30 January 2010

Liverpool 2-0 Bolton

Carragher Skrtel Kyrgiakos Insua
Aquilani Mascherano
Gerrard Kuyt Riera

Kuyt 37’
K Davies (og) 70’

Strong opening play from Liverpool, where we saw a slight alteration to the tactics, soon frighteningly led to few openings and the best chance for the opposition, which has become an awful case of déjà vu this season. When Lee, with Insua caught upfield, ran past three retreating defenders and Reina, he looked like putting Bolton ahead in the 24th. But Kyrgiakos smartly retreated to the goal line, where he was fortunately placed to clear Lee’s shot.

And by the 30th minute, Liverpool had reestablished control in an increasingly open game. Like against Spurs, it was Aquilani to Kuyt that led to the opener. A lofted cross-field ball found Insua in space, cleverly crossing to the back post. Aquilani won a strong header over Knight to put the chance on a plate for Kuyt, stabbing in despite Cahill on the line. You could feel the relief around Anfield through the television.

Despite a chance immediately after the goal, Ngog getting into the box only to shoot straight at Jaaskelainen, Bolton upped the pressure for the rest of the half as Davies started to win a few headers. Lee earned a yellow for diving in the 44th, looking for a penalty after splitting two defenders to get into the area, before Taylor lost Carragher at the back post, only to shoot into the side netting when the cross took him too wide.

That Bolton started the second half similarly was obviously depressing. Thankfully, it lasted about five minutes, after which they basically capitulated to a better Liverpool team. Two breaks in quick succession in the 51st and 53rd should have led the much-needed second goal. First, Mascherano stormed down the left and seemingly released Gerrard with an inch-perfect cross, only to see Mark Davies get back in time. Two minutes later, Mascherano found Riera up the same flank, with Jaaskelainen saving Gerrard’s shot from the centered ball, while Ngog could only stab the rebound off the frame of the goal when it looked easier to score.

Better play, in which Jaaskelainen saved another good Gerrard effort, finally saw a fortuitous second. Bolton were unable to clear a corner well-won by Carragher, and Insua’s low shot took a massive deflection off Kevin Davies. The Anfield announcer credited the diminutive left back with his second for the club, but I’m fairly certain it’ll go down as an own goal.

That strike took all the pressure off Liverpool, and they were able to comfortably see out the final 20 minutes in which the away side never threatened. That Bolton took off Muamba for a second striker, removing Gerrard’s shadow, allowed the captain to drive forward and influence play far more in the last 10 minutes, and it was slightly surprising to see the decent pressure not lead to a third. But we can’t be greedy. Babel’s entrance, for Ngog in the 84th, should signal Babel’s return to the fold and that there’ll be no more business in this transfer window. Otherwise, I’m sure it would have been Pacheco.

Today’s was only the second league game in which Lucas didn’t start, along with the 2-1 win over Wigan six weeks ago. Only Reina and Kuyt have started more. And I’m sure it’s coincidence the respite comes after arguably his worst performance of the season on Tuesday.

It led to some different tactics. Including both Aquilani and Ngog took some of the pressure off Gerrard, who was man-marked by Muamba just as in the last meeting. The captain ostensibly started on the right, looking to create gaps by dragging Muamba out wide, but it only lasted about 10 minutes, although the line of three continued to switch at times. The additional attacking impetus from Aquilani did create some space for Stevie, and the Italian did excellently to assist on the opener, but was also clearly trying too hard at times. Of course, better to be trying too hard than not at all.

And while it’ll give Lucas haters some more ammunition, it’s the plan I expected when Aquilani signed, which finally shows Benitez is comfortable with the Italian’s fitness – at the same time key players like Gerrard and Riera are looking fitter. We might see the same midfield against Everton, as it’s at Anfield, but I’m sure we’ll get Lucas and Mascherano at the Emirates in 11 days. Plus, Lucas looked tidy in his 25-minute cameo, clearly to fortify the midfield with the lead, and the second goal wasn’t long after his entrance.

You can’t underestimate the captain’s vast improvement; Gerrard was Liverpool’s best player along with Mascherano and Kyrgiakos. Never disheartened despite Muamba perpetually in his path, he was active in trying to find openings wherever possible and clearly looked to exploit the space in the final minutes. A goal would have been deserved too, with Jaaskelainen making two good saves. His progress was the biggest catalyst for Liverpool’s increased attacking cohesion.

But, again, special mention should also be made for Masch and Kyrgiakos. Mascherano was unsurprisingly excellent patrolling the midfield. Kyrgiakos battled the difficult Davies step for step. And the defense deserves its third successive clean sheet – both Carragher and Insua were tested but didn’t break, and both (even Carra and especially Insua) asked questions in the opposition half.

This was a performance more in the vein of Spurs than Wolves. It was what we wanted to see, and should definitely boost morale, but I’ll wait to be even more optimistic after so many false dawns. The upcoming stretch of games is brutal – v Everton, at Arsenal, v Unirea, at City, and at Unirea. We’ll know much more about what kind of corner may or may not have been turned during it.

29 January 2010

Liverpool v Bolton 01.30.10

10am, live in the US on Setanta.

Last 4 head-to-head:
3-2 Liverpool (a) 08.29.09
3-0 Liverpool (h) 12.26.08
2-0 Liverpool (a) 11.15.08
3-1 Liverpool (a) 03.02.08

Last three matches:
Liverpool: 0-0 Wolves (a); 2-0 Spurs (h); 1-1 Stoke (a)
Bolton: 1-0 Burnley (h); 2-0 Sheffield Utd (h); 2-4 Arsenal (a)

Goalscorers (league):
Liverpool: Torres 12; Kuyt 7; Benayoun, Gerrard 5; Ngog 4; Babel, Johnson 2; Kyrgiakos, Skrtel 1
Bolton: Klasnic 6; Cahill, Taylor 5; Lee 4; Cohen, Davies 3; Elmander 2; Gardner 1

Referee: Steve Bennett

Ugh. I guess Liverpool couldn't go a whole season without encountering that automaton.

Guess at a squad:
Carragher Skrtel Kyrgiakos Insua
Mascherano Lucas
Gerrard Aquilani Riera

The above is a mix of the line-up I think Benitez will name and what I’d rather see. And it’s mainly because I’m afraid Liverpool will again look to stifle before playing football, even against Bolton at Anfield. And I doubt that’s the best way forward.

Chances are Gerrard’s not lining up on the right of a 4-2-3-1. It’ll probably be Kuyt or Maxi out there depending on whether it’s Kuyt or Ngog up top. But there’s no escaping Gerrard’s form at the moment, and he’s struggled as a second striker (especially without Torres) and in central midfield. 2005-06 is a distant memory, but there’s some precedent for Stevie chipping in goals from the flanks, and it would allow Aquilani, Lucas, and Mascherano to start. Also, I can hear Georger cheering in front of his computer at this idea.

Yes, I was very tempted to “drop” Lucas or Mascherano. And it might even happen. But, going off recent performances – especially the last match – Benitez will first and foremost not want to concede. And thus, even at home against Bolton, both Lucas and Masch will probably start. I wouldn’t be opposed to a line-up similar to 4-0 wins over Burnley and Stoke, which saw Lucas and Gerrard in central midfield, but that formation’s a lot harder to pull off without Torres, Benayoun, and Johnson.

The deeper defense, with Carragher on the right and Kyrgiakos playing, will probably remain as well. It’s firmed up the shaky rearguard, even if it’s hindered the attack by leading to hoofs forwards. And Kyrgiakos will be needed in dealing with Kevin Davies, as he was in August’s reverse fixture. At the same time, the team will have to mind tricky players like Lee and Cohen looking for knockdowns and second balls. And here’s hoping Liverpool doesn’t concede the sloppy free kicks prevalent in that last meeting.

Bolton will look to play more football than they did in August’s match thanks to having Owen Coyle as manager. Even away at Arsenal, Bolton stuck to the game plan and kept the ball on the deck, and went ahead 2-0. Of course, they ended up losing 2-4, but it’s still more than we can say for Liverpool of late.

Coyle picked up his first league win with Bolton, beating his old side on Tuesday. That victory brought Bolton out of the relegation zone, and will boost the side’s confidence. The clean sheet kept was Bolton’s first in 23 league matches. And with no new injuries, Coyle will probably name the same side tomorrow.

No rallying conclusion. No pacifying remarks about the chance for fourth place. Don’t care. Just win.

27 January 2010

On Rafa Benitez: Part II

Part II: Tactics
Intro | Part I

**Disclaimer: Partly written before Wolves, partly written after, so pieces have been edited/chopped/added as we both saw fit. Yeah, sadly, it was one of those matches that actually somewhat changed my opinion. And not in a good way.**

Ed: First I had this ode to Rafa's tactical genius prepared, then a condemnation after sticking with the 4-2-3-1 and failing, and after the match against Spurs I'm struggling to make sense of it all. But after the match against Wolves I'm back to condemnation, and it's looking more and more like that's where I truly stand. Just a shocking performance from top to bottom, really. It perfectly epitomized what I've hated about this season--strange starting eleven for the opposition they were facing, strange execution of whatever tactics Rafa had prepared, and even stranger choices (or lack thereof) regarding the substitutions.

Looking back at this season, and yesterday in particular, I wonder if tactically he hasn't been as sharp, or if it's down to the players. And not necessarily unsound tactically, but unwilling to adapt to the personnel that he's got, or use that personnel in a way that gives Liverpool their best chance at winning.

So my previous thoughts: We all know the famed magician in Europe that is Rafa Benitez--the one that tactically dominates teams like Real Madrid (-.5 for Juande Ramos in charge), that creates goals out of nothing on the counter, that employed a system that others could only hope to emulate (and did at times, even against Liverpool). With the right personnel, and the right opposition, Rafa's skill as a tactician is widely regarded as one of the best in Europe.

Domestically, though, it seems like he's always just a tick off, as you mentioned in the last part. This season in particular, his preferred 4-2-3-1 has stalled greatly at times. He appeared to finally be hitting his stride with a preferred eleven in 2008-2009, and all the characters were perfectly placed. This season has seen a bit of a rupture in that regard--either teams have figured it out, injuries have dramatically reduced its effectiveness, or some combination of the two. Other teams seemed to have figured out what to do with Torres, how to stifle Gerrard, and where the team is vulnerable.

I think a large shortcoming of Rafa's, and something I've mentioned in the past, is his unwillingness to adapt. This coming a little more than two years after he rotated the squad in 100 straight matches. Against Stoke and Spurs he cut Ngog and Kuyt, respectively, loose up front, and I'm thinking that neither has the skill to be the lone man up front. But then Kuyt hits two against Spurs and all is right in the world. And then Gerrard comes back to face Wolves, Lucas and Masch partner in central midfield, we get the wide pairing of Riera and Maxi, and everything goes to shit. Except Pepe Reina, of course, who should just be given player of the season right now.

So when it comes to Rafa as a tactician, what's the story? Is his stubbornness worthwhile, or completely misguided? And how do Liverpool compensate when it's getting shut down, or is it a matter of just willing it to work, as it did against Spurs, but failed so miserably against Wolves?

nate: I can understand Wolves reviving your disgust. It essentially necessitated scrapping much of what I’d written for this section. And I don’t do that lightly – if anything, I’ve tried to stay constant in my convictions and realistic about expectations, desires, and results. But I’ve rarely been more frustrated or confused with Benitez.

You summed it up adequately: “Strange starting eleven for the opposition they were facing, strange execution of whatever tactics Rafa had prepared, and even stranger choices (or lack thereof) regarding the substitutions.”

The tactics seemed fairly clear, if disheartening. “Don’t concede, and hope for the best otherwise,” which takes us back a few years. But that’s the state of the club at the moment. And the line-up wasn’t a sea change from Spurs, but it still was. That’s the difference Gerrard makes, and unfortunately, it’s a negative difference right now. And I’m stunned to be writing that sentence.

Benitez has been questioned and criticized for his stubbornness, but I’m wondering where the manager who replaced Gerrard with Lucas in a Merseyside derby went, a match where the substitution earned the victory. Yesterday, we saw Gerrard return to the line-up sooner than expected and what little momentum Liverpool had built up dissipated. It weakened the side, endangered the captain’s fitness, and fed into the notion that Liverpool’s wholly reliant on him. It disrupts the whole notion of “team.” That’s not the Benitez I know. Not by a long shot.

As with almost everything this season, I’m not sure how much blame Benitez deserves. I understand most decisions and see how his hand’s been forced in others, but some, like yesterday’s (starting Gerrard and only Ngog as a sub), have baffled. After that abomination, I speculated (emphasis on speculated) that Gerrard basically demanded to start against Wolves, but unless there are unknown forces on Benitez, the manager still has the power to refuse his captain.

Originally, I was planning on defending the 4-2-3-1, and still somewhat want to. Liverpool only started using it regularly in February 2008, and it resulted in a fairly successful 18 months, mainly because it got the best out of Gerrard and Torres. That Benitez focused on buying wingbacks (Johnson, Dossena, Degen) – which is where the width inherently comes from in this formation – seemed to show Liverpool concretely heading in that direction (no, I don’t understand why Keane was bought either).

I want to see consistency. I want to see Benitez choose his strongest formation and stick with it. Rafa used to be criticized for basing his tactics on the opposition instead of Liverpool’s strengths, which worked great in Europe, but not the Premiership. The 4-2-3-1 was working, and I was glad Benitez became more rigid in this regard. I even wanted to see the reserve and youth teams playing the formation for experience. Better that Liverpool sets the tone rather than their opponents.

But it's often failed this season. And, whether it’s out of blind loyalty or idiocy, I still think a perfect storm of maladies is the cause. Alonso’s departure, a lack of funds seemingly requiring a cut-price injured Aquilani as his replacement, early defensive struggles leading to a change in tactics, a succession of injuries to crucial players, and finally, the real ‘bad luck' like ignored penalties and beach ball goals.

Teams saw Liverpool’s defensive liabilities in the first few games and started attacking with more regularity. That led to Johnson and Insua sitting deeper by the end of September; it’s little coincidence Johnson looked his best in the first few games. And that left the wingers – usually Kuyt and Benayoun – ‘stranded,’ often too narrow without overlapping support and without the likes of Alonso, who could change the direction of play in an instant with a 60-yard cross-field ball. But add a fit and happy Gerrard, or a fit Torres, and maybe that talent alone compensates for the other issues.

Yesterday saw further culmination of Liverpool’s death by a thousand cuts. The makeshift defense, comprised of Carragher-Skrtel-Kyrgiakos-Insua, has sat deeper in the last three games in an attempt to cut out the stupid goals while coping with injuries. It’s led to more defensive stability, which would be three successive clean sheets were it not for a late set-play goal at Stoke, but less attacking prowess. Liverpool survived Spurs by getting a much-needed early goal, aided by being at Anfield, and almost survived Stoke after going ahead. Unfortunately, it didn’t work yesterday, with a disconnected attack in a hostile environment further isolated by the gap between defense and midfield, leading to all those lovely hoofs, and not helped by the captain’s performance .

So, does Benitez need to be more or less stubborn? I still don’t know. As with someone who’s smarter than me, I don’t understand some of his decisions when they work, let alone when they don’t.

Consistency is almost always a good thing. I honestly don’t think changing the formation does much with the state the team’s in, both because of injuries and morale. I’m more than willing to admit the 4-2-3-1 looks 10,000 times better with Torres in the line-up, especially with Kuyt as the primary back-up, but I don’t see a switch to two up top accomplishing much.

I realize that “stay the course” sounds like such bad advice when the ship’s taking on so much water, but it’s what I’ve come to, at least tactically. Even after yesterday’s insipid performance. But man management and morale are different questions entirely.

Ed: You're right to call out my disgust with yesterday--if I didn't use that word, I should have. And you likely have a much calmer temperament than I, because "frustrated" and "confused" were many miles in the rear-view mirror for me when the final whistle blew. But I've resurfaced a little calmer and a little kinder, although still not completely certain that yesterday was a step in any identifiable direction.

I've started to almost zone out the pro-Rafa talk, not because I'm vehemently anti-Rafa, but only because so much of it sounds like mindless quotations of club slogans----"YNWA," "In Rafa We Trust"----and a whole lot of self-convincing. But you make a different case, and it's one that is certainly valid. I'm with you on the defensive issues, and it makes sense that in this formation, without wing backs to support the wide men, the attack is going nowhere. And the concept that consistency and stability in formation and approach is important is an easy one for me to grasp. Despite my desire for things to change, if there going to be identity development with this side, it needs stability. Maybe just not the unfortunate type of stability we've seen this season.

There's no disputing that prior to this season, Rafa's tactical skill has been spot on. The confluence of injury, finance, and bad luck, as you mention, clearly have a hand in the failures of this campaign. But I also think that the 4-2-3-1 has become a pitfall of sorts, particularly for Steven Gerrard.

The captain certainly had a season worthy of accolades last year, and it was the first time under Benitez that Gerrard seemed to have a cemented place. And despite the assurance that this was "his role," he had the freedom to operate as he saw fit. The partnership between he and Torres thrived (when both were fit), as we saw in the later stages of the 2007-2008 campaign and for most of 2008-2009 (again hampered by injuries).

But this season it's been something else entirely--and again, injuries play a large part. But it's almost as though having "the Gerrard role" has completed zapped the captain of his creativity and influence. It's no longer the incisive runs and clever, free-flowing interplays. As usual, the injury card needs to be played. But everything goes through him in attack--he knows it, his teammates know it, and the opposition knows it. It worked last year because he had a player in support to distribute, but with the departure of Alonso, and a central midfield pairing of two distribution-stunted defensive mids, now he's tasked with forcing the attack, distributing the ball, being creative, and operating anywhere and everywhere to compensate.

And it's failed miserably. As you say, who knows what happens with a healthy Gerrard and Torres? But we do know that a partially fit Steven Gerrard has had a hell of a time matching what he's been able to do in the past. Maybe unfair to hold him to that standard, but with the litany of heroics and spontaneous ecstasy he's provided, it's inevitable. Yet again, the pressure's on him to produce--and not in an Olympiakos, Istanbul, FA Cup Final v. West Ham, even 2008-2009 season type of way--in a way that's part of a system now designed around his ability to fulfill the role he's created.

Wrapping it up, I think the part that originally resonated most with me was the idea of having this formation/approach be standard across first team, reserves, etc. In a way this gives the team some identity, which I think has been a struggle, this year in particular. Certainly a side wants to be known for more than what formation they play, but it would start to develop some coherence across the club's different levels. Ideally it would lead to more vertical opportunities for some of the younger talent and give the reserves an idea of what to expect should they break through.

For all intents and purposes, it looks like staying the course is going to occur, as you say. It is the hand the club has been dealt (at least with injuries), so we can just hope that we continue to see the type of determination we witnessed against Spurs and Stoke. Although I do worry that we can only see so many "anomalies" before the aforementioned displays actually become the exception. Dramatic, maybe, but tough to shake that thought.

nate: Your point on Gerrard shouldering too much responsibility, both on and off the pitch, is absolutely spot on. And, sadly, I think it’s one that just as well addressed under “man management.” So if it’s alright with you, I think we’ll lead off with that topic in the next section.

26 January 2010

Liverpool 0-0 Wolves

Carragher Skrtel Kyrgiakos Insua
Mascherano Lucas
Rodriguez Gerrard Riera

Another false dawn after beating Spurs or the due result from playing poorly against a resilient side, one that didn’t concede at Anfield until going a man down when Liverpool had a far stronger line-up?

It was a blunt, boring, ugly first half in which Liverpool had all the possession, but Wolves had the two best chances, which were two more than the away side tallied in 45 minutes. And Wolves posed 15 minutes of solid questions in the second half before both sides returned to insipid mediocrity. Like last season, Liverpool looked better pressing at the end, but minus the quality needed to grab a winner. It was all very depressingly familiar. And probably would have ended 0-0 if they added another 90 minutes.

The only bright spot was Mascherano’s ability mopping up. That, Skrtel and Kyrgiakos doing ‘just enough,’ and Wolves’ lack of ambition were probably what kept a “better” Liverpool from going behind. Two minutes of early pressure, with Riera flashing a header wide of the far post from a corner the highlight, succumbed to continuing Liverpool possession but complete incoherence in the final third, as the move either broke down or provided Hahnemann with catching practice.

The aforementioned Mascherano and Lucas were fairly dominant in midfield, even if neither created anything as almost everyone looked to hoof, which Wolves ate up. And the four-man attack of Kuyt, Gerrard, Maxi, and Riera simply wasn’t anywhere near the same page. Of course, three of the four are lacking in match fitness and the fourth is a striker who often drops deeper than the others.

And Wolves created the first hearts-in-mouths moment in the 33rd, breaking from an awful deep free kick where Liverpool surprisingly sent men forward. Jarvis sped down Liverpool’s right for the second or third time so far and centered for Doyle, who got there ahead of Insua but could only poke wide of the near post. Ten minutes later – ten minutes that saw Wolves improve as they grew in confidence – Kevin Foley should have scored as Jarvis again crossed from the left, only to see Foley try to head across goal, allowing Reina to gratefully claim.

Unsurprisingly, Liverpool put it together for a moment in injury time, with the impressive Craddock doing well to beat Maxi to Gerrard’s layoff after Liverpool’s best move before clearing the subsequent corner with Skrtel right behind him. Replicating the start of the first half, Riera had an excellent chance, spooning a clever volley that Hahnemann struggled to claw away within two minutes of the restart.

But it started to get frightening around the 53rd. First, Insua luckily blocked a dangerous Henry shot. Doyle had two chances four minutes later, shooting over from 20 yards and heading comfortably at Reina, while Reina had to be alert to smother when Foley nearly got on the end of Doyle’s flick-on after shrugging off Insua. Finally, Liverpool were able to break in the 63rd, Gerrard to Riera to Kuyt, but the Dutchman’s shot from the top of the box curled wide.

Ngog came on for Riera in the 67th, with Maxi going out to the left, as Liverpool were crying out for a substitution. It’d be the only change the team made. The young striker’s pace at least posed a different question, and it tilted the game in the other direction, with Wolves' last chance coming in the 70th when Doyle easily turned Skrtel but shot well wide when Kyrgiakos forced him into a narrow angle. But Liverpool still never did enough, pressing with no end product, poor crosses easily claimed by Hahnemann and heavy first touches allowing Wolves’ rigid defense to tackle clear. And despite the “pressure,” I can’t even come up with any half-chances worth describing.

I hate second-guessing, but this was my biggest fear with Gerrard starting. Even lacking in fitness, the manager is never taking him off with Liverpool in search of a winner (not since that Derby more than two years ago). Had we seen a repeat of last match’s line-up, Gerrard could have given fresh legs around the hour mark. Instead, the captain struggled to influence the game and clearly looked a yard off, while Aquilani never took off his tracksuit.

Even for Benitez, it was surprising. I don’t know why he changed a winning line-up and I don’t get the lack of subs. Aquilani or Babel – or even Pacheco – could have made a difference, and I’ve made clear my little use for Babel. But why even put him on the bench if you’re not going to entertain the possibility? Pace seemed to be the only thing that put Wolves off.

At least Liverpool didn’t lose, which I’ve written far too often this season. Undefeated in five straight league games! The team certainly could have shipped a soft goal as has happened so frequently. A point feels of no use, but hopefully it’ll provide motivation and demonstrate how to fix the continuing weaknesses. And yes, I know how much I’m stretching.

25 January 2010

Liverpool at Wolves 01.26.10

2:45pm, live in the US on Setanta.

Last 4 head-to-head:
2-0 Wolves (h) 12.26.09
1-0 Liverpool (h) 03.20.04
1-1 (a) 01.21.04
0-1 Wolves (h) 01.14.84

Last three matches:
Liverpool: 2-0 Spurs (h); 1-1 Stoke (a); 1-2 Reading aet (h)
Wolves: 2-2 Palace (h); 0-2 Wigan (h); 1-0 Tranmere (a)

Goalscorers (league):
Liverpool: Torres 12; Kuyt 7; Benayoun, Gerrard 5; Ngog 4; Babel, Johnson 2; Kyrgiakos, Skrtel 1
Wolves: Doyle 5; Craddock 4; Milijas 2; Ebanks-Blake, Edwards, Keogh, Maierhofer, Stearman 1

Referee: Peter Walton

Guess at a squad:
Carragher Skrtel Kyrgiakos Aurelio
Mascherano Lucas
Rodriguez Aquilani Riera

If it ain’t (that) broke, don’t fix it. I’d be fine with the same line-up that beat Spurs. But against Wolves, even away from Anfield, I’d rather see how long Rodriguez can make it, and if he can add a different dimension to the attack.

Ngog coming for Aquilani worked a treat against Tottenham, leading to two or three good chances and the crucial second goal, but maybe Liverpool will deploy a more attacking line-up against Wolves. 4-4-2 with Kuyt and Ngog up top is a possibility, with some combination of Aquilani, Lucas, and Mascherano in midfield, but I’d rather Liverpool stick with the usual formation, especially after two decent performances in the last two matches (obviously not counting the final minutes against Stoke).

Gerrard may be back in contention, but I’ll be furious if he starts given his injury troubles this season. It hasn't even been the two weeks he was supposed to be out for. Put him on the bench, to be used if needed, and then back in the line-up for Bolton. Doesn’t seem worth the risk.

There’s still little news on Agger or Aurelio. Neither made the bench last time out, but only Agger is listed as injured by the BBC. The Skrtel/Kyrgiakos pairing has impressed in the last two matches, with the defense looking less susceptible to stupid mistakes. Admittedly I’d still like to see Aurelio give Insua a game off, but I don’t know if that’s possible.

Once again, Mick McCarthy’s fielded an under-strength side prior to facing Liverpool, with the B-team drawing Palace in the FA Cup. But Wolves twice equalized to force a replay, which will give the team more confidence before tomorrow’s match. And Wolves made Liverpool work for the 2-0 win on Boxing Day, only assured after Stephen Ward was rightfully dismissed for two yellow cards. And Torres, Gerrard, Benayoun, and Johnson started in that match. Ebanks-Blake, Doyle, and Milijas all posed Liverpool questions, and all three are available.

Like against Spurs, and like in nearly every game since October, Liverpool has to come together and work for all three points. It’s the only way to rectify the team’s situation, which appears to be improving little by little.

23 January 2010

On Rafa Benitez: Part I

Part I of an on-going back and forth between Ed from Liverpool Offside on Rafa Benitez's tenure at Liverpool. Here's yesterday's intro in case you missed it.

I. Record as a Manager

Ed: Seems like sort of a benign way to start this discussion considering everything that's gone on this season, but hopefully it'll be a gentle introduction. The tough result against Stoke makes this discussion that much more apropos, as it kicked up another dustcloud of uncertainty for Rafa's future. For me, a better effort and performance, but still a painful result. The points lost could be crucial, but I'll take that type of display over something like Wednesday's (loss against Reading) for the rest of the season.

But it's clear that a draw is not enough, despite the better showing and effort. For some clubs, this would be a good result--draw with a stingy, defensive side away from home...and maybe for the current Liverpool it is. But one of the things that makes evaluating Rafa so difficult is that fact that he's at Liverpool. Might sound stupid, but the expectations are pretty clear every year--win. Everything. Granted, the Premier League has taken precedence in the hearts and minds of supporters after such a long barren spell, but the club and its supporters want it all. Tough year to want it all, eh?

As of writing, Liverpool are in 7th place on 34 points, and they can do a lot for themselves tomorrow evening against Spurs. Obviously far off the pace of last season, but not yet numerically doomed. I know you've done the numbers and infographics in the past, so I'll leave the heavy duty stuff to you and just introduce the superficial stuff. Here's an overview of Rafa's time with Liverpool (from a number of sources...not 100% sure of the accuracy):

Premier League: 111-47-38
Champions League: 44-16-17
Domestic Cups: 19-3-9

The silverware for the club:

2005 Champions League
2005 European Super Cup
2006 FA Cup
2006 Charity Shield

And individually:

2005 UEFA Manager of the Year
(5) Premier League Manager of the Month Awards

Add into the mix a string of appearances in the quarterfinals of the Champions League, a 2-1 defeat against AC Milan in the 2007 final, and a near-record number of points in league for the 2008-2009 Premier League season. Plus, all of this is ignoring the 2 titles he won in Spain with Valencia, as well as the UEFA Cup he won there. Makes for a pretty damn impressive CV.

I guess I have two questions, then. First, what do you make of his record with the club? Second, given the expectations, does any of this even matter if he doesn't win the League?

nate: Up until this season, there was little to quibble with in Benitez’s resume. I think it’s fairly clear he’s overachieved at the club, even including this abortion of a season. You’ve listed the trophy wins and relevant CV statistics, but more importantly, Liverpool has improved almost every year under Benitez. Second place – 86 points – looked like a perfect launching pad for this campaign, even with the loss of Xabi Alonso. And yet, here we are.

Winning the Champions League was the best and worst thing that’s happened to Benitez. Admittedly, it probably kept Gerrard at the club and gave Benitez one hell of a trump card, but it was also a case of too much, too soon. If Rafa already won in Europe with a majority of Houllier players, he was bound to rule the world once he got his players in Liverpool kits, right?But it doesn’t work that way. Another trophy, the FA Cup a year later, was the last piece of silverware Liverpool’s won under Benitez, and it was three and a half years ago. And yet, yes, I still do think he’s overachieved.

First, you have to look at the competition. For the entirety of Benitez’s tenure, both Chelsea and United have spent more money and had stronger squads. Along with Arsenal, they have bigger stadia and take in far more revenue. It’s little surprise both teams have usually finished above Liverpool. Second, and relatedly, there are the oft-mentioned financial restraints. What if Liverpool had been able to afford the big name players mooted? Alves, Simao, Barry instead of Arbeloa, Pennant, Aquilani, among many others. What if the owners weren’t complete shysters?

If everything were on an equal footing, Liverpool probably would have won the league already. Had two results gone their way last season – or had two of United’s results gone their way – Liverpool would have already won the league. Narrow margins like that, considering the disadvantages Liverpool and Benitez begin with, are what’s bought Rafa so much time with me, as long as there’s progress.

To answer your second question, yeah, expectations thoroughly matter. And Benitez is expected to win the league, no matter the injuries, squad depth, lack of funds, etc. It’s been two decades since Anfield’s heard ‘ee-aye-addio, we’ve won the league,’ and that’s completely unacceptable. That’s the cost of being Liverpool’s manager. And that’s why even sycophants like me have questioned Rafa this season. Obviously, expectations were too high, but this is still a good team that should be better than current form and league placement suggest. And because Benitez hasn’t gotten the best out of the team, his position’s rightfully come into question.

Now, I obviously still believe Benitez can turn things around, although this season’s become a lost cause. And even if you don’t, you should still want Rafa to stay for the rest of the campaign. Liverpool doesn’t fire managers mid-season, and I deeply fear the torment a change could cause. Long story short, I guess we have to wait until the end of the season to fully answer this question. Yes, Liverpool’s obviously not winning the league this season, but the final place matters, as does the team’s reaction for the rest of the year.

I still think Benitez can win the league with Liverpool. But he may not get the chance to if things don’t change enough come May. He doesn’t have to win the league this season – it’s just not happening – but, as said at the start of this rambling defense, we still have to see some improvement. If Liverpool continues to regress, Benitez’s position will become untenable. It’s the business we’re in.

Ed: The issue of winning the Champions League in the first season is something I've struggled with too, especially when people bring up the "he had to bring in his own players" argument. If he won trophies with somebody else's squad, was Houllier that bad? Probably, but still, I agree that in retrospect it almost seems like too much too soon. I think the league campaigns were probably a more accurate reflection of what Rafa was bringing to Liverpool...just hoping this season is an anomaly.

As another aside, since you brought up Houllier, I was listening to the EPL Talk Podcast yesterday, they discussed his reputation after leaving Liverpool. He mentioned that Houllier still maintained a fine reputation on the continent despite being a "failure" at Liverpool. So if Rafa does end up leaving, what's his reputation? Is it based on the aforementioned numbers? His eccentricities? Goatee?

nate: Houllier’s reputation on the continent lasted – at least in France – because he had a huge hand in grooming that country’s golden generation. That doesn’t go away overnight. But, whether by choice or not, he’s only been manager of one other club – Lyon from 2005-2007 – since leaving Liverpool. I’m fairly certain Benitez would have far more opportunities whether he resigned or was fired. His reputation will assuredly be intact in Europe, especially Spain.

But if Rafa leaves this season, or before Liverpool wins the Premiership, he’ll be remembered in England for the 2005 Champions League. And that’s about it. I hate the thought of it, but most would focus on the failure to reclaim the league, which is understandable with the club’s pedigree. Gerrard will be given credit for the 2006 FA Cup, and people will probably remember Rafa bringing the legend that is Fernando Torres to Liverpool, but Istanbul will be the dominant memory by a mile. Whether or not that’s fair is another question.

Winning the Champions League was a perfect storm of Liverpool's fighting spirit, Benitez’s tactics, and that intangible luck I so frequently reference. And Istanbul was the epitome of that. Liverpool went 0-3 down, partly because of the questionable decision to start Kewell and partly just being overrun by a very good Milan side. But Benitez made the right decision at halftime in bringing on Hamann and Liverpool fought back and held on, with substantial credit going to the fans that never lost heart. Gerrard was talismanic and Carragher made tackle after tackle, but Traore also cleared off the line, Smicer scored the crucial second, and Dudek made that miraculous double save. Who would have guessed crucial roles for those three? And what have they done since?

That trophy does and doesn’t make Benitez a great manager. What makes Benitez a great manager is the rest of the CV – a similar legacy with Valencia, another CL final appearance in 2007, a few more trophies, and a decent record in England. One could argue that Benitez’s tactics aren’t perfectly suited to winning the Premiership, and it’s probably a fair accusation, especially in his first couple of seasons. And that’s probably a good segue in Part II.

22 January 2010

On Rafa Benitez: Q&A with Liverpool Offside

Editor’s Note: Ed from Liverpool Offside and I exchange emails about Rafa Benitez in an attempt to come to some sort of conclusion about his time at Liverpool. The posts will appear both here and at Liverpool Offside. Today we’re running Ed’s intro and our opening statements. I apologize in advance for my overwrought "biography," most of which regular readers already know. Part I will probably be up tomorrow, as there's no Liverpool game until Tuesday.

I also feel as if I should note that both the Intro and Part I were mostly written before Wednesday's win over Spurs. Not that the match changed either of our views, but worth a disclaimer. Anyway, much of the credit goes to Ed for setting this whole thing up, and on with his intro.

The ongoing soap opera of Liverpool F.C. has obviously hit a fever pitch. No less than ten different columns a day are devoted to the managerial post at Liverpool, and most of it focuses on the current inhabitant, Rafa Benitez. The recent results for the club have seemed to only polarize opinions further, with those who back him through thick and thin only strengthening their support, and those calling for his head only getting louder. Both sides focus on some common factors--management of his players, dealings in the transfer market, record as a manager, and the like.

As someone who admittedly waffles in his opinions about Rafa, I thought it would be useful to try to take a step back and see where the evidence lies. I figured a task like this is one better done with company, so I floated an email to nate to see if he wanted to be involved. If you haven't found your way over to oh you beauty, do so immediately, as nate has managed to maintain some of the highest quality stuff about Liverpool on the internet for three and a half years now.

I mentioned to nate that I'd like this to be a Simmons/Gladwellian email exchange evaluating Rafa's time with the club, and fortunately for me he agreed. We decided to focus on a few specific areas in the exchanges, but also allowed for some tangential discussion about other issues related to the club. Our six main focal points:

I. Record as a Manager
II. Tactical Acumen
III. In the Transfer Market
IV. Man Management
V. Handling the Press
VI. Plans for the Future

So that's the framework, which will unfold over multiple posts depending on length. We'll just run them on both sites when we feel that they're completed enough, or if I've been drinking and hit "Publish" instead of "Save." Before we get going, I asked nate to provide a brief bio about himself, his history as a Liverpool fan, and how he got going on oh you beauty. I also provide a bit on myself, since I may be new to some of nate's readers and never really introduced myself on here.

nate: Ed gives me far too much credit. For those that don't know, I'm nate (yes, I'm one of those odd people who don't see the point in capitalizing names, a habit I've kept up since those august angsty teen days), and I write oh you beauty. I'm probably best known as a Benitez, Kuyt, and Lucas apologist, which isn't easy going these days. I swear, following Liverpool is probably the only part of my life where I'm an optimist, and it's become almost impossible this season.

I'm just a fan on the wrong side of the ocean who started writing out of love of the team, sport, and, well, writing. I'm a nerd, and my deep and dirty secret is I became a Liverpool fan at the age of 15 because of that Judas traitor Michael Owen. An Anglophile as long as I've known the meaning of the word, soccer was one of two sports I've played my entire life, and I've followed the English national team since Italia '90, a sadly formative moment in my childhood. When Owen, not much older than me, burst onto the international stage at the same time I was becoming intimately familiar with the internet (and could afford to purchase videos and DVDs from abroad), I starting following Liverpool. It may not have been the team's halcyon days, but I didn't know it at the time. Increasing stateside soccer coverage made the support turn into an obsession, and the more I followed the team, the less I cared about individual players like Owen (even though the second thing I did upon landing in England when I studied abroad was buy an Owen jersey, which I still have). Thankfully, the obsession became something positive when I began the blog in September 2006, basically because I needed a distraction from a boring job and a bad relationship.

But enough about me. You're here for the football.

Ed: And to learn more about me, clearly. You've seen me on the Liverpool Offside for the last half of last season (starting here), and starting up again in September (here).

My interest in football started unofficially as a six year-old, when I led my U6 team in goals and yellow cards. I played off and on for years after that, then was sufficiently Americanized and played baseball through high school and college. I picked up proper football again through the FIFA series on in the later part of the '90s and early '00s, followed the 2002 World Cup regularly, and really caught fire in 2006. I admittedly knew little of Liverpool, or club football for that matter, but I'd seen highlights of the FA Cup Final prior to the World Cup in Germany and marveled at the passion. I caught damn near every match of the World Cup that summer, researched Liverpool exhaustively, and hit the ground running with the club in August of that year. Steven Gerrard, Robbie Fowler, and Ian Rush highlight videos were my gateway, but similarly to nate, following the team consistently pushed me past the individuals and into the club.

With introductions settled, we're going to launch into the exchanges. If you have any questions, comments, or feedback, please feel free to comment at one of our sites. This will be an ongoing thing, so there's room for us to revisit certain questions or comments. On the horizon, I. Record as a Manager

20 January 2010

Liverpool 2-0 Spurs

Carragher Skrtel Kyrgiakos Insua
Mascherano Lucas
Degen Aquilani Riera

Kuyt 6’ 90+3’ (pen)

Even with this season’s horrors, Liverpool hasn’t done too badly in ‘statement games.’ Admittedly, basically every game’s a statement game with the shape the side’s in, but 2-0 wins over United, Everton, and now Spurs (and a 1-0 win at Villa) are nothing to sneeze at.

Kuyt’s early goal certainly brought a lot of relief, but also some wary memories of this match at the Lane last year and the league loss to Arsenal in December. This season’s seen me revert to my natural pessimism, but Liverpool finally were able to hold on to a lead, and finally able to add a second to seal the game, even if it came in injury time.

With few changes to the line-up (starts for Aquilani and Riera, and Kuyt shifting up top as expected), Liverpool used similar tactics to those against Stoke. Yes, shutting up shop against Spurs at Anfield, hoping to counter, is what we’ve come to. But it worked. It finally worked.

The first half saw each side limited to a single shot on target. Liverpool made theirs count. Breaking after Reina claimed Bale’s dangerous cross, Aquilani (despite being fouled) teed up Kuyt, who firmly and accurately placed the ball low in the corner. Spurs' five-game clean sheet streak didn’t last long.

And the game settled into Liverpool easily soaking up Spurs attacks. With Modric and Krancjar on the flanks, and Tottenham frequently looking for balls up to Crouch for flick-ons, the home side smothered a narrow opposition. Kyrgiakos was again influential, combating Crouch's height as he did against Sidibe at Stoke.

The final five minutes of the half saw what was arguably Liverpool’s best stretch so far, with mounting pressure leading to a Kyrgiakos volley over and a tame Kuyt header off the line after a corner fell to the striker, with Skrtel blasting the rebound over. But Tottenham’s best came with the last kick of the half, a flowing move ending with Modric through, only to shoot too close to Reina.

Controversy arose soon into the second half, and of Liverpool’s own making. Kyrgiakos’ back pass put Reina under pressure when hassled by an offside Defoe, only to see the referee finally stop play after Defoe had the ball in the net. I thought Defoe was flagged for a foul on Reina. The Sky Sports commentators seemed certain it was for offside, despite Kyrgiakos’ touch to the keeper. Who cares. Either decision pales in comparison to being scored on by a beach ball.

And from there, Tottenham were fairly impotent. It’s nice to see the chess master’s return, although it should have happened over the weekend were it not for a regrettable late equalizer. Thankfully, that wasn’t the case today.

After the disallowed goal, Liverpool had five better chances to score before winning a penalty in the 91st minute, compared to two half chances for Spurs that happened before the hour mark. First, Riera’s header was touched onto the bar in the 51st. Then, Degen should have taken advantage of an excellent Kuyt break in the 66th after the striker broke out and found him in acres of space. He steadied himself… and cut back for Kuyt. And it was behind the striker. Meanwhile, Modric and Jenas forced saves from Reina in the 54th and 58th – Jenas’ fierce strike from distance causing marginally more trouble – but that was about it for opposition efforts.

In contrast to previous efforts, Tottenham saw less and less of the ball as the game went on. Bringing on Ngog for Aquilani (79th) and Maxi for Riera (81st) helped, but it looked as if Spurs simply decided they were beaten. The final five minutes saw Liverpool’s best spell of the game, and the second goal was surely deserved. Gomes saved Ngog’s shot after the striker got around Bassong in the 85th, Kuyt missed a sitter seconds later, shinning Ngog’s flick-on over, and Kyrgiakos, staying onside, shot directly at Gomes after Tottenham couldn’t clear a free kick in the 88th. And when the two substitutes combined in the first minute of injury time – Maxi finding Ngog – Bassong clattered the Frenchman. After reenacting the Lampard penalty shenanigans from a few weeks ago, with Kuyt having to retake a made spot kick, the Dutchman sent Gomes the wrong way for a second time. Game over.

Get used to seeing a lot of tight matches, strangulation, and – yes – some frustration and nerves. That this game looked a fair bit like Stoke’s despite the difference in opposition is no coincidence. Benitez is nothing if not pragmatic, and this style of play gives Liverpool the best chance to win given the casualty list. That Aurelio didn’t even make the squad was the only real surprise, and as he’s made of glass, that isn’t even a surprise anymore.

Considering their respective ages and experience levels, Kuyt will probably start up top over Ngog more often than not. It was a big game for him – and there will be a lot of big games for him with Torres and Gerrard missing – and he came up with two goals, including the all-important first to set the perfect tone. I was surprised to see Degen feature on the right again, but he did little wrong other than egregiously pass up that shot. We’ll see more Maxi as Benitez has a better gauge of his fitness levels, and he’s already contributed, providing the pass that lead to the penalty.

Aquilani also looked brighter in a more advanced role, with a clever assist despite being fouled to send Liverpool on its way. The Skrtel/Kyrgiakos pairing has been surprisingly effective in these last two games, with Carragher still a big contributor from right back. I fear how it’ll fair against a frontline with pace, but Defoe was mainly kept under wraps.

We’ve seen more than one false dawn so far this season. And, to put it politely, there are still 16 games to fuck it up. But there are also 16 games to make it right, and now that Liverpool’s firmly amidst Spurs, City, and Villa, they’ve the chance to.

19 January 2010

Liverpool v Tottenham 01.20.10

3pm. Delayed in the US at 4:45pm on Setanta.

If the Carling Cup semi goes long, the delayed showing won’t start on time. If I can find a reasonable stream, I’ll have a review up soon after the match like usual. And if not, it’ll be up after the delayed showing.

Last 4 head-to-head:
1-2 Spurs (a) 08.16.09
3-1 Liverpool (h) 05.24.09
2-4 Spurs (a; Carling Cup) 11.12.08
1-2 Spurs (a) 11.01.08

Last three matches:
Liverpool: 1-1 Stoke (a); 1-2 Reading aet (h); 1-1 Reading (a)
Spurs: 0-0 Hull (h); 4-0 Peterborough (h); 2-0 West Ham (h)

Goalscorers (league):
Liverpool: Torres 12; Benayoun, Gerrard, Kuyt 5; Ngog 4; Babel, Johnson 2; Kyrgiakos, Skrtel 1
Spurs: Defoe 14; Keane 6; Crouch, Kranjcar 4; Lennon 3; Dawson 2; Assou-Ekotto, Bassong, Bentley, Corluka, Huddlestone, Jenas, King, Modric, Palacios 1

Referee: Howard Webb

Guess at a squad:
Carragher Skrtel Kyrgiakos Aurelio
Rodriguez Aquilani Lucas Riera

Even with Gerrard, Torres, Benayoun, and Johnson – among others – injured, Liverpool needs a more attacking line-up than the one we saw on Saturday.

I know we’ve concluded that Kuyt as a lone striker isn’t a preferred option against any side. The only time it worked to a tee was the 5-1 victory over Newcastle last winter. But I’d rather have Kuyt – ideally with Maxi and Riera supporting from the flanks and both Aquilani and Lucas further forward in midfield – than Ngog. The young Frenchman’s done well for his age so far this season, but has struggled in the last two matches, and would find it hard to make headway isolated against the likes Bassong and Dawson. Kuyt’s frenetic workrate should partially prevent any isolation.

Guessing both Riera and Rodriguez to start is putting a lot of faith in a player just back from an extended injury and in one that’s completely new to England. But Liverpool doesn’t have much choice. If Kuyt starts up top (as a lone striker or partnered with Ngog), the options on the right are exceptionally limited. I’m hoping Liverpool won’t resort to starting a right back in midfield for the second straight game, although it’s not as if Degen’s been atrocious. And both Riera and Maxi could provide Liverpool an option they’ve been missing this past month, an option that’s doubly needed with the big guns absent.

Kyrgiakos may have been man of the match on Saturday, but that doesn’t necessarily mean he’ll start tomorrow. The giant Greek stands out against sides like Stoke, where his aerial presence is crucial and his pace isn’t tested. Spurs, on the other hand, can surely test Liverpool’s defenders with speed. But if Agger’s still out, combined with the chance of Crouch starting, we might see Kyrgiakos once again. Either way, I expect to see Carra continue at right back, and hope that Aurelio replaces the clearly tired Insua on the left.

I joked last week that Liverpool would have been happy to see this match postponed, what with the injury troubles and Masch soon to return from suspension. That was before Gerrard, Torres, and Benayoun were laid up. But, at least the match still comes too soon for the tricky Lennon, who’s out with a groin tear. Tottenham surely has more danger men – Kranjcar and Modric are scoring, Defoe’s in sterling form, and I’m always deathly frightened of former Liverpool players, especially strikers.

Even though Liverpool should have had the chance to equalize with a late penalty when these clubs met in August, Spurs were deserved winners, setting this season’s tone early on. But even with Liverpool’s troubles, and with Spurs looking their best since Jol was in charge, the two clubs are only four points apart in the table. A win tomorrow truly could change the complexion of the league. Liverpool should have no motivation trouble with how the season’s gone so far, but the fact that three points tomorrow would put the club only one point behind fourth should be more than enough incentive.

16 January 2010

Liverpool 1-1 Stoke

Carragher Skrtel Kryrgiakos Insua
Degen Mascherano Lucas Aurelio
Ngog Kuyt

Kyrgiakos 57’
Huth 90’

Two typical Stoke goals, but one on each end. For 90 minutes, you could have switched the teams’ kits and would have fooled me. And for 90 minutes, it worked. Liverpool stifled Stoke, tried to counter, and scored a crucial goal from a set play. But then this season’s leitmotif kicked in. Stoke put Liverpool under increasing pressure for the final 15 minutes, and it finally paid off – from a set play – in the final minute of normal time. With five-plus minutes of added time, Liverpool nearly got a winner with the last touch, Kuyt heading off the frame of the goal from an Aurelio deep cross. That goes in last season. But, clearly, not this one.

Obviously, a draw at Stoke after holding the lead going into injury time feels like a loss. But, unlike in recent reviews, this isn’t going to be a denunciation of Benitez or the players. For the most part, I think the tactics were spot on, and until those final five minutes, I was elatedly preparing to welcome the return of Rafa the chess master.

I don’t know what people expected from the line-up. With Torres, Gerrard, Benayoun, Johnson, and Kelly out, Riera just returned, Maxi just signed, and Aquilani having played 120 minutes three days ago, it’s not as if Benitez had many options. The omission of Agger was the only real surprise, and that the Dane didn’t even make the bench suggests he too picked up a knock. The only defender who can comfortably bring the ball out of defense. Awesome. Yes, I’ve seen stronger team sheets in the Carling Cup, but you play the hand you’re dealt.

Subsequently, and of little surprise, there wasn’t much goalmouth action with six defenders and two holding midfielders in the first XI. Neither keeper was tested in the first half; Liverpool saw two Lucas shots blocked by defenders and an Aurelio volleyed cross softly deflected to Sorensen, while all of Stoke's threats came from Delap throws that put Reina under pressure.

Stoke weren’t helped by Faye and Delap limping off around the 25th minute, replaced by Wilkinson and Lawrence respectively, which was the same time what little head of steam Liverpool had built up dissipated. And there was a definable turning point – Lucas harshly booked for diving in the box in the 25th. It may not have been a penalty – he was looking for it and started going down as Higginbotham dove in, but Higginbotham dove in and got man, not ball. But I expect that from Lee Mason, who’s replaced Steve Bennett at the referee with an obvious vendetta against the club (see: Portsmouth and Fulham).

Stoke picked up the pressure in the second half, but Liverpool looked equal to it, with Kyrgiakos imperious in the air and Skrtel far better outside of a few early nervy moments. And it was the colossal Greek who put Liverpool ahead, scrambling Aurelio’s dangerous free kick over the line after Sorensen could only palm into traffic.

Stoke nearly got one back shortly after, Tuncay heading over after a flicked-on long throw (Diao took over throw-in duties after Delap’s departure), but Liverpool were doing well to combat the pressure. In the 76th, that could have all changed if not for Reina, who did well to save Fuller’s header from a corner.

That chance, Stoke’s first shot on target, marked the spell of possession which eventually saw them draw level. We’ve routinely criticized Liverpool for sitting on a one-goal lead when unable to stop shipping soft goals, but again, I fail to see what other options there were. Benitez made proactive substitutions, first bringing on Rodriguez for Degen before trying to firm up the midfield with Aquilani for Ngog, but the home side were always going to push on for an equalizer.

Despite the nerve-wracking ‘all hands on deck’ approach, it looked like Liverpool would preserve the lead thanks to the way the team were defending. But, in another smashing display of the side’s lack of confidence, Liverpool were at sixes and sevens when unable to clear a series of long throws and corners in the last five minutes. One such attempt was frightfully scrambled behind by Carra, and Stoke finally made the breakthrough. Higginbotham flicked the ball back in from the far post, and Huth was open at the near post when defenders were sucked to the ball. Shoddy defending to be sure, and Liverpool paid for it, but I don’t want to hear any condemnation of zonal marking. The reason that goal stood was because Benitez has succumbed to criticism and kept Insua on the far post on the majority of set plays, allowing Huth to be onside when everyone else pulled forward following the flick-on.

We were almost treated to the late heroics we've so dearly missed, but this season continues to punish Liverpool by inches. In the final minute of five added on, Liverpool broke, Aurelio sent in a tantalizing deep cross, and when Lucas was pulled down (the second marginal penalty call Mason could have given), Kuyt still got on the end of it with a diving header, only to see the attempt brutally ricochet off the upright. And the beach ball season rolls on.

I’m open to suggestions as to what Benitez should have done differently. You could suggest starting Pacheco, or even including Babel or Eccleston. But we all know the problems with Babel – he’s become a line in the sand for fans, and you all know I’m on the side ready to see him depart – and Pacheco and Eccleston aren’t getting their first starts in a game like this. Rodriguez has been in the country for less than a week, and Riera's been out for over a month. Liverpool were bound to play it tight, especially at a stadium like the Britannia, and it nearly worked.

It wasn’t a gutless display the likes of which we’ve been treated to far too often. For 90 minutes, emulating Stoke paid off. You’d always like to see more attacking flair, and there’s obviously going to be criticism when the team has all of one shot on target, even if they scored from it. But this season’s pitfalls and the complete and utter lack of squad depth made the decision for Benitez. Had Liverpool been able to defend that corner like they had the other double-digit set plays, I’d be reveling in a hard-won victory.

This is a mid-table side at present. It’s made worse by the injuries to star attackers. Grit, fortitude, and luck are what will get Liverpool through this month, and the rest of the season. We got two out of three today. It’s clearly not ideal, but it’s a start.

15 January 2010

Liverpool at Stoke 01.19.10

7:45am, live in the US on espn2

Last 4 head-to-head:
4-0 Liverpool (a) 08.19.09
0-0 (a) 01.10.09
0-0 (h) 09.20.08
8-0 Liverpool (a; League Cup) 11.29.2000

Last three matches:
Liverpool: 1-2 Reading aet (h); 1-1 Reading (a); 1-0 Villa (a)
Stoke: 3-2 Fulham (h); 3-1 York (h); 0-1 Brum (h)

Goalscorers (league):
Liverpool: Torres 12; Benayoun, Gerrard, Kuyt 5; Ngog 4; Babel, Johnson 2; Skrtel 1
Stoke: Beattie 3; Etherington, Faye, Kitson, Shawcross, Tuncay 2; Fuller, Huth, Sidibe, Whelan 1

Referee: Lee Mason

That would be the same Lee Mason who sent off Carragher and Degen at Fulham and Masch at Pompey in his only two Liverpool matches this season.

Guess at a squad:
Carragher Skrtel Agger Insua
Kuyt Aquilani Lucas Aurelio

Well, we keep getting an answer to the question ‘can it get worse?’ Yes. Yes it can.

Not only did Liverpool lose a one-goal lead against Reading to exit their third cup competition of the season (the fourth game where Liverpool’s lost after leading this season), but Gerrard, Torres, and Benayoun all picked up injuries which will keep them out a minimum of two weeks (four for Yossi and six for Torres). And now we’re hearing Reina didn’t play on Wednesday due to a slight back injury.

That injury news is obviously not good. Better news is that Rodriguez’s registration has gone through in time and Riera’s fit enough to travel. However, as much as I’d like to see either player, if not both, in the line-up, their respective time out of the team should preclude either from starting.

Even with the injury problems, we won’t see Babel tomorrow. According to his twitter feed, he’s been left out of the squad entirely (Babel protects his tweets and I'm not about to start following him, but RAWK’s on top of it). Given his performance against Reading, I’m not surprised, but I thought squad limitations would force Rafa's hand. Benitez is nothing if not obstinate. And here’s hoping it means more time for the likes of Pacheco.

Degen didn’t look too bad against Reading (compared to preconceived notions of the player and his teammates' performances), but having gone off with a knock before extra time makes me doubt his inclusion tomorrow. And that Darby didn’t even make the bench for Reading seems to show Carragher’s being readied for right back. Which isn’t the most tantalizing prospect given Skrtel’s woes and the lack of firepower going forward (as much time as I have for both players, a right flank of Carra and Kuyt is creating zero). Here’s hoping Martin Kelly soon joins Riera in returning to the team.

Stoke only sit three places and nine points behind Liverpool. Unsurprisingly, their chairman thinks they can take something from this game. And rightfully so – every team in England can see Liverpool’s weaknesses, and no one’s afraid of them anymore. Kitson and Fuller are pacey, Rory Delap’s long throws will cause set play problems, and Thomas Sorenson’s been one of the best keepers this season. But good on Tony Pulis for his defense of Benitez today – I agree with every word.

I truly hope Pulis is right in comparing Liverpool to a wounded animal. We’ve been clamoring to see that sort of reaction from the team for months now. I’ve no clue where the ‘backs against the wall, us against the world’ mentality went, but it’s desperately needed.

14 January 2010

On Maxi Rodriguez

Poor Maxi Rodriguez. From Atletico’s fire to Liverpool’s frying pan.

I can’t decide whether I’m happy or skeptical, optimistic or pessimistic over the deal. Little has a silver lining after yesterday’s calamity, but I felt similarly before the match. And yesterday's result will only intensify the pressure on Rodriguez, which obviously isn’t fair.

First and foremost, Maxi Rodriguez is a classy player that’s impressed me the few times I’ve seen him. He’s a clever, skillful attacker with a cannon of a shot, and Liverpool could certainly do with more creativity, especially from the flanks. He scored the best World Cup goal I’ve had the fortune of seeing, and a peach of a strike at Anfield last season. And he needs to prove his worth to the national team before this summer’s tournament, which is a massive incentive.

That he’s signed for three and a half years – instead of the 18 months first suggested – also demonstrates Benitez has faith in his adaptation. Or it could say that Liverpool were hamstrung to the player’s (read: agent’s) demands.

It’s cliché (and it certainly wasn’t true for the last player Liverpool signed from Atletico), but I just can’t get the memory of Morientes out of my head. I worry about how Rodriguez will adapt to English football and where he’ll fit into the team. While Benitez unsurprisingly said he can play anywhere along the line of three, he’s been on the right every time I’ve seen him. And while Kuyt’s recent form has revived the debate over his merits on that flank, he’ll still be hard to dislodge from Benitez’s 4-2-3-1. But who knows if Liverpool will continue with that formation; it certainly hasn’t done wonders of late.

Having played with Mascherano, Insua, and Torres should also be a massive benefit. Maxi’s relationship with Masch was a key factor in coming to Anfield, and he played well with Torres at Atletico before his knee injury and Torres’ transfer. He’s yet another player that’s captained a club or country side – Gerrard, Torres, Mascherano, Benayoun, Lucas, Kuyt, and now Rodriguez (I reckon Carra counts as a leader too).

But he’s struggled to recreate his best form for almost three years now, since a serious knee injury in ’06-07. He still played nearly 40 games in each of his last two seasons, but I wonder how much gas is left in the tank. Atletico’s problems assuredly haven’t helped his recovery either, but that alone makes me question how he’ll adapt.

That and Liverpool’s form – sadly parallel to Atletico’s at times this season – won’t ease any transition. We’ve seen the pressure built by expectations in Aquilani’s performances after finally getting over his injury. Any player finds it hard to settle into a struggling side.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m still thrilled Liverpool signed someone, and on paper, Rodriguez checks a lot of boxes. The cost was also right, which is a rarity in January. And to be honest, if his clearance goes through in time and he’s fit, I hope he’s thrown in the deep end against Stoke. Can’t do much worse. But this season should have demonstrated that there's little chance of panaceas.

13 January 2010

Liverpool 1-2 Reading aet

Degen Carragher Agger Insua
Aquilani Lucas
Kuyt Gerrard Benayoun

Bertrand (og) 45+1’
Sigurdsson 90+3’ (pen)
Long 100’

Comical. Unfortunate. Deserved. Typical. And no, there’s no acronym there.

It looked like Liverpool would hold onto the one slice of luck received – a chance deflection in the last minute of the first half – but not this season. Even when Liverpool were in the lead, that luck was tempered by misfortune, with Torres off after 30 minutes (for Ngog) and Gerrard replaced at halftime (by Babel), both picking up knocks despite 11 days of rest between matches.

No matter the line-up, writing ‘Liverpool had more possession, but (insert opponent) had the better chances’ is seriously getting old, especially when it’s against the 21st-placed Championship side. Reading should have punished Liverpool sooner, and when Benayoun clumsily tripped Long in the box, Reading got the goal their play deserved. After that, it’s little surprise they went on to win in extra time.

Once again, it started typically, with some decent early possession. Reading defended in numbers, but pressed high effectively as well, forcing Liverpool into too many hoofs for the second straight game and prompting some gut-churning giveaways. Once again, the opposition threatened through breaks and set plays, and had two excellent openings in the 22nd and 26th. First, Rasiak missed a sitter after Church broke down Liverpool’s left and Carragher stepped over the low cross. Then, McAnuff’s deep early ball narrowly eluded the on-rushing Church.

Liverpool’s response was two half-chances fifteen minutes later – Benayoun curling high and wide after Degen’s good run and Ngog’s shot straight at Federici – until that fortunate goal. Gerrard broke into the box after Reading couldn’t clear a short corner, and when the captain got the ball back from Ngog, his low cross was diverted in by left back Bertrand.

The second half saw the home side with even more possession and little to show for it, but Reading rarely threatened Liverpool either. Until the 80th minute. For some reason, the damn burst with 10 minutes remaining, with Liverpool's lone decent chance to make it a two-goal margin Aquilani’s misplaced header in the 71st. Then McAnuff did his best Maradona impression, beating five Liverpool defenders on a mazy run from midfield only to place his shot wide of the far post, and Liverpool invited Reading on. Church could only put Gunnarsson’s header onto the roof of the net in the 85th, while Cavalieri had to push away Sigurdsson’s curler in the first minute of added time.

And then Reading got that penalty. Agger and Benayoun collided while trying to clear a ball that should have been cleared 30 seconds earlier, and Benayoun clipped Long stretching to make the tackle. Making it even worse was Liverpool denied a penalty for Bertrand's handball three minutes earlier. Sigurdsson nonchalantly sent Cavalieri the wrong way, providing us 30 minutes of Liverpool with their tails between their legs.

It couldn’t have been a worse blow to confidence. And it was little surprise to see Long find a winner ten minutes into extra time. Gunnarsson worked space down Liverpool’s left and sent in a perfect cross for Long, between Skrtel and Agger (Skrtel came on for Degen at the start of ET), to head in.

Liverpool had two good chances to equalize after Long’s goal, but both Benayoun and Ngog disappointed either side of the interval. Benayoun stayed onside to be one-on-one with Federici in the 105th, but tamely shot too close to the keeper. In the 112th, Lucas won the ball well and found Ngog, but the striker quickly snatched at the ball, mis-hitting it tamely wide. From there, Liverpool huffed and puffed, but never blew a brick out of place.

It’s the insipid, toothless performances that infuriate more than the results. I don’t fully blame Benitez for players’ form, and I certainly can’t blame him for injuries, but Liverpool have been mired in a funk with or without Gerrard and Torres. It took a fortunate deflection to score against Reading at Anfield. Liverpool played well for all of 15 minutes in the previous meeting, culminating with Gerrard’s solitary goal. And it took a moment of magic for Torres to win it at the death against Villa. That’s just the last three games, and it’s not a recent trend.

I have no suggestions. I am beaten down. I can’t defend that. The sooner the season’s over the better. I don’t want to get all melodramatic (again), but I hope the club survives. I still hope Benitez survives as well, as I've written far too often, but I have no defense for him today. There’s always a new low. Hopefully, once Liverpool dig their way to the bottom they’ll find a way back up.

12 January 2010

Liverpool v Reading 01.13.10

2:45pm, live in the US on Setanta

Last 4 head-to-head:
1-1 (a) 01.02.10
2-1 Liverpool (h) 03.15.08
1-3 Reading (a) 12.08.07
4-2 Liverpool (a; Carling Cup) 09.25.07

Last 3 matches:
Liverpool: 1-1 Reading (a); 1-0 Villa (a); 2-0 Wolves (h)
Reading: 1-1 Liverpool (h); 1-4 Plymouth (a); 1-1 Swansea (h)

Goalscorers (all competitions):
Liverpool: Torres 12; Benayoun 7; Gerrard, Kuyt, Ngog 6; Babel 3; Johnson 2; Insua, Skrtel 1
Reading: Sigurdsson 7; Rasiak 6; Church 5; Bignall, Hunt, Mills, Mooney, Pearce 2; Cisse, Howard, Kebe, McAnuff 1

Referee: Phil Dowd

Guess at a squad:
Darby Carragher Agger Insua
Lucas Aquilani
Kuyt Gerrard Benayoun

So much for no winter break in English football.

With more than 10 days since the last match, the fixture that forced this replay, I imagine we’ll see an even stronger team than that which lined up at the Madejski. Yes, Liverpool travel to Stoke three days later, for a 7:45am kick-off, but the team desperately needs a win, and needs to put the last underwhelming performance behind them. You know, for a change…

As this replay is the last of Mascherano’s four-match suspension, Liverpool will probably shift back to the 4-2-3-1. That this game is at Anfield makes Aquilani more likely to feature, and Lucas should provide enough protection as the midfield shield, like against Villa. Gerrard sitting deeper in midfield, along with Lucas in a 4-4-2, was absolute pants last time out, only further marginalizing the struggling captain, despite his crucial goal.

It’d be nice if Riera were fit – Liverpool misses the different option he provides on the left – but I still don’t believe we’ll see Babel from the start. Even if he’s not being sold (which is most likely because Benitez wouldn’t be allowed a replacement), we haven’t seen any sign that the Dutchman’s getting more time – or that he deserves it. Until then (or until Maxi Rodriguez’s deal goes through), it’s Kuyt and Benayoun on the flanks. Liverpool has no need for the conservative tactic of starting both Aurelio and Insua on the left, especially with a tougher game three days later and Spurs in a week.

While I hope to see a stronger backline – with Agger replacing Skrtel and Carra shifting to his preferred right centerback spot – I’d still rather Darby get a second successive start than have Carragher at right back. With Kelly out for at least another week and the Degen to Stuttgart rumors picking up pace, Darby and Carra seem the only two options. And while Carragher’s experience will probably be preferred against Spurs (and possibly Stoke), Darby needs games like this for experience and to prove if he’s capable.

Like Liverpool’s match against Spurs this weekend, Reading’s contest with Newcastle was also postponed. The Royals are still winless since sacking Brendan Rodgers, and will be without new signings Andy Griffin and Gunnar Thorvaldsson as they weren’t registered for the first match. Marek Matejovsky, who scored in the last league meeting between the clubs, will be fit again after a broken jaw, while keeper Adam Federici, who limped off at the Madejski, should return as well.

That both teams should and will prioritize their respective leagues won’t lead to a half-hearted game. As said above, both teams will probably deploy close to their strongest XIs. At the least, Liverpool will need to in the hopes of avoiding Manchester United’s fate. And at the same time, there’s only so many ways to write that Liverpool needs to win and needs to turn a corner sometime. Here’s hoping it’s tomorrow.

11 January 2010

Results Comparison: 2008-09 v 2009

It's been too long since I've done one of these infographics. And it's not like it's hard to devise ways to graphically demonstrate Liverpool's dire season so far.

Through 20 league games, Liverpool's 14 points worse off than in comparable fixtures from last season. 14 more points would put Liverpool at the top of the table by two points over Chelsea, 3 points ahead of United with a game in hand. That's why Liverpool's poor form and these results are so infuriating. This is the most wide-open the Premiership's ever been.

Liverpool's gotten a few better results, but only a few: winning at Villa and against both Stoke and Hull. All three were draws last season. But at the same time, Liverpool got a worse result against Villa at Anfield, a 1-3 loss this season compared to a 5-0 win last April.

The other worse results were losing at Chelsea, Fulham, Portsmouth and Sunderland, losing to Arsenal, and a draw at Blackburn. We could also include the home draw against Birmingham; Liverpool beat all three relegated teams at Anfield last season, but Brum's stronger than Newcastle, Boro, and West Brom.

Unsurprisingly, more than half of the inferior results came away from Anfield; as said in the midseason stats review last week, Liverpool's away record is the worst since '06-07. Which might have something to do with the lack of confidence; as soon as the team hits a bump, heads drop, and there isn't an Anfield cauldron to help boost the struggling side.

The current league places of teams Liverpool's lost to? 1st (Chelsea), 3rd (Arsenal), 4th (Spurs), 6th (Villa), 9th (Fulham), 11th (Sunderland), and 20th (Portsmouth). Only one of those is completely and totally unforgivable – I expect Sunderland (and the other five) to finish in the top 10 this season. But that's a sign of where Liverpool currently is. Amongst the middle of the pack top-half teams. And that's unacceptable.

Naturally, I'll update this graphic at the end of the season. Hopefully, we'll have a little more to cheer about.

10 January 2010

The Summer of ’08

Liverpool bought six players in the summer of 2008 for a total of roughly £39m. With the sale of Dossena to Napoli, two of those – the first and third most expensive – are no longer with the club. The other four – Riera, Cavalieri, Ngog, and Degen – have made a combined 64 league appearances (100 games in total) in a season and a half, with Riera accounting for 37 (58%) of those.

I’m far sadder to see Dossena leave than I was the back of Keane. In retrospect, neither proved good business, but Dossena kept his head down, worked hard, didn’t complain, and chipped in those two memorable goals against Madrid and the Mancs. Keane couldn’t hit a brick wall with a shotgun at six paces, missing chance after chance and unable to come to terms with anything Benitez asked. And then he whined about Rafa’s man-management to the press. Tomkins’ most recent piece is an incredibly thorough review of Keane’s tenure (and Benitez’s dealings, and the English media’s idiocy), while results demonstrated that Liverpool were far better after the Irishman’s exit even though Benitez wasn’t allowed to buy a replacement.

Liverpool lost somewhere in the region of £5.5m from the Keane and Dossena deals. Every manager does some unsuccessful business, but the summer of ‘08 couldn’t have come at a worse time. Not only was Liverpool arguably on the precipice of greatness – and still came in second despite the summer’s business – the club was also apparently on the precipice of financial collapse. Benitez would probably kill someone to add £5.5m to his coffers at the moment. Even after recouping £6m from the sales of Dossena and Voronin, rumor has it that Benitez will only be given £1.5m for Maxi Rodriguez at best.

This isn’t a condemnation of Rafa’s transfer dealings, like I’ve seen far too often of late. Again, Tomkins’ piece magnificently dispels the myths, but the majority of his buys have been successful – Reina, Torres, Mascherano, and Agger should form the spine of this team for years to come, while Liverpool made a profit on Alonso, Crouch, Bellamy, Sissoko, and Arbeloa, among many others. The ones that haven’t been hits were usually the budget signings. Of the “failures,” only Keane cost more than £10m (Cisse, bought by Houllier, doesn’t count). I’d willingly compare Benitez’s flops to Ferguson’s (Veron, Kleberson, Taibi, Forlan, Djemba-Djemba, Berbatov).

Unfortunately, Liverpool doesn’t have the means to accept failures the way United does, thanks to two owners who piled debt on the club prior to a worldwide recession, who finally gave Benitez full control last season only to seal the purse strings. And thanks to an egregiously disappointing first half of the season, I truly fear we’ll look back on the summer of 2008 as we do 2002 for Houllier.

08 January 2010

Liverpool v Tottenham Postponed

It's been a lovely winter so far, both on the pitch and weather-wise. And with conditions likely to worsen over the weekend, Liverpool appealed to have Sunday's match against Spurs postponed. Thankfully, the league complied.

According to a club spokesman:

"Although the Anfield pitch is perfectly playable for the game, the problem we face is the icy condition of the approach roads and paths in the immediate vicinity of the stadium. The safety of our fans is paramount and an assessment of both the prevailing conditions and the weather forecast for the next 48 hours has been made in arriving at the decision to call off the match."

Pfft. There's probably no conspiracy given how many other matches have been called off, but I think it's clever. With a midweek FA Cup replay, the rearranged fixture will come after Mascherano returns from his four-game ban. The new date hasn't been announced yet, but with the amount of matches imminent, the game probably won't be played for at least a month, which would mean Johnson, Riera, and Kelly could be fit. Maybe Liverpool will have made a signing (or two!!!) before then. Hell, maybe the form will finally improve.

Clever, clever Liverpool. I blame that crafty Spaniard.

Weather permitting, the next match is Wednesday against Reading.

02 January 2010

Liverpool 1-1 Reading

Darby Skrtel Carragher Insua
Kuyt Gerrard Lucas Aurelio
Ngog Torres

Church 24’
Gerrard 36’

Oh goody, a replay. An insipid performance against the 20th-placed Championship side despite starting a stronger team than expected and a change of formation isn’t the best way to start 2010. Apart from a 15 minute spell to end the first half, Reading were arguably the better team – at least they looked threatening, even if mainly from set plays. I know it’s the FA Cup, I expect Liverpool to win the replay, and any away tie’s tricky, but there’s little to be pleased about. At least Liverpool weren’t punished further and got a deserved equalizer.

The change to 4-4-2, with Ngog supporting Torres and Gerrard deeper in midfield, didn’t bolster the attack as hoped. It led to more hopeful punts from deep towards Ngog and Torres as much of the play bypassed midfield, with Liverpool incapable of retaining possession.

Meanwhile, Reading looked threatening down both flanks, with McAnuff and Sigurdsson testing both Insua and Darby. Once the home side starting racking up set plays, the old fears set in and were soon confirmed. McAnuff won a free kick off Insua, and the ball in found Rasiak at the back post having eluded both Lucas and Darby. Somehow, the striker kept the ball in, flicking back for Church in behind Skrtel. Watching Liverpool defend set plays has become performance art.

Unsurprisingly, the goal took the wind out of Liverpool, but the team finally started creating some of the play we’d hoped for after five or so minutes. Ngog and Kuyt combined well only to see Torres head the Dutchman’s cross wide in the 32nd before Gerrard equalized after an even better move four minutes later. Kuyt won the long ball for Ngog, who spread it to Lucas in the middle. The Brazilian's quick ball wide looked to be too far for Insua, but the fullback recovered possession and set up Gerrard, whose dangerous cross-cum-shot was dummied by Kuyt into the back of the net.

This game would be an after-thought had Liverpool been able to attack like that with more regularly. But Gerrard volleyed over in the 38th, Torres’ couldn’t flick it past Federici after a clever run in the 43rd, and Aurelio missed the far post after Kuyt found him in space a minute later. Liverpool would rarely recreate that sort of football in the second half.

The 'hoof and hope' mentality Liverpool were prone to took over after the restart, and it only helped Reading. Reina had to parry Sigurdsson’s 25-yard blast in the 55th, one of the few opportunities for either side, before Liverpool replaced Ngog with Aquilani, hoping to change the play by pushing Gerrard forward. Didn’t help. Neither did Reading have to switch keepers after Federici pulled up at the same time Liverpool made its first substitution. Liverpool never tested stand-in Hamer with a shot on target, only a low cross that caused confusion and a corner where the referee blew for infringement; the best chance came on a clearance that Torres nearly got on the end of in the 80th, but Hamer came out quickly to close down.

Benayoun’s entrance with 10 minutes to play, for Aurelio, didn’t change much either. I don’t want to single out Aquilani – early days, new signing – but he still looked off the pace of the English game, unable to link midfield and attack (he wasn't alone in this regard, though). Reading forced a spell of pressure at the end before Liverpool almost found the winner, with Torres only able to head Benayoun’s inventive cross onto the roof of the net. The last action of the game, a corner cut out by the first defender, pretty much summed up the final 45 minutes.

There are few positives to take away. At least Liverpool’s not out of the competition, and I distinctly remember a 5-0 mauling in an FA Cup replay after Liverpool were held to a poor 1-1 away result. But that’s a marginal “at least.” Only Reina, Ngog, and Lucas had decent games – Liverpool looked a lot worse after the young Frenchman went off – while Darby impressed in only his second start even though Reading were attacking the flanks. Torres looked lively at times but was starved of service. Carragher was shaky as a left-sided central defender paired with Skrtel, while Gerrard as a 4-4-2 central midfielder didn’t work at all, even if he once again delivered a crucial goal. McAnuff had the beating of Insua far too often, even if an early (and probably unnecessary) yellow hindered the young fullback.

I couldn’t be more nervous for Spurs next week. Liverpool certainly won’t get very far by replicating today's performance.

01 January 2010

Liverpool at Reading 01.02.10

12:15pm, live in the US on Setanta

Last 4 head-to-head:
2-1 Liverpool (h) 03.15.08
1-3 Reading (a) 12.08.07
4-2 Liverpool (a; Carling Cup) 09.25.07
2-1 Liverpool (a) 04.07.07

Last 3 matches:
Liverpool: 1-0 Villa (a); 2-0 Wolves (h); 0-2 Pompey (a)
Reading: 1-4 Plymouth (a); 1-1 Swansea (h); 1-1 Bristol City (a)

Goalscorers (all competitions):
Liverpool: Torres 12; Benayoun 7; Kuyt, Ngog 6; Gerrard 5; Babel 3; Johnson 2; Insua, Skrtel 1
Reading: Sigurdsson 7; Rasiak 6; Church 4; Bignall, Hunt, Mills, Mooney, Pearce 2; Cisse, Howard, Kebe, McAnuff 1

Guess at a squad:
Darby Carragher Skrtel Insua
Lucas Spearing
Kuyt Gerrard Babel

Benitez has firmly stated that the FA Cup’s more important with the state Liverpool’s in, yet I can’t help but expected a weaker line-up. It won’t be the Carling Cup by any means – there are eight days until the next match, and it's impossible to overestimate the team’s need to keep winning (three in a row for the first time in 20 matches would be nice) – but three games in the last week, injuries/the need to rest players (Torres and possibly Gerrard), and the fact that the Premiership has to be the priority will affect the team put out.

The biggest, and most necessary, change should be Ngog for Torres. Torres might be fitter than we suspect and just needs game-time, off the pace from being in and out of the side, but I doubt it. I’m tempted to suggest similar in regards to Gerrard, but the captain’s usually a different case, especially with eight days to rest up. And yes, I’m still fearful of Aquilani starting instead of either Lucas or Spearing, even with a week off. It’d be his third start in seven days, which is a lot for someone who’s been wrapped in cotton wool for four months.

But if Babel doesn’t start, he truly is on his way out. He’s become one of the most divisive players, with those wanting him in the side over-hyping his talents and those fed up with him completely dismissing the player. But this seems a perfect opportunity with Riera still injured, Benayoun not fully fit, and Dossena looking even more likely to depart.

And we got more bad news on the injury front with Johnson now out for at least a month with a medial ligament tear. As Kelly's not fit for another two weeks, I’d assume Degen or Darby would step in at right back, as they’ll be needed over the next few games, but Benitez might use Carragher at right back more often than not. However, the importance of the next month and the improvement of the vice-captain after some early-season problems should lead to his continued presence at centerback. Let Darby and Degen fight for the spot until Kelly and then Johnson are fit.

Reading is currently 20th in the Championship, two points clear of the relegation zone. Brendan Rodgers, a former coach under Mourinho, left Reading by that ubiquitous “mutual consent” two weeks ago, with Brian McDermott taking over as interim boss for the last three games. Few names remain from the side relegated in 2008 – Marek Matejovsky, Ivar Ingimarsson, and Shane Long the most familiar.

But this is the FA Cup, Reading’s at home, and I don’t have to remind anyone of Liverpool’s problems this season. Nothing cab be taken for granted.