29 December 2008

Midseason Stats Review 2008-09

I’m reviving a post I put up around this time last year, comparing where Liverpool stands now to the previous two league campaigns.

These are solely stats for the Premiership and don’t include yesterday’s win over Newcastle, even though it’d make this year’s totals look a bit better. 19 games – the midpoint of the season – seems more fitting. Plus, demonstrating my laziness, I already had numbers for the last two seasons.

Points total after 19 games:
08/09: 42
07/08: 37
06/07: 34

Results over 19 games:
08/09: 12 wins, 6 draws, 1 loss
07/08: 10 wins, 7 draws, 2 losses
06/07: 10 wins, 4 draws, 5 losses

League position after 19 games:
08/09:1st place
07/08: 4th place
06/07: 3rd place

# of points behind 1st place:
08/09: +1
07/08: -10, with a game in hand
06/07: -13

Goals scored after 19 games:
08/09: 30
07/08: 33
06/07: 28

Goals against after 19 games:
08/09: 12
07/08: 12
06/07: 15

Home Goals:
08/09: 16
07/08: 20
06/07: 20

Away Goals:
08/09: 14
07/08: 13
06/07: 8

Goal scorers:
08/09: Gerrard 6; Keane, Kuyt, Torres 5; Alonso, Riera 2; Arbeloa, Benayoun, Babel, Carragher 1
07/08: Torres 9; Gerrard 7; Babel, Kuyt, Voronin 3; Alonso, Benayoun 2; Hyypia, Sissoko 1
06/07: Kuyt 6; Bellamy 5; Alonso, Gerrard 3; Crouch, Garcia, Gonzalez 2; Agger, Carragher, Fowler, Riise 1

Clean Sheets:
08/09: 11
07/08: 10
06/07: 10

# of games Liverpool failed to score in:
08/09: 4 [Villa (a), Stoke (h), Fulham (h), West Ham (h)]
07/08: 5 [Pompey (a), Birmingham (h), Blackburn (a), United (h), City (a)]
06/07: 7 [Everton (a), Chelsea (a), Bolton (a), United (a), Arsenal (a), Boro (a), Portsmouth (h)]

Away form:
08/09: 6 wins, 2 draws, 1 loss; 20 points out of 27
07/08: 6 wins, 3 draws, 1 loss; 21 points out of 30
06/07: 2 wins, 2 draws, 5 losses; 8 points out of 27

Home form:
08/09: 6 wins, 4 draws; 22 points out of 30
07/08: 4 wins, 4 draws, 1 loss; 16 points out of 27
06/07: 8 wins, 2 draws; 26 points out of 30

Things that stand out:
• Before yesterday’s match at Newcastle, Liverpool was behind last season’s pace in terms of goals scored. And I reckon that might have something to do with Torres’ absence.
• Liverpool’s home form, while better than last season’s, is still worse than in 06/07, when the team went 14-4-1 at Anfield. At the same time, the away form, which has been much heralded, is only marginally different from last season’s results.
• For all the grief about the infuriating four home draws, including three scoreless, it’s the same amount as at this time last season. And Liverpool’s still had less scoreless games than in previous seasons, even if more have happened at Anfield.
• Liverpool’s goals are more equally distributed than last season – again, most likely because others (Gerrard, Keane, and Kuyt) have had to step up with Torres out.

• Regardless of the usual ‘the season’s only half over’ caution, there are still a few worries to keep in the back of the mind.
• The match against Chelsea on February 1st looks incredibly important. In addition, Liverpool still has to travel to United – who are 10 points off the pace with three games in hand.
• Liverpool still looks to have a problem with goals at Anfield. 16 is the smallest return from the past three seasons. And if you include yesterday’s Newcastle match – which makes the totals 10 home games and 10 away – Liverpool’s totaled more goals on the road than at Anfield.

Good Omens:
• With trips to Stamford Bridge, the Emirates, Villa Park, and Goodison out of the way, Liverpool arguably has an easier second half of the season.
• Long-term absentees Torres and Skrtel, as well as Aurelio, are soon to return to the line-up. All will improve the squad, especially Torres, whose goals (and presence) have been dearly missed.
• At the same time, Keane’s starting to show promise. Having scored three in his last two starts, the Irishman’s bedding into the side. Most importantly, he’s beginning to click with Gerrard – evidenced by his first goal against Bolton – similarly to how the captain set up many of Torres’ strikes last season. If those two can get on the same wavelength than Gerrard and Torres have, Keane will be especially dangerous. Of course, there still is the small matter of how he and Torres will pair together, and the effect that’ll have on the rest of the line-up.
• Reina led the league in clean sheets in both 06/07 and 07/08. And he’s delivered more scoreless games so far this season than at the same time in the last two campaigns.
• The recent emergence of Insua is also going to be very important. On his day, Aurelio can be one of the best left-backs in the world. He’s an incredibly gifted passer, good on set plays, and can get up and down the flanks. This superb play leading to Torres' goal against Inter sums up many of Aurelio's best qualities. But he’s also made of glass, and has only averaged around 27 games in all competitions in the last two seasons (less than half of the likes of Gerrard, Carragher, et al). And Liverpool’s other left backs under Benitez – Traore, Riise, and Dossena, have disappointed. If Insua can fill that void, and play at the level he’s shown in the last few games, it’ll firm up Liverpool’s already stingy defense.

28 December 2008

Liverpool 5-1 Newcastle

Carragher Agger Hyypia Insua
Mascherano Lucas
Benayoun Gerrard Babel

Gerrard 31' 66'
Hyypia 36'
Edgar 45+1'
Babel 50'
Alonso 76' (pen)

That’s one way to end the year.

To be fair, a four-goal margin of victory usually flatters the victors. Not today. It’s no exaggeration saying that Shay Given prevented Liverpool from tallying double-digits. Liverpool finished with 25 shots, 13 on target, more than double the opposition.

The visitors had seven excellent chances before a quarter of the game was completed. Given kept five of them out: Kuyt from close range, Gerrard trying to side-foot on a free run through the box and on a trademark shot three minutes later, and two stops on Lucas efforts. Hyypia narrowly headed wide from a corner in the 16th and had another cleared off the line by N’Zogbia.

But unlike in past games where Liverpool’s labored to open the scoring, they got the breakthrough around the half-hour mark, when Gerrard finally thundered an unstoppable shot into the top corner from Benayoun’s cutback, with a nice pass from Mascherano releasing the Israeli.

And five minutes later, Hyypia doubled the lead, but not before Owen had the ball in the net, only for Duff to be dubiously ruled offside. 1-1, especially when Liverpool was dominant, might have changed things, but the away side was rampant throughout, and the bad calls evened out when Lucas was clearly onside in the 78th.

Newcastle always looked vulnerable on corners, and Hyypia beat Coloccini in the 36th, jumping highest to meet Gerrard’s cross. The same combination almost put Liverpool up 3-0 in the 42nd, but again, Given came to the rescue.

And on the stroke of halftime, Liverpool’s own lax defending on corners allowed Newcastle to trim the advantage. Both Gerrard and Carra were caught ball watching, and Edgar rose for a free header.

Ameobi came on for Enrique after the break, and Newcastle were able to create and maintain better possession, but again, awful defending on a corner led to Babel cramming in from close range when Given couldn’t clear the Dutchman’s backheel after Lucas chested down (it wasn’t a handball) Hyypia’s flick.

Geremi nearly provided a lifeline in the 60th, when his 25-yard free kick ricocheted off the crossbar, but six minutes later, Liverpool sealed the points. Alonso replaced Benayoun, firming up the midfield when Newcastle was winning possession, which shifted Lucas to the right. And the Brazilian, who was probably my man of the match again (I’m worried I’m getting biased, writing this in the last two games he’s started, but I truly thought he was excellent), played a perfect throughball for Gerrard to run onto from the right, outpacing Coloccini to chip over Given.

10 minutes later, the captain must have rued not getting the chance to register a hat-trick when N’Gog, who replaced Gerrard in the 71st, was tripped in the box by Edgar. Alonso stepped up, and while Given went the right way, the Spaniard’s shot was struck too well. And Liverpool could have had more – the aforementioned dubious offside call, when N’Gog had the ball in the net, as well as another superb save from Given on Lucas from close range in the 89th (with N’Gog’s follow-up soft and easily cleared off the line). But 5-1, leaving Liverpool top of the league at the end of 2008, will do.

With Liverpool back in the 4-2-3-1, the game was won early on in midfield. Lucas and Mascherano were dominant, not giving Newcastle a sniff of possession and spreading the ball well. Masch basically marked a line in front of defense that the home side couldn’t pass, and Lucas got from box to box, in the middle of everything.

Gerrard was basically a striker in support of Kuyt, and hassled and harried just as well as the Dutchman. Although his finishing wasn’t the best early on, he still tallied twice and was able to be rested for the final 20 minutes. It was a bit of a surprise to see Keane left out for the entirety after his performance Friday, but the reprieve will do him good, and Liverpool continued to score in his absence.

I also should apologize to Hyypia, who I assumed would be too knackered to start two in a row. That couldn’t be further from the truth – once again, the Finn was imperious at the back and a constant threat from set plays. Insua (and Agger, when Newcastle was pushed back) again supplemented the attack well, although Duff beat him for a pace a couple of times.

Another apology is due to Babel, who did well starting on the left (and playing for the full match). He was error-prone and in and out of the game for the early period when Liverpool was dominant, but was an increasingly effective outlet as the game went on, and did well to force the goal that basically guaranteed the win.

The last two games have seen Liverpool play their best football of the season, and it’s come at the perfect time. Halfway through the season, the team’s hitting their stride for the first time in the campaign, and have thoroughly beaten the opposition in back-to-back games. At the same time, key players are nearing fitness – Skrtel saw the last ten minutes of today’s match, while Torres will soon be back in the picture.

Now, Liverpool just needs to keep doing what they’re doing. Easy, right?

27 December 2008

Liverpool at Newcastle 12.28.08

7am, live in the US on Setanta

Last 4 head-to-head:
3-0 Liverpool (h) 03.08.08
3-1 Liverpool (a) 11.24.07
1-2 Newcastle (a) 02.10.07
2-0 Liverpool (h) 09.20.06

Last 3 matches:
Liverpool: 3-0 Bolton (h); 1-1 Arsenal (a); 2-2 Hull (h)
Newcastle: 1-2 Wigan (a); 2-1 Spurs (h); 3-0 Pompey (a)

Goalscorers (league):
Liverpool: Gerrard 6; Keane, Kuyt, Torres 5; Alonso, Riera 2; Arbeloa, Babel, Benayoun, Carragher 1
Newcastle: Owen 7; Martins 6; Ameobi 3; Duff, Guthrie 2; Barton, N’Zogbia, Taylor, Xisco 1

Referee: Excellent question. Neither the Beeb, nor Premierleague.com, nor anywhere else I can find lists who the ref is.

Guess at a squad:
Darby Carragher Agger Insua
Mascherano Alonso
Kuyt Gerrard Riera

There have to be some changes, with Liverpool playing two matches in less than 48 hours, but I’m hopeful there won’t be many. Picking the line-up's even more of a crapshoot than usual because we rarely get to see how the players respond to one day off between matches, and the fitness levels will go a long way in determining who starts.

Once again, despite the number of times I’ve been wrong, I’m guessing the 4-2-3-1. On the road, and with Mascherano certainly coming back into the side after missing out yesterday, seems to set Liverpool up for it. That and while Torres looks close to a return, he won’t start his first game back, and I doubt N’Gog will partner Keane from the off.

Both Riera and Kuyt were substituted early yesterday, so I’m assuming they’ll be fit to start on the flanks. Benayoun played the full 90 Friday, while Babel’s seemingly found himself out of favor. Even if he doesn’t start here, Babel should feature as a substitute – and if he doesn’t, then I guess we can start reading something into it.

Arbeloa’s still out with his hamstring problem, but Hyypia’s not likely to play two games in a row at his age. Which ideally means that Darby will get his first start at right back, as Carra should move back in the center to partner Agger. Insua’s played well enough to keep his place on the left, but I’ve got a sneaking suspicion that Benitez might use the full squad, and get Dossena back on the pitch.

As per usual, Newcastle’s struggling on the injury front. Habib Beye, Jose Enrique, Mark Viduka, Joey Barton, Alan Smith, Nacho Gonzalez, Obafemi Martins and Shola Ameobi will miss the game, as will defender Sebastien Bassong for a straight red yesterday. But Michael Owen’s still with the Geordies (Danny Guthrie too), and I’m always afraid of former Reds lining up against their former club. Mickey’s found a decent spell of form too, with three goals this month as Newcastle’s only lost once in their last five.

We’ve finally seen a comprehensive Liverpool performance in the 3-0 win over Bolton. Halfway through the league campaign and Liverpool’s top of the league by a point. Yesterday’s match can provide the springboard the team needs to push on for the second half of the season, but Liverpool will have to continue playing to that potential.

26 December 2008

Liverpool 3-0 Bolton

Carragher Hyypia Agger Insua
Benayoun Gerrard Alonso Riera
Kuyt Keane

Riera 26’
Keane 53’ 58’

That’s what Liverpool needed to deliver. For 60 minutes, that was as complete a performance as any this season. Liverpool dominated possession from the off, spread play beautifully with Alonso and Gerrard as pivots in the center, got excellent width from the wingers and fullbacks, and got the needed first half goal to relieve the pressure of the previous home draws.

Bolton’s sniff through Nolan in the 2nd minute was as close as they came to scoring, and from there, Liverpool throughly controlled proceedings. Without Kevin Davies as a frontman, Bolton struggled to keep hold of the ball, and Liverpool pressed constantly, with Benayoun and Riera frequent targets on the flanks.

Pressure truly started to mount 15 minutes in, and Jaaskelainen had to save Insua's long-range low drive in the 19th before Kuyt narrowly headed over in the 20th. The number of corners shows Liverpool’s superiority, and they opened the scoring on their 8th in the 26th minute when Riera met Gerrard’s whipped low ball at the near post with a neat flick.

For all their supremacy, Liverpool only had a one-goal lead to show for it at halftime, with Carragher’s shot (left footed, from the left channel no less) only just over the bar in the 41st and another Insua blast from distance blocked before it could hit the target. But, for all the worry when Liverpool’s only a goal to the good, it never looked like Bolton would get back in it.

Davies came on after the break, and it led to more possession for the visitors, but Keane put the game to bed before the hour mark. First, he took advantage of a perfect through ball from Gerrard with one touch and a left-footed shot past Jaaskelainen. Five minutes later, Reina’s distribution led to a gorgeous goal on the break, less than 10 seconds after the visitors threatened with a free kick. Reina claimed and quickly threw the ball out to Alonso, who charged forward into space and found Benayoun on the right. The Israeli’s first-time ball released Keane, who made no mistake. Maybe his goal against Arsenal really will be a springboard.

After the third, Liverpool took the foot off the gas and was content to see out the match. The home side was able to rest Riera, Gerrard and Kuyt, bringing on El Zhar, Lucas and N’Gog. I can't help but read into the fact that Babel again was left on the bench, especially with January just around the corner.

Bolton almost pulled one back in the 84th, but Smolarek dragged his shot wide, while Liverpool had a couple of opportunities of their own. And although it would have been nice to see Liverpool go all out for the full 90 and add a couple more to the scoreline, a comfortable 3-0 home win while resting some players before a busy Christmas program will certainly suffice.

Leaving Mascherano on the bench, Liverpool looked good in the 4-4-2, although they were helped by Bolton’s willingness to sit back and defend. That's stifled Liverpool in the past, but thanks to Gerrard and Alonso’s vision spreading the play from side to side, and Riera and Benayoun’s willingness to run at defenders (with both fullbacks doing well to support), they were finally able to break down a stingy defense at Anfield. And once they got the first, more goals always seemed imminent.

It probably was the best Liverpool’s played all season. I’ve got no complaints, and could go on in praise of every player on the pitch. As I said, I was most happy about the range of passing, as well as the support from fullback. Insua’s on his way to making the left back position his own with another heady performance, and Carragher was excellent on the right – positionally in both attack and defense, and getting forward better than I expected. Not to downplay Arbeloa’s importance so far this season, but when Skrtel’s fit, I hope to see Carragher-Skrtel-Agger-Insua as the regular backline.

And while Alonso was again in the middle of everything, man of the match probably has to go to Keane. Always busy in attack, and willing to drop deep with Kuyt playing furthest forward more often than not, he’s tallied three goals in two games. His run for Gerrard’s throughball was exact, as was the one on the break for Benayoun’s center. He said he’d come good, and on the basis of the last two games, he just might be right.

With Chelsea and United both doing the business, a win here was essential. But not only did Liverpool win, they won convincingly, and did it in style. It’s the perfect start to this stretch of four games in the 15 days, which continues with Newcastle on Sunday.

24 December 2008

Liverpool v Bolton 12.26.08

10am, live in the US on Setanta

I don’t know how many are going to see this preview, but I thought getting it up on Christmas Eve would be a bit better than on the actual holiday tomorrow. Hope everyone who celebrates this commercialism gets everything they’re hoping for. Happy Holidays.

Last 4 head-to-head:
2-0 Liverpool (a) 11.15.08
3-1 Liverpool (a) 03.02.08
4-0 Liverpool (h) 12.02.07
3-0 Liverpool (h) 01.01.07

Last 3 matches:
Liverpool: 1-1 Arsenal (a); 2-2 Hull (h); 3-1 PSV (a)
Bolton: 2-1 Pompey (h); 2-4 Villa (a); 0-2 Chelsea (h)

Goalscorers (league):
Liverpool: Gerrard 6; Kuyt, Torres 5; Keane 3; Alonso 2; Arbeloa, Babel, Benayoun, Carragher, Riera 1
Arsenal: Davies, Elmander, Taylor 5; Cahill, Gardner, Steinsson 2

Referee: Alan Wiley

Guess at a squad:
Carragher Hyypia Agger Insua
Mascherano Alonso
Kuyt Gerrard Riera

Except for the backline, this is the same line-up that beat Bolton 2-0 in November.

The Echo reports that Arbeloa will miss the next couple of weeks with a hamstring (sigh) injury, while I hope Insua stays in the team after his performance against Arsenal. There’s always a chance Darby could step in at right back, but I imagine Benitez (whether he’s present or not) will stick with an established player, especially if Insua is on the left. Doesn’t seem likely he’d play both youngsters in the same league fixture.

As usual, the question is whether Liverpool will go 4-4-2 or 4-2-3-1 at home. Will Liverpool sacrifice Alonso or Mascherano (more likely Masch) for N’Gog or Babel? Or Kuyt up top with Benayoun, Babel, or Pennant (the forgotten man – who’s stunningly been rumored for a Real move, in the linked article above) on the right?

Honestly, even though the added firepower looks needed with the recent goal return, I doubt it’ll happen. When Torres returns – and that’s seemingly soon – it’ll be more of a debate, but for now, I’ll be surprised if Liverpool deviates from the 4-2-3-1. It gets the best players on the pitch, and it’s a formation that’s brought Liverpool success, even if it hasn’t happened with Keane up top. But the Irishman showed signs of improvement with a well-taken goal against the Arse, and Liverpool started to adapt to the way he wants the ball. Granted, it led to more long balls from deep than we’re used to, but whatever works. And with the way Bolton plays – with a congested midfield hoofing forward for Davies and Elmander – it’s not the worst tactic.

But Bolton has played some decent football of late. I got the chance to see their match against Pompey last Saturday, and up two within three minutes, they deserved to win by more. As in the match at the Reebok last month, Gardner spurned a couple of sitters (knock on wood, let's hope that doesn't change). Despite two losses in their last three, they’ve risen up to 9th on the backs of three wins from the last five. Elmander’s starting to settle (I finally don’t look stupid for having him in my fantasy team), Gardner adds an extra dimension on the left, and they’re still a physical handful of a team.

Liverpool have been lucky of late – when they drop points, so have the teams around them. But as with the late winners a few months back, that luck can’t last forever. The team needs to pick up wins at Anfield, and with the fixtures coming quickly over the next couple of weeks, needs to hit top form, as they have during the winter in previous campaigns.

21 December 2008

Liverpool 1-1 Arsenal

Arbeloa Carragher Agger Insua
Lucas Alonso
Kuyt Gerrard Riera

Van Persie 24’
Keane 42’

Well, after Arsenal went up 1-0 within 24 minutes at the Emirates in a cagey, back-and-forth match, a comeback draw doesn’t look the worst result. Especially with Torres still absent, Mascherano missing out with flu, and Benitez remaining on Merseyside thanks to kidney stones earlier in the week. And especially considering the team’s never won at the Emirates, not to mention that three out of the four games against the Gunners ended 1-1 last year.

But when Liverpool has a man advantage for 30 minutes, and dominates possession for the majority of the second half after getting the equalizer before the break, it again feels like two points dropped.

Chances were few and far between early on, with Gerrard pretty much playing as a second striker. And it was the captain and Keane linking up in the 10th minute when the striker laid the ball off nicely, but Gerrard’s strike was straight at Almunia.

Arsenal’s passing game improved as the game went on, but it was a Nasri long ball over the top that van Persie controlled with his chest past Carragher which opened the scoring. And the goal, which was brilliantly taken, clearly emboldened the home side, who were controlling the game and the ball, but chances remained at a premium.

Liverpool never looked like being overrun, with Lucas and Alonso strong in midfield, and in the 42nd minute, an Agger long ball over the top led to an equalizer as stunning as the opener. Keane outpaced Djourou to beautifully half volley on the second bounce, giving Almunia no chance.

That goal completely changed the game, and Liverpool were unlucky not to get a second before the whistle. In the 45th, Kuyt took the ball off Clichy and centered for Gerrard, but the skipper was a step behind, and could only put a diving left-footed shot high and wide. A minute later, Kuyt forced Almunia into a low fingertips save with an on-target effort from the right corner of the box.

And it continued after the restart, although Arsenal certainly weren’t helped by Fabregas’ injury, which brought Diaby on for the second half. Lucas’s shot after Insua did well to get a cross in was well-saved by Almunia in the 47th, and Liverpool settled into their possession game. But when Adebayor was sent off in the 62nd minute for two soft yellows (yellows nonetheless, mind you), Arsenal was more content to sit back and absorb the pressure.

And Liverpool responded by playing worse. They were more reliant on long balls forward, more hesitant, and looked less likely to get the winning goal. Arsenal created more opportunities on the break than Liverpool did with an extra man, although Reina was never really tested.

Babel (for Riera in the 71st), El Zhar (for Keane in the 81st) and Ngog (for Lucas in the 88th) again came on, and once again we’re wondering why it took so long to make the changes, especially adding the second striker for a midfield player with a man advantage. Don’t get me wrong – Lucas had an excellent game, and was probably man of the match – but it seemed like Liverpool should have added more attackers and take advantage of the edge. And it was always going to be Lucas replaced instead of Alonso. El Zhar had an excellent opportunity with a header (from Insua’s cross) just wide in the 90th, but again, too little, too late.

Again, I thought Lucas, bustling and busy in midfield (and lucky not to see yellow until the 81st), was outstanding, and he looks a far better player next to Alonso in midfield, who, as usual, spread the play well when Liverpool were on top. Insua never looked out of place against a top team, and supported the attack well. And Keane had an excellent game up top, diligently running throughout, and took his goal masterfully well.

Despite getting forward well early on, Gerrard was a passenger too often, went deeper as the game went on (especially after the subs), and didn’t take a couple of good opportunities, which you don’t get many of in a game like this one. Unfortunately, Babel again did nothing off the bench, and didn’t really looked too bothered, which isn’t a good sign. And again, I’m not happy that Liverpool, with Arsenal putting two lines of defenders behind the ball, looked a step slower after going up a man.

But, honestly, I would have taken a point before the game. Yes, Liverpool’s gotten far too many draws of late, but this isn’t one of the painful ones. Going to Arsenal is never an easy match, and Arsenal’s found a way to step it up against the big sides. It’s just disappointing that Liverpool couldn’t take advantage of the edges handed to them.

It goes without saying that I hope for better on Friday.

19 December 2008

Liverpool at Arsenal 12.21.08

11am, live in the US on FSC

Last 4 head-to-head:
4-2 Liverpool (h; CL) 04.08.08
1-1 (a) 04.05.08
1-1 (a; CL 04.0.08
1-1 (h) 10.28.07

Last 3 matches:
Liverpool: 2-2 Hull (h); 3-1 PSV (a); 3-1 Blackburn (a)
Arsenal: 1-1 Boro (a); 0-2 Porto (a); 1-0 Wigan (h)

Goalscorers (league):
Liverpool: Gerrard 6; Kuyt, Torres 5; Alonso, Keane 2; Arbeloa, Babel, Benayoun, Carragher, Riera 1
Arsenal: Adebayor, Van Persie 7; Nasri 4; Denilson 2; Bendtner, Clichy, Eboue, Fabregas, Gallas, Silvestre, Walcott 1

Referee: Howard Webb

Guess at a squad:
Arbeloa Carragher Agger Dossena
Mascherano Alonso
Kuyt Gerrard Riera

With Liverpool away at the Emirates, where they haven’t yet won, I imagine the line-up will be fairly conservative and familiar: back to the 4-2-3-1 with both Masch and Alonso holding, Kuyt on the right, and Keane up top with Torres still out. And honestly, despite being clueless over a fair few line-ups of late, I’d be very surprised if Sunday’s team looked much different than this.

I still don’t know what Keane did to seemingly land in Benitez’s doghouse, but he has to start here. And after years of playing in London derbies for Spurs, he’ll hopefully be raring to do the business against the Arse. But it’ll be essential that he’s supported by Gerrard and Kuyt, and not left isolated plowing a lone furrow.

The key to Liverpool getting back in the game against Hull was Gerrard driving further forward from midfield, and getting into the box to be in position to score those two goals (making him top scorer for the season so far – he’s got the most in both the league and Europe). If he’s able to do that playing off of Keane, it’ll help the Irishman, and Liverpool’s league scoring woes, immensely.

This is one of those matches where Kuyt’s defending and workrate will be vital, so he’s likely to shift back to the right, where he’ll probably be matched up against Nasri and Clichy. That’ll be a key area for both sides, and I think Benayoun, for all his talents, would be a liability against those two. Similar goes for Babel, but I do expect to see one or both used off the bench for fresh legs later on, as usual.

With Van Persie and Adebayor’s speed, I expect Agger to replace Hyypia. Sami’s performed admirably the last couple of times out, and Adebayor is a big lad, but Agger’s pace (and ability to carry the ball out of defense) will be even more crucial.

Arsenal’s still missing Toure, Walcott, and Rosicky, and like Liverpool, drew their last match in the league. Sitting in fifth, eight points behind the leaders, Arsenal will be every bit as up for this game as Liverpool. Despite their troubles, they’ve beaten both United and Chelsea so far this season. Every time they’ve had a ‘backs against the wall’ game, they’ve come away winners. Here’s hoping that changes on Sunday.

Champions League Knockout Draw

Liverpool v Real Madrid
Juventus v Chelsea
Panathanaikos v Villareal
Bayern Munich v Sporting Lisbon
Porto v Atletico
Barcelona v Lyon
Roma v Arsenal
Manchester United v Inter Milan

So the laws of probability held firm, and I got two of my eight guesses. And they were the two big ones.

Liverpool are paired with Real Madrid, a team they last met in the 1981 European Cup final. And United have Inter.

When it came down to the last couple of balls, and it was going to be Liverpool or United against Inter or Real, you knew it was coming. Thankfully. It’s been too long since two of the most dominant teams in European competition have met. Now Liverpool just has to do the business. And we wait, until February 24th or 25th.

Rafa going back to Madrid, Torres against his old rivals, Arbeloa returning to face the club he was trained by, and a homecoming for the other Spanish lads. So many storylines. Real may be 6th in La Liga now, but I’m willing to bet that under Ramos, as they get healthy and with the transfer window coming up (Diarra and Huntelaar at the least), they won’t be there in February.

The second week of March, hosting the second leg against Real on the 10th or 11th before a trip to United, should be a fun one.

All in all, it’s an interesting draw. Juve v Chelsea (Rainieri against his old club) and Barca v Lyon should be good matches, Arsenal won’t look forward to the second leg in the Stadio Olympico, and we’ll be treated to gallons of ink in the run-up to Mourinho against Ferguson. That’ll do.

And on the strength of those pairings, I’d be willing to guess that we won’t see four English sides in the quarterfinals this time around. So Platini’s probably chuffed as well.

Preview of Sunday’s Arsenal game up in a few hours.

15 December 2008

Big Four Home League Form

There was an intriguing post on RAWK comparing the total league form between the big four, suggesting Liverpool’s wasn’t as bad as people made it out to be. Here’s how that looks for solely the league, which is what truly matters, as others suggested later in the thread. And I don’t like what it suggests for the Mancs.

Played 9 – W5 D4 L0 | F13 A6 | Points 19

Hull 2-2
West Ham 0-0
Fulham 0-0
West Brom 3-0
Pompey 1-0
Wigan 3-2
Stoke 0-0
United 2-1
Boro 2-1

Played 9 – W3 D4 L2 | F15 A6 | Points 13

West Ham 1-1
Arsenal 1-2
Newcastle 0-0
Sunderland 5-0
Liverpool 0-1
Villa 2-0
Man United 1-1
Spurs 1-1
Portsmouth 4-0

Played 7 – W6 D1 L0 | F19 A4 | Points 19

Sunderland 1-0
Stoke 5-0
Hull 4-3
West Ham 2-0
West Brom 4-0
Bolton 2-0
Newcastle 1-1

Played 8 – W5 D1 L2 | F15 A10 | Points 16

Wigan 1-0
Villa 0-2
United 2-1
Spurs 4-4
Everton 3-1
Hull 1-2
Newcastle 3-0
West Brom 1-0

This is what the full table looks like right now.

A few others things worth noting:

• Liverpool scored the first goal in four of those five wins, with the comeback against Wigan, way back in October, the only holdout.

• Knock on wood so I don’t jinx it, but somehow Chelsea’s lost that impregnability at the Bridge. Liverpool was the first to win, but those two early draws against Spurs and United were aberrations from seasons past as well.

• United’s away record is the saving grace so far. They’ve won 3, drawn 4, and lost 2. Long may it continue.

• Liverpool and Arsenal have the best record in big four head-to-head, with six points from six. Which should make Sunday’s match interesting.

Both teams have beaten Chelsea and United, and both beat United at home and Chelsea at the Bridge. United and Chelsea drew their match together, again at the Bridge. But, United hasn’t hosted any of the other three yet. More to worry about...

13 December 2008

Liverpool 2-2 Hull City

Arbeloa Carragher Hyypia Dossena
Mascherano Alonso
Benayoun Gerrard Riera

McShane 12’
Carragher (og) 22’
Gerrard 24’ 32’

A game of two halves, and it was especially strange watching both at different times. I saw the first live – what a half that was – and just saw the second, which was far less enjoyable.

Hull deserved their early lead. They certainly didn’t come to defend, and could have had a penalty in the 6th minute when Mascherano looked to handle in the box. And Liverpool couldn’t be too aggrieved when the visitors opened the scoring six minutes after, when Marlon King sent a far post corner back into the box, and McShane out-jumped Dossena to send a looping header over Reina.

Having the visitors double their advantage before 23 minutes were off the clock was still unexpected, but again, deserved, as Mendy torched Dossena (again), and sent a dangerous centered ball into the six-yard box, which Carragher could only turn into his own net.

But within 10 minutes, Liverpool were back on level terms, and looking likely to take the lead. And the difference was Gerrard getting forward; the captain joined Benayoun and Kuyt in attack more frequently, and tallied two goals as a result. The first came in the 24th when Kuyt’s cross, intended for Riera, fell to the skipper; the second in similar circumstances in the 32nd, but with a better set-up, as Kuyt flicked Carragher’s cross to Benayoun, who turned beautifully to deliver Gerrard a goal on a plate.

It looked like a third was coming before the intermission – Riera, Alonso, and Kuyt all had chances, plus a couple of scrambles in the five (!) minutes of stoppage time. And although I had to head out at halftime, I felt pretty sure that Liverpool would continue to press on. No such luck.

Hull was far happier to throw two rows of four behind the ball in the second half, and once again, we’re left fuming over a draw at Anfield. Stoke, Fulham, West Ham, and now Hull. 4 points from a run of matches, all at Anfield, where Liverpool probably expected to take all twelve. Super.

Hyypia had the closest chance of the half, off the post from a Gerrard corner, but once again, Liverpool couldn’t carve out enough. And once again, the substitutions baffle, with Keane staying on the bench as El Zhar (for Yossi in the 74th), Babel (for Riera in the 82nd), and Lucas (for Masch in the 86th) came on. Too little, too late. And now, if Chelsea win their match tomorrow, Liverpool will be behind by a point.

It’s getting tiresome writing that Liverpool need to be more clinical in front of goal. I defend Benitez time and time again, and rightfully so in my opinion, but I do not understand today’s substitutions. Not only did they come too late, but I do not get why a £20m striker’s left on the bench when Liverpool’s chasing a goal, especially since he seemed to get a little bit of confidence from his last performance (which is now probably lost). I feel bad for Robbie – he's trying hard, but I don't think he fits into the system, I don't think Benitez knows how to get the best out of him, and that makes me wonder why he was bought in the first place. Not good times.

I genuinely thought Stevie played well while Kuyt had one of his worst of the season, but otherwise, it’s depressingly same old, same old. And it’s almost more painful to watch Liverpool lose a possible title run bit by bit. It’s getting difficult to tell whether death by a thousand cuts is worse than being out of the title race by this time of the year.

Arsenal next Sunday.

12 December 2008

Liverpool v Hull City 12.13.08

10am, live in the US on Setanta

Last 4 head-to-head:
4-2 Liverpool (h; League Cup) 09.21.99
5-1 Liverpool (a; League Cup) 09.14.99
3-2 Liverpool (a; FA Cup) 02.18.89
3-1 Liverpool (h; League Cup) 12.04.73

Last 3 matches:
Liverpool: 3-1 PSV (a); 3-1 Blackburn (a); 0-0 West Ham (h)
Hull: 2-1 Boro (h); 1-1 Stoke (a); 2-2 Pompey (a)

Goalscorers (league):
Liverpool: Kuyt, Torres 5; Gerrard 4; Alonso, Keane 2; Arbeloa, Babel, Benayoun, Carragher, Riera 1
Hull: Geovanni 6; King 5; Cousin, Turner 3; Folan, Garcia, Mendy, Zayatte 1

Referee: Alan Wiley

Guess at a squad:
Arbeloa Carragher Agger Dossena
Babel Gerrard Alonso Riera
Kuyt Keane

Another blind shot in the dark at a line-up, so I’m pretty much guessing what I want to see (outside of Insua for Dossena, naturally).

Maybe it’s the addition of Keane, moving Liverpool away from the 4-2-3-1 more often than not, but I’ve been at a loss when guessing the line-ups far more than in the last two seasons. What formation will Liverpool deploy? Will Keane start? And now that Babel turned in a decent performance on the right (well, he was at least confident, willing to run at defenders, and notched a goal), will it be him or Benayoun on that flank if Kuyt plays as an out-and-out striker? And will Kuyt play after not traveling on Wednesday? It was rumored to be just a slight hamstring strain against Blackburn, but as Torres can attest to, hamstrings are awfully touchy.

My curiosity’s been piqued – I’d like to see Babel given another chance on the right. But given precedent, I’d be surprised if he started two games in a row. In addition, if it’s a cagey, congested match with 10 men behind the ball, Benayoun’s more likely as he’s usually clever enough to pick his way through defense with short passes and good movement. So while I’m guessing Babel, I expect Benayoun – if that makes any sense.

I can also see an Alonso or Mascherano debate if it’s 4-4-2. Alonso’s been the player of the season so far, scored in the last league match, and was rested against PSV. But Mascherano’s not the luxury people make him out to be either – he’d have a big role to play if it is an open game and considering the form Geovanni’s in. However, if I’m forced to pick one or the other going into this match, I’m going with Xabi.

Hull haven’t been prone to parking the bus this season, and they’ve reaped the reward by picking up 26 points from 16 games, currently sitting in sixth place. They attacked United at Old Trafford and only lost 3-4, attacked Arsenal at the Emirates and won 2-1, and attacked Chelsea at home but lost 0-3. However, there’s seemingly a template for when teams come to Anfield – evidenced by the Stoke, Fulham, and West Ham draws – and I’m starting to become fearful of these sorts of games, especially with Torres absent. I’m hoping for an open game – that’s where Liverpool’s best – but I’m wary of another tight one.

The Mancs play at 12:30 tomorrow, and Chelsea’s on Sunday. If Liverpool can do the business here, it’ll put a lot of pressure on those two teams before they even kick a ball.

11 December 2008

Dream CL ties

In order to tempt fate as much as humanly possible (and for want of content), here’s how I’m hoping the Champions League draw plays out next Friday.

Liverpool v Real Madrid
United v Inter
Barca v Chelsea
Arse v Bayern
Juve v Lyon
Panathinaikos v Atletico
Roma v Sporting
Porto v Villarreal

It’s been nearly 30 years since Liverpool faced Real in European competition (god that makes me feel old), I’d love to see the British press go insane if Mourinho’s Inter was drawn with an English team (plus, it'd be nice to root for Mourinho for a change), and I think those Chelsea and Arsenal matches would be aesthetically pleasing – Barca’s in superb form, and Bayern would give Arsenal an excellent match. In addition, and with no slight to Panathinaikos, I’d love to see Atletico progress to the next round.

But of course, to fulfill the more "interesting" media narrative, Liverpool will probably be the team drawn with Inter. Maybe by tempting fate even more in writing that it'll be less likely to happen.

I reckon with the laws of probability, there’s a good chance I’ll get to see at least two of those matches. We’ll find out in eight days.

09 December 2008

Liverpool 3-1 PSV

Arbeloa Carragher Agger Dossena
Babel Mascherano Lucas Riera
Keane Ngog

Lazovic 36’
Babel 45+2’
Riera 68’
Ngog 77’

A mediocre first half (at best), with Liverpool falling behind to a goal that shouldn't have been, and the night still ends on an excellent note, winning by two goals and getting three Academy lads time on the field. That’ll do fine.

Liverpool was disjointed throughout the first half, which was little surprise with all the changes. Babel was an out-and-out right winger, Keane kept dropping deep off Ngog, and the away side struggled to link the midfield and attack. PSV had the best chance of the opening half-hour, with Cavalieri forced to palm away a stinging shot from Simons in the 16th, but they still rarely looked like scoring.

However in the 36th minute, PSV took full advantage of a corner that should have been a goal kick (the referee, fussy to an extreme, had a stinker throughout, and wasn’t helped by one of his linesmen). Unlike last Saturday, when the defense fell asleep, Liverpool was simply unlucky – Mascherano’s attempted clearing header bounced off Marcellus’ face and to the feet of Lazovic, who stabbed home through Cavalieri’s legs.

It looked like Benitez would have to deliver another halftime screed, but seconds before the whistle Liverpool earned a free kick on the right flank. Lucas stepped up and sent in a gorgeous ball that Babel glanced past Isaksson.

Parity at halftime was fair despite Liverpool’s failings. Keane and Ngog were struggling to link up, Babel was running into too many dead ends down the right, and PSV’s central pairing, especially Marcellus, was playing well. But once Liverpool drew level, there looked only one likely winner.

Keane should have given Liverpool the lead in the 50th minute, but tried to put in Ngog instead of lashing it with his right, and Marcellus was there to block. I honestly feel bad for Keane – he’s not playing poorly, but he’s not in sync with the rest of the side. Too often, either Babel or Ngog (mostly Babel) tried to go it alone, and left Keane wide open clamoring for the ball and shaking his head. His off the ball movement – however much you miss watching on TV – looked excellent compared to others in the team.

But at the same time, when he had chances like the one in the 50th minute, he passed them up. He looked loads sharper in the second half, not surprisingly given that the game opened up, and it’s a pity he couldn’t tally a goal. I still think it’ll click, but I’m hopeful it’ll be sooner rather than later for Robbie’s sake.

However, Riera finally broke the deadlock in the 68th with a thunderous strike from distance, giving the keeper no chance at the near post thanks to an awesome left-footer. It was an absolutely wonderful goal, his second for the club, and if Riera can keep chipping in with those from the flanks, he’ll more than pay for his £8m fee.

Ngog sealed the points in the 77th with his first Liverpool goal after an outstanding ball from Keane released him on the break. But the striker still had much to do, and used his pace to keep Brechet out of the picture. Lucas could have had a fourth two minutes later, but volleyed wide after another superb Keane pass. Liverpool used the two-goal advantage to send on Darby, Spearing, and Martin Kelly, and it was fantastic to see the young English lads get time on the field. None disappointed, even if they didn’t have much to do.

Lucas and Mascherano were the best players on the pitch for me, with Lucas probably shading man of the match. Mascherano was Mascherano, mopping up as only he does (I loved that he got the armband after Carra went off), while Lucas was everywhere in midfield. He delivered an outstanding free kick for the first goal, and covered excellently on the right flank after Spearing replaced Riera. Dossena also had another good game, his second in a row.

While I’m thrilled Babel scored – it should help his confidence and lessen this idiotic loan talk (it must be December – agent season) – the rest of his game needs some work. He was a willing runner down the right, and constantly tried to go at Salcido. But he lost possession more often than not, and combined with some poor decision-making on the break, I'm still a bit wary. Here’s hoping he uses these 90 minutes to go forward and make me eat those words.

All in all, this is a fantastic result, and coupled with Atletico’s 0-0 draw at Marseille, means Liverpool wins the group. There were seven changes from Saturday’s team, and Liverpool still won by two goals. The team showed excellent character to come from behind away from home. Ngog scored his first, Spearing and Kelly made their first-team debuts (Darby previously played five minutes in the Carling Cup), no one got injured, and Benitez was able to rest Alonso, Gerrard, Reina, and Kuyt,

Now Europe’s wrapped up until February. All eyes are on the league. Hull City on Saturday.

08 December 2008

Liverpool at PSV 12.09.08

2:45pm, live in the US on Setanta.

Group stage so far:
Liverpool: 1-0 Marseille (h); 1-1 Atletico (h); 1-1 Atletico (a); 3-1 PSV (h); 2-1 Marseille (a)
PSV: 0-3 Atletico (h); 1-3 Liverpool (a); 2-0 Marseille (h); 0-3 Marseille (a); 1-2 Atletico (a)

Last 3 matches:
Liverpool: 3-1 Blackburn (a); 0-0 West Ham (h); 1-0 Marseille (h)
PSV: 4-2 Groningen (h); 2-2 Heerenveen (a); 1-2 Atletico (a)

Goalscorers (Europe):
Liverpool: Gerrard 5; Keane, Kuyt 2
PSV: Koevermans 4

Referee: Nikolay Ivanov (RUS)

I don’t know why ynwa.tv has stopped doing ref profiles of late, but I’m disappointed all the same.

Guess at a squad:
Darby Carragher Agger Dossena
Mascherano Lucas
Benayoun Gerrard Riera

Torres and Aurelio are injured (as are Skrtel and Degen), Kuyt didn’t travel, and Insua, El Zhar, and Hyypia aren’t available for the CL group stages. Plus, with all the games recently (and the upcoming Christmas program), Liverpool’s undoubtedly making some changes. But how many and what the team shape will be are up in the air.

This will be a massive game for Keane. Left on the bench for the entirety on Saturday, he’ll have an additional point to prove. But, with a £20m price tag and Torres out injured again, he’s got a point to prove anyway. And unless Benitez sees fit to start Babel up top, I think the Irishman will be plowing a lone furrow. Although, having seen Ngog last Monday, I reckon he’s got a chance as well.

With Lucas looking a nailed-on starter, my best guess is it’ll be Alonso rested, although there’s a case to be made for giving Gerrard some time off as well. And if both Alonso and Gerrard miss out, it seemingly will have to be 4-4-2, with either Babel or Ngog partnering Keane. But I’d be surprised if Benitez saw fit to play both Masch and Lucas with two strikers – I can’t remember that happening very often.

With Hyypia ineligible for the CL, Agger has to come back in after sitting on Saturday, and I reckon his omission over the weekend had something to do with tomorrow’s game (although Hyypia has been in fine form, and his aerial prowess was needed against Rovers). Similarly, Dossena seemingly has to be the starter at left back with Aurelio injured and Insua not on the CL list. And to complete a host of changes to the backline, I’m hopeful Darby will get his first start of the season at right back, as Arbeloa could use the rest as well and Darby’s been one of the highlights in the reserve team.

Although Atletico and Liverpool are certain to advance to the knockout stages, PSV still has something to play for in 3rd place, which would mean qualification for the UEFA Cup. But they’d need Atletico to do the business as well – Marseille’s above PSV on head-to-head goal difference.

And if Atletico does the business, chances are Liverpool will finish second. As it stands, Atletico’s one goal above Liverpool. If Liverpool better Atletico by more than a goal, super – on paper, it looks better to face Panathinaikos, Sporting Lisbon, Villarreal, Bayern, FC Porto, or Real rather than Roma, Inter, Barca, Lyon, or Juve (although those aren’t set in stone). But Liverpool won the CL in 2005 after struggling through their group, and coasted through their group in 2006 only to lose to Benfica in the next round. Champions League pairings are always a throw of the dice, and for the most part, all the teams are the cream of the crop at this stage.

More important are two things. First and foremost, keeping players healthy for the league run. Second, keeping morale up after a good win on Saturday. It would be lovely to see Liverpool do well tomorrow, and get a good match-up in the draw on December 19. But when it comes down to it, I’d much rather the three points four days later against Hull.

06 December 2008

Liverpool 3-1 Blackburn

Arbeloa Carragher Hyypia Insua
Benayoun Gerrard Alonso Babel

Alonso 69’
Benayoun 79’
Santa Cruz 85’
Gerrard 90+5’

Well, I didn’t expect that scoreline after the first half.

For 68 minutes, it was frighteningly same old, same old, despite the changes to the team. Liverpool had some intricate passing in the middle of the pitch, and dominated possession, but broke down in the final third time and time again. With the team patient and passing, Blackburn had time to get two solid lines of four behind the ball, and Kuyt was often isolated alone in the box against two six-foot defenders.

Liverpool didn’t manage a shot on target in the entire half. The best, and really only, opportunity came when Gerrard put through Benayoun through, but he couldn’t get the shot off before Warnock got back to cover. And only Reina’s fingertips prevented Pedersen from scoring in the 29th when Gerrard gave the ball away, and Pepe had to push the midfielder’s shot onto the crossbar.

It was marginally better to start the second half – Alonso’s shot from the top of the box was too close to the keeper in the 57th and Babel’s nice run from the right teed up Gerrard, who forced a save from Robinson, in the 62nd. Immediately after that good work from the Dutchman, which was one of his few highlights today, he was taken off for El Zhar. And seven minutes later, Alonso finally got the goal that Liverpool have been waiting for.

Benayoun got the ball to Gerrard on the right, and the captain centered looking for Kuyt. Typical for the match to that point, the striker couldn't connect for the first-time shot, but Alonso was there to cover, and perfectly placed a side-footer past Robinson.

After the goal, Blackburn opened up, and this Liverpool team is built for taking teams apart in that situation. Kuyt’s gorgeous diagonal found Benayoun in acres of space on the right, and he was able to get around Warnock and beat the keeper with a lovely shot inside the far corner from a narrow angle.

It should have been done and dusted at that point, but Liverpool fell asleep in the 85th, when a quickly-taken short corner was flicked on for Roque Santa Cruz open at the far post, which made the final minutes much edgier than they should have been. But Liverpool stood firm, and again countered in the final seconds. Riera tried to put El Zhar through with a smart pass, but Robinson was quick to come out and block. However, Riera followed up and found Gerrard wide open on the right with the goalmouth gaping. He doesn’t miss those. And it’s a far more flattering scoreline than the first two-thirds of the game merited.

Alonso’s performance was impressive; his range of passing was as usual, he was often further forward than Gerrard, and he was there for the crucial goal. But Hyypia’s probably my man of the match – the Finn was consistently awesome in defense, heading out long balls pumped forward and corners, and keeping Blackburn from getting much of a sniff. Aside from the one moment of madness, the entire defense was excellent – even Insua, who never looked out of place, although he was under orders to stay home more often than not. And the defense is the reason that Liverpool's done as well as they have this season while still struggling to score.

It was surprising to see ninety minutes go by without Keane. Liverpool got the right result, and it’s dangerous reading too much into this, but that can’t be good for his confidence. It was also a big game for Babel, and for the most part, he disappointed – during halftime, he was utterly excoriated by Pat Dolan on Setanta. And while Dolan's often just a loudmouth reliant on hyperbole, Babel did give the ball away too often and made the wrong decision too many times. And his best bit of play was followed by him being hauled off – another move that probably won’t help the player’s confidence.

But Liverpool won. And that's all that matters. The team kept working, finally got the break-through, and got two more in twenty-five minutes for good measure. Aside from one piece of lax defending, the backline was awesome. Hopefully, this result will snap the attack back to attention.

PSV on Tuesday, with a chance to win the CL group.

05 December 2008

Liverpool at Blackburn 12.06.08

10am, live in the US on Setanta

Last 4 head-to-head:
3-1 Liverpool (h) 04.13.08
0-0 (a) 11.03.07
0-1 Blackburn (a) 12.26.06
1-1 (h) 10.14.06

Last 3 matches:
Liverpool: 0-0 West Ham (h); 1-0 Marseille (h); 0-0 Fulham (h)
Blackburn: 3-5 United (a); 2-3 Pompey (a); 0-1 Spurs (a)

Goalscorers (league):
Liverpool: Kuyt, Torres 5; Gerrard 3; Keane 2; Alonso, Arbeloa, Babel, Carragher, Riera 1
Blackburn: Derbyshire, McCarthy, Roberts, Samba, Santa Cruz, 2; Andrews, Dunn, Emerton, Ooijer, Tugay, Warnock 1

Referee: Andre Marriner

Guess at a squad:
Arbeloa Carragher Agger Dossena
Mascherano Alonso
Kuyt Gerrard Riera

I realize that one of the definitions of madness is doing the same thing over and over again while expecting a different result, but with Torres injured and Liverpool on the road, this truly is my best guess at a line-up.

Goals have been hard to come by all season long regardless of the formation, but it’s worth noting that all three of the 0-0 draws I was complaining about on Monday happened when Liverpool went 4-4-2. The 4-2-3-1 hasn’t seen the goals start flowing either, and I’m still not convinced Keane can fill the role in the formation anywhere near the way that Torres did, but I don’t have any better suggestions.

I would like to see more of Babel, whether up top or on either side of midfield (in the 4-2-3-1, naturally), but I’ll also again reiterate that Benitez sees this player in practice every day, so there has to be a reason he’s only played in 16 out of 24 games, and only started in 4 (with half of those coming in the Carling Cup).

Paul Ince’s men haven’t had the best of results lately, losing their last four matches, and there was some talk of the Guv’nor getting sacked after Wednesday’s match against United, where Blackburn was lucky to only lose by two. They’ve let in nine goals in the last three games, which probably means Liverpool will struggle to score again.

Saturday will mark another Robbie Fowler return to Anfield. God was jeered by the Rovers supporters last time out when he came on for Roque Santa Cruz, and when fans are clamoring for the return of Souness as manager, you know you’re in trouble.

So this has all the hallmarks of a pitfall game. Away from Anfield, against opponents under siege who have let in a fair few goals of late. We all know that Liverpool need a good performance to get the goals and confidence flowing again. Let’s see it.

01 December 2008

Liverpool 0-0 West Ham

Arbeloa Hyypia Carragher Dossena
Benayoun Gerrard Alonso Riera

So glad I was actually able to see this game.

I guess it’s a good sign that Liverpool’s top of the league on December 1st and hasn’t comprehensively beaten any team yet this season. But at the same time, I can’t remember the last time Liverpool had successive 0-0 draws at Anfield in the league – I suspect it’s been quite a while.

And even more infuriating than the successive goalless draws is the fact that they came against West Ham and Fulham (in addition to another against Stoke in September). No offense to either club, as they've earned their points, but both finished in the bottom half of the table last season and I’d be surprised if the same wasn’t true by the end this one.

United and Chelsea were enormous wins, but I still don’t think Liverpool’s played to their full potential in any match so far. Outside of PSV and West Brom, nearly every win’s been close for a while. And unfortunately, as was bound to happen, that capacity to win at the death has ceased for the time being.

It could have been different had Hyypia hit one of those headers (the best chance came in the 16th minute, while Cole cleared one off the line in the 21st) or were Ilunga penalized for his 5th minute handball in the box (among other times he handled). Collins had to clear off the line from Riera’s effort in the 13th, while Green made a fantastic save on Benayoun’s attempt in the 56th. Gerrard also tried to win another last minute penalty, running into Ilunga just inside the area as Liverpool again upped the tempo late, but Peter Walton was having none of it.

However, had Bellamy’s break in the 37th not ended with his shot careening off the inside of the post, Carlton Cole not put a free header into the side netting in the 67th, or Boa Morte not slipped in the box wide open on the left in the 89th, it could have three points dropped, which would have been even more sickening than last year’s loss at Upton Park.

Ngog came on for Keane in the 66th and Babel for Riera in the 78th, and the Dutchman looked the more threatening, but neither changed proceedings all that much. I’m tempted to read too much into the fact that Ngog came on 12 minutes earlier than Babel, and it does seem strange as Babel's more established, quicker, and more of a goal threat. Also, while Keane’s not the youngest and wasn’t having a great match, I was a bit surprised he was taken off for Ngog in a match where he’s dying to get a goal. But Benitez sees these players in training every day; chances are he knows a bit more than I do.

Unfortunately, it was another one of the games that Liverpool’s far too prone to. I’ve said before that I could write templates for match reviews like these. Liverpool had far more possession, Liverpool had more chances, too many of those chances were shots from distance, the opposition had a couple chances of their own, and while some players did well, the team as a whole didn't do enough. Wash, rinse, and please stop repeating.

Alonso was at the center of everything and played some lovely passes. Hyypia was a threat from set plays, got forward, and defended well. And Dossena looked more assured than in the past. But the good things individuals do seem less important when the result’s such a disappointment.

Most frequent readers will be aware I’m superstitious about writing of any title chances, but it feels as if it needs to be said. Also, this result makes me more pessimistic than usual; I’ll probably regret this after calming down. But I have a very, very bad feeling that Liverpool is going to deeply rue these three draws.

Don’t get me wrong – I said I’d be happy if Liverpool contended for the title, and I still think they can. The fact they haven’t fully clicked yet but are doing as well as they have is an ominous sign for other clubs, and the side’s far different when Torres is healthy. I’m fairly certain there are much better things to come from this team. But it’ll be very tough to swallow if the six points dropped to these three clubs stop Liverpool from that title chance.

29 November 2008

10 years of magic

Today’s the 10th anniversary of Steven Gerrard’s Liverpool debut, as I’m sure you’re aware since the official site’s been touting it for the last two weeks. And rightfully so. The man’s an utter genius at football, one of the absolute best players I’ve had the chance to see in their prime. He’s single-handedly won innumerable games for the club, and has probably already sealed his place in the all-time best Liverpool XI. And as Benitez said today, there’s still room for improvement.

So in celebration, here are 10 of my favorite Gerrard goals.

My video collection is somewhat lacking, so the earliest goals are from Benitez’s first season. Which means we’re without the screamers against Southampton and United, among others. This video has many of the best from those years, except for his first goal for the club.

Chances are I’m still missing a few from those four-plus seasons, but these ten sure are super. No prizes for guessing the top two.

Here’s hoping for another 10 years.

• Aston Villa 04.29.06
• Newcastle 11.24.07
• Bolton 01.01.07
• Marseille 09.16.08
• Arsenal 01.09.07
• AC Milan 05.25.05
• Aston Villa 08.11.07
• Boro 04.30.05
• West Ham 05.13.06
• Olympiakos 12.08.04

28 November 2008

Liverpool v West Ham 12.01.08

3pm, live in the US on Setanta

Won’t see the game live – stupid Monday class (last week of classes!) – but Setanta Broadband’s usually excellent about archiving matches so hopefully I’ll have a review up late evening.

Last 4 head-to-head:
4-0 Liverpool (h) 03.05.08
0-1 West Ham (a) 01.30.08
2-1 Liverpool (a) 01.30.07
2-1 Liverpool (h) 08.26.06

Last 3 matches:
Liverpool: 1-0 Marseille (h); 0-0 Fulham (h); 2-0 Bolton (a)
West Ham: 1-0 Sunderland (a); 0-0 Pompey (h); 1-3 Everton (h)

Goalscorers (league):
Liverpool: Kuyt, Torres 5; Gerrard 3; Keane 2; Alonso, Arbeloa, Babel, Carragher, Riera 1
West Ham: Cole 3; Ashton, Di Michele, Etherington 2; Behrami, Bellamy, Collison, Davenport, Mullins, Neill, Noble 1

Referee: Peter Walton

I wanted to get this preview up before the weekend even though the match isn't until Monday. So the YNWA ref preview isn't up yet, but I'll add a link when that's posted.

Guess at a squad:
Arbeloa Carragher Agger Dossena
Benayoun Gerrard Alonso Riera
Kuyt Keane

Just in case you were getting too optimistic, Torres hurt his right hamstring again and will miss another 2-3 weeks at the least. Oh, and Aurelio’s calf injury will keep him out for a similar length of time. Super. And yet, I’m still leaning toward a 4-4-2, similar to the team deployed against Wigan after Torres was injured during the internationals.

The 4-2-3-1 is assuredly a possibility, but since Mascherano’s looked gassed in the last two matches and Liverpool could do with two strikers up top as the side’s struggling for goals, I think it’s less likely than the alternative. Plus, although this hasn’t been a precedent so far this season, the match being at Anfield should mean Masch’s defensive capabilities will be less necessary. Given the results against Fulham and Stoke, it seems likely West Ham will see parking the bus as their best chance for a much-needed point.

In the couple of matches together up top – like the one against United – Kuyt and Keane have looked useful as a pairing. Unlike last season, Kuyt’s been scoring on the regular, and Keane’s better when he has a partner to work off of. And Kuyt playing up top should give him a bit of a breather compared to the amount of work he puts in when on the wing.

Babel may well have a role to play from the start, on either flank or up top, but because of that versatility (and since we haven’t seen an awful lot of him outside cameo appearances), he’ll probably come off the bench. But Riera has played a lot of matches lately, and Benayoun’s rarely certain to start.

With Aurelio injured, I’d rather Benitez gave Insua a chance, especially considering Dossena’s form, but the manager (understandably) hasn’t written the expensive Italian off yet. Dossena will have a few games before Aurelio returns to make a mark, and this’ll be a crucial period for him.

With the injuries and spat of games, I’m sure Benitez is pleased this match isn’t until Monday. It’s not even December and I’m sick of writing that this’ll be a crucial contest, as Liverpool needs goals and needs to rack up points in the league to keep pace. And hopefully, the team won’t have forgotten the abhorrent 0-1 loss to the Hammers last year, when Liverpool hit bottom before clawing back to finish the season stronger.

26 November 2008

Liverpool 1-0 Marseille

Arbeloa Carragher Agger Aurelio
Mascherano Alonso
Kuyt Gerrard Riera

Gerrard 23’

Another frustrating performance, but it’s job done. A Gerrard goal in his first game back, the first clean sheet of the group stage, and four wins from four to seal qualification for the knockout rounds. But if not for that Gerrard goal, today looked a lot like last Saturday’s against Fulham.

For the first 30 minutes, Liverpool seemed certain to win at a canter. Players swarmed forward, kept Marseille on the back foot, and Gerrard opening the scoring in the 23rd after some suspect defending. The captain took a corner from the left, and although it was cleared, Liverpool reclaimed possession. Three Marseille defenders switched off on Gerrard’s presence, and he easily headed in at the back post after Alonso picked him out with a beautiful cross from the opposite touchline.

But around the half hour mark, the tables began to turn. Liverpool couldn’t keep hold off the ball and the away side started sensing an opportunity, led by Ben Arfa. In the 36th minute, Taiwo forced Reina to palm a low free kick off the post before Zubar put a header wide from the resulting corner.

And the second half was almost all Marseille’s. I’m not pleased with another shaky performance, but credit to Marseille for looking to pass the ball and press forward. And credit to Liverpool’s defense for standing firm and preventing an equalizer. Niang was a frequent threat, while Reina had to make smart saves on two free kicks: first on Ben Arfa’s curler from the right followed by Ziani’s effort which went through the pack.

Dossena came on for Aurelio at halftime, supposedly for precautionary measures, which limited Benitez’s options off the bench (and while he wasn’t the sole cause of the poor second half, Dossena didn’t cover himself in glory either). Benayoun was brought on for Riera in the 63rd, and Lucas for Kuyt in the 85th to add another body in midfield. That Rafa left both Keane and Babel on the bench with Liverpool clinging to the 1-0 lead probably shows what the objectives were for this match.

With the way the home side played, a draw wouldn’t have been an unfair result. But despite Marseille’s possession, pressure, and opportunities, Liverpool held on for the victory. And that’s always a positive.

But it’s still worrisome seeing the side struggle for goals, and even more so to see them lose out in midfield. That’s not a frequent occurrence; Liverpool often had scads of possession even when they struggled to break down sides in previous seasons.

For the first time that I can remember, Mascherano had two off days in a row (although he has played a fair few games recently), and that had a lot to do with Marseille winning the middle. But giving the ball away too frequently didn’t help matters, and that went for pretty much everyone in the side.

Even though Gerrard’s just back from injury, while this is only Torres’ third start after missing six matches, I’d hoped they’d click better with the team back in the 4-2-3-1. And that Benitez returned to this formation, while leaving Keane on the bench for the duration, raises a few questions.

I’m still not sure how much of this was the team switching off after going a goal up, knowing they just needed a draw to advance, and how much was Marseille’s good work. But coming after the Fulham, Spurs, and Atletico (to a lesser extent) matches, it’s frustrating all the same.

Five days until West Ham on Monday.

Happy Thanksgiving.

25 November 2008

Liverpool v Marseille 11.26.08

2:45pm, live in the US on Setanta. I’m still not sure if I’ll be able to catch this match live, but at the worst I’ll see the replay at 9:15pm and have the review up by the morning.

Group stage so far:
Liverpool: 1-1 Atletico (h); 1-1 Atletico (a); 3-1 PSV (h); 2-1 Marseille (a)
Marseille: 3-0 PSV (h); 0-2 PSV (a); 1-2 Atletico (a); 1-2 Liverpool (h)

Last 3 matches:
Liverpool: 0-0 Fulham (h); 2-0 Bolton (a); 2-4 Spurs (a)
Marseille: 2-2 Lille (h); 2-3 Lorient (h); 3-0 Grenoble (a)

Goalscorers (Europe):
Liverpool: Gerrard 4; Keane, Kuyt 2
Marseille: Niang 5; Cana, Cheyrou, Kone 1

Referee: Olegário Benquerença (POR)

Guess at a squad:
Arbeloa Carragher Agger Aurelio
Mascherano Alonso
Kuyt Gerrard Babel

Yeah, this might not happen, but I miss the 4-2-3-1. And if Gerrard’s back, I reckon this formation’s the best bet for more goals, which Liverpool clearly needs. Aside from Alonso for Lucas, this would be the same front six that faced Marseille in September.

But with Liverpool looking to get Torres and Keane on the same page, the 4-4-2’s still more likely. And if that’s the case, I expect Masch will be left out after last Saturday’s performance. Either way, there probably won’t be any changes to the backline.

Riera’s played a lot of matches lately, so even though Babel’s been no great shakes off the bench, I’m hoping he’ll get the nod. Maybe being on the pitch from the start, at Anfield on a European Cup night, will help push him toward the progress we’ve hoped to see from him this season.

A win here would seal qualification for the knockout rounds, while a draw would probably accomplish the same, depending on PSV’s result behind closed doors at Atletico.

But Liverpool can’t play it safe. The team’s been struggling to score, and Marseille has dangerous attackers in Ben Arfa, Niang, and Kone. Even after beating OM in the past two meetings, I still can’t purge last year’s 0-1 loss at Anfield from my memory. Valbuena, the goal scorer in that match, will miss out through injury, but Marseille still has enough skill and guile in their squad to punish Liverpool for any profligacy.

22 November 2008

Liverpool 0-0 Fulham

Arbeloa Carragher Agger Aurelio
Kuyt Lucas Mascherano Riera
Keane Torres

0-0 at Anfield to both Fulham and Stoke. And it’s not even December. Fantastic.

The first half was absolute dross, with Liverpool actually overrun in midfield. The second half was marginally better, with the expected pressure and the away side parking the bus, but the scoreline tells you how effective Liverpool was.

I understand why Alonso was left out. He played 90 minutes for Spain and will play 90 against Marseille on Wednesday. And if Gerrard misses that match too, Alonso will be essential. But neither Lucas nor Mascherano played well in his stead, and central midfield is where Liverpool lost two points today. It only took half an hour for fans to start singing for the Spaniard.

Both Masch and Lucas sat deep, leading to disconnect between midfield and attack, and Fulham filled the space. Kuyt and Riera often cut in to the center to try to link play, but to little effect, and Liverpool struggled to keep hold of the ball in the first half. Too many hopeful long passes were pumped out of defense, and with the 6’5” Hangeland marking the strikers, most were futile and ended up conceding possession.

Liverpool’s backline limited Fulham to one good chance, with Reina expertly palming Bullard’s blast away in the 35th, but it’s not as if Liverpool created many of their own – Schwartzer making himself big to deny Keane from close range in the 29th was the nearest to breaking the deadlock.

Unsurprisingly, Liverpool asserted themselves after the restart, but still couldn’t get the needed goal. Alonso’s entrance in the 64th minute was the biggest difference, with Mascherano making way – again, ostensibly to rest him for Marseille – but it was too little, too late as Fulham stood firm with 10 men in their own half and with Johnson and Zamora doing well to hassle high up the pitch. Schwartzer saved two stinging shots from Torres (51’) and Kuyt (70’), but Liverpool never did enough to open the scoring.

It’s not good when the lone consolation is that Chelsea dropped points at home to Newcastle as well. Yes, Liverpool kept another clean sheet, Reina’s ninth in the league. They should be keeping a clean sheet at home against Fulham.

Keane and Torres continued to misfire as a pairing, even though both, especially Torres, worked diligently. It was a big game for Lucas in place of Alonso and he disappointed immensely, although he wasn’t helped by one of Mascherano’s tamest performances. Neither Babel nor El Zhar was able to get into the game and make a difference off the bench. The brevity of the review should demonstrate how little there is to take away from this match.

Yes, at least Liverpool’s kept pace with the Blues. But with Chelsea’s draw, it’s even more a missed opportunity. And if the team continues to struggle to score as they have for most of this month, they won’t be keeping pace for long.

21 November 2008

Liverpool v Fulham 11.22.08

10am, live in the US on Setanta

Last 4 head-to-head:
2-0 Liverpool (a) 04.19.08
2-0 Liverpool (h) 11.10.07
0-1 Fulham (a) 05.05.07
4-0 Liverpool (h) 12.09.06

Last 3 matches:
Liverpool: 2-0 Bolton (a); 2-4 Spurs (a); 3-0 West Brom (h)
Fulham: 2-1 Spurs (h); 2-1 Newcastle (h); 0-1 Everton (a)

Goalscorers (league):
Liverpool: Kuyt, Torres 5; Gerrard 3; Keane 2; Alonso, Arbeloa, Babel, Carragher, Riera 1
Fulham: Johnson 4; Murphy 2; Davies, Dempsey, Gera, Hangeland, Ki-Hyeon, Zamora 1

Referee: Mark Halsey

Guess at a squad:
Arbeloa Carragher Agger Aurelio
Kuyt Alonso Mascherano Riera
Torres Keane

So, with Gerrard ruled out (guess he’s not making it up then, eh Capello?), I’d be very surprised if this wasn’t the line-up. Arbeloa returns from suspension, so that should be the backline, and everyone seemingly came through the internationals okay (with no long trips across the ocean). Maybe there’ll be more changes with the Champions League in mind, but as focus should be on the league and with Liverpool joint top of its CL group, I don’t expect it.

If Gerrard were fit, it’s the old debate between 4-2-3-1 and 4-4-2, and whether Keane (who’ll be available after pulling out of the Irish squad) or one of Alonso/Mascherano is left out. But we’ll save that for another day.

Even though I’m not thrilled he played for Spain, Torres couldn’t have had a better night Wednesday on his road to recovery. He didn’t start, but scored as a sub and capped the evening by taking the captain’s armband when Villa went off. All of that should do his confidence a world of good, and it’s nice to see the striker come back from international duty uninjured for once.

Riera and Alonso played the full 90 for Spain, while Arbeloa and Reina also came off the bench. I know it’s a friendly, but Liverpool had five players in the Spanish team, two more than Valencia or Villareal. Insane. Meanwhile, Kuyt also kept up his scoring streak, netting in the 90th minute in Holland’s 3-1 win over Sweden.

Last week, Fulham did what Liverpool’s failed to twice this season – beat Tottenham. Andy Johnson’s (sigh) gotten the better of Liverpool before, and Danny Murphy’s still class, especially on set pieces (as is Jimmy Bullard). They’ve taken 11 points in their last five games, although they’re still not the most dangerous away from Craven Cottage, having scored two goals on their travels this season.

It took until the 81st minute to break Fulham down in last season’s match at Anfield, and it was a long clearance by Reina up to Torres, who had come off the bench to provide his usual moment of brilliance, to do it. Once again, Liverpool will have to be canny enough to break down a dogged side at Anfield. And with all the talk about the importance of the league, even coming off an international break, it’s imperative we see the best out of the team.

20 November 2008

I sell out, one of you benefits (but not as much as I do)

So I reckon I’ll be as transparent about this as possible.

About a week ago, I received an email from SoccerPro.com asking if I’d review a Liverpool jersey and some other gear if they sent it to me. And given that I’ve made all of $200 for one ad over the space of two and a half years, I agreed.

So, they sent me a brand new Adidas Liverpool FC Away Jersey,
the Adidas Liverpool FC Training Jacket (which is seriously awesome), and the official history of Liverpool DVD. And I am thrilled. Because I am a whore for free clothing.

But I wouldn’t have agreed if I didn’t love the product or believe in their web site. So yeah, it should go without saying, but all of this is absolutely my own opinion.

Soccer jerseys and other soccer gear make up a fair bit of my wardrobe, and I wouldn’t be surprised if the same was true for a lot of you. Not only is it one of the few ways (and a very, very American way – God bless capitalism) for those of us on the wrong side of the pond to show support for the team we follow so closely, it’s also a way to identify other members of the same tribe.

I’ve lived all over this country – in big cities, college towns, and rural areas – as well as in London. And everywhere I’ve been, soccer gear has been a conversation starter. I’ve made friends on campus, both as a grad student and an undergrad, because they were wearing a Liverpool jersey. Or an England jersey. Or a Holland jersey. Yes, I really do have that many jerseys; you don’t know the half of it.

It goes without saying that I wouldn’t be writing this if it weren’t for the deal graciously provided by SoccerPro, but jerseys truly are great gifts. And given that SoccerPro has free shipping on everything besides enormous stuff like goals (the stuff got here in less than four business days), I don’t feel awkward recommending them even though I’ve been paid off. Such is the way of the world, I’ve learned.

And since soccer DVDs give endless amusement and because I feel marginally guilty about reaping all of the benefits, I’m giving the DVD away to whoever wins this year’s fantasy football contest. I’ve been monstrously busy of late, and I can’t remember the last time I’ve logged in to check or change my team, so chances are, I’m not winning the competition. And even if I do, second place will get the prize. So for the 23 of you, there’s a bit of added incentive.

Gangly Handful FC is currently in the lead, but Torres' Tories, Chinaman FC, and Wyckyd Sceptre aren’t far behind. 12 of you are less than 100 points behind the leader. So, to the winner go some of the spoils. And if the winner already has it or doesn’t come through on getting said spoils, I’ll think up another way to give it out. Plus, this good fortune has the wheels turnings as to other contests I could have on this site, no matter my financial situation.

So support your freeloading, unpaid blogger. Go to SoccerPro.com, buy stuff, and come back sometime tomorrow for the preview of the Fulham match, which is 10am Saturday on Setanta.

15 November 2008

Liverpool 2-0 Bolton

Carragher Hyypia Agger Aurelio
Alonso Mascherano
Kuyt Gerrard Riera

Kuyt 28’
Gerrard 73’

That was far, far scarier than it should have been. And it’ll be remembered for the six arguable sitters missed, four coming from Liverpool.

Bolton started out pressing, with Liverpool players slipping all over the pitch, but that lasted less than five minutes, and it soon settled into the home side parking the bus in their own half. Surprise, surprise.

Kuyt nearly opened the scoring in the 22nd, crashing a shot off the bar, but got his seventh goal of the season – and fifth in the league – six minutes later with a brilliant header from Aurelio’s cross that gave Jaaskelainen no chance.

And two minutes after that, Keane should have iced the game then and there. Kuyt centered the ball across the box, but the Irishman somehow failed to make contact from a yard out. It wouldn’t be the last jaw-dropping miss.

Bolton put up marginally more resistance until halftime, but Liverpool were still on top until another talking point right before the break. Bolton earned their first corner of the half, McCann sent a good ball in, and Cahill put it in the back of the net. The commentators seemed fairly aggrieved when it was chalked off, but last I checked, three players caging Reina, with Nolan getting a substantial push on the keeper, wasn’t legal. And the whistle was blown before Cahill headed in.

Megson brought on Gardner at halftime and it completely changed proceedings. The left midfielder immediately earned a free kick, and should have scored in the 52nd, rounding Reina after getting behind the defense, but slipping when he tried to shoot from a narrow angle.

Bolton continued to threaten, and arguably was the better side, but Gerrard should have gotten the much-needed second in the 62nd when Alonso stole the ball and slid it through to Torres (who came on for Keane on the hour). The striker centered perfectly for the captain, but Gerrard could only direct it wide – again, from about a yard out.

But in the 73rd minute, the substitute helped seal the game, and this time Stevie buried it. Torres controlled a long ball, stole away from Andy O’Brien (who should have cleared, but again, seemed to slip), and crossed for Gerrard, who made no mistake with a header down into the far corner.

I still can’t figure out how we didn’t see a goal in the final ten minutes, but after Liverpool scored a second the three points were never in doubt. In the 80th, Torres couldn’t round Jaaskelainen, who did well to push the ball away, and the Bolton keeper made a great save on Alonso’s bullet from long range seconds later.

Gardner missed again in the 85th after he latched onto a chipped ball over the top, but fired over with Reina making himself big. Torres somehow hit the post with the goal gaping in the 87th after Lucas got to the byline when a Bolton defender slipped. And Lucas finished off the incredible misses in the last minute of injury time when he could only head Gerrard’s cross wide from close range.

I don’t usually write this much about missed opportunities, but the amount of chances that should have been goals was utterly egregious. On another day, it easily could have been a 6-2 win.

It’ll certainly be argued, but I think Bolton’s “goal” was rightfully ruled out (I actually thought Styles surprisingly had a good game, although I’m admittedly biased). But the first 25 minutes of the second half were far too frightening. It really looked like Liverpool’s inability to kill the game was going to cost them again.

But Reina, who’s my man of the match, with close competition from Alonso and Kuyt, did very well, and even though Bolton was finally winning in midfield, the defense held firm.

Reina doesn’t get enough credit for, and because of, his positioning. Bolton had chances at goals throughout the spell where they were on top, but Reina was usually in the perfect position to collect the flicks, crosses, and shots. Plus, his handling was superb (even if his distribution was questionable) in difficult conditions; I can’t emphasize enough that the slickness of the pitch caused a few of those misses.

Whenever Liverpool took the game to Bolton, Alonso was in the middle of everything, and was unlucky not to get a goal thanks to Jaaskelainen’s excellent save. He was awesome today, but he's been in awesome form for over a month now. Kuyt put in his usual diligent shift, and scored with an absolute peach of a header, one of the best I’ve seen since Garcia left the club. Riera was a constant threat in the first half, but faded as the game went on. And the makeshift defense, with Carragher on the right, still kept a clean sheet despite the pressure.

I was fairly furious with the performance around the 60-minute mark. After the Spurs games and the Atletico draw at Anfield, the pessimist in me saw it coming again. But at the end of the day, Liverpool got the goal they needed, kept a clean sheet, and earned the three points. Torres looked better in his 30 minutes off the bench than on Wednesday, and aside from Agger losing a tooth, and getting on with it regardless, Liverpool had no injury worries.

And the win provides more momentum that Liverpool undeniably needed going into a short international break before playing host to Fulham next Saturday.

14 November 2008

Liverpool at Bolton 11.15.08

7:45am, live in the US on Setanta

Last 4 head-to-head:
3-1 Liverpool (a) 03.02.08
4-0 Liverpool (h) 12.27.07
3-0 Liverpool (h) 01.01.07
0-2 Bolton (a) 09.30.06

Last 3 matches:
Liverpool: 2-4 Spurs (a); 3-0 West Brom (h); 1-1 Atletico (h)
Bolton: 1-0 Hull (a); 2-0 City (h); 0-1 Everton (h)

Goalscorers (league):
Liverpool: Torres 5; Kuyt 4; Gerrard, Keane 2; Alonso, Arbeloa, Babel, Carragher, Riera 1
Bolton: Davies 4; Taylor 2; Cahill, Elmander, Gardner, Steinsson 1

Referee: Rob Styles

Getting all the good refs! At least it’s not Steve Bennett…

Guess at a squad:
Carragher Hyypia Agger Aurelio
Kuyt Gerrard Alonso Riera
Torres Keane

I think there are two options in both attack and defensive that Benitez will choose from, and honestly don’t know which is more likely in either case.

Torres or Mascherano will probably be left out of the front six. If Liverpool plays 4-4-2, it’s a choice between Alonso and Masch in the middle. Alonso’s on form and Bolton will mainly attack through the air, which eliminates some of the need for Mascherano’s defensive capabilities.

But Benitez might want to take it slow with Torres. He did look rusty against Spurs, and I wouldn’t be opposed to easing him back since this isn’t his first hamstring injury. Plus, there's a midweek international break coming up, and leaving him on the bench here could give reason to keep him out of the Spanish squad. And if that’s the case, Liverpool will probably line up in the 4-2-3-1 with Keane as the spearhead, as they did against Atletico and Chelsea, among others.

I’m hoping there are only two options in defense, but that assumes my rant about Degen after the Carling Cup match comes true, and either Carragher or Darby starts at right back. It’d probably be Carra, since coming on in the 84th minute on Wednesday is Darby’s lone appearance. Also, Degen might be ruled out anyway due to the foot injury that forced him to come off in the last match.

After struggling for results, Bolton’s won their last two against Hull and City. Those six points have pushed them up to 11th, even though the team’s been goal-shy for the majority of the season. I honestly thought Elmander would have a larger impact – and, hands up, so far I've been wrong – but of course, writing this means he’ll probably start to make that impact tomorrow. In addition, captain Kevin Nolan will probably return from injury, and he’s a player that’s haunted Liverpool in the past.

After a stellar September and October, results have started to slip in the past couple of weeks: two losses against Spurs (although one barely counts) and a hardly-deserved home draw against Atletico. But the league is what counts, and the Tottenham match was the only Premiership slip-up since the September draw against Stoke. A win tomorrow, in a difficult venue like the Reebok, against a gritty team that’s usually tough to keep down, would keep momentum going and restore any confidence that's been lost in the last couple of matches.

12 November 2008

Liverpool 2-4 Tottenham

Degen Hyypia Agger Dossena
El Zhar Lucas Plessis Babel
Torres Ngog

Pavlyuchenko 38’ 52’
Campbell 42’ 45’
Plessis 49’
Hyypia 64’

Worst Liverpool defending I have ever seen. You can look at the changes in the back five and draw your own conclusions. That scoreline’s probably closer than it should have been, even considering yet another Mike Riley special in the 82nd minute, ignoring a fairly clear penalty.

It’d be duplicitous for me to complain about the result after writing that this competition's essentially meaningless. But I’ll still complain about the performance; the first 60 minutes were simply god-awful and the rest was barely mediocre.

Spurs dominated the first half. They out-worked Liverpool, had scads of possession, and used the entire field to keep the away side on the back foot. Only a last-ditch block by Agger prevented the opener in the 19th minute, while Liverpool didn’t have one shot, let alone a shot on target, for the first 45.

For the first third of the game, it looked like Spurs wouldn’t reap a reward for their dominance. And then, seven absolutely awful minutes saw Tottenham put three past Liverpool.

First, Frazier Campbell shrugged off Hyypia, who looked like he thought it’d go out for a goal kick, to cut back for an unmarked Pavlyuchenko parked on the penalty spot.

Then the provider turned scorer twice in three minutes after more abysmal defending. Cavalieri should have never come for the first – a long ball towards Campbell – and collided with Degen, leaving an empty net. Then, Lennon got yet another dangerous cross in (seriously, the fullbacks were both atrocious), and Dossena wandered away from Campbell, leaving the striker wide open for an easy header.

Liverpool got a lifeline in the 49th when Gomes made a mess of a corner, gifting Plessis his first goal for the club, but Spurs restored the three-goal advantage immediately as Zokora ran away from Hyypia and again found an open Pavlyuchenko two yards from goal. Liverpool couldn’t mark a statue tonight.

Gomes blundered another corner in the 64th, with Hyypia heading in after the keeper missed his punch. Two shots, both on target, two goals. And both from corners. After Spurs had already put four past Liverpool. Somehow, I’ve ended up in a parallel universe.

The second goal actually prompted better play, and Insua coming on for Torres and Alonso for Plessis certainly helped. But when Gomes’ injury in the 69th led to an extended stoppage (and there wouldn't have been an injury if Degen actually run onto Lucas’s lovely pass), Liverpool lost all momentum.

The only other opportunity, despite nine minutes of added time, was the penalty that wasn’t. Degen (to give a little credit, he actually tried to get forward in the second half) was brought down by Bale, but Riley waved play on and gave that shit-eating smile and I had to stop myself from punching my monitor.

I don’t care how meaningless the competition is or who's lined up for Liverpool. That first half was unforgivable; I feel bad for the fans who paid money to travel to London for this.

I’m glad that Benitez left everyone on the pitch for the second half to fix their own mistakes, and the team was marginally better after the break, but it’s still hard to find positives. I guess Torres getting 56 minutes and coming through unscathed was good, Insua and Alonso played well off the bench, and Babel took two nice corners that led to goals, but that’s about it.

Tottenham passed around Liverpool throughout the first half and had excellent width where Liverpool had none. And when Liverpool had the ball, lazy play led to giveaways, which put more pressure on an already shaky defense. Poor passes, little movement, isolated strikers – all the things you hate to see.

Yes, it’s like his second game for the club, and I try never to single out players. But I do not want to see Degen anywhere near the pitch on Saturday even though Arbeloa’s suspended. Play Carra at right back, or even Darby. But not Degen.

Everyone’s going to credit Redknapp for this 'miraculous turnaround,' and another four-goal performance is certainly an improvement over Ramos. Coming in and telling the players how wonderful they are definitely helps when the last manager barely spoke the language after a year in the job. But Liverpool’s backline was simply awful, and Tottenham could have had more.

It’s still the Carling Cup, and it’s not the loss that bugs me. It’s the performance, and more importantly, the attitude that’s so infuriating. And if the team doesn’t learn a lesson or two, and lets this result affect their confidence in the league, it'll be far worse than getting dumped from the fourth-choice cup.