25 March 2009

International breaks

I’m so scared of jinxing it, but since I was wondering and bothered to look up the stats, I figured I should share.

There have been five international breaks this season, not counting the current one. Liverpool are 3-2-0 in games right after the break, and 7-3-0 you count two games after. It doesn’t seem to matter whether it’s a two-week break or just a midweek game.

Break between Pompey 2/7 (W) and City 2/22
• City 1-1, Real 1-0

Mid-week break between Bolton 11/15 (W) and Fulham 11/22
• Fulham 0-0, Marseille 1-0

Break between City 10/5 (W) and Wigan 10/18
• Wigan 3-2, Atletico 1-1

Break between Villa 8/31 (D) and United 9/13
• United 2-1, Marseille 2-1

Mid-week break between Sunderland 8/16 (W) and Boro 8/23
• Boro 2-1, Liege 1-0

Three points more often than not, but not the clean sweep ostensibly needed. Other than the win over United, Liverpool hasn’t been at their best following the breaks – not really surprising given the number of international players in the squad. But they delivered against United, where there was the most pressure and they had the most to prove, so maybe that’s a good sign. It can’t get much more nerve-racking than it will be during this run-in.

24 March 2009

Xabi Alonso – Player of the Year

My biggest blogging regret – and there are a few – is writing ‘if Rafa wants Barry over Alonso, it should happen’ over the summer. I could not have been more wrong, but thanks to Martin O’Neill’s intransigence, it never came to that.

I don’t mean to downplay Gerrard’s importance to the team – 20+ goals, one of the finest seasons of his career, a smashing partnership with the game’s top striker, and he’s probably the best all-around player in the world. The kudos from Zidane, the flirtation from Real Madrid, all proof of Gerrard’s value. But Xabi Alonso makes this team tick.

There was a quote from the Daily Telegraph report after last Sunday’s match against Villa that I absolutely adore. “…[T]he star of the show was Xabi Alonso. The Basque appears to operate in a vortex, time slowed around him so he always seems to have space. It is a rare gift.”

Rare to say the least. Alonso doesn’t move into space, he creates it from thin air with his positioning and close control, and has the vision to play a pass to any part of the pitch from anywhere else. He is an absolute artist – directing traffic seemingly without a care in the world, coolly spreading the ball wherever he sees fit to start the attack.

I’m reminded of a Renaissance book I read as an undergraduate called The Book of the Courtier. One had to have many talents to fit into a Renaissance court, but most important was:
“…[T]o practice in all things a certain sprezzatura, so as to conceal all art and make whatever is done or said appear to be without effort and almost without any thought about it.”
That’s Alonso. That’s Alonso to a tee.

And it’s his absences that truly demonstrate his importance.

On the bench for the opening game against Sunderland, he comes in to play a perfect throughball for Torres to score the winner. Plessis hasn’t gotten a sniff in the league since. Alonso was similarly important off the bench against Pompey last month.

Suspended against Manchester City in February, Liverpool plays out an unimpressive draw. He didn’t play against Wigan a month earlier as well, another which ended 1-1, or in the second draw against Stoke, where Liverpool struggled to pass through a paper bag, in early January.

It’s not as if Liverpool hasn’t been crap at times when he’s played – the Middlesbrough loss and the first draw against Stoke stick out – but those are exceptions rather than rules. I firmly believe that if either the Mancs or the Arse had him, they’d walk to the title.

And that’s not even touching upon his personality – how he’s classy, cultured, and seemingly Benitez personified on the field. I’d put a hefty wager on him becoming a top manager after his career.

What a player. So glad he’s ours.

22 March 2009

Liverpool 5-0 Aston Villa

Arbeloa Carragher Skrtel Aurelio
Mascherano Alonso
Kuyt Gerrard Riera

Kuyt 8’
Riera 33’
Gerrard 40’ (pen) 50’ 65’ (pen)

This team certainly knows how to make things interesting. What a difference confidence makes.

So much for Alonso and Arbeloa missing out, and so much for questioning Riera’s form. All three were outstanding today, but once again, the entire team has kicked into another gear, and we were rewarded with a romp.

Liverpool looked ready for it from the whistle, and the pressure led to the early goal that’s often so crucial – Kuyt in the 8th, slamming home the rebound after Alonso’s header from Gerrard’s free kick ricocheted off the crossbar.

But don’t be fooled by the final score. A couple of good chances followed soon after, with Gerrard twice firing wide from a narrow angle, but Villa were in it for the first 30 minutes, and if it wasn’t for Reina, it could have been level. The difference in the last three games has been Liverpool’s willingness to press forward, and it’s led to an open game, which we had here.

But Reina claimed pretty much everything that came into his box, and twice saved Carew headers (in the 21st and 25th) as the Norwegian striker consistently won aerial challenges. Under threat far less in the second half, Pepe still did everything asked of him the few times he was called into action. He’s now kept 100 clean sheets faster than any keeper in Liverpool history, and I wouldn’t trade him for any other.

And in the 33rd minute, another punt over the top from Reina led to the goal that basically sealed it. Once again, the opposition’s defense is punished when they let the ball bounce – this time Riera ran away from Barry, got to it first, and gorgeously half-volleyed past Friedel. Torres’ strike against Madrid and two of four goals against United came from similar long balls.

The other three goals were pretty much academic, and I don’t say that to belittle Villa. Liverpool were untouchable today, and any team would have struggled to come back from two down. And a third looked imminent as soon as the second went in; Gerrard and Arbeloa both went close before Riera won a penalty within six minutes. Another long ball – a cross-field diagonal from Kuyt – and Riera coaxed Reo-Coker into a barge in the back. Gerrard sent Friedel the wrong way for his third from the spot in as many games.

Five minutes into the second half, the captain added the fourth with a placed free kick from the edge of the area, and it looked like the final score would be whatever Liverpool wanted. But the second penalty and sending off of Friedel in the 65th was rubbing salt in the wounds. Atkinson followed the letter of the law – Friedel did take Torres out, but contact was unavoidable, and at 4-0, a red card’s just cruel. Down to 10 men, Guzan came on for Reo-Coker, and Gerrard got his hat-trick.

Liverpool had some chances over the final 25 minutes, but pretty much just played keep-away. Alonso was taken off in following the fifth, probably precautionary having missed the previous match, while Agger returned in the 77th for Arbeloa.

Both were incredibly important, and it was refreshing to see both return from injury. Gerrard’s hat-trick will also win the headlines. But Riera’s probably my man of the match for his goal and the first penalty, as well as being an all-around threat on the left. Trailing off recently had made me question his inclusion, but he was simply awesome today, and every bit the tantalizing signing he was on his debut.

That’s the team on top form, and the potential we knew was there. We’ve seen glimpses of it – Besiktas and Marseille in the CL and Derby in the Prem last year, Newcastle a few months ago. But this three-game stretch is the first time they’ve put it together in successive matches, and against this level of opposition. I can’t say for sure, but I reckon not many sides have scored four, four, and five against three former European Cup winners in as many matches.

This weekend couldn’t have gone better for Liverpool. It’s completely unbelievable that they now sit one point behind United, albeit having played one more match, and three ahead of Chelsea. The last two games have seen them erase the goal difference deficit; Liverpool’s is now highest, plus 33. There’s no question as to who’s the in-form side.

Eight more matches. Make us dream.

20 March 2009

Liverpool v Aston Villa 03.22.09

12pm, live in the US on FSC

Last 4 head-to-head:
0-0 (a) 08.31.08
2-2 (h) 01.21.08
2-1 Liverpool (a) 08.11.07
0-0 (a) 03.18.07

Last 3 matches:
Liverpool: 4-1 United (a); 4-0 Real (h); 2-0 Sunderland (h)
Villa: 1-2 Spurs (h); 0-2 City (a); 2-2 Stoke (h)

Goalscorers (league):
Liverpool: Gerrard 10; Torres 9; Kuyt 7; Alonso, Benayoun 3; Aurelio, Babel, Riera 2; Arbeloa, Carragher, Dossena, Hyypia, Ngog 1
Villa: Agbonlahor 10; Carew 7; A Young 5; Barry 4; Sidwell 3; Milner 2; Davies, Heskey, Knight, Laursen, Petrov, Reo-Coker, L Young 1

Referee: Martin Atkinson

Guess at a squad:
Mascherano Carragher Skrtel Aurelio
Lucas Alonso
Kuyt Gerrard Riera

There are nine games left in the league campaign. Liverpool can’t drop points in any of them.

If there are no new injuries, the line-up pretty much writes itself. It’s probably too soon for Yossi to return, while there are lingering questions over Alonso and Arbeloa, both of whom missed the trip to Old Trafford. I imagine Liverpool will be more careful with Arbeloa, having suffered a recurrence of his hamstring injury in the pre-game warm-up on Saturday. And at the same time, it looks like Agger’s close to returning as well.

There are a couple of options if Arbeloa or Alonso can’t go. Carragher could step in at right back, with Hyypia reprising his immaculate performance from last Saturday in the center of defense. Lucas would probably come in for Alonso in a straight swap. But, given Mascherano’s performance at right back a couple of matches back, I reckon there’s a better chance we’ll see him there, and Lucas/Alonso in the middle, if Arbeloa's out but Alonso's fit.

The only other change I could see happening would be Dossena or Babel on the left in place of Riera, who hasn’t had the best of spells of late. But despite Dossena’s goals, I’d imagine he’s still preferred off the bench, while I reckon Benitez trusts Riera more than Babel, and will start the Spaniard unless he’s not fit.

Fifth on 52 points, Villa have had an exceptional campaign by their standards, but have also dropped off of late, winless in their last seven. It’ll mark a return to Anfield for Emile Heskey, who hasn’t scored since his first game for the Villans, as well for Friedel (and we know how I feel about former keepers facing Liverpool).

Hopefully, Liverpool will continue to play with the attack in mind. Struggling for goals for most of the season (including in the 0-0 reverse fixture at Villa Park in August), they’ve scored four both of the last two games against two of the toughest teams in Europe. It appears to be the ideal time to hit top form (okay, maybe the ideal time would have been January, but beggars can’t be choosers). Keep on.

(PS: Happy Birthday, Fernando! Now go get us a hat trick, son.)

CL Quarterfinal Draw

Villarreal v Arsenal
Man Utd v FC Porto

Liverpool v Chelsea
Barcelona v Bayern Munich

Well, I was one of four on the predictions, just like expected. Pity it was the game I cared the least about.

For the 23rd time in the last five seasons, Liverpool will face Chelsea. It's the fifth straight year they'll have met in the CL.

Meanwhile, United and Arsenal are matched up with what are arguably the two weakest sides. And paired on the same side of the bracket. Super. Feels like Platini should have given United a bye to the final and gotten it over with.

And to put the boot in, the first leg's at Anfield. At least Liverpool doesn't have to play on April 15.

We've seen players, managers, and fans alike say Liverpool's good enough to beat anyone in Europe. Well, they'll have to beat the best if they want to make it to Rome. Just like the European Cup should be.

Back in a little while with the Villa preview.

18 March 2009

About time

Rafa Benitez has signed a contract extension with Liverpool FC, keeping him at the club until 2014.

This has been a pretty decent eight days, no?

Chances are, seeing as I'm posting at least five hours after the fact, this isn't breaking news for anyone who reads this. But I had to acknowledge it. It truly is about time.

In lieu of reiterating past arguments, in case anyone's wondering why I'm so fervently behind Benitez, the 18 (now 19!) posts under the tag with his name explain more than enough.

All the focus finally on Villa, on Sunday.

17 March 2009

Dream CL Ties part deux

I am nothing if not superstitious, and since guessing the CL match-ups before the draw worked out okay in the last round, I’m doing it again.

Liverpool v Villareal
Manchester United v Chelsea
Barcelona v Bayern Munich
Arsenal v Porto

First things, thank fuck they can’t draw Liverpool, that team’s shit hot.

Chances are at least one quarterfinal will be contested by two English teams. Platini wouldn’t have it any other way. If the four English sides end up meeting each other in the next round, you know he’s fixed the draw. And after last Saturday, it feels like Liverpool v United is an absolute certainty.

But for once, I’d like Liverpool to avoid a domestic match-up. We’ve seen enough of those, thanks. And obviously, given the form they’re in, I’d also like Liverpool to avoid Barca or Bayern, but form’s gone out the window against continental sides before.

So, I’d like to see a rematch of last year’s final, seeing either United or Chelsea bounced from the tournament, as well as two of the ‘in-form’ sides facing each other in Barca v Bayern. Which would leave either Villareal or Porto for Liverpool and Arsenal. The only reason I prefer Villareal is because Liverpool have met the Portuguese before.

Last round, I got two out of eight ‘guesses’ correct. If the same probabilities hold firm, we’ll see at least one of these four proposed matches.

But what’s more important is having the second leg at Anfield. That’s more of an advantage than anything. I’d rather not see Liverpool face an English team, but for the most part, Liverpool’s the team that others want to avoid. As Uli Hoeneß, general manager of Bayern, said, “I certainly don't want to play against Liverpool," he said. "I think they are very, very strong at the moment.”

It’s nice to hear a representative of a team who won 12-1 in the last round say that about this club.

14 March 2009

Liverpool 4-1 United

Carragher Hyypia Skrtel Aurelio
Lucas Mascherano
Kuyt Gerrard Riera

Ronaldo 23’ (pen)
Torres 28’
Gerrard 44’ (pen)
Aurelio 77’
Dossena 90+1’

Hands up if you saw that coming. Yeah, right.

The double over United. That hasn’t happened since 01/02. With four goals. At Old Trafford. Four goals against both United and Real Madrid in the same week.

Let me say that again. The double over United. Scoring four at the Theater of Nightmares. Mmmm. It gets sweeter every time.

Fernando Torres has become death, the destroyer of worlds. That Gerrard fellow’s not too shabby either. But credit goes to every player on the field. The two key men set the tone, Mascherano was his usual self while Lucas played well beyond his age, and the defense was simply strangling.

It sure didn’t look like it was going to be Liverpool’s day at the start. It took about five minutes for the visitors to get a hold of the ball as United, especially through Rooney running at Carragher (who was at right back because Arbeloa was injured in the warm-up), looked rampant.

And just as Liverpool was settling, Tevez’s beautifully weighted throughball found Park, who Reina brought down. Ronaldo stepped up to hammer it in, and it looked like it would be a long afternoon. Ha.

Torres made sure that wasn’t the case. Defenders seeing him running at them one-on-one must shit their pants – and Vidic proved that to be the case. He’s been the Premiership’s best defender for most of the season, but Torres beat the Serbian to a ball over the top, and beat Van der Sar to the bottom corner. Just like in the match at Anfield: United score early, Liverpool equalize thanks to a mistake. But Torres is one of few center forwards who can both cause and take advantage of those mistakes. Game on.

The goal took the stuffing out of United, and they struggled to regroup. And with the both sides even, Liverpool took the lead thanks to a penalty. I didn’t think Ferguson allowed penalties to be given at Old Trafford. But Evra took Gerrard out after Torres found him on the right, and the captain made no mistake from the spot. 2-1 at Old Trafford at the break. Deep breaths...

United spent the first 30 minutes of the second half turning the screws, but found few cracks in Liverpool’s defense. The pressure was constant, but the end product was lacking, and it’s nice to see Liverpool do that to the opposition rather than vice versa. Reina had to be ready for balls coming into the box from all angles and was, while Skrtel and Hyypia were imperious in the center.

In the 74th, United sent on Giggs, Scholes, and Berbatov in one fell swoop to try and change the game. Unfortunately for Ferguson, the game didn’t change as he hoped.

Three minutes later, on one of the few Liverpool forays into United’s half, Gerrard’s storming run on the right forced Vidic into a rash challenge for which he saw a straight red. Yes, there was a man behind him (I think it was O’Shea), but he was on the opposite side of the field, and that was a clear goal scoring opportunity. It was the right call, and losing Vidic for the next three games is as much of a blow for United as losing three points.

On the resulting free kick, Aurelio sealed the result with a spectacular curler that nestled inside the near post. Van der Sar was rooted to the spot, unable to do anything about it, and you could hear all the air go out of the stadium. It was a wonderful, unexpected feeling.

Gerrard could have added a second in the 85th, set up by Babel after another mistake from Evra, but the skipper skied over. However, Liverpool got the 4th for the second-straight game, and again it was Dossena. Another defensive mistake, another bouncing ball, and Dossena sumptuously chipped the keeper. Second game he’s played at left midfield as a sub, second goal. Maybe we’ve found the Italian’s position. Who wants to wager he'll be sold in the summer now?

I can’t say enough about the performance. Once again, Liverpool goes behind to United, once again Liverpool leaves the winner. And not only that, they scored four goals at Old Trafford. That in and of itself leaves me speechless. I can’t remember the last time United let in four at home.

I hate to harsh the buzz after that, but I can’t help but think of the much-referenced disappointing draws. That’s the double over United. Liverpool’s now 4-1-0 against the big four this season, with a home match against Arsenal left. That’s championship form, but it was canceled out by being unable to beat 10 men behind the ball on too many occasions.

The media will have a field day, and admittedly, it’s much more in play now, but I still have trouble believing the title race is back on. Four points with a game in hand still looks pretty secure given United’s form. But this re-opens the door. It’s about how United responds.

But I’ve made my peace with that already. Right now, it’s about enjoying the immaculate performance Liverpool delivered, and one of the best weeks in recent Liverpool history.

Well done.

13 March 2009

Liverpool at Manchester United 03.14.09

8:45am, live in the US on Setanta

Last 4 head-to-head:
2-1 Liverpool (h) 09.13.08
0-3 United (a) 3.23.08
0-1 United (h) 12.16.07
0-1 United (h) 03.03.07

Last 3 matches:
Liverpool: 4-0 Real (h); 2-0 Sunderland (h); 0-2 Boro (a)
United: 2-0 Inter (h); 4-0 Fulham (a); 2-1 Newcastle (a)

Goalscorers (league):
Liverpool: Gerrard 9; Torres 8; Kuyt 7; Alonso, Benayoun 3; Babel, Riera 2; Arbeloa, Aurelio, Carragher, Hyypia, Ngog 1
United: Ronaldo 12; Rooney 9; Berbatov 8; Vidic 4; Fletcher, Tevez 3; Carrick 2; Brown, Giggs, Nani, Park, Rafael, Scholes, Welbeck 1

Referee: Alan Wiley

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

Same team as last time out please. And it’s self-explanatory. Not only was it Liverpool’s best performance in a while, Benitez also took the reins off, which needs to happen again.

Yes, a home European match is different than a trip to Old Trafford, but Liverpool’s got little to lose. Out of the title race but with a top four spot seemingly locked up, and full of confidence. Put United on the back foot and play without fear, like the team did in the 2-1 win at Anfield in September. Easier said than done, I know, but honestly, I’d rather see Liverpool go for the win and lose than another draw.

In addition, United’s strength lies in their attack. Yes, Ferdinand and Vidic is the best defensive pairing in the league, while Van der Sar recently set the clean sheet streak record, but United wins games by bludgeoning the opposition until they get the goal for a 1-0 victory. It’s happened countless times this season, and that’s the reason – in comparison to Liverpool’s countless 0-0s – they’re in first. But if you keep the ball away from them, they don’t get the opportunity to find that rhythm or that goal.

What I’m most afraid of is conceding on a set piece. Not only is Vidic a beast – with seven goals in all competitions – but that’s how United have killed Liverpool in the past. Ronaldo and Tevez both scored against Liverpool from corners last season (Tevez’s was the winner in a 0-1 loss), and if you go further back, there’s O’Shea’s last-minute winner in March 2007, Ferdinand’s last-minute winner in January 2006, and Silvestre’s headed brace in 2004. Needless to say, it’s been a problem, and it makes me think that if Arbeloa hasn’t fully recovered from his injury, we’ll see Carragher at right back and Hyypia in the middle for his aerial prowess.

I’ll admit it; I hate matches against Manchester United, and I’m usually shitting myself in the run-up. And given United’s form, I probably should be here. Their last league loss came on November 8; their last league draw was back on December 13. But, with the win earlier in the season and the crushing victory over Madrid three days ago, it feels like anything’s possible. Liverpool’s 3-1-0 against the ‘big four’ so far this season, and we’ve know this team has the potential to beat anyone on their day. Now let’s see it.

It’s a pity this match isn’t as important to the title race as we’d hoped a couple of months ago, but pride’s a powerful motivator too.

12 March 2009

Dirk Kuyt, by Francisco Goya?

Quick pop in. I can't believe I haven't linked Run of Play before (I blame my laziness, but it could also be ignorance), but I adore this post about Kuyt. Long story short, Kuyt = Goya paintings. I can't do it justice by summing it up. It's poetry.

His face would make Dora Maar squirm in her chair. He lumbers around the pitch like Igor, eager to please but shunned by fleet-footed teammates. Yet he scores goals. Benítez defends him using the 21st century discourse of efficiency. I extol him for playing as if in a Goya painting. Kuyt is el capricho of my pesadillas.

Kuyt is the Damian of soccer because he defiles the beautiful game's consummate act. Against Newcastle and Reading, Kuyt slips as he scores. Todos caeran. Against Chelsea and Aston Villa, he lurks in Crouch’s shadow, clinging to his coattails like a leech. Volaverunt. Against Wigan and Reading, he lowers his head, trading aquellos polbos for goals. He feasts on the children of the Premier League with the ravenous grimace of Saturn.

Anyone with the creativity and general esoteric knowledge to make this comparison is a bloody genius. The Goya references are a class above to begin with, but the analysis is pretty spot on too. Given the subject matter, it comes off as harsh towards Kuyt in places, but I read it as a compliment throughout. As usual, that might be my biases though.

So yeah, I recommend checking these guys out if you're not already. I will be more regularly.

11 March 2009

So, why can’t Liverpool play like that every week?

After such a dominating win, and with too many pedestrian performances seemingly damning a title challenge, it begs the question.

I wish I had a definitive answer for you, but I do have a list of theories.

• It’s partly because Real’s defense was sub-par (Cannavaro will have nightmares), and partly because there was space to operate as Real needed to score, but Liverpool rarely gets that freedom against smaller clubs content with a 0-0 draw. This isn’t the first time Liverpool’s coming storming out of the box – they’re often at their strongest early on, despite the number of late goals. But Real had to take chances, more chances than 90% of the Premier League is willing to take against Liverpool, and they paid for it.

• Liverpool doesn’t play Real Madrid every week. It’s human nature for the players to be more pumped up for a European night against the most decorated team in the competition with 45,000 in Anfield baying for blood. As a fan, it’s disappointing, but it’s a fact of sports. Plus, Liverpool’s had a habit of playing to the level of the opposition this season, more often than not to the team’s detriment.

• Relatedly, Liverpool under Benitez has always been better in European competition and cup ties. Tactics are that much more important at the highest level of competition, and Benitez’s are perfectly suited for the CL. I still can’t explain how a team that lost to relegation-bound Crystal Palace won the Champions League in 2005, but they did.

• Torres and Gerrard were both at top gear. Liverpool’s been less reliant on Torres and Gerrard (or before the arrival of the Spaniard, just Gerrard) than in seasons past – evidenced by the victory over United, among other matches – but, and obviously given their respective talent, the two are still crucial, and make a huge difference to this team’s fortunes. Both were utterly chomping at the bit – Torres especially, who missed out on playing his old club earlier in the competition and had a tough time out in the last leg. He wasn’t going to let a sore ankle hinder anything, and he set the tone early on with that superlative turn that left the 2006 World Player of the Year for dead. When those two play like that, the sky’s the limit.

• As Alonso said in the post-game ITV interview, that’s football. Sometimes, there are nights where things just go your way. Liverpool was dominant, but it still could have been different if Torres is whistled for a foul in the build to the first goal (which, despite my biases, I still think was a good no-call) and Heinze isn't whistled for handball (the wrong call) in the 28th. Although it did seem a matter of time, even with Casillas awesome.

And at the same time, Real rarely looked like scoring, but there were a couple of moments where they could have pulled something from nothing – Reina’s save on Sneidjer’s outstanding free kick in the 30th, Raul skying the ball over instead of stooping for a header the 50th, and Skrtel’s excellent block of Ramos’ cross, which thankfully went straight into Reina’s arms, in the 57th. It wouldn't have been the first time that the opposition's scored an undeserved goal at Anfield.

That is football. But that’s not saying that the performance can’t be replicated on Saturday.

10 March 2009

Liverpool 4-0 Real Madrid

Liverpool wins 5-0 on aggregate

Arbeloa Skrtel Carragher Aurelio
Alonso Mascherano
Kuyt Gerrard Babel

Torres 16’
Gerrard 28’ (pen) 47’
Dossena 88’


So much for sitting back and protecting a lead, huh? The way Liverpool began, you’d have thought they were a goal behind. And so much for the injury worries – both Torres and Arbeloa started, and the striker looked up for it from the opening whistle.

If it wasn’t for Iker Casillas, Torres would have scored within four minutes and Liverpool probably would have won by four more. Liverpool were that good, and yes, Real Madrid didn’t do themselves any favors. But it can’t be coincidence that all these teams suddenly lose their form when they meet Liverpool in the Champions League.

In the 4th minute, Torres wonderfully turned Cannavaro, only to see Casillas do well to stick out a leg. From the resulting corner, Casillas barely blocked a superb left-footed volley from Mascherano that he had to have seen late.

And it was Torres who opened in the scoring in the 16th, after Liverpool kept up that pressure. Cannavaro failed to clear a bouncing ball, and Torres held off Pepe, chesting it to Kuyt and getting into position to slam home the return ball. Yes, there was a bit of fortune, as Torres seemed to pull back Pepe, but the defender went down far too easily.

Real had far more to be aggrieved about with the second, but not before Casillas twice more kept Real in the game, saving Skrtel’s header and Gerrard’s stretching redirect. However, in the 27th, Heinze was adjusted to handle, even though it bounced more off his shoulder, and Gerrard sent Casillas the wrong way. Liverpool fans remember three goals in six crazy minutes, but Real never looked like getting back in the game after the second. Not that the visitors looked like getting anything out of it before that either.

After the early flurry, and more comfortable with a three-goal lead, Liverpool allowed Real more space, but other than a stunning Sneidjer free kick that Reina was equal to, I can’t think of any real threats, with Skrtel and Carragher dominant.

And just like in the first half, Liverpool never gave Real an opening after the restart, and crushed spirits with a goal in the 47th – Aurelio found Babel on the left, who beat his man and put a cross in the perfect area for Gerrard to run onto and sidefoot on the half-volley. Seven minutes after that, Casillas again came to the rescue as Kuyt touched the ball to Gerrard in space at the top of the box, but the keeper made the save.

From there, Liverpool played more cagily, with this match done and dusted, and United on the horizon. But the defense and keeper made sure Real rarely got a sniff, even though they had nearly all of the possession. And every now and then, Liverpool threatened on the break through Torres, Babel, or Kuyt, but Casillas would be there, with the best in the 81st when he saved from Torres on the left.

Lucas came on for Alonso in the 60th, and Spearing (to a loud roar) for Gerrard in the 73rd, and Real finally had the ball in the net in the 83rd, only for Higuain to be rightfully ruled offside. Immediately after, Dossena came on for Torres, and five minutes later the Italian had his first goal for the club. Liverpool finally broke down a stretched Real on the break, with Babel (who was playing through the center) holding up the ball and setting up Mascherano, who centered for Dossena. Lucas nearly added a 5th in the second minute of injury time – only to see a deflection take it just over the bar – but that would have been greedy.

What more can you say after a performance like that? That's the sort of attacking we'd been clamoring for, and so desperately want to see in the league. Yes, Real looked a shadow of themselves, but this isn’t the first time Liverpool’s done that in Europe. The team was truly magnificent; I’m not exaggerating when I say they could have had six in the first half, nor when I say that was the most comprehensive win there’s been this season.

It’s truly difficult to pick a man of the match when the team's this impressive, but I’ve got to go with Torres. Finally given the chance to put the boot to Real, he was masterful in a game where we wondered if he’d start. But, unsurprisingly, I’ve no complaints with any player’s performance.

When the team plays like this, they can truly beat anyone. And it’s a good time to see Liverpool hit this sort of form with a trip to Old Trafford in four days.


A quick note, because I frequently don’t do enough to highlight others in the blogosphere.

I don’t do liveblogs – I’m usually way too on edge to focus on both the computer and television. But Ed over at Liverpool Offside liveblogs, and he’ll be doing it again today. So you all should spend the game over there, then come back here for the match review.


09 March 2009

Liverpool v Real Madrid 3.10.09

3:45pm (daylight saving time is so much better than other time) on ESPN. Liverpool leads 1-0 on aggregate.

Group Stage:
Liverpool: 3-1 PSV (a); 1-0 Marseille (h); 1-1 Atletico (h); 1-1 Atletico (a); 3-1 PSV (h); 2-1 Marseille (a)
Real: 3-0 Zenit (h); 1-0 BATE (a); 0-2 Juve (h); 1-2 Juve (a); 2-1 Zenit (a); 2-0 BATE (h)

Last 3 matches:
Liverpool: 2-0 Sunderland (h); 0-2 Boro (a); 1-0 Real (a)
Real: 1-1 Atletico (h); 2-0 Espanyol (a); 0-1 Liverpool (h)

Goalscorers (Europe):
Liverpool: Gerrard 5; Kuyt 2; Babel, Benayoun, Ngog, Riera 1
Real: Raul, van Nistelrooy 3; Ramos, Robben 1

Referee: Frank De Bleeckere (BEL)

Same ref that red-carded Materazzi at this stage last year.

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

As if Liverpool didn’t have enough injury questions. Gerrard’s only recently back. Torres may return from an ankle sprain suffered two weeks ago, but it’s probably too soon for Arbeloa. And now, Benayoun, who’s in the best form of his Liverpool career, apparently tore his hamstring on the training ground.

To make matters even worse, Riera’s suspended for accumulated yellows. Plus, Insua and El Zhar aren’t in the Champions League squad (thanks for the 4+4 rule, Platini!). So there are holes all over the team – worst is on the left flank, where the only options appear to be Aurelio, Dossena and Babel for two positions. I’m guessing Babel on the left of midfield, but I wouldn’t be surprised to see Dossena either – he was an attacking wingback in Italy, and Liverpool will be more cautious with the advantage.

Mascherano was excellent at right back a week ago, but he’ll be more needed in midfield to protect the back four, and prevent Robben from making dangerous runs infield. Supposedly, Carragher was too tired to play there against Boro after the last leg in Madrid, but I’m hopeful he’ll be less reticent this time out. As much as I want to see Darby, this isn’t the game for his first start. If Masch has to play right back, I reckon I’d rather see Lucas than Gerrard drop deeper (especially since there’s no Benayoun to play further up the pitch), but that’s a choice I’d rather not make.

Being down a goal, Madrid will have to attack, which should give Liverpool the space they enjoy and the chances on the counter-attack that they thrive on. But it will be a very thin line; an away goal is an outstanding edge, but it is only one goal. And Liverpool’s let in too many silly goals of late, mostly from set plays.

But, as has been the usual refrain, Liverpool’s often different in the Champions League. No matter who’s available, chances are they’ll have been there before, and chances are Benitez will have them ready.

04 March 2009

Liverpool’s left flank

From the comments in the last post:
Marlon said...

I thought it was interesting that while Aurelio might still be a better technical player than Insua, when Insua plays it seems to make Riera play better
Very interesting. The flanks have arguably been Liverpool’s longest-standing concern, so the records of each pairing would seem a meaningful stat. It doesn’t tell the whole story, as there were nine other players on the pitch, but there are a few trends.

9-4-0; 20 goals for, 6 against
1-0 Real; 2-0 Chelsea; 1-1 Everton; 0-0 Stoke; 1-0 Marseille; 0-0 Fulham; 2-0 Bolton; 3-0 West Brom; 1-1 Atletico; 1-0 Chelsea; 3-2 City; 3-1 PSV; 2-1 United

3-1-0; 8 for, 1 against
2-0 Sunderland; 2-0 PNE; 3-0 Bolton; 1-1 Arsenal

3-5-2; 13 for, 10 against
1-1 City; 0-1 Everton (FA); 2-2 Hull; 3-1 PSV; 0-0 West Ham; 1-2 Spurs; 1-1 Atletico; 3-2 Wigan; 2-0 Everton; 0-0 Stoke

2-1-1; 8 for, 8 against
3-2 Pompey; 1-1 Everton (FA); 2-4 Spurs (CC); 2-1 Marseille

1-1-1; 2 for, 3 against
0-2 Boro; 1-1 Wigan; 1-0 Pompey

2-1-0; 3 for, 1 against:
2-1 Boro; 1-0 Sunderland; 0-0 Liege

2-0-0; 8 for, 2 against
5-1 Newcastle; 3-1 Blackburn

Insua/El Zhar:
1-0-0; 2 for, 1 against
2-1 Crewe (CC)

1-0-0; 1 for, 0 against
1-0 Liege aet

0-1-0; 0 for, 0 against
0-0 Villa

• Liverpool hasn’t lost when Insua’s started. I couldn't be happier to see him establishing himself this season.

• Aurelio/Riera is the big game pairing, but we knew that. They’re also seemingly better for the team in the “big games” than against the likes of Stoke and Fulham.

• Those stats don’t bode well for Dossena.

• Riera’s first game was against United on 9/13. Benayoun hasn’t started on the left since Riera arrived.

03 March 2009

Liverpool 2-0 Sunderland

Mascherano Skrtel Carragher Insua
Benayoun Gerrard Alonso Riera
Kuyt Ngog

Ngog 52’
Benayoun 65’

What a relief.

Sbragia wasn’t kidding when he said he was going to shut up shop and make Liverpool break Sunderland down. It worked a treat for the first half, as has happened too often this season, but we finally saw some of the attacking prowess we’d hoped for in the second.

It took about three minutes for Liverpool to get out of their own half in a meaningful way, and as soon as Benayoun’s cutback from the byline was cut out, Jones was away. He easily sidestepped Skrtel and outpaced Carragher, but when one-on-one Reina, shot too close to the keeper.

It was better after that scare, as Liverpool realized how close they were to going behind (again), but the scoreline at halftime showed that it wasn’t good enough – plenty of possession, not a whole lot done with it. A couple of half-shouts for handball on blocked shots in the 7th and 8th, a Benayoun cross-cum-shot claimed by Fulop, and a deflected Riera strike that Fulop did well to parry at the near post in the 31st were the most memorable, but Jones’ chance in the 4th remained the best. And it remained Sunderland’s only chance.

Thankfully, this time, the cutting edge came back in the second half. And it was a sumptuous goal to open the scoring. Riera did brilliantly to get into space on the left, crossing into acres of space at the far post. Gerrard did brilliantly to rush on and head the ball to Ngog, who directed into the net for his first Premiership goal. He had the time to pick out the pass, but I’m still impressed with Gerrard’s vision. But I’m not surprised.

A couple of half-chances for Sunderland (a McCartney cross that was too high for Jones and Malbranque blasting over at the far post) bracketed an excellent opportunity for Insua, who was released by Riera’s nice throughball, but went for the shot and missed wide of the post, instead of centering for Kuyt or Ngog.

But despite those two forays forward for the away side, they offered less and less as the game went on. Sbragia sent on Cisse in the 62nd, which raised the usual fear of former players returning with a vengeance, but three minutes later, Liverpool sealed a much-needed and well-earned win. Ngog did very well to control after Alonso’s shot was blocked, and flicked the ball over his head into the danger area. Fulop could only palm the ball into the path of Benayoun, who made no mistake.

The second goal was a huge weight off the team’s back, and you could see it in their play. They looked miles more confident coming forward, and in the next five minutes, Riera shot over in space in the box after cutting in and Kuyt’s shot on target was blocked for a corner after defenders backed off him.

Unless Ngog’s cramp was worse than it looked, I don’t see why Benitez took him off for Lucas in the 70th. He had to be full of confidence after a goal and an assist, and he’s not likely to see much action when Torres returns. The team was playing well, and had scored two in 13 minutes. Meanwhile, Gerrard’s only recently back from injury (he went off for Babel in the 82nd) and Alonso’s played a ton of late. Odd, but it’s not like it changed the result.

Liverpool were more content to simply keep possession after Ngog went off, but chances continued to come. Alonso and Gerrard shot over, while Kuyt, Lucas, Babel and Riera tested Fulop. But it stayed at 2-0, for a fulfilling win that steadies the ship and will hopefully take some of the pressure off the players and manager.

Benayoun’s probably my man of the match for his goal, involvement in much of Liverpool’s attack, and willingness to take on defenders. I'm also tempted to pick Ngog, who was very impressive. His first touch wasn't the best, but his hold-up play was still excellent, while his movement and ability to bring others into play also stood out. Plus, he seems to have a trick in him, and Liverpool could always use more of that.

Riera was also threatening, Alonso was miles better than on Saturday, and the defense never looked like conceding outside the early scare. In addition, Mascherano was awesome at right back, but given his pedigree, I don’t know why I’m surprised. I’m not suggesting a permanent move, because he’s even better as a holding midfielder, but he filled the role more than ably. His engine and pace for a recovery tackle suit the position perfectly, and we know he’s an outstanding defender.

That was exactly what Liverpool needed. By the end, it was a comprehensive win, but the team had to work for it. It really was a much-improved second half – they finally got the goal-scoring monkey off their backs, and did it with two stylish goals. Now, a week off before two crucial games: Madrid next Tuesday and United four days later.

02 March 2009

Liverpool v Sunderland 03.03.09

3pm, live in the US on Setanta

Last 4 head-to-head:
1-0 Liverpool (a) 08.16.08
3-0 Liverpool (h) 02.02.08
2-0 Liverpool (a) 08.25.07
2-0 Liverpool (a) 11.30.05

Last 3 matches:
Liverpool: 0-2 Boro (a); 1-0 Real Madrid (a); 1-1 City (h)
Sunderland: 0-0 Arsenal (a); 2-0 Stoke (h); 1-2 Blackburn (a)

Goalscorers (league):
Liverpool: Gerrard 9; Torres 8; Kuyt 7; Alonso 3; Babel, Benayoun, Riera 2; Arbeloa, Aurelio, Carragher, Hyypia 1
Sunderland: Cisse 9; Jones 7; Chopra, Richardson 2; Collins, Healy, Leadbitter Malbranque, Reid 1

Referee: Mark Halsey

Guess at a squad:
Darby Carragher Skrtel Insua
Benayoun Gerrard Mascherano Riera
Kuyt Babel

This is the ultimate catch-22 for Benitez. It’s now a fight for fourth rather than a fight for first (although second’s certainly in play). Liverpool has to keep on in the league, but the team was abjectly awful two days ago. Torres is still carrying an ankle knock, while Gerrard left us fearful over his hamstring on Saturday, although reports say he’s fit to start. Alonso and Kuyt, two who have played a ton recently and have been so crucial, were two of the worst last time out. But Rafa can’t make that many changes with so much on the line, can he?

With everything up in the air, I’ll add one of my frequent disclaimers that this really is a guess. Which probably means I wouldn’t count on seeing it. But, as usual, I’ve got some half-baked reasons to explain my logic.

I guess I’ll start in central midfield. With all the games Alonso’s played, I reckon he’ll begin on the bench. And I’m scared to suggest a central pairing of Lucas and Mascherano. Maybe Aurelio could start in midfield again (I wouldn’t be that surprised to see a similar line-up as against Portsmouth), but he’s played almost as much as Alonso of late. So, perhaps we’ll get Gerrard deeper in midfield in the 4-4-2, with Kuyt and Babel up top and Benayoun and Riera on the flanks.

Babel wasn’t great on Saturday, but he offers something different through the center with Torres out. No matter how hard he works, the win at Newcastle with Kuyt as a lone striker is truly turning out to be the exception to the rule. Maybe pairing them together up top might help alleviate the goal drought, but if it’s the 4-2-3-1, I’m hopeful it’ll be Babel as the lone striker. Both Benayoun and Riera were rested on Saturday, which is the biggest clue that both will start.

Chances are, we’re not going to see two young fullbacks. But I truly hope we do. If Aurelio’s in midfield or rotated for fitness, I’d rather Insua over Dossena. Meanwhile, with Arbeloa still out, Liverpool’s very limited on the right. Degen’s made of glass. Carragher was supposedly too tired to play there on Saturday, and the less said about Skrtel in that role the better. Which would leave young Darby. He’s done well for the reserves, he’s seen first team action off the bench, and Liverpool need to get talent flowing from the Academy. Man, I hope we see Darby.

Not counting an extra time loss in the FA Cup replay against Blackburn a month ago, Sunderland’s unbeaten in their last five. Sbragia’s settled the club in the wake of Roy Keane’s tumultuous exit (Keane? Tumultuous? Surely you jest…), and with Jones and Cisse nearing fitness, they can be a dangerous team.

A win is essential now that the club’s in the pack with Chelsea and Villa. But a win’s been essential in a fair few games now. And every team has presented Liverpool with some sort of danger recently. Liverpool simply needs to be more deadly against teams who camp out in their own half. But this is not new information.