31 March 2010

Liverpool at Benfica 04.01.10

3:05pm ET, live in the US on DirecTV channel 462 (or in HD on 462-1). Delayed on GolTV at 8pm.

Last 3 matches:
Liverpool: 3-0 Sunderland (h); 1-2 United (a); 3-0 Lille (h)
Benfica: 1-0 Braga (h); 3-0 Porto (n); 2-1 Marseille (a)

Round of 16:
Liverpool: 3-0 Lille (h); 0-1 Lille (a)
Benfica: 2-1 Marseille (a); 1-1 Marseille (h)

Round of 32:
Liverpool: 3-1 Unirea (a); 1-0 Unirea (h)
Benfica: 4-0 Hertha (h); 1-1 Hertha (a)

Group Stage Results:
Liverpool: 1-2 Fiorentina (h); 1-0 Debrecen (a); 1-1 Lyon (a); 1-2 Lyon (h); 0-2 Fiorentina (a); 1-0 Debrecen (h)
Benfica: 2-1 AEK (h); 2-1 BATE (a); 2-0 Everton (a); 5-0 Everton (h); 0-1 AEK (a); 2-0 BATE (h) [Europa League]

Goalscorers (Europe):
Liverpool: Benayoun, Babel, Gerrard, Ngog, Torres 2; Kuyt, Mascherano 1
Benfica: Cardozo 7; Saviola 5; Di Maria 4; Maxi Pereira 2; Aimar, Coentrão, Javi García, Kardec, Luisão, Weldon 1

Referee: Jones Eriksson (SWE)

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

This will assuredly be a typical European encounter. Away from home, Liverpool will try to control the tempo and contain Benfica, and hopefully make a break-through on the counter, spearheaded by the sparkling Torres.

For all those who want to see Liverpool as expansive and attack-minded as against Sunderland or Pompey, my reply is simple. Are you insane? If Benitez has earned any amount of trust, it’s in European competition, and memorable nights in Turin, London, Milan, and Madrid happened because of Rafa’s ‘conservatism.’ It’s even more crucial that Liverpool keep it tight with the first leg in Portugal.

It’s risk versus reward. And Benfica, who’ve scored more than 100 goals so far this season while conceding less than 10 at home in all competitions, pose more risk than any side Liverpool’s faced in either the CL or Europa League this season. Benitez will set up shop exactly as he did four years ago, when Benfica knocked Liverpool out of the Champions League in the round of 16, when Liverpool were defending champions. Let’s hope it turns out differently this time.

The only spot that seems up for grabs is left midfield – Babel or Benayoun. Yossi was seemingly rested on Sunday with an eye on tomorrow, but I’ve written more than enough words on why I’d like to see Babel continue to get chances.

The Aquilani brigade are set for another disappointment, with the Italian midfielder again ruled out, this time with an ankle injury (the same ankle that kept him out all autumn). Niggling injuries like these are exactly why he hasn’t featured as much as we’d all like – he’s just not fit yet, even after all this time.

The official site also has an instructive interview with Portuguese journalist Luis Pedro Ferreira:

“Benfica are having their best season in 16 years and it's no coincidence they have scored 104 goals in official matches in 2009-10.”

Well then. Di Maria, Saviola, Cardozo, Aimar, Ramires, just to name a few. I again refer you to Zonal Marking’s article titled “Benfica – the most attractive side in Europe?” Simply put, Benfica are a team that can and will punish you. They lead their league by six points, with 20 more goals than their closest competitor. They haven’t lost in 2010. And they have a full squad available, with no injuries to speak of. At the least, Rafa’s familiar with a number of their players, so Liverpool should be well aware of the dangers posed.

I really do think the key is to keep it tight. I’d be surprised if there are more than two goals combined in this game, despite the firepower. Liverpool will play for 1-0 or 0-0, and hope not to have more than a goal deficit to overturn at Anfield.

It’s worked before, against tougher opposition, and with Liverpool in worse form.

29 March 2010

The Metamorphosis of Ryan Babel

I’m sorry, Ryan Babel.

I took a bit of steam out of this post in the comments of yesterday’s match review, but it’s a point worth reiterating. Not because it’s yet another example of how wrong I can be, but because the difference Babel’s made of late has been a near revelation. At the very least, he’s shedding the ‘do not open until the 70th minute’ label and impressing in starts.

I’ll begin by quoting what I wrote yesterday, a succinct summation of the subsequent 1000 words:

I need to apologize to Ryan Babel, who deserves a lot of credit for recent games. But I don't take back what I wrote pre-January.

The difference is in Babel's game, and I'm hopeful (and believe) that it's down to his discussions with Benitez during the transfer window.

Babel's been Babel in attack, if more consistent when starting. But the key - the reason he's been playing games - is that he's learned how to track back. It was even evident today. Sunderland offered next to nothing, but Babel always got back to defend, even taking up positions behind Insua when Sunderland's fullbacks rarely overlapped.

I cannot overemphasize how important that is. Important to Liverpool, and important to Babel's career.

I'm not much for turning points, especially this season, but this seemingly has been one. And maybe it'll help dispel the illusion of Rafa's poor man-management.

Babel’s started in six of the last nine games: 3-0 Sunderland, 3-0 Lille, 4-1 Pompey, 0-1 Lille, 3-1 Unirea, and 0-0 City, with City on 2/21 his first start since facing (and being injured against) the same side in November. A result is rarely down to one player, but four wins, a draw, and a loss certainly isn’t a bad record, with goals against Pompey and Unirea and an assist against Lille.

But as said above, more impressive has been the overall performance put in. Thanks to the wonders of technology, I’ve a couple of graphics that illustrate this point. Both compare yesterday’s match to the first of the season, a 1-2 loss at Spurs, where Babel surprisingly started (one of his three league starts prior to this recent run).

First, the Guardian’s Chalkboard, which show the passes Babel attempted in each game, demonstrating the positions he took up, what he looked to accomplish, and how successful he was.

The second is his Soccernet “heat map” for each match – Sunderland on the top and Spurs below. Yes, Babel had 25 more minutes in yesterday’s match, substituted in the 68th against Spurs, but look at how he utilizes more of the flank against Sunderland, including in his own half, despite Liverpool’s relative comfort.

For all the praise, Babel wasn’t the ne plus ultra yesterday, and probably was the third or fourth best player in the team at most. For all his good work, the final ball – whether it was a shot or cross – was often lacking, partly evidenced in the above Chalkboard. It’s a complaint that’s cropped up before. But it should be easier to add to his game than defense awareness; it's something that will come with playing time. And with Liverpool likely to keep it tight in Portugal this Thursday, I’m interested to see if Babel retains his place. It’ll help demonstrate if he’s truly back in plans or if I’m imagining things.

It’s a small sample size, but Insua’s also been better with Babel in front of him than Benayoun or Maxi this season (he and Riera linked up well early on, but we all know what happened to Albert). In the same vein as this post last year, Liverpool’s record is 3W-1D-6L with Benayoun/Insua, 1-1-2 with Maxi/Insua, 6-3-1 with Riera/Insua, and 4-1-3 with Babel/Insua. And two of those Babel/Insua losses came back in the fall, the aforementioned Spurs match and Arsenal in the Carling Cup. As of late, Babel’s “protected” Insua far, far better than Benayoun or Maxi.

Since Babel’s “reclaimed” a starting spot on the left, none of the goals conceded have started down that flank. Hazard scored a tremendous free kick from Liverpool’s right. Belhadj’s cross for Pompey’s consolation came from that side as well. Unirea’s lone goal was from a corner, and while it was a header over a static Insua, the move didn’t come down that wing.

Another boon has been how well Torres and Babel have linked up, although Torres can make anyone look good with the form he’s in. Both players like to cut in from the left onto their right (evidenced by Torres’ superlative first goal on Sunday, and watch Babel’s run on the replay), making it dangerous when the two play together, dragging defenders into uncomfortable positions and generally creating confusion. That’s a big weapon to have in the armory, and it’s one that wouldn’t work to the same effect if Babel played in his “preferred position” paired with Torres up top. Which necessitated him showing enough defensive aptitude and work ethic for Benitez to trust him with a midfield berth.

Yes, Babel’s chances were few and far between over the past year or so; inadvisable quotes in the media, a month-long injury, and a few frustrating and anonymous appearances somewhat led to that, which led me to believe the player was on his way out. There had to be a reason Benitez wasn’t using him – and it’s not a personal grudge – which is why I’ve focused on what he’s apparently added to his game.

I still think that Liverpool could do with improvement on the flanks. I’ve been beating that drum for well over a year now and a few good matches from Babel aren’t going to completely change that. But I’ve become far more convinced that he has a future at the club, through his own hard work once given the chance.

Well done. Keep it up.

28 March 2010

Liverpool 3-0 Sunderland

Johnson Carragher Agger Insua
Maxi Mascherano Gerrard Babel
Kuyt Torres

Torres 3’ 60’
Johnson 32’

Well, that was a game for less than 180 seconds thanks to the irrepressible genius of Fernando Torres with what will surely be goal of the season and the team’s best half of football in months. So much for Steve Bruce’s league voodoo over Benitez. It’s no exaggeration to suggest Liverpool could have had five by the 20th minute, and had Sunderland been able to find the ball, the profligacy and Gordon’s saves might have worried.

But with Liverpool maintaining something along the lines of 75% possession in the first half, the away side never had a chance to equalize, and couldn’t even fashion a shot on goal until the 55th. Soon after the half-hour mark, Johnson provided the second, his third for the club and first since September, with his second lefty goal from outside the box. Torres’ first strike, however, will take some beating: cutting in from the left between Turner and Cana and curling into the far corner from the edge of the box. Just jaw-dropping.

Outside of the goals, all supremely taken, this entire review could be a list of chances spurned. That Agger, a defender, had three in the first half – a volley saved in the first minute and a header and shot narrowly wide – demonstrates how many in red pushed up. The interplay between Kuyt, Maxi, Torres, Babel, and Gerrard was picturesque, pouring forward in tandem and switching positions as we haven’t seen in nearly a year.

Torres should have added at least one more five minutes before halftime. Yet again camped in Sunderland’s half, Insua’s cross found Kuyt at the back post, and while Babel missed contact with the knock-back, Torres didn’t. But, evidently, he actually is human. His first effort cannoned off the post and he scuffed the rebound wide. But with Liverpool two to the good, legends like Rush, Kenny, and Thommo could only laugh in the director’s box.

After scoring the second, Liverpool were far more content to repress Sunderland and try to tear them apart on the counter. Bruce actually took off his favorite midfielder, the water-carrier (and invisible) Cattermole, at halftime, and for 15 minutes, Sunderland actually tried to get into Liverpool’s half, helped by bringing on Jones and shifting to 4-3-3. But then Torres struck again, provided by the other goal-scorer, and that truly was game over.

Once again, it was a team goal created by getting men forward. Insua to Rodriguez to Johnson to Torres, with the striker turning it in with defenders on the ground after Johnson’s clever disguised pass.

And a 30-minute light training session followed the hour-long match, with Liverpool playing keep ball and Sunderland unable to find a consolation. In fact, Sunderland’s only other shot on target came with less than 90 seconds left, the substitute Zenden’s long-range effort pushed around the post. But Liverpool rarely looked for a fourth, with Aquilani, Ngog, and El Zhar replacing Kuyt, Torres, and Gerrard.

The opposition’s lack of, well, much of anything makes it hard to draw firm conclusions. But this is exactly what we’d hoped for: a 3-0 hammering that could have been far wider. The attack worked a treat, with Torres having much more support in this formation, able to drag defenders wide by taking up space in the left channel in the knowledge that others would soon arrive. Kuyt was an out-and-out, if deep-lying, striker, while Babel and Maxi spent so much time in the final third I could have drawn it up as 4-2-4. And at the same time, we finally saw an interested and rampaging Gerrard.

Special mention also goes out to Johnson and Agger, whose attacking prowess was evident today. Johnson scored one and set up another, while Agger could have had a hat trick. They – along with Insua – spent as much time in Sunderland’s half as their own, to excellent effect. It won’t work in every match – this was lower-tier opposition at Anfield and for all the other failings this season, Liverpool’s often done well in these games, in contrast to the debilitating home draws last season. But it sure was nice to see today. And while Sunderland had next to nothing in attack, it was nice to see Insua stand out. Sunderland played both Bent and Campbell out wide at times, trying to test the struggling youngster with pace. It didn’t work once.

All week long we’ve been talking about how Liverpool just needs to win their games. There’s nothing the team can do about Spurs, City, and Villa other than hope they keep dropping points. And a trip to Birmingham, another bogey side, comes in a week, after a difficult European away against Benfica. The woods are still deep, dark, and foreboding, and Liverpool’s nowhere near out of them.

But keep doing this and I absolutely believe fourth place will go down to the last day.

26 March 2010

Liverpool v Sunderland 03.28.10

11am ET, live in the US on FSC

Last 4 head-to-head:
0-1 Sunderland (a) 10.17.09
2-0 Liverpool (h) 03.03.09
1-0 Liverpool (a) 08.16.08
3-0 Liverpool (h) 02.02.08

Last three matches:
Liverpool: 1-2 United (a); 3-0 Lille (h); 4-1 Pompey (h)
United: 1-1 Villa (a); 3-1 Brum (h); 1-1 City (h)

Goalscorers (league):
Liverpool: Torres 16; Kuyt 9; Gerrard 6; Benayoun 5; Ngog 4; Babel 3; Johnson 2; Aquilani, Kyrgiakos, Skrtel 1
Sunderland: Bent 20; Jones 8; Campbell 3; Reid, Turner 2; Henderson, Mensah, Richardson, Zenden 1

Referee: Phil Dowd

Well, at least it’s not Mike “Hey, that’s a beach ball!” Jones.

Guess at a squad:
Johnson Carragher Agger Insua
Maxi Aquilani Gerrard Babel

I’m tempted to maliciously suggest that Gerrard start on the left. If he’s truly packing it in for the World Cup, Liverpool may as well try to kill two birds with one stone: see if Stevie can help ease the left flank troubles and potentially cure his World Cup-itis by deploying him where Don Fabio will.

But what seems more likely, and would probably lead to a bit more cohesion in familiar positions, is a line-up similar (or exactly the same, as I've guessed) to that against Pompey two weeks ago. Aquilani and Babel back in (yes, yes, for Kuyt and Lucas), with Maxi shifting back to his preferred right flank. Aquilani seems much more likely to play these next seven league games, finally looking fitter and adapting to his surroundings. How he fares over the next two months will be crucial.

Otherwise, as usual, the line-up questions pertain most to the flanks. The above is what I want to see as well as what I think we’ll see, but as I wrote earlier in the week, at the least, pick from Kuyt/Maxi on one side and Babel/Benayoun on the other. And as usual, the defense and spine (outside of the Aquilani/Lucas debate), is less in doubt. Aurelio’s at least a week or two away from fitness, as is Skrtel, so the backline should remain the same for the fifth-straight game.

After struggling since mid-winter (where have I heard that before?), Sunderland’s picked up steam lately, losing just once in their last nine. Like Liverpool, their “revival” has come almost all at home; Sunderland’s first and only away league win came in the first match of the season. Bent’s scoring for fun, but he’s basically the only one doing so for Sunderland. Meanwhile, Mensah, Jones, and Reid are Sunderland’s injury doubts.

Benitez-led sides have always struggled against Steve Bruce’s teams, whether it's been Brum, Wigan, or Sunderland. One league win in nine, last year’s 3-2 comeback over Wigan, against those three teams when Bruce has been at the helm. His massive melon must obscure Rafa’s view of the pitch or something. Here’s hoping past is no precedent.

Just as here’s hoping the past 31 games aren’t precedent for the next seven. All Liverpool can do is win one and then keep winning.

22 March 2010

Kuyt or Maxi, Babel or Benayoun

In lieu of more macro-level wrist-slitting about the club and manager's prospects, I'd rather investigate one of the tactical areas that irritated me yesterday (yeah, there were more than just this, but I'd rather write about the wingers than the fullbacks or Gerrard).

For the fourth straight game against 'top-level' opposition, Maxi's started on the left. Admittedly, I didn't see a ton of him at Atletico or for Argentina, but when I have, he's been deployed on the right every time.

Maxi on the left: 1-2 United (a); 0-0 City (a); 0-1 Arsenal (a); 1-0 Everton (h)
Maxi on the right: 4-1 Pompey (h); 0-1 Wigan (a); 2-1 Blackburn (h); 0-0 Wolves (a)

If Maxi starting on the left when either Babel or Benayoun (or both) has been available isn't the perfect demonstration of Benitez's conservatism, I don't know what is. It's ostensibly "worked" in two of those matches, Everton and City (as both sides were clearly content with a draw at the Eastlands), and Liverpool could have eked at least a point out of United or Arsenal if other things went differently, but I can't remember Maxi making much impact in any of the four.

Despite Liverpool's record when Maxi's started on the right, that's where he's done the most, and it's led to Liverpool at least looking cohesive going forward. He was excellent against Pompey and good against Blackburn. The entire team was dire in the two losses, and Maxi's excusable for a poor game in his first start, at Wolves.

It's symptomatic of how Benitez uses the flanks, trying to control the game out wide as he does in midfield. There are multiple pros and cons to the 'keep it tight' method in certain matches; it's one of the ongoing endless debates about Rafa's tactics. It's led to some brilliant performances in Europe and the league in previous years, but few if any in this one. We can argue about how many ways this season's gone wrong; I've come up with multiple excuses over the past months. And I'll unashamedly admit to stretching for ways to defend Benitez, but I've at least come to the conclusion that his thinking about the wings has to change.

The flanks have been at or near the top of the list of Liverpool's weak spots since Rafa arrived, mainly manned by Nuñez, Luis Garcia, Kewell, Pennant, Gonzalez, or Zenden prior to this crop. Of course, the combined cost of those players not including Kewell (bought by Houllier) is less than £15m and almost all in the fees for Pennant and Garcia. The cliché of not buying championships in bargain bins yet again rings true. And money's yet again the root of all evil, but Rafa hasn't helped himself in prioritizing other areas. And to compare to Benitez's Valencia, set out in a similar formation, Liverpool's never had a Vicente (or even a Rufete), and for some reason, hasn't gone out and got one.

The point of this isn't to single out individual players (although I clearly am), bash Benitez, or again snipe at the owners for not having any money. But it's apparent, even to a sycophant like me, that Liverpool and Benitez need to stop undervaluing the flanks.

I've written countless words about how the fullbacks ideally provide the width in Liverpool's system, but this season's made clear we're not in an ideal world. Johnson and Insua are a whole different kettle of fish, but suffice it to say that fullbacks bombing forward have been problematic for multiple reasons.

I try not to let solitary games affect me, especially solitary games where I pretend to expect Liverpool to lose, but Valencia might have been what finally prompted this post. Having a player who can create that sort of threat from out wide, drawing defenders and pinning wingers, absolutely can change a game. And you have to pay the premium for that presence. At the same time, you need workhorses and piano-carriers – just like Kuyt (who I'll continue to defend until the singularity reemerges) – which is why I'm focusing on the left flank.

I'm also well aware that both Babel and Benayoun are right-footed players probably best in other positions. I still question whether either can be a full-time starter on the left, and that Benitez has used Maxi there against United, Arsenal, City, and Everton means he does as well. It's a pity Riera's napalmed his bridges, but it's not as if he's done much of anything this season either. Although, to be fair, the combination of the three did lead Liverpool to its highest points total in years last season.

At the least, we've seen some continued attacking cohesion when Babel and Benayoun have been on the left, as we have when Maxi's been on the right. Kuyt's obviously going to start most games, but Maxi has and should continue to spell him at times, especially against lesser opposition, as against Pompey and Blackburn.

Long story short, pick a flank and stay there, at least for the rest of the season. And in the off-season, no matter what turmoil goes on (and there assuredly will be some turmoil), this is again the position I most want to see addressed.

21 March 2010

Liverpool 1-2 Manchester United

Johnson Carragher Agger Insua
Lucas Mascherano
Kuyt Gerrard Maxi

Torres 5’
Rooney 12’
Park 60’

Sigh. I wish I were surprised.

Instead of delirium, a dream start through Torres (who else) scarily evoked memories of going ahead against Chelsea in the CL last season before losing 1-3. And it proved true, despite the game settling into the usual war with multiple talking points. As if it’d transpire any other way.

Within five minutes, a quick counter through Gerrard and Kuyt found the Dutchman in space on the right, sending in a picture-perfect cross to find Torres wide open between Rio and Neville. Heading practice, one-nil.

But it didn’t take long for United to equalize, naturally through Shrek, and not without a mound of controversy. Insua gifted possession to Valencia, and when Mascherano couldn’t keep up with the winger, committed a foul similar to Vermaelen’s sending off yesterday. As feared, Valencia posed an absolute handful.

Masch’s yellow could easily have been red. But that penalty could easily have been a free kick, with contact clearly starting outside the box. And despite Reina saving Rooney’s penalty, the rebound fell fortuitously for England’s Greatest Hero™. If I’m honest, I’d rather the penalty and yellow instead of a red card, but I’d far rather a free kick and yellow, which it could have been were it not for Howard Webb wearing Manchester Red today.

Just like in two of the last three meetings, the team that went ahead first only to concede an equalizer spent most of the time on the back foot as United look to press their advantage. With scads of possession, they limited Liverpool to few and far between counters, but rarely tested Reina in the own right. Park’s 23rd minute free header wide from nearly the same position as Torres’ goal was either side’s best chance since scoring. It was United/Liverpool. It wasn’t going to play out in any other way.

Unfortunately, the second half continued to tilt in United’s direction. Liverpool found it hard to claim the ball, let alone retain it. Even if Liverpool’s goal had been untroubled, when the announcers stated United had two-thirds of the second-half possession, you knew it’d be a matter of time. That it took less than 30 seconds was the only surprise.

It came through Park, United’s best player (yeah, not Rooney!), making clear why Ferguson loves him in big games. He got forward from his role in United’s 4-3-3, created the other best chance of the first half, and scored a stellar diving header from Fletcher’s right wing cross after Neville sucked the defender with an overlapping run.

From there, United were content to sit back and stifle Liverpool, limited to two solitary chances, both missed by Torres, both coming when Gerrard was able to find space on the right to center, in the 62nd and 90th. He tried to take a touch with the first, allowing Ferdinand to clear, and completely fluffed the second, popping it up where Benayoun could only send a tame header straight at Van der Sar. United never looked like getting a third for the nail in the coffin, but Liverpool rarely looked like equalizing.

To be bluntly honest, Liverpool lost to a better team, and I expected it. The early Torres strike lifted spirits, but United were worthy winners, in better form, with a stronger squad, and with a massive grudge to avenge. Liverpool were never going to do the double over United in consecutive years where Manchester could win the title in both.

Once again, I’ve drawn the formation up as 4-2-3-1 almost out of convenience, although it clearly was the base formation. But as we’ve seen in recent games, the side’s become a bit more flexible, to its benefit. When defending, it was a standard 4-4-2, with Gerrard on the same line as Torres and the wingers supporting the fullbacks instead of vice versa. In attack, especially on the break, it was a lopsided 4-3-3, with Kuyt higher and Rodriguez sticking nearer to Lucas and Masch.

When the substitutions came around the 75th, it was simply a more attacking 4-2-3-1, with a front four of Babel, Gerrard, Aquilani, and Torres. And while I was pleased to see both Aquilani and Babel, neither could change the game as hoped, and (although there’ve been few appearance to go by) I’m coming to the conclusion that Aquilani needs to start to have an impact.

Regardless, the game was lost in two areas: being outnumbered in midfield and down Liverpool’s left. The platform of Fletcher, Carrick, and Park were excellent, nullifying Lucas and Mascherano’s nullification, although aided by Mascherano’s early yellow that shackled him. And as feared, Valencia gave Insua a torrid time, not helped by Rodriguez playing increasingly narrow and Agger trying to get forward when possible.

The uphill climb for fourth has certainly gotten steeper, but we shouldn’t have been counting on points here, as fatalistic as that sounds. Fourth place wasn’t lost today, no matter what tomorrow’s papers say. Liverpool was and still is contingent on others dropping points. Both Spurs and City still have to face United, as well as each other and the likes of Chelsea and Arsenal, while Villa’s been as unconvincing as Liverpool of late and frequently ends the season on a low note.

At most, Liverpool can only drop points in one or two matches over the next seven. Anything more than a solitary loss or two draws will make the climb impossible. Five wins and two draws, achievable over the run-in, would leave Liverpool on 68 points, which is what Arsenal took for 4th last season.

But the razor’s edge has gotten that much finer, just as we’ve come to expect throughout this season.

19 March 2010

Liverpool at Manchester United 03.21.10

9:30am, live in the US on Fox Soccer Plus

Last 4 head-to-head:
2-0 Liverpool (h) 10.25.09
4-1 Liverpool (a) 03.14.09
2-1 Liverpool (h) 09.13.08
0-3 United (a) 03.23.08

Last three matches:
Liverpool: 3-0 Lille (h); 4-1 Pompey (h); 0-1 Lille (a)
United: 3-0 Fulham (h); 4-0 Milan (h); 1-0 Wolves (a)

Goalscorers (league):
Liverpool: Torres 15; Kuyt 9; Gerrard 6; Benayoun 5; Ngog 4; Babel 3; Johnson 2; Aquilani, Kyrgiakos, Skrtel 1
United: Rooney 25; Berbatov 10; Valencia 5; Fletcher, Owen 3; Carrick, Giggs, Scholes 2; Anderson, Diouf, Gibson, Nani, O’Shea, Park, Rafael, Vidic 1

Referee: Howard Webb

Webb's been a bad luck charm against the Arse of late, but he was in charge of the 2-1 victory in September ‘08 when Liverpool finally beat United in the league.

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

Get excited seeing Liverpool pour forward recently? Enjoy the newfound attacking flair that’s brought seven goals in two games? Too bad.

This is Liverpool at Old Trafford against the Mancs. It’s not going to be aesthetically pleasing. It’s probably not going to be fun to watch. And it’s probably not going to be good for any of our nerves.

It’ll be the tried-and-true 4-2-3-1, holding and countering. Even if Aquilani’s recovered from his virus, I expect to see Lucas and Mascherano, and I expect Lucas to sit deeper, as he did in the second half on Thursday. But those box-to-box runs will be necessary if and when Liverpool get an opportunity. Still, if any magic’s created, chances are it’s coming from Torres and Gerrard, who’ve thankfully picked up steam this month. I hope Vidic has a supply of diapers ready for the pants-shitting terror that is Fernando Torres.

I’ve more of a question over who’ll start on the flanks, which is the only real area I’ve questions over. The only player we can safely rule out is Riera; Kuyt, Babel, Maxi, and Benayoun all have decent arguments. Kuyt’s rarely if ever left out for big games. Maxi looked excellent against Portsmouth, albeit on the right. Babel’s started the last three matches and looked a terror in the last two. And Benayoun's creativity and guile have cut open a fair few teams. But I think Kuyt and Maxi will get the nod, although I write that with no great sense of security.

United have also scored seven in their last two matches, housing Milan and Fulham at home. Now's probably a bad time to mention how bad Liverpool's been on the road. And United have a week to prepare for this one, compared to three days for Liverpool. Rooney’s in superlative form, scoring for absolute fun and even mentioned as a challenge to Messi as the best player in the world. That might be a bit far fetched, as Messi’s demonstrated this week, but Rooney’s assuredly up there.

I’m also deathly afraid of Valencia or Nani (probably Valencia) up against Insua. The young fullback’s come under scrutiny of late, given a tough time in recent matches. It demonstrates the lack of depth in Liverpool’s squad more than says anything about Insua’s talents. He's still a kid, and I’m still surprised Dossena was sold with Aurelio’s injury history. But the backline’s set in stone, and whoever plays at left wing will have to track back (which Babel did to much, much better effect yesterday).

Somehow, Liverpool have won three straight over the Mancs, which is probably more motivation for Manchester than reassurance for Liverpool. The Mancs have a 1-4 loss a year ago to avenge, while Liverpool just has to keep winning for a shot at fourth, a result that could ultimately save the club.

No biggie.

Europa League QF/SF Draw

Benfica/Liverpool v Valencia/Atletico
Hamburg/Standard Liege v Fulham/Wolfsburg

Payback time for Champions League '05-06. That'll do, especially since I was convinced Liverpool would face Atletico or Valencia. We'll have to wait for the semis for that one, if Liverpool can replicate yesterday's result.

Could be worse, but could be a lot easier as well. Liverpool's side of the bracket looks far more ferocious. Angel Di Maria is one of the hottest wingers in the world. Pablo Aimar, whom Benitez knows well, is a perpetual danger. Oscar Cardozo is a dangerous striker and free kick specialist. Ramires is a beast of a midfielder. This article, from Zonal Marking (which absolutely everyone should be reading), makes me even more nervous.

I saw most of the Marseille/Benfica match yesterday, and I was massively impressed with Benfica's late fight back. Even though Marseille scored first, in the 70th at home and with an away goal advantage, only one team looked like winning, and Benfica did so with two goals in the last 15 minutes.

And then, if Liverpool manage to go through, there'll be Atletico or Valencia, with Kun Aguero or David Villa waiting in the wings. Of course, the year Liverpool drops to the Europa League, it's absolutely stacked.

At least Liverpool is at Anfield for the second leg in both the quarters and semis (again, if Liverpool advance). The QFs take place 4/1 and 4/8.

For shits and giggles, here's the CL Draw as well:

Inter/CSKA Moscow v Arsenal/Barcelona
Bayern/Man United v Lyon/Bordeaux

Lovely. Another year where the Mancs get a yellow brick road to the Finals. Probably the only English team happy with their draw. Grrr. Naturally, I blame Platini.

18 March 2010

Liverpool 3-0 Lille

Liverpool win 3-1 on aggregate

Johnson Carragher Agger Insua
Lucas Mascherano
Kuyt Gerrard Babel

Gerrard 9’ (pen)
Torres 49’ 89’

That’s the Liverpool we've expected to see, even if it got nervy after the hour mark before Torres settled the tie. And it’s nice to finally see it, even if it’s mid-March.

More specifically, those were the tactics and formation I expected from the start of the season, at least for the first 60 minutes. I’ve drawn it up as 4-2-3-1 for ease; that’s how it looked when Lille had the ball, but there were arguably five bands when Liverpool were in possession, with Lucas truly taking up a role between Mascherano and Gerrard, and getting forward to much greater effect. Both he and the fullbacks spent as much time in Lille’s half as possible until the second goal, which was what we wanted continued from Monday.

It was one of Lucas’ bursts forward that brought the early equalizer. Nice interplay between Babel, Insua, and Lucas led to a darting run past two that forced Rami to bring the Brazilian down. Gerrard – whose penalties are much improved since hesitating to take them in ’07-08 – blithely sent the keeper wrong way to level the tie before ten minutes were off the clock.

But despite continuing possession (most impressive in the first 20 minutes) and a series of decent chances, it remained in the balance. The aggregate scoreline, where if Lille scored Liverpool would need two, still stressed.

Torres could have had a quick second less than a minute after the opener, taking the ball from corner flag and delightfully turning two defenders inside out before his close range shot was deflected wide. Gerrard found Agger with an in-swinging corner in the 31st, but his clean header got caught up in a crowd of bodies and was gathered by Landrieu. A minute later, Lucas again strode down the center of the pitch, only to shoot straight at the keeper from inside the D.

Hazard had been kept quiet, but he nearly leveled immediately after Lucas’ chance. Lille quickly attacked down the pitch, Hazard picked up Agger’s clearing header and charged into the box after a one-two with Obraniak and splitting two defenders. But Reina, with his first threatening touch of the game, somehow blocked the shot with his head. Once again, thanks Pepe. And thankfully, that’d be the biggest threat from Hazard, who often nullified himself by playing far more centrally than in the last leg.

Lille quickly demonstrated Liverpool’s precariousness after the restart, forcing Carragher into a last ditch tackle near the byline 90 seconds in. But Torres subsequently put that notion to bed with a superb striker’s finish. Rami allowed Babel’s ball over the top to bounce and Torres immediately latched on, holding off Chejdou and deftly dinking over Landreau.

While Liverpool had a succession of half-chances during the next ten minutes, the best being Torres’ low shot from distance wide after intercepting Balmont’s loose pass, but the roles reversed around the hour mark. Lille pressed, Liverpool looked to counter, and while it was unsurprising, it still worried as an away goal would mean a Lille win. But Liverpool, firmly marshaled by Carragher, Agger, and Mascherano, limited Lille chances, the best being an Obraniak free kick flicked onto Aubameyang ghosting in at the back post, only to see him blaze over. The lone difficult save Reina made was with his face in the 32nd.

And then that man made it certain with a minute left. Kuyt, maybe lucky to get away without a foul, won the ball in the final third, with Lucas picking up and finding Gerrard. The captain’s strong shot was parried, but Torres coolly controlled the rebound and again chipped the keeper.

Prior to that, Liverpool were limited to two fierce drives from distance by Kuyt well-saved by Landreau in the 83rd minute. It goes without saying Liverpool were under threat for the last half an hour, and it definitely frightened with how this season’s gone. But this time the team hung on. The key attackers, Torres, Babel, and Lucas (today helped demonstrate why I defend the kid), were men of the match in the first half. The defenders, Carragher, Agger, and Mascherano, were in the second. But no one played poorly, and that just may have helped the result.

The last two games have been a serious tonic. Liverpool looks like Liverpool, and that’s no small matter. It’s been nice to see the team react to adversity; for a minute there, it looked like Liverpool (and Benitez) might have jumped the shark.

Make no mistake, Liverpool is by no means out of the woods. It’s still a massive uphill fight for fourth, contingent on rivals dropping points. There are some big sides left in this competition: Atletico, Hamburg, Valencia, Benfica, among others (the draw takes place tomorrow morning). And Liverpool face that lot on their pitch in three days.

Just keep doing this.

17 March 2010

Liverpool v Lille 03.18.10

Lille lead 1-0 on aggregate.

4:00pm ET, live in the US on DirecTV channel 462 (or in HD on 462-1). Delayed on GolTV at 8pm.

Last 3 matches:
Liverpool: 4-1 Pompey (h); 0-1 Lille (a); 0-1 Wigan (a)
Lille: 1-0 Grenoble (h); 1-0 Liverpool (h); 1-1 St Etienne (a)

Round of 32:
Liverpool: 3-1 Unirea (a); 1-0 Unirea (h)
Unirea: 1-1 Fenerbahce (a); 2-1 Fenerbahce (h)

Group Stage Results:
Liverpool: 1-2 Fiorentina (h); 1-0 Debrecen (a); 1-1 Lyon (a); 1-2 Lyon (h); 0-2 Fiorentina (a); 1-0 Debrecen (h)
Lille: 3-1 Slavia Prague (h); 1-3 Valencia (a); 2-3 Genoa (a); 3-0 Genoa (h); 5-1 Slavia (h); 1-1 Valencia (h) [Europa League]

Goalscorers (Europe):
Liverpool: Benayoun, Babel, Ngog 2; Gerrard, Kuyt, Mascherano 1
Lille: Gervinho 5; Hazard 4; Frau, Vittek 3; Cabaye, Dumont, de Melo, Obraniak 2; Balmont, Beria, Rami, Souquet 1

Referee: Nicola Rizzoli (ITA)

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

So much for seeing the same line-up as against Portsmouth (save Kuyt for Maxi, obviously). Aquilani’s health just won’t let that happen. Stupid virus.

Chances are we’re back to dance with the formation that brung us. The other possibilities both see Gerrard in midfield: 4-4-2 or Kuyt/Benayoun taking over the Gerrard role in the 4-2-3-1. But Gerrard and Torres linked well for the first time in a long time on Monday. Now that Stevie and Torres might have rediscovered their partnership, it’s not the time to move Gerrard deeper.

Maxi’s ineligibility means the flanks will be two from Babel, Benayoun, and Kuyt. Kuyt seems nailed-on: it’s Europe and he was rested (Rafa doesn’t drop Kuyt!) against Pompey. Babel was almost a revelation on Monday, but I think he’s more likely to start against the Mancs, where counter-attacking and pace will be more crucial. Benayoun’s guile at home, with Babel off the bench, seems the straightforward option tomorrow, but those roles could easily be reversed.

What worked against Pompey was pouring men forward, looking for a testing pass that advances play rather than probing for openings before hoofing toward Kuyt or Torres. No matter who plays in midfield tomorrow, that’ll be key. Liverpool can’t let the likes of Hazard, Cabaye, and Obraniak get chances on the break, which is an argument for Lucas/Masch in and of itself, but keeping the ball and using it well will decide whether Liverpool win or lose this game. The tactics, more than the line-up, will make or break tomorrow.

We saw what Lille can do a week ago. They won’t be content with a 1-0 lead, and will look to add to it through the previously identified threats. They’ll pack their own half and try to spring like lightning when available. Liverpool’s seen it before, even if Hazard presents a problem like few other wingers.

This season’s obviously been different from past campaigns, but I still shouldn’t have to remind what Liverpool’s capable of in Europe. No matter recent results, 0-1 at home is easily remedied. It’s only halftime.

16 March 2010

On Aquilani “versus” Lucas

Yep, can't help myself. It's the big talking point after yesterday's win.

It's simplistic, but the main difference between Lucas and Aquilani seemed the type of passes they look to play. I'm approximating for effect, but something like 2 out of 5 Lucas passes push the ball upfield (a big reason why his pass attempts and completion rate are so high). It was about 4 of 5 from Aqua yesterday.

Seeing Liverpool intent on getting the ball into the opposition half and perpetually moving towards goal is something we've all been rightfully clamoring for. The tactic worked a peach against Portsmouth, and I wish we had seen similar against the likes of Wolves and Wigan, even if both were away from Anfield. The direness in attack has demonstrated Benitez needs to remove the shackles since the defense has settled. But it won't work in every game, as much as we'd all love for Liverpool to set the tone and tempo every time out.

I can't help comparing yesterday's team to Liverpool's 5-1 win over Newcastle in December 2008. That line-up was:

Carragher Agger Hyypia Insua
Lucas Mascherano
Benayoun Gerrard Babel

Lucas and Mascherano holding, Kuyt as a lone striker, and Carragher instead of Johnson at right back. And yet Liverpool still scored five. I wouldn't have wanted to see that team yesterday, and Newcastle's defense was even worse than Pompey's on that day (especially on set plays), but it's worth noting that system's brought goals in the past (and a similar XI, albeit with Torres up top, featured in the 4-1 win over the Mancs).

Yesterday's line-up, with an equally emphatic scoreline against a team bound for the Championship, looked completely different. I wrote it up as 4-1-4-1 in my match review, even if Aquilani was a deep-lying playmaker almost in the vein of (say it quietly) Alonso at times. But he demonstrated far more off the ball movement and attacking verve (and much less, albeit unnecessary, defensive aptitude); this is an enjoyable compilation of his match. It's exceptionally early days, but Aquilani looked most like a bigger Paul Scholes.

But just because Aquilani was an absolute pleasure to watch yesterday doesn't mean Lucas is a bad player or Liverpool can't win with Lucas/Mascherano in midfield. The two aren't relative or reciprocal. Both Lucas and Aquilani have roles to fill and can succeed at the club.

Liverpool's found it difficult to break down sides with the usual 4-2-3-1 where it worked a treat last season. Whether that's down to Liverpool injuries (most significantly to Torres), poor individual performances, Alonso's exit, more conservative tactics from Benitez, or the opposition figuring the system out is for someone smarter than I to deduce (although my guess is it's a bit from each). This obviously could be a remedy.

Thursday's match against Lille will be an excellent barometer for any longer-term tactical changes. I don't want to take any steam out of the preview I'll write tomorrow, but we should learn a bit about the team and the rest of the season. It's a European match, so you'd expect Liverpool to be cagey, but they need a goal. But they also have to be more cautious than against Pompey as Lille have the pieces to pose a huge threat on the counter (Hazard, Frau, Cabaye, Obraniak). However, even though Liverpool play three games in six days during this crucial stretch, that the team played its best football in months on Monday will hopefully be the overriding factor.

Either way, it'll be interesting. It's a European night at Anfield.

15 March 2010

Liverpool 4-1 Portsmouth

Johnson Carragher Agger Insua
Maxi Aquilani Gerrard Babel

Torres 26’ 77’
Babel 28’
Aquilani 32’
Belhadj 88’

Catharsis. Sweet, sweet relief. Someone was due a hammering; obviously, we just wish it came sooner.

Just as you can’t overreact after an out-of-character abysmal spell (even if it’s lasted for months), you can’t get carried away after hammering a relegation-bound team in administration. Pompey’s late consolation, with Liverpool basically at walking speed, certainly annoys, but it’s a slight, and pretty much the only, complaint. For once.

Despite what looked to be a clear penalty when Rocha handled in the 4th minute, Pompey defended well early on and posed half a threat when Piquionne or Dindane countered with Liverpool sending as many forward as possible. But a fortunate goal, brought about by hard work and a team effort, broke down the brick wall with a sledgehammer. Liverpool had two on the board two minutes later and three within six.

Finally full of confidence running rampant against a clearly disheartened side, they should have had a fourth by the 35th with the game already out of sight. It took more than 40 minutes to get that fourth, unsurprisingly through Torres with the foot long taken off the gas. Sadly, the consolation was also unsurprising with Liverpool clearly ready to go home after scoring the fourth. I am surprised it wasn’t more than 4-1, but you can’t be greedy. We only have to look back to the run of form after beating Hull 6-1 for evidence of that.

It was an attacking line-up, exactly as hoped. I’ve drawn it up as 4-1-4-1, but it was just as often 4-2-3-1 or 4-4-1-1. What mattered was Liverpool almost always had seven men in the final third: the front five and the fullbacks. Both Aquilani and Babel started and both Aquilani and Babel scored. The signs were there from the start with that penalty shout and some really nice interplay between Rodriguez, Gerrard, Aquilani, and Torres.

And it was Liverpool determination, with three of the four aforementioned players involved, which opened the scoring. Gerrard closed down Ashdown after a soft back pass, blocking the clearance. Maxi picked up the loose ball and looked up, finding Torres on the spot for a tap in.

It was the epitome of opening the floodgates. Liverpool kept pouring forward, and Johnson – a constant threat down the right in a game tailor-made for him (not only was the opposition pegged back from the start, it was his former club) – sent in a cross that was flicked on to Torres. Dancing in the box looking for an opening, the striker eventually cut back for Babel, shifting onto his right and slotting past Ashdown. Four minutes later, Liverpool scored the pick of the three, and not only because it was Aquilani’s first for the club. Gerrard to Torres, who back-heeled towards the spot, dummied by the captain and finished by Aqua. Six crazy minutes, indeed.

Torres cutting into the box and pinging a wonderful curler off the inside of the far post, followed by Johnson reclaiming and finding Maxi, who cutback for Gerrard from the byline only to see the captain shoot wide, should have brought the fourth, but by that point it was moot. And despite nearly constant Liverpool possession in Pompey’s half, the team mostly attacked like it was moot.

A stretch five minutes after the restart nearly saw another goal, with Gerrard’s narrow shot blocked by Ashdown, Babel’s stinging drive tipped onto the crossbar, and Gerrard's curler high and wide. But right after that spell, Pompey could have scored their consolation half an hour earlier if not for Reina, shooting up a strong right hand to keep out Michael Brown’s close-range effort, again on the counter.

Had Gerrard displayed his customary finishing touch, he could have bagged three or four and we’d really be talking about a rout, but again, can’t complain. What you can complain about is Gerrard’s petulant forearm on Brown in the 72nd (to be fair, everyone wants to elbow Michael Brown, who went unpunished for smashing Alonso’s face in a couple of seasons back), which luckily only led to a free kick, followed by Gerrard soon substituted for Benayoun (he probably would have gone off anyway with the game secure and three matches in six days). Soon after came Liverpool’s fourth, Torres’ second (and his fifth in five games against Pompey), when Aquilani’s wonderful throughball after a quick free kick put the striker one-on-one with the unfortunate Rocha.

Ngog soon replaced the star striker, with Kelly having earlier come on for Johnson, both substitutions also with an eye on Lille and United, as Liverpool coasted to the win. The cost of coasting was losing what would have been Reina’s joint-league-leading 13th clean sheet, a record kept despite Liverpool’s form. Pepe deserves better, but again, small peanuts in a 4-1 win.

Maybe it’s my inherent pessimism, but I still expect criticism after this victory. And it’ll probably center on scapegoating Kuyt and Lucas when rightfully praising Aquilani, Maxi, and Babel. Those three were the key players along with Torres, the four attackers with the most to prove. But Liverpool won’t be able to attack with such impunity against most opponents, even if Benitez does need to loosen the shackles during the run-in. However, Aquilani definitely stood out – man of the match just over Torres and Maxi – and I’d be surprised if he was left out on Thursday. But it’s almost certainly Lucas/Mascherano, as well as Kuyt, against the Mancs.

Just as Liverpool’s struggles have been a perfect storm of woes, today was an example of everything clicking and playing the “right” opposition. Portsmouth in the league isn’t Portsmouth in the FA Cup, where they’re rightfully backs-against-the-wall. And this isn’t a line-up or formation that’ll work against every club in the league. But it’s definitely nice that it worked today.

It’s still an uphill struggle for fourth, dependent upon winning every game possible and hoping others stutter. But it at least looks a bit brighter than it did last week.

13 March 2010

Liverpool v Portsmouth 03.15.10

4pm, live in the US on espn2

Last 4 head-to-head:
0-2 Pompey (a) 12.19.09
3-2 Liverpool (a) 02.07.09
1-0 Liverpool (h) 10.29.08
4-1 Liverpool (h) 12.22.07

Last three matches:
Liverpool: 0-1 Lille (a); 0-1 Wigan (a); 2-1 Blackburn (h)
Pompey: 1-2 Brum (h); 2-0 Brum (h); 2-1 Burnley (a)

Goalscorers (league):
Liverpool: Torres 13; Kuyt 9; Gerrard 6; Benayoun 5; Ngog 4; Babel, Johnson 2; Kyrgiakos, Skrtel 1
Pompey: Dindane, Piquionne 5; Boateng 3; Belhadj, Yebda 2; Hreidarsson, Kanu, O’Hara, Webber 1

Referee: Stuart Attwell

Three months younger than I am and he’s never refereed a Liverpool match. However, he was the fourth official Sammy Lee screamed at in the first game of the season when Voronin didn’t get a penalty. This should be fun.

Guess at a squad:
Johnson Carragher Agger Insua
Maxi Gerrard Aquilani Babel

This is the game where I’d like some changes rung, since it certainly wasn’t happening on Thursday.

I can’t see any other back four, the same as the one against Lille: Johnson’s back, Agger will be preferred to Kyrgiakos, and there’s no one to spell Insua. Torres, Gerrard, Reina, and Mascherano are the other nailed-on starters. Everything else is up in the air, and I’m hopeful that Benitez will spring a surprise or two.

Everyone knows my soft spot for Kuyt, but there’s no way he should keep his place on current form, even considering he’s one of Liverpool’s few target men and Benayoun’s probably out of this match due to injury. Babel linked up well with Torres on Thursday (at least a couple of times), while Maxi’s a different option, getting better with each game.

I’m much warier of suggesting a start for Aquilani knowing what a powder keg that is. Despite seven starts where we’ve seen little and few chances otherwise, many seemingly expect Alberto to be some sort of savior. Well, there’s a reason he hasn’t been playing, even if Benitez hasn’t clued us in on it (and it’s not that Lucas has naked pictures of the manager). But the team clearly needs some sort of change and Aquilani’s one of the few possibilities. That the match is at Anfield at least removes one of the excuses for Aqua not featuring.

Liverpool should certainly have motivation going into this match. Not only does the team dearly need a win, they’ve an abortion of a two-nil loss to avenge from December. That win was one of three Pompey home league wins, and it was the most recent. Yes, Liverpool was the last side Portsmouth beat at Fratton Park in the Prem and it happened almost three months ago.

Those last three months haven’t been kind to Pompey. Bottom of the table, multiple delinquent owners, forced player sales, and finally administration. And yet they’ve a better chance of winning a trophy than Liverpool. Piquionne, who scored in the last meeting, has been impressive of late, while Spurs loanee Jamie O’Hara will be the other main threat.

There are only nine games left in this awful campaign. Almost all hope’s been lost. Please, just give us a ray of optimism as we close out this catastrophe.

11 March 2010

Liverpool 0-1 Lille

Johnson Carragher Agger Insua
Lucas Mascherano
Kuyt Gerrard Babel

Hazard 84’

As if Liverpool were going to line up or play any other way. A poor man’s version of Liverpool’s best stifling European performances, and they finally paid for increasing Lille pressure six minutes from full time. That’s this season.

0-1 isn’t the worst result; it at least leaves Liverpool an opening going into the next leg. But they definitely didn't do themselves any favors and we’ll certainly need to see much more invention and a finishing touch in front of goal.

Despite Lille being on top for the majority of the match, with Liverpool happy to soak up pressure and look for the counter, the away side had the better chances in the first half. On any other day Liverpool could have scored from two breaks led by Babel and Torres in the 15th and 26th – the first blocked off by Rami's wonderful diving challenge on Torres’ throughball and the second stopped when Landreau stuck out a leg to deny the Dutchman – and when Landreau somehow kept out Torres’ point-blank header in the 42nd. But Lille had almost all the chances in the second, and that’s where the game was won.

The first 10 minutes were all Lille, marked by a Cabaye shot straight down Reina’s throat within 30 seconds and a tremendous turn past Insua and run by Hazard only to see his delicious center skitter across the six-yard box.

But the visitors were able to settle, mainly through Agger imperious in the air and Mascherano everywhere, leading to those Liverpool chances. Lille continued to see far more of the ball, but Liverpool did well to contain outlets like Hazard and Obraniak. It looked as if Lille would finish the half far stronger, but Liverpool should have been one-up against the run of play in the 42nd. Torres relieved the pressure by sprinting from his own half to win a free kick just outside the area. Gerrard’s low shot was pushed away and half-cleared out to Johnson, whose inch-perfect cross found Torres at the back post, only for Landreau to better his earlier save on Babel.

The second half was far nervier, 50-50 and played mostly in midfield as the two teams probed for openings with Liverpool setting the tempo. But after a Babel shot against the run of play which stung Landreau’s palms on the hour mark, Lille upped the tempo and the pressure.

Hazard, Cabaye, and Obraniak were able to push Lille forward, and chances arrived with 25 to play. Reina could only punch Frau’s dipping blast behind for a corner, and Agger nearly put that corner in his own net when Liverpool couldn’t fully clear. Five minutes later, a thunderbolt from Cabaye narrowly whizzed over the crossbar. And five minutes after that, more lovely play from Hazard led to a Dumont shot that Reina spilled but gratefully gathered before anyone could attempt a rebound.

Riera came on for a tiring Babel in the 74th (and was basically a waste of space, which would explain why he hasn’t featured much) as Benitez seemed hesitant to use subs with the game plan still working. But, in keeping with this season, Liverpool finally conceded from a truly unlucky goal in the 84th. Hazard won a soft free kick from the left channel, and his perfectly-weighted ball eluded everyone to tuck into the side-netting, with Reina rightfully expecting a header. Of course. But if anyone deserved a goal, it was Hazard, head and shoulders the most threatening on the pitch. He's gonna cost some top club a lot of money in the near future, but will make them very happy in the process.

It could have been an even unluckier two-nil when Aubemeyang hit the post three minutes later as Liverpool's confidence took the expected hit. An 89th minute scramble in the box where Gerrard and Torres’ close-range efforts were blocked and a 93rd minute Gerrard stabbed effort also closed down almost brought an unlikely away goal, but no dice. No surprise.

The sad thing is that Liverpool didn’t play badly. It was absolutely an improvement on Wigan, as the players at least appeared to recognize each other. Once again, we didn’t see enough in attack – a few moments of brilliance from Babel and Torres so close to breaking the ice, but Babel tired and Torres once again resorted to petulance with constant fouling unpunished, while Gerrard and Kuyt were again below par (even if, again, both were better than on Monday). Hazard had a big game, but Insua matched him for long stretches; any left back was going to be beaten a few times by that winger today.

It could easily have ended 0-0, or even 1-0 had Landreau not kept out Torres’ header. A one-goal deficit obviously isn’t welcome, and yet another away loss will heap pressure on the players and Benitez. The attack still looks too impotent, even if chances were always going to be few and far between in a first leg away match in Europe. That’s this team and this manager.

Liverpool will have score in a week’s time at Anfield in addition to preventing an away goal that would give Lille a bigger edge. It's doable, even with the state the side's in. Crucial to this team’s confidence and attacking fluency is Monday’s match against Portsmouth, where I expect (hope) Benitez will ring changes in the front six to finally find a formation that can finally find the net.

10 March 2010

Liverpool at Lille 03.11.10

1:00pm, live in the US on DirecTV channel 462 (or in HD on 462-1).

Last 3 matches:
Liverpool: 0-1 Wigan (a); 2-1 Blackburn (h); 3-1 Unirea (a)
Lille: 1-1 St Etienne (a); 1-2 Auxerre (h); 1-1 Fenerbahce (a)

Round of 32:
Liverpool: 3-1 Unirea (a); 1-0 Unirea (h)
Unirea: 1-1 Fenerbahce (a); 2-1 Fenerbahce (h)

Group Stage Results:
Liverpool: 1-2 Fiorentina (h); 1-0 Debrecen (a); 1-1 Lyon (a); 1-2 Lyon (h); 0-2 Fiorentina (a); 1-0 Debrecen (h)
Lille: 3-1 Slavia Prague (h); 1-3 Valencia (a); 2-3 Genoa (a); 3-0 Genoa (h); 5-1 Slavia (h); 1-1 Valencia (h) [Europa League]

Goalscorers (Europe):
Liverpool: Benayoun, Babel, Ngog 2; Gerrard, Kuyt, Mascherano 1
Lille: Gervinho 5; Frau, Hazard, Vittek 3; Cabaye, Dumont, de Melo, Obraniak 2; Balmont, Beria, Rami, Souquet 1

Referee: Claus Bo Larsen (DEN)

Guess at a squad:
Johnson Carragher Kyrgiakos Insua
Lucas Mascherano
Kuyt Gerrard Babel

As much as I’d like to play pundit and guess starts for Aquilani, Agger, Babel, and possibly Pacheco, I know better. It’s Rafa, it’s a knockout round, it’s Europe, and it’s away from Anfield.

Naturally, I’d love to see Benitez change his stripes, throw caution to the wind, and punish players who looked utterly awful last time out. I’m hopeful he’ll loosen the reins in the Premiership on Monday given how underwhelming that campaign’s been, but I doubt it’ll happen tomorrow. What’s more likely is ‘same as it ever was,’ with the customary few selections forced by injury.

Once again, I doubt Aquilani will start, for the usual reasons. Safety first in away matches, and Lucas and Masch can provide a platform that’s hard to break down. That Benayoun missed training and is a doubt means Babel should start on the left, especially since Riera’s been completely out of favor, but if Yossi’s available, he’ll probably be preferred.

And with Aurelio injured, there are no other options at left back to spell the ill-at-ease Insua. Agger could return from injury, but Kyrgiakos has been Liverpool’s most consistent defender this season, and Rafa’s not dropping Carragher, especially when the team’s struggling and Carra’s making threats to leave in the media. Hopefully Johnson will be fit enough for 90 minutes, but if he’s getting forward, Carra and Kyrgiakos can be exposed by pace.

Lille have lost once at home in last 16 European fixtures, to United in the ‘06-07 CL. They’re currently fifth in Ligue 1, five points behind Bordeaux (although Bordeaux have two games in hand). They also have the same number of league points as Liverpool (48) despite having played two less games.

Lille’s recent results have tailed off since a tremendous winter run, winning 10 of 12 league games since the end of November before losing to Auxerre and drawing St. Etienne in their last two. The team’s been in the Europa League since the third qualifying round, starting its run in late July. Defender Adil Rami scored a late equalizer in Turkey to progress to this stage. I wish Liverpool still scored late goals.

Young winger Eden Hazard, who’ll probably line up on the right (against Insua), is the obvious danger man, but Frau and midfielder Mavuba (who Liverpool faced when he was at Bordeaux) are also key players. Star striker Gervinho is out with a knee injury, as is forward Tulio de Melo. The two Pierres – Pierre-Alain Frau and Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang – will likely start in their absence.

Make no mistake, anything can happen. Based on recent precedent, I wouldn’t be surprised to see Liverpool deliver another sub-par performance. They’ve been simply awful away from home almost all season. But maybe we’ll see an actual reply. Maybe Monday was rock bottom and the ream responds. Stranger things have happened. And Liverpool, despite what we’ve seen of late, still has the talent.

09 March 2010

Tie the rope and find some razor blades

It's no better a day later. Nothing will happen until the end of the season, but I'm afraid nothing's going to change either.

The list of parties responsible for Liverpool's poor season is overwhelmingly long, and includes any of the scapegoats you'd imagine. The manager, the owners, nearly every player who's pulled on the shirt, referees, and general misfortune. I'm sure I could come up with a few more if I lingered on the thought.

Yes, I do include Benitez. And I'm well aware I'm the ultimate apologist for this regime.

I still believe what I've written during the course of this ghastly campaign, and it's been kick after kick to the crotch that's put Liverpool in this position. Yesterday's match was quite bad, but Liverpool's been bad before. I haven't lost faith in Benitez overnight, but I'm afraid the players might have. Professionals don't all forgot how to play at the same time. The movement was non-existent, everyone's touch was poor, and the passing was even worse. It's like lightning striking the same place in five successive storms.

No matter who's responsible, the manager's the figurehead, and that's the head laid on the chopping block. What makes this so difficult to acknowledge, and what makes this different from the end of Evans and Houllier's tenures, is sometimes it seems as if Benitez is the only one at the club who cares about Liverpool FC.

The owners, piling on debt in the vain attempt to profit on Liverpool's legacy right before the economy went south (while lying about their intentions the entire time), clearly don't care. The chief executive, who's done an okay job, is only in place because RBS wanted a closer eye on the idiot owners who owe them loads of money. Only three players – Reina, Mascherano, and Kyrgiakos – have been exempt from criticism this season. Gerrard's already packing for the World Cup. Carragher's sniping in the press. Torres has been frustrated for long stretches, kicked by every defense he's faced – it's no surprise he's struggled with injuries – and not one referee protects him. The rest have been a shadow of themselves, whether down to injury or poor form. And yes, I include both Lucas and Kuyt, the two I so often defend. At times, those two, along with Ngog, Maxi, and others, simply haven't been good enough.

I firmly believe Benitez has stayed at Liverpool this long because he truly loves the fans and the city. And I truly fear what would happen if the owners got their man as manager. They wanted to hire Klinsmann, solely because they met him at some function, for Christ's sake! No other manager would have signed a new deal despite being given a net spending of approximately nothing over the last two seasons. And I'm still struggling to think of any top managers who'll walk into this situation.

But the football has been dire this season. Yesterday saw at least eight players who had forgotten how to play the game or just couldn't be bothered. That Liverpool were just as bad after the interval made me question whether Rafa even gave a team talk. Don't trust anyone outside of the dressing room who claims Manager X has lost Team X's dressing room, but the body language of both the players and Benitez told a story, as did Rafa's post match remarks.

The whole club needs an overhaul, from top to bottom. I'd infinitely prefer the owners were the ones booted out, followed by a fair few players. But, despite the financial penalties, it's still far easier to sack Benitez. Sigh.

The sky really might be falling.

08 March 2010

Liverpool 0-1 Wigan

Mascherano Carragher Kyrgiakos Insua
Gerrard Lucas
Maxi Kuyt Benayoun

Rodallega 35’

D-O-N-E. That spells “Liverpool” for the rest of the season.

It’s the first time Wigan’s beaten Liverpool and only the second time Wigan’s beaten a “top-four” club (Chelsea earlier this season). Of course, the sad fact is that Liverpool’s rarely, if ever, looked like a top four club this season.

A few stats from my notes:

• Kirkland saves: 0
• Liverpool shots on target: 0
• Wigan shots on target: 3
• Liverpool shots in last 15min: 0
• Petulant Liverpool yellow cards: 5
• Chances I would have put money on Torres scoring: 3
• Liverpool giveaways: countless

This loss, Liverpool’s ninth of the campaign (and seventh away from Anfield), probably makes fourth place an unachievable pipe dream. We’ve seen some bad performances this season, but this one was the worst. The team was an utter mess today. I lost track of the number of unforced giveaways less than a quarter of the way through.

And it was yet another baffling mistake – Kuyt passing the ball to Diame as Liverpool struggled to clear – that led to Wigan’s winner. The midfielder’s toe-poked cross found Rodallega perfectly placed to scramble in at the back post.

Liverpool had a few half-chances in the first 10 minutes, most notably when Torres volleyed off the post after Maxi headed on Gerrard’s corner, but Wigan quickly grew into the game thanks to Liverpool errors and their clear lack of confidence. Insua, Lucas, and Kyrgiakos all picked up yellows as the home side got bodies forward (Insua had a particularly tough time against N’Zogbia), while the best reply from the visitors was Gerrard’s close range shot blocked and a tricky rebound wide after Yossi’s clever run into the box in the 27th.

Soon after, Liverpool were behind after Wigan camped in their half, and the only reply they could find was a Torres header over from Maxi’s cross a few minutes before the interval.

The second half remained Wigan’s thanks to Liverpool’s continuing poor play, even though Torres could have again tallied against the run of play, ballooning Maxi’s clever cutback in the 49th. As a sign of Liverpool’s desperation, Benitez actually made changes before the hour mark, Johnson for Lucas, moving Mascherano into midfield.

It almost looked like 4-4-2 at the beginning, but as Liverpool began to be pegged back, it reverted to the usual 4-2-3-1 with Kuyt dropping deep in the “Gerrard role” and both Gerrard and Lucas holding. When Johnson was brought on for Lucas, Aquilani for Benayoun (69’), and Babel for Kuyt (83’), Liverpool went even further back to basics.

It goes without saying that none of the formations worked. The lone chance in the last 40 minutes, despite a decent spell of pressure between the Johnson and Aquilani substitutions, again came through Torres, with the striker volleying wide after Kuyt headed Insua’s cross into the danger area in the 76th. But we saw absolutely none of last season’s heroics as a demoralized and beaten Liverpool didn’t threaten in the slightest after that opportunity.

This is one of those games that make me question what little I think I know about this sport. And I have no idea where Liverpool goes from here. It was the exact line-up I guessed in the preview and the team looked insipid from top to bottom. The players I most fervently defend – Kuyt, Lucas, Insua – were the most auspiciously awful. Just awful. And Benitez was outfoxed by his friend and first-year Premiership manager Roberto Martinez.

After six unconscionably long posts defending Benitez’s reign, I have no idea what to say. I’m embarrassed for his team’s performance today. Zero shots on target. Zero! With Gerrard and Torres in the line-up! Yes, there were a few chances to be had, and yes, I’ve defended Liverpool’s rough conservatism, but there is absolutely nothing to defend today. With the exception of Mascherano (who was still beaten to the ball by Rodallega for the goal) and Pepe (easily the player of the season), every single Liverpool player was inferior to his Wigan counterpart.

Like the dreadful loss at Portsmouth, I fear that the team strolled in expecting a win against a “sub-standard” relegation candidate and were sent home with tails between legs. The outcry against Benitez is going to hit a fever pitch, and I have no defense today. It'll fall on deaf ears coming from me, but I blame the players far more – no one could pass the ball at all today – but I completely understand any outcry. Either the tactics, if they were any, were completely wrong, or the players aren’t listening anymore. And either answer’s a death sentence.

All of the other contenders for fourth have games in hand. Spurs and City, a point ahead of Liverpool, have one and two respectively. Villa, in 7th by three points, has three. Not to mention that all three are in much better form. This abysmal performance, yet another abysmal performance after it looked like Liverpool had gritted their way through that awful phase, means Liverpool’s most likely fighting to spend a second year in a European competition they don’t want to be in to begin with.

The sky is falling. The sky is falling. The sky is falling.

06 March 2010

Liverpool at Wigan 03.08.10

3pm, live in the US on espn2

Last 4 head-to-head:
2-1 Liverpool (h) 12.16.09
1-1 (a) 01.28.09
3-2 Liverpool (h) 10.18.08
1-1 (h) 01.02.09

Last three matches:
Liverpool: 2-1 Blackburn (h); 3-1 Unirea (a); 0-0 City (a)
Wigan: 0-1 Brum (a); 0-3 Spurs (h); 0-0 Bolton (h)

Goalscorers (league):
Liverpool: Torres 13; Kuyt 9; Gerrard 6; Benayoun 5; Ngog 4; Babel, Johnson 2; Kyrgiakos, Skrtel 1
Wigan: Rodallega 7; N’Zogbia, Scharner 4; Boyce 3; Bramble, Caldwell, Diame, Figueroa, Gomez, Koumas, McCarthy, Sinclair 1

Referee: Andre Marriner

Guess at a squad:
Mascherano Carragher Kyrgiakos Insua
Lucas Gerrard
Maxi Kuyt Benayoun

I’m tempted to guess 4-4-2, as Liverpool lined up against Blackburn. I really am. Liverpool were a bit better in attack last weekend and Benitez used the formation in the reverse fixture when the Latics came to Anfield in December.

But it’s an away match after an international break. Wigan may be in 16th, a point above the relegation zone, but it’ll still be a combative, physical match where Liverpool will be made to work.

Glen Johnson’s finally back in contention, recovering from the knee injury suffered at Villa. But Mascherano did excellently at right back last weekend and Johnson hasn’t played in almost 10 weeks. Injuries to Skrtel and Agger may force Rafa’s hand, which is why I’ve guessed Carragher and Kyrgiakos in the middle despite Rodallega’s speed. Agger may be a big miss on Monday, but if he’s injured, he’s injured.

If Masch plays at right back, Gerrard, Lucas, and Aquilani are the options in midfield. And I still think Benitez will hesitate to use Aquilani away from Anfield. Given how this season’s gone, anything Aquilani does is a bonus. It’s unfortunate and regrettable, but that’s where we are. Lucas and Gerrard in midfield, with Kuyt, Benayoun, and Maxi ahead and Torres leading the line, should be enough to break down Wigan. Benayoun’s consistently played well against Wigan, scoring on his last three visits to the DW Stadium, so his should be one of the first names on the teamsheet.

N’Zogbia and Scharner, Wigan’s 2nd and 3rd leading scorers, are questionable with knee and groin problems respectively. As is former Liverpool target James McCarthy. Gomez and Koumas will probably play if N’Zogbia and Scharner truly are unavailable. Otherwise, Wigan look likely to line up in a more orthodox 4-5-1, with Rodallega (who’s caused Liverpool problems in the past) leading the line.

City, Spurs, and Villa all play in the FA Cup this weekend. Liverpool need to put points on the board and keep pace with competition for fourth. Wigan have been in freefall since the last meeting, winning one in the last 13 league contests, while Liverpool have slowly but surely battled their way up the table. Let’s hope that precedent continues.

05 March 2010

On Rafa Benitez: Part VI

The last part (don't look so excited) of Ed from Liverpool Offside and my conversation on Rafa Benitez's reign. Part VI is "Planning for the Future" – how Rafa's revamped the youth set-up. And as was the goal, Benitez is still Liverpool's manager by the time we finished this series.

Because the next match, at Wigan, is on Monday, I'll probably have the preview up early tomorrow instead of today. Maybe tonight, depending on the time of Rafa's presser, but we usually get info for Monday matches late.

Part VI: Planning for the Future
Intro | Managerial Record | Tactics | Man Management | Transfers | In the Media

Ed: While it's taken a little longer for this to wrap up, I think it's as good a time as any to talk about the groundwork Rafa is laying for his future at the club. I'm speaking, of course, about the much-lauded capture of Raheem Sterling from QPR. He's apparently quite the young talent, and at the tender age of 15, there's plenty of time to get him developed in the Academy. Or, as it's been put by some commenters on the Liverpool Way, plenty of time to coach out any natural ability he's got. Wait, what?

The development of the youth system under Rafa Benitez has been an area of heightened criticism for quite some time. Obviously everyone references Arsenal as though they constantly turn coal to diamonds with their young talent, and in many cases it's with good reason. But there's always a certain amount of gambling involved with younger players--they could go the way of Gerrard and Carragher, or they could go the way of...those guys we never heard of that never made it. And that happens at any club, not just Liverpool. Even Arsenal!

But of course with Rafa it's a production, and the major talking point for me is the "doesn't give young players enough of a chance." On the one hand this is something that makes a lot of sense and is pretty concerning. There's players like Nemeth and San Jose going out on loans and then, if you're to believe the media, working towards making those loans permanent. It's one thing to bring in plenty of young talent, it's completely another to bring in that young talent and never give them any time on the pitch.

Of course, the opposing point to that is that player development takes time--sometimes lots of it. There's always going to be a bit of settling in period for a new manager, and the first team responsibilities are the top priority. And we saw Rafa slowly but surely take control over the Academy, particularly with the overhaul at the end of last season, which saw him dismiss some major figures in the youth system (Gary Ablett, Hughie McAuley, Dave Shannon, and Piet Hamberg) in an effort to get more players from the Academy to the first team. Appointing Jose Segura, formerly the Barcelona youth director, further indicated Rafa's commitment to the Academy, and the return of Kenny Dalglish in a "senior role" seemed to cement it.

My hope for this section is that we'll look at two major things: what Rafa's done thus far, and what it is that he seems to be gearing the club for. So to address the first part, how do you think he's done? What more could/should he have done as it relates to the club's younger talent?

nate: The best thing about Raheem Sterling's capture – outside of the obvious fact he's a highly-lauded English prospect – was pointed out in by a commenter on my blog (Hi Georger!). He'll have the best nickname in history. "Sideshow Raheem" will never be topped.

But seriously, it's still hard to gauge Rafa's capacity for planning for the future even after almost six seasons. It takes that long for these players to develop, and such was the state of the Academy when Benitez arrived.

We're just now seeing sown seeds reaped with the likes of Insua, Pacheco, Kelly, Spearing, and Ayala. Kelly and Spearing both came from the Academy, graduating in 2007, the same summer Pacheco and Ayala came from Spain at 17. Insua came to Liverpool having just turned 18 in January 2007. And the likes of Nemeth and San Jose, also signed around the same time, don't seem far away. Benitez's first crop of youngsters – Barragan, Roque, Hobbs, Antwi, and Anderson – didn't have the hoped-for success stories, but the next crop seems much more promising, and are just starting to get their chances.

I wish I saw more of the reserves and Academy; yet another pitfall of being on the other side of the ocean. But there are rumblings – good rumblings – about players in each of the age groups after Pacheco/Kelly/Spearing/etc. Gulasci, Mavinga, Dalla Valle, and Bruna in the reserves; Ince, Pepper, Coady, Ngoo, Wisdom, Suso, and Sterling in the Academy. And it's a healthy mix of English and European players as well. But it'll be years until we know how successful they truly are.

I don't want this to turn into another Houllier-bashing session. Houllier was great for  rebuilding Melwood and the Academy. He may not have been able to develop the young players, but he knew what kind of facilities and programs were needed. However, the quality of Academy products, whether English or foreign, dwindled to a trickle under Gerard. Liverpool's just now recovering, whether it's in young foreigners (Insua, Pacheco) or local products (Spearing, Kelly).

Kenny coming back can only be good news for the local production line. Liverpool has been losing too much Merseyside talent to the lot across Stanley Park – Rodwell and Baxter immediately spring to mind, and there are rumors Pepper may join them. Both Carra and Gerrard wrote glowingly about Dalglish and his influence on them when they were Academy products in their autobiographies, even if Heighway was more important to their development. Even kids today still remember Dalglish's exploits as manager – nearly 20 years after the fact – if not as a player. That's the kind of legacy King Kenny has, and that alone should help Liverpool recruit better talent.

Before we get ahead of ourselves, I feel duty-bound to note that young player development isn't entirely Rafa's department. Don't get me wrong, the manager identifies targets, hires staff like Segura, Shannon, and Ablett, and promotes players to Melwood. But he's not their hands-on manager, and thus, can't truly be blamed if starlets fail to pan out.

I don't know what more he can/could have done. Scouting youth talent is like throwing at a dartboard from 40 yards away. Sometimes you get lucky, sometimes you even hit the bullseye, but there are just as many, if not more, misses. At the least, Rafa has been diligent about revitalizing and broadening the scouting network, signing talent, and giving young players chances, even if we'd like to see some thrown in the deep end sooner. But, like with many things Benitez, conservatism usually rules the day.

Liverpool needs to get back to producing homegrown talent, at least one or two per generation, no matter whether they were born in L4, London, or Madrid. So far, little by little, it looks like we might be reaching that goal.

Ed: And as for the goal of making sense of Rafa Benitez, I think I've gone about as far as I can go in the effort. In one way or another, I feel like we have nearly touched on it all. And that which we haven't touched on was noted in comments, but had we tried to address those this would have accompanied the 2010-2011 season preview. Looking back, though, I'm not sure any sense was made, certainly not for lack of effort.

I'd usually be more unsettled ending this way, without any sort of definitive conclusions, but this was always going to be a fool's errand. As long as Rafa is at the club, it seems like there will be some sort of unanswered questions, disconnections between he and the media, and questions about what he could have or should have done. Even the six sections we used, in hindsight, weren't nearly enough. Sure, we touched on it all, but without any more than a casual/bordering on obsessive understanding of the way Liverpool operates from an ocean away, Rafa's going to be a mystery.

But more than anything, I think this provided some much needed perspective. Particularly on my end, it's easy to jump to conclusions about the way Rafa has handled his role as manager in the past five and a half seasons. The "what have you done for me lately" mentality is easy to come by, and I have been no different when it comes to Rafa. But going through this, taking a step back and looking at the "facts," has me questioning the knee-jerk reactions I've previously made.

It doesn't leave me convinced, though, and if anything I might be more confused. I'm convinced he's too stubborn and set in his ways at times, but then he pulls off some of the most magical bullshit-seeming tactics and leads the side to stunning victories. He's alienated players and underused others, but he's helped players like Pepe Reina and Fernando Torres flourish to ridiculous heights. He cuts a stoic figure on the touchline and in the pressroom, but then he can cut it loose and serve up members of the press and Alex Ferguson. I quit.

So it's been a long haul, and I'm greatly appreciative of your willingness to take part. Hopefully it's been more worthwhile than it has been confusing for you and your readers.

nate: Isn't this the fun of having blogs? Of watching countless matches and writing countless words? To second guess paid professionals for a "hobby?"

There were never going to be any definite conclusions or resolutions, especially mid-season. We're never going to understand everything Benitez does. He does this for a living and he's privy to so much more information than we'll ever be. But the game is in trying to explain it, and my rationalizations – wrongheaded or not – are an attempt at some sort of sanity in the often overblown world of Liverpool/soccer/sports.

Because, at the end of the day, this is supposed to be fun. Even if this season's results have made that much less likely.

However, this back-and-forth has been a blast, and I appreciate both the opportunity and your willingness to direct this farce. Lord knows had I been responsible for starting conversations and providing paths for discussion, this would never have been finished.

I hope, at the least, it's provided some food for thought. But who am I kidding? At the least, I hope it got read.