31 August 2007

Liverpool v Derby County 09.01.07

10am EST, live in the US on Setanta Sports.

Last 4 head-to-head:
2-0 Liverpool (h) 04.20.02
1-0 Liverpool (a) 12.01.01
1-1 (h) 03.18.01
4-0 Liverpool (a) 10.15.00

Last 3 matches:
Liverpool: 4-0 Toulouse (h); 2-0 Sunderland (a); 1-1 Chelsea (h)
Derby: 2-2 (6-7 after pens) Blackpool (h); 1-2 Birmingham (h); 0-4 Tottenham (a)

Goalscorers (league):
Liverpool: Gerrard, Sissoko, Torres, Voronin 1
Derby: Oakley 2; Todd 1

Referee: Alan Wiley

Guess at a squad:
Finnan Agger Hyypia Arbeloa
Pennant Alonso Sissoko Babel
Torres Kuyt

Gerrard is still less than fit, and I find it very hard to believe he’ll figure here. There’s little need to risk him, and if he plays here, Liverpool has even less of an argument for keeping him out of England’s Euro qualifiers. Since I have to believe Gerrard will be called into action for at least one England game, I’d hope he’s given this weekend to further heal his fractured toe.

Even without Gerrard, there’s still a healthy debate over who will start in the center of midfield. As much as I adore Mascherano, it seems more likely that Alonso will start. And with Liverpool needing to take the game to Derby, who will have 10 men behind the ball, I don’t know if an Alonso/Mascherano pairing, both of whom like to sit deep, is a viable option. I think it’ll probably be one or the other starting, and while I think Mascherano’s played better than Alonso so far this season, Alonso’s range and vision will probably be more important than Mascherano’s tackling and positioning against Derby.

Plus, Sissoko has played very well in the last two games, and even though the fact he’s started the last two might mean he’s in line for a rest, I’d hope he’s the one paired with Alonso. But, there’s also a small possibility of seeing Lucas, who did well after coming on as a sub against Toulouse, and is more of an attacking option than either Alonso or Mascherano. Seems much more likely he’ll be on the bench though.

As Derby will play very, very tight, I’d hope that Liverpool goes with two out-and-out attackers on the flanks. Specifically, I think Babel, with his pace and trickery, will have a big part to play tomorrow, and either Pennant or Benayoun will join him on the opposite side. I’m guessing it’ll be Pennant, as he’s been Rafa’s first choice on the right in every league game so far and good crossing of the ball will be vital, but I can’t ignore the job that Yossi did against Toulouse on Tuesday, and I do fear that his confidence would be damaged being dropped after such a good performance, but there’s little room for sentimentality. No matter which of the two starts, I’m expecting big things.

Torres will probably lead the line, and I imagine that no matter the striker rotation, he’ll be one of the first names on the team sheet every time out. His involvement literally frightens defenses (and the backline isn’t Derby’s strong suit), and Liverpool is far more threatening with him in the line-up. Kuyt’s two goals and his tremendous work rate shown against Toulouse lead me to believe he’ll be one paired with Torres, but after Voronin’s performances, his inclusion wouldn’t surprise me one bit either.

With Finnan rested against Toulouse, he’ll probably return as right back, with either Arbeloa or Riise as left back. I’m guessing Arbeloa will start, probably more because he’s in my fantasy team than anything, but Riise could be useful off the bench, coming in at either left back or left midfield as a sub if needed, not to mention the fact he played some central defense against Toulouse. Hyypia and Agger, the only two fit center backs, seemingly have to be the central pairing, as Carragher will continue to be out with a broken rib.

Derby will struggle to pick up points from nearly every game in the Premiership this season, but they’ll still be a difficult team to break down, and we know Liverpool’s had problems with this in previous seasons. They will probably play with Steve Howard as a lone striker, and 5 midfielders to further congest play in the middle of the park. But outside of a good 2-2 draw against Portsmouth on the first day, Derby’s struggled; a 4-0 thrashing by Spurs, followed by a home loss to fellow promoted side Birmingham, and a loss in the 2nd round of the Carling Cup to Blackpool on penalties with the majority of the first team squad playing.

I’m always fearful when I’m confident about Liverpool chances, but they should be able to break down Derby at Anfield, even though games like this have caused Liverpool angst in the past. But that’s why players like Torres and Babel were bought, and that’s why I expect them to play Saturday. Liverpool needs to be ruthless if this season’s expectations are to be met, and hopefully, they will be tomorrow.

30 August 2007

Champions League Draw

Sorry to be tardy to the party. Stupid work commitments.

So Liverpool’s paired with Porto, Marseille, and Besiktas, huh?

As usual, Sven’s more than on top of the ball. However, I am more optimistic about the group than he is. Liverpool could have done a lot worse, and although my optimism is probably a cause for concern and I’m furiously knocking on wood as I type this, they really should progress.

Yes, Porto and Marseille are teams with a European legacy. But Porto’s lost a few key players over the summer (including Pepe, Hugo Almeida, and Anderson), although Lucho Gonzalez and Quaresma are still in the squad. Marseille will be interesting as Liverpool will get to welcome former players Cisse and Zenden, and honestly, after Toulouse’s performance, the French league’s gone down a bit more in my eyes, although Nasri and M’Bami (among others) are excellent players. Besiktas will be a tough trip and are somewhat of an unknown, with the most notable names being keeper Rustu and Brazilian midfielder Ricardinho, but Liverpool are more than familiar with traveling to Turkey.

On first glance, I reckon that Marseille will join Liverpool in progressing, but it really is up in the air.

This is the schedule of Liverpool’s games, followed by the next league game:

18 Porto (a)
22 Birmingham (h)

3 Marseille (h)
7 Tottenham (h)
24 Besiktas (a)
28 Arsenal (h)

6 Besiktas (h)
10 Fulham (h)
28 Porto (h)

1 Bolton (h)
11 Marseille (a)
15 Manchester Utd (h)

A home league match follows every single CL game. That’ll do.

Full group details are below. Despite my fondness for predictions not involving Liverpool, it’s still too early even for me to guess which teams will make it out of their groups, and at this stage, I’m far too inclined to go with the top two seeds in nearly every group.

I will say that it should be interesting to see United/Roma and Celtic/Milan reprising matches from last year’s knockout stages, especially the United/Roma pairing. Also, the Eastern European teams, specifically Shakhtar, CSKA, and Dynamo, despite being 4th seeds, will be very tough outs.

And Group E, Barca’s group, is my pick for “group of death,” with Group F not far behind. Arsenal’s is probably the easiest, with them and Sevilla clear-cut favorites, but that’s more debatable. Although it seems to me that the groups are a lot more even than they’ve been in past years. Yes, Liverpool’s group could have been easier, but a lot of groups could have been easier, and talent-wise, it seems the 32 teams are fairly evenly distributed.

I can’t wait.

Group A: Liverpool, Porto, Marseille, Besiktas
Group B: Chelsea, Valencia, Schalke 04, Rosenborg
Group C: Real Madrid, Werder Bremen, Lazio, Olympiakos
Group D: AC Milan, Benfica, Celtic, Shakhtar Donetsk
Group E: Barcelona, Lyon, Stuttgart, Rangers
Group F: Manchester Utd, Roma, Sporting Lisbon, Dynamo Kiev
Group G: Inter Milan, PSV, CSKA Moscow, Fenerbache
Group H: Arsenal, Sevilla/AEK Athens, Steaua Bucharest, Slavia Prague

Predictions 9/1 – 9/2

Hey, I was actually above .500 last week! Next stop, .500 for the season (someone stop me before I pass out from overconfidence).

Fulham v Tottenham, 10am, FSC: Tottenham deserved something out of their game against Manchester United, and might even start playing decent football before October for a change. But Fulham has been unlucky so far this season; they should have more than 3 points, and should be higher than 19th in the table. And I can’t forget how they were draw specialists, especially at Craven Cottage, last season. 1-1
Reading v West Ham, 10am, Setanta Xtra: Last weekend’s 3-0 loss for Reading was an aberration. And there’s no way that Steve Coppell will let his players duplicate that performance. It certainly won’t help that West Ham’s got another key player missing in Kieron Dyer, who’s got the absolute worst luck with injuries. Reading 1-0
Bolton v Everton, 10am: I’m well pleased that Sammy Lee finally got his first win as Bolton manager last weekend, with Anelka (who just signed a new deal) again their standout player. Hopefully this will be the start of them turning the corner; Bolton is so much more likeable without Allardyce. But unfortunately, this hasn’t looked like one of Everton’s yo-yo seasons so far. Everton 1-0
Middlesbrough v Birmingham, 10am: If Mido can continue to score, Boro will do alright. Southgate’s got the squad playing decent football, but more importantly, believing in what the manager’s trying to build. Brum’s gotten 4 points out of 4 games, which isn’t an awful return (and is the same result as Boro), and all 4 of their strikers have scored in either the Prem or League cup, but beating Boro at the Riverside might be too much to ask. Boro 2-1
Newcastle v Wigan, 10am: Pity that Antoine Sibierski, who already has 3 goals this season, might miss this game with a hamstring injury, as he’s played well for Wigan since coming over from Newcastle on a free. But even with Sibierski in the squad, and even though Wigan’s looked better than I expected, Newcastle should still have enough to win at home. And it won’t hurt that Michael Owen’s finally back on the scoresheet, getting the opener in Newcastle’s Carling Cup match yesterday. Newcastle 2-0
Manchester Utd v Sunderland, 12:15pm, FSC: Roy Keane returns to Manchester, and you can be sure he’ll want make the most of it. But like against Liverpool last week, I think they’ll struggle to score against the big boys, and even though United’s found goals very hard to come by, they should be able to break down Sunderland’s backline. Craig Gordon may not have as busy a day as last Saturday, but he’ll be put to work. United 2-0
Arsenal v Portsmouth, 8:30am Sunday, Setanta: Chelsea barely put an end to Portsmouth’s unbeaten start to the season last weekend, and 2 weeks earlier, Pompey drew against United. Now they have to travel to Arsenal before hosting Liverpool. An easy start to the season to be sure. But I think they can keep up their form; Arsenal’s done well to get 7 points from 3 games, and don’t really look like missing Thierry Henry, but Portsmouth’s gotten goals from a variety of players, and can do enough to frustrate Arsenal at the Emirates. 2-2
Blackburn v Manchester City, 10am Sunday: In two games against two teams that finished in the top 6 last season, Blackburn’s drawn 1-1: home against Arsenal and away to Everton. Like those matches, this will be another stern test for Blackburn. City, much to my chagrin and surprise, has played really well, using all of Sven’s foreign buys and getting the best out of Emile Mpenza, and likewise, it’ll be as much of a test for them. As such, I think this one will end level, and probably even 1-1 again. 1-1
Aston Villa v Chelsea, 11am Sunday, FSC: Until proven otherwise, I’m going to find it very hard to go against Chelsea in any game this season. And while Aston Villa will make them work for it, as they do in every match, Chelsea’s too strong and too deep, even against a Villa team that’s making obvious strides. Chelsea 2-1

Liverpool hosts Derby 10am Saturday on Setanta. Preview tomorrow.

I’ll have some thoughts on the Champions League draw, which takes place at noon, up late tonight.

Frenchman singles out and criticizes Americans? No way!

I realize the Platini-bashing is getting tiresome, but when he keeps inserting his foot directly into his mouth, I can’t help myself.

Platini slams foreign owners

Michael Platini has launched a surprising attack on the foreign ownership of English football clubs.

Platini, the president of Uefa, has revealed his dislike for the increasing foreign investment in the Premier League.

Chelsea, Manchester United, Liverpool and Aston Villa are among a number of top flight clubs who have been taken over by owners from abroad and Platini insists that something must be done.

"I can't understand how so many English clubs are owned by foreign people," Platini told Sky Sports News.

"I think we can do something. I don't know why Americans come to buy some clubs. You need your identity.

"I can't understand why some English clubs are owned by Americans because they do not come for the beauty of the game, for the romance of the football in England.

"They come because they want to make money. We need to defend that.

"If you have Manchester against Liverpool it is part of the population of the cities.

"But now if you have an owner from America against an owner from Russia, I don't like it."

Granted, this is a touchy subject for me, being an American and all, but come on.

There’s truth to some of the talk of ‘identity,’ but foreign owners are a symptom, not a cause of football (and really all sports) becoming a business.

And I’d much rather have Gillett and Hicks own Liverpool, than, say, Steve Morgan, Doug Ellis, David Sullivan/David Gold, or Ken Bates, just to name a few. Actions are what matters, not nationality.

Let’s see, in the space of around 6 months, they’ve spent a ton of money, including 2 of Liverpool’s 3 costliest transfers (but more importantly, supporting Benitez in the purchases he wanted to make), all the key players have been resigned to new contracts, and the previous new stadium design was torn up to fit more seats and take fans' views into account.

Besides, the times may have changed, but Shankly’s quote still holds weight. “At a football club, there's a holy trinity - the players, the manager and the supporters. Directors don't come into it. They are only there to sign the cheques.”

And despite my disgust at his naming clubs (even forgetting one of those clubs is Liverpool), and despite my much-discussed dislike of Platini, I’m infuriated at the fact he feels this falls under his brief, and that it’s something he should be commenting on.

How this guy became head of UEFA is beyond me. I can’t wait to see what he has to say about the details of his Champions League “plan” before the draw.

28 August 2007

Liverpool 4-0 Toulouse

Liverpool wins 5-0 on aggregate.

Arbeloa Hyypia Agger Riise
Benayoun Sissoko Mascherano Leto
Crouch Kuyt

Crouch 19’
Hyypia 49’
Kuyt 87’ 90’

Once Liverpool got the first goal today, the tie was probably over. But it should have been well and truly over by halftime; Toulouse was not good tonight. However, that was more than rectified after the break.

Crouch opened the scoring in the 19th minute, sticking out a long leg to make contact with Kuyt’s cross, his height the key to the goal. And then he missed 2 free headers, both easier chances than the one he scored. By halftime, Crouch could have had a hat trick, and Liverpool could have had 4 or 5, which is disconcerting, but Toulouse never looked liked getting one back, and Liverpool was truly cruising.

Thankfully, Hyypia knows how to head the ball. Sami’s header came from a corner (which is always warmly welcomed) soon after halftime, and was aided by some shocking defending. Oh, and he broke his nose 3 days ago. Players returning from broken noses have a habit of scoring for Liverpool; let’s not forget Crouchy’s performance against Arsenal last year.

Kuyt deservedly got in on the act in the 87th minute to make the scoreline more accurately represent the game. He cut in from the right, played a lovely one-two with Babel, and got off a narrow shot from close range, doing well to get the ball out from under his feet and fire a right-footed shot into the far corner. And with the match ending as a glorified training session, Kuyt got his second with the last kick of the game, chipping over the keeper after a delightfully weighted dinked throughball from Benayoun. 5 games in, and all four strikers are off the mark.

Benayoun, who’s unfortunately been in the media recently, was, along with Mascherano, the man of the match. He was best player in the first half, played a perfectly-timed assist for the 4th goal, and provided the corner for Hyypia’s goal (Liverpool scoring from corners?). This is what he needed to do: seize his opportunity and give Pennant a run for his money as the regular starter. He showed his excellent vision time and time again, made good runs around the box, linked up well with Arbeloa, and looked threatening coming in off the flank.

While this was probably one of the best games to deploy a Sissoko/Mascherano pairing, there are absolutely no complaints with the result, and they looked little like the pairing that struggled to create anything against Aston Villa last season. If Toulouse had presented more of a threat, Masch would have been my man of the match; he didn’t put a foot wrong and played the midfield anchor roll to a tee, despite not playing a lot for Liverpool recently after his busy summer.

Sissoko rarely put a foot wrong as well, and looked far more composed and confident following his goal on Saturday. Momo wasn’t happy to be subbed off for Lucas in the 69th minute, but the game was done and dusted, and it’s refreshing to see his desire to be on the pitch and play well.

And mention must be made of Arbeloa. He’s played great at either fullback position, he can get forward, he can dribble, and he can cross. He’s linked well with every winger he’s lined up with. And he cost £2.5m. Benitez has made some great buys, but it’s with little exaggeration that I say Arbeloa might be the best value for money.

It was good to see some of the young players get time today as well. Leto was a surprise starter, and while he was fairly innocuous for a lot of the match, he showed some good touches and a great work ethic, moments that showed why Benitez has such faith in him. It’s early days, but he looks an improvement over Gonzalez.

Coming on for Sissoko with about 20 minutes left, Lucas paired well with Mascherano, but at this point of the game, Toulouse offered very little competition. The most important thing is both of these players, and Babel coming on for Leto in the 75th minute, got more experience on the pitch, and played with different players than in their earlier appearances.

So that’s Champions League qualification assured, and it was assured with two of Liverpool’s most important players out injured and Alonso, Torres, and Pennant (with Finnan appearing late) also absent. Admittedly, Toulouse was dire, and got worse as the game went on, but Liverpool did score 4 goals, and created bucket loads more chances. How’s that for rotation?

The difference is Liverpool’s squad strength. From top to bottom, this is easily the best team that Benitez has had. The key players have had time to gel, and the summer purchases go a long way to curing some of last year’s problems (pace, goals, creativity, depth in attack). It’s hard to keep from getting carried away, because I can’t say it enough, Toulouse were outclassed from start to finish, Liverpool should have scored more, and Reina could have brought a lawn chair to today’s game. But even with the injuries and the rotation, Liverpool didn’t miss a step. Hopefully they’ll continue on this pace against Derby at Anfield on Saturday, who had to play a full 120 minutes in the Carling Cup today, only to lose on penalties to Blackpool.

The draw for the group stages takes place on Thursday.

27 August 2007

Liverpool v Toulouse 08.28.07

3:05pm EST on GolTV

Liverpool leads 1-0 on aggregate.

Last 3 matches:
Liverpool: 2-0 Sunderland (a); 1-1 Chelsea (h); 1-0 Toulouse (a)
Toulouse: 1-1 Nice (a); 1-3 Racing Strasbourg (h); 0-1 Liverpool (h)

Referee: Wolfgang Stark (GER)

Guess at a squad
Finnan Hyypia Agger Arbeloa
Benayoun Alonso Mascherano Riise
Crouch Kuyt

Gerrard and Carragher are assuredly ruled out thanks to a fractured toe and broken rib/collapsed lung respectively.

Hyypia has been declared available for Tuesday’s game, but with a broken nose and Carragher likely to miss more than just this week’s games, he may be held back. But everything I’ve seen since Saturday seems to reaffirm that he’ll start. I love the fact he’s so hard he got his nose set at halftime, and says he’s got no need to miss any further time. If Hyypia doesn’t play, the backline will probably be Finnan-Arbeloa-Agger-Riise.

With Mascherano not playing over the weekend, it seems a certainty he’ll start here. As said in the past, I’d hope he’s not paired with Sissoko, but with Momo’s performance over the weekend and the fact that Liverpool just needs to keep Toulouse from scoring, the combination is a better possibility than usual.

The same goes for Crouch, and possibly Benayoun, neither of whom even made the bench on Saturday. Even considering Benayoun’s agent’s statements, and how little action he’s seen so far. And with Pennant having started every league game, but not appearing in the last leg of the qualifiers, hopefully Yossi will get to play in his favored position on the right. And he’d do well to take advantage of his opportunities if what his agent says is true.

With Torres and Voronin both playing 90 minutes on Saturday, Crouch (who looks to be relegated to playing mainly in Europe, like Benayoun), and Kuyt should start. That pairing, which was pretty much 1st choice last year, should be enough for this match, but I’d hope Torres is on the bench if needed. The same goes for Babel, who can change a game with his speed when legs begin to tire.

If Riise starts in defense, I’d imagine Babel would start in midfield, and with Benayoun, could end up switching flanks and causing Toulouse problems. But he’s another who’s seen a lot of action so far this season (started or subbed on in all 4 games), and is probably better suited to come off the bench, as Liverpool will be trying to keep it tight for at least the first part of the match.

It’s easy to look past Toulouse given how well Liverpool’s played, the 1-0 win in France and Toulouse’s domestic struggles. But, and I know it's cliché, there are no easy games in the Champions League. And in the last few years, Liverpool’s made hard work of it at home in the qualifying stages. Liverpool needed a late Mark Gonzalez goal to win the home leg against Haifa last year. In 05/06 Liverpool lost to Sofia 0-1 at home after winning the away leg. The same happened in 04/05 to Grazer AK.

Toulouse will again look to stifle play and challenge Liverpool on the counter attack. They've still got injury problems in defense, but that didn't stop them from making Liverpool work hard for their lone goal in the last match. Striker Andre-Pierre Gignac is one of the few Toulouse players doing well domestically, scoring Toulouse’s two goals in the last two games, and he’s best doing it on the counter. Toulouse scores once, and the tie’s back to square one.

But Benitez will have his players, no matter who plays, well drilled for this match. And one goal from Liverpool will probably put the game out of reach. Now let's see it happen, and Champions League qualification (and all the delicious, delicious money that comes with it) clinched.

26 August 2007

Michel Platini still thinks the Champions League is too successful as it is

Averse as I am to agree with anything Alex Ferguson says, for once, he’s talking some sense.

Sir Alex Ferguson has come out strongly against Michel Platini's proposals to award Champions League qualification to the winners of the FA Cup and other domestic knockout tournaments around Europe, arguing that such a move would devalue the efforts of clubs fighting for places week after week in the leagues.

The Uefa president originally said he wanted to see fewer teams from the big European nations in the Champions League and more champions from smaller countries, though the various vested interests in the major leagues were never going to vote for such an idealistic scheme.

Platini's present plan is a watered-down version that would cut the number of Premier League qualifiers from four to three, with an extra place for the FA Cup winners. In view of the fact that the FA Cup has been a virtual monopoly of top-four clubs for the past decade, little would actually change and the status of the FA Cup could benefit, yet Ferguson believes a six-game route to Champions League riches is insultingly easy.

'I don't agree with it, the Champions League is for what you do in the league,' the Manchester United manager said. 'You can win the FA Cup, like Chelsea did last season, playing nobody up until the final. Or the semi-final at least. Does that warrant entry into the Champions League?

'We played Millwall in a final three years ago, and what a game that was for us. No disrespect to Millwall but I don't think a final like that should have Champions League qualification riding on it. It's totally ridiculous. Players who have battled through 38 league games don't deserve to see that. This is a tough league, and it will be tougher than ever this year.

'In fairness to Uefa they do normally listen to clubs and club managers' comments before making a decision, and there's a European coaches meeting next week. I'm sure coaches will be making their opinions known, and in my personal opinion this idea is absolutely ridiculous.’

Platini refuses give up on this. He’s going to change the Champions League come hell or high water, no matter how successful the tournament is.

And evidently making the 4th qualification spot for cup winners instead of the 4th placed team in the league is a valid compromise. Of course, it doesn’t do nearly as much to promote his stated aim of getting more teams from smaller countries further in the tournament, but that might be less of a concern now that he’s been elected.

From what the plan appears to be, cup winners will go through a separate qualification process, with 4 advancing, so 12 other teams will still have to play up to three games to qualify for the money-spinning group stages. There will just be more of those smaller-country teams in those qualifiers, and they won’t really have that much more of a chance of qualification.

Also, I was under the impression that Spanish and Italian cups are far less prestigious than the FA Cup. I imagine this suggestion will be taken about as well as Fergie took it in those two countries.

If you were wondering, the last time someone other than Liverpool, United, Chelsea, or Arsenal won the FA Cup was Everton (ugh) in 1995. So after all that, the 4th placed team would still get in, but they’d have to go through the silly separate two-round qualification for cup winners. Right.

Full details of the “plan” here.

Past diatribes about changing the Champions League:
Platini’s new proposals
Meet the new boss, same as the old boss?

25 August 2007

Liverpool 2-0 Sunderland

Finnan Carra Hyypia Arbeloa
Pennant Sissoko Alonso Babel
Voronin Torres

Sissoko 37’
Voronin 87’

Another 3 points, another good away win. And it’s even more heartening a win because of how hard Sunderland made Liverpool work for it.

After Voronin nearly got a goal before a minute was off the clock thanks to a lazy Sunderland back pass (and were only saved by Craig Gordon’s heroics, which set a tone for the day), the home side did very well to close down space and make the game frenetic for the first 35 minutes. Neither team looked settled, and changes had to be rung for both sides early on, with Agger coming on for Hyypia after 15 minutes because of a nosebleed, and Stokes on for Sunderland with Richardson off the pace.

But in the 37th minute, Momo Sissoko broke the deadlock. Yes, that Momo Sissoko, who scored his first goal for Liverpool, and who’s now the proud owner of Liverpool’s 7,000th goal. Every now and then, I’m forced to eat my words on this blog. Rarely am I so happy to do so. And it was a great goal too; Alonso’s long diagonal ball found Pennant, who headed it back to Voronin, who laid it off for Sissoko to beautifully hammer low into the corner.

After the goal, Liverpool looked a lot better, and Sunderland rarely got out of their own half for the final few minutes. In first half injury time, Torres had a chance to make it 2-0, but it was a difficult header to get off, and once again, Craig Gordon was there for the save.

As with both the Villa and Chelsea games, when Liverpool was unable to get the second goal, the opposition grew in stature and made it nervy at times. This wasn’t helped by an injury to Carragher in the 68th minute, when Reina put a knee in his midsection while punching the ball out. It took nearly 10 minutes to get Carragher off the pitch, and Liverpool was forced to adjust to both the starting center backs out. Chopra and Stokes played well, but Liverpool rarely looked like conceding a second, even if Sunderland saw a lot more possession and had chances to make something from set plays.

Liverpool seemed content to sit deeper, let the game come to them, and create opportunities on the counter. But unlike the last couple of seasons when Liverpool sat back, they still looked like getting a second and looked dangerous on the break. And Liverpool did create chances, even more than in the first half. Torres popped up on nearly every long ball, although his finishing wasn’t the best and Craig Gordon had an absolute stunner, making something like 7 saves. All too often, players seemed to shoot too close to the keeper, but Gordon has to be credited for his positioning and the saves he made.

Sunderland, on the other hand, even with increased possession, rarely carved out chances, and an equalizer would have been incredibly unfair. But it’s always a possibility when you can’t get the second goal.

However, that goal finally came in the 87th minute. On yet another counter attack, Babel brought the ball out of defense on the right, played a neat one-two with Pennant, and slid the ball over to Torres, who unselfishly found Voronin on the left. Voronin, who like Torres had earlier chances, made no mistake with the finish low to the far post, which Gordon got a touch to but couldn’t keep out.

That Liverpool was able to get a second puts more gloss on the performance, but I’m still happy with many of the players. Sissoko was the man of the match. There was the goal of course, and his usual hustling workrate, but he also was a lot more composed today (especially with his touch), and was a good outlet on the counter with his speed. Some of the game passed him by, with a lot of play bypassing the midfield, especially in the 2nd half, but in the first half, Momo was simply fantastic.

Along with Sissoko, Pennant was the other outstanding player. He routinely made himself a threat down the right, saw a lot of ball, and looked to both beat his man inside and get to the byline. There were moments where he lost possession in situations he shouldn’t, and he still needs to attack the goal more often, but there was a lot encouraging about his performance, and from how he’s played, it’s little surprise he’s cemented himself as a regular starter.

Torres looked very good at times, but his finishing left something to be desired. Gordon played well and had his number all day long, but Torres had four or five good opportunities, only to see Gordon make a save. One moment stood out, and shows how dangerous Torres can be. In the 51st minute, Torres got the ball in the middle of the pitch and burst through two defenders to have a one-on-one with the keeper, only for Gordon to make another save. But the potential was clearly there, and there will be times this season when Torres creates something out of absolutely nothing and jaws hit the floor.

Voronin also looked good partnering him, again showed his cleverness and strength (be very wary of playing back passes around him), and took the second goal very well. But too often he looked to be too clever, and the tricks didn’t come off. However, it’s still early days, and that trickery will come in handy when players begin to gel better.

Arbeloa also impressed, and is getting dangerously close to falling into the same ‘criminally underrated’ category that Finnan’s in. He’s becoming the first-choice left back, which he certainly wasn’t advertised as when he signed, and covered well in central defense after Carragher’s injury.

I was a bit disappointed by Babel, although I’m still pleased he started. This was a tough game for new players, and that was best exemplified by Babel and Torres’ performances. At times Babel was invisible, and despite some good touches was lacking in end product, but when all’s said and done, this will be good experience for the rest of the season.

Even though there were times where Liverpool should have done better, this is a very encouraging performance and a very encouraging result. 7 points from 3 games, including two tough away wins, is about as good as could be expected (although 9 points would have been a lot better).

There’s little more that could be asked for from this game, especially with how hard Sunderland made Liverpool work, which is a credit to Roy Keane. Another away win, another good team performance even with rotation and Gerrard missing. New players continued to get time and settle, and the much-discussed good start to the season is still on track. Hopefully, Carragher’s injury, the only blight on the day, isn’t too serious. Now to seal Champions League qualification on Tuesday, and continue the pace in the league home against Derby on Saturday.

24 August 2007

Liverpool at Sunderland 08.25.07

7:45 EST, live in the US on Setanta Sports.

Last 4 head-to-head:
2-0 Liverpool (a) 11.30.05
1-0 Liverpool (h) 08.20.05
2-1 Sunderland (a) 12.15.02
0-0 (h) 11.17.02

Last 3 matches:
Liverpool: 1-1 Chelsea (h); 1-0 Toulouse (a); 2-1 Villa (a)
Sunderland: 0-3 Wigan (a); 2-2 Birmingham (a); 1-0 Tottenham (h)

Goalscorers (league):
Liverpool: Gerrard, Torres 1
Sunderland: Chopra 2; John 1

Referee: Mark Halsey

Guess at a squad:
Finnan Carragher Agger Arbeloa
Pennant Mascherano Alonso Riise
Torres Crouch

With so many players having featured for their countries midweek, the big question is how much will it affect the team sheet. There’s also the second leg of the Champions League qualifier next Tuesday to take into consideration.

However, even considering the thick run of games both before and after this match, I’d still like to see as little rotation as possible. Liverpool used the exact same line-up against both Villa and Chelsea, which surprised a few people. I’d like to see similar continue, although with Gerrard’s injury, the international fixtures, and the upcoming games, some changes are inevitable.

I hope that Mascherano and Sissoko don’t play together in the middle (my aversion to the pairing is well-documented), but it seems quite likely that Gerrard will be rested due to his toe fracture, and Xabi did play for Spain on Wednesday (albeit as a sub). There’s a good chance Momo and Masch will be the starters, and on first glance and considering how physical Sunderland can be, using Sissoko doesn’t seem out of the question.

Is this really a game for Momo, though? On first glance it seems so, as it will be a tough, physical game, but it’s also a game where Liverpool needs to be a class above offensively to get that away goal against lesser opposition that’s been so difficult in the past. It’s games like Barcelona, where Sissoko can stop the other team from playing, that he’s so effective.

As it’s a tough away match-up where Liverpool will try to keep possession, I wouldn’t be surprised to see Crouch paired with Torres, although honestly, I wouldn’t be surprised to see any of the 4 strikers starting. In the three games so far, either Torres/Kuyt or Crouch/Voronin have started, and it seems like this is a game where Liverpool could experiment with one of the other partnerships.

Torres is quickly becoming one of the first names on the team sheet and has looked very good with Kuyt, but I would like to see how he does with Crouch. Sunderland’s defense isn’t in the best state, with Paul McShane most likely out injured, and skipper Dean Whitehead, who had filled in at right back previously, out for the next month. Although it’s worth noting that by the end of the Chelsea game, Torres did look very tired.

I could see Babel getting a start on the left, and had Benayoun’s agent not made some unwarranted comments to the media, he wouldn’t have been out of the question either. But Riise and Arbeloa seem to be the first choice pairing down the left, and either Babel or Benayoun would be useful as a substitution if Liverpool need someone to help unlock a cagey game later on.

Agger played the full 90 minutes for Denmark and Finnan played for over an hour for Ireland, but rotating the defense in the league should be avoided if it can be helped. I’m also pretty sure that Hyypia will once again play against Toulouse next Tuesday, and that he too played a full 90 minutes for his country probably cements his exclusion.

This is another one of those games that’s essential for title contenders to win, and that Liverpool had trouble with last season. Sunderland is a tough place to play, and will be all season. And they’ve looked a pretty decent team so far aside from the last game at Wigan. Michael Chopra is on pace to keep on scoring as he did in the Championship last year, Craig Gordon is an outstanding goalkeeper worth the record £9m paid for him (I don’t say that lightly), and this is a tight-knit and tough to beat unit. And ex-Manc Roy Keane will want to put one over on Liverpool at the first time of asking.

It’s imperative that Liverpool does well over the next couple of games before the upcoming international break. In the span of a week, Liverpool plays two promoted teams and the second leg of the Champions League qualifier. There’s an opportunity to get points on the board and qualification for the group stage assured, to continue the good start to the season, before players go off for a week of Euro 08 qualifiers.

I would also hope the team is still resentful over last week’s disgrace of a match thanks to Rob Styles. Let’s see them make Sunderland pay for it.

23 August 2007

Predictions 8/25-8/26

Not the best start to the season predictions-wise (surprise, surprise), but merrily and unencumbered we roll along.

Arsenal v Manchester City, 10:00am, FSC: This will be a better test as to how good City is than the derby was. Derbies are always closely fought, and while I don’t think Arsenal is a better all-around team than United, they’re in a better position to beat City, given United’s suspensions, injuries, and new players settling in. It’s worth noting that Lehmann’s out for the next couple of weeks due to an injury picked up yesterday, but given his recent miscues, that might be a good thing. The key will be Arsenal playing better at home than they did last season, which they really should. Plus, City’s due for a fall back to Earth. Arsenal 2-1
Chelsea v Portsmouth, 10:00am, Setanta: I sincerely hope Portsmouth can do as they did against Manchester United, especially given how furious I still am that Chelsea came away with a point last weekend, but I don’t think it’s very likely. That so many Chelsea players featured in internationals yesterday shouldn’t matter much, as at this point of the season, players should be fit enough for 2 games a week. Plus, this one’s at Stamford Bridge, where Chelsea’s unbeaten in something like 65 games. Chelsea 2-0
Aston Villa v Fulham, 10:00am, Setanta Xtra: It’s good news for Fulham that they’ve signed Kasey Keller today (further cementing them as America East), because Tony Warner’s cost Fulham points in both their outings, but I doubt that Keller will start here. And Villa should have enough to put goals past Warner. David Healy will be a handful, and given his CV, it’s not a huge surprise he’s kept scoring under Lawrie Sanchez, but Villa should still be too much. Although I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention that a draw isn’t out of the question, given how many matches these two teams tied last season. Villa 2-1
Bolton v Reading, 10:00am: With Bolton already propping up the table (the lone team without a win or draw), Sammy Lee needs points, and needs them badly to save his job. But with the way Reading’s playing, even considering this will be at the Reebok, I can’t see that happening. The Anelka and Diouf out rumors haven’t gone away, and it’s pretty clear something not right in Bolton’s camp. Meanwhile, Reading hasn’t looked like succumbing to a sophomore slump for one second. Reading 1-0
Derby v Birmingham, 10:00am: Two promoted teams, and two teams that have shown little so far to suggest they’ll be able to remain in the Premiership for a second season. Derby will want to make amends for their toothless performance last week against Spurs, while Birmingham’s failed to keep a clean sheet in three games, so I doubt this one will end 0-0, but a draw still seems the most likely result. 1-1
West Ham v Wigan, 10:00am: Wigan are 3rd in the table right now. That should say enough about how much the early season table means. Don’t get me wrong, I’m surprised and impressed they’ve picked up 6 points from 3 games when everyone (including myself) were talking about them as relegation candidates, but I feel very secure in saying they won’t finish in the top half. And much like the last two seasons, Wigan and West Ham will probably occupy similar positions in the table. In this match-up last season, the away team handily won both encounters. Mainly because of my antipathy towards West Ham, but partly because of Wigan’s good start, I’m thinking (hoping) that trend continues. Wigan 1-0
Everton v Blackburn, 12:15pm, FSC: Hmm. My desire for Blackburn to do better than expected this season, combined with my complete and utter disdain for Everton. The Toffees do look tough to beat this season, and when Yakubu joins, he should do well partnering Andy Johnson (although I had thought Anichebe and McFadden had done well), but my personal preferences just can’t let me pick an Everton win. Chances are that this one’s going to be eminently close and a rough game, so a draw’s the most probable outcome anyway. 1-1
Middlesbrough v Newcastle, 8:30am Sunday, Setanta: Hey, a Northeast derby. It doesn’t have the vehemence of a Newcastle/Sunderland game, but it’s close. I still don’t trust Boro; they didn’t deserve their win at Fulham last weekend, they will assuredly miss Yakubu’s goals, and they aren’t the best in defense (contender for understatement of the year). The way that Allardyce has Newcastle playing, the Geordies should be able to take advantage. Newcastle 2-1
Manchester United v Tottenham, 11:00am Sunday, FSC: Poor Spurs. They fought so hard to save face last week, getting 4 goals in a good performance against Derby, and now they’ve got to go to Old Trafford to face a United team that’s close to being backed into a corner. I said similar last week, but I still expect United to turn it around, even before Rooney and Ronaldo return. Goals will have to come from somewhere, but I’ve still seen nothing that makes me feel secure about Tottenham’s defense, especially since Paul Robinson’s started doing his best Calamity James impression. United 2-0

Liverpool is at Sunderland 7:45am Saturday on Setanta.

22 August 2007

Are you kidding me?

Benayoun's patience runs low

"If Yossi won't be involved enough we will think of moving to a medium-sized team," Benayoun's agent, Ronen Katzav, said in a radio interview in Israel. "When we first met with Rafa Benítez, he asked for a lot of patience since there is a huge squad at Liverpool.

"We don't analyse each match. Yossi has patience and motivation and he will get his chance. When you are taking a decision to move to Liverpool, you are prepared for all possibilities and Yossi decided to follow his heart. The target was to try and integrate in the team and I'm sure he will play a lot. Naturally, Yossi wants to be in the squad and knows he has a lot of work to do but if he won't play for a long period we will think again."

It has been 3 games. Three. Yossi started one against Toulouse, although I am a bit surprised he hasn’t made the bench for either Premier League game.

If Benayoun didn’t know what he was getting in to, that’s his own fault. Liverpool has been known for its rotation under Benitez, for better or worse, and that was always going to continue after the improvements made to the squad over the summer.

Yossi will get matches. Everyone in the Liverpool squad will have some part to play. Much like his start against Toulouse, I have to believe more of Benayoun’s opportunities will come in Europe. But those opportunities will come.

Benayoun always looked likely to be a squad player. To assume he’d be an ever-present starter is a fantasy. And now, a little over a month after Benayoun signed, his agent is in the news with this?

I laughed off Crouch’s supposed complaints, as it seemed out of character and Crouch knows how the team operates. But it’s hard to deny this as an actual temper-tantrum. And it’s maddening.

If I know Benitez and Liverpool, I doubt it will influence the manager very much. If anything, he’ll be more hesitant to use Benayoun, and in time, Yossi will get his wish to go. Rafa’s nothing if not ruthless, especially this year, with the debut of Evil Rafa and his goatee. I still believe Benayoun could be a boon to the squad, and has the talent to play regularly in this side, giving Liverpool more possibilities throughout midfield.

But the team comes first. And you have to earn your playing time, especially in this team. You don’t get on the field through your agent’s rants and threats in the papers.

21 August 2007

Recommended Reading

- There’s talk today about leaving 96 seats empty in Liverpool’s new stadium as a memorial to the Hillsborough victims. This is an incredibly laudable idea, but even better is Rushian’s (from RAWK) to give tickets for said 96 seats to different groups of school children from the area. Superb suggestion. Just superb.

- Luis Garcia is a classy, classy fellow

- Gabriel Heinze’s not coming. Sven’s got the details.

- Guillem Balague on Torres’ debut

- Ian Rush’s Liverpool Echo column on the Chelsea match and Torres

- Paletta’s finalized his loan to Boca Juniors over the weekend, which I had been unaware of (thanks, official site!).

England’s friendly against Germany (3pm EST) is delayed on FSC, and will be shown at 5pm. after the US’ friendly against Sweden, which starts at 2:30. Soccerlens has a preview of the Germany game.

If you have FSC, tomorrow will be a full day of international football.

Torres, Alonso, Reina, Crouch, Riise, Mascherano, Finnan, Hyypia, Voronin, Agger, Babel, and Kuyt have all been called up for the midweek international games.

Manchester United: 0-2-1

I’ve read an awful lot about Manchester United’s start to the season. 2 draws and a loss is surprising, to say the least. Even Ferguson’s started to worry in public, although the BBC headline “Ferguson fears for title defence” is probably stretching it.

Three games in still seems like a bit too soon, though.

Some past performances:

United (’92-93): LLD - 84pts, 1st place
United (’98-99): DDW - 79pts, 1st place (and treble)
Arsenal (’01-02): LLW - 87pts, 1st place
Liverpool (‘06-07): DWL - 68pts, 3rd place

Admittedly, the league is tougher to win these days. On average, between ’98-99 and ’02-03 84 points won the league. Between ’03-04 and ’06-07 it was 91.25. Seven points or so is certainly a difference, but it’s not an insurmountable one, especially if more teams are competitive this season, which looks possible after three games.

There are so many other factors to take into account (as I’ve discussed ad nauseum over the past year), but Liverpool got off to a “better” start over three games last season (4 points > 2!), and finished with a worse points total than anyone imagines United will.

So what does this mean? Not bloody much. Three games don’t determine the final standings, even if you get some indications, as there are still 35 to go. Right now, the indication is that United needs goals, which we know from last season they can produce in abundance. As much as I detest talking up United (and will have to shower after this), Rooney will get healthy, Ronaldo will return from his ban, and Tevez may settle in the team, among other things. I doubt Fergie has lost the plot (any more than usual), although it was hysterical to see the utter confusion on his face after starting to celebrate what could have been Tevez’s equalizer in the derby.

I’m a Liverpool fan; I know how important the first games of the season are. But after three games, it’s truly early days. While I’m enjoying every minute of United’s difficulties, there’s more than enough time for them to rectify their problems. Admittedly, they will have to before Rooney returns in early October, and Ronaldo still has two games left on his ban, but there is still time. It’s just strange to think that after three games, it could be running short.

Maybe in a month or two, if their problems continue, we can start writing obituaries, as was done for Liverpool last season, but not now.

United’s next four games are v Tottenham, v Sunderland, @ Everton, and v Chelsea.

20 August 2007

Small Consolation

Styles dropped by Premier League

Referees' chief Keith Hackett has confirmed that Rob Styles will not officiate in next weekend's Premier League matches after his performance in the game between Liverpool and Chelsea at Anfield yesterday.

Surprise, surprise. By the way, Styles still hasn’t made himself available for comment after refusing to talk to SkySports yesterday.

"Accountability exists and we do expect referees to get big decisions correct," said Hackett, general manager of Professional Game Match Officials Limited. "On this occasion it was wrong and therefore Rob will not be officiating next weekend."

The funny part is where Keith Hackett says accountability exists. If Styles is back after next week’s fixtures, that statement’s even more a laugh than it usually is coming out of a ref’s mouth.

I may still be too angry to make rational comments, but I have never seen a penalty decision so wrong, nor the amount of cover-up and general idiocy following the invisible 2nd yellow Essien supposedly saw. Criminal negligence isn’t fixed by a weekend-long holiday.

Referring is one of the hardest jobs in sports, but having to stand up for your decisions and to criticism comes with the territory. And Styles still hasn’t either apologized or explained his decision. Maybe he and Tim Donaghy can start a support group.

More ‘accountability’ please.

Mourinho running his mouth isn’t helping my sanity, either. The drugs he’s on must be fantastic.

19 August 2007

Liverpool 1-1 Chelsea

Finnan Carra Agger Arbeloa
Pennant Gerrard Alonso Riise
Kuyt Torres

Torres 16’
Lampard (pen) 62’

I don’t know what to say.

It was the Rob Styles show. And it didn’t benefit Liverpool one bit.

Styles committed the two cardinal sins of refereeing. He lost control and made himself the center of the attention. He will assuredly be the talking point. Yellow cards to Essien, Kuyt, Pennant, Gerrard, Ashley Cole, Carragher, Ben Haim, Lampard, and Terry, three of which came solely for dissent. A controversy over whether or not he showed Essien two yellows. Oh yeah, and that penalty.

It may be doing Chelsea an injustice to say Liverpool was bossing the game at that point, but everything was going according to Benitez’s plan. Liverpool got the early goal -- Torres in the 16th minute, beating Ben Haim for pace down the left and slotting in the far post on his Anfield debut after Gerrard’s lovely long ball. Liverpool soaked up Chelsea pressure, with Carragher, Agger, and Arbeloa all outstanding, and looked dangerous on the break, with Torres, Kuyt and Pennant all popping up and threatening. It was a tight game, with few chances, which isn’t out of the ordinary when these two teams meet, but it was played at a much quicker pace, and it’s no exaggeration to say that Liverpool was the better team.

And then, in the 61st minute, it all went downhill. Malouda and Finnan came together on a 50/50 ball in the box, and Styles blew the whistle. Players had played on, no appeals had come from the either the Chelsea players or bench, and the commentators were utterly clueless as to what had happened until it became clear Styles was pointing to the spot. And then Jamie Carragher went ballistic. If you had thought the decision against Carragher in the Villa game was unfair, this was in another universe.

Lampard stepped up and put it past Reina, who went the wrong way for the second straight game. The next 10 minutes were all over the place, as 3 Chelsea players were booked (as well as the Essien incident; it sure looked like Styles gave him a second yellow, as he had already shown Terry the yellow moments before), and no one could keep possession. Liverpool brought on Babel in the 68th (for Pennant) and Crouch in the 84th (for Riise), and Riise, Kuyt, and Babel has chances to carve out the winner, but nothing came to pass. No heroics like last time.

Look, I don’t like complaining about the officials. Football is unfair sometimes. But I am literally sick to my stomach right now. That was 2 points that Liverpool were cheated out of, and I don’t use that word lightly. If Rob Styles is still a match official in the Premiership come the next set of fixtures, something is clearly wrong. And at the very least, I hope that he doesn’t come near a Liverpool game again.

It’s hard to focus on anything other than the ref’s performance, or take positives away from such a disappointing and undeserved draw, but there were positives to take. Torres looks electric, scored a great goal, and showed a lot of promise in linking up with Kuyt and Pennant, especially on the counter. The defense was outstanding, every single player. Drogba had few sights on goal, Kalou was taken off at halftime, and not counting the penalty, Chelsea had 1 shot on target. One. I can’t say enough about how good of a partnership Carragher and Agger have. Riise did a lot better against Essien than against Villa last week, and he and Arbeloa kept Wright-Phillips and Essien under wraps down the flank. Gerrard, despite the injury, again looked good in central midfield, especially with his range of passing, best demonstrated by the long ball to set up the goal.

A draw isn’t even the worst result. It’s still a point gained against one of the big 4, even if Liverpool beat Chelsea in the corresponding fixture last season (Chelsea is far healthier now than they were in that game). But to get a draw in that way is an absolute kick to the midsection. I hate to sound like Mourinho, but Liverpool should have won. They were the better team, they had the better opportunities, and they had more of the possession. I truly don’t believe a second goal was coming from either team. That was 3 points, and the morale boost that comes with it, against Chelsea, in the first meeting of big 4 teams, and they were unfairly snatched away. And they may well be points that Liverpool comes to miss.

Hopefully the team comes away from this match with a chip on their shoulders. They do look much improved over last year’s unit, and it’s still early days in the season with new players still to fully settle. This does nothing to change my opinion over whether or not Liverpool can contend for the title (short answer, as you may know: probably). It’s too bad that players are going away for a short international break before this weekend’s game against Sunderland, where hopefully they’ll take out the frustration that’s built up.

17 August 2007

Liverpool v Chelsea 08.19.07

11am EST, live in the US on FSC.

Last 4 head-to-head:
1-0 Liverpool (h; CL) 05.01.07
0-1 Chelsea (a; CL) 04.25.07
2-0 Liverpool (h) 01.20.07
0-1 Chelsea (a) 09.27.06

Last matches:
Liverpool: 1-0 Toulouse (a); 2-1 Villa (a)
Chelsea: 2-1 Reading (a); 3-2 Brum (h)

Referee: Rob Styles

Guess at a squad:
Finnan Carragher Agger Riise
Pennant Gerrard Mascherano Benayoun
Torres Kuyt

So the big news going into Sunday is the injury suffered by Gerrard against Toulouse. Evidently, he’s got a hairline fracture in his toe. It shouldn’t preclude him playing against Chelsea, but it’s something to keep an eye on. He may struggle, he may not be as dynamic, and if all goes according to plan and Liverpool’s doing well, he may be subbed out as early as possible. Although I do find it fairly funny that Rafa’s willing to risk him here, so long as he doesn’t play for England over the international break.

What the midfield will look like will mainly come down to whether or not Gerrard stays in the center. I’m inclined to think he will. Pennant’s played well against Chelsea, enjoys going up against Ashley Cole, scored his lone goal of last season in the match at Anfield, and was rested against Toulouse. But Rafa may use Gerrard on the right in an attempt keep Liverpool more defensively sound in midfield.

If Gerrard’s on the right, it will probably be Mascherano and Alonso in the center, and it’s hard to argue leaving either of them out. But I reckon only one of the two will play. Alonso’s composure and ability to spray passes around the field versus Mascherano’s defensive awareness and engine. I don’t know if Essien’s fit to play, but even if he doesn’t, I think the edge has got to go to Mascherano, who will be better able to keep Chelsea from doing damage through the middle.

Benitez rarely uses two out and out wingers. But I’m still choosing that line-up here. In the past, if Riise’s started on the left, Pennant’s played on the right, and last season, when Gerrard played on the right, Garcia was on the left if healthy. But if Liverpool really are going to be more of an attacking team, which is needed at home against a Chelsea team that’s struggled defensively over the past two games, I think two out and out wingers are needed.

I can’t see Arbeloa starting over Riise again. Riise’s scored some lovely goals against Chelsea, and always seems to give them problems. But in the same vein as picking Pennant, I’m hoping that Liverpool will have a more dangerous attacker like Benayoun or Babel on the left flank with Riise in defense, as Liverpool’s at home and Chelsea’s not been the strongest in defense.

Admittedly, Babel was better as a sub than when he started against Toulouse, but that may be where Benayoun comes in. We saw both he and Pennant switch flanks at will during preseason, even though both prefer to play on the right. Chelsea has consistently had problems at right back – it’s why Alves’ name has been mooted so often during the transfer window (as an aside, isn’t it fun negotiating with Del Nido?). Villa’s weak spot was also at right back, but Riise was rarely able to beat Craig Gardner and get a cross in. Benayoun and/or Pennant (depending which is on the left at that time, as I’d imagine they’d switch flanks at will) should both be able to beat their man and get to the byline to put a ball into the box.

And again, I’m guessing we’ll see Torres and Kuyt start up top. I do believe they’ll end up being the preferred pairing, but the Toulouse game did throw some doubt in my mind, especially when Voronin was subbed out. Every time Voronin’s played he’s earned plaudits, and that he was subbed out made me wonder if Benitez had an eye to using him on Sunday. But I do believe that Torres will play (it’s awfully hard to leave a £20m+ striker on the bench against Chelsea), and I doubt Benitez would use two new strikers in a game like this.

Playing Chelsea has turned into quite the rivalry, and Liverpool’s started to even out the gap between the teams. Liverpool’s won the last two meetings against Chelsea at home, including the first league win over Mourinho in January last season. The only differences between this proposed line-up and the one that beat Chelsea in the CL semi-finals is Torres in for Crouch and Benayoun in for Zenden, both of which are unquestionable upgrades.

Despite Chelsea’s defensive liabilities, they’ve started the season well: 6 points out of the two games, despite the injuries they’ve suffered. Playing Chelsea is never, ever a walk in the park. But Liverpool’s got the talent to take advantage, and there could be worse times to play Chelsea. It won’t hurt that this is Liverpool’s home opener, and the boys should be raring to go. Although it’s a league game in August, it still feels like a late-season six-pointer, and the game will go a long way in demonstrating how good Liverpool can be this season. While a game in August is never the end of the world, the morale boost from a win here would be immeasurable.

Roll on Liverpool.

16 August 2007

Predictions 8/18-8/19

It seems like every other post is either predictions or a Liverpool preview or review. My apologies, but the games are coming fast and thick. I know I need to diversify, but yeah, preview of Sunday’s game against Chelsea up tomorrow.

Portsmouth v Bolton, 7:45am, Setanta: It was a superb Benjani header and point won against United, Fratton Park is always a tough place to play, and it seems like I’ve bashed Bolton at every opportunity (who haven’t looked good), but I’m going against the grain (and probably my better judgment) in thinking that this game’s going to be one of those low-key cagey early morning 0-0 draws. Neither team has been shut out or kept a clean sheet in their two games, but I haven’t been all that impressed with Portsmouth’s new attacking signings (although Benjani somehow turned prolific) and despite losing Allardyce, Bolton’s has to still have some tough, ugly football in them somewhere (and has to show it soon). 0-0
Reading v Everton, 10am, FSC: Game of the day. Everton, of all teams, tops the table (although after two games that means very little), while Reading’s done well against United and Chelsea, even though they’ve only picked up a point. The absence of Kitson and Cisse due to successive red cards won’t help, but Reading is strong enough in defense to shut down Everton’s scarily (and surprisingly) prolific attack at the Majeski. Arteta will have to be marked tightly though. This one really could go either way, and when I’m this uncertain, I’m going to take the easy way out. 1-1
Tottenham v Derby, 10am, Setanta: No offense meant to Derby (okay, not much meant), but if Tottenham doesn’t pick up their first win of the season here, something’s really wrong. Problems have been compounded by injuries to Berbatov and Kaboul, in addition to the defenders already missing (Dawson, King). However, the absence of Berbatov may actually solve some of the problems caused by having three strikers that need to be on the field, although I don’t know how good a Bent/Keane pairing is going to be. Still, Tottenham has to be favored to win here. If they don’t, we’re going to start hearing some “Jol out” talk, even though it’s far too early for that step. Tottenham 2-0
Birmingham v West Ham, 10am, Setanta Xtra: I don’t fancy West Ham to do much at all this season. They were completely at sea against City a week ago, and I doubt the new players have settled much more since. Birmingham’s scored two goals in their past two games, but their defense hasn’t been anything to write home about. The safe pick’s probably a 1-1 draw, and Ashton’s return to fitness should certainly help West Ham, but I like Birmingham to continue the Hammers’ troubles. Brum 1-0
Fulham v Middlesbrough, 10am: Yikes, Boro on the road. Fulham was 10 minutes away from beating Arsenal at the Emirates and did well to score 2 goals in awful conditions against Bolton. Also, David Healy, who Laurie Sanchez is well familiar with, has scored in both. Boro already misses Mark Viduka’s goals, and I don’t know if new signing Mido is going remedy that. Fulham 1-0
Wigan v Sunderland, 10am: Wigan may have scrapped a home win against Boro on Wednesday, but the way Sunderland’s playing, Wigan will have to be better to at least earn a draw at the JJB. And I don’t know if they’ll be able to break down Roy Keane’s resilient side the way they’ve played. Although I will say that Jason Koumas looked good in Wigan’s midfield on Saturday. Also, so far, I look very foolish for doubting Michael Chopra, who’s got two in two games. Sunderland 2-1
Newcastle v Aston Villa, 12:15pm, FSC: This should be a better demonstration of Newcastle’s progression than their first game against Bolton, as Villa will be tougher opposition. This game will be won in midfield, specifically in whether or not Newcastle will be strong enough to take the game to Villa’s 3-man midfield, as they did against Bolton. Also, Owen may be slowly returning to fitness, but Obafemi Martins is going to be exceptionally important for Newcastle, and I like him to continue scoring. Newcastle 2-1

Manchester City v Manchester United, 8:30am, Setanta: City’s going to be a hot pick with their two wins to start the season coupled with United’s two draws and being without Rooney and Ronaldo. I still can’t see it; it’s City versus United. Both teams will be well up for it, but even with City’s new boys and newfound ability to score goals at home, I still fancy United to take all the points. Dunne is a fantastic defender, Kasper Schmeichel’s been doing his best impression of his father, and Tevez is United’s lone fit striker, but you can’t discount the attacking ability still in United’s team. Tevez, Scholes, Giggs, Nani, and Carrick all have goals in them, and for the second straight week, Ferguson’s probably done nothing but scream at them. Someone’s going to have to keep an eye on Elano, though. United 2-1
Blackburn v Arsenal, 10am: I fancy Blackburn to compete for a European place this season, and so far Roque Santa Cruz has looked excellent, but despite putting one over on them in the FA Cup last season, Blackburn hasn’t faired well against Arsenal in recent league outings (they were outscored 8-2 last season). Arsenal also looked good steadily growing into a tough game at Sparta Prague on Wednesday. If Toure and Gallas can keep Santa Cruz and Derbyshire under wraps, Arsenal should win here, even away from home. Arsenal 2-0

15 August 2007

Liverpool 1-0 Toulouse

Finnan Carragher Hyypia Arbeloa
Babel Gerrard Mascherano Benayoun
Voronin Crouch

59’ – Riise for Benayoun
65’ – Sissoko for Gerrard
78’ – Torres for Voronin

Voronin 43’

With the line-up set out coupled with the pre-match comments from Benitez, it appeared we were going to see a more attacking Liverpool. Don’t get me wrong; Liverpool got a very nice and much needed away goal, was never going to completely dominate on the road, and it was so hot that Carragher wore short sleeves. But all in all, it was similar to how Liverpool’s played in the past, especially in Europe: the better team with more possession, but patient, cautious, and content to soak up Toulouse’s attacks after getting the crucial first goal.

It wasn’t the best of games to watch (to put it nicely), but it is job done, and there can be very few complaints about that, especially in the conditions. It was, however, a superb goal by Voronin.

Again I was impressed with Liverpool’s new #10. He worked hard as usual, showed good strength in holding off defenders, and what a goal it was. With halftime approaching and Liverpool unable to make the breakthrough despite an advantage in possession, Finnan’s long ball found Crouch, who flicked it on nicely. Voronin controlled beautifully with his chest, turned, and unleashed a rising shot from 25 yards that the keeper had no chance on. And credit to Gerrard for his run to pull the defender away from Voronin and allow him the space to take a stride and unleash his shot.

After the goal, Liverpool seemed content to slow the pace further and soak up Toulouse pressure. Emana had a snatched chance at an overhead kick right before the break, and the home side came out for the second half stronger, although they rarely looked like equalizing. For the first 20 minutes or so after halftime Toulouse attacked more often than throughout the rest of the game, but in the end, Reina only had one challenging save to make, from Elmander’s header after a lovely Mathieu cross, which he did with aplomb.

Liverpool had more chances on the counter in the closing stages of the game, and the fresh legs of Riise, Sissoko and Torres helped ease the pressure, but, as Toulouse rarely looked like equalizing, the second goal didn’t really seem to be coming. Crouch, who didn’t have the best game, could have done more, and Torres had a good opportunity on the counter after making space but instead chose to try and set up Sissoko, only to see the pass intercepted. Still, a one-goal advantage will be hard work for Toulouse to overcome at Anfield.

The aforementioned Voronin and Mascherano vied for man of the match in my mind. And while Voronin’s goal will be the lasting memory of the game, Mascherano was better on the whole. He didn’t have the quickest start, which wasn’t that surprising given his busy summer and lack of time in preseason, but grew into the game excellently. He was his usual impressive self in the tackle, but what stood out was the way he looked to run with the ball and get forward when the opportunity presented itself, which hopefully is an added dimension gained at the Copa America, where he scored twice. Hyypia, who will always be dominant in the air no matter his age, and Arbeloa are also due a mention for their solid defending, but no one in defense did themselves any injustice today, even if Toulouse didn’t present the biggest threat.

None of the other new players excelled, but neither did they have poor games. Benayoun and Babel again showed their versatility in switching flanks. Yossi worked hard and popped up all over the pitch when he was on, but was subbed out before the hour mark to bring on Riise to further solidify the defense. Babel was nowhere near as effective as he was against Villa, but he was helped on that occasion by appearing as a sub. He did show some glimpses though, like in the preseason; one moment sticks out in the mind when he had the ball on the left in the first half. I was getting ready to shout at the television for a cross when he put his head down and beat his man beautifully leading to a Gerrard shot fired wide. Torres came on as a late sub, and showed good movement in providing an outlet up top to eat up the clock, but he never really got into the flow of the game.

So while it wasn’t the greatest spectacle, I’m happy with the outcome. A second goal would have been nice, but bringing an away goal lead to Anfield should be enough. My main worry is when Sissoko came on Gerrard went straight down the tunnel. Hopefully he was just being rested with the Chelsea match in mind, but the last thing Liverpool needs is an injury to the captain. I may just be reading too much into it though.

After all the talk, Liverpool’s started the season with two wins from two away games. They may not have been flawless performances, but a win’s a win, especially at this stage of the season. And it puts Liverpool in a good position to continue this trend going into the game against Chelsea on Sunday.

14 August 2007

Liverpool at Toulouse 08.15.07

10:30am EST. Don’t think it’s on TV in the US. GolTV might air it; it’s listed on their main page, but not in their schedule nor on SoccerTV.com. Come on dodgy internet streams…

Last matches:
Liverpool: 2-1 Villa (a)
Toulouse: 1-0 Lyon (h), 1-3 Valenciennes (a)

Referee: Kyros Vassaras (GRE)

You may remember Vassaras from Liverpool’s match in Barcelona last season.

Guess at a squad
Finnan Carra Agger Riise
Benayoun Gerrard Mascherano Kewell
Crouch Voronin

Well, now the media will get their opportunity to shout from the rooftops about rotation. I’ve little doubt that the main players left out of the Villa game will play here. That should mean starts for Crouch, Mascherano, and Kewell (if he’s actually fit), and a first-team debut (obviously, I’m not counting preseason) for Benayoun. There’s also the matter of the game 4 days later.

Even though Crouch sometimes has troubles in Europe, as referees consistently call fouls against him solely because of his height, I have to believe he’ll start here. Toulouse would struggle to match him in the air at full strength, which they aren't at. According to Paul Doyle, their two starting center backs are out injured, and one of their replacements, Herita Ilungua, is suspended. Whether or not Crouch is paired with Torres or Voronin remains to be seen, but it seems more likely that Rafa will go with his “second choice” pairing. I certainly wouldn’t mind seeing more of Torres, however.

I debated Gerrard’s inclusion here as well, mainly because of the importance of Sunday’s game against Chelsea. As Sissoko was left on the bench for almost all of the Villa match, he may well start here, but since I think that Mascherano will play, I’m hoping that Momo won’t. Liverpool has the quality to take the game to Toulouse with pretty much any line-up, but I still think Sissoko and Mascherano to be too defensive a pairing, especially for a game like this where Liverpool should dominate possession and play. Also, even with Chelsea coming up, it seems a bit early to talk about resting Gerrard for certain games. Yes, Liverpool should win here, and yes, Sunday’s game means more, as I think most fans’ focus is on the league, but this won’t be a walk.

I’m anticipating a similar defense to that which lined up at Villa, rotation be damned. No matter who starts in midfield, I imagine Riise will shift to left back in place of Arbeloa. Riise played in left midfield against Villa because Benitez wanted to keep it tight in an early season away league match. I doubt that will be the case against Toulouse; Kewell, Babel, or Benayoun should be able to do enough defensively to merit a start. Also, there’s a chance that Arbeloa could move over to right back; he featured in most of the CL games after he signed, and as much as it hurts me to say, Finnan was nowhere near his best on Saturday. But when in doubt, I’m going with Liverpool’s usual defense.

Toulouse lost their first game to newly promoted Valenciennes 3-1, but beat Lyon 1-0 on Saturday. In fairness to Lyon, they played with 10 men for an hour, but the win underscores the fact that Toulouse can be a threat. There’s a good review of the match at the Offside’s Lyon blog. Johan Elmander, the Toulouse player frequently singled out, scored the lone goal (naturally). The Swedish striker was highly regarded as an under-21 player, but did little else of note until scoring 11 last season, leading Toulouse to 3rd. But now he’s one of the most sought-after strikers in France. Elmander will be joined up front by 21-year-old Andre-Pierre Gignac, who’s good enough to have started a furor this summer when he backtracked on a transfer to Lille to join Toulouse.

I keep repeating it, but even with the importance of (and revenue from) the Champions League, I still consider an August game against Chelsea more important. Plus, although it’s worrisome when I’m confident prior to games, as it usually portends ominously, I can’t see Toulouse posing many problems. Yes, Elmander is a quick striker who could hurt Liverpool on the counter and he gave Agger problems the last time Sweden played Denmark. As this is Toulouse’s first time in the Champions League, they’ll be raring to go in front of the home fans. And yes, favored teams always have to protect against complacency. But I also don’t think Toulouse is as good as their 3rd place finish last season suggests.

Even with the aforementioned rotation, Liverpool still has a very strong side. It’s a credit to Benitez and the purchases made over the summer, and the last couple of seasons. Also, there’s no disputing that Benitez knows European competition. And honestly, from top to bottom, Liverpool is a better team, no mincing words.

An away win will take a lot of the pressure off the home match at Anfield on the 28th, which will come after an international break (England plays a friendly against Germany on the 22nd) and a match at Sunderland. Plus, it’ll build on the win against Villa, and continue the necessary and oft-mentioned strong start to the season going into (wait for it…) the match on Sunday.

Roll on Liverpool.

13 August 2007

Predictions 8/14-4/15

Not the best of starts to the weekly predictions, but not completely out of the ordinary either. I’ve got a readymade excuse in that it was the first week of the season, but honestly, it’ll probably continue on a similar course for the rest of the year.

Tottenham v Everton. 2:45pm, Setanta: Tottenham was not good on Saturday. Their flank play was abhorrent, they didn’t get as much penetration from Berbatov and the other strikers as last season, and all and all, they showed little that would suggest they can challenge for fourth. But Spurs are notorious late-starters. And despite Everton’s win against Wigan, I refuse to pick them away from home. At least at this stage of the season, where I can still convince myself they’ll end up having a poor year. Spurs 2-1

Portsmouth v Manchester United, 2:45pm, Setanta: With Rooney out for the near future, Tevez has to be in line for a start here. And it’ll be interesting to see how he fits. He’s assuredly a class player, but he’s only been training with United for a week. That said, every United player will undoubtedly be raring to go after being screamed at by Ferguson non-stop for the past few days because of their inability to score in their home opener. United 3-1
Manchester City v Derby, 2:45pm, Setanta Xtra: Here’s where I apologize. Kind of. Manchester City played miles better than I thought they would, although in my defense, West Ham was utterly awful. I’ll continue to take shots at Eriksson as it’s a favorite pastime of mine, but I might be a bit more reserved about it. Derby channeled Watford’s resolve and scrapped their way to a draw against Portsmouth at home as well. Both teams were much better than I gave them credit for. City specifically looked impressive (yes, I’m stunned), although I’m still not sold, and the Manchester derby will tell us a lot more. I am curious to see if trends continue, and how much better they’ll be in front of goal at home than they were last season. City 2-0
Reading v Chelsea, 3pm. FSC: I doubt that Chelsea will be as weak defensively as they were on Sunday, even with Terry still out. However, if they are, Reading are able to take advantage. Steve Coppell’s teams rarely sit 10 men behind the ball as they did against United; like Coppell was as a player, Reading is best playing an attacking game. But Reading proved they can play a defensive style as well as they can offensively. Still, I can’t bet against Chelsea this early in the season, no matter how much I’d like to, especially ahead of this weekend’s match. Chelsea 2-1
Birmingham v Sunderland, 2:45pm: Both of these promoted teams played well over the weekend. Birmingham’s defense was shaky, but they were still able to put two past Chelsea, which is no easy task. Meanwhile, Sunderland showed great fortitude in keeping Tottenham at bay before a last second winner. If this game was in Sunderland, I’d have no qualms about guessing they’ll pick up 3 points, but I can’t see that happening in Birmingham’s home opener. 1-1
Fulham v Bolton, 2:45pm: Poor Little Sam, it’s going to be a long season. Kevin Davies is out for the next six weeks while el-Hadji Diouf is already asking for a transfer if he doesn’t start games. Newcastle was able to put three past them at the Reebok, and I can’t ever remember happening at home under Allardyce. Pity too, because Lee's a Liverpool legend, but if I was a betting man, he’d be my candidate for first to be sacked. Fulham 1-0
Wigan v Middlesbrough. 3pm: Yawn. I rarely if ever predict Middlesbrough to pick up points away from the Riverside, but I saw nothing on Saturday that led to be believe that Wigan will be able to stay out of the relegation fight. Boro 1-0

Preview of Liverpool's Wednesday CL qualifier at Toulouse tomorrow morning.

11 August 2007

Liverpool 2-1 Aston Villa

Finnan Carragher Agger Arbeloa
Pennant Gerrard Alonso Riise
Kuyt Torres

74’ - Babel for Pennant
80’ - Voronin for Torres
90’ - Sissoko for Kuyt

Laursen (OG) 30’
Barry (pen) 85’
Gerrard 87’

Besides win on the road, something Liverpool infrequently did last season was win games at the death. Which is why today’s game was so encouraging. Liverpool won the first game of the season, away from Anfield, and it was with a stunner of a free kick by Gerrard in the 87th minute, after it looked like Villa would undeservedly snatch a point thanks to an incidental handball in the box by Carragher only minutes earlier.

Unsurprisingly for the first fixture of the year, the game started slowly. But after a quarter of an hour, Liverpool started to click, and started to grow in stature. Torres and Kuyt were linking up well, creating space for each other with their runs, and looked to bring Gerrard and the wingers into the mix.

After 30 minutes came the break-through. Torres was through on goal, and probably should have scored but for a save by Stuart Taylor. It looked as if the ball was going to trickle out, but Kuyt, working his socks off as usual, got to it just before it crossed the byline, and Laursen put Kuyt’s chipped cross into his own net.

Liverpool stayed on top for the next 10 or so minutes, but by halftime, Villa had steadied the ship. And honestly, they came out the better team in the second half and continued the pressure. For the most part, Liverpool soaked up their attacks and had chances on the counter, but it was the home team who dictated the pace in the second half. Villa are no mugs, and that’s the reason I’m so pleased with today’s victory.

For a while there, it was a bit shaky. And at times in the second half, it did look like last year. The defense bent under Villa pressure but didn’t break until the penalty, but Villa should have never gotten the opportunity to make it 1-1. But, and excuse the pun, that’s the way the ball bounces sometimes. This time, it bounced up and hit Carra on the arm with no one pressuring him, and Barry stepped up and sent Reina the wrong way with his penalty.

Gerrard was my man of the match before his free kick (although Kuyt gave him a run for his money), but that certainly sealed the deal. Last year, this game would have ended 1-1. I’m absolutely certain of that. But given one opportunity, on a free kick Gerrard himself earned with a surge forward, Liverpool took advantage, and comes away with all 3 points. And what a free kick it was. Somewhere, David Beckham is very, very jealous.

While I’m very pleased with Gerrard’s all-around performance – his energy and intensity, his attempts at driving into the box, his passing, and his overall vision – there’s a little nagging voice that wonders why we rarely saw him play so wholeheartedly last season. Don’t get me wrong, I’m thrilled with the outcome, but it’s odd to see his morale seemingly so much better today than it was for a lot of the time last season. Long may it continue.

I was also pleased with the performances of the new boys. Torres, as said earlier, had a good understanding with Kuyt, showed he’s got the strength and touch to compete in the Premiership, showed his creativity, created opportunities out of nothing, and probably should have scored. Babel looked very dangerous for the 20 minutes or so he was on, had two good shots at goal, and was lightning quick, but at that point, Liverpool was attacking on the counter and Villa was sending men forward in droves, both of which played to Babel’s strengths. Voronin didn’t have much to do, with Villa attacking for the majority of the time he was on, but like Kuyt, he showed a willingness to work hard, chase down balls, and pressure defenders from the top, which was what was required in that situation.

Yes, there were annoyances today, aside from the fact Liverpool couldn’t get a second goal while dominant and Villa was able to get back into the game. I wasn’t pleased with the performance on either wing. Pennant, while showing flashes of talent on the right, was at his petulant worst, although in his defense, he was ridden all game by both Villa players and fans because of his Birmingham connection. Riise provided little width on the left as well. And the defense seemed unsteady at times, even if Liverpool were hard done by Villa's goal. But those problems are remediable, and are easy to forget with the good feelings this win inspires.

I can’t emphasize enough my belief that this would have ended in a draw in the past few seasons. It’s trivial to say, but these are games that title contenders win. Last year, both United and Chelsea were lauded for being able to snatch a victory in the last few minutes. If Liverpool has added that dimension to their game, it’ll help immensely.

This is the toughest game any of the “big four” will play this weekend. Villa is a good team, and look like they’ve improved in every area since last season. So not only has Liverpool come away with all 3 points from a difficult away fixture, they’ve done so in such a manner that it has to be a morale boost. Let’s hope it also sets the tone for the rest of the season.

Toulouse on Wednesday.

10 August 2007

Liverpool at Aston Villa 08.11.07

12:15pm, live in the US on FSC

Last 4 meetings:
0-0 (a) 03.18.07
3-1 Liverpool (h) 10.28.06
3-1 Liverpool (h) 04.29.06
2-0 Liverpool (a) 11.05.05

Referee: Steve Bennett

Guess at a squad:
Finnan Carragher Agger Riise
Pennant Gerrard Alonso Kewell
Torres Kuyt

Well, let’s hope this goes better than at Aston Villa last season. Because that’s all I could think of while brainstorming this preview. And Liverpool usually does well against Villa.

There were some bad losses last season, but the draw at Villa in March was near the top of the list of games that almost gave me an aneurysm. Liverpool was lackadaisical, unimaginative, tentative and sloppy, Sissoko and Mascherano started together in central midfield, which limited Liverpool’s chances offensively, and in totality it was frustrating to the nth degree, especially given where Liverpool was at that stage of the season. All the much-analyzed away form problems that Liverpool needs to overcome were on display.

Naturally, on a related note, I’m expecting to see a fairly attacking line-up tomorrow. First and foremost, I’m expecting to see Gerrard play in the center, probably with Alonso. Pennant’s progress on the right will allow Stevie to see more time in the center, and while I’ll continue to defend Gerrard being used on the flank at times (I promise, it’ll happen), Stevie will be happier and more influential coming through the middle, and I expect to see it show in his goal tally.

Also, Mascherano only recently returned from the Copa America, and didn’t start any of the preseason games, while there’s a time and place for Sissoko, and I don’t think it’s a game like this. Honestly, I think he’d lose possession too often, especially in the final third, as Liverpool should dominate the time on the ball, and his effective hassling, tackling, and overall destruction in midfield won’t be as important as it would be against different opposition.

Tomorrow should also be the first sight of Torres and Kuyt in the league, which I reckon will end up being the primary pairing. Obviously, there will be rotation -- Crouch, Voronin, and Babel will all assuredly get time up front -- but I think these two have the potential to do the most damage.

An interview on the official site with Kuyt earlier this week said a lot, but the part that stood out was “Fernando likes to come deeper for the ball, so if I play alongside him there's the chance for me to play higher up the park, which I enjoy. That's more how I was used to playing with Feyenoord.” Not to toot my own horn, but this is how I’ve been hoping it will go, and why I’ve taken a flier on Kuyt as my top scorer for the season. He works his ass off, but isn’t effective enough as a link-up striker with his pace, passing, and first touch at times. However, combined with Torres, he should have more opportunities to get into the box, and should have more space, as Torres will draw defenders away from him.

I also would like to see Kewell start, as Babel isn’t ready to take over on the left (or right, for that matter). There’s a distinct possibility Benayoun could play on the left with Pennant on the right; we saw that a fair amount during preseason, and both players are able to switch flanks during the course of the game, which Benitez looks likely to utilize more often. But Kewell is more of an out-and-out left midfielder than Benayoun is, can also switch flanks, and if he’s fit (admittedly, seemingly always a question), I’d rather see him feature. If Liverpool struggles to break down Villa, then Benayoun or Babel will be available to come on, but Kewell on from the start should provide penetration and directness, and the lad’s got a huge point to prove.

Villa is a better team now than in either game against Liverpool last season. Reo-Coker will be a valuable addition, Luke Moore’s finally fit, Agbonlahor’s a very good young player, and both January signings, Young and Carew, have had a full preseason to further adapt to Villa’s style of play. Martin O’Neill truly has done a good job, which isn’t all that surprising given his CV, and I expect Villa to compete for a European place this season. That said, I don’t really fancy their defense even though it’s mostly the same unit that kept Liverpool out last March, and it’s an additional boon that Sorensen’s out injured (looks like they’ll be signing Carson on loan for the season, but that’ll have no effect on tomorrow).

I’ve been on pins and needles waiting for tomorrow since May 24th. And even though it’s the first match of the season, which brings a mountain of mitigating statements, it’s a good match to see how Liverpool will develop. Liverpool hasn’t won an opening day game since 2002 (amusingly enough, against Villa). It’s away, against a team who frustrated Liverpool last season, a team who started last season at a torrid pace, and a team that should finish in the top half of the table. We’ve been talking about how Liverpool’s improved, and how much the new boys are going to help. Now we get to see it.

09 August 2007

Prem Predictions 8/11 - 8/12

Another season, another attempt to predict Premiership games. Here’s hoping it goes better than last time (118-131, if you’re wondering). For the first couple of weeks, I imagine it’ll be more of a crapshoot than usual, and thus, I’ll probably have less to say about each game as well.

For those who missed it last season, I don’t predict Liverpool games. Superstition and such. Full preview of the Villa game tomorrow instead.

Sunderland v Tottenham, 7:45am, Setanta: It’s too easy to pick a straight Tottenham win. Sunderland will come out guns blazing in front of their home fans by the time Keane’s done with them, while Tottenham’s never been known for their quick starts. Honestly (and very, very sadly), it’ll probably be a lot like Liverpool’s first game last season against Sheffield United. 1-1
West Ham v Manchester City, 10am, FSC: Two teams marginally fancied because of their summer spending that I don’t fancy at all. I don’t trust the new players either team has bought, nor am I a fan of either manager. At least it’ll probably be closely contested though. 0-0
Bolton v Newcastle, 10am, Setanta: Well, the folks who make the fixture list have a sense of humor. Even under Sammy Lee, Bolton will be tough to beat at the Reebok, but I think Allardyce will have an immediate impact on Newcastle’s away form. Plus, there’s no way he wants to lose this game, and his players will be well aware of that. 1-1
Everton v Wigan, 10am, Setanta Xtra: Ugh, predicting an Everton win to start the season is not high on my list of enjoyable acts, but I highly doubt they’ll lose their opening match at Goodison to a team I expect to be involved in the relegation battle all season long. Everton 2-0
Middlesbrough v Blackburn, 10am: Even though it’s the first match of the season, I expect to learn a few things about Blackburn here. As said earlier in the week, I like Blackburn to finish high up the table, and I think we’ll start to see if they have the potential to in this game. The Riverside is never an easy place to play, and Blackburn’s not been the best on the road. If they can come away with more than a point, it will bode well for them. I’m still taking the safe pick though. 2-2
Derby v Portsmouth, 10am: In contrast to predicting a Sunderland draw because they’re a promoted team at home and will come out strong, I reckon Derby will be in for a rude welcome to the Premiership. Portsmouth isn’t the strongest team, but when all’s said and done, I think Derby is probably going to struggle for any and all points. Doesn't help matters that Giles Barnes will miss this through injury either. Portsmouth 1-0
Arsenal v Fulham, 7am Sunday: London derbies are usually contentious and enjoyable, and while Fulham’s strengthened more than I thought they would over the summer (and I love the fact that McBride’s been named captain), I doubt that the Cottagers will pull off a surprise against the Gunners like they did last season. Arsenal 2-1
Chelsea v Birmingham, 8:30am Sunday, Setanta: No promotion team shocker here either, even with Terry and possibly Drogba (among others) out with injury. On the plus side, it’s comforting to get back to predicting 2-0 Chelsea wins. Chelsea 2-0
Manchester United v Reading, 11am Sunday, FSC: Reading was somewhat of a bogey team for United last year, with a draw at the Majeski, and fighting all the way to a 2-3 loss at Old Trafford. I may not think United will be as successful as they were last season, but they’re still winning this one. United 3-1

The three games that aren’t televised are supposedly broadcast on FoxSoccer.com broadband. I’ve no idea how that’s going to work, but I’m interested to see.