31 October 2009

Liverpool 1-3 Fulham

Degen Carragher Kyrgiakos Insua
Lucas Mascherano
Kuyt Voronin Benayoun

Zamora 24’
Torres 42’
Nevland 72’
Dempsey 87’

Once again, you have to be kidding me. Another delicious mix of awful luck, costly mistakes, fluke goals, and questionable substitutions. Benitez is going to come under a ton of stick, and I have absolutely no defense for him. We’re in full-on damage control mode. Wednesday could literally destroy this club.

23 minutes of solid pressure, and Liverpool’s beaten with a smash-and-grab less than a minute after Benayoun smacked the crossbar. Thankfully, Torres provides a wonderful equalizer after Liverpool struggled to regain its bearings, and then Fulham goes back ahead after the striker’s questionably withdrawn in the 63rd. Nothing comes from Babel’s entrance, and Nevland notches from a fortunate break. Benayoun’s also withdrawn, and then Degen and Carra pick up straight red cards. It was only a matter of time before Fulham made it 3-1. The nine men that finished the match were Reina, Ayala, Kyrgiakos, Insua, Mascherano, Lucas, Eccleston, Voronin, and Babel.

Either a bad virus is going around the club or Benitez put too much priority on Wednesday’s Champions League match in Lyon. In addition to Gerrard, Johnson, Aqua, Kelly, and Riera out, which we knew, Agger, Aurelio, Skrtel, Ngog, and Cavalieri didn’t make the squad. If you include El Zhar, Liverpool had a comparable XI missing. The bench was filled with youngsters such as Eccleston, Ayala, Spearing, Plessis, and Gulasci; Babel and Dossena were the only two who’ve started more than three league games.

But this can’t be blamed on injuries. On the whole, Liverpool were indefensible. Just like last season at Craven Cottage, Liverpool looked irrepressible early on, but couldn’t make it pay off. Other than the aforementioned Benayoun blast, the only remotely interesting threat was Voronin’s stumbling headed flick-cum-shot which eluded Torres in the 3rd minute.

Voronin and Benayoun dropped deeper to try and knit play, but Fulham stayed in front of them. All the possession, but no bite. Those two, along with Kuyt, have to take a lot of the blame for Liverpool’s indifference in attack. We know what we’re getting with Lucas and Mascherano, and they were solid in midfield, evidenced by the overwhelming possession. But Liverpool infrequently tested Schwartzer or teed up Torres. And then Fulham struck. Kyrgiakos looked to be the main villain, beaten on the initial header and when Zamora got between him and Insua, but it was basically Fulham's first chance.

Liverpool were completely undone by the opener. It took 15 minutes to reassert any sort of pressure, and Fulham were happy to have 10 men behind the ball daring Liverpool to break them down. Fernando Torres could. Voronin’s header looked to be going nowhere as Hughes stepped up to block, but the defender could only chest to Torres, with the striker brilliantly volleying the errant pass from the top of the box.

With Liverpool finally turning the tables, intermission probably came at an unfortunate time. The team never posed much of a threat in the second half, and Fulham had the best opportunity – Carragher narrowly avoiding a penalty when shielding Zamora – before the controversial turning point.

Rafael Benitez is often compared to a chess master. He’s definitely a hands-on, 'consider everything' tactician, who, if we’re being impudent, treats his players like chess pieces. That’s the only way to describe replacing Fernando Torres with Babel with thirty minutes to play.

I understand his reasons. Torres isn’t at full fitness, he was struggling for chances, and there’s a huge game on Wednesday where he’ll be needed thanks to the insanely depleted squad. But fans don’t care about that. Fans want Gerry Byrne playing with a broken collarbone in the FA Cup Final (look it up). Fans want Terry Butcher with blood streaming down his face. When Liverpool’s drawing a needed win and Fernando Torres's taken out with 30 minutes to go “to protect" him, fans are going to be furious when the team loses 3-1, and rightfully so.

It was either tragedy or comedy after that depending on your outlook. Liverpool created even less in the final third without Torres, and Fulham struck nine minutes after the substitution because Kuyt worked too hard. Too hard! The striker sprinted across the field to try and keep the ball in, laying it on a plate for Konchesky, who raced down the left. His deep cross found Gera, who headed it down for Nevland to redirect.

Embarassingly, Benayoun was soon withdrawn for Eccleston. Taking off the best source of goals is made worse by taking off the second-best source of goals after the team goes behind. Degen’s idiotically rash challenge a minute later deserved a red card for stupidity alone, while Carragher hauled down Zamora in similar circumstances to the Owen challenge three minutes later. A goal against a stretched nine men and Fulham fans chanting olé completed the humiliation, and You’ll Never Walk Alone hadn’t sounded so somber since halftime at Istanbul.

The win over United was a short reprieve, and we’re back on the brink. It’s harder to defend the team or manager than usual, and Benitez would probably be fired if Liverpool loses to Lyon if the owners could afford it. If that doesn’t sum up the severity of this situation, I don’t know what can.

30 October 2009

Liverpool at Fulham 10.31.09

11am, live in the US on Setanta

Last 4 head-to-head:
1-0 Liverpool (a) 04.04.09
0-0 (h) 11.22.08
2-0 Liverpool (a) 04.19.08
2-0 Liverpool (h) 11.10.07

Last three matches:
Liverpool: 1-2 Arsenal (a); 2-0 United (h); 1-2 Lyon (h)
Fulham: 2-2 City (a); 1-1 Roma (h); 2-0 Hull (h)

Goalscorers (league):
Liverpool: Torres 9; Benayoun, Gerrard, Kuyt 3; Babel, Johnson, Ngog 2
Fulham: Duff, Murphy, Zamora 2; Dempsey, Gera, Kamara, Konchesky 1

Referee: Lee Mason

Guess at a squad:
Degen Carragher Agger Insua
Lucas Mascherano
Kuyt Benayoun Aurelio

Still can’t get around those injury concerns. Gerrard’s still out, Johnson’s evidently relapsed, Aquilani’s picked up a virus, and Kelly and Riera aren’t fit yet. Oh, and Torres is touch and go. At least it doesn’t appear that Lucas has swine flu, which was a nasty rumor floating around the forums yesterday, and Mascherano’s back from suspension.

So unless other concerns arise, or someone provides a late fitness boost, I can’t see many other options for the line-up. It’d be the team that faced United with Degen coming in for Johnson.

Insua and Aurelio formed a solid left flank against United. I don’t see any reason to alter that for Babel’s inclusion. Had the Dutchman taken his 80th minute opportunity against Arsenal, I might be singing a different tune, but once again, Babel disappointed. Benayoun’s would be the creative linchpin in the hole, with Kuyt again joining the attack from the right.

I’m nervous about Degen’s first Premier League start, and would rather Martin Kelly, but at least we’ve seen flashes in his few appearances this season. The attacking side’s been the better half of his game, and it’ll be the side more needed against Fulham, but we’ve seen some decent last-ditch defending. Still, adding Degen to a defense prone to lapses worries, but the defense’s been in much better form since Agger’s return.

After a slow start to the season, Fulham’s been fairly impressive of late, unbeaten since hosting Arsenal at the end of September. They should have notched a win over Roma, only to concede an injury-time equalizer when a man down, before coming back from two down at Manchester City. The team’s still struggling for goals though, with 10 scored through nine league matches, less than half of what Liverpool's accrued. Danny Murphy won’t start against his old club due to injury, while Simon Davies and Paul Konchesky are also probably out.

Five days ago, Anfield was in ecstasy as Liverpool apparently “saved the season.” Beating the Mancs is wonderful, and absolutely made my week, but it’ll mean next to nothing if Liverpool can’t find another three points. Fulham frequently gives Liverpool a game; last season's match at Anfield was one of those frustrating 0-0s, while it took a 92nd minute goal from Yossi Benayoun to beat them on their patch.

This won’t be easy, especially with the injuries. But win anyway. Just win.

28 October 2009

Liverpool 1-2 Arsenal

Degen Skrtel Kyrgiakos Insua
Spearing Plessis
Kuyt Voronin Babel

Merida 19’
Insua 26’
Bendtner 50’

Any loss is disappointing, especially when the team’s already lost six, but this one doesn’t sting too bad. Arsenal, with Nasri, Bendtner, and Eduardo in the line-up, didn’t exactly play the Super Teens, and probably deserved their victory. However, an errant offside call when Voronin was through and a non-penalty when Senderos handled Aquilani’s (!!!) bicycled effort make it a bit bitterer.

It was an open, back-and-forth game that saw two brilliant first-half strikes, Arsenal on top of possession thanks to dominating the midfield, but with the scores level at halftime. Kuyt’s early volley wide and Degen’s plunge into the box only to toe-poke wide of the far post signaled Liverpool’s intent within 10 minutes.

But Arsenal established superiority, and should have went ahead in the 17th, furiously countering after a giveaway only to see an over-intricate Bendtner fluff a centering ball into Cavalieri’s grateful arms. However, Merida opened the scoring with a thunderbolt two minutes later after Voronin was loose with the ball in his own half. The 19-year-old was wide open and lashed an unstoppable shot past Cavalieri at the near post.

But Arsenal couldn’t keep hold of the momentum, and a similarly wonderful goal by Insua leveled matters. Babel smartly headed down a long ball for the left back, who controlled with his chest and unleashed an utterly perfect dipper that gave Fabianski no chance. Not a bad first goal for the club; it’s going to be tough to beat for goal of the season.

Despite the equalizer, Arsenal continued to set the tempo and tone. Ramsey, Eastmond, and Nasri out-classed Spearing and Plessis in the center, and Liverpool were often restricted to hitting on the counter. Ngog held up play well, and Degen had a few flashes of inspiration striding forward, but Arsenal always looked more likely to score the second.

And they had their chances. A lovely break in the 36th, again through Ramsey, found Merida free on the left. Cavalieri committed, Merida crossed, but Skrtel was there to head away for a corner. Degen got back for a last-ditch block in the 42nd after a nice one-two between Eastmond and Nasri before some comical defending from a corner saw Cavalieri flap at the ball in and stumble around his box before Bendtner’s swiveled shot thankfully struck him in the midsection.

But five minutes after the interval, Bendtner finally came good. A mix-up between Skrtel and Kyrgiakos when Ramsey and Bendtner were in the box saw the Dane pick up possession and get past Skrtel, smashing over Cavalieri. Sigh.

A lovely break between Degen and Voronin, with the two players exchanging five passes (?!), finished with Voronin narrowly missing the far corner in the 55th, but Arsenal continued to see more of the ball. Benayoun for Ngog in the 75th and Aquilani (!!!) for Plessis in the 77th helped remedy matters as Liverpool pushed for another equalizer, but the changes came too late. Of course, there were the non-existent offside and non-penalty.

Arsenal had a couple of chances on the break, with Skrtel barely getting back to contain Watt and Eduardo shooting wide, bracketing Babel failing to make contact with Kuyt’s center in the six-yard box in the 80th. The rebound eventually fell to Aquilani at the edge of the box, but Fabianski easily smothered the low shot.

Then came the two controversial moments. In the 87th, a tired Ramsey gave the ball away in his own half, and it looked like Babel’s neat touch sprung Voronin, but the assistant flagged. In the second minute of injury time, Senderos handled Aquilani’s overhead volley after a scramble in the box (I don't care if his arms were near his chest, they were up, stopped a goal-bound effort, and he basically caught the ball), but Wiley played on, and Arsenal spent the final seconds playing by Liverpool’s corner flag. And thus ends this year’s Carling Cup run.

The media will praise Arsenal’s kids, and Ramsey, Eastmond, and Gilbert admittedly played well. Ramsey especially. But this wasn’t an Academy side Liverpool faced, and Arsenal was better on the day. Maybe if it’s at Anfield, it’s a different result. Yes, some players frustrated (yet another opportunity not seized by Babel, while you can’t help but be disappointed in the midfield, even considering its inexperience), but there were a fair few positives to take away.

As said above, Ngog and Degen had their moments. It was a massive, massive goal by Insua, which will only boost his confidence. Kyrgiakos was solid, showing no effects of injury, although the mix-up for Arsenal’s winner was a bit embarrassing. Academy player Nathan Eccleston (good name) saw a few minutes of action at the end. Most noteworthy, obviously, was the debut of Alberto Aquilani.

It’s early days, but Aquilani looked different class when he came on. The range of passing was especially evident (with an absolutely brilliant cross-field ball reminiscent of You Know Who), but just the way he carried himself and the positions he got into oozed potential. Even in a cameo role he looked a player, and it would have been a dream to see him win an injury-time spot kick.

It sucks to be out of the cup, but the B-team wasn’t bad, Aquilani got his debut, and it was an entertaining spectacle. Fair play to Arsenal; on their pitch, they were better. Oh well. Vastly more important is the trip to Fulham on Saturday.

27 October 2009

Liverpool at Arsenal 10.28.09

3:45pm. As with the last round, it looks like it’s only available on ESPN360.com, even though United at Barnsley is on Setanta today. So, most of us will be stuck with streams. Check the usual places; my first stop will be MyP2P.eu.

Last 4 head-to-head:
4-4 (h) 04.21.09
1-1 (a) 12.21.08
4-2 Liverpool (h; CL) 04.08.08
1-1 (a) 04.05.08

Last three matches:
Liverpool: 2-0 United (h); 1-2 Lyon (h); 0-1 Sunderland (a)
Arsenal: 2-2 West Ham (a); 1-1 AZ (a); 3-1 Brum (h)

Referee: Alan Wiley

Wiley was in charge of the last round at Leeds as well. Weird…

Guess at a squad:
Degen Skrtel Kyrgiakos Dossena
Lucas Spearing
Kuyt Voronin Babel

As usual, some mix of senior, reserve, and young players, with an eye on the vastly more important weekend match. And, as usual with games like this, your guess is as good as mine.

Mascherano’s suspended following the red card against the Mancs. Benitez says it’s still too soon for Aquilani to start, but he might make a cameo. With Gerrard still injured – and even if he were fit, this shouldn’t be his first game back – Spearing, Lucas, and Plessis are the only options. Lucas has played nearly every first-team game, but Spearing/Plessis seems too inexperienced and defensive, even for the Carling Cup.

The attack should comprise of Kuyt or Benayoun with the second string, although there’s an outside chance of a surprise like Amoo or Eccleston. Just back from injury and after 80 minutes against the Mancs, Torres won’t play (he better not), while Riera’s still injured, so Ngog, Voronin, and Babel look likely. I’d rather Benayoun’s guile before Kuyt’s workrate, but the Dutchman’s more capable of having an impact when starting three games in a week.

It’s still too soon for Kelly after his strong appearance against Lyon, so it’ll be Degen or Darby at right back. Most important should be rests for Carra and Agger, but Benitez often uses Carra as captain in games like these and rotates defenders far less for fitness. Still, I’d rather see Skrtel and Kyrgiakos or Ayala to give the first-choice centerbacks a breather. That Kyrgiakos and Dossena have been training (see above Gerrard link) is a boon; otherwise, I’d have guessed Ayala and Insua respectively.

We’ll probably be treated to another round of media orgasms over Arsenal’s youngsters. The likes of Wilshere, Ramsey, Vela, and Gibbs played in the 2-0 home win over West Brom in the last round, and are likely to do so again. Wilshere and Ramsey are excellent central midfield prospects, while Vela’s shown flashes. But Liverpool’s team will have more experience, and enough talent to beat Arsenal’s day camp.

Tomorrow is more important than the usual Carling Cup match, as Liverpool needs to win to build on the United victory and move past the previous losing streak. And, as I said before the last round, a trophy's a trophy when the club's gone without one since 2006. But it’s still the Carling Cup.

26 October 2009

Different games, different midfields

In the midst of the Alonso summer saga, I posted the results from different midfield pairings. Lucas/Mascherano’s line looked like this:

6 wins, 4 draws
2-0 West Brom, 3-0 West Ham, 4-1 United, 1-1 City, 1-1 Wigan, 0-0 Stoke, 5-1 Newcastle, 3-1 PSV [4-4-2], 0-0 Fulham [4-4-2], 2-1 Marseille

Let’s ignore the PSV and Fulham games because of the 4-4-2 formation in Gerrard’s absence (and Torres’ against PSV). So you have romps over United and Newcastle, two decent late-season wins when the entire team was in blistering form, three uninspiring draws, and a tough win in Marseille. This season, the pairing started against Spurs, Stoke, Villa, Bolton, West Ham, Chelsea, Lyon, and United (4 wins, 4 losses).

Those results, coupled with yesterday’s enormous win, reiterate a lingering suspicion many have voiced. Mascherano and Lucas are a good pairing against teams that match Liverpool in possession and tempo. Ferguson fed into Liverpool hands by selecting a lightweight midfield in Scholes and Carrick (United definitely missed the injured Fletcher), but yesterday’s was the type of game in which Mascherano and Lucas thrive.

Unfortunately, two-thirds of the Premiership doesn’t play like that against Liverpool. The Newcastle mauling was more of an aberration against a side in dire straights, while very few teams were able to knock Liverpool off its stride at the end of last season, let alone West Ham or Albion.

On his day, Mascherano is a beast of a midfielder. He is utterly relentless when the opposition’s on the ball, hassles and harries with the best of them, and can man-mark the likes of Kaka out of existence. Let’s just say his attacking qualities aren’t as developed. Lucas is underrated – decent at a lot of things, but not a standout in any area – and still quite young for the position. He’s energetic (a quality Benitez adores), ticks over play, rarely loses possession, and can get from box to box. But despite how I hate how he’s a main scapegoat, this isn’t solely a defense of the player. He’s not a creative force, not a scruff-of-the-neck midfielder, like what Gerrard built his reputation upon. Of course, he’s also 22.

In games like those against West Ham and West Brom last season, as well as the Hammers and Bolton this season, the pairing suffices when Liverpool’s firing, but the creativity often comes from other sources. And when the other players, especially in attack, are underperforming, neither Mascherano nor Lucas can change proceedings. See: Spurs, Villa, and Lyon.

Which is where Alberto Aquilani, whose debut should take place soon, comes in.

We saw it in the Lucas/Gerrard pairing against Burnley and Hull – 4-0 and 6-1 wins – which worked well, but was probably a stopgap given how Gerrard and Torres combine upfront. Mascherano’s forte isn’t needed against the bus parkers. If Lucas isn’t picking up silly fouls, he can be an even more effective defensive midfielder in those games because of his aerial ability, which is how a lot of those teams attack Liverpool. And his versatility next to the likes of Gerrard gives Liverpool far more threat than that of Mascherano. The attacking capabilities of Aquilani should mix well with Lucas’ in those games.

So what does this mean for the future? If everyone’s fit, the team should continue to be built around the Gerrard/Torres attacking partnership. Mascherano, Lucas, and Aquilani would interchange in central midfield depending on the opposition.

Against the likes of Stoke and Burnley, it’ll be Lucas and Aquilani. Against the Uniteds and Chelseas, Benitez will probably go with Lucas and Mascherano. And against the rest – the mid-table opposition, the deceptively difficult away games – we’ll get the balanced Mascherano/Aquilani partnership: one defends, one attacks, and ideally in better proportion than Lucas and Mascherano. More balanced than Mascherano/Alonso as well, which was too defensive for some games last season.

Again, I worry that I’m building Aquilani up into an unreachable paragon, but what Benitez has in mind, and the reasons for gambling over Aquilani's fitness, seems evident.

25 October 2009

Liverpool 2-0 United

Johnson Carragher Agger Insua
Mascherano Lucas
Benayoun Kuyt Aurelio

Torres 65’
Ngog 90+6’

His armband proved he was a Red, Torres, Torres
‘You’ll Never Walk Alone’ it said, Torres, Torres
We bought the lad from sunny Spain
He gets the ball and scores again
Fernando Torres, Liverpool’s number nine

Magic. I guess it was just the game Liverpool needed to break that ignominious losing streak. And once again, Fernando Torres – who wasn’t at 100% on his return from injury – notches the game winner, but that can’t detract from the total, awesome team performance.

The first half almost felt like a return to the bad old days. Make no mistake, Liverpool was playing its best football in five games, but the home side couldn’t take the chances presented while they were on top, and it felt like a matter of time before United became United. Thankfully, Liverpool’s dominating style never let United be United.

Rooney looked like posing a handful early on as he had the ball in the net after three minutes, but was clearly offside. Liverpool had the upper hand soon after, and had three excellent opportunities to go ahead, beginning with Lucas, put through on the right in the sixth only to see a poor shot deflected wide. Once again, the oft-criticized Brazilian midfielder shone against testing opposition; it’s against less-potent sides that the Mascherano/Lucas pairing gets exposed.

The other two chances came in quick succession. Aurelio tested Van der Sar with an outstanding free kick in the 16th before Kuyt toe-poked just wide two minutes later. It unsurprisingly got cagier soon after as United began to see more of the ball, but the away side failed to truly test Reina as Scholes and Carrick were second best in midfield.

United grasped at straws for two penalties, a 50-50 coming together between Agger and Giggs and an outstanding diving tackle by Carragher that just got a piece of the ball, before Liverpool had another good chance in the 36th. Benayoun’s cross found an opening Aurelio steaming into the box, but the Brazilian’s header was too close to Van der Sar. The best penalty shout was Liverpool’s right before halftime, when Kuyt and Berbatov battled in the box, but it’s little surprise none of the three won a whistle.

The second half saw more of the same – with Kuyt centering when shooting was the better option and a couple of shots from distance – before United upped the pressure around the hour mark. The away sides picked up a fair few free kicks, but Liverpool’s defense held firm time and time again before that man Torres embarrassed Rio Ferdinand on the break. Liverpool sprung from their own half, Benayoun found Torres between two defenders, and the striker beat Rio for strength and pace before smashing over Van der Saar at the near post. Brilliant. Just bloody brilliant.

Liverpool had a chance to double the lead in the 70th, but Mascherano was selfish on the break (for the third time in the match) and shot when Torres and Benayoun were open. At this point, it was Liverpool had 10 shots to United’s three, and deserved the advantage.

Unsurprisingly, the United onslaught came for a nerve-wracking final 20 minutes, as Nani and Owen (who received the reception you’d expect) came on for the ineffective Scholes and Berbatov. First, Nani fortunately received the ball at the back post, but could only tamely curl it to Reina. Carra had to dive to block Rooney’s fierce shot, and in the 84th, Owen held up play well and fed Valencia, who blasted off the crossbar from an impossible angle. A Carragher foul on Owen three minutes later could have seen red, but Nani could only shoot straight at Reina from the free kick and Carra escaped with a yellow.

Seconds later, Vidic got his marching orders for a second yellow, bringing down Kuyt near midfield on the break, capping the head of steam United had built up. Mascherano’s sending off in the penultimate minute of injury time, for two deserved yellows (he was a terror in midfield breaking up play, but was rash and selfish as well), was too late for the Mancs, who were exposed on the break with the last kick of the game anyway.

The influential Lucas started and set-up Ngog as he won the ball in Liverpool’s half, found Kuyt and charged through the midfield for the return ball, and released Ngog into acres of space to easily beat Van der Sar. Two-nil, and all the demons of the last two weeks exorcised. See, sometimes it’s fun to play United, even if once again, it almost gave me a heart attack.

It’s nearly impossible to pick a man of the match. There’s Torres’ fearsome winner; even at 80%, he deftly beat England’s best defender. I’ve sung Lucas’ praises throughout this review. And Carra was absolutely back to his best. He kept Rooney pocketed for immeasurably long stretches, dove for countless last-ditch tackles and blocks, and didn’t put a foot wrong, ably aided by Danny Agger.

So, are we still firing Rafa? This is why we should hesitate to write off Liverpool, despite that infernal stretch. Even without Gerrard and with Torres and Johnson just back from injury, the team had enough to deservedly beat United. Liverpool were simply the better team, and had the guile and fortitude to hold off a team that thrives on late goals.

Liverpool’s only six points behind league-leading Chelsea, even though there are still five teams ahead of them. There are definitely worries on and off the pitch, and there's definitely room for improvement. But this remains a very good team that can beat any opposition on their day.

23 October 2009

Liverpool v Manchester United 10.25.09

10am, live in the US on FSC

British Daylight Saving Time kicks in on Sunday, which is why the game’s at 10. We’ll catch up next week. I hate Winter Time so much.

Last 4 head-to-head:
4-1 Liverpool (a) 03.14.09
2-1 Liverpool (h) 09.13.08
0-3 United (a) 03.23.08
0-1 United (h) 12.16.07

Last three matches:
Liverpool: 1-2 Lyon (h); 0-1 Sunderland (a); 0-2 Chelsea (a)
United: 1-0 CSKA Moscow (a); 2-1 Bolton (h); 2-2 Sunderland (h)

Goalscorers (league):
Liverpool: Torres 8; Benayoun, Gerrard, Kuyt 3; Babel, Johnson 2; Ngog 1
United: Rooney 6; Berbatov; Fletcher, Owen 2; Anderson, Giggs, Nani, O’Shea, Valencia 1

Referee: Andre Marriner

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

I can’t decide whether it’s the best or worst time for Liverpool to be facing United.

On the one hand, who better to get a rise out of the team? If playing the closest rivals doesn’t raise the levels, nothing will. At the same time, Liverpool’s on four-game losing streak and still plagued by the injury bug. Maybe it’d just be better to host the likes of Portsmouth or Hull. Nothing ever comes easy for this club.

And injuries are still a major concern. Riera, Dossena, Kyrgiakos, Kelly, and Aquilani definitely won’t take part. Gerrard probably won’t. But according to Tony Barrett and the official site, we’ve got a better chance with Torres and Johnson, who both trained yesterday. It’s imperative to have Johnson back with Kelly out (I’d just like to reiterate how impressed I was with Kelly’s debut), but obviously Torres would be the biggest relief. He scored against United last year, and Liverpool’s dearly misses his constant threatening. The man can create a goal from absolute nothing.

With Gerrard and Riera still out, my biggest question (outside of who's fit, naturally) is who starts on the left. Since Benayoun would play centrally or on the right (with Kuyt in the other berth), Babel or Aurelio would have to feature on the left. There's been more of a clamor for Babel recently thanks to Liverpool’s injuries and impotence. But I still think he’s not an answer to any question Benitez is asking. Babel’s still best, and only really effective, as a sub. Nothing over three seasons has changed that.

I reckon Benitez will start both Aurelio and Insua on the left as a more defensive, conservative tactic. The pairing worked well at times against Lyon, but I’m more frightened of Nani or Valencia running at an unprotected Insua with a head of steam. You all know my huge crush on Insua, but Govou worryingly ran circles around the little Argentinean on Tuesday.

In addition, I’d also welcome another start for Agger. I’m admittedly biased because he’s my favorite defender, but I think it’s crucial to have his ability to bring the ball out of the back, especially until Aquilani features. Agger can help fix Liverpool’s lack of creativity in midfield from defense; it’s his greatest strength. But he’s not bad in the area and quicker than the other central defenders as well.

It’s not as if things are going superlatively for United, with a loss at Burnley, a draw against Sunderland at Old Trafford, and barely beating CSKA with a late winner, but they still top the table. That’s that club’s recent history in a nutshell. Liverpool may be boosted by Rooney’s absence, struggling with the calf injury that’s kept him out of the last two matches, but it’s probably mind games from Ferguson. If Shrek’s anywhere near fit enough, he’ll play.

But if he doesn’t play, You Know Who will probably start in his place. There’s no question over the reception Owen will receive from the Kop, and it won’t be pleasant. Wouldn’t it just be fitting that Owen knifes Liverpool’s already sinking season. I’ll spend the next 48 hours praying at Jobu's altar to make sure that doesn’t happen.

I’ve been calling this The Biggest October League Match in History™ for a reason. I can’t overemphasize how important this game is. And I’ll be on utter pins and needles for the next 48 hours until kick-off.

21 October 2009

Has there been progress?

In 2005-06, Liverpool finished 3rd with 82 points, the highest total under Benitez until last year’s team. A year after the Champions League trophy and the season Liverpool won the FA Cup, it looked to be the perfect launching point. But Liverpool couldn't finish higher in the next two seasons and regressed points-wise, treading water before last year. And it seems like this year’s model will struggle to reach 82 points.

With all the drama, failings, injuries, complaints, etc., I can’t help but wonder if people think Liverpool’s truly improved over the last four years. So I’m trying a poll out, the first one I’ve hosted on this blog. Hopefully we’ll get enough votes.

Admittedly, we haven't seen this year's "best team" thanks to injuries, but I reckon the question's still valid. I voted for this year's squad, but I'm also wondering if I've gone through the looking glass, and am too blinded by optimism (which would be the first time in my life).

Pick which team you like better, for whatever reasons. If they’re good reasons, leave them in the comments.

Johnson Carragher Agger Aurelio
Lucas Mascherano
Kuyt Gerrard Benayoun

Bench: Cavalieri, Skrtel, Insua, Riera, Babel, Voronin, Ngog

Finnan Carragher Hyypia Riise
Garcia Gerrard Alonso Kewell
Cisse Crouch

Bench: Dudek, Agger, Warnock, Sissoko, Hamann, Morientes, Fowler

20 October 2009

Liverpool 1-2 Lyon

Kelly Carragher Agger Insua
Lucas Mascherano
Kuyt Gerrard Benayoun

Benayoun 41’
Gonalons 72’
Delgado 90+1’

And you thought Saturday was a low. Ha. It got worse. It can always get worse.

In addition to Torres, Johnson, and Riera, it seems Gerrard should have been ruled out as well. He only lasted 25 minutes, and now he’s probably a doubt for Sunday. Super.

There were two notable incidents before Gerrard’s injury: Reina’s wonderful point-blank 10th-minute save on Lisandro’s header after Cissokho sent in an inch-perfect cross, and Kuyt’s “goal” chalked off five minutes later for a push on Toulalan. To be fair, there were few complaints from Liverpool, but if Torres’ opener against Real stood last year, this one could have counted.

I don’t know whether it was Aurelio’s introduction for Gerrard – which saw Kuyt take over Gerrard’s role and Benayoun shift to the right – or Cris’ injury seven minutes later, but Liverpool finally began to look like a real team. Kuyt and Ngog asked the first questions, with Kuyt’s laser blocked and Ngog’s rebound saved by Lloris in the 36th. But Liverpool kept up the pressure, and in the 41st, Benayoun finally broke the deadlock. Aurelio’s deep cross flummoxed the defense, Cris could only flick it on, and while Kelly missed a chance for a debut goal, Benayoun was there to dig it out and slam home, ending 312 minutes of scoreless football. I’m not sure how long it’s been since Liverpool was that impotent, but it hasn’t happened since I started this blog in September ‘06. Today was a day of records, I guess, seeing as Liverpool hadn't lost four in a row since April 1987.

Three minutes later, it should have been 2-0, and it would have been game over. Lyon has Hugo Lloris to thank, and again, Aurelio was at the center of it. Kelly worked his way into space and delivered a brilliant cross to Aurelio at the back post. The header was strong, but Lloris got a flying hand out to tip it over. Probably the save of the season, the best I’ve seen so far.

Liverpool couldn’t come close to replicating that form after the break. Lyon sent on 20-year-old defensive midfielder Gonalons to pair midfielder Toulalan in central defense, but Liverpool rarely tested the makeshift backline. Benayoun headed wide, Ngog chested down Kelly’s cross well but could only shin a shot the wrong side of the post, and Lloris smartly saved Kuyt’s header over a five-minute span, but the visitors took over around the hour mark.

It only took them 10 minutes to break through, and it came on yet another set play. Reina could only punch Kallstrom’s corner out to Toulalan, and while he saved Toulalan's shot and Makoun’s rebound, he couldn’t keep out Gonalons’ (yep, the substitute), as his header beat Kelly at the near post as the three other defenders stood and watched – reminiscent of Davies’ embarrassing goal for Bolton. To make matters worse, Kelly – who had been impressive in his debut – was injured during the debacle, with Skrtel coming on.

Liverpool, who had been patient, cagey, and resilient for 72 minutes, couldn’t step up the pressure, and rarely looked like getting the late winner they thrived on last season. The best chance came in the 85th, when Kuyt headed down Aurelio’s corner, but it was Skrtel in space, and the defender blasted well over.

And in keeping with Liverpool’s disastrous season, Lyon tore them apart on the counter attack in the first minute of injury time, making the humiliation complete. Govou again beat Insua, opening up the attack down Liverpool’s left, and got the return ball near the byline, able to center across the six-yard box. The second substitute, Gomis, couldn’t make contact, but the wide open third, Cesar Delgado, who lost Carra at the back post, could.

1-2, game over. Three points and third place in the group at the halfway mark. It’s not as bad as the '07-08 group stage, when Liverpool drew one and lost two at this point, but it’s not far off. There’s no question the team will have to win their last three, and unlike in ’07-08, two of them are away from Anfield.

Football’s a game of what if’s, but you can’t help but look back to Lloris’ save on the stroke of halftime. If Aurelio scores, I can’t see how Lyon comes back. At the same time, another stomach punch loss might be deserved after that insipid final thirty minutes, even though on the whole that performance doesn't merit a loss. Liverpool is missing a lot of players – the four out (Torres, Johnson, Aquilani, and Riera) cost more than the starting line-up. And a 1-0 win felt deserved at the hour mark. But Liverpool was put under increasing pressure, and finally gave away two soft goals. It seems every goal seems to come from a mistake.

I don’t put much fault in Ngog, but the attack obviously wasn’t good enough. Benayoun scored a smart goal, and he, Kuyt, and Ngog worked hard, but hard work obviously gets you only so far. Voronin replacing Benayoun with 10 minutes to go was just confusing. Lucas and Mascherano were diligent, but the pairing continues to lack creativity, which is only exacerbated by an injured Gerrard. Aquilani is going to have so much pressure on his shoulders in the coming weeks, but he has to be the solution, because there’s little else in the cupboard.

It’s clear I was too optimistic, and the squad far too limited. Things aren’t going Liverpool’s way, and injuries (more than just Gerrard and Torres, but obviously those two have the most impact) haven't helped, but the players aren’t doing themselves any favors. I want to make it clear I don’t fault Benitez. Losing him would be the death knell, and that's no exaggeration. The owners have shafted this club by limiting the purse strings. Johnson will be a good buy, even at £18m, but Rafa had to gamble on an injured, and therefore cheaper, Aquilani as a replacement for Alonso (whose sale was at least £10m more than Aquilani cost). Voronin had to come back from loan and Babel stayed instead of buying a back-up for Torres. And it hasn’t worked.

All we can do is hope that those players injured will return soon, and this loss will catalyze the squad before the Most Important October League Game in World History™ – at Anfield against United on Sunday. Hope is all I’ve got at this point.

19 October 2009

Liverpool v Lyon 10.20.09

2:45pm, live in the US on Comcast Sports Northeast and MSG. The game is on Fox Sports regional networks. I’ve got DirecTV, and the game is on channels 630 or 635. And it’s in HD! I wish I could be more help to those with cable. At the least, it’s delayed on FSC at 10pm.

Last 3 matches:
Liverpool: 0-1 Sunderland (a); 0-2 Chelsea (a); 0-2 Fiorentina (a)
Lyon: 0-2 Sochaux (h); 2-0 Lens (a); 4-0 Debrecen (a)

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

Referee: Alberto Undiano Mallenco (SPA)

Guess at a squad:
Johnson Carragher Agger Insua
Lucas Mascherano
Benayoun Gerrard Riera

Yes on Gerrard, No on Torres.
At least one is better than none.

I think it’s safe to say we’ll see a return to the 4-2-3-1. At least I hope it is. The tried and true formation gives Liverpool the best chance to beat Lyon, especially with the team struggling for form. Go with what works.

With Gerrard healthy and Lucas/Masch hopefully recovered from the trip to South America, the midfield should be in better shape. I imagine Benayoun and Riera will man the flanks, mainly because Babel disappointed and I think Kuyt’s a better option as a lone striker than Ngog. But Ngog starting, Kuyt on the right, and Benayoun on the left seems like the other possibility, especially since we didn’t see Riera at all against Sunderland.

The other line-up questions come in defense. Agger or Skrtel? Aurelio or Insua? I think the Dane should get the nod for two reasons. One, Skrtel’s been shaky so far this season; the communication with Carra and the jaw injury are examples of that. Two, Agger’s quicker and stronger, which will be needed against Lyon’s front line, especially Lisandro Lopez. Simply, I think Agger’s a better partner for Carra. In the future, we obviously want to see how an Agger/Skrtel partnership works, but I reckon it’s too soon to leave out Carra the organizer. Aurelio versus Insua is more of a crapshoot, but I was massively disappointed with Aurelio (especially from set plays) on Saturday.

Lyon is a very good team, probably better than last year’s model, and that’s without Karim Benzema. First and foremost, Lisandro Lopez is a more-than-able replacement, and Liverpool fans should remember his goal for Porto two years ago. This BBC article, comparing him to Wayne Rooney, is interesting reading.

Lyon’s stacked on the frontline, with Gomis, Govou, and Pjanic capable foils for Lopez. I’d like to see Jean-Alain Boumsong in defense as a massive weakness, but he’s not the same player that amused at Newcastle. Also, he’s injured (Cris and Bodmer should probably start). Evidently French football papers over those weaknesses. I’m still thankful Houllier was never able to sign him.

Lyon lost their last match, home against Sochaux. But that was Lyon’s first loss of the season (in contrast to Liverpool’s five), and Sochaux was obviously up for it after the tragic injury to Charlie Davies.

As tempting as it is to look past this game to United on Sunday, Liverpool’s Champions League campaign can’t. Liverpool already sits third in the group behind Fiorentina and Lyon. The group is stronger than the one two years ago; I doubt Liverpool will be able to come back in the last three games like in ’07-08.

The match against United will be the biggest October league game in years. Liverpool’s entire campaign may well be contingent upon it. But with the state of the team and the state of the league, Liverpool need to progress in the Champions League; even at this stage of the season, it may well be Liverpool’s best chance at a trophy.

Besides, a win tomorrow would be just what the doctor ordered prior to a test with the defending champions.

17 October 2009

Liverpool 0-1 Sunderland

Skrtel Carragher Agger
Johnson Lucas Spearing Aurelio
Benayoun Kuyt Babel

Bent 5’

A balloon takes the air out of Liverpool’s title chances? A balloon, and Steve Bruce’s balloon-shaped head.

If I don’t laugh at this season’s misfortunes, I’m going to cry. Only this team could fall behind within five minutes to a stray balloon. A balloon that looked like it came from the Liverpool fans, no less. As much as it pains me to write and as early as it is, on current form, Liverpool is going to struggle mightily for a Champions League place. And yes, I’m fully aware I predicted #19 little more than two months ago. It’s like 2002-03 all over again. I knew I’d jinx it.

In an atypical 3-4-3 (3-4-2-1 if you like) – which we haven’t seen since Pompey last February (when both Gerrard and Torres were missing) – Liverpool struggled to head off early Sunderland possession and paid for it. Sunderland broke after a piss-poor Aurelio free kick (every single one of his set play deliveries was atrocious today), Reid’s right flank cross found its way to Darren Bent, and the striker’s shot fooled Reina by bouncing off an oversize balloon on the six-yard line. Sigh. You can’t make this shit up.

Going 0-1 down prompted a marginally better response, but Liverpool couldn’t find a quick riposte, and it didn’t last. A goalmouth scramble in the 13th saw Liverpool’s best opening, but neither Babel nor Johnson could finish it off, and the game settled into a back-and-forth affair as neither team could keep coherent possession, although Sunderland saw more of the ball.

Unsurprisingly, chances were at a premium, which, despite Liverpool’s attacking prowess at times this season, I’ve written far too frequently. A Benayoun deflected shot, Johnson unable to reach a clever back-heeled throughball, and Spearing just over from distance were all of Liverpool’s close calls in the first half. At the other end, Bent, Jones, and Reid continued to pose questions as Bent had a couple of headed chances from Reid and Bardsley crosses.

The second half saw more Liverpool pressure, but Sunderland with the better opportunities (thanks to three Liverpool mistakes) until the inevitable final furious minutes. Bent was in twice, in the 55th and 61st, after gaffes by Spearing and Skrtel, but Pepe saved the first and the second caromed off the post from an acute angle. In a similar position eight minutes later, Malbranque saw his effort blocked by Carragher.

Malbranque’s chance was bracketed by three for Liverpool: Kuyt and Benayoun went for the same header, which landed tamely in Gordon’s arms; a weak handball shout off Cana’s shoulder; and Lucas’ throughball finding Benayoun in the area, only to be blasted over after he created space. Sunderland had their last threat in the 76th, when Henderson shot wide, before Liverpool started the onslaught that should have come earlier, with the lineup that should have started.

Benitez sent Mascherano and Voronin on for Spearing and Skrtel in the 72nd, reverting to an “orthodox” 4-2-3-1 with the Ukrainian behind Kuyt and Babel on the right. It didn’t click until Ngog came on for Babel in the 81st, shifting Kuyt out right, but then Liverpool finally threatened. Unfortunately, it was, again, to little effect. Even seven minutes of stoppage time (injuries to Jones and Cattermole) couldn’t save Liverpool.

Gordon kept out a weak header from Voronin and a cross-turned-shot from Johnson. Mascherano shot over from 25 yards. Voronin saw a shot blocked. In the third minute of added time, Liverpool had their best opportunity, but Gordon saved the day, keeping out Kuyt’s low shot and Ngog’s rebound. When a ricochet fell to Gordon in the 96th, you knew there was nothing to be salvaged. So far, this team has none of the recovery powers of last year’s (outside of Bolton, I guess).

Yeah, yeah, credit to Sunderland. They got the fortunate opener and held on for the win, and have rightfully leapfrogged Liverpool in the standings. Cana was outstanding, especially when he moved to centerback after McCartney went off at halftime. Benitez is now 1-5-3 against Steve Bruce in the league.

I’d like to head off the ‘this is what happens when Gerrard and Torres are missing’ criticism right away. Sure, they would have helped today – Liverpool certainly could have used more attacking threat – but the team has won without those two. Liverpool hasn’t scored in three games – with or without Gerrard and Torres (I guess they used them all up against Hull). The midfield has been awful, just awful in all of Liverpool’s losses. I hate to keep referencing Alonso, but it can’t be helped. His sale and Mascherano’s loss of form contributed more to today’s loss than either Gerrard or Torres’ absence. Aquilani really can’t get healthy soon enough.

If it weren’t for that freak goal, this game would have ended 0-0. Granted, that’s not good enough, but it would have been a lot better than what really happened. The three centerbacks did alright; Agger and Carragher, along with Reina, were probably the only players to come away with any credit. Kuyt, Benayoun, and Babel obviously needed to contribute more, but chances were hard to come by until the end. Johnson, further forward than usual, was Liverpool’s most frequent threat, and he disappointed.

Once again, as said above, the problem’s in midfield. Spearing and Lucas are young players with potential, so I’m hesitant to pile on them. And it’s not as if any pairing’s been great aside from Lucas/Gerrard against the smaller clubs. Masch hasn’t been playing well and had two immense games for Argentina this week, although it was weird to see him fit enough to come off the bench. Aurelio did not do well in central midfield against Fiorentina.

Almost all of Liverpool’s successes have come from winning the battle in midfield, especially as Benitez has built the team in his image. Early on in his reign, Liverpool was dependent on Hyypia and Carra’s defending, but Liverpool’s looked more and more like the Valencia Crushing Machine in each successive season. Not this year, and the whole side’s consequently falling apart.

Yes, injuries, yes, there’s still 29 games, but these nine have not been good, and this team is damn close to teetering on the precipice. It is a very good league this year; Villa's win today, along with Sunderland, Spurs and City, and there are eight strong sides. Liverpool's just part of the pack behind Chelsea and United, and drifting further behind in that pack.

Lyon at Anfield on Tuesday. Let’s hope certain players are healthy by then.

16 October 2009

Liverpool at Sunderland 10.17.09

10am, live in the US on FSC

Last 4 head-to-head:
2-0 Liverpool (h) 03.03.09
1-0 Liverpool (a) 08.16.08
3-0 Liverpool (h) 02.02.08
2-0 Liverpool (a) 08.25.07

Last three matches:
Liverpool: 0-2 Chelsea (a); 0-2 Fiorentina (a); 6-1 Hull (h)
Sunderland: 2-2 United (a); 5-2 Wolves (h); 2-0 Brum (h)

Goalscorers (league):
Liverpool: Torres 8; Benayoun, Gerrard, Kuyt 3; Babel, Johnson 2; Ngog 1
Sunderland: Bent 7; Jones 5; Reid, Turner 1

Referee: Mike Jones

His first Liverpool match, and only 18th Premiership contest. Should be interesting.

Guess at a squad:
Johnson Skrtel Carragher Aurelio
Lucas Mascherano
Babel Benayoun Riera

Have I mentioned that I love international breaks lately?

I guess we should be happy Liverpool only lost three players to the national teams. Most significantly, both Gerrard and Torres have been ruled out of tomorrow’s game; with minor knocks, hopefully both will be back for Lyon. It’s especially infuriating given both England and Spain had already qualified for the World Cup. At least Kyrgiakos isn’t as bad as initially feared – the defender should only miss a week to ten days according to Benitez. Maybe Voronin will slot in for Gerrard, but I think the above line-up is far more likely, and definitely poses more of an attacking threat.

In addition, a majority of players were away from Anfield, while only five of Sunderland’s featured for their national team. Insua, Mascherano, and Lucas all traveled to South America, but the injury problems mean both midfielders will probably start. Aurelio will probably come in at left back to spell Insua after the trip though. At the same time, Babel and Kuyt went to Australia for a friendly(!), but at least both were back in Liverpool earlier this week. Kuyt picked up an ankle knock, but should be good to go. Agger played twice, Riera and Reina each played one full match for Spain, and Skrtel, Gleninho, and Benayoun also featured for their countries.

Some good did come out of the international break. I’d like to thank Denmark for helping Agger get match fit. The Dane played all 180 minutes and didn’t look out of place, which bodes well for Liverpool. However, as Skrtel missed Slovakia’s second game due to suspension and Carra’s had two weeks off, Agger will probably just make the bench. Insua’s appearance for the national team, in which Argentina finally qualified, will help the young defender, but I think he’ll get tomorrow off to recover. Benayoun is the only player whose team is out of the World Cup, which will be a morale boost to the 17 others whose 11 countries have either qualified or are in the playoffs.

In eight meetings, Liverpool under Benitez has beaten a Steve Bruce team exactly once in the league – last year’s 3-2 win over Wigan. Liverpool was 0-3-2 against Birmingham and 1-2-0 versus Wigan under Bruce. This’ll be the first time Liverpool plays Bruce’s Sunderland side. Let’s hope it goes a bit differently.

I’ve been impressed with Sunderland, even discounting the draw at Old Trafford. The team sits only two points behind Liverpool in 8th, and has two top-rate strikers in Bent and Jones. The defense, marshaled by former target Michael Turner with Gordon in goal, can also be stingy. Sunderland can be beaten in midfield – Kieran Richardson, Andy Reid, and Steed Malbranque don’t strike fear in the heart – but both Lucas and Mascherano will have to improve on recent performances, no matter the long trip from South America.

This will not be an easy match, made more difficult by the absences. And it kicks off a hellish week where Liverpool will also face Lyon and United. Fun. Time to get the season on the right track, no matter who’s missing.

13 October 2009

Points per game: The first eight games

There isn't exactly a definitive conclusion with stats like these. Liverpool improved in six seasons (marginally in two of those), worsened in three, and stayed the same exactly once. Unsurprisingly, eight games don't make a season. We're less than a quarter of the way through the league.

However, there are some fun facets to this data. 2005-06 is especially heartening. Liverpool were dire through the first eight games, with ten points (the lowest total on this list), yet finished with their second highest total in the last 10 years. The results improved by almost a point per game over the last 30 matches. An eight-match win streak from late October until the end of December didn't hurt. But then there's 02-03. After finishing second the season before, the best result in 11 years, Liverpool took 18 points from 24 to start the campaign. Then the team took 46 points from the next 30 games and finished fifth. Only Rick Parry knows why Houllier wasn't fired.

The results were fairly symmetrically distributed too; both the mean and median difference between the PPG after eight games and after the full season was +0.155/game. If Liverpool improves by that amount this season, they'd average 2.03 points per game, totaling around 77 points. We'll see how close that number ends up being. It certainly wouldn't be good enough.

15 points from eight games isn't what was expected or hoped for from this team. It's not title-winning form, that's for sure. But it should go without saying that a lot can and will happen over the next seven months. Part of the reason these eight results have been so disappointing is we know Liverpool's capable of better – no matter the personnel changes. Chances are this team will show it, and with 30 games left, there's still time.

Yet I can't help but focus on the fact that four Liverpool teams have bettered 15 points over the first eight games in the last 10 years. They finished 2nd, 2nd, 4th, and 5th.

The numbers in full:
2009-10 after eight games: 15 points (5w-0d-3l) - 1.875 points/game

After Eight: 20 points (6-2-0) - 2.5/game
Final Record: 86; 2nd (25-11-2) - 2.263/game
Difference: -0.237/game

After Eight: 16 points (4-4-0) - 2.0/ game
Final Record: 76; 4th (21-13-4) - 2.0/game
Difference: 0.0/game

After Eight: 11 points (3-2-3) - 1.375/game
Final Record: 68; 3rd (20-8-10) - 1.789/game
Difference: +0.414/game

After Eight: 10 points (2-4-2) - 1.25/game
Final Record: 82; 3rd (25-7-6) - 2.158/game
Difference: +0.908/game

After Eight: 13 points (4-1-3) - 1.625/game
Final Record: 58; 5th (17-7-14) - 1.526/game
Difference: -0.099/game

After Eight: 11 points (3-2-3) - 1.375/game
Final Record: 60; 4th (16-12-10) - 1.579/game
Difference: +0.204/game

After Eight: 18 points (5-3-0) - 2.25/game
Final Record: 64; 5th (18-10-10) - 1.684/game
Difference: -0.566/game

After Eight: 16 points (5-1-2) - 2.0/game
Final Record: 80; 2nd (24-8-6) - 2.105/game
Difference: +0.105/game

After Eight: 12 points (3-3-2) - 1.5/game
Final Record: 69; 3rd (20-9-9) - 1.816/game
Difference: +0.316/game

After Eight: 10 points (3-1-4) - 1.25/game
Final Record: 67; 4th (19-10-9) - 1.763/game
Difference: +0.513/game

04 October 2009

Liverpool 0-2 Chelsea

Johnson Skrtel Carragher Insua
Lucas Mascherano
Kuyt Gerrard Riera

Anelka 60’
Malouda 90+1’

Benayoun’s miss in the third minute of injury time, wide open with his shot just wide of the far post after Chelsea were already two up, adequately sums up the day. It was typical Liverpool/Chelsea for long stretches – nothing like the last meeting at Stamford Bridge – but Liverpool’s two mistakes led to two goals, and they, specifically Torres, couldn’t take the chances at the other end. And now, Liverpool’s lost three of their first eight games and sits six points back. Sigh.

The defenses ruled the opening hour. Chelsea would thrust, Liverpool would repel. Liverpool would come forward and Chelsea would clear. Both sides saw first half spells of pressure after a very back-and-forth opening. Neither could take advantage.

Chelsea’s came for about 10 minutes centered on the half-hour mark, during which the home side had four good efforts at goal. Three were headers – Drogba’s from Anelka’s cross in the 25th, Anelka’s from Essien’s cross three minutes later, and Ballack’s over from a corner in the 34th – while Essien shot too close to Reina in the 35th.

But Liverpool finished the half stronger, and should have opened the scoring through Torres in the 40th. Kuyt was able to cross from the right, and Torres got between defenders for a free header that he could only direct down and at Hilario. Those are the kinds of narrow opportunities that win games like today’s. Five minutes later, Hilario dove well to keep out a devilish 40-yard-plus free kick from Riera, and Skrtel could have had a penalty on the subsequent corner for a push by Drogba. Not that Liverpool can ever expect much from Martin Atkinson. Not since this.

The second half was more of the same for 15 minutes – Gerrard had a couple of half-chances while Reina smothered Ivanovic’s shot from distance – before Anelka struck on the hour mark. Mascherano gave the ball away after Liverpool had retreated into its own half, Chelsea broke, and Drogba was released down Liverpool’s right. He beat Skrtel with his cross, and Anelka got there ahead of Carragher. It was all fairly pathetic after sixty minutes of solid defending, especially seeing the play start because Liverpool went backwards when in Chelsea’s half.

Liverpool pressed for the next thirty minutes, but never took the opportunity they were rarely presented. Benayoun and Babel came on for Riera and Lucas, and the away side had almost all of the possession, with Chelsea’s lone chance coming through a Drogba free kick. And they probably should have equalized in the 80th – Gerrard got the ball in the box from Kuyt, but saw his shot blocked out to Torres. With space and Hilario stranded, the striker scuffed his shot wide of the near post. It was that kind of day, both for Torres and Liverpool.

Chelsea iced it in the first minute of added time after Drogba got around both Carragher and Aurelio (mostly Carragher) to center for Malouda, who beat Reina to the ball. The rest of stoppage time saw the aforementioned Benayoun miss and an excellent Hilario save from Gerrard’s rasping volley, but it was moot by that point.

It’s not sour grapes to say this could have gone massively different. Maybe Liverpool holds on for a 1-0 win if Torres makes direct contact with his header in the 40th. Maybe it’s a respectable 1-1 if he strikes cleanly with ten minutes to play. But football’s a game of inches. Maybe it’s 0-0 at Anfield last season if Lampard’s not harshly sent off before Torres scores two late goals. Maybe Liverpool gets beat at Stamford Bridge if Boswinga doesn’t deflect Alonso’s 10th minute shot. I hate maybes.

Liverpool wasn’t sharp enough and gave away two sloppy goals, but it otherwise wasn’t an awful performance – not a performance that deserves a two-goal defeat. But it’s tight at the top and these games can truly go either way. At the end of the day, despite some decent defending by the center backs and a disciplined display in central midfield, Liverpool didn’t do enough to make the game go in their direction.

There’s an international break to come to terms with – and remedy – this defeat before Sunderland in 13 days.

02 October 2009

Liverpool at Chelsea 10.04.09

11am, live in the US on FSC

Last 4 head-to-head:
4-4 (a; CL) 04.14.09
1-3 Chelsea (h; CL) 04.08.09
2-0 Liverpool (h) 02.01.09
1-0 Liverpool (a) 10.26.08

Last three matches:
Liverpool: 0-2 Fiorentina (a); 6-1 Hull (h); 1-0 Leeds (a)
Chelsea: 1-0 APOEL (a); 1-3 Wigan (a); 1-0 QPR (h)

Goalscorers (league):
Liverpool: Torres 8; Benayoun, Gerrard, Kuyt 3; Babel, Johnson 2; Ngog 1
Chelsea: Drogba 6; Ballack 3; Anelka, A Cole 2; Deco, Lampard, Malouda 1

Referee: Martin Atkinson

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

The sooner Tuesday’s forgotten the better. And what better way to get it out the memory than a trip to Stamford Bridge?

All eyes are on Mascherano’s fitness after his absence against Fiorentina. Lucas/Aurelio were overrun against La Viola and Lucas/Gerrard is too attacking for an away game against a top-four club. According to Benitez, Masch trained today, so he should be fit for Sunday. Let’s hope so. If not, I have to imagine it’d be Lucas/Gerrard in midfield, but the captain would have to have a disciplined performance where he defends more than attacks.

The other major squad question, especially if Mascherano is fit, is the left flank. Benayoun or Riera, Insua or Aurelio? I’m tempted to suggest Riera simply because Chelsea is vulnerable to width in the midfield diamond formation and Riera could get in behind Boswinga, but Benayoun’s been in better form and has been more important to the team. I think Aurelio’s 90 minutes on Tuesday – setting aside the merits of his midfield performance – show he’s fit enough for a left back berth, and I suspect Benitez will prefer the veteran in a match like this.

After six or so weeks of questionable defending, I’m more than wary of Drogba against the centerbacks. The Ivorian’s scored for fun against Liverpool in the past, and that’s been when the backline’s playing well. It’s superfluous to suggest that Skrtel and Carragher will need to be on top form. The other defensive worry is set plays, as Chelsea has a lot of dangerous attackers: the aforementioned Drogba, Terry, Ballack, and Ivanovic (if Ashley Cole misses out through injury) can all cause problems.

Chelsea had been in blistering form, with 18 points from six matches, before losing at Wigan a week ago. More importantly, Cech picked up a red card against the Latics, so Hilario will start for the Blues, which could make a massive difference. I’ve been impressed with the way Ancelotti’s blended the team; Ballack, Lampard, and Essien have been able to play together, while Drogba and Anelka have sparked a partnership – something Scolari couldn’t accomplish. Chelsea will have a lot of possession, Torres will be isolated at times, and there’s a chance the game could turn on a piece of magic from the striker. Not to mention how crucial a solid defense will be. Liverpool’s beaten Chelsea seven times under Benitez. Five of those victories were accompanied by clean sheets.

Last season, Liverpool took 14 points from ‘big four’ matches, but the campaign stuttered against lesser opposition. So far this season, Liverpool’s smashed the likes of Hull, Stoke, and Burnley and lost to every decent side they’ve faced. This’ll be their first test against title contenders. Liverpool can’t let it pass by.