30 September 2008

Liverpool v PSV Eindhoven 10.01.08

2:45pm, live in the US on espn2

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

Last 3 matches:
Liverpool: 2-0 Everton (a); 2-1 Crewe (h); 0-0 Stoke (h)
PSV: 1-0 Volendam (h); 3-0 Jong PSV (a); 0-1 AZ Alkmaar (a)

Referee: Felix Brych (GER)

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

Does Benitez have a Champions League squad and a Premier League squad?

We saw the 4-2-3-1 against Marseille, but that could have been because Liverpool was away. At home, maybe Benitez will stick with the 4-4-2 he’s used in the league and that looked better against United and Everton (let’s all agree that Stoke didn’t happen). But I’ve a sneaking suspicion we haven’t seen the last of the 4-2-3-1.

Also, I’d be somewhat surprised if Liverpool lined up against Dutch opposition without Kuyt and Babel.

So, I’m guessing that Liverpool will pretty much deploy the same line-up that went out against Marseille, with only Alonso in for Lucas, Aurelio for Dossena, and Agger for Skrtel. Of course, that would mean Keane would miss out again, which doesn’t really seem likely, especially after he and Torres finally linked up for a goal last Saturday. But I still don’t see where he fits in the 4-2-3-1.

I expect to see Aurelio over Dossena now that Fabio was fit enough for an appearance off the bench on Saturday. I’m far less positive about Agger – that’s pretty much just a hunch – and I reiterate, Benitez does seem hesitant to rotate at center back if he can avoid it.

Benitez announced that both Mascherano and Benayoun are back in the squad after missing the weekend through injury. Maybe this means that Masch might be limited to an appearance off the bench, with Lucas again starting in the CL, but any time Masch is available, I struggle leaving him out of my guess at a squad.

It’s a different PSV team than Liverpool faced in 2007, but they’re still the reigning Dutch champions four years running. Ibrahim Afellay, the highly-rated youngster, is a doubt for the match because of a toe injury sustained in training last week. Nordin Amrabat is another quick youngster who could cause problems; the right-winger has earned a fair bit of praise in his first season at PSV.

Atletico shellacked PSV in Eindhoven in the first group match, losing 3-0, with Aguero torching the Dutch for the hour he was on the pitch. But while the loss may show some weaknesses in the side, PSV will assuredly want to pick up some much needed points before their two CL matches against Marseille.

Meanwhile, Liverpool are in position to get six points from six to start the group stage, in contrast to last season’s one point from the first three matches. Aside from that blip two weekends past, the team is rounding into shape, and I’m most pleased to see goals from Torres reappear. More of the same on Wednesday, please.

27 September 2008

Liverpool 2-0 Everton

Arbeloa Skrtel Carragher Dossena
Kuyt Alonso Gerrard Riera
Torres Keane

Torres 59’ 63’

Just as promised: hands up, I was wrong. Liverpool deployed the 4-4-2, with Alonso for Mascherano because of injury the only deviation from my guess at a squad, and Liverpool leave Goodison two-nil winners thanks to the genius of Fernando Torres.

The first half left me wishing for the 4-2-3-1, though. Liverpool didn’t get a shot on target, and were probably second best even though they had more possession. Not out of character for a Merseyside derby, it was an exceptionally cagey 45 minutes.

Everton will rue their missed opportunities. Skrtel could have been whistled for a penalty within 4 minutes, shoulder-to-shoulder with Yakubu trying to shield the ball to Reina (incidentally, Yakubu’s got Drogba syndrome – someone that large shouldn’t fall over that easily, and I thoroughly enjoyed his yellow for diving in the 48th). Cahill had the chance of the first half, but was unable to turn his body to poke in Arteta’s corner that ran through the box. And Carragher had to clear off the line in the 28th, although it wouldn’t have counted for an invisible foul on Reina.

Meanwhile, as in the past, Liverpool couldn’t link attack and midfield even though Gerrard and Alonso did well in the center, and the first 45 felt an awful lot like last Saturday against Stoke. However, things changed fairly quickly in the second half.

Within 10 minutes of the restart, Liverpool finally started getting shots off, even though none tested Tim Howard. They continued to up the pressure, with Gerrard and Alonso’s dominance in midfield beginning to pay off, and in the 59th minute, that man Torres finally made the breakthrough, with a lot of credit going to his strike partner.

Keane, who continued to be frustrated up front (and still looks hesitant to shoot), got to the byline and chipped a perfect cross for Torres to volley in at the far post. The way the two strikers celebrated shows what the goal meant to them. And less than 4 minutes later, the same player put the game on ice when Kuyt and Keane linked up excellently, with the ball falling to an open Torres after Kuyt was tackled in the box. Liverpool’s number nine doesn’t make mistakes from there.

Liverpool had the ball in the net twice more within four more minutes. First, Kuyt’s was rightfully ruled out because the ball went over the byline before Riera’s cross. Then, Torres was wrongly denied his hat-trick when Riley blew for a foul by Kuyt (unsurprisingly, Riley couldn’t keep his whistle out of his mouth), which would have been his best goal of the three.

After that spell and two goals to the good, Liverpool looked content to sit back and wait for the counter. Everton let a couple of chances go begging before Cahill was red carded for a late, studs up two-footed tackle on Alonso in the 80th minute, the third red card in the last three derbies. Howard made a superb save on Gerrard in the 84th, and Saha unleashed a cracker that wasn’t far wide in the 89th, but Liverpool easily saw out the end.

So what can I say? Benitez knows this team better than I, and even though the first half wasn’t the most aesthetically pleasing, Liverpool did the job. Merseyside derbies are usually tight contests, and that’s where players like Torres make the difference.

All credit to Liverpool’s number nine. He had been frustrated for long spells and earned a yellow card for dissent in the 50th minute. For the most part, Jagielka did an excellent job denying him space. But when given the opportunity in the 59th and 63rd minutes, he won the game for the away side.

In addition, I’ve got to highlight Gerrard’s performance. I still believe he sits too deep in the 4-4-2 to attack as effectively as he did last season, but he was involved in everything in the middle of the park, and with Alonso, was the key to Liverpool getting more and more possession (and making better use of it) as the game went on. And don’t let my praise for Gerrard detract from Alonso’s performance: the Spaniard was just as responsible for Liverpool’s play in the middle, and that’s where the game was won. It was Alonso who sent in the throughball for Keane to set up Liverpool’s first.

And yes, I’ve got to mention Kuyt as well. It’s uncharacteristic for me to criticize him, and I should have remembered that these are the types he thrives in. He worked his shorts off, denied Everton space whenever possible, and was much more involved in the second half when he looked to come infield more often.

But other than a couple of questionable moments from Skrtel and Dossena, I’ve got little to complain about. It’s very hard to nitpick after a win in the derby. Wins over Everton and United make last Saturday much easier to forget. Even though I don’t think the formation or the team’s fully settled, Liverpool’s made their best start to the season under Benitez. Now, they’ve got to continue that against PSV on Wednesday.

26 September 2008

Liverpool at Everton 09.27.08

7:45am Eastern Time, live in the US on Setanta

Last four head-to-head:
1-0 Liverpool (h) 03.30.08
2-1 Liverpool (a) 10.20.07
0-0 (h) 02.03.07
0-3 Everton (a) 09.09.06

Last three matches:
Liverpool: 2-1 Crewe (h); 0-0 Stoke (h); 2-1 Marseille (a)
Everton: 0-1 Blackburn (a); 2-2 Hull (a); 2-2 Standard Liege (h)

Referee: Mike Riley

He’s no Mark Clattenburg, that’s for sure.

Guess at a squad:
Arbeloa Skrtel Carragher Dossena
Kuyt Gerrard Mascherano Riera
Torres Keane

What I’d like to see:
Carragher Skrtel Agger Dossena
Alonso Mascherano
Gerrard Keane Riera

In the 25 months of this blog, I can only think of a couple of times where I posted what I want to see instead of my best guess at what I expect to. I can’t think of any where I’ve posted both. It’s not as if I’ve anywhere near the qualifications to second-guess Rafa, no matter how much Liverpool football I watch.

But because I’m in one of those moods, and it’s not as if the football’s been very good outside of the Manchester and Marseille matches, I can’t help myself this time. Maybe it’ll even prompt a debate. And I have reasons in fun list format!

1) Gerrard and Torres have played their best together in the 4-2-3-1, and the formation worked in the second half of last season.
2) Alonso and Mascherano were outstanding together in midfield against the Mancs.
3) I know it’s still early, but Torres and Keane are misfiring as a partnership. Liverpool’s played six games with that pairing. They’ve scored 4, and Torres has only gotten one of them.
4) I’m still in the pro-Kuyt category, but he’s not played well on the right recently. I do think he’ll be better in the 4-4-2 with a wide man like Riera on the opposite side, but if it’s the 4-2-3-1, it’s either him or Keane making way. With two articles on the front page of the official site today, chances are he’s playing though.
5) We know Gerrard can play on the right, even if it’s not his favorite. But I reckon he’d have more impact on the flanks than Keane, and besides, the role is different in the 4-2-3-1 than in the 4-4-2.
6) Having Gerrard, Masch, and Alonso on the field for a contentious away game can only help Liverpool win the battle in midfield. And if the past is any precedent, it’ll probably be cagey, and the game will be won in the center of the pitch.
7) Carra’s proven he’s capable at right back (especially when either Kuyt or Gerrard, with their respective work ethics, are on the right), and Agger needs to get back into the fold.
8) This isn’t a reason, but it is an admission that I’m beginning to worry about buying Keane. However, despite my attempts to curtail this, I’m admittedly prone to overreaction.

Of course, I hope I’m wrong (in either what I want to see or my evaluation of the 4-4-2), and I’ll be the first to admit when I am.

And since this attempts to be a preview, I’ll try and play the rest of it straight.

Despite Agger playing well against Crewe, we’ll probably see Carragher/Skrtel again. Both have done well in the own right, and Benitez seems reluctant to rotate at center back if he can avoid it. But I’d be very surprised if Agger doesn’t force a look-in sooner rather than later; as said in the reasons above, I wouldn’t mind if that meant Carragher moved over to right back.

Mascherano will definitely be needed in a game like this, and I imagine if it’s 4-4-2 and someone’s making way, it’ll be Alonso. Liverpool missed him in the meeting at Anfield last season (when he was suspended thanks to the Steve Bennett fiasco against the Mancs).

Riera seemingly has to play given how he looked like improving Liverpool’s left against the Mancs and the fact that he didn’t play in midweek.

In 9th, with seven points from five games, Everton’s not had the start they wanted. But Cahill’s returning to fitness, Arteta can still pull the strings, and Yakubu’s always a goal threat. Liverpool fans saw against Liege that new signing Felliani can be a threat, even if he was hauled off at halftime on Wednesday. And make no mistake – that Everton were booed in midweek means little tomorrow. Recent form is never an indicator of how Merseyside derbies will play out, for either side.

After last weekend’s disappointment, this is the perfect game to turn around any lost confidence, as Liverpool will assuredly be up for the match. Last year, Liverpool did the double over Everton (in contrast to the year before), and in hilarious fashion in the match at Goodison. Here’s hoping precedent is a predictor in this case. I may not be a Scouser, but this is still the team I want to see Liverpool beat more than any other.

23 September 2008

Liverpool 2-1 Crewe

Degen Agger Hyypia Insua
Pennant Lucas Plessis El Zhar
Ngog Babel

Torres for Ngog 66’
Carragher for Degen 73’
Keane for El Zhar 87’

Agger 15’
O’Conner 25’
Lucas 58’

Update: No dice. Missed the LFC.tv effort, no full-match torrents I can find so far. Very infrequently, the internet disappoints. Here's a link to the RAWK thread with goals and highlights, as some sort of substitute.

This is a placeholder; for the first time in recent memory, there weren’t even any streams, just radio commentary. And it was BBC Radio Stoke, so they weren't quite focusing on Liverpool.

Hopefully I’ll see it later; LFCTV is showing it at midnight UK time. Chances are, there'll be streams for that, at the least.

So I can’t comment on much. Agger (welcome back!) scored on a free kick through the wall, Crewe replied within 10 minutes after what sounded like questionable defense on a corner. Lucas finally broke the tie with a header from Pennant’s cross.

I’m glad Torres saw 20 or so minutes for match fitness, and he forced Crewe’s keeper to make two key saves in the last ten minutes. Carra came on because of an injury to Degen; if not for the injury, Keane would have come on 15 minutes sooner.

The commentators went mad in the 87th minute, but Pope was off target. Sounded like way too much late pressure after Torres’ two chances.

I'm interested to see El Zhar on the left, Babel up top (neither Babel nor Ngog were mentioned much in the first half), and Insua (naturally).

People will probably see a close result and Arsenal’s six-goal romp, and find complaints. Not seeing a lick of action, a win’s a win for me, but I’ll assuredly have more to say when I actually see the game.

22 September 2008

Liverpool v Crewe 09.23.08

3pm Eastern Time, not on TV in the US

Last three matches:
Liverpool: 0-0 Stoke (h); 2-1 Marseille (a); 2-1 United (h)
Crewe: 3-4 Southend (h); 2-0 Colchester (h); 2-5 Leeds (a)

Referee: Michael Oliver

Guess at a squad:
Degen Agger Hyypia Insua
El Zhar Plessis Lucas Benayoun
Ngog Keane

I’d be very surprised to see many first-team regulars. This really shouldn’t be like last year, when Torres started and scored a hat-trick in the first Carling Cup match against Reading. Plus, Liverpool has a Merseyside derby in the early game on Saturday.

That said, this is still a complete guess at a squad. Benayoun, Keane, and Lucas may not start, seeing as how all have had time with the first team so far this season. However, I’m not really sure who would step in from the reserves. Seems too soon for Pacheco or Nemeth up top, even though fans were hardly sated by the few glimpses of them in the preseason.

Riera could see time to further adapt to English football, but he'll probably be left out for Saturday. I also doubt Babel will start again, especially if Liverpool field a reserve side, but he's an alternative. And Spearing may start ahead of Lucas, but the Brazilian needs match practice returning late from the internationals and having only played against Villa and Marseille.

I do expect Agger and Hyypia to finally spell Carra and Skrtel (if Agger doesn’t play, something is definitely wrong), and imagine we’ll see Degen get a start now that he’s fit enough for the bench, although Darby has to be in contention as well. And hopefully – although I’ll admit it’s pretty much just hope – we’ll see Insua too; with Aurelio injured again, he and Dossena are the only two choices at LB.

Liverpool has a very good B-side, and Benitez has done well staffing the reserves and Academy with prospects from all over the world. I expect a reasonable cup run because of the talent in this team, and the fact that they’re up against a League One side in the first round should help (in contrast to, say, playing Reading). But as we saw against Luton, Havant and Barnsley in the FA Cup, those sides also play without pressure unfancied and with nothing to lose.

The season certainly doesn’t hinge on this tournament, but any win boosts the morale, and having the reserves take a step up and play their part could only bode well for the future.

20 September 2008

Liverpool 0-0 Stoke City

Arbeloa Skrtel Carragher Dossena
Kuyt Gerrard Alonso Riera
Torres Keane

It was exactly what was feared. When the best you can say was at least Liverpool didn’t lose, against a team many tip for relegation, it’s not a good day at the office.

It’s bad, bad déjà vu reminiscent of the draw against Birmingham early last season, except the strike force was Torres and Keane instead of Kuyt and Voronin. Plus the added stomach punch of a good goal wrongly ruled out before some fans were in their seats.

Liverpool should have been up within two minutes, and it should have been Gerrard’s 100th goal. Sonko fouled Torres on the left, and Gerrard’s free kick ended up in the back of the net just like Alonso’s first against Derby last year. However, the linesman flagged for offside, even though no other player got a touch and it was questionable whether anyone was even past the last man when the ball was kicked.

Despite that, it did look only a matter of time. Liverpool utterly dominated possession – Stoke had one real chance at goal, when Alonso gave the ball to Kitson in the 5th minute, only for the striker to blast over – and Keane again should have opened his account in the 8th, but his first-time shot was straight at Sorenson.

It didn’t take long for chances to become harder to come by. Aside from Alonso’s lovely curler that was palmed away in the 29th, Liverpool rarely worked the keeper. The shots that the home side furnished came mainly from distance, and in the first half, Alonso had more of them than the two strikers combined. That’s not a recipe for success against a team like Stoke.

The away fans started singing, “It’s just like watching Brazil,” in reference to Stoke’s yellow and blue kit. I felt like I was watching Arsenal. And that’s not a compliment.

Frustrating doesn’t even come close to summing it up. Facing a side willing to park all 11 men in their own half isn’t exactly a new phenomenon. And Liverpool simply could not break Stoke down.

All too often, the team was content with shots from distance, and no one could summon much accuracy. 30 shots, six on target. That could be the start and finish of this match review. At the same time, the crossing was atrocious (with Dossena especially guilty), and Stoke’s big defenders usually out-muscled Torres and Keane when the balls were on target. Liverpool had 19 corners – nineteen! – and not a single one caused problems.

The home side had a few better chances in the second half than in the first, with Sorenson again saving a shot Keane should have buried, Kuyt getting two opportunities within 30 seconds around the 67th, and Torres heading over, ricocheting a left-footed shot off a defender, and turning Griffin only to shoot high. But the script stayed the same. Babel (for Riera) and Benayoun (for Keane) were brought on, but neither could change proceedings as they have in the past.

No one can walk away happy with their performance today, but today’s display will probably galvanize those already opposed to Kuyt. And I’ve got no defense. His first touch was gash, he spurned chances he should have scored (not that he was the only one), and that Liverpool struggled to link midfield and attack falls partly on his shoulders.

Even though the attack wasn’t good enough, Liverpool still had the requisite chances to win. You can try and explain it away as bad luck, but the team simply wasn’t good enough, and nowhere near accurate enough. When you have the amount of shots Liverpool had, even with most coming from distance, things happen when you test the keeper. Liverpool never tested Sorenson enough, and lacked the ideas and creativity needed to break down a defense like this. And that’s after adding players like Torres, Keane and Riera in the last year.

The worst part about it is we’ve been here before. And after the encouraging moments over the past week, despite Liverpool not scoring as much as they should, it’s even more disappointing. Now Liverpool's got the same amount of points as if they'd only drawn United and beaten Stoke at Anfield like they should have.

19 September 2008

Liverpool v Stoke City 09.20.08

10am Eastern Time, live in the US on Setanta.

Last 4 head-to-head:
8-0 Liverpool (a; League Cup) 11.29.2000
2-1 Liverpool (h; League Cup) 10.25.1994
3-2 Liverpool (a; League Cup) 10.09.1991
2-2 (h; League Cup) 09.25.1991

Last 3 matches:
Liverpool: 2-1 Marseille (a); 2-1 United (h); 0-0 Villa (a)
Stoke: 2-3 Everton (h); 1-2 Boro (a); 3-2 Cheltenham (a)

Referee: Andre Marriner. Sigh. Since ynwa.tv doesn’t have a post up, I’ll quickly summarize. Marriner was at the helm for Liverpool’s first league loss last season at Reading, ignoring two very good penalty shouts, as well as the draw at Boro. I do not like Andre Marriner.

Guess at a squad:
Arbeloa Skrtel Hyypia Dossena
Kuyt Gerrard Alonso Riera
Torres Keane

I really could either way with the line-up. It’s no secret I’m a big fan of the 4-2-3-1, and was very glad to see it back on Tuesday.

However, I would be very surprised if Benitez doesn’t return to the 4-4-2 for league play, especially with Liverpool at home against a promoted (but clearly dangerous) team. Plus, I would be very, very surprised to see the £19.3m Keane on the bench for two matches in a row.

As both Gerrard and Torres returned last match, each playing a bit more than an hour, both should be fit and available on Saturday, and if that’s the case, both should start.

That Riera, Keane, and Alonso were on the bench, but fit, makes me think we’ll see all three on from the start on Saturday, with Babel most likely reprising his role off the bench. Even with the Dutchman’s continued development, I’d be surprised if Benitez gave him two starts in the space of five days. It was very hard to leave Mascherano out of my guess at a line-up – I can’t imagine how hard it is for Rafa – but his defensive mopping-up shouldn’t be as needed as it was against either United or Marseille, and he did have that knee problem against United.

I also know it’s a sin to omit Carragher from any line-up, but Skrtel’s played very well of late and both his and Hyypia’s aerial presence will be needed against Stoke, especially against the long throw they used so well against Everton last week. I highly doubt Hyypia would miss a game like this, especially since he’s not on the CL roster.

As said earlier, Liverpool cannot underrate Stoke. They may lie in 19th, but they beat a team that Liverpool could only draw (and failed to score against), and gave both Boro and Everton a real run for their money. Liverpool’s susceptibility on set plays, even if it hasn’t been an issue so far this season, really frightens me with Delap’s long throws.

It was said best in the sub-headline on the official site’s article with Benitez’ pre-match quotes: “Rafael Benitez admits last week's triumph over Manchester United will count for nothing if his side fail to beat Barclays Premier League newcomers Stoke City tomorrow.”

The last two wins were absolutely enormous for the club – both the results and the confidence boost – especially the one six days ago. Leaving Anfield without three points tomorrow would throw almost all of that hard work away.

16 September 2008

Liverpool 2-1 Marseille

Arbeloa Skrtel Carragher Dossena
Mascherano Lucas
Kuyt Gerrard Babel

Cana 23’
Gerrard 26’ 32’ (pen)

Welcome back, Steven Gerrard.

The first half was eminently watchable, end-to-end stuff. With the return of Gerrard and Torres, Liverpool went back to the 4-2-3-1, while Marseille weren’t content to allow Liverpool the leeway they did in France last season.

Hatem Ben Arfa was particularly threatening early on, dictating play from both flanks, but both Niang and Kone got in on the act. In the 14th minute, Niang should have opened the scoring when he perfectly timed his run to get in on goal, but shot over from an awkward angle.

Within three minutes, Liverpool nearly tallied three times themselves. First, Babel blazed over after doing all hard work by turning the defender exquisitely. Then, Mandanda saved Gerrard’s low effort, with Torres mishitting a diving header onto the roof of the net from the subsequent corner.

Liverpool failed to learn from the close call earlier on, and Cana was able to beat the offside trap (with Carragher the guilty party), running onto Cheyrou’s ball over the top and beating Reina one-on-one.

However, it didn’t take the visitors long to respond. Three minutes, in fact. Torres stole the ball near midfield and countered, getting the ball to Kuyt on the right. The Dutchman laid off for Gerrard, who magnificently thundered a side-footer into the far corner with his first touch. It was a ridiculous shot – one of his best – and for Gerrard that’s saying something. I guarantee it makes pretty much every goal of the season list.

Four minutes later, Liverpool won a penalty when Zubar misjudged a long ball out of defense that Babel was able to run onto, and the defender stuck a leg out to bring him down. Gerrard tallied twice, having to retake the penalty when the referee blew for encroachment on the first attempt, shooting to the same side (his right) both times. It’s his 14th goal in Europe (in 55 appearances), and his 99th for the club.

The two quick goals slowed, but didn't stop, Marseille, with Niang an ever-present danger. Valbuena on for M’Bami in the 41st helped Marseille even more, with the creative midfielder quick to dictate proceedings.

And Valbuena made his biggest impact after the break. Liverpool were seemingly content to allow Marseille possession in search of an equalizer, and looked to counter on the break. It’s not a surprising tactic, and it’s worked in the past, but that the team adopted it so early in the second half didn’t ease the nerves brought on by remembering games last season where Liverpool lost a lead. That Riera came on for Torres (with Babel moving up top) and Benayoun for Gerrard (with the formation looking more and more like a 4-4-1-1) in the 64th and 69th minutes only exacerbated these tactics.

As in the first half, Niang and Kone’s speed unsettled, but Valbuena was the architect of most of Marseille’s good work. Popping up on both sides of the pitch, he regularly looked to beat defenders and get crosses into the box, with his goal at Anfield last season lingering in the memory. Only Ziani’s lack of accuracy prevented Marseille from scoring in the 66th and 72nd after good work from Kone and Niang respectively.

But the counter-attack goal that Liverpool sought should have come in either the 76th or 78th, both times through Babel. First, Mandanda produced an outstanding save, making himself big after the ball fell to Babel following Riera’s cross. Soon after, the striker hit the outside of the post after getting into the box on the left.

Liverpool should have paid for it in the last few minutes, but Pepe Reina literally saved the day (sorry, sorry, too easy of a pun). First, Niang put a header wide and shouted for a penalty that he probably should have gotten, with Arbeloa looking like he pushed the striker in the back. Then, Reina had to make two excellent saves: on Cheyrou’s shot-cum-center across the six-yard box in the 92nd and then on Niang’s strike following a cushioned header. Liverpool are probably lucky to be leaving France with a win.

It was heartening to see Liverpool go back to the 4-2-3-1, and it’s no coincidence Gerrard was as influential as he was. He was in the perfect position to receive Kuyt’s layoff for the first, although it was an absolutely awesome shot he’d struggle to replicate. And Babel, Kuyt, and Gerrard were able to switch positions as needed, with the three probably Liverpool’s best players in the first half.

Babel particularly impressed, and it’s not hyperbole to suggest it was his best performance as a starter. He truly does look bigger and stronger than last season, and defenders struggle to get the ball away from him if his first touch or passing doesn’t let him down. His two chances in the latter stages show the threat he can be as a striker on the counter, with the second leg against Arsenal in the CL another excellent example.

I’m admittedly a bit worried by the way Liverpool sat back, and neither Mascherano nor Lucas were at their best, meaning Liverpool was lacking in midfield, but there were far more positives than negatives. Once again, I’m most impressed by the team’s determination, scoring two after going down early. Liverpool’s won five games this season. They’ve had to overturn a deficit in three of them. That’s character and confidence, two traits that should serve the team very well.

15 September 2008

Liverpool at Marseille 09.16.08

2:45pm, live in the US on Setanta

Last 3 matches:
Liverpool: 2-1 United (h); 0-0 Villa (a); 1-0 Liege (h)
Marseille: 1-1 Bordeaux (a); 2-1 Sochaux (h); 1-0 Le Havre (a)

Referee: Konrad Plautz (AUS)

Guess at a squad:
Arbeloa Carragher Skrtel Dossena
Kuyt Gerrard Alonso Riera
Torres Keane

In my guess at a squad, I’m assuming Gerrard and Torres are fit enough to start, although, like over the weekend, it’ll be a late decision. But like Saturday, if they aren’t ready, I hope both are on the bench again, for the same reasons explained a couple of days back.

At the same time, Mascherano will probably be left out after picking up an injury late on Saturday even though he's with the team in France. However, if it was just severe cramp (Liverpool Echo), he may be in contention, but I’ve also seen the injury referred to as a groin (BBC) or calf problem (Guardian). In addition, Aurelio has been ruled out due to a minor calf injury (he just cannot stay fit), but I would have expected to see Dossena regardless.

I think Liverpool will continue on with the 4-4-2 formation, especially with the addition of Riera on the left. If Mascherano’s out and Gerrard’s fit, the captain will probably pair Alonso in the center, but Lucas could be back after missing out Saturday due to a late return from the international break.

Chances are Kuyt will return to the right, but if Torres isn’t healthy, we could see Benayoun or Babel (although, as usual, I’ll claim Babel’s far better as a sub) on the flank with Kuyt pairing Keane up top. But, and even though both were acclaimed for their roles Saturday, I’m worried there aren’t enough goals in that strike force.

Liverpool finally showed marked improvement on Saturday. Part of that was down to their opponents, as the team was raring to face United, but it was also only a matter of time after the underwhelming performances that started the season.

In addition, Riera made a clear difference, and although Benitez said he’s not fully fit (which was the main reason he went off after 71 minutes), I’m hopeful he’s healthy enough for another start. Liverpool need the width and the creative spark he provides. Plus, when Riera holds wide on the left, Kuyt or Benayoun cutting in from the right becomes far more potent than when wingers on both flanks are pushing into the middle.

Marseille’s unbeaten through five matches so far this season, with three wins and two draws in Ligue 1. They’ve lost Cisse and Nasri since the two teams last met, but have replaced them with Hatem Ben Arfa and Bakari Kone, both dangerous attackers in their own right. Both Ben Arfa and Valbuena, who scored the winner at Anfield a year ago, were relegated to the bench over the weekend thanks to respective injuries, but the French media expects both to start tomorrow.

Otherwise, it’s a fairly similar team to the one Liverpool faced in the group stage last season, where they lost 0-1 at Anfield only to comprehensively win 4-0 in France to seal progression to the knockout rounds. And one can’t forget that Gerrard and Torres were key to the win in Marseille, scoring the first two within 10 minutes, setting the tone for the next 80.

It’s imperative that Liverpool starts the group stage on the right foot. Last year’s run is still all too familiar; poor form in the first three games meant that Liverpool needed “perfect” matches in the last three, which they got with big wins over Porto, Besiktas, and Marseille. And after the win over the weekend, the boys should be confident and raring to start the Champions League campaign.

13 September 2008

Liverpool 2-1 Manchester United

Arbeloa Carragher Skrtel Aurelio
Benayoun Alonso Mascherano Riera
Kuyt Keane

Tevez 3’
Brown (og) 26’
Babel 77’

Finally. And what a way to do it.

United made a dream start, with early pressure leading to a Tevez goal within three minutes when Berbatov beat two men to the byline and was able to cut back to Tevez (Mascherano failed to follow him into the box). But Liverpool didn’t crumble, slowly grew into the game, and fortune finally favored them in the 26th minute when Van der Sar could only palm Alonso’s deflected shot off Brown for an own goal.

The old maxim that goals change games comes true again. And it’s brilliant that it came true against Manchester United – the old enemy, and a team that never loses after going a goal up.

Even though Kuyt had two decent chances in the 6th and 12th minutes, Liverpool didn’t respond right away. It took time to take control, but when you go behind to United – a team they haven’t beaten in the league in over four years – it’s impressive enough that heads didn’t drop immediately. There admittedly was loads of luck in the equalizer, but it’s about time Liverpool got that luck against United.

The rest of the half looked fairly similar to those games where Liverpool’s been the better side, but unable to capitalize. Kuyt’s dug-out shot straight at Van der Sar was Liverpool’s only effort on goal even though the home side was establishing more and better possession, while United went close in the 28th when Tevez shot over after good work from Berbatov and Anderson.

Liverpool really turned the tide after the break. Alonso and Mascherano were awesome in midfield, keeping possession and dictating tempo. Kuyt linked play well as a supporting striker, Benayoun did far better on the right (and was a threat getting into the box), and Riera finally gave Liverpool much-needed width on the left, with the debutant most impressive working as an outlet to relieve pressure when United was better early on. He also formed an effective partnership with Aurelio, who was solid at left back.

And Babel coming on for Riera in the 71st minute ended up changing the game. Gerrard replaced Benayoun three minutes earlier, but it was the speedy Dutchman who was Liverpool’s hero this time.

In the 77th minute, Mascherano did well to get to the byline, and when Giggs tried to let the ball run out instead of clearing, Kuyt was able to take possession and cut it back perfectly for the on-rushing Babel. Once again, he fills the role of supersub to a tee.

Liverpool's dominance in midfield kept United from ever really looking like getting back into the game. The home side continued to keep possession excellently, and Ferguson stole Mourinho’s desperate tactic, throwing a center-back (Vidic) to the front hoping he’ll win a long punt. And it backfired when Vidic picked up a second yellow for leading with his elbow going for a header in the 90th.

Kuyt should have sealed it in the 92nd after Babel returned the favor in a similar situation, but Van der Sar sprawled well. And United provided the requisite heart-in-mouth moment in the fourth minute of injury time, but England’s Hero™ Wayne Rooney could only fire wide when he got the ball at the top of the box.

Now that Liverpool’s finally made the breakthrough against United, after all the misfortune and maladies they’ve suffered in recent years, they need to put it to full use. This will be a massive confidence boost. They were without Gerrard and Torres. They went behind after only three minutes. And the team replied with far and away its best performance of the season.

Every player should hold his head high; it’s quite difficult to pick a man of the match, but I’ve got to go with Mascherano, who put in a sterling, lung-busting performance, and despite losing Tevez for United’s goal. However, Alonso’s right there too for his return to form in midfield, Skrtel was imperious in defense, and Riera, even though he only played 71 minutes, had a tremendous debut and looks likely to add another dimension to the team.

I’d forgotten what a win over United felt like. It’s been a long time coming.

12 September 2008

Liverpool v Manchester United 9.13.08

7:45am Eastern Time, live in the US on Setanta

Last 4 head-to-head:
3-0 United (a) 3.23.08
1-0 United (h) 12.16.07
1-0 United (h) 03.03.07
2-0 United (a) 10.22.06

Last 3 matches:
Liverpool: 0-0 Villa (a); 1-0 Liege (h); 2-1 Boro (h)
United: 1-2 Zenit (neutral); 1-0 Pompey (a); 1-1 Newcastle (h)

Referee: Howard Webb

Guess at a squad:
Arbeloa Carragher Skrtel Dossena
Alonso Mascherano
Kuyt Benayoun Riera

I hate this fixture. And with Gerrard and Torres most likely out, despite having trained today (I reckon that, at best, one or the other might be on the bench), I’ve no idea how Liverpool are going to line up.

Hopefully, as Liverpool wouldn’t have to fit both Torres and Keane in the team, Benitez will go back to the 4-2-3-1 that worked last season. But with Gerrard and Torres missing from that formation, who knows how potent it would be. A lot of pressure will fall on Keane’s shoulders, but he should be able to play in his preferred position tomorrow, and hopefully, that will make a massive difference.

In addition, it’s worth remembering that players were away with the international teams. For example, Masch only played Saturday’s game for Argentina, but Lucas, who started for Brazil on Wednesday, would have returned to Anfield quite late.

I still think I’d rather have Carragher-Skrtel-Agger-Dossena as the backline, but as we haven’t seen it yet, I’d be surprised if Benitez deploys it against the Mancs. Conservatism is usually the order of the day when they come to town.

Even though I put him in my guess at a squad, I’d also be surprised if Riera started, given it’d be his first game for the club and that he joined less than two weeks ago. But Liverpool’s often looked lost on the left, no matter if Benayoun, Babel, or Keane (?!?!?) has played there. Plus, Riera’s first match in England for Manchester City was against United, and the Citizens won 3-1. Let’s hope the trend continues. But if he doesn’t start, I reckon it has to be Benayoun or Aurelio on the left.

Seems likely Berbatov will make his debut for the Mancs, and I’m curious as to how Ferguson will play him, Rooney, and Tevez at the same time. The absence of Ronaldo probably leaves United little choice, and it’ll be interesting to see the midfield behind those three. Probably Scholes, Fletcher, and Hargreaves/Carrick (depending on fitness), but we’ll see. Pity Liverpool will the first guinea pigs.

We’ve seen all the articles about how Liverpool needs to turn around the recent record against United. Well duh. Not counting the 2006 FA Cup win, Liverpool hasn’t beaten the Mancs since 2004, and hasn’t won at Anfield in the league since 2001. It’s gotten unbearable. No better time to silence the critics and reverse that history like the present.

10 September 2008

England 4-1 Croatia

So, I’m expecting Capello to be knighted before the week is out. The English sure love their revenge.

If it’s too good to be true, chances are it is.

I’m hoping and praying the English media won’t get carried away with themselves, but I know without even looking that they will. I actually almost feel bad for Theo Walcott; scoring a hat-trick in Croatia in an amazing feat, but the hype he’ll get and pressure he’ll be under are going to be absurd.

Look, this is football. This game hinges on moments that could go either way. England should be very, very proud of their effort tonight, but it’d be a mistake to assume that Capello’s finally gotten through to the players and worked his wonders. Because I promise you we’ll see the same England that struggled against Andorra last Saturday sometime in the future.

But yes, this certainly was an improvement (uh duh, look at the scoreline). England finally didn’t look frightened stepping out on the Maksimir pitch. Aside from a dangerous 5-10 minutes early on, the away side matched the hosts step for step. And during England’s sketchy period, Heskey could have had a penalty and Walcott opened the scoring, in the 26th after a misplaced clearance fell to him on the right.

England looked likely to hold on for a win even before Robert Kovac’s straight red card for an elbow on Joe Cole seven minutes after the break. In real time, I was surprised Kovac saw red, but in replays (and with the amount of blood spurting from Cole’s head), Lubos Michel made the right decision.

After the red card, Croatia was boned. England scored twice in less than 15 minutes, at a ground where Croatia’s never lost. First, Walcott scored a second that was an absolute peach, with excellent buildup outside the box between Heskey and Rooney before Rooney's layoff to Walcott, who was in a similar position to where he scored the first. Not much later, Rooney finally returned to the scoresheet in an England shirt after Jenas got down the left and pulled it back for the striker.

The only reason Croatia tallied one was because Terry was clearly fouled in the buildup before Croatia nicely countered down the pitch, with the substitute Mandzukic slotting past James in the 78th. But four minutes after that, Walcott stunningly sealed a hat-trick as Rooney once again put the 19-year-old in on goal.

Despite my surprise, and my belief this performance isn’t going to become standard fare, I have to say that Capello got his tactics spot on. England was adventurous from the whistle, Heskey and Rooney was the right pairing up front, Walcott (obviously) was influential on the right, Joe Cole over Stuart Downing is a no-brainer, and Lampard and Barry were actually dominant in midfield. It takes a ballsy manager to start Walcott over Beckham in a place like Zagreb, and it sure paid off.

Despite Walcott’s feat, Rooney’s got a shout for man of the match, linking up play excellently, two assists, and scoring his first goal for England in almost a year. Even if he is a bloody Manc.

I can’t help but see the parallels between today and the 5-1 massacre in Munich in 2001, the first time England beat Germany in Germany. The only difference is an Arsenal player got the hat-trick instead of a Liverpudlian. But like that night, everything was perfect tonight, everything went England’s way. It’s lovely when that happens, but it doesn’t happen often.

It’s still exceptionally early in qualification, but this puts England in a stellar position. Not only with six points from six, not only because they beat their main rivals on the road, but also because of the damage this will do to Croatia’s goal difference (and the benefits to England’s).

But if I were a betting man, I’d put money on Croatia to win at Wembley in a year’s time. Ah, pessimism. I love following England.

09 September 2008

Sami v UEFA v Liverpool

Even though news trickled out four days ago, for some reason, Hyypia’s omission from the Champions League group stages has hit the national media today. It’s even prompted a statement from Benitez on the official site. I hadn’t planned on addressing it, and it still feels somewhat Captain Obvious to go over it now, but seeing all the articles pop up in my Google Reader isn’t doing my blood pressure much good.

As much as Hyypia’s renaissance over the last two seasons has helped the team, and no matter how valuable he’s been as a squad member, this decision was a no-brainer. It’s hard to write so bluntly about a Liverpool legend, but it’s the truth.

Liverpool doesn’t need to have four first-team center-backs on the CL roster. And thanks to the UEFA regulations that require four academy-trained and four association-trained players, there’s simply no place for Sami.

I’ve written about player quotas in the past. I’m obviously not the biggest fan of them, and given Liverpool’s financial situation while still trying to stay near the top of the Premier League, I’ve got no problem with the cosmopolitan make-up of the team.

Liverpool’s so stretched for English players that 17-year-old Steven Irwin and 18-year-old Martin Kelly are on the A-list, as is Spearing and Darby (both 19). None of them has seen time on the pitch outside of preseason. It makes you wonder why Liverpool sold Crouch and Finnan so willingly, and why Pennant was ostensibly on the market all summer long (oh right, they need the money). But as said throughout the summer, it does help explain the pursuit of Gareth Barry.

At least the UEFA regulations are succeeding in getting younger players on the bench, if not on the field, but it’s at the expense of someone like Sami. Hyypia's grievance should be with UEFA, not Liverpool or Benitez.

I do feel bad for Hyypia. He’s been a fantastic servant for the club for nearly 10 years now, and will fully deserve the testimonial when he gets it. But if it comes down to carrying four center-backs or having a striker like Ngog in the squad, I’ll side with the striker.

We’ve seen it all too often in the past. Knock on wood, but chances are, Liverpool will be fine in defense. However, there have been more than enough occasions where Liverpool’s needed to bring more attacking firepower off the bench because the team’s struggling in the final third.

04 September 2008

Welcome to the terrible twos

It turns out I wasn’t thinking yesterday. In my haste putting up that quick post about Carra, I forgot that yesterday marked the second anniversary of this blog. Time flies when you’re having fun, I guess.

Yes, I’m amazed I’ve still got this thing going. But I’m even more amazed that more and more people come to read, comment, and email me. It’s all exceptionally appreciated; the audience and its feedback is what keeps sites like these, and their authors, going.

Thanks for another fun year, even considering happenings both on and off the field. Onward and upward and all that.

Just to lay out the schedule over the next week or so, as always, I’ll have something to say if Liverpool news breaks and I may have something up following the England internationals. But there’s also a good chance I’ll use the next week to recharge the batteries. Yes, I know, even though the season just started. I've decided that if you’ve been around over two years, you can set your own schedule.


03 September 2008

Jaime Carragher is still a legend

Well, the window's over, and I've little desire to write about how Manchester City is going to take over the world and has signed Pele, Garrincha, Cruyff and Beckenbauer or how Hicks and Gillett are furiously rubbing two pennies together in the hopes they'll multiply.

But I do want to make sure everyone's aware Carragher has an autobiography coming out (ghost-written by the excellent Brian Reade), and parts are being serialed in the Daily Mirror.

The first part was published today.
It is well worth the read.

Yesterday's article, a much longer interview with Carra, is also chock-full of choice quotes. Naturally, the ones in relation to him possibly becoming Liverpool manager are my favorites.

Seriously, go read both now. It'll help kill the time before Premier League football restarts.