31 January 2008

Predictions 2/2 – 2/3

Sorry, just the guesses at scores.

Manchester City v Arsenal, 7:45am, Setanta: 1-1
Portsmouth v Chelsea, 10am, FSC: Chelsea 2-0
Tottenham v Manchester Utd, 10am, Setanta: United 2-1
Blackburn v Everton, 10am, Setanta Xtra: 1-1
Birmingham v Derby, 10am: Brum 2-0
Reading v Bolton, 10am: Reading 1-0
Wigan v West Ham, 10am: 1-1
Newcastle v Middlesbrough, 8:30am Sunday, Setanta: Newcastle 1-0
Fulham v Aston Villa, 11am Sunday, FSC: Villa 2-1

Liverpool v Sunderland is on FSC at 12:15pm Saturday.

30 January 2008

Liverpool 0-1 West Ham

Finnan Carragher Hyypia Aurelio
Benayoun Gerrard Alonso Kewell
Torres Kuyt

Noble 90+3’ (pen)

It can’t get much worse, can it?

0-0 all game long, and unfortunately you could have written the script from past performances. Neither side had a shot on target in the first half, but Liverpool was better in the second half and actually creating chances, most notably through Lucas soon after he came on (for Kewell in the 61st) and Torres in the 73rd minute (saved by Green’s foot). Obviously, none were taken. Wiley missed a handball by Lucas Neill in the 79th minute. And then Carragher gave up an unnecessary penalty in the third minute of stoppage time, which Noble scored despite Reina going the right way.

That’s the third penalty Carragher’s given up this season (tackle on Hunt against Reading and handball against Villa in the first match of the season), and again it’s a freak goal that spoils any hopes of a result. This time it’s compounded by the fact it came with the last kick of the game and during a stretch where Liverpool can’t buy a win. By itself, an unlucky loss at West Ham thanks to a late penalty isn’t the end of the world, and yes, West Ham did play well, but in the context of the last month it couldn’t be worse.

There’s little point singling out players’ performances. Everyone, anyone, needs to stand up and be counted. Lucas helped to change the game after he came on and was unlucky not to score with one of his opportunities, but once again, there’s little to be happy with and little evidence of any progress. Or cohesion. Or desire. Or the team that looked to be going in the right direction until all this turmoil started. This is exactly the time you’d think the players would rally around the manager and fight for the club, but it’s not happening.

I don’t know if the players are unsettled by the Klinsmann talk or if they’ve just lost faith in Benitez, but every time out it seems more and more like the team isn’t responding to Rafa. As much as I want Benitez to succeed and fear the ramifications should he leave, when you’ve lost the team you’ve got no chance. I have no idea what’s going on behind the scenes, and that makes me as sick as the results on the pitch.

This is becoming uncannily like the last days of Houllier, which is a phrase I never thought I’d write. Worse than the similarity to Houllier’s end, it’s also starting to look like the downfall of Leeds, although by no means am I ready to draw that comparison yet. But how much of one it is we’ll soon see.

Liverpool has regressed to where they were in Rafa’s first season: in the fight for fourth, 17 points behind the league leaders. Right now the team sits in 7th with 40 points, 3 points behind Everton in 4th with a game in hand (against today’s opponents). Compare the squads between the two seasons and it’s hard to explain how that’s possible.

And fourth place is that last money-spinning Champions League place. In 2005, fifth wasn’t the end of the world because Liverpool qualified for Europe by winning the Champions League and wasn’t so dependent on Champions League revenue. Now I’m downright frightened what havoc a failure to qualify would wreak on a club loaded with debt, a budget dependent on European competition, and a £300m stadium due to be built.

I do believe Liverpool will get fourth. But at this rate, that has to be the fan and optimist in me, because we haven’t seen any evidence of it in 2008.

Nota Bene: For more on the debt, please read this comprehensive post by ttnbd on RAWK. At times frightening, other times reassuring, it could not be more thorough. Plus, even I could follow it, despite the fact that I'm a financial imbecile.

29 January 2008

Liverpool at West Ham 01.30.08

2:45pm EST, live in the US on Setanta Xtra. As the game’s only live on Setanta Xtra, chances are I'll have the review up after the delayed Setanta showing that starts at 7:45pm.

Last 4 head-to-head:
2-1 Liverpool (a) 01.30.07
2-1 Liverpool (h) 08.26.06
3-3 aet Liverpool (FA Cup Final) 05.13.06
2-1 Liverpool (a) 04.26.06

Last 3 matches:
Liverpool: 5-2 Havant (h); 2-2 Villa (h): 5-0 Luton (h)
West Ham: 1-1 City (a); 0-1 City (a); 2-1 Fulham (h)

Goalscorers (league):
Liverpool: Torres 11; Gerrard 7; Babel, Benayoun, Kuyt, Voronin 3; Alonso 2; Crouch, Hyypia, Sissoko 1
West Ham: Ashton 5; Bowyer 4; Cole, Etherington 3; Bellamy, Ferdinand, Solano 2; McCartney, Noble, Parker, Upson 1

Referee: Alan Wiley

Guess at a squad:
Finnan Carragher Hyypia Aurelio
Benayoun Gerrard Alonso Kewell
Torres Kuyt

Like usual when there’s two games in less than a week, I think we’ll see a bit of rotation from the team that went out against Havant on Saturday. Players like Carragher, Gerrard, Torres, Reina and Alonso will surely return to the line-up, while I wouldn’t be surprised to see Kuyt and Kewell come back into the side as well.

Mascherano is suspended, having picked up five yellow cards in the league, while Agger, Arbeloa, and Voronin will miss the game through injury.

Surely Benayoun has to start again after notching a hat-trick? It’ll be his first game against the Hammers since leaving the club in July. I imagine he’ll slot in for Pennant on the right, but with Kewell underperforming (although not as badly as some others in the squad, and he is still working his way back to fitness following a lengthy injury), perhaps Yossi will stay out on the left (where he started on Saturday). But regardless of who plays on the wings, I imagine we’ll see them switch flanks, as against Havant and as happened earlier in the season before Pennant’s injury.

I realize many have been slamming Kuyt of late, including yours truly, but its not as if Liverpool’s overflowing with options up front. Crouch did not look good on Saturday, despite the goal (although he wasn’t paired with Torres), while Voronin’s injured and I can’t remember Babel starting two games in a week.

There’s an option of playing Benayoun centrally, as happened in the second half of the Havant match, but I don’t think we’ve seen Liverpool deploy a five-man midfield away from home this season. Kuyt’s been getting into decent positions, and (unsurprisingly) still shows 100% in his work rate (unlike a certain striker on Saturday). Like Crouch in his first season at Liverpool, once he breaks his luck in front of goal, more will come. And like Crouch in his first season, it’s important for the fans to stay behind the player through this goal drought.

Everyone’s sick of the repeated mantra that Liverpool needs to play better. There’s been enough talking off the pitch; the players need to start doing it on the field. By my count Liverpool’s had five disappointing league performances in a row, and it goes without saying that’s not good enough.

Benitez is partly right though; it is a matter of confidence. And a good performance away at West Ham, where Liverpool has a decent record over the past few meetings, is as good a place as any to start.

Sissoko to Juve

Well, the Sissoko move has been finalized.

Momo hasn’t had the best season the few times he’s seen the field, but it’s with sadness that he completes this move.

And it is a good move for all involved.

He’s currently fifth choice in central midfield, behind Gerrard, Masch, Alonso, and Lucas. He’s only 23 years old and still needs to develop as a footballer, so he needs to be playing. And Liverpool will recoup £8.2m from the transfer if reports are correct, which isn’t as much as people were hoping, but still £2.6m more than Liverpool bought him for.

He should have more time on the ball in Italy, and should get the run of games needed to cement and improve his form.

He was a useful and necessary player for Liverpool over his first two seasons, but Liverpool’s squad is improving, and Sissoko is one of the casualties of that. Benitez has sold players that he’s bought every season in order to improve the side. It’s sad to see Momo leave, but he needs to play and Liverpool needs those funds for Mascherano. That’s football, that’s life.

We will never forget the Chelsea match for the Community Shield, or the two legs against Barca in the Champions League. Those games were hallmarks of what Sissoko is and can be as a player; Michael Ballack probably still has nightmares featuring Momo.

We will never forget his determination to return after the eye injury that could have ruined his career, and the fact that he discarded the doctor-prescribed glasses in his return match before ten minutes were off the clock. Hard as nails.

And never forget, Momo is Boss. He’s magic, you know. You’ll never get past Sissoko.

All the best of luck.

28 January 2008

Predictions 1/29 - 1/30 (plus FA Cup draw)

Arsenal v Newcastle, 2:45pm, FSC: You saw the template for this match on Saturday. Although Arsenal was still sore from their Carling Cup loss when they met Newcastle this weekend, I can’t see a much different result. Poor Kev. At least Mike Ashley has loads of money (hint hint, Hicks). Arsenal 3-0
Sunderland v Birmingham, 3pm, Setanta: If Sunderland has any hope of staying up, they need to win their home matches, but Birmingham’s only two league losses over the past month have been to United and Chelsea, and they’ve only lost by one goal each time. 1-1
Middlesbrough v Wigan, 3pm, Setanta Xtra: Bruce has Wigan playing very well, but Boro’s been decent at home, and Middlesbrough need to make their home games count, as they’re only 2 points above the relegation places. Boro 1-0
Bolton v Fulham, 3pm: Fulham’s bought a ton of players during this window in Hodgson’s attempt to stave off relegation, and although Bolton’s home form under Megson has been excellent, I think Fulham can still come away with a much-needed point. 1-1

Chelsea v Reading, 2:45pm, FSC: Ugh. No matter injuries, no matter suspensions, no matter the African Cup of Nations, Chelsea keeps getting results. As much as I dislike them, as it’s Chelsea, that’s a very respectable quality in a team. Chelsea 2-0
Manchester Utd v Portsmouth, 3pm, Setanta: Boy I hope United comes back down to Earth with their league form soon, but I’m not holding my breath. Sigh. United 2-0
Derby v Manchester City, 2:45pm: Derby’s seemingly given up hope of staying up. They’ve looked likely to be relegated since August, but when players and the manager are admitting as much in the media, it can’t bode well for results or morale. City 2-1
Everton v Tottenham, 3pm: Were it not for Jermaine Jenas blowing two one-on-one opportunities yesterday, Tottenham could have come away with something from Sunday’s match against United. Spurs have played very well of late, while Everton has as well, and although it’s at Goodison (where Everton’s been excellent), I think the two teams may cancel each other out. 2-2

Liverpool v West Ham is Wednesday at 2:45pm. It's live on Setanta Xtra, which is usually only available on DirecTV, so chances are I'll have the review up after the delayed Setanta showing that starts at 7:45pm.

And while it doesn’t deserve it’s own post, I have to gloat a bit about the FA Cup draw held today. Not so much about Liverpool’s next match against Barnsley (as I reckon Saturday proved that any team from any division is worthy of respect), although having another leg at home is comforting (despite this season’s home form), and a bit unusual.

No, what I’m pleased about is that there are only 6 Premiership teams left out of the 16 in the draw. And with those odds, Arsenal and Manchester United are drawn against each other. Ha.

And at the very least, there will be three non-Premiership sides in the quarterfinals.

Sometimes this “magic of the FA Cup” cliché actually holds water.

Full draw:
Bristol Rovers v Southampton
Cardiff City v Wolves
Sheffield United v Middlesbrough
Liverpool v Barnsley
Manchester United v Arsenal
Preston v Portsmouth
Coventry City v West Brom
Chelsea v Huddersfield Town

26 January 2008

More thoughts on the Havant match

Having finally seen the match, and still with many of the same feelings I elucidated earlier, I thought I would just add some thoughts that struck during the match.

• Benayoun was the only one who could be satisfied with his performance after the first half. He was pressing the opposition, moving about the pitch, and trying to create, while many of Liverpool’s players were walking about even after going a goal down. Yossi was even unlucky not to bag a fourth in the 62nd minute thanks to a fantastic save from Scriven before going off for Kuyt in the 72nd.

• Lucas’ equalizer in the 27th minute was a goal of utter class. Compared to many others in the side, he didn’t make many mistakes either, showed a nice range of passing, and an ability to play from box to box. As Liverpool improved as the game went on, Lucas grew more influential in the middle. He’s going to be a wonderful player.

• The defense was awful for both goals, with Finnan taking most of the blame for both, which is surprising given his usual consistency. He lost Paquette on the corner for the first and misplayed an easy ball that put Potter in for the second. I’m more forgiving of Skrtel’s role; it’s his debut, and it was just unlucky that Potter’s shot deflected off him for Havant’s second. The backpass that gave up the corner for Havant’s first was a bigger error, and he improved in the second half.

• Despite the clumsiness of the first half performance, I’m still glad that Benitez made no changes during the break. It was up to the starting XI to fix the trouble they’d gotten themselves into, which they did. Plus, bringing on either Gerrard or Torres would have fed into the narrative that Liverpool is a two-man team, and showing the need for one of those two could have hurt the morale more than it helped the play.

• I don’t know whether it was unfamiliarity with playing as a striker for Liverpool or something tactical, but Babel was often deeper or wider than I expected (almost as if he was playing in the role of Kuyt/Voronin). At times it looked as if Liverpool was playing a non-league side at home with one up top, although Babel, Benayoun, Pennant, Mascherano, and Lucas all supported the attack when Liverpool was pressing, and Liverpool was getting men forward, mainly in the second half. During the spell when he tallied his second and third goals Benayoun played more centrally with Babel moving out to the left, but Babel, Pennant, and Benayoun interchanged often.

• It didn’t help Babel that Crouch didn’t play well either. I can find fault with every player’s game today, but Crouch was one who stood out, and it was a game in which he needed to do well for confidence’s sake. The goal in the 90th, where he was offside, covers up the fact he rarely looked like scoring otherwise and was kept under wraps by the Havant defense throughout. The play of the strikers outside of Torres (Kuyt didn’t cover himself in glory after coming on either) is one of the few things that does have me worried.

• Itandje was another who had a forgettable game, not commanding his area or communicating with his defense at times, epitomized in the 22nd minute when Liverpool was lucky not to go two goals down as Itandje flapped thrice at the ball, Liverpool failed to clear, and center-back Neil Sharp narrowly shot over. He did come up with a marvelous reaction save in the 87th from Jordan’s header to keep it at 4-2, but it was still probably his worst outing in a Liverpool shirt.

• 19 year-old Alfie Potter was much of the reason Finnan had such a poor game. Out of anyone in the Havant side, he has to be the one to watch to move up a few divisions. The five goals given up by Kevin Scriven don’t do him justice either, as he made a number of very good saves and came out to patrol his area well.

• I feel like any time fans of one club praise the other after winning a match it comes off as patronizing, especially when it’s a big club vis-à-vis a smaller one, but I really do want to give credit to Havant and Waterlooville. They came to play football and have a go, and kept going forward after going two goals down in the second half. Ignoring my overwhelming bias for Liverpool and the need for them to play well today, Havant and Waterlooville were an absolute pleasure to watch.

• As said before, it’s the FA Cup. It’s always good for a surprise, but Liverpool’s talent won out in the end. I’ll be a lot less forgiving if performances repeat themselves in the match against West Ham on Wednesday.

Liverpool 5-2 Havant & Waterlooville

Finnan Skrtel Hyypia Riise
Pennant Lucas Mascherano Benayoun
Crouch Babel

Paquette 8’
Lucas 27’
Skrtel (og) 31’
Benayoun 44’ 56’ 60’
Crouch 90’

In a way I’m glad I wasn’t subjected to this thanks to the first 45 minutes, but of course I’m not. It’s likely I would have broken my TV or something near it during the first half, but I’d still have taken my chances.

Of course I’m disappointed in what I read about the first half performance and having seen about 6 minutes worth of highlights, but there was always a chance something like this could happen. Havant was up for the match, didn’t sit back, and were able to take advantage of two nervous mistakes by a makeshift defense (including the fifth own goal of the season). Seriously, well done by them; they did themselves and their supporters very proud. Most of the Premier League doesn’t show that much attacking threat at Anfield.

Liverpool still equalized twice despite not having much rhythm about them, and got their act together in the second half, putting the game out of reach within 15 minutes of the restart through Benayoun’s second cup hat-trick. Crouch added more gloss in the 90th minute (and was offside), but I’m sure many aren’t satisfied with the result, which is fair after shipping two goals to non-league opposition in the first half.

Maybe because I didn’t see the match, (believe me, I was still furious going off of various text commentaries and delayed highlights), but in the end, I’m not that bothered. I’m worried about the defensive errors, as it’s not as if it was the first time they’ve appeared, but there was always the possibly Havant could spring a surprise with nothing to lose, and Liverpool had the class to come from behind twice and win by 3 in the end. It’s the magic of the FA Cup; I’ll be worried if trends continue in the Premiership or when it happens to a stronger XI.

As usual, I’ll have more to say if I see the full match, and in lieu of a full report, here’s a load of links:

Liverpoolfc.tv match review
Liverpoolfc.tv with Rafa
101 Great Goals: FA Cup 4th round
BBC match review
Sky Sports match review
Eurosport match review
RAWK post-match thread

25 January 2008

Liverpool v Havant and Waterlooville 01.26.08

4th Round. 10am EST, not on in the US. With no televised coverage in the UK either, there probably won’t be any streams either. So much for the magic of the FA Cup.

FA Cup run:
Liverpool: 5-0 Luton (h); 1-1 Luton (a)
Havant: 4-2 Swansea (h); 1-1 Swansea (a); 1-0 Notts County (a); 1-0 York City (a); 3-0 Leighton Town (h); 2-1 Fleet Town (a); 2-1 Bognor Regis Town (a)

Last 3 matches:
Liverpool: 2-2 Villa (h); 5-0 Luton (h); 1-1 Boro (a)
Havant: 4-2 Swansea (h); 3-1 St Albans City (h); 1-4 Bishop Stortford (a)

Referee: Phil Dowd

Guess at a line-up:
Finnan Skrtel Hyypia Aurelio
Pennant Gerrard Alonso Babel
Crouch Kuyt

A week ago I would have argued that playing Torres or Gerrard would be sheer lunacy. No offense to Havant -- I’m not suggesting Liverpool trot out the under-18s or reserves -- but those two are far too important to Liverpool’s season, and I fear the kicking the players will get.

But after another disappointing draw in the league, and all the continuing off-field "news," I’m not so sure.

At the least, I reckon Gerrard will start. He is the captain, after all, and if Carragher gets the rest he so deserves (with Skrtel hopefully coming in), Gerrard has to be on the field as the team’s leader. As much as I wouldn’t mind seeing Lucas in the center with Alonso, I fear the reaction should Liverpool under-perform without Gerrard or Torres in the team.

And I still think, despite the 17 goals, Torres will start on the bench. He’s someone who would assuredly be in for a kicking, and although he’s been Liverpool main (and at times only) goal threat, Crouch and Kuyt, the first-choice pairing last season, should be strong enough to get goals. Kuyt especially needs to have a good game and hopefully get on the scoresheet to reclaim some of the confidence he’s clearly lost recently.

But then again, Benitez has fielded a stronger team than I’ve expected in pretty much every cup game, both FA and Carling, so far this season.

Arbeloa and Voronin are assuredly out, and in Voronin’s case, that’s not necessarily a bad thing with the form he’s been in. His injury should force Benitez to play Crouch more often, which many have been clamoring for. We may even see Babel play some as a striker (please!) but I imagine he’ll be on the left here, as he was against Luton, because of Liverpool’s limited options on that flank.

The BBC’s piece featuring the Havant team is worth a look to see who’ll be coming up against Liverpool on Saturday.

I’ve said enough, probably more than I wanted, about off-field matters of late, and hopefully they’ll have little impact on the field tomorrow. And it’s not as if Liverpool doesn’t have to focus on the match ahead.

We’ve seen all the talk of the importance of the cups because of disappointing league form; a second FA Cup under Benitez, or at the least a good run, would be small consolation, but consolation nonetheless.

But Liverpool must still get past Havant, and will still have to fight for it every step of the way. This won’t be an easier match because of Havant’s non-league status; if anything, there’s that much more pressure because of the gulf between the sides. Plus, players may not be as focused because of their opponents (see the Luton away leg), and, with no offense meant, this will be the biggest match in many of the opposition players' lives. They will leave everything on the Anfield pitch, and it’s imperative that whoever is in the starting XI for Liverpool do the same.

The deal is “done”

Naturally, a little more than 12 hours after I post something about my confusion over refinancing et al, they announce it’s completed. Unsurprisingly, Hicks has also released the new stadium designs at the same time. Yes, we’re all just blinded by shiny objects and forget what was bothering us before we saw them.

So what do Hicks and Gillett have to do besides actually build the stadium before I’ll have any faith at all in them (Gillett has been very noticeable in his absence from today’s events by the way)?

1) Sign Mascherano.
I’ve seen the talk about how he’ll be a “gift” to the Liverpool fans (how delightfully patronizing!). Just get it done. Now.

1a) Sign Benitez to a new deal.
Yeah, it probably wouldn’t be worth the paper it was written on and I know he’s still got a couple of years left on his current deal, but in signing it there would be a sign that Benitez feels he could continue in his position.

2) Either fire Rick Parry or tie Foster Gillett to his desk.
Preferably both if Gillett’s still insistent on having his son Tommy Boy stick it out, but here’s hoping Foster’s not happy on the Mersey. There cannot be a breakdown in communication between owners and manager again, and I blame Parry for much of it.

3) Use money from the refinancing to spend on players in the summer.
Again, I’m awful at finance, but according to Barrett (who also included the Masch “news”) £350m breaks down as follows: “£105m will be saddled on Liverpool, with £185m secured on Hicks and Gillett's holding company Kop Investment.” I don’t know where the remaining £60m is supposed to go (absorb the previous debt?), but I assume the £185m on Kop Investment is for the purchase of the club last year, so in a way they can say they bought the club without putting the debt on the club (which is exactly what Glazer did). Which would mean the £105m is for starting the stadium, operating costs, and more players. Please buy more players; this season’s proved the need for it.

4) Be fiscally smart enough to keep Liverpool from doing a Leeds.
Liverpool could be on very thin ice if they fail to make the Champions League or similarly struggle in the league. Revenue to keep up interest payments will be crucial. This is the price of doing business like this: failure could mean serious trouble. Hicks and Gillett have to be smart businessmen, or at least have some around, while providing and allowing for success on the field. Which means they’ll have to stay the hell out of on-field matters and give full reins to the manager.

5) Remember Shankly.
The great man would be spinning in his grave. “At a football club, there's a holy trinity - the players, the manager and the supporters. Directors don't come into it. They are only there to sign the cheques.” Remember it. Put it on those office motivational posters and hang them around Melwood. Tattoo it on the faces of both Hicks and Gillett. Do not break this rule ever, EVER, again.

I am still utterly furious at the owners, for the fiasco in the media and the lies. I will never forgive Hicks for the Klinsmann news hitting the papers.

But I also remember Arsenal taking out multiple loans and refinancing them at least twice more during the building of the Emirates. And while United under Glazer as a comparison doesn’t warm my heart in the slightest, their success has proven that if the business is run right and coupled with success on the field, a borrowed takeover and debt repayments won’t sink the club. There are a lot of ifs, but at least there’s some precedence for this type of refinancing/building plan working.

It’s still a sad time for the club, and by no means are Liverpool and the fans out of the woods, but at least there’s the beginning of a possible light at the end of the tunnel.

24 January 2008

What is going on here?

Alex Ferguson is defending Rafa Benitez. John Terry has called Carragher the best defender in the world.

There are still loads of contradictory rumors about Hicks, Gillett, DIC, the refinancing, etc (the RAWK thread is currently at 125 pages in a week, which has to be some sort of record), and I still have no idea what’s the truth and what’s being spun or created in the media.

They were supposed to announce a new refinancing deal today.
But it’ll be by Monday for sure. DIC hasn’t made Hicks an offer, and he wouldn't sell anyway. DIC won’t make an offer if refinancing goes through. But there's speculation that DIC could be waiting for them to refinance so they can take over as the ‘good guys.’ Oh, and David Dein (?!?) is helping get the deal done. And Rick Parry could still be the one to save the club. At this point, I have trouble telling which way is up.

But it’s still embarrassingly going on. That there’s been little new “news” today might mean future developments might not be as public (please, please, please), but knowing this media and having seen past precedent during this fiasco makes me less than hopeful.

To be fair, Anfield Road has seemingly done an excellent job of trying to make sense of some of it, specifically the transfer expenditures, but that’s a task I’m not up for.

Needless to say, I have no idea what world I’ve been transported to or how to get back to the one I’m familiar with.

Preview of the Havant match, which I don’t think will be aired anywhere in the States (nor do I know if I’ll even be in town for it), sometime tomorrow.

21 January 2008

Liverpool 2-2 Aston Villa

Arbeloa Carragher Hyypia Aurelio
Benayoun Gerrard Mascherano Kewell
Kuyt Torres

Benayoun 19’
Harewood 69’
Aurelio (og) 72’
Crouch 88’

Oh goody, another draw.

It could have been worse. I’m well aware that’s little consolation, but when it’s 1-2 in the 87th minute, you’ll take whatever positives you can get.

But once again, Liverpool’s unable to get a second goal when they’re dominant, and once again, Liverpool’s ended up with a draw at Anfield, the sixth time that’s happened at home in the league this season. And that’s unacceptable.

Pick your analogy to past performances. The Tottenham game, with the 2-2 scoreline, two opposition goals in a short period, and a late equalizer at Anfield to save a point, is probably the closest, but the recent Wigan match, with Liverpool in control and unable to get a second, only to ship a soft goal, also springs to mind. Either way, it’s not a pretty picture.

I could make a template out of my recent match reports. Liverpool started better. Liverpool were dominant in possession, set the tempo, and went ahead one-nil, earlier than usual with Benayoun’s goal in the 19th minute, getting to the rebound of his own shot first after an outstanding reverse pass from Kuyt. And although Liverpool was unable to get the second goal, Villa rarely looked like threatening throughout the first half.

Fast forward to the 69th minute. The second half started with more of the same, with Liverpool still in charge until Villa earned a free kick in Liverpool’s half after Arbeloa fouled Petrov (he was injured beforehand and it showed in his challenge, and he was subbed off for Skrtel moments later). Laursen won the header, and Harewood (of all people) sent an overhead kick straight into the net. Just like that, back to square one. And then it all went to shambles.

To compound matters, Villa scored from another needless free kick three minutes later, and brought back memories of that spat of freak own goals from earlier in the season. Liverpool again failed to clear the danger, and Mellberg attempted to head back across the box, only to be directed into the net by Aurelio.

Villa is known for their prowess on set plays. Not only does Liverpool fail to get a second goal, but giving up two goals from free kicks in the space of three minutes is absurd. It’s just sloppy, and it makes me wonder if Benitez is getting through to the players above the din of off-field matters.

I can’t remember any season where Liverpool’s drawn this many games after going ahead, especially at Anfield: Villa, Wigan, Arsenal, Tottenham and Chelsea. I do not understand it. This team has such potential, but also the potential to under-perform and piss away all the good work done earlier in the season. Everything about this season has been Jekyll and Hyde so far.

Thankfully, Crouch was there to save a point in the 88th minute, and it was a goal that Villa will rue as Liverpool rue the two they let in. Laursen missed a header attempting to clear Liverpool’s free kick, allowing Carra to direct the ball towards Crouch, who made no mistake with a lovely shot.

And once again, my relief at Liverpool getting the point has probably softened my criticism. To be fair, Liverpool wasn’t that bad before Villa’s goal, but “wasn’t that bad” isn’t cutting it. Yes, the team was sloppy at times, but the problem was that Liverpool just can’t kill games off. Someone has to grab the game by the scruff of the neck and get that second goal when Liverpool’s in front; neither Torres nor Gerrard could provide it today, and no one else looks likely.

There’s not much else to be said. There’s only so many ways to say that Liverpool should have won and didn’t because they can’t kill off games.

What bothers me the most is how this is going to feed into the off-field nonsense. Benitez is not at fault for players’ inability to get a second goal. The XI that lined up should have put the game to bed by the 60th minute, if not the 45th. I realize the manager not only picks the team but also devises the tactics and motivates the players, but I can’t bring myself to criticize Benitez with the position he’s in. He’s had his legs cut out from under him by the owners and the media.

The only thing that will end this is improvement on the field. I don’t believe that Gillet and Hicks are selling out to DIC, but I’ve been wrong before (most notably in trusting the new owners). And Gillet and Hicks could put out statements until they’re out of paper in support of Benitez, and it wouldn’t change the media’s narrative or the fans opinions. What will change the bad feelings is players responding to the adversity, responding to their manager, and giving everyone something else (something positive!) to write about.

Players. Need. To. Perform. On. The. Pitch.

West Ham on Saturday. Sorry. Havant Saturday. West Ham next Wednesday.

19 January 2008

Liverpool v Aston Villa 01.21.08

3pm EST, live in the US on Setanta

Last 4 head-to-head:
2-1 Liverpool (a) 08.11.07
0-0 (a) 03.18.07
3-1 Liverpool (h) 10.28.06
3-1 Liverpool (h) 04.29.06

Last 3 matches:
Liverpool: 5-0 Luton (h); 1-1 Boro (a); 1-1 Luton (a)
Villa: 3-1 Reading (h); 0-2 United (h); 2-1 Tottenham (a)

Goalscorers (league):
Liverpool: Torres 11; Gerrard 7; Babel, Kuyt, Voronin 3; Alonso, Benayoun 2; Hyypia, Sissoko 1
Villa: Agbonlahor 7; Carew, Laursen 6; Barry, Maloney 4; Gardner 3; Mellberg, Young 2; Davies, Harewood, Knight, Moore 1

Referee: Mark Clattenberg

Is it just me, or do referees who give a team a contentious decision always give their next opponent all the 50/50 decisions (coughSteveBennettcough)?

Guess at a squad:
Finnan Carragher Hyypia Arbeloa
Pennant Gerrard Mascherano Kewell
Torres Crouch

As I said in the last match review, I doubt the line-up with be that different from the one on Tuesday. Reina will obviously return, while Mascherano and Finnan probably will, and Kewell and Kuyt might.

Kuyt has looked like Benitez’ preferred partner for Torres, but I still want to see Crouch up front with Torres again. I hate to keep harping on Kuyt and Voronin’s troubles, and it’s not as if Crouch is scoring at a better rate (still without a goal in the league), but Liverpool need to see if Crouch and Torres can prove a viable pairing while Crouch’s price is still high in case they don’t.

But I do want to say that I hope to see Babel line up as a striker in the near future, and preferably with Torres. But given that he played the full 90 last time out, and Benitez’s apparent unwillingness to play Babel two games running at his age and experience level, I doubt he’ll start again on Monday, and if he does, it's probably be on the left.

Liverpool will have to be careful about Villa’s counter-attack and wary of their prowess at set pieces. Agbonlahor and Young have the pace to frighten on the counter, and with a target man in John Carew, there will be flick-ons for those two to clean up, which makes me think back to the Tottenham game in October, where two Berbatov lay-offs to Keane from two long balls led to two goals.

In addition, Laursen (Villa’s second-leading scorer), Knight, and Mellberg are all big defenders and aerial threats, and if Liverpool give up any free kicks, the zonal marking will have to be excellent. But, and not to jinx it, but both of those concerns are things that Liverpool have come up against in the past.

In team news, Carson’s ineligible for Villa, and it looks like Gareth Barry will miss out after bruising his pelvis in training.

Villa’s unbeaten in the league in their last six, since the 1-3 home loss to Pompey in early December. They are up to 6th, and are tied with Liverpool (and Everton and City) on 39 points.

I don't need to remind that Liverpool has underperformed in the league the last 3 times out (4 if you count the narrow Derby win). I’ve promised the lot of you (and myself) to keep off-field matters out of on-field write-ups. But it’s clear that a win here would do wonders for the morale on the field, as Villa will be tough opposition, but Liverpool have a good record against them at Anfield in the past. Plus, hopefully, the road to rebuilding on-field confidence began with 5 goals on Tuesday, and Monday will be another step in the road on the way back.

17 January 2008

Nota Bene on the 'era of bad feeling'

I know there’s still a lot of controversy and gossip over the owners: the situation with Benitez, refinancing the loan, the possible re-entrance of DIC into the picture, and revising the design/financing the stadium (and player upgrades). To be frank, not much Liverpool news has been of the positive sort of late, and it’s mainly been their fault (the media may not help matters, but it’s not as if that’s anything new).

But I’m going to try and write previews and reviews while ignoring (for lack of a better term) these things. Without doubt there are problems, but I’m still not sure the extent of them, and for example, I refuse to acknowledge Benitez is a dead man walking until I hear it from the man himself, whatever the pundits say (although I do think the linked article is also one of the best at summarizing why Benitez’ exit would be atrocious, even if it does reckon he will leave if G&H stay). Maybe I’m deluding myself, but for clarification, that’s where I’m at.

If something concrete comes along or certain things can’t be ignored (like the Hicks/Klinsmann debacle), I’ll assuredly have something to say. But for now, I am trying not to let these bad feelings permeate everything I write on this blog, especially if it’s about on-field matters.

Preview for Monday’s match up later tomorrow than usual, as it’ll probably (hopefully?) stay on top of the page until the post-match.

Predictions 1/19 - 1/20

What happened to 7:45am games? Also, what happened to SoccerTV.com? The loss of that site would be horrendous.

Fulham v Arsenal, 10am, FSC: Hopefully Arsenal will struggle to score after dominating as they did often last season and in the last match against Brum, while I do expect Hodgson to get Fulham playing more like a team. But with Arsenal’s ability and Fulham’s penchant for shipping late goals, I can’t fancy the underdogs for a result, even considering that we’ve had some surprising scorelines in London derbies between Fulham and both Arsenal and Chelsea in the past couple of seasons. Arsenal 2-1
Reading v Manchester Utd, 10am, Setanta: Have you seen United lately? I know Reading have been a “bogey” team for them before, but still. Sigh. United 3-1
Birmingham v Chelsea, 10am, Setanta Xtra: I like how we heard in the summer that Chelsea wasn’t going to spend like they’ve been prone to in the past anymore, and then they go and pay £24m for two players that won’t be nailed-on starters if everyone’s available (although Anelka has a chance to lay a claim while Drogba’s at the African Cup) in the first half of the January window. Ha. Chelsea 2-0
Blackburn v Middlesbrough, 10am: While I think Blackburn will win, it’s hard to criticize Boro after their draw against Liverpool last week (sigh), although Boro on the road is certainly a different prospect. And Blackburn also seems to be moving past that sticky spell they had in late November through December. Blackburn 1-0
Portsmouth v Derby, 10am: If Derby didn’t score at home against Wigan, Paul Jewell’s previous team, I don’t see them causing Portsmouth trouble at Fratton Park, despite Pompey’s stuttering form and the players lost to the African Cup of Nations. Portsmouth 2-0
Tottenham v Sunderland, 10am: Ramos is starting to make a difference at the club. Tottenham has looked better in all competitions over the past month, and is even showing some signs of defensive stability. Sunderland’s looked better than 18th place at times, but those times have been at the Stadium of Light. Only a superior goal difference (-18 v –24) separates their away record from Derby’s (0-2-9). Tottenham 3-0
Newcastle v Bolton, 12:15pm, FSC: The Keegan effect. I’m clueless as to how much of a long-term impact Keegan will have, as he’s been out of management for a while now, and it is Newcastle. But don’t think that St James’ Park won’t be rocking Saturday, and don’t think the players won’t respond. Newcastle 3-1
Wigan v Everton, 8:30am Sunday, Setanta:I’m surprised Wigan’s proving as tough an opposition as they have (the narrow defeat to Villa is their only loss in the last six); Bruce has done a very good job so far. But Everton’s only lost to Arsenal and United since the Liverpool match in mid-October, and as much as it hurts me to admit, I expect them to push for 5th and potentially (gulp) compete for a Champions League place. Everton 2-0
Manchester City v West Ham, 11am Sunday, FSC: You saw the template for this match in the last two FA Cup ties. It’ll be cagey, but City’s prowess at home will probably take the three points. City 1-0

15 January 2008

Liverpool 5-0 Luton Town

Arbeloa Carragher Hyypia Riise
Pennant Gerrard Alonso Babel
Crouch Torres

Babel 45+1’
Gerrard 52’ 64’ 72’
Hyypia 58’

It’s worrying that it’s come to where a thrashing of Luton in a 3rd round FA Cup replay is so warmly welcomed, but any win will do right now. Honestly, after four straight draws, I was just happy to have a match where there would definitely be a winner.

Admittedly, going goalless into the 45th minute, with Liverpool superior and creating chances, brought about some nerves, but with little expectations and the relief of being rescued from administration, Luton was always going to make it difficult. Had the half ended 0-0, Liverpool would have been under far more pressure in the second half, and I’d wouldn’t have wanted to be anywhere near Benitez’s halftime talk.

But once the goal came, it had the makings of a rout. This match wasn’t at Kenilworth Road, and Liverpool wasn’t going to sit back at Anfield with a one-goal lead after what happened in the last meeting.

It wasn’t surprising that it was Babel who broke the deadlock after the way the match had gone either. Only the inside of the post prevented him from opening the scoring in the 9th minute, and he was the most-threatening attacker throughout the first 45. It was a lovely move as well, with Torres leading the break through the middle and finding Babel on the right, who made no mistake with his low shot past Brill into the far corner.

And in the second half we were treated to some fireworks, most prominently from Steven Gerrard, who had yielded the armband to Carragher for his 500th appearance. Gerrard’s header in the 52nd minute, running onto Crouch’s flick from Pennant’s cross at the far post was just the first in his 20-minute second half hat-trick.

The second goal meant the tie was ostensibly over for Luton, and they gave up 3 more in the next 20 minutes. First, Hyypia scored from a corner in the 58th after a sustained bit of pressure and a number of opportunities in Luton's box. Gerrard added his second 4 minutes later, running on to Torres’ blocked shot at the top of the box and placing it perfectly low into the corner. Finally, he capped his hat-trick with a trademark swerving piledriver from distance after Riise found him in space.

Obviously, I’m pleased with the performance today, even if I would have hesitated in saying that until Liverpool opened the scoring. I have to mention Carragher first on his 500th appearance; even though he had little to do for long portions of the game, he pushed forward when he could and made some smart runs into the box looking to mark the occasion with a goal. He’s been a masterful servant for the club and without a doubt a Liverpool legend. Thanks, Jamie.

And obviously, Gerrard will probably walk away with man of the match in addition to the match ball. Luton’s lack of an attacking threat allowed Gerrard to play further up the pitch and leave Alonso alone to support the defense, and he exploited it in both his goals and his passing. Today’s game was a perfect example of Gerrard at his most threatening, and in his best position.

Babel also did well today, and it was probably his best performance for Liverpool when he played from the start. As said, he was Liverpool’s main goal threat in the first half, and didn’t fade out of the game as he has in the past when starting. He put his pace to excellent use and looked to cut inside more often. And when Torres went off with 15 minutes or so to play, there were moments when Babel threatened playing through the middle with Kuyt, but at that point, Liverpool were 5 goals up and sitting back, and more often than not, Babel was part of a five-man midfield. But there was still some evidence that we might see Babel as a striker more often, which I’m definitely hoping for.

In addition, Pennant was impressive as a frequent outlet on the right, beat his man to the byline well, and put in some good crosses, but Jermaine still needs to offer more of a goal threat, and to cut inside if the fullback is giving him the angle. But it's also early days after his extended injury layoff.

But still, this is a home match against League One opposition in the 3rd round of the FA Cup. No matter how happy I am to have positive news to write about, I have to keep my praise, and expectations, in check. It's just 'job done, next match please.'

And what is it is a building point. It’s a building point to get us past the speculation surrounding Benitez and the bad aura around the club. Liverpool finally had some fluid movement and decent passing, and actually looked threatening in front of goal. They looked like they did in impressive performances earlier in the season before this 'crisis.' Now they need to take that into the Villa match on Monday, because I can’t imagine the team will look very different.

And hopefully, it’s also a lesson to the owners to focus on funding the team and stadium, and supporting the manager.

Liverpool v Luton 01.15.08

3rd Round replay. 3pm EST, on in the US on FSC

Last 3 matches:
Liverpool: 1-1 Boro (a); 1-1 Luton (a); 1-1 Wigan (h)
Luton: 1-3 Swansea (h); 1-1 Liverpool (h); 1-0 Yeovil (h)

Referee: Peter Walton

Guess at a line-up:
Arbeloa Carragher Skrtel Aurelio
Pennant Gerrard Alonso Babel
Crouch Torres

Since these two teams met a little over a week ago, Luton’s sold 2 players who featured in the last match (Dean Edwards and captain Chris Coyne) and manager Kevin Blackwell’s resigned, although he’s not leaving the club until February. And to compound matters, keeper Dean Brill is doubtful thanks a tight strain with no back-up (Beresford, the other keeper, is injured), while new captain Chris Perry is hindered by the same injury.

Meanwhile, Liverpool’s mired amidst a string of underperforming draws, with the much-discussed sleazy gossip swirling around that I’ve no desire to scribble about again.

Boss: I’ll pick strongest team

I take that article with a grain of salt, but at the same time, I expect Liverpool to play a strong side. It’s not as if Liverpool trotted out the reserves in the last match, and FA Cup progression has gotten even more important thanks to the stuttering league form and the situation surrounding Benitez.

I want to see Crouch partnering Torres, but I wouldn’t mind another chance to see Babel as a striker either, this time paired with Torres. Neither Kuyt nor Voronin have played well lately, and I don’t know if Liverpool can rest Torres with the form they’re in. Both Crouch and Babel need to have an opportunity up top with Torres to see if there’s a chance at a partnership, as both are scoring at better rates than either Kuyt or Voronin, even if Babel’s been more influential off the bench.

I would have included Agger in the line-up, but news yesterday is that like happened to Alonso, Agger’s suffered a setback and will probably be out for at least another month. Which, if we hadn’t been party to the Klinsmann news, surely would have ruined my day by itself; I’ve no need to reiterate how important Agger is to the defense and building the attack from the back.

Which is why it’s of utmost importance to start working Skrtel into the first team now. Both Hyypia and Carragher are playing too many games, and it’s showed in Liverpool’s defensive record. There’s always a period of adjustment to a foreign league, especially as a 23 year old, and as a defender. The more Skrtel plays now, in games like this where the backline shouldn’t be challenged as much as in the Prem, the more it’ll pay off for the rest of the season.

Whoever starts at centerback will assuredly partner Carra, who’s already been named captain for the night, on his 500th appearance for the club. Legend.

The FA Cup run has become more important thanks to Liverpool’s other struggles. Normally there wouldn’t be as much focus on a third round replay with Luton, but Liverpool needs results, and more importantly, needs a good performance to get past the last few.

Players need to play as if their jobs depend on it. Because frankly, it looks like Benitez’s might.

14 January 2008

Tom Hicks makes my Monday fun

Hicks: We spoke with Klinsmann


I’ve been hesitant to pile onto the owners, partly because I hadn’t been convinced that all the fears were valid and partly because I want to see the Americans do well by Liverpool. Now there’s no way not to. This is utterly embarrassing to the club, and Benitez deserves far, far better.

It’s one thing to privately question the manager when results are as sub-par as they’ve been over the past month. I’m firmly not in the ‘Benitez out,’ camp, but after the last 4 underwhelming draws and ostensible lack of progress, I understand the concerns.

But I can’t fucking believe Hicks has come out with this statement now.

Yes, there have been rumors that Klinsmann was approached when he took the Bayern job, and people have been saying all along that if the owners/management would make statements supporting Benitez or clearing up the concerns, we’d all be better for it.

This wasn’t a statement that should have been made, and the fact that Gillett and Hicks were lining up Klinsmann is ludicrous in and of itself.

"In November, when it appeared we were in danger of not advancing in the Champions League, weren't playing well in our Premier League matches, and Rafa and we were having communication issues over the January transfer window, George and I met with Jurgen Klinsmann to learn as much as we could about English and European football," he explained.

What has Jurgen Klinsmann done to be linked with Liverpool? He has no experience managing at club level. He’s never managed in England. His sole managerial experience was taking the host nation to the semifinals of the previous World Cup; South Korea made the semis the year they hosted the tournament. And he lives in California, removed from the game on a day-to-day basis.

Also, Hicks does realize that in November, Liverpool was unbeaten in the league, which lasted until the Reading match on December 8th? November saw results like 8-0 Besiktas (November 6th), 3-0 Newcastle (November 24th) and 4-1 Porto (November 28th).

And I’ll say now as I said then: after Benitez’ success in the Champions League in his first three seasons, a failure to qualify from the group stage for the first time in 4 years would have been reason enough for his sacking? That’s sheer lunacy.

"He is a very impressive man. We attempted to negotiate an option, as an insurance policy, to have him become our manager in the event Rafa decided to leave our club for Real Madrid or other clubs that were rumoured in the UK press, or in case our communication spiralled out of control for some reason.”

More complete and utter trite. Benitez to Real Madrid is a non-starter, and has been for ages now. And even if, I still fail to see how Klinsi is a satisfactory insurance policy. Nor does the fact that Hicks frequently referred to Klinsmann as solely an “insurance policy” reassure me.

Plus, I was of the belief that Klinsmann, whatever his lack of experience, was a manager cut from the same cloth as Benitez. A devout believer in fitness and modern training methods, a desire to have 100% control from top to bottom, and a willingness to rotate to compensate for fitness and fatigue. If you’re firing Benitez, which I still can’t believe, I just can’t fathom hiring Klinsmann. That’s the main reason I’d been silent on those rumors until now. I was sure they were just rumors.

At least the statement pretends that Benitez has the full support of the owners now, finally, but after this, I don’t know what that’s worth.

But Benitez is still making signings, evidenced by £6.5m for Skrtel, and as of now, I reckon his position is safe. At the end of the season, we may bear witness to even more drama, but for now, the team has to focus on the field. And the players have to get behind Benitez, as they may well be playing for his job. No half-assing and heads dropping like we’ve seen during this recent sticky spell.

I sincerely hope Hicks is just trying to quash concerns instead of create more, and unfortunately, we’re still in a ‘wait and see’ mode, but the more Hicks speaks, the more detestable he looks.

This is a sad day for Liverpool FC.

More links:
Tom Hicks: We lined up Jurgen Klinsmann [Liverpool Echo]
Jurgen Klinsmann talks rock Benitez [Liverpool Echo]
Liverpool reveal Klinsmann talks [BBC]
RAWK thread

12 January 2008

Liverpool 1-1 Boro

Finnan Carragher Hyypia Arbeloa
Benayoun Gerrard Mascherano Riise
Torres Voronin

Boateng 26’
Torres 71’

That would be the third consecutive draw in the league, fourth in all competitions, and outside of a moment of brilliance from Fernando Torres, it could have easily been a loss.

Once again, Liverpool was simply not good enough. The first 45 minutes saw Liverpool about as bad as possible, and it seems like that’s been written often lately.

All the recent criticisms apply. Liverpool struggled to string two passes together or show any coherency in possession. Too often the ball was given away cheaply, while the defense continued to look vulnerable and stretched by Boro’s width and pace.

Liverpool may have started the brighter over the first 10 minutes, but the opposition again grew in stature, and Boro opened the scoring with their first shot on target after Liverpool again failed to clear. Downing got into space on Boro’s left, Arbeloa headed the cross across his own goal towards Aliadiere, who headed it into the path of Boateng, getting there before Hyypia and scrambling it over the line.

And honestly, although Boro hadn’t gotten a shot on target before the goal, they probably deserved their lead at the break. Liverpool really were playing that poorly, and outside of Gerrard’s shot from distance forcing a decent Schwartzer save in the 11th minute, failed to create much of their own.

Thankfully, Benitez saw as much, and brought Babel on at halftime; given how rarely Rafa makes halftime substitutions it showed how frustrated he was with Liverpool's offering.

And Babel for Arbeloa, with Riise moving into defense, and Alonso for Benayoun less than 15 minutes later, did improve Liverpool, but it couldn’t really have gotten worse. Liverpool still gave the ball away, still floundered in attack, and still struggled to carve out opportunities.

And again, it took a moment of brilliance from either Torres or Gerrard to save Liverpool, this time Torres supplying the moment of magic in the 71st minute. Torres took possession a good distance from goal (and honestly, he was isolated as if a lone striker for much of the match), strode towards the box, and unleashed an unstoppable swerving shot from distance.

Unsurprisingly, Liverpool supplied more pressure after getting the goal, with Babel and Gerrard narrowly missing the target, and Gerrard forcing another save from Schwartzer on a shot from distance, but again, the winner wasn’t coming. And again, unlike against City and Wigan but reminiscent of the last match at Luton, Liverpool’s probably lucky to come away with the draw.

Despite my distaste for singling out players, Voronin and Riise have to be called out after performances today. No one played anywhere near their best, but Voronin and Riise were by far the guiltiest in losing possession and wasting opportunities in attack. Neither deserved to be near the field today, even if one can argue for their inclusion thanks to the recent play of Kuyt and Kewell and the injury to Aurelio. However, other than Reina, Torres and Mascherano, no one really played remotely well.

But my other biggest complaint is tactically. I have no idea why the team is content to pump long balls up the field as if Crouch is playing when he’s not even in the squad. It’s one thing to suggest that Crouch can’t have a successful partnership with Torres; I’m not fully convinced, but that’s another discussion. But I have no idea why Liverpool’s playing route one football with a front line of Voronin and Torres.

Wheater and Huth, who are both big centerbacks, absolutely ate up the long balls from Carragher and Hyypia. Admittedly, the midfield wasn’t giving the defense enough options and either Benayoun or Riise needed to supply more width, but Middlesbrough dealt with it all game long, and it’s when Babel came on the pitch and both he and Torres ran at defenders that Liverpool looked more threatening.

That’s what’s so frustrating about the results over this spell. Admittedly, my expectations may have been too lofty at the start of the season, but we’ve seen that the team is better than this, and more importantly, smarter than this. There was absolutely no intelligence in Liverpool’s play today. They were rushing passes and touches, leading to possession lost, and too often resorted to the long ball, which wasn’t working.

More and more, I’m feeling the need to reiterate my faith in Benitez. I’d like to think that this spell is just growing pains, and the good performances and scorelines early in the season set the bar too high. And I’m deathly frightened of what could happen to the team were Benitez to leave. There’s the Newcastle precedent, and what can happen to a club when they start firing managers, but also questions over what would happen to the Spanish contingent, including that man Torres, were Benitez to depart. Also, the control and importance Benitez has in overhauling the youth set-up, and the potential in the reserve and under-18 teams. Plus, the memories of the growing pains both Ferguson and Wenger suffered before establishing themselves at their clubs.

But I’m keenly aware just how bad Liverpool is playing. And more frustratingly, there’s little progress evident from the poor spells suffered during all four of Benitez’s seasons. Despite the quality introduced to the side, we’re still suffering through disjointed performances where Liverpool struggles to score against weaker teams. Tactically, Liverpool’s still got little answer when teams pack the defense and make it difficult for Liverpool to establish the tempo. And this season's points total is approximately equal to this time last season.

But at the end of the day, I do still believe that this is a spell, and the team will start showing the improvement we though possible in the fall. But I am questioning it more and more.

11 January 2008

Liverpool at Boro 01.12.08

10am EST, live in the US on Setanta

Last 4 head-to-head:
2-0 Liverpool (h) 04.18.07
0-0 (a) 11.18.06
2-0 Liverpool (h) 12.10.05
0-0 (a) 08.13.05

Last 3 matches:
Liverpool: 1-1 Luton (a); 1-1 Wigan (h); 0-0 City (a)
Boro: 2-1 Bristol City (a); 0-2 Everton (h); 1-0 Pompey (a)

Goalscorers (league):
Liverpool: Torres 10; Gerrard 7; Babel, Kuyt, Voronin 3; Alonso, Benayoun 2; Hyypia, Sissoko 1
Boro: Downing, Tuncay 4; Arca, Wheater, Mido 2; Aliadiere, Cattermole, Hutchinson, Young 1

Referee: Andre Marriner

Guess at a squad:
Finnan Carragher Hyypia Arbeloa
Pennant Gerrard Mascherano Kewell
Torres Crouch

I gave a real preview a go, but as I’m still sicker than a dog, it wasn’t even close to coherent. The flu sure is fun. Sorry again.

I really better be healthy by tomorrow. A Liverpool win at a venue where they haven’t gotten all three points in over five years would certainly help.

10 January 2008

Predictions 1/12 - 1/13

Sorry for the silence over the last couple of days, but I’ve succumbed to a nasty stomach bug that’s been going around and not been in the mood for much of anything. Is the Skrtel deal finally done yet?

Also, I realize I’ve just guessed scores without any “commentary” too often of late in these predictions, but please forgive it one more time.

Arsenal v Birmingham, 10am, FSC: Arsenal 2-0
Chelsea v Tottenham, 10am, Setanta Xtra: Chelsea 2-1
Aston Villa v Reading, 10am: Villa 2-1
Derby v Wigan, 10am: Derby 1-0
Everton v Manchester City, 10am: Everton 2-1
West Ham v Fulham, 10am: 1-1
Manchester Utd v Newcastle, 12:15pm, FSC: United 3-0
Sunderland v Portsmouth, 8:30am Sunday, Setanta: 0-0
Bolton v Blackburn, 11am Sunday, FSC: Blackburn 1-0

Liverpool at Boro is on Setanta at 10am on Saturday.

08 January 2008

Martin Skrtel

So Skrtel passed his medical and it seems he’ll be rubber-stamped sometime today. [Liverpool Echo] [BBC]

It’s not Mascherano putting pen to paper, and everything I wrote on Friday still holds, but at £6.5m, this will be Liverpool’s most expensive signing in defense.

It is also a position where Liverpool needed strengthening before the injuries to Agger and then Hyypia, and probably had to do it during this transfer period.

And spending £6m+ on a 23-year old defender who’s one for the long-term and will probably be handled like Agger was in his first season (and getting the deal done a week into the transfer window) seems to demonstrate that Rafa’s still planning for the future, and he’s being supported by the board.

We’re not out of the woods yet in regards to manager vis-à-vis management, but this is a welcome step.

Plus, just take a look at the fella. Yikes.

06 January 2008

Liverpool 1-1 Luton Town

Finnan Carragher Hyypia Riise
Benayoun Lucas Alonso Babel
Kuyt Crouch

Crouch 73’
Riise (og) 76’

Well, that was deserved.

I’m going to preface the rest of this by saying that anything can happen in the FA Cup, this was Luton’s cup final, the biggest match of their season, and despite their financial troubles, Luton’s home form hasn’t been bad this season.

But that said, I don’t need to say that Liverpool should have won this match. No matter how well Luton played or their motivation, Liverpool should have scored in the first half, should have forced their style of play on lower-league opposition, and should have kept the lead once they finally got the opener.

And yet, Liverpool was probably lucky to get a draw. Babel’s chance within 24 seconds, cutting between two men and forcing an excellent save from Brill, should have set the tone, but for much of the match Luton was the better side. Liverpool players were frequently both out-played and out-fought, and that’s unacceptable.

Luton had a threatening chance of their own before 5 minutes were gone, with Edwards beating the offside trap and forcing Itandje to come out to block the attempt, and as Liverpool failed to break the deadlock or impose themselves on the game, Luton grew in stature.

Drew Talbot was especially a handful, and it’s painful to see the backline that kept so many clean sheets in 05/06 struggle this season. But Luton couldn’t convert their increasing pressure into goals, and after the break, Liverpool again started the brighter.

But in the first six minutes of the second half, Benayoun was unable to direct Kuyt’s threatening cross into the net, and then Brill made another excellent save, this time from Riise’s deflected shot. And again, Luton began to see more of the ball and take the game to Liverpool.

However, in the 73rd minute, it looked as if Liverpool had finally changed their fortunes. Coyne and Perry combined to accidentally put Voronin through on Brill against the run of play, and although the keeper again made the save, Crouch was there for the rebound.

However, like against Wigan, Liverpool relinquished a hard-won lead to a fluky (albeit on the whole, probably deserved) goal. Talbot again posed Liverpool problems, and although he should have never gotten a cross off, he again found a way through. And although his effort eluded the on-rushing Edwards, it deflected past Itandje off Riise’s foot and hand.

To a man, none of the Liverpool players can be pleased with their performance. Yeah, excuses can be made for some. Itandje could do nothing about the goal and was an imposing figure in his area, but his distribution certainly can’t hold a candle to Reina’s. Alonso’s not match fit and Luton gave him absolutely no time on the ball, but he wasn’t the calming figure or playmaker he usually is. Despite the fast start, Babel grew increasingly invisible as the game went on. Crouch got a goal in his first start back, but failed to link up well with other attackers. But no one was good enough, and I can find criticisms with everyone in a red shirt.

Kuyt especially will rue his performance today. This was a game where Kuyt needed to play well and get some of his confidence back, as we’ve seen he’s better than recent performances indicate. But he did not take his chances (and he got chances), and it was probably his worse game of this recent stretch, although he moved further right in the second half and saw fewer opportunities as a result.

I still don’t want to come off as doom and gloom. It’s readily apparent that Liverpool is going through a bad spell, but the bad spell shouldn’t make everyone forget about some of the games earlier this season. We know this team can score goals, and from more than just Torres and Gerrard, and we know the team can play better than this. The Derby, Besiktas, Portsmouth, Marseille, and Bolton wins, among others, weren’t complete aberrations.

What’s the most frustrating isn’t the result. It’s the way that Luton wanted it more and were far more willing to work for it than Liverpool. The talent’s in the squad, it’s the drive that needs to be there. You don’t win games by being the better team on paper.

And again, this result is going to create more questions about Benitez. I realize that the manager does more than just pick the team, and obviously something’s missing motivationally, but I don’t know what Benitez should have done differently with the line-up. Torres clearly needed a rest, as did Mascherano, and Gerrard, Arbeloa and Aurelio weren’t fit. The team couldn’t have been much stronger.

Yes, this game looked a lot like others where Liverpool’s struggled over Benitez’s regime. They struggled to get the goal and create much in the final third, and if a clean sheet wasn’t kept, drew the game thanks to an unfortunate goal. But despite this bad spell, I still believe the team is better this season than last. Maybe we got carried away with some of the early results and margins of victory, and too much promise came to fruition too soon, but building a top-level side takes time. And I still believe this manager is the one to do it.

Keep faith.

Replay at Anfield a week from Tuesday, and I have to believe it'll be a completely different match.

04 January 2008

Javier Mascherano, Rafa Benitez, and the future of Liverpool

As per usual, I try to say as little as possible about transfers before they’re completed, but with article after article speculating over the future of Javier Mascherano, I feel the need to chime in.

The Mascherano signing is the canary in the mineshaft for this club. It will be more of a bellwether about new owners’ priorities and capabilities than anything we’ve seen so far.

More so than the promises over the stadium. More so than the spending last summer, much of which was recouped through sales and money brought in from the Champions League run. Far more so than any platitudes doled out in the interviews and press conferences held by Gillett and Hicks.

Rafa: I want Masch to stay

We shouldn’t have to see pieces like this again and again. It is clear Mascherano is vital to this team. It is clear Benitez wants him permanently, and it certainly appears as if Mascherano wants to stay, although players’ public pronouncements always have to be taken with a grain of salt.

I can’t pretend to know all the vagaries about his contract with MSI. We can’t even be sure that the £17m price tag so frequently quoted is true. But in any case, the holdup is wearying and feels unwarranted.

And although the loan runs until the summer and it’s only the 4th of January, I’m quickly tiring of the saga being played out in the press. Other clubs are already sniffing around, and while Mascherano seems happy in Liverpool, it’s impossible to predict the future.

I’d hope that Liverpool’s not reliant on making some sales before a deal’s done, but even if that’s the case, what’s the hold up? Carson’s deal with Villa has seemingly been in the offing for months, and I’m sure most readers are aware of the couple of other names rumored to be leaving.

But the other worrisome thing is that the signing is also a bellwether for the future of Rafa Benitez. The Mascherano deal certainly seems linked to the discord between Benitez and the new owners a month and a half back.

Even if I’m upset with Liverpool’s progress in the league, and have not been thrilled with the results over the past couple of weeks, I still believe that Benitez is the right man for Liverpool. But I also believe the management – the new owners, board, and Rick Parry – must support Benitez fully.

The January window is hit-and-miss and riddled with inflated price tags. Doing business over this period can easily backfire. But more than ever, I think that Liverpool needs to be active in the market and to support Benitez’s plan for the future. First and foremost because I believe the team needs improving, but it’s also a time to get behind the manager, and demonstrate that Liverpool’s on solid footing and continuing to move forward.

The permanent signing of Javier Mascherano is a necessary first step on that road. Only that, or backing of Benitez in the window to make other purchases, will really reassure me that the rift between manager and management is behind us.

Liverpool at Luton 01.06.08

11am EST, on in the US on pay-per-view

Liverpool is 5th in the Premiership with 38 points from 20 games
Luton is 21st in League One with 23 points from 23 games

Last 3 matches:
Liverpool: 1-1 Wigan (h); 0-0 City (a); 2-1 Derby (a)
Luton: 1-0 Yeovil (h); 2-1 Port Vale (a); 1-1 Bristol Rovers (a)

Referee: Howard Webb

Full squad, according to the BBC:
Liverpool: Reina, Finnan, Carragher, Hyypia, Agger, Riise, Hobbs, Sissoko, Mascherano, Alonso, Kewell, Babel, Lucas, Kuyt, Crouch, Voronin, Torres, Benayoun, Pennant, Itandje.

Guess at a line-up:
Finnan Carragher Hobbs Riise
Pennant Lucas Alonso Babel
Crouch Voronin

If the squad list on the BBC is right, I have to say, I’m a bit surprised.

With Gerrard, Arbeloa, and Aurelio ruled out through injury and much of the first team looking utterly exhausted following the festive period, I figured we’d see a line-up similar to that against Cardiff in the Carling Cup.

Benitez has frequently played stronger teams in the FA Cup compared to the Carling Cup following the reaction to the loss at Burnley in 04/05. But Liverpool’s also played a lot of games of late, and despite the setbacks recently, focus still has to be on league performance. But all season long, Benitez has put out stronger teams than expected in games where I figured certain players would be rested (Reading in the Carling Cup and Derby away in the league spring to mind).

I’d prefer to see Babel as a striker again, as in the Carling Cup against Cardiff, but without Leto in the squad and with Kewell playing a lot of games recently, I’d imagine Babel will start on the left. That is, unless Liverpool comes out with a surprise formation, either 4-3-3 or 4-2-3-1, as seen other times this season.

I’d also have thought that El Zhar might get another game after his performance against Cardiff, but as he’s not in the squad either, I have to believe that Benitez thinks Pennant can go for a second time this week, although Benayoun only played about 20 minutes on Wednesday. But if both Pennant and Crouch start, I think we’ll see Pennant’s crosses finding a target a bit more often than against Wigan.

Agger could also see time, as he’s in the squad and considering the injuries to Arbeloa and Aurelio, but I’ve still haven’t seen any confirmation from the official site or Benitez that he’s finally close enough to fitness. But we never got any confirmation about Pennant before his return.

Even if Liverpool rests players, it shouldn’t be the same as Burnley three years back. The line-up for that game was Dudek, Raven, Hyypia, Whitbread, Traore, Nuñez, Biscan, Welsh, Potter, Warnock, Pongolle. Any line-up Liverpool could send out on Sunday will be stronger than that.

I’m not trying to downplay the game or any threat Luton may pose. The FA Cup isn’t the Carling Cup, and any team, no matter the division, can beat another on their day.

But I still can’t move past my frustration with the league performance. The FA Cup would be a lovely bonus, but it’s still just that: a bonus. A win could do wonders to restore some of the morale and get the team back on track, but the bigger test will still be next Saturday at Boro, where Liverpool’s winless in the last five attempts (0-0, 0-0, 0-2, 0-0, 0-1).

Also, in a site business note, I apologize for not coming through with a second midseason review, but after the Wigan game, I’ve little inspiration to write something focusing on players’ performances, as I doubt I’d give them a fair shake. And while the midseason situation says a lot about how the rest of the season will go, nothing’s set in stone just yet.

02 January 2008

Liverpool 1-1 Wigan

Finnan Arbeloa Carragher Aurelio
Pennant Alonso Mascherano Kewell

Torres 49’
Bramble 80’

Of all the luck. What a way to start the new year.

I am the ultimate apologist for this regime. And I’ve got no apologies to make. This was a game Liverpool should have won. I don’t want to write “should have won with ease,” because there are no easy games and Steve Bruce always finds a way to frustrate Benitez in the league, but it certainly feels like the game should have been put away at a canter after the deadlock was finally broken.

The 0-0 scoreline at halftime, although unwelcome, wasn’t completely surprising. Despite the inability to break Wigan down, the game was always going to be cagey. And while it’s easy to write in hindsight, believe me when I say I thought a goal was always coming. Liverpool was dominant in possession and passed the ball around well, even if the end product was lacking (Kewell was the main culprit, and it was good to see Pennant back) and Wigan were holding firm.

It was always going to take a fluid passing move to cut apart Wigan and surprise, surprise, it culminated in Torres’ goal. In defense of my preview, I only guessed at his fitness levels (and still left him in my fantasy teams), but he’s proving time and time again how crucial he is. And credit has to be given to Gerrard and Finnan (superbly continuing his run forward and providing the assist) for their parts in the goal, but again it’s more evidence that Torres has been far and away Liverpool’s best player so far this season.

And although you’d expect the floodgates to open after unlocking Wigan at Anfield, the second goal never came. Credit especially to Kirkland for some marvelous saves (another former keeper at Anfield performing well above recent form) and Wigan’s defense (especially Melchiot) for closing down quickly, but Liverpool also appeared to take the foot off the gas and let Wigan back into the game. I’m far too angry to do actual research, but it certainly seemed like Wigan’s possession must have doubled after Liverpool’s goal.

And then, in the 80th minute, up popped, of all people, Titus Bramble. After a free kick when Mascherano picked up a petty foul (and yellow) on Bent in the center circle, Gerrard’s sent his clearance straight at Bramble well outside the box, and he rifled it into the net. It was an absolute stunner. He couldn’t do it again on a bet.

And other than a miraculous double save on Gerrard by Kirland in the 84th minute, Liverpool had little response. And now we get to hear all about how Liverpool’s blown the title hopes for another season. Super. Can’t wait.

There’s going to be a lot of condemnation written about the team and Benitez, and I honestly can’t bring myself to defend it. Maybe later after stewing over this, and undoubtedly my reaction is more severe thanks to Liverpool's recent form and title aspirations, but this is a game Liverpool should never have drawn, and now they've opened themselves up to all the criticism that’s been bubbling. This is embarrassing; Wigan have never scored against Liverpool nor taken a point off of the “big four.”

A lot rash will be written about both players and managers, and I’ve got little desire to add to it. Yes, that’s the title assuredly gone for the season, but if that leads you to trash the team or manager, or stop following results as closely, then politely go screw.

It took a wonder goal to pull even. Liverpool got zero breaks, either from lady luck or Steve Bennett (who hasn’t given Liverpool one 50/50 decision since giving two penalties against Sheffield last season, and was doing all he could to avoid booking a Wigan player, despite their shithouse tactics). I utterly detest Bruce’s strategy (even if I understand it) as an offense to football, and I don’t think that Liverpool's 4-5-1 was too defensive, whatever the line-up leads one to think. I couldn't be angrier, but I'm also not going to write anything I regret.

FA Cup match against Luton on Sunday, which is pretty much an afterthought, then I expect the team to be out for blood against Boro a week from Saturday.

01 January 2008

Liverpool v Wigan 01.02.08

3pm EST, live in the US on Setanta

Last 4 head-to-head:
1-0 Liverpool (a) 09.29.07
2-0 Liverpool (h) 04.21.07
4-0 Liverpool (a) 12.02.06
1-0 Liverpool (a) 02.11.06

Last 3 matches:
Liverpool: 0-0 City (a); 2-1 Derby (a); 4-1 Pompey (h)
Wigan: 1-2 Villa (h); 1-0 Newcastle (h); 1-1 Fulham (a)

Goalscorers (league):
Liverpool: Torres 9; Gerrard 7; Babel, Kuyt, Voronin 3; Alonso, Benayoun 2; Hyypia, Sissoko 1
Wigan: Bent 7, Landzaat, Scharner, Sibierski 3; Bramble, Heskey, Koumas, Taylor 1

Referee: Steve Bennett

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

Gerrard and Torres looked utterly fatigued on Sunday.

I realize resting Torres is heresy, and it was a 0-0 draw against a Steve Bruce-managed side that led to the loudest clamor for his permanent inclusion, but he’s started every game other than the Carling Cup match at Chelsea since returning from injury against Fulham in early November.

His class is sometimes necessary to break down cagey teams, which Liverpool has struggled to do in the past, but his fitness is paramount, and honestly, Liverpool should have enough class to get goals regardless; I shouldn’t have to remind that Torres didn’t feature in Liverpool’s largest rout this season. And worst-case scenario, Torres should be available to come off the bench if needed.

Gerrard’s in a similar situation, but he’s the captain and plays nearly every league game if available. As he’s seemingly fatigued, a freer role on the right may not be the best position for him, but I don’t know how much Wigan will offer going forward at Anfield. Plus, with both Alonso and Mascherano in the team, Gerrard would ideally be able to focus on the attack, and could be subbed off early if Liverpool’s in front. It may just be a crisis of faith, but I don’t know if Liverpool can leave out both Torres and Gerrard, despite Wigan’s position in the league.

With the amount of fixtures over the past few weeks, it seems like one of those games where we might be in for a surprise with the line-up. But Liverpool can ill-afford to drop any points in the league, especially at Anfield, where the home form has been less than impressive. And players will assuredly be rested in the FA Cup match against Luton on Sunday, with a week until the following match at Boro.

In team news, I expect Crouch to start upon his return from suspension, while it looks as if both Hyypia and Agger are still out, meaning Arbeloa will probably be drafted into central defense for the second straight match. But with Wigan likely to defend for the majority, it might be a match for Hobbs to get more experience.

Steve Bruce-led sides almost always come to Anfield and play for a 0-0 draw. But they’re also successful at it; the draw with Birmingham in September was archetypal of this. The football’s not pleasing on the eye, but it’s a tactic teams have to resort to with the gulf in spending between some of the sides, and it’s not as if Liverpool isn’t familiar with the approach by now.

I don’t want to downplay any threat Wigan will offer. Both Heskey and Koumas should return to the side, and Liverpool’s been susceptible to the counter-attack at times this season. And despite a dearth of goals for the most part, Wigan did put 5 past Blackburn a little over two weeks ago.

But we’ve seen consistencies in past matches against both Wigan and against teams managed by Bruce. The biggest question tomorrow should be if Liverpool has the cutting edge to break down what will most likely be a very resilient Wigan side.