30 April 2010

Liverpool's Strongest XI

I was such a big fan of the 4-2-3-1 with Gerrard as a second striker/in a free role because it seemed to get the best of out Gerrard and Torres. That and it led to Liverpool nearly winning the league. But after how this season's gone, we rightfully have to wonder if that's consistently possible without Alonso.

The idea appeared to be that, while not a direct replacement, Aquilani would play in a 'similar' position to Alonso in the 4-2-3-1 when fit. Maybe he just hasn't been fit until recently, but I think he's shone in the "Gerrard role," whether it's been Torres, Kuyt, Ngog, or Babel up top (obviously to varying degrees of success based on the striker).

Rafa's been reluctant to play Aquilani deeper in midfield, even after he received a clean bill of health, and especially in "tough" matches. He didn't impress in the position against Fiorentina in December or Reading in January, and was left on the bench throughout the winter. But we started to see the change when Liverpool faced Spurs at the end of January, winning 2-0, with the first goal set up because Aquilani was further up the pitch.

But he's been increasingly pushed further forward, and he's looked increasingly dangerous in the position, especially against Atletico, Burnley, and Portsmouth, tallying 2 goals and 4 assists in those two games. With only seven starts and nine substitute appearances in the league, he has Liverpool's second-highest Premiership assist total with six. Only Gerrard has more – seven – with Insua, Benayoun, and Johnson on five. But for all his clever, close passing, sometimes it doesn't come off, and potentially goal-conceding giveaways tend to concede less goals when the ball's given away higher up the pitch.

That leads to the contentious Gerrard in central midfield debate. Is it his best position or not? Benitez seemed happiest with second striker, Capello plays him on the left for England. Still, there a few sights more pleasing to Liverpool fans than trademark Gerrard lung-busters and blasts from deep. Like when he played on the right in '05-06, what's best for the team and what's best for Gerrard might not necessarily be harmonious.

There's space for Lucas in this formation whether he's partnering Mascherano or Gerrard. He's been too much of a scapegoat as it is this season, which is why his two fantastic assists in the last two games have been welcomed. And he's shown more in both attack and defense as the season's gone on. But with Gerrard, Mascherano, and Aquilani on form, he's the odd man out, unless, of course, Mascherano's forced into right back.

Maxi, Benayoun, and Babel have all looked better of late with Aquilani in a more advanced position. His quick passing allows those smaller, clever players to dice through a rigid defense, leading to goals like Maxi's against Burnley and Aquilani's yesterday. Torres and Babel also linked up excellently against the likes of Lille, Pompey, and Sunderland before El Niño was ruled out for the rest of the season.

Kuyt/Maxi on the right and Babel/Benayoun on the left are still a lot stronger than most teams' flanks. But that Babel and Benayoun are primarily right-footed still leads me to believe that left wing is the most important upgrade needed over the summer – yes, that drum again – although I'm well aware that left-back and another striker are fairly key as well.

However, the above still looks like a fairly strong side to me, no matter this season's results. Which makes me wonder why Benitez (and Torres, and Gerrard) are talking about 'four or five' new players when all three know how tight money is. A winger, a back-up striker, and a left-back, in addition to continuing promising youngsters like Shelvey and Sterling, is what my shopping list would entail, even in the best of circumstances.

Last night aptly demonstrated Liverpool's squad isn't deep enough, but you have to remember how many players were missing: Torres, Skrtel, Insua, Aurelio, Kelly, Ngog, and Riera. That's a full bench, and even a couple of those players would have helped Liverpool's lack of depth last night. Plus, the likes of Pacheco, Shelvey, and possibly Nemeth and others, might be ready to make the leap into the first team.

Maybe my questionable optimism is misplaced. Chances are I think this squad is better than it actually is. And I'm well aware how bad this season's been. But are Liverpool really that far away? You're telling me the line-up at the top of the page couldn't challenge for the league with one or two more signings and a far better injury record?

I don't understand this game sometimes.

(FYI: Preview for Sunday's match v Chelsea will be late tonight or early tomorrow.)

29 April 2010

Liverpool 2-1 Atletico Madrid aet

Atletico win 2-2 on aggregate via away goals.

Mascherano Carragher Agger Johnson
Gerrard Lucas
Benayoun Aquilani Babel

Aquilani 44’
Benayoun 95’
Forlan 102’

Typical of this season that Liverpool were knocked out with a stomach punch delivered by a former Manc less than five minutes after Anfield was sent into sheer ecstasy. Have I mentioned that I hate this season with every fiber of my being?

Liverpool couldn’t have burst from the blocks quicker, but were forced to wait for the deserved goal from Aquilani until a minute before halftime. And injuries and the lack of squad depth were always going to catch up to the team. Roles had reserved by the hour mark, with a tired Liverpool retreating and Atletico upping the pressure. Benitez didn’t make his first substitution until the 90th minute – El Zhar for Aqua; the bench was El Zhar, Pacheco, Degen, Kyrgiakos, Ayala, (an injured) Ngog, and Cavalieri – although both teams were always going to wait on subs as long as extra time looked imminent.

And when Benayoun scored five minutes into that imminent extra time, latching onto to Lucas’s clever ball over the top, Anfield went into hysterics and it looked like Liverpool would get the deserved, hard-fought win to set up an all-English final. But Atletico responded with two dangerous chances before Johnson misjudged a long ball from defense, which bounced fortuitously for Reyes to cross to that former Manc. I don’t even want to write his name.

Throwing on Degen for Mascherano, trying to get more attack from right back, and Pacheco for Benayoun (which was about to happen right before Yossi’s goal), Liverpool tried to push forward to find the winner, as happened so many times last season. But exhausted legs and a lack of attacking guile led to few chances despite unrelenting effort. I’m struggling to remember any shots, let alone shots on goal, after Atletico’s strike.

It’s no exaggeration when I write Liverpool stormed down the field from the whistle. Benayoun forced a near post save after only 11 seconds, leading to three corners within two minutes. The players named in the starting XI aptly demonstrate Liverpool’s intent. But a resilient Atletico limited chances, again led by Perea, while unsurprisingly testing on the counter.

While Agger had the ball in the net in the 32rd from a Gerrard free kick, he was rightfully ruled offside. Kuyt, toeing Masch's cross over the bar after some brilliant interplay between Gerrard, Aquilani, and the Dutchman, and Gerrard, whose apparent shot on target unluckily hit Benayoun, created Liverpool’s best chances of the half before Aquilani wonderfully found the back of the net a minute before the interval. Benayoun broke to the byline down the right, and while Kuyt missed his pullback, Aquilani didn’t, arrowing into the bottom corner despite losing his footing.

Some might be tempted to criticize Liverpool for being pushed back in the second half with the tie level on aggregate. Aquilani, who shone in the “Gerrard role” in the first half, was the most obvious, increasingly hovering around the center circle. But with a limited squad, tired/half-fit players, and extra time the likeliest outcome, I’m not surprised with the second half’s progression, and Liverpool ably kept Atletico at bay while getting a couple of opportunities on the counter.

When Benayoun struck in extra time, I really was certain Liverpool would hold on. It’s unfortunate that Johnson – in an unfamiliar left-back role so Agger could mark Aguero with Liverpool already short-handed – paid for his mistake, but Atletico didn’t crumble after conceding. Like Liverpool in 2005, their league and European form seem polar opposites. Reina had to smartly push away Reyes’ skidding shot and Jurado blasted narrowly wide from the top of the box right before Forlan (sigh) struck. Sadly, it kind of looked on the cards.

It certainly seems an unfair way to end this campaign. A European final would have been an incredible, needed release from this season’s torments. But it was a determined Atletico, arguably lucky to take a one-goal lead into this leg and going through their own domestic anguish, which won the tie. I truly don’t think Liverpool “lost” it.

At least we discovered Liverpool’s strongest line-up today (and that Mascherano’s awesome at right back, potentially world-class at that position if he improved his crossing). Finding out that Aquilani’s best position is in the “Gerrard role” is one of those surprises it takes a season to discover, especially when the player missed the first half of the campaign through injury. The last two games have left little argument that Liverpool’s best midfield is Gerrard/Mascherano with Aquilani in the hole, Kuyt and Maxi fighting it out on the right with Babel and Benayoun in the same competition on the left, and Torres obviously up front. Pity there are just two games left in the season.

As heart-wrenchingly disappointing as today’s result is, especially losing it in injury time with the tie apparently won (it’s an absolute travesty that away goals count in extra-time, by the way), this can’t be the straw that breaks any camel’s back. On the whole, Liverpool played well, especially considering circumstances. We saw the required attacking verve and willingness, and Rafa taking gambles.

Winning the Europa League wouldn’t have made amends for the league (or Champions League) campaign, and narrowly going out in the semi-finals shouldn’t diminish any renewed optimism based on some decent league results, a good run past strong Benfica and Lille teams, and Aquilani’s emergence. There’s still a plan in place for next season, and there’s still a decent team in this group of players. I wish I could fast forward through what I'm sure will be a fun, rumor-filled off-season. At least there'll be the distraction of the World Cup.

28 April 2010

Liverpool v Atletico Madrid 04.29.10

Atletico lead 1-0 on aggregate.

3:05pm ET, live in the US on GolTV.

Last 3 matches:
Liverpool: 4-0 Burnley (a); 0-1 Atletico (a); 3-0 West Ham (h)
Atletico: 3-1 Tenerife (h); 1-0 Liverpool (h); 1-2 Villareal (a)

Liverpool: 4-1 Benfica (h); 1-2 Benfica (a)
Atletico: 0-0 Valencia (h); 2-2 Valencia (a)

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

Round of 32:
Liverpool: 3-1 Unirea (a); 1-0 Unirea (h)
Atletico: 2-1 Galatasaray (a); 1-1 Galatasaray (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)
Atletico: 0-3 Porto (h); 1-1 APOEL (a); 2-2 Chelsea (h); 0-4 Chelsea (a); 0-2 Porto (a); 0-0 APOEL (h)

Goalscorers (Europe):
Liverpool: Torres 4; Benayoun, Babel, Gerrard, Kuyt, Ngog 2; Agger, Lucas, Mascherano 1
Atletico: Aguero 6; Forlan 4; Simão 2; Lopez, Maxi, Reyes 1

Referee: Terje Hauge (NOR)

Hauge has been in charge of past Liverpool matches against Marseille (4-0), Monaco (2-0), Celtic (1-1), Valencia (0-1) and Haka (4-1).

Guess at a squad:
Johnson Carragher Kyrgiakos Agger
Lucas Mascherano
Gerrard Aquilani Benayoun

Kuyt and Ngog will both be late decisions, having picked up knocks against Burnley and Atletico respectively. Torres is obviously still out. Maxi’s ineligible and Riera’s been locked in a Melwood storage closet for more than a month now. It’ll be an interesting front six to say the least.

Without Kuyt and Ngog, Liverpool’s hands are tied to a large extent. Babel would have to start up top, with no other recognized strikers in the first team. Youngsters such as Pacheco and even Dalla Valle (who would have to be added to the B-list) could be substitutes. Both Kuyt and Ngog are supposed to train tomorrow, and at least one if not both will probably make the bench for lack of options. But I’d be surprised if Benitez relied on a half-fit striker in a European semi-final. And even if Kuyt’s healthy enough to play, I think I’d rather him on the right based on what we saw at Burnley.

With Babel up top, support from midfield will be crucial. Which is why I’m guessing all four “central” midfielders – Gerrard, Aquilani, Lucas, and Mascherano – will start. Aquilani was excellent “in the hole” (one in the hole, you say?) on Sunday with Gerrard partnering Mascherano deeper. But with Kuyt out and Babel up top, the options on the right are massively limited – it’s seemingly Gerrard, El Zhar, or Pacheco since Benayoun would be on the left. I know who I’d play in that situation, and I don’t think having Gerrard ostensibly on the flank would diminish his output dramatically.

The backline still has important players missing and still writes itself. Ayala started on Sunday to spell Kyrgiakos, while both Aurelio and Insua are still injured. Maybe Mascherano will play at right back with Johnson on the left – as we saw in the last 20 minutes at Burnley – but it seems a much smaller possibility.

Atletico won their weekend match against relegation candidates Tenerife 3-1, with a brace from Salvio and a capstone from Aguero. The Maradona-in-law will return from suspension on Thursday, and will be the main fear with Liverpool needing to score and Atletico ever so dangerous the counter.

Right back Ujfalusi is Atletico's only new injury doubt – included in the squad but having missed training on Monday – while Tiago and Ibrahima are both ineligible. Aguero for Jurado and Valera for Ujfalusi seem the only likely differences from last week’s team.

With Liverpool needing to overhaul a narrow one-goal deficit against a clever, pacey counter-attacking side, the run-up feels a lot like that prior to Benfica. Replicating that result certainly would be nice, but it won’t be easy considering form and injuries. Liverpool may have overturned deficits in the last two rounds, but they did so with Torres, who notched twice against both Benfica and Lille.

Still, it’s backs against the wall on a European night at Anfield. I’ll take Liverpool’s odds in that situation almost every time.

27 April 2010

On Jonjo, Sideshow Raheem, and Young England

Contingent on tomorrow's medical and negotiations, we've seen Liverpool sign two highly-rated English teenage midfielders within the last two months: Raheem Sterling and now Jonjo Shelvey. Not only was I told Liverpool were a sinking ship without money, but I thought Benitez never bought British. And yes, I'm aware I'm basking in the arrival of two youngsters whose combined fee is less than £3m, but any silver lining during a monsoon.

It wasn't long ago Liverpool were memorably missing out on the likes of Theo Walcott and Aaron Ramsey. Both went to Arsenal, and while both cost a good deal more (and were further along in their development) than Sterling or Shelvey, it's been far too long since Liverpool were snapping up some of Britain's best and brightest.

It's yet another sign that Liverpool are restoring from the foundation and fixing the vaunted assembly line. It sputtered to a halt under Evans and Houllier, but we're seeing it rebuilt little by little, as Ed and I discussed in March. We've seen Liverpool recruit potential talents from across the universe – the likes of Insua, Pacheco, and Nemeth, among others – but few from the UK.

Thanks to recent UEFA and Premier League regulations, "homegrown" players are utterly necessary. Any nationality counts as homegrown if trained by the club – or any English club – for three years, but an English passport removes all barriers. And buyers pay well for it, as we found out when Liverpool "chased" Walcott and Ramsey. £5m for Ramsey or the £8m Aston Villa paid for a 19-year-old Fabian Delph could make the fee for Shelvey or Sterling look like peanuts. Pity the emphasis is on "could."

There's no guarantee either player will turn out a star, let alone feature for the first team. I do think Shelvey will be in the mix next season – he's already played in the lower leagues, so there's little use in sending him on loan (as Darby, Spearing, and Eccleston currently are) – but my best, barely informed guess is that he'll mainly see time in the Cups and for the reserves. And regardless, there's no guarantee any signing will work, whether the fee is £2m or £20m (wave to the nice people, Robbie).

Shelvey is 18, costing an initial £1.7m. While he was Charlton's youngest player, debuting more than two years ago, and has made 48 appearances for the Addicks, the majority of those came in League One. Sterling is only 16, costing an initial £500,000, and has mostly played for the U-18s since his arrival. As tempting as it is to go overboard, both evoke the phrase "hope" as much as Obama (and now Nick Clegg!). But both are laden with potential, with other big clubs sniffing for their signature, and English. "God Save the Queen" singing, smog breathing, blessedly English.

Even if we're only familiar with these kids from Football Manager and FIFA 10, it's satisfying; a sign that Liverpool's competitive in this crucial market, and that King Kenny Dalglish is earning his paycheck. I doubt it's coincidence both Sterling and Shelvey will arrive the same year that Dalglish returned to head up youth development. But make no mistake, Rafa must of had his hand in this signing – Shelvey should get some first-team opportunities next season, and I doubt Liverpool would be negotiating signings, even if they're only £1.7m, if Benitez were on his way out.

Unless that's the summer transfer budget gone (can't rule anything out with the Chuckle Brothers still in control), there are few ways for Liverpool to lose on these deals.

25 April 2010

Liverpool 4-0 Burnley

Johnson Carragher Ayala Agger
Gerrard Mascherano
Maxi Aquilani Babel

Gerrard 52’ 59’
Maxi 74’
Babel 90+4’

Liverpool made hard work of it for far too long, but it ends 4-0, just like in the reverse fixture. Are we sure there's no way for Burnley to avoid relegation?

So much for needing an early goal before the home side’s confidence burgeoned and they punished a Liverpool team that’s simply awful away from home. Make no mistake, it was a nerve-wracking and massively unimpressive first half, but Gerrard ended the match within 15 minutes of the restart. It’s nice to be a two-man team again, especially since the previous “one man” is injured for the rest of the season.

An opening 10 minutes of Liverpool pressure, including three corners, were devoid of chances and the away side was increasingly bogged down as Burnley grew in confidence. Depressingly, it took 19 minutes for Liverpool to register a shot on goal – a Babel run and blast which failed to hit the target.

Meanwhile, Burnley created opportunities thanks to Liverpool’s tentative defense and a dangerous Martin Paterson. Fletcher headed over from eight yards out in the 27th, Johnson had to divert another brilliant Paterson cross behind in the 35th, and Cork should have scored two minutes from halftime, unmarked on Mears’ cross but heading straight at Reina.

Liverpool had a lone impressive spell around the half-hour mark, with Dowd blocking Gerrard's shot, another Gerrard chance smothered by Jensen after the captain controlled in the box (with a Mears handball shout in the process), and a wonderful flowing move between Gerrard, Maxi, and Aquilani cut out by Cort – but still couldn’t find a goal and didn’t really deserve one. Otherwise, the only other chance of the half was Babel’s tame back-post effort moments before the interval.

Gerrard made sure none of that mattered in the second frame. The half began with another Burnley chance, with Fletcher unable to take advantage of confusion between Agger, Ayala, and Reina, while an injury to Kuyt minutes later (replaced by Benayoun with Babel going up top) increased fears. But the captain soon ended all our worries.

His first may have had a massive slice of luck, deflecting off Cort after he steamed forward from Aquilani’s layoff. But the second was sheer class; a rose by any other name. Maxi’s ball over the top found Aqua, and his slip turned into the perfect set-up for a trademark Gerrard thunderbolt. 2-0, game over, finally.

After that, Liverpool were unsurprisingly content to soak up pressure and counter at pace. Burnley nearly pulled one back, with Dowd ignoring Fletcher’s handball in the build-up and Reina thankfully seeing the striker’s shot cannon off the foot of the far post, before Maxi got the goal he’s waited far too long for. Again, Benayoun to Aquilani set up the goal, with the Italian’s diagonal throughball taken brilliantly first-time by the winger, delightfully curling over a sprawling Jensen.

Liverpool rested Agger and Gerrard in the final 15 minutes, replaced by Lucas and Pacheco (with Johnson moving to left back and Mascherano to right), and it was Lucas who provided the day’s climax, a perfectly-weighted ball over the top to an onside Babel, sliding his shot under the keeper to ensure Burnley were memorably relegated with the last kick of the ball.

To be fair, referring to Liverpool as a one-man team dependent on Gerrard is a bit of poetic hyperbole. As unimpressive as Liverpool were in the first half, they turned it on as a team in the second. Liverpool needed its talisman to break the deadlock – few others looked like scoring – but Benayoun and Aquilani were key in both of his strikes.

The Italian provided three assists today – only the fifth player to accomplish that this season according to OPTA. Yes, he also cheaply gave the ball away too often, and thankfully, Burnley was unable to punish, but he’s trying things few others (only Benayoun, really) in the squad attempt. Yossi’s running from the left opened up more in Burnley’s half, especially with Babel pushing the backline deeper than Kuyt. I wouldn’t be surprised to see Babel up top, Benayoun on the left, and Kuyt on the right (if able to play) on Thursday. And once again, Reina was crucial, making saves whenever called upon, while Carragher made some last-ditch blocks. The shakiness in defense partly came from Ayala’s unfamiliar presence, but outside of one or two cheap fouls, the young (and surprisingly enormous) defender did well.

Stunningly, that was Liverpool’s first league away win of 2010, and that tidbit goes a long way in explaining the club’s Premiership standing. But tallying four gives Liverpool a better goal difference than the three clubs ahead of them, increasing the incredibly minuscule possibility of fourth. As often said at this stage of the season, a win is a win is a win. And more importantly, the four goals hopefully boost attacking confidence prior to a match where they'll need to score more than once.

Now do it again on Thursday, only with a bit more impetus in the first half.

23 April 2010

Liverpool at Burnley 04.25.10

10am ET, live in the US on Fox Soccer Plus

Last 4 head-to-head:
4-0 Liverpool (h) 09.29.09
0-1 Burnley (a; FA Cup) 01.18.05
1-0 Liverpool (h; FA Cup) 01.04.97
1-0 Liverpool (h; FA Cup) 02.07.95

Last three matches:
Liverpool: 0-1 Atletico (a); 3-0 West Ham (h); 0-0 Fulham (h)
Burnley: 1-2 Sunderland (a); 4-1 Hull (a); 1-6 City (h)

Goalscorers (league):
Liverpool: Torres 18; Kuyt 9; Gerrard 7; Benayoun 6; Ngog 5; Babel, Johnson 3; Aquilani, Kyrgiakos, Skrtel 1
Burnley: Fletcher 8; Alexander 7; Nugent 6; Elliott, Paterson 3; Blake, Eagles, Thompson 2; Bikey, Caldwell, Fox, McDonald 1

Referee: Martin Atkinson

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

The third game in six days – with Atletico to come on Thursday – means changes, even if it’s the third-to-last league fixture and at Burnley. Thankfully, the team was able to fly back from Madrid instead of taking another tour across the continent.

Benayoun and Ngog seem the least likely to start three in a row, with Lucas also a question. Liverpool’s already laying the groundwork for Ngog’s absence with news that he’s having back problems after yesterday’s match. If Kuyt’s the lone striker, Liverpool will have to get bodies forward to join in the attack knowing the Dutchman’s habit of dropping deep. But I still think Kuyt will be the preferred option; when Benitez made substitutions against Atletico, Babel went to the flanks while Kuyt moved up top. Not that it helped much, mind you.

Guessing Aquilani to start ahead of Lucas may well be a pipe dream, especially on the road. If anything, I’m tempted to mischievously suggest a midfield of Lucas or Gerrard pairing Mascherano, and Aquilani in the “Gerrard role” after the captain’s sluggish display against Atletico. Yet I think the familiar (and not rocking the boat with Stevie) is more likely. Plus, Aquilani seemingly has to feature in one of these games even if I remain adamant that next season will be his true baptism.

Otherwise, the backline still writes itself thanks to injuries and Maxi has to return on the right after recent performances. He more than deserves a goal after coming close against West Ham, Fulham, and Brum, and despite the overwhelming fear of jinxing it, I reckon he’s due on Sunday.

Meanwhile, Burnley is clutching onto its Premiership place by fingernails. The club sits in 19th, a point behind Hull and four behind West Ham, with Liverpool, Birmingham, and Tottenham to come. A 4-1 win at the KC Stadium two weeks ago appeared to be a booster seat to safety, thrashing a dismissal Hull in one of those famous ‘six-pointers’ less than a week being utterly tonked by City. Predictably, Burnley went and lost their next outing to remain mired in the relegation zone.

I gloated in Atletico’s poor form prior to the last match and we saw how that went. And Liverpool’s been undeniably awful away from home all season long. But Burnley’s had few rays of sunshine since some early shocks, and Liverpool deservedly cruised to a 4-0 win in the reserve fixture.

Yes, they beat United at home in the second week of the season and held Arsenal in December, but that was a long time ago. Liverpool’s form may have been consistently mediocre throughout the season, but Burnley’s regressed almost every month. The 6-1 demolition suffered at the hands of City was appalling, and it seemed as if they would have conceded the match if allowed to after conceding the first. Yes, a similar XI came back from an early goal at Hull a week later, but there was a bit more riding on that match, and they were again bossed around at Sunderland. If they're going to escape relegation, they'll have to show some spine in front of their own fans for the first time since facing City.

Liverpool certainly hasn’t put enough teams to the sword this season, but on recent evidence, an early goal could be crucial. As in the home meeting, you can’t expect anything other than capitulation if Liverpool gets a first half opener. But make no mistake; the longer Burnley stay in this match, the more they’ll grow in confidence, and Liverpool has been lamentably predictable pretty often this season.

22 April 2010

Liverpool 0-1 Atletico Madrid

Johnson Carragher Kyrgiakos Agger
Kuyt Lucas Mascherano Benayoun

Forlan 9’

Underwhelming in both tactics and performance, an embarrassing defensive collapse allowing a mediocre Atletico a solitary early strike, and Liverpool still should have finished level, but saw Benayoun’s 19th minute “goal” wrongly ruled out. “Hate” doesn’t even fully describe this season anymore.

To be fair, Liverpool weren’t any good going forward, and Atletico center back Luis Perea was very good. To say that chances were few and far between for both sides does the cliché little justice – they were almost nonexistent for Liverpool after Benayoun’s strike was ruled out – and Atletico had the better of them, as Reina made two huge saves in the second half.

The opener came from an attack down Liverpool’s right, with Johnson somehow caught upfield despite the home side’s patient build-up. A neat one-two between Jurado and Forlan required Carragher to move out to close down the winger’s space, and Forlan found the gap between Kyrgiakos and Agger. He somehow blundered an open header, but with Reina stranded and Kyrgiakos on the floor, was first to scramble in the rebound. The only thing missing was Benny Hill music playing the background. And, of course, it was the former Manc.

Liverpool almost replied immediately, with Ujfalusi doing well to ensure Benayoun couldn’t make clean contact with Johnson’s cross. And ten minutes later, the apparently mandatory refereeing controversy took place. Let’s just say it’s not been a good season with officials.

It was admittedly a narrow decision. Liverpool’s suffered some absolute shockers from referees this season; I wish I were surprised a narrow decision went against the club. But the Israeli was perfectly timed to get on the end of Kuyt’s mishit shot and it should have been 1-1. To make matters worse, Lucas found Gerrard over the top less than a minute later only for the captain to shoot into the side netting from a tight angle.

But for the most part, Liverpool’s performance was just as aggravating as the linesman’s decision. Most noticeably, starting Ngog didn’t pay off. I feel bad for the young Frenchman, but he’s not equipped to hold up play as he was asked away from Anfield, and it didn’t help that Perea had such an excellent match. He was frequently isolated and often unable to retain the ball on long punts forward, which prevented Liverpool from catching up and maintaining any sort of possession in Atletico’s half. Reina was by far the busier keeper on either side of intermission, even after Liverpool’s substitutions, while I don’t think De Gea had to make a save.

Liverpool did look better right after the restart, with two potential moves blunted by Perea, but Atletico could have extended their lead in the 54th and 58th. First, an onside Forlan attempted a strange stab at goal from 15 yards with more time than he realized, then Reina was called into action to save Simao’s near post volley after Johnson slipped while tracking the cross.

While Benitez tried to change things, bringing Babel on for Ngog in the 64th, which saw Kuyt move up top, it did little to alter the attack as Atletico ate up balls over the top and an increasingly deep backline refused to buckle. Meanwhile, the home side continued presenting the odd threat, most frightingly in the 76th, when Reina could only parry Ujfalusi’s strong shot but Carragher got the vital clearance before Simao could tap in the rebound.

The last throw of the dice, replacing Benayoun with El Zhar in a straight swap, helped lead to Liverpool’s lone threat in the final fifteen minutes, when Kuyt spreading the play out to Gerrard on the right, only to see the captain’s cross deflected before it could reach an on-rushing Johnson. But that was about it, and it was Atletico that threatened with two late corners as time expired, putting this match out of our misery.

Yes, Liverpool were poor in attack, often isolated and bereft of ideas other than trying to catch Atletico out with long balls. There’s a reason I’ve petulantly drawn up the usual formation as a 4-4-1-1. I wish I could come up with more potent descriptors than "isolated" or "disjointed," but the only alternatives also involve swear words. Yes, Atletico weren’t incredibly impressive, although you knew repeatedly mentioning their dire European record would haunt in the end. And yes, it’s probably no coincidence that the four teams which trekked across Europe this week, but that’s a paper-thin excuse.

But were this a fair universe, the match would have ended 1-1. And Liverpool's taken deficits into the second legs of the last two rounds only to win impressively at Anfield. It certainly won’t be easy, and a repeat of today’s form certainly won’t see progression to the finals. If not for Reina, it could have been an even greater mountain to climb. But there’s still more than a glimmer of hope.

21 April 2010

Liverpool at Atletico Madrid 04.22.10

3:05pm ET, live in the US on DirecTV channel 462 or 462-1.

Last 3 matches:
Liverpool: 3-0 West Ham (h); 0-0 Fulham (h); 4-1 Benfica (h)
Atletico: 1-2 Villareal (a); 1-2 Xerez (h); 0-3 Espanyol (a)

Liverpool: 4-1 Benfica (h); 1-2 Benfica (a)
Atletico: 0-0 Valencia (h); 2-2 Valencia (a)

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

Round of 32:
Liverpool: 3-1 Unirea (a); 1-0 Unirea (h)
Atletico: 2-1 Galatasaray (a); 1-1 Galatasaray (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)
Atletico: 0-3 Porto (h); 1-1 APOEL (a); 2-2 Chelsea (h); 0-4 Chelsea (a); 0-2 Porto (a); 0-0 APOEL (h)

Goalscorers (Europe):
Liverpool: Torres 4; Benayoun, Babel, Gerrard, Kuyt, Ngog 2; Agger, Lucas, Mascherano 1
Atletico: Aguero 6; Forlan 3; Simão 2; Lopez, Maxi, Reyes 1

Referee: Laurent Duhamel (FRA)

Guess at a squad:
Johnson Carragher Kyrgiakos Agger
Lucas Mascherano
Benayoun Gerrard Babel

Somehow, two very undeserving teams are in a European semifinal. I love cup competition sometimes.

Enough’s been written about what I lovingly call the annus horribilis, and the horribleness continues, with Torres, Skrtel, Insua, Aurelio, Pacheco, and Kelly absent, and Liverpool having spent the last two days on buses, trains, and a plane to get to Madrid.

My questions, as usual, are who’ll be the striker in Torres’ absence, who’ll play on the wings, and whether Aquilani will get another start. Same old, same old. Away from home, Kuyt seems a better option as the prima punta; Ngog’s only scored two of his eight goals away from Anfield (against Debrecen and Leeds). Especially if he’s supported by Benayoun and Babel, which would be necessary with Kuyt up top, Maxi ineligible against his old team, and Riera ideally lost somewhere in the wilderness.

At the same time, it’ll probably be Lucas/Mascherano in midfield if it’s not Gerrard/Masch and 4-4-2. Aquilani hasn’t gotten more appearances as the season’s gone on, and Lucas has actually shown a bit more dynamism with Liverpool pushing forward more often. As such, I’d be surprised to see the Italian make the starting XI. He’s only started twice in Europe: against Fiorentina and Unirea, both at Anfield.

Atletico's league struggles even exceed Liverpool's, sitting in 10th with 40 points from 33 games (and you thought Liverpool's season had been horrific). Yet they find themselves in the semifinals of the Europa League and the final of the Copa del Rey. Somehow, they’re in the semifinals having won exactly one game – out of 12 – in European competition. Winless in the Champions League, a last-minute strike for a 3-2 aggregate over Galatasaray, and squeaking by Sporting Lisbon and Valencia thanks to the away-goal rule but in the semi-final aptly illustrates the vagaries of cup competition. Oh, and the clubs they beat to get to the Copa del Ray final were Marbella, Recreativo Huelva, Celta Vigo, and Racing Santander.

The Rojiblancos have lost their last three fixtures, but otherwise haven't been awful at the Vicente Calderon. They’ve won six of their last seven at home, with a loss in their last match against bottom-club Xerez the lone blemish. They've beaten Barcelona, Valencia, and Sevilla in front of their own fans this season. But with three 0-0 draws in six European home games, there's probably good money on that scoreline, especially since Torres is absent.

Thankfully, Liverpool's opponents are shorn of their star striker as well, if only for this leg. Aguero – who accounts for almost half of Atletico's goals in Europe – is suspended after unnecessarily picking up a yellow for time wasting late in the last round. I assume Jurado or Reyes will play off Forlan in his absence, and lacking Maradona's son-in-law, Reyes, Forlan, Simão will be Atletico's main threats.

Barcelona's performance after traveling for two days doesn't bode well for the team tomorrow. But a last shot at a trophy – the first since the FA Cup in 2006 (Community Shield doesn’t count) – should be motivation enough.

20 April 2010

No Torres, No Party?

It's somewhat moot after yesterday's match, with Liverpool having no problems against West Ham despite the absence of Fernando Torres, but the sentiment still remains. Liverpool's become far too much of a one-man team this season, and that one man isn't Gerrard for a change.

Torres goals, League goals:
'07-08: 67 league goals, 24 Torres = 36% of league goals
'08-09: 77 league, 14 Torres = 18%
'09-10: 57 league, 18 Torres = 32%

League Record with/without Torres starting:
   With: 18W-7D-4L (2.1 pts per game)
   Without: 3W-6D-0L (1.67 pts per game)
   With: 13W-7D-0L (2.3 pts per game)
   Without: 12W-4D-2L (2.22 pts per game)
   With: 11W-1D-8L (1.7 pts per game)
   Without: 6W-7D-2L (1.67 pts per game)

Funny how Liverpool's best season under Benitez came during the year that Torres was least productive. That's not coincidence. Liverpool were best last season because Liverpool had other players besides Torres scoring consistently.

Torres accounted for around a third of Liverpool's goals in '07-08 and '09-10. It's little surprise to see the disparity in Liverpool's records with and without the striker during those years, even if it's closer this campaign (yesterday's result added .1 to Liverpool's points per game without Torres). Of course, he started 29 league matches in '07-08 compared to 20 so far this season, which makes a difference when the player tallies almost 1 in 3 goals scored.

But Torres only accounted for 18% of Liverpool's Premiership strikes in '08-09, out injured for nearly half of the league campaign, and Liverpool finished second, with their highest point total more than in two decades. Gerrard and Kuyt had double-digit league tallies that season, while Benayoun chipped in eight of his own. That year, Liverpool wasn't a one or two man team. This year, Kuyt has 9 in the league, Gerrard 7, and Benayoun 6. That's 14 fewer goals than the three totaled last season.

As I've written multiple times during this annus horribilis, Liverpool's form isn't down to one factor, no matter how important that factor is. For example, take this year's record with and without Torres. Surprisingly, Liverpool has far more losses with Torres in the starting XI than without. When Torres has been missing in the last few months, Liverpool usually ends matches level, yesterday notwithstanding. That can be explained by another of my 'excuses' this season: the backline.

Liverpool lost against the likes of Spurs, Villa, and Fulham despite having El Niño in the line-up primarily because the defense was so awful in those matches. Now that the defense has firmed up (relatively speaking), Liverpool's often drawing matches when Torres is out. They're not conceding stupid goals, but few are scoring in the striker's absence either. Nil-nils against Blackburn, Wolves, and City are prime examples of this.

Five of Liverpool's six wins without Torres came at Anfield. The sides Liverpool beat were Everton (twice), Tottenham, Bolton, Wigan, West Ham; only Everton and Spurs are in the top-half, and those three games couldn't have been tighter. It's not as if Liverpool have laid waste to a murderer's row without El Niño.

This isn't to say Liverpool can't win without Torres – demonstrably incorrect as of less than 24 hours ago – or that Liverpool has to change the formation/buy another top-level striker. I only have to reference last season and Robbie Keane to warn how new blood can alter an excellent dynamic. Don't get me wrong; everyone's aware Liverpool needs to make signings this summer. But, as we saw yesterday, it's more important that the other piano players – Gerrard, Benayoun, Maxi, etc. – step up when Torres is out.

19 April 2010

Liverpool 3-0 West Ham

Johnson Carragher Kyrgiakos Agger
Lucas Gerrard
Maxi Kuyt Benayoun

Benayoun 19’
Ngog 29’
Green (og) 59’

Three-nil and Liverpool rarely left neutral, let alone first gear. Yeah, it was a little worrisome when the team looked lackadaisical until the opener, with Liverpool limited to an early shot by Maxi easily saved by Green. But 19 minutes in, Liverpool struck from a free kick thanks to Gerrard’s delivery and Benayoun’s cleverness, then tallied the necessary second ten minutes later. After that, the reserved display didn’t seem so unpleasant, with minds almost assuredly on the Europa League.

As often this season, I could have drawn the formation differently, with Liverpool sometimes 4-4-2. But Kuyt dropped off Ngog and both Gerrard and Lucas sat deeper than the wingers, with Lucas further forward than Gerrard at first (which switched after the opener). And it initially led to a gap between midfield and attack that West Ham were unable to exploit thanks to Liverpool’s strength in the center.

The team looked most dangerous from set plays, partly due to Gerrard’s dangerous deliveries and partly West Ham’s defense. It led to the first goal (brilliantly chested in by Benayoun avoiding contact with his arm after beating the offside trap), should have led to Liverpool’s second (Kyrgiakos missing a sitter from the captain’s outswinging corner), and did lead to the third, with the aforementioned defender bundling a free kick onto the post that bounced in off Robert Green’s ankle. Meanwhile, West Ham had two shots in the first half, both from Cole. One was an easy save (but excellent catch) by Reina, the other screwed well wide from outside the box.

A great second goal epitomized Liverpool’s willingness to patiently build from defense and West Ham’s willingness to sit back and allow Liverpool to stroll about, hoping to pack the rearguard. Gerrard to Agger to Benayoun, running infield and spreading wide for Maxi, who quickly crossed for Ngog. The striker’s flash to the near post beat England’s Matty Upson and his finish prompted a comparison to Torres from the commentators, with Green getting in front but unable to keep the strong strike out.

From there, Liverpool were home and dry and played like it. And West Ham played like a beaten side ready for a bus ride back to London. Liverpool could have had four penalties, but all were marginal and Walton wasn’t giving anything unless it was stonewall. Kuyt’s 38th minute flick-on bounced off Stanislaus' arm while he was covering Gerrard. Ngog was brought down in the area five minutes later. And Liverpool had two more handball shouts in the 50th and 63rd.

It made little difference, especially after Kyrgiakos forced Green into an own goal less than 15 minutes after the restart. The last half-hour was a formality, for a change, with Mascherano, Degen, and Babel replacing Gerrard, Benayoun, and Ngog.

Even though Liverpool were ineffective for large stretches (although, to be fair, they didn’t have to be on top form), the difference was goals from infrequent scorers. It was the first league goal for either Benayoun or Ngog since December (the first in all competitions for Yossi), while the third came thanks to a center back.

At the same time, Liverpool were excellent on set plays, although we can give some credit to West Ham’s "defending." Two goals, a sitter missed, and two that could have led to penalties. Four of those five deliveries came from the captain. And thanks to the clean sheet, Reina’s back in the lead for the Golden Gloves.

At this stage of the season, especially this season, all you can ask for is three points. Liverpool finally looks to be breaking that Monday hoodoo and actually won a game comfortably. Not a bad way to set up a trip to Madrid for a European semi-final, even if it’s not the preferred competition. It’s still a chance for a trophy.

17 April 2010

Liverpool v West Ham 04.19.10

3pm ET, live in the US on espn2

Last 4 head-to-head:
3-2 Liverpool (a) 09.19.09
3-0 Liverpool (a) 05.09.09
0-0 (h) 12.01.08
4-0 Liverpool (h) 03.05.08

Last three matches:
Liverpool: 0-0 Fulham (h); 4-1 Benfica (h); 1-1 Brum (a)
West Ham: 1-0 Sunderland (h); 2-2 Everton (a); 0-1 Stoke (h)

Goalscorers (league):
Liverpool: Torres 18; Kuyt 9; Gerrard 7; Benayoun 5; Ngog 4; Babel, Johnson 3; Aquilani, Kyrgiakos, Skrtel 1
West Ham: Cole 9; Diamanti 7; Franco 4; Ilan, Stanislaus, Upson 3; Collison, da Costa, Noble 2; Behrami, Faubert, Hines, Jimenez, Kovac, Parker 1

Referee: Peter Walton

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

It’s another game against a side Liverpool drew 0-0 at home last season. And it’s Liverpool’s first match in eight days, with two more to follow over the subsequent six. Which means changes are bound to happen, especially since Torres and Insua have been added to the casualty list that Aurelio, Skrtel, and Kelly are already on.

With Torres out, Liverpool’s limited to either Kuyt or Ngog up top. Maybe Benitez will pair the strikers with Masch/Gerrard in midfield, or Babel could play as a second striker if that’s the preferred formation, but Liverpool will probably stick with 4-2-3-1, even at home. And if that’s the case, I think Kuyt’s the better option.

Even including last year’s 0-0, Liverpool’s scored 10 goals in the last four matches against West Ham. Unfortunately, Torres has half of them. Liverpool will assuredly miss his presence tomorrow, but having Kuyt, Maxi, Babel, and Aquilani all on the pitch would hopefully allow the team to throw bodies forward and get men in the box to compensate for the missing #9.

And yes, I do suspect Aquilani will start. One, as said above, Liverpool needs the dynamism from midfield. Two, Lucas will almost certainly start on Thursday in an away European match (if flights ever leave the UK again). And with three matches in six days, Aquilani will have to start at least once.

At the same time, Maxi’s European ineligibility means he’s almost certain for Monday as well. With Kuyt up top and Maxi on the right, I’m convinced Babel would be the best option for the left. Neither Kuyt nor Maxi is the quickest, with Kuyt liable to drop deep and Maxi to cut inside. Having Benayoun on the left could lead Liverpool to be far too narrow, as has happened too often this season. But yes, other than having Kuyt for Ngog, I’m aware I’m suggesting the same front six that couldn’t score last week.

Agger will remain at left back with Aurelio still injured and news that Insua tore his quad. Injuries to Aurelio, Skrtel, and Insua mean no changes seem possible in defense. Ayala won’t be back in the first team unless further casualties require it, while I hope to never see Degen start for Liverpool again.

If it’s been a disappointing season for Liverpool’s, it’s been doubly so for West Ham. On the edge of the relegation zone for nearly the entire campaign, Zola’s team is ahead of Burnley and Hull by four points. With backs against the wall, they’ve gotten results in their last two matches: a late draw earned at Everton and a narrow 1-0 win against Sunderland. And with the form of the two teams below them, West Ham might only need one win for safety.

Captain Scott Parker is suspended, while Boa Morte, Hines, Dyer, and Tomkins will miss out through injury. The Hammers have gone 4-4-2 recently, with Carlton Cole pairing either Mido or Ilan and Noble/Kovac manning the midfield.

Liverpool have four games left in the futile fight for fourth. But heads cannot drop; all four are winnable – even hosting Chelsea in two weeks. Finish the right way, just like last season, and hope that it carries over to the next campaign this time.

15 April 2010

96 Never Forgotten

A thought for the families who lost loved ones at Hillsborough 21 years ago today. Still fighting for justice, still searching for the truth. 'You'll never walk alone' never seemed more fitting.

Hillsborough Justice Campaign
Hillsborough Family Support Group
The Hillsborough Football Disaster
Don’t Buy The Sun
Guardian article on current Hillsborough panel
Liverpoolfc.tv tribute page

11 April 2010

Liverpool 0-0 Fulham

Johnson Carragher Kyrgiakos Agger
Mascherano Aquilani
Maxi Gerrard Babel

Well, I can’t even pretend that fourth is possible despite a draw in the last five matches anymore. This is one of the matches that couldn’t be drawn. But it’s 0-0, just like last season, even though beating 10 men behind the ball at Anfield was one of the few things this year’s side had done well. Unfortunately, unlike last year’s side, they don’t score late goals. And evidently what goes around does not come around.

Yes, it’s Liverpool’s fault that they couldn't break down the bus parkers – and they had chances – but you can’t help compare Jonathan Greening staying on the field 10 minutes before halftime with the two red cards Liverpool incurred in the reverse fixture. That’s this season in a nutshell.

Also adequately summing up this season was the disparity in possession and attempts on goal without reaping any rewards. Liverpool had something like two-thirds of the possession and 24 shots (seven on target) compared to Fulham’s three.

Initially probing the opposition, Liverpool saw a scramble cleared off the line and two half-chances for Ngog wide in the first 15 minutes. Midway through the first half had a 90-second spell where Liverpool should have went in front. Aquilani bicycled straight at Schwarzer, seeming somewhat surprised to receive Gerrard’s cutback. Maxi then ghosted in for the Italian’s ball over the top, only to see Schwarzer save with his legs. That was followed up by Aquilani heading Babel’s floated cross over the bar.

A Mascherano blast from distance, again well saved by Schwarzer, prefaced the inevitable controversy. Greening, already on a yellow, cynical blocked off Johnson charging down the right. In front of a baying Kop, Marriner decided a stern lecture would suffice. Had Greening been unpunished to that point, I guarantee he’d have been booked. Nice work. Again, I can’t help but think back to Degen and Carragher’s dismissals at Craven Cottage.

But from there, the team can certainly be blamed for its inability to break down two determined bands of four. The inclusion of Aquilani, Maxi, and Babel at the expense of Lucas, Kuyt, and Benayoun demonstrated Liverpool’s intent, but intent wasn’t enough. Obviously, Torres was dearly missed, but that he didn’t even make the bench should answer any lingering questions over why he was taken off at Birmingham. Ngog’s in for a lot of rightful criticism, but it’s more an indictment of the state of the club that he’s the second-choice striker. What money was Benitez going use on another forward? Liverpool went broke replacing Alonso, Arbeloa, and Hyypia.

Still, you can’t help but look at the amount of possession and the number of chances, which naturally heightened in the second half. Schwarzer tipped Aquilani’s 50th-minute curler over the bar and saved Babel’s brilliant near post strike in the 63rd. Ngog and Kyrgiakos missed free headers in the 69th and 77th. And Pacheco, on for Ngog as a last throw of the dice after Kuyt replaced Aquilani and Benayoun came on for Babel, saw his shot on target blocked four minutes from full time.

And in complete contrast to last season’s late winners, Fulham had the lone chance in injury time, with Reina finally called into action by Duff’s stinging shot. That was the away side’s lone shot on target.

Liverpool had enough chances to win, so I guess we have to credit a resilient Fulham and an excellent Schwarzer. But you can’t help but be frustrated with the inability to score goals in the absence of Torres, especially with Ngog under-performing. No one really played well outside of Mascherano and Johnson, but I’m most inclined to look in Gerrard's direction. For all of Liverpool’s shots, Gerrard never had any on goal, with two or three from distance charged down by defenders.

As I write this, City leads Birmingham 3-1 at halftime. Assuming they hold on, they’ll be six points ahead of Liverpool with a game in hand. Their last five games are vs United, at Arsenal, vs Villa, vs Tottenham, and at West Ham. Chances are they aren’t losing all five, even if all five pose threats – including a West Ham team that might need a win to stay up. At best, Liverpool can get to 68 points, but must beat West Ham (h), Burnley (a), Chelsea (h), and Hull (a) to so do. Given goal difference, City only need two wins (or a win and four draws) to claim fourth. Tottenham’s needs are similar with a schedule of vs Arsenal, vs Chelsea, at United, vs Bolton, at City, and at Burnley.

Mathematically, it’s not over. But it’s over. All the team can do is finish strongly for pride, which might lead to a Europa League spot (yay!). And as fans, all we can do now is work towards getting Hicks and Gillett out, new investment, and – at least in my opinion – real backing for Benitez. And hope that this summer doesn't doom the club.

09 April 2010

Liverpool v Fulham 04.11.10

10am ET, live in the US on espn2 (HD!)

Last 4 head-to-head:
1-3 Fulham (a) 10.31.09
1-0 Liverpool (a) 04.04.09
0-0 (h) 11.22.08
2-0 Liverpool (a) 04.19.08

Last three matches:
Liverpool: 4-1 Benfica (h); 1-1 Brum (a); 1-2 Benfica (a)
Fulham: 1-0 Wolfsburg (a); 2-1 Wigan (h); 2-1 Wolfsburg (h)

Goalscorers (league):
Liverpool: Torres 18; Kuyt 9; Gerrard 7; Benayoun 5; Ngog 4; Babel, Johnson 3; Aquilani, Kyrgiakos, Skrtel 1
Fulham: Zamora 8; Dempsey, Duff 6; Murphy 5; Gera, Nevland 2; Elm, Greening, Hangeland, Konchesky, Okaka 1

Referee: Andre Marriner

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

Had you told me this would be a match-up of the last two English teams in European competition, I’d have laughed right in your face. Probably would have mocked your immediate family as well. Funny old game, isn’t it?

Once again, will Aquilani come back into the side? We finally saw what we’d been hoping for from Lucas against Benfica – dynamic runs forward (including one tremendous finish) while still ably aiding Mascherano’s quest to tackle every player in black – but I wonder how much the match took out of the Brazilian. On face value, this is a game for Aqua, where Liverpool need as many goal threats as possible, but I said the same thing about Thursday’s match.

Benitez will obviously have to change some things up with only two days between fixtures. Specifically, 90 minutes for Benayoun yesterday makes me believe Babel will get another start on Sunday, although I admit that might just be hope. And at the same time, while Kuyt rarely seems to need rest, Maxi’s been excellent on the right in the league. If it’s not the above formation, I expect 4-4-2 with Kuyt partnering Torres and Gerrard/Mascherano in midfield.

Despite playing well yesterday, I doubt Agger will remain at left back. In the press conference prior to Benfica, Benitez mentioned a slight injury to Insua, but I haven’t seen anything on that since, and have to believe he’ll play if fit. Agger filled the role splendidly, but he's a center back first and foremost. If Benfica had a dangerous winger who stayed out on the right, Liverpool could have been punished for Agger’s positioning – he’s used to drifting inside because that’s where he always plays. With Duff, Davies, or Gera likely on the right for Fulham, Liverpool will need someone to stop crosses from coming in.

Thankfully, both sides are on the same amount of rest, with Liverpool having a slight edge because their Thursday match was at home. Both Zamora and Simon Davies picked up minor knocks – hopefully both will be ruled out – while Dempsey is out with a thigh problem. Zamora’s in outstanding form, and deserves every one of the “Zamora for England” chants.

Fulham haven’t won away since the opening day of the league, but performed magically last night in Wolfsburg to advance to the Europa League semifinals. The most recent road trip was an 0-2 loss at Hull, Iain Dowie’s one and only win since taking over as manager. In fact, Fulham’s win over Wigan last weekend was the club’s first league victory since February 21, against Birmingham (of all teams). The club has one win, one draw, and three league losses since that match. But like Liverpool in years’ past, they’ve been spectacular in Europe, form be damned.

Let’s hope Fulham continues to focus on the Europa League, while Liverpool should be full of vengeance for the away loss (and two red cards) suffered in the reverse fixture. It goes without saying that “must win” doesn’t come close to summing up this game’s importance.

08 April 2010

Liverpool 4-1 Benfica

Liverpool win 5-3 on aggregate.

Johnson Carragher Kyrgiakos Agger
Lucas Mascherano
Kuyt Gerrard Benayoun

Kuyt 27’
Lucas 34’
Torres 58’ 82’
Cardozo 70’

It may have taken a backs-against-the-wall European night, but we finally saw Liverpool at its best. They may have beaten lesser teams by bigger margins, but this was a perfect performance in which every player seemed at his peak against very good opposition.

For the first ten minutes, it looked as if Benfica were the home side, playing keep-away while threatening from a couple of set players. But Liverpool steadied for over the next 10 minutes, and struck with two excellent goals in subsequent 15. A perfect start to say the least.

It looked as if Liverpool would get another backhand from a referee when Kuyt’s carbon copy of his winner against Everton was initially ruled out for offside. Evidently, the linesman wrongly assumed Kyrgiakos got a touch on Gerrard’s corner. But Kuipers mercifully overruled, giving Liverpool the aggregate edge thanks to the same lovely rule that sent United packing yesterday.

And seven minutes later, Liverpool’s other scapegoat popped up. Predictably, I can’t express how happy I am for Lucas, and not solely because I frequently defend the player. Hell, I guessed he wouldn’t start today because I thought Liverpool needed more dynamic runs from midfield. Shows what I know.

Initially, I thought it was Torres that tallied the second. Gerrard’s perfect throughball split the defense, allowing Lucas to dash forward and round the keeper in a precise replication of the striker’s cool finishing. And nine minutes later, it was Lucas who prevented a leveler, clearing off the line after Sidnei dangerously centered a corner back across.

After this season’s multiple misfortunes, it would have no surprise to see Liverpool slowly retreat in the second half, protecting their narrow advantage. But the home side continued to press forward for a third. The open game certainly didn’t help the nerves, but the third came less than 13 minutes after the restart from a lightning counter attack. Of course it was Torres.

Liverpool charged out of their own half after Johnson cleared Martins’ free kick, ending with Benayoun spreading out wide to Kuyt open on the right. The pass looked a step too far for the Dutchman, but Kuyt’s diving center put it on a plate for Torres. Both the second and third goals were classic Liverpool, a quality that’s been missing far too often this season.

Liverpool had a stranglehold on the opposition until the 70th minute, with Carragher, Kyrgiakos, and Mascherano snuffing out absolutely everything, until Cardozo’s 20-yard free kick. In a dangerous position after a “foul” by Kuyt, the striker’s shot snuck under a leaping Gerrard, beating Reina. It might have been Liverpool’s first mistake of the game – as well as Cardozo's first real threat – but it certainly made the last 20 minutes look terribly frightening.

Another Cardozo free kick from the same position six minutes later sucked all the air out of Anfield, just curling wide and into the side netting. Di Maria’s subsequent corner nearly proved just as treacherous, but eluded Cardozo and other on-rushing attackers.

Unlike in all too many matches over the last eight months, Liverpool heads never dropped. The team rarely looked cautious or uncertain. What a difference something as simple as confidence makes. An injury to Julio Cesar, probably incurred battling with Kuyt on a corner, took the sting out of Benfica’s modest momentum, and that man Torres sealed the deal in the 82nd after another highlight-reel counter.

Lucas’ fantastic tackle went straight to Gerrard, who found Mascherano with one touch. Masch continued the quick movement, sumptuously chipping over the defense, putting Torres one-on-one with Moreira. Tough position to be in for your first shot on goal, and Torres made his chip over the keeper look effortless. Maybe 4-1 is a harsh scoreline, but Liverpool deserves every reward for today’s match.

You have to wryly smile at how unerring Benitez’s tactics were today. One good game against very good opposition doesn’t make up for the totality of this year’s disappointments, but you have to believe that this is exactly what Benitez hoped for and expected from this XI. It's about time.

For once, Lucas and Mascherano wasn’t a conservative pairing, evidenced by the lovely second goal brilliantly set-up by the captain. Kuyt tallied a goal and assist, with his pass to Torres much more difficult than it looked. Agger did very well on the left, although admittedly, he wasn’t challenged as often as I thought he’d be; Ramires is more a central midfielder than a right-winger, which fed into Agger’s proclivity to drift inside. Di Maria was kept quiet for long stretches, while both Aimar and Martins had far less influence than in the away leg, mostly due to Mascherano’s fearsome patrolling. Cardozo rarely had a sniff, marshaled by Carragher and Kyrgiakos. And, finally, Torres and Gerrard were Torres and Gerrard. The captain’s shown marked improvement in the last two matches, while Torres notched twice. Let’s hope he keeps that up against his old club in the next round, with a trip to Atletico imminent.

Again, it’s one game. But that truly was a great one.

07 April 2010

Liverpool v Benfica 04.08.10

Benfica lead 2-1 on aggregate.

3:05pm ET, live in the US on GolTV. Which means more people get to see it, but no HD. Personally, I'd rather the HD, but I'm a jerk like that.

Last 3 matches:
Liverpool: 1-1 Brum (a); 1-2 Benfica (a); 3-0 Sunderland (h)
Benfica: 4-2 Naval (a); 2-1 Liverpool (h); 1-0 Braga (h)

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; Agger, Kuyt, Mascherano 1
Benfica: Cardozo 9; Saviola 5; Di Maria 4; Maxi Pereira 2; Aimar, Coentrão, Javi García, Kardec, Luisão, Weldon 1

Referee: Bjorn Kuipers (NED)

Guess at a squad:
Johnson Kyrgiakos Agger Carragher
Kuyt Gerrard Aquilani Benayoun

Well, we’re getting to the point of the season where it’s easier to predict line-ups. Not only have we seen Benitez’s template in nearly every game, but suspensions also force Liverpool’s hands in this one. The questions are who’ll play at left back and whether Aquilani will start.

Carragher played a substantial amount of games at left back early in the decade. Agger played there once or twice in preseason (as did Johnson). As a right-footer, Carragher would be well placed to prevent Benfica’s right winger – whether it’s Ramires as usual or if Di Maria switches sides – from cutting in. In theory, Agger’s comfort on the ball and pace should stand out at left back, but we just haven’t seen him do it. While we’re all well aware Carra doesn’t fancy fullback much these days, I think he’s the more likely option solely because of experience. Safety first.

Of course, this could all be moot with Benitez hinting at a change in formation – using three centerbacks – in today’s press conference. But even if Liverpool use wingbacks or go 3-4-3 as at Sunderland, I still don’t know who’d play on the left. I don’t trust Benayoun to track back when there’s a fullback behind him. I really don’t trust him with three centerbacks, and Benfica can exploit the flanks with players like Di Maria.

That Aquilani came off the bench against Birmingham makes me think he’ll start tomorrow. The rumors of an ankle injury that’d end his campaign seem misplaced, and it looks as if Benitez is trying to kick-start his campaign by questioning his injury in the press and playing up his importance in games/seasons to come. Aquilani would give Liverpool far more in Benfica’s third, and his playing higher up the pitch – nearly on the same level as Gerrard – would allow Liverpool to press Benfica closer to their goal.

As often repeated since the match-up was made, Benfica is an exceptionally dangerous side, and will probably start the same XI as last week (Saviola is still injured). They won 4-2 at Naval on Easter Monday despite going two-down within 12 minutes; they’re now unbeaten in 27 games.

But, being at Anfield and needing to overturn a first-leg deficit, I’m still hoping Liverpool lines up as they did against Sunderland and Portsmouth, with far more impetus in going forward. There’s a bit of a difference between Pompey and Benfica, but Liverpool should attack early and often regardless. The away goal tallied last week is a huge benefit – 1-0 will win the tie, which might lead to Liverpool’s usual European style, but the psychological advantage of attacking without fear can’t be overemphasized.

The obvious fear is getting cut apart on the counter, especially through Cardozo and Di Maria. It’ll be a massive match for Mascherano, while both Kuyt and Benayoun will have to do a bit of tracking back (I’m looking at you, Yossi…). I don’t expect either Carragher or Agger – whomever’s at left back – to bomb forward very often. But Liverpool must go for it. Before, yet again, it’s too late.

06 April 2010

Away Chances, Away Goals

17 away league games, 14 goals. That's abysmal. And it's led to a record of four wins, five draws, and eight losses away from Anfield. I've prattled on about the multiple causes of Liverpool's season-long misfortune, and there are multiple, but at the end of the season, the away form might be the most glaring.

I still believe that many of this season's problems can't be pinned solely on Benitez, but you can't help but start with the manager on this one. Liverpool only lost two games on the road last season, picking up 43 points in the process, and three the season before. The team scored 36 in the league away from Anfield in the previous campaign. And it's usually the tactics that result in such a vast discrepancy.

Yet from memories alone, I'm not inclined to single out a lack of ambition in attack. Sure, Liverpool were conservative in trips to Wolves and City and patently awful against the likes Pompey and Wigan. But I also remember early season losses to Spurs and Fulham, as well as the narrow wins over Bolton and West Ham (where Liverpool had to score three to win). Liverpool tried the more attacking mindset at the start of the season, trying to build on the form they ended the previous season with. And as we saw, it didn't work because of an unsettled and sloppy defense (especially on set plays) and the absence of Alonso, among other variables.

Reverting to stereotype, Liverpool have lost and drawn some dreadful away games, most glaringly the aforementioned Pompey, Wigan, City, and Wolves matches. But they've also picked up victories at Villa and Everton using similarly cagey tactics. The cliché 'sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn't' holds true for every team and manager. After six years with Benitez, we should at least be used to the ride, the good and the bad. It's brought victories over the likes of United, Barca and Real Madrid, and losses to the likes of Middlesbrough, Portsmouth and Wigan.

I guess this is a good place for some relevant statistics from previous seasons. Beware, this gets numbers-heavy even for me from here.

Away goals per game
'09-10: 0.824 (14 through 17)
'08-09: 1.895 (36)
'07-08: 1.263 (24)
'06-07: 0.947 (18)
'05-06: 1.316 (25)
'04-05: 1.105 (21)

Away record/League Position
'09-10: 4 wins, 5 draws, 8 losses (?)
'08-09: 13 wins, 4 draws, 2 losses (2nd)
'07-08: 9 wins, 7 draws, 3 losses (4th)
'06-07: 6 wins, 4 draws, 9 losses (3rd)
'05-06: 10 wins, 4 draws, 5 losses (3rd)
'04-05: 5 wins, 3 draws, 11 losses (5th)

So far, it's been the worst of Rafa's six seasons. And if Liverpool don't beat both Burnley and Hull – the 18th and 19th-placed teams – while scoring at least four, it'll end as the worst.

The away form, in both goals and overall record, looks most like '06-07. Liverpool finished with 68 points that season, which is what they'll get this year if they manage four wins and a draw over the next five games. The difference, obviously, is in the strength of the league. Arsenal, City, Tottenham, and Villa have all improved that much in the last three years.

Delving deeper into it, over the course of this season, Liverpool's averaged 13 shots per away match compared to 20 per home game. Which is pretty much the same as '06-07: 13 per away match and 19 at Anfield. The discrepancy's only egregious when counting shots on target: just less than three per game away compared to seven at home. In '06-07, Liverpool averaged 6.5 shots on target per away match, more than twice as many as this season, and 8.5 at home.

To add more numbers to the pile, let's look at it in how many shots and shots on target it takes to score.

• 15.99 shots per away goal
• 3.5 shots on target per away goal
• 6.0 shots per home goal (3.375 goals/game)
• 2.15 shots on target per home goal

• 13.84 shots per away goal
• 6.94 shots on target per away goal
• 5.9 shots per home goal (3.167 goals/game)
• 2.67 shots on target per home goal

Liverpool found it far easier to score, and about at the same rate, at home in both seasons. No surprise. Every team's better at home. Even this season, Fortress Anfield has made a difference.

Only one of those four stats stands out: the number of shots on target it took to score away from Anfield. In '06-07, Liverpool scored once for every seven shots on target. It's exactly half that this year. With that sort of efficiency, Liverpool should have no trouble tallying goals. If only they could get shots on target.

Otherwise, the number of shots and goals per game, whether home or away, as well as Liverpool's away record, is similar in both seasons. Fewer shots on target but a similar number of shots in total usually means more shots from distance.

Remember, Liverpool didn't adopt the 4-3-2-1 consistently until last season. Liverpool almost always lined up 4-4-2 in '06-07, even away from Anfield, with some combination of Crouch, Kuyt, Bellamy, and Fowler up top. Gerrard, Sissoko, Alonso, and later Mascherano played in central midfield, with Gerrard sometimes shifting out right (usually in the "big" away games).

Tactics and formation only go so far. Liverpool weren't good enough this season or in '06-07, and Benitez probably should have been bolder in both. But similar numbers of shots and goals despite the difference in formation suggests it has more to do with to the players. They're getting shots. They're just not going in. And the ones that actually hit the target are beating the keepers, suggesting that the close range shots are working; that Torres is doing his job.

That's vindicated by his goals per game and per minute ratios. No surprise that he has six of Liverpool's 14 away goals, double Gerrard in second place. Pity he's been injured so much. The only other players to have scored away from Anfield in the league are Kuyt (2), Johnson, and Kyrgiakos, with one own goal. It goes without saying that Liverpool cannot rely on Torres or Gerrard to bail them out of tough away matches.

This isn't to re-ignite Sunday's substitution debate. Torres looked jaded and Liverpool were better after Ngog came on. But the overall point remains: the other attackers aren't carrying their weight, especially away from Anfield, where Liverpool's desperately needed someone to make the leap. Every week I look up the opposition's goal-scorers for my previews, and every week I'm surprised by the difference between Liverpool's 2nd, 3rd, and/or 4th placed scorers and the oppositions. The gap's rarely as large as Liverpool's.

Whether or not Torres needs a strike partner or more support from the line of three is open for debate, and we'll probably debate it a lot this summer. Liverpool did score a record number of goals last season, both home and away, using primarily the 4-2-3-1. That may not be possible without Alonso. But Torres needs help, especially away from Anfield. And even though these stats somewhat support Benitez's tactics – or at least demonstrate that the formation doesn't really matter – Torres still needs more help from the manager's game plan. Of course, for Torres to get help, Liverpool will need to get money.

But long story short, if you can't hit the target, you're not going to win. And Liverpool's players just aren't hitting the target enough.

More raw numbers:
• '09-10 shots away: 224(49 on target) = 13.18(2.88) per game
• '09-10 shots home: 324(116) = 20.25(7.25) per game
• '06-07 shots away: 249(125) = 13.11(6.58) per game
• '06-07 shots home: 355(161) = 18.68(8.47) per game

05 April 2010

More Places Where I Write Stupid Things

I started using Twitter as a personal outlet, bitching about life and other sports as well as the Premier League and Liverpool. Which is why I've been hesitant to link it here on the blog. I know full well most of you don't care about Syracuse basketball or my rec soccer team.

But the basketball season's just about over (go Butler!) and I rarely catalog the foibles of my rec team anymore. Basically, I complain about Liverpool, referees, and whatever soccer match I'm watching in 140 characters, and am far more sarcastic and rude than I am here.

So if you're inclined, you can find me at http://twitter.com/natefc. I need the attention. Don't mind the username. I was too stupid to register 'Oh You Beauty' then and I'm too lazy to switch to it now.

04 April 2010

Liverpool 1-1 Birmingham

Johnson Kyrgiakos Carragher Insua
Maxi Lucas Gerrard Benayoun
Torres Kuyt

Gerrard 47’
Ridgewell 56’

Sigh. Every single time. Matches against Birmingham are miserably predictable. And the inability to keep a lead costs Liverpool yet again, for the second straight game no less.

The first half was unsurprisingly cagey. Birmingham defended well, while Liverpool’s midfield underwhelmed and the attack was too narrow, feeding into the home side’s game plan and strengths.

Liverpool were mainly limited to speculative shots from distance early on, none of which truly tested Hart. For all the possession, Liverpool – as usual – only looked dangerous when countering, and that’s where the first half’s lone chance came.

In the 35th minute, after Brum had kept the ball in the opposition’s end for more than a fleeting minute, Liverpool countered at pace through Kuyt, Gerrard, and Torres, with the striker’s right-sided cross finding Maxi. But Hart (who easily should be England’s #1) somehow kept out his volleyed shot, just tipping it onto the bar with his fingernails. That chance led into increased Birmingham pressure – your level of surprise at that depends on your level of pessimism – with an offside Jerome (somehow ruled on) stinging Reina’s palms and Insua subsequently having to clear a cross from the six-yard box around the 40th.

The opener had both a touch of good fortune and Gerrard at his irrepressible best. Less than two minutes after the restart, the captain’s corner made its way back to him after Johnson’s mishit shot found him open on the left. Working space by baffling Bowyer, he curled a lovely shot into the far corner. Simply brilliant, but also with the requisite luck in Johnson’s “assist.”

Yet less than 10 minutes later, Liverpool were back to square one completely of their own making. Partly sitting back, but with Birmingham clearly going for a quick equalizer, McFadden danced his way into space on the left and curled a cross for an absolutely unmarked Ridgewell, ghosting in behind both Johnson and Maxi, to tap in. Just embarrassing.

I reckon that Rafa will come under more criticism for the subsequent substitution that Liverpool’s marking will for the goal. In the 65th, in what had to be pre-planned, Torres came off for Ngog to what sounded like boos from both supporters and bewilderment from both Torres and Gerrard.

And while Liverpool upped their game, actually creating chances, nothing came. Three minutes after the change, Ngog headed Johnson’s cross inches wide of the near post. Converting that sure would have made the substitution look a lot smarter.

A minute later, Brum could have taken the lead, with Ridgewell crossing from Liverpool’s right only to see an open Bowyer completely mis-control at the back post, but from there, it was all the away side. ‘All the away side’ still couldn’t find the back of the net.

First, Ngog missed another great chance, shooting wide after good interplay between Kuyt and Maxi in the 73rd. In the last ten minutes, Maxi’s shot from Ngog’s cutback hit Aquilani in the six-yard box (came on for Kuyt in the 81st, while Babel replaced the anonymous Benayoun in the 71st), Gerrard’s curler from inside the D was inches high, and Maxi somehow volleyed over after Hart pushed Gerrard’s cross right to the midfielder. Babel’s shot into the side netting and Ngog unable to get good contact on Gerrard’s excellent ball over the top in injury time summed up the last half-hour adequately.

If we’re jumping to any conclusions from the Torres substitution, only two are applicable: Rafa is prioritizing the Europa League over the possibility of two more points here (see also: Masch and Agger left out) and that Torres still isn’t fully fit. But that’s “Grandmaster Benitez.” That Ngog missed three clear-cut chances, probably better than anything Liverpool had besides the goal and Maxi’s volley off the bar, makes it even harder to take. To be fair, Liverpool had two good chances while Torres was on and six or seven after, but still, you have to believe he would have tallied one of them.

Other than taking off Torres, Benitez “went for it.” In an away match! Liverpool lined up 4-4-2 with Lucas and Gerrard, a pairing present in 4-0 and 6-1 wins over Burnley and Hull respectively. But the midfield couldn’t impose itself, leading to mostly Route 1 passes in the first half, which Birmingham ate up. Benayoun’s deployment on the left led to increasingly narrow play (something Maxi’s also prone to) with the Israeli unable to make any impact. Both Babel and Aquilani were “positive” substitutions, but neither could add the needed final ball.

Birmingham continues to be my least-favorite bogey club, and results like these happen every single year. It’s just that Liverpool’s on such a slim razor’s edge to begin with that makes it so much worse.

Two weeks ago, I wrote that Liverpool could draw two games – this one and Chelsea – and still pip fourth if City and Spurs drop enough points. Both have tougher run-ins, and Spurs helped matters by surprisingly losing to Sunderland. This certainly sucks an incredible amount, but it didn’t decide fourth. However, Liverpool dearly needs a result against Chelsea, and combined those other results going Liverpool’s way, would probably mean that United win the league.

All I can say is Liverpool had better progress on Thursday after today's result.

02 April 2010

Liverpool at Birmingham 04.04.10

10am ET, live in the US on FSP

Last 4 head-to-head:
2-2 (h) 11.09.09
2-2 (a) 04.26.08
0-0 (h) 09.22.07
1-0 Liverpool (a; League Cup) 11.08.06

Last three matches:
Liverpool: 1-2 Benfica (a); 3-0 Sunderland (h); 1-2 United (a)
Brum: 1-1 Arse (h); 1-2 Blackburn (a); 1-3 Sunderland (a)

Goalscorers (league):
Liverpool: Torres 18; Kuyt 9; Gerrard 6; Benayoun 5; Ngog 4; Babel, Johnson 3; Aquilani, Kyrgiakos, Skrtel 1
Brum: Jerome 9; Bowyer 5; Larsson, McFadden, Phillips 4; Chucho, Ridgewell 2; Gardner, O’Connor 1

Referee: Martin Atkinson

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

Please, please, please don’t punish Babel for yesterday’s sending off. The result and subsequent criticism have been punishment enough, and if any player’s a confidence player, it’s Babel. You’ve all seen my past condemnation of him, and my recent conversation to advocate. If he becomes out of favor for this incident, I fear that the last six weeks of good work will go down the drain, especially since he’s ineligible for next week’s match at the least.

Yes, I’m surprised I’ve guessed a line-up without Kuyt as well. My reasons are two-fold. One, I would willingly pay money so that Maxi doesn’t line up on the left. The more I’ve seen him, the more I’m convinced he is a right-winger, and needs to line up on that side. He was outstanding last Sunday. The second is resting Kuyt after an all-action performance yesterday, running ragged for 90 minutes with a man down for two-thirds of that.

Were this at Anfield, I’d be tempted to suggest the same line-up that won 3-0 against Sunderland, and I almost guessed it anyway. But 4-4-2 away from home admittedly still frightens me. I wouldn’t be surprised (or upset) to see it, but wanting to control the middle of the park seems more likely in a match such as this.

I still don’t expect any changes in defense, even with some mandatory next Thursday. Maybe we’ll see Agger or Carragher on the left (remember, Carra spent an entire season at LB under Houllier) with Kyrgiakos in the middle as preparation for the Europa League, or maybe Benitez will throw a complete spanner in the works, like 3-4-3 at Sunderland in the fall or Johnson at LB (happened twice in preseason), but I doubt it. Insua needs the start for confidence as much as Babel, even if he’s played far too many games this season.

I fancied Brum to surprise this season – one of the few predictions I was right about – but I didn’t expect to see them in 9th, fairly comfortable in the top-half of the table with six games to play. McLeish has done an amazing job (yet again), and I only expect the club to improve with Yeung looking to spend in the summer. Both Chucho and Jerome are dangerous strikers, demonstrated in November’s meeting, while Lee Bowyer and Kevin Phillips have both turned the clock back this season.

Birmingham’s continued their voodoo over Liverpool even after Steve Bruce’s exit. The last time Liverpool beat them in the league was before Benitez, in May ‘04 (although the club spent ‘06-07 and ‘08-09 in the Championship).

Thankfully, Liverpool has a bit of motivation going into this one. Fourth is still barely up for grabs and the team should be full of vengeance after Thursday. Liverpool have multiple points to prove. Prove them.

01 April 2010

More Shameless Self-Promotion

Poor timing to be sure, coming right after a loss and bumping the review down a peg, but I did an interview with the recently-reopened Just Football on this annus horribilis, Liverpool in general, and blogging. Took place after the Pompey and Lille matches, but still holds true.

Please check it, and Just Football, out.

Preview for Sunday's match at Brum up midday/early afternoon tomorrow.

Liverpool 1-2 Benfica

Johnson Carragher Agger Insua
Lucas Mascherano
Kuyt Gerrard Babel

Agger 9’
Cardozo 59’ (pen) 79’ (pen)

The bad fan I am, I would have taken 1-2 before the match with the teams’ respective home and away forms, but that left an absolutely awful, awful taste in the mouth. Evidently the referee wasn’t aware that April Fools’ Day doesn’t mean that he has to act the fool. Even if there were no complaints on either spot kick, “home refereeing” is the nicest way to put it after a farcical first half.

And it’s made even worse because Liverpool had the perfect start, controlling the tempo, blunting Benfica, and scoring an early away goal. And it was a goal remarkably similar to Liverpool’s early strike against Chelsea in the Champions League three years ago, with Gerrard cheekily centering a free kick for an on-rushing Agger to side-foot. The only difference was the strike was ten yards closer, after the captain smartly won a free kick trying to barge into the box from the left.

Benfica responded well, often through the dangerous Di Maria down Liverpool’s right and the impressive Carlos Martins dictating midfield play in the absence of Saviola (with Aimar further forward). The home side had chances to level, mainly through Cardozo headers off-target or too close to Reina, unsurprisingly from Di Maria’s crosses.

To frustratingly continue the analogy with past Chelsea meetings, Babel's sending off was eerily reminiscent of Reina’s for tapping Arjen Robben, and predictably changed the game. Only this time, there was even less of an excuse given Luisao’s provocation. Just like all the other teams this season, Benfica shamelessly thought the best way to beat Liverpool was to hack Torres, and on the half-hour mark, Luisao scythed the back of his ankle with no thoughts for the ball. Somehow he only received a yellow for the horror show.

Babel rightfully decided to defend his teammate, but foolishly put his hands to Luisao’s face twice in front of the referee. If it’s the Prem, Babel probably gets yellow and/or a stern lecture (unless it’s Alan Wiley, obviously), but in Europe’s he off. How Luisao stayed on the field for the tackle, let alone his part in the handbags, is beyond me though. Once again, Torres was kicked up and down the pitch while a referee smirked stupidly. Infuriating.

The red card made Liverpool’s pressing game and defensive steel even more necessary, shifting to a 4-2-2-1 after the red card, with Gerrard wider left and Lucas trying to join the attack when possible. That was always going to be a tough ask with Benfica’s attacking prowess. They impressively held out for the rest of the half, with Benfica limited to shots wide from Di Maria and Garcia. And Torres looked to have added a surprising second, slamming in after Julio Cesar punched Gerrard’s free kick, only to see Kuyt marginally ruled offside in the build-up.

But the second half was all Benfica’s, and less than 15 minutes, Cardozo nearly scored when slamming a free kick off the post, only to see Insua – who had a dreadful day – rashly foul Aimar in the subsequent scramble. Sigh. After all the misses with his head, the striker made no mistake from the spot.

Liverpool actually looked stronger after the equalizer, slowing the Benfica attacks and prompting Jorge Jesus to send on striker Nuno Gomes for right back Maxi Pereira. But Liverpool should have taken the lead in the 76th with a chance you would have put your life on Torres scoring. Quickly breaking from defense, Kuyt found Torres with a perfect throughball, only to see the striker shoot wide of the near post in space.

Pessimism and kicks to the crotch soon re-reared their heads as Benfica won another penalty three minutes later when Carragher dove in, arms raised, to stop Di Maria’s cross. Same taker, same side, same result. 1-2, and felt undeserved to say the least.

But at least Liverpool didn’t concede a third during a dangerous last 15 minutes with players on both sides clearly tiring. Benfica will obviously be happy with a win, but 1-2 isn’t the worst result for Liverpool either. The away goal certainly helps mute the anger over other matters.

There were two bad mistakes for the penalties, but all in all, Liverpool played as they wanted to play. Clearly hampered by a harsh red card, the side was under far more pressure without a key release valve. Insua’s going to come under a lot of criticism for today’s performance, and he had a stinker, but I still feel compelled to remind he’s 21, had the winger in front of him sent off, and wouldn’t be first choice if Aurelio could stay fit. I’m interested to see what Liverpool will do in the next leg as he picked up an earlier yellow that rules him out of the next leg.

For the second-straight round, Liverpool has it all to do in the home match. A resilient performance in the face of a weak referee and a hostile atmosphere (including two stoppages for fireworks thrown at Reina’s goal. Classy.), means Liverpool only has a one-goal deficit to overturn, with the added advantage of an away goal. They’ll need to win as well as keep it tight, so it’ll probably look a lot like today (except for Babel and Insua’s suspensions). Which should at least make for a fun match for the neutrals, if a nail-biter for the rest of us.