegation zone were to escape the quagmire, Charlton was the hot pick. Having sat at the foot of the table for most of the first half of the season, they’ve steadily improved throughout Alan Pardew's tenure, and have only lost once in the last eight games. Admittedly, when he was hired, I thought Pardew’s rebuilding project would take place in the Championship next season, but since February, he’s looked capable of keeping the team in the Premier League, which is an accomplishment not to be understated.

Victory over Sheffield on Saturday would have seen them leap past their opponents into safety. They looked likely to achieve it when they finally took a 1-0 lead after 60 minutes, but soon after, Jonathan Stead pulled back a priceless goal on the road, and Sheffield held off Charlton for the remainder. Now, with 3 games left, Sheffield’s not out of the woods, but they maintain a 2 point advantage over their closest pursuer, one better on goal difference.

Over the next three games, Charlton will travel to Blackburn before hosting Tottenham and finishing against Liverpool at Anfield. Sheffield will take on recently-relegated Watford at Brammall Lane before going to Aston Villa, and facing 16th placed Wigan at home on the final day of the season.

West Ham also stirred matters up more with a victory over Everton, which sees them only one point behind Charlton, 3 behind Sheffield. Thanks to that win, they’re not out of it by any stretch of the imagination either, and if they stay up, home wins over United (1st), Arsenal (4th), and Everton (5th) may have sealed it.

The aforementioned Wigan welcomes West Ham next Saturday in yet another six-pointer that will go a long way towards deciding how this will all pan out. After that, the Latics are at home against Middlesbrough and away to Sheffield. It’s seems as if we’ve had matches between the bottom five or so teams every week over the final couple of months. Meanwhile, West Ham will host Bolton and then visit Manchester United, where they could not only change the dynamics of the relegation fight, but the title race as well.

Fulham is probably the only other team that could be drawn into this mess. Middlesbrough’s draw with Manchester United sees them join Aston Villa and Manchester City in getting to 40 points, which is usually what’s necessary for safety, in the last couple of games. Right now Fulham are only 3 points ahead of Charlton and still must travel to Arsenal and Boro and host Liverpool. They’ll honestly have to better their previous results to get any points from those fixtures.

I fully maintain the right to change my forecasts game-by-game for my usually inane weekly predictions, but just looking at the final fixtures, it’s tempting to try and figure how it’ll all fall out Against Blackburn, Tottenham and Liverpool, Charlton probably won’t be favored to pick up any points despite their recent achievements. Sheffield, meanwhile, has to look at the Watford and Wigan matches as opportunities to least come away with something, if not all three points. Other than in the upcoming Wigan contest, West Ham won’t be preferred by many punters; both Bolton and Manchester United are very difficult matches for a run-in to save top-tier status.

Both Charlton and West Ham will have tough times staying in the Premiership. It’s a credit to them that we’re still having this discussion given they’ve been in the relegation zone nearly all season, but that will bring little consolation. Both teams will have to win games where they won’t be favored, and still hope that Sheffield or Wigan slip up in comparatively easier matches. If anything, Wigan looks most liable to take one of their places, and even Fulham is probably more threatened than the Blades with their past results and difficult run-in. However, being a full three points ahead of Charlton while with a better goal differential may just save Lawrie Sanchez’s new squad.

With Chelsea unable to take advantage of Manchester’s slip up yesterday, it looks like the bottom end of the table should be a fair bit more exciting than the top; the Blues will need help even if they win against United. Thankfully though, we should at least have one fight that will make for a fun final few weeks.

21 April 2007

Liverpool 2-0 Wigan

It wasn’t the most enthralling game or the best performance, but I can’t help be really pleased with today. It could have been a lot worse for Wigan than 2-0 (some wasteful finishing was probably the team’s only disappointment today) and nearly everything that could have gone right did.

From start to finish, Liverpool always looked likely winners. It took 30 minutes for the first goal to come more due to Wigan’s resilience rather than any lack of attack by Liverpool, unlike the starts to the recent City, Boro, and Villa matches which still linger in the memory. The visitors packed the midfield with five men, leaving Emile Heskey to operate as a lone striker, and it still took some moments of good defending by Leighton Baines to keep Liverpool out as long as they did. Once again, Pennant threatened down the wings, switching sides with Gonzalez 15 minutes or so into the game, and it was his cross that led to Kuyt’s opening goal half an hour in.

Reclaiming the ball on the left flank, Pennant steered a threatening cross into the box, but Kuyt had a lot to do to get in front of Matt Jackson and make contact with the ball, and showed good striking instincts to get there. Still, the goal probably comes down to keeper error, as Filan misjudged the swerving ball and was left in no-man’s land as Kuyt got to it.

The last 15 minutes of the half saw Liverpool press less with the goal in hand, but credit to Paul Jewell, who brought on a second striker in Henri Camara after halftime in the attempt to get something from the game. But Wigan never looked likely to get anything from the match and Liverpool was still the more dangerous side.

After an hour, with gaps in Wigan’s defense in trying to find an equalizer, Bellamy replaced Crouch in the attempt to utilize the space at the back. Much like the substitution midweek, the team was rewarded fairly quickly. Bellamy was in the midst of a stretch of play soon after where Kuyt and Alonso had efforts blocked before Arbeloa’s header was saved, and in the 68th minute, he was the main architect of Kuyt’s second goal.

Making a smart run to get open on the left flank for Gonzalez’s long pass on the counter attack, Bellamy split two defenders to get the ball to Riise, who tried to lay it back into his path after an incisive run. Although Jackson was there to make sure the shot didn’t come off when Riise’s pass was just too heavy, Kuyt showed again his awareness, and with a smart turn fired a low shot into the far corner. This time Filan couldn’t have done anything about it.

Liverpool had chances to make it 3, most notably through Gonzalez and Kuyt, and as said, the wastefulness at times was really the only disappointment today. Gerrard came on in place of Zenden, ostensibly to keep his streak of playing every league game going while Carra came off for Agger, and thankfully, Liverpool easily saw the game out with nothing untoward happening to any key personnel.

Nearly every player should come away with positives from today. Pennant was again a frequent outlet and looked threatening, even if not to the effect in other games recently. Liverpool still looks to have gotten a steal in Arbeloa, who offers so much in attack while always getting back on defense, where he’s equally assured. It’s a testament to how well he’s playing that he’s been keeping Finnan out of the squad; not that it’s always an accurate measure, but Finnan is currently second in fans voting for player of the season. Hyypia seemed as if he’s been playing the whole season, composed as ever at the back, while Carragher was, well, Carragher. Reina could have been sitting in a recliner all game except for one moment, and when called upon came up with a great save from a point blank Folan header, which is the mark of an excellent keeper. Gonzalez had some poor touches at times and probably should have scored, but he showed his blistering pace, attacked frequently, and got a full 90 minutes with no setbacks, which can only further his development. Bellamy looked fit and in-form after he came on. Really, as performances go, the only complaints can be that I still think Zenden’s been below par, even by his standards (I know, he’s a fashionable scapegoat, but he truly has been one of Liverpool’s weakest links this year) and Alonso’s passing didn’t seem up to snuff.

But with all those encouraging displays, I think Kuyt’s got to be man of the match. Of course, scoring the two goals while in a supposed drought doesn’t hurt, but all around he was excellent today. A couple of chances that should have given him his hat trick were the sole frustrations. He always works exceptionally hard for the team, but it shined through today. Also, he showed some of that selfish he’d been lacking; he took more shots, created more opportunities, and got into the penalty box more often.

With Arsenal’s draw and Bolton and Everton losing, qualification for next season’s Champions League is now assured. Along with no injuries, that was the biggest hope coming out of this game. In addition, Liverpool got 2 goals out of a “struggling” Dirk Kuyt, good performances out of nearly every player in the squad, a clean sheet, certain players rested, and another three points and more momentum before Chelsea. Absolutely as much as could be asked for.

Roll on Wednesday.

20 April 2007

Liverpool v Wigan 04.21.07

10am, available live in the US on Setanta Xtra, delayed on Setanta at 4:30pm.

Thanks to this being on Setanta Xtra, with no live video on e-season ticket, I’m either hiking to a bar with slim hopes or waiting until the delayed showing. In any event, the match report will be late. Sorry.

Liverpool: 3rd place; 64 points out of 34 games
Wigan: 15th place; 35 points out of 34 games

Last 3 meetings:
4-0 Liverpool (a) 12.02.06
1-0 Liverpool (a) 02.11.06
3-0 Liverpool (h) 12.03.05

Last 3 games:
Liverpool: 2-0 Boro (h); 0-0 Man City (a); 1-0 PSV (h)
Wigan: 3-3 Spurs (h); 1-1 Villa (a); 1-3 Bolton (h)

Goalscorers (league; more than one goal):
Liverpool: Kuyt 10; Crouch 9; Bellamy, Gerrard 7; Alonso, Fowler, Garcia 3; Agger, Gonzalez 2
Wigan: Heskey 9; Camara 6; McCulloch 4; Baines 3; Folan, Landzaat, Scharner 2

Referee: Mike Riley

Rennie, then Poll, then Riley in the last 3 league games. Getting all the good ones!

Guess at a squad:
Finnan Carra Agger Riise
Pennant Alonso Mascherano Gonzalez
Kuyt Fowler

Not safe for Champions League qualification quite yet. However, there is the little matter of Chelsea on Wednesday, so a full-strength line-up seems unlikely.

Even though as easily predicted, Gerrard won the headlines on Saturday (it’s in his contract that if he scores, lfc.tv has to name him man of the match), but he’s still looked one of the players in greatest need of a rest. And even with 3rd place not yet in stone, with the semi-final looming large on the horizon, he should be able to sit out Wigan at home, even if left on the bench.

But please, no more Momo and Mascherano. Please. Sissoko and Alonso is one thing, but after seeing how those two combined (v Villa, City, Reading, and Boro), I think we’ve tested that pairing enough for the time being. If Sissoko improves his vision, control, and passing, it’s one thing, but despite Momo’s outstanding work ethic and maturation, those parts of his game haven’t come yet. Remember, he’s still only 22; I said “yet” for a reason.

Fowler’s included because I’m unsure if Bellamy’s still suffering from the knock picked up against PSV. If Craig’s healthy, he’s just as likely to feature, especially given his performance at Wigan in December, but with Kuyt used as a sub midweek and Crouch having started 5 of the last 6 games, seems that Peter should be the one on the bench before Wednesday. Two strikers featuring though, please, goals are always essential. No 4-5-1 or Gerrard as a deep-lying forward if at all possible.

It’s hard to get ginned up over a home match against Wigan with Chelsea coming up so soon, with the fact it’s the first game I’ve been unable to see live on TV since December not helping matters either. And having seen the tempo that some of the players have gone at over the last two league games, it’s clear that their focus is on Europe as well. But I’m certain Rafa will have drummed in the fact that 3 points here would probably secure Champions League qualification for next season, which after the atrocious start to the season, has been the imperative in the league since, say, October. And the team should more than know what they have to do.

Roll on.

19 April 2007

Predictions 4/21-4/22

Setanta’s not showing a 10am game on Saturday (Liverpool v Wigan is on Setanta Xtra), instead airing the semi-finals of the Heineken Cup live. Yeah, rugby. Super.

Tottenham v Arsenal, 7:45am, Setanta: Me, I’m hoping for some fun David Dein fall-out in addition to what should be an interesting London derby. Spurs v Arse is always hot-blooded and hard-fought, and with European implications for both teams that should be the case here. And while we’re on history repeating itself, it's worth nothing that 4 of the last 5 matches between these two played at White Hart Lane have ended tied. 2-2
Charlton v Sheffield Utd, 10am, FSC: 17th place will probably come down to this game, with Sheffield on 34 points and Charlton one place behind on 32. Which, considering Charlton’s first half of the season, is a hell of an accomplishment for Alan Pardew. I’d probably go for Charlton no matter the location, but seeing as this is at the Valley, they should pick up all 3 points. And given Neil Warnock’s petulance lately (yes, worse than usual), I can’t say I’d be disappointed if that happens. Charlton 2-1
Bolton v Reading, 10am: All signs point to Bolton here: their form’s improved even if results haven’t, they’re still in competition for a UEFA Cup place (and while Reading’s in the hunt too, I can’t see Steve Coppell looking forward to a European excursion), the game’s at the Reebok, and Bolton’s got far more experience at this level and at this stage of the season. And yet, I still think Reading can and will get something from this game. On a related note, I’m pretty sure I’d detest playing against Stephen Hunt. 1-1
Fulham v Blackburn, 10am: Again, I like Lawrie Sanchez an awful lot, but I cannot wrap my head around firing a manager with 5 games left in the season. Absolutely reeks of desperation. Fulham did play better last week but still lost, and while this is Sanchez’s first home game, and managers' first home games usually go fairly well, I’ve got to go with the tried and true Fulham for the draw prediction. Blackburn played very well in the FA Cup semis, and walloped Watford midweek, but I don’t know if they can take all three points on the road. 1-1
Watford v Manchester City, 10am: The midweek match not withstanding, City’s been good on the road during this “resurgence.” And Watford’s waiting to be relegated; the 3-1 loss to Blackburn, with all 3 Blackburn goals scored in the first 35 minutes and on cruise control the rest of the way, shows that heads have dropped and fate’s been accepted. City 1-0
West Ham v Everton, 10am: With two tough defeats to Sheffield and Chelsea, West Ham’s fate is nearly sealed. Which, as I’m getting tired of saying (both now and in 2003), should not be happening to a team with West Ham’s stature and history. Unfortunately, it could be the blue half of the Mersey that could seal it. A pity all around. Everton 2-1
Manchester Utd v Middlesbrough, 12:15pm, FSC: Ugh. Another United win. And one where I doubt they’ll struggle for nearly an hour to break down Boro at their own place. Sigh. United 3-0
Newcastle v Chelsea, 8:30am Sunday, Setanta: It’d be a lot more interesting if this game saw Michael Owen’s return, but chances are we won’t (and probably shouldn’t, but since he’s not Liverpool’s player anymore, don’t really care on that front). Chances are what we will see is another dominating, yet grinding Chelsea performance, with the Newcastle backline typically shaky. Oh, and the usual 2-0 prediction. Chelsea 2-0
Aston Villa v Portsmouth, 11am Sunday, FSC: Pompey still sits in 7th, which would earn them a UEFA Cup place. While I don’t think they’ll stay there, that Redknapp has kept them up there this long must be commended. He’s really done excellent work at Portsmouth this go around, although he does have a bit more cash to play with. But picking a Villa draw, especially with them at home, is too easy and has happened too often. 2-2

18 April 2007

Liverpool 2-0 Middlesbrough

For 51 minutes, Liverpool looked a lot like the team that drew 0-0 against Villa and Manchester City recently. Again, they came out with Gerrard in Kuyt’s usual role as a deep-lying forward and with Mascherano and Sissoko paired in central midfield. And they infrequently looked like scoring.

The second half started out better than the first, with a Mascherano header off the bar from a corner, but the real change took place in the 51st minute when Sissoko was withdrawn for Kuyt and Gerrard moved into a deeper position. It took seven minutes to break the deadlock; within 15 minutes, Liverpool had a two-goal lead.

In criticizing the line-up, which I am loath to do anyway, it’s going to sound a lot like a criticism of Sissoko. I don’t really mean it as so; Sissoko plays a big role in the side, and there are a number of games where I’ve thought him the man of the match. I just do not understand the role being asked of him when he’s partnered with Mascherano, with Gerrard farther up the field almost as a second striker.

Throughout the first half, Sissoko would receive the ball a lot higher up the pitch than he has when he’s played well, and he was being asked to create a lot more in attack. And not much came of it. The few times Momo had a scoring opportunity it went asking, and I couldn’t help but think that if Gerrard was in those positions Liverpool would have gotten at least one. Meanwhile, with Stevie in the role being asked of him, play was frequently passing him by and he didn’t see much of the ball.

After Kuyt came on, Gerrard popped up a fair bit more, and in the 58th minute, received a pass from Zenden where he was able to take another stride and unleash a fierce dipping shot that Schwarzer had no chance on. Seven minutes later, Crouch was held down by Andrew Davies after Pennant had again gotten open and gotten the cross in. On the resulting penalty Gerrard sent Schwarzer the wrong way, and the match was pretty much done. Viduka immediately came on for Boro, who saw a bit more possession in the final 25 minutes, but they never really threatened, and Liverpool saw the game out fairly easily.

Despite Gerrard winning headlines and the match with his two goals, Pennant was the most consistently threatening Liverpool player. While at times the end product wasn’t up to the standards we’ve seen this season, Pennant was perpetually open down the right flank, and used it to very good effect. It’s been excellent to see Jermaine grow in strides through the season, becoming more comfortable with his role in the side throughout, and giving Liverpool the first threatening option from the right wing in a while.

Again, Mascherano was also very good, and it seems to be getting repetitive singling out his work-rate and defensive capabilities. Just as Carragher and Agger were typically solid, a statement that can be said after nearly every match. All three also showed a decent range of passing today, especially in finding Pennant in acres of space. Kuyt also did well after coming on; his first touch (something frequently criticized during this goal drought) was improved, and although he seemed to pop up in the box more often, he really does need to get more attempts and maybe even show a bit more selfishness.

Arbeloa also merits more than a mention, he’s proving worth that £2.6m and more every time out. He and Mascherano are looking utterly brilliant signings. True, with five in midfield and Yakubu as a lone striker, Middlesbrough didn’t offer much in attack, but Arbeloa’s acclimated to the defense as well as can be expected, and has done it on either side of the pitch (right back today). He also showed his capability getting forward, linking up well with Pennant, especially on counter-attacks.

Liverpool certainly made hard work of it at times, but a 2-0 win will do more than nicely. Another 3 points in the bag, against a team that’s given Liverpool problems in the past, and back into 3rd place with a two-point advantage and +4 on goal difference. It’s necessary to keep up that momentum and morale through the Wigan game (without looking past the Wigan game) before the Champions League clash that’s on everyone’s minds in a week’s time.

17 April 2007

Liverpool v Middlesbrough 04.18.07

3pm, available in the US on FSC.

Liverpool: 3rd place; 61 points out of 33 games
Boro: 14th place; 39 points out of 33 games

Last 4 meetings:
0-0 (a) 11.25.06
2-0 Liverpool (h) 12.10.05
0-0 (a) 08.13.05
1-1 (h) 04.30.05

Last 3 games:
Liverpool: 0-0 Man City (a); 1-0 PSV (h); 2-1 Reading (a)
Boro: 1-3 Villa (h); 4-1 Watford (h); 0-2 West Ham (a)

Goalscorers (league; more than one goal):
Liverpool: Kuyt 10; Crouch 9; Bellamy 7; Gerrard 5; Alonso, Fowler, Garcia 3; Agger, Gonzalez 2
Boro: Yakubu 12; Viduka 9; Arca, Downing, Morrison, Rochemback 2

Referee: Graham Poll (oh boy!)

Guess at a squad:
Finnan Carra Agger Riise
Pennant Gerrard Alonso Gonzalez
Kuyt Crouch

Don’t honestly know if I even think this side is likely to play. But I do know I want to see Liverpool take the game to Boro. Bad tastes linger from the 0-0 at the Riverside in November. As they do from the games against Villa and City recently, although I do realize those were away from Anfield.

The fact remains that I really don’t know how Rafa will rotate over the coming games, only that I’m fairly certain he will. There are home matches against Boro tomorrow and Wigan Saturday before the first leg of the semi-final at Stamford Bridge a week from Wednesday. Over the next two games, it seems fairly certain we’ll see the majority of the squad used, but the game plan in each could go any number of ways.

I want to see a team sheet that shows Liverpool’s intent. 2 strikers up top, Crouch as he’s the in-form striker and Kuyt because not only has he worked well with Crouchy at times, but with his wife giving birth to their 2nd child last week, he may well have that extra motivation. Pennant and Gonzalez are out on the wings for pace and crossing ability, especially with Crouch lurking in the box. And Gerrard and Alonso in the middle, because I honestly can’t see Mascherano or Sissoko’s defensive abilities being that necessary against Middlesbrough at Anfield. While I’ve been full of praise for Javier of late, Gerrard/Alonso is still Liverpool’s most dynamic pairing in midfield and more importantly, should offer the most in attack.

It is however worth noting that aside from Crouch in for Bellamy, the team listed above is the exact one that started against Boro in November. But at Anfield is a bit different than at the Riverside, and this is a different Liverpool team, or at least it’s a team with a lot more confidence. That game came right after the 0-3 loss to Arsenal, when Liverpool was still winless away from home, and saw Gerrard’s much-ballyhooed return to the center following Sissoko’s shoulder injury.

There’s also the question as to which Boro is going to show up tomorrow. The one that won 4-1 v Watford or lost 1-3 against Villa? As per usual, Boro’s one of the most inconsistent teams in the league, and it’s been going on all season; one day they’re beating Chelsea 2-1 (August 23rd), the next, they’re losing 4-0 to Pompey (August 28th).

The key to winning will be containing and bettering Boro’s two strikers. Check the stats, nearly all of Boro’s goals come from Viduka and Yakubu. Also, Boro was able to secure the draw at the Riverside mainly because of how well they defended from the front. Liverpool has a tendency to patiently build up attacks through the center backs or Alonso, and Boro hassled from the front exceptionally well in November. Liverpool will have to be ready for it again.

With 5 games to go in the league, any and all points are essential to see 3rd place attained. With a win over Man City today, Arsenal will leapfrog Liverpool into 3rd. We know Liverpool has the talent and ability to take all 3 from Boro at home, even though a fair amount of the recent fixtures between the two have ended tied. The four games remaining after this are v Wigan, @ Pompey, @ Fulham, and v Charlton. Aside from Portsmouth, none of the remaining teams are higher than 14th place. A good run-in will secure Champions League football for next season, as well as give Liverpool the needed confidence for the rest of the Champions League this season, which I’m sure will be on the minds. But first, roll on Boro.

16 April 2007

Quick midweek predictions

Arsenal v Manchester City, 2:45pm, FSC: Arsenal played very well against Bolton to get back to winning ways over the weekend, but I don’t know if they’ve actually turned a corner and can keep it up for the rest of the season. Maybe it’s because it was Liverpool they last played well against, but City has looked quite good recently, and surprisingly, their best performances have come on the road, where they’ve won their last three. 1-1
Manchester Utd v Sheffield Utd, 3pm, Setanta: Even if United rest players with future matches in mind, they should have enough to take all three points from Sheffield at Old Trafford. They’ll certainly have enough motivation, as Manchester will continue to look over their shoulders at Chelsea until they meet on May 9th, and could open up a six-point gap before the Blues take on West Ham Wednesday. United 2-0

Blackburn v Watford, 3pm, Setanta Xtra: Blackburn deserved more from their performance against Chelsea on Sunday; it’s an absolute pity that once again Roman’s money popped up with a late winner. Winning here certainly isn’t be the same as making the FA Cup final, but Blackburn should be able to get some satisfaction Wednesday. Despite the usual “Watford plays really hard” canard, they’re already preparing for life in Championship. Blackburn 2-1
West Ham v Chelsea, 3pm, Setanta: Having already taken 3 points off Man United and 6 off Arsenal, you can’t put anything past the Hammers, especially in a London derby. West Ham also needs points and quickly, five points from safety with five games remaining, but this is an awful time to be playing Chelsea. They’ve rounded in form now finally healthy, and are chock-full of confidence having gotten back into the title race and progressed to both the FA Cup final and Champions League semi. Chelsea 2-1

Liverpool v Boro is on FSC Wednesday at 3pm.

15 April 2007


18 years ago 96 Liverpool fans went to a football game and didn’t come home. They’ll never be forgotten, and every day the custodians of our game need to ensure it never happens again.

Part of me feels tacky putting this up here, across the ocean and aside from being a Liverpool fan, otherwise unaffected by this awful tragedy, but when it comes down to it, the remembrance feels warranted. We all need never forget.

Justice for the 96. YNWA.

Hillsborough Justice Campaign
Hillsborough Family Support Group
Official Club Memorial Page

14 April 2007

Liverpool 0-0 Manchester City

Yawn. It wasn’t as bad of a performance as the 0-0 draw against Villa, the tempo of the game was a bit livelier, but it was nowhere near lively enough, and neither team did enough to get onto the scoresheet.

It was in line with past performances against City. As said in the preview, the last four were all very narrow 1-0 wins; this season’s game at Anfield was on pace for 0-0 until a Barton mistake allowed Kuyt to set up Gerrard for a very well-taken goal. The only difference this time is neither team made the mistake that allowed the other a breakthrough, nor did one come up with that moment of brilliance needed to break the deadlock.

The game is pretty much summed up by the fact that Liverpool’s best chance of the first half was Alonso’s speculative effort from his own half that narrowly went over the bar. In fact, Liverpool had no shots on goal for the entire first half. Neither did Manchester City. Says about enough right there.

The second half started better, with Liverpool creating a couple of opportunities through Gerrard (including an honest-to-goodness shot on goal) before Riise sent a low shot wide of the far post and Agger sent another speculative effort well to the left. It was pretty clear that Benitez had told his team at halftime to get more shots off, but neither the goal nor a definitive opportunity came.

In fact, City really had the better of the chances throughout the game, the best being when Beasley cut onto his right foot after a weak Reina punch came to him and cannoned his shot onto the crossbar in the 75th minute. The home fans will also rue a possible penalty not given for what looked to be an incidental handball on Carragher (among other things that Rennie appeared to miss). Of course, you could also say that Barton’s reckless two-footed lunge at Gerrard could have been straight red, but there you go. A draw is probably the fair result.

No one really stood out, and no one was poor either. I thought once again that Mascherano looked very handy. He sees the game very well, covers the entire width of the field, and knows how to put in a tackle. He’s still picking up silly bookings now and then, but once he gets used to the pace and style of refereeing in the Premier League (not that Rennie has a discernible style), he’s going to be a force to be reckoned with.

And once again, Carragher was the heart of the defense. Vassell was a handful; he gave Arbeloa fits at times and he gave City a good outlet on the counter when they attacked. But Carragher was frequently there to cut out any and all danger, and aside from the handball claim(s), was absolutely typically solid.

Offensively, players did not do enough, but there were good moments for Pennant, Kuyt, Alonso, Gerrard, and Riise, even if they let down at others. Pennant especially; even if it wasn’t to the level of some of his recent performances, it was still a decent outing, and he’s getting better every time out in a Liverpool shirt. One thing stood out as well. In the 5th minute, Pennant had a chance to be through on goal with Michael Ball half-heartedly clinging to his jersey. Instead of going to ground and possibly earning a penalty, he stayed up and tried to get a shot off, which should be praised even if the effort ended up soft and easily claimed by Isaksson. And this also goes some way in summing up the game; it wasn’t a dire or infuriating performance, there were some positives to take away even if the end product was disappointing.

City played for the draw and Liverpool went along with it. Yes, it’s not encouraging that we’ve now got yet another example of not being able to break lesser teams down away from Anfield, but it’s certainly not the end of the world. Liverpool historically has had trouble at this venue. They are now two points ahead of Arsenal with 5 games remaining, seven ahead of Bolton in 5th with a game in hand. Champions League football for next season is nearly secured, and even though there’s work to be done, 3rd place is readily achievable. Five more games in the league to end the campaign on a high note.

Boro on Wednesday.

13 April 2007

Liverpool at Manchester City 04.14.07

10am, available in the US on FSC.

Liverpool: 4th place; 60 points out of 32 games
City: 12th place; 40 points out of 32 games

Last 4 meetings:
1-0 Liverpool (h) 11.25.06
1-0 Liverpool (h) 02.26.06
1-0 Liverpool (a) 11.26.05
0-1 City (a) 04.09.05

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

Goalscorers (league; more than one goal):
Liverpool: Kuyt 10; Crouch 9; Bellamy 7; Gerrard 5; Alonso, Fowler, Garcia 3; Agger, Gonzalez 2
City: Barton 6; Samaras 4; Corradi 3; Beasley, Distin, Mpenza, Vassell 2

Referee: Uriah Rennie (in only his 4th match since late January)

Guess at a squad:
Finnan Carra Agger Arbeloa
Pennant Gerrard Mascherano Gonzalez
Kuyt Crouch

Seems likely that those who were rested on Wednesday (Gerrard, Finnan, Carra, Mascherano) would start here. Gerrard, Finnan, and Carragher are pretty much no-brainers after sitting out against PSV, they are key players, and I’ll be honestly surprised if they don’t start for a second game running. And I really want to see Mascherano and Gerrard play together in the center again. The Sheffield game was a nice start, but the more those two play together, the sky’s the limit as to how good the pairing can be. On paper, Masch seems to compliment Gerrard very well, sitting in front of the back four covering while Gerrard does what he does best, attack from any and all angles through the middle.

Bellamy looks to be out until the CL semi-final, and thankfully it’s only until then and not as serious as it looked, so a Kuyt/Crouch pairing looks to be expected for the foreseeable future. It’s tempting to want to start Fowler against his old club, but after going over an hour on Wednesday, I don’t think that’s likely.

I know Arbeloa’s billed as a right back and is naturally right-footed, but I’ve been more impressed with his play at left back. Maybe his performances against Messi and Barca overshadow, but I thought he was just as good against Reading, and his goal makes little difference in that assessment. Other than one moment early on, when Arbeloa pulled too far inside leaving Oster open on the right, he was very solid defensively, and I’d like to see him get another chance in that position.

After a precarious period, City look to be secure following a four match unbeaten run where they picked up the 10 points needed to get them to the 40 point total frequently considered safe. It looks again this year that 40 will be the magic number. They’ve finally put together a good run, and seemingly kept Pearce’s job, as for awhile there Psycho looked likely to be getting sacked.

Emile Mpenza has been a key to their “resurgence.” Samaras and Corradi have been flops, to not mince words, and the signing of the journeyman Belgian striker in late February has brought some much-needed goals. Liverpool will have to be wary of Mpenza on the break; I’ve been wrong predicting this in the past, but given the way City has played Liverpool recently, I’m expecting 10 men behind the ball, and Mpenza as the lone outlet will be City’s best chance for goals. Although the fairly free-scoring Scouse midfielder Joey Barton will assuredly be up for the game as well.

Liverpool v City has been a close game in all the recent meetings, and looking at the last few, a 1-0 result is far from out of the question. Liverpool must put their chances to use; this seems like it could be one of those frustrating away days where Liverpool has a ton of possession but struggles to carve out true opportunities or to put those opportunities in the net. The second PSV leg aside, the last few games have seen Liverpool more prolific than in the past, and it’ll be essential they continue that trend.

12 April 2007

Predictions 4/14-4/16

Arsenal v Bolton, 10am, Setanta: If Bolton win here, they’ll overtake Arsenal for 4th, although the Arse will still have a game in hand. It’s a bit of a surprise we’ve come to this point, but since Arsenal knocked Bolton out of the FA Cup on Valentine’s Day, they’ve won twice, drawn three, and lost 6, including the Carling Cup final and exits from both the FA Cup and Champions League. Season-ending injuries Henry and van Persie as well as a raft of suspensions might have had something to do with it. Maybe more because it will amuse me greatly (I am petty and hold grudges), but I think the trend of Arsenal underwhelming might continue and Bolton could not only get an elusive victory at Arsenal, but some retribution for the FA Cup exit. Bolton 1-0
Sheffield Utd v West Ham, 10am, Setanta Xtra: If Sheffield lose this game, they’re going to have a tough time staying up. More due to a probable loss of confidence following a tough “six-point” defeat at home than the fixture list; other than Man Utd, Sheffield doesn’t play any team higher than 14th in the last 5 games. West Ham’s been on a good run, while Sheffield’s struggled without Hulse’s goals, but I don’t think either team will come away with anything. 0-0
Middlesbrough v Aston Villa, 10am: In the past two weeks, Boro has been dominant against Watford and dire versus West Ham. As usual, consistently inconsistent. Villa picked up a nice win at Blackburn in their last away match, but returned to form drawing Wigan two days later, and going for the tried and true draw prediction here as well seems smart. 1-1
Portsmouth v Newcastle, 10am: If Pompey play like they did against United a week ago, they showed that on their day they can beat anyone. If they played like they did against Watford, they’re not beating anyone. Mainly, I’m just hoping Newcastle lose here to put even more pressure on Roeder, in the narrow hope that the tabloids are true, and Freddy Shepard’s considering Sven Goran Eriksson as his new manager. Because that would be fantastic. Pompey 2-1
Reading v Fulham, 10am: I do not like Coleman’s firing one bit. Not at all. Despite the fact I like Cookie a lot as a manager, I know he had to go, but the time was in the summer. I know the recent results were poor, but he still should have been able to keep Fulham up. Lawrie Sanchez is a great manager (despite the fact he played for Wimbledon), you just have to look at Northern Ireland’s results, but I cannot wrap my head around why you’d fire the staff with five games remaining in the season. I really hope Sanchez is a master motivator, and inspires confidence in his charges quickly, because despite what the results say, Reading is a good side playing good football. Reading 2-1

Wigan v Tottenham, 8:30am, Setanta: With a tough UEFA Cup exit, mainly thanks to eight minutes of defensive madness to start today’s game, Tottenham’s focus should now completely be on achieving a European spot next season. And while Wigan arguably has more to play for, clinging to a place outside the relegation zone, Tottenham has the firepower to get the away win. Spurs 3-1
Everton v Charlton, 10am: Alan Pardew has done a superb job getting Charlton from the foot of the table to safety in 17th place, with them unbeaten in six games, but it’s not over by a long shot. The remaining away games are all difficult: there’s this and another trip to the Merseyside in the last game of the season, and against Blackburn. They’ll also host a London derby against Spurs and a classic “six-pointer” against Sheffield. If they continue their trend of picking up points in this game, it’ll be a pretty clear sign they intend to stay up, but despite their excellent efforts over the past couple of months, I don’t think they’ll be able to. Everton 2-1

FA Cup Semifinals
Watford v Manchester Utd, 12:30pm Saturday, PPV: Less said about United recently, the better. Go Watford. United 3-0
Blackburn v Chelsea, 11am Sunday, FSC: Blackburn has already beaten Arsenal and Everton on their run to the semi. But they’ve also lost their last two games at home, and their last three in total. And Chelsea is, well, seemingly back to being Chelsea. Nevertheless, go Blackburn. I’m happy to root against Chelsea in most circumstances, but I can’t believe anyone who isn't a fan of the two clubs could want to see Chelsea and United in the final.Chelsea 2-0

Liverpool at Manchester City is on FSC at 10am Saturday.

11 April 2007

Liverpool 1-0 PSV

Job done. Nothing special, but nothing special was needed following the away leg.

PSV never did enough to get back into the tie. Honestly, their best spell came very early in the game, with Farfan forcing a save from Reina within five minutes, but that was about it. Given Koeman’s pre-match comments, the long injury list, and the tight title race in the Eredivisie, PSV seemed content to play for 0-0 and a modicum of respect. And it didn’t make for much of a spectacle.

The Liverpool crowd was the highlight of the game. To employ a well-worn analogy, they certainly were a jukebox tonight. Throughout the match, the fans went from one song to another, all clearly audible through the television, including a five-minute plus rendition of “Rafa Benitez.” When Gerrard and Carra came out for a jog late in the first half, the fans went straight into “Steve Gerrard, Gerrard” followed by “We all dream of a team of Carraghers.” Even the announcers expressed amazement, and given what was happening on the field, it was little surprise that was a topic they focused on.

In what appeared to be his attempt to liven up the game, the referee showed a straight red card to PSV’s young defender Dirk Marcellis for a fairly bad tackle on Bolo Zenden in the 64th minute. It was mistimed with studs showing, but straight red was certainly a surprise. And Liverpool took full advantage, with Crouch smashing home a much-needed goal from a Fowler flicked ball back across the 6 yard box after Gomes had saved Crouch’s original shot. Afterwards, while Liverpool continued to carve out chances against the overmatched and undermanned PSV side, the last 20 minutes played out much like the previous ones.

As sometimes seems to happen in games like this, the night was spoiled by an injury to Bellamy, who reportedly suffered knee ligament damage. Which is a fairly big concern, as he's had knee problems in the past. That’s twice recently that players have gone down in fairly innocuous circumstances and come away crocked. Hopefully this situation is far less severe.

While tonight wasn’t a performance to write home about, players did have good games. Pennant again looked threatening, never looked likely to pick up the yellow that would rule him out of the next match (he has seemingly matured a good deal during the season), and was probably the man of the match (aside from the Kop, obviously). His performance was only jaded by missing two excellent chances late on, but as he was Liverpool’s main threat and the game was well over, I’m willing to overlook that.

Alonso, Sissoko, and Agger also had nice outings. Passes were coming off for Xabi, he could carve PSV pretty much open at will, and with the game in hand, was able to be rested for the final 20 minutes. Momo’s come in for a lot of stick recently, including from me, but he was solid in midfield and seemed to keep possession a fair amount better than he had been. And while PSV never really threatened, Agger kept good watch over Farfan and Kone. There was also a moment that stood out, where Agger was smart enough to see space open up on the left, and went far forward on the wing to receive the ball and get a cross in. The goalkeeper was the only player in the six-yard box to meet the cross, but it was heady play for a young center back.

In addition, Zenden, who has also often been criticized, had his moments as well. Starting on the left flank, he didn’t offer a ton and gravitated towards the middle of the pitch, but deserved to score on a very nice free kick. And once Alonso went off, Bolo did very well opening up the pitch with his passing. By that time, PSV was solely playing for the final whistle, but Zenden showed vision he’s rarely displayed in a Liverpool shirt.

Now comes a far more difficult test. Chelsea hasn’t been beaten since Liverpool won 2-0 on January 20th. They haven’t shipped a league goal since then either. That win was Liverpool’s first win over Chelsea in the league since Benitez took over, while Liverpool’s only loss to Chelsea in cup competition came in the 2005 league cup final. If we’re counting the Community Shield, the two matches over the semi-final will be the 7th and 8th times the two sides have met in cup competition under their current managers. It’s quite the precedent, but unlike when the two teams met in January, this does not seem like a very good time to be facing Chelsea.

However, on a five-game unbeaten run, it’s doesn’t seem a very good time to face Liverpool either. Which should make for a very interesting tie.

First leg at Stamford Bridge on April 25th. Can’t wait.

10 April 2007


7-1! I dislike taking Liverpool previews off the top before games under most circumstances, for Manchester United I like it even less, but this is surely exemplary. The first placed team in the Premier League beat the second placed team from Serie A by 6 goals in the quarterfinals of the Champions League. That’s completely mind-boggling.

Marseille beat CSKA Moscow 6-0 in 1993. Lyon beat Werder Bremen 7-2 in 2005. Those are the only other knockout stage victories listed in UEFA’s all-time records that come close to this margin.

Every now and then you’ll see a score like that in the qualifying round, and even less frequently, one will occur in the group stage. This year, the widest margins in the groups were Barcelona 5-0 over Levski Sofia and Real Madrid over Dynamo Kiev 5-1. I’ve never seen a game like today’s in the knockout rounds, let alone between the best team in England and the second best in Italy.

7-1 is not just a bad night, a fluke performance, although I do doubt United could repeat the feat. It’s complete domination. It takes an awful lot to get to that point; bad nights are 3 or 4 goal losses. United were by far the better team in every part of the game. When you go 3 goals down in the first 20 minutes and are all but eliminated from Europe, heads are bound to go down, but to let in 4 others is more than demoralization. It shows a severe gulf in quality between the two teams.

The final score wasn’t helped by the way United play; they attack under all circumstances and never truly stopped pushing forward, but it’s not as if they were still going all out by the last whistle. They could easily have scored more than seven. And even then, we almost never see Manchester this capable in the Champions League. Historically, United haven’t matched their European performance with their league. And they had never overturned a first leg deficit in the revamped Champions League.

It’s exceptionally disappointing writing this as a Liverpool fan, and the day after questioning whether United could hold onto their league lead to boot. However, it’s impossible not to be awed by this performance. But as good as they were, I’m really left with questions about the state of European football. Is the Premiership really that much better than Serie A, where the 1st placed side in the former can handle the 2nd in the latter so easily?

If it isn’t already, I think we’re well on our way. In the end, it goes back to the money behind it all. The Premiership is one of the fastest growing leagues in the world. Look at the television deal, at all the foreign owners buying in, at all the worldwide (truly worldwide) coverage. While in contrast Serie A seems portrayed as rife with corruption, seediness, violence (whether that one is even fair or not is a question I’m unwilling to explore), ultras, and dilapidated stadia.

No offense meant, but if this was a 7-1 victory over a team from a smaller country, it’s a different matter. But the Italians are historically European powerhouses, as much as if not more so than the English. Both countries have had clubs win the Champions League 10 times, and it was less than 4 years ago I remember talk of Italian domination, with AC Milan meeting Juventus in the 2003 final. How recently the Italians seemed on top should temper my remarks; time does have a habit of changing situations. But with the apparent increasing distance between the Premier League and everyone else, and what may well be three teams in the last 4 of this year’s Champions League, the tables look to be turning again. With the growing importance on finances, it will be far harder for others to catch up this time.

Liverpool v PSV 04.11.2007

2:45pm. Available live in the US on Setanta and ESPN Deportes.

Liverpool leads 3-0 on aggregate

PSV is currently 1st in the Eredivisie, 2 points ahead of Ajax

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

Champions League 1st Knockout Round results:
Liverpool: 0-1 Barca (h); 2-1 Barca (a)
PSV: 1-1 Arse (a); 1-0 Arse (h)

Goal scorers (Europe):
Liverpool: Crouch 6; Garcia, Gerrard 3; Bellamy, Fowler, Riise 2; Gonzalez 1
PSV: Alex, Da Costa, Kone 2; Kromkamp, Mendez, Simons, Vayrynen 1

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

Referee: Roberto Rosetti (ITA)

Key players for PSV:
Jefferson Farfan: Peruvian striker who is the top scorer for PSV so far this season, and one of the most prolific in the Eredivisie. I’m stating the obvious, but being 3 goals down, PSV will need excellent games from their strikers.
Arouna Kone: Kone started over the weekend, and should return to partner Farfan. His pace will be crucial; like Farfan, he can unhinge the defense with his speed and a single mistake. Both he and Farfan will have to play blinders to get PSV back in this tie.
Phillip Cocu: Cocu is probably the most recognized name on PSV’s teamsheet. The midfielder both starred for the Holland national team and played for Barcelona from ’98-04, and despite his age (36), still makes PSV tick. After Simons’ deputized for the injured Alex in defense last week, Cocu played there for the majority of the game on Saturday, so there’s an excellent chance he may here as well.

My guess of a lineup:
Finnan, Carragher, Agger, Riise
Gerrard, Mascherano, Alonso, Gonzalez
Crouch, Fowler

I am utterly at a loss as to pick the midfield. I can come up with arguments for Alonso, Sissoko, Mascherano, and Gerrard all playing. Alonso is fit again after missing the Reading match, and when fit, usually is one of the first names on the team sheet. I firmly believe he is that important to the team. I was tempted to think he’d start with Sissoko, as Momo also sat out the Reading match in addition to being suspended for the first leg of this tie. And his energy and destructive capabilities could certainly come in use tomorrow. But at the same time, Mascherano has put in some sterling performances recently, looked to mesh really well with Alonso, and is one of the freshest members of the squad at the moment (thanks West Ham!). And even though he picked up a yellow in the last match, Mascherano isn’t one away from a ban, according to both UEFA’s discipline chart and press kit.

If at all possible, I’d love to see Gerrard get some rest with the tie looking out of PSV’s reach, but with Pennant one yellow away from a ban I can’t see Jermaine starting, which leaves Stevie the only real option on the right flank. I’ll be stunned if Gerrard isn’t subbed around the hour mark though.

Kuyt is suspended thanks to his “clever” booking picked up late last week, and Crouch should be a clear starter whether in Dirk’s place or not. Seems likely Bellamy would partner him, but the two did not combine that well at Reading, and this game, even though Benitez has consistently (and rightly so) reaffirmed that he will play a full strength side (whether than will actually happen remains debatable though), seems like one where Fowler could get an opportunity. Which I’m fully in favor of.

PSV continued their poor run domestically over the weekend, losing 2-1 to NEC Nijmegen, a team that sits 28 points behind them in the league and a team they beat 3-1 at home earlier in the season. It’s tired to say, but I’ll always reiterate it, you cannot look past anyone in Europe, especially at this stage, but PSV certainly isn’t having the best of spells.

It’s hard to write a preview with the usual clichés – can’t look past this match, it’s still only half-time, etc – when you don’t really believe them. Of course it is the Champions League; Deportivo la Coruña overturned 3 goals to come back from a 4-1 deficit to beat Milan in 2004. But considering the scoreline, considering the form of the two teams, this should not be in doubt. If Liverpool come out and play to their abilities, PSV should never have the chance make nerves rattle, which will happen if they score first and pull one back. Liverpool can’t put themselves in that position.

09 April 2007

Hey, a title race!

Despite my attempts to not fall into this trap, like a lot of people I for all intents and purposes crowned Manchester United Premier League champions a couple of months back. And has become proven, yet again, you simply can never declare the title race dead until the trophy’s been handed out.

In my defense, it’s been a couple of years since we’ve had an actual title race. Don’t let the points totals, especially from last season, deceive; Chelsea have run away with the league the last two times out, and the season before that Arsenal went undefeated and led the entire year. It looked apparent that United would do likewise this year, particularly when Chelsea’s defense looked ever so porous while Terry and Cech, among others, were out injured.

But here we are, with both Chelsea and United having 6 games left, including one against each other at Stamford Bridge, with only 3 points separating them. If you’d told me that the title race would be this close 2 months ago, I’d have straight up laughed at you.

There’s not really any one thing that explains how United’s come to this point. They haven’t suffered any large decline in form; their only loss in the league in the past month was the one suffered to Pompey on Saturday. Despite making hard work of it, they are still alive in the Champions League (we’ll see if that’s still true tomorrow), and in the last four of the FA Cup.

A few things have happened though. Larsson returned to Sweden in mid-March, while Saha has been injured and Rooney off-form (the 4-1 mauling of Bolton aside), which means goals haven’t been as easy to come by, while Vidic, who had become a cornerstone of the defense, broke his collarbone. But these things can and do happen throughout the season, it’s United bad luck that they have all happened in the last stage of the campaign, whereas teams like Chelsea, Arsenal, and Liverpool had battled similar difficulties earlier on.

But it’s not all on United’s end, though. Chelsea hasn’t lost in any competition since the Liverpool match on January 20th. Since then, players have gotten healthy, new signings (Shevchenko, Obi Mikel, Kalou) have begun settling into the Premier League, and like Liverpool, the team is rounding into form for the run in to the end of the season. They are peaking at the best possible time for a finishing sprint while United seems to be running on fumes and hoping their outstanding start to the season sees them through.

Don’t take this entry the wrong way though. By no means am I certain Chelsea will leapfrog United for their third straight. I do believe Chelsea has a harder fixture list for the final six games (four of Chelsea’s games are against the top 6 in the league), and much like I said for the Liverpool/Arsenal fight for 3rd place, everything will probably be decided when the two teams meet, in the second to last game of the season (thanks FA for moving the game to increase tension, by the way). Which makes it all the better for Chelsea that the match is at Stamford Bridge.

By that time, we’ll know if Chelsea can still do the quadruple, or if United could win the treble. The remaining games to be played before the two teams meet will decide an awful lot as well. Will morale be high because there are still trophies to be played for? How will the two teams have done in the four games before they play each other? Ferguson will have a lot to do to ensure that morale is high, no matter what results United picks up between now and then.

Needless to say, it will certainly be interesting. Thankfully.

Quick Second leg Champions League Predictions

Valencia v Chelsea, 2:45pm, Setanta and ESPN Deportes: All eyes are on the supposed semi-final match-up between Liverpool and Chelsea, which would be the umpteenth time the two sides have met in a late round of a knock-out tournament, but despite Mourinho’s main focus being on the Champions League, Valencia’s earning of a draw, with an away goal to boot, at Stamford Bridge makes them heavy favorites to go through. As they were under Benitez, Valencia is not an easy side to turn over at the Mestalla. And I’m heartbroken that this predicted result would keep Liverpool and Chelsea from meeting yet again. Valencia 2-1
Manchester Utd v Roma, 2:45pm, espn2: How I would love to see Roma knock out United in the same week that their Premier League championship was suddenly thrown into doubt. I won’t lie, that would be utterly delightful. But Roma, at home and with United down to 10 men, had their chance, and could only bring a 2-1 lead to Manchester. Even at a one goal disadvantage, I’d still think United likely to go through, but the away goal should make it certain. United 2-0

Bayern Munich v AC Milan, 2:45pm, espn2: Bayern did their part by battling back from two deficits last Tuesday, and got 2 much-needed away goals to put themselves in pole position. Neither team has had their usual domestic successes, but you’d think Bayern, whose problems have mainly come on the road, likely to seal this tie in Munich. However, contrary to logic, I just can’t see Milan going out at this stage, and I think it’ll be down to Kaka, who has become one of the best players in the world. Milan 1-0

07 April 2007

Liverpool 2-1 Reading

Outside of the Arsenal and Chelsea wins, that may have been the most satisfying three points of the league campaign. Reading were that good and that victory was that hard won.

I had sincerely underestimated Reading, and given they're a promoted team in 8th place, that's hard to do. They have had a very good season so far, but there had been some drop in results over their past few games. However, they were more than up for itand more than capable today. It was the home side who set the tempo, controlled possession, and for the majority of the second half, were the better side. Liverpool had to work the entire game to get a result, and the fact that they never gave up, finally imposed themselves on their opposition in the last 15 minutes, and saw a struggling Dirk Kuyt get the winner in the 86th minute from a delightful toe-poked cross after Pennant’s good run made the result so welcomed.

From the opening whistle, Reading looked to take the game to Liverpool. But for the most of the first half, Liverpool dealt with the threat. Carragher was simply superb in cutting out Reading opportunities, and the defense’s job was made easier by a fantastic first goal by Arbeloa on the counter attack. Crouch put the recent acquisition cleanly through on the left hand side, and Arbeloa opened up to sidefoot past Hahnemann, who got fingers to the ball but couldn’t keep it out. I can’t say enough about Arbeloa, it’s the best £2m Rafa’s spent. Left back or right back, and now he shows he’s got the ability to attack from the counter as well.

But Liverpool couldn’t use the goal to change the game, and Reading stayed in it. Liverpool’s defense was very good today, but Reading’s was as well. Ivar Ingimarsson was absolutely outstanding in blocking out Liverpool opportunities and beating strikers to the ball, and the entire Reading team closed down quickly and prevented Liverpool from playing their game. They really are a very good team, and it's a credit to Steve Coppell for not only assembling it on a shoestring budget, but playing with the style and tempo they do.

And the second half brought a different story. Reading came out with even more drive, brought on Andre Bikey (who scored in the Carling Cup match) for Michael Duberry, and within two minutes had gotten an equalizer. The flag stayed down on a throughball to Gunnarsson on the right, who unleashed a rifle of a shot from a very tight angle that Reina had no chance on.

Liverpool responded immediately, bringing on Kuyt for Bellamy, and Pennant for Crouch about ten minutes later, but it did little to halt Reading for the time being. Liverpool was unable to create enough time on the ball and establish possession or tempo, and continued to play on the back foot and tried create their chances from the counter. And with Sissoko and Mascherano in midfield, it wasn’t quite coming off.

I don’t enjoy singling players out, but Sissoko did not have a good game today. Far too often he would get the ball, and his pass attempting to open up Reading would go astray, usually right to the Reading defender. Momo has never been noted for his distribution, he is labeled a “destroyer” and rightfully so, but unlike in other games, he wasn’t even as successful in stopping Reading from playing their game, and his passing truly did let the team down at times today.

Reading had chances to take the lead as well, the clearest coming when Crouch headed a Reading corner onto his own bar right before he was substituted, but Liverpool saw out the pressure, and I can’t say enough about that. All too often away from Anfield, Liverpool would succumb to a goal, frequently a cheap one, when they couldn’t break the other team down. But a well-marshaled defense led by Carragher, who for my money truly is the best defender in the world and must be man of the match, never gave in, and by the last 15 minutes, Liverpool was the fresher side. Getting closer to opening up Reading through the pace of Pennant and Gonzalez, who was later substituted for Riise’s fresh legs in the 80th minute, Liverpool looked ever more threatening, and it also had a lot to do with Dirk Kuyt.

Kuyt’s come in for a fair amount of stick after going scoreless in the last few games after an excellent start to his Liverpool career. But, together with Pennant, he changed the game today. His hard work was leading to more Liverpool opportunities, and did more to unsettle the Reading back line than anyone else had prior. And he was rewarded with the winning goal. Pennant broke through two defenders after a good run down the right and toe-poked a cross to the back post where Kuyt was lurking unmarked and made no mistake.

The result is probably harsh on Reading, as they probably deserve something out of their performance today. But that makes Liverpool’s win that much sweeter. It really was fought for the entire way, and a very hard-earned three points. The team never gave up the belief that they’d be the one to get the second goal despite everything Reading threw at them, and that’s got to be at least partly down to the morale they’ve built up over the past couple of games. Despite injuries, despite tough losses earlier in the season, it seems to be coming together now, and it couldn’t have come at a better time.