30 May 2007

Happy Birthday Stevie

Steven Gerrard turns 27 today, and in celebration (with not much else to say; would the transfer season please swing into gear?), here’s one of the many YouTube compilations of Gerrard’s top 10 goals. The ranking’s a little dubious, but all the big ones are in there.

And for those of us in the States, if you have Fox Sports en Español, you’ll be able to catch new Liverpool signing Lucas play for Gremio against Santos in the semifinals of the Copa Libertadores tonight at 8:30pm. It was supposed to be on Fox Soccer Channel as well, but in their infinite wisdom, they decided they’d be better served showing a rerun of the FA Cup season review. Sometimes, we just can’t win.

Happy Birthday Stevie, now get Rafa to sign some new players so we’ve got something to gossip about.

Update: So Lucas didn’t feature due to the injury that kept him out of the last round. Pity, I had hoped he’d make it back for this leg, and from what little I’d read it looked possible. The return leg is June 6th. To steal a line that’s long since gotten old, the lesson as always, I’m an idiot.

Gremio won 2-0 if you’re wondering.

28 May 2007

06-07 Review: How far away is Liverpool?

"I don't know if we are capable of challenging for the title next year.

"We want to make progress but it is a multiple-year programme. We want to challenge but we won't do it overnight.

"Manchester United are formidable competitors, Arsenal are one year older with brilliant young players and Chelsea are perhaps the greatest club in the world. They're not going to get any worse.” – new co-owner George Gillett

I start the last “review” (I promise) with this recent quote from Gillett because in the run-up to this season, this was supposed to be the year that Liverpool finally challenged for the title, if not won it outright (see here, here, here, and here, among others) And we all know how that turned out.

This is a more depressing note to start on than is probably warranted. Liverpool finished third in the Premiership. They reached the Champions League final for the second time in Benitez’s three seasons, despite the final result. Players such as Mascherano, Kuyt, Arbeloa, and Pennant all progressed as the season went on, looked like settling, and looked like important pieces of the puzzle for seasons to come, while other recent signings such as Agger, Reina, and even Crouch improved as well. It was not a season to be completely forgotten. But it certainly was not good enough.

When all is said and done, Liverpool finished third because of the following:

1-1 @ Sheffield
0-3 @ Everton
0-1 @ Chelsea
0-2 @ Bolton
0-2 @ Manchester Utd

Those are the results of the first five away games in the Premiership. I know, it’s an easy conclusion to come to, and a popular one as well, but it can’t be ignored. To be fair, 4 out of those 5 teams finished in the top 7. But I distinctly remember talk leading up to the season ecstatic at Liverpool’s “easy run” in, getting many difficult away matches out of the way early. Combined with Liverpool’s frequent slow starts to the season, aided by a World Cup hangover for many of the key players, this was always going to be a potential pitfall, but they way it ended up still leaves mountains to be desired months after the fact.

In four of those games, against the four that finished in the top 7, Liverpool went scoreless. We know the frequent complaints about Liverpool’s incisiveness, coupled with adding a number of new players to the attack, but the lack of goals has been a criticism for the duration of Benitez’s reign, and it’s not going away after this last season. I’m still not sure how much is due to Rafa’s tactics or due to signings that haven’t panned out as hoped, but both have lead to questions and both need to be rectified if Liverpool is to win the elusive Premiership crown.

The quote at the beginning leads to the big issue: is Liverpool really that far away from #19 than we all thought? Are the fans expectations so much removed from the reality of the situation as the management and new owners see it?

Personally, I’ve been a bit surprised by the stories coming out of Anfield and Melwood following the Champions League final. I expected funds to be spent in the close season, more than in the last couple of seasons thanks to the Americans, but the degree being bandied about is still a lot bigger than I expected. Whether it actually happens remains to be seen, but the consistency in media gossip and the quotes coming from Liverpool staff still make it seem that a bit more change is coming than I thought possible.

Which worries me in another regard. Despite the fact I’m convinced the early season form doomed Liverpool’s title ambitions, some of the reason for that form was due to the number of new players brought in. And if a number of new additions must again be bedded in, what will it do to next season’s campaign?

With that said, I still have the utmost faith in Rafa Benitez. Yes, he can be too cautious and too meticulous at times. But he is building a team basically from scratch (NB: Guillem Balague’s excellent “biography” A Season on the Brink does well to detail the extent of the overhaul started once Benitez arrived although it’s getting a little out of date), one that fits his vision of how football should be played. And from what Valencia accomplished in La Liga, I’m more than willing to give Rafa the benefit of the doubt.

You just have to look at two of Liverpool’s three main contenders (with the money spent in such a short time, Chelsea is a very unique case). Both Wenger and Ferguson were given time to put their stamp on their side (Wenger differently than Ferguson because of the defense inherited, but nonetheless…). Ferguson was nearly fired a number of times in his first few years, not winning the league until his 7th season.

Regardless of the drop in points total and of a second consecutive third place finish, I am still certainly of the belief Benitez will achieve what he’s set out to do. Maybe Gillett is right, maybe it will take longer than just next season, which won’t delight the fans, but Rafa will do it. Anfield will see the trophy paraded around in a lap of honor to the sounds of ‘Ee aye addio, we’ve won the league.’ Of this I have no doubt.

24 May 2007

Liverpool Player Ratings 06-07

I’ll attempt to follow this up with more season-ending scribbling, probably a more overarching essay about the season as a whole, but I thought a good place to start would be with individual player ratings (scores out of 10).

I realize this is quite long, even for me, but please bear with it, as I don’t really fancy dividing this into separate pieces. Seems too choppy if prolonged, and I prefer to get all I have to say about a certain subject out in one fell swoop. Plus, there’s so much fun summer transfer speculation coming up; it may be a poor idea to attempt to rate players’ season-long performances after yesterday, but it's still relatively fresh in the memory and at this point, I’m ready to put this year in the past.

Pepe Reina: Reina keeps getting better every year, which is lovely considering he’s not even 25. Yes, he’s prone to gaffes, as is pretty much every goalkeeper, but his shot-stopping is far above average, he’s got an excellent mindset, has the ability to be silent for an entire game but come up out of the blue with a spectacular save (far easier said than done), and he’s easily the best in the world at penalties. 8.5

Jerzy Dudek: Well, he’s still a legend thanks to Istanbul, but I watched pretty much every one of Jerzy’s starts through my fingers. In retrospect, it would have been best for all involved if he could have been sold before the season started. 4

Steve Finnan: My vote for player of the season. All too often people look beyond Finnan with Carragher, Agger and Reina’s performances, but Finn is just as solid as those players, possibly even more consistent, and very underrated as a attacking fullback and crosser of the ball. 9

Alvaro Arbeloa: He started absolutely brilliantly and was a revelation against Barcelona, but had some tough games to finish the season, especially against Chelsea at Stamford Bridge. That’s to be expected with a foreign defender thrown into a new side (especially one that plays such a tightly-knit offside trap); he’s still an excellent squad player and was an excellent buy in January to bolster the squad. 7.5

Jamie Carragher: Not much to be said about Carra that hasn’t already been written. The man’s a legend and Liverpool personified. However, the start to the season could have been better, and it didn’t seem as if he played as consistently as he has in seasons past. Of course, he's still one of the best defenders in the world, and there's no one I'd rather have. 8.5

Daniel Agger: I firmly believe he’s well on his way to becoming a Liverpool legend as well. The only times I saw him truly under threat this season was against Martins and Drogba, who are both strong, fast strikers who can cause anyone problems. And after Drogba gave him endless trouble at Stamford Bridge, Agger put him in his back pocket for the return leg at Anfield. Definitely one of Rafa’s best buys. 8.5

Sami Hyypia: Never blessed with pace, Sami’s gotten even slower. But he’s still more than reliable as a 3rd centerback and showed loyalty and team spirit by accepting the demotion with grace. Liverpool would be very lucky to keep him on for another year. Paletta’s still not ready for the first-team and transfer funds are needed elsewhere. Against the big teams and best strikers, Sami can be a liability (I can't forget Drogba absolutely demolishing him in 05-06 in the 1-4 game), but I’ve had zero fears about him the times he’s been drafted in this season, and it’s been a big bonus having him available. 8

Gabriel Paletta: One for the future. There were many scary moments and positional nightmares this year, but he was also a lot better in his last game of the season against Fulham. He’s certainly got potential, and next season will be key. 5.5

John Arne Riise: I’m frequently of two minds over Riise. He’s got a cannon for a left foot, gets forward, pops up with important goals (none bigger than the one at Camp Nou), and all in all seems quite likeable on and off the pitch. However, defensively he frightened me more often this season than any other time I can remember. It seemed strikers turned him at will at times, and when they were running at him, a lot of his tackles were mistimed and either a free kick was picked up or the attacker blew by him. As much as I love John, I think left back might be one of the areas strengthened during the offseason. 6.5

Fabio Aurelio: Pity he’s made of glass, because when fit, he showed signs of utter quality. Maybe the best crosser of the ball on the team on his day, but with Aurelio’s lengthy injury history, I don’t know how often we’ll ever see him on his day. 6

Emiliano Insua: Even though I’m trying to stick to definite first-teamers in this evaluation, I can’t go without mentioning Insua, who I was so excited about during the run of games where youth and reserve players featured. Even though it's so early (I've followed Liverpool long enough to know I shouldn't judge off of first appearances), and he's not the biggest lad, his intelligence and ability both ways were more than encouraging. Based on so few performances, I can’t bring myself to give him a grade, which makes this inclusion even more questionable, but it’s worth noting I’m pretty positive he’ll be in future plans. n/a

Jermaine Pennant: Admittedly, I want to like Pennant. He’s a quick winger who keeps to the flank and can play in lovely crosses, which Liverpool certainly needs. But if Hicks and Gillett’s money was around last summer, I highly doubt he would have been purchased. A tough start to the season, but it takes time to settle, even coming from another English club, and he was one of Liverpool’s most dangerous players to finish despite the sometime lack of an end product. If he continues to settle and improve, it may end up being a very smart £6.7m. 8

Steven Gerrard: Gerrard gets far too much stick for doing what the manager asks of him. No matter the fact that this clearly wasn’t his best season, he’s still the driving force of this team and the one player capable of lifting the team when they’re below par. Yes, many in the media are given to over-promoting him, as I am at times, but with his resumé, it's easy to see why. Gerrard can be prone to a sulk, but his leadership did improve this year with his growing maturity. Given what I wrote and while it’s evident he’s trying, I still do believe he needs to do more to fit within Rafa’s system for this team to reach its potential. 8

Xabi Alonso: Please don’t take the constant repetition of my fear that Xabi’s leaving as wishing or expecting it. It’s just something’s not quite right this season. At times, we saw the full range of passing, the intelligence and composure in his game, and some pretty shots from distance (including in his own half). But there were also the problems to start the season, apparent disillusionment in his game at times, tons of chippy and unnecessary fouls (especially against Milan on Wednesday), and the lack of any contract talks while Carra and Gerrard’s have been mentioned in the press pretty much every day. It didn’t help that Mascherano came in and played at such a high level either. I sincerely hope his future doesn’t lie away from Anfield, but until pen hits paper, I will continue to fret over it. 7.5

Javier Mascherano: There must be miles of difference between West Ham and Liverpool’s locker rooms, because there shouldn’t be any reason players like Quashie, Noble, and Mullins were starting over Masch. Based on only a few months in a Liverpool shirt, I have no problems with saying that he’s world class, which is a term I don’t use lightly. The contract situation with MSI will continue to make me nervous, but other than those extenuating circumstances, there should be no way Liverpool should ever let him leave. 9

Momo Sissoko: Another whose season was curtailed by injuries, but also by the emergence of Mascherano. Sissoko does one thing well: break up play and keep the other team from putting their stamp on the game, which he did to superb effect against Barcelona. But Mascherano can also do that, as well as being more composed and a far better passer. Momo’s still very young, and still boss, but with the players Liverpool has, I don’t know if his future lies here. 6

Bolo Zenden: Everyone’s new favorite scapegoat. Admittedly he didn’t have the best season, but to be fair, I think most at Liverpool are surprised that Zenden saw as much playing time as he did, and for a free transfer squad player, Liverpool pretty much got what they paid for. He was never dire despite the constant gripes about his play (which I mainly do agree with), but it’s clear he’s not good enough, and he’ll certainly be leaving over the summer. 6

Luis Garcia: Garcia was dearly missed, more than any other player through injury, during the second half of the season. Yeah, he gives the ball away too often and too cheaply, but he’s still a creative player who can deliver that moment of brilliance that Liverpool’s been lacking, as well as one of Liverpool’s most consistent performers and scorers in European competition. Absence may make the heart grow fonder, but I cannot wait to see Luis back on the field. 7.5

Harry Kewell: I’ve backed Kewell through the past couple of years and when it’s looked like he’s had little ambition to return or reach top form, because I really do believe he can be a top player, but time is running short. I would hope he’s used the past 10 or so months off to truly reach full fitness, because next season is going to be very important for Harry. With the summer transfer speculation reaching full swing, and more changes looking likely than I thought probable, he might not even be around to prove himself if Benitez shows the ruthless side we know he’s got. That said, I do hope Harry does come back and shows what we’ve been missing. n/a

Mark Gonzalez: He didn’t settle at all. With a poacher’s goal against Maccabi Haifa in early August, it looked like £3m well spent, but that might have been the highlight of his time at Liverpool. I had assumed that he’d spend a season on loan at the worst, but it’s become evident he’s well on his way out, with Real Betis beckoning. He came with a lot more hype than Nuñez, but that's going to be the parallel drawn. 5

Dirk Kuyt: Yes, Dirk does need to pop up with more goals, but he’s not one who operates well as a lone striker, is better suited to play as a deep-lying striker in England, and his work ethic is second to none. It’s also worth remembering this is his first season in a new league, and he scored for fun while playing for Feyenoord. 8

Peter Crouch: 18 goals, 30 starts. Admittedly, with 19 sub appearances, but still. He’s not suited to lead the line against every team and rarely sees the full 90 minutes, which is another reason Rafa hesitates in starting him, but you certainly can’t complain about that goal return. Another one who probably won’t start the majority of games in the future, especially if Liverpool buys the big name striker we’re all waiting for, but he’s more than useful as another option for the squad that Benitez is building. 8

Craig Bellamy: Bellers is never going to get the run of consecutive games he needs to find full form while in a Liverpool shirt. At times he showed moments of brilliance (at Wigan and Charlton stand out), but all too often he disappointed and I’ll be surprised if he’s still at the club come August. 6.5

Robbie Fowler: Left for last with ulterior motives. Never got enough games to make a mark, but with his fitness and the other players at the club, he was never going to get those games. People will point to his 7 goals as evidence he should have played more, but all 3 in the Premiership came from penalties (and all against Sheffield) while all the others came in games where Liverpool played mainly reserves. Don’t get me wrong, the man will forever be a Liverpool legend, is rightfully called “God,” and I still love him to death, but he wasn’t going to be the answer this season, not where he's at in his career. But we will worship and remember you forever for what you’ve done for this club, Robbie. 6

23 May 2007

Liverpool 1-2 AC Milan

Okay, I lied about waiting; it only took a couple of hours of head clearing before finding some words. Sometimes I can’t help myself.

Where to start, where to start. I guess I’ll begin by saying up front that Milan were deserved winners. Please keep that in mind when I come off as especially shrill.

That said, Liverpool should have been leading going into halftime. At the very least, Milan certainly shouldn’t have been up one-nil. Liverpool was utterly dominant from the first minute until Pirlo’s free kick in the 45th, and the fact that they weren’t able to get off the mark seemed almost a return to the bad old away days. Even though there were few clear-cut chances in the first, the plan was working. There was a lot of huff and puff with no goals to show for it, which has been a frequent and valid complaint, but this was always going to be an exceedingly tight game. Until Inzaghi’s goal, it looked to be working a treat.

And yes, I can’t go without saying that the goal clearly went in off of Inzaghi’s arm. As Stevie Nicol said during halftime on espn2’s atrocious coverage (Nicol was the only bright spot), forget about any ball to hand nonsense. If a shot goes in off a player’s arm, it’s not a goal. End of. I hope Platini’s future extra referees will be in place to catch things like this, as it was one of many things that Fandel and his crew fouled up Wednesday evening.

Once Milan got the first goal, they were never going to make the same mistakes as in 2005. I wouldn’t say they completely shut up shop -- they ended the game stronger and earned a fair few corners in the second half -- but they were content to sit back and soak up pressure, and continued to let Liverpool set the tempo. Oddo and Jankulovski were cemented in fullback positions instead of charging forward as they did in the first, and Liverpool had much less room to operate.

With the clock ticking down, Benitez threw the dice bringing on Crouch for Mascherano in the 78th minute. To fully utilize Crouchy, it was always going to be Mascherano or Alonso coming off, and Benitez was always going to wait until as late as possible to limit the damage Milan could cause with one less holding player in there. It didn’t take long (four minutes, actually) for Kaka to take advantage, with a slide-rule pass for an absolutely perfectly timed run by Inzaghi. 2-0, and game all but over; at 1-0 Milan were never going to give Liverpool any room to play, at 2-0 they barely had space to breathe, and the end result was the ball bouncing around the pitch. To Liverpool’s credit, heads never went down, and a Kewell corner found its way to Dirk Kuyt in the 89th minute, who made no mistake. But much like Kuyt’s very similar goal against Arsenal in the FA Cup, it was too little too late.

I do believe that Benitez got the formation correct. Gerrard may not be at his best in the free role behind Kuyt, but the midfield of Alonso and Mascherano as well as Pennant on the right definitely did their jobs, and with those players in those roles, that’s always where Gerrard was going to line up. And truth be told, aside from a hideous miss in the 63rd minute (Dida did do well to get down quickly), he had a good, if marginally inconspicuous, game. It’s just that since his heroics have saved Liverpool so many times in the past, when he doesn’t come through with a miracle, anything else is a let down.

Liverpool’s most threatening player in the first half was Pennant, hands down. For 45 minutes, he was embarrassing Jankulovski for fun. Nearly all of Liverpool’s dangerous play came through him and he was exploiting gaps in the defense exceptionally. Yes, the end product could have been better, but I thought he was easily the best attacking player for the first half. Once Milan scored and kept the fullbacks deeper, Pennant didn’t have nearly as much space and faded somewhat, but it was still good to see him play to that level in a game such as this.

I’ll also head off another line of questioning and say, yes, for the most part, Zenden was the only weak spot in the line-up in the first half, and at times left Liverpool’s left flank open when Riise went forward to cover some of Zenden’s duties. But he really didn’t seem fit, and under normal circumstances, I highly doubt he would have started. However, with the health of both Zenden and Kewell (and with Garcia a long-term casualty too), Benitez was in a catch 22. Had Kewell been on from the start, maybe Liverpool could have taken better advantage of how well they started the game, but admittedly I was wrong, and it seemed from his 35 or so minutes that Harry probably wouldn’t have lasted an hour, let alone the full game. Maybe if he was on early, and if Liverpool got a goal, it’d be fine if he tired because others could shut up shop, but that’s a lot of ifs, especially for a Champions League final and in retrospect.

No one should leave Athens with his head down, because the team’s effort was to be praised even if the end product was lacking. Not Zenden or Kewell, not Gerrard, or anyone else despite whatever flaws are there to be picked out. I can’t fault anyone’s effort today, and I still have the same faith in what Liverpool’s building as I did on Tuesday. Again, credit to Milan. Their defense held firm and Inzaghi was at his goal-poaching best. In a cagey, balanced match, they had the nous to take advantage, and they did.

I’ll have more to say later in season-ending wrap-up stuff, but I do want to reiterate it is only year 3 in Benitez’s rebuilding project. Yes, this is a disappointment, but it’s not a step backwards. Take nothing away from Milan, they won through resolute defending, smart play, and far better goal-poaching. If anything, it demonstrates that Liverpool does need more guile in front of goal, which isn’t quite news, but how much needs to be bought, or in Garcia and Kewell, it mainly just needs to get healthy?

At the end of the day, the main thing I’m coming away with is pride in the team, despite disappointment in the result.

Roll on next season.


Ugh. Nowhere near the right state of mind for a match report yet. Hopefully tomorrow, and my apologies.

I will say this though. At the end of the day, Liverpool just did not take advantage when they were dominant, and Milan was determinedly resolute when they had to be. It was an exceedingly balanced match-up, even more so than in 2005, and Milan got the better bounces as well as the all-important first goal, which all bitterness aside, still went in off an arm from a soft free kick. Nonetheless, credit to the winners, it’s just depressing as all get out, especially when it’s a game that’s there for the taking.

Even after everything, it’s still lovely listening to the Liverpool fans even while the players are picking up the runners-up medals. No singing just when you’re winning.

You’ll never walk alone.

21 May 2007

Liverpool v AC Milan 05.23.07

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

Road to Athens
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)
Milan: 0-2 Lille (h); 0-1 AEK (a); 4-1 Anderlecht (h); 1-0 Anderlecht (a); 0-0 Lille (a); 3-0 AEK (h)

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

Quarterfinal results:
Liverpool: 1-0 PSV (h); 3-0 PSV (a)
Milan: 2-0 Bayern (a); 2-2 Bayern (h)

Semifinal results:
Liverpool: 1-0 Chelsea (h); 0-1 Chelsea (a)
Milan: 3-0 United (h); 2-3 United (a)

Goal scorers (Europe):
Liverpool: Crouch 7; Garcia, Gerrard 3; Bellamy, Fowler, Riise 2; Agger, Gonzalez 1
Milan: Kaka 10; Inzaghi 4; Seedorf 3; Gilardino 2; Gourcuff, Pirlo 1

European History:
Liverpool: European Cup/Champions League 1977, 1978, 1981, 1984, 2005; UEFA Cup 1973, 1976, 2001; UEFA Super Cup 1977, 2001, 2005
Milan: European Cup/Champions League 1963, 1969, 1989, 1990, 1994, 2003; Cup Winners’ Cup 1968, 1973; UEFA Super Cup 1989, 1990, 1994, 2003

Referee: Herbert Fandel (GER)

My guess of a lineup:
Finnan Carragher Agger Riise
Alonso Mascherano
Pennant Gerrard Kewell

This is less a guess at what Liverpool will do, and more a guess as to what I think they should. That’s the opposite of what I usually try, guessing along the lines I think Rafa will go, but this time, I honestly have no idea. There really are any number of ways the manager could line them up, and I love that he’s probably got everyone guessing. What I do know is that I believe that strength in the middle of the field and width in attack will be necessary, and I think this line-up accomplishes both.

First and foremost, yes, Liverpool will need to control the midfield. Easier said than done, to be sure, but with the talent in Liverpool’s squad, it’s possible. I rarely guess a five-man midfield, but Wednesday’s game is definitely a special case. For this one both Alonso and Mascherano need to be on the pitch, and I think Gerrard will be better suited to a free role, with actual out-and-out wingers as well.

As has been said by pretty much everyone in the run-up, the main focus will be on stopping Kaka and Seedorf. It’s simplistic to hark back to Istanbul for comparisons, but in Didi Hamann, Liverpool saw how they can halt Milan’s offense: congest the midfield and deny space to the attacking midfielders. Again, easier said than done, but certainly what Liverpool will aim for. And as has been shown at times since he’s arrived, that’s a specialty of Javier Mascherano, who will need to have an outstanding performance.

It’s a fair question to ask where the goals are going to come from with Kuyt playing as a lone striker, but stacking the midfield seems more important. In Gerrard, Pennant, and Kewell (yes, I’ll get to that), Kuyt ideally will have some support, but more importantly, a five-man midfield should allow Liverpool better opportunity to control possession and the tempo of the match. Milan also gets all their width from defense; none of their midfielders (Kaka, Seedorf, Gattuso, Ambrosini, Pirlo) are out-and-out wingers. Jankulovski and Oddo stretch the field from the fullback slots, and in Pennant and Kewell, Liverpool has players who can exploit the gaps they’ll leave, especially on the counter-attack.

I can hear the questions now, and believe me, I’ve asked them myself. It seems unthinkable that after having been out for pretty much the entire season Harry Kewell could start in his third straight cup final. But a healthy Kewell (I know, I know, if even possible) truly can be a game changer. Zenden did pick up an ankle knock at the training camp in La Manga, but honestly, I probably would have gone with Harry anyway. I’m aware I keep harping on it but width will be key to Liverpool’s success, and in Kewell, Liverpool has a player who can run at defenders and take the game to Milan while still getting crosses in. And yes, that seemed to be the plan in 2005 before Kewell went off with a groin injury, but I do believe Rafa will be thinking along similar lines in this game.

Admittedly, Harry might be better served to come on a substitute, especially if the match looks to be heading to extra-time, to inject a bit of pace, but I want to see Kewell on from the start, declaring Liverpool’s intent. And in his last couple of appearances, even if they were coming off the bench, Harry has shown a bit of the form that brought him so many plaudits earlier in his career. If Garcia was fit, we wouldn’t be having this discussion, because one would start with the other as super-sub, but such is life. I realize that the game could very well start cagily, and Kewell could inject pace after about 60 minutes, but after all’s said and done, I still think that Liverpool needs to take the game to Milan, even if that’s blindly optimistic. Plus, with both Alonso and Mascherano playing, Liverpool can afford to have two attacking wide players going at Milan’s goal from the opening whistle. With them, Gerrard, and the defense, there will be tacklers in there to strangle Milan’s attack, while having Pennant and Kewell could allow Liverpool to exploit them on the counter.

Meanwhile, what can you say about the Milan team. It’s impossible to downplay the squad’s ability. They’re chockfull of world-class players with a depth of experience in big games. You’ve certainly read heaps of praise piled on Kaka, which is no surprise; one of the best players in the world this season, top scorer in the Champions League, and on his day, nearly unstoppable. Not only is he surrounded by players who complement him offensively exceptionally well (and class in their own right) in Seedorf and Pirlo, but in Gattuso and Ambrosini, there’s more than enough cover for those three to focus on the attack. Admittedly, with Inzaghi and Gilardino, Milan’s strike force is less imposing than in 2005, but with Kaka, Seedorf, and Pirlo on their game, they will never go lacking in goals.

While Milan is not an archetypal Italian team -- they like to attack, are renown for it, and rarely close up shop even with a lead -- I certainly won’t downplay their defensive abilities. The aforementioned Gattuso and Ambrosini do an excellent job mopping up before play gets to Milan’s backline, but Nesta and Maldini are still worth the hype they’ve received over the years despite their oft-mentioned age, while younger legs in Jankulovski and Oddo will also contribute to the attack. Again, it feels like I’m stating the obvious, but it bears reiterating: Liverpool will certainly have to be on top form to win.

And one last thing, I do hope Milan get caught up in all the revenge talk they been stoking. A lot of these players are world class and have been in this situation before, so I don’t say this lightly, but hopefully, if they’re in such a frame of mind, they’ll push too hard instead of letting the game come to them. Not to mention that the Chelsea game was supposed to be a revenge game as well, and that didn’t quite go according to script.

Roll on Athens.

19 May 2007

Somewhat selfless self-promoting

Being Sven, which is an outstanding read for Liverpool commentary, has collected opinions from the bloggers at You’ll Never Blog Alone and The Red Cauldron, in addition to some rambling by yours truly, for a RAWK-esque Spyin' Kop style preview of the Champions League final. If you skip past what I’ve written, there’s some excellent stuff in there, and thanks to Sven for giving us the chance to do something like this.

I’ll try and have my preview for the final up Monday morning, which admittedly is a bit early, but I’ve already started completely obsessing over the match in my mind anyway. It's probably unhealthy, but I've learned to cope.

Chelsea 1-0 Manchester United

For 116 minutes, the FA Cup final looked a dead certainty to go to penalties. Chelsea strangled the life out of the first half, but United grew into the game. However, neither team had many clear-cut chances; if Jorge Valdano thought Liverpool versus Chelsea was shit on a stick, I fear what he’d have to say about this spectacle. I can’t complain about dropping $25 for pay-per-view, but I am tempted. However, I knew what I was getting into beforehand. I just couldn’t miss the first Cup final at the new Wembley.

At the end of the day, the difference was the Golden Boot winner. Didier Drogba did have a bit to say about Cristiano Ronaldo garnering all the player of the year awards. Drogba definitely was the difference; as he’s proved time and time again, he can turn the game in an instant, out of nothing. Meanwhile, Ronaldo was utterly invisible, unable to force himself on the game in any regard.

Drogba’s goal was a classic striker’s goal. After a neat one-two with Lampard, Drogba snuck between United’s center backs and prettily toe-poked it past an on-rushing Van der Sar. It may have seemed unfair to United, with the game so close for the entirety, but again, that’s what Drogba can do. Vidic and Ferdinand (Vidic especially, what a player he’s growing into) kept him under close wraps for the majority, but give him the space once, and he’ll take it. Given how Drogba started in England, it’s a bit surprising to see how well he’s developed, but I feel secure in saying he’s the best striker in the Premiership right now hands down, healthy Thierry Henry or not.

Throughout the match, Scholes and Rooney were United’s only threats. Pretty much every United chance came from a Scholes pass, which was almost always directed towards Rooney. Neither Ronaldo nor Giggs were able to show their quality, although I wonder if it was any coincidence that Chelsea’s winner came soon after Giggs was strangely substituted. What doesn’t surprise me is that Chelsea was able to dominate possession and eliminate United’s threats from the wings playing in Mourinho’s preferred 4-3-3 formation. I firmly believe Ballack and Shevchenko’s additions have hurt this team, whether the two are in form or not. Chelsea plays best when they line up as they did today, and when they do, there’s little room for either of those players.

I also want to mention the referee, which I usually avoid unless he has a shocker. But credit to Steve Bennett. It pains me to admit it, but I’m frequently of the same belief as Neil Warnock; Bennett is usually more robot than referee, completely by the book with little regard to the flow of the game. It’s usually better than his diametric opposite Graham Poll, but can still stifle a game. However, he and his crew were excellent today. I was a bit surprised when he let Joe Cole off with a warning for a two-footed tackle in the first 10 minutes, but it was a smart maneuver. Bennett kept the game from getting chippy (I do believe it could have gone the way of the Carling Cup), and he and his linesmen made all the right calls on questionable decisions such as Giggs’ “goal” ruled out for barreling into Cech and the many offside decisions. There was one instance where he called back play with United on the advantage, but that was it, and again, credit to him.

When all is said and done, the Blues are probably deserved winners. Straight up, they were the better team, and controlled the flow, style, and tempo of the game. It’s pretty much a catch-22 as to who wins for me as a fan, but if forced to choose, I would prefer a Chelsea cup double rather than a United double. And while I’ve little love lost for the man, it brings a wry smile to my face saying that Mourinho’s game plan clearly won out over Ferguson’s.

One more big game left in the season. Only 97 and a half hours (or so).

16 May 2007

Top 10 Liverpool goals of the season

I had contemplated holding off on this until after Athens, but I just can’t go this long between Liverpool posts. I’m getting sick of saying it, especially since we’re still a week out, but May 23rd cannot get here fast enough. Man, it’s probably going to be a long summer.

10) Carragher v Fulham – Okay, so it’s probably not the tenth best goal of the season, but any chance given to acknowledge Carra as a goalscorer will be seized with both hands. Long may it continue.

9) Riise v Spurs – He’s scored some brilliant ones this season, including those against Chelsea in the Community Shield and PSV in Eindhoven, but this is the best. He’s quite a long way out, you know.

8) Crouch v West Ham – The best “team goal” of the season by far, and not a bad finish either. Count the number of pretty passes; if Liverpool could always play like that, they’d be unbeatable.

7) Riise v Barca – His. Right. Foot. That is all.

6) Pennant v Chelsea – Jermaine’s lone goal so far this season, but nothing if not well taken, and not a bad time to score it either. Special thanks to Pennant’s good friend Ashley Cole for standing five yards off him and practically shouting shoot.

5) Agger v West Ham – What a shot, especially coming from a center back. Not that goals will come to define Agger (thanks for popping up against Chelsea, by the way), but if he keeps chipping in with these, I doubt we'll hear many complaints.

4) Crouch v Gala

Crouch v Bolton –
Much like the last run-down of best goals, where I grouped Alonso’s two efforts from midfield because of their similarities, these two goals will be forever linked. They’re absolute carbon copies of one another. I have to give the edge to the goal against Bolton because of the work by Pennant and Kuyt to create the cross though.

3) Alonso v Newcastle – I am a sucker for these goals. It also delights me that I can use the plural form when talking about Alonso scoring from his own half. This one might be better than the one at Luton; he makes a pretty tackle, looks upfield, spots the keeper off his line, and buries it in the net. And I’m still of the belief he would have scored even if Harper hadn’t fallen.

2) Gerrard v Bolton – I hesitate putting Gerrard strikes as the top two goals of the season, especially given the name of the blog. I’m far too sensitive about giving Gerrard too much credit. But this is another stunner of a volley. The technique is impeccable. On the volley, in the air, side-footed, between two sprawling defenders. Jaw dropping.

1) Gerrard v Arsenal (Carling Cup) – Pity this goal came in a losing effort and the worst scoreline given up at Anfield in ages, because this is one hell of a strike.

Honorable mention:
Riise v PSV
Kuyt v West Ham

Bellamy v Charlton
Garcia v Fulham

14 May 2007

Premiership Team of the Season

With the season grinding down to a close, it’s finally time for all those end of season round-up posts. I’ll slowly but surely churn them out for want of content in the coming week or so, naturally focusing on Liverpool, but to start, here’s my Premiership team of the season. Let the bias claims commence.

Goalkeeper – Pepe Reina
Claims of bias in Reina's selection will be listened to, but most likely ignored. You can make arguments for and against Reina, Cech, James, and Van der Saar. Liverpool's back four, one of the best in the league, is miles better when Reina starts (just look at the last few league games), and I'm utterly sick of hearing about Reina "flapping." One, he's under orders to punch if almost all circumstance. Two, he's fouled more often than Lehmann, he's just not a petulant infant who plays it up.

Right Back – Steve Finnan
Finnan has been the best right back in the league this year, Liverpool or not, and despite some sparkling performances by Arbeloa, his absence was clear when out with a neck injury in April. He’s so consistent it seems he can easily be forgotten, but thankfully, the masses seem to be coming around.

Center Back – Ricardo Carvalho
Carvalho's contribution was also best demonstrated by the times he was out. Chelsea’s poor spell over the winter coincided with an injury to the Portuguese defender, as had this recent streak where they've gone out of the Champions League and lost the league. When healthy, Carvalho’s been better and more consistent than his partner and Chelsea captain John Terry, and that says enough right there.

Center Back – Jamie Carragher
I nearly put Nemanja Vidic in this spot, as he’s settled in superbly this season and even made Rio Ferdinand look like a consistent professional. However, it's impossible to look past Carragher; no matter Liverpool allegiances, there is no man I’d rather go to battle with. He is a rock at the back, epitomizes everything great about his club, and doesn’t get nearly the acclaim he deserves (even with the increasing plaudits he gets). Yes, I really do believe he’s a better defender than John Terry, better than anyone in the country. If he was more a self-promoter, he’d probably be a steadfast England regular, but that’s simply not Carra.

Left Back – Nicky Shorey
With England reliant on two injury-prone Chelsea players at left back, it’s amazing Nicky Shorey hasn’t gotten a look in sooner. He’s an excellent, consistent defender who can still get forward, and has probably been Reading’s best player during their amazing ride this season.

Right Midfield – Cristiano Ronaldo
Sigh. 22 years old, and probably the best player in the Premiership. If not the best, he’s at least the most threatening. We know the tricks, we know the free kicks, we know the stepovers. On his game, he can be the complete package on the wing. But the most impressive to me is how he’s become a stronger player, physically and emotionally, since he came into the league. The backlash following his antics against England in the World Cup would have seen lesser men demand a transfer request before the season even started. Ronaldo took it as a challenge and was more than up for the task. The strength of will in the kid knows no bounds, and that does not bode well for United’s opponents in the future.

Central Midfield – Michael Essien
Had Chelsea been able to play Essien in midfield throughout the season, he’d have been a lot higher up in the player of the year balloting. One of his greatest assets, his overall athleticism and versatility, have kept him from playing in his preferred position during Chelsea’s many injuries. However, I also believe if consistently played at right back, Essien would probably be the best in the league at that position too. The man is just a very impressive footballer.

Central Midfield – Paul Scholes
Ronaldo may get the headlines and plaudits, but Scholes' return to fitness and form has been just a big a reason for United's success this season. He allows United to play the way they play best, and his freshness (retired from the international game and missing most of last season) saw him stay healthy throughout this season.

Left Midfield – Matty Taylor
In the PFA team of the season, Ronaldo was listed on the left with Gerrard on the right. As a Liverpool fan, I’ll be one of the first to say I don’t think Gerrard belongs in the team of the season, and I think Ronaldo would be better served listed on the right. That said, this spot could go to any number of players; for me it comes down to Giggs, Barry, Stephen Hunt, Gamst, and Matty Taylor. I’ve got to go with Taylor. He’s not finished the season with the aplomb received earlier for his wonder goals thanks to injury, but he was still one of Portsmouth’s best performers. It’s no coincidence that Taylor went down with injury in late April, and Portsmouth just missed out on a UEFA Cup place.

Striker – Dimitar Berbatov
Easily the best transfer of the year. I was excited to see Berbatov play in the Prem, although at £10.9m, I wondered if Spurs had paid too much (remember, Liverpool paid £9m for Kuyt around the same time), and yet, if he was sold tomorrow, he’d go for well over £20m now. And deservedly so. He’s a very classy striker, technically sound, an all-around good player, and an excellent finisher. Without Berbatov, I’d be very surprised if Tottenham would have finished in the top-7.

Striker – Didier Drogba
Another no-brainer, and really, Cristiano Ronaldo’s only competition for Player of the Year. Drogba’s been immense this season, and it’s amazing to think back over the last two seasons to see how much nonsense he took from supposed experts. Even at the beginning of the season, he was supposed to play second fiddle to, if not make way for, Andrei Shevchenko. We know how that turned out. The Ivorian truly is the total package with speed, strength, the ability to play as a lone striker, and goals from all over the pitch. When he receives the ball with room to run on the counter-attack, it's utterly terrifying.

13 May 2007

Liverpool 2-2 Charlton

The universe has a delicious sense of humor. Up until the 89th minute, it was a supremely frustrating day. Liverpool hadn’t played well, was down 1-2, and took out Robbie Fowler to soak in the applause in what’s probably his last Liverpool game, at least at Anfield. And a minute later, Liverpool won a penalty at the Kop end for Bougherra’s handball. Harry Kewell, out with injury for ages but who had looked lively since coming on in the 55th minute, slotted it away instead, and the resulting draw sees Liverpool attain 3rd place, taking a fair bit of sting off of what was still a frustrating performance.

Fowler’s last stand at Anfield, where he was fittingly made captain even though both Gerrard and Carragher started, began in the worst possible manner. Charlton was up 1-0 through Matt Holland before 2 minutes were gone after Mascherano gave away possession and Holland converted Zheng’s cross.

From there, it seemed to be a matter of who could be more wasteful with their chances. Liverpool could have equalized soon after Holland’s goal, but Arbeloa fired wide one on one with the keeper with Fowler lurking in the box. Arbeloa, playing on the right wing, missed another chance later in the half, as did others, and Charlton had even more opportunities of their own. Ambrose scuffed a shot, Finnan cleared off the line from Song, and in the second half, Zheng failed to take advantage of two very good openings.

Liverpool got back in the game through the substitutes. The home team looked much improved after Kewell entered, and Alonso, who came on in the 60th minute, equalized through a side-footed shot after good work from Kewell and Kuyt. However, soon after, Charlton were back in front thanks to Darren Bent and another defensive lapse. And despite Liverpool’s superiority, it looked as if it was going to stay that way. But every now and then, fortune does truly favor the brave, and even though Charlton had more gilt-edged chances, a draw is probably a fair result in what was a fairly meaningless game with most eyes on Athens.

Even with what’s been achieved, this wasn’t exactly what you’d want to see before a Champions League final. The team, even though it will be different in Athens, featured far more first-team regulars than in recent outings. Mascherano was at fault for the first and wasn't at his best today, and I’d have to imagine that he’ll start in Athens, while the defense, featuring Finnan, Carragher, Agger, and Riise, looked uncharacteristically shaky. But that was mainly down to Daniele Padelli receiving his first Liverpool start.

If Liverpool had lost, in the hunt for a usual scapegoat, one probably would have been made of rookie goalkeeper Padelli. And it wouldn't have been right. Admittedly, he made mistakes, and Charlton took advantage. They may be relegated, but any Premiership team should be able to punish such errors and Bent is a very good striker. I also really don’t want to criticize a goalkeeper in his first start, who is 21 years old, unfamiliar with the players around him, and probably barely speaks the language. Regardless of the result, if it wasn’t for the sentimentality surrounding Dudek, Padelli needed to start. Ideally it would have been earlier in this run of games with little meaning, but he’s on loan, and Liverpool needs to see what they have. And with young keepers, especially foreign players, games like today can happen. It can still be a learning experience.

All I can really take away from today is that it’s Fowler’s last game, and to a lesser extent that Kewell played quite well. It may be the last game of the season, but it certainly doesn’t feel as if it’s time to reflect. There will be a time and place for it, but it's not yet. It still hasn’t sunk in that the league’s over, and it’s impossible to try and look back with Athens on the horizon. I guess that says a fair bit about how important the league’s been to finish the season, but nothing can be done about that now. 3rd place has been achieved. It’s not where Liverpool wanted to end the season, but given how the year’s panned out, it’ll do, and as a matter of pride, it certainly is nice to edge Arsenal to the spot. Now all attention can finally be turned to Milan.

Roll on May 23rd.

11 May 2007


There had been rumors of Liverpool signing Brazilian midfielder Lucas over the past couple of days, and I had planned on ignoring it because it was just that, rumors, but it’s been confirmed by Benitez, and I’m certainly surprised to see it on the official site so quickly. That in and of itself says how much the club think of the signing.

Admittedly, I know very little about the player. Being captain of Brazil’s under-20s, and named the best player in the Brazilian league last season, I had heard of him, but that’s about it. But having been privy to all the speculation over the week, and the news of the last day or so, I’m now aware he’s always classed as a defensive holding midfielder. And this cannot bode well for Alonso, Sissoko, or Mascherano.

This isn’t the same situation as Paletta, Insua, or Leto, who will also be joining over the summer. Lucas is a fairly established player coming over from South America. He’s captain of the under-20 side, has recently been called up to the full national squad, and is a first team regular at Gremio, the club where Ronaldinho got his start. And the transfer fee’s rumored to have been something like 10 million Euros, or £4.5m, which is not a small sum. It’s actually just about what the club paid for Sissoko.

And on face value, it appears Sissoko will be the one leaving, with the article on the official side talking up similar qualities to those of Momo. And despite what Sissoko has done for Liverpool, despite the fact Benitez brought him here, and despite his youth, we know Rafa is ruthless enough to cut his losses if he so chooses.

But I still irrationally fear the loss of Xabi. There’s been little new news on the contract front, while we’ve still been hearing tabloid talk over those of Gerrard, Carragher, and Reina. And to tell the truth, Alonso has looked disillusioned at times this season. I firmly believe Xabi was one of the first names on the team sheet in Rafa’s first two seasons. I don’t know if that’s the case anymore. He is a classy, classy player, and I’d be gutted to see him go, but I can’t shake the feeling he will, if not this summer, then after next season.

Although, there is always the chance that Lucas will be a replacement for Mascherano if Benitez believes he’ll be unable to sign him on a new contract at the end of next season. His status is still in doubt, and there hasn’t been any concrete news on what the fee will be to sign him permanently in 2008.

So many possibilities. Just the way Rafa likes it. But 5 central midfielders is still at least one too many. And even though we’re still over a week away from Athens, I’m afraid I’m beginning to get caught up in the summer transfer speculation.

May 23rd needs to get here soon.

Update: So I may have been hasty in proclaiming him a defensive midfielder. I apologize, transfer gossip does this to me. From videos, more info coming out, and Benitez himself, Lucas looks to be groomed to be a box-to-box midfielder. Supposedly, he even considers Gerrard an idol. I guess the old chestnut of 'I've always rooted for Liverpool' can't be trotted out in this situation.

To supplement this nonsense, here's a couple of videos. One is a compilation of Lucas, the other is the interview done with Rafa yesterday in regards to the player.

Rafa interview

And I want to make one other thing clear. Momo could be shipped out. Zenden could leave when his contract's up. Mascherano could ultimately be unaffordable. But when I say I fear Xabi leaving, I certainly don't believe the club will willingly sell him. If Xabi goes, it'll be of his own volition.

Liverpool v Charlton 05.13.07

10am. Chances are the only opportunity to see this in entirety on US television will be Tuesday at 4pm on GolTV, which carries LiverpoolTV. GolTv is carried on ITVN, and a few digital cable packages I believe.

Liverpool: 3rd place; 67 points out of 37 games
Charlton: 19th place; 33 points out of 37 games

Last 3 meetings:
3-0 Liverpool (a) 12.16.06
0-0 (h) 03.04.06
2-0 Charlton (a) 02.08.06
2-1 Liverpool (a) 02.01.05

Last 3 games:
Liverpool: 0-1 Fulham (a); 1-0 Chelsea (h); 1-2 Portsmouth (a)
Charlton: 0-2 Tottenham (h); 1-4 Blackburn (a); 1-1 Sheffield (h)

Goalscorers (league; more than one goal):
Liverpool: Kuyt 12; Crouch 9; Bellamy, Gerrard 7; Alonso, Fowler, Garcia 3; Agger, Gonzalez, Hyypia 2
Charlton: Bent 12; Ambrose, El Karkouri, Thomas 3; Hasselbaink, Reid 2

Referee: Dermot Gallagher

Guess at a squad:
Finnan Carragher Agger Riise
Pennant Gerrard Mascherano Kewell
Kuyt Fowler

The actual line-up may not be this strong, but it will not be like the last two league outings. Pay no mind to the fact that Charlton’s already relegated; there are still 10 days until the final, and Rafa will not want players to lose match fitness. If those like Gerrard, Carragher, and Kuyt don’t start, Athens will be their first game in 3 weeks. And not to rub salt in any wounds, but I’m glad that if Charlton had to be relegated, it was academic before this game. Hopefully we won’t see anyone charging into tackles and running around like madman as we did Monday.

The only real “back-ups” I’d like to see are Dudek and Fowler, as both will probably be playing their last game in a Liverpool shirt (although Fowler has a shout to make the bench in Athens). I still hold Jerzy’s poor performances this season against him – the Carling Cup match against Arsenal sticks out the most – but his comments over the past couple of weeks have not only softened my stance but made me want to see him amble towards the Kop clapping one last time. Unfortunately, news today from the official site casts some doubt on Dudek due on injury, but there’s always hope.

Fowler may very well come on as sub instead of starting; we’ve seen over the last two league games that he had trouble performing for the full 90 minutes, and hasn’t even shown the sharpness in front of goal that was on display last season. Either way, Robbie will certainly show up at some point to say goodbye to the Kop, unlike when Houllier forced him out in the dead of night to Leeds.

It’s also worth giving Kewell a start if Benitez holds any thoughts about actually giving Harry a run out in Athens. This is becoming a tricky subject to bring up, with Harry trying to be fit in order to limp off from his third straight final (I know, I know, but it’s too easy of a joke), and I’m happy to hold off criticism until Kewell sees some sustained actions, which he should on Sunday. I’ve said for a while now that Liverpool missed Kewell quite a bit this season, and I sincerely do hope that Harry proves it.

Even though Liverpool looked to get out of Fulham without any injuries, post-match Rafa revealed knocks to Reina, Gonzalez, Sissoko, and Arbeloa, and for that reason, I’m not expecting to see them on Saturday.

Charlton will be missing Scott Carson, who’s unable to start due to loan conditions, but otherwise, they’ll have a fairly full squad. And Pardew should have them pumped up for their last game in the Premiership for at least a year. But without them still fighting for survival, the game won’t be as hectic as it could have been, which certainly benefits Liverpool. I will also have my eye on Darren Bent. I hate mentioning transfer gossip, because it is just gossip, but with Liverpool always in the market for a striker and Bent probably being good value for money due to Charlton's relegation, it's something to watch.

So this is it. The last game of the league, and I’m hoping for no injuries, and a warm sendoff for a couple of players. Oh, and sealing third place in the Premiership. That’s somewhat disappointing given the quality in the team, but this league campaign was wrapped up ages ago. It truly is all about keeping players healthy for Athens, and then securing 3rd place.

So let’s see it done.

10 May 2007

Last Premiership Predictions of the Season

Even though the final day of the league isn’t until Sunday, I’m still sticking to the usual schedule. Predictions today, Liverpool preview tomorrow. Because it’s early enough in the day, I’m including a prediction for Spurs/Blackburn for good measure.

As all the Sunday fixtures are at 10am US Eastern time, there are going to be a lot of disappointed fans who usually get to see their team live, but won’t due to the glut of games. And unfortunately, it looks as if Liverpool fans are in that group. As of right now, it looks like the first chance to see the game on television will be on GolTV, which carries Liverpool TV, on Tuesday afternoon. Ugh.

Tottenham v Blackburn, 3pm Thursday, Setanta: Tottenham played Monday and will play again on Sunday, giving them 3 games in six days, but I can’t see them resting very many players with European qualification still up in the air. Blackburn may have won two on the trot and finished the season stronger than they started it, but I can’t pick against Spurs at home with that much more to play for. Spurs 2-0
Manchester Utd v West Ham, 10am, FSC: I think we’ll see a stronger line-up for United than the one that went out against Chelsea yesterday. Ferguson will want to have players match-fit for the final next weekend, and will be less worried about revealing his cards than he was at Stamford Bridge. West Ham may only need a point to assure safety, but I’d be surprised if they got it, and they’ll have a close eye on the Wigan/Sheffield scoreline. United 2-1
Portsmouth v Arsenal, 10am, Setanta: With a win and Bolton and Reading losses, Portsmouth could still qualify for the UEFA Cup. I may not have the strongest fondness for Harry Redknapp, but that says a lot about what he’s achieved since he took over last season with Pompey amongst the relegation places. However, despite this incentive, Fratton Park being a difficult place for away teams, and Arsenal’s struggles on the road, I think Arsenal’s kids will have enough impetus in wanting to cement their future that they should be able to earn at least a draw. 1-1
Sheffield Utd v Wigan, 10am, Setanta Xtra: Easily the match of the day. If Sheffield win or the game is drawn, Wigan are relegated. If Wigan win, West Ham will be relegated unless they win against United. If both Wigan and West Ham win, Sheffield will probably be the ones to go down. This is what relegation is all about. And although I could do without seeing Paul Jewell’s team drop a division out of fondness for the brash Scouser, I can’t bet against Sheffield at home, especially with Wigan’s current form. Sheffield 1-0
Blackburn v Reading, 10am: While I’ve been quite pleased with Reading’s style of play and the fact they’ve stayed in the top half of the table all season, I don’t think they’d be too aggrieved at losing this game and/or a European place. And even though I’ve picked against Blackburn for today's match, I can see them finishing the season with a win in front of the home fans on the form they’re in. Blackburn 2-1
Bolton v Aston Villa, 10am: If Bolton plays like they did last week, I don’t know how long Sammy Lee will be sticking around, as much as that bothers me. I can’t imagine they’ll be as dire as against West Ham, but they certainly looked a different side than the one managed by Sam Allardyce. And with that said, I’ve grown accustomed to picking Villa draws, even though they’ve only drawn 2 of their last 6 matches. Trust me, that’s an improvement for them. 1-1
Chelsea v Everton, 10am: Just on a personal level, I’d like to see Chelsea bounce back from losing the title and drawing their last four league outings. They still have all the usual injuries they’ve suffered recently, will probably play a number of reserves, and the main focus will be on the FA Cup, but here’s hoping anyway. I realize that Everton is probably assured a UEFA Cup place regardless, but I am a petty, petty man. Chelsea 2-0
Middlesborough v Fulham, 10am: I can’t begrudge Fulham their win last week, and if anyone on that team had to score, I’m glad it was Dempsey, but I don’t see a repeat occurrence. They got the points that secured safety against Liverpool, and their away form is far different than at Craven Cottage. That said, as with Aston Villa, I’m still going with the easy draw prediction. 0-0
Tottenham v Manchester City, 10am: Even though City’s been marginally more prolific on the road of late, I can’t see anything else but a Tottenham win, assuring them a UEFA Cup spot. So far, Spurs have taken advantage of their games in hand (we’ll see if that holds true today), and the City camp, with the Joey Barton fiasco, can't be in the best of mindsets. Maybe they’ll take revenge after losing a Manchester derby they should have drawn, but I doubt it. Spurs 1-0
Watford v Newcastle, 10am: With Watford relegated and Newcastle ensconced in their usual midtable position (albeit a little further down than normal), the focus of this match will be on Sam Allardyce and Michael Owen’s fitness. I’m still hoping Allardyce turns Newcastle down cold. Freddy Shepard would resort to Sven Goran Eriksson after Alan Shearer also refuses the job, and the two of them trying to co-exist, while Newcastle’s fans demand an attacking style of play (under Eriksson? Yeah, right) would be utter hilarity. But you’d think Allardyce has to take the helm after resigning from Bolton due to tabloid talk. Oh, and the game? Normally I’d assume the Geordies would win this one, but with the drama and recent form from Newcastle, a draw in Watford’s last game in the Premiership, in front of their home fans, seems a more likely result. 1-1

For those who were wondering, yes, I have been keeping track of the results from all these predictions, although I probably shouldn’t have bothered.

Since I started this charade of predictions in November, I went 114-125, with 26 scores spot on, forgetting to pick very few games, in addition to not doing Liverpool games. In what little defense I have, it’s harder to pick predictions when there are draws to take into account, and out of superstition, I refuse to predict Liverpool games even though I’m probably far more qualified to forecast those matches.

Oh well, the goal for next year is plus .500.

08 May 2007

All hail our Premier League overlords

Tomorrow was supposed to be the Premier League’s big day. League-leading Manchester United at two-time defending champions Chelsea in the second to last game of the season. Rescheduled from April 14th due to both teams having to replay FA Cup quarterfinal ties, this was to be where everything was to be decided. But due to Chelsea’s third straight draw, it’s not to be. Thankfully, in the spirit of charity, Glenn Roeder resigned from Newcastle to give the papers something else to write about instead.

I realize I’m a little late in saying something about United as champions, but don’t chalk it up to any underlying wish to avoid recognizing that fact. They were the best team, and I didn’t even swallow my own tongue writing that sentence (although it was close for a second there). Admittedly, if given no other option, I’d rather Chelsea repeat for a third time than see the trophy paraded around Old Trafford. I don’t really care who has the more aesthetically pleasing football in this situation. I’d rather see 18 other teams other than United (Everton the obvious other) trot around as Premier League winners.

And I don’t want to seem even more begrudging, because lord knows Liverpool was long out of the title race, but this wasn’t very much of a race by the end. Both teams struggled to finish strong, best exemplified by both going out while favored in the semifinals of the Champions League. It’s carried over in the league as well, the aforementioned 3 straight Chelsea draws, but United hasn’t quite peaked to finish the season either. Yes, they’ve ended stronger, and it’s another reason why they’re now champions, but Chelsea did have opportunities to further close the gap; if the Blues had beaten Newcastle when United drew at home to Boro, the tabloids would still be able to sell copy hyping tomorrow’s game. Chelsea dropped the ball, while United stayed consistent enough, and grinded out what was needed; Saturday’s game against City was nothing if not ground out.

But as said, said with hesitancy, but said nonetheless, United deserves their title. They got results in tough games, got results when they weren’t even the better team (yes, I mean at Anfield), and performed at a high level all season, while Chelsea spent most of the winter with Cech, Terry, and Carvalho injured. United also have one of the best young players in the world with Rooney, even if we only saw inconsistent flashes of brilliance, and two of the players of the season as well.

Yes, Ronaldo has been a revelation, and deserves the end of season accolades he’s gotten, but Paul Scholes is the reason United’s coming home with the trophy. They’ve already bought his replacement in Michael Carrick, but Scholes showed Carrick exactly what was required of the position all season long. His return to fitness has added far more creativity and vision in the center of the pitch. Giggs proved last season that he could operate there, but were that the case this season, we’d have seen a lot more of Park and Richardson among others on the wings, and I doubt United’s point total would have been as high. And Scholes has been around so long it’s hard to believe he’s only 32.

The fact that United’s entire backline is in the PFA team of the season is a laugh (both Chelsea and Liverpool have better goals against for one, but more on that another time). Vidic has been vastly improved and Rio’s had far fewer lapses, but I still don’t think either are the best in the league, while Neville’s missed a 1/3rd of the league games and Evra still hasn’t completely adjusted to the Prem (which isn’t a pleasing prospect). But offensively, United’s done more than enough to make up for it, and at a consistent level all season long. Do that, and I can’t do anything but say they’re the deserved champions. Even if said less than willingly, but admittedly, that’s mainly due to loyalties that I refuse to apologize for.

With little to play for now, I’ll be surprised to see many first teamers take the field tomorrow. It’ll be a cagey affair with neither wanting to give away much before the FA Cup final. And as somewhat of a neutral, I fear the FA Cup final isn’t worth being cagey for if the way these two teams have finished the season is any indication.

And yes, to preempt any notions, I understand that your strength in finishing the season means squat in the league if you fail to win in your first 7 away games to start said season. On the other hand, it can be helpful if you want to reach the Champions League final.

05 May 2007

Liverpool 0-1 Fulham

It’s hard to complain when Liverpool comes out in an expected line-up, with a similar mix of youth and reserves players as played last Saturday, and got a similar result. But today was a more disjointed and lackadaisical performance, and all in all, a lot more frustrating.

This game should have been over long before Clint Dempsey’s goal against the run of play in the 69th minute, Fulham’s first real opportunity. Just in the first half, Craig Bellamy had 3 excellent chances, Robbie Fowler missed a sitter, and Michael Brown channeled Zidane right into Xabi Alonso’s face with Steve Bennett’s back turned and the linesman on the opposite side of the field oblivious.

I don’t want to appear to be blaming the referee, because he wasn’t the reason Liverpool lost, but that was one of many things that Bennett missed today. Papa Bouba Diop was sent off for his second yellow card with just about the last kick of the game, but he should have marched sooner, as should have Brown, not even considering his headbutt. It was almost as if Bennett felt guilty over the last Liverpool game he was in charge of, where he gave two soft penalties to Liverpool, and called pretty much everything Fulham’s way.

But Liverpool’s profligacy was the major concern. Not only did Bellamy have more than a few openings, mostly coming in the first half, but there was Fowler’s dreadful miss, a goal he would have scored 100 times out of a 100 five years ago, which he came close to replicating in the second half, and Paletta’s header rightfully ruled out for offside. Sad to say, Robbie was especially disappointing, and it’s clear we’re currently seeing the last of him in a Liverpool shirt. In total, Liverpool had 14 corners, twice as many shots as Fulham, greater possession, and nearly all the better opportunities. Even for a team not used to playing together, that’s unacceptable.

There was a hint of offside to Dempsey’s goal, and it was very close, but it looked to me as if Arbeloa played Rosenior on for his cross that Dempsey directed into the net, giving Reina no chance. Regardless, it shouldn’t have come to that; Dempsey should have been shut down by Alonso or Insua before squeezing the ball through to Rosenior.

Speaking of Insua, I probably should speak further on him after promoting so much last week. Yes, he was caught out a couple of times, and was called for fouls that an experienced player wouldn’t have been whistled for, but again he showed good smarts and a willingness to get forward before he was substituted for Finnan, with Arbeloa moving over to the left.

I can’t help but criticize after a performance like that; it really was both dire and frustrating. But looking at the big picture, which is really the only consolation, what was needed was achieved. Young players got another look in. There’s the aforementioned Insua, El Zhar came on as a sub for Pennant in the 65th minute, and I also thought that Paletta played a fair bit better than he has in the past. Everyone came away healthy. There were scares for Sissoko, Gonzalez, and Reina for moments, not to mention Xabi’s bloody mug, but all came out unscathed. And Harry Kewell got his requisite 15 minutes or so, looking lively at times.

Hyypia put in a typically solid Sami performance, and is probably the man of the match. Although Fulham created very few chances, without Hyypia’s towering presence, they well could have had more. Alonso and Sissoko also combined well in midfield against a Fulham midfield looking to stick the boot in and chop down at every opportunity, with Xabi doing the most to try and put his stamp on the game and make something happen.

Benitez was never going to play a first choice team, and rightfully so. And games like this can happen with 9 changes to the first team. And not to play down a loss, any loss, but this really means very little, as much as it annoys. Maybe next week will be different, with more of the usual starting 11 getting a game to keep fit with 10 days to recover before the Champions League final, especially with that game at Anfield, but not today. Yes, Liverpool should have won, should have taken the lead from their first half chances, and should have gotten more from the officials. But it didn’t happen. We’ll see if Arsenal takes advantage against Chelsea tomorrow in the race for 3rd place, but even then, 3rd place comes nowhere near to taking precedence over May 23rd. This game’s done, time to take away the few positives, put the rest out of memory and move on.

04 May 2007

Heighway, Benitez, and the youth system

I didn’t really care to say anything on this, but the BBC’s headline “Heighway fumes at ‘crazy’ Benitez” is bothering me. Apologies both for centering on club drama, and for pushing the Fulham preview off the top.

I was more than happy to write “congrats and all the best” a couple of weeks back when Liverpool won the Youth Cup and Heighway publicly announced what had been rumored for 2 seasons and leave it at that.

But this “attack” in the press, even though it’s most certainly less than it’s made out to be, is uncalled for, and from afar, seems more than a little out of touch with what fans so lovingly refer to as ‘the Liverpool way.’ I know Heighway’s had a hand in Academy development for over 15 years, but really? Going to the press over disagreements and blasting the man who’s pretty much the figurehead of the entire club for what boils down to personal reasons?

Not only that, but there’s more than a bit of ego in Heighway’s quotes as well, despite his claims to the contrary, which rubs the wrong way even more and increases the whole “sour grapes” sense.
• "Rafa is a terrific manager, but I think I'm the best coach of 17 and 18-year-olds in this club.”

• "If they are not working with the best coach of young players, then what is this football club doing?”

• "It's not an ego thing, but one thing I am absolutely sure about is that the best thing for the players is to be with me.”

Obviously Spain is a bit different than England, but Heighway realizes that Rafa was a manager in various capacities for Real’s youth team, who are no slouches themselves, for almost 10 years?

It comes down to two men having two separate goals. And unfortunately for Heighway, Rafa’s is going to win out. Heighway wants to do exactly what he did this year: build a good youth team with mostly local lads and win the Youth Cup while still developing them as men off the pitch. Rafa is looking more long term; he wants to develop youth players that are able to come into the first team, full stop. Heighway’s done very well in producing a successful youth squad, but the line to the first team has dried up over the past few classes.

Since Owen, Carragher, and Gerrard, there haven’t been any youth players to make the leap. Maybe having those three, and Fowler and McManaman before them spoiled me a bit, but it has seemed the Academy should be producing more for the first team for a while now. And it’s not solely for lack of chances: Stephen Warnock, Neil Mellor (both of whom I liked, but weren’t good enough), John Welsh and Darren Potter spring immediately to mind, with Danny Guthrie and possibly Lee Peltier seemingly soon to follow in those footsteps. More need to be coming if the club is going to be competing for championships. If you groom these players from 16 on, you don’t have to spend £15m on them when they come of age. I hate to write the obvious, but it’s common sense.

Both men may agree on faults in the current reserve/youth system, but if it’s not working, something has to be done. And when Rafa and his staff run the first team, it makes sense that they’d want a hand in how their future players are going to be developed.

Unfortunately, what I think it comes down to is that Heighway has always resisted not only anyone encroaching on Academy affairs, but foreign youth as well. He’s truly tried to stick to the Academy being for local lads. And while it’s a noble sentiment, and you do have to strive for some locals in the youth setup, it’s also a thing of the past, especially for a team that considers itself among the best in the Premiership and in Europe. Maybe Welsh or Potter, just to name a couple, would have done better thrown into the first team and kept there, but it’s not going to come at Liverpool, not with the amount and importance of fixtures unless they are a 'sure thing.' Heighway says the only two sure things he’s ever had were Owen and Gerrard, but at a club of this stature, you need have a few more sure things in the pipeline. Sadly, it’s become a fact of life in the modern game.

I really was hoping Heighway would be kept on in some capacity, for all he’s done for Liverpool. He’s been a brilliant servant of the club. His name is still sung at every game, in Fields of Anfield Road, and rightfully so. But after this, I’m less certain; this is an awfully bitter way to leave one’s position. If it comes down to him or Rafa, Rafa wins every time, because of his importance at every level of the club. If Heighway can’t work within that frame, maybe it is for the best he leaves. Which makes me depressed that it’s come to this.

Liverpool at Fulham 05.05.07

10am, available live in the US on Setanta.

Liverpool: 3rd place; 67 points out of 36 games
Fulham: 16th place; 36 points out of 36 games

Last 3 meetings:
4-0 Liverpool (h) 12.09.06
5-1 Liverpool (a) 03.15.06
2-0 Fulham (a) 10.22.05
3-1 Liverpool (h) 02.05.05

Last 3 games:
Liverpool: 1-0 Chelsea (h); 1-2 Portsmouth (a); 0-1 Chelsea (a)
Fulham: 1-3 Arsenal (a); 1-1 Blackburn (h); 0-1 Reading (a)

Goalscorers (league; more than one goal):
Liverpool: Kuyt 12; Crouch 9; Bellamy, Gerrard 7; Alonso, Fowler, Garcia 3; Agger, Gonzalez, Hyypia 2
Fulham: McBride 9; Bocanegra 5; Helguson 3; Bullard, Jensen, Knight, Montella, Radzinski, Volz 2

Referee: Steve Bennett (of course, the BBC said he was going to referee last weekend, and it was Peter Walton)

Guess at a squad:
Arbeloa Agger Hyypia Insua
Pennant Sissoko Alonso Gonzalez
Lindfield Bellamy

After 120 minutes of football for many on Tuesday, we’ll probably see a line-up very similar to that at Portsmouth last week. Although I imagine there will be a little variety, in order for Benitez to explore more of his “possibilities.”

With Finnan just back after a spell on the sidelines, I don’t think it’s worth starting him here, but granted it’s a complete guess. Unlike against Chelsea, where his presence was necessary, it’s absolutely not worth risking him if he’s not fully fit.

And speaking of fully fit, after getting 30+ minutes for the reserves last week, Kewell should be healthy enough to at least make the bench. I can’t see him starting, but he needs to be back in the squad. You never know, maybe if we’re lucky, he’ll be healthy for Istanbul. And yes, as of right now, that’s sarcasm, but you never do know what will happen over the next couple of weeks.

Craig Linfield is also in my line-up, although I don’t really know if he’ll feature. Lindfield was one of the key players in both of the Youth Cup runs of the past two years, and saw some time with the first team during the pre-season. From what I’ve read and what little I’ve seen of the reserves and Academy, Lindfield looks to be one of those who could make the jump up in the next couple of seasons. I’d love to see him get time over the next couple of weeks, before he’s probably loaned out for first-team football next year. Although it is probably more likely we will see Bellamy and Fowler up top again. At the least, I sincerely hope Lindfield is on the bench and sees some action.

Also, as warned last week, I’m probably going to have to be restrained when discussing Insua, although I have followed Liverpool long enough to know you can’t base a career off a young player’s first game. I still have to believe he’ll start tomorrow after starting last Saturday, and after Riise, who really is the only other option at left back (especially if Arbeloa has to deputize for Finnan), played the full match against Chelsea.

Fulham still sits only one point above the relegation zone, albeit with a better goal differential, and caretaker manager Lawrie Sanchez is still looking for his first win. I do have a fondness for Fulham, and it’s not because of Americans McBride, Bocanegra, and Dempsey on the roster; I lived nearest to Fulham when I lived in England (I know, I know, la di dah), and the first Premiership game I saw was at Loftus Road while Craven Cottage was being rebuilt. I sincerely hope they do not drop a division.

But that’s not why I think Liverpool will come out with what one could describe as a weakened line-up. We know where Liverpool’s priorities lie. Champions League football’s achieved, and there’s the slight matter of keeping everyone healthy for May 23rd. And not only do I believe that the squad and youth players could use the time on the pitch, so the staff can see how different players work together and what they’re capable of, I do think that this squad can beat Fulham. That’s the strength and depth of this team. Now let’s see it happen.

03 May 2007

Predictions 5/5-5/7

Manchester City v Manchester Utd, 7:45am, Setanta: Unfortunately for City, the psychopath otherwise known as Joey Barton will miss the rest of the season for punching Ousmane Dabo’s face in. Soccernista sums it up far better than I could, but let’s just say that City will miss the terror. United will have mayhem on the minds as well, having been knocked out of the Champions League at the last hurdle and probably able to all but secure the league on Saturday. It’s a derby, so it’ll still be hot blooded, but as usual, I wouldn’t bet against United, especially with City so unable to score at home. United 2-0
West Ham v Bolton, 10am, FSC: With United at Old Trafford West Ham’s lone fixture after this, they’ll want to pick up points here to give themselves a chance of escaping relegation. Yes, if United has the title secured by the last day of the season, they may play the reserves versus the Hammers, but you cannot rely on that. With the Premier League giving West Ham an out by not docking them points for the Tevez/Mascherano fiasco, they need to take advantage of the opportunity. With this being Sammy Lee’s first game in charge, Bolton should show up ready to play and ready to impress the new gaffer, but it’s worth nothing they are winless in their last four. It’s probably not wise to pick against a new manager, and one I like at that, as well as against a team who still needs to secure European qualification, but here’s hoping the Hammers muddy the relegation race even more. West Ham 2-1
Newcastle v Blackburn, 10am, Setanta Xtra: Even though I’ve said my piece on Michael Owen in the past, it was heartening to see him return on Monday, and I was actually surprised at how pleased it made me. The Premiership needs a healthy Owen, and even with all the rust, he still showed glimpses of what he’s capable of. Despite the win last week, Blackburn looks to be too far out to challenge for the UEFA Cup places, and I think we may see a slight drop in their play with Europe out of reach. Newcastle 1-0
Everton v Portsmouth, 10am: 6th place versus 8th place, with a point separating them. This game may very well decide who gets a European excursion next fall. And with that said, as much as it pains me to write, Everton has looked the better team taking into account the entire season and probably deserves to qualify for the UEFA Cup. Plus, with Phil Neville not having played for Portsmouth, I doubt he’ll get confused enough to stick it in his own net this week. Everton 2-1
Reading v Watford, 10am: Another game with European implications, and if you’d looked at the schedule in August, you’d never have guessed it. Reading should win here, which would see them at least keep pace with Bolton and Everton, if not overtake them, and I love that Steve Coppell’s already come out and said he’d play his reserves in Europe next year. The man has his priorities straight. Reading 2-0
Wigan v Middlesbrough, 10am: Wigan needs points to be certain of staying up, especially after the tough 3-0 loss to West Ham last week, a game in which they did not look good. However, it’s not as if Boro are powerhouses on the road, but with Wigan’s recent form, a draw looks the most likely result. 0-0
Aston Villa v Sheffield Utd, 12:15pm, FSC: 3 points against Watford last week saw Sheffield reach 38 on the season, 3 points above the drop, and thanks to goal difference, they’re probably a draw away from safety. And they’re playing Aston Villa. Draw it is then? 1-1
Arsenal v Chelsea, 11am Sunday, FSC: This fixture is always fun, and I imagine that trend will continue. But mostly because of my delight in schadenfreude. Yes, I am that petty. Chelsea should come out with guns blazing after Tuesday’s loss, and although Arsenal is still neck and neck with Liverpool for 3rd place, they’ve haven’t been in the best form of late. Either way, I’ll probably enjoy seeing one or the other lose a tough match, which this certainly should be, but since I think Chelsea will be the better team, I’ll be content to see Arsenal fail to make up ground on Liverpool. Plus, if United win on Saturday, a Chelsea win will do them no good in the title race. Misery all around! Chelsea 2-1
Charlton v Tottenham, 3pm Monday, FSC: Another chance for Charlton to escape the drop zone, and I think another opportunity that will fall by the wayside. Which is a pity considering how far they’ve come since January, but their best chance out of their last games was seemingly last week against Blackburn. I’d also be very surprised if they can come away with anything against Tottenham who, as I have seemingly written for half of these predictions, are still in the hunt for a UEFA Cup place, level on points with Pompey and only 2 behind Bolton in 5th. Tottenham 2-0

Liverpool hosts Fulham 10am Saturday on Setanta.

02 May 2007

It’s Milan

3-0. Three to nil? So much for that much-heralded English domination of Europe. Yes, I'm guilty as charged as well.

Athens might have been saved a riot, and now we get a chance to see if all the nonsense 2005 fluke talk holds any water. Milan certainly won’t need any pre-match team talk, but I highly doubt Liverpool will either. No matter which team won today, there was going to be a storyline going into the match, but admittedly, I have to say I prefer a rematch of the extraordinary comeback from two years ago to one the game’s biggest rivalries transplanted to Greece, as both sides can present equal, if different, difficulties for Liverpool on the pitch.

There was only one team that looked like winning today. Manchester was outclassed in every single part of the game. Milan rarely put a foot wrong in defense, Giggs and Ronaldo were invisible for long periods, and the home side got three very good goals against a makeshift United defense marshaled by a very rusty Nemanja Vidic. That may not bode well for Liverpool in Athens, but Milan should come up against a bit more on May 23rd. United really were nowhere near their best today.

So it’s the 3rd placed Premiership team versus 3rd place in Serie A. That’s going to lead to some fun press. Whatever. Let the tabloids talk. I cannot wait three whole weeks.

01 May 2007

Liverpool 1-0 Chelsea

Liverpool wins 4-1 on penalties.

What can you say about that? Another magical European night at Anfield, another dramatic match culminating in penalty shootout. Another semi-final victory over those hated Londoners, and Chelsea’s third Champions League semi-final loss in 4 years. Chelsea's third successive semi-final loss to Liverpool in cup competition. Meanwhile, Liverpool’s second Champions League final in three years, and the third year in a row the last game of the season will be for a trophy. That should say enough about my state of mind right now.

Liverpool came out with the requisite attacking line-up: 2 strikers in Crouch and Kuyt, Gerrard in the middle, with Pennant and Zenden on the flanks. They looked the stronger team to start the match, and Agger scored the necessary early goal from a set play in the 22nd minute, sweetly side-footing home Gerrard’s centered free kick.

But as it always seemed they would, Chelsea grew in stature. They always looked threatening, and a goal seemed to be coming, even if Mourinho played it safe for the majority of the match. Chelsea lined up in what seemed to be 4-3-3, the formation that had brought them the most success over Mourinho’s first two seasons, with Drogba, Kalou, and Joe Cole up front, but as it turned out, their game was mostly lumping long balls up to Drogba.

However, Drogba, Kalou, Lampard, Obi Mikel and Robben all had chances to carve something out. I have no fingernails left. But through 90 minutes of regular time and 30 minutes of extra time, Chelsea could never make the break-through, whether it was down to Reina’s saves or a defender’s (frequently, and surprisingly, Carra) last-ditch tackle. And neither could Liverpool, even with chances of their own, most notably from Kuyt (hit the bar) and Crouch (Cech save with his feet).

Both teams seemed to be playing for penalties by extra time, and surprisingly, I’ve become a lot more confident when watching Liverpool’s shootouts over the last few years. Zenden, Alonso, Gerrard, and Kuyt all scored on their penalties, while Robben and Geremi had theirs saved (only Lampard scored from the spot for Chelsea). Fowler was subbed on with minutes left with an eye on penalties, and he wasn’t even needed thanks to Reina. Although that would have been one hell of a way for God to go out. There’s always the final, though…

There is no way to single out players. Everyone’s my man of the match. They were all wonderful, and when you’re this elated, it’s impossible to even try and pick flaws or play favorites. Not that there were any flaws to pick, and every player needs to be congratulated. Reina is the best in the world at saving penalties. I wouldn’t dream of trade Carragher for anyone, he absolutely epitomizes this club. Agger, aside from scoring the goal, was also awesome in defense, especially after the criticism of him against Drogba last game. Mascherano defended so solidly, was so superb in the holding role, and let Liverpool tick. What a signing. Finnan showed just how much he had been missed, while this was one’s of Riise’s best defensive performances of the season. Gerrard showed up everywhere on the pitch, in both attack and defense. Zenden was miles better than recent performances and showed outstanding character in taking the first penalty of the shootout. Pennant flashed in and out threateningly with moments of brilliance on the right. Crouch and Kuyt put in workhorse performances. Redemption for Kuyt in the end with the final penalty as well, as he hit the bar, had a goal disputably ruled out for offside, and shot straight at Cech in the dying minutes of extra time. So deserved for how hard he worked. Benitez, whose game plan worked to perfection, has to be mentioned as well, along with the entire staff. And the crowd, what a crowd.

It’s hard to even be coherent, if I even am, after a game like this. Games like this are why I laud this sport to my countrymen at every opportunity.

Two Champions League finals in three years. That’s quite an achievement. But not enough has been achieved yet.

Milan? Manchester? Who cares?

Roll on Athens.