29 September 2007

Liverpool 1-0 Wigan

Arbeloa Carragher Hyypia Aurelio
Pennant Gerrard Mascherano Riise
Kuyt Torres

Benayoun 76’

Luck was definitely on Liverpool’s side, but after two draws, three points are three points, and are warmly welcomed. This could have easily been another 0-0 draw, and I utterly fear the reaction that would have elicited.

Yossi Benayoun, on after 56 minutes for Aurelio, won the game for Liverpool with his second stunning solo goal in as many games. When he came to the club just as Garcia left, the comparisons couldn’t be avoided. It’s with as much praise as possible that I say Benayoun was Garcia-esque today -- the creativity, trickery, and guile to break a deadlock when the opposition is stingy and the team’s below par. And doing it as a super-sub only strengthens that comparison.

In the 75th minute, Pennant cut in and played a throughball to Benayoun in the middle, who was tightly marked by Titus Bramble. Benayoun gave himself space with a clever backheel, dropped his shoulder to beat Bramble a second time, and saw his shot go in off of Chris Kirkland, who otherwise played well (as all former keepers do against Liverpool).

As has been written in games past, it should have never gotten to that point. Liverpool let a succession of chances go begging in the first half, mainly through Torres, and should have gone into halftime ahead. Since winning 6-0, goals have been hard to come by in the league.

And honestly, Wigan could have earned at least a point from today’s game. Bent had the ball in the net, but Wigan was ruled offside (Arbeloa had lingered in getting forward after a cleared corner, and it looked like Aghahowa was the only one offside, if anyone was). Scharner’s backheeled flick around Reina narrowly rolled past the post, and Aghahowa should have scored in stoppage time, only to send his header wide when it was harder to miss. Aside from a stretch from about the 70th minute until the goal, Wigan was the better team throughout the second half.

So much had been written about Torres, I guess it’s little surprise his scoring touch deserted him today. He could have had a hat trick in the first half alone, the most egregious miss occurring when he tried an audacious overhead kick in acres of space instead of bringing it down. But finishing aside (and granted, it’s what he was bought to do), Torres didn’t play poorly. It’s a positive that he was working hard and getting into those positions, and we knew when he was signed he has this tendency. I’m still fairly sure that more often than not the keeper will be picking them out of the net.

And all in all, most players had off games. In any event, there’s a lot to critique in my mind. I can’t avoid the cliché that good teams win games even when they’re off the pace, if that’s any consolation.

No defender except maybe Hyypia played well today, and even Hyypia didn’t have a great game, although he’s still commanding in the air. Arbeloa needs to start getting games off. Not only did he look fatigued, but he was at fault for both of Wigan’s best chances: he nearly played Wigan onside when they had the ball in the net, and he was beaten by Koumas when Koumas sent in the cross for Aghahowa’s sitter. Carragher looked out of sorts as well, and almost gave up a penalty if not for another Wigan offside. Neither Riise nor Aurelio (although both are still returning to fitness) made a definitive claim to the left back spot. But despite all of that, Liverpool still picked up the clean sheet, their 7th of the season (5th in the league).

Neither Mascherano nor Gerrard had their best games either and it showed in Liverpool’s effectiveness in possession (especially in the second half), but there were glimpses that were encouraging. Gerrard, who still isn’t anywhere near his best, looked fresher than he has since his injury, and was unlucky not to score twice: first with a free kick within the first couple of minutes and in 64th minute with a shot just wide. Mascherano’s a beast in the tackle, but frequently it feels like he should be contributing more. I don’t enjoy harping on it, but Liverpool misses Alonso’s vision, both in the simple passes that can unlock the midfield and the long cross-field diagonals.

On a less negative front, I thought Pennant played well. He certainly saw more action in front of goal and did well to cut inside at times, which are areas of his game in need of improvement. But Pennant, Benayoun, Torres’ movement, and Reina making the few saves he had to make (all in the second half) were the only performances that stood out.

Of course the fact that Liverpool’s struggling to score is disconcerting (even Benitez recognized the team’s “anxiety in front of goal” post-match), but we’ve seen that the team has goals in them. The opposition has learned, and the Derby match hammered the point home, that Liverpool can carve a team apart if given the space. Whether home or away, teams in the bottom half of the table (and some in the top) are content to pack their half and limit as much space as possible.

The missteps in front of goal will come and go. Every team goes through spells like this every season. The fact that the stretch over the past three league games has seen Liverpool come away with two draws and a win (with the team still unbeaten) has to be seen as a positive. More goals and better performances are assuredly coming.

Marseille on Wednesday.

28 September 2007

Liverpool at Wigan 09.29.07

10am EST, live in the US only on Setanta Broadband. It’s replayed on Setanta at 9pm, and if possible, I’ll catch it then, but here’s hoping for a Mac-friendly stream.

Last 4 head-to-head:
2-0 Liverpool (h) 04.21.07
4-0 Liverpool (a) 12.02.06
1-0 Liverpool (a) 02.11.06
3-0 Liverpool (h) 12.03.05

Last 3 matches:
Liverpool: 4-2 Reading (a); 0-0 Brum (h); 1-1 Porto (a)
Wigan: 1-2 Reading (a); 1-1 Fulham (h); 0-1 Newcastle (a)

Goalscorers (league):
Liverpool: Torres 3; Alonso, Voronin 2; Babel, Gerrard, Sissoko 1
Wigan: Sibierski 3; Bent, Heskey, Koumas, Landzaat, Scharner 1

Referee: Mark Clattenburg

Guess at a squad:
Finnan Carragher Hyypia Riise
Pennant Gerrard Mascherano Babel
Torres Kuyt

Please, can everyone just take a few deep breaths over Torres?

Kuyt and Voronin should have been good enough a week ago. Rotation was involved. Benitez may have figured that Torres would exploit Reading’s defense and boost his confidence going into a tough stretch of games. And it was one game.

(As an aside, Benitez says all of this and more in the press conference yesterday, which you can listen to on the Mirror’s website. It seemed to me he was a lot more forthcoming than usual, which is why I mention it. The key quotes can be found in this BBC article, but the most pertinent “If you cannot play against Birmingham, with your strikers in Anfield, any one of them, then maybe you cannot talk about ‘Oh, we will win the Premier League,’ because if Torres, Gerrard, or Carra, if they need to play every game, every game, it will be impossible” wasn’t mentioned.)

I firmly believe Torres will start tomorrow, even with Marseille on Wednesday. Rafa saying he might not has to be mind games, especially after Tuesday’s performance. Plus, if we’re solely going by the “getting behind the striker” argument, remember that Bellamy torched Wigan at the JJB Stadium last season. That and Wigan’s main defensive addition is Titus Bramble.

Otherwise, I expect changes to the majority of the line-up. Gerrard and Mascherano will probably come into central midfield in place of Lucas and Sissoko. Gerrard says the toe injury’s finally healing, which couldn’t be more welcome news. Among other duties, Mascherano will be keeping a close eye on Jason Koumas, who has been one of Wigan’s best players this season (along with top scorer Antoine Sibierski).

Benayoun played well on Tuesday, and scored a delicious first goal for the club, but Pennant will probably take his place tomorrow (with Benayoun coming back in for Marseille). I think Babel will line up on the opposite flank as Pennant, as against Sunderland, Derby, Porto, and Brum. With Riise and Aurelio fit again, either one of them may play in left midfield, but I think Benitez will use a more attacking line-up against Wigan, with one of those two coming in at left back.

The return to fitness of those two players means that Arbeloa will probably get his first game of the season off on Saturday. It seems more likely to me that Riise will start at left back; Aurelio did on Tuesday and will probably play more often than Riise in the Champions League, while Riise bombing up and down the flank should help unsettle Wigan’s defense.

Wigan was one of everyone’s picks to be relegated prior to the season. They then won two of their first three games, and were second in the league after a couple of weeks. The last few games have seen them slide down the table, losing 2 and drawing 1 in their last three, and the foot injury to Emile Heskey has come at an unfortunate time for both Wigan and England. Sibierski has a surprisingly good scoring record since joining Wigan, and Marcus Bent will have plenty of motivation, but neither player is blessed with great pace, and Carragher and Hyypia should be able to keep them under wraps.

It’s amazed me how much of a talking point Torres has been this week. I’m used to Liverpool rotation, and questioning of said rotation, but it’s seemingly all that’s been written about this week. I’m very much looking forward to a strong all-around performance against a team that Liverpool’s done well against in recent meetings, which will put this last week firmly in the past.

27 September 2007

Predictions 9/29 - 10/1

Manchester City v Newcastle, 7:45am, Setanta: Newcastle looked a lot better against West Ham on Sunday than they did against Derby the previous week, and the win saw them move up to 5th with 11 points. But the arrival of Allardyce hasn't ended one of Newcastle's long-lingering problems: they have tons of trouble away from St. James' Park. It won't help that Owen's suffered another injury, and looks likely to miss a good deal of time. Meanwhile, City's still surprisingly playing well, and Sven's done such a good job that even Georgios Samaras got on the scoresheet in his first appearance this season (albeit against Norwich in the league cup). City 2-1
Chelsea v Fulham, 10am, FSC: Avram Grant's likely to pick up his first league win here. I truly hope he doesn't, with my soft spot for Fulham and utter disdain for everything Chelsea, but Fulham's had little luck so far this season, and Lawrie Sanchez is already complaining about (rightfully so, however) disallowed goals and referee performances. Chelsea smashed Hull yesterday, and while that doesn't really give any clues about how they'll perform on Saturday, I imagine the players are going to band together with all the media pressure surrounding the club. If nothing else, Mourinho imbued a sense of "us against the world" in the squad, and that will probably come out given the circumstances. Chelsea 2-0
West Ham v Arsenal, 10am, Setanta: West Ham did the double over Arsenal last year in two closely-contested matches, and is undefeated against their North London rivals since the 02/03 relegation season. While it's a stretch to think they could take three points off the Arse the way Wenger has his team playing, I still think (hope) that the Hammers could take advantage of their home form and at least earn a draw. Freddie Ljungberg, who's finally returning to fitness, will have additional incentive, going up against his former team for the first time. 2-2
Derby v Bolton, 10am: The bottom two teams in the league, and the maxim’s always been ‘you have to beat the teams around you.’ Were Bolton to lose, you could start writing this season’s epitaph, or at least Sammy Lee’s. After winning against Newcastle, Derby was thrashed by Arsenal in a similar performance as in their game against Liverpool. Anelka really should be able to take advantage of the Rams' backline. Bolton 2-1
Portsmouth v Reading, 10am: Reading's second string looked better on Tuesday than the first team has in the last few games, and I doubt that they'll continue to struggle as they have. But Portsmouth have been very good at Fratton Park, where they are undefeated this season and the defense has only let in 2 goals in 4 games. David Nugent notched again in the Carling Cup on Wednesday, and I think he's going to start to play a bigger role in Pompey's campaign. Portsmouth 1-0
Sunderland v Blackburn, 10am: Sunderland's been far better at home so far this season, getting both of their wins at the Stadium of Light, but Blackburn's going into this game full of motivation. Rovers struggled against both Larissa (in the UEFA Cup) and against Portsmouth last Saturday before finally getting back into the groove against Birmingham on Wednesday, with first-teamers Friedel, Emerton, Samba, Bentley, Dunn and Derbyshire all starting. They'll see this game as an opportunity to get to back to winning ways in the league, and I'll be very surprised if they don't take advantage. Blackburn 2-0
Birmingham v Manchester Utd, 12:15pm, FSC: Oh, the schadenfreude of seeing United go out in the 3rd round of the Carling Cup, at home, and a day after Liverpool was criticized for winning against Reading with a stronger line-up than expected which featured Torres. That said, Ferguson will assure that similar doesn't happen Saturday, and Birmingham's probably going to end up a sacrificial lamb. I sincerely hope the Brummies can replicate the solid defensive showing they put in last week (sigh), but Tevez and Rooney are two strikers that can deal with physicality and like to operate 'between the lines' (double sigh). United 1-0
Everton v Middlesbrough, 11am Sunday, FSC: Yikes, Boro on the road, where their only win came against Fulham and was due to one of those disallowed goals mentioned above. I've obviously got no love lost for Everton, and have enjoyed their tumble from 2nd to 9th in the table over the past couple of weeks, as they've lost in their last two in the league. But with Yakubu settling quickly and with a point to prove against his old team, while McFadden's continued to impress me, Everton should be able to breach Boro's defense at least once. Everton 2-0
Tottenham v Aston Villa, 3pm Monday, Setanta: While I do feel bad for Martin Jol because of the undue pressure put on him by Spurs' board, his hilarious comments today (BBC's headline is "Sacking me would harm Spurs") go a long way towards throwing away any good will. Tottenham sits in 18th, in the relegation zone, and it's almost October. Outside of actually being relegated, Spurs can't be harmed much more. Villa hasn't yet won away in the league, but I think it'll happen Monday, and we'll see just how much more pressure can be put on Jol's shoulders. Villa 3-2

25 September 2007

Liverpool 4-2 Reading

Finnan Carragher Arbeloa Aurelio
Benayoun Lucas Sissoko Leto
Torres Crouch

Benayoun 23’
Convey 28’
Torres 50’
Halls 54’
Torres 72’
Torres 86’

I sincerely apologize for second guessing Rafa Benitez, I really should know better by now. Of course after all that was written, Torres would score his first hat trick for the club and be the difference between the two sides. Then again, it will probably just make the “why didn’t he start on Saturday?” discussion that much louder.

I am still surprised at the strong line-up. I realize how much better the squad is this season, but that’s quite close to a full strength back-line, not to mention the inclusion of Benayoun, Sissoko, Crouch, and, oh yeah, Torres.

The game was always going to be more open than against Birmingham. That’s the way Reading plays and they aren’t about to change, and as Benitez said, Torres can exploit it brilliantly. It opened sloppily, but with end-to-end action, and despite a dearth of shots, goals always looked like coming.

In the 23rd minute, Benayoun broke the deadlock with a superb solo goal. Picking up the ball in front of a Reading defender, he strode forward, sidestepped Bikey and smashed the ball past Federici from the top of the box.

But the lead didn’t last long. Bobby Convey, recently back from a long-term injury, replied with an even better strike, volleying home from a corner. It was Liverpool’s first goal conceded from open play, but it sure looked like at least 3 players were offside and Lita impeded the keeper, and it should have never stood.

It was cagier after the equalizer, but only a great save from Itandje in the 45th minute to prevented Convey from a second. However, the story of the half was Torres being kicked all over the field. He got a harsh introduction to English football and no respite from the referee.

Which is why his second half performance was so heartening. Reading equalized after he notched in the 49th minute, but Torres went on to score twice more, and should have gotten a clear penalty when Bikey brought him down in the box (which would have been Bikey’s second yellow).

The first goal came from an inch-perfect throughball from Leto. The second was side-footed in from Riise’s cross, and it’s worth pointing out that it was the type of goal that Liverpool struggled (and failed) to get against Birmingham. Gerrard, on as a sub for the last 15 minutes, sent Torres through one-on-one for the final goal, and he absolutely embarrassed Federici before slotting home, brimming with confidence.

It’s petty to complain about the referee after a win, but I feel the need to anyway. Martin Atkinson had a shocker today. I’m biased, but it seemed to me that a lot of Reading fouls were ignored (including the penalty shout) while Liverpool was whistled at every opportunity. There were at least 6 clear fouls on Torres not called, and Liverpool’s lucky no one came away injured. Atkinson didn’t even want to give Torres the match-ball after the game, although he finally gave it up with a smile. I guess he still holds a grudge for the balls kicked at him after the postponement last year.

I still am unconvinced of the merits of such a strong side in the Carling Cup, and within the first five minutes it looked like Liverpool’s greatest fear was realized when Torres went down and didn’t get right up. The Carling Cup's not a priority, but Liverpool looked better than they have in the last three games. And the class on display will surely renew questions about Torres’ exclusion over the weekend.

He clearly thrived in today’s game, which was tactically quite different from Saturday’s, and he exploited gaps with his pace just as Rafa said he would. But the traits shown -- his strength, character, vision, touch, and movement, in addition to that pace, sets him apart from every other striker on the roster. Chelsea doesn’t leave out Drogba unless they have to. The same goes for Rooney at United, and did for van Nistelrooy, and Henry at Arsenal, in the past. Torres’ clearly has the potential to be mentioned in the same breath as those players.

Torres was head and shoulders about the rest, but I’ve few complaints about any of the players. Sissoko had a dominant game in midfield, and even played a few cross-field passes reminiscent of Alonso. Neither Lucas nor Leto stood out, but Lucas played smartly and looked composed throughout, while it was Leto’s pass that got Torres off the mark (although some of his other touches were questionable). Aurelio settled right in, and his vision and ability from set plays will add tons to the team. Carragher was a stalwart at the back. Benayoun played well, and scored a great first goal for the club.

The fact that Liverpool shipped two goals is a bit disconcerting, but I can’t single out any flaws in defense other than Itandje flapping at the second goal. The first surely wasn’t his fault (even without the obstruction from Lita he had no chance), and he redeemed himself with two stellar saves.

Liverpool played some good football today, and showed good resiliency to break the deadlock twice, while keeping their wits about them as Reading stuck the boot in again and again. The passing was far more fluid than in the last few games, and Aurelio, Sissoko (!), and Torres were key to that.

Now, the important part. Doing it in the league against Wigan on Saturday.

24 September 2007

Liverpool at Reading 09.25.07

2:45pm EST. Shown at 6pm on Setanta Sports.

Last 3 head-to-head:
2-1 Liverpool (a) 04.07.07
2-0 Liverpool (h) 11.04.06
4-3 Liverpool (a; Carling Cup) 10.25.06

Last 3 matches:
Liverpool: 0-0 Brum (h); 1-1 Porto (a); 0-0 Portsmouth (a)
Reading: 2-1 Wigan (h); 1-2 Sunderland (a); 0-3 West Ham (h)

Referee: Martin Atkinson

Guess at a squad:
Darby Arbeloa Hobbs Aurelio
El Zhar Sissoko Lucas Leto
Crouch Lindfield

I’ll be honest, I’m not really bothered one way or the other whether Liverpool has a decent Carling Cup run. When the players take the field, I’ll undoubtedly be rooting for a win, but the Carling Cup is a distant 4th in priorities for Liverpool this season. And I’m far more concerned about Liverpool’s performance in the league this weekend.

Tomorrow is first and foremost about getting young players and reserves playing time. There’s no doubt that Liverpool will have wholesale changes; I’ll be surprised if anyone who started on Saturday plays tomorrow.

In my eyes, the biggest benefit to tomorrow’s match is the opportunities to evaluate the depth at center-back. With Agger injured, Hyypia and Carra are the only two first-teamers with experience.

This game will allow Hobbs to get time in the first team, and to see how well Arbeloa can play in the middle, which he might have to do in more important games in the future. As Carra points out, Hobbs is captain of the reserves and has done well with the opportunities he’s had. He may well need to see first-team action this season, so games like tomorrow’s will be crucial for his development.

I know Arbeloa’s played more than anyone else so far, but I think he’ll be rested after this game. With Aurelio and Riise both returning to fitness, left back is less of a problem area. I think Arbeloa will be the one to guide Hobbs through tomorrow, especially given how important Hyypia and Carragher are and how they’ll need to be fresh for the Premiership and Champions League.

It seems certain that Itandje will get his first start for Liverpool, knowing how the backup keeper always plays the cups, but I wonder if as both Hobbs and Arbeloa might be called upon in the future, this is a good game for Reina to play as well. It’s not as if he needs to be rested for fitness reasons, and it would be useful for both central defenders to get used Pepe’s calls and how he plays if Liverpool is really going to need them.

I hope to see both Leto and Lucas start as well. Matches like this will be their best introduction to English football and their best chance to see significant playing time. The glimpses we’ve seen of both have been promising, but other than the game against Toulouse, they’ve only been glimpses. I’m interested to see how they cope with starting and being heavily involved in the match.

While I had hoped Insua would get a good amount of time in the cups, I imagine that Aurelio will start in an effort to get him closer to full fitness. He’s going to be needed even more now that Agger is injured, but we saw how effective Fabio can be last season, especially from set pieces and delivering crosses.

Other young players will get time as well. Stephen Darby will probably play at right back, as he got time there in the preseason, but Jay Spearing's another possibility. El Zhar’s gotten first-team action before, but Benitez may well use tomorrow to give Benayoun a game. Lindfield is my best guess for partnering Crouch, as Crouchy will probably be tossed a bone and start tomorrow, but there’s also the possibility of Brouwer or Pacheco, among others.

This is the second year in a row Liverpool’s faced Reading in the Carling Cup. Last year, Liverpool was up 3-0 and 4-1 before Reading made it 4-3. Despite their flaws this season, and despite the fact they’ll rest key players tomorrow (as they did in the CC last year), Reading always has the potential to make a game of it.

But again, I’m finding it very hard to care about Liverpool’s fortunes in the Carling Cup. I can’t help but think of Benitez’s second season, where Liverpool had a bad result against Fulham before losing to Crystal Palace in the 3rd round of the Carling Cup, which brought about a torrent of criticism. If you ignore the loss to Sao Paulo in the WCC, Liverpool went unbeaten for 17 games following the Palace match.

I’d be perfectly happy if history repeated itself.

23 September 2007

More on the Torres decision

Just to continue on the Torres discussion from yesterday, because a couple of thoughts have been lingering.

In the past two seasons for Atletico Madrid, Torres played 40 games each year. He’s only played more than 40 games a season once in his career.

Liverpool played 58 games last season (62 the season before that), and chances are (hopefully), they’ll play a similar amount this season. Pennant had the most appearances with 52; only Pennant, Carra, Gerrard, Reina and Alonso played more than 50 games.

Given Torres’ importance to Liverpool’s season this year, and the necessity he’s fit for “big games,” those stats make his place on the bench yesterday a little more understandable, no matter how angry I still am with the draw. Again, I reiterate, it was Birmingham, at home, and Liverpool should have done better regardless.

But today quotes, in which Benitez says that leaving Torres out was a tactical decision, is still baffling. That can’t be the sole reason, and if it was, then Rafa did make a mistake. I was under the impression that Torres was one of the players bought for games exactly like yesterday’s, where Liverpool needed class and creativity to carve open a stingy defense.

Fernando Torres is not Craig Bellamy. The sum of his game is not just getting behind defenders, even if that’s what he’s done best so far.

22 September 2007

Liverpool 0-0 Birmingham

Arbeloa Carragher Hyypia Riise
Pennant Gerrard Mascherano Babel
Kuyt Voronin

I’m speechless. That was just awful.

Draws away at Portsmouth and Porto are one thing, and the suggestion of problems seemed almost laughable. But this was insipid. Dropping 2 points to Birmingham at Anfield, where the team had scored 10 goals in the past two games, is just inexcusable.

Let me get one thing out of the way. The rotation, other than the questionable decision to leave out Torres (more later, believe me), wasn’t surprising, although it’s assuredly going to be a favored talking point. While Benitez is impossible to predict, the line-up was pretty close to as guessed.

For me, there are two sources of Liverpool’s problems today. One, and most importantly, was the injuries to Alonso and Agger. Throughout the first half, the passing from the back was dreadful. Agger brings the ball out of defense better than both Hyypia and Carragher (Hyypia’s usually better, but his passing was off today). Mascherano hasn’t looked a replacement for Alonso in the passing department in either game he’s started.

It led to either misplaced long balls or too many passes along the backline while waiting for an opening. There was no cutting edge to Liverpool’s passing, and that Birmingham sat back and kept it incredibly tight in their own half didn’t help matters.

Two, that Torres started on the bench. I’m frequently an apologist for nearly everything Benitez does, and even though I understand the reasons for his omission, I’m still angry over it.

Benitez is both pragmatic and obsessive over fitness levels. It’s clear that he’s trying to keep Torres fresh for the long season, knowing his importance to the team, the amount of games Liverpool are going to play, and Torres’ unfamiliarity with Benitez’s training regimen.

And you know what? Liverpool should be able to beat Birmingham at Anfield without Torres. But when they don’t, and Liverpool with Torres is demonstrably better than Liverpool without, it is immensely frustrating. And if you’re dropping points this early in the season, those games that he’s fresh for in April and May mean a lot less.

Credit to Birmingham, angry as I am. They came for a 0-0 draw, packed 10 men in their own half, and defended like their lives depended on it. Only Taylor, Kelly, and Larsson are left from the 7-0 drubbing in 2006, but Birmingham clearly remembered it. There were many opportunities and half-chances for Liverpool snuffed out because of the number of players in the box. Stephen Kelly’s last ditch tackle on Crouch in the 83rd minute was a standout moment, but more often than not, it was a defender shutting down a Liverpool player in the final third, with three of his mates next to him in case he didn’t. And Birmingham have been a bogey team in the league in the past.

But Liverpool still had opportunities, none spectacular, but opportunities nonetheless. Riise carved out the most in the first half from distance, but rarely looked like getting them on target, which isn’t a total surprise given his match fitness. Liverpool was better in the second half, with Kuyt getting a couple of sights at goal, Torres clearly improving the team after he came on (and coming very close with a well-hit overhead kick), and Kelly’s aforementioned tackle on Crouch. But Liverpool never really carved open Birmingham, tested Maik Taylor, or made the most of the chances they got. And at the end of it all, that’s why the game ended in a draw.

If I have to pick a man of the match, it’s probably Mascherano. His passing wasn’t great, but his tackling was superlative, and he put himself about everywhere in mopping up when needed. Pennant tried hard and played smartly, but the end product, which has been discussed in the past, was clearly missing and much needed. Gerrard looked fitter and worked hard to try and forge an opening, but he's still not back to his best. Other than a few missteps by Arbeloa, the defense ate up what little Birmingham offered offensively (although Brum did more in attack as Liverpool was pressing in the final 30 minutes). That’s about all that struck me as positive as player performances go.

Not much more to do but pick yourself up for the next match and use this as motivation. And it is still early in the season, although that’s a crutch that’s been used all too often when the team’s dropping points in the first couple of months. The title race may be closer than in previous years, and winners may need less points, but two points foolishly dropped are two points to be rued.

Many if not all of the players who started today will sit out the Carling Cup match at Reading. But I expect all will have a point to prove at Wigan on Saturday.

21 September 2007

Liverpool v Birmingham 09.22.07

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

Last 4 head-to-head:
1-0 Liverpool (a; Carling Cup) 11.08.06
7-0 Liverpool (a; FA Cup) 03.21.06
1-1 (h) 02.01.06
2-2 (a) 09.24.05

Last 3 matches:
Liverpool: 1-1 Porto (a); 0-0 Portsmouth (a); 6-0 Derby (h)
Brum: 1-0 Bolton (h); 0-2 Boro (a); 2-1 Hereford (h)

Goalscorers (league):
Liverpool: Torres 3; Alonso, Voronin 2; Babel, Gerrard, Sissoko 1
Brum: Jerome, Kapo 2; Forssell, O’Connor 1

Referee: Lee Mason

Guess at a squad:
Finnan Carragher Hyypia Riise
Benayoun Gerrard Mascherano Babel
Torres Kuyt

The news that both Alonso and Agger are out for the next six weeks with broken metatarsals is not good. Now we’ll get to see how deep the squad really is.

Thankfully, both Riise and Aurelio are in the process of returning from injury, which will allow Arbeloa to shift over to center-back when needed. We may even see Insua get time at left back as well (here’s hoping!), but I imagine he’ll be mainly limited to games like Tuesday’s Carling Cup match at Reading.

I can’t ever remember seeing Arbeloa play at center-back for Liverpool. He’s always been advertised as able to fill that role, but I am a bit nervous having yet to see him play there consistently. And I think that Hyypia will probably start again on Saturday; Arbeloa’s due for a rest, as he’s started every game so far this season.

Alonso’s injury will affect Liverpool differently. There’s adequate cover in central midfield, with Gerrard, Mascherano and Sissoko available, and Lucas if needed. But we saw against Porto what can happen without Xabi in the side. There’s a correlation between Liverpool’s abhorrent passing and Alonso’s absence.

First and foremost, Mascherano, who will come closest to filling Alonso’s role, will have to play far better than he did mid-week. His passing was absolutely awful against Porto, which came as such a surprise given how composed he’s looked in the past.

I’m guessing Benayoun in over Pennant solely because of my displeasure with Jermaine following Tuesday’s match. Were there a European match next week, he’d obviously play due to the Champions League suspension, but I think that Benitez may use this game to make a point to Pennant. However, Pennant may well have a point of his own to prove going up against his old club.

And all of the above may be irrelevant should Benayoun not be available for selection because of Yom Kippur, but he is in the team.

Babel may not have had the best game against Porto, but as said, no one did, and if he’s going to progress, he needs time in games like this. That and the only other options on the left flank seem to be Riise or Aurelio (Leto, like Insua, will probably see time in the Carling Cup). I hope Riise returns to the squad in defense, although he’s got a good scoring record against Birmingham, and chances are we’ll see Aurelio off the bench, as it’s probably too soon to consider him for a start.

I also want to see Torres and Kuyt resume their partnership up top. Kuyt was one of the few positives from Tuesday’s match, while my belief that Torres should be starting every match possible has been reiterated enough. It could be Voronin that starts with Torres, as he didn’t against Porto, but Kuyt can’t be dropped after his last performance, can he?

Birmingham is most likely going to be one of those teams that parks the bus in front of goal at Anfield. Liverpool will need to show that added creativity that’s been much discussed since the summer. And it’s for that reason I think that both Torres and Kuyt will start and that Liverpool will have two tricky players on that flanks. Birmingham can pose a threat on the counter, mainly though Cameron Jerome and Olivier Kapo, but Liverpool should have the lion’s share of both possession and chances.

This game’s been eyed hungrily since the draws against Pompey and Porto, which isn’t a surprise given Birmingham’s pedigree. But it’s worth noting that Brum’s been a bogey team in the league for Liverpool. The season they were relegated Birmingham earned draws in both matches (not counting the FA Cup match), including a gut-wrenching 1-1 draw at Anfield when they were down to 10 men and got an own goal in the dying minutes. I doubt we’ll see another 6-0 (or 7-0) goal-fest, but here’s hoping for a mauling anyway.

20 September 2007

Yet another installment of “I loathe Michel Platini”

Platini blames United and Liverpool for reform delay

Foreign owners such as those at Manchester United and Liverpool are "a serious threat" to European football, the Uefa president, Michel Platini, said yesterday, blaming them for obstructing his Champions League reform.

In a letter to all 27 European Union leaders – including Gordon Brown, Germany's Angela Merkel and France's Nicolas Sarkozy – Platini asks them to protect the sport from "a distortion". The letter says: "A serious threat hangs over the development of European football: the malign and ever-present influence of money."

Platini's special adviser, William Gaillard, said the former France international believed the billionaire backers of Manchester United and Liverpool were behind the opposition to plans to give domestic cup winners a Champions League spot. Last week, the G14 group, which represents 18 of Europe's most powerful clubs, said it was opposed to the proposals.

"I know G14 have said this but from our discussions it seems the main opposition is at Liverpool and Manchester United, who have investors out to make a quick buck and are only looking at the financial risks of the reform plan and not the sporting merits," Gaillard said. "By giving away a spot in their league to cup winners, they see this as reducing their chances of entering the lucrative Champions League."

Gaillard was quick to differentiate Liverpool and United's American owners from Chelsea's Russian owner, Roman Abramovich and Milan's Silvio Berlusconi, who, according to Gaillard, Platini believes "love the game and are not just in it for money".

In his letter, Platini says: "Money has always been in sport ... but money has never been the ultimate objective of football, the main purpose has been to win trophies. For the first time we may be entering an era in which financial profit alone will be the measure of sporting success."

Liverpool's chief executive, Rick Parry, described the letter and Gaillard's comments as "absurd". Manchester United were unavailable for comment. "I made it absolutely clear [to Platini] last week that I was representing the views of the majority of English Premier League clubs when I said we do not support the reform plan," Parry said. "I didn't even discuss this issue with our owners prior to last week.

"Bottom line is that allowing the cup winners into the competition devalues the Premier League."

I do love reading about Platini and Gaillard discussing Liverpool, as they always seem to have an even-handed and fair judgment of the club.

Not much else needs to be said, the article says enough. That and there are only so many ways I can complain about Platini and Gaillard without repeating myself. They simply never take their feet out of their mouths.

I especially like the part where Gaillard claims that Gillett and Hicks are money-grubbing bastards, while Roman Abramovich is a saint solely in it for the good of the game. That’s just too much.

If it weren’t so insulting, and potentially damaging to the game (and club) I love, it’d be hilariously farcical. I just can’t make this stuff up, and I do not understand the obvious grudge against Liverpool that these men have.

Good on Liverpool (and United) for taking this stance. Entrance into the Champions League should be based on league competition; I’d be saying that no matter which team I rooted for, although admittedly, being on the same side as the G14 does make me feel a bit dirty.

But it is a bad idea and dilutes the quality in the CL, end of. That Gaillard is attempting to argue on behalf of “sporting interests” just takes the cake, and I find it hard to believe it was said with a straight face.

And good on Gordon Brown for telling Platini to cram it where the sun doesn’t shine.

Predictions 9/22-9/23

Arsenal v Derby, 10am, FSC: Every time I make a declarative statement like “I refuse to pick Derby to get any points until things change” they end up winning. Nonetheless, I’m pretty sure they won’t be able to replicate it. Arsenal’s been on-form, mainly thanks to the play of Fabregas, and Derby won’t be anywhere near as resilient as they were at Pride Park on the road. Arsenal 3-0
Middlesbrough v Sunderland, 10am: As usual, Boro at home is a much different opponent than Boro away. Their only home loss is to Blackburn on the opening day, and they’ve scored in every game at the Riverside. And similar goes for Sunderland, who have struggled to get goals away from the Stadium of Light, and have only picked up one point on the road, against Birmingham. Boro 2-1
Reading v Wigan, 10am: Every year you hear about the “sophomore slump,” but Reading’s certainly experiencing it so far this season. Winless in their last three in the league, not getting goals from Kevin Doyle (or any of the other strikers) as they did last season, and sincerely missing Steve Sidwell. But Wigan haven’t impressed in their last few outings either, and Heskey’s out for the next six weeks or so. 1-1
Fulham v Manchester City, 12:15pm, FSC: As an American, I’m well pleased that Clint Dempsey’s scored in the last three league games, and long may it continue (until Fulham faces Liverpool). But Manchester City’s been a more cohesive and impressive team so far this season (I still can’t believe I’m writing this about an Eriksson-led squad). Hamann and Johnson have been very good in City’s midfield, and I don’t think Fulham will have the space or amount of possession needed to beat City. They’re frequently draw specialists at home, but I reckon City will come away with all three points. City 1-0

Newcastle v West Ham, 8:30am, Setanta: Since the first match at Bolton, Newcastle have had problems scoring, most notably last Monday at Derby. Meanwhile, the Hammers have won their last two games 3-0 (home v Boro and away at Reading), and have snuck up to 6th in the table on 10 points. Lingering feelings from last season prevent me from picking a West Ham win, but they definitely have enough for a draw. 1-1
Aston Villa v Everton, 9am: It will be interesting to see how Everton responds following their UEFA Cup match. They don’t have the deepest squad, but they’re at home today and will have a couple of days to recuperate. And I honestly believe (no biases, I swear) that Villa is the better team of the two, although I imagine both will finish around the same position. Villa 2-1
Blackburn v Portsmouth, 10am: I think all the teams involved in UEFA Cup action today are going to have a bit of a let-down over the weekend. Blackburn’s will probably be the biggest; they had to travel to Greece today, and lost 2-0 in the process. But as Blackburn’s at home, I still think they’ll be able to hold on for a draw against Pompey, who will probably be as stingy in defense as they were last weekend. 0-0
Bolton v Tottenham, 10am: I learned my lesson last week in trying to be cute and picking Tottenham over Arsenal. Bolton haven’t been world-beaters, but Tottenham over the last couple of weeks couldn't have been more disappointing. I’m hoping Anelka will keep scoring (and keep accruing fantasy points), while I reckon Bolton have the potential to keep Tottenham mostly under wraps, despite their exceptionally poor start to the season (currently at the foot of the table). 1-1
Manchester Utd v Chelsea, 11am, FSC: This game just got a little more interesting in the last 24 hours. Not much more to be said about Mourinho, although it amazes me how quickly relations broke down this season. Avram Grant has experience, but he’s nowhere near the manager Mourinho is. United would have been favored anyway, at home and with better recent results than Chelsea, but it’ll still probably be a close game, with neither team scoring goals as expected. United 1-0

Liverpool v Birmingham is on Setanta on Saturday at 10am.

19 September 2007

Mourinho quits!

Manager Mourinho leaves Chelsea

Chelsea manager Jose Mourinho has sensationally left Stamford Bridge by mutual consent, the club has confirmed.

The news comes just 24 hours after the disappointing Champions League draw against Rosenborg.

BBC Radio 5live football correspondent Jonathan Legard understands Mourinho texted senior players, including skipper John Terry, with the news.

No freaking way.

I knew the draw with Rosenborg was bad news, but I'm stunned Mourinho quit with the United match on Sunday. His position must have been completely untenable. Good job, Roman.

For as unlikable a manager Mourinho is, he got results. And Abramovich is going to have a hell of a time replacing him. Terry, Lampard and Drogba, among others, have credited him with furthering their careers, and I can't wait to see how this affects the already thickening cloud over Stamford Bridge.

Tomorrow will be a really fun news day.

18 September 2007

Liverpool 1-1 Porto

Finnan Carragher Hyypia Arbeloa
Pennant Gerrard Mascherano Babel
Torres Kuyt

Porto: Lucho Gonzalez 8’ (pen)
Liverpool: Kuyt 17’

In a game where Liverpool didn’t get out of their own half for the first five minutes, gave up a penalty after eight (their 4th in 8 games), and played over half an hour with 10 men, a point doesn’t seem such a bad result. Then why am I so angry?

Liverpool lined up as thought, with possibly the strongest XI (outside of Hyypia for Agger), but the game certainly didn’t begin as hoped. As said, Porto, with Ricardo Quaresma outstanding, kept Liverpool penned in until Reina’s goal kick just before the clock hit five minutes. Porto had an excellent opportunity to score within two, when Finnan’s clearance deflected to Lisandro in front of goal, but Reina made a smart save.

Liverpool didn’t hold out long. Reina brought down Sektioui in the box after Hyypia was beaten for pace (I will say that contact looked minimal, but it appeared to be a penalty nonetheless), and Lucho Gonzalez scored the resulting spot kick. It’s the third time a team has scored from the spot against Liverpool this season; I might be wrong, but I don’t think Liverpool had three penalties scored against them through all of last season.

To their credit, Liverpool played their best stretch following Porto’s goal, although that’s not saying much. They did settle, and Kuyt got the equalizer in the 17th minute from a Hyypia header across goal after a Finnan free kick. That would be Liverpool’s lone shot on target all game. Yes, you read that right.

To be fair, neither team had any real chances, but Porto was clearly better. They never again dominated as they did to start the game, but absolutely nothing was coming off for Liverpool.

The game had been chippy from the start and was even more so after the goals. Both Pennant and Boswinga picked up yellow cards in the first half, and the way that Lubos Michel was calling the game, more always looked likely.

Pennant’s second card, for a completely needless foul on Fucile at Porto’s back line after 58 minutes, seemed a long time coming. He kept committing fouls after his first booking, and kept complaining about them as well. Many had to be surprised (a friend of mine was utterly livid) that Pennant was still on to get the second yellow. I know Benitez can be a hands-off manager, lets players play their games, and expects them to be smart about it, but there are games where Pennant can’t be treated like that. Unfortunately, this was one of them. He’s shown less and less of those flashes of immaturity as he’s improved at Liverpool, but they still linger.

And when all’s said and done, Liverpool were lucky not to pay for Pennant’s error. Other than a moment where Reina was caught in no-man’s land and Hyypia had to make a smart clearance on Quaresma’s goal-bound shot, they defended admirably and even carved out a chance in the dying minutes, with Quaresma getting back to intercept the ball in front of Kuyt on goal after some lovely work from Gerrard.

That the most encouraging part of the game for Liverpool came after they were reduced to ten men is not a good thing. Even though the point’s welcomed, especially after the way the game played out, there are far more negatives than positives in my mind. The pluses I can think of are the point gained, the fortitude shown, an Aurelio sighting, and Kuyt’s superhuman effort everywhere on the field, especially when Liverpool needed it. That’s about it.

But the negatives. Liverpool looked disjointed and incoherent. They couldn’t pass to save their lives. Again, there was one shot on target (albeit, they took advantage of it), and the only other shot I can remember was Babel’s deflected effort after a Gerrard free kick on the stroke of halftime. All too often, players were caught on the ball and Porto quickly regained possession. It was a pretty needless foul, and a play where both Hyypia and Reina should have done better, which led to the penalty. And while he had little end product to show for it, Quaresma absolutely embarrassed people at times, Pennant and Finnan most frequently. I know I should watch games on ESPN on mute, but if I hear Tommy Smyth bring up the speculation about Quaresma joining Liverpool over the summer one more time, all bets are off.

Meanwhile, the two stars noticeable in their absence against Portsmouth did little today. Torres was isolated and marked out of the game, even more so (naturally) after Liverpool went down to 10 men. Voronin certainly seemed the better outlet for that style of play after he came on. Gerrard was invisible for much of the match, although the few times he was on the ball he made a decent move or pass. I hope it’s a sign of tiredness following the internationals and a lack of match-fitness prior to that, and not a recurrence of injury.

But I will calm down. I know Liverpool is better than they played today. And it’s a point earned, when they might not have deserved it, from what’s probably the toughest away game. Benitez will make sure that players learn from today, hopefully none more than Jermaine Pennant.

And there are less than four days until Liverpool gets to make amends for today’s performance.

17 September 2007

Liverpool at FC Porto 09.18.07

2:45pm EST on espn2

Qualifying Round:
Liverpool: 4-0 Toulouse (h); 1-0 Toulouse (a)
Porto qualified for the group stage as champions of Portugal.

Last 3 matches:
Liverpool: 0-0 Portsmouth (a); 6-0 Derby (h); 4-0 Toulouse (h)
Porto: 1-0 Maritimo (h); 3-0 Uniao Leiria (a); 1-0 Sporting Lisbon (h)

Referee: Lubos Michel (SVK)

Guess at a squad
Finnan Carragher Agger Arbeloa
Pennant Gerrard Mascherano Babel
Torres Kuyt

The first choice pairing of Torres and Kuyt seemingly has to start on Tuesday. Liverpool missed Torres’s class from the off against Portsmouth on Tuesday. Let’s hope he displays it against Porto and has a point to prove as well, as a big reason he left Atletico was to play in the Champions League.

Just as Torres was left on the bench against Portsmouth and should start here, barring any injury complications, Gerrard should as well. Hopefully resting him for the majority of this weekend’s match has helped; he clearly tired while playing for England, but I have to believe he’ll start in what will be one of Liverpool’s toughest group games.

And he’ll probably be paired with Mascherano, who played in both of Liverpool’s European qualifying games and wasn’t even in the squad against Portsmouth. Mascherano and Gerrard has been a formidable pairing for Liverpool. They’ve been the central midfield partnership (without Alonso or Sissoko) in 3 games for Liverpool since Masch joined. Those games were 4-0 Sheffield Utd, 1-0 Chelsea (CL) and 1-0 Toulouse (CL). Not a bad precedent.

Riise’s ruled out with a groin injury picked up while playing for Norway while Aurelio returns, but I’ll be very surprised if Fabio’s thrown directly into the squad. There had been injury concerns over Finnan, Arbeloa, and Alonso following the Portsmouth match, and if those three players are out, changes will have to be made to the backline, but it looks like Riise, Sissoko, and Kewell are the only players definitively ruled out.

Had Riise been fit I would expect him in the team, at either left back or in left midfield with Porto’s strength on the flanks. Similar to the conservatism in tough away games like Benitez used against Aston Villa. But with Riise injured and Aurelio unready, I have to believe that Babel will start on the left. I still think Babel’s better as a substitute at this stage, but Benayoun wasn’t nearly influential enough on the left on Saturday, and this is probably too tough a game for Leto to get a second start. Either Pennant or Benayoun seems likely to line up on the right, and while neither did themselves much justice in the last match, chances are it’ll be Pennant.

Despite their much-discussed personnel losses over the offseason (Pepe to Real Madrid and Anderson to Manchester United), Porto is an excellent team. Defending champions of the Portuguese Superliga, and back on top of the table, undefeated, after four games this season. Like Liverpool, they’ve been exceptionally stingy at the back. They haven’t shipped a goal in their last three, and have only let in one this season, in the first match against Braga.

Ricardo Quaresma, who’s been rumored to join basically every big club in Europe over the past couple of years, will get most of the press. Unfortunately, he’s frequently compared to his compatriot Cristiano Ronaldo, and can play on either the left or right flank. The young winger leads Porto in both goals (2) and yellow cards (3). Argentinean playmaker Lucho Gonzalez is also going to attract a lot of attention in midfield, and Porto’s strength in the middle of the park is part of the reason I’m guessing Gerrard and Mascherano will play.

However, Porto has injury concerns as well, with their goalkeeper (Helton), one of the central defenders (Pedro Emanuel) and two strikers (Helger Postiga and Adriano) all probably out, while right back Boswinga, who was linked to Aston Villa over the summer, is questionable.

Benitez has already said that Liverpool could need 12 points to assure passage to the knockout rounds. If that’s to be attained, Liverpool needs to win all their home games, which is certainly achievable, and away at least once.

A win here, while getting that vital away victory, would also start Liverpool on the right foot in the competition. A weaker line-up was played against Portsmouth partly because of the international break, but also with an eye on this game. A win would definitely remove those last lingering tastes of Saturday’s draw.

Roll on Porto.

15 September 2007

Liverpool 0-0 Portsmouth

Finnan Carragher Agger Arbeloa
Pennant Sissoko Alonso Benayoun
Crouch Voronin

The game against Derby raised hopes so high now it’s bound to be all doom and gloom after a draw at Portsmouth. I’m not thrilled by any stretch of the imagination, but it’s not the end of the world either.

The game saw Finnan and Carragher return from injury, but post-internationals, Gerrard and Torres started on the bench. Liverpool started the game brightly, but after keeping them out for the first 20 minutes of pressure Portsmouth grew into the game, and Liverpool missed the cutting edge those two bring.

30 minutes in, Pompey were awarded a penalty when Arbeloa pulled Kanu’s shirt in the box. If we’re being technical, shirt-pulling is a penalty, but I’ve seen them not called more often than called, especially when the defender’s going to make the clearance regardless. Not to mention that it looked like Kanu was offside and the actual shirt-pulling began outside the box. And that’s the second penalty Riley’s given against Liverpool in the two games he’s officiated.

Thankfully Reina came to the rescue. Kanu went for placement to his left, Reina guessed correctly, justice done. Third time lucky as saving penalties goes for Reina this season.

The second half saw both sides carve out chances, but neither side able to make the most of them. Voronin clipped the bar with a clever chip and Torres shot over when open on the left, but Pompey probably had the better opportunities; Utaka missed one-on-one with Reina and Muntari volleyed wide, among others.

Portsmouth had a fair bit more possession in the second half and Liverpool was willing to soak up the pressure and look to attack on the counter, and it showed in the chances. It didn’t help that Liverpool often resorted to the long ball and Campbell and Distin were imperious in defense for Portsmouth. Torres (63rd) and Gerrard (67th) came on in an attempt to get the elusive goal, with Babel on for Alonso ten minutes later, but nothing was coming.

Even though it didn't show as much as hoped after they came on, I think today’s result would have been different had Gerrard and Torres been on from the start. I understand having one eye on the future, especially with the internationals last week and a Champions League game on Tuesday, but this was always going to be a tough match, and those two players are a class apart. I’m a bit surprised that Crouch/Voronin started today and Torres/Kuyt probably will on Tuesday instead of vice versa, but Rafa obviously has his reasons.

And at the end of the day, Benitez’s gambit was understandable. Liverpool had enough quality on the field to win. Players did not play to their full potential; it’s happened before, and it’ll probably happen again.

Crouch did nothing to further his claim for a regular start, Voronin spurned too many opportunities, Pennant didn’t equal his previous performances, Benayoun went invisible in the second half, and Alonso looked out of sorts (and went off with a knock). Too often, Liverpool failed to take advantage of free kicks. They had 5 or 6 in dangerous positions in the first half alone, and at least 3 were sent into the wall. All this annoys me far more than the fact Liverpool only got a point.

What’s also disappointing is both United and Arsenal scored winners after 80 minutes in their games, while Liverpool continued to play the long ball as if Crouch was still in. Long ball from Reina or a defender, Portsmouth wins possession, Liverpool invites them on, and eventually reclaims the ball. Then repeat. Much bypassed Gerrard and Babel, and it didn’t play to Torres’ strengths either, negating the substitutions Liverpool made.

But I have to reiterate, it’s not the end of the world.

It was the first game that Liverpool’s failed to score in this season. Fratton Park is always a tough place to go, with Pompey showing why they’re fancied for a European place this season, and it’s a point more than was gained there last season. Sol Campbell and Sylvain Distin were outstanding. It’s the 4th straight clean sheet, and Liverpool’s yet to concede a goal from open play. And 7 points from 9 in three away games is a marked improvement over last season.

To be fair, this is a game that Liverpool probably would have lost last season. And they almost did today; Reina’s penalty save earned Liverpool a point, and Portsmouth did have the better opportunities.

Now, for all that was said about the league being the priority, a stronger line-up should play at Porto on Tuesday. Let’s hope for a hammering.

14 September 2007

Liverpool at Portsmouth 09.15.07

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

Being without DirecTV, if I can catch a stream, I will, but otherwise it’s replayed on Setanta at 4:30pm, and I’ll have a review up after that.

Last 4 head-to-head (league):
1-2 Portsmouth (a) 04.28.07
0-0 (h) 11.29.06
3-1 Liverpool (a) 05.07.06
3-0 Liverpool (h) 11.19.05

Last 3 matches:
Liverpool: 6-0 Derby (h); 4-0 Toulouse (h); 2-0 Sunderland (a)
Portsmouth: 1-3 Arsenal (a); 3-0 Leeds (h); 0-1 Chelsea (a)

Goalscorers (league):
Liverpool: Torres 3; Alonso, Voronin 2; Babel, Gerrard, Sissoko 1
Portsmouth: Benjani, Kanu, Utaka 2; Taylor 1

Referee: Mike Riley

Guess at a squad:
Arbeloa Carragher Agger Riise
Pennant Sissoko Alonso Benayoun
Torres Kuyt

As much as it annoys me, the international games will play a role in the team selection. Rafa has used a lot of the same players in the league, despite all the talk of rotation, and has kept the shape of the team the same in all outings, but some changes will have to be made with so many players seeing time for their countries over the past week.

Alonso’s red card for Spain on Saturday was a blessing for Liverpool. He’ll be fresh for Saturday’s game having only played 45 minutes for the reserves on Tuesday (as a center back no less). Mascherano was unlikely to start anyway, thanks to jet lag returning from Australia after a meaningless friendly.

Whether or not it’s Gerrard or Sissoko paired with Alonso remains to be seen. It all depends on if Rafa’s willing to risk Gerrard for Portsmouth away. He looked good for England, and claims the toe hasn’t been an issue, but he’s not completely match-fit, and has played two tiring games in the past week. Benitez is hopeful that Gerrard will see some action, but with it so early in the season and his fitness still somewhat a doubt, I don’t know if it’s worth it. I always want Gerrard on the field, but it’s probably for the best if Stevie’s held back for at least one more match. The way Sissoko’s played recently doesn’t hurt matters either, especially in a tough away game like this will probably be.

With Babel playing more than expected for Holland, I reckon that Benayoun will make his first start in the league. I don’t know whether Pennant or Benayoun will line up on the right or the left, but I imagine if both start, they’ll end up switching flanks at some point anyway. Maybe a chance of a Leto sighting, as against Toulouse, but I doubt it.

No matter the internationals however, I’m still of the opinion that Torres needs to start every game possible. We’ve seen his potential to be one of the best strikers in the Premiership and a game-changer at that. And if that happens, I don’t think it’s very likely Crouch will start with him. It’s slightly worrying, as Crouch is probably the freshest of all the strikers, but we haven’t seen him paired with Torres at all this season, and I don’t know how effective the combination could be. Kuyt or Voronin will probably pair Torres, and with Torres/Kuyt appearing to be the preferred partnership, I imagine that’s who will start.

Finnan’s probably out injured, which means that Arbeloa should play on the right with Riise on the left (although Aurelio is back in training as well). However, from all I’ve read this week, it looks like Carragher’s going to make his return from a broken rib suffered only 3 weeks ago. The man’s a legend.

Portsmouth has turned into something of a bogey team for Liverpool. They took 4 points off the Reds last season, although a mountain of changes were made for the game in April. And Pompey won on penalties in the Asia Trophy at the end of July, although, yes, I’m aware that it was a preseason game. But it was quite closely contested and Liverpool had trouble breaking them down, which Benitez will definitely mindful of.

Fratton Park is never an easy place to play either, as Manchester United will attest to. I also look forward to hearing that bell clanging so early in the morning.

So far, Portsmouth’s gotten 5 points from 5. One game they’ll play out an ugly draw with Derby, the next, they’re holding Manchester United. And they should have done better against a 10-man Arsenal in their last game, letting in some poor goals. But make no mistake; Portsmouth is a better team than they were last year.

The addition of David Nugent and John Utaka has bolstered the frontline, while Muntari and Papa Bouba Diop (who looks likely to make his debut) add steel in midfield. Matty Taylor’s still an outstanding player who can create goals from nothing. David James always seems to have a blinder against his former team. And I can’t help but enjoy the antics of Harry Redknapp, who’s an excellent manager in his own right.

Still, Liverpool’s looked very good over the past few games. They’ve kept a clean sheet in the last 3, and are top of the league for the first time under Benitez (although that means next to nothing yet). I still can’t decide if I think that Villa or Pompey away is a tougher match, but nonetheless, these are the games that were singled out as games Liverpool needed to do better in. A tough away match, against a team likely to finish in the top half, and it’s an early kickoff following an international break to boot.

Should Liverpool keep up the pace tomorrow, it will be another step in the road, and another sign that this is a different team than in seasons past.

Let’s see it happen.

13 September 2007

Predictions 9/15 – 9/17

Saturday is a weird day, with a number of games in irregular timeslots, and I have no idea why.

Everton v Manchester United, 7am, Setanta: I’d love a draw here, as the result wouldn't please either team, but Manchester United knows they need to pick up points and quick before the season gets away from them (I can't believe I'm writing that in mid-September). They'll also be aided by the fact Ronaldo finally returns from suspension, and Ferguson will probably be even angrier than usual following his “altercation” in a London train station this week. Plus, I really don’t like seeing Everton this high up in the table, even if it is only September, and even if that means a United win. United 1-0
Tottenham v Arsenal, 8:30am, FSC: Spurs/Arsenal is frequently the most entertaining London derby. Both teams like to attack, and there's certainly no love lost between the two. The past few results have either been draws or Arsenal wins, but I think Tottenham is going to surprise on Saturday. Maybe I’m hoping against hope, but Spurs has to have a good performance soon, or else the speculation surrounding Jol is going to continue. Also, I’m a bit surprised Arsenal is unbeaten so far and I’d like to see that change. Spurs 2-1
Sunderland v Reading, 10am, Setanta: With the injuries to Sunderland's key players (Whitehead, Richardson, and Edwards, among others), on paper it looks like they'll struggle Saturday. But Reading has looked out of sorts in the last two games, losing 3-0 to both Bolton (a) and West Ham (h). That and Roy Keane's Sunderland has proven difficult to beat at home against both Manchester United and Liverpool, while Michael Chopra’s due to return to the score sheet after getting two in his first two games. Sunderland 1-0
West Ham v Middlesbrough, 10am-ish, FSC (joined in progress following Spurs/Arsenal): I was surprised at how well West Ham played in the couple of games before the international break, especially considering how many injuries they've accrued. I've also been surprised by Boro, as Mido's fit right into the line-up and they haven't really missed either Yakubu or Viduka. But the Hammers have been better, and considering how they finished last season and the players missing or sold, more impressive. Hammers 2-1
Birmingham v Bolton, 10am: Even with Bolton's early struggles, and the fact that they're away to Birmingham, I can't see the Brummies putting one over on them. Worst-case scenario for Bolton is probably a draw, but with the way Anelka's been scoring, I can't imagine that Birmingham will be able to keep pace. Bolton 2-1
Wigan v Fulham, 10am: Fulham at Wigan is never going to be the most impressive game on the fixture list, but this one should be entertaining nonetheless. Of course, that doesn’t mean it won’t be ugly though. Wigan under Chris Hutchings has done better than expected, while Lawrie Sanchez has Fulham playing decent football, especially with Clint Dempsey chipping in goals. 1-1
Chelsea v Blackburn, 12:15pm, FSC: I find it hard to believe Chelsea will underwhelm in back-to-back games. After a disappointing loss to Villa, they’ll assuredly come out ready to play. Blackburn’s undefeated, with wins against City and Boro and good draws against Everton and Arsenal, but Chelsea, at Stamford Bridge and with vengeance on their minds, should prove to be too much. Chelsea 1-0
Manchester City v Aston Villa, 11am Sunday, FSC: Ahh, Eriksson's coming back down to Earth. After City’s start, highlighted by the derby win over United, they’ve lost their last two, and the injury to Bojinov hasn’t helped. Meanwhile, Villa's coming off a win against Chelsea, and while they've been better at home than away, I still fancy them to keep up their pace. Villa 2-1
Derby v Newcastle, 3pm Monday, Setanta: I refuse to pick Derby to get any points until things change. They can’t be any worse than they were at Liverpool two weeks ago, but there were no promising signs from them at all, and as of now, they look likely to challenge Sunderland’s record lowest points total. Newcastle 1-0

Liverpool v Portsmouth is at 7:45am Saturday on Setanta Sports Xtra.

12 September 2007

England 3-0 Russia

Well, I asked to see England give a similar performance to that against Israel on Saturday. The same line-up and same scoreline certainly satisfies that.

As promised, Russia aimed to do far more in the opposition’s half than Israel. They got into England’s box within the first minute and also forced the first corner. And before seven minutes were up, they paid for that directness, with England able to create opportunities of their own with the resulting space.

After Gareth Barry’s corner was cleared back to him on the right flank, he sent in a threatening cross. John Terry’s run and attempt at a header made mountains of space for Michael Owen, who made no mistake in side-footing home off the far post, giving England a dream start.

From the inception, England looked to equal Russia’s attack, and we were treated to an open and entertaining match, at least for the first half. Wright-Phillips and Richards were the focal point of the attack down the right flank for the first part of the game, as they were against Israel, and once again, Heskey looked to set up those around him admirably.

But Russia should have pulled level 19 minutes in. England failed to clear the ball, and it came to Zhyrianov, who chested it down, swiftly turned, and slotted it in. However, it was chalked off for handball, and honestly, it might have come off his arm after the chest. It sure looked to be incidental contact if it happened though, and England could consider themselves lucky.

But just after half an hour, Owen made it 2-0 after a flick-on from the ubiquitous Heskey with a delightful first-time volley. The half finished as it started, with both teams having decent spells of possession and decent chances on goal.

After the break, Russia was the better team for large stretches of the second half but without any stellar chances (although Robinson made a couple of nice saves), and honestly, the final 45 minutes were pretty dross. But credit to England, who held on and sealed the victory in the 84th minute with a stunning goal from Rio Ferdinand, faking out the defender and stepping past him before unleashing a strike from close range.

With Owen getting a brace, he’s got to be man of the match. Both goals showed how classy a poacher Owen can be, and if he can maintain his fitness (which has to be a big if after the last couple of years), he’ll soon be doing similar in the Premiership.

Gareth Barry was also again influential in midfield, this time overshadowing Gerrard’s contributions with his excellent passing. Gerrard did play the full 90 minutes, looked fit, and didn’t appear to take any knocks, which is great news for Liverpool fans. Joe Cole also threatened at times, but by the end of the game, showed his temperament in picking up a silly and unnecessary yellow card in a game that was otherwise without malice.

Heskey’s also going to get a bit of attention, and rightfully so, even if the majority of it is because of surprise at his inclusion in the last two games. I’ll say it straight up; I do not think Heskey is a better footballer than Peter Crouch. But if Michael Owen is going to be the focal point of the attack, which has become obvious, Heskey is the best partner for him. They know each other that well and complement one another excellently. It’ll be interesting to see how McClaren copes once Rooney is fit, as Heskey and Owen have looked a better partnership than any of the strikers paired with Rooney since 2004.

So all that was said after the Israel game has seemingly come to fruition. England could replicate their performance against better opposition. They’ve gotten ahead of Russia on points, and won so convincingly (or at least, the scoreline was convincing) that it has to be a psychological boost going into the game in Russia. And they’ve put themselves in pole position to qualify from this group.

But there’s still work to be done. Despite never wanting to seem confident about any team I root for, England should stroll over Estonia, especially based on the past two games. And they probably could drop points in Russia or against Croatia and be safe. But the key word in that sentence is “or.” England probably needs two wins from the final two games to advance. It’ll help matters that Croatia should have qualification sewn up by the final game, but I won’t put anything past England after how good the Croats have looked and England’s atrocious performance in Zagreb.

Still, as an England fan, you couldn’t have asked for much more from this game.

And even better is the fact that the Premiership resumes in less than three days.

11 September 2007

Is the international break over yet?

Apologies for the radio silence, but after about a week, I’m always sick of the international break and completely ready for the Premiership to restart. I try to fill my brain with England instead of Liverpool, but I’m not an England blogger by any stretch of the imagination.

However, I may end up paying $20 for the “privilege” of watching England against Russia tomorrow, so fair warning.

To compensate, here’s some links about what’s going on with Liverpool players:

- Carra’s back in training.

- As is Aurelio, who participated in a reserve game against Crewe today (along with Alonso, Pennant, Arbeloa, Benayoun, Sissoko, Lucas and new boys Damien Plessis and Dani Pacheco, among others).

- And maybe even Kewell (what, is there a final coming up soon?), although this article reckoned he’d play against Crewe, which he did not.

- But now Finnan looks likely to miss more than just the internationals.

- In the “things I did not know" category, Gerrard attributes his excellent partnership with Gareth Barry to their close friendship.

- And while I’m quite late posting this, Jonathan sent in a link from the Liverpool Echo about how every single Liverpool player, as well as Rafa Benitez, is for sale.

Where are all the Liverpool players playing this week?
Gerrard, Crouch, Carson – Gerrard is the only one likely to start against Russia (although predicting McClaren has become nigh on impossible), but I assume we’ll see Crouch as a sub.
Alonso, Reina, Torres – Spain hosts Latvia in a must-win game. Alonso is suspended after his red card on Saturday and is back on Merseyside, Torres will probably start despite coming off after 57 minutes on Saturday, and Reina will back up Iker Casillas.
Babel, Kuyt – Holland is at Albania in a Group G qualifier. Babel started on Saturday, but Kuyt was dropped in place of van Nistelrooy.
Voronin – Ukraine hosts Italy in a match they’ll need to win to get qualification back on track.
Hyypia – 2nd place Finland hosts 1st place Poland in Group A qualifying.
Riise – Norway hosts Greece in another 2nd v 1st matchup (Greece is two points ahead with a game in hand).
Agger – Denmark should canter over Lichtenstein in Group F qualifying.
MascheranoMascherano’s Argentina played a friendly in Australia early this morning and won 1-0. I’m absolutely thrilled he flew halfway around the world for that; I’ll be surprised if he’s involved against Portsmouth.

09 September 2007

England 3-0 Israel

That went about as well as England could have hoped. To be fair, Israel was pretty dire.

Since by now most have probably read a write-up of the game if not saw the match, I’ll limit my thoughts for brevity’s sake.

- It’s hard to tell how much was actual progress and players playing to potential, and how much was down to Israel’s poor performance, which should be kept in mind throughout my comments. Israel defended from the opening whistle and showed little ambition to get forward. Robinson didn’t have a save to make.

- What is this, 2002? The way that Heskey and Owen played, it sure seemed like it. And while surprising, it’s undeniably pleasing to see. There’s certainly some nostalgia value as a Liverpool fan. I can’t believe I’m writing this, but the pairing has to start against Russia, even considering Crouch returns from suspension. It was a marvelous goal by Mickey too, even if he was wasteful on other occasions.

- Gerrard played well, but slowed as the game went on and limped off after 70 minutes with Wednesday’s match in mind, although today he's said that the toe's healing and it was down to cramp and a lack of fitness. Pity how important the Russia game is, as McClaren will undoubtedly start him again. Heaven help my reaction should Stevie re-injure his foot.

- I thought Gareth Barry in central midfield and both Joe Cole and Wright-Phillips on the flanks were excellent, which means all the more as Barry rarely plays for England, Cole’s been frequently injured, and Wright-Phillips hasn’t always impressed in an England shirt.

- Funny how Frank Lampard doesn’t play and all of England’s midfielders earn plaudits.

- Micah Richards just took Gary Neville’s England place. I just feel absolutely awful for Citizen Neville.

- The booing of David Bentley after he came on was wholly out of order. So he skipped the Under-21 Euros as to avoid fatigue for the side that pay his wages after a long and grinding season where he saw more time than he ever had in the past, and after he had already featured as a full England international. An understandable decision, and were he a Liverpool player, I would have applauded it. And for fans to boo him incessantly is mind-bogglingly small-minded and juvenile.

- Thanks for stealing “Ring of Fire” from Liverpool, England fans. Now I’m going to feel dirty when (if) it’s heard ringing throughout Anfield.

With Macedonia’s loss to Russia and Israel’s dire performance (and a game less left than their competitors), it’s pretty clear that 2nd place in Group E is between England and Russia.

Croatia, 2 points ahead of Russia and 3 ahead of England, is going to win the group. And on results, they deserve to. They’ve been the best team so far, and they’ve probably got the easiest run-in of the teams in contention.

England hosts Russia and Estonia before traveling to Russia and finishing against Croatia at Wembley. Croatia is at Andorra, home against Israel, and at Macedonia before traveling to England. Russia has the two games against England before Israel and Andorra away.

Russia was always going to be a harder ask than Israel, and thanks to England’s win yesterday, it’s even more essential that they pick up three more points Wednesday to keep up momentum. As one of the two is going to finish second in the group, the winner of this game will have an enormous advantage over the other.

Should Russia win, they’ll be four points up on England, and England will assuredly need to win their last three. It will also be a big ask for England to pick themselves up from what would be a devastating loss.

And a draw wouldn’t be much better. Russia will still lead on points, they’ll be that much more confident going into the home game, and England will still probably have to win their last three.

But should England play as they did against Israel and win, as they certainly looked capable of, it will put them in an excellent position for the remaining qualifiers.

So is today’s result another false dawn for England, like the early matches of McClaren’s reign, or a true turning point?

We’ll find out on Wednesday.

07 September 2007

England v Israel 09.07.07

The more I think about it, the less incredulous I am that England must win games against Israel and Russia to even have a chance at qualifying for Euro 2008.

The problems aren’t solely because of injuries to key players, although the absence of Rooney, Lampard, Beckham, Owen (in previous matches), and Hargreaves (possibly), among others, has and will continue to hurt.

It’s not even because of Steve McClaren, although he hasn’t helped matters or himself.

And while the FA has time and time again proved themselves criminally inept, running the gamut of foul-ups, it’s not completely their fault either.

This has been a long time coming.

England underperformed at the 2006 World Cup, but that in and of itself isn’t all that surprising. There’s definitely a precedent for it.

But since then, they’ve clearly regressed. Which after Sven Goran Eriksson I didn't think possible.

Right now, England sits fourth in Group E on 14 points. Russia has 15, Israel and Croatia 17, although Israel has played one more game than the other three. When the group was drawn up, with England matched up against those three teams as well as Macedonia, Estonia, and Andorra, the majority of pundits were pleased at the outcome. This originally looked like a group that England could qualify from with ease.

But it hasn’t been.

After two wins against Andorra and Macedonia that gave the appearance that McClaren might be a different manager than Eriksson, England drew against Macedonia at home 0-0, lost to Croatia 0-2 in the embarrassing ‘3-5-2’ game, and drew Israel 0-0 in Tel Aviv. The last two games have seen 3-0 away victories over Estonia and Andorra, but had England not won those games, riots may have ensued.

In reaction to these problems, McClaren’s major moves have been to recall Beckham and now Heskey, and play as conservative a style as the one that Eriksson was lambasted for. Mistake-prone Paul Robinson is still the #1 keeper, no headway has been made in Lampard v Gerrard debate (as an aside, Gerrard’s been declared fit and may not even need an injection to play Saturday, and while I’m not happy about it, I’ve no desire to enter the club v country debate), and England is woefully understaffed at forward.

Nowhere near enough progress has been made in blooding youngsters, and that’s been a major fault of the last two England managers (especially in friendlies), but it’s also due to the media culture that demands results every time of asking and cries bloody murder when “star players” are left out.

And yet, England should still be favorites to qualify.

As proven in Tel Aviv last March, Israel will be no walk in the park. Benayoun, Ben Haim, Toto Tamuz, and Sahar are excellent players, three of whom ply their trade in England. Once again, it will come down to whether or not England can breach the opposition’s defense and score goals against decent opposition, which, despite their overall superiority, they were unable to do at Ramat Gan.

But this time should be different just in that it’s the national team’s first qualifier at Wembley. Being back at the national stadium, in the first meaningful game held there, should catalyze the team. That is, if the crowd stays on their side, which will come down to McClaren’s tactics and how England starts the game.

After the next two games, England will host Estonia and travel to Russia in October before finishing qualification at home against Croatia on November 21st. Chances are that England will need to win 4 out of the remaining 5 games to qualify.

And while I’ve spent the whole article trashing the team, manager, and set-up, they should be able to accomplish this.

Maybe it’s my biases or maybe it’s the fact that England’s always been one of football’s pre-eminent nations (not a joke, I swear), despite some of the results in major tournaments. But I can’t fathom England not qualifying for Euro 08, despite not being all that surprised at previous results or the state the England’s currently in. And I refuse to join the camp that secretly (or overtly) hopes against qualification for the sake of shaking the foundations of the international set-up.

I will however admit that should England drop points in either of these matches over the next week, the ‘McClaren out’ campaign will look mighty appetizing.

Roll on England.

Guess at a squad:
Richards Ferdinand Terry A. Cole
Wright-Phillips Carrick Gerrard J. Cole
Owen Heskey

05 September 2007

Well, this might explain it…

If you’re at all like me, you've probably wondered why Peter Crouch is whistled for fouls far more often in Europe than in the Premier League.

World Cup refs 'targeted Crouch'

Former referee Graham Poll says officials at last summer's World Cup were encouraged by Fifa to "look out for" England striker Peter Crouch.

Crouch, 26, is banned for the Euro 2008 qualifier against Israel on Saturday and Poll says that is no surprise.

He told BBC 5live: "Fifa's head of refereeing said, 'look at Crouch, he's a pain and he gets away with a lot. We need to mark him out and look for him'.

"We were shown videos of him. I tried to defend him, being English."

"We had been out there for two or three weeks before, and it was pointed out the way he used his arms.

"Now, Crouch has been picking up cautions in qualifying and is out of Saturday's match."

Would this be the same World Cup where the same head of refereeing (Jose-Maria Garcia Aranda) wrote about “proactive refereeing” beforehand and there were a record number of yellow and red cards on display?

I’ve long suspected Crouch was treated differently because of his height, and there have been times where he’s been frustrated straight out of matches.

Maybe this is why he averaged a foul per appearance in the Premier League and nearly double that in the Champions League last season. More tellingly, Crouch committed about twice as many fouls than were committed against him in the Champions League. In the Premiership, more fouls were committed against Crouch than by him. The numbers are even worse in the World Cup, where in 4 games, 13 fouls were committed by Crouch and only 5 fouls were committed on Crouch.

Lies, damned lies, and statistics...

He uses his height as an advantage to be sure, but the amount of fouls he’s called for in European competition has long been disproportionate and in some cases has bordered on the absurd. And now we’ve got an explanation why.

Seeing as how Crouch looks likely to get most of his time this season in the Champions League, I’d hope that Poll’s comments go some way towards rectifying this.

Also, the irony of Graham Poll criticizing referees for their World Cup performance is utterly delightful.

04 September 2007

Is Pennant an answer for England?

It’s with little exaggeration that I say Jermaine Pennant’s been a revelation so far this season.

We saw glimpses of it as he improved over the second half of last season, and Pennant did have the most appearances of any Liverpool player in '06-07 (which means he was doing something right). But in the four league games so far this year, Pennant’s assured his spot in the squad and become one of Liverpool’s most dangerous players in the process.

His biggest improvement has been his crossing at pace. Pennant’s role in the team is to beat his man and whip a cross in from the byline. Too often last season, he’d come to a stop and settle himself before blasting in a cross, or if he was running full speed, the cross wouldn’t be the most accurate or it’d be floated in without enough velocity.

Not this season. Pennant’s crossing while in a full sprint has been nearly perfect. There was a moment against Derby that epitomizes this for me. In the first 15 minutes, before Pennant switched over to the left, he was running with the ball down the right and just before he hit the top of the box, no-looked the defender and chipped a perfect cross with pace into Torres, who was unlucky not to get his header further away from Bywater.

Pennant is one of the few Liverpool players who does this successfully. All the other great crossers on the team, such as Finnan, Gerrard, and even Aurelio, are far better when pinging balls in from a standing position. It is far and away harder to play in crosses while running at pace, and if successful, it challenges the defense so much more.

But he’s also matured as a player and professional. You never hear of personal problems, as you did when he was at Arsenal or Birmingham, and he’s gotten so much better defensively in tracking back and pinning the fullbacks in their own half (against Ashley Cole and Chelsea being a prime example).

I understand the complaints about his lack of a goal threat, but as he progresses as a crosser of the ball and an all-around player, it’s becoming less of a concern, and if he continues to improve as he has done, I imagine goals will come.

The other major improvement in my eyes has been Pennant’s play on the left of midfield, and that’s where the title of this post comes in.

Pennant: I don't mind being left

We know England’s problems on the flanks. Both flanks. Whether Joe Cole’s injured on the left, or Beckham’s recalled (and subsequently injured) on the right, among other issues. The biggest concern is that without Joe Cole, England looks lost down the left.

It’s still very early days of Pennant playing on the left for Liverpool, but the results so far have been excellent. I understand the last game against Derby was always going to be a rout, but after 20 minutes, when Pennant moved over to the left and Babel to the right, the game really opened up. Pennant cutting in on his right foot utterly embarrassed Tyrone Mears time and time again. It was his running with the ball that earned Alonso’s free kick that opened the floodgates.

We’ve seen Cole play on the right flank for Chelsea as well as on the left. And with Pennant demonstrating the potential to do the same, imagine if England could use this to maximum effect. Cole not having any joy on the left? Switch him with Pennant, and let them have a go at the opposite fullbacks. It’s an underappreciated asset, and there’s a reason why Benitez has cultivated it in Liverpool this season.

Also, say the rumors are true, and Joe Cole’s really going to pair Michael Owen up top against Israel because of Rooney’s injury and Crouch’s suspension. I find it hard to believe that Stuart Downing would be a greater threat on the left than Pennant. Downing’s improved, and admittedly is more of a goal threat than Pennant, but he’s still got a tendency to drift in and out of games, doesn’t run at defenders nearly enough, and hasn’t played anywhere near his best in an England shirt.

McClaren is never going to experiment like this in what are essential Euro 08 qualifiers. He’s far too conservative as a manager (he’s recalled Heskey (?!) instead of taking a chance on Ashton for fuck’s sake). But had he the foresight to experiment with it in the worthless friendlies against Brazil or Germany, it might be a different story, and I firmly believe England would be better for it.

I can’t really criticize taking Ashley Young or David Bentley. Both, like Pennant, are young and improving by the game, and should be involved in the England set-up. But Pennant is at least as much of an option as those two, if not playing better than both so far this season. And why he hasn’t been called up at all is beyond me.

But in all honesty, I’m not that bothered if he’s not called up, although I firmly believe he deserves it. His priority, and mine, is his play for Liverpool, which I have very few complaints about. And long may it continue.

03 September 2007

Happy Birthday, blog

I’m pleasantly surprised that I’ve managed to keep going for a year.

I’m even more surprised that people keep reading, commenting and emailing.

Thanks to all -- it’s been fun so far, and I can’t imagine it ceasing to be.


01 September 2007

Liverpool 6-0 Derby County

Finnan Hyypia Agger Arbeloa
Pennant Alonso Mascherano Babel
Kuyt Torres

Alonso 27’ 69’
Babel 45 + 1’
Torres 56’ 78’
Voronin 76’

Six to nil! If you thought the Toulouse game was a hammering, you hadn’t seen anything yet. This was Liverpool’s biggest home win since 7-1 over Southampton in 1999, and it was mainly done at a canter.

It’s impossible to describe all the goals fully, or I’d be here all day. The first was an Alonso free kick that eluded everyone, including the goalkeeper. The second came on the stroke of halftime, Agger playing a perfect throughball halfway up the pitch to Arbeloa, who cut in an found Babel, whose touch left two defenders for dead and sent the goalkeeper the wrong way. 2-0 at halftime didn’t quite do Liverpool justice, but Liverpool hadn’t really taken it out of second gear. However, the final score does do the match justice.

The second half started exactly as the first, with Liverpool the only team at the races. Torres scored in the 56th minute after a lovely Mascherano tackle that put him through on goal. Alonso got a second with a sweet side-footed shot when the ball fell to him just outside the box after Benayoun was tackled. Voronin, who came on for Babel only minutes earlier, scored the rebound after Kuyt’s shot was saved for the fifth. And less than two minutes later, Torres wrapped up the scoring rounding the keeper after Voronin’s ball over the top of the backline. Only then did Liverpool take the foot of the gas, and the last 15 minutes were a complete formality.

Trust me, I know how poor Derby was. Liverpool shredded their backline at will, and Derby got worse after each goal. But with no exaggeration do I say that this looks like the best Liverpool team I’ve seen in ages. Liverpool showed a cutting edge that’s been absent for too long, even if it was against far inferior opposition that will most likely be relegated by Christmas time. This is the first time in a while that Liverpool put the game out of reach, and then kept at it for more goals. “Attack, attack, attack” hasn’t rung out at Anfield like that in far too long. And I can’t say enough about every player on the pitch today, and again, I still don’t believe that Liverpool played to their full potential.

It’s nigh on impossible to pick a man of the match. Torres scored two great goals, and again showed his strength, creativity, speed, and vision. Alonso notched two as well, was the fulcrum in the middle, and could have had more. Pennant was immense in the first half, and the most impressive thing was that he did his best work down the left, switching flanks with Babel after about 20 minutes. Mascherano covered absolutely every blade of grass on the pitch. Arbeloa and Finnan bombed down the flanks at will. Agger and Hyypia brought the ball out of defense fantastically, albeit with little Derby pressure in Liverpool’s half. Babel’s goal was an absolute thing of beauty. Benayoun, Voronin, and Sissoko all made impacts as subs, especially Voronin, who was in a great place to score the rebound from Kuyt and played a delicious pass for Torres’ second with Derby still reeling from his goal.

And it was all without Gerrard and Carragher, arguably Liverpool’s two most important players.

Again, I know, I’m getting carried away. Derby’s performance was one of the worst I’ve ever seen from an opposition team at Anfield, but you can’t let that detract from Liverpool’s performance. You can only beat the team that’s in front of you, and Liverpool utterly annihilated them.

And now, with Chelsea playing tomorrow, Liverpool tops the table with 10 points from 4 games. That’s a welcome sight, and one that’s been long in coming.

With the way Liverpool’s playing, it’s an absolute shame about the two-week international break. Hopefully, they’ll continue on this pace against Portsmouth on the 15th, and the way they’ve played so far this season, I fully expect it to happen.