29 May 2009

Goals of the Season 08-09

Same format as last year – my 10 favorite Liverpool strikes in one compilation. Well, actually 11. It’s been a good year for great goals. I experimented with adding titles; it doesn’t make for the smoothest transitions, but in my defense, I’m teaching myself iMovie by trial and error.

Youtube hates me this season, so we’re on sapo.pt instead.

10) Gerrard 1-1 Everton (FA Cup):
This shouldn't make the list, because Howard should’ve made the save, but that's just bloody awesome by Torres. Words fail me.
9) Agger 1-0 Crewe:
The first of two for the Dane. Welcome back, Danny Agger.
8) Gerrard 3-0 Real:
This one’s very similar to a goal against Bolton that was my second favorite from 2006/07. And this goal only made 8th this year. Says enough really.
7) Gerrard 2-1 Boro:
Yawn. Just another last second Stevie G winner from the edge of the box. Routine by now really.
6) Kuyt 3-2 Wigan:
Not only a late comeback winner, but also a scissored volley. Only Kuyt could make it look ugly and ungainly, but there lies the beauty.
5) Riera 2-1 PSV and Agger 3-0 Blackburn:
Different players, same goal. Both lefty too.
4) Keane 1-1 Arse:
I debated over whether or not to include Keane, because of the brevity of his stay and because I’m a petty bastard who holds grudges. But this goal was awesome.
3) Aurelio 3-1 United:
Sweet, sweet victory. Mmmmm. And it’s not a bad free kick either.
2) Gerrard 1-1 Marseille:
The commentator is absolutely right: only Gerrard could score this goal and mean it. He has no right to get that power and accuracy when the pass is behind him.
1) Torres 1-0 Blackburn:
See, I can pick a goal of the season that's not scored by Gerrard. More than shades of van Basten – the Dutchman's got a case for plagiarism. Torres’ might even be better because of the takedown. Absolute brilliance. He really can score every type of goal.

For kicks, I made a second video, with four honorable mentions I couldn’t leave out.

Honorable Mention:
• The Nemanja Vidic Defender of the Year Award: Torres 1-1 United
• The Textbook Definition of Counter-Attack Football Award: Keane 3-0 Bolton
• The 86-Game Home Unbeaten Streak Award: Alonso 1-0 Chelsea
• The 4-1 Never Gets Old Award: Dossena 4-1 United

28 May 2009

OYB Awards 2009

Same format as last year, and like previous seasons, I will also have a separate post for Top 10 goals tomorrow.

Leave your own awards in the comments.

Player of the season:
1) Xabi Alonso
2) Steven Gerrard
3) Dirk Kuyt

Most pleasing result of the season:
1) Liverpool 4-1 United
2) Liverpool 4-0 Real Madrid
3) Liverpool 2-1 United

Most dominating performance:
1) 4-0 Real Madrid
2) 5-1 Newcastle
3) 5-0 Villa

Most entertaining game of the season:
1) 4-1 United
2) 4-4 Arsenal
3) 4-4 Chelsea

Most underrated player:
1) Pepe Reina (A late Keane goal away from four straight Golden Gloves! Is there any question he’s the best keeper in the league?)
2) Dirk Kuyt (Yes. Still. And he was #1 on this list until a few weeks ago, when his name started showing up in a decent amount of end-of-season stuff.)
3) Yossi Benayoun

Young player of the season (PFA does 23 or younger, I’m using 21):
1) Emiliano Insua
2) David Ngog
3) Jay Spearing

Best Signing:
1) Albert Riera
2) David Ngog
3) Andrea Dossena

Yeah, so it wasn’t the best summer’s worth of business. No one better dare mention He Who Must Not Be Named.

Best Goal:
1) Torres 1-0 Blackburn
2) Gerrard 1-1 Marseille
3) Aurelio 3-1 United

Worst performance of the season:
1) 0-2 Boro
2) 0-0 Stoke (a)
3) 0-0 Fulham

Stomach punch of the season:
1) 1-2 Spurs
2) 0-1 Everton aet (FA Cup)
3) 1-1 Wigan

Daylight Robbery:
1) 0-0 Stoke (h)
2) 1-1 Everton (h; league)
3) 1-1 City

Semi-shameless self-promotion

I did an interview with Soccer City FC yesterday as part of its blogger Q&A interviews. We talk about Liverpool's prospects as well as a bit of behind the scenes (nowhere near as sexy as it sounds).

So if you can't get enough of my rambling, head on over, but you should be checking out Soccer City FC anyway. Back in a few hours with the 2009 OYB Awards.

27 May 2009

Barcelona 2-0 United

Eto’o 10’
Messi 70’

Manchester United trails by one. In search of an equalizer, Ferguson replaces two midfielders with strikers, going to a 4-2-4 formation with Tevez, Berbatov, Rooney, and Ronaldo all on the field. And it doesn’t take long for the opposition to go two goals ahead.

It happened at Old Trafford against Liverpool. And it happened against Barca in the Champions League final. No surprise that Alex Ferguson won manager of the year then, is it?

Barcelona is not a bottom-half Premiership side and it is not clever to go 4-2-4 against a team with Messi, Xavi, and Iniesta in the side, even if you’re losing by a goal. And credit goes to Manton, a sometime commentator on this fine blog, for calling it minutes before Messi scored.

It only took Liverpool three minutes to win the free kick and red card that made it 3-1. It took Barca four. But we won’t hold it against them.

Only die-hard Barca supporters and United haters would have wagered on this result after the first ten minutes. Ronaldo could have had a hat trick in that span himself – a free kick that Valdes spilled, a shot from distance narrowly wide, and an effort blazed across goal – while Park nearly got to the rebound of Ronaldo’s free kick.

But, against the run of play, Barca got out of their own half and Iniesta found Eto’o with a throughball. The Cameroonian made a mess out of the defender of the year (*derisive snort*) before beating Van der Saar at his near post (*second derisive snort*).

That de-pantsing clearly disheartened the Mancs, and sent Barca on their way to their slick passing game – controlling possession and moving through the middle, always looking like a threat to breach the backline.

Messi was a revelation – and that’s the first time I can say that seeing him against English opposition. Whether it was against Chelsea or Liverpool, the diminutive Argentinean has gone missing. Not tonight. The ball was stuck to his feet like superglue, and one moment in the first half stood out. He was clattered by four defenders, with everyone spilling to the ground. Somehow, Messi was first to his feet and kept possession, only the official had blown for the free kick. To be fair, I wouldn’t have played advantage either; there was no way Messi should have been able to keep the ball. It looked impossible.

For the most part, chances were few and far between, but Barca always looked the more likely. United, needing to build from the back because of incessant Barca pressure, struggling to find Rooney and Ronaldo as the half went on. The makeshift backline of Puyol-Toure-Pique-Sylvinho definitively won the day.

The second 45 saw Barca start like a house on fire as both Henry and Messi threatened. Xavi and Iniesta pulled the strings in midfield – and you’re prone to that when your midfield is Park-Carrick-Giggs, as Tevez replaced Anderson at the start of the half.

Like against Liverpool, both Rooney and Ronaldo began to get their acts together around the hour mark, as both were more frequent outlets for hopeful punts forward. And then that aforementioned tactical masterpiece, taking off Park for Berbatov, took place. Puyol won the ball in the center of the pitch, and when United couldn't clear, Xavi sent in a perfect cross for Messi, in between Vidic and O'Shea, to bury with a header. Lovely.

The main highlights after the second goal were another tackling clinic put on by Scholes (I’m stunned he hasn’t hurt more players) and United taunted by olés from the Barcelona faithful. I am a petty man who delighted in every minute.

And while it’s fun to gloat over United’s loss, the truth is that Barca won. No matter the makeshift defense or United’s power on the counter. The central midfield of Xavi and Iniesta was jaw dropping, and this is from a guy who gets to watch Gerrard, Alonso, and Mascherano week in and week out. Messi was at his best, and finally lived up to the hype against English opposition; he was simply magic.

This Barca team is the first Spanish club to win the treble, and it’s evident why. What a job Guardiola’s done, and I’m pleased to see him reap the rewards. But I’ll also readily admit I enjoy it even more because of who they’ve beaten.

Thanks, Barca. Now Liverpool has to complete the job next season and truly knock Ferguson off his "fucking perch."

26 May 2009

Three new teams, and how it affects Liverpool

Awards on Thursday and Top 10 goals on Friday should wrap up the season review stuff unless something strikes me. In addition, there may be a review of the CL final tomorrow, depending on circumstances (yes, you know what I'm implying).

But first, relegation.

I don’t know why the idea hadn’t struck me sooner, but promotions and relegations affect Liverpool. That Burnley won the playoffs instead of Reading or Sheffield United makes the connection more tenuous, but there are still some notions to be divined. It was Birmingham sealing promotion on the same day that Liverpool hammered Newcastle that hit the point home.

I hate when Liverpool plays Birmingham. Every club has those bogey teams, and Birmingham seems to be one of Liverpool’s, especially under Benitez. I thought it was just a Steve Bruce thing, but Alex McLeish’s side went and took two points off Liverpool in April 2008, a month where Brum only tallied two points on the road to relegation. At the same time, Liverpool’s won four straight over Newcastle by a margin of 14-1.

In fact, Liverpool’s lost to at least one relegated team in three of Benitez’s five seasons: Boro this season, Reading last season, and both Southampton and Crystal Palace in 04-05. The exceptions are 2005-06, where Liverpool were held by Birmingham twice, and 2006-07, where Liverpool drew at both Charlton and Sheffield United. Four points dropped is worse than three.

So, anyway, the changes for next year, and Liverpool’s last four games against each side. I am not including cup matches in Birmingham’s totals, but am including them in Burnley’s. Yes, it’s selective use of the data, but otherwise I’d be going back to at least ’75-76 for Liverpool/Burnley league matches. So we’ll pretend those cup matches counted for points. I know, but play along anyway.

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
5 points; 3 goals for, 2 goals against
2-2 (a) 04.26.08
0-0 (h) 09.22.07
1-1 (h) 02.01.06
2-2 (a) 09.24.05
4 points; 5 for, 5 against
0-1 Burnley (a; FA Cup) 01.18.05
1-0 Liverpool (h; FA Cup) 01.04.97
1-0 Liverpool (h; League Cup) 02.07.95
0-0 (a; League Cup) 01.28.95
7 points; 2 for, 1 against
Combined Total: 16 points; 10 for, 8 against

3-0 Liverpool (h) 05.03.09
5-1 Liverpool (a) 12.28.08
3-0 Liverpool (h) 03.08.08
3-0 Liverpool (a) 11.24.07
12 points; 14 for, 1 against
0-2 Boro (a) 02.28.09
2-1 Liverpool (h) 08.23.08
3-2 Liverpool (h) 02.23.08
1-1 (a) 01.12.08
7 points; 6 for, 6 against
West Brom:
2-0 Liverpool (a) 05.17.09
3-0 Liverpool (h) 11.08.08
2-0 Liverpool (a) 04.01.06
1-0 Liverpool (h) 12.31.05
12 points; 8 for, 0 against
Combined Total: 31 points; 28 for, 7 against

So, a 15-point discrepancy. A +21 goal difference versus a +2 one. Super.

Wolves and Burnley make it a tougher comparison, because Liverpool’s never played Wanderers under Benitez and the lone FA Cup tie against Burnley barely counts (Rafa’ll never field a weakened side in the FA Cup again, that’s for sure), but there are still some interesting comparisons.

As said above, I’m not thrilled to see Brum back. Last time Liverpool beat them in the league was May 2004. Benitez has only beaten them in cup competition; his league record is 0-4-2. But at least we’re waving goodbye to Boro, another bogey club. Two wins, a draw, and a loss over the last two seasons, and Boro scored in each of those four games. And it took a late Gerrard winner this year and a Torres hat trick last year to get those two wins.

It’s rude to compound relegation with insults, but it’s sad to see Newcastle and West Brom go down. One goal conceded in eight games against the clubs. Yikes. Why couldn’t Stoke or Hull be relegated instead? At least there’s always next year.

I’m intrigued by and wary of Burnley. Having seen all their playoff matches, I’ve been very impressed. The final was compelling beyond belief. Paterson and Elliot have scored some absolute corkers. The defense was resilient throughout, and the side knows how to counter and how to utilize the flanks. Owen Coyle’s done an amazing job. They’ll either be next season’s Hull (the first half of the season anyway) or next season’s West Brom. I doubt there’ll be any middle ground. And chances are I’ll be rooting for them in 36 of their games.

25 May 2009

The Schizophrenic Season (Review)

It’s Liverpool’s best Premiership campaign, and the best points total under Benitez and since the title-winning ‘87-88 season (the league was 40 games that year). But Liverpool could and probably should have won the championship, throwing the league away with mid-season draws.

I’m thrilled there was actually a title race until the second-to-last round of fixtures, but I’m massively disappointed that Liverpool was top of the league to start 2009, and still finished four points behind the bloody Mancs. Second place is better than I predicted at the beginning of the season, but first was definitely achievable. Sigh. There’s always next year.

0-0 at Villa, 0-0 v Stoke, 0-0 v Fulham, 0-0 v West Ham, 2-2 v Hull, 1-1 at Arsenal, 0-0 at Stoke, 1-1 v Everton, 1-1 at Wigan, 1-1 v Man City, and 4-4 v Arsenal.

Six or seven of those eleven draws are regrettable, if not unforgivable. Especially when you consider that Liverpool did the double over both United and Chelsea. Hence the disappointment and frustration, even though the team clearly made strides this season.

And seven of those draws were at Anfield, which is obviously unacceptable. That’s the highest number of home draws in Benitez’ five seasons. At the same time, Liverpool went unbeaten at home, the first time that’s happened since the aforementioned ’87-88 campaign. This is why I’m calling it the schizophrenic season.

If you want, you could blame two separate stretches: the spate of early home draws against Stoke, Fulham, and West Ham, or the run in January – draws against Stoke, Everton, and Wigan – before which Liverpool was top of the table. Or you can just count the whole winter – from the November 1 loss at Tottenham to the 1-1 draw against Wigan on January 28 – five wins, seven draws, one loss. Yeah, there were a couple of decent games back-to-back – against Blackburn and Newcastle around Christmas, for one – but overall, Liverpool was mediocre for three straight months.

You can narrow it down even further. What if Gerrard’s “goal” counts against Stoke? What if Bellamy’s strike for City doesn’t take a massive deflection off Arbeloa? What if zonal marking doesn’t break down in the final five minutes against Everton? What if individual mistakes don’t lead to Arshavin scoring four at Anfield. Four points from any of those matches, or any of the aforementioned draws, would have won Liverpool the league. Sigh.

If we’re being generous, we could credit Manchester United, as much as I hate the smug pricks, led by that knighted smug alcoholic prick. They could have ballsed up after the losses to Liverpool and Fulham, but a 17-year-old saved their bacon against both Sunderland and Villa (they draw both those games and Liverpool wins the title), and they held their nerve through the rest of their games. Kudos, schmucks.

Or, you can blame Torres’ fitness, as Benitez has already done – although I’m loath to complain about injuries, which happen to all squads. But the Spaniard didn’t start in either loss, at Tottenham or Boro. And those 11 draws? Torres started seven of them, but Gerrard and Torres only started together in three – the first against Stoke (disallowed Gerrard goal), Everton (stupid late Cahill goal), and Wigan (stupid late penalty, and I hate Steve Bruce).

The final 13 games of the season, starting with the 4-0 romp over Real Madrid, demonstrate what this team’s capable of. The easy answer is that Rafa let the reins off, and there’s truth in that, but there’s more to it. The team certainly played like a massive weight had been removed from their shoulders after the Real and United romps, and built momentum from there. Confidence is an extremely important thing, just as on the flip side, the nervous tension that snowballed during the winter mediocrity abetted Liverpool’s struggles. Finally, for all the complaints about rotation, it’s yet another season where Liverpool’s the strongest at the business end. Players like Torres, Gerrard, and Agger got healthy and it made a clear difference.

There are a fair few lessons to be learned from this campaign. Most important is the title chase experience – and it’s why Benitez was so hesitant to change the squad in the last couple of games, even when it was clear the title was gone. Another is that the 4-2-3-1 is the obvious way forward, which should have been realized before Keane was bought. The final lesson is that Rafa’s usually right. Now he has to put that hard-won power to good use in the transfer window, or else all bets are off. Liverpool cannot have another rerun of summer 2002.

86 points would have won the Prem in 1993, 1996, 1997, 1998, 1999, 2001, and 2003. Liverpool’s the first team to get 86 points and not win the title since it became a 38-game league in ‘94-95.

It goes without saying that the team isn’t far away. Last year’s season review harped on leads lost and the off-field fiascos. Neither has been an issue this season; Liverpool only dropped points in three games where they scored first – the loss at Spurs and the draws against Wigan and Everton – and although Hicks and Gillett are regrettably still in charge, the only substantial off-field news was the exit of Rick Parry.

I’ll have more to say on transfer dealings as news comes during the window, but I don’t expect a ton of purchases, although we’ll probably see a fair few squad players out the door. What I want, and what I firmly believe Liverpool needs, is to spend big on a couple of players – most importantly an attacker who can play across the three in the 4-2-3-1, which is why we’ve seen players like Silva, Tevez, and Lavezzi in the gossip columns. The only other additions should be depth at striker and a right back to challenge Arbeloa.

That’s it. Otherwise, we’ve seen Liverpool prove that they already have the depth and talent capable of the title.

24 May 2009

Stats Comparison 08/09

Like last season, I want to start off the season review posts with a comparison of campaigns under Benitez. Statistics don’t tell the whole story, but enough of one to be worth posting.

I’ll have a narrative review of the season up before noon.

Liverpool’s league record:
Home: 12 wins, 4 draws, 3 losses
Away: 5 wins, 3 draws, 11 losses
58 points
Home: 15 wins, 3 draws, 1 loss
Away: 10 wins, 4 draws, 5 losses
82 points
Home: 14 wins, 4 draws, 1 loss
Away: 6 wins, 4 draws, 9 losses
68 points
Home: 12 wins, 6 draws 1 loss
Away: 9 wins, 7 draws, 3 losses
76 points
Home: 12 wins, 7 draws
Away: 13 wins, 4 draws, 2 losses
86 points

Two fewer losses than last season, 12 fewer losses than Benitez’s first season. Same number of home wins though. Away form was nine points better than the previous best totals (05/06 and 07/08).

League goals for and against:
04/05 – 52 scored, 41 conceded (82 for in all competitions)
05/06 – 57 scored, 25 conceded (104 for in all competitions)
06/07 – 57 scored, 27 conceded (90 for in all competitions)
07/08 – 67 scored, 28 conceded (119 for in all competitions)
08/09 – 77 scored, 27 conceded (106 for in all competitions)

It’s worth noting that Liverpool bested their goals for under Benitez in the league by 10 despite five scoreless draws.

Top scorer:
04/05: Milan Baros - 9 in the league, 13 in total (Gerrard and Garcia also finished the season with 13 goals)
05/06: Steven Gerrard - 10 in the league, 23 overall
06/07: Peter Crouch - 9 in the league, 18 overall (Kuyt was top scorer in the league with 12)
07/08: Fernando Torres - 24 in the league, 33 overall
08/09: Steven Gerrard – 16 in the league, 24 overall

Players with double-digit goals in the league:
04/05: 0
05/06: 1 – Gerrard (10)
06/07: 1 – Kuyt (12)
07/08: 2 – Torres (24), Gerrard (11)
08/09: 3 – Gerrard (16), Torres (14), Kuyt (12)

Clean sheets:
04/05: 7 in the league, 18 overall
05/06: 22 in the league, 33 overall
06/07: 20 in the league, 28 overall
07/08: 18 in the league, 25 overall
08/09: 20 in the league, 26 overall

Points behind the league winners:
04/05: 37
05/06: 9
06/07: 21
07/08: 11
08/09: 4

Liverpool 3-1 Tottenham

Carragher Skrtel Agger Aurelio
Mascherano Alonso
Kuyt Gerrard Benayoun

Torres 31’
Kuyt 64’
Keane 77’
Benayoun 81’

Another good performance despite the match being played at a typical last-day pace, unsentimental Rafa made us wait for Sami, and Robbie Keane’s a jerk. Sounds about right.

Liverpool started brightly, with Gerrard’s strike ending up on the roof of the net and Benayoun spooning over from six-yard on the half volley before five minutes were up. And an interruption in the stream (so much for technology) for about 20 minutes evidently coincided with Tottenham growing into the game as the game slowed down.

But thankfully, normal service resumed just as Liverpool got off the mark, predictably thanks to #9. Torres jumped highest, in between Hutton and Corluka, to meet Kuyt’s chipped cross at the back post, ricocheting a header off the underside of the bar giving Gomez no chance. Tottenham rarely threatened for the rest of the half, with the lone chance coming on a ball over the top that Reina did well to close off under pressure from Defoe. But neither did Liverpool, which wasn’t all that surprising with a lead in the last match.

The second half saw better from the start, with Torres getting involved and Alonso nearly scoring from his own half (again), while Liverpool could have had a penalty in the 62nd (yes, yes, ball to hand, but his arms were out – and the situation was repeated in the 90th). But two minutes later, Kuyt got the second, although it’ll probably go down as a Hutton own goal. Kuyt and Benayoun passed their way through the box, with the Dutchman’s effort deflecting off the defender past Gomes.

Gerrard should have added another, hitting the post from an impossible angle and shooting surprisingly wide from a trademark position, before Keane ruined Reina’s chance at a fourth-straight Golden Gloves. The Irishman was barely onside, probably played on by Carra, and beat the keeper at the near post. Of course it was Keane. As if it was ever in doubt.

Benayoun made sure of the win, Liverpool’s 10th in the final 11 games, after Mascherano won the ball back and Gerrard turned wonderfully to put the Israeli through. And the captain could have tallied three minutes later when a free kick was narrowly wide – had he taken his chances, he’d have finished level on goals with Anelka.

Finally, after the missed free kick, Hyypia came on to replace the man who replaced him as captain, taking up the armband for a final time. Once Hyypia’s name wasn’t on the team sheet, you knew he would replace Gerrard in the final few minutes, but it would have been nice to see him on from the start. The Kop spent the remaining time singing the Finn’s name, and he almost finished the dream script with a header in the first minute of injury time, only for Gomes to scramble it away.

And that’s the 2008-09 campaign. Second place, the most goals scored, and the highest points total in the Premiership. And of course, we’re left wanting much more. August can’t get here soon enough.

I should have a bunch of post-season stuff in the next few days – a narrative review, the season awards, the top 10 goals, and a few other things. It’s been a good year. The disappointment over second place can’t override that.

22 May 2009

Liverpool v Tottenham 05.24.09

Sorry for the weeklong absence, but I’d rather wait until the end of the season before beginning the requiems, and there’s been little else to talk about. Next week will be different.

This is the first time all season a Liverpool league game isn’t on TV in the States. Not even on delay (wtf). So, you’re left to find streams. I don’t like linking them, but search on justin.tv or myP2P.eu.

Last 4 head-to-head:
1-2 Spurs (a) 11.01.08
2-0 Liverpool (a) 05.11.08
2-2 (h) 10.07.07
1-0 Liverpool (a) 12.30.06

Last 3 matches:
Liverpool: 2-0 West Brom (a); 3-0 West Ham (a); 3-0 Newcastle (h)
Spurs: 2-1 City (h); 0-0 Everton (a); 1-0 West Brom (h)

Goalscorers (league):
Liverpool: Gerrard 16; Torres 13; Kuyt 12; Benayoun 7; Alonso 4; Babel, Riera 3; Aurelio, Ngog 2; Agger, Arbeloa, Carragher, Dossena, Hyypia, Lucas 1
Spurs: Bent 12; Lennon, Pavlyuchenko 5; Jenas, Keane 4; Defoe, Modric 3; Bentley, Campbell, Dawson, King, O’Hara, Woodgate 1

Referee: Peter Walton

Guess at a squad:
Arbeloa Carragher Hyypia Insua
Alonso Mascherano
Kuyt Gerrard Benayoun

So here we are.

Not quite what we wanted at the beginning of the season, but second place, if achieved, is a vast improvement on last season’s efforts. But, even though we’re close, now’s not the time for post mortems.

It’ll be a crime against humanity if Hyypia doesn’t start here. It’s his last game for Liverpool, not counting the certain testimonial. After 10 years of service, including a spell as captain before Gerrard was ready for the reins, it’s the least Liverpool can do. And it’s not as if he’s a liability.

I’m tempted to suggest a line-up with some youngsters, but it’s not Benitez’s style. There’s still something to play for – not only assuring second place, but ending the season on as high a note as possible. I don’t know who’s likely to be sold, but I wouldn’t expect to see players whose futures are in doubt.

You could make an argument for leaving out Torres, even though I wouldn’t put any amount of money on it. He looked off the pace in the last match, and will have a busy summer (relatively speaking) – which obviously worries given his injury troubles. But it’s Torres.

Spurs have finished the season strongly, with four wins in the last six as well as a victory over Chelsea at the end of March. Pity they couldn’t finished stronger, having lost that game against United in late April after taking a 2-0 lead. But it’s safe to say Redknapp has worked wonders, and if it wasn’t for that early dire start, they’d have easily secured a Europa League spot – which they could still get if they win and Fulham loses to Everton.

I reckon it’s safe to say Keane will get a less than warm welcome. But I expect more indifference than outright hostility; he was a disappointment and a bad signing, but not a willful waste. And, knowing my potential for jinxing things, I should probably stop writing about him.

The three points lost thanks to Tottenham’s comeback victory in November – an injury-time winner by Pavlyuchenko after Liverpool went ahead in the 3rd minute – stand out when looking at the table in May. That was one of Liverpool’s two league losses this season – the fewest of any side in Europe.

Time for payback, and time to end the season the right way.

17 May 2009

Liverpool 2-0 West Brom

Arbeloa Carragher Agger Insua
Lucas Mascherano
Kuyt Gerrard Benayoun

Gerrard 28’
Kuyt 63’

Football is not fair sometimes. Thankfully, this time it favored Liverpool.

Okay, so West Brom wasn’t content to sit back. Which is what makes Martis’ awful mistake in the 28th so harsh on them. In my defense, I didn’t expect Hull to take any points yesterday, and West Brom needed the win more than I thought they would, but still, very bright start and only the brilliance of Reina kept the home side from scoring in the first five minutes.

Having won an early corner, Greening forced an amazing double save from Reina at the back post from Brunt’s ball in after Torres inadvertently flicked on. Three minutes later, another corner led to a scramble in the penalty area. Living dangerously on set plays, as prone too.

It was never as nervy as those first ten minutes, but while Liverpool were growing into the game, they were struggling to test Kiely, and there was always the threat West Brom could nick one. As much as Albion were trying to attack through Brunt, Fortune, Koren, and Greening, their defense was sitting exceptionally deep and stifling Gerrard and Torres for the most part.

But in the 28th minute, Liverpool got an extraordinary gift. Martis dawdled on the ball after Liverpool gave it back, turned in towards Gerrard even though the right back was offering an option, and slipped. Liverpool’s captain didn’t need any additional impetus, striding through and sliding coolly under the keeper.

Unsurprisingly, the goal took the sting out of Albion, and Liverpool had more of the possession and chances for the rest of the half, and probably should have had a penalty in the 45th when Gerrard was barged over in the box. Olsson got in his face and claimed Gerrard dove, but I’m convinced the only reason Atkinson didn’t give the penalty was because the defender was already on a yellow and would have been off.

The start of the second half was more of the same – Liverpool were in front, but not by enough, while Alonso replaced Mascherano in the 50th with the Argentinean still suffering from a knock taken earlier (which didn’t look all that serious). But in the 59th, West Brom should have leveled – Koren was clearly offside but ruled on, and centered for what looked to be an open net for Fortuné. But Lucas got back to contest (never a penalty), and Fortuné didn’t even get off an attempt.

And four minutes later, it was done. Kuyt was given space to stride forward after a lovely pass from Ste, and buried it low and in the corner. Two minutes after, Lucas could have added a third when he wrong-sided two defenders on a lovely run, but the fingertips of Kiely managed to direct his shot just wide enough.

And from there, Liverpool was casualness personified. Babel came on for Torres, Ngog for Benayoun, and the away side strolled around with little care. And they should have been punished. The entrance of Moore for Mulumbu added more to Albion’s attack, and between the 77th and 80th minutes, West Brom had four outstanding chances.

First, Moore hit the frame after a corner was nonchalantly cleared. Somehow Fortuné headed over from four yards soon after when Liverpool couldn't clear. And moments after that, Fortuné threatened again, as Arbeloa allowed him space to chest down in the box before blocking the shot, which sent Carragher into an absolute rage – he started bollocking Arbeloa, who seemed to reply ‘fuck off’ as he got back up. Probably not the right decision. Carra looked like he was going to kill Arbeloa, Alonso had to pull him away, and the referee had words. Yeah, it was over the top, but Jamie does not like to concede goals, and that's why we love him. It'll be water under the bridge tomorrow. Oh, and a minute later, Fortuné had the ball in the net, only to be ruled offside.

The last ten minutes were much less eventful, with the lone fun coming in the 85th, when Babel should have scored Liverpool's third, which would have been the sixth straight league game with at least three goals, a first since the 19th century (or so the commentators told me). Alas.

It was a fairly typical late season match with little to play for, at least on Liverpool’s end. West Brom were certainly up for it. And credit to their fans, who were still singing in the 93rd minute, and applauded Martis off the pitch. That's support.

But as Liverpool players go, there was little to write home about. Pepe and Lucas were the most impressive; Lucas was very, very good in the middle (I forgot West Brom had a central midfield for long stretches) and made that goal-saving tackle, while Reina had to pull off some brilliant stops. Gerrard tallied a goal and an assist. And Kuyt was everywhere, as usual, in addition to tallying his 12th league goal of the season.

But both Torres and Benayoun were invisible for long stretches, and the fullbacks were shaky throughout. Even with West Brom’s good play and the fortune (ba dum ching) of the first goal, Liverpool should have won by a bigger margin.

But at the end of the day, it’s another win – Liverpool’s 9th in their last 10 league games, the lone draw coming against Arsenal. At 83 points, it’s Liverpool’s highest Premiership points total with a game left to play. And depending on Chelsea’s result in the 11am game, they may have all but sealed second place – even if Chelsea win their next two games and Liverpool lose next week, it’ll come down to goal difference, where Liverpool currently have a seven-goal advantage.

Keep finishing strong.

15 May 2009

Liverpool at West Brom 05.17.09

8:30am, live in the US on Setanta

Last 4 head-to-head:
3-0 Liverpool (h) 11.08.08
2-0 Liverpool (a) 04.01.06
1-0 Liverpool (h) 12.31.05
5-0 Liverpool (a) 12.26.04

Last 3 matches:
Liverpool: 3-0 West Ham (a); 3-0 Newcastle (h); 3-1 Hull (a)
West Brom: 3-1 Wigan (h); 0-1 Spurs (a); 3-0 Sunderland (h)

Goalscorers (league):
Liverpool: Gerrard 15; Torres 13; Kuyt 11; Benayoun 7; Alonso 4; Babel, Riera 3; Aurelio, Ngog 2; Agger, Arbeloa, Carragher, Dossena, Hyypia, Lucas 1
West Brom: Brunt 8; Bednar 6; Fortune 4; Miller, Morrison 3; Greening, Koren, Olsson 2; Beattle, Menseguez, Moore, Simpson 1

Referee: Martin Atkinson

Guess at a squad:
Arbeloa Carragher Agger Insua
Lucas Mascherano
Kuyt Gerrard Benayoun

Yes, yes. Manchester United probably "sealed” the title with the late win (surprise of surprises) at Wigan on Wednesday. Chances are they’ll take at least a point from Hull or Arsenal. And we’ll know by the time this match kicks off, with United hosting Arsenal at early Saturday morning.

But I doubt it’ll have much impact on the team selection. Maybe the bench, as it’d be nice to see some youngsters get a chance, but there’s still a race for second, at the least. Even if (when) the worst comes true, Liverpool need every point possible – the higher the total this season, the higher the confidence next season. Liverpool’s best haul under Benitez was 82 points in 2005-06.

Benitez says Alonso will be available, but that doesn’t necessarily mean he’ll start. Whether it’s Alonso or Lucas is the only real question I have over the line-up (although it could be Benayoun or Riera on the left, as well as Agger or Skrtel in defense). Although, as has been seen when Xabi’s been missing in previous games, his passing could be the difference against a packed defense.

And make no mistake – West Brom will have a packed defense. Mowbray’s been acclaimed because Albion have tried to play aesthetically pleasing football more often than not, and criticized because that open style sees them on the foot of the table. But West Brom will simply hope for a point from Sunday. With Boro and the Baggies both on 31 points, and Hull and Newcastle three points ahead, any point will do. In theory you’d think (hope?) they’d play for the win, but it’s more likely they’ll go for damage limitation here and hope for a win against Blackburn the following week.

West Brom have played well of late, with wins over Wigan and Sunderland giving them a slim shot at avoiding the drop. They’ve scored six in their last two home games, which is something like a sixth of all their goals during the campaign. ‘On paper’ means nothing; this will not be an easy match. Struggling against relegation, there will be fight in the opposition. But there’s been a fair bit of fight in Liverpool as well.

13 May 2009

Steven Gerrard – FWA Player of the Year

Well in, Stevie.

As I’ll expound upon in a few weeks (when the season is actually over), and as I wrote a nearly two months ago, Alonso is my player of the year for Liverpool. But Gerrard’s been utterly fantastic as well, consistent throughout the season, and it’s nice to see him reap the personal rewards.

That’s now the Football Writers’ Player of the Year and the Fans Player of the Year for the captain, in a season where he’s scored 15 in the league (23 in all competitions) and set up 8 goals. It’s a spectacular return for a midfielder, even if he’s played as a support striker/attacking midfielder more often than not.

The only personal accolade missing is the Footballers’ Player of the Year. Of course, they voted for a player who’s made all of 12 league starts this year, so I’m going to need someone explain to me the qualifications for that award. How the hell did Giggs’ come in second for this award too? Sympathy votes are wasted votes.

West Brom on Sunday, but we’re all Wigan fans today.

09 May 2009

Liverpool 3-0 West Ham

Arbeloa Carragher Skrtel Aurelio
Lucas Mascherano
Kuyt Gerrard Benayoun

Gerrard 2’ 38’
Babel 84’

Like the last match against Newcastle, it’s a 3-0 win without ever really hitting top stride. Unlike Newcastle, West Ham battled every step of the way, and are probably unlucky to lose by three goals. It’s a sign of Liverpool's form that they’re dispatching sides with relative ease even when not playing the best.

The difference between today and the draw at Anfield in December was the early goal. That difference was made by Torres and Gerrard, starting together for only the 12th time in the league. I imagine it’s not surprising that they didn’t play in tandem in that draw in the reverse fixture.

This time it was Torres turned creator as the Spaniard carved open the Hammers’ defense with a throughball within 90 seconds. Gerrard, played onside by Kovac, rounded the keeper, slotted into the net, and made it look ever so easy in the process.

Credit to West Ham that they didn’t fold. Liverpool continued to look dangerous with balls over the top, as Torres threatened to torch the backline of Tomkins and Upson, but West Ham increasingly grew into the game, led by Mark Noble.

Noble is proof of what bedding a player into the side can accomplish – a supporter as a child to the club’s most important player. He’s gotten better every year, and was the key to West Ham’s pressing performance. Giving Liverpool little time in their own half meant West Ham were able to reclaim possession after someone like Mascherano or Kuyt won it for Liverpool.

However, West Ham weren’t able to change possession into chances, and in the 37th minute, Torres and Gerrard combined for a second. The Spaniard was hauled down in the box by Boa Morte (who was furious not to have won a foul moments earlier), and Gerrard stepped up to take the penalty. Green got down for the save, but the captain was first to the rebound.

West Ham almost got one back in the 43rd, making me thankful for that second goal. Carra slipped, Di Michele was through, but the Italian stumbled as he tried to round Reina, flung himself to the ground, and earned a yellow for his troubles. And two minutes later, Liverpool nearly got a third when Torres somehow got on the end of a long ball and looped a header toward goal, only to see it fly just wide.

The second half was more of the same, even if Liverpool were marginally more on top. West Ham struggled to get through, Liverpool were happy to play patiently and hope to spring the counter, and it led to a fairly tame affair. Liverpool finally got the third, on the break and again in the last 10 minutes, as Babel got a second chance after Green saved his initial header following Kuyt’s cross.

Gerrard and Torres, unsurprisingly, were the simple difference. An early goal is often crucial for Liverpool, and although I don’t know the stats, it seems as if the side rarely draws after going in front. Torres threatened the backline for 72 minutes before being replaced by Babel, while Gerrard rampaged around the field as usual, getting a brace and probably the man of the match award for his troubles.

Even though it’s uncouth to complain following three points, Liverpool missed Alonso today. Without Xabi, West Ham won back possession far easier, and Liverpool rarely looked comfortable on the ball in midfield. Neither Mascherano nor Lucas played poorly – Masch was everywhere breaking up play and Lucas was in his usual pass-and-move pivot style of play – but neither has the passing range or brain of Alonso, and it showed today.

I also found it interesting that Aurelio was withdrawn for Insua before an hour was off the clock. Yes, it was mainly caution, as Aurelio was on a yellow, but Boa Morte had given the Brazilian problems and Benayoun wasn’t a huge help in defense. But West Ham threatened that flank far less frequently after Insua came on.

Another tough game where Liverpool came away with all three points. No matter how it finishes, you can’t help but be proud of how this team’s closed the season. Two more games, two wins needed.

08 May 2009

Liverpool at West Ham 05.09.09

12:30pm, live in the US on FSC

Last 4 head-to-head:
0-0 (h) 12.01.08
4-0 Liverpool (h) 03.05.08
0-1 West Ham (a) 01.30.08
2-1 Liverpool (a) 01.30.07

Last 3 matches:
Liverpool: 3-0 Newcastle (h); 3-1 Hull (a); 4-4 Arsenal (h)
West Ham: 1-0 Stoke (a); 0-1 Chelsea (h); 1-1 Villa (a)

Goalscorers (league):
Liverpool: Gerrard, Torres 13; Kuyt 11; Benayoun 7; Alonso 4; Riera 3; Aurelio, Babel, Ngog 2; Agger, Arbeloa, Carragher, Dossena, Hyypia, Lucas 1
West Ham: Cole 9; Di Michele 4; Collison, Noble, Tristan 3; Ashton 2; Behrami, Davenport, Mullins, Neill, Parker, Stanislas, Tomkins 1

Referee: Alan Wiley

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

Tomorrow comes too soon for Alonso. As crucial as he is to Liverpool’s play, especially in games where the team looks to have a substantial edge in possession, it’s not worth risking him if there are questions over his ankle, and it's right to leave him on Merseyside. Which should mean a start for Lucas. Maybe Gerrard would play deeper with Yossi in the hole, but I doubt it. Besides, the Lucas/Mascherano pairing started the 4-1 win over United and 5-1 win over Newcastle, among others. Pity the “others” also includes 0-0 against both Stoke and Fulham.

In my opinion, more important is the predicted return of Fernando Torres. The Spanish striker is ever so needed in games like this, where he can come up with a goal from absolutely nothing. He scored a hat-trick the last time he faced West Ham, and missed the 0-0 draw in December.

Another key question is Benayoun v Riera. With Gerrard and Torres in the side, it’s pretty much one or the other, as Kuyt’s seemingly nailed-on to start on the right. And although Benayoun hasn’t always been the best option on the left, he’s in a rich vein of form, far better than Riera, who’s been hit and miss of late. I honestly don’t know who Rafa will choose, but Benayoun has to have the edge.

Finally, the other questions are in defense, specifically Agger and Aurelio. The Dane has started more games recently, aided by fitness and a new contract, and should continue to on Saturday. He’s scored against West Ham in the past, and his ability to bring the ball out of defense should be huge. One of these days, we’re going to see Carra left out for a Skrtel and Agger pairing, but I doubt that day’s tomorrow.

Of course, maybe we’ll see Hyypia instead. West Ham will probably play Di Michele and/or Tristan up front in Cole’s absence, and neither veteran relies on quickness to score goals. Both use their brains and positioning, which Hyypia is the best at countering.

On the left, it’s Aurelio or Insua. My heart says Insua – I love the little Argie, and think he’s a hell of a player. But Aurelio did well last time out, is far more experienced, and is a better crosser, which Liverpool will need against a packed defense.

West Ham will be no pushovers, and it’s almost all down to the management of Gianfranco Zola. The Hammers lost seven of Zola’s first ten games. They’re now in 7th place, in pole position for a Europa League (UEFA Cup) place. Most impressive is how Zola’s bedded in young players like Collison, Stanislas, and Tomkins – but they still have reliable old heads like Di Michele and Tristan.

I said it for the Arsenal game, and now that’s past, it’s the case here. This is the hardest game left in the run-in. West Ham has been a bogey side of late – Liverpool's 4-0 win in 2008 is bracketed by a 0-0 draw and 0-1 loss – and it’s away from Anfield as well. But maybe being away from home will be beneficial. West Ham will have to come out, although Zola’s not known for playing defensively regardless, and Liverpool won’t have the pressure of a wanting crowd if the goals aren't flying in.

The team knows what it needs to do: win every game until the end of May. That’s all that’s needed to be said.

06 May 2009

On Barcelona, Chelsea, and Andres Iniesta

I’m no expert on Spanish football, but the ubiquitous praise for Barcelona and the fact that I’ve got GolTV this season has led me to watch a substantial amount of that team. And that’s why I’m not surprised Andres Iniesta was the one who won it at the death. If you asked me to pick one player – just one – to improve Liverpool, it’d be him.

Much more willing to put in the work to run at Chelsea’s locked defense and try to make something happen (I’m looking at you, Lionel), it finally paid off when he sent a wicked toe-poke past Cech from the top of the box. He’s quick and strong, able to play anywhere along the front three, likes to have a run and shoot from distance, and can both score and set up goals. There’s absolutely zero, ZERO chance he’s leaving Barcelona, but he’s a player I’ve come to adore watching.

Today’s was an amazing game in a number of ways. It’s incredibly harsh on Chelsea – I almost empathize, and then, remembering the team, break out in a mischievous smile. I delight in schadenfreude far too much. Plus, Chelsea’s hysterics after the final whistle – culminating with Drogba hypocritical enough to call someone else a disgrace – were the icing on the cake.

But they’re not kidding when claiming four penalties weren’t given. Two out of the four were seemed stonewall – a free kick given outside the box for a foul that was inside (I’ll buy that it wasn’t a foul, but if you’re giving it, it was clearly in the area), and a Marquez Pique handball, which even if it was incidental, prevented Anelka from getting through. But thems the breaks. Abidal’s red card was never a red, so it’s not as if the ref gave them all to Barca. However, I am 100% open to conspiracy theories involving Platini not wanting a repeat of last year’s final, especially one comprised of two English teams.

Even though it was anti-football at times, I thought it completely compelling. Chelsea simply would not break down – and Lampard and Essien were fantastic. Granted, Barca had no plan C – plan A was pass through the middle and bring Messi in (and there was no space for either), and plan B was Alves crosses in from the right (and he was off all night long). But Chelsea played the stunting, stifling game that always seems to work for English clubs.

This is the first time an English club has been knocked out by a non-English side since Liverpool lost to AC Milan in the 2007 final. Last year, Liverpool dumped out Arsenal in the quarters, Chelsea dumped out Liverpool in the semis, and United won damn thing. This season, Chelsea put out Liverpool and United beat Arsenal. This is why I seriously wouldn’t put it past Platini to fix this game.

And Chelsea’s solitary goal was one that deserved to win any match. I’m probably forgetful in the heat of the moment, but Essien’s might be the best non-Liverpool strike I’ve ever seen (I am too biased to judge otherwise). So what if he couldn’t do it again. Volley with his weaker foot from 25 yards, and hit so perfectly that the keeper has no chance. Simply stunning.

But at the end of the day, a one-goal lead is never enough, as Liverpool’s proven before. Fix or no fix (I haven’t decided yet if I’m kidding), it sets up the final I’d much rather see. That it ends with such a stomach punch amuses me – I admit, I’m a petty, petty man who holds grudges.

But it sucks that Barcelona will be missing Marquez, Alves, and Abidal in the final – if today is any guide, the best bet will be to soak up pressure and attack on the counter, probably targeting the flanks with Puyol coming back and both fullbacks out. Which, sadly, is just how United prefers to play.

04 May 2009

Oh Sami, Sami

I had to do a double take when I read the news, even though it isn’t all that surprising. Sami Hyypia, of 460 plus games over 10 years of service, will be leaving the club at the end of the season, joining Bayer Leverkusen on a free transfer. It’s not a coincidence that the news didn’t come out until the Agger deal was done and dusted.

A former captain, with a haul of a Champions League medal, a UEFA Cup medal, two FA Cup medals, two Carling Cup medals, two UEFA Super Cups, and two Charity Shields. The only thing missing is the league. His goals against Juventus and Arsenal in Europe, among others. He’s been half of two of the best defensive partnerships in Liverpool history, along with Henchoz and then Carragher.

For £2.5m, he’s up there with the best pound for pound signings in club history – company like King Kenny for £440,000, Rushie for £300,000 and Keegan for £33,000 (no, I’m not missing any zeroes).

It’s a shame he couldn’t see his career out at Liverpool, but he’s got a two-year deal at Leverkusen, which Liverpool couldn't (and, sadly, probably shouldn't) offer him, and he’s not staying in England. As usual, Sami doesn’t do the club wrong. A proper legend – all the best on your two-year stay in Germany, then here’s hoping he’s back at the club in a coaching role.

And here’s hoping we don’t have to wait long for his testimonial. Because Sami’s sure earned it.

03 May 2009

Liverpool 3-0 Newcastle

Arbeloa Carragher Agger Aurelio
Mascherano Alonso
Benayoun Gerrard Riera

Benayoun 22’
Kuyt 28’
Lucas 87’

It was just a casual, two-nil romp. Newcastle had offered absolutely nothing since the first goal went in. And then Joey Barton, who’d had such a laughably bad game that I jokingly suggested to a friend that he was throwing it for his Merseyside brethren, scythed down Xabi Alonso, with the Spaniard leaving the field on a stretcher. And now I’m pissed. A red card and three-match ban aren’t enough for that degenerate. I don’t care if it wasn’t malicious (which it probably wasn’t). Clumsy and stupid is no way to go through life, son.

To be fair, Newcastle weren’t bad for the first 20 minutes. They looked to get forward, with Lovenkrands, Martins, and Viduka almost a three-man front (probably just as much 4-2-3-1), and actually saw a bit of the ball. Granted, Liverpool were still better, and threatened from the first minute, when Gerrard broke into the box from the left only to collide with Butt, while Kuyt should have opened the scoring with a free header in the 18th.

And in the 22nd, after an extended spell of pressure, Kuyt got the ball across the face of the goal, and Benayoun, most likely offside, was there to tap in. Yep, he's still in the best form of his Liverpool career. And yes, it was an exceptionally close decision, but Newcastle were probably hard done by. And heads immediately dropped; it was never a game after Liverpool scored.

It only took six minutes for Liverpool to tally the second, from a corner no less. Kuyt got a free run off Beye, ably aided by a delicious pick set by Agger, for a bullet diving header on Gerrard’s ball in. That's that.

It easily could have been more by halftime, with the best chance coming when Alonso pinged one off the crossbar in the 39th, but Liverpool strolled about, and Newcastle were happy to put all 11 men behind the ball in the attempt to avoid further embarrassment.

One-way traffic continued for the second half, but Liverpool couldn’t add a third, and never seemed very bothered about it. The best chances came through Gerrard, who had a fair few shots and was busy throughout, and Alonso, who crashed another off the bar in the 73rd. Four minutes later, Barton utterly lost his head and went diving in on Alonso in the corner with a two-footed tackle. Douchebag. Alonso better not be seriously injured. Mascherano also went off in the 89th after Nolan stepped on his foot. Yeah, I’m a bit concerned.

Nine minutes later, Liverpool finally added the third, from another set piece. A good ball in from Aurelio and the easiest header in the world for Lucas, unmarked from six yards when the offside trap broke down, for his first Premier League goal. And the home side could have four when another ricocheted off the post, this time from Gerrard.

The Barton idiocy and the Mascherano knock almost blind me to how easy this game was and how well the team played. The only possible complaint is the relative “dearth” of goals.

It must be something about Newcastle, because Kuyt was again outstanding as a lone striker (where he’s struggled before), just like in the reverse fixture. He held up play magnificently, scored one and assisted on another, and could have tallied more. Gerrard’s also in the man of the match discussion – a rampaging, trademark performance from which he deserved a goal. And Alonso, before he went off, was the heartbeat and pacesetter, as per usual.

And, thankfully, the defense was never, ever troubled. But to be fair, Newcastle offered nothing. I’m struggling to think of one shot on target. But seriously, nice job leaving Michael Owen on the bench. Have fun in the Championship next season. I don’t like to wish ill on the opposition, but they deserve it after that tepid performance, even if it’s the fury over Barton’s tackle that's pushed me over the top.

There’s nothing Liverpool can do but keeping playing games like this, and keep tallying three points. It’s telling that Torres, who picked up a hamstring knock in training and was left out as a precaution, wasn’t missed – although Liverpool surely would have scored more with him on the field. Three more like that please.

01 May 2009

Liverpool v Newcastle 05.03.09

8:30am, live in the US on Setanta

Last 4 head-to-head:
5-1 Liverpool (a) 12.28.08
3-0 Liverpool (h) 03.08.08
3-1 Liverpool (a) 11.24.07
1-2 Newcastle (a) 02.10.07

Last 3 matches:
Liverpool: 3-1 Hull (a); 4-4 Arsenal (h); 4-4 Chelsea (a)
Newcastle: 0-0 Pompey (h); 0-1 Spurs (a); 1-1 Stoke (a)

Goalscorers (league):
Liverpool: Gerrard, Torres 13; Kuyt 10; Benayoun 6; Alonso 4; Riera 3; Aurelio, Babel, Ngog 2; Agger, Arbeloa, Carragher, Dossena, Hyypia 1
Newcastle: Owen 8; Martins 7; Amoebi 4; Carroll, Duff, Taylor 3; Guthrie, Lovenkrands 2; Barton, Edgar, Xisco 1

Referee: Phil Dowd

Guess at a squad:
Arbeloa Carragher Agger Aurelio
Alonso Mascherano
Kuyt Benayoun Riera

Newcastle may be frighteningly bad of late and perilously close to relegation, but this isn’t a game to be fucking about with the line-up or expecting an easy trot to three points.

With the news that Gerrard’s finally close to fitness, which probably means he’ll start on the bench, the only foreseeable changes are in defense. The official site’s reporting that Agger’s close to a new deal (thank you baby jesus), so I’m hopeful he’ll start on Sunday as a reward. But Hyypia should be fit as well, and he had a blinder (while scoring a goal) in the reverse fixture.

The other question is over the left back spot. While one goal, conceded because a player got lazy at 2-0 and didn’t cover, doesn’t diminish my belief in Insua, I think Benitez will have had words with the young Argentinean (Pepe sure did right after Geovanni’s goal), and I think we’ll see Aurelio back in the lineup. But believe me, I wouldn’t be upset to see Emmy.

With or without Gerrard, Kuyt and Benayoun have been Liverpool’s key players over the last few weeks. And I couldn’t be prouder. Benayoun’s become the tricky, game-winning player we’d hope would replace Garcia, while Kuyt’s in double-digits for goals in the league even though he’s mostly played on the right. The two of them have to – simply have to – keep this up for the next four games.

It’s ever so tempting to underestimate Newcastle. In 18th and looking closer and closer to the drop, they’re winless under Wor Alan. As usual, injury problems persist on Tyneside; at the least, Steven Taylor and Jose Enrique will miss out in defense, while Viduka and Martins are questionable having recently returned to injury. And for kicks, Shearer’s threatening to drop Owen (you have you watch the video). I am begging you, Alan, go on, drop the former Red. It’d be a masterstroke.

The 5-1 win at St. James’ Park, with players like Babel, Hyypia, Lucas, and Insua starting, cannot be treated as precedent. It was four months ago – now, Liverpool’s in a fight to finish the season strongly, while the Geordies can feel relegation breathing down their necks. I promise you, form will probably go out the window tomorrow.

But, pressure from the off and an early goal, will break their spirits. You can be sure of that. And that’s the way Liverpool’s tried to play of late. Keep it up.