29 June 2007

What a day so far

It’s not even July, and I’ve succumbed to the transfer gossip I’d hoped to avoid. Alas. Maybe next year.

- Torres looks likely to come to Anfield: Guardian (Sid Lowe!), BBC. I haven’t been this excited about a transfer since the last record-breaking acquisition. I realize that may not be the best comparison, nor does it warm the heart in the slightest bit, but in my defense, Houllier had been trailing Cisse for over 2 years, and the expectations surrounding him were off the charts. I have no doubts that Torres will be a different case, but more on that later, I’ve already put the cart too far in front of the horse. This had better go through. PS: My birthday is in just under 2 weeks; Torres is signed before then would be a more than suitable present.

I’m undoubtedly not thrilled to lose Garcia in the process, as I still firmly believe that Liverpool missed his presence greatly last season, but he hasn’t signed a new deal, he’s 29, and it seems as if he wants a return to Spain with his last big contract. These things happen in the business of sport. I sincerely wish him all the best at Atletico, as it looks like this part of the deal will go through, Torres or not.

I guess the Benayoun speculation, even though it's gone somewhat quiet, is as a replacement for Garcia, but I still see them as slightly different players. Yes, they both can fill a number of midfield positions, and have the nous to break the deadlock in a tough, tactical game. However, Benayoun’s not as much as a goal threat as Luis, and I haven’t seen him in the ‘super sub’ role Luis has filled excellently, but Yossi is a better passer and is marginally more consistent.

- Speaking of Cisse, it looks as if he’s finally been sold to Marseille. I’m not really bothered if it’s less than half of the original £14m, which it probably will be. That always looked likely to be the fee. It’s not another loan, he’s off the wage bill, and it’s an extra £6m or so that maybe wasn’t factored into the transfer budget.

In retrospect, it’s certainly a pity Djibril had the two leg breaks; had he not, we might have had a different outcome, but for my money, he was far too similar to Baros and not enough of a Benitez player. Head down, run as fast as possible, then blaze an awkward shot at goal. As we’ve seen, that works far better in Ligue 1 than the Premiership.

It is, however, worth noting that if a 22 year-old striker with his reputation came from the French league to the Premiership this summer, it’d be for a lot more than £14m.

- In the meantime, Darren Bent’s been ruled out, as he’s finally signed with Tottenham. Since the fee’s £16.5m (?!), that’s a huge relief. West Ham is playing with Monopoly money, and Spurs were more than happy to follow their lead. Also, the British market is absolutely berserk. I had thought we’d seen the pinnacle of this with the Carrick, Walcott, and Bale, but Bent’s fee blows those out of the water. I also highly doubt the majority of Spurs fans feel that a new striker was their top priority. Bent’s a better player than he’s being given credit for because of the outrageousness of the fee, but still. Defoe seems certain to be on his way out (and had better stay far, far away from Anfield), while I can't wait to see how Robbie Keane reacts to being part of a three-man partnership again.

- And finally, more Anfield youngsters: German striker Marvin Pourie, Swedish winger Alexander Kacaniklic, Spanish defender Mikel San Jose, and Bulgarian keeper Nikolay Mihaylov. Further continuation of Rafa’s youth revamp.

As to Mihaylov, this is from the first article I saw about the transfer:

He was hailed early in his career as a dead cert future national team goalkeeper, where he would follow in the footsteps of his father Borislav and grandfather Bisser.

But his poor performances in the last season made him a figure of ridicule among Levski fans, who accused his father, now head of the Bulgarian Football Union, of nepotism.

His worst moment in a Levski shirt came in a Champions League game against Werder, when he failed to control a back-pass from a defender and turned the ball into his own net, then letting in two more goals in the space of five minutes.

He ended the season as Levski's third-string goalkeeper after falling out with manager Stanimir Stoilov over his flashy lifestyle and was reported to have signed a deal with Italian Serie A club Fiorentina.

Seeing as that's from a Bulgarian news source, I reckon they think exceptionally highly of him.

28 June 2007

Sissoko gets his new contract

Liverpoolfc.tv reports today that Sissoko has joined Gerrard, Alonso, Carragher, and Reina in signing a new contract extension. The only one left who was mooted for a new contract and hasn't gotten one is Finnan.

That's all well and good, and I truly don't mean that blithely, but there's far more stunning news on the official site.

Rafa's gone and grown a goatee. And it's a stellar goatee at that.

It'll eventually come to me who he reminds me of, but it's quite sinister nonetheless. Is this the year for his heel turn? It'd be fitting with his “outburst” following the CL final, and could create a lovely media narrative. Can't wait.

So now all four central midfielders outside of Mascherano have multi-year contracts? I realize, maybe even more so than a month or two ago, that Lucas will have little impact on this season and the main rotation will be Ste, Xabi, Momo, and Masch, but something still has to give.

But I reckon it's not going to give until January at the earliest, and most likely, not until next summer. Which will give Rafa (and his goatee) more than enough time to mull over his possibilities.


27 June 2007

The End of an Era

Well, it’s less melodramatic than the title connotes, but still a sign that the times, they are a changing.

Piet Hamberg named new Academy Technical Manager

Liverpool have confirmed Piet Hamberg as their new Academy Technical Manager, with the former Ajax player taking up the position in July.

Hamberg, who played professionally in both the Dutch and Swiss leagues, joins from Grasshoppers of Zurich where he has overseen the youth set-up.

He has previously coached in Europe, Africa and the Middle East.

Hamberg will be part of a new-look Academy management structure introduced by the club this summer. He will work alongside John Owens, who has moved from Under-18 Coach to become Academy Manager, and Malcolm Elias, who will head up all Academy recruitment.

Chief Executive Rick Parry said: "Following the departure of Steve Heighway, we took the opportunity to review the Academy structure and decided to separate the very distinct roles.

"Piet will come in with the specific brief to head up the coaching and development side, while Malcolm will be in charge of all recruitment. But continuity is also very important, which is why we are taking full advantage of John's many years of experience within the youth system by promoting him to Academy Manager."

Reds Manager Rafa Benitez said: "We have had some very good reports about Piet and he will bring great experience to the new role. Our youngsters can only benefit from working with someone with his background in youth development."

It’s a fairly big shift going from Steve Heighway, who was head of the Academy for 18 years after a long playing career with Liverpool, to Piet Hamberg, who has absolutely no ties to Liverpool, the Premier League, or English football in general.

And yes, it’s a sign of the times. Look at the majority of the youth players Benitez has brought in. Antwi (Ghana), Roque (Spain), Idrizaj (Austria), Ajdarevic (Sweden), Insua (Argentina), Duran (Spain), Huth (Panama), Nemeth and Simon (Hungary), among others. That’s about as cosmopolitan as it gets. Just as Hamberg’s professional history is about as cosmopolitan as it gets.

It’s a bit strange seeing someone like Hamberg come in after the job that Heighway’s done over the years, but it’s another clear step in Benitez’s plan to overhaul the academy and overall youth/reserve systems. And while I can’t speak to Hamberg’s qualifications, I’m certain that he’s been brought in with good cause. Benitez and Heighway rarely saw eye-to-eye, and I highly doubt that Liverpool would appoint someone contrary to Benitez’ philosophy of, like Arsenal, scouring the world for Academy players before their prices go well through the roof. And someone with Hamberg's history looks to be just the man for that job.

In other housekeeping news, and not the end of any eras, Liverpool has re-upped with Carlsberg as official sponsor for the next three seasons. There are no figures bandied about in the article on the official site, but I’m hopeful the new contract is far more than the old one, which saw Liverpool vastly underpaid for shirt sponsorships, especially in comparison to United, Chelsea, and even Spurs.

At least I will feel less required to buy a new kit.

Also, I’m more than hopeful (sadly, much more than hopeful, which doesn’t usually help my mental health), there will be even more news on the Torres front (see here, here, and here for today's "new news"), now that organizations like the BBC are reporting that talks have actually been opened. Not to preempt any future scribbling, nor get too far out in front, but there is only one striker I’d rather see join Liverpool this summer, and I’m certain that Liverpool would be well priced out of a move for him if he even leaves his club.

I hope this transfer is tied up soon. I'd actually be alright with Liverpool paying the £27m buyout, even though that's nearly double the record signing. We know Benitez wants the player, and when Benitez spends big money, it's usually with good cause (Cisse as Houiller's signing doesn't count, but Alonso, Agger, Crouch, Garcia, Kuyt, Mascherano, and Reina sure do), and we know the player wants to come. Okay then.

23 June 2007

On Thierry Henry

Thierry Henry should have left for Barcelona after last season.

It would have been best for Henry, as he certainly didn’t have a season to remember and has obviously wanted to leave since around November, if not earlier.

It would have been best for Arsenal, who would have received a much higher fee, and could have had an extra season to get their youngsters acclimatized to more responsibility and more playing time.

The only party who may not have benefited more from a move a year early might be Barca, who would have paid far more for Henry’s services, and would have had to figure out how to fit Henry, Ronaldinho, Eto’o, and Messi in the same team, when Messi wasn’t nearly as ready for the limelight as he is after the last season and Ronaldinho and Eto’o weren’t surrounded by falling out rumors.

Don’t get me wrong. Despite my allegiances to Liverpool, this is a sad day for the Premier League. Henry was easily the best foreign player to grace the Prem. I’d go so far as to say he’s one of the top 5 players I’ve had the luxury of watching in their prime. You can’t say enough about his abilities or quality, both on and off the field.

And £16 million bought him. £16m for Henry’s service, when he’s still yet to turn 30 and with 3 years remaining on the deal he signed with Arsenal after last season. At best, that's a little low, and at worst, it's a joke. Charlton wants more for Darren Bent. We live in a strange world. Yes, Henry’s much more injury-prone than he used to be and has lost a couple of steps, but he’s still one of the best players in the world when on form. And Spain should suit his gloriously.

I hate to keep harping on it, but if Henry had been sold last summer, Arsenal would have earned more than double what they are now. Various media reports from last summer quoted David Dein saying that the Gunners had turned down two £50m+ bids before Henry resigned. I know the majority of you can do the math, but £50m is a fair bit more than £16m, especially considering Henry’s impact this past season.

And while we’re on the topic of David Dein, I do believe his leaving is less of a reason for Henry’s departure than he’s given credit for, but it can’t be overlooked, simply because of the relationship between the two. Dein’s son is one of Henry’s main agents, and Henry was the best man at Darren Dein’s wedding. Still, had Henry wanted to stay, he would have, with or without Dein. I just can’t put so much credence into the actions of one director. No matter how close an ally, an executive leaving cannot be the end-all, be-all for Henry at Arsenal. I also still reckon that sooner or later, Stan Kroenke is going to take control of Arsenal by hook or crook, and Dein won’t be out of a job for very long.

Wenger is a bit of a different case. I have no doubt that the media reports are right, and Wenger will see out the final year of his contract, but beyond that, your guess is as good as mine. And Henry knew that. Players that might replace Henry will the funds Arsenal will receive will also know that. I can’t wait to see how that plays out, especially when Real Madrid puts the full-court press on Wenger for his services. Which will be nice, having Arsene wooed through the media instead of Rafa for a change.

I am, however, fairly certain that Wenger is fine with Henry’s exit. In all probability, he’s the man who negotiated Henry’s transfer to Barca. Not to mention there’s a long history of Wenger getting rid of players around their 30th birthday or when they start to fade, whichever comes first: Vieira, Petit, Overmars, and Pires immediately spring to mind. Arsenal will have to buy some form of replacement, with only two proven strikers on the books and Aliadiere and Baptista on their way out. But in van Persie and Adebayor, the Gunners have two very good strikers that Wenger is very fond of, and I honestly don’t know how much money will actually be spent on Henry’s successor.

As a fan of the game, I’m saddened to see a player of this quality leaving England. It truly is the end of an era. But, as a fan of Liverpool, which I never tire of saying comes first and foremost, I’m thrilled to be seeing the back of him. He’s scored something like 9 goals against Liverpool in his career at Arsenal, including a hat trick in 2004 and a brace in 2006 that I’ll always have trouble forgetting.

Now the transfer market should get good. Barca will be selling (who, I have no idea, but something has got to give), Arsenal will be buying, and everyone’s aware of this. This will kick the summer into a higher gear for sure. Although I can’t say I’m thrilled that another major English team will be in the market for a striker.

For shits and giggles, below is my favorite goal from Henry. It’s not a belter, but I can’t think of a better way to remember his Premier League stint. It’s pure Henry: clever and class. Both qualities will be dearly missed, even by the opposition.

21 June 2007

Guthrie loaned to Bolton

Well, I spoke a little too soon. It appears there has a bit of transfer business.

Of course, though, it’s the wrong end.

News today is that Danny Guthrie will spend next season on loan to Bolton. This is excellent news for Guthrie, Liverpool, and Bolton.

Guthrie was always going to find chances very limited in Liverpool’s first team. He’s normally a central midfielder, and there’s Gerrard, Alonso, Mascherano, Sissoko, and Lucas ahead of him in that queue. The few chances he got in the Carling Cup and League, mainly as a substitute, he’s spent just as much if not more time on the right wing as in the center. No matter how well regarded he is at Anfield, he’s not yet good enough to get the time he needs to develop, especially in his preferred position.

However, at Bolton, he should get more of that time. And in Sammy Lee, he’ll not only have a manager who gets on very well with the players, he’ll have a manager who knows what it takes to make it at Liverpool, as Lee worked his way up from a trainee to Liverpool’s first team, despite his size and the players in front of him.

And, unlike Guthrie’s loan at Southampton for the latter half of last season, he’ll get this time and experience in the Premiership, which hopefully will equip him even more for what’s to come when he returns to Liverpool. And if he does progress, and does look the business, it's not as if he was sold outright, although admittedly I'll be very surprised if he becomes a regular for Liverpool.

I’m hard-pressed to think of a better situation for Guthrie, even though I don’t believe Bolton will have the success next season that they’ve had in previous years under Allardyce. This loan can only be a good thing for all parties involved, and it’s rare you can say that.

Good luck Danny.

More waiting...

So is it Fernando Torres? Simao? Mancini? Florent Malouda? Yossi Benayoun? Diego Forlan (sigh)?

It’s not even July 1st and there’s a virtual uproar because Liverpool hasn’t made any big moves in the market. And it's bothering me. I'd love it if Liverpool had signed their main targets, and if we had new players to gossip about and figure out potential lineups for next season, but I'd love it even more if expectations were slightly lowered, and everyone was content waiting for the signings to occur rather than speculating over reasons as to why they haven't happened yet.

Manchester United’s three big-name signings, coupled with the disappointment of the Champions League Final and Benitez’ post-match comments, as well as increased hopes (and hopes of increased funds) with the new ownership, haven’t helped matters in the slightest.

As for United’s signings: these were players everyone knew United was trailing. They had to pay way over the odds to get them, especially this early in the off-season. With Quieroz as manager-in-waiting, the two Portuguese starlets were always going to United. And they had the money, after only buying Carrick last season and the increased revenue from both the Premiership title and a longer run in the Champions League than usual. It’s a completely different situation than that of Liverpool.

People want big names and now. It’s understandable, and I easily fall into the trap as well, but it really isn’t feasible. Other than United's signings, there haven't been any big names changing clubs throughout England and Europe. Discounting all the talk of rifts and lack of funds, which honestly I don’t believe, I still don’t know if Liverpool will spend the money people hope for. But either way, it’s not fair to expect any signings to happen this quickly.

Take last summer for an example. Admittedly, the situation was different; I know Liverpool needed to sell in order to buy, and Moores had to take out a loan for Kuyt’s transfer to go through. But none of the business was done this early in the close season, unless you’re counting Mark Gonzalez’ transfer, which had been agreed long in advance. And to head off any criticism in this regard, I don’t think Parry’s the one to blame. It really may well be business as usual.

All of this is an excellent example of why I even hesitate to link to or consider transfer gossip. Why I rarely write about it, and why I don’t fancy throwing up scads of links to new paper talk every day. Who knows what’s made up, what’s really going on, etc, etc, and it leads to reactions amongst the fans like over the past couple of weeks. It’s fun to entertain and discuss possible transfers, but when it stirs up emotions like these around the club, it’s more unhelpful than anything else.

I’m not going to decry the 24-hour news cycle or the media’s obsession with the inner workings of sport, because I enjoy many aspects of this. However, this isn’t one of those aspects, and it truly does make me yearn for the days when we’d learn about a new signing or potential signing when he was paraded around Anfield after a press conference.

Again, it’s depressing to end a post similarly to last week’s “please, patience’ post, but I can’t come to any other conclusion. Please. Patience. Signings will happen, and in a couple of months, all of this will be forgotten. I do still imagine Liverpool will sign a few new players, and I think we’ll be pleased with the results. But until then (and admittedly, this is my own fault for following Liverpool and the resulting internet/media gossip), my biggest hope is that tempers will remain on an even keel.

August cannot get here soon enough.

18 June 2007

Parry testifies at Sheffield tribunal

So Liverpool is the mystery club supporting Sheffield United's bid to remain in the Premier League? Interesting. I guess we know what Rick Parry's been up to for the last week or so.

Questioned as to whether Parry's appearance as a witness was due to Liverpool's signing of Javier Mascherano from West Ham, McCabe added: "Not particularly. Rick is an experienced football guy. He's a good witness."

This quote the BBC is running from Sheffield chairman Kevin McCabe doesn’t really give any insight into Liverpool’s participation, so I feel more than free to baselessly speculate.

So is Liverpool involved in this because of intimate knowledge of the Tevez and Mascherano transfers, thanks to the signing of Mascherano, or because of ulterior motives? Is Liverpool supporting Sheffield’s case, and by default promoting West Ham’s relegation, in order to have a better chance at securing the services of one Carlos Tevez? Is Parry et al really that clever?

Ah, summer speculation. Good for the heart and soul.

Personally, I'm a bit conflicted over the whole arbitration matter, discounting Liverpool’s entrance into the mire.

I want to like West Ham. It goes back to 2003 and living in London. Upton Park was one of two grounds I was lucky enough to see Premier League matches at, and Liverpool against the Hammers was the first Liverpool game I saw in person. And, admittedly, I developed somewhat of a soft spot for them.

It had little to do with the match at Upton Park (Liverpool won 3-0 if you're wondering), and more to do with the fact I had no desire to see West Ham relegated. Much like this season, the Hammers underperformed with a vast amount of talent on the roster. It pains me to say, especially given the team he's on now, but I was a big fan of Joe Cole at the time, as well as appreciating Jermain Defoe, Michael Carrick, and the rest of the young English talent on the roster. And Glenn Roeder’s aneurysm during the season (and so soon after Houllier’s health problems) brought a sympathy factor along with it. With West Ham’s history, fan base, and squad, it seemed unbelievable they'd be relegated. And when they were, I never lost that soft spot.

I was glad to see them come back up for 2005-06. And I enjoyed the job Pardew did in getting them to 9th place and the FA Cup Final. My soft spot certainly would have diminished had West Ham held on for a fluky victory. But they didn't, the game was etched into Liverpool folklore, and both West Ham’s squad and fans did their club proud that day.

This season has been a bit different. The unseemliness of Kia Joorabchian and the Tevez/Mascherano situation, Magnusson's takeover, Pardew's firing, Curbishley's hiring and signings, and the team's inability to function as a unit until sometime in March all made the heart less fond of the East Londoners. I’m sorry, but it’s true. Even as of the end of the season, I still had preferred the Hammers staying up over Sheffield, mainly thanks to being fed up with Neil Warnock’s mouth, but I couldn’t claim any real desire to see West Ham succeed.

I was fairly certain this arbitration would be a formality, sealing Sheffield's fate and confirming West Ham's stay in the Premiership. Maybe it's solely because of Liverpool's participation, but the fact of the matter is I'm not so sure anymore.

Seeing how Magnusson’s thrown exorbitant amounts of money around like he’s surrounded by strippers, even more so than in January, isn’t doing more to endear West Ham to the neutrals, and Sheffield looks a lot better with Warnock gone, despite the job he did for them. If I’m being utterly fair, and I honestly don’t know if I can be, I still can’t decide who has better merits to stay up.

I want to like West Ham. I do. I’ve wanted them to do well (as long it has no impact on Liverpool, obviously), whereas I’ve never cared much for Sheffield United. But West Ham is in the wrong. Points deductions are the precedent if one goes by decisions in the lower leagues. I can’t see the league reversing the decision now, after the season’s over, and I fear what would happen if they did (it’d be one hell of a payday for the lawyers). But honestly, maybe they should.

We’ll know tomorrow.

11 June 2007

Waiting is the hardest part

It’s annoying to have so little to write about in regards to Liverpool, but it’s not completely unexpected. For all the complaining about a lack of signings, it is only June 11th. And the fact that Manchester United has made 3 signings (which will probably be the totality of their summer spending) only exacerbates the situation.

I’m in the process of shifting to summer mode. I do apologize for posting so infrequently, especially when I’ve tried to have new content up daily for the duration of the season, but I’m still figuring out what I want to write about when there aren’t news updates or transfer gossip. I do want to reassure that even if trends continue, and there isn’t much news, I will still be updating fairly regularly.

During this dearth of information, there has been a ton of wild speculation. In that vein, I want to highlight, and copy/paste parts of, a feature interview with George Gillett that ran today in the Montreal Gazette:

He speaks glowingly of Liverpool manager Rafael Benitez, both as field boss and businessman, and downplays any talk of Benitez lighting a fire beneath himself and Hicks to spend lavishly on new talent in a league where the phrase "salary cap" does not exist.

"I read that Rafa (Benitez) is throwing hand grenades at us and making demands ... that there's a tension or disagreement between him and the Gillett and Hicks families," Gillett said. "Nothing could be farther from the truth.

"As far back as February, Rafa laid out a program for us. Each one of our sports businesses has a core concept. You can't just flop around looking at opportunities here and there, go left, go right. It has to be part of an integrated plan. We have one at Liverpool, as we have with the Canadiens, one we understand 100 per cent, believe in and support.

"The plan involves us spending money, but it will be part of a plan, not just spending like a drunken sailor."

I realize many expected big names, and immediately. I’m still not all that surprised that nearly a month later, that’s not the case.

Signings will happen. And I still believe that more money will be spent than in the last few summers, even though the team needs less of a makeover than it did in the past. It’s still also worth noting that the spending from the three previous summers was approximately between £20-25m each year. Things will happen, it’s just a matter of waiting. And no, not waiting as in there will be last-ditch signings in August when Liverpool misses out on its top targets. Please. Patience.

And also, please, a stop these Diego Forlan rumors as well. They’re not healthy for anyone involved.

Update: One more point. Despite the talk going around of a budget nearer to what’s been spent in previous years, and dependent on player sales (see here, here, and here for starts), I find it exceptionally hard to believe that Liverpool would have spent £5m on a player that needs to be developed in a position that’s arguably Liverpool’s strongest in Lucas if that were the case. If money’s so tight, that makes little sense.

Bascombe is one of the best Liverpool reporters around, hands down. And the fact that so many blogs, columnists, and message boards are seemingly worried about the course of events is, well, worrisome. But I find it tough to think that after looking for the right investor for so long, after the laudatory remarks coming from Parry, Moores, et al, and after all the public statements Gillett and Hicks have made, there will be little to no transfer funds outside of players sold. Not only would it be massively disappointing as a fan, it’s idiotic business sense. I still believe Liverpool isn’t as far away as some make out, but it’s clear money needs to be spent for Liverpool to be where they need to. And underwhelming and disappointing fans at one of the first times of asking is absolutely the wrong way for new owners to make friends and influence people.

I’m still more than willing to give the benefit of the doubt, but admittedly, this does make me more nervous. And is also a prime example of why I dislike the silly summer season.

08 June 2007

Alonso signs new five-year deal

Xabi Alonso has joined Reina, Gerrard, and Carra in signing a new contract, pledging his future to the club until 2012.


This should certainly end speculation over his leaving. It will on my end.

I’ve made no secret of my fear that Xabi would leave over the summer to return to Spain. Coupled with the fact Liverpool has 5 central midfielders on the books, something looked likely to give. Thankfully, it won’t be Alonso.

Hopefully the end to speculation and a summer full of rest before the pre-season will revitalize Xabi, because admittedly, he wasn’t at his best this year. But when he’s on, he’s one of the best passers and classiest players in the game. Not just in England. In the world.

Something still seems likely to give. Today’s stories about Alonso’s contract also mention that extensions should be imminent for Sissoko and Finnan. With Gerrard and Alonso now with new deals, Sissoko looking likely to sign an extension, and Lucas about to arrive from Gremio, I would hope that Mascherano isn’t now the odd man out. 5 central midfielders, even if Lucas won’t play much in adjusting to England in his first season, is seemingly one too many.

I also sincerely hope that these new deals, while being warmly welcomed, aren’t the transfer activity Hicks et al were talking about. I promised myself I wouldn’t get edgy until at least the end of La Liga (June 17th), but it’s ever so hard to be patient during the summer, when report after report raises new rumors and expectations.

Being Sven has done an outstanding job so far covering all the transfer talk that I’m afraid to, in the fear of getting my hopes lost in the clouds. He’s collated all the rumors into one section, and there are mountains of rumors. If Liverpool ends up getting a third of the players alleged, it will be one hell of a summer.

06 June 2007

England 3-0 Estonia

Well, now we can have our David Beckham praise in full. The surprising thing is that most of it will be deserved.

If McClaren manages to lead England to qualification, and save his job in the process, a lot of it will come down to the recall of Beckham. And yes, I’m as surprised as you.

Beckham truly played well, even after picking up an ankle knock. I don’t want to join the chorus that will over-emphasize his role, but those were two gorgeous crosses for England’s second and third, both coming during open play.

I still feel, despite what McClaren says, Beckham still moves infield and congests the middle too often while leaving gaps to be exploited on the right. Wes Brown was on his own on the right flank for much of the match. But both of the crosses for goals came from the wing, and they were absolutely spot on. And now McClaren can take the credit for this master plan.

No matter how pretty the crosses were for the second half goals, England’s first goal was easily the best. Some of the moments Joe Cole has created while playing for England have been jaw dropping, and this was up there with the rest. Controls the flick-on from Crouch with his chest, swivels, and fires on the half-volley in off the post. If Ronaldinho did that, everyone would be falling over themselves.

I also thought that Crouch was up there with Beckham for man of the match. It’s easy to mock him at times, but he’s finished the game with a goal and assist, and was heavily involved with England’s attack. While I’ll readily admit his goal was down to Beckham’s cross, his header was perfectly placed, and he’s gotten stick for his heading ability in the past. Albeit against a different class of opposition, England held the ball up much better than against Brazil, and most of that was due to Crouch. He’s ruled out due of the next match because of a needless yellow picked up here, but McClaren would have dropped him in favor of the returning Rooney regardless. It’s too bad, because England’s played just as well with Crouch as with Rooney since Wayne’s performances in Euro 2004.

Let’s not get carried away though. England were playing Estonia, who have yet to score or gain a point during the qualifiers. And there are still problems with this team. I fear that, as usual, some will take too much from one game against admittedly lesser opposition. I know I fell for it after McClaren’s first few matches in charge.

Again, Lampard was fairly anonymous. He was more influential than against Brazil, but that isn’t saying much. Gerrard still did most of the legwork in midfield, as against Brazil if less effective, while Lampard was unable to pick up the slack in attack. Something has to happen here. It’s gotten repetitious, but I’m still of the opinion this pairing will not work against top competition.

The defense was also sloppy at times. Estonia was never going to create a ton of chances, but there were still a couple of moments where they managed to worry. Paul Robinson had to be quick off his line on the stroke of halftime when Voskoboinikov was through after easily splitting Ledley King and John Terry. And John Terry had to make a last ditch save in second half stoppage time after more confusion in the box and a shot that skidded under Robinson. There were gaps to be attacked on the counter when England was spread, and that’s worrying.

England still sits in 4th in the group, but only 3 points back of first place Croatia, who drew 0-0 at home against Russia today. Four of the five remaining games are at Wembley. It was unthinkable when the groups were drawn that England wouldn’t qualify, but now, I will echo McClaren (despite my preference not to) and agree it’s back in their own hands.

Job done here, and now no England games until September. I’m pleased to see the Liverpool players involved, Gerrard especially, get some well deserved rest before the Premier League resumes. Me thinks it's time for a nice, long summer. But, of course, hopefully chock full of gossip, hearsay, and innuendo.

So I heard Thierry Henry was off to AC Milan? Or is it Barca?

05 June 2007

More 'worst fans' nonsense

All day Sunday, BBC Football, which is the first site I check for news nearly every time I’m looking, called Liverpool the ‘worst fans in Europe’ in the headline of the top story. I’m sure there were many others who did similar, but unlike some of the others, the Beeb isn’t usually known for trotting out complete nonsense.

Now that Platini’s been forced to backtrack, and stated "No they are not the worst behaved in Europe. It's official, they are not the worst behaved in Europe" (as if he should even have to make a statement like that), it’s the last headline on the Football frontpage as of right now, and didn’t even show up until around 7pm UK time. The hallmark of brilliant spin is when the reply to it is ignored.

Maybe it’s best to go back to what Gaillard originally said. We’ve all seen the choice bits in the version released to Reuters.

"The incidents involving Liverpool fans have been well known to us before the trouble at the Champions League final which involved Liverpool fans last week.

"That was just the latest example. What other set of fans steal tickets from their fellow supporters or out of the hands of children? We know what happened in Athens, and Liverpool fans were the cause of most of the trouble there.

"There have been 25 incidents involving Liverpool fans away from home since 2003 and these are in the report -- most teams' supporters do not cause any trouble at all."

However, around the same time, audio of an interview with Gaillard showed up on the BBC’s website (again, sorry this focuses on BBC coverage, but I usually feel it’s the most rational major outlet). I hope it remains online, but in case, here’s as full a transcript as my sanity can provide.

Gaillard: …Like any citizens, they are entitled to their views and they are entitled to go to court for anything they have to complain about. It’s not for us to judge their action. If they go to court, we’ll present our point of view then.

BBC: Do you feel that maybe they should be looking at fellow fans rather than UEFA?

Gaillard: That’s a different issue. As we have said, most of the Liverpool fans who had problems were the result of actions by the other Liverpool fans. We know there have been muggings, there have been people assaulted, we even know some people have been assaulted, uh so, I think there’s food for thought in what happened in Athens and when we draw conclusions, there will be things that we need to analyze and probably to change but it’s for everyone.

BBC: In that report we know what you think about what happened last week and you’ll gather reports, is there a body of evidence at UEFA as far as Liverpool fans are concerned that this has happened before?

Gaillard: We have independent sources that tell us that, yes, there have been incidents with Liverpool fans over the last few years with matches away from Liverpool, but I think Liverpool Football Club knows that too and if you go even to websites like the FSF, the Football Supporters Federation, you see that there are lots of fans that have gone, Liverpool fans, and saying, you know, the way some of our fellow fans behaved is unacceptable. Now, again, a club cannot… it’s always, you know historically a club has always been made responsible for their fans, objectively responsible. The fact is they have trouble with 5000 stewards all over Europe. We understand that. We are not by any way blind to the circumstances. We know that Liverpool Football Club did not want these incidents to happen it’s so obvious. But we have to what can be figure out what can be done because we are in a new situation. We have thousands of fans traveling in all directions in Europe. This was not the case 20 years ago. Yes, for a final you had some fans traveling. But no, it’s even for a group stage. Where you can have suddenly a few thousand people coming from abroad and arriving at the airport and all the problems it causes with the traffic so it’s a whole new concept as to be developed.

BBC: Do you feel that Liverpool fans may be stopped from traveling? That may be a solution?

Gaillard: No, because then it will reappear with another club or… and plus, we live in the European Union. People are free to travel where they want, to go where they want…

BBC: You can stop them having tickets though…

Gaillard: This is again police coordination. If there are some elements that shouldn’t be having tickets, it’s important this would also be applied abroad.

BBC: When the report arrives on Richard Caborn’s desk, do you feel his initial view of what happened may be different?

Gaillard: I don’t know what his view is now.

BBC: He believes that Liverpool fans were treated unfairly.

Gaillard: Well, let him decide for himself. Let him decide for himself with the facts and figures.

BBC: And what will they say?

Gaillard: I think they will give him food for thought and, uh, we don’t try to put the blame on one or the other. We’re just asking some questions and trying to reason out what should be done in the future. I mean one thing we can all rejoice at is no one was badly hurt. That’s something very positive and we can build for the future.

BBC: Are Liverpool the worst club do you feel, the worst offenders for this in Europe?

Gaillard: We know that there are more incidents involving Liverpool from what this report was given to us than other clubs. But also, Liverpool is playing more matches.

Gaillard spins with the best corporate PR flacks and continues to ignore UEFA’s role in the debacle, but it sounds to me like it’s the journalist pressing the issue. It’s the reporter who asks if Liverpool will be banned from Europe or if fans will be denied tickets. He’s the first (and only) to say the phrase “worst club.” Maybe he’s simply responding to how the original article was phrased, but I doubt it. He’s goading Gaillard into saying something worse. Something that will sell.

Here in America, all I get of Sky Sports is an hour-long daily news show. If this is how the BBC handled the issue, I fear for what Sky’s coverage was like. I know the tabloids (I can’t speak for the coverage in the one tabloid no Liverpool fan should ever read but I can imagine) were as classy as usual.

I’m going nowhere near absolving UEFA from blame in how this was reported. They leaked parts of the report, parts that absolved UEFA of any blame for Athens, two days before it was to be delivered to Caborn. On a Sunday no less, a day they’d be sure it would get heavy coverage for lack of much else.

But the media took the bait, and maybe pushed it farther than UEFA anticipated. Of course, there’s always the possibility UEFA’s bureaucrats are cognizant of exactly what they’re doing, but it invoked such a fury among Liverpool supporters, it’s probably more than likely Gaillard will lose his job, although that may just be me hoping. And it invoked such a fury that Platini's had to come out with such mollifying comments in an attempt to subside the furor.

"It is not as if one set of fans are good or one set bad. This is not the question in the end. We cannot go around saying that."

Well, for all intents and purposes, your organization did say it, Michel. It’s common knowledge (well, it should be) I don’t like Platini, and I do hope both him and Gaillard aren’t around long. This is yet another example of their incompetence. But the media is partly to blame for the extent of this instance, and has to be the target of some of the fans’ anger.

I know I haven’t come to an astonishing conclusion. The media always hypes things in an attempt to sell papers. It’s definitely nothing new. But, and without absolving UEFA of anything they said or even implied, Liverpool fans should remember this example of it.

I don’t take back any of my condemnation of UEFA in the previous post, nor do I ignore the actions of a minority of Liverpool fans in Athens. But this isn’t about that. This is about how the media, even “sensible” outlets like the BBC, will play up anything, no matter how inflammatory, in their own aims.

I was disgusted at how Liverpool fans were tarred by UEFA’s accusations and unwillingness to take any blame over the weekend. I want it clear how disgusted I am with the media for promoting, and distorting, the story even further.

Apologies for two posts in a row on such an infuriating subject that’s probably best ignored, but it’s news, and unavoidable, as there’s not much transfer talk to distract around the club at the moment. But, on the same day as new co-owner Tom Hicks’ condemnation of UEFA, there’s also a promise of impending signings, maybe within the week. Can’t wait.

04 June 2007

Worst Fans in Europe?

On a morning that saw Gerrard and Carragher sign deals that will tie them to the club until 2011, everyone's talking about the "worst fans in Europe." Super.

I don't really have much else to add to the chorus of others, despite my undying dislike of Platini, Gaillard, UEFA, FIFA, and pretty much every organization that's so far put politics over football. We've already known these groups are frequently negligent at best, and now they're trying to shift any and all blame onto traveling Liverpool fans instead of taking a long hard look at themselves.

Admittedly, I'm not in the best position to comment. I'm not a match-going red, I'm not a Scouser. But I will take umbrage at all degradation of Liverpool fans with a blanket statement, especially when it's as unjustified as this. 'When in doubt, blame the English' might as well be UEFA's motto.

This will not be a defense of the actions of some Liverpool supporters in Athens. There is no defense. You cannot defend stealing tickets, rushing the gates, or any of the actions taken by the minority of traveling fans. They’ve given UEFA the opportunity to tar an entire fanbase with the same brush.

The word “minority” must be emphasized. And to pretend that the fans were the complete and total cause of the breakdown, that Liverpool have some of the worst fans in Europe, and that there are 25 incidents ranging over the past five or so years that prove this is utter insanity. It was Gaillard himself who said the day before the final that "The two groups of supporters have a tradition of good behaviour and at this point we are expecting that to continue," not to mention the platitudes thrown out by Platini, Blatter, and their ilk towards Liverpool fans whenever it suits their purposes.

UEFA certainly has some nerve. These are political men, doing their utmost to turn the game into a political organization, and this is yet another example of that. It's completely acceptable to condemn an entire group of supporters in what boils down to a PR effort to save face. That’s disgusting, even if it’s not your favorite team they’re defaming. Blaming the customers is an exceptional business approach. Those responsible need to take responsibility to be sure. Some actions of Liverpool fans were a complete disgrace. But all involved need to take responsibility, and not just throw stones when you live in the biggest glass house on the block.

This isn’t about other allegations, but UEFA feels comfortable making declarative statements like these when policemen are getting killed at matches? When virulent racism still takes place? When Ultras rule certain teams fan bases? Match fixing, flares, missiles. Stewards pelted with seats, fans stabbed outside of stadiums.

It's heartening to see Parry and the club come out with a statement early this morning, because I know there was concern over the weekend over the club's response. There was no way Liverpool could shove this under the rug, but the condemnation was swift, severe, and welcomed.

In lieu of trashing UEFA and their arguments even more, and end up repeating what far better writers have already said, I'd rather point you to other articles around the internet that do the job of pointing out the insanity of this situation and UEFA in general. From what I’ve written in the past, I’d imagine it’s clear I’ve little love lost for Platini, Gaillard, or UEFA, but this is just disgraceful. There’s no other way to say it.

Liverpool Echo: RESIGN
Tony Barrett: UEFA smear campaign
RAWK: A Open Letter to Michel Platini
BBC: Caborn and Parry hit back at UEFA
Guardian: UEFA needs to buck up its ideas
Liverpool fan to sue UEFA over Athens chaos

01 June 2007

England 1-1 Brazil

Oh England. You never fail to disappoint.

It was set up so perfectly. The game certainly had all the airs of a friendly, despite being the first time the national team played at the new Wembley. Best and most generously described as “cagey,” there were few attempts that troubled either keeper for the first hour. But then, Steve McClaren’s “master plan” (patent pending) came to fruition.

Beckham, who had looked dangerous on set pieces (the only time he looked dangerous; his inability to stick to the right flank was appalling), lofted an absolutely perfect free kick to the back post for John Terry to head past Helton in the 68th minute. It was the absolute height of hilarity and the tabloids were drooling over the storyline. Becks returns to deliver a free kick spot on for the new captain to head in (scoring his first goal in over 50 games), and it makes all the difference in a win over Brazil in the first game at Wembley. The hacks were delighted.

And then Diego had to go and ruin it. With England under the cosh for the last quarter of the game, and having watched England for far too long, it was only a matter of time. With less than a minute left on the clock, two minutes into stoppage time, Ledley King and Nicky Shorey (I have to say, other than this, Shorey was impressive) got caught ball-watching (along with pretty much every other England player in defense), and Diego popped up between them to head past Robinson from Gilberto Silva’s pin-point cross. All in all, a standard afternoon with the England squad.

Seems best served to start with why Beckham was brought back, because the goal completely elucidated it: free kicks. Free kicks, free kicks, free kicks. It wasn’t for his flank play or crosses, because he didn’t spend much time on the right wing. More often than not, he looked further infield than Gerrard or Lampard, and Carragher did well get forward up the right flank to cover at times. It is because of his set plays. No more.

Which leads to me Frank Lampard, free kick-taker extraordinaire for Chelsea. And invisible for England. He is the player best suited to take Beckham’s place on set plays, as it’s one of his specialties for Chelsea. But he was unable to fill that role in Becks’ absence, and in addition and once again, Lampard was nearly anonymous for the entire game. There really should be no debate over him and Gerrard. I do not understand it. Lampard’s inclusion is hurting the team. I sincerely hope Hargreaves’ return alleviates this problem, but it’s also worth mentioning that Gerrard did play well in a deeper role, and came through with a number of excellent tackles, even if his passing was a bit lazy at times.

There’s so much more to laugh about, as laughing is really the only way to avoid getting frustrated over this team. For one, Alan Smith had little business starting. It has to be in the FA’s bylaws that if at all possible a Manchester United player must start, and with Neville and Ferdinand injured and Rooney suspended, Smudger filled that role. That’s got to be the reason, because I can’t think of another. Yes, he made some decent tackles from the front and hassled Brazil well, but he also failed to trap or hold up the ball and ended up losing possession more often than not.

After Smith was subbed out, another United player filled the void. In his first touch of the game, Wes Brown slipped and put Europe’s top scorer Alfonso Alves through on goal, only to see his shot skim wide. To be fair, Wembley’s pitch has brought complaints from all sides and it clearly played a part here, but the incident was certainly in tune with a lot of the afternoon.

I recognize I’m taking shots at United and Chelsea players foremost, but honestly, if they were Liverpool, or Everton (ha), or (insert whomever here) players, I’d imagine I’d say the same. Because even though Liverpool has completely taken precedence over the national side, I am still an England fan, and I would still like to see the team succeed. I’ve just stopped expecting it, and that’s why a lot of these incidents are risible to me; too often the England team can be an absurd comedy.

And I couldn’t go without a mention of the manager. I throw out a disclaimer too often, but I don’t like criticizing managers. Usually, there has to be a reason they’re in the position they’re in, and I’m cognizant of the fact I’m just some guy on the internet with a blog. But I do not understand Steve McClaren. I do not understand his tactics at times (Why was Becks so far infield? Why did McClaren pair Owen with Smith?). I do not understand his substitutions (Smith for Dyer? Waiting that long for Carrick on for Lampard? And why didn’t Crouch come on earlier when England couldn’t keep position around that part of the field?). When I started writing this blog, I couldn’t imagine I’d ever get so carried away I’d call for a manager’s head in print, but I can’t see how McClaren will still be on for Euro ’08, whether England qualify or not, if that long, and I honestly hope he isn’t.

But hey, at the end of the day it was a fun game to watch, and against Brazil, not a bad way to open Wembley for the national side. I’ve definitely seen worse team performances recently, and admittedly, part of that has to be down to Beckham’s inclusion. He will definitely play against Estonia. I complain out of love, and I certainly know it’s a friendly. But England will still have to be better (and far less comical), despite the gulf in class of the opposition, on Wednesday.

Roll on Estonia.