30 December 2009

Midseason Stats Review 2009-10

For the third successive year, I figured I’d do a midseason comparison to previous league campaigns. This ought to temper the good feelings after yesterday’s match. I’m running late; the totals don’t include yesterday’s win at Villa, just the first 19 games. Which, as you may remember, haven’t been that stellar.

Obviously, it doesn’t look good. Almost every single total is inferior to the previous three half-seasons. We’ve all seen Liverpool’s failings, repeatedly. But yesterday’s match marked an improvement in the worst categories: goals against, clean sheets, and away form. Here’s hoping it means 2010 will be better than 2009.

Happy New Year.

Points total after 19 games:
09/10: 30
08/09: 42
07/08: 37
06/07: 34

Results over 19 games:
09/10: 9 wins, 3 draws, 7 losses
08/09: 12 wins, 6 draws, 1 loss
07/08: 10 wins, 7 draws, 2 losses
06/07: 10 wins, 4 draws, 5 losses

League position after 19 games:
09/10: 7th
08/09: 1st
07/08: 4th
06/07: 3rd

# of points behind 1st place:
09/10: -12
08/09: +1
07/08: -10, with a game in hand
06/07: -13

Goals scored after 19 games:
09/10: 36
08/09: 30
07/08: 33
06/07: 28

Goals against after 19 games:
09/10: 25
08/09: 12
07/08: 12
06/07: 15

Home Goals:
09/10: 26
08/09: 16
07/08: 20
06/07: 20

Away Goals:
09/10: 10
08/09: 14
07/08: 13
06/07: 8

Goal scorers:
09/10: Torres 11; Benayoun, Gerrard, Kuyt 5; Ngog 4; Babel, Johnson 2; Skrtel 1
08/09: Gerrard 6; Keane, Kuyt, Torres 5; Alonso, Riera 2; Arbeloa, Benayoun, Babel, Carragher 1
07/08: Torres 9; Gerrard 7; Babel, Kuyt, Voronin 3; Alonso, Benayoun 2; Hyypia, Sissoko 1
06/07: Kuyt 6; Bellamy 5; Alonso, Gerrard 3; Crouch, Garcia, Gonzalez 2; Agger, Carragher, Fowler, Riise 1

Clean Sheets:
09/10: 6
08/09: 11
07/08: 10
06/07: 10

# of games Liverpool failed to score in:
09/10: 4 [Chelsea (a), Sunderland (a), Blackburn (a), Pompey (a)]
08/09: 4 [Villa (a), Stoke (h), Fulham (h), West Ham (h)]
07/08: 5 [Pompey (a), Birmingham (h), Blackburn (a), United (h), City (a)]
06/07: 7 [Everton (a), Chelsea (a), Bolton (a), United (a), Arsenal (a), Boro (a), Portsmouth (h)]

Away form:
09/10: 3 wins, 1 draw, 5 losses; 10 points out of 27
08/09: 6 wins, 2 draws, 1 loss; 20 points out of 27
07/08: 6 wins, 3 draws, 1 loss; 21 points out of 30
06/07: 2 wins, 2 draws, 5 losses; 8 points out of 27

Home form:
09/10: 6 wins, 2 draws, 2 losses; 20 points out of 30
08/09: 6 wins, 4 draws; 22 points out of 30
07/08: 4 wins, 4 draws, 1 loss; 16 points out of 27
06/07: 8 wins, 2 draws; 26 points out of 30

• The first half of this season saw the highest goals scored total under Benitez. We can thank the wins over Stoke, Burnley, and Hull for that, but there have also been fewer nil-nil draws.
• A half-fit Torres has even more goals than at this time in 07/08, where he broke the debut season scoring record for a foreign player.
• This season’s had the joint-fewest zero-goal games, only four, tied with last year. And all of them have come away from Anfield. At least Liverpool got rid of those insipid home draws. Oh right, they were replaced with losses. Never mind.

Bad and Ugly
• Well, pretty much everything else. Being six places lower in the table than last year, 12 points behind the leaders and with the fewest wins in the last four seasons, probably isn’t a good thing.
• Most important, as said above, are the goals against and clean sheets. Liverpool’s let in more than double last season’s pace. Yikes. Double and triple yikes.
• Also, the away form, which is the worst in three seasons. Five losses – to Spurs, Chelsea, Sunderland, Fulham, and Portsmouth – are more than twice what Liverpool had all season last year.

29 December 2009

Liverpool 1-0 Villa

Johnson Carragher Agger Insua
Lucas Aquilani
Kuyt Gerrard Benayoun

Torres 90+3’

Now that’s a fucking turning point. I could not love Fernando Torres any more. And Pepe Reina comes close.

Yes, yes. One-man team. Never looked like getting the goal in a combative, back-and-forth snowy contest with both teams on short rest. Villa had the better opportunities despite more Liverpool possession, with Reina making two tremendous saves. Liverpool needed two lucky breaks to set up Torres in the penultimate minute of the match. Whatever. Warnock under-hit a backpass (thanks Stevie!), Dunne slipped, and Agbonlahor’s tackle thankfully ricocheted to Torres, one-on-one with Friedel. It doesn’t matter how “injured” he is. He’s not missing that.

It didn’t look like that was coming for 92 minutes. The first half was limited to an excellent save from each keeper, while the majority of play seesawed back and forth after an excellent early spell from the home side. Liverpool had more possession as the half went on, which, as is oft repeated, isn’t unfamiliar even during this dire stretch. And the pattern stayed similar for all but five minutes of the second half, where Villa had three excellent chances, as the home side were content to keep Liverpool from breaking them down and attacking through the counter and set plays. And it was infuriating as Liverpool failed to find any sort of final ball. But Torres takes that one opportunity and here we are.

And nerves were raised during those first few minutes, as Villa racked up the set plays (always frightening) and kept Liverpool penned in their own half. But the only real chance created was from Dunne header down in the 14th, on a corner, blocked and smothered by Reina. Three minutes later, Liverpool would have been in front if not for Friedel when Torres teed up Gerrard, who smashed a pretty shot with no backlift (reminiscent of last season’s cracker at Marseille) only to see the American tip it over.

Set plays came back to haunt Liverpool on the half hour mark, though, and Villa would have been in front if not for Reina. After Carew robbed Johnson to win a corner, Downing was found in acres of space at the back post as Kuyt and Insua both marked the same man. But Reina came up with a magnificent reaction stop, staying big to turn the volley wide. And that was about it as goalmouth action went for either side in the half.

Villa were content to soak up Liverpool’s pressure (or lack thereof) throughout the second 45, and look to break-out, which is a fairly clever tactic given Liverpool’s struggles and Villa’s situation. They’re ahead in the table, at home, playing well, and have a speed-merchant like Agbonlahor.

And it provided them the better opportunities, all coming within a five-minute span around the 70th minute. Agbonlahor beat Carragher to a ball over the top but saw Reina equal to the acute shot, Carew narrowly headed wide from the resulting corner, and Insua could have been called for a handball, heading onto his arm (it would have been massively harsh) three minutes later.

Meanwhile, Liverpool drove men forward, especially in the final fifteen minutes, looking for the win. But a narrow, misfiring Liverpool, unable to thread the eye of the needle, never looked like getting that needed goal. Babel, on for Aquilani in the 76th, had the only real chance prior to Torres’, missing a free header after a short corner in the 81st.

But, in the first sign that this might be a similar team to last year’s, we finally saw that never say die attitude, and more importantly, it finally paid off.

Again, it wasn’t a performance to write home about. The attack continued to frustrate – Kuyt, Benayoun, and Aquilani were all guilty of too many giveaways (as was Johnson), while Torres struggled to make an impact even though he looked to be running more freely. Even though Liverpool kept the clean sheet (the first consecutive ones in the league), I could complain about three of the four defenders, but Carragher and Reina were enough to keep Villa off the scoresheet. Those two, along with Gerrard and Lucas, were the only two who had decent, complete games.

But Torres doesn’t need to have complete games. Torres just needs one moment, and that’s why he’s Liverpool’s fastest to 50 league goals. Faster than Hunt, Stubbins, Raybould, Hodgson, Rush, Fowler, or Owen. Only Andy Cole, Shearer, and van Nistelrooy did it in fewer Premiership matches, and all three of them took penalties. I can’t do him justice. I can only repeat that he is the best striker in the world. The. Best.

And I’m convinced that one moment will do more for confidence that the wins over United and Everton, the previous “turning points.” That’s the Liverpool we saw last season. Blood, guts, clean sheets, and late winners were what led Liverpool to their highest points total in two decades. Villa are no mugs, played well, and I'm probably undervaluing the whole team's workman-like performance, which was better than previous matches.

Liverpool isn’t out of the woods by any means. This win moves them all the way up to seventh, 12 points behind the leaders and four behind fourth. The same problems persisted for 90-plus minutes. But that’s one early season defeat avenged. Reading in the FA Cup on Saturday before Liverpool get the chance to make amends for another, against Spurs, the team currently in fourth.

28 December 2009

Liverpool at Villa 12.29.09

2:45pm, live in the US on Setanta

Last 4 head-to-head:
1-3 Villa (h) 08.23.09
5-0 Liverpool (h) 03.22.09
0-0 (a) 08.31.08
2-2 (h) 01.21.08

Last three matches:
Liverpool: 2-0 Wolves (h); 0-2 Portsmouth (a); 2-1 Wigan (h)
Villa: 0-3 Arsenal (a); 1-0 Stoke (h); 2-0 Sunderland (a)

Goalscorers (league):
Liverpool: Torres 11; Benayoun, Gerrard, Kuyt 5; Ngog 4; Babel, Johnson 2; Skrtel 1
Villa: Agbonlahor 8; Carew, Milner 4; Dunne, Young 3; Heskey 2; Collins, Cuellar, Davies 1

Referee: Peter Walton

Guess at a squad:
Johnson Carragher Agger Insua
Lucas Gerrard
Kuyt Benayoun Aurelio

So, will we see the same team as Saturday’s? I wouldn’t bet on it, but I’m not a betting man (mainly because I usually lose).

I guess the big question is whether Aquilani will start again. Liverpool could keep the same formation as last time, with Kuyt back in, Benayoun on the left, and Aurelio relegated to the bench or at left back. Or Liverpool could go 4-4-2 with Kuyt and Torres up top and a midfield of Benayoun-Gerrard-Lucas-Aurelio – which is probably my preferred option given that Torres could do with as much support as possible, although we saw how Wigan were able to exploit gaps in that formation. And then there’s the above option: dropping Gerrard deeper for more defensive steel with Benayoun taking up his natural role behind the striker. Your guess is as good as mine, but it'll probably one of those three options.

However, I am fairly certain Kuyt will be back in the side after missing out against Wolves. His omission isn’t the reason Liverpool won, and his work ethic will be crucial, especially up against either Downing or Milner on the left (Ashley Young’s suspended for five yellows). I know that defending isn’t the right-winger’s main task, but Kuyt will be needed to protect an underperforming Glen Johnson at the very least. Plus, there’s his habit of big game goals (*fingers crossed*).

And, as usual this season, I still worry about the back four. Saturday saw Liverpool’s first clean sheet in five games and only the sixth in 19 league contests after keeping 11 at the midpoint last season. At least the central pairing of Carra and Agger have steadied, but the fullbacks are the weak link of late, with Johnson out of form for more than a month. Hopefully Glen will have a better chance of settling with Young suspended, but you can’t underestimate the threat of Milner (I’ve been massively impressed with his progress under O’Neill) or Downing (who almost always played well against Liverpool while at Boro).

Villa do have a day’s less rest because of playing Sunday, a 3-0 loss to Arsenal. But that was their first defeat since November 4th. Until yesterday, Villa tallied five straight wins (including one at Old Trafford) and were unbeaten in nine. Over the same period, Liverpool’s won four, drawn four, and lost three.

I promise that if Liverpool fail to pick up three points tomorrow, I’m done writing about the “race” for fourth place. I should have stopped a few weeks ago, but you can’t help look at the table and “plan” for the future. Liverpool desperately need some sort of winning streak; the last successive victories came over Debrecen and Everton in the first week of November. The last two straight league wins came at the end of September, against West Ham and Hull (17th and 19th respectively). And with games against Villa and Spurs imminent – two of Liverpool’s closest competitors – we’ll soon know how much of this season is salvageable.

Team of the Decade - Final

Reina (96.2%)
Finnan (62.8%) Carragher (84.1%) Hyypia (87.1%) Riise (88.1%)
Alonso (90.6%) Hamann (35.9%)
Kuyt (46.7%) Gerrard (96.6%) Benayoun (55.6%)
Torres (86.6%)

Bench: Dudek (3.8%), Johnson (15%), Agger (9.8%) Mascherano (31.6%), Murphy (20.5%), Garcia (RM: 15.9%, LM: 30%, SS: 2.3%), Owen (6.7%)

I sort of played the bench by ear. For the most part, it's the top-vote getters that didn't make the first team. However, I had to make sure a second goalkeeper and a second center forward were involved; Reina and Torres monopolized those votes. Technically, the top-seven that didn't make the first XI were Masch, Garcia, Murphy, Johnson, Babbel, Agger, and Aurelio (in that order) – which reflected how close those votes were compared to CF, GK, or Second Striker. But we can't have four defenders and three midfielders as subs.

Surprises (not many):
• Absence makes the heart grow fonder. Ask again in three years, and I guarantee Alonso doesn't get over 90% (the highest total outside of Gerrard and Reina). Nor does he reach that mark if Liverpool isn't in the shit they're in this season. Oh well.

• I'm also a bit surprised the LB vote wasn't closer. I figured Aurelio, who's far more naturally talented and well-rounded than Riise, would put up more of a fight. Just as a solitary example, Riise could never provide the build-up and assist that Aurelio did for Torres' goal against Inter. But I reckon that adequately sums up Aurelio's susceptibility to injury. If Fabio could stay fit, he'd definitely challenge JAR. But he can't. And that's why Insua's been ever-present this season.

• Masch is super – he's Masch – but Hamann should have "won" by more.

• Finally, it's not a surprise, but I'd like to again register my disappointment that more didn't vote for Markus Babbel. If you never saw him play, Google or look up YouTube videos. You won't regret it.

My votes:
Carragher & Hyypia
Alonso & Hamann

Thanks to all who participated in the votes, and especially those like Liverpool Offside and Starting Eleven, who linked the polls.

Back with a preview of the Villa match in a few hours.

26 December 2009

Liverpool 2-0 Wolves

Johnson Carragher Agger Insua
Lucas Aquilani
Benayoun Gerrard Aurelio

Gerrard 62’
Benayoun 70’

I probably shouldn’t be so pleased with a mediocre win – mainly thanks to playing against ten men for the last 40 minutes – over Wolves at Anfield. But that’s this season so far. Three points are three points, and a clean sheet makes me even happier.

Like in recent matches – even when Liverpool’s underperformed and lost – the team started brightly enough. Hahnemann twice came to the rescue early on, in the 6th and 7th, pushing aside Gerrard’s low shot before an even better save on Torres’ blast after the striker danced around Stearman into space.

But four chances for Wolves in quick succession after the 20-minute mark highlighted recurring problems. As usual, the opposition grew into the game as Liverpool were unable to put good early possession to full use. First, Reina had to save Ebanks-Blake’s low shot after the striker turned Carragher with Johnson out of position. Two minutes later, Wolves almost scored on subsequent set plays: Reina had to tip over Miljas’ fierce free kick prior to Doyle heading the resulting corner wide from three yards out when the marking went to shit. Not long after, Milijas screwed a half-volley wide from just outside the box after Lucas' hesitant clearance.

After those ten or so minutes of pressure, Liverpool reestablished the tempo, but it was a far slower tempo than before. You know the routine. Torres had the ball in the net on the half hour mark but was rightfully ruled offside, and from there, passing often broke down in the final third. Liverpool didn’t trouble Hahnemann until the 45th, when Johnson luckily received the ball in the box only for the keeper to parry well. Again, you know the routine.

The second half started similar to the first, with Hahnemann again pushing a low Gerrard shot around the post in the 51st, before a red card changed the game. Thankfully, this time it was an opposition player sent off. Ward, who had just picked up a yellow for pulling back Benayoun, did similar to Lucas after Gerrard’s delightful throughball. After Marriner stupidly booked Berra, the resulting furor saw the ref finally make the right decision after consulting the linesman.

And while Liverpool continued to press with no reward for a few minutes, Gerrard finally broke the deadlock in the 62nd. Deservedly so; the captain had conjured almost all of Liverpool’s decent efforts, was far more influential throughout thanks to more support, and rose beautifully over Milijas to head in Insua’s tasty cross.

Once a man and goal down, Wolves were rarely going to trouble Liverpool. Admittedly, that’s an unconfident statement given recent form, but thankfully it held true, and Benayoun doubled the advantage eight minutes later after almost constant pressure. Aurelio’s cross eluded the men in the middle, but it found Benayoun in acres of space at the far post. With time to settle (and make a cup of tea), Yossi cut inside and shot on target, with Elokobi’s deflection taking it over the keeper. Yet other example of why I’m so emphatic about intangibles like “luck” and “confidence,” but it also shows that you make your own luck.

Foot off the gas and with Villa on Tuesday, I was surprised substitutions weren’t made sooner, especially with Aquilani clearly tiring and far more prone to giveaways. I guess Benitez wants to give him as much time as possible in preparation for Mascherano’s continued absence.

Kuyt came on for Aurelio in the 75th (and he went out to the left) before Aquilani exited for Pacheco ten minutes later (Spearing replaced Benayoun in the 89th). And other than some flashes of brilliance from the diminutive Spaniard (I guarantee Pacheco continues to see more and more time off the bench), there was little to write home about as Liverpool passed it around in an Arsenal-esque manner.

A 2-0 win is exceptionally warmly welcomed, even if it’s over the newly-promoted 15th-placed side at Anfield. Any port in a storm and whatnot. But Liverpool made hard work of it, and should be extremely grateful for Ward’s two “tackles” (and Marriner realizing his idiotic mistake), which is what gave Liverpool the impetus to break through. An opener against 11 men would have been deserved, and might have been coming, but Ward’s dismissal made it loads easier.

Other than that ten-minute spell, Wolves offered less than recent opponents, but Liverpool’s conceded in stranger situations. And there wasn’t nearly enough cutting edge until Ward’s exit, even with the more attacking central midfield. Gerrard assuredly played some of his best football for over a month, but still wasn’t firing in tandem with Torres, not helped by a subpar performance from a striker sick of being kicked with no repercussions. Liverpool finally played some good football in the second half, but they needed a man-advantage to do so, as Wolves dropped as deep as possible with only Ebanks-Blake regularly out of his own half.

I’ve drawn it up as 4-2-3-1 (probably mostly out of habit), but it was 4-1-4-1 just as often, especially when Liverpool had the ball in the opposition half. It was a more malleable formation, that’s for sure. And it was probably down to Aquilani, who did as advertised playing between Lucas and Gerrard. Aside from the obvious arguments for either flank, this was probably Liverpool’s strongest XI – at least the strongest possible. It asked an awful lot of a player who’s very early in his Liverpool career and of questionable fitness, but he came through more than sufficiently.

I’m tempted to suggest Aquilani and Lucas would have played in central midfield even if Mascherano were available. It’d fit with the theory that the more attacking pair would see time against bottom-half clubs, especially at Anfield. And for the most part, it was successful. Both Lucas and Aquilani got forward to decent effect, and it’ll work even better once Aqua gets used to his teammates. We saw some tantalizing cross-field balls, backheels, and a willing to pass and move forward as quickly as possible. We even saw the Italian complete a few successful tackles. You can’t pick anyone other than Gerrard for man of the match, but he was definitely helped by Lucas and Aquilani.

It may not have been the best performance. It may not even give us as many positives as hoped. But it’s a win – three points and a clean sheet – before a trip to fourth-placed Villa in three days. I’ll certainly take that as a late Christmas present. You can’t ask for much more.

25 December 2009

Liverpool v Wolves 12.26.09

12:30pm, live in the US on FSC

Last 4 head-to-head:
1-0 Liverpool (h) 03.20.04
1-1 (a) 01.21.04
0-1 Wolves (h) 01.14.84
1-1 (a) 08.27.83

Last three matches:
Liverpool: 0-2 Portsmouth (a); 2-1 Wigan (h); 1-2 Arsenal (h)
Wolves: 2-0 Burnley (h); 0-3 United (a); 1-0 Spurs (a)

Goalscorers (league):
Liverpool: Torres 11; Kuyt 5; Benayoun, Gerrard, Ngog 4; Babel, Johnson 2; Skrtel 1
Wolves: Doyle 5; Craddock 4; Milijas 2; Ebanks-Blake, Edwards, Keogh, Maierhofer, Steadman 1

Referee: Andre Marriner

Guess at a squad:
Johnson Carragher Agger Insua
Benayoun Lucas Gerrard Aurelio
Ngog Torres

What are the chances of Wolves making 10 changes for this game?

Masch is out for the next four matches, Benitez wants to rest Kuyt, and certain players (specifically Torres and Gerrard) have to be managed with games coming fast and thick. With only three days between tomorrow’s contest and the trip to Villa, Rafa may be tempted to leave out more than just Kuyt.

I guess the question is whether Liverpool will stick with the same formation despite the results and player availability. Was the 4-4-2 against Wigan an aberration or the sign of things to come? Will Gerrard drop deeper in midfield in Mascherano’s absence – like against Burnley, Stoke, and Hull – or will Benitez draft in Aurelio, Aquilani, or Spearing?

The other option I debated guessing was the 4-2-3-1, with a front six of Lucas, Gerrard; Benayoun, Aquilani, Aurelio; Torres. Even though Benitez said that Aquilani would play between Gerrard and Lucas/Masch when he arrived, I think Gerrard’s struggles further forward take precedence. He hasn’t looked the same player since returning from injury, and it’s clear Liverpool’s woes aren’t helping him recover. I wonder if moving Gerrard deeper, giving him more time on the ball and a bigger role in the build-up, would help both him and the team.

Regardless, I reckon the above guess at a line-up is the more likely, despite the change in formation. Mascherano’s absence forces Liverpool’s hand to a certain extent, as would Kuyt’s if Benitez truly does rest him. But having Lucas and Gerrard in the middle should provide enough of a shield against Wolves, while pairing Ngog and Torres up front might aid Liverpool’s one-dimensional attack. Torres’ inclusion is up in the air with the Villa game so soon, but Liverpool can’t afford to leave him out of any match at the moment, fitness be damned.

All three promoted teams have been better than expected – even Wolves, who only moved out of the relegation zone last week. McCarthy was right to make the changes against the Mancs – they weren’t taking anything from that regardless of United’s form and injuries, and it allowed players to be fit for the six-pointer over Burnley last weekend. Aside from the impressive win at White Hart Lane, Wolves have also held Villa and Everton, and have won three of their last four fixtures (a record Liverpool would kill for at the moment). Kevin Doyle should be the biggest threat, one Liverpool’s familiar after his time with Reading.

A year ago, Liverpool were top of the league, and won the Boxing Day fixture 3-0 over Bolton. 12 months later and the club’s unrecognizable, 14 points behind Chelsea and eight behind 4th place. But the team can only remedy the situation one match at a time.

22 December 2009

Team of the Decade – Center Forward

Previous posts: Formation | Keeper | Right Back | Centerback | Left Back | Central Midfield | Right Midfield | Left Midfield | Second Striker

Yes, I realize this poll and the previous one are mere formalities. I appreciate you indulging my idiosyncratic need for completion.

I could have included eight in this list and still left out players that were better than some in other polls. But as we’re considering a lone striker, names like Anelka, Ciise, and Bellamy missed out.

The team so far:

Finnan Carragher Hyypia Riise
Alonso Hamann
Kuyt Gerrard Benayoun

Milan Baros (2002-2005)
Appearances: 108
Goals: 27

Tantalizing youth product and excellent goalscorer for the Czech Republic, but Baros never made the impact at Liverpool that Houllier had hoped. He never stopped running, but he never looked up either, leading to charges down blind alleys and an utter refusal to pass. Continuing his form from Euro 2004, he played well through the first half of ’04-05, but unsurprisingly, Benitez got rid after one season.

Peter Crouch (2005-2008)
Appearances: 134
Goals: 42

Certainly could do with having Crouchy in the team now, but he wasn’t content playing second fiddle to Torres. They only started seven games (three in the league) together – 4-2 Reading, 0-1 Marseille, 4-0 Bolton, 1-3 Reading, 5-0 Luton, 3-0 Sunderland, and 4-2 Arsenal – before Crouch was sold for £11m. Still, he was a valuable signing (despite taking until December to break his duck), and his perfect hat-trick in the 4-1 win over Arsenal still stands out.

Robbie Fowler (1993-2001; 2006-2007)
Appearances: 393 (108 in 2000s)
Goals: 186 (33 in 2000s)

As the stats suggest, Fowler of the 2000s was not the God of the 90s. As much as it hurt, Houllier probably sold him at the right time, and Fowler never hit similar heights with either Leeds or City. But he was welcomed back with open arms in January 2006 as much-needed fourth attacking option, who worked his socks off to get in shape, chipped in 12 goals in a season and a half, and went out the way he should have the first time.

Emile Heskey (2000-2004)

Appearances: 223
Goals: 60

Houllier loved him, Owen loved playing with him, and he drove the fans crazy. Never an out-and-out goalscorer, Heskey bullied his way through backlines, making space for Mickey. That Ivanhoe (his actual middle name!) was Liverpool’s most expensive transfer until Cisse shows the promise he came in with, but with increased competition from Baros and a continuing inability to score regularly, Houllier sold him to Brum not long before being sacked.

Michael Owen (1997-2004)
Appearances: 297
Goals: 158

Dirty Judas Mercenary Manc. Thanks for the 2001 FA Cup, though, Mickey. And introducing me to the club.

Fernando Torres (2007-present)
Appearances: 101
Goals: 61

So, that Fernando Torres is pretty good at football, no? 33 goals in his first season, and "just" 17 last season during an injury-hit campaign. And still struggling with knocks this year, he’s scored 11 in 17 games. He has the best goals-per-game ratio in Premier League history, and not one of his strikes has been a penalty or direct free kick. He’s not “arguably the best striker in the world.” He’s the best striker in the world. Period.

Despite Friday's holiday, I should be able to get away from family long enough to post a Wolves preview around the normal time. Merry Christmas.

20 December 2009

What’s Changed?

This season’s been utterly inexplicable. Confidence is smashed, the team is an utter shadow of itself, and everything seems to be imploding. So, naturally, I feel the need to explain it. Time to list every difference I can think of, as if that’ll help. I should have just titled this post “Blame Everybody.”

Xabi Alonso
The elephant in the room. Better players have left Liverpool at key times before. And while I’m hesitant to overemphasize Alonso’s importance (despite the effusive praise written throughout last season), maybe he’s more vital to the 4-2-3-1 than thought. Liverpool rarely used the formation during Xabi’s “bad seasons,” often playing with some combination of Kuyt, Bellamy, and Crouch (and then Torres if we’re counting ’07-08) up top. Now, the formation that saw Liverpool unbeaten in 13 of 14 to finish last season, putting 4 or more goals past Madrid, United, Villa, Blackburn, Chelsea, and Arsenal, looks wholly impotent. Benitez can hardly be blamed for Alonso wanting to leave, and got double what he would have taken for the player a season before, but Liverpool hasn’t compensated on the pitch.

Alonso’s replacement with Aquilani out far longer than expected. I’ve defended and will probably continue to defend Lucas. He’s steadily improved and delivered impressive performances in a fair few matches. He shouldn’t be the scapegoat he is; he’s been one of the team’s most consistent players. But the team’s unarguably different when Lucas and Mascherano are in midfield. Even Lucas’ staunchest defenders (like me!) have to admit the duo’s nowhere near incisive enough. The three high-scoring victories – Stoke, Burnley, and Hull – came with Lucas and Gerrard in the middle.

The “other” high profile signing. He started impressively, especially in attack, but is part of a backline that’s been unbalanced all season long. He was marginally at fault for three of the last four goals conceded, and hasn’t looked the same player since returning from injury, turning into an absolute defensive liability, which has also restricted his forays forward.

And the other backline change (aside from early-season CB injuries), getting more playing time than he otherwise would thanks to Aurelio’s inability to stay healthy. He can be a tidy defender, but has struggled with the pace of certain players and the height of others. He's only 20 years old. Like Johnson and Lucas, he’s nowhere near the sole or main reason for Liverpool’s problems, but yet another to add to the list.

Blaming injuries is a weak excuse, but bear with me. The big gamble on Aquilani – which might have had something to do with a lack of funds – has completely failed. He was out far longer than expected, with Liverpool off the pace by the time he was “available,” and he even missed the last match after picking up a calf strain. But the entire side’s kept the trainers busy. Torres has started 15 of 26 games. Gerrard’s started 19, only 12 with Torres. Benayoun, Riera, Aurelio, Johnson, Agger, Skrtel, Babel, and Kelly have all missed significant games. But all teams have problems; United and Arsenal have had similarly difficult absences.

The Scousers’ form
Carra and Gerrard are often and rightfully described as Liverpool’s heartbeat. As they go, so goes the club. And neither’s had a season to write home about. Carra saw a lot of stick for the early defensive woes – often looking a step off the pace – although he’s also had some good games that also happened to be wins (United, for one). Meanwhile, Gerrard’s been the opposite of influential since returning from injury (noticing a trend?), unable to dictate proceedings from midfield or in attack, his the telepathic partnership with Torres failing to fire. It’s not like the two are the only senior players off the pace – Reina and arguably Torres (injured but has still scored 11 goals) are the only ones having decent seasons (along with Lucas and Ngog, who aren’t senior players) – but Gerrard and Carragher are beyond crucial.

The most intangible of my explanations, but still merits a mention. A clear penalty – an opportunity to equalize – denied in the first match. Players like Jerome and Belhadj scoring the goals of their careers. Two dubious red cards at Fulham – the same game where Kuyt’s work ethic was what set up Fulham’s winner. Late goals galore. The bloody beach ball! Karma must be a bitch.

Net spending
Ah, here’s where I can complain about off the pitch problems, specifically my lying, two-faced countrymen (*spit*).

Liverpool’s net spending under Benitez (numbers from lfchistory.net):

Summer 2004: £22.2m
January 2005: £7.3m
Summer 2005: £6.78m
January 2006: £6.05m
Summer 2006: £15.78m
January 2007: £1.3m
Summer 2007: £18.07m
January 2008: £17.06m
Summer 2008: £18.5m
January 2009: -£16m
Summer 2009: -£150,000

Numbers are fungible – a couple of undisclosed transfers in each direction, incentives, and the oft-disputed price for Torres, among other debatable points – but that would be a £16,150,000 “profit” over the last two windows after spending an average of almost £18m in the previous three windows. Oh, and there’s a pile of debt on the club (which is where that transfer profit went) and no new stadium anywhere on the horizon. And we expect Liverpool to keep pace with the likes of Chelsea and United, let alone City, Spurs, and Villa. Thanks, George and Tommy. I especially appreciate you making all Americans look bad. Please sell. Now. That’d be the biggest turning point possible.

This season has been a confluence of kicks to the crotch, to say the least. Shit rolls downhill, so on, so forth. It’s led to a team that’s definitively and deservedly mid-table so far.

But listing all the shortcomings and misfortunes is the easy part. The real question is how to fix it. Whatever the form, even after his team was out-fought by the Premiership’s bottom club, even with morale seemingly so low, Benitez deserves until the end of the season to rectify these problems – at least the ones he’s accountable for. Evident evolution over five seasons, two Champions League finals, including one night in Istanbul, and Liverpool’s best haul in the Premiership for more than 20 seasons last year have earned him that much. Benitez obviously has to bear some of the blame – players need to sort themselves out, but it’s the manager’s job to get the most out of them and put them in the best situation to win. Neither’s been accomplished recently.

If Liverpool’s still in this situation come May, the club has to look around for a top-class manager brave/dumb enough to try and put it right (there’s always a surplus of them…). And I can’t believe it’s come to the point where I’ve written that sentence.

19 December 2009

Liverpool 0-2 Portsmouth

Johnson Carragher Agger Insua
Lucas Mascherano
Kuyt Gerrard Dossena

Belhadj 33’
Piquionne 82’

Merry Christmas.

Have I said that you can’t make this shit up recently? What a fucking nightmare.

A slick, frozen pitch paved the way for a disjointed game, hampering both teams at the start. Liverpool’s early ball retention was far better than Wednesday, let alone in recent losses, but opportunities on goal blossomed far too infrequently as passing broke down in the final third. Pompey grew into the game by the 25th minute, and it didn’t take long for the home side to make Liverpool pay. It rarely has this season. Being the “better team” counts for absolutely nothing without something to show for it.

The good opening spell – as is usually the case with Liverpool – only resulted in two half-chances: Kuyt unable to make close-range contact with Gerrard’s knockdown in the 16th and Torres’ curler inches over four minutes later. From there, Pompey found their way, with a smattering of dangerous free kicks from O’Hara and a break at speed which Agger did well to clear for a corner. But in the 33rd, Yebda beat Insua down the flank and Liverpool couldn’t clear his cross. Reina parried the resulting shot back in, but Johnson’s attempted clearance only found Belhadj at the near post. Lord knows how he smashed the impossibly-angled volley past Pepe.

The unsurprising subsequent confusion and frustration, in which Liverpool still nearly leveled against the run of play (only to see Agger spurn a free header from Gerrard’s free kick for the second-straight game), soon saw Mascherano sent off for a bad one-footed tackle on Ben-Haim. The straight leg challenge deserved a card, but it’s yellow much more often than red. Which is a three-match ban. And to compound matters, Masch looked like he’d injured the same knee he’s had problems with. It was like the Fulham loss all over again, and it’d get a lot more like that game. Andy Kaufman isn’t writing this season’s script; Satan is.

10-man Liverpool, lining up 4-4-1, had to be content with containing a home side growing in confidence while trying to counter. And the team’s bewilderment and obvious irritation boiled over in the second half – three players (Lucas, Torres, and Johnson) picked up dubious yellows in the first fifteen minutes, adequately illustrating the team’s composure.

This is the most faith I’ve ever lost in Benitez. Ever. Bad breaks and decisions are only so much of an excuse. Despite the setbacks, Liverpool had a chance to regroup at halftime and utterly failed. No real chance in tactics other Benayoun replacing Dossena in the 53rd (which didn’t make that much of a difference) and Gerrard dropping deeper, no siege mentality, and little fight-back. Just petulance giving way to weary acceptance after Liverpool couldn’t convert two excellent chances in the 67th and 68th.

First, Liverpool finally broke at pace thanks to Lucas’ tackle in the middle of the pitch. Gerrard found Kuyt on the right, and although his tame cross was cleared, the captain still had a shot in space outside the box. Two deflections looked to wrong-foot Begovic, but the keeper somehow got a hand on the ball despite sprawling in the opposite direction. And when Boateng’s clearance of the subsequent corner just eluded the near post, it regressed to Liverpool on the back foot, hoping the ball would somehow bounce their way.

Torres almost danced his way through the box in the 77th, but he was blocked off and Begovic beat Kuyt to the loose ball. Five minutes later, Pompey put what little hope there was to bed. Agger failed to keep Boateng from crossing, Piquionne’s touch bounced perfectly to turn Carragher, and the striker scored from an acute angle akin to the first goal. The two chances Pompey converted, both aided by the bounce of the ball, were harder than at least five of Liverpool’s. But they were on target. Gerrard’s attempt at a consolation after lovely control in the 89th, which bobbled just wide of the far post, sums up today’s accuracy.

There are only so many times one can write ‘what else can go wrong?’ Liverpool’s dropped points to lower-placed opposition after every single league win since the end of September (all four of them). Damn little’s gone Liverpool’s way, but they’ve done damn little to right the ship themselves.

For the second time this season, I’ll write that Benitez would probably be gone if the owners could afford to buy him out. Last time, I was vehemently opposed. This time, I can’t be anything but less so. I’m just baffled by this team and this season’s results. I want to believe in Benitez so much – you’ve all seen my praise and defense of the manager, and the squad’s improved in every season but this one – but the comparisons to the end of Houllier are unavoidable.

Something is rotten at the core of this club. The morale is so far gone it’s unfathomable. I’m far more inclined to lay it at the feet of the owners, and at the end of the day, they’ve the most to do with it by not allowing squad investment. But results are at the feet of the players and manager. They’re the ones devising the tactics and out on the pitch. And outside of two or three games, Liverpool has been utterly insipid on the pitch for three months now.

Burn it down and start all over.

18 December 2009

Liverpool at Portsmouth 12.19.09

7:45am, live in the US on espn2

Last 4 head-to-head:
3-2 Liverpool (a) 02.07.09
1-0 Liverpool (h) 10.29.08
4-1 Liverpool (h) 12.22.07
0-0 (a) 09.15.07

Last three matches:
Liverpool: 2-1 Wigan (h); 1-2 Arsenal (h); 1-2 Fiorentina (h)
Pompey: 1-2 Chelsea (a); 1-1 Sunderland (a); 2-0 Burnley (h)

Goalscorers (league):
Liverpool: Torres 11; Kuyt 5; Benayoun, Gerrard, Ngog 4; Babel, Johnson 2; Skrtel 1
Pompey: Dindane 4; Boateng, Kaboul 3; Piquionne 2; Hreidarsson, O’Hara, Yebda 1

Referee: Lee Mason

Guess at a squad:
Johnson Carragher Agger Aurelio
Lucas Mascherano
Kuyt Gerrard Benayoun

It’s almost the same line-up I guessed last time out, except no Aquilani, which I’m sure will be well received.

I’m far less convinced of Aqua starting than I was on Wednesday. But it’s not because Benitez hates him. It’s not because he’s a flop and can’t/won’t adapt. We all want Alberto to jump in feet first and make a difference, but he was always going to need time to settle after being declared fit. He came off the bench in the last two league games (25min against Arse and 10 against Wigan), and that’ll probably be the case tomorrow. And the much-awaited first league start will probably happen at home against Wolves next Saturday, three days before a crucial trip to Villa.

The other questions are over Torres, Johnson, Mascherano, and Aurelio. Torres should start, on the bench against Wigan so he’d be fit to for this game (and he still scored the crucial goal). Both Johnson and Babel are back in the squad, and I expect Gleninho to go right back into the team. Mascherano picked up a knock on Wednesday, already questionable for that match, but I doubt it’ll preclude him from taking part tomorrow. He’s vital away from Anfield, no matter the opposition. And that Aurelio was taken off with more than 30 minutes left in Wednesday’s game makes me think Benitez will want to use him tomorrow, although I wouldn’t be surprised to see Insua start again either.

All this suggests that Wednesday’s 4-4-2 was a one-time affair. I’m interested to see Torres and Ngog paired up top – or even Torres and Kuyt (I think last game, paired with another striker, was Kuyt’s best outing in the past few months) – but 4-2-3-1 is still preferred. Especially since this’ll be away from Anfield, where Benitez teams often look to retain possession. And don’t be misled by Portsmouth’s league place.

Pompey may be propping up the table, but this is a deceptively difficult fixture, especially since it’s an early kickoff on the south coast. We all know the form Liverpool’s in. And Pompey’s looked decent in their last two outings: making Chelsea work for a 2-1 win at the Bridge on Wednesday after a last-minute draw at Sunderland last Saturday. Avram Grant’s seemingly steadied the ship since appointing himself manager three weeks ago.

Keeper David James (another former Red) should return from illness, while Kaboul will be back in central defense after a one-game suspension. No one in the side’s scoring for fun, but both Piquionne and Dindane have looked useful at times. I’ve been most impressed with Spurs loanee Jamie O’Hara, a solid midfielder who can play centrally or on the left.

No more “must win game” noise. No planning for fourth. No looking past Pompey. Just keep winning, one game at a time.

Europa League Knockout Draw

So it's Unirea Urziceni, with the first leg at Anfield and the second in Bucharest.

The winner will meet Lille or Fenerbahce in the Round of 16. I’m assuredly not looking past any opponents after the CL group stage, but that could have been worse. That could have been a lot worse.

It could have been Everton or Fulham’s draw. Everton are paired with Sporting Lisbon, while Fulham face the holders, Shakhtar Donetsk. And if either side progresses, they’d have to face Atletico/Galatasaray or Ajax/Juventus respectively. Yikes. The Atletico/Gala and Ajax/Juve are two of the most tantalizing matchups, along with Hamburg against PSV.

Unirea Urziceni was the surprise package of the Champions League, nearly qualifying for the knockout rounds with eight points from the group stage. They beat Sevilla at home and whomped Rangers at Ibrox, drew with both Rangers and Stuttgart in Romania, and lost to Sevilla and Stuttgart away. Not a bad run at all.

The Romanian league has an egregiously long winter break; the Round of 32 will take place before the season restarts. Who knows if this will help or hurt Liverpool; it’s been an impossible season to predict so far. I honestly can't tell you much about the opposition or its players, and right now, the team’s probably in a similar situation. They’ve got two months to do their homework.

The fixtures take place February 18 and 25. The full draw for both Round of 32 and Round of 16:

Club Brugge/Valencia v Twente/Werder Bremen
Ajax/Juventus v Fulham/Shakhtar
Lille/Fenerbahce v Liverpool/Unirea
Panathinaikos/Roma v Standard Liege/Salzburg
Hertha Berlin/Benfica v Copenhagen/Marseille
Atletico/Galatasaray v Everton/Sporting
Rubin/Hapoel v Villarreal/Wolfsburg
Hamburg/PSV v Athletic Bilbao/Anderlecht

Back with the preview of tomorrow’s Pompey match in a few hours.

17 December 2009

Team of the Decade – Second Striker

Previous posts: Formation | Keeper | Right Back | Centerback | Left Back | Central Midfield | Right Midfield | Left Midfield

Almost there. Last poll, for center forward, early next week.

I debated over the name of the poll. “Second striker,” “deep-lying forward,” “attacking midfielder,” “trequartista.” There’s a bit of truth in all and none of them; that’s how it works when you’re naming positions instead of roles.

And the role can change, as we’ve seen with Liverpool. Gerrard’s positioning and time on the ball partly depends on who he’s playing with and the opposition. Similar goes for when Kuyt or Benayoun’s been drafted into the role, although Gerrard has the most freedom simply because he’s Captain Fantastic. Benayoun would be on this list if he weren’t winning the LM poll by more than 20%; I reckon its his best position.

Even though I’ve titled this “second striker,” there aren’t many strikers on the list – more midfielders in the same vein as the last two polls. Players like Baros, Bellamy, Crouch, and Cisse – even Heskey – only seem to fit as a center forward in the 4-2-3-1 formation. Hence all the recurring names. Regardless, there’s only going to be one winner in this poll.

Luis Garcia (2004-2007)
Appearances: 121
Goals: 30

Well, I’ve managed to include him in each of the polls across the attacking line of three. Garcia came in second on the left with 32.1% so far, and third on the right with 16.8%. Either way, he looks certain to make the bench.

Steven Gerrard (1998-present)
Appearances: 503
Goals: 124

As if I could do Gerrard justice with 5000 words, let alone a hundred or so. Liverpool through and through from childhood, from a rampaging if injury-prone midfielder to an all-around great, one mentioned in the same breath as the best players in the world. Because Gerrard simply is one of the preeminent players of this generation, and is easily the most well-rounded. I’m convinced he could succeed in any position on the pitch. I don’t need to list his exploits, medals, heroic performances, or last-ditch winners. “Talismanic” doesn’t even come close to covering it.

Harry Kewell (2003-2008)
Appearances: 139
Goals: 16

Kewell played his best football for Liverpool on the left, but was most deadly for both Leeds and Australia behind Viduka. Which is why Benitez took a gamble on starting him in the position against AC Milan in 2005.

Jari Litmanen (2001-2002)
Appearances: 43
Goals: 9

One of the perks of running the contest is getting to nominate certain players even if they’ve no chance of winning. Well, this is one of those choices. Liverpool clearly didn’t have him in his prime, but he was only 30, and provided a much-needed creative spark. His link-up play in attack was superlative. But Jari was injury-prone and got in the way of Houllier’s “hoof it to Heskey and Owen!” strategy. Babel thinks he’s had it bad? The number of times Litmanen was left out after playing well was infuriating, and he lasted less than 18 months in Liverpool.

Vladimir Smicer (1999-2005)
Appearances: 184
Goals: 19

And Smicer was the man who replaced Kewell behind Baros against AC Milan, actually scoring the second goal and the fourth penalty in the process. That’s why the memory of Vladi kissing the badge moments before Liverpool lifted its fifth European Cup still remains as strong as ever.

16 December 2009

Liverpool 2-1 Wigan

Carragher Skrtel Agger Insua
Benayoun Gerrard Mascherano Aurelio
Ngog Kuyt

Ngog 10’
Torres 79’
N’Zogbia 90+2’

An egregiously stupid goal given up in the second minute of second half injury time takes some gloss off a workman-like performance, one which saw a bit of normalcy resuming with a deserved win.

Yes, Liverpool were sloppy at times, and should have pushed on from a well-taken 10th-minute Ngog goal. Kirkland made some two very smart saves to keep the margin at one, and a ten-minute lull after the hour mark almost saw Liverpool concede yet another unfortunate equalizer. But this time, Scotland’s shot caromed off the crossbar. Inches make differences.

Torres’ goal four minutes later looked to seal the victory, but N’Zogbia’s late show made the last two minutes much more nerve-wracking than they should have been. Liverpool certainly could have done with a clean sheet, but you can’t complain about three points. I’m almost happier that Liverpool had to hold on and work for those three points than if Wigan had rolled over after the early strike. The team had to show some character, and that’ll go some way toward raising confidence.

It certainly wasn’t the expected line-up or formation, though. Whether for precaution or rest with three games in six days, Torres, Aquilani, and Lucas all began on the bench, with Johnson not even in the squad. And I don’t think we’ve seen the 4-4-2 since the 4-4 against Arsenal last season.

Gerrard sat far deeper with both Ngog and Kuyt operating as strikers, and it was the young Frenchman who struck first, glancing Aurelio’s deep cross past Kirkland with the keeper foolishly rushing off his line. At times, it was not entirely unlike a coherent attack. At others, we saw a sloppy side prone to giveaways, leading to some end-to-end action, with Wigan unable to profit mainly thanks to Mascherano’s constant presence.

The 4-4-2 formation led to a more open game than we’re used to, with Liverpool giveaways contributing to said openness, but the home side always looked more likely. Both sides were happier on the break, and Liverpool deserved their 1-0 lead at halftime. They probably should have been further ahead. Wigan demonstrated their intent, and Liverpool’s potential problems, when the defense was caught sleeping on Rodallega’s deep cross less than a minute after the opener, but Scharner couldn’t get power on his header, making it easy for Reina. Five minutes later, Kirkland did well to parry Kuyt’s near post shot from Ngog’s clever pullback.

Benayoun was a constant threat down the right, Ngog was clearly emboldened by his goal, and Mascherano was an absolute terror in midfield. But chances should have been easier to come by; Liverpool probed well down the flanks, but most crosses or centers failed to find the target. The best came right before halftime: another tempting Aurelio cross narrowly missed by Benayoun and a ball breaking to Ngog in space hit just wide of the far post after terrific pace from the striker.

The second half started with more of the same, only Kirkland provided an even better save six minutes in. Kuyt started the move with a lovely pass to Ngog down the right and got into space for the striker’s cutback, only with the keeper able to keep out the well-hit shot.

Wigan sent on a second striker, Scotland for Diame, in the 58th, before Lucas replaced Aurelio, with Liverpool reverting to the usual 4-2-3-1. Torres soon followed for Ngog, and Liverpool should have gone two up when Agger mishit an absolute free header in the 65th, before Wigan began to reply. Two out-and-out holding midfielders seemed to invite Wigan into Liverpool’s half, and they turned increasing possession into a clear-cut chance in the 74th. When Reina flapped at a free kick in, Scotland found the ball at his feet, but thankfully his rising shot hit the bar. Every other time Liverpool’s been in a similar circumstance, it’s ended with a goal. Maybe this actually is a turning point.

Five minutes later, Torres made it certain, his 11th goal in 12 league games. The ball broke to the striker in space after Gerrard challenged Boyce on a long ball, and Torres rounded Kirkland only to see his stabbed effort blocked by Bramble. But he collected himself to round the defender and backheel into the net. You just can’t exaggerate Torres’ importance. It’s not possible.

Aquilani replaced Benayoun soon after, moving Gerrard out to the left, and Liverpool looked marginally more inventive. Aquilani even had a chance for his first goal, collecting smartly and insolently attempting an overhead kick in the area, only to see Kirkland claim the effort. But Liverpool were caught out in the 92nd when lazy defending saw N’Zogbia cut in from the right past four half-tackles (Insua, Agger, Carragher, and Lucas) before slotting under Reina. Just despicable. Thankfully, it was too late to do real damage to the result or morale.

The 4-4-2 was either forced because of the spate of games this week or an audacious attempt by Benitez to shake up the team. Either way, it worked. As said above, Mascherano was a monster, much needed in this formation, while Benayoun was impressive and Ngog looked better having a second striker in support. Saturday’s game will give us more insight as to whether this will be a real change in tactics, but I’m betting we’re back to 4-2-3-1, and I’d even bet Aquilani starts (along with Torres).

Either way, it’s the result Liverpool needed. And I’m glad they had to work for it. Keep working for it. Pompey on Saturday.

15 December 2009

Liverpool v Wigan 12.16.09

3pm, live in the US on Setanta

Last 4 head-to-head:
1-1 (a) 01.28.09
3-2 Liverpool (h) 10.18.08
1-1 (h) 01.02.09
1-0 Liverpool (a) 09.29.07

Last three matches:
Liverpool: 1-2 Arsenal (h); 1-2 Fiorentina (h); 0-0 Blackburn (a)
Wigan: 2-2 Stoke (a); 2-3 Brum (h); 1-0 Sunderland (h)

Goalscorers (league):
Liverpool: Torres 10; Kuyt 5; Benayoun, Gerrard 4; Ngog 3; Babel, Johnson 2; Skrtel 1
Wigan: Rodallega 6; Boyce, Scharner 3; N’Zogbia 2; Bramble, Figueroa, Gomez, Koumas, Sinclair 1

Referee: Phil Dowd

Guess at a squad:
Johnson Carragher Agger Aurelio
Lucas Aquilani
Kuyt Gerrard Benayoun

Once more into the breach, dear friends. Let’s hope the team’s up for it. You know, for a change.

I’m tempted to suggest the same line-up as Sunday. Despite the result, it was a good first half, and nearly Liverpool’s strongest XI. The second half abomination was down to a lack of confidence, evident after the soft equalizer, and this team desperately needs to build self-belief. Of course, I’m also tempted to suggest a radical overhaul given that damn little has gone right over the last ten weeks, but that’s not Benitez’s – or Liverpool’s – style.

Both Mascherano and Johnson picked up knocks on Sunday, but that’s not entirely why I’ve ‘left out’ Masch. I’ve left out Masch for the same reason that Liverpool started both Gerrard and Lucas in midfield against Stoke, Burnley, and Hull – to try and create some semblance of a coherent attack, and to get as many players involved in the attack as possible.

Admittedly, Wigan is a better team than Stoke, Burnley, and Hull, and those Liverpool wins came more than three months ago. And maybe it should be Masch instead of Lucas for protection in front of the back four, although I think Lucas’s ability to knit play in attack will probably be more useful tomorrow.

But with Gerrard and Aquilani on from the start, hopefully we’ll get the attacking impetus we’ve been missing. If this were the team, it’d probably end up more a 4-1-4-1 – Gerrard may even drop deeper than Aquilani more often than not – but that’s not necessarily a bad thing. As written in the Arsenal preview, I’m not necessarily opposed to seeing Gerrard replace Kuyt on the right with Aquilani ostensibly in Gerrard's usual role, but I don’t think it’s likely.

Even with Liverpool’s problems – especially susceptibility on the break – I wouldn't be surprised if Wigan will look to congest and stifle at Anfield with only Rodallega up top. But of course, Wigan’s top scorer, who almost won the last meeting between the clubs with an injury-time thumper off the crossbar, will provide a real threat.

Insua could come back in for Aurelio – who didn’t stand out against Arsenal – while if Johnson’s truly struggling with injury, Degen’s back in the squad (I don’t think Kelly’s available yet). But, regardless of the fullbacks, I hope to see the same Carragher-Agger central pairing. It’s clearly the first choice unit, and the first choice unit needs to keep playing together in the hopes the ship will finally right.

Wigan hasn’t been on the best of runs of late; the three results after the 9-1 mauling by Spurs were a narrow win over Sunderland, a loss at home against Brum, and a draw with Stoke when Rodallega's 90th minute penalty was saved. Of course, those in glass houses shouldn’t throw stones. But that Wigan’s been letting in goals – one clean sheet in the last 11 games – is welcome news.

Then again, Liverpool hasn’t had the best of luck against the Latics in recent seasons, with or without Steve Bruce. A 1-1 draw last January was culmination of an infuriating winter, and Wigan got the same result at Anfield the year before. Both draws were down to individual mistakes and late goals after Liverpool had taken a 1-0 lead. Sound familiar?

Tomorrow will be “Shankly Day” at Anfield, celebrating the 50th anniversary of his arrival. Were Liverpool to yet again find a way to underwhelm, the great man himself will probably come down from heaven to beat some sense into the team.

Don’t embarrass the club in front of Shankly.

14 December 2009

Team of the Decade – Left Midfield

Previous Posts: Formation | Keeper | Right Back | Centerback | Left Back | Central Midfield | Right Midfield

Left midfield is probably the weakest position of them all, with two players who appeared in the last poll. But that should make this close. I wrote the thing, and I still don’t know who to vote for. We all know that the flanks haven’t been a strong point over the last decade, and that’s a big part of the reason for the shift to 4-2-3-1.

FYI: Benayoun appears here because Kuyt's currently winning the RM poll by almost 10 votes, and that probably won't change. This list would have included Riise had he not won the poll for left back. I could have put Aurelio here based on some recent matches, but it hasn’t led to many memorable results (memorable in a good way, at least).

Yossi Benayoun (2007-present)
Appearances: 112
Goals: 26

I’ve often argued Yossi’s best on the right or in the hole, but because of Gerrard and Kuyt, he’s started on the left most often during his Liverpool career. Last season it was often out of necessity, but by the end of the campaign and throughout this year, Benayoun’s rightfully beaten out Riera for the place.

Patrik Berger (1996-2003)
Appearances: 196
Goals: 35

The other natural winger on the list along with Riera, with a stellar left foot, but only 75 of his appearances (and nine of his goals) came during this decade. He had a good first year, but then struggled until Houllier took over, when he began playing behind the strikers more often. 1999-2000 saw his last strong season in a Liverpool shirt before a November 2000 knee injury, which was the first in a long line of problems that hampered the rest of his Liverpool career, finally sold to Pompey prior to Houllier’s last season.

Luis Garcia (2004-2007)
Appearances: 121
Goals: 30

Left-footed, Garcia was just as liable to play on the left as he was a second striker or right-winger, and like others in this poll and the last, more known for versatility than a predominant position. I’d again like to reiterate his knack for key goals, scoring in every knockout round before the Istanbul final, and his trickery and guile, which Liverpool undoubtedly lacked at the time. And I’d like to forget his inconsistency and when the tricks didn’t come off.

Harry Kewell (2003-2008)
Appearances: 139
Goals: 16

I’m often of two minds about Kewell, both while he was at Liverpool and after the fact. I’ve become convinced Babel is the new Kewell; on paper, he seemed just the player Liverpool needed, but, of course, the game isn’t played on paper. We rarely saw the form that made him an absolute star at Leeds – probably only during his first season and the second half of ’05-06 – and like with Berger and Garcia, we’ve injuries to thank. He’ll probably best be remembered for being substituted in three finals in two seasons, an auspicious record to say the least.

Albert Riera (2008-present)
Appearances: 51
Goals: 5

Boy, it felt like we won the lottery after Riera’s debut against the Mancs. His first start and Liverpool beat United in the league for the first time since Houllier was in charge, with Riera forcing Wes Brown into an equalizing own goal. He was a different option, a natural winger who hugged the touchline, combined with the fullback, and drove to the byline. Scored a couple of superlative belters too. But, as happened during his tenure with City and Espanyol, Riera was inconsistent far too often, and combined with a recent injury, it’s allowed Benayoun to claim the position.

Liverpool after losing the lead

Yesterday's was the third game of the season where Liverpool lost 1-2 after leading 1-0.

How easily this team has gifted the opposition wins or draws after scoring first is beyond infuriating. Liverpool's lost the lead after going 1-0 up in a quarter of the games so far this season. That is not how Benitez teams play.

Losing a lead isn't necessarily specific to this team or this season, but in the last few years, Liverpool's at least been able to haul themselves back into it a few times. I miss those all-important late goals.

Surprisingly, Liverpool was best at not losing a lead in Benitez's first three seasons, especially seasons 2 and 3 – losses and draws came when Liverpool couldn't score, leads were protected. Relatedly, I still miss Sami Hyypia. Liverpool won the most games despite losing the lead in '07/08, with Torres and Gerrard getting most of those winners, but also lost the most points when going ahead.

Below are Liverpool's results in games under Benitez where they've gone in front only to see the opposition equalize, and how many "points" the team subsequently lost in each season because of it. Yes, I know that the FA and Carling Cup games didn't count for points; neither did most of the Champions League games. But it's the best way to make a clear comparison. And the comparison isn't good.

'09-10 (through 24 games): 1-2 Arse; 1-2 Fiorentina (CL); 2-2 City; 2-2 Brum; 1-1 Lyon (CL); 1-2 Lyon (CL); update: 6-1 Hull
1 win
, 3 draws, 3 losses
7 games, -15 points (-7 in the league)

'08-09: 4-4 Arse; 4-4 Chelsea (CL); 1-3 Chelsea (CL); 1-1 Wigan; 1-1 Everton; 1-2 Spurs; 1-1 Atletico (CL); 2-1 Crewe (CC)
1 win, 5 draws, 2 losses
8 games, -16 points (-9 in the league)

'07-08: 1-1 Chelsea (CL); 4-2 Arse (CL); 1-1 Arse; 1-2 Barnsley (FA); 2-2 Villa; 1-1 Luton (FA); 1-1 Wigan; 2-1 Derby; 4-1 Porto (CL); 2-1 Cardiff (CC); 1-1 Arse; 2-2 Spurs; 4-2 Reading (CC); 1-1 Chelsea; 2-1 Villa
6 wins, 8 draws, 1 loss
15 games, -19 points (-12 in the league)

'06-07: 2-1 Reading; 1-2 Newcastle; 2-3 Galatasaray (CL); 1-1 Haifa (CL); 2-1 Chelsea (Community Shield)
2 wins, 1 draw, 2 losses
5 games; -8 points (-3 in the league)

'05-06: 3-1 Villa; 2-1 West Ham; 1-1 Brum; 2-2 Brum
2 wins, 2 draws, 0 losses
4 games, -4 points (-4 in the league)

'04-05: 2-1 Pompey; 2-3 Chelsea (CC Final); 3-1 Fulham; 1-1 Pompey; 1-1 Villa; 2-1 Arsenal; 3-2 Palace; 2-2 Blackburn; 1-1 Spurs
4 wins, 4 draws, 1 loss
9 games, -11 points (-8 in the league)

13 December 2009

Liverpool 1-2 Arsenal

Johnson Carragher Agger Aurelio
Lucas Mascherano
Kuyt Gerrard Benayoun

Kuyt 41’
Johnson (og) 50’
Arshavin 58’

I should have gone to the basketball game.

A great first half, but an awful second half. And Liverpool lose despite taking the lead thanks to said awful second half. Complete and utter impotence when driving for a late goal, the exact opposite of last season’s team. Sound familiar?

A furious, high-pressing start almost saw Liverpool score twice before 15 minutes were off the clock. That’s the tempo and ambition we needed from the team; a 12th minute break between Gerrard and Torres ended with a tame Torres shot too close to Almunia before Gerrard should have won a penalty a minute later, with Webb ignoring Gallas’ reckless challenge because, I can only assume, Gerrard had pushed the ball too far forward.

Mascherano was in the middle of all of it, and a 25th minute injury, for which Denilson saw yellow, brought the tempo down. Yet, as Arsenal grew into the game, Liverpool found a way to take the lead four minutes before halftime, from a set play, through the much-maligned Kuyt. Aurelio’s deep central free kick found Lucas, who headed too close to Almunia. But Kuyt was there to clean up, poking home while Lucas stayed inactive in an offside position, for his sixth goal of the season.

But Arsenal came out of the blocks far stronger in the second half, and it didn’t take Liverpool long to pay for it. As usual. It’s utterly amazing how many times Liverpool’s forgotten that it’s a game of two halves, and they've paid for it in every single one.

First, an unfortunate fluke own goal from Johnson after Nasri’s cross took two deflections and Glen’s errant touch wrong-footed Reina. Eight minutes later, that man Arshavin punished Liverpool at Anfield yet again with a goal from nothing. His control on a deep cross took him around Johnson and a typical hammered shot with no backlift beat Reina. Fuck me running.

Aquilani’s entrance, for Mascherano on 66 minutes, saw Liverpool shift into a 4-1-4-1 formation, but Arsenal still saw more possession when shutting up shop, and the home side once again found it hard to break through. Ngog, on for the subpar Benayoun in the 79th, changed it again, to 4-4-2, but with little difference to the play. I’m struggling to think of any second half shots on target. Benayoun was invisible, while Torres’ clearly needs match fitness (as does Gerrard). Those are Liverpool’s three main attacking options, and when they suck, so does Liverpool. Finally having the first choice backline still saw Liverpool ship two goals, with Johnson mainly at fault for both (although Arsenal’s second was classic Arshavin).

This is a bad, bad loss. There’s no overemphasizing that. It’s the worst in the league – worse than Fulham or Sunderland – and probably only comparable to the late loss against Lyon. I’m furious at Howard Webb for the non-penalty, and every 50-50 call went Arsenal’s way, but this is AGAIN of Liverpool’s own making.

This win puts Arsenal in third by two points with a game in hand, and opens the chasm between them and the chasing pack. This loss makes fourth place infinitely harder, and it was already a challenge only halfway through December. The next three games are against Wigan, Wolves, and Pompey, before a trip to Villa on December 29. Liverpool simply cannot take anything other than 12 points from those four, or the season really is well and truly over.

11 December 2009

Liverpool v Arsenal 12.13.09

11am, live in the US on FSC

Last 4 head-to-head:
1-2 (a; CC) 10.28.09
4-4 (h) 04.21.09
1-1 (a) 12.21.08
4-2 Liverpool (h; CL) 04.08.08

Last three matches:
Liverpool: 1-2 Fiorentina (h); 0-0 Blackburn (a); 2-0 Everton (a)
Arsenal: 0-1 Olympiakos (a); 2-0 Stoke (h); 0-3 City (a)

Goalscorers (league):
Liverpool: Torres 10; Benayoun, Gerrard, Kuyt 4; Ngog 3; Babel, Johnson 2; Skrtel 1
Arsenal: van Persie 7; Fabregas 6; Arshavin 5; Vermaelan 4; Diaby, Gallas 3; Ramsey 2; Bendtner, Denilson, Eboue, Eduardo, Rosicky, Walcott 1

Referee: Howard Webb

Guess at a squad:
Johnson Carragher Agger Aurelio
Lucas Mascherano
Kuyt Gerrard Benayoun

With Torres playing nearly half an hour on Wednesday, here’s hoping he’s fit enough to start on Sunday. Lord knows Liverpool needs his goals.

According to Benitez, only Riera, Kelly, and El Zhar are assuredly out. Which means that Aurelio and Ngog should come back into the squad after their absence on Wednesday. Aurelio will be crucial – we’ve seen Benitez say Insua needs a rest, and it was noticeable against Fiorentina. I wouldn’t mind Dossena at either position on the left if need be (he was diligent and put in some decent crosses), especially since Riera’s still out, but if Aurelio and Benayoun are both available, that’s a far stronger flank.

But maybe we’ll see a change on the right as well. I hate to keep harping on Kuyt, but he hasn’t improved over the last month, whether on the flanks or as a striker. I know the chance of him left out is miniscule to say the least, but there’s the possibility of playing Benayoun on the right and Dossena on the left. Or, if you really want a curveball, as I’m incredibly tempted to suggest, there’s this front six:

Lucas Mascherano
Gerrard Aquilani Benayoun

As said in Wednesday’s match review, I don’t know if Aquilani’s ready for a midfield start against Arsenal. He hesitated in the tackle and wasn’t much for tracking back against familiar Italian opposition. Granted, first start after a long injury, but I hate to think what sort of gaps Arsenal could exploit if Aqua’s partnering Masch. But, with both Lucas and Mascherano holding and Gerrard out wider on the right (up against whoever’s fit for Arsenal at left back, because neither Gibbs nor Clichy are), Aquilani’s passing further up the field could trouble the Gunners.

We’ve had some well-founded complains about luck with injuries so far this season. But Arsenal’s in as bad of a state as Liverpool’s been, with questions over Eduardo and Diaby, while Bendtner, Clichy, Djourou, Eboue, Gibbs, Rosicky, and van Persie are out. Unless Eduardo vastly improved this week, Vela’s the lone recognized striker; Arshavin (he of the 4 goals at Anfield last season) started up top in Arsenal’s 2-0 win over Stoke last week, scoring the opener.

I’m sick of writing about the importance of every single game and every possible turning point. Evidently, so is Benitez, who said, "It is important, but every game will be important until the end of the season." All Liverpool can do is win one game at a time, and push their way up the league. Taking points off the third place side, four points ahead of Liverpool in the table, is the perfect start.

10 December 2009

Team of the Decade – Right Midfield

Previous posts: Formation | Keeper | Right Back | Centerback | Left Back | Central Midfield

Well, the last vote was the closest. Hamann took second over Mascherano by five votes. I haven’t been closing the polls, so things might change, but I doubt it.

The team so far is:

Finnan Carragher Hyypia Riise
Alonso Hamann

The next three votes – RM, LM, and second striker – are going to see some repeat names. Liverpool’s had a fair few players that could play anywhere along the line of three. Unless they win, I’m probably going to be listing Benayoun, Garcia, and Smicer more than once.

Once again, I could see this vote being quite close.

Yossi Benayoun (2007-present)
Appearances: 111
Goals: 26

I hate to think how much worse this season could be without Benayoun. He’s often been the only goal threat in Torres’ absence. Even yesterday, when he flitted in and out of the game, he scored Liverpool’s lone strike. Already with three hat-tricks – as many as Gerrard has in his career – in three different competitions in less than three seasons, Benayoun’s proved a wonderful addition. Arriving at the same time as Babel, with much less fanfare, I don’t think I have to argue as to who’ll be the better player anymore.

Luis Garcia (2004-2007)
Appearances: 121
Goals: 30

This. A thousand years of this. He had a few other screamers in his time as well, and was a surprisingly excellent header of the ball for someone only 5’7”. Garcia could be an absolutely brilliant little player or could utterly infuriate you with his giveaways. I still maintain that his injury in ’06-07 was a large reason that Liverpool took two steps back that season. He wanted to go back to Spain at the same time that Liverpool were negotiating with Benayoun, and Yossi’s been an upgrade, but I still miss little Luis.

Dirk Kuyt (2006-present)
Appearances: 169
Goals: 45

It’s a bit tricky writing a glowing paragraph about Kuyt right now. He’s struggled on the right and up top, and has been even more disappointing than during the understandably difficult season when his father died. But I can’t help my soft spot for Kuyt. The official scapegoat prior to Lucas, he was easily one of the best wingers in the Premiership last season, with double-digit goals and assists. Despite long spells of profligacy, he’s a big game goalscorer – Everton, Arsenal (CL), Chelsea, and Inter, among others – who also provided some essential late winners last season. His workrate and tracking back is utterly crucial to the style of football Benitez wants to play, which is why he remains one of the first names on the team sheet.

Jermaine Pennant (2006-2008)
Appearances: 81
Goals: 3

£6.7m isn’t anything to scoff at, but Pennant is what happens when you buy English on a budget. Playing for his supposedly favorite club never provided the maturity he needed, and a few decent performances in his first season – including an unbelievable goal against Chelsea and an arguable man of the match in the 2007 CL Final – were pretty much the highlight of his Liverpool career. For a fleet right-winger, he seemed to have just one pitch – the lofted back post cross – which only Crouch thrived on. I lost track of the number of times I screamed “RUN AT YOUR MAN” at the TV when Pennant was playing. It was little surprise to see him leave as soon as his contract ended, and I still hold a grudge for not leaving sooner, when Liverpool could have gotten a fee for him.

Vladimir Smicer (1999-2005)
Appearances: 184
Goals: 19

Recruited to fill the void left by McManaman, Smicer’s injury problems and trouble adapting to English football saw him in and out of the squad over his entire Liverpool career. When he was fit – like during the treble season and the year after – he had some impressive moments: a winner against Chelsea in 2002 and excellent performances in European victories over Dortmund and Roma. Like many other squad players, he was essential to Liverpool’s ’04-05 Champions League campaign. Although Kewell got the nod in the final, Smicer replaced him a half an hour in, scoring the second goal with a speculative long-range effort, and tallying a crucial penalty in the shootout with the last kick of his Liverpool career.

09 December 2009

Liverpool 1-2 Fiorentina

Darby Skrtel Agger Insua
Aquilani Mascherano
Benayoun Gerrard Dossena

Benayoun 43’
Jorgensen 63’
Gilardino 90+2’

Well, that adequately sums up this year’s Champions League campaign.

Another below speed first half, but Liverpool went ahead thanks to Benayoun. Better play in the second half still saw Liverpool ship two goals, both on the break, including another injury time winner. At this point, it’s funny, right? I mean, this season’s been so implausible it has to be funny. This has to be a joke. I think Andy Kaufman’s writing the script.

The game started brightly enough given the circumstances and team sheets. Liverpool looked to attack, and Fiorentina, with two holding midfielders in Donadel and Montolivo, congested and stifled. The first forays forward came down Liverpool’s left – the best early on after Aquilani and Gerrard combined to put Dossena in space, with Kuyt unable to get to the cross. That’d be a recurring theme.

Ngog must have picked up a late injury, not even in the squad after doing the press conference with Benitez yesterday. Once again, Kuyt made no headway as a lone striker. Liverpool consistently had little presence in the box when crosses came in, and the Dutchman was offside five times in the first half (the referee played on once with Fiorentina in possession). That’s as bad as Cisse or Baros.

Hearts were in mouths in the 11th when Agger’s short back pass let Santana in, but Cavalieri came out to close down. As Liverpool proved unable to ask questions, the away side grew in stature. And it was Liverpool’s left that looked vulnerable when Fiorentina attacked.

In the 26th, Fiorentina had two chances down that flank, as De Silvestri’s cross just eluded Jorgensen before Gilardino reached a throughball at the byline, only for Jorgensen to sky the cutback. Seven minutes later, there were two more close calls in quick succession, as Cavalieri did well to tip over De Silvestri’s close-range header from a corner before the keeper caught Montolivo’s bouncing volley from the subsequent set-play.

That Torres warming up around the 40th minute drew the loudest applause summed up the first half to that point. But three minutes later, Gerrard won a free kick outside the box on the right, and the captain’s ball in was perfectly met by an unmarked Benayoun at the near post, his flicked header beating Frey low into the far corner.

From there, it should have been Liverpool’s game. And the team stepped it up in the second half, much better going forward and rarely threatened until exposed, once again, on the break. Seconds before Liverpool were to bring on Torres, Fiorentina charged down Liverpool’s left. An early ball was cleverly dummied to Gilardino, who found Jorgensen out wide when Darby was sucked inside. With an acre of space, the winger made no mistake. Naturally, Liverpool should have extended their lead less that a minute before, when Agger was an inch away from meeting Gerrard’s free kick. ‘Funny old game’ doesn’t even cover it.

Torres’ entrance – for Kuyt – livened Liverpool, and the home side had the better chances in an increasingly open game that both teams wanted to win. Fiorentina sent on heavyweights Vargas and Marchionni, but Liverpool responded with Gerrard shooting into the side netting after a scramble in the box and Dossena narrowly missing Torres’ cross.

Aquilani lasted 76 minutes, replaced by Pacheco (making his first appearance). It’s hard to divine much from Aqua’s performance; it was his first start in a new team, not even the first XI, after an almost yearlong injury. He had some clever touches, combining well with Gerrard on a few occasions, and some bad giveaways. He doesn’t spend nearly as much time on the ball as Alonso, but showed a similar range of passing and looked to push the ball forward instead of sideways or backwards. I wasn’t impressed by his tackling or tracking back, and would be incredibly surprised if he started on Sunday. It’s early days, but I didn’t see anything to change my initial impression. He’s a more attacking option, something different and with obvious talents, but we’re still going to see a fair bit of Lucas/Mascherano.

And it was Pacheco that nearly won the game with his first touch. Receiving the ball on the left edge of the box, Pacheco cracked a snap shot that Frey had to turn around the post. That would have been a hell of a way to debut. Chances continued, but none as good, as Liverpool remained just inches off. Another persistent theme this season. Twice more the team just failed to connect with crosses into the box – Torres a step behind Gerrard’s after a smart run and Dossena unable to make good contact jumping between two defenders.

And then, once again, Liverpool were punished. And, unfortunately, it’s down to Stephen Darby. I don’t want to blame a young player making his first start. I truly don’t. And it’s not as if the kid didn’t do admirably for most of the game. But when he dawdled in possession in the 92nd minute, the dangerous Vargas nipped in and stripped him. Charging down an open flank, it was easy for the Peruvian to center for Gilardino. 1-2. And with seven points and a -2 goal difference, Liverpool won’t even be seeded for the Europa League draw.

It’s deserved, just like Fiorentina deserves to top the group. I want to excoriate much of the performance – especially the first half and late goal – but I wrote that this was a "meaningless" game multiple times. The amount of changes to the line-up hopefully indicates that this will have little bearing on the team’s league form, which had improved through November before last Saturday’s poor draw. This Champions League’s been nothing short of awful. Let’s hope Liverpool’s exit from it marks the start of something different.

08 December 2009

Liverpool v Fiorentina 12.09.09

2:45pm, live in the US on DirecTV. Because it’s basically meaningless, it’s not on either FSC or Setanta. It’s on one of those stations (channel 462 in this case; 462-1 in HD) that show every Champions League and Europe League game. I sincerely apologize for rubbing it in if you can’t get or afford DirecTV, but I adore it.

Last 3 matches:
Liverpool: 0-0 Blackburn (a); 2-0 Everton (a); 1-0 Debrecen (a)
Fiorentina: 2-0 Atalanta (h); 0-1 Inter (a); 1-0 Lyon (h)

Group Stage:
Liverpool: 1-0 Debrecen (a); 1-1 Lyon (a); 1-2 Lyon (h); 0-2 Fiorentina (a); 1-0 Debrecen (h)
Fiorentina: 1-0 Lyon (h); 5-2 Debrecen (h); 4-3 Debrecen (a); 2-0 Liverpool (h); 0-1 Lyon (a)

Goalscorers (CL):
Liverpool: Babel, Benayoun, Kuyt, Ngog 1
Fiorentina: Mutu 3; Gilardino, Jovetic 2; Dainelli, Marchionni, Montolivo, Santana, Vargas 1

Referee: Damir Skomina (SVN)

That’s an unfamiliar name. I think he worked the WC qualifier between Ukraine and England, which England lost 0-1.

Guess at a squad:
Johnson Carragher Agger Insua
Mascherano Aquilani
Kuyt Gerrard Benayoun

Without a doubt, the least excited I’ve ever been for a Liverpool match. Other than the sheer delight of watching Liverpool, Aquilani’s first start seems the only enticement. I’m tempted to suggest even more changes, a la the Carling Cup, but the first team players aren’t going to hit any sort of stride by sitting on the bench, and only a few should be protected for Sunday’s match against Arsenal.

But, yeah, the big news is that Aquilani’s seemingly ready. I tried to rationalize his lack of appearances in the comments of Saturday’s match review – I do think there’s a rationalization – and I’m not surprised this is the match where he starts for the first time. He’s fit and familiar with Italian opposition, it’s an inconsequential match, and both Lucas and Mascherano could do with a rest. Lucas has started every single Premiership and Champions League match so far.

Which is half of the reason I’m suggesting Mascherano paired with Aquilani in the middle. Like Insua, who Benitez also mentioned today, Lucas is one of those players who’s started more games than Benitez probably wanted. The other reason is defense; yes, Fiorentina’s already qualified, but Mascherano’s holding abilities will still be more necessary than Lucas. Maybe we’ll see Spearing or Plessis, but I’d rather Aquilani partner someone he’ll be playing with regularly.

It seems as if Torres will only be fit for the bench (which is good news; he’s improved enough to be involved, but Benitez won’t risk him from the start). In his absence and with the lack of goals, I’m tempted to suggest 4-4-2 with Kuyt and Ngog up top (Voronin hasn’t been in the squad since the draw against Lyon, and I haven’t seen any reports of injury), some combination of Benayoun, Riera, and El Zhar on the flanks (Babel’s still injured), and Aquilani and Mascherano in central midfield. I obviously think Gerrard needs the game off to further recuperate, but with Riera picking up a knock against Blackburn, I don’t know if that’s possible.

But if 4-2-3-1 is truly the way forward, Liverpool needs to use the system whether it’s the first team or the reserves. Arsenal plays like Arsenal whether they’re facing Chelsea or it’s the kids in the Carling Cup. Similar goes for United. That’s why I’m hesitant to suggest changes, although injuries have certainly limited Liverpool’s options. Maybe El Zhar will start on the right after his cameo against Blackburn, but El Zhar on the right means Kuyt’s probably out. We all know Kuyt’s never left out.

As with the rest of the line-up, I’m tempted to guess some reserves in defense. Cavalieri looks the most likely given the circumstances and Benitez’s aforementioned comments, along with Insua (with Dossena, also familiar with Fiorentina, possibly starting). But I’d rather the same backline for consistency. After such a shaky start, Liverpool’s kept three straight clean sheets with Johnson, Carragher, Agger, Insua, and Reina.

How strong Fiorentina’s team will be remains uncertain. With a win, Fiorentina could top the group. A draw would do it if Lyon doesn’t beat Debrecen by at least two goals. But I imagine La Viola will be happy with qualification, rest players, and focus on the fight for fourth in the league (sound familiar? – except for the qualification part, of course). Jovetic, who scored twice in the last meeting, is fit again, but Adrian Mutu’s still out after knee surgery. Fiorentina’s starting XI over the weekend was Frey, De Silvestri, Dainelli, Kroldrup, Pasqual, Santana, Donadel, Montolivo, Vargas, Jovetic, and Gilardino.

After failing to qualify for the knockout stage for the first time under Benitez, it’s hard to argue that Liverpool doesn’t deserve their fate and this meaningless fixture. All I can hope for is no more injuries going forward. If the team continues the unbeaten streak started at the end of October, all the better for morale and momentum. But it’s this weekend’s fixture that truly matters.