30 November 2009

Team of the Decade – Centerback

Previous posts: Formation | Keeper | Right Back

I could fill out this list with names like Kyrgiakos, Paletta, or Pellegrino, but it’s not worth it. Pick two from these five, and I’m pretty sure I can guess which two it’ll be.

Daniel Agger (2006-present)
Appearances: 87
Goals: 6

I’ll admit it. Agger’s probably my favorite Liverpool player. And I still can’t bring myself to vote for him. On his day, Agger is Liverpool’s classiest defender since Alan Hansen. Composed on the ball, capable of bringing it out of defense, quick, and one of the better headers in the current backline. It’s little coincidence that Liverpool’s best defensive spells have come when Agger’s been fit. Which is also his main problem – Agger’s been far too injury-prone since his arrival, only featuring in 87 games since arriving in 2006.

Jamie Carragher (1997-present)
Appearances: 596
Goals: 5 (6 if we count Boro last year)

You know the routine. A Jack-of-All-Trades – centerback, left back, right back, and defensive midfielder – before Benitez arrived, he’s now the archetypal Scouser and the cornerstone of the team. The captain without the armband. Juventus and Chelsea at Anfield, and Istanbul, among many, many others. In four games, he’ll be the ninth Liverpool player to make 600 appearances, with an excellent shout to finish second all-time behind Ian Callaghan. 'We all dream of a team of Carraghers' doesn't come close to covering it.

Stephane Henchoz (1999-2004)
Appearances: 205
Goals: 0

Thank Blackburn for getting relegated after ’98-99, allowing Henchoz to leave for only £3.5m. His partnership with Hyypia was one of the smartest things Houllier did (along with developing Owen and Gerrard). Now best, and unfairly, remembered for keeping Carra out of the center, Henchoz was a typically reliable defender, and the Henchoz/Hyypia pairing helped turn the corner from the ‘all offense, no defense’ Roy Evans days.

Sami Hyypia (1999-2009)
Appearances: 464
Goals: 35

One paragraph won’t do him justice. We’ve missed Sami this season. Cost £2.5m, started for nearly 10 straight seasons. A former captain whose won the Champions League, UEFA Cup, two FA Cups, two Carling Cups, two Super Cups, and two Charity Shields. Countless crucial goals, including those against Juventus and Arsenal in Europe. Just an absolute colossus – the term Shankly used to describe Ron Yeats, and one I bet Shanks would approve of for Sami.

Martin Skrtel (2008-present)

Appearances: 65
Goals: 1

Almost didn’t make the list despite 65 appearances because of the class in front of him. But that’d be a disservice to Skrtel. With Agger out for almost all of ’07-08, Skrtel was bought in January – a then-record fee of £6.8m for a defender. By that point, Liverpool were out of the title race, having conceded the most goals in any of Benitez’s seasons in charge. Skrtel was crucial, utterly crucial, in solidifying the defense; Liverpool lost a lead, and dropped points, in five games before the Slovakian arrived. That only happened once after Skrtel signed. We haven’t seen enough progress since then, with Agger reclaiming his spot, but given Skrtel’s age, there’s undoubtedly more to come.

29 November 2009

Liverpool 2-0 Everton

Johnson Carragher Agger Insua
Mascherano Lucas
Kuyt Gerrard Aurelio

Mascherano 12’
Kuyt 80’

That’s the Liverpool we know, love, and have dearly missed.

Two goals and a clean sheet, only the third league victory away from Anfield. A win forged by effort and perseverance, with a fortunate opener, but earned because of a rock-solid defense and a marvelous double save by Reina. Take your chances and blunt the opposition. Normal service has been resumed, and normalcy is extremely comforting. Funny how we’ve only seen normal service against the two closest rivals over the last two months.

The first half and opening goal were shades of the league match at Chelsea last year. Yes, Everton – three points above the bottom three – are no Chelsea, but form goes out the window in derbies, and we’ll take what we can get with the form Liverpool’s in.

Despite a cagey start, Liverpool tallied from an unlikely midfield source on a wicked deflection. Insua laid off to Mascherano in space, and we all held our breath as Masch unleashed another seemingly ill-advised blast from distance. But his low effort – which looked on target to begin with – ricocheted off Yobo to flatfoot Howard and find the far corner.

Like when he scored his first for the club, Mascherano wheeled away screaming and clutching his badge. I missed that passion; he’s been a different player since Argentina qualified for the World Cup, and it’s no coincidence Liverpool’s improved over that stretch. It’ll be a travesty if they rule it a Yobo OG, and like Carra's against Boro last year, I'll continue to credit him for it no matter what.

Similar to the last two matches, Liverpool were content to contain Everton after the goal, looking to counter on the break. The home side had at least two-thirds the possession for the rest of the half, if not three-quarters. Yes, the streak at the end of last season coincided with the team pressing from the opening whistle and continuing to press after the opening goal. It goes without saying that this isn’t last season’s team. Not having Torres, Benayoun, and Riera in the lineup, among others, was assuredly part of the logic as well.

Admittedly, Liverpool looked to be living on the edge. Bilyaletdinov scuffed an open shot wide at the back post after three (!!!) flick-ons in the box: Fellaini, Cahill, and Carragher. Jo twice had the ball in the net, in the 33rd and 43rd, but both were rightfully ruled out for offside. Insua had Liverpool’s only true chance of the half after the opener – a carbon copy of Aurelio’s opportunity to put Liverpool two-nil up against Lyon – but Howard tremendously kept out the Argentinean’s header in the 41st.

The second half saw more of the same, but Liverpool more competent in heading off the pressure and limiting Everton’s chances. Reina delivered a hearts-in-mouth moment, dropping Pienaar’s long shot in the 58th, but coolly collected given the circumstances. Kuyt created a chance at the other end in the 67th, getting to the byline and centering for Ngog, but Yobo was there to block. And then, four minutes later, Reina saved the day.

Unsurprisingly, the frightening moment came from a set play. Cahill got behind the backline, ostensibly onside, forcing Reina into a brilliant low stop. The impressive Fellaini was first to the loose ball, but Reina again prevented an equalizer, standing tall to block for a corner. Pressure cleared, and Everton clearly disheartened and tiring.

And Liverpool made them pay less than ten minutes later, taking advantage of the fresh legs of Benayoun and Riera as well as Kuyt’s shift up top. But the move started because of a Yobo mistake, allowing Gerrard in behind, holding off Hibbert and laying off for Riera. The Spaniard’s well-struck shot was saved, but Kuyt’s predatory instinct found him in the right place for the rebound. I’ll take credit for that having taken Kuyt out of my fantasy team yesterday.

Without these 2-0 wins over United and Everton, this season would be an utter disaster. But we got another backs-against-the-wall win against hated opposition, and now the team’s in fifth, three points behind Spurs and two behind Arsenal (although Arse has two games, including today's against Chelsea, in hand).

Admittedly, it wasn’t the most-impressive win, and it’s always frightening to see Liverpool sit back on a one-goal lead. But that’s also why it’s so heartening to see the team keep said lead under constant pressure before icing the game with ten minutes to play. That’s the Liverpool we haven’t seen enough of this season. A back-to-basics win should be good medicine.

And it’s a back-to-basics win despite some disappointing individual performances. Gerrard clearly isn’t fit yet, and along with Aurelio, found it tough to influence proceedings and gave the ball away too often (as did Lucas). Kuyt had another game not worth writing home about until his crucial goal, although he looked better up top with Benayoun and Riera supporting.

On the other hand, I’m obviously thrilled with the defense. Carragher and Agger were imperious. Johnson, in a more restrained role, kept Bilyaletdinov quiet for long stretches. Insua was a lot steadier, although aided by Aurelio’s innate conservatism. Reina's man of the match for those saves. Most importantly, Mascherano’s back to normal, finally reaping the benefits from those blasts from distance. And Ngog did well as a lone striker, holding up play well for his age.

In my glee with back-to-back wins for the first time since the end of September, I might be playing up the performance too much. Everton’s not Chelsea or City (or arguably even Fulham). But a derby’s a derby and a win’s a win.

The team was able to put Tuesday’s disappointment behind them and win one of the most important league fixtures. And it’s a win in Benitez’s image, giving the team needed momentum before Blackburn in six days.

27 November 2009

Liverpool at Everton 11.29.09

8:30am, live in the US on Setanta

Last 4 head-to-head:
1-1 (h; FA Cup) 01.25.09
1-1 (h) 01.19.09
2-0 Liverpool (a) 09.27.08
1-0 Liverpool (h) 03.30.08

Last three matches:
Liverpool: 1-0 Debrecen (a); 2-2 City (h); 2-2 Brum (h)
Everton: 2-3 Hull (a); 0-3 United (a); 2-1 West Ham (a)

Goalscorers (league):
Liverpool: Torres 10; Benayoun, Gerrard 4; Kuyt, Ngog 3; Babel, Johnson 2; Skrtel 1
Everton: Saha 8; Bilyaletdinov 2; Baines, Cahill, Fellaini, Gosling, Osman, Yobo 1

Referee: Alan Wiley

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

After the Champions League kick to the crotch on Tuesday, it’s a Merseyside derby. I’m not sure how to feel about this.

On the one hand, there are few fixtures as noteworthy as this. If the team can’t get hyped for Everton, they’re beyond help. On the other, it’s yet another massive fixture, when the team still isn’t fully fit, against a side that Liverpool twice drew last season. Each game this month has taken years off my life, and I doubt this one will be any different.

Torres’ inclusion will come down to a late fitness test – which is much better news than we’ve been subjected to recently, but I still doubt he’ll be ready enough to start. It’s been nearly a month since he last featured, in the first match against Lyon. Otherwise, only Babel and Kelly are assuredly out.

I know, I was crying out for Aquilani earlier in the week, and I’m not the only one. Yet, having slightly calmed down, I’m not entirely surprised at his lack of playing time. The bumpy pitch in Hungary could have re-injured his ankle, and it wasn’t worth throwing him on in a dead rubber away match. And this is another contentious fixture; the Blues usually spend 90 minutes kicking anything that moves. Might not be the best match for a midfield debut, although I dearly hope he sees some time off the bench.

I also hope to see both Aurelio and Benayoun on the left. Regular readers know my favoritism toward Insua, but the young left back demonstrably needs a rest and this game’s crying out for Aurelio’s safe hands. That Benayoun only featured off the bench on Tuesday, for less than 15 minutes, means he should be ready to go for 90 on Sunday. And his dribbling and vision will be crucial against a team like Everton. Maybe Benayoun will replace Kuyt – who’s been in terrible form – and Insua/Aurelio will patrol the left flank again, but the above option seems far more likely.

Two wins since October 1 – one win in 10 games (sound familiar?) – yet Everton sit only five points behind Liverpool. It’s been an exceptionally ignominious couple of days for the both halves of Merseyside – Everton lost 2-3 at Hull on Wednesday (down 0-3 within 30 minutes) and the UK government rejected plans for the new stadium in Kirkby. Naturally, it makes me fear an Everton result even more than usual. Liverpool’s not the only club that plays best backs against the wall.

Everton’s struggling with injuries as much as Liverpool, if not moreso with Liverpool players finally getting healthy. Anichebe, Arteta, Jagielka, Neville, and Vaughan are all definitely out, while Rodwell, Osman, and Pienaar are all fighting to be fit.

If Liverpool ever needed a derby win, it’s Sunday. I look forward to spending 90 minutes on the edge of my seat, breathless and with no fingernails.

26 November 2009

Team of the Decade: Right Back

Previous Posts: Formation | Keeper

Only four candidates for this position, which will be the lowest number. Should be one of the closest votes too; I went back and forth over who to vote for incessantly while writing this. I can make real arguments for picking any of these four. Remember, this is a 4-2-3-1 formation, so we might want to include attacking impetus in picking the fullbacks.

Alvaro Arbeloa (2007-2009)
Appearances: 98
Goals: 2

Somehow, Benitez turned Josemi into Kromkamp into Arbeloa for no additional money. Arbeloa made his mark early on, impressing against Barca in one of his first games, shutting down Messi from left back. It didn’t take long to establish himself ahead of Finnan. Like the Irishman, Arbeloa was arguably too defensive for a title-challenging club, especially with the way Benitez’s tactics have evolved. I still miss his goal celebrations, though.

Markus Babbel (2000-2002)
Appearances: 73
Goals: 6

Arriving on a free transfer in 2000, Babbel was crucial in the 2001 treble success, and would have been a brilliant right back for years had he not contracted Guillain-Barre syndrome. Just the right mix of attacking and defense, Babbel scored some crucial goals, including one in the UEFA Cup final against Alaves. After missing nearly all of 01/02 to the disease, he struggled in 02/03, playing mainly with the reserves, and was loaned to Blackburn the following season. If only.

Steve Finnan (2003-2008)
Appearances: 217
Goals: 1

It took Finnan a season to make the right back position his own, with Carragher still vying for time as a fullback under Houllier, but when Finnan claimed the spot, he kept it for the next three seasons. The Finnan-Carragher-Hyypia-Riise backline was the rock Benitez built upon, and Finnan was a huge part of it. He was my player of the season in 2006-07. Always described with terms like “reliable” and “consistent,” Finnan rarely offered enough going forward, which is why Benitez looked to replace him with the likes of Josemi and Kromkamp before an Arbeloa-sized crowbar finally pried him out, but it’s hard to find a more consistent defending fullback over that time period.

Glen Johnson (2009-present)
Appearances: 15
Goals: 2

It’s probably too soon into his Liverpool career to anoint Glen Johnson the right back of the decade, what with only 15 games, and not the best results from those 15. But he’s the type of player who changes games, and Liverpool certainly needs more of those. Two goals and three assists in his first five games demonstrate why Benitez was willing to pay £17m for a fullback. I truly expect great things from him, but he's been a starter for less than half a season, and it's been an ignominious half-season at that.

24 November 2009

Liverpool 1-0 Debrecen

Johnson Carragher Agger Insua
Mascherano Lucas
Kuyt Gerrard Aurelio

Ngog 4’

Hey, it’s a win! And it doesn’t matter one bit! Luck still laughs at the club, even though their exit from the Champions League is their own fault, down to two goals conceded in injury time to Lyon. Had Liverpool held on to the draw at Anfield and the win in France, they’d be through to the group stages now.

Today saw 30 very good minutes, including an early Ngog goal (his fifth in 11 games), 30 mediocre minutes, and then 30 dire minutes, where Debrecen almost equalized with the last kick of the game. I hate this season so much, and I’m sure saying that will find a way to make it somehow worse.

It didn’t take long for Liverpool to find its way past a flat-footed Debrecen. Pushing forward from the opening whistle and having won an early corner, Carragher met Aurelio’s ball in at the back post, and Ngog was able to redirect past Poleksic. Just what Liverpool needed, and they’d assuredly build upon it. Or not. I don't know why I've any optimism left.

On the whole, Liverpool were more patient after the opener, which is sure to annoy given how the team needs a confidence boost. The team clearly expected Debrecen to come out of their shell when a goal behind, but no such luck. 10 men in white remained camped in their own half hoping to hit on the counter, and like against lower-league sides at Anfield (before this season, mind you), Liverpool had to find its way past a parked bus.

The strange thing is that all off Liverpool’s early chances came from set plays. And most of them were short corners or free kicks to get the defense moving, which we don't often see. The two best opportunities following Ngog’s goal fell to Kuyt from Gerrard and Aurelio crosses in the 11th and 16th; the Dutchman just missed contact with the first and was embarrassingly wrong-footed by the second when the ball made its way through the box only to nutmeg him for a goal kick.

It seemed fairly clear that the Liverpool players understood the 30th minute PA announcement of Fiorentina’s goal. Maybe the home side simply grew in confidence having not conceded a second and limited Liverpool’s opportunities when they were finally able to string two passes together. But it looked more likely that Liverpool grew a bit disillusioned and took the foot off the gas.

Rudolf, a lone striker with top scorer Coulibaly on the bench, had a couple of chances, making poor contact with a free header between Johnson and Carragher and mishitting a shot from that top of the box which Carra blocked. But even considering Liverpool’s oft-noted defensive liabilities, the home side rarely looked like scoring. Liverpool continued to have the best chances for a second, with Debrecen’s keeper twice saving Ngog shots, including a lovely snapped effort in the 38th.

The first fifteen minutes of the second half played out similarly, with no one able to reach Johnson's dangerous cross in the 54th, a defender sliding in to block Gerrard’s shot in the 58th, and an excellent Poleksic save on Gerrard’s placed strike a minute later. Lucas’s header wide in the 63rd, in a similar position to his miss on Saturday, marked another turning point in the match as Debrecen actually started to turn the screws. I doubt the home side had ten minutes of possession in Liverpool’s half prior to the hour mark.

Coulibaly’s entrance in the 62nd certainly helped matters, and it’s Debrecen’s manager’s fault for playing conservatively. Maybe he hasn’t seen much of Liverpool recently. But when the team’s top scorer came on, and Rudolf was given license to drop deeper to set up play, the tide turned.

Rudolf almost put Coulibaly through in the 68th, only to mishit the pass, before Mascherano had to make a last ditch tackle to keep the Hungarian out. Then, Coulibaly nearly beat the offside trap twice before his shot from an impossible angle forced Reina to save when he was expecting the cross. Capping off the evening was more abysmal late defending, allowing a long ball to bounce and cause panic in the penalty area, but Coulibaly could only weakly side-foot at Reina from less than 10 yards out. Now that would have summed up this season.

It’s moot now, seeing as Liverpool’s out despite accomplishing what they needed to today, but I was also baffled by Benitez’s substitutions, or lack thereof. Liverpool was dying for a change by the hour mark, but the first sub came on in the 77th, and it was Benayoun for Ngog, which says it all. It's always infuriating when Liverpool tries to strangle the life out of the game when only a goal to good, especially with how many dumb goals this team's conceded. To be fair, with Fiorentina winning, a win or a draw doesn't matter, and the team's stretched fairly thin as it is with yet another big game on Saturday. But it's still no fun to watch.

I’ll be honest – I thought Kuyt was dire today, which is a rarity even for me, so I was baffled when a striker who’d scored the lone goal was taken off for a creative midfielder. Dossena, making his third appearance of the season, came on for Aurelio in the 89th before Aquilani finally arrived in the second minute of injury time. Clearly, both subs were to waste time, but bringing on Aquilani that late – after Dossena no less – seems almost insulting. He’d better start against Everton, or there’s something we haven’t been told about his fitness or adaptation to England.

Had Lyon done the job in Italy – and to be fair, it wasn’t in their interests to; every club would like to see Liverpool out of the competition, no matter how insipid they’ve been of late – this performance would have sufficed, and could have been something to build on. By the end, it was annoyingly tame, but hey, at least another late goal wasn’t conceded.

Ngog played well, again scoring in place of Torres. Mascherano had a second successive "Mascherano game," finally looking up to speed and winning a fair few crucial tackles. The defense didn’t have any egregious mistakes. And Gerrard was far more mobile than against City. Yes, I’m well aware I’m stretching for positives. Liverpool scored two goals in two matches against a side that the other two clubs in the group scored 12 in three against. It's little wonder the team's out of the competition.

Liverpool dug its own grave before this match and paid the price. There’s little the club can do but keep trying to move forward. A derby match this weekend should go some way toward raising the adrenaline levels.

I guess, as Carragher said earlier today, Liverpool will just have to go and win the Europa League. And we’ll have to hope it doesn’t wreck the club’s finances.

23 November 2009

Liverpool at Debrecen 11.24.09

2:45pm, live in the US on Setanta

Last 3 matches:
Liverpool: 2-2 City (h); 2-2 Brum (h); 1-1 Lyon (a)
Debrecen: 2-1 Honved (a); 1-0 Kecskemeti (h); 0-1 Gyor (a)

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

Goalscorers (CL):
Liverpool: Babel, Benayoun, Kuyt 1
Debrecen: Coulibaly, Rudolf 2; Czvitkovics 1

Referee: Bjorn Kuipers (NED)

Guess at a squad:
Johnson Skrtel Carragher Insua
Mascherano Aquilani
Kuyt Gerrard Aurelio

Not only does Liverpool need to win tomorrow, but Lyon has to get a result against Fiorentina at home. A Viola win means Liverpool’s in the Europa League at best. A draw means Liverpool’d need to top Fiorentina by a better margin than they lost the reverse fixture (0-2). And a Lyon win, which every Liverpool fan should be hoping for, means there’ll be all to play for on December 9.

Of course, all this is contingent on Liverpool winning tomorrow. Which the team hasn’t done since beating United a month ago. One win in 10 games is no way to go through life, son. That I spent the opening paragraph of this preview describing another team’s fixture is an apt description of this season. It’s not even December and it’s out of Liverpool’s hands. Sigh.

Given Liverpool’s form, a win is no sure thing, no matter the opposition. Debrecen’s lost all four group games, but scored five in the last two matches against Fiorentina, which isn’t heartening with Liverpool’s recent shenanigans in defense. And without Torres – still suffering with that hernia injury – will Liverpool actually score? Babel, Riera, Kelly, and Voronin also haven’t made the trip, but both Johnson and Agger should be available.

I’m tempted to suggest a line-up similar to the big wins over Burnley and Stoke a few months back – a line-up without two defensive midfielders. Yes, it’s an away match, in a country where Liverpool’s never won (three draws and a loss; last match was 1974), but the temptation to loosen the reins as much as possible persists.

Yet I’ve gone with Aquilani and Mascherano as the central midfielders instead of Lucas/Aquilani (the more attacking version) or Lucas/Masch. Who knows if Aquilani will start; he’s been restricted to two cameo appearances, but we’re getting the point where he has to play. I’d rather he start tomorrow than debut against Everton in the derby, which will be a much tougher match. I’m guessing Mascherano to partner him because of Masch’s defensive talents, given Aquilani’s limited playing time and fitness levels. Just in case. That’s what Masch is there for.

We’ll find out tomorrow how much the horse placenta helped Benayoun and Aurelio. I’m guessing Fabio because Benayoun played more than expected on Saturday and will be needed against Everton as well. If he’s fitter than I suspect, he may start, but I reckon the safer and more likely option is Aurelio. Yes, Aurelio’s ostensibly a defender, but we saw on Saturday how his entrance helped the team in the opposition’s half.

I really hope both Johnson and Agger are fit enough to feature. I’m guessing Gleninho as a last resort – Kelly’s still out and Degen’s not in the CL squad – while I’m less convinced about Agger’s availability. If he just took stitches, he may be able to play with his head wrapped. But if he suffered a concussion as well, there’s little chance of him starting. Skrtel had a hand in both goals Liverpool conceded against City, but the Slovakian didn’t play badly, and should be boosted by his first goal.

The reverse fixture at Anfield demonstrated that this will be no walk in the park. With a far stronger side than should be available tomorrow, Liverpool found it hard to break the Hungarians down, while Coulibaly threatened on the counter. And the Hungarians can attack; Debrecen racked up goals in their two games against Fiorentina, scoring more in those matches than Liverpool has in the entire CL campaign.

They don’t come much more massive than this: one game to keep qualification hopes alive, a game that’s probably worth a few million quid in the greater scheme of things; a few million quid that the owners dearly need. And then there’s the derby on Saturday. But Liverpool’s been backed against the wall in the Champions League before – remember needing three goals in a half to beat Olympiakos? Let’s see what we know this team’s possible of before it’s too late.

22 November 2009

Team of the Decade – Keeper

Previous Posts: Formation

Okay, a bit of a change in the calendar. Depending on when/if there’s a midweek match posts in this series will go up on Sunday/Wednesday or Monday/Thursday. And since I’ll have the preview for Tuesday’s match up Monday afternoon, I’d like to give these polls a bit of time at the top of the blog.

4-2-3-1 ended up running away with the formation vote. So the positions up for selection will be GK, RB, CB (pick two), LB, CM (pick two), RM, LM, Second Striker, and Striker. I’m not listing every player to have played for the club, just those with a marginal chance of winning. Gerrard will only be listed as a second striker because he’s best in that position in this formation, and he’ll win the poll in whatever position he’s listed. I also reserve the right to reuse some of the same players across the line of three in attack if they don’t win the vote for the previous position (specifically, players like Benayoun, Smicer, and Luis Garcia).

I’ll have some relevant stats and a short paragraph from my memories of each player. If it seems worthwhile, we may also have a vote on the bench from those who don’t make the starting XI. If there are any other suggestions on how you’d like to see this poll run, I’m all ears.

Scott Carson (2005-06)
Appearances: 9
Clean Sheets: 2

Okay, so goalkeeper is one of the toughest positions to fill out. There’ll be no other positions where a player in contention’s only appeared nine times. But Carson delivered a couple of memorable moments, specifically the first leg against Juventus on the road to Istanbul. A late away goal took the some of the luster off, but a 19-year-old Carson deputizing in a 2-1 win over Juventus in only his third start (his first in Europe) was utterly immense.

Jerzy Dudek (2001-07)
Appearances: 186
Clean Sheets: 74

Do the Dudek! Without the big Pole, Liverpool probably wouldn’t have won their fifth European Cup. But Dudek never truly inspired confidence during his time as keeper, and no one seemed too bothered when Reina was bought after the 2005 CL Final. Not quite “Calamity” Jerzy, but still far too mistake-prone to be a true great. Yet, he’ll always be a legend because of Istanbul.

Chris Kirkland (2001-04)

Appearances: 45
Clean Sheets: 12

My fondest memory of Kirkland came not for the club, but England – his father winning almost £10,000 when Kirky won his first international cap – which probably says enough. Still, he was an able deputy for three years, only prevented from securing the starting job due to a string of unfortunate injuries, and he’s turned into a serviceable keeper for Wigan (postscript: I wrote this 12 hours before he let in nine goals at Spurs).

Pepe Reina (2005-present)

Appearances: 224
Clean Sheets: 109

At £6m, Reina’s arguably been Benitez’s best pound-for-pound signing. Three Golden Gloves (for most clean sheets) over his first four seasons, Pepe’s improved every year. He was sketchy on crosses for his first couple of campaigns, but has gotten better with age, and continues to be an outstanding shot stopper and a peerless distributor. I’d consider him the best in the league even if he weren’t a Liverpool player.

Sander Westerveld (1999-2002)

Appearances: 103
Clean Sheets: 42

The keeper for Liverpool’s 2000-01 treble run, Westerveld was on his way out after Houllier signed both Dudek and Kirkland, prompted by the erratic play that’d plagued all Liverpool keepers since Grobbelaar (who you could arguably include in that category). Still, Sander’s role in the best season under Houllier can’t be overlooked.

21 November 2009

Liverpool 2-2 Manchester City

Carragher Skrtel Agger Insua
Mascherano Lucas
Kuyt Gerrard Babel

Skrtel 50’
Adebayor 69’
Ireland 76’
Benayoun 77’

Paid the price for sitting on a lead and for poor marking on set plays. And, of course, less than 10 minutes later, Liverpool went behind to an incredibly dubious goal (edit: okay saw it again, Ireland was just behind the ball, apologies). What else is new? Hero turns to villain, villain to hero. Thank god City’s defense is as accident-prone as Liverpool’s. Not accident-prone enough, though.

It’s yet another game Liverpool will claim to have deserved the win, but don’t. Neither side will be happy with this draw, although it keeps City a point ahead of Liverpool with that game in hand and Liverpool – read Lucas – should have won it with the last touch of this game. This season is slowly killing me.

Football’s a game of clichés, and this one was a game of two halves. A blistering first five minutes – in which Given had to miraculously keep out what would have been Skrtel’s first goal for the club – turned into an utterly boring subsequent forty minutes. And you can blame injuries – yes injuries; it’s not like we haven’t seen enough of them – for taking all the steam of out Liverpool.

Agger suffered a concussion and was bloodied on the aforementioned Skrtel chance – a clash of heads with Toure on the incoming free kick – in the fifth. Less than 10 minutes later, Babel, De Jong, and Gerrard collided when Babel was cutting in for a shot, resulting in the Dutchman suffering an ankle knock. Kyrgiakos and Benayoun (again, horse placenta?!) respectively replaced the injured players, but Liverpool never built the sustained pressure of the first five minutes, and it settled into a defense contest between conservative two teams conservatively playing two defensive midfielders.

Liverpool had the best of the rest of the first half chances, but they were half chances – shots from Gerrard and Kuyt deflected and a Skrtel header wide of the post. City’s lone chance came through Wright-Phillips after a lovely Ireland dummy on the break, but the erratic winger shot high and wide.

But game opened up and the goals came in the second half. Surprisingly for Liverpool, but unsurprising given City’s defense, the home side looked the most likely to score from set plays, which they did five minutes after the restart. City just couldn’t keep Skrtel out, and the Slovakian scored with his third good chance, beating Adebayor to toe-poke Gerrard’s lovely free kick past Given.

As much as it frustrates the fans, especially when the side’s at home, Liverpool was far more content to sit back and try and hit City on the break with balls over the top. And it was understandable given fitness levels, only one substitution still available, and a crucial Champions League game on Tuesday. The away side saw its longest spell of possession, and although a resilient Liverpool kept them out in open play (Kyrgiakos did very well as an imposing rearguard), they finally conceded in the 69th. Yep, from a corner.

As little regard as I have for Mark Hughes as a tactical manager, his substitution of Tevez for Barry in the 61st changed the game. Tevez, who often plays well against Liverpool, should have been on for the start. As a second striker, in the hole instead of Ireland, the lively Argentinean brought Bellamy and Adebayor into the game much more than De Jong or a half-fit Barry were able to.

But it was a sloppy, regrettable equalizer, as usual. Skrtel, matched up against Adebayor on both ends, completely lost his man, and the Togolese striker drifted into the center for a glancing free header that gave Reina no chance.

As has happened in every single game where Liverpool’s let in an equalizer, the team was knocked back for the next few minutes, and it didn’t take long for City to take advantage. Again, Tevez was at the center of it, cutting in from the left and finding Wright-Phillips in the box. The little winger somehow turned a pass to Ireland, who appeared offside, but no flag and an easy goal as Skrtel didn't follow his run. Naturally.

But we finally saw some of that Liverpool resiliency we’ve dearly missed. It took less than a minute to get the equalizer, with City still celebrating their luck. And that’s why Mark Hughes will be infuriated with a fortunate draw. Liverpool marched down the field, Ngog controlled well on the right and worked out a shot, which was luckily deflected into the path of an on-rushing Benayoun. Couldn’t have been better for Liverpool.

But unlike last year’s squad, and last year’s match at Man City, Liverpool couldn’t find the winner despite having almost all the possession in the last ten minutes, with Aurelio coming on for Benayoun (being substituted as a substitute might suggest Benayoun’s not quite fit) to solidify the midfield. And Liverpool had their chances, although they came in the four minutes of added time.

First, Kuyt (who again had a tough game, and would probably be rested if there weren’t so many injury problems) had a 50/50 penalty shout, pushed by Bellamy trying to break into the box. Two minutes later, the Dutchman’s volley was blocked at the back post for a corner. And from the resulting corner, Lucas had the chance to be the hero, to finally shed that scapegoat label. He completely failed to seize it; somehow open for a free header, he contrived to mishit it wide. Sigh. The final whistle immediately followed.

With the injury problems, it could have been a lot worse. Going behind, yet again, with less than 15 minutes remaining, shows how much worse it could have been. But it’s another game where we’re ruing a lead lost. Frustrating draws are better than infuriating losses, but only marginally. We saw last season how little draws help in the overall scheme of things.

I’m proud of the team for coming from behind. Proud of individual performances from Mascherano (absolutely everywhere), Gerrard (moreso the first half; he’s clearly still feeling his way back), Carragher (solid down the right and kept the dangerous Bellamy quiet for long stretches), and the aforementioned Kyrgiakos. Proud of the resiliency despite injuries that kept key players out and saw two starters off before a quarter of the game was over.

But it’s still two points dropped. And Liverpool stopped being able to drop points over a month ago.

20 November 2009

Liverpool v Manchester City 11.21.09

7:45am, live in the US on espn2

Last 4 head-to-head:
1-1 (h) 02.22.09
3-2 Liverpool (a) 10.05.08
1-0 Liverpool (h) 05.04.08
0-0 (a) 12.30.07

Last three matches:
Liverpool: 2-2 Brum (h); 1-1 Lyon (a); 1-3 Fulham (a)
City: 3-3 Burnley (h); 0-0 Brum (a); 5-1 Scunthorpe (h)

Goalscorers (league):
Liverpool: Torres 10; Gerrard 4; Benayoun, Kuyt, Ngog 3; Babel, Johnson 2
City: Bellamy 5; Adebayor 4; Petrov 3; Tevez, Wright-Phillips 2; Barry, Ireland, Lescott, Richards, Toure 1

Referee: Phil Dowd

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

Okay, so what’s going on with this Serbian horse placenta lady? The story came out after Van Persie’s ankle injury, we all had a few good laughs at the Arsenal striker, and that was that. And then four of Liverpool’s injured players – Benayoun, Riera, Aurelio, and Johnson – went to Serbia for treatment of their own. And now, all four have trained with the team, and Benitez has declared them available. The mind boggles.

With Gerrard, Agger, and Ngog (who broke his nose during the international break; hopefully he'll have one of those awesome Rip Hamilton masks) also back, the injury crisis seems a lot better. I’d be very surprised if Riera or Benayoun started given how both pulled up lame less than two weeks ago, but otherwise, the only player assuredly out is Torres.

It’s probably too soon for Aurelio – horse placenta or not – as well. But as said in the “Copy Chelsea” post a few days back, if it comes down to Aurelio or Babel on the left flank, I’d rather Aurelio in almost every situation. That Liverpool is playing City, an exceptionally dangerous team, especially on the counter, Aurelio seems the far safer option. I’ve never been enamored with Shawn Wright-Phillips, but if he’s one-on-one with Insua for long stretches, it could be a long day for the little Argentinean.

A reprieve from the massive casualty list should prevent Aquilani from starting. This article from the official site yesterday seems like definitive proof he won’t make the first XI. Of course, it could be yet another gambit by Benitez, but I still think Aqua will make at least one more appearance from the bench before starting (i.e. wait until Debrecen).

Benitez discussing Gareth Barry with Tony Evans a couple of days ago seems a similar attempt at mind games. Can’t be coincidence that Benitez gives a wide-ranging interview, with his most candid remarks on the Barry transfer saga, before Liverpool faces Barry’s new team, can it? I thoroughly enjoy when Benitez plays mind games.

Despite City’s run of five straight league draws, they’re still an eminently dangerous side. Adebayor, Tevez, Bellamy, Santa Cruz, and Ireland are all first class attackers, and then there are Wright-Phillips, Petrov, and Barry, among others. Money may not be able to buy happiness, but it can buy a hell of a football team. Bellamy and Petrov, as well as Robinho, as listed as likely out through injury on the BBC, but I’m hesitant to trust that outlet, especially since they still think Carragher’s suspended (a red card professional foul is a one-game suspension, you rubes).

As usual, every game’s massive with the team struggling for points. But this is as big as the United ‘backs against the wall’ match. That United win remains Liverpool’s lone three-pointer since the end of September. Even with a run of five draws, City still sits one point above Liverpool in the standings with a game in hand. Three points here will push Liverpool up at least one place, if not into fourth if other results go their way.

No other result is an option.

18 November 2009

Liverpool’s Team of the Decade

I know the decade technically isn’t over for another year. Don’t care. As far as I’m concerned, and for our purposes here, the decade is from 2000-2009.

And since we had such fun with the ‘compare the squads’ vote a few weeks back, I thought another poll or nine would be entertaining. Plus, it’s easy content! Win-win!

Over the next five or six weeks, I thought we’d decide the Liverpool team of the decade. On Mondays and Thursdays, I’ll post a new position, and we’ll choose the best player to feature for the club this decade. Depending on the formation, we’ll pick one or two players per position, from a selection of four to ten choices. With me so far?

As hinted at above, we’ll need to settle on a formation first. What’s the use in picking players if we don’t decide how they’ll be deployed? To mix my sports metaphors, if we’re playing fantasy football, we might as well go the whole nine yards.

4-4-2’s the easiest, but it means Gerrard’s a central midfielder, to be paired with one of Alonso, Hamann, Mascherano, Murphy, etc. 4-2-3-1 only needs one striker, and it’d probably be Torres. I added 3-5-2 to fill out the poll – really, this should be a choice between 4-4-2 and 4-2-3-1, and I don’t want to make an executive decision – but it opens up a plethora of questions. Liverpool’s flanks have been dubious throughout the decade; having wingbacks might open up possibilities for better players. And Benitez has used 3-4-3 a couple of times (at Portsmouth last year and at Sunderland this).

So, which would you want to see? And on Monday, we’ll start picking the players, beginning with goalkeeper.

17 November 2009

Copy Chelsea

Four months into the season, and Liverpool still hasn’t deployed the first-choice XI thanks to injuries. And last week we got word that both Benayoun and Riera could be out for a month. Awesome.

Injury problems have consistently troubled Liverpool this season, but with those two missing, the left flank is a massive concern. Aurelio and Babel would be the only options on that flank, and neither seems a suitable replacement. Lucas played there a couple of times – notably, the 3-0 win against Sunderland in 07/08 – but hasn’t for over a year.

My advice? As much as it hurts to suggest, I’d copy the league leaders.

Oh yes, the much-maligned diamond formation. Even writing the phrase brings back bad memories of Sven-Goran Eriksson. Let’s soldier on, though.

Without wingers, the key to this formation is the fullbacks. But Liverpool already play with a variation on wingbacks in the 4-2-3-1, and in Johnson and Aurelio (or Insua), Liverpool have two excellent attacking fullbacks. The most frequent complaint with the 4-4-2 diamond is the lack of width, which shouldn’t be a problem with Johnson and Aurelio getting forward.

It’s a fluid formation that should allow for players to swap positions, as Benitez is wont to do in the 4-2-3-1. Kuyt, Gerrard, and Benayoun/Riera – as well as Torres – consistently change positions in the 4-2-3-1. Gerrard’s perpetually in a free role. Torres will drop deep or into one of the channels to link up play. The wingers switch flanks and drift inside. None of these facets are incompatible with the diamond formation.

At the same time, both Lucas and Aquilani are more mobile than Alonso, and have the versatility for this formation. We’ve seen how Lucas tries to get from box to box, and all reports suggest Aquilani plays similarly.

I’d also like to see how it affects Kuyt. The Dutchman’s disappointed for a few weeks now, since picking up a knock during the last international break. I wonder if moving him further upfield and more centrally will help his form. He’d have less defensive duties, and could focus more on attacking play. Plus, I’d like to see another striker shoulder some of burden on Torres, who hasn’t been fit enough to lead the line by himself. Yes, Torres is usually at his best as a lone striker, but if he’s not fully fit, he’s far less able single-handedly front the attack.

Now, this formation would put a lot of pressure on Mascherano and the centerbacks. In the 4-2-3-1, the wingers often drop deep to defend, especially if the fullbacks are upfield. With no wingers, it’ll be up to Mascherano and the centerbacks (and either Lucas or Aquilani, depending on which side of the field the ball is on) to cover the counter.

This admittedly worries me, especially given Mascherano’s form and Liverpool’s defensive fragility. It’s one thing to alter the formation when the team and players are on a hot streak; it’s another to use a new system when most if not all are struggling. But given where Liverpool’s struggled – reestablishing a dominant central midfield, scoring against packed defenses, and preventing stupid goals on the counter – it could be the remedy this team needs.

More importantly, the options are extremely limited without Benayoun and Riera. I’ve lost almost all faith in Babel, especially as a starter and on the left. Aurelio is a serviceable replacement, but he’s primarily a defender. Gerrard plays there for England, but Liverpool needs his talismanic performances in the middle, and the Gerrard/Torres pairing is what Liverpool needs to build around.

It doesn’t look that different from a Lampard-Deco-Ballack-Essien or Kaka-Gattuso-Seedorf-Pirlo midfield, both of which have given Liverpool fits in the past.

I doubt I’d argue for this formation if either Benayoun or Riera were available. But removing those two players severely weakens the team and the formation Benitez wants to play. Circumstances are what they are. Liverpool needs to do something to save the season, and using a formation that gets the best and fittest players on the pitch gives the team a fighting chance.

10 November 2009

“You Have No MAH-BLES”

I probably filled my quota of Major League references with the one about Jobu a few weeks ago. I apologize to international readers and those who aren’t connoisseurs of marvelously cheesy sports movies, but this is too apt. Plus, it’s Major League 2.

Just like weak-hitting, voodoo apostate Pedro Cerrano, right now, Liverpool has no marbles.

I wish there was video of the title quote, but this will have to do.

In the previous match review and comments, I fervently complained about Liverpool settling for crosses and long balls in the last 10 minutes after running at defenders to some success for the first 80. Johnson, Benayoun, and Ngog doing that led Liverpool’s best threats, and led to Ngog’s goal and the penalty. It didn’t help when Benayoun went off injured in the 78th, with Babel unable to fill the same role. Unsurprisingly, chances were harder and harder to come by as the game went on – in complete contrast to the multitude of late winners last season.

The more I think about it, the more I can’t escape the feeling that Liverpool players were simply afraid to give the ball away in the later stages. And fear rarely helps in football. It’s one thing to run at defenders at 0-0 or 1-0 in the first half. It’s another to do it in the dying breaths of the game, where a giveaway could lead to an opposition break when Liverpool’s thoroughly exposed.

So the team, already fragile from this dire, dire streak, settled for the easy way out. It’s easy to pump a cross or over-the-top ball into the box, and it’s less likely that the individual player will be picked out for a mistake or that the opposition could counter. So even though the team needed all three points, no one had the marbles to seek out the winner, in the manner that had led to Liverpool’s best play.

I don’t know whether it’s because of individual weaknesses or Benitez’s innate conservatism. And I probably don’t want to know. It just needs to be remedied. Players other than Gerrard and Torres need to take matters into their own hands. Players other than those two and Benayoun need to stand up and be counted when the game’s on the line. Everyone needs to play with a chip on their shoulder, as if their career depends on it, because Rafa’s stint as Liverpool manager and this club’s fortunes as a whole actually do depend on it.

It’s time to spit upon hands, hoist the black flag, and begin slitting throats. This team’s capable of it; we’ve seen the opposition put to the sword before, whether it’s top-half Villa last season or last place Hull in this. Football isn’t the rock of Sisyphus; shit that rolls downhill can shift direction with one good game.

Liverpool needs to find its marbles. And fast.

09 November 2009

Liverpool 2-2 Birmingham

Johnson Skrtel Agger Insua
Lucas Mascherano
Benayoun Kuyt Riera

Ngog 13’
Chucho 26’
Jerome 45+3’
Gerrard 71’ (pen)

The beach ball season rolls on. That’s seven league games without a win against Birmingham.

And both sides will feel cheated. With the amount of possession and chances, it’s two more points dropped by Liverpool. In front thanks to yet another set piece goal conceded by Liverpool and a wonderful second, Birmingham will rue Ngog’s dive for glory, which rescued said point.

After a quarter of the game, it looked to be just what was needed. Liverpool were ahead after patiently carving open Birmingham. Ngog scored a wonderful left-footed volley from Riera’s cross after Hart miraculously kept out two previous efforts. The home side were on top, especially down the right, as the beating Glen Johnson was giving Liam Ridgewell would see him jailed in 37 states. Didn’t last. Couldn’t last. Not this season.

It started when Liverpool conceded what was probably the dumbest equalizer of the season, which is saying something. Lucas gave up an insanely soft free kick, holding on a goal kick. McFadden lofted it into the box, and Birmingham won two headers (Roger Johnson at the back post over Glen and Ridgewell over Skrtel) before Chucho pounced from about a yard out. This is a short team, missing its most important defender, but come on.

Once again, Liverpool were knocked off-stride by conceding. But they still should have retaken the lead with a plethora of chances around the 32nd minute. First, Hart barely tipped over a Mascherano shot from distance on the break. When Birmingham were unable to fully clear the subsequent corner, they were under siege before an open Ngog miskicked and Lucas’s tame effort was cleared off the line by two players. Finally, Skrtel blasted a volley over from the top of the box, giving Birmingham a reprieve Liverpool would dearly regret.

After that, we were back to constant pressure, no end product, before Cameron Jerome notched the best goal he’ll ever score. And Birmingham had the best chance before that, on the break, only to see Reina thankfully come out to push Chucho too wide for a shot on target. Riera and Benayoun switched flanks to little effect, Birmingham blocked a smattering of half-chances, and then Riera pulled up injured, clutching the hamstring that previously kept him out. Surprisingly, Gerrard came on. Surely, Superman would change the game. Well, the game sure changed.

Less than two minutes later, Scott Dann headed out of defense just looking to clear his lines. Jerome collected, held off Mascherano, and unleashed a dipping shot from over 35 yards. Reina, marginally off his line (as he should be in that situation), had no chance. Sums up this season. Liverpool had 75% of the possession and Birmingham had two goals from three shots.

One up and unable to believe their luck, Birmingham were even happier to park the bus in the second half. Had luck been with Liverpool, Kuyt would have won a penalty in the 51st when Ridgewell clipped his ankle in the act of shooting. Of course, if luck had been with Liverpool at all this season, they wouldn’t have been in this situation.

Naturally, you’ll counter with “you make your own luck.” Which is exactly what Ngog did. More and more frustration led to sloppier and sloppier play until the 63rd, when Gerrard caromed a header off the post. From there, Liverpool found another gear and turned up the pressure before Ngog dove his way to an equalizer six minutes later.

Let’s get it out of the way now. We’re all against diving. Diving is bad for the sport. I’m sure more than a few British pundits will mention Ngog’s from France. At this point, I’d push my own mother down a flight of stairs for a Liverpool win, and she’s just recovering from a broken ankle. So I’m not going to complain if Ngog goes down when Carsley lunges in. Ngog and Carsley had some handbags – understandable on Carsley’s part – and both saw yellow before Gerrard sent Hart the wrong way.

That was the point where Liverpool would find the breakthrough. That was the point where Liverpool would turn the season around, get the winner, and go into the international break deeply relieved, only a point behind fourth. Ha. At least they didn’t concede. Again.

Liverpool found chances harder and harder to come by with 10, then 11 men packed in Birmingham’s box. The home side saw all of the ball, and Birmingham were all hands on deck, but the breakthrough wasn’t coming. Continuing the luck with injuries, Benayoun pulled up with a hamstring injury in the 78th (for those counting at home, that’s two attackers lost to hamstring injuries today), with Babel coming on, before Aquilani made his home debut for Lucas in the 83rd.

Unable to write the dream script, I thought Aquilani actually slowed down play too much. Before anyone gets carried away, I’m not blaming him for anything, and I’m thrilled to see him healthy. But with Benayoun and Lucas out, Liverpool resorted to crosses and hoofs from the middle, and Birmingham’s defenders had more than enough to keep that out, even with Liverpool throwing every man forward.

For the next two weeks, I’ll be reduced to repeating ‘at least it’s a point’ in an effort to keep sane, fully aware that Liverpool needed a dive to draw against the 15th placed side. That’s normally, and obviously, not good enough – even against a bogey team like Brum with injuries as they are. But this hasn’t been a “normal” season for some time now. The team’s holding on by their fingernails.

At least it’s a point. At least it's a point. Sigh.

07 November 2009

Liverpool v Birmingham 11.09.09

3pm, live in the US on espn2

Sorry this is late, but I wanted to wait given the injuries and the game being on Monday. Posting on Friday morning like usual would have meant even more baseless speculation over who’s available.

Last 4 head-to-head:
2-2 (a) 04.26.08
0-0 (h) 09.22.07
1-0 Liverpool (a; League Cup) 11.08.06
7-0 Liverpool (a; FA Cup) 03.21.06

Last three matches:
Liverpool: 1-1 Lyon (a); 1-3 Fulham (a); 1-2 Arsenal (a)
Brum: 0-0 City (h); 2-1 Sunderland (h); 1-3 Arsenal (a)

Goalscorers (league):
Liverpool: Torres 10; Benayoun, Gerrard, Kuyt 3; Babel, Johnson, Ngog 2
Brum: Bowyer, McFadden 2; Larsson, O’Connor, Phillips, Ridgewell 1

Referee: Peter Walton

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

At least are looking a little brighter on the injury front, even if we’re still massively unsure whether Gerrard or Torres will need surgery thanks to contradictory reports. But Benitez was much more positive over Johnson, Aurelio, Skrtel, and Riera, which would be a huge boon.

At the same time, both Degen and Carragher are suspended. Degen’s out for three games for serious foul play, while Carragher will only miss this match for a professional foul. Given the injury troubles and recent form, it’s certainly not the best time to be missing two defenders, including the vice-captain.

At least it sounds like Skrtel, Agger, and Johnson should be available, as would Aurelio, but I think he’s more likely to feature in midfield. And to be honest, this is a “good” game for Liverpool’s defense. Chances are that Birmingham will try to frustrate Liverpool at Anfield. Although the team’s struggled for goals, and will find it difficult to break down a very resilient Birmingham side, it’s seemingly safer than teams going on the attack against a fragile Liverpool, which has happened more in 17 games this season than in years past. Obviously, Liverpool will have to be wary on the break, especially of Chucho.

And I can’t write a preview without mentioning Torres, especially since I’m guessing he’ll miss out. Benitez argues he’s been getting better, and wants to hold off on surgery. I’d argue that he should sit this one out and rest for a full two weeks with the international break coming up. The depth at striker means he’d have to be on the bench, just in case, but Liverpool should be able to survive without him. Although I just had a seriously bad flashback to 0-0 against Birmingham at Anfield two seasons ago, when Kuyt and Voronin started in place of Torres, which inspired this post.

And at the same time, I wouldn’t mind seeing Babel get a chance in Torres’ spot after Wednesday’s match. Ngog has been Torres’ primary backup, but given the boost to Babel’s confidence after Wednesday – and yes, the need to give him a few games in a row and see if the Dutchman can do a job – I’m curious.

However, I’d still rather Aurelio or even Riera on the left, as long as it doesn’t mean Voronin in the hole. If we’re talking about Babel in midfield, the post under this one still stands: I do think Babel’s better off the bench. Both Aurelio and Riera are more secure defensively, especially when the opposition counters. And even though I’ve questioned the threat Brum will provide, Liverpool will still need to be on their guard.

And I hate when Liverpool plays Birmingham, although at least Steve Bruce, who remains a bogeyman for Benitez, isn’t the manager anymore. Let’s just pretend it’s a cup game; the last time Liverpool beat Birmingham in the league was 2004, seven games ago. Garry O’Connor will miss out through injury, while captain Barry Ferguson is suspended.

Birmingham are tied with Hull for the fewest goals scored, but they’ve only let in 12, better than any other bottom-half side and four goals fewer than Liverpool. McLeish has the team very well-organized at the back, which frightens given Liverpool’s recent reliance on a half-fit Torres for goals.

The upcoming international break, more meaningless than usual as Kyrgiakos is the only player involved in the playoffs, finally arrives, and it’s at a surprisingly good time. Hopefully, the break will allow Liverpool to lessen the massive casualty list. But they need to go into the break with a good result, or it’ll be two more weeks of ‘what’s wrong with Liverpool?’ in the media.

05 November 2009

Babel vs. Voronin

From the comments of the last post:
Anonymous said:

I disagree about Babel. I'd much rather see him starting for Voronin rather than coming off the bench. Then bring in Aqua at the 70 min mark. Voronin just looks a half step slow in everything he does. At least Babel has the potential for moments of brilliance along with the mistakes. Voronin just gives you average plus mistakes.
Don’t get me wrong; Voronin was no great shakes yesterday. He gave the ball away too often, under-hit Liverpool’s best chance, and did little attacking as a support striker. He is average plus mistakes. But Babel’s inconsistency squared.

Despite the Dutchman’s brilliant goal, I doubt he would have helped much from the start. The two opportunities after Babel’s strike do well to sum him up: the free kick blasted 12 yards in front of goal which went out for a throw on the far side, and the neat run into the box only to shoot six yards wide of the near post. One moment of brilliance, two moments of banging your head against the wall. That’s Ryan Babel, as harsh as that comes off.

Neither player is “good enough” to consistently win games for the team. Liverpool needs better first-team players to challenge for the title and Champions League. But as everyone acknowledges, last night was a very bad exception and Liverpool hasn’t been this stretched by injuries in years. Starting Voronin, where Liverpool could use his hold-up play and workrate, then bringing on the potentially game-changing Babel was the right move. As much as I wanted to see Aqua around the 70th as well, yesterday’s was an action-packed, crucial game still in the balance, which isn't the best time to give a player with 15 minutes under his belt a European debut.

Now, my main point. Babel as a sub. Let’s start with his goal return, which is 17 in 103 games so far.

46 starts with five goals, compared to 57 substitute appearances and 12 goals off the bench. For those keeping track at home, that’s an average of a goal every 9.2 games when starting and every 4.75 games when a sub. His scoring record is more than twice as good as a substitute.

And then there are the individual games. The games he scored when starting? 6-0 over Derby, 5-0 over Luton Town, 3-1 in a dead rubber over PSV, 3-1 over Bolton, and 5-1 over Newcastle. Every one was a rout.

The games he scored as a sub? Besiktas (x2), Newcastle, Bolton, Marseille, Arsenal (CL), Chelsea (CL), United, West Ham, Hull (x2), and Lyon. Again, most were routs; Babel only provided the winner in one of those matches – against United of all teams – unless we’re counting the penalty won in the CL against Arsenal. But it’s still a much better scoring record against better opposition.

Incidentally, the only match Liverpool lost when Babel scored was the Chelsea CL semi, where Liverpool lost 2-3 and Babel tallied a wicked long-range shot that Cech probably should’ve kept out in the 117th.

And when were the goals scored? Babel’s never scored between the 1-30th minutes, but scored 3 between 31-45, 2 between 46-60, 1 between 61-75, and 11 between 76-120 (the aforementioned Chelsea goal was the only extra-time strike). 12 of his 17 goals have come in the last third of the game! If that’s not a supersub, I don’t know what is.

Now, Voronin’s goal return doesn’t hold a candle to Babel’s, starting, off the bench, whatever. Six goals in 40 games, with all the goals coming in ’07-08. I don't have the assist numbers for any season but this one – Voronin has two assists to Babel's one – but I'd guess Voronin tallied slightly more per game in '07-08 as well. But yes, Voronin is a dissimilar and probably inferior player. The difference between an £11m player and a free transfer, I guess. But unlike Babel, we usually know what we’re getting: workrate, clever layoffs and flick-ons, and a couple of frustrating shots off target. Talents more suited to a starting second striker, especially in Benitez's system and when paired with Torres.

The key is that Voronin was brought in as a squad player, replacing Fowler, and probably would have been sold this summer were Benitez allowed to use the money on another striker. Babel was bought to be a game-changer, the third-highest transfer fee paid by Liverpool at the time. Three seasons into his Liverpool career, not enough games have been changed. Hopefully, yesterday marked a turning point.

04 November 2009

Liverpool 1-1 Lyon

Carragher Kyrgiakos Agger Insua
Kuyt Lucas Mascherano Benayoun

Babel 83’
Lisandro 90’

This season in a nutshell, except it’s the first draw in 17 games. Ecstasy and optimism followed by a kick in the teeth. A brilliant Babel opener off the bench, but a sloppy Lopez equalizer in the 90th after Liverpool couldn’t completely clear late pressure, ending with a Bastos flick-on to Lisandro, who out-muscled Kyrgiakos to beat Reina. You can’t say it was Liverpool’s lone mistake – Lyon were almost through thanks to blunders in the 74th and 79th – but they’d looked to have dodged a bullet and resurrected the Champions League campaign. Now, not only does Liverpool have to beat Fiorentina (ideally by two or more goals) and Debrecen, an already-qualified Lyon needs to get a result in Florence.

And Ryan Babel should have been the hero after Liverpool were the better side on the whole. Other than spurning the three excellent chances presented in the first 45, you couldn’t help but be pleased with the half. A typical Liverpool performance in Europe, if you will, which is the highest compliment I can pay the team given the circumstances.

Good workrate and, more importantly, composure, led to Liverpool seeing the majority of possession, the better chances, and increasing strength as the game went on. The home side was limited to early shots from distance, while only Hugo Lloris’ keeping kept Lyon level. After his saves in the first match when Liverpool was a goal to the good, and his stops in this match, I’m never forgetting that name.

A clearly half-fit Torres had the first, in the 12th, when Insua’s deflected cross fell to him at the top of the box, only for the striker to shoot centrally, saved by Lloris’ shins. Kuyt had the second in the 17th, sliding in to collect a cross before fashioning a clever rising toe-poke, prompting Lloris’ best save. 11 minutes later, Voronin was through on the keeper after a long free kick, but saw his tame shot kick-saved away. Both Torres and Voronin’s efforts could have been better, but Lloris still had to keep out all three.

Lyon weren’t helped by injury problems comparable to Liverpool’s, as right-back Reviellere went off in the 18th followed by Pjanic in the 40th. But despite those impediments and Liverpool’s fortitude, Gomis looked capable of creating one needed moment, while Lopez was clearly out to test Carra down that flank.

Chances were fewer and farther between in the second half, as Lyon resorted to cagier tactics only needing a draw to qualify. Liverpool again should have taken the lead but for Lloris in the 69th, when the ball fell to Lucas open on the left in the box. It was a well-struck shot, but a better save, and Kuyt’s weakly bicycled rebound was easily cleared off the line.

Lyon nearly struck through the two aforementioned mistakes – Kyrgiakos let a long ball bounce before a soft back header put Lisandro through, but Reina saved with his face, then Kuyt picked the wrong pass in the final third, Lyon broke, and Lisandro danced into space only to curl an 18-yard shot around the far post.

Bringing on Babel for Voronin (the lone attacking change until Ngog replaced a spent Torres in the 86th) helped matters, and it was the oft-criticized sub who provided the moment of inspiration. Liverpool broke through Lucas to Benayoun, Babel received the ball in Lyon’s half, strode into the center, and unleashed an unstoppable blast from 25 yards out. It was probably the best goal he’s scored. And I hope it ends the debate as to whether he’s better off the bench.

It’s saddening that a draw’s only disappointing because of the Champions League implications. It’s certainly better than other recent results. And with the amount of players either missing or half-fit, taken out of context, it’s not a bad result. But there’s a context. With two games to play, Lyon’s on 10 points, Fiorentina’s on 9, and Liverpool has 4.

Liverpool deserved better for having the better chances, but couldn’t take them until the 83rd, and gave up an ignominious equalizer, which isn’t exactly a rare occurrence this season. It was especially cruel given that the makeshift backline had been excellent on the whole. I’ve few complaints with anyone’s performance, but at the same time, there were few standouts (Mascherano on the whole, Babel’s goal, Insua excellently rebounding from a poor performance in the previous meeting, Lucas' passing, Agger’s composure).

It’s a performance that can be built upon for Monday’s match against Birmingham. Hopefully, the five-day interlude will help the casualty list, especially with Torres (it was reassuring to see him last 86 minutes). But at the end of the day, qualification for the all-important, flash-the-cash knockout rounds is now out of Liverpool’s hands.

03 November 2009

Liverpool at Lyon 11.04.09

2:45pm, live in the US on FSC

Last 3 matches:
Liverpool: 1-3 Fulham (a); 1-2 Arsenal (a); 2-0 United (h)
Lyon: 1-0 St Etienne (a); 1-4 Nice (a); 2-1 Liverpool (a)

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

Referee: Frank De Bleeckere (BEL)

De Bleeckere was the man in the middle for wins over Inter and Real in the last two seasons. Let’s hope he continues to be a good luck charm.

Guess at a squad:
Darby Carragher Agger Insua
Lucas Mascherano
Kuyt Benayoun Babel

So, Gerrard, Johnson, Kelly, Riera, Skrtel, Aurelio, and El Zhar haven’t traveled. Neither has Degen, who’s not on the CL list. At best, Agger, Ngog, Aquilani, and Cavalieri are the only ones who'll be available tomorrow but weren’t on Saturday. This is the worst stretch of injuries I can remember at the club.

And, to make matters that much more interesting, it turns out Torres is worse than feared. The suggestions of a hernia operation have me scared shitless. I’ve had that operation, for an inguinal hernia, and while the quality of care he’ll get is miles better (I still hate the surgeon that messed my operation up), it’d put him out for at least six weeks. And, worst case, he’ll lose a ton of power from his shot for a few more weeks. Yikes. At least, from my experience, you can put off a hernia operation, and while it’s obviously affecting the player, it can’t get much worse. Either you need hernia surgery or you don’t.

With Johnson and Kelly out, it’ll be either Darby or Carragher at right back. I’d feel a lot better about Carra at RB if Skrtel were fit, but I don’t know about an Agger/Kyrgiakos partnership with Carra out wide. Starting a young player in a match of this importance always frightens, but Kelly didn’t let the team down in similar circumstances, and Darby deserves his shot. However, since Carra is suspended for the next few league matches, maybe he’ll play at RB as Liverpool doesn’t have to worry about his fitness.

The midfield’s in similar dire straits. At least Lucas and Mascherano are both fit, but as we’ve seen before, we’re not going to get much creativity from the two of them. With the squad stretched as thin as it is, I’ve seen suggestions that Aquilani will start, but that's hard to believe since he’s played a total of 15 minutes off the bench so far. Aqua will almost certainly see time as a sub though. Even though Liverpool was picked apart in the middle against Lyon with Aurelio playing, Fabio would be a huge help tomorrow. Sigh.

And then there’s the attack, which will continue to rely on a half-fit Torres. I doubt Voronin will get a second chance – I’d rather the inconsistent threat of Babel before the diligence of Voronin – but we need much, much more from both Benayoun and Kuyt. The two of them are key to linking play in the final third in Gerrard’s absence. When Liverpool’s succeeded without the captain, those two have played blinders (see: United). When they’re off, Liverpool struggles mightily (see: Fulham).

It’s not as if Lyon are in a happy place right now, but it’s Shangri-La compared to Liverpool. The French side are still missing the majority of their central defenders, and midfielder Toulalan will probably again start with Cris. Not that Liverpool was able to challenge the makeshift pairing much in the previous meeting. Govou’s also been stripped of the captaincy, and yet it was that player who prevented an on-field fight between Toulalan and manager Claude Puel on Saturday. Yet Lyon still have more than enough to punish a defense missing three right-backs, a centerback, and a left-back in Govou, Lopez, Pjanic, and Gomis.

I’m sick of the dire predictions and ultimatums. We all know where Liverpool currently stands, and where Liverpool will probably end up if they don’t take all three points (read: Europa League). It’s an absolute worst-case scenario with this many players missing. But we’ve seen Liverpool with backs firmly pressed against the wall before. Let’s hope a similar result’s won.