29 February 2008

Liverpool at Bolton 03.02.08

8:30am EST, live in the US on Setanta

Last 4 head-to-head:
4-0 Liverpool (h) 12.02.07
3-0 Liverpool (h) 01.01.07
0-2 Bolton (a) 09.30.06
1-0 Liverpool (h) 04.09.06

Last 3 matches:
Liverpool: 3-2 Boro (h); 2-0 Inter (h); 1-2 Barnsley (h)
Bolton: 1-4 Blackburn (a); 0-0 Atletico (a); 1-0 Atletico (h)

Goalscorers (league):
Liverpool: Torres 15; Gerrard 8; Babel, Benayoun, Kuyt, Voronin 3; Alonso, Crouch 2; Hyypia, Sissoko 1
Bolton: Anelka 10; Nolan 5; Diouf 3; Davies, Helguson 2, Braaten, Campo, Giannakopoulous, Speed 1

Referee: Phil Dowd

Guess at a squad:
Arbeloa Skrtel Carragher Aurelio
Alonso Mascherano
Kuyt Gerrard Benayoun

If Benitez is serious about using the 4-2-3-1, I’d hope Liverpool stick with the formation for the rest of the league campaign. Rafa seemingly favored it at Valencia, and Liverpool’s been stocking players who can fit into the shape.

So even though there’s a game against West Ham a few days after this one, I’m hoping Benitez keeps nearly the same line-up as the one that went out against both Inter and Boro. Now that Liverpool’s out of two cup competitions, we should see far less “rotation.”

And again, I’m hoping the changes are mainly in defense, as the defense was the biggest problem last time out. With Carragher returning from suspension (if Carra’s involved it’ll be his 350th league appearance) and both Skrtel and Agger nearing fitness, this is a chance to get Hyypia some much needed rest. In addition, Arbeloa is back in the picture having played CB last time out, and with Finnan starting the last four, Arbeloa could return to right back.

I’m still a bit perplexed by Kuyt on the right flank, but Benitez certainly seems to approve. It stems back to the feeling that Liverpool’s often forced strikers out to the wing with less than the intended effect: Heskey, Diouf, Cisse, and now Dirk. But he’s a different option to both Pennant and Benayoun, ties together the midfield and attack (when his first touch isn’t off), and works his socks off both ways. His crossing isn’t the best, but we’ve seen a few good examples of it, mostly chipped crosses. And both Babel and Kuyt play in a similar formation for Holland.

I still feel that Kuyt’s getting a bit of an undeserved rap, especially in front of goal. He’s clearly gone through a dry spell, but looking at what he did last season and before coming to Liverpool, he’s a better player than the last couple of months have shown. I still can’t forget the brace against Reading and goals against West Ham, Newcastle, and Spurs, among others, last season. He will come good in front of goal if given the opportunity.

But both Pennant and Benayoun (as well as Babel) are in the mix for Sunday. Yossi’s scored 10 from midfield, including two hat-tricks, and more goals from midfield was one of Liverpool’s big needs last season. Pennant’s one of the best crossers on the team, although from the Inter match it looks like Benitez wants to use his pace and ability wide as a sub. But if Crouch plays, I still think Pennant should as well.

And it’s worth remembering that Liverpool started with both Crouch and Torres up top (with Benayoun and Kewell on the flanks), and won 4-0 in the reverse fixture. Bolton’s been far stingier under Megson, and Liverpool will have to persistently pressure to get a win at a ground where the team hasn’t come away with three points since 2002.

Like Liverpool, Bolton have a mid-week game after this, a UEFA Cup tie against Sporting Lisbon.

The four league matches before the next Inter tie are crucial to Liverpool’s campaign. It started off with the right result (although not the right performance) against Boro, and Liverpool has to continue that against Bolton, West Ham, and Newcastle. The Champions League doesn’t resume for two and a half weeks. Now is the time where Liverpool has to cement the push for fourth.

Mascherano signs four-year deal


This is outstanding news, news I’ve hoped to see for months now.

Liverpool now has 4 world-class players tied to long-term deals: Gerrard, Torres, Reina, and now Mascherano, and I do not use the term ‘world-class’ lightly. Mascherano is the best defensive midfielder around, period.

I’ve seen articles in the media and around the blogosphere claiming Mascherano makes Liverpool too defensive, or that Liverpool needs to focus on attackers and not holding midfielders, but to put it bluntly, that’s nonsense. Without Mascherano, many of the games Liverpool’s drawn this season would have been losses, and the situation surrounding the club would be far more severe.

The foundation is certainly there, and the squad isn’t far away from a title contender, no matter the results so far this season. I know that results haven’t backed that up far too often, but you can’t compare the squads between this season and last season, let alone between this season’s and the one Benitez inherited. There’s been more than enough analysis of why Liverpool’s struggled this season, but it hasn’t all, or even mostly, been because of personnel.

For all the complaints about the off-field turmoil (and I’m still furious over Hicks’ foolish remarks yesterday, the selfish blowhard), Liverpool’s spent big money on both Skrtel and Mascherano since the turmoil started.

I’ve long passed the point where I can tolerate Hicks, and I’ll admit it took me longer than others to reach that conclusion. But hopefully these signings demonstrate that the financial situation hasn’t handcuffed Liverpool to the degree we’ve feared.

Back with the Bolton preview shortly.

28 February 2008

Predictions 3/1 – 3/2

Arsenal v Aston Villa, 10am, FSC: Arsenal needs to do all they can to put last Saturday behind them and keep their lead atop the league. Arsenal 2-0
Fulham v Man Utd, 10am, Setanta: If Fulham doesn’t start picking up 3 points from matches, especially at home, they’ve little chance of avoiding relegation. Pity they’re up against United on Saturday. United 3-0
West Ham v Chelsea, 10am, Setanta Xtra: It’s a London derby, and I’m hoping the hullabaloo between Terry, Grant, and Ten Cate will impact the Blues. But Chelsea’s still Chelsea when it comes to eking out tough wins (unless it’s against Spurs in the League Cup final, I guess). Chelsea 2-1
Birmingham v Tottenham, 10am: I can’t see Spurs losing this one after last Sunday, especially considering the way Tottenham’s been scoring and with Brum defender Martin Taylor suspended. Spurs 2-1
Derby v Sunderland, 10am: Derby’s lone win came at home, while Sunderland still hasn’t won away from the Stadium of Light. Paul Jewell will hope his team will respond to his criticism following the last match, but Sunderland’s fully aware they need to pick up points on the road to avoid being drawn into the relegation fight. Sunderland 1-0
Middlesbrough v Reading, 10am: Reading’s been dire of late, and even without Aliadiere (ha), Boro still look likely winners, as Alves finally got his first start yesterday and was unlucky not to mark the occasion with a goal. Boro 1-0
Newcastle v Blackburn, 10am: No matter how bad Newcastle’s been, Keegan’s got to get his first win soon, right? Blackburn smashed Bolton last weekend, putting 4 past Jaaskelainen, but they’ve also been inconsistent this season. Newcastle 2-1
Man City v Wigan, 12:15pm, FSC: City’s lost the last two at home, their first two home losses of the season, but they’ve been excellent against teams below them in the table. I doubt Richards’ injury will have much impact on this one. City 2-0
Everton v Portsmouth, 11am Sunday, FSC: Ugh. Everton’s playing well, with Yakubu scoring regularly in the last few, and Pompey hasn’t scored more than 1 in an away game since New Year’s Day. Everton 2-1

27 February 2008

So... what’s going on?

Once again, there’s a week in between games, and all the talk is back to Gillett, Hicks, and DIC. It looks like DIC is possibly buying out Gillett’s 50%, as word is the partnership’s gone far south. Even the BBC’s gotten involved, and I can’t remember the last time I’ve seen so many “it is believed…” or “BBC Sport understands…” in an article. I thought the BBC dealt solely in news.

As when the last round of speculation occurred, I’m of a mind to ignore much of what’s been written until something concrete comes out. Once bitten, twice shy and all.

In the meantime, absolutely everyone should check out That’s on Point. Sometime commentator Ace Cowboy was lucky enough to be at Anfield for the Inter Milan match, and wrote up the results of his trip. As usual with Ace, it’s an outstanding read; I can't recommend it enough.

Normal service will most likely resume tomorrow.

23 February 2008

Liverpool 3-2 Middlesbrough

Finnan Hyypia Arbeloa Aurelio
Lucas Mascherano
Kuyt Gerrard Babel

Tuncay 9’
Torres 28’ 29’ 61’
Downing 83’

Thank you Fernando Torres. It’s not often you get to say a £20m player is an absolute bargain.

It was just about the same line-up as the one against Inter (Carragher's suspension meant Arbeloa came in at center-back), but the performance was little like Tuesday’s.

The only change was in defense, and it was the defense that gave Boro the lead and kept them in the game. Within ten minutes Boro had a free kick on the right when Babel unnecessarily handled on the wing, and Downing’s ball found Tuncay for an easy header with Liverpool’s defense claiming offside. It wouldn’t be the first time the offside trap caused trouble.

For the next 18 minutes, Liverpool’s passing was abhorrent and the team lost possession far too easily. When they were able to get a ball in the box, it was usually too long for the recipient. But then came Fernando Torres.

First, an ill-judged back header by Arca put Torres through on goal, rounding Schwarzer and evading Pogatetz to slot home 28 minutes in. Less than 60 seconds later, Aurelio centered for Torres in space outside the box with room to stride forward and unleash a shot that curled around the defender and past the keeper, reminiscent of the goal he scored away against the same side.

It looked like that would give Liverpool a platform to put the match away, but Boro twice had the ball in the net before halftime, both correctly ruled out. First, Tuncay needlessly scored with him arm in the 35th. Four minutes later, the same player was barely offside before he put Aliadiere through.

O’Neil also had a chance to score in the last minute of stoppage time after getting the ball in space after Downing again got down Liverpool's right, only to shoot tamely wide. And the trend continued ten minutes after the restart; Aliadiere was flagged for offside when it was Tuncay who received the pass and could have been one-on-one with Reina.

But in the 61st minute, another moment of brilliance from Torres looked likely to seal it. Kuyt played a lovely long ball out of defense towards Torres, who was able to control the ball around Wheater and avoid the on-rushing Schwarzer with a shot from outside the box for his hat-trick, his second three-goal game this season. Most impressive was how he made the incredibly difficult move look so simple.

Liverpool had chances to take it to 4-1, the best being Lucas’ free header over from Gerrard’s curling free kick and when Schwarzer did well to prevent Torres from getting his fourth on the break.

But Boro made it a nervier finish when the impressive Downing received a long ball after another giveaway, got away from Benayoun, and shot between Reina’s legs in the 83rd minute. However, soon after Aliadiere was sent off, slapping at Mascherano after he was seemingly provoked. In Masch’s defense, it looked like he only put a hand in Aliadiere’s face after some words were said, while Aliadiere absolutely swung back.

It certainly seemed like Liverpool weren’t helped by the substitutions made (and not made) in the final 20 minutes either. When the line-ups were announced, it was strange to see no room on the bench for either Alonso or Pennant, and that Alonso wasn’t there made a difference.

Lucas played fairly well for 70 minutes or so, but clearly began to tire and started to make mistakes. And with Benayoun having come on for Babel, Kuyt soon to be replaced by Riise, and no central midfielders on the bench, Lucas stayed on. I don’t mean to come off as unfairly harsh on the young player, but the mistakes that lost possession stood out.

More worrisome was the defense, especially the offside trap. Arbeloa made some excellent tackles, but he was the difference between today’s match and Tuesday’s, and something was definitely different. Again there were too many mistakes, far too often a problem this season, and no offense to Boro, but a team with more confidence and talent up front could have made Liverpool pay.

But it also could have been a different story without Torres. Arca’s mistake began the onslaught, but all three goals were stunning in their own right. Pogatetz did well to try and get back and put Torres off for the first, and when rounding the keeper, Torres almost lost the angle, but was still able to put it away. The second goal was just a stunning strike from distance. And the third was yet another display of how much of a threat he is one-on-one with the defender from pretty much any angle.

And now, before the end of February, that’s 21 goals on the season, 15 of those coming in the league. He’s the first 20-goal scorer striker for Liverpool since Owen. And what’s more, he’s only scored 21 in a season one other time, coming in 40 games for Atletico in 03-04. Sometimes it’s hard to remember it’s his first season in England; he’s only played 31 games in his Liverpool career.

Other than Torres, I thought Kuyt, Mascherano, Gerrard, and Hyypia played well. I hope it’s not lost that it was Kuyt’s assist for the third goal, and he’s starting to adapt to playing on the right in a 4-2-3-1, although like many in the first half, too often his crosses were inaccurate. Mascherano’s excellent performances are becoming standard fare, but there’s no other I’d rather have mopping up play. I’ve long run out of complementary adjectives for his work.

Liverpool made things difficult for themselves, and on another day they could be coming away with less than three points, but no matter how they got there, it’s job done.

With Carragher returning from suspension and Agger and Skrtel nearing fitness, I’m hopeful the defensive lapses were an aberration. Liverpool also must improve their passing, but at the end of the day, it’s three points in the league and two wins in a row for a team that desperately needs the confidence boost. That’ll do.

22 February 2008

Liverpool v Middlesbrough 02.23.08

10am EST, live in the US on Setanta

Last 4 head-to-head:
1-1 (a) 01.12.08
2-0 Liverpool (h) 04.18.07
0-0 (a) 11.18.06
2-0 Liverpool (h) 12.10.05

Last 3 matches:
Liverpool: 2-0 Inter (h); 1-2 Barnsley (h); 0-0 Chelsea (a)
Boro: 0-0 Sheffield Utd (a); 1-0 Fulham (h); 1-1 Newcastle (a)

Goalscorers (league):
Liverpool: Torres 12; Gerrard 8; Babel, Benayoun, Kuyt, Voronin 3; Alonso, Crouch 2; Hyypia, Sissoko 1
Boro: Downing, Tuncay 4; Aliadiere, Wheater 3; Arca, Mido 2; Boateng, Cattermole, Hutchinson, Huth, Young 1

Referee: Lee Mason

Guess at a squad:
Finnan Skrtel Hyypia Arbeloa
Pennant Gerrard Mascherano Benayoun
Kuyt Torres

With Carragher suspended, Liverpool will have to make changes in defense. There are differences in who’s available according to the BBC and the official site.

The BBC says Skrtel’s still out (and they say it’s an ankle problem, while the official site reported it was a calf injury last week) while the official site expects his return. Although Agger’s close to coming back (and featured in the same story that mentions Skrtel’s fitness), he won’t be risked tomorrow.

If the BBC’s accurate Arbeloa, who’s just back from a few weeks absent, will probably be forced into central defense partnering Hyypia. But I’ll trust the official site first, and if Skrtel is fit to play, I’m hoping Arbeloa will return to left back. I can’t see Finnan left out after his performance Tuesday, so he should be back on the right.

Whoever starts in defense will most likely come up against £12m striker Afonso Alves in his first start for Boro after coming on as a sub against both Fulham and Sheffield. Alves lives and dies by his pace on the counter-attack and scored frequently in both the Swedish and Dutch leagues. Liverpool will have to keep tabs on him.

Boro’s potential on the counter is a big reason why I think Mascherano will start despite Liverpool’s excellent record at Boro at home. The priority will be on the attack and having players like Torres, Gerrard, and whoever starts on the flanks getting forward at every opportunity, but Liverpool will have to keep tight at the back against Boro’s break, and Mascherano is key to that.

Boro’s defense, featuring Wheater, Pogatetz, and Huth (who still has to pass a late fitness test) in the center, is very good in the air, which we saw last month at the Riverside when Wheater and Huth ate up long balls pumped out of Liverpool’s half.

Liverpool looked most threatening when players like Babel and Torres were running at defenders. I don’t know whether Babel will be on from the whistle having started in the last three games, but players like he, Pennant, and Benayoun, whoever starts, must have good performances.

Most importantly, Liverpool will have to be more cohesive than in the last meeting. Liverpool’s problems since mid-December have been much discussed, but many were on display at the Riverside last month, especially with Liverpool looking disjointed, unable to string passes together, and almost apathetic.

A good performance at Chelsea, and the win over Inter a few days back (we’ll ignore the Barnsley incident) has seen Liverpool look capable turning it around. The team’s been better top to bottom, has looked like they want it more, and has been playing smarter. And once again, Liverpool will have to be smarter, as Boro will most likely pack the defense and force Liverpool to work their way through them, like many teams do when they come to Anfield, and where Liverpool’s struggled at times this season.

It’s necessary that progress continues as Liverpool looks to secure Champions League qualification for next season.

21 February 2008

Predictions 2/23 – 2/25

Birmingham v Arsenal, 7:45am, Setanta: I doubt Arsenal has forgotten dropping 2 points thanks to a second-half Garry O’Connor equalizer at the Emirates last month. Arsenal 2-0
Fulham v West Ham, 10am, FSC: West Ham’s hard to get a gauge on, especially with their injury list. They can beat Liverpool and United at home and hold Man City both home and away, but lose to Wigan and draw Brum at home. And Fulham can get a draw against anyone at home when they're on their game. 1-1
Portsmouth v Sunderland, 10am, Setanta Xtra: Sunderland’s lost 11 out of 13 on the road this season (and drawn the other two). Also, while I don’t know if it’ll have any bearing Saturday, I really like the Defoe deal, and think he’ll do well under Redknapp. Pompey 2-0
Wigan v Derby, 10am: Derby’s another that’s winless away from home, the difference being their goal differential’s -42. Wigan, in 16th and only a point above the relegation zone, will see this as a must-win. Wigan 1-0
Newcastle v Man Utd, 12:15pm, FSC: The press that’d follow were Keegan to get his first win since returning to Newcastle over Manchester United would be simply tremendous. And while I’m sure Newcastle would love retribution for the 6-0 drubbing suffered soon after Allardyce’s exit, I can’t see it on the teams’ respective forms. United 3-1

Reading v Aston Villa, 7:30am: 4 home losses in a row, with Reading winless since December 22nd, has seen the club fall into the relegation zone for the first time since promotion. But Reading is still dangerous on their day, particularly at home, and I think slipping into the bottom three should catalyze the team. 2-2
Blackburn v Bolton, 10am, delayed on FSC at 11am: Well, it’s a Lancashire derby involving two teams playing well and tough to beat. 1-1

Manchester City v Everton, 3pm, Setanta: Another game where the two sides’ good form will probably cancel each other out. 1-1

Bonus Carling Cup prediction:
Tottenham v Chelsea, 10am Sunday, Setanta: Maybe it’s just the hope that someone other than United, Chelsea, or Arsenal will win a domestic cup, but I truly think Tottenham can on Sunday. Both Berbatov and Keane have been scoring regularly, and aside from today’s nervy UEFA Cup match, Tottenham’s played well of late. Chelsea’s won this tournament twice in the last three years, and gave Spurs their lone league loss since New Year’s Day, but with the possibility that Terry and Lampard may miss out, I’m hopeful we’ll have a different team lifting the trophy this year. Spurs 3-2

Liverpool hosting Boro is Saturday at 10am on Setanta.

19 February 2008

Liverpool 2-0 Inter

Finnan Carragher Hyypia Aurelio
Lucas Mascherano
Kuyt Gerrard Babel

Kuyt 85’
Gerrard 90’

Well that spanned a gamut of emotions: excitement, amusement, frustration, anger, elation, and finally, sweet relief.

For the first 15-20 minutes, it looked a lot like the Marseille game without the goals. Liverpool pressed from the whistle and was moving well with and without the ball. Chances came with it, but Inter held firm, led by Cordoba in central defense (Zanetti was also outstanding).

Inter then began to see more of the ball, but 30 minutes in, Marco Materazzi (as if it would be anyone else) picked up his second soft yellow card. Yeah, they were soft yellows, but both were deserved yellows, and it was his own fault. And to be honest, the sending off really didn’t help Liverpool.

Backs against the wall, Liverpool had to start brightly, and with Inter built to attack, the home side had space to operate. But with the sending off, Inter camped in their own half, denied absolutely any space in the final third, and forced Liverpool to methodically try and carve them open.

Which is where Liverpool’s struggled of late. When Liverpool’s had to open up stingy defenses is when the attack’s been prone to breaking down, leading to players standing around waiting for something to happen. And it’s also when Liverpool’s been open to the counter.

With Inter down to 10 men there was little opportunity for them to push forward, and Liverpool saw nearly all of the possession, but the home side didn’t get a real chance at goal until halftime was imminent.

As the second half opened, Liverpool continued to pile on the pressure, and there were signs of unlocking the defense. It looked like the breakthrough would finally come in the 58th minute when a mistake put Torres through on goal, but Cesar got a hand to the shot to turn it wide. It was just the type of opportunity Liverpool needed with Inter stingy, and that they were denied was the first time it looked like it could be one of those days.

And when Vieira clearly handled in the box two minutes later (which was something like Liverpool’s fifth handball penalty claim of the match, and easily the clearest), it looked like the Materazzi sending off would be Liverpool’s lone stroke of luck.

But finally, after the entrance of both Crouch (for Lucas) and Pennant (for Babel), the pressure paid off with five minutes remaining (although it wasn’t a coincidence that both goals came after Cordoba’s was forced off through injury in the 75th).

Liverpool had been spreading the field from flank to flank looking for an opening, and in the 85th minute, Pennant’s dangerous cross finally found Kuyt at the far post. He had the time and space to lash it past Cesar, giving the keeper little chance despite the angle. You could clearly see the relief on Kuyt’s face; if anyone needed to score that goal, it was certainly Kuyt after the last few weeks.

Liverpool could have understandably sat back for the remaining minutes, but with Inter reeling and blood in the air, they kept going forward, culminating with Gerrard's low shot from distance eluding three defenders and the keeper before sliding in off the inside of the post.

I can’t emphasize enough how much the addition of both Pennant and Crouch helped. Babel and Kuyt were willing workers all night, but Pennant provided much-needed width and ability to beat the left back, and was involved in both goals, although the cross for Kuyt’s will be the highlight. Crouch, although he missed an excellent chance when the ball rebounded to him at the top of the box, settled the side by being able to win and control the ball in Inter’s half, and was unlucky not to score when he worked out a chance in a minimum amount of space in the box, only to be expertly blocked by Maxwell.

Once again though, Mascherano’s probably the man of the match; although 10-man Inter had few chances to counter, Mascherano snuffed all possibilities out, winning the battle between he and the heralded Cambiasso. I’ve also made mention of the subs, but really, it was a true team performance. No matter how it was earned, there can be no complaints about 2 goals against a stubborn defense and a clean sheet against the likes of Ibrahimovic et al.

I don’t know what it is about European nights. Yes, the team was playing well throughout, but given fortune of late, after 50 minutes of a man-advantage nil-nil certainly looked likely.

But the team kept pressing, kept their heads down, and kept working for the cause and to the manager’s plan. I’ll admit it, it’s not the easiest thing to see the players spread the field and pass laterally when looking for a goal with time running out, but the team kept at it, and it paid off in the end. And not only that, it’s a clean sheet and Inter without an all-important away goal.

A 2-0 advantage, although warmly welcomed, doesn’t mean the tie is over. Inter can score at the San Siro, and players like Ibrahamovic, Cruz, Crespo, and Suazo can take a mile if given an inch. But that’s not for three weeks.

Now hopefully this takes some of the pressure off the team, and Benitez, going into this Saturday’s home match against Boro.

18 February 2008

Liverpool v Inter Milan 2.19.07

2:45pm on espn2

Inter is currently 1st in Serie A

Group Stage:
Liverpool: 4-0 Marseille (a); 4-1 Porto (h); 8-0 Besiktas (h); 1-2 Besiktas (a); 0-1 Marseille (h); 1-1 Porto (a)
Inter: 1-0 PSV (a); 3-0 Fenerbahce (h); 4-2 CSKA (h); 2-1 CSKA (a); 2-0 PSV (h); 0-1 Fenerbahce (a)

Last 3 matches:
Liverpool: 1-2 Barnsley (h); 0-0 Chelsea (a); 3-0 Sunderland (h)
Inter: 2-0 Livorno (h); 2-0 Catania (a); 1-0 Empoli (h)

Goalscorers (Europe):
Liverpool: Crouch, Gerrard, Kuyt 4; Babel, Benayoun, Torres 3; Hyypia, Voronin 1
Inter: Ibrahamovic 5, Cambiasso, Cruz 2; Crespo, Jimenez, Samuel 1

Referee: Frank De Bleeckere (BEL)

Guess at a squad
Finnan Skrtel Carragher Arbeloa
Pennant Gerrard Mascherano Benayoun
Crouch Torres

I still can’t decide whether it will be Crouch or Kuyt up top. Kuyt finally broke his goal drought on Saturday and has improved in the last two games, while Crouch is one of Liverpool’s joint top-scorers in Europe, although the last two games he’s started have been nothing to write home about (to put it in the nicest way possible).

There’s also a chance for something like 4-2-3-1, with Gerrard, Benayoun, and Babel (or some similar combination) behind Torres as a lone striker.

That Babel was taken off on Saturday with 20 minutes to go makes me wonder if he’ll see another start on Tuesday, but it was probably more a precautionary measure, as I think he’s still dealing with an ankle knock picked up on international duty.

Also, both Pennant and Benayoun have more experience in Europe; Pennant frequently plays well when Crouch is involved, while Benayoun’s gotten goals from midfield and shown a willingness to get in the box, and has frequently been Liverpool’s best player in matches where his goals have been needed.

I’m hoping that both Skrtel and Arbeloa are fit for this one. According to Benitez there’s no new injury worries and both Torres and Skrtel have recovered, but that doesn’t necessarily mean Benitez has enough faith to start them all.

The backline that saw so many clean sheets in Benitez’s first two seasons (Finnan-Carra-Hyypia-Riise) -- the one deployed on Saturday -- has been Liverpool’s shakiest this season. I don’t know whether its age catching up with certain players (although none of those four have ever been reliant on pace) or just a matter of all being off-form at times this season (although Hyypia’s turned back the clock with some of his performances), but it’s been a problem.

However, injuries may force Liverpool’s hand. Plus, if memory serves, Riise’s only missed one Champions League knockout game under Benitez, the home leg against Benfica in 2006.

For Inter, first-string keeper Julio Cesar is suspended, while Dacourt and Samuel are both injured. 11 points clear at the top of Serie A, their lone loss this season came away to Fenerbahce in the first Champions League group game.

It goes without saying that this has become the most important game of the season so far, with rumors flying that Benitez’s job is now (again?) linked to Champions League progress. I’ve no desire to rehash that debate again, but I still believe it's an unfair ask.

But it shows the disappointment that this season’s been. The squad may be better from top to bottom, but results haven’t been. An exit from Europe would mean that the fight for fourth is the only thing left this season. That’s unimaginable.

Quotes from Inter manager Roberto Mancini show that no matter Liverpool’s current struggles, the team is still a feared force in Europe. Liverpool’s come together before to beat more fancied opposition. Believe me, this isn’t counting the chickens before they’re hatched, but a win at Anfield coupled with the business done in Italy could turn the ship around.

We hear so much about Liverpool as a different team in Europe. On current form, they’ll assuredly have to be.

16 February 2008

Liverpool 1-2 Barnsley

Finnan Carragher Hyypia Riise
Benayoun Lucas Alonso Babel
Kuyt Crouch

Kuyt 32’
Foster 57’
Howard 93’

That can’t be described as anything other than comical.

How often has Liverpool failed to learn a simple lesson? No matter how dominant you are in possession, no matter how many half-chances you get at goal, if you can’t get a second, this can always happen. Especially if the defense is as slow and nervy as Liverpool’s has been of late. And again, it happens at Fortress Anfield.

In a sick sort of way I’m almost glad Barnsley scored at the death. Maybe it’ll hammer home the point, and at least a replay’s been avoided.

I wasn’t kidding a few weeks ago when I said I could come up with a template for Liverpool’s matches this season. Liverpool started the brighter, but always had a shakiness in defense, shown in the first two minutes when DeVaney ran at Riise on the wing and forced an interception by Carragher in the six-yard box.

Liverpool’s pressure paid off when they finally got the ball in the net in the 32nd minute. Babel, who was easily Liverpool’s most-threatening player, beat Hassell down the left, got to the byline and delivered the perfect cut-back for Kuyt, who had all the time in the world to slot it past Steele.

It looked like it was going to go Liverpool’s way from there. Kuyt, whose goal drought prior to this match has been much noted, had broken the deadlock. Liverpool continued to press, and Barnsley continued to spend most of the time defending, although there were still shaky moments at Liverpool’s end, most notably when Hyypia gave the ball away in the 37th minute, forcing Itandje to make an excellent save.

But despite the possession, despite the tempo, despite the pressure, Liverpool still couldn’t get the second goal, and there were chances. As said before, Babel was dangerous throughout running at the right-back Hassell, while Crouch, Kuyt, Alonso, and Benayoun were all getting opportunities. But Barnsley contested every shot and Steele began making some excellent saves.

Barnsley was clearly heartened by being just a goal down at halftime, and started pressing more in the second. Howard began pushing forward from central midfield more often, including one notable run past Lucas. Minutes later, Hyypia was forced to head a corner out with Ferenczi lurking behind him in acres of space.

And then Foster struck in the 57th. DeVaney, who tortured Riise when he got the opportunity, should have never been allowed to get a cross off. But the one he got off was perfect for Foster to head past Itandje, who changed him mind in coming out with the ball in flight. Earlier on in the play it was Itandje’s shaky punching, when he ran a long way to not get a fist to the ball, which led to DeVaney receiving the ball on the flank.

Unsurprisingly, it spurred Liverpool into action. A goalmouth scramble at the other end came less than a minute after Barnsley’s equalizer, with three blocks and a clearance on Benayoun, Kuyt, and Crouch respectively. And similar occurred for the next 15 minutes or so. Hyypia had three cracks at goal following a corner, Steele got a hand to Lucas’s header, and a Benayoun run into the box from a short corner was again saved by the debutant keeper at the near post.

In the 70th minute the game changed, and not for the better.

I rarely criticize Benitez’s substitutions. But unless there was an injury I’m unaware of (he looked to run off the knock he picked up in the first half), I have no clue why Babel was taken off for Kewell.

Babel was Liverpool’s most threatening. He set up Liverpool’s goal, and although still has a tendency to linger on the ball trying to carve out an opportunity, I thought he was outstanding.

That it was Kewell who came on probably leads to even more questioning, as Harry hasn’t looked anywhere near his best since returning from injury. Kewell also sits deeper and is less likely to run past defenders. And it showed with the number of times Kewell’s shots ricocheted helplessly away off his marker, although he did come up with one lovely volley which Steele was lucky to see go off the crossbar.

The entrance of Gerrard in the 75th didn’t help much either, but I’m not sure how much blame falls on Stevie. Gerrard as a sub has taken on too much of a “here he comes to save the day” aura, which doesn’t help the team where they’re pressing for a goal, as Liverpool looks for him to create and has the tendency to stand around and wait for something to happen. This and long balls up to Crouch seemed to make up the totality of Liverpool’s attack for the last 15 minutes.

And when the 90th minute struck and Liverpool had failed to get the winner, heads seemed to drop. After getting little more than a sniff in Liverpool’s half for over a quarter of an hour, Barnsley pressed during injury time. And more casual defending by everyone involved nearly gave away a penalty (and probably should have) before Howard was allowed the space to shoot past Itandje in the 93rd minute. It looked like Liverpool had rectified this problem with Skrtel’s performances in the last two matches, but he gets injured, and the defense returns to old ways.

Yes, anything can happen in cup competition, especially the FA Cup. But I have no idea where Liverpool goes from here. I am literally afraid to read the post-match reviews and the various forums for the reaction.

So much stock is put in the cup competitions, where we’ve come to expect a different (and better) performance than the failings in the league. Despite the players injured and rested, there was still a massive gulf in class between the sides, and it’s not as if the XI Liverpool lined up with were unfamiliar with each other or the tactics.

But again, Liverpool underperforms, and again, it’s because of casual defending and a failure to get the second goal. There are so many times the same script can repeat itself before you look past the players to the staff.

Benitez is seemingly doing great things revitalizing the under-18s and reserve team, with all the young talent from around the world brought in, but when Liverpool’s not playing free-flowing football, as they were at times earlier this season, there are still the same problems. And that has to be reconciled.

There are still all sorts of excuses, whether its off-field problems, injuries, or whatever. But they were tiresome months ago, and little has changed.

Lady luck’s long been absent this season, but this was just absurd. I said I was glad there won’t be a replay and that Barnsley sealed it at the death, because maybe it’ll provide the requisite kick in the pants before Inter on Tuesday. But that’s been said before too.

15 February 2008

Liverpool v Barnsley 02.16.08

5th Round. 10am EST, on in the US on FSC

FA Cup run:
Liverpool: 5-2 Havant (h); 5-0 Luton (h); 1-1 Luton (a)
Barnsley: 1-0 Southend (a); 2-1 Blackpool (h)

Last 3 matches:
Liverpool: 0-0 Chelsea (a); 3-0 Sunderland (h); 0-1 West Ham (a)
Barnsley: 0-3 Plymouth (a); 2-1 West Brom (h); 0-4 Coventry (a)

Referee: Martin Atkinson

Guess at a line-up:
Finnan Carragher Hyypia Riise
Pennant Lucas Alonso Benayoun
Crouch Babel

I truly think Rafa would deploy a stronger line-up were the Inter match more than 3 days later. The domestic cup line-ups have been stronger than expected in pretty much every round, while (sigh), the FA Cup probably represents the best chance at silverware this season. It’s definitely the only real chance at domestic silverware.

But Liverpool’s still in Europe as well, and the game against Inter is going to take priority, especially when there are key players who could do with the extra three days rest.

Torres, Arbeloa, Aurelio and Hyypia, along with Agger, were back in training yesterday. It’s most likely too soon for most. Agger will miss the next two games as he gets closer to fitness, but there’s a chance Hyypia, Arbeloa, and/or Aurelio could go right back into the line-up with the spate of injuries in defense, as Skrtel picked up a calf injury yesterday and will be absent. If Hyypia can’t go, there’s a chance we could see Mikel San Jose, who was on the bench against Chelsea.

And unless Torres is absolutely 100% fit, he shouldn’t be risked for a start. Even without an injury I’d be surprised to see Torres start with Inter on Tuesday. But hopefully he’ll get some time off the bench (ideally with Liverpool already ahead) to get him some match action before Tuesday.

I’m hoping that young reserves like Nemeth and Insua are on the bench, but as we haven’t seen them in the first team yet this season (with stronger squads than expected deployed in both the FA and Carling Cups) I doubt we will tomorrow, despite the fact Nemeth’s been banging them in for the reserves. Like last season, I imagine players like Nemeth and Insua will get time in the Premiership late in the year, especially if Liverpool’s still in cup competitions. I do want to see the young players that Benitez has stocked the u-18s and reserves with get opportunities with the first team, but a 5th round FA Cup, even though it’s at Anfield, isn’t the best time for that.

Liverpool’s had an easy draw so far, but still made hard work of Luton and Havant at times, and Barnsley is a Championship team. I’m sure Benitez will try and keep focus on the match ahead, but Inter will certainly be lingering in players’ minds. But the FA Cup is made for shockers like this, and any team can challenge another on its day, as Havant almost proved last month.

For Barnsley, Lewin Nyatanga, Jon Macken and keeper Tony Warner (a former Red) are cup-tied, while the other keeper, Heinz Muller, is out injured. Luke Steele, just signed on emergency loan yesterday from West Brom, will make his first start for the Tykes.

Liverpool, despite not scoring against Chelsea, was far better than in some of the previous disappointing results, especially in defense. It’s imperative the team keep progressing, and return to playing the football that saw Liverpool win by margins such as 8-0, 4-0, 4-1, etc. Tomorrow’s game is crucially important, as Liverpool need to keep advancing in the FA Cup, but just as important is to have another encouraging performance before Inter on Tuesday.

14 February 2008

“Is that that now, Mrs. That’s That?”

Fifa rejects Premier League plans

I actually agree with Sepp Blatter. That’s him and Michel Platini in the same week. Wow.

This doesn’t mean I’m starting a local chapter of the Blatter fan club, but even a broken clock’s right twice daily, and I’ll gladly recognize when it is.

"This does not take into consideration the fans of the clubs and it gives the impression that they just want to go on tour to make some money," Blatter said.

"This will never happen, at least as long as I am the president of Fifa."

You can’t make a more concrete statement. If you listen to the BBC interview, which I recommend, Blatter even says (although prompted by Bose’s question) that this could hurt England's 2018 World Cup chances. Now that’s a shot across the bow.

He then goes on to state (surprise, surprise!) that the issue absolutely falls under FIFA’s brief, and it doesn’t matter what the FA does, because FIFA’s executive committee isn’t going to approve it.

Premier League chief executive Richard Scudamore had previously expressed his belief that Fifa could not stop the plan if the clubs receive the go-ahead from England's Football Association.

But Blatter rejected that claim.

"It is not true," he added. "Even if the FA did sanction it, all the national associations receiving these clubs would have to sanction it also. This will be very difficult.

"In addition to that, the Fifa executive committee will apply article two of the Fifa statutes: 'to prevent all methods or practices which might jeopardise the integrity of matches or competitions or give rise to abuse of association football'.

"This is abuse. The rich Premier League is trying to get richer and wants to expand the importance of that league."

I’m no legal scholar, but “abuse of association football” and “jeopardizing the integrity of competitions” could be challengeable grounds, but most likely grounds that would stand up in the Court of Arbitration for Sport, which is where a case would go if it ever went that far.

I don’t doubt Scudamore’s desire for this plan to happen, but I do doubt the Premier League’s willingness to buck FIFA on this issue, especially if the FA’s not in complete agreement with their actions. I’m not even sure if the Premier League can appeal to CAS on its own; I believe the FA has to first take it up with FIFA’s appeal committee, and if they don’t like the verdict, then it goes to CAS.

And that the FA hasn’t publicly backed the idea (and seems to be doing all it can to stay mute during this debacle) says there’s probably not much support at Soho Square.

Plus, it's hard to see how they'd push a court case with the national associations where the proposed games would be played against it; the Australia and the Asian Federation have already condemned the plans, while the USSF agreed to abide by FIFA's ruling.

But where there’s a will there’s a way, especially when money’s behind it. It can't be dead just yet.

13 February 2008


It has been great to see a number of managers, ex-managers, and players come out against the “39th game.” Too many executives haven’t come around yet, but given the dosh they stand to make, it’s not surprising. David Gold’s taken up far seedier ways of making money than this.

To be fair, Rick Parry’s equivocating as much as possible, but given that all 20 clubs voted to examine the idea means that Parry’s words must be taken with the usual grain of salt.

Most delightful has been the backlash from the national associations where the games look likely to take place.

Sunil Gulati, head of the USSF, along with Mohammed bin Hammam, the head Asian Federation Conderation, have already declared their skepticism. As has the Australian Federation.

If no one’s willing to host the games, especially the money-spinning locations that were originally eyed (US, Southeast Asia, Australia, etc), the plan is dead in the water.

Gulati, who would be a frequent target were I to pay much attention to the US MNT, rightfully questioned the plan, but did leave the door open to changing his mind if FIFA gives approval. Gulati knows full well FIFA will probably not sanction it. This may be one of the few times I’m thankful for Sepp Blatter’s “stewardship.”

However, so help me if FIFA signs off on this because the Premiership goes along with Blatter’s “6+5” plan. It would be the downfall of the Premier League, and I’m not exaggerating for effect. Plus, the EU court case will be an absolute laugh riot.

However, MLS deputy chairman Ivan Gazidis, who, like Scudamore, seems solely in the business of making money, is receptive. As is Alexi Lalas, who would put his mother in the Galaxy’s starting XI if he thought it’d sell more tickets.

Admittedly, I’m irreconcilably opposed to the idea, but I have no idea why they imagine this would help MLS. It’s not going to bring more fans to MLS games, and those who follow the Premiership over here are well aware that MLS exists.

Predictably, Michel Platini is also opposed to the plan. Now there’s at least one thing Platini and I agree on, although it does give him another opportunity to beat his disingenuous and sanctimonious “everything I do, I do for the common fan” drum.

I’ve seen a “compromise” suggestion that the Community Shield be played abroad, which I’ve got no problem with. The Community Shield is little more than a high-profile pre-season friendly anyway. However, moving that game will take revenue away from Wembley, something I’m positive the FA isn’t too keen on.

I’ll be stunned if some concrete comes out in the near future, and I still think this has to be something of a ruse, discussed to raise furor that distracts from some other issue the Premier League is trying to institute. It really makes that little sense to me; they couldn’t see the fans' vitriolic reaction coming a mile away?

But in the meantime, if you’re opposed to the plan, the Football Supporters Federation has a petition, which as of writing as 12795 signatures. Not only is it sent to the FA and Premier League, but also to each of the 20 clubs, which I can confirm from the auto-reply emails sent after I signed the petition.

If you’ve got a second, please sign.

10 February 2008

Liverpool 0-0 Chelsea

Finnan Skrtel Carragher Riise
Mascherano Lucas
Kuyt Gerrard Babel

Jorge Valdano would not have been pleased with today’s match. I’d hate to hear what he’d call this having referred to last year’s Champions League semi-final as “shit on a stick.”

It was pretty much par for the course as Liverpool/Chelsea matches go, especially when you consider that both teams were without their top scorer, among others missing.

Neither team had much time on the ball while neither was able to impose their style of play. The midfield was packed, and both teams gave the ball away too cheaply and too often. And predictably, neither side created many chances. In fact, I don’t think Chelsea had a real goal-scoring opportunity until the 81st minute, when Ballack side-footed a volley wide with Reina scrambling.

As far as the first half goes, there were only two truly noteworthy moments. Crouch should have scored in the 18th minute, instead shooting wide, while Chelsea had a penalty claim in the 25th, rightfully not given as Joe Cole threw himself to the ground after letting the ball get away from him.

It’s annoying to say, as it’s been said before and Liverpool still isn’t coming away with a win, but the away side was better in the first half. Liverpool saw more of the ball, wasn’t as wasteful in possession as Chelsea, and created more of the chances. But without Torres, and with Crouch wasting the few opportunities he had, Liverpool was unable to break the deadlock.

Unsurprisingly, Chelsea was much improved in the second half. Liverpool rarely saw as much of the ball, and Chelsea spent far more time in the visitors' half. But they rarely made headway into the penalty box and it still took until the 81st minute for their best chance, which Ballack should have put away. And by fulltime, with Chelsea still pressing but Liverpool holding firm, the draw was deserved.

I’m still a bit confused over Liverpool’s formation today. From just the pre-match line-up it looked like a 4-4-2 with Gerrard on the right, and that’s how the match kicked off. But Gerrard rarely stayed wide, Babel, Gerrard, and Kuyt all switched around, and there were gaps down Liverpool’s right that Ashley Cole exploited, albeit with little end product.

Even though Kuyt’s come in for a lot of stick lately, he’s not the one to blame. Frequently forced out wide, he was limited in scoring chances, but still put in some good crosses. I can’t pretend that Kuyt had a great game, but given where he played and the form he’s in, he’s certainly not a scapegoat for Liverpool’s inability to score.

However, if Crouch is basically a lone striker, I’ve no idea why Benitez wouldn’t use Pennant instead of Kuyt, or at the least, take Kuyt off when he brought Pennant on in the 71st. But Pennant came on for Babel, who showed flashes but not enough composure or end product, and Pennant stayed on the left, where he failed to get into the game.

However, my main concern, other than confusion over Gerrard’s role and the tactics, is that Liverpool is still too reliant on Torres’s goals. Crouch, leading the line in place of Torres, had other opportunities other than Liverpool’s best chance in the 18th minute, but rarely had the air of scoring that’s always around when Torres is on the pitch.

In addition, when Chelsea was pressing Liverpool had chances to counter, but Liverpool rarely looked cohesive on the break.

I still want to emphasize that it was not a bad performance. In fact, given Chelsea’s strength at home and compared to some of Liverpool’s recent matches, there was definite improvement.

Honestly, despite the fact that Liverpool can’t afford many more draws (this was the 11th of the season in 25 matches), Liverpool rarely leaves Stamford Bridge with anything. A draw is an improvement on recent years when Liverpool’s been in better form and still lost at the Bridge.

I know Chelsea was missing players as well (Drogba, Essien, and Kalou, while Lampard was nowhere near fit), but with Torres, Alonso, Agger, Arbeloa, Aurelio and Voronin all absent, Liverpool’s history at Chelsea, and recent results, I’ll take a draw.

Obviously, I’m still concerned about the lack of goals. The attacking play is still too disjointed and at times downright sloppy. But Liverpool’s defense was superb today, as was Chelsea’s.

There were none of the missteps that have plagued recent poor results, nor any freak penalties or own goals (despite Riise strangely heading towards his own net in the 88th minute). Despite the pace and trickery of Chelsea’s attackers, especially on the break, Liverpool was solid throughout the match. All of the defenders did themselves justice, and it was reminiscent of seasons past with those clean-sheet records.

Skrtel was especially outstanding, and showed none of the nervousness that hindered his debut. His tackling and positioning were spot-on, and at times he showed a willingness to bring the ball out of defense himself, which Liverpool has solely lacked since Agger’s injury. And he showed he’s as hard as he looks, falling hard on his wrist early in the second half but coming back on after getting it taped up. I’ll be surprised if he didn’t injure something.

But once again, the man of the match has to be Mascherano, and all the usual accolades apply. He simply is a superlative defensive midfielder, probably the best in the world at his position.

Of course all three points would have been more than welcome, and Liverpool (Crouch especially) will rue not getting the opener when Liverpool was on top in the first half. But the team, particularly the defense, did not play badly, and a draw at Stamford Bridge, where Chelsea hasn’t lost all season and is on a 75-match unbeaten streak, is still something to build on.

Now they need to better it against Barnsley in the 5th round of the FA Cup before Inter a week from Tuesday.

08 February 2008

Liverpool at Chelsea 02.10.08

11am EST, live in the US on FSC

Last 4 head-to-head:
0-2 Chelsea (a; League Cup) 12.19.07
1-1 (h) 08.19.07
1-0 Liverpool (h; CL) 05.01.07
0-1 Chelsea (a; CL) 04.25.07

Last 3 matches:
Liverpool: 3-0 Sunderland (h); 0-1 West Ham (a); 5-2 Havant (h)
Chelsea: 1-1 Pompey (a); 1-0 Reading (h); 2-1 Wigan (a)

Goalscorers (league):
Liverpool: Torres 12; Gerrard 8; Babel, Benayoun, Kuyt, Voronin 3; Alonso, Crouch 2; Hyypia, Sissoko 1
Chelsea: Drogba, Kalou, Lampard 5; Shevchenko 4; Ballack, J Cole, Essien 3; Alex, Belletti, Pizarro, Wright-Phillips 2; Anelka, Malouda 1

Referee: Mike Riley

Guess at a squad:
Finnan Carragher Hyypia Riise
Pennant Gerrard Mascherano Benayoun
Crouch Kuyt

So with Torres out, Alonso suspended, and Liverpool at Stamford Bridge (where they haven’t taken three points in the league since Cheyrou’s winner in 2004), there’s a good chance that Liverpool could go with a lone striker (Crouch in place of Torres?) and a five-man midfield.

But more often than not, and with no real regard for the players available, Benitez has stuck with a 4-4-2, with games like Reading away the exception to the rule.

Torres’ injury raises many questions, and I’m still hopeful it’s not serious and he’ll be back for Inter on the 19th. And while Benitez has been talking about Kuyt on the official site, this is an opportunity for Crouch as well. Neither striker has been at their best, or even at the level they hit last season. While Crouch has at least been getting goals of late, I don’t know if playing either as a lone striker with the form they’re in is a good idea.

Torres, Arbeloa, Aurelio, Agger, and Voronin will be out due to injury, and I’ve heard conflicting reports on Babel’s status. He was taken off early in Holland’s game this week and the BBC is reporting that he’s doubtful with an ankle injury, but nothing’s been put up on the official site.

While Lucas lined up on the left against Sunderland, Chelsea is a completely different prospect. Were Kewell playing to his potential (or at least where many, including myself, hoped he’d be at following the extended injury), he’d be a nailed-on starter, but only Benayoun and Pennant have truly impressed on the flanks this season. And both have shown the ability to play on either side, which is why I’ve got them both starting. Pennant, with his crossing ability and willingness to stay wide, will be especially important if Crouch plays.

Lucas may play in central midfield, with Alonso suspended and Mascherano late returning from international duty, but as it’s Chelsea, if Masch is fit enough, Masch will play.

Much has been made of Liverpool's inability to get all three points against one of the ‘big four,’ but Chelsea’s in the same boat so far this season, having lost to Arsenal at the Emirates and United at Old Trafford, while holding Liverpool at Anfield.

Drogba, Kalou, and Essien will all miss out due to the African Cup of Nations, but given Nigeria’s exit, Obi Mikel may return. Shevchenko and Terry are also still out injured. Chelsea’s side is still exceptionally strong, and as mentioned in predictions a couple of weeks back, even with players missing they still find a way to win. But reading that list of players absent, Liverpool will know they’ve an opportunity to take advantage, no matter who's missing from Liverpool’s squad.

I’ve gotten this far without mentioning the tragedy that was August’s match at Anfield. Recent form and injuries have taken precedence in many minds, and rightfully so, but I’d hope Benitez makes the result from the last league meeting foremost in the players’ minds.

Liverpool frequently struggles at Stamford Bridge. But Liverpool can ill-afford to drop many more points, even against teams higher in the table. And one would hope that the team is more than ready to avenge the two points lost thanks to Rob Styles and Chelsea’s theatrics.

07 February 2008

Premier League matches in my backyard?

I am an American. I live in America. I would love to see more Premier League matches live, as I haven’t had that good fortune in nearly 5 years.

And I think this is a stupid, stupid idea.

According to BBC (and everywhere else), the main points of the plans are:

• An additional round of Premier League fixtures, extending the season to 39 games, from January 2011.

• Four clubs to travel to one of five host cities, with two games taking place in each venue over a weekend.

• Cities would bid for the right to become a host, not for individual matches.

• Points earned from the games would count towards the final Premier League table.

No matter how much I love the Premier League, it is the English Premier League (please don’t sue me, Barclay’s). At least they’re not proposing a disenfranchisement of locals and will make it a 39-game season if they do decide to play abroad, but no matter how much money football brings in, hometown fans, who attend the game, are still the core of the support. And as proven by Liverpool fans during the Gillett and Hicks saga, they can be the heartbeat of a club. [Share LiverpoolFC] [Liverpool Supporters Union]

I feel comfortable enough, as an American and living in the US, to write about Liverpool, the Premiership, and European football from across the ocean. And I still can’t support this proposal.

There are enough games as it is. Liverpool had 58 matches last season. I realize it’s only one more, but when you factor in the far-flung locales and time it takes to travel, it’s more than just another league match.

And there’s enough travel as it is with European competition and international breaks. With the time changes and flights, North America, Asia, and the Middle East can’t even compare to European competition. The only similar comparison is Mascherano’s situation this week, with a friendly against Guatemala on this side of the ocean today and having to travel back for the Chelsea match on Sunday, which Benitez is not pleased about (warning, link also mentions Torres’ injury, so I’m not responsible for broken keyboards).

The preseason is one thing. As is international competition. Despite my dislike of international breaks, especially for friendlies, it’s always an honor to be called for your country. The regular season is an entirely different animal.

Once again, it’s all about money. It’s always about the money these days. Scudamore barely even tries to hide it.

It’s also a slap in the face to national leagues in the countries teams would travel to. Despite my apathy towards MLS, I know tons of Americans, Americans who follow the Prem just as closely, who love the American game. And it’s not as if there aren’t leagues wherever else the Premiership is proposing to play.

Don’t get me wrong; were Liverpool to play in North America, I’d find a way to attend, financial situation be damned. But it still wouldn’t feel right.

If you want more international exposure, get more teams traveling abroad during the preseason. That's when it should be done.

Really, just get me a rational television deal for all competitions (the Champions League and Premiership coverage has improved by leaps and bounds over the past five years, but watching the UEFA Cup, FA Cup, and Carling Cup is still a crapshoot) and decent commentary (too many examples to single just one person out) and I’ll be content. And when I make my next trip to England to see games, it’ll be that much more satisfying.

Predictions 2/9 – 2/11

No offense, but there are very few who read this blog for my Premiership predictions. They’re a lone holdout from when I used to have a wider scope rather than mainly focusing on Liverpool, which is how it’s been this season. Plus, the reason I’ve kept these predictions going is my desire to break .500 for a complete season. But as I’ve been pressed for time of late, with outside concerns taking over in importance, this is the thing I’ve let slip. The commentary that's gone with the predictions in the past isn't that good anyway.

I hope to have something up about the Premier League’s plan to play games abroad later, as I find it fascinating, but no promises. Again, my apologies. I will assuredly have a preview up for the Liverpool/Chelsea match (Sunday on FSC at 11am) sometime tomorrow.

Aston Villa v Newcastle, 7:45am, Setanta: Villa 2-1
Everton v Reading, 10am, FSC: Everton 2-0
Sunderland v Wigan, 10am, Setanta: 1-1
West Ham v Birmingham, 10am, Setanta Xtra: West Ham 2-1
Bolton v Portsmouth, 10am: 1-1
Derby v Tottenham, 10am: Spurs 3-0
Middlesbrough v Fulham, 10am: Boro 1-0
Manchester Utd v Manchester City, 8:30am Sunday, Setanta: United 3-1
Arsenal v Blackburn, 3pm Monday, Setanta: Arsenal 2-0

06 February 2008

England 2-1 Switzerland

Brown Ferdinand Upson A. Cole
Bentley Jenas Gerrard J. Cole

Jenas 40’
Derdiyok 58’
Wright-Phillips 62’

Honestly, even though England struggled to gain a toehold for the majority of the first half and allowed an equalizer in the second, it wasn’t a bad performance for Capello’s first match in charge.

England came out in a new formation; the BBC has it as 4-5-1 in their post-match, but it seemed more 4-1-4-1. Barry had a defined role in front of the back four, which wasn't surprising given Capello's preference for holding midfielders. While Gerrard sat deeper than expected at times (mainly in the first half), pinging passes as he has for Liverpool, both he and Jenas were further up the pitch. Much of the attacking play came through Bentley and Cole on the wings, and I thought those two were probably England’s most dangerous. Cole was particularly inventive.

But to start, players seemed tentative and nervous, and England took time to find their stride. Not to take a cheap shot (and it does seem a lazy comparison), but for a while there, I could have been fooled into thinking I was watching Liverpool during some of the previous bad spells. England was the stronger side throughout the first half, but neither side was creating serious chances. There was some good play, but England was losing possession in the final third too often and giving the ball away too cheaply. England was stringing passes along the backline and prodding for an opening, and the crowd started to get restless.

40 minutes in, England finally broke the deadlock. Gerrard’s cross-field ball found Joe Cole on the left, who broke Lichtsteiner’s ankles, got to the byline, and centered perfectly for Jenas to tap in.

England started off the second half stronger, forcing a number of chances soon after the restart, but were unable to get the second goal. And then, out of the blue, Switzerland took advantage of some lax defending (with Rio Ferdinand the culprit) in the 57th minute when Derdiyok received a beautiful reversed throughball from Barnetta in front of Ferdinand, beating James low into the corner. It was one of few chances, if not the first real chance, for the Swiss.

But the players were saved an utter bollocking from Capello less than 3 minutes after the equalizer. Crouch’s flick-on found Gerrard striding forward, and the temporary captain’s centered cross led to an easy Wright-Phillips tap-in. I know Gerrard’s got the ability to see and make that pass to SWP, but I’m still surprised he didn’t shoot in that situation. And the pass made the difference; it was heady play to have a look up for his options and put it on a plate for Wright-Phillips.

There was always a chance that Switzerland could get another equalizer, although it would have been against the run of play, but players like Gerrard, Rooney, and Bentley (plus Cole before he went off and Crouch after he came on) were linking up more and coming up with some nice moves. At the end, England was holding on more than looking for a third, but with the nervousness of a first game in front of Capello that was little surprise.

What’s most promising was that the potential was there and England improved as the game went on, and that's why I’m pleased even though the performance wasn’t spectacular.

There was a coherent system deployed by Capello that the players seemed to understand and stick to. And it was a system that grew more effective as players became more familiar with it.

Experienced players like Cole and Gerrard took to it well, with Gerrard growing in influence as he pushed forward as the game went on (culminating in being named man of the match during the broadcast), while Bentley impressed on the right, making a good claim to the position in the future. No offense to Barry, who’s had some excellent performances for England, but he was one who looked uncomfortable in the system, and I think that Hargreaves may be better suited to a holding role.

The defense wasn’t at its best either, but Capello is experimenting in Brown and Upson, and brought on Bridge for Ashley Cole with 15 minutes left to test that option, although Cole did well getting forward throughout (which isn’t surprising given he plays with Joe Cole at Chelsea). Ferdinand switched off for the goal, but he’s been outstanding for his club so far this season. And although James flapped at a couple of balls, and I expect Carson and Foster to get time in the future, he’s the best choice at the moment.

And obviously it’s good that Capello wasn’t satisfied. While there’s a team being fashioned here, instead of a collection of individuals, it’s clearly in its infancy. But there are positives to take forward, and I saw nothing that makes me think Capello isn’t the right man for the job.

Of course, I'd still trade it all for Torres to be healthy come Sunday. Sorry to spring that out of nowhere at the end of an England review, but I couldn't avoid saying something having just heard the news. Aren't international breaks fun?

Silence can be golden

It’s been quiet over the last couple of days, which after the last couple of weeks seems something of a blessing. It’s all gone silent on the off-field front, and coupled with Liverpool’s first win of 2008 over the weekend, the media’s without a storyline. Thankfully.

Maybe now the team can focus solely on improving results, although the international break means that only Carra, Pennant, Finnan, Kuyt, Kewell, Itandje and Aurelio are at Melwood.

That Capello’s first match in charge of England is looming has also dominated the news recently, and I’ll probably check back in later with something of a recap of England’s friendly v Switzerland, which is on in the US on FSC at 3pm.

Otherwise, unless something noteworthy occurs, normal service will probably resume with Premiership predictions tomorrow.

Finally, spare a thought for those 23 lives lost 50 years ago today in Munich. On-field rivalries shouldn't matter when it comes to tragedies, and that day was one of the most significant tragedies suffered in football.

02 February 2008

Liverpool 3-0 Sunderland

Carragher Skrtel Hyypia Aurelio
Pennant Mascherano Gerrard Lucas
Torres Crouch

Crouch 57’
Torres 69’
Gerrard 89’ (pen)

It was an odd looking line-up, with Lucas on the left and Carragher at right back, and for 57 minutes, Sunderland did excellently to stifle Liverpool. But finally, Liverpool was able to take a lead, get a second (and third), and keep the clean sheet. It’s been a long time coming.

The end result is unfair on Sunderland. They defended immaculately until the first goal. Like at the Stadium of Light in August, Nosworthy matched Torres well, Gordon made some good saves, and Sunderland hassled from the strikers to the defense, giving Liverpool little space, especially in Sunderland’s half.

Even had it stayed 0-0, I would have begrudgingly admitted Liverpool played better. I would have been furious at another draw, but Liverpool had looked more inventive, although there wasn’t much room to regress. While the home side carved out few chances in the first half, it was mainly due to Sunderland’s tactics, and both Liverpool’s passing and movement was better.

Pennant and Mascherano were keys to that. With Lucas looking to cut in (he wasn’t comfortable on the left, although I can’t blame Rafa for playing him there with Liverpool’s other options) and Aurelio off the pace (he was substituted for Finnan, who stayed on the left, at halftime), much of Liverpool’s width came from the right. Pennant beat his man to good effect and was able to get a variety of crosses into the box, in the process setting up Liverpool’s best chance of the first half, a header from Torres that was too close to Gordon.

Meanwhile, Mascherano was absolutely everywhere in midfield, preventing Sunderland from gaining much of a toe-hold, and forcing sloppy passes and mistakes by the opposition’s midfield. He was an absolute machine today.

But despite Liverpool’s better play, they were still lacking in the final third, a story we’ve heard before.

Finally, in the 57th minute, Crouch broke the deadlock. Carragher, who did well to get forward from right back all game long (helped by the fact Sunderland offered little in attack), worked out space and sent in an inch-perfect cross for Crouch, who made no mistake with his header down into the bottom corner. It clearly took pressure off Liverpool, and was deserved after starting the second half with more attacking impetus.

And more importantly, Liverpool didn’t let up after scoring. We saw it against Villa, Wigan, and Havant recently; Liverpool has had a nasty tendency to let the opposition back into the game after scoring and give up a soft equalizer. But not today.

You could see the increased confidence after the opener. Liverpool kept pressure on their opponents, created more chances, and was rewarded with a second 12 minutes later, putting the game out of reach. Again Crouch was involved, flawlessly heading the ball on into Torres’ path, where he was able to take it down in stride and send Gordon the wrong way.

Sunderland’s best chances came after Liverpool scored their second and eased off the tempo, which is a bit annoying, but given Liverpool’s previous struggles to score and the fact that Sunderland had offered little in attack, it wasn’t that surprising. And Liverpool was lucky not to concede two penalties, which could have made for a more nerve-wracking finish.

In the 73rd minute the ball struck Carra’s arm in the box (seriously, what’s going on here?), while Mascherano could have been called for a high boot in the 77th. However, I can’t feel too bad for Sunderland after being given the short shrift by Styles in the last Liverpool game he was in charge of.

The icing on the cake came in the 89th minute after Nosworthy brought Pennant down in the box, making another good run down the right on the break. Gerrard stepped up to make the scoreline harsh on Sunderland, but three goals and a clean sheet will be a great boon to Liverpool’s confidence, and hopefully this is a corner turned, although that’s been written before.

Despite Mascherano’s all-action performance and Pennant’s dangerous play, I still reckon Crouch has to be man of the match. There were periods where he drifted out of the game, and periods where I’d be screaming at the television because of lost possession, but he scored the opener and set up Torres’ goal. The goal clearly helped his confidence, and he was unlucky not to score a second minutes later with a delicious scissored volley that Gordon superbly kept out.

Even when Crouch wasn’t at his best, he still chips in with a goal and an assist, and is the difference in Liverpool getting the win. If we’re going by the sum of the 90 minutes, Crouch wasn’t the best on the field (Mascherano was), but he was involved in two goals, and that’s what Liverpool’s needed.

I also thought Skrtel was superb today. He was helped by having Carragher and Hyypia on either side of him, but Skrtel was imperious in the air, closed down well, and made none of the missteps that plagued his debut. It was clear why Rafa paid a record fee for him, and once Agger returns there will be serious competition for places.

Finally, the first victory in the league since Boxing Day. With a spell like this, I don’t care how the three points come, just that Liverpool leaves with all three. And while it wasn’t the most-dominating performance, and Sunderland is a team that struggles on the road (2 points picked up all season), that Liverpool was able to get three goals in the second half while keeping a clean sheet will certainly do.

It goes without saying that it’s a much-needed confidence boost, but there’s clearly more progress that has to be made. And Chelsea at Stamford Bridge in eight days will be a far different challenge.

01 February 2008

Liverpool v Sunderland 02.02.08

12:15pm EST, live in the US on FSC

Last 4 head-to-head:
2-0 Liverpool (a) 08.25.07
2-0 Liverpool (a) 11.30.05
1-0 Liverpool (h) 08.20.05
2-1 Sunderland (a) 12.15.02

Last 3 matches:
Liverpool: 0-1 West Ham (a); 5-2 Havant (h); 2-2 Villa (h)
Sunderland: 2-0 Brum (h); 0-2 Spurs (a); 2-0 Pompey (h)

Goalscorers (league):
Liverpool: Torres 11; Gerrard 7; Babel, Benayoun, Kuyt, Voronin 3; Alonso 2; Crouch, Hyypia, Sissoko 1
Sunderland: Jones 5; Chopra, Richardson 3; Higgenbottom, Leadbitter, Murphy, Wallace 2; John, Miller, Prica, Stokes, Yorke 1

Referee: Rob Styles

Awesome. It’s the first Liverpool game he’s in charge of since the Chelsea debacle.

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

Screw it.

I usually guess what I think Benitez will do instead of what I'd like to see, but I've little idea what Benitez will do with the way the team's playing anyway. So this is what I'd like to see.

Please play the players who are remotely "in form."

I understand the defense hasn't been at its best, but there are few other options along the back four.

Neither Kuyt nor Crouch has impressed lately (although Crouch has at least been tallying goals), while Benayoun was at his best recently playing further forward and cutting in centrally behind Crouch against Havant.

This formation would allow Gerrard, Yossi, and Babel to play advanced attacking roles, and they’d be able to switch positions and strike from different angles.

I understand it looks like another five-man midfield at home against a relegation struggler, but there would be 4 goal threats on the pitch (with Lucas able to get forward as well), although admittedly Liverpool wouldn't be the strongest out wide. But what else is new?

We’ve now gone through a full month with Liverpool winless in the New Year. I’m thoroughly sick of writing that this could be the game where Liverpool turns the corner in these previews, because we’ve seen little promise of that happening over the last 7 matches (I’m not counting home matches against opposition from at least two divisions below Liverpool).

At this rate, I may have to move back to London. The last time Liverpool had a streak anything like this in the league was under Houllier: 11 games winless from November 9th 2002 to January 11th 2003. I got to London on the 16th; Liverpool beat Southampton away on the 18th. I’m just saying.

Benitez, again, says what needs to be said in his pre-match comments: “Let’s see some pride.” Hopefully it will fire the players up and we’ll see a better tempo to start the match than in recent outings. Had Liverpool played with passion and left everything on the pitch, this winless streak would be far easier to stomach. But seeing apathetic performances from key players during disappointing results, with luck not on Liverpool’s side and the much-discussed off-field friction to complete the package, is just soul crushing for fans.

"The only way things will get better for us is if we make it happen."

Please, heed Rafa.