30 April 2008

Liverpool 2-3 Chelsea

Chelsea win 4-3 on aggregate

Arbeloa Carragher Skrtel Riise
Alonso Mascherano
Kuyt Gerrard Benayoun

Drogba 33’ 105’
Torres 64’
Lampard 98’ (pen)
Babel 117’

At the third time of asking at this stage, Chelsea finally beat Liverpool in the Champions League. But only just, and they had more Liverpool mistakes to thank for much of it.

The game started out opposite to what was both expected and hoped. It was end-to-end action, contrary to the previous cagey meetings between the clubs, but Chelsea was on the front foot with Liverpool struggling to link passes and threaten in the final third. However, the away side did have the first real chance in the 10th minute when Gerrard’s superlative ball put Torres in, only for him to have a tight angle and for Cech to make the save.

Then, Drogba (naturally, after all the pre-match talk) opened the scoring in the 33rd, with an earlier injury to Skrtel (Hyypia came on in the 22nd) not helping matters. Kalou was onside (Liverpool’s offside trap was dodgy all game long) and cutting in around Hyypia forced Reina into an excellent save. But that man Drogba was wide open for the rebound, with Riise having drifted centrally in a misguided (and late) attempt to get a body in front of Kalou’s effort.

From there, Chelsea looked to strangle the life out of the game, and for the rest of the first half Liverpool followed the script, with the only real goal-scoring opportunity coming from a narrowly-wide Ballack free kick. Chelsea were bossing the midfield, with both Alonso and Mascherano unable to unlock the defense with passes, while Makelele continued to shadow Gerrard step for step, resulting in Gerrard not seeing enough of the ball and Torres isolated.

But the away side provided the necessary response after the interval. Within three minutes, Kuyt forced Cech into another excellent save with a flick from the outside of his foot, followed by an excellent tackle by Drogba in the box on Torres from the resulting corner.

Liverpool were able to keep possession and set the tempo far better than in the first half, and it was little coincidence that Gerrard was dropping deeper in the second half. Soon after Benayoun and Kuyt switched flanks, and it was the Israeli international who set up the equalizer.

A mazy run in from the right took Benayoun towards the top of the box, where he carved a pass through for Torres to slide past Cech, which was exactly what Liverpool was looking for from Benayoun when Benitez named him as a surprise starter. It looked like Gerrard was spot on when he said ‘we haven’t played there with Fernando Torres.’

From there, with Chelsea more resilient but failing to carve out much offensively, it was little surprise that extra time was needed after the 90. But, credit to Chelsea, they responded strongest and quickest in overtime.

It looked like Essien had put the home side in front after five minutes, slamming home the rebound after a corner was half-cleared, but it was rightfully ruled off with 4 players offside and deemed to be obstructing Reina. That stroke of fortune (Liverpool’s had similar goals go in against them, first to mind is one by Reading in the Carling Cup) coupled with Liverpool second-half reply, looked to be an excellent omen, but three minutes later, Lampard was standing at the penalty spot.

Hyypia’s attempted touch to clear was too soft and allowed Ballack to stay in the frame, and the Finnish center back clearly fouled Ballack after the German pushed the ball away. Lampard, who’s beaten Reina front the spot at every time of asking, sent the keeper the wrong way to give Chelsea the lead. It’s tough to condemn Hyypia, but the big Finn, who’s been an incredible player for the club time and time again, unnecessarily gave that one away.

Liverpool were still in it, as an away goal would have won the tie. But only for seven minutes. With the intermission fast approaching, Riise slowed, raising his hand for offside when Anelka was put through. However, once again, Chelsea had beaten the trap, and Anelka centered to Drogba making the near post run across the box, and for the second time the striker made no mistake inside the near post. 1-3, game over.

Babel, who had come on for Torres following Lampard’s penalty (and this will be a bone of contention; I assume Torres was gassed and Benitez felt he wouldn’t have much more impact, but anytime a team takes off a 30-goal scorer when they’re chasing a game, there are bound to be questions and rightfully so), got Liverpool a lifeline with a stunning shot from distance that Cech could only palm into his goal in the 117th, but by then it was too late.

Despite my opening paragraph, I do give Chelsea credit. They were excellent throughout the first half, Drogba especially (surprise, surprise, a world-class striker, who is prone to diving, turns it on after being called out), and finished the game stronger, despite Liverpool’s players being fresher. But after another never-say-die performance that saw the side equalize against a team that’s truly in form, it’s tough to swallow a loss when it was defense mistakes that led to all three goals.

Despite some poor performances, Liverpool got themselves back in this game, got the needed away goal (their first at Stamford Bridge since Bruno freaking Cheyrou), and looked on pace for at least penalties. It wasn’t a surprising storyline given the history between the clubs and Liverpool's European pedigree, and even as depressed as I am, I’m proud of the team for it. And in an instant, it was gone. Sports sure are fun. Again, credit to Chelsea, but it sure feels like the defense should have done better.

It was an enthralling game, and at the end of it, I’ll reluctantly (very, very reluctantly) say the more deserving side’s going to the finals. But the fact that Liverpool not only got themselves back in the game, but could easily be the ones through is going to linger in the memory for a while. I sure hope it stays with the players and management.

If I can’t root for a forfeited match with neither side winning in Moscow, I hope the Blues pip it.

I need a shower.

29 April 2008

Liverpool at Chelsea 04.30.08

2:45pm on espn2

1-1 on aggregate; Chelsea lead on away goals

Liverpool: 4-2 Arsenal (h); 1-1 Arsenal (a)
Chelsea: 2-0 Fenerbahce (h); 1-2 Fenerbahce (a)

Round of 16:
Liverpool: 1-0 Inter (a); 2-0 Inter (h)
Chelsea: 3-0 Olympiakos (h); 0-0 Olympiakos (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)
Chelsea: 0-0 Valencia (h); 4-0 Rosenborg (a); 0-0 Schalke (a); 2-0 Schalke (h); 2-1 Valencia (a); 1-1 Rosenborg (h)

Last 3 matches:
Liverpool: 2-2 Brum (a); 1-1 Chelsea (h); 2-0 Fulham (a)
Chelsea: 2-1 United (h); 1-1 Liverpool (a); 1-0 Everton (a)

Goalscorers (Europe):
Liverpool: Kuyt 7; Gerrard 6; Torres 5; Babel, Crouch 4; Benayoun 3; Hyypia 2; Voronin 1
Chelsea: Drogba 4; Ballack, J Cole, Lampard 2; Alex, Kalou, Malouda, Shevchenko 1

Referee: Roberto Rosseti (ITA)

Guess at a squad
Arbeloa Carragher Skrtel Riise
Alonso Mascherano
Kuyt Gerrard Babel

The fourth time that Liverpool and Chelsea have met in a semi-final and it’s the fourth time that Chelsea have been favored. Make no mistake; had Riise not scored in his own net in the 95th minute, Liverpool would be in a better position, but it was always going to take a big night at the Bridge to see them through to Moscow. And now it’ll take at least one goal, fully aware that Liverpool have never scored at Stamford Bridge under Benitez.

Even considering both Pennant and Crouch’s performances over the weekend, I still think we’ll see what’s seemingly become the first-choice XI tomorrow.

Benitez did say today, in response to a question on the official site:

Q: Has anyone given you any selection problems after the win over Birmingham at the weekend?

A: Yes. Yesterday we were training and practising and thinking about ideas, but we still have another session to come. At the end of that I will see how they are and after that we will start talking about the team for Chelsea.

However, I’d still be surprised if there was any variation in the front six.

There were a few comments following the Birmingham game suggesting Pennant should get another start. And I’d unquestionably agree that he’s played well in his last two chances. But I still think he’ll come in off the bench, a la Inter.

If Pennant started tomorrow, it’d most likely be in place of Kuyt. While I know I can be biased in favor of Kuyt, I still think he’s both better suited for the 4-2-3-1 and better suited for playing away at Chelsea.

Scoring is Liverpool’s first priority (Kuyt is top scorer in Europe), thanks to the away goals deficit. But Liverpool also cannot let Chelsea play their game. Liverpool must hassle the home side whenever Chelsea have the ball and defend from the front as best as possible. And that fits Kuyt to a tee, with the work he puts in essential to Liverpool’s success. I truly have no problem with Pennant starting and I certainly believe he can do a job. But at the same time, I still think Kuyt’s better fits what Liverpool will do.

Another possibility could be using the same formation as away to Arsenal, with Gerrard on the left and Crouch behind Torres. This is what I wrote about Crouch in the 4-2-3-1 after the Arsenal match. I don’t know if much has changed, especially since we haven’t seen the option used in the four matches since, although admittedly, the league matches have seen far different sides than the Champions League.

Pennant, Kuyt, and even Crouch are playing better than Babel at the moment. But Babel is still probably the only real option on the left in this formation, and he still has the talent to change the game. Pennant’s played there before, but only in a 4-4-2, switching flanks with whomever’s on the left, and I don’t think he’s done it since returning from the injury lay-off.

The other alternative would be Gerrard on the left. And as we saw against Arsenal, it can leave gaps while taking Gerrard out of the game. There being gaps to exploit down the left are an even bigger concern with Aurelio injured and Riise, who can be drawn out of position going forward, likely to play.

And I do think Riise will play. Arbeloa’s always an option on the left (especially if Carra’s at right back, which hasn’t been used since the quarter-final at Anfield), but I think the Spaniard will feature on the right, as he did in the first leg. That Finnan played against Birmingham (and has seemingly been relegated to the league matches) probably means he won’t start tomorrow, while Arbeloa’s done well at right back recently.

Admittedly, I’m worried about Riise starting. Not only is there the concern that he’ll try too hard after the last leg, but he also hasn’t been at his best all season. However, that he started against Birmingham in a bid to get his confidence back (relegating Insua to a substitute appearance, with JAR going off after an hour) has to mean Benitez wants him for Wednesday.

For Chelsea, Lampard’s back from compassion leave, they’ve no new injuries to report, and they’re coming off a huge win over United, which, admittedly, I didn’t think would happen (although the strength of that side means their players might be getting fatigued, having played three matches in eight days). On form, it’s certainly not the best time to go up against them, especially at their place.

But form goes out the window in the Champions League semi-finals. Liverpool was the underdog in the last two semi-final second legs, and they scored both times to send Chelsea out. That it’s at Stamford Bridge tomorrow doesn’t mean anywhere near as much as some pundits will have you believe.

No one does European nights like Liverpool. Let’s see yet another example of it.

26 April 2008

Liverpool 2-2 Birmingham

Finnan Skrtel Hyypia Riise
Pennant Lucas Plessis Benayoun
Crouch Voronin

Forssell 34’
Larsson 55’
Crouch 63’
Benayoun 76’

After the first half, with Liverpool going 0-2 down, a point will certainly suffice.

Until Birmingham scored their second, from an absolutely stunning free kick, Liverpool were insipid and uninspired, and that’s putting it nicely. The first half was especially dire, with Liverpool labored, lacking in movement, and few in the team looking especially bothered by it.

For the first 30 or so minutes, Birmingham were much the same, which was surprising given their need for points. And it led to a fairly boring back and forth affair, with neither side creating much of note until Forssell broke the deadlock 34 minutes in.

McFadden, who had been Birmingham’s best player so far, found a way to deliver a dangerous cross around Riise to Forssell in acres of space at the far post. The Finnish striker had time to control and fire past the on-rushing Reina before Finnan could get back, having unnecessarily drifted into the center.

And to the chagrin of Liverpool supporters, the goal didn’t prompt much reply from the away side. Liverpool still turned the ball over too cheaply, with both Lucas and Plessis shaky in midfield (I don’t fault Plessis much; it’s still only his second game, and expectations were raised far too high in his first game, when he was surrounded by better players). Meanwhile, Crouch was isolated up front, unable to link up at all with the underperforming Voronin. However, Birmingham couldn’t take further advantage, with no other chances before halftime.

Liverpool started the second half better, after what had to have been a tirade from Benitez, but 10 minutes after the break, Skrtel was forced to bring down McFadden on the break (after Walton failed to call a free kick when Finnan was fouled), and Larsson slammed home a spectacular strike from the resulting dead ball up and over the wall, leaving Reina with no chance.

And when it looked like the second goal would ice the day’s disappointment, Liverpool finally responded. Less than eight minutes later, a surging Pennant run (with Pennant probably Liverpool’s best, and at times only, performer to that point) on the break, with Pennant cutting inside and fortunate to receive the ball back from Benayoun, led to Crouch firing a low shot past Taylor to give Liverpool a lifeline.

Soon after, Insua replaced Riise, who had a fairly composed if unspectacular game, which much needed after last Tuesday. I realize I have the potential to get carried away when writing about Insua, but the substitution clearly helped Liverpool. The young Argentinean brought fresh legs and some smarter surges forward, with Voronin moving further left and Benayoun taking up a more central role.

And it was Benayoun who scored the equalizer from Lucas’ cross thanks to a slice of luck when his header deflected off of an unaware Jaidi, wrong-footing Maik Taylor. But Liverpool, finally taking the game to the home side, deserved their luck. It’s no coincidence Liverpool finally got “lucky” after going on the front foot.

Liverpool finished the final 15 minutes the better side and still pressing forward, but Birmingham (aided by bringing on Queudrue to solidify the middle) held on to save a point that would have been welcomed at the start of the day, before they took a two-goal lead.

After Larsson’s goal, you could already feel the media lining up to criticize the rotation, as they expected to do after the Fulham match. And while criticizing rotation wouldn’t have been completely deserved, as we’ve seen that these players perform together before, the criticism of the players would have been given their performance today. Pennant looked moderately dangerous in the first half, albeit too wasteful at times, and he was the only one (with his second half performance probably sealing him being man of the match).

And you had to expect Birmingham to play well -- it was the below par first 30 minutes that was surprising. This is a team in need of points to stave off relegation and had been thumped by their city rivals in the last match. If nothing else, McLeish is a master motivator, and you have to think his sides will bounce back.

Which is why I credit Liverpool for getting back into the game, with the players who had gotten themselves into the hole having to dig themselves out (Insua was the only substitute). The substandard first half performance was unacceptable given some of these players are fighting for either a regular starting berth or their place in the team next season, and it was hard to understand how so many looked so indifferent. But in the final 35 minutes, they came back from two goals down to earn a welcome point.

And with that point, Liverpool is now nine ahead of Everton with the 5th placed side, plus 15 on goal difference. Now they can completely focus on the trip to the Bridge Wednesday.

25 April 2008

Liverpool at Birmingham 04.26.08

10am EST, live in the US on Setanta

Last 4 head-to-head:
0-0 (h) 09.22.07
1-0 Liverpool (a; Carling Cup) 11.08.06
7-0 Liverpool (a; FA Cup) 03.21.06
1-1 (h) 02.01.06

Last 3 matches:
Liverpool: 1-1 Chelsea (h); 2-0 Fulham (a); 3-1 Blackburn (h)
Brum: 1-5 Villa (a); 1-1 Everton (h); 0-2 Wigan (a)

Goalscorers (league):
Liverpool: Torres 22; Gerrard 11; Babel, Crouch, Voronin 4; Benayoun, Kuyt 3; Alonso, Pennant 2; Aurelio, Hyypia, Mascherano, Sissoko 1
Brum: Forssell 8; Jerome, Kapo, Larsson 5; McFadden, Zarate 4; McSheffrey 3; O’Connor 2; Muamba, Ridgewell 1

Referee: Peter Walton

Guess at a squad:
Finnan Carragher Skrtel Insua
Plessis Lucas
Pennant Voronin Benayoun

Well, at least Steve Bruce doesn’t manage Birmingham anymore. We’ll see if they’re still a bogey team without him (other than the 7-0 FA Cup romp, there have been far too many draws in recent history between the sides).

We will assuredly see a comparable team to the one against Fulham last week; I’d be surprised by more than a couple of changes from the side that won 2-0 last Saturday.

I said similar last week, but the fact that neither Plessis nor Insua played with the reserves last night should mean they’ll feature on Saturday. Nemeth and San Jose, on the other hand, did start in the loss to Marine in the Liverpool Senior Cup.

Plessis could spell Mascherano, and I’m interested to see him get a second opportunity after doing well against Arsenal in the league, while Insua seems even more likely after Aurelio’s injury. However, Benitez may want to play Arbeloa at left back if that’s where he’ll play against Chelsea, as I believe he’s only featured in that position twice in 2008 (against Arsenal in the league and at Boro in January). Or, Riise could start at left back with Benitez looking to get the player’s mind off the last match. But of course, I’d prefer Insua; having declared something of a man-crush from his appearances last season, I’m getting the shakes not seeing him in the first team yet this year.

Once again, I expect Liverpool to rest both Gerrard and Torres with an eye on Chelsea. But I also wouldn’t be surprised to see Gerrard off the bench in order to keep him fresh for Wednesday, especially if he’s fully recovered from that neck injury. But please, keep Torres covered in bubble wrap, just in case (as he was against Fulham). I cannot emphasize enough just how important El Niño will be on Wednesday, but after his season so far, I reckon I don't need to.

Last time out, Birmingham lost 1-5 to their city rivals Villa, which probably makes them even more dangerous, as McLeish won’t have tolerated that performance and it’s probably been a long week of training. Plus, that loss put them amongst the relegation places, with Bolton and Reading a point ahead of them. Birmingham’s also unbeaten in six at St Andrews since losing 0-1 to Chelsea in January, including games against both Arsenal and Everton.

Damien Johnson’s still serving a three-match suspension, while both Larsson and Kapo look likely to return to the side. Despite Mauro Zarate’s excellent second half of the season since coming to Brum on loan, he’ll still probably feature off the bench as an impact substitute. And having scouted Insua, who played in the same Argentina U-20 team, as well as having an extensive network in Argentina, Benitez will be familiar with the player.

It’d probably be a lie to say all eyes weren’t focused on next Wednesday. But once again, Liverpool still doesn’t have fourth spot fully secured, while a win here would help the side going into the match against Chelsea, even if there are wholesale changes like against Fulham. A win is a win is a win, and Liverpool could certainly do with one after the kick to the groin that was the last match.

24 April 2008

Predictions 4/26 – 4/28

Chelsea v Manchester Utd, 7:45am, Setanta: United 1-0
Sunderland v Middlesbrough, 10am, FSC: Sunderland 1-0
West Ham v Newcastle, 10am, Setanta Xtra: Newcastle 2-1
Manchester City v Fulham, 10am: City 2-1
Tottenham v Bolton, 10am: Spurs 2-0
Wigan v Reading, 10am: 1-1
Portsmouth v Blackburn, 8:30am Sunday, Setanta: 1-1
Everton v Aston Villa, 11am Sunday, FSC: Villa 2-1
Derby v Arsenal, 3pm Monday, Setanta: Arsenal 3-0

Only three weeks to go; 156-159, with 37 correct scores

22 April 2008

Liverpool 1-1 Chelsea

Arbeloa Carragher Skrtel Aurelio
Mascherano Alonso
Kuyt Gerrard Babel

Kuyt 43’
Riise (og) 90+5’

…And with the last "kick" of the game.

I assume most American readers will get a reference to Bill Simmons. Well, it’s been a while since I’ve read the “Levels of Losing” column, but this draw is about thirteen levels worse than a “stomach punch” loss.

94 minutes and seven seconds into the game (seven seconds after the final whistle should have blown), John Arne Riise, on as a substitute after Aurelio appeared to injure his groin, unnecessarily headed Kalou’s cross into his own net with Anelka lurking. After Liverpool looked certain to win another narrow 1-0 match against Chelsea in a Champions League semi-final.

Avram Grant wasn’t kidding; Chelsea did look to come out on the attack and for the first 20 minutes of the game were the stronger side, taking the game to the home team but with Liverpool having the best chance of the spell, when Kuyt’s first touch from Alonso’s beautiful ball over the top took him too close to Cech in the 13th minute.

But Liverpool grew into the game, although it was still a fairly back and forth affair, which was little surprise given the participants. Joe Cole mishit a volley at Reina when he had more time than he thought, while eight minutes later Chelsea had a penalty claim turned down when Drogba went down under the challenge of Carragher (to be fair, Carra just got a touch on the ball while Drogba falls over in a stiff gust of wind, but I’ve seen them given).

But two minutes later, in the 31st minute, Torres should have put Liverpool up 1-0. Attacking the Kop in the first half, where Torres has scored the majority of his eight straight at Anfield, Gerrard’s perfectly-weighted throughball put El Niño one-on-one with Cech, only for the keeper to get down well to make an excellent stop.

Liverpool continued to settle, began to set the tempo, and kept possession far better than to start the match, but it still was standard fare from Liverpool and Chelsea for the most part. But two minutes before halftime, the much-maligned Dirk Kuyt, who again was absolutely everywhere on the pitch, began and finished the goal that gave Liverpool the lead.

Following a quick free kick out to Kuyt, Chelsea looked to have cleared the ball, only for Lampard to turn it over under pressure from Kuyt and Alonso. Mascherano’s mishit shot found Kuyt over the top (Babel was offside, but not interfering with play), and the striker stabbed home in front of Cech to give the home side the advantage.

It was little surprise how the second half started: Liverpool was still on the front foot and Chelsea was struggling to recreate their performance in the first twenty minutes. But following a Liverpool penalty claim in the 64th minute (it sure looked like Carragher’s cross hit Ballack’s arm, which was moving away from his body), Chelsea started to up the tempo in search of an equalizer.

In a three-minute span, Lampard overran a nice layoff from Drogba in the box, Ballack’s flick from a free kick was gratefully close to Reina, and Kalou’s shot from 12 yards out was deflected in the side netting by a sprawling Mascherano.

But having weathered that storm, Liverpool looked likely to hold their slim edge, although Carragher’s intervention was still needed on occasion (Carragher did superbly on Drogba all match long, he's an utter legend).

Liverpool had two excellent chances to get a needed second in the final five minutes, with Cech coming up huge on both Gerrard’s half-volley in the 85th and Torres’ close range effort from a corner in the fourth minute of injury time, but it looked like yet another semi-final ending with the home side a goal to the good.

But then, with the Liverpool fans whistling in anticipation of the finish, Chelsea went straight back down the field and earned a throw-in. Kalou got free from his marker, was open for the throw near the byline, and whipped in a low, dangerous cross. While Anelka was waiting behind Riise for any opportunity, JAR appeared to have time to step in and clear the ball, albeit with his right foot. But he chose to duck for a header, and sent it past a befuddled Reina. It was the last moment of the match.

And now Chelsea not only has an away goal edge to take to Stamford Bridge, where Liverpool has never scored under Benitez, but the morale boost coming from a late, late goal and undeserved draw.

I’m duty bound to write that it’s only halftime. I’ve certainly seen more miraculous second leg comebacks, and far more miraculous comebacks by this very club. But this is a tough loss to swallow. Chelsea will be thrilled with their good fortune, and it’s even more grating that this is the second time this season’s Chelsea’s lucked their way into a 1-1 draw at Anfield.

Meanwhile, Benitez will have a challenge in motivating the squad for the next leg. This is a tough loss for fans to take; I can’t imagine the sentiments in the Liverpool dressing room. I hate to come off as bitter, but this was a 1-0 win. That’s only the second time I’ve written that since I’ve started this blog, and both times have been against Chelsea at Anfield this season.

But if this team can come back from 3-0 down to beat AC Milan, from 1-0 down to win 3-1 against Olympiakos, to win their last three games in the group stage this year by a margin of 16-1 after it looked like they would struggle to progress to the next round, they can overcome an away goal deficit to Chelsea.

YNWA. Roll on next Wednesday.

21 April 2008

Liverpool v Chelsea 04.22.08

2:45pm on espn2

Liverpool: 4-2 Arsenal (h); 1-1 Arsenal (a)
Chelsea: 2-0 Fenerbahce (h); 1-2 Fenerbahce (a)

Round of 16:
Liverpool: 1-0 Inter (a); 2-0 Inter (h)
Chelsea: 3-0 Olympiakos (h); 0-0 Olympiakos (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)
Chelsea: 0-0 Valencia (h); 4-0 Rosenborg (a); 0-0 Schalke (a); 2-0 Schalke (h); 2-1 Valencia (a); 1-1 Rosenborg (h)

Last 3 matches:
Liverpool: 2-0 Fulham (a); 3-1 Blackburn (h); 4-2 Arse (h)
Chelsea: 1-0 Everton (a); 1-1 Wigan (h); 2-0 Fener (h)

Goalscorers (Europe):
Liverpool: Gerrard, Kuyt 6; Torres 5; Babel, Crouch 4; Benayoun 3; Hyypia 2; Voronin 1
Chelsea: Drogba 4; Ballack, J Cole, Lampard 2; Alex, Kalou, Malouda, Shevchenko 1

Referee: Konrad Plautz (AUT)

Guess at a squad
Carragher Skrtel Hyypia Aurelio
Alonso Mascherano
Kuyt Gerrard Babel

Much of the pre-match discussion has centered on Gerrard’s neck “injury.” I put injury in quotation marks as I’m still skeptical; the fact we’ve still seen articles about it and the quotes from Benitez makes me think it might actually be legit, but part of me still thinks it’s mind games on Liverpool’s part. And if it is mind games, it’s a far better tactic than the laughable “Gerrard to Chelsea” rumors Avram Grant attempted to start. What is this, 2005?

Either way, Gerrard trained this morning and has been declared available by Benitez in today’s press conference. As has Hyypia after his head injury and halftime substitution at Fulham on Saturday.

Otherwise, I don’t expect any changes from what’s seemingly become Liverpool’s first-choice XI. There are two possibilities, but I don’t know if we’ll see either.

First, with Benayoun playing well and Babel still making more of an impact (and with a better goal return) as a substitute, Yossi could see another start on the left. But Babel’s been getting starts in the big games and has been brought further and further along as the season’s progressed. I’d be surprised if Benitez changed his methods at this stage of the campaign.

Second, Pennant’s also done well on the right recently: the sub appearance against Inter and starts against Arsenal and Fulham in the league. But I still think that Kuyt will get the nod, especially if Carragher lines up at right back. Kuyt, no matter how much better he’s done in the past couple of months, isn’t the end all, be all on the right, but with Carragher more likely to sit deeper than either Finnan or Arbeloa, Kuyt’s two-way play is especially important, and the work he puts in getting up and down the flank can’t be overlooked. I’ve been really pleased with Pennant of late, but I think he’ll be on the bench, available to make an impact like he did in the first leg against Inter.

In team news, Lampard will return for Chelsea after being on compassion leave with his ailing mother, while both Cudicini and Drogba are still doubtful through injury. Essien is suspended for this leg, but no other Chelsea players have yellow card issues. If Gerrard, Carra, or Aurelio pick up a yellow tomorrow, they’ll miss the second leg.

There’s little else that needs to be said about a Champions League semi-final against Chelsea. We’ve been here before. The difference is this time the first leg is at Anfield. Liverpool, despite frequently playing cautiously in the first legs, will need to score and need to take an advantage to Stamford Bridge. Keeping a clean sheet and keeping Chelsea from getting a critical away goal is just as important. The team has to make the Anfield atmosphere pay dividends.

19 April 2008

Liverpool 2-0 Fulham

Finnan Skrtel Hyypia Riise
Pennant Lucas Mascherano Benayoun
Voronin Crouch

Pennant 17’
Crouch 70’

Liverpool made a number of expected changes (eight from the previous match) and went back to the 4-4-2, with neither Gerrard nor Torres involved (Torres was on the bench, but was never needed). But we still weren’t treated to a glimpse of some of the young players, with Insua, Plessis, and Nemeth not even in the team.

Fulham started out the more dangerous, with Liverpool taking time to settle and Clint Dempsey heavily involved, but Hyypia, Skrtel and Mascherano were solid in the middle. Liverpool didn’t work out a shot until the 14th minute, with Crouch heading wide from Pennant’s threatening cross, but three minutes later the away side opened the scoring, arguably against the run of play.

And it was Pennant who broke the deadlock, tallying his second of the season (and third in a Liverpool shirt) with a goal that showed what many have been looking for from him. He continued his run to beat Hangeland for pace, got into the box, and beat Keller with an excellent shot inside the near post.

The goal completely took the air out of Fulham’s sails. Fulham’s heads seemed to drop, and Liverpool increasingly took hold of possession and tempo, with Pennant a frequent outlet on the right. Both Healy and McBride had half chances against the run of play, but neither could make solid contact from a tight angle.

But despite Liverpool controlling proceedings, they weren’t putting the opposition’s goal under enough pressure. And we’d too often seen that a team can be punished when a second isn’t scored.

That Fulham failed to come out for the second half much stronger is probably a sign that many have accepted the fate of relegation. Carragher came on for Hyypia after the break, with Sami suffering a clash of heads in the first half, but it was just as likely a precautionary measure with the match on Tuesday.

With Liverpool still unable to turn superiority into a second goal, Fulham began to up the pressure around the 60th minute, and Dempsey had two headed chances in the 64th and 68th minutes, missing the target with both. This isn’t a knock on Carragher by any means, but I doubt it’s a coincidence that Fulham won more headers after Hyypia left the field.

However, Crouch soon sealed the game in the 70th minute, controlling Pennant’s throughball and steering a low shot past Keller, exactly when Liverpool needed a goal to stem any building Fulham momentum.

The home side had all the chances in the final 20 minutes, with the best coming in the 75th when Reina made an excellent stop on Danny Murphy and two more in stoppage time, but Liverpool held on for the clean sheet and a deserved victory to throw in the faces of the likes of Gary Megson and Neil Warnock, who claimed that Liverpool fielding a weakened side (a weakened side full of established internationals, mind you) cheapened the Premier League.

First and foremost, Mascherano deserves man of the match for the 72 minutes he spent on the field, removed in favor of Alonso after the second goal assured victory. He was absolutely everywhere in the first half, and repeatedly prevented Fulham from breaking through or stringing passes together. The only knock on him was a couple of sloppy passes across the field where Liverpool could have been punished, but he's forced to spread the play more when both Gerrard and Alonso are absent.

Masch was also aided by a steady performance by Lucas, who was probably Liverpool’s best passer and delivered an assist exactly where Pennant wanted it to score. Hyypia and Skrtel were also imperious in central defense, especially when needed in the first half. And Pennant, with a goal and assist, also impressed, although there were times when he gave the ball away too cheaply or the trick didn’t come off, which can be par for the course. But those things are much easier to overlook when Pennant’s chipping in with goals.

Eight points ahead of 5th place with three matches to go probably seals Champions League qualification, although Everton’s still not mathematically out of it. Even though many of those on the field tonight won’t feature against Chelsea, Liverpool’s continued momentum in the Premiership has to help them in Europe. And despite knocks to both Hyypia and Mascherano, both looked like they should be available on Tuesday.

Roll on Chelsea.

18 April 2008

Liverpool at Fulham 04.19.08

10am EST, live in the US on Setanta

Last 4 head-to-head:
2-0 Liverpool (h) 11.10.07
0-1 Fulham (a) 05.05.07
4-0 Liverpool (h) 12.09.06
5-1 Liverpool (h) 03.15.06

Last 3 matches:
Liverpool: 3-1 Blackburn (h); 4-2 Arse (h); 1-1 Arse (a)
Fulham: 2-0 Reading (a); 1-3 Sunderland (h); 2-2 Derby (a)

Goalscorers (league):
Liverpool: Torres 22; Gerrard 11; Babel, Voronin 4; Benayoun, Crouch, Kuyt 3; Alonso 2; Aurelio, Hyypia, Mascherano, Pennant, Sissoko 1
Fulham: Dempsey 6; Davies 4; Healy 4; Kamara, McBride, Murphy 3; Bullard 2; Bocanegra, Bouazza, Nevland, Smertin 1

Referee: Martin Atkinson

A little late in the season now, but I think I should link ynwa.tv’s “Meet the Referee” in these previews. Really should have started sooner.

Guess at a squad:
Finnan Carragher Skrtel Insua
Mascherano Lucas
Pennant Benayoun Riise

I’m expecting a similar line-up to that which earned a point at the Emirates two weeks ago. The only differences, which really are guesses, are Mascherano and Insua to start in place of Plessis and Arbeloa.

Plessis played 15 minutes in the reserve game yesterday, while Mascherano is fresher than most of the first thanks to his league suspension. Insua was left out of the reserves game in its entirety (as was Nemeth, as Georger pointed out in the comments yesterday), and he started against Fulham last May in similar circumstances. Plus, with Aurelio proving to be first choice, Rafa will probably use the opportunity to rest him before Chelsea.

At most, I’d expect to see Gerrard and Torres on the bench, with Torres most likely wrapped in cotton wool, given those two’s importance for the match on Tuesday and the rest of the season. I wouldn’t be surprised to see either left out entirely, especially if Nemeth is on the bench (as he’d play a similar role as Torres), and considering what Benitez said about Gerrard in his pre-match conference: “He has a neck problem. Yesterday in training he scored three or goals with his head so at the end he had a problem.” Without seeing the video it’s impossible to say whether or not Benitez’s tongue was firmly planted in cheek; I find it hard to believe that sort of injury would keep Gerrard out of a more important match. It’s also worth noting Torres came off the bench to win the match at Anfield between these two sides.

In the same interview Benitez also mentioned Arbeloa was a concern, so Finnan will probably return at right back. Hyypia is also likely to be rested with an eye on Tuesday (even considering Reina’s effusive praise of Sami on the official site today), where I expect a backline of Carra-Skrtel-Hyypia-Aurelio.

After a win at Reading last week, Fulham are four points from safety, with Birmingham in 17th and Reading one point higher in 16th. That away victory at the Madejski was their first on the road in 33 attempts and they were unlucky not to win by more. With McBride finally healthy and some of Hodgson’s signings settling in, Fulham has a chance to make a miraculous escape for the second straight season.

It’s an odd coincidence, but this match will be played in very similar circumstances to last year. Fulham desperately need points to get out of the relegation zone while Liverpool’s focus is on the Champions League, with the away side very likely to rest key players. But unlike last year, Liverpool don’t have fourth spot secured yet. Chelsea’s victory at Goodison yesterday was helpful -- Everton are five points back with four to play -- but when these two sides met last season Liverpool had already overtaken Arsenal for 3rd.

But despite being in a fight for fourth and all the surrounding drama, Liverpool’s second-team is far stronger than it was last year. Last year’s line-up in this fixture was Reina, Arbeloa, Paletta, Hyypia, Insua, Pennant, Alonso, Sissoko, Gonzalez, Bellamy, and Fowler.

Liverpool have five games to secure the all-important Champions League place for next season. Despite the semi-finals of this season’s Champions League taking precedence, any and all league points are vital.

17 April 2008

Make it Stop part XVIII

It’s a pity that all the news until Sunday, and probably longer, is going to focus on Hicks et al. I wasn’t planning on saying much about Hicks’ interview, as there are far more websites that know far more than I do, and you’ve probably already visited them. I’d really prefer to write about the football.

But there was a very good comment added by Jeff to my last ‘make it stop’ post that I want to highlight.

I would rather someone else was owning the club but if it has to come down to Hicks or Gillette, I'm going with Hicks.

Hicks is a public relations nightmare, a loose cannon who says the wrong things at the wrong times. But generally those people don't double-talk. I may not like what Hicks says, but I think its genuine.

So I think Hicks is sincere when he says he wants to keep Rafa and get rid of Parry and for me, that is a good thing.

If it were me, I’d add a few “ifs” in there, because I truly don’t know if Hicks is sincere. I’m leaning in the same direction as Jeff, but after all the promises over the last year, any cynicism is merited and should be understandable.

And even if he is sincere, I still don’t think he’s acting in anything other than his own interests. Those interests should coincide with Liverpool's though; he needs the club to be successful and on a solid footing to make any return on his investment, let alone pay off his debt.

Plus, it’s even more of a touchstone as an American writing about another American (albeit a Texan) when Liverpool FC and the local supporters need to be the primary focus. However, I still think this is a valid point; there’s some cliché about the ‘devil you know’ that’s probably relevant. I do wish he'd keep his bloody mouth shut though.

But bear in mind, this comes down to whether or not there’s a choice besides Hicks or Gillett.

At the end of the day, my allegiances lie first and foremost to Liverpool FC and to Rafa Benitez in a close second. I never thought I’d say that if Benitez went, I’d seriously contemplate the amount of time, passion, etc I devote to Liverpool, but that’s where I am right now.

Unfortunately, Hicks seems to know this is the case for more than a few Liverpool fans, and is unabashedly trying to hitch his wagon to Rafa’s. Which has a strange way of encouraging me and making me nauseous at the same time.

I truly believe keeping Rafa Benitez is the most important thing for Liverpool, and I write that knowing the importance of the debt, the new stadium, and other financial concerns.

I’ll feel a lot better when Benitez makes a public statement on the matter, and reserve the right to change my opinions when he does. However, knowing Benitez, he’ll wait until the season’s over. The man has a bit more class than the rest of the actors in this farce.

Predictions 4/17 - 4/20

Getting these done early so I don’t need a separate post for today’s Everton/Chelsea match-up. I appreciate having every game bar one live on television, but it does seem criminal they’d move the Chelsea/Everton game to today solely for Sky. And I'd probably care more if the two teams involved weren't Chelsea and Everton.

150-156, 34 correct scores

Everton v Chelsea, 3pm Thursday, Setanta: Chelsea 1-0
Arsenal v Reading, 7:45am, Setanta: Arsenal 2-0
Wigan v Tottenham, 10am, FSC: 1-1
West Ham v Derby, 10am, Setanta Xtra: West Ham 2-0
Middlesbrough v Bolton, 10am: Boro 1-0
Blackburn v Man Utd, 12:15pm, FSC: United 3-1
Aston Villa v Birmingham, 7am Sunday, Setanta: Villa 2-1
Newcastle v Sunderland, 8:30am Sunday, Setanta Xtra: Newcastle 2-1
Man City v Portsmouth, 11am Sunday, FSC: 1-1

Liverpool at Fulham is on 10am Saturday on Setanta

13 April 2008

Liverpool 3-1 Blackburn

Arbeloa Carragher Skrtel Aurelio
Lucas Alonso
Kuyt Gerrard Babel

Gerrard 60’
Torres 82’
Voronin 90’
Santa Cruz 90+2’

For the first 60 minutes, it looked like a typical comedown game after a big Champions League match, as well as a typical cagey match between Blackburn and Liverpool.

The away side had the first notable opportunity when Roberts sidefooted past Reina (who had stopped playing), but was flagged for offside although it was Santa Cruz (I think) who was actually off. But from there, Liverpool were the better side with much more possession, and created more chances even though they were often content play backward when under pressure and just keep possession.

Gerrard had a penalty shout rightfully turned down when he stuck a leg out trying to draw contact from Friedel, which probably went against him when Samba wasn’t called for a free kick on the edge of the box (it looked at least a yellow) six minutes later. Liverpool’s best chances at goal were Torres and Kuyt both heading wide, while Gerrard should have done better from Kuyt’s pullback in the 27th minute.

Liverpool were even more methodical in the second half (despite Torres’s cheeky Alonso-esque attempt at goal from the restart) until they brought on Benayoun for Babel in the 58th minute. Less than two minutes later, Benayoun intercepted Santa Cruz’s sloppy clearance and found Gerrard, who played a neat 1-2 with Lucas, breaking through Blackburn’s defense and beating Friedel.

Blackburn wanted a red card on Skrtel when he took down Roberts on the break, but other than a Bentley free kick narrowly wide in the 79th minute they had few opportunities to equalize. Liverpool kept at them, and Gerrard and Torres finally took advantage in the 82nd when Torres tallied his thirtieth of the season (again, in front of the Kop, and he’s scored in seven straight league games at Anfield) with a header from Gerrard’s cross.

I guess Liverpool being the stronger team in the last 30 minutes would suggest the benefits of rotation. Voronin added a third in the 90th with the game stretched, with the three subs (Yossi, Voronin and Riise) combining on it, which made Santa Cruz’s pretty volley two minutes later even more of a consolation.

Despite the scoreline, it was a game that felt like at best it’d be a 1-0 win for two-thirds the match. Credit the second half performance, which was very good after the first 5-10 minutes. Benayoun had a big impact, and probably should be man of the match for it, while Blackburn could only keep Gerrard and Torres quiet for so long. Lucas is up there as well for being solid and disciplined in the first half, while getting forward more (and providing the assist for the first goal) in the second. It was also nice to see Voronin get the third finally back from injury.

Both teams will feel aggrieved with the referee’s (and linesmen’s on Blackburn’s part) performance today, so at least it was consistent. Gerrard’s first penalty shout was a good no-call (going down with little contact is different than diving, mind); I’m less convinced about the others. Besides ignoring Samba’s foul in the 26th minute, nothing was egregious though. Blackburn will rue the early offside most, as Roberts was level with Skrtel, but I’ve seen that called offside time and time again, and you could argue Santa Cruz (again, I think) was interfering with play by being offside. The rule needs to be clearer.

And other than the lack of a clean sheet, with the defense switching off in injury time with the game won (and an excellent goal from Santa Cruz), there’s little I’m upset about. Blackburn are always tough to beat, games between these sides are frequently close, and putting three goals past them, including another two in the last ten minutes, is an excellent result.

The gap between 4th and 5th is now five points with four games to play. The next is away to Fulham in six days.

11 April 2008

Liverpool v Blackburn 04.13.08

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

Last 4 head-to-head:
0-0 (a) 11.03.07
1-0 Blackburn (a) 12.26.06
1-1 (h) 10.14.06
1-0 Liverpool (h) 04.16.06

Last 3 matches:
Liverpool: 4-2 Arse (h); 1-1 Arse (a); 1-1 Arse (a)
Blackburn: 1-1 Spurs (h); 0-0 Reading (a); 3-1 Wigan (h)

Goalscorers (league):
Liverpool: Torres 21; Gerrard 10; Babel 4; Benayoun, Crouch, Kuyt, Voronin 3; Alonso 2; Aurelio, Hyypia, Mascherano, Pennant, Sissoko 1
Blackburn: Santa Cruz 14; McCarthy 8; Bentley 6; Derbyshire, Gamst 3; Roberts, Samba, Tugay 2; Dunn, Emerton, Warnock 1

Referee: Alan Wiley

Guess at a squad:
Finnan Carragher Skrtel Riise
Alonso Lucas
Kuyt Gerrard Babel

Was the formation on Tuesday a sign of things to come, including a possible partnership between Crouch and Torres, or just the tactics for that match against Arsenal?

Other than Mascherano’s suspension for an additional two games and Agger, Kewell, and Pennant injured, Liverpool should have a full-strength squad, and with six days until the next match, I doubt we’ll see much “rotation.” The chance for resting players should come in next Saturday’s match at Fulham.

Liverpool will almost certainly stay with the 4-2-3-1, which still hasn’t lost or drawn at Anfield.

As I alluded to on Wednesday, if Crouch were to continue in the 4-2-3-1, I’d hope Gerrard is on the right instead of left. I wouldn’t be shocked by a front four of Torres, Babel-Crouch-Gerrard, but it doesn’t seem like Rafa to shift the system around that much with nearly the full squad fit and available and nearly a week before the next match.

But given how hard Kuyt worked in the two European matches against Arsenal, the possibility of him being rested could make it more likely than I’m imagining. It also could see Benayoun get a start on the right. However, I would like to see Kuyt make amends for the late miss that could have won the game at Ewood Park in October, and I wouldn’t put it past him with the way he’s played of late.

In addition, while Christopher Samba has struggled at times this season, he’s a big, strong center back who’s quick enough to keep up with Crouch, and starting the gangly handful (you’re welcome, Ace) may play into Samba, and Blackburn’s, strengths.

I wouldn’t mind seeing Plessis get another run out either, but I’d imagine Lucas is still above him in the pecking order, and if it’s two from the three of Alonso, Lucas, and Plessis, chances are it’ll be the first two. Although Plessis did look more of a “holding midfielder” in the vein of Mascherano than either Lucas or Alonso.

Whoever starts at left back will have to keep close watch on David Bentley, who’s been Rovers’ best player this season along with Roque Santa Cruz. Aurelio played the full 90 minutes in two very difficult games in the last week, while Arbeloa is better at left back against players who cut inside. Bentley’s forte is getting crosses in the box. For this reason, and although he hasn’t had the best season, I’m guessing Riise to start. If Arbeloa plays, it’ll probably be at right back.

Tomorrow’s match will feature Stevie Warnock’s first return to Anfield since his move to Blackburn. Admittedly, I’ve always had a soft spot for Warnock (one of the two videos I’ve posted to YouTube that haven’t been taken down is Warnock’s lone goal for Liverpool), but going to Blackburn has suited both him and Liverpool well. I wish him all the best, but just after Sunday.

There’s always the chance of Liverpool underperforming following a Champions League match; it wouldn’t be the first time. And Blackburn is a team that’s frustrated Liverpool in the past, evidenced by the head-to-head record over the last four meetings. They are a physical team (granted, not as physical as in previous seasons, but still worth a mention) that’s well organized by Mark Hughes. But they’ve also disappointed at times, and should be higher than the 8th place they sit in, 9 points behind Everton and UEFA Cup qualification.

Liverpool cannot worry about the Champions League, with two games before the first leg against Chelsea. And they certain cannot worry about the back pages, which is why Hicks’ latest outburst is so infuriating; the man has zero concept of timing.

There are five games left in the league (Blackburn, Fulham, Brum, City, and Spurs), and Liverpool is only three points above 5th place. Only two of those games are at Anfield, and Liverpool need to take full advantage of them.

10 April 2008

Predictions 4/12 – 4/14

More changes in the nearly complete season-long predictions fiasco. I’ll have commentary for games for which I actually have something to say, while others will just have a guess at the score, saving me the trouble of trying to think of something that's not even that witty, and saving you the trouble of reading it.

146-151, with 32 spot on for the season-to-date.

Reading v Fulham, 10am, FSC: Reading got stomped by a resurgent Newcastle last week, while Fulham blew a chance to get points on the board at home against Sunderland. Fulham’s most likely going down, and Reading at home has been far different from Reading away all season. Reading 2-0
Tottenham v Middlesbrough, 10am, Setanta: Spurs 2-1
Sunderland v Manchester City, 10am, Setanta Xtra: Sunderland 1-0
Birmingham v Everton, 10am: 1-1
Bolton v West Ham, 10am: 1-1
Derby v Aston Villa, 10am: Villa 2-0
Portsmouth v Newcastle, 12:15pm, FSC: Admittedly, despite the frequent potshots, I’m actually pleased Keegan’s gotten Newcastle’s bearings straight. Pompey at home is always a tough task though, and a draw would be a very good result for the Geordies. 2-2
Manchester Utd v Arsenal, 11am Sunday, FSC: If Arsenal win, there’s an actual three-way title race, given Chelsea’s at home against Wigan. If it ends all square, Chelsea could only be a point behind United. Pity that Arsenal’s only won one league game in their last eight attempts. United 2-1
Chelsea v Wigan, 3pm Monday, Setanta: Chelsea hasn’t lost at Stamford Bridge in the league since February 2004. Chelsea 2-0

Liverpool v Blackburn is Sunday at 8:30am on Setanta.

“Make it Stop” part XIV

I know, I know, I promised to stop talking about Statler & Waldorf, DIC, or any of the travails surrounding the ownership of the club. So I’ll make this short.

Get fucked, Tom Hicks.

You are the only person who could turn Rick Parry into a saint. Sell out. Now.

Also, folks, put down the razor blades. This doesn't mean DIC is gone for good.

Your best place to keep with any and all “news” on this front would be the Liverpool Echo. Tony Barrett is a godsend.

09 April 2008

More on yesterday’s match: Crouch and the 4-2-3-1

I want to go a bit more in-depth on something I hit on in yesterday’s review (that review was more than long enough anyway). I also need to preface this by saying I’m extremely happy with the result, how it was accomplished, and Liverpool’s progression. The final minutes after Adebayor’s equalizer were simply magical, and yet another example of how this year’s team is different than seasons’ past. I have no idea why I’ve felt the need to be critical, but I started this blog to opine on the Liverpool thoughts rattling around my head.

No matter what the pre-match chat said on espn2, ITV, or wherever you watched it, yesterday’s formation was still 4-2-3-1, with Gerrard, Crouch, and Kuyt behind Torres. At times, all played on the same line (The Times called it a 4-2-4), while they shifted around at others depending on where they were on the break or after a set play. Before Liverpool’s second goal, Crouch played further up the field with Torres mostly making runs from the left channel. But for the most part, it looked like how I drew it up in the match review.

And despite Liverpool scoring 4 goals, with Crouch and Torres linking up exactly as hoped to create the second from next to nothing (just as Crouch fed Torres for the second goal against Sunderland), I’m unsure if this system has a future.

Don’t get me wrong, I’ll be happy to be proven wrong; it wouldn’t be the first time by any means. It’s just that one of the main strengths of the 4-2-3-1 formation has been how it’s freed up Gerrard to focus on the attack, pull the strings on the break, and play off of Torres, best utilizing that promising partnership.

Shifting Gerrard out to the left didn’t accomplish any of those things to the effect there’s been in previous games. By his own admission, he had one of his worst games in a Liverpool shirt until the penalty. While I wouldn’t go that far, saying that Gerrard’s had more influential games recently would be an understatement.

It might be different if Gerrard played on the right, where he’s more comfortable and where he scored 23 goals in 05-06, with Babel on the left, but another reason for this formation’s success has been Kuyt, first and foremost his willingness to defend and to run until his legs fall off. Kuyt’s not without his weaknesses, but no player works harder for the full 90 minutes, with his play in both legs a prime example of his benefit to the team. We haven’t seen if he’s able to do this from the left, either for Liverpool or when he played in a 4-3-3 for Holland.

In addition, without traditional wingers (which Gerrard, Kuyt, and Babel aren’t), the way Crouch would succeed in this formation is with long balls hoofed forward. One led to Liverpool’s second goal, but a reliance on route 1 football would be a step backward, not forwards, and doesn’t fit with Liverpool’s method of keeping possession and out-working the opposition.

If comes down to accommodating Crouch or Gerrard (or Torres for that matter), I’m siding against the gangly handful, no matter how much I want to see him do well. I realize the last paragraph comes off accommodating Kuyt to Crouch’s detriment, which has been an on-going argument all season long, and no matter how unbiased I try to be, my feelings on this probably come down to the fact I’d take Kuyt over Crouch in this system.

I’m happy Crouch has gotten a run in the team. I’m even happier that it’s ended with two good results, including an excellent goal at the Emirates, and I’ll be even happier still if it ends with Crouch extending his contract. I’ve written before that Crouch has a role in this squad, and in a squad capable of winning the title. But I also think that more often than not, it’s a matter of Crouch or Torres, not Crouch and Torres.

My theory is that Benitez is being forthright with what he said post-match: the idea to use Crouch today was because he’s been excellent against Arsenal in his last two opportunities. No more, no less.

But, knowing my luck with predictions, there’s just as much of a chance this could be a sign of things to come, especially since Babel (once again) proved so valuable off the bench. And this system did just deservedly beat a very talented, and determined, Arsenal side.

We’ll know a lot more after the two league games (v Blackburn and at Fulham) before hosting Chelsea in the first leg of the semi-finals on the 22nd.

08 April 2008

Liverpool 4-2 Arsenal

Liverpool wins 5-3 on aggregate

Carragher Skrtel Hyypia Aurelio
Alonso Mascherano
Kuyt Crouch Gerrard

Diaby 13’
Hyypia 30’
Torres 69’
Adebayor 84’
Gerrard 86’ (pen)
Babel 90+2’

Well, that was a very strange, and very English, game. I guess I should be thankful it wasn't another 1-1.

I like to think I understand Benitez’s team selections more often than not; it’s why I hazard a guess at the squad in every preview. But no matter how well Crouch played on Saturday, I was stunned to see him start in place of Babel, with the team otherwise the same as last Wednesday. There were suggestions it was because of an injury to Babel, but with him coming on as a substitute, I think that theory can be put to rest.

But the formation remained the same as in the last leg. Gerrard went out to the left, with Crouch playing behind Torres for the most part. And Liverpool’s play for the first 30 minutes was an utter abomination.

If I couldn’t hear the roar of the crowd and didn’t know better from the apparel, I’d have thought Arsenal were at home. They dominated Liverpool from top to bottom. The home side couldn’t retain possession, gave the ball away incredibly cheaply, and Torres and Gerrard both looked isolated.

It only took Arsenal 13 minutes to open the scoring. After sustained pressure (and questions of handball in the buildup after Liverpool only half-cleared), Hleb put Diaby through with Skrtel late to cover the gap, and Diaby ran away from both Skrtel and Alonso to blast a close-range shot off Reina’s knee and into the net. I’ve defended Reina for some of the goals Liverpool’s let in, specifically those from crosses, but you can't defend being beaten at your near post, no matter how hard Diaby hit the ball or how close he was.

And for the next 17 minutes, there were real fears Arsenal could score a second. Liverpool continued to turn the ball over whenever possible while failing to create any real opportunities.

But that changed after Aurelio’s deflected cross forced Almunia into conceding a corner. Hyypia embarrassed Senderos with a jinking run and looped a free header over Fabregas and off the far post from Gerrard’s outswinger (Liverpool scoring from a corner!). It was masterful movement and a top class header, and I couldn’t be happier for Hyypia, who’s filled the void following Agger’s injury better than expected, even given his track record for this club.

Thankfully, the goal changed the game and settled a shaky Liverpool. No longer were Arsenal controlling possession and winning the battles in midfield, while Liverpool made far less errors, although Alonso and Mascherano were both still too error prone for a game of this magnitude. An injury to Flamini didn’t help matters for Arsenal, going off in the 42nd minute with what looked to be an Achilles problem (I'm no doctor, it easy could be an ankle or foot injury too).

The second half started out in the same vein, with Gerrard, Crouch, and Torres working better in tandem, but outside of a Crouch deflection just wide off a wild Aurelio shot, Liverpool weren’t creating clear-cut chances, and Arsenal grew back into the match after about 10 minutes, with Eboue a consistent threat to get into the box from the right, although lacking in end product.

But then that man Torres struck again. Crouch flicked on a long ball, Torres controlled in the box, spinning Senderos inside out before firing past a hopeless Almunia. Yet another example of his talents, and that he really loves playing in front of the Kop.

The goal invigorated Torres, who had been playing mostly through the left channel in the second half with Crouch looking to win headers through the middle. But Arsenal almost had an immediate reply, when Liverpool defenders left a ball that skittered through to Adebayor through on goal, but the striker’s touch sent it wide.

Babel coming on for Crouch in the 79th minute looked to be another turning point, with the substitute staying through the middle and threatening with his pace. Babel’s deflected shot led to successive corners, followed by Gerrard’s volley in space sent high and wide. But out the blue, as Arsenal is always capable of doing, Liverpool was torn apart on the counter in the 84th minute.

Walcott, coming off the bench just 10 minutes earlier, ran nearly the full length of the pitch, leaving both Mascherano and Hyypia in his wake, which led to four Arsenal players in the box with only Skrtel back to defend. The Slovakian was unable to cut out Walcott’s cross, which found an open Adebayor who easily slotted home.

After all that hard work coming back into the game and going up after letting in an early goal, it looked to be over. But although Arsenal is the team renowned for scoring late winners, Liverpool would have the last say, which is just about as heartening as the win itself.

Barely a minute after Adebayor's equalizer, the pace of Babel once again threatened, and Toure brought him down in the box. Gerrard stepped up to take the resulting penalty, and although Almunia went the right way, the kick was too high and too hard to stop. Less than 120 seconds after Arsenal looked to come back to not only advance, but break Liverpool hearts in the process, the home side was back in the driver’s seat.

To cut out Arsenal’s complaining now, if you think the penalty incident was similar to the one they were denied in the last leg, I cannot help you. There, Kuyt made contact with Hleb’s arm, but didn’t pull him back or down. Hleb even dove the opposite way that Kuyt’s contact would have sent him. Today, both Fabregas and Toure pulled Babel back before Toure clattering into him sealed the penalty.

From there, it was going to be a nervous final few minutes, and Liverpool brought Riise on for Torres to add a defender. But in the second minute of injury time, Arsenal was caught with bodies forward, and Kuyt’s clearance found Babel one-on-one with Fabregas, with the Dutchman’s pace and strength too much for the Arsenal midfielder, and the substitute sealed the outcome.

It all looked set up for Benitez to be the villain. I’ll admit, I questioned, and still question, this formation with Crouch in Gerrard’s role and Stevie relegated out wide. Liverpool failed to get into the game, was exceptionally sloppy in midfield (while Gerrard’s ostensibly in a free role when he plays in the middle of the 4-2-3-1, he tracks back to defend far more and far better than Crouch can), and Arsenal dominated. Even after Liverpool equalized, they weren’t taking full advantage of the swing in momentum.

But it was the combination of Crouch and Torres that brought the second goal. I’m still not sure if this was the game to try this partnership in this formation, but Benitez can point to that moment as a demonstration of its potential.

Even with the incredible win in the last ten minutes, and an absorbing game from start to finish, I’m still somewhat upset with the proceedings. Arsenal should never be allowed to run rampant at Anfield as they did in the first 30 minutes, and the midfield was partly to blame. I can’t remember how many times Alonso was caught in possession, even after Liverpool equalized, while the team was bailed out of some sticky situations by Carragher, Skrtel, and Hyypia, with the Finn probably my man of the match for his equalizer and tackling at the back, Adebayor’s equalizer aside. I also need to make mention of, and apologize to, Carragher, who did well getting forward at the right times. Aurelio was solid throughout as well, while Babel also has to be considered for man of the match for the difference he made after coming on.

And even with my complaining, at the end of the day, Liverpool were deserved winners. I shouldn't even be complaining after a win like this. Even with a “contentious” penalty, scoring two goals in the final 7 or so minutes is impressive to say the least. And to come back to take the lead twice against a side with the quality of Arsenal, whether it’s at Anfield or not, is just as impressive.

Now Liverpool gets the pleasure of a third semi-final against Chelsea in four years. I can’t wait.

07 April 2008

Liverpool v Arsenal 04.08.08

2:45pm on espn2

1-1 on aggregate. Liverpool leads on the away goals rule.

Round of 16:
Liverpool: 1-0 Inter (a); 2-0 Inter (h)
Arsenal: 0-2 Milan (a); 0-0 Milan (h)

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)
Arsenal: 2-1 Steaua (h); 1-3 Sevilla (a); 0-0 Slavia (a); 7-0 Slavia (h); 1-0 Steaua (h); 3-0 Sevilla (h)

Last 3 matches:
Liverpool: 1-1 Arse (a); 1-1 Arse (a); 1-0 Everton (h)
Arsenal: 1-1 Liverpool (h); 1-1 Liverpool (h); 3-2 Bolton (a)

Goalscorers (Europe):
Liverpool: Kuyt 6; Gerrard 5; Crouch, Torres 4; Babel, Benayoun 3; Hyypia, Voronin 1
Arsenal: Fabregas 6; Eduardo 3; Adebayor, Bendtner, Hleb, van Persie, Walcott 2; Diaby, Rosicky 1

Referee: Peter Fröjdfeldt (SWE)

Guess at a squad
Finnan Skrtel Carragher Aurelio
Alonso Mascherano
Kuyt Gerrard Babel

Finally, the last game against Arsenal. It’s to decide who makes the semifinals of the Champions League, and Liverpool hold a narrow edge thanks to the away goal at the Emirates.

The line-up should look a lot like the last leg. I’m guessing it’ll be the same front six, despite Crouch’s play over the weekend. It’s too bad really, because Crouch doesn’t deserve to sit after Saturday’s performance, but with this formation it’s always going to be Crouch or Torres, especially with Gerrard roaming in the free role between the lines.

I wouldn’t be surprised with the same backline as Wednesday either, but I’ve gone for an amalgamation of the last two games. Liverpool’s defense, aside from one bad moment on a set play in both rounds, has been excellent. I hope to see Finnan keep his place in the side with Aurelio returning on the left, while I don’t know if Carragher is attacking enough to play at right back at Anfield, especially when Liverpool needs to score.

And make no mistake about it, Liverpool cannot come out looking for a 0-0. Nevermind that it’s foreign for Liverpool to play for 0-0 at Anfield on a European night, but there’s an excellent chance Arsenal will score tomorrow. They’ve extra incentive after seeing their title hopes suffer another setback on Saturday (although United’s draw has kept them in it for another week), but Liverpool should be more than aware that Arsenal has the potential to score at any time in any venue.

Given the way Arsenal bossed the midfield last Wednesday, it’s notable that both Fabregas and Flamini played the full 90 in the last two matches. Both appeared to tire in the second half on Saturday, and with the match at Anfield, Liverpool will look to increase the amount of possession, keep Arsenal from playing their style of football, and take the game to the opposition. Fatigue in Arsenal’s midfield can only help, while both Alonso and Mascherano are recharged, having missed out on the league meeting (while Gerrard played less than half an hour coming on as a sub).

On the injury front, Pennant will miss out after picking up a hamstring injury on Saturday, while Agger and Kewell are long-term absentees. For Arsenal, both van Persie and Diaby are back in the squad, but Rosicky’s been ruled out for the rest of the season. Gerrard, Carragher, and Aurelio would miss the next match if they pick up a yellow card, while the same applies for Adebayor, Clichy, Denilson, Eboue and Hleb on Arsenal.

Liverpool have an advantage thanks to the away goal, but it’s truly a slim advantage. Were the match to end 1-1, for the fourth time this season, the tie would be decided on penalties. Arsenal definitely have the potential to score at Anfield, European night or not. Like Liverpool, the Champions League is their best hope for a trophy this season, and they’ll assuredly play like it, especially after enduring two draws against Liverpool at their ground.

But Liverpool’s been in this position before. There’s a reason why Anfield is such a daunting venue in the Champions League, and few teams are as good as Liverpool in Europe when backs are against the wall.

Let’s see why again.

Quick Prediction 4/8

I probably should have done this with the rest of the predictions last Thursday, but I forgot. And despite being something like 5 or 6 games below .500, I'm still soldiering on for the rest of the season.

Portsmouth v West Ham, 2:45pm (delayed on Setanta at 6pm): Portsmouth 2-1

05 April 2008

Liverpool 1-1 Arsenal

Finnan Skrtel Carragher Arbeloa
Pennant Lucas Benayoun Riise

Crouch 42’
Bendtner 54’

That’s three games against Arsenal this season resulting in three 1-1 draws. I definitely would have taken 1-1 before the match, especially after looking at the line-up (with eight changes from Wednesday’s team; only Carragher, Skrtel, and Reina remained), but after the first 45 minutes, it certainly looked like Liverpool could have produced a surprise victory.

We knew there’d be changes, but some of them were unexpected, chiefly Damien Plessis making his debut. It was basically a 4-1-4-1 with Plessis in a holding role, but at times (especially in the second half), it was the familiar 4-2-3-1, with Lucas joining Plessis in front of the defense. Meanwhile, Arsenal brought in Traore, Hoyte, Gilberto, Walcott, and Bendtner, basically matching Liverpool’s formation.

But despite more changes for Liverpool and the game being at the Emirates, Liverpool started out the stronger side for the first 30 minutes. Crouch was particularly impressive, testing Almunia with a snap shot inside three minutes, retaining possession, and bringing Benayoun, Pennant, and Riise into the attack. Crouch basically spent the first half showing Bendtner how to play as a lone striker.

It’s was Crouch’s throughball that put Riise in after 17 minutes, only to blast the shot over on his weaker right foot, while the striker started the move that ended with Liverpool’s best chance to that point, with Benayoun dragging his effort wide having run into the box in the 32nd.

But Benayoun’s miss seemed to catalyze Arsenal, with the home side getting their act together soon after and creating three good chances in the next five minutes: Cesc shooting wide and Bendtner tamely at Reina, both on the break, before Finnan’s last ditch tackle prevented Fabregas from getting on the end of Eboue's cross in the six-yard box.

But four minutes later, Crouch flicked Reina’s long goal kick to Benayoun, who returned the favor, with the lanky striker controlling with his left outside the box and firing past Almunia with his right. It was a goal out of the blue, and if any player on the field deserved it, it was certainly Crouch.

The same player had an opening five minutes after the restart, with a poor header after Finnan dug out the cross, but Arsenal increasingly took the game to Liverpool in a manner reminiscent of Wednesday’s match.

In the 52nd minute, Toure sent a free header wide from Fabregas’s corner before Bendtner punished Liverpool with an equalizer two minutes later. Again, Arsenal scored from a set play, a free kick where Pennant needlessly picked up a yellow, with Bendtner eluding Crouch for another free header, this one giving Reina no chance. Soon after, Wenger brought on Adebayor in place of Hoyte in search of the winner that would keep their slim title hopes alive.

Arsenal mounted further pressure after the equalizer, but continued to overplay at times, with Liverpool’s backline superb. Throughout the second half, Carragher, Skrtel and Finnan all had to make tackles or blocks to prevent Arsenal getting shots off, and time and time again they rose to the opportunity. Meanwhile, Plessis, on his debut (and against a side like Arsenal) was an ever-present in midfield, more than ably deputizing for Mascherano. Funny how Arsenal can dominate the midfield on Wednesday whereas Liverpool won out today.

Aresnal’s best opportunities for a breakthrough both came in the 78th minute, but Carragher cut out an excellent run by Bendtner, while Gallas and Flamini collided going for the same header seconds later. Hleb also spoiled a chance in injury time when his first touch took him away from goal. But I can’t emphasize enough how solid the backline was in preventing the home side from creating clear-cut chances.

With Gerrard (in the 66th for Pennant) and Voronin (in the 75th for Benayoun) coming on, Liverpool began to make more opportunities of their own, and Voronin arguably could have won the match for Liverpool in either the 80th or 83rd minutes. First, Crouch ably retained possession and flicked the ball to Voronin, only for him to force a wild shot with the outside of his right foot when his left was the better option. Three minutes later, Voronin made a great run to stay onside and receive the throughball, only for him to slip while shooting after taking it too far wide.

Liverpool brought Torres on for Crouch in the 81st in the hopes of releasing the Spaniard over the top, but Arsenal dominated possession to close out the match. But again, as earlier in the half and like the second half on Wednesday, Liverpool’s defense remained resilient, and what’s arguably Liverpool’s second team (yes, I realize that both Gerrard and Torres were brought on) finished off a well-earned draw.

I’ve no complaints with any of Liverpool’s starters today. All performed admirably, especially considering the circumstances. Most impressive was Damien Plessis, barely 20 years old and making his debut in the first team. The midfielder never looked out of place and didn’t put a foot wrong all match, showing quick feet, composure and game intelligence that belie his age. I can’t emphasize how impressive it was that Plessis fit seamlessly into the side in his first match, a match that was away to an Arsenal side looking to stay in the title hunt.

But Crouch merits a close second. I’ve criticized him a fair bit, and he’s only had six league starts this season, but he was influential from the opening whistle. He was the biggest (sorry, sorry, no pun intended) reason Liverpool was able to keep possession as well as they did, and the goal was absolutely master-class. Credit to Benayoun for returning the ball to Crouch under pressure, but the way he worked out a shot was eerily reminiscent of his third goal against Arsenal last year, only this time the strike came from outside the area.

And there’s the backline. Carragher and Skrtel were as impressive as in Wednesday’s match, while Finnan returned to his right back role as if he was never absent and Arbeloa did the same on the left. I was worried about an Arbeloa/Riise combination down the left flank, but I had little reason to be.

I’ll be honest. Going into this match any point earned was to be a bonus. I feared a loss that would dampen momentum and revive the paper talk of the fight for 4th place. But the players involved responded as best as could be expected. After the first half superiority and the wasted chances late in the second, it feels like this is almost two points dropped, despite it being against Arsenal and at the Emirates. That’s a victory in and of itself.

The truth is that it's a point earned, a credit to the team, and an excellent way to set up the second leg of the Champions League at Anfield in three days.

Roll on Tuesday.

04 April 2008

Liverpool at Arsenal 04.05.08

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

Last 4 head-to-head:
1-1 (a; CL) 04.02.08
1-1 (h) 10.28.07
4-1 Liverpool (h) 03.31.07
3-6 Arsenal (h; CC) 01.09.07

Last 3 matches:
Liverpool: 1-1 Arse (a); 1-0 Everton (h); 0-3 United (a)
Arse: 1-1 Liverpool (h); 3-2 Bolton (a); 1-2 Chelsea (a)

Goalscorers (league):
Liverpool: Torres 21; Gerrard 10; Babel 4; Benayoun, Kuyt, Voronin 3; Alonso, Crouch 2; Aurelio, Hyypia, Mascherano, Pennant, Sissoko 1
Arse: Adebayor 19; Fabregas 7; Rosicky, van Persie 6; Eduardo, Gallas 4; Flamini 3; Bendtner, Hleb, Senderos, Toure, Walcott 2; Diaby, Sagna 1

Referee: Phil Dowd

Complete guess at a squad:
Arbeloa Carragher Skrtel Riise
Pennant Gerrard Alonso Benayoun
Crouch Voronin

Torres and Babel look like they need a rest. Gerrard and Kuyt, given the number of games they’ve played (and energy exerted on Wednesday) probably could do with one as well. But I don’t know if all four, Liverpool’s four main attackers, can all be rested against a team with the quality of Arsenal’s.

If any of those four is to start, I reckon it’ll be the captain, especially given Mascherano’s additional two game ban. It’s a pity he’ll be absent, although it’s little surprise, as Mascherano was one of Liverpool’s freshest after 90 minutes on Wednesday. Lucas has seen enough playing time for fans to be comfortable with his inclusion, but with so many others in line for a rest, Liverpool would be wise to start Gerrard.

Favoring the Champions League is all well and good, and a decision I agree with, but there needs to be a balance. It’s still necessary to keep morale high, especially when it would be Tuesday’s opposition that benefits from any loss of Liverpool’s on Saturday. Arsenal should make changes as well, but probably less, as they still have hopes in the title race. Liverpool have an excellent chance to put one over on Arsenal, and possibly finish their title ambition, before the second leg at Anfield.

We saw it against this exact opposition last year. Liverpool deployed two very different line-ups, but Arsenal won handily in both domestic cups in a three-day span, both at Anfield. Getting the first win in the FA Cup, against a stronger team, set Arsenal up to run riot in the Carling Cup match-up.

With all three center backs playing last Wednesday, at least one will be rested tomorrow, and Sami needs it more than Carragher. I expect Wednesday’s backline will all feature next Tuesday.

Were Gerrard to not start, I sincerely hope both Gerrard and Torres would be on the bench. Torres has been far better at Anfield than on the road, but he’s still a game-changing player, and having him on the bench would be reassuring to say the least.

Both Crouch and Voronin, if they start, have points to prove with the way this campaign’s gone. Crouch had his best game of the season against Arsenal last year, tallying a perfect hat trick. And Arsenal’s backline, with Toure still at right back and Gallas and Senderos in the center, could be susceptible to Crouch’s height.

In Arsenal team news, van Persie is injured while Diaby is suspended. Adebayor also picked up an ankle knock, but is still likely to start.

At this stage of the season, it truly is survival of the fittest. This is when Benitez’s rotation, player monitoring, and training pay dividends. We’ve seen Arsenal underperform in the league over the past month and a half partly because of this; they’ve a smaller and younger squad than their rivals, and have only won once in the league since mid-February (one win, one loss, four draws).

Tomorrow, despite the predicted changes, should be a lot like Wednesday. Arsenal will try and control the tempo and possession, and Liverpool will have to be cagey and quick on the counter. But Liverpool have an excellent chance to lessen Arsenal’s morale while improving their own, and to set themselves up perfectly for both the second leg at Anfield and the final five games of the Premiership campaign.

Quick Predictions 4/5 – 4/6

Newcastle v Reading, 10am, FSC: 1-1
Manchester City v Chelsea, 10am, Setanta: Chelsea 1-0
Fulham v Sunderland, 10am, Setanta Xtra: Fulham 1-0
Aston Villa v Bolton, 10am Villa 2-1
Blackburn v Tottenham, 10am: Blackburn 2-1
Wigan v Birmingham, 10am: 1-1
Middlesbrough v Manchester Utd, 8:30am Sunday, Setanta: United 3-0
Everton v Derby, 10am Sunday, Setanta Xtra: Everton 2-0

FA Cup ties are West Brom v Pompey (7:45am Saturday, PPV) and Barnsley v Cardiff (11am Sunday, FSC). Liverpool at Arsenal is on Setanta Saturday at 7:45am.

02 April 2008

Liverpool 1-1 Arsenal

Carragher Skrtel Hyypia Aurelio
Alonso Mascherano
Kuyt Gerrard Babel

Adebayor 23’
Kuyt 26’

Maybe Liverpool truly is better in Europe, no matter the opposition.

Make no mistake, Arsenal were very good today. But outside of Adebayor’s goal, that was a return to form for Liverpool’s defense, which was absolutely majestic after Arsenal went one up.

Following a cagey back-and forth opening, reminiscent of a Premiership clash, Arsenal began to take control around the 20th minute, first with van Persie’s volley over the bar followed by the same player getting space at the top of the box, only for Reina to quickly dive low to make the stop.

But Arsenal broke the deadlock from the resulting corner, and it was little surprise to see them score from a set play. I don’t know why it’s been such an issue, and I don’t think it’s all zonal marking’s fault, as that style of defense has served Liverpool well under Benitez. But in the 22nd minute, Hyypia appeared to completely lose Adebayor after the short corner, leaving the Togolese striker with a point blank header that Reina had no chance on.

That goal could have doomed Liverpool. Arsenal have the potential to overrun teams after going one up, and they looked to be in that form. But Liverpool responded as well as could be expected, with Kuyt finishing off Gerrard’s low cross after the captain beat three Arsenal defenders with a storming run on the break. Liverpool’s first real threat and first shot on target, and it’s an equalizer.

It was clear the goal knocked Arsenal back, and Liverpool were arguably the better side for the rest of the half, but with only one threatening scramble following a free kick, cleared after Torres’ cross was too high for Hyypia, to show for it.

And although Liverpool started the second half similarly, with Kuyt forcing Almunia into an excellent save with Hyypia lurking for the rebound three minutes after the restart, Arsenal soon reclaimed their form. Starting around the 50th minute, the home side stepped up the pace, and Liverpool’s second half defending is the reason they’re taking an away goal advantage back to Anfield.

The introduction of Walcott at halftime, with van Persie going off with a thigh problem, gave Arsenal another option, and his pace was a major threat. In the 53rd minute Walcott drew a foul off Carragher, and Reina did well to claim the resulting free kick with Gallas nearby. Two minutes later, Walcott’s shot from distance whizzed past the far post. And a minute after that, only Kuyt’s superb intervention prevented Walcott from being through on goal.

In the 57th minute, Benitez brought on Benayoun for Babel, who had been ineffective and seemed nervous throughout, but it didn’t do much to alter the match. The 66th minute saw the two moments Arsenal will most rue: first, a scramble resulting in Skrtel clearing off the line, followed by a penalty shout for Hleb, going down under pressure from Kuyt and appearing to be pulled back, but clearly making the most of it. I honestly thought Vink was going to book Hleb for diving after not giving the penalty, but a corner was the result.

As an aside, as I criticize referees when I feel it’s warranted, it’s only fair to point out when one performs excellently, as Vink did today. He let the players play on at every opportunity, ignored soft penalty shouts at both ends (Torres had a claim in the 84th minute as well), and the game was far better for it, with none of the belligerence or backchat seen so often in the league.

Arsenal weren’t finished at that stage, with two further opportunities before 70 minutes were off the clock. First, Fabregas shot wide in space just outside the box and soon after looked certain to score, only for Bendtner to block the shot on Liverpool’s goalline. However, with Bendtner flagged for offside, it’s unlikely it would have counted even if he could have gotten out of the way.

But after being denied so many times, Arsenal, as Arsenal is prone to do, began to overplay and look for the long ball, and failed to work out any chances as clear-cut as the ones spurned from the 50th to 70th minute. Liverpool still had to be resolute, with Mascherano, Skrtel, and Carragher continuing to deny as Arsenal pressed in search of a winner, but Liverpool held on, and even began threatening on the counter through Torres, Gerrard, and the ever-present Kuyt in the closing minutes.

And after all that effort, Liverpool has the advantage going back to Anfield. Arsenal will certainly feel aggrieved they weren’t able to get a second, but it truly was a master-class defensive display by Liverpool, and reminiscent of the team’s best games in Europe.

First and foremost, today’s match was example #1 of why I defend Dirk Kuyt. Not only did he get the goal, getting in front of Gallas to reward Gerrard’s excellent run, but his work-ethic and tracking back were just as important. For all intents and purposes, he played as a deep-lying right midfielder after Benayoun came on (with the formation basically 4-4-1-1), and he filled the role to a tee. The aforementioned stop on Walcott stands out, but the tackle on Hleb (it would have been a very harsh penalty) and all-around defending, while still getting forward as much as possible, was exactly what Liverpool needed of him.

In addition, special mention for the entire defense, as well as Mascherano. The backline and Masch were crucial to keeping Arsenal from tallying a second, with composure, last-ditch tackles, Reina frequently coming out to sweep up, and some excellent marking on Arsenal’s strikers. Carragher did well on the right, preventing Arsenal (Hleb most often) from getting the final ball in from their left flank, while Aurelio was one of the better players in the first half, keeping Eboue silent while still getting forward.

What was disappointing was how Arsenal bossed the midfield at times. Fabregas and Flamini have had excellent seasons, but Alonso, Mascherano, and Gerrard are no slouches themselves. Alonso’s ineffectiveness was most disappointing; Mascherano had a clear defensive role, while Gerrard was frequently as isolated as Torres in attack (but still looked to break when given the chance), and it says a bit that Alonso was off for Lucas in the 72nd minute.

But there are far more positives than disappointments to take away. Liverpool now has an away goal advantage going into the second leg at Anfield, which is even better than the clean sheet 0-0 I was hoping for. But first, there’s the matter of the league match at the Emirates Saturday morning, which will have a huge impact on both sides’ league campaign, and I have to believe both team will deploy somewhat different lineups.

01 April 2008

Liverpool at Arsenal 04.02.08

2:45pm on espn2

Round of 16:
Liverpool: 1-0 Inter (a); 2-0 Inter (h)
Arsenal: 0-2 Milan (a); 0-0 Milan (h)

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)
Arsenal: 2-1 Steaua (h); 1-3 Sevilla (a); 0-0 Slavia (a); 7-0 Slavia (h); 1-0 Steaua (h); 3-0 Sevilla (h)

Last 3 matches:
Liverpool: 1-0 Everton (h); 0-3 United (a); 2-1 Reading (h)
Arsenal: 3-2 Bolton (a); 1-2 Chelsea (a); 1-1 Boro (h)

Goalscorers (Europe):
Liverpool: Gerrard, Kuyt 5; Crouch, Torres 4; Babel, Benayoun 3; Hyypia, Voronin 1
Arsenal: Fabregas 6; Eduardo 3; Bendtner, Hleb, van Persie, Walcott 2; Adebayor, Diaby, Rosicky 1

Referee: Pieter Vink (NED). This is Vink’s first season as a Champions League referee, and he’s never been in charge of a Liverpool match.

Guess at a squad
Carragher Skrtel Hyypia Aurelio
Alonso Mascherano
Kuyt Gerrard Babel

I’m not quite sure how I’m going to preview three straight games against the same opposition.

It goes without saying that Liverpool’s record in the Champions League has been better than in the Premiership. But the only English opposition Liverpool’s faced in European competition has been Chelsea, with six games against the Blues since 04-05 (two wins, three draws and one loss, with Liverpool advancing every season). Is Liverpool really better against all opposition in Europe or just against Mourinho?

Liverpool and Arsenal met four times last season, with Arsenal winning both cup games and at the Emirates, while Liverpool recorded a comprehensive 4-1 victory at Anfield in the final match-up. But I doubt those results will have much bearing on this season: Henry’s gone, Fabregas’ has improved by leaps and bounds, and despite a tough stretch over the past month or so, Arsenal’s young squad has become an actual team. Oh, and Liverpool now has that 20-goal striker named Fernando Torres.

As always, it bears repeating; once again, Torres will be crucial. It’s hard to predict, with three games against the same team in a week, but I’d imagine Liverpool will continue in the 4-2-3-1 formation. Given the first leg is at Arsenal, Liverpool’s main objective will be to not concede, and hopefully strike on the counter.

The partnership between Gerrard and Torres, especially on the break, is a big reason why I’m actually confident going into this tie. I’m loving Gerrard in a free role behind Torres; Gerrard has the space and freedom to attack as he does best, the two of them link up fantastically (better than anyone could have hoped in Torres’ first season), and it’s obvious each adores being on the same team as the other, especially given their respective legacies of being a one-man team. Combined they’ve scored 47 of Liverpool’s 97 goals, little different than the vaunted pairings of Rooney and Ronaldo, and Drogba and Lampard.

It seems like both Aurelio and Arbeloa were rested with an eye on tomorrow’s match, but from the official site:
Either Alvaro Arbeloa or Fabio Aurelio also looks set to return after both were rested for the Merseyside derby.

Benitez said: "We wanted to protect one of them, but I will not make that decision public at the moment."
Riise played well against Everton, in one of his better performances this season, but it’s impossible to forget Aurelio against Arsenal last season, as he was utterly irrepressible in the 4-1 win. Also, that Benitez used the phrase “protect one of them” leads me to believe he’s referring to Aurelio given how much time Fabio’s missed due to injury. But Arbeloa can also play at left back, as we learned in Europe last season.

Meanwhile, keeping Carra at right back and both Skrtel and Hyypia in the line-up isn’t out of the question, especially given how impressive the defense was against Everton. As said earlier, not conceding should be tomorrow’s main priority, and a backline of Carragher-Skrtel-Hyypia-Aurelio/Riise is probably Liverpool’s most assured. Taking an away goal to Anfield would be a huge boon, but taking a clean sheet would be even better.

In team news, Gerrard, Carragher, and Aurelio would miss the second leg if they pick up a yellow tomorrow, while the same goes for Adebayor, Clichy, Denilson, Eboue, and Hleb for Arsenal. Mascherano's league suspension, which is technically up (until the FA's next hearing in two days), doesn't count for European matches.

Having read the rest of this “preview,” it’s probably needless to say that I’m fairly conflicted over how Liverpool will approach this match. But tomorrow will say a lot about how Benitez will plan for the next two against Arsenal, and how well Liverpool will cope with this spate of fixtures.