30 August 2010

Is possession still nine-tenths of the law?

The thing that's the hardest for me to wrap my mind around when watching Roy Hodgson's team compared to the side we saw for the last six seasons is how much less possession Liverpool's had so far. Watching a promoted West Brom dictate the play for long stretches at Anfield, with Liverpool only winning the possession battle 51-49% thanks to an improved second half (having less of the ball than Albion in the first), hammered the point home.

Keeping the ball was rarely a problem under Benitez. Even in terrible losses last season, with the team either comprehensively beaten (say, at Fiorentina) or unlucky as sin (at Sunderland), Liverpool almost always had the edge in possession. Going through all of last season's results was painful enough, but if memory serves, we'd probably see similar statistics in the previous five campaigns.

Seven games is an incredibly small sample size (and two of the seven were against what was basically part-time opposition), but through those seven, Liverpool's only had the edge in possession four times: twice against Rabotnicki, at home against Trabzonspor, and yesterday's narrow win. So far, Liverpool's averaged 50.9% of the possession this season. Last season – where we all can agree that Benitez's team was beyond woeful in a more than a few matches – Liverpool averaged 57.3%.

Out of the 56 games in 2009-10, Liverpool had less possession than its opponents ten times: at Chelsea, against United, at Arsenal in the Carling Cup, against Tottenham, against Everton (down to 10 men), at Lille, against Lille, at United, at Benfica (down to 10 men), and at Atletico. Liverpool won four of those matches and lost six. The four wins came at home, the six losses on the road. Surprise, surprise; Liverpool had an absolutely terrible record away from Anfield regardless of who had more of the ball.

I'm certainly not saying possession is the end-all, be-all of football, as demonstrated by last year's win-loss record. Liverpool dropped points in a lot of games where they had more of the ball. Clearly, it's what you do with the ball that counts. But the amount of possession the team's had so far this season is markedly different (and at times, frighteningly low) compared to what we saw under Rafa, and, again, it takes some getting used to.

I'm also not saying it can't work, as Inter proved against Barcelona in the Champions League or Switzerland proved against Spain in the World Cup. Or as Fulham proved in last season's Europa League. But it's a lot harder to score if you don't have the ball, and the Spanish tiki-taka style is the one currently in vogue, both because of its aesthetics and Spain and Barcelona's recent successes. The modern game's seemingly becoming more and more about ball retention, and Liverpool's gone backwards in this regard so far.

If Liverpool continues in this vein, the team would have to be very good on the counter attack and resilient in defense. Again, that sounds an awful lot like Hodgson's Fulham – can't teach an old dog new tricks, a tiger doesn't change its stripes, etc. Managers have their own beliefs and tendencies, and they usually change their teams more than their teams change them.

But Torres, a striker able to conjure something from absolutely nothing, would be indescribably important – even more so than in the past few seasons. It also necessitates utilizing the entire field – especially the flanks, where Liverpool's struggled for years (Hodgson frequently used inverted wingers at Fulham) – and having midfielders who can quickly open up space with movement or long balls. There were a lot of complaints about the Lucas/Poulsen pairing in the last two matches, and on the surface, it appears the pairing will struggle with this style of play.

I'll continue to argue Lucas is underrated (and can play the pass-and-move game when the shackles come off; see his goal against Benfica, for one) and Poulsen needs time to settle, but questions will persist about both. While one "destroyer" will be needed to add steel to the back-line – and either can play that role, although I'd assume Hodgson is more comfortable with Poulsen given his history with the player – I doubt we'll see both on the field much going forward, especially with the addition of Meireles – a midfielder who fits into the dynamic pass-and-move mold. The simple "ticking-over" that Lucas provides, which aligned with Benitez's tactics, seems far less important if Liverpool continues with what we've seen so far this season.

I know we're barely into Hodgson's tenure, and it's hard to draw any conclusions when the manager's still assembling his preferred squad. But it's still incredibly strange to see Liverpool struggle to have and hold the ball. And, like when any new manager comes in, patience is required. It'll take time for the tactics to work, especially when the majority of players are accustomed to the controlling the tempo and steadily building attacks.

29 August 2010

Liverpool 1-0 West Brom

Johnson Carragher Skrtel Agger
Lucas Poulsen
Kuyt Gerrard Jovanovic

Torres 65'

Unconvincing in the extreme, but once again, we're left thanking Fernando Torres for pulling Liverpool's fat from the fire. Despite a fair bit of dross, it's still three points, Liverpool's first Premiership win under the new manager.

Hodgson reverted to the 4-2-3-1/4-4-1-1, a variation of how Liverpool played under Benitez but with the wide players marginally deeper, and West Brom matched Liverpool step for step for long stretches. There was little to choose from between the sides until Torres saved the day. Shock of shocks, the world-class striker was the one who made the difference.

It was Torres who created Liverpool's first chance, in the 3rd minute, attempting to replicate his goal of the season last year only to see the effort easily caught by Carson. It'd take the home side nearly an hour to threaten again, as West Brom broke up any Liverpool foray forward, with yet another team winning the possession battle at Anfield. Albion's holding midfielder Mulumbu and central defender Olsson were fantastic, Lucas and Poulsen were often bypassed (with Poulsen guilty of some shocking giveaways), and there was next to no cohesion in attack. Skrtel was on thin ice throughout the first half, lucky not to concede a penalty for holding on two corners, while Liverpool allowed Morrison and Fortuné a couple of unnecessary opportunities when not closed down.

Liverpool's second-half response was to switch Kuyt and Jovanovic, and the Dutchman did well down the left (while Jovanovic seemed off all game, replaced by Maxi in the 59th minute). Unlike against Arsenal, Rabotnicki, or Trabzonspor, it took time for the team to improve after the interval, but Skrtel nearly scored a wonder goal on the hour mark after Kuyt couldn't scramble in a corner and Poulsen subsequently found the defender at the top of the box, only to see his shot whistle past the top corner.

Five minutes later, hearts were in mouths as West Brom had the best chance of the game so far: Fortuné getting to the byline and centering, with Dorrans unable to connect but the pass reaching Jara. Thankfully, Agger blocked the right-back's first effort and Reina saved the second. But, as we've seen in the past, Reina then started the break that finally saw Liverpool grab the much-needed goal.

A long throw found Kuyt in space, and the Dutchman neatly combined with Torres to create an opening. Checking onto his right foot from the left flank, he delivered an inch-perfect cross for Torres at the top of the box, hitting his volley into the ground but eluding Carson to nestle into net. Torres nearly notched a second minutes later, with Gerrard crossing from the same flank, but Carson stood big to make a point-blank save at the far post.

From there, it was an eventful final ten minutes, with a clear handball blocking Torres' shot ignored by Probert, Albion charging down the field to frighten with yet another effort just wide, and Morrison sent off for a late tackle on Torres in what could only have been a make-up call for denying the spot kick. Despite West Brom down to ten, Liverpool were all hands on deck in the dying seconds, penned back to prevent an equalizer. And, thankfully, they held on for a barely deserved victory.

Three points were crucial, the absolute minimum Liverpool needed to take from this match, and that's what counts. But there are still tons of questions surrounding this side. Once again, the Lucas/Poulsen pairing failed to impress, with Poulsen the far guiltier party. Liverpool struggled to threaten consistently against a promoted side, a team they've scored 16 goals against (compared to West Brom's zero) in the last six meetings, despite being in the comforts of Anfield. Skrtel was shaky and Agger still doesn't look a left back. Konchesky and Meireles both watched from the stands, and the hope is those additions will help Liverpool better reflect Hodgson's plans.

But Reina was Reina, Torres finally got off the mark even though he's still clearly lacking in fitness, and Kuyt was probably man of the match, surprisingly better when moved out left (where he was often deployed in the World Cup). There's clearly room for improvement – and improvement is clearly necessary – but it's a win. A second successive win. We expect, and arguably deserve, better from this group of players, but a new manager has to be given time to implement his ideas.

But instead of increased practice time to implement those ideas, we've another early season international break. Let's hope Liverpool can continue this minuscule momentum when we restart in two weeks' time at Birmingham – a team that was consistently Benitez's bogey side.

28 August 2010

Liverpool v West Brom 08.29.10

10am ET, not on live in the US. Delayed at 7pm on Fox Soccer Plus.

Last four head-to-head:
2-0 Liverpool (a) 05.17.09
3-0 Liverpool (h) 11.08.08
2-0 Liverpool (a) 04.01.06
1-0 Liverpool (h) 12.31.05

Last three matches:
Liverpool: 2-1 Trabzonspor (a); 0-3 City (a); 1-0 Trabzonspor (h)
WBA: 2-0 Leyton Orient (a); 1-0 Sunderland (h); 0-6 Chelsea (a)

Referee: Lee Probert

Pretty sure this is the first time Probert's been in charge of a Liverpool game.

Guess at a line-up:
Johnson Carragher Skrtel Agger
Lucas Gerrard
Babel Kuyt Jovanovic

I do wonder whether we'll see 4-4-2 for a second league game with Cole banned for two more matches, and if we do, it should work better against the likes of West Brom at home. But I can't get out of the habit of guessing 4-2-3-1/4-4-1-1, even if Cole's suspension and Hodgson's seeming unwillingness to play Gerrard behind the striker makes it a tough line-up to predict.

If Gerrard doesn't play behind the striker – and he might if Meireles signs, but I'm struggling to see it tomorrow – the options are seemingly Kuyt, Maxi, or Pacheco. Kuyt infrequently played in the hole during Rafa's tenure, and is usually the target for Carragher and Reina's punts forward, but he'd have to be a lot better than he was on Thursday. Maxi's participation is doubtful for the same reason he was ruled out against Trabzonspor – gastroenteritis – but it's tempting to hope he's recovered, for the usual "do we really need Kuyt against the bus-parkers?" debate. And Pacheco could have a role to play after his intriguing cameo on Thursday and the news that he's extended his contract for two more years.

Guessing Babel on the right is due to guessing Kuyt in the middle and assuming Maxi's still out, but I certainly wouldn't mind Pacheco starting there. While it seems like Hodgson sees Babel as a striker, I'd like to see him get a chance on the right, where he's not limited to cutting in and blasting shots with his right foot. But if Maxi's healthy, Maxi should start. Torres should also be fit enough for a recall, rested during mid-week and evidently fit enough to make the Spain squad for next week's Euro qualifiers, in place of either Babel or Ngog.

As usual, I question whether Aurelio will be able to play successive games, which is why I'm guessing Agger – who should be over his concussion by now – at left back, although Kelly's obviously a possibility. Similar goes for Poulsen, who's still finding match fitness, which is another reason why I've guessed a Lucas/Gerrard midfield.

While a promoted side Liverpool would expect to beat no matter the circumstances, West Brom under Di Matteo will be a tougher proposition than in past meetings. More compact that Mowbray's team, the Baggies still look to attack, evidenced by how open their first game of the season was – a six-nil hammering at Stamford Bridge. They've somewhat bounced back in subsequent matches, narrowly beating Sunderland with a goal from debutant Peter Odemwingie before a league cup win at Leyton Orient. As well as Odemwingie, James Morrison and Graham Dorrens are both good players, while Chris Brunt can punish any side on set plays. And I'm always worried when Liverpool faces former keepers; Scott Carson had one memorable game, the win over Juventus, and has rarely impressed since, but former Reds (usually James and Friedel) often plays a blinder against Liverpool.

Liverpool certainly can't put the cart before the horse, but three points are an absolute must tomorrow. The first league win of the season is essential against the likes of West Brom; we can respect how they've grown under Di Matteo, and recognize that no game's ever easy, even against promoted sides and with the state Liverpool's in. But Liverpool absolutely have to take maximum points, continuing to build on the morale gained from progression past Trabzonspor.

27 August 2010

Europa League Draw, Mascherano finally sold

It's been an eventful morning.

We'll get the inevitable Mascherano news out of the way first. Unsurprisingly, Liverpool's statement didn't mention the price tag, but the BBC's reporting that Barcelona will pay £17.25m, which is £750,000 less than Liverpool spent to get him from West Ham's reserves. And almost £7m less than City paid to take Yaya Toure from Barca. There might be the usual add-ons that eventually bump the fee up higher, but still. Fantastic. I hope lube was included in the deal or else that raping will be exceptionally uncomfortable.

Unlike I usually do with departing players, there'll be no eulogy for a mercenary who forced his way out of Liverpool at the worst possible time. I loved the player while he was here, but in contrast to the likes of Alonso, Garcia, and Hyypiä, among others, I couldn't care less how he fares in Spain. He was marvelous on the pitch almost every time out, but the fee and the way he left will ruin my memories forever. Hope your wife's happier in Barcelona. But I also hope Busquets keeps you out of the side except for Spanish Cup games, and you rot in the reserves, just like at West Ham.

I'd also hope that Hodgson gets to spend at least half of that £17m or so, but I'm not holding my breath. Adding that £17.25m to my back-of-the-envelope calculations, Liverpool's made around £23m in transfer fees this summer, and that's not including the supposedly imminent Insua sale. The transfer market closes on Tuesday. It's safe to assume it'll pass without Tom Hicks' so-called "big summer" of spending. But with a current midfield of Gerrard, Lucas, and Poulsen (not counting Spearing, sorry), Liverpool simply has to buy someone. And they'll be linked with every available player in the meantime. "We've got the best midfield in the world..."

Now, more important to the immediate future was this morning's Europa League draw, where we learned Liverpool's group stage opponents.

Group K
Steaua Bucharest

There's a bit of history and some tasty ties in that group, even if it's not the easiest. Dossena was sold to Napoli in January. Kuyt's first professional club was Utrecht, where he spent five years. Liverpool's been to Bucharest four times, but only faced Steaua once, in the 03-04 UEFA Cup campaign, drawing 1-1 in Romania before a 1-0 win at Anfield. You'll also remember they faced Romanian opposition last year in the form of Unirea Urziceni.

Napoli's clearly the toughest side. There's the aforementioned Dossena, but more importantly, a fair few names you'll remember from the World Cup: Slovakia's Hamsik, Uruguay's Cavani (on loan from Palermo) and Gargano, and Italy's Quagliarella. They also have Argentinean Ezequiel Lavezzi, who was a rumored transfer target in the summer of 2009. Oh, and Cristiano Lucarelli, on loan from Parma, a striker I've always had a soft spot for. Both legs will be challenging, especially the away leg, as Napoli's always been a difficult destination for English teams.

I know a lot less about both Steaua and Utrecht. I'm unfamiliar with almost all the players in the Bucharest team, and highly recommend the Scouting Romania blog for information about Steaua in the run-up to those matches. Utrecht absolutely wiped the floor with Celtic last night to qualify, winning 4-0 at home to cancel out Celtic's 2-0 result in Glasgow. Supposed Liverpool target (if we're believing Goal.com) Ricky van Wolfswinkel scored three of the goals – two from the spot – while Utrecht's keeper, Michel Vorm, was an understudy for Stekelenburg at this summer's World Cup. Otherwise, I'm fairly in the dark on these sides for now.

The match-ups are as follows:

September 16: Steaua (h)
September 30: Utrecht (a)
October 21: Napoli (a)
November 4: Napoli (h)
December 2: Steaua (a)
December 15: Utrecht (h)

Liverpool opens and closes at home, with the crucial ties against Napoli third and fourth. United away will follow Steaua at home, Blackpool at home will follow Utrecht away, Liverpool will play Blackburn at home after Napoli away and Chelsea at Anfield after Napoli at Anfield, while Villa at home comes after Steaua away, and Fulham at home comes after Utrecht at home. That's about as good a draw as Liverpool could get with the subsequent league fixtures. For once, Platini comes through.

26 August 2010

Liverpool 2-1 Trabzonspor

Johnson Carragher Kyrgiakos Kelly
Kuyt Lucas Poulsen Aurelio

Gutierrez 4'
Kacar (og) 83'
Kuyt 88'

Indescribably terrible for 20 minutes, barely mediocre for the rest of the first half, slightly stronger after the interval (improving as the half went on), and then came two goals in the last ten minutes. Phew. I'd forgotten the immense relief that comes with late winners.

It was never going to be easy against tough opposition in a stereotypically raucous Turkish stadium, especially with a weakened side. And it was the worst possible start, giving up a goal before four minutes were off the clock. Kuyt sloppily lost possession in midfield and Colman's throughball-slash-shot found Gutierrez, played onside by Carragher, for a tap-in. It didn't get any easier from there, with Liverpool shell-shocked and Yattara tormenting both Kelly and Aurelio down the left. The away side, as at City, couldn't string passes or get out of their own half, resorting to ill-advised hoofs in the direction of an incredibly isolated Ngog.

It got slightly better after spending those 20 minutes fumbling with all hands on deck, slowly but surely steadying the ship, which was capped by Johnson – Liverpool's best player on the night – with the ball in the net in the 32nd only to be rightfully ruled offside. And, like against Arsenal and Rabotnicki, Liverpool were thankfully much improved after the restart.

Ngog should have leveled the match in the 52nd, set up by Joe Cole's right-sided cross, only to see his six-yard header whistle past the back post. Five minutes later, the young French striker did well to turn his marker and muscle past two defenders but pushed his shot wide from the top of the box. Trabzonspor's response – sending on the more defensive Atas for midfielder Gulselam – blunted Liverpool's "burgeoning" attack, but the entrance of Pacheco in the 77th (how dare Rafa Roy wait so long to make substitutions!) finally marked the true turning point.

Within five minutes, Liverpool equalized, leaving Trabzonspor needing two goals to go through. Once again, it came from a Johnson burst forward – cutting inside past the left back and centering dangerously, with the final touch from center-back Giray Kaçar under pressure from Ngog. Liverpool's second came with the game stretched – Babel in space to run at a defender, cutting back for Pacheco, whose laser blast rebounded fortunately for Kuyt. 1-1 would have been a fair scoreline on the night, 2-1 seems a gift, but either would have seen them through, and I'm certainly not complaining about a hard-won win.

It wasn't pretty, but at least Liverpool consistently improved after the early abomination and once again got the late goals to win matches, a trait they thrived on during the wonderful 2008-09 campaign. As angry as I was during the match – and if you follow me on Twitter, you'll know I was murderously angry – by the end of the night, it's a fantastic result. The first time Liverpool's beaten Turkish opposition in Turkey, a side that's rarely beaten at home, with an under-strength squad. That would have been a tough tie with everyone available and fully fit.

After early threats, Johnson was rarely tested in defense, and was Liverpool's only consistent option going forward in the first half. Lucas was typically steady, but Liverpool needed more than steady from central midfield today to make this system work, and his pairing with Poulsen isn't often easy on the eyes. Kyrgiakos was once again dominant aerially. And Pacheco and Babel both had excellent cameos; I hope both have a role to play on Sunday against West Brom. I single out Pacheco for turning the game because his singular ambition to drive forward seemed to perk up the entire side and peg back Trabzonspor, even if he wasn't involved in the crucial equalizer.

But the "fantastic result" can't mute some obvious problems. The team was constantly bereft of ideas for long stretches, bypassing midfield with punts forward despite Ngog unable to hold up play until runners could join in the "attack," which rendered Cole invisible for long stretches. Aurelio's nowhere near fitness and Kuyt looked every bit the scapegoat people make him out to be in the first half, taking both flanks out of the attack. But Fabio, despite his versatility (having played left-back, wing-back, left midfield and central midfield), isn't a left-winger in a four-man midfield, while Kuyt ended up with the final goal thanks to his often-displayed nose for the rebound.

There's still a long season ahead, but Liverpool's over this high hurdle, which will make Anfield a far happier place to be. Confidence matters, and despite the poor performance for long stretches, this result will raise the side's confidence.

25 August 2010

Liverpool at Trabzonspor 08.26.10

Liverpool lead 1-0 on aggregate.

1:30pm ET; not on TV in the US. Again. And so far, my DirecTV guide only has Sunday's West Brom game on delay: FS+ at 7pm. Not good. I'm blaming Purslow for this, too.

Last three matches:
Liverpool: 0-3 City (a); 1-0 Trabzonspor (h); 1-1 Arsenal (h)
Trabzonspor: 3-2 Fenerbahce (h); 0-1 Liverpool (a); 2-0 Ankaragucu (a)

Referee: Ivan Bebek (CRO)

Guess at a line-up:
Johnson Carragher Skrtel Aurelio
Lucas Poulsen
Kuyt Cole Pacheco

The traveling party, announced this morning, seemingly tells the world where Liverpool's priorities lie. Torres, Gerrard, Maxi, Agger and Jovanovic all stayed on Merseyside after four of those five started at City on Monday.

It comes down to cold, cruel calculations. As so often noted, Liverpool have a small squad and this competition isn't anywhere near the list of priorities. We were always going to see some rotation. But resting key players will not guarantee a better league performance, as Aston Villa proved in a similar situation last year. I cannot imagine the torrent of criticism that would follow going out of the Europa League at this stage, and – I hate to admit – this squad makes that look a bit more likely. I was already worried with such a slight advantage in a daunting venue after Monday's abortion of a match.

The full squad of 19:
Reina, Gulacsi, Hansen, Johnson, Kelly, Skrtel, Carragher, Krygiakos, Aurelio, Cole, Spearing, Poulsen, Lucas, Pacheco, Shelvey, Babel, Kuyt, Ngog, Eccleston.

From that, looks like it'll be Lucas and Poulsen clogging the midfield, Ngog or Babel up top, two of Kuyt, Pacheco, and Babel on the flanks, and Cole definitely in the hole (yes, I thoroughly enjoy writing "Cole in the hole"). Johnson and Aurelio will probably start at fullback – although I'm still tempted to suggest Kelly take one of those spots – while Carragher will captain the side and partner either Skrtel or Kyrgiakos. Eking a narrow win or draw isn't outside the realm of possibility with that XI, but the job's a lot harder with five important players missing.

It's no surprise to see Torres and Agger out because of each's respective fitness. Maxi's illness forced his exclusion. But the omission of both Gerrard and Jovanovic is surprising; make no mistake, they're both being rested. Jovanovic's played every competitive match to date this season, while if Gerrard needed or wanted to play tomorrow, he could, minor back injury or not. I'd have guessed both to start before seeing this morning's squad.

The Europa League's no cash-spinner, and it'd be nice to have Saturday league games again, which isn't going to happen as long as there are Thursday night cup matches. But winning breeds confidence. And Liverpool desperately need confidence at the moment. I wouldn't mind the above squad so much if Liverpool had put more past Trabzonspor at home or weren't so dire on Monday, but circumstances are what they are. And these circumstances feel like more shit piled upon the growing mountain. Even if it's not the case, the implication is now that Hodgson doesn't care about the Europa League, and the media will assuredly respond accordingly. I can hear the knifes being sharpened already. The honeymoon was fun while it lasted.

Trabzonspor beat one of the big Istanbul three at home last Sunday: scoring three against Fenerbahce, with strikes from Yattara and Glowacki as well as an own goal. The Huseyin Avni Aker Stadium will be an absolute cauldron, and any win would be an excellent win, no matter the XI. By all accounts, their match on Sunday was open in the extreme, with five goals in the first half (and, as football goes, none in the second), which is the antithesis of this year's Liverpool team to date. This year's model has all of last season's attacking ineptitude combined with Gerrard in midfield and a defense that sits 10 yards deeper. Yes, there have only been five games so far, but still, fun times.

Right now, Liverpool seem there for the taking with a narrow lead going into a tough away venue. In the Europa League qualifiers, of all competitions. But this is Anfield these days.

You're doing a heck of a job, George and Tommy. You too, Cecil and Martin.

23 August 2010

Liverpool 0-3 Manchester City

Johnson Carragher Skrtel Agger
Kuyt Gerrard Lucas Jovanovic
Ngog Torres

Barry 13'
Richards 53'
Tevez 68' (pen)

Dominated, embarrassed, humiliated. Tactically out-classed, overrun in midfield, passed to death, and toothless in attack. City's going to win a lot more home games this season than last, but that doesn't make this any easier to swallow.

Liverpool ostensibly set out to attack in starting both Torres and Ngog, and Torres had a couple of nanosecond openings in the first few minutes, only to be closed down at the last opportunity, but it was a matter of time before City opened the scoring. Manchester City had possession for more than a minute before scoring the first, patiently passing, poking, and prodding their way up the field until Johnson's through-ball split Jovanovic and Agger, Gerrard failed to track Milner's run to the byline, and the cutback found a wide-open Barry lurking at the spot, with Carragher unable to close down before Benitez's former target passed it into the net.

Liverpool struggled to get the ball off City, hindered by the tactics with de Jong, Barry, and Yaya outnumbering Lucas and Gerrard, and did little with it when able to maintain possession. Adam Johnson was a perpetual threat running at Agger and Jovanovic. Crosses only found City heads. Liverpool's best chance was a wild Gerrard shot after the away side actually strung some passes in attack.

But unlike against Arsenal, Trabzonspor, or Rabotnicki, Liverpool failed to improve after the restart, and Richards doubled the lead when out-jumping Agger to head in a corner; Tevez, directly in front of Reina, was credited with the goal, but didn't appear to get a touch on replay. I eagerly await the imminent condemnation of man-to-man marking, especially when it's a recent concussion victim against the opposition's best leaper. It's also another one that won't make Reina's highlight reel.

Liverpool finally showed some fight after the second goal, with multiple Gerrard shots blocked by diving defenders before the captain hit the post and both Torres and Ngog's rebounds were saved by a flailing Hart. 2-1 could have seesawed the match, but I can't say I'm surprised or that today wasn't deserved. Tevez put the requisite gloss on the scoreline after Skrtel hastily chopped down a stumbling Johnson (and was lucky not to see a second yellow). Babel and Pacheco made somewhat promising cameo appearances, for Torres and Jovanovic; Babel nearly grabbed a consolation minutes after entering, from Gerrard's through with his deflected shot saved by Hart, while Pacheco showed the tantalizing vision and passing in his five or so minutes despite the game being long gone.

We come here today to bury, not praise, the 4-4-2. Almost everything you've read from those who analyze tactics is right – it is an outdated formation that works against few others. It may triumph against the typically English cloggers like Wolves and Stoke, but it will not against the big sides, and like it or not, City's now amongst the United, Chelsea, and Arsenals of the world. Mancini, a continental manager forged in Milan, knows what's he's doing.

We'll be longing for the days where Liverpool bossed possession, even if they did nothing with it, soon enough. Because it is very strange seeing the side not winning that battle; they've only done so against Rabotnicki at home so far this season. Saying that Lucas and Gerrard were outnumbered and overrun barely suffices. Barry, De Jong, and Yaya basically played keep-away while the ever-threatening Johnson sparked an attack once the patient prodding found a hole. Gerrard worked hard, and was probably Liverpool's best player (admittedly, there wasn't much competition for the accolade), but couldn't "grab the game by the scruff of the neck" because of his necessary defensive duties. Kuyt and Jovanovic, both ostensibly strikers before coming to Liverpool, may work out wide in a 4-2-3-1/flexible 4-4-1-1, but not with two flat lines of four mainly behind the ball. And, then there's Torres: clearly still finding his form (to put it nicely) and always thought to be at his best when plowing a lone furrow.

But we also come here to neither bury nor praise Roy Hodgson. I think he got the formation and tactics wrong today, but it is still incredibly early and Liverpool's problems run miles deeper than the manager. The sky is still falling; Huang leaving Liverpool hung out to dry (yes, I went there) shines even more light on the off-field problems, let alone taking a glimpse at this summer's transfer spending or the on-going Mascherano fiasco (I'll assume you've all read the rumors about him refusing to play today).

This is Liverpool's worst defeat for more than two years, since losing to United by the same scoreline in March 2008. But there are built-in excuses for that result: that was the "Steve Bennett game."

There are no excuses today. Only questions, fears, and anger.

22 August 2010

Liverpool at Manchester City 08.23.10

Live in the US on espn2 at 3pm ET.

Last four head-to-head:
0-0 (a) 02.21.10
2-2 (h) 11.21.09
1-1 (h) 02.22.09
3-2 Liverpool (a) 10.05.08

Referee: Phil Dowd

Guess at the line-up:
Johnson Carragher Skrtel Kelly
Kuyt Lucas Mascherano Jovanovic

Obviously, the main question is who plays in the hole with Cole banned for the next three league games, as I don't expect Hodgson to change the 4-4-1-1/4-2-3-1 formation used in every game so far. I would have guessed Aquilani prior to his loan, but now it seems that the options are Gerrard, Maxi, Pacheco, or maybe even Kuyt. After getting used to Gerrard behind the striker for the last two seasons, that's my initial guess, but it's impossible to be certain so soon into Hodgson's tenure. That Torres looked fit in his 45-minute cameo against Trabzonspor can only be a good thing, and without news to the contrary, I'm hoping he finally makes his return to the starting XI.

With Mascherano likely to play despite picking up a minor injury against Arsenal and if Gerrard's likely to play in the hole, the other midfield spot would be filled by either Poulsen or Lucas. I'm naturally inclined to believe the marginally more-creative (and more Liverpool-experienced) Lucas will start, but on the road against tough opposition, Hodgson may want two out-and-out destroyers. However, Poulsen's lack of match fitness after a full game on Thursday makes his participation improbable.

As much as I think Agger's a far stronger option than Aurelio or Kelly at the moment, if he's had a grade two concussion, I don't want him anywhere near the field for his own sake. It may have been a week since the injury, but I doubt it's been a week since his headaches cleared up. I've had concussions (you may be able to tell from my writing style); it is not an injury to be trifled with. That Aurelio, lacking match practice and looking out-of-sorts for long stretches on Thursday, played 90 minutes against Trabzonspor leads me to question his availability tomorrow. Even in the best of circumstances under Benitez a couple of years back, Fabio rarely played two games in four days. Which would leave Kelly as the lone option. It's a big ask for the youngster to start at left back against Manchester City in Manchester, but that's the squad depth at the moment, and, honestly, I'd trust Martin Kelly a lot more than most youngsters based on past performances.

City played 4-3-3 against both Tottenham and Timisoara. Barry, De Jong, and Yaya Toure were the midfield three in both; Tevez, Silva, and Wright-Phillips were up front against Spurs while Tevez, Silva, Adebayor started on Thursday. Balotelli picked up a knock late in the Europa League, after scoring the winner on his debut, which makes him questionable, but likely to play, for Monday. Boateng, Bridge, and Kolarov all are injured, making Zabaleta the likely left-back, although Lescott can do the job there if needed.

City's money, and the players they've purchased, make tomorrow a tough ask, even if they haven't quite gelled and needed some spectacular saves from Joe Hart to come away from Tottenham with a 0-0 draw. This will be their first home match of the season and they'll undoubtedly up for it, no matter which of Mancini's millionaires starts.

Hopefully, they'll continue to need time to settle as a team, and Liverpool can take advantage will a well-drilled defense and quick counter attack. Hodgson's record, despite being with "smaller clubs," shows that he'll first and foremost set up to be tough to beat, which is probably the right way to go about this match. If Torres is fit and if Gerrard is playing further forward, anything can happen on the break. Because no matter how hard of a start to the season Liverpool has or the circus still surrounding the club, a draw and a loss would be no way to start the league season.

21 August 2010

On Alberto Aquilani's Exit

So much for the hope that Aquilani would get a chance to shine with Cole suspended for the next three league games.

It didn't take long for Hodgson to decide Aquilani wasn't in his plans, and it didn't take long for Juventus to leap at the opportunity of getting a talented Italian on loan (if he passes his medical, naturally). That Liverpool statement unsurprisingly doesn't mention the details, but rumor is Juventus will pay all of his wages and have the option of buying the player for €15m at the end of the season. For some reason, I doubt they'll be ponying up that amount, but hope somehow still springs eternal.

Having more than a day to react to the news, which broke after the Trabzonspor match, has massively diminished my initial anger. I'm still not happy Alberto won't get a chance to prove his worth, but if he's not in Hodgson's plans, he's not in Hodgson's plans. There's truth in Roy's words about how Aquilani needs to be a regular starter to regain any semblance of consistent form, and that wasn't going to happen here. We can argue whether that's down to the player's inability to stay fit, an inability to settle in England and cope with the pressure, not wanting to be here after Benitez left, or ill-conceived promises to Joe Cole that he'll always be first choice to play behind the striker, but we'll probably never know for sure (and it's probably a melange of all four). We did see signs that this was coming when Benitez hesitated to use Aquilani last season despite reports that his ankle was fully healed and with the manager's neck already in the guillotine.

I'd obviously feel a lot better if Liverpool recouped some of the £18m paid for the player, but this is a "safer" way to try and make more money off him. No one's paying anywhere near that after last season, and €15m would be a good deal if Juventus takes it up in June. But let's not pretend this loan is to get him match fitness for an eventual return; another year in Serie A will do nothing to help him adapt to English football. If he goes to Italy, he's never coming back. Just pray he stays fit and thrives there.

Regardless of the circumstances, and this being a necessary evil, I'm still disappointed. I think he's a clever, creative attacking midfielder – arguably more suited to playing behind the striker than Joe Cole (that's another debate) – that we've still yet to see given a chance. In limited (extremely limited) action last season (26 appearances, 13 starts), Aquilani managed to create the second-most direct assists in the league (third-most in all competitions) with six, in addition to his goals against Portsmouth and Atletico. According to OPTA, Aquilani set up a goal every 136 minutes, which was the best assist rate in the top five European leagues. He was magnificent against Pompey and Burnley – admittedly not the toughest opposition, but magnificent nonetheless. He eventually showed signs of linking up well with both Gerrard and Torres in an advanced position. Now he'll go down as one of Liverpool's bigger transfer flops. But, news flash, to be a flop, you actually have to be given a chance to perform. Even if he never comes back, Aquilani's still got nothing on Keane or Diouf in this department. But, if this is truly the end, he was still a flop, and Benitez paid for the move with his job (among other reasons Rafa was shoved out).

I can't help but think there's conspiracy afoot – as usual – whether it's the cleaning out of Benitez's "projects" or Aquilani demanding a move home despite his (and his agent's) public pronouncements. Maybe the new Sports Medicine department is completely unconvinced about his fitness (again, despite public pronouncements), but that's even more of an argument for selling now before he absolutely falls apart. There's clearly something we're not being told. Whatever it is, it's not reassuring for the health of the club or the depth of the squad. But what else is new?

An already thin squad, especially at the sharp end of the pitch, just got thinner, and Liverpool didn't get any money to buy a replacement. Two of Liverpool's most creative players from last season – Benayoun and Aquilani – are now gone, and Jovanovic and Joe Cole seem the like-for-like replacements at best in a team consistently lacking inspiration. The midfield's now made up of Mascherano, Lucas, and Poulsen as holding players, and Gerrard and Cole as creative sparks. When the Kop was blasting out choruses of "we've got the best midfield in the world" two years ago, it leaves more than a little to be desired and is a more than apt description of how the American owners' lack of funds have ravaged the playing squad.

Let's hope this means many more chances for Dani Pacheco, who can play in a similar position, if obviously further forward. And Mascherano better be staying or else the midfield will be beyond demoralizing.

19 August 2010

Liverpool 1-0 Trabzonspor

Kelly Carragher Kyrgiakos Aurelio
Lucas Poulsen
Maxi Cole Jovanovic

Babel 45+1'

Well, it's a win, but it's somewhat an unhappy one, one reminiscent of struggling against "lesser" sides last season. Liverpool were dire throughout the first half only to be saved by a clever attack at pace, with Cole setting up the anonymous Babel for an excellently-taken strike on the stroke of half-time. The home side were far better in the second half, mainly due to the introduction of Torres for the goal-scorer after the interval, but couldn't put the eventual dominance to use, first seeing Cole's penalty saved before Poulsen unluckily had a debut goal ruled out.

Liverpool simply couldn't cope with the away side early on. For the second-straight game, Liverpool didn't have more possession than the opposition at Anfield (granted, only for the first 30-40 minutes), something we're definitely not accustomed to. To be fair, Reina was never tested in the first half, while Liverpool created the best early chance through Kyrgiakos' 5th minute header well-saved by Kivrak, but they couldn't keep the ball or cope with Trabzonspor's relentless pressing. Misplaced passes and a lack of match sharpness from key players were the main themes until Cole fortunately picked up possession in the opposition half, charged forward, and found Babel's smart run, with the Dutchman smashing a cool finish low into the far corner. Somewhat surprisingly, it'd be his last kick of the game. Once again, Cole makes things happen right before halftime. Thankfully, this time it was a good thing.

Torres' entrance clearly fortified the home side while unsettling Trabzonspor. He nearly scored after a minute, reminiscent of his goal-of-the-season against Sunderland, only to see the keeper make a save, while Lucas put a free header wide from the subsequent corner. Five minutes later, Liverpool should have had a penalty when Maxi was taken down, and forty seconds after that, Liverpool actually got one – Torres running into the box, Lucas picking up possession and winning the spot kick. Cole immediately grabbed the ball (and said in his post-match interview that he was the designated taker), but saw his tame penalty in front of the Kop saved by a keeper that was four feet off his goal line. Joey just can't buy a break, but – a yard inside the post and waist-height for the keeper – it was not a good effort.

Trabzonspor bringing on Brazilian winger Alanzinho in the 56th helped settle the away side, even though both Jovanovic and Torres tested Kivrak with good strikes in the 57th and 63rd, bracketing Reina's one necessary save, beating away Umut's shot in the 59th when the striker timed his run perfectly. Liverpool's lone excellent opportunity in the final half-hour was Poulsen's disallowed goal: a corner headed on goal by Kyrgiakos, hitting Cole before Poulsen stabbed it over the line, only to see the referee blow his whistle. I'll buy that Poulsen was offside – and I needed two replays to see it – but it looked as if the referee called a foul that never was, solely because the keeper rolled around on the ground as if he was shot. Frustrating, just like the majority of tonight's proceedings.

As said in the run-up, Trabzonspor are not easy opposition, and a one-goal lead for a trip to Turkey is slim, to say the least. There were a fair few bright spots: Torres looked outstanding, Maxi and Jovanovic both had excellent matches (Jova especially, probably man of the match), Kyrgiakos was huge at the back, and Poulsen grew into the game very well. But there's also a bit to worry about. Liverpool could and should have killed them off during the 20 minute stretch to start the second half. That first half performance cannot be replicated (although, admittedly, it was an unfamiliar XI); Babel, Lucas and Aurelio (and Poulsen in the first half) looked incredibly rusty; and Liverpool got next to nothing from either fullback going forward (although Kelly was good defensively). I want Joe Cole to succeed so badly – it's clear he'd kill to do well for Liverpool – but little came off outside of his assist, he was anonymous for long stretches in the middle for the second straight match with a pressing, high-line defense, and the saved penalty cannot be good for his confidence.

But at least it's a win, a clean sheet, and a good workout for Torres – who looked fit enough to start on Monday. Liverpool will need to score in Trabzon, but that's never out of the question, especially if the #9's playing. The pressure's now on Trabzonspor to perform in front of their baying crowd; another clean sheet and Liverpool's through to the Europa League proper. The only problem is that long trip – where Liverpool will probably need to play more big names than they'd like – will come after an immense early season match at Manchester City, and the result there will go a long way in dictating the team's confidence come next Thursday.

18 August 2010

Liverpool v Trabzonspor 08.19.10

2:45pm ET. Once again, no live coverage in the US. If Liverpool make it past this stage, they'll at least be on DirecTV when the Europa League proper begins (if not the more widely carried GolTV), but no one's televising the qualifiers. Check the usual places for streams.

So far this season:
Liverpool: 1-1 Arsenal (h); 2-0 Rabotnicki (h); 2-0 Rabotnicki (a)
Trabzonspor: 2-0 Ankaragucu (a); 3-0 Bursapora (n)

Referee: Thomas Einwaller (AUT)

Guess at a line-up:
Kelly Carragher Skrtel Aurelio
Gerrard Lucas
Maxi Cole Pacheco

Once again, we're facing the dilemma of who to play in Europe before a more important league fixture. Prior to Sunday's match, I probably would have guessed a few more changes than the above. And chances are, with City on Monday, there'll be more changes than I'm guessing.

Trabzonspor won't be pushovers – Liverpool need to put some distance between themselves and the opposition in the home leg, senior players need match practice, and the Europa League still matters for something despite the obvious priority of the league.

That Joe Cole's now suspended for the next three league matches poses a particular question. Does Hodgson start Cole tomorrow to reaffirm his faith in the player or start Aquilani because the Italian's most likely to take over the play-making role against City, West Brom, and Birmingham? I honestly have no idea; this is where the feeling-out period for a new manager has me clueless. I'd wager Benitez would start Aquilani though, not that it matters here.

The only defensive change that seems certain is Agger out – there is absolutely no need to take chances with a concussion – and Hodgson affirmed that both Agger and Mascherano will miss the match in today's press conference. Which probably means a choice between Aurelio and Kelly. Once again, if Aurelio's fit enough, I'd like to see him start, but Kelly was more than adequate at left-back in the previous round. At the same time, Johnson's one of the few I wouldn't mind seeing rested, which is why I've guessed Kelly on the right. Carragher's another, even though the Carragher/Skrtel pairing was fantastic against Arsenal; tomorrow should see either those two continue to anchor the defense or Wilson get the opportunity to show what he can do. It's completely contingent on whether Hodgson reckons Carra's fit enough for three games in eight days.

With Mascherano missing, tomorrow might be a good first match for Poulsen – it depends on how near to match fitness and acclimating to the team Hodgson thinks he is (as said in the above link, he's in the squad) – but it also seems one of those matches where Liverpool would have less of a need for a defensive holding midfielder. Again, I'm certainly not downplaying Trabzonspor, but Liverpool will be at home and looking to attack, which is why I've guessed the Lucas/Gerrard pairing.

With far more senior players registered with UEFA for this round, Pacheco's been shifted to the B-list, but I still think there's an excellent chance of the youngster starting – either in place of Jovanovic (who went off after 66 minutes on Sunday) or Kuyt. Replacing Jovanovic seems more likely; if Kuyt doesn't make the XI, it should be for Maxi, which raises last season's argument about using Kuyt when Liverpool's expected to attack, similar to the aforementioned "holding midfielder" argument.

The other main squad question seems that of Torres. He needs minutes – the manager's said as much – but I still worry about his fitness level. Ngog's in fine form, and another appearance off the bench seems the safer way to get Torres back to full speed. But I certainly wouldn't rule him out, especially if Hodgson makes other changes to the attack and wants to compensate with more firepower. But like Mascherano, it seems more likely that City will be Torres' first concern.

Since we last spoke, when I pretended I'd heard of more of Trabzonspor than its name, Teofilo Gutierrez has scored five goals: a hat-trick in the Turkish Super Cup and a brace in the first match of the Turkish league season – all five of Trabzonspor's goals this season. It's yet more evidence that this side are no Sunday League amateurs, and Liverpool will be tested, even at Anfield. It's also an argument for keeping a strong, settled center-back pairing.

Liverpool needs a dynamic home leg performance to settle the tie and allow Hodgson to rest players for the long trip to Turkey. I assume we're all familiar with the notion of Turkish stadia being irrepressible, frightening cauldrons despite fond recollections of Istanbul. I still can't shake the memory of a 1-2 loss at Besiktas in 2007. But, yes, the Manchester City match will undoubtedly influence tomorrow's line-up and tactics.

Liverpool have the fortune of being at Anfield tomorrow, unlike City and their trip to Romania. Maybe that means more players get a rest – Gerrard, Carragher, Johnson, etc. – with an eye on the league, but I'm sure Hodgson would rather not need to a result in Trabzon, no matter how much everyone's downplaying the Europa League's importance.

Remember how last season's loss at Fiorentina sparked a massive downward spiral? Liverpool had finally looked settled after the early August defeats, winning all five September games after the international break. Then came the trip to Florence, Aurelio in midfield, and an embarrassing 0-2 result. Liverpool subsequently lost the next three matches, against Chelsea, Sunderland, and Lyon, before the false dawn against United. That's where the wheels truly fell off, and that simply cannot happen again. It's not possible to overemphasize how a similar result tomorrow could set the side back.

Get this match out of the way, then play more of the youngsters in Turkey. Worry about City after tomorrow night.

17 August 2010

On Brad Jones and the Homegrown Rule

Yesterday's signing of Middlesbrough keeper Brad Jones for £2.3m, who counts as a homegrown player despite his Australian nationality, appears to spell the end of Diego Cavalieri's tenure at Anfield. All summer long we've seen English players, many mediocre at best, linked with Liverpool ostensibly because of the new homegrown rule.

There seems to be some confusion over what this entails for the 25-man squad and who counts as homegrown. I guess we should start by quoting straight from this season's Premier League Handbook.

Page 89:
“Home Grown Player” means a Player who, irrespective of his nationality or age, has been registered with any Club (or club) affiliated to the Football Association or the Football Association of Wales for a period, continuous or not, of three Seasons or 36 months prior to his 21st birthday (or the end of the Season during which he turns 21) and for the purposes of this definition of “Home Grown Player” a Season will be deemed to commence on the date on which the first Transfer Window closes and expire on the date of the final League Match of the Season

Page 93:
"Squad List” means the list of up to a maximum of 25 Players eligible to participate in League Matches during a Season of whom a maximum of 17 may not be Home Grown Players

Page 94:
“Under 21 Player” means a Player under the age of 21 as at the 1st January in the year in which the Season concerned commences (ie for Season 2010/11 born on or after 1st January 1989)

Page 170:
Requirement for Registration
1. A Player shall not play for a Club in a League Match unless that Club holds his registration with effect from at least one hour before kick off and for League Matches to be played between the close of the First Transfer Window and the end of the Season either:
1.1 his name is included on the Squad List; or
1.2 he is an Under 21 Player.

I reckon that's enough legalese. Long story short, clubs can have a squad of up to 25 players, no more than 17 of whom can be senior non-homegrown players. However, clubs can register and use an infinite amount of under-21 players. Naming eight senior homegrown players or a full 25-man senior squads aren't requirements.

So, where does that leave Liverpool? Going off of LFC.tv's current squad list:

Homegrown players (7):
Jamie Carragher
Joe Cole
Stephen Darby
Steven Gerrard
Glen Johnson
Brad Jones
Jay Spearing

Non-homegrown players (18):
Daniel Agger
Alberto Aquilani
Fabio Aurelio
Ryan Babel
Diego Cavalieri
Nabil El-Zhar
Charles Itandje
Milan Jovanovic
Sotirios Kyrgiakos
Dirk Kuyt
Lucas Leiva
Javier Mascherano
Damien Plessis
Christian Poulsen
Pepe Reina
Maxi Rodriguez
Martin Skrtel
Fernando Torres

Under-21 (born after 1/1/89):
David Amoo
Daniel Ayala
Dean Bouzanis
Gerardo Bruna
Lauri Dalla Valle
Nathan Eccleston
Peter Gulasci
Martin Hansen
Thomas Ince
Emiliano Insua
Steven Irwin
Martin Kelly
Krisztian Nemeth
David Ngog*
Dani Pacheco
Victor Palsson
Jack Robinson
Jonjo Shelvey
Danny Wilsonª

FYI: For thoroughness' sake, I included Insua and Plessis, even though they don't have squad numbers, because both have played first-team matches and are (technically) still with the club.
* will not count as homegrown after leaving the under-21 list.
ª I'm still not 100% sure about Danny Wilson. His birthday is 12/27/91. He'll be 21 at the start of his third season with the club, but by the time he's been with the club through three seasons he'll be 22, and his birthday is four days before the January 1 under-21 cut-off. So I'm not positive. And can we count him signing in '09/10, because of the page 89 line where the season "commences" once the window closes? One of the few times bureaucratic speak eludes even me.

Even though Liverpool doesn't have eight senior homegrown players, the squad's nearly compliant with Premier League rules as it stands. One of Cavalieri or Itandje (yep, he's still here) are the most likely departures from the list of non-homegrown players, but we can also expect to see the backs of Plessis and El Zhar on the basis of preseason appearances. Remove two of them, and Liverpool will be compliant next season as well, when Ngog counts as a non-homegrown player. And remove all four, which looks the most likely (and that's not even getting into Mascherano, Kyrgiakos, or any other rumored exits), and Liverpool actually has space for a few more non-homegrown signings.

Liverpool used 30 players in the league last season, rising to 32 if we count Cavalieri and Plessis' cup appearances. Nine of them counted as u21, and four of those only had one substitute appearance; only Ngog and Insua played anywhere near regularly. The team used 18 non-homegrown players (again, 20 if you count the couple of cup games), and Benayoun, Riera, Degen, Dossena, and Voronin aren't with the club anymore. Liverpool easily could have complied with this rule last season if necessary.

Buying British is important in this day and age, but it's not as if that's a new wrinkle. Because of the amount of eligible, talented youngsters and as Liverpool's so close to the cutoff of foreign players as it is, buying Brad Jones makes little sense to me unless Cavalieri's angling for an exit – then Liverpool would need an experienced back-up, no matter how good a prospect Gulasci looks. Sure, it gives the club more wiggle room, and that could be necessary if Liverpool finds the means to make more signings. And Liverpool will need more English players if Darby and Spearing – already on the fringe of the squad – don't make it. But it's not a Manchester City situation where actual sacrifices will have to be made because of the size of the foreign contingent. Liverpool will be filling out the squad with youngsters no matter the amount of senior homegrown players; Ngog, Kelly, Pacheco, Wilson, etc. will have roles to play this season.

Teams will now pay even more of a premium for English players, and yes, Liverpool have fewer than the majority of Premier League clubs. Which is why the youth set-up so painstakingly rebuilt over the last few years is more crucial than ever. It's telling that out of the 19 under-21 players, only Ngog (and possibly Wilson) won't count as homegrown if they make the senior squad list. And not that it matters, but seven of the above 19 u-21 players are English.

Long story short, it means that Liverpool has little need to seek out the Koncheskys, Bridges, and Carlton Coles of the world simply to have another English passport on the books. Especially when the club's already scouring under sofa cushions for spare change.

15 August 2010

Liverpool 1-1 Arsenal

Johnson Carragher Skrtel Agger
Kuyt Gerrard Mascherano Jovanovic

Ngog 46'
Reina (og) 90'

So many conflicting emotions. Honestly, I'd have taken (and predicted) a draw before kickoff, and would have been thrilled with one after Joe Cole marked his league debut with a straight red on the stroke of halftime. But then Ngog scored a absolute stunner a minute after the restart and Liverpool were holding on despite Arsenal's increasing possession and Atkinson's one-sided refereeing. And then Glen Johnson cheekily tried to win a throw-in, conceding possession, and Reina somehow fumbled the subsequent cross into his own net when Chamakh could have been called for a foul. In the last minute of regular time. When Almunia got a similar foul call during a corner where Kuyt should have won a penalty. Naturally. No matter the managerial or personnel changes, Liverpool's luck stays exactly the same.

It was an auspicious start in many ways. Arsenal were a far stronger side for the majority of the opening half, Vermaelen testing Reina with a fierce fifth minute free kick while the home side struggled to maintain possession or string passes together. Slowly but surely, Liverpool improved, with Johnson forcing Almunia to tip a lefty shot over before Clichy cleared Ngog's header from the corner off the line. But then came Joe Cole's moment of madness. Chasing down Koscielny in the corner, clearly amped up in front of the Anfield crowd, Cole stupidly dove in, scissoring the debutant defender. I've seen that given yellow, but I've seen it given red more often. It was a horror tackle stemming from a desire to do too much. And now he'll miss the next three matches.

While we feared that Liverpool would fold under pressure in the second half, the team had other ideas. Mascherano cleverly picked up an errant pass when Arsenal trying to play their way out of defense and slotted perfectly for Ngog, who smashed a near post shot over Almunia. Sheer brilliance. But with Liverpool still on the front foot, with Arsenal clearly rattled by conceding, the Frenchman missed a free header that arguably would have iced the game ten minutes later. That's the young striker, almost any young striker, in a nutshell.

The Arsenal pressure, rising over the last half-hour, was inevitable. Liverpool were increasingly pushed deeper, with Arsenal bringing on Rosicky, Walcott, and van Persie. But they looked like courageously holding on, with Skrtel bravely blocking a Nasri shot while Reina saved Walcott's free kick and Rosicky's blast. Koscielny could have been off for hauling down a through Torres in the 83th (on for Ngog in the 74th), but Atkinson saw nothing; Rosicky could have been off for a horror tackle on Gerrard two minutes later, but only saw yellow. And then a hero became the goat. I've seen Reina make some bad errors, and this might be the worse, but that's the life of a goalkeeper. I still wouldn't trade him for any other.

Even though I'm not in a mood for picking out star players after the way that match ended, special mention must go out to Mascherano, Kuyt, and Ngog. Ngog's was a wonderful goal, and he worked hard as a sole outlet against a high backline. Kuyt's presence and constant running on the right were absolutely crucial at times. And Mascherano was a terror as usual, chipping in with an excellent assist. I may been sick of his transfer maneuvering, but he's still a tremendous player and an tremendous professional. Skrtel and Carragher (outside of a couple early shaky moments from Jamie) were also excellent against the supposedly aerially-dominant Chamakh.

So nothing won but nothing lost. Arsenal will claim a draw's deserved, but when it takes some terrible refereeing and a Reina mistake to get that draw, I'm dubious of the claim. Liverpool ended the first half with the better chances, and were better than the opposition in the second despite the man disadvantage. Like happened all too often last season, we're ruing luck and late goals conceded. The more things change, the more they stay the same.

But my worry that this match could be a huge morale blow didn't come to fruition. Liverpool can take strength from the performance – especially in the second half – and a chip on their shoulder from the outcome. There are signs that this can be an excellent side, at least at Anfield; no matter who Arsenal were missing, they're still one of the best in the league. But there's also a lot of work still to be done.

13 August 2010

Liverpool v Arsenal 08.15.10

Live in the US on FSC at 11am ET.

Last four head-to-head:
0-1 Arsenal (a) 02.10.10
1-2 Arsenal (h) 12.13.09
1-2 Arsenal (a; League Cup) 10.28.09
4-4 (h) 04.21.09

Referee: Martin Atkinson

Guess at the line-up:
Johnson Carragher Agger Aurelio
Lucas Gerrard
Kuyt Cole Jovanovic

Well, at least Liverpool begins its league campaign at home, for the first time since 2003-04. Funny how that happens as soon as the Spanish manager's sacked. I'm sure it's just coincidence. But otherwise, there's little to be happy about with such a difficult first game. To be fair, I'd hazard a guess Arsenal isn't too pleased with the match-up either.

For once, the Europa League qualifiers have been beneficial, giving Liverpool match preparation in more competitive circumstances than Arsenal have had. The second leg against Rabotnicki demonstrated how Liverpool can and will set out to attack at Anfield, although Arsenal's obviously a more difficult opponent. Still, I expect a reasonably similar side.

Reina and Kuyt, if fit enough following the World Cup and without any preseason appearances, should be nailed-on starters; according to Dave Usher of The Liverpool Way, Kuyt scored in a closed-door friendly against Tranmere this week. Neither Agger nor Aurelio started last Thursday, but if Agger's back strain has subsided and if Aurelio's played his way into any sort of shape, both should be in the first XI. Granted, I admittedly worry about a half-fit Agger against Arsenal's new signing Marouane Chamakh; the striker's excellent in the air, which isn't a strength of either Agger or Carragher.

As has been written for weeks now, left-back continues to be a worry, and if Hodgson doesn't think Aurelio's fit enough, it'll come down to Agger or Kelly. Agger's already questionable, and as much as I'm enraptured with Kelly's potential, it's a stretch to start a 20-year-old prodigy out of position against the Arse, most likely up against either Nasri or Arshavin.

It'd be wonderful to see Torres' name on the teamsheet, but Sunday's match probably comes too soon after his apparent injury in the World Cup final, despite Hodgson's quotes today. As crucial as he is to Liverpool's fortunes and as difficult an opponent as Arsenal is, 'better safe than sorry' seems the smartest tack. Please listen to the sports medicine department in regards to Torres. That doesn't mean he shouldn't be on the bench, ready to be called upon if needed, though. No matter whether it's Ngog or Kuyt up front, either must test the new central pairing of Vermaelen and Koscielny, which gave up five goals in Arsenal's last friendly.

New signing Christian Poulsen may go straight into the side, and a tough tackler obviously could be useful against the likes of Arshavin and co. But after little training with his new teammates and with limited preseason preparation at Juventus following the World Cup (as well as being left out of Juve's Europa League qualifiers so he'd be available for Liverpool's), I'd rather trust a central midfield of Lucas and Gerrard despite worries over the pairing's defensive abilities (and the worry over Lucas' fitness after 90 minutes midweek in New Jersey). Again, despite Hodgson's pronouncements, I doubt Mascherano will start since a transfer still seems imminent, even though as of now, he's a Liverpool player. Don't get me wrong; I'd rather he stayed and I'd rather he played, but after a summer's worth of gossip, it doesn't look likely.

Regardless of Liverpool's potential line-up, Arsenal have more fitness concerns. Ramsey, Bendtner, and Djourou are definitely out. Song, Denilson, and Diaby are doubts, as are Fabregas and van Persie for fitness reasons similar to Torres. Chamakh and Koscielny will be making their competitive debuts, while Arsenal may have to start a central midfield of Wilshire and Emmanuel Frimpong. There's never a good time to play Arsenal, but this could be as good as it gets with such an untried team. Of course, they still have Arshavin, who's scored five goals from six shots on target in his last two trips to Anfield (via the wonderful @OptaJoe, who you simply must follow if you use Twitter).

I don't think it's hyperbole to suggest that Sunday's result could define this season. Yes, it's one game, but it's an important game against a side that will probably be one of Liverpool's direct competitors. We saw how early losses doomed morale and the campaign last season, while a victory would lead to an immeasurable morale boost. I hate putting so much emphasis on one match, let alone the first league match of the season, but its significance seemingly can't be overstated, especially with the slate of games that follows it. Three points dropped or three points earned in August are equal to three points won or lost in December, but the circumstances make this match much more important than usual.

As I quoted yesterday, "Start immediately. Do it flamboyantly."

Finally, yet another reminder about the OYB fantasy football league. Since I procrastinated in setting it up, I feel the need to remind as many times as possible in the hopes of getting a fair few participants (up to 24 at last count, which I think is close to as large as my league's ever been), especially since the update to the original post was buried under the season preview and Poulsen posts. If you're of a mind to join, go to http://fantasy.premierleague.com, create a team, and click on "Join a League." The league code is 278930-276658. You can still sign up after the first week, but even if you've already created a team, I don't think your points will count in leagues you join after the fact.

12 August 2010

2010-11 Liverpool Season Preview

This is the fourth season preview I've done since starting this blog. Every year's felt like an evolution, not a revolution – even last year – and they've been fairly cut and dry with the previous season's results in mind. Not this year. I've absolutely no clue what to expect, which makes this analysis lark a little bit trickier.

The New Boys (so far)
In: Milan Jovanovic (free), Joe Cole (free), Jonjo Shelvey (£1.7m), Danny Wilson (£2m), Fabio Aurelio (free), Christian Poulsen (£4.5m)
Out: Yossi Benayoun (£6m), Mikel San Jose (£2.6m), Albert Riera (£3.3m)

Skies may be a little brighter than a month ago, with the signing of Joe Cole, good results in the first Europa League qualifier, and constant rumors about the end of Hicks and Gillett's tenure. But this is the first season where my hopes aren't sky-high. Yes, I absolutely expect better results and a better finish than last season – it seemingly can't get much worse (emphasis on seemingly; life's taught me it can always be worse) – but I'd expect better because of last season's circumstances no matter the manager, which is no slight on the current or previous gaffer.

Expected Formation and First XI
Johnson Carragher Agger Aurelio
Lucas Gerrard
Kuyt Cole Jovanovic

The above is a team than can compete with any in the league. But there are obvious worries about solidity in midfield and how Liverpool will cope with injuries, especially at striker and left-back.

I've drawn it up as 4-2-3-1 for convenience, but it'll be 4-4-1-1, 4-1-4-1, and 4-4-2 at times this season. Fulham and Liverpool are two very different teams with very different expectations, but I still expect Hodgson's conservatism away from home to remain consistent. Liverpool had an under-strength team in the first leg at Rabotnicki, but you have to look at how much deeper the attacking wide players were deployed and the paucity of chances compared to the home leg. Liverpool will be more expansive at Anfield, as was often the case under Benitez. It's often the case for most teams.

In defense, Liverpool are more than solid at center-back and goalkeeper, while questions remain about both full-back spots. With Carragher, Agger, Skrtel, Kyrgiakos, Wilson, Ayala, and Kelly, Liverpool has greater depth and talent at CB than almost any side in the league, although there are definite fears about everyone's aerial ability outside of Kyrgiakos (especially on set plays). Reina remains the best keeper in the Premiership (this is not up for debate). Johnson's certain to be the first choice right-back, but Hodgson's pursuit of Luke Young makes me wonder whether he's convinced Kelly can be first-choice back-up. And left-back, whether or not Insua finally departs, is a huge concern. There's Aurelio, a fantastic player but permanently on the injury list, while Kelly, Darby, and Wilson are all untried and none of them prefers the position. I have to believe Liverpool will sign someone (probably once the Insua, or Mascherano for that matter, money comes in), but whether it's the likes of Figueroa or Konchesky or Young remains to be seen.

Central midfield is another question, one that's wholly dependent on Javier Mascherano. Everyone, including me, seems to be taking his sale for granted. No one wants to see him go, but he's agitated for a move for more than a year now; it's unbecoming in the extreme. I think Lucas and Gerrard can and will work against the majority of teams – I'm less convinced about Gerrard/Aquilani or Lucas/Aquilani – but Liverpool would be without an important shielding presence in an era where holding midfielders are absolutely vital. Which is where today's Poulsen signing comes in, but there's always a question of how foreign players will adapt, especially when they're 30. At least the flanks seem well-stocked: Kuyt and Maxi can do a job on either wing, Jovanovic will see a majority of games on the left, and there's Babel and Pacheco, as well as Cole if need be, in reserve. I still expect Cole to get the most games as a second striker, similar to the role Gerrard had for the last two campaigns.

Regardless of Cole's signing, there's still another huge hole up front, similar to the one at left back. Liverpool's still completely, totally, utterly reliant on Fernando Torres – one of the world's best players, let alone strikers, on his day, but one with increasing injury concerns. We saw how Ngog, while an improving young striker (who did well in both legs against Rabotnicki), struggled to find his feet when thrown head-first into the deep end last season. Babel and Kuyt can play up front, but both have been better from the flanks, and I worry about both of them as a lone striker if Liverpool sticks with the 4-2-3-1/4-4-1-1. If Mascherano does leave, I sincerely hope that most of the money will go towards another striker. Once again, Torres' fitness will be integral.

Squad Depth
As of now, with further ins and outs likely (yes, you'll notice I included Mascherano for formality's sake)...

GK: Reina, Cavalieri, Gulasci
RB: Johnson, Kelly, Darby, Carragher
CB: Carragher, Agger, Skrtel, Kyrgiakos, Wilson, Ayala, Kelly
LB: Aurelio, Kelly, Agger, Darby, Wilson
DM: Lucas, Poulsen, Spearing, Mascherano
CM: Gerrard, Aquilani, Lucas, Poulsen, Shelvey, Spearing, Mascherano
AM: Cole, Aquilani, Gerrard, Pacheco
RW: Kuyt, Maxi, Cole, Babel, Pacheco
LW: Jovanovic, Cole, Maxi, Babel, Pacheco
CF: Torres, Ngog, Kuyt, Jovanovic, Babel

No matter the strength of the first XI, this is still a very shallow team. Squad depth was one of the major issues last season (not that we don't have a plethora to choose from), and it's little better this year. Obviously, I'm of a mind to blame funds and owners, but again, that's been the case for some time now, and, even at best (I rarely expect the best), I highly doubt that's changing before the end of the window.

However, you'll notice how many players I list in multiple positions, especially in attack. Yes, it's a sign of the lack of depth, but that versatility could also be a huge boon, primarily at the sharp end of the pitch. We saw a glimpse against Rabotnicki a week ago: Cole floating behind the striker and from flank to flank, Jovanovic and Pacheco constantly switching wings. Add Kuyt, Maxi, and Babel – all capable of playing in multiple positions – to the mix, and the opposition will have a hell of a time telling where the attack's coming from. Hopefully, it'll be a welcome change from the static "Hey, where are Gerrard and Torres? Hoof it to them!" that Liverpool relied on all too often last season.

But Liverpool's injury record is going to be crucial this season, just like it was crucial, and ultimately too high of a hurdle, in the last. Dr. Peter Brukner, the new head of sports medicine, might be this summer's most important signing.

The Competition
I hit the highlights of this in Tuesday's league table guess, where I "predicted" Liverpool would finish fifth, but some of it bears repeating.

A top-four place was there for the taking last season. Despite the torturous campaign, and despite the fact that Liverpool finished seventh, seven points behind Spurs, they were still in the hunt until the final few disappointing weeks. But following this summer's spree, City has to be better, while Spurs remain tough. Chelsea, United, and Arsenal should all be as good as last season, if not better in the case of Chelsea (Essien back, potentially adding Ramires, Drogba post-hernia surgery) and Arsenal (Koscielny, Chamakh). On paper, Chelsea, Arsenal, United, and City look more talented than Liverpool, especially when it comes to squad depth, while we can't rule out Spurs, Everton, or even Villa, no matter how O'Neill exited. It should be a very strong and very competitive league this season, even moreso than last year. Thank God the season's not played out on paper.

"Start immediately. Do it flamboyantly."
Liverpool opens the league campaign with a match against Arsenal, a side they haven't beat in the Premiership since a 4-1 victory at Anfield in 2007. Including cup and league matches, Liverpool won two, lost three, and drew five of the last ten matches against the Gunners. All three of those losses came last season. And then it's City the week after, followed by United in mid-September, both in Manchester. They play Everton in October, Chelsea in early November. With Europa League games and an couple of international breaks, it's arguably the hardest start to the league since I started this blog. I'm sure I don't have to remind how Liverpool suffered from the first game last season, losing to close competitors Spurs and Villa before the end of August, which set the tone for the next nine months.

It also frighteningly brings to mind the '06-07 season. Liverpool had finished with 82 points the previous season, a point behind the Mancs, and won the FA Cup. But a failure to win away from Anfield until December – including losses to United, Chelsea, and Everton – doomed the campaign, even though Liverpool ended up righting the ship to finish third and make a second Champions League final under Benitez. To continue the comparison, I distinctly remember blaming a World Cup hangover that year. Fun times.

We'll know fairly soon how this team will fare. And with a new manager as well as the aforementioned World Cup hangover, that's a petrifying thought.

To Close...
If everything comes up Milhouse – if Liverpool starts flamboyantly, if injury woes subside, if Murphy's Law eases its grip, if young players like Lucas and Ngog make the leap, if Liverpool makes one or two more purchases in the transfer market, and if the off-field ownership saga doesn't tear down the club, we could be in for an excellent season. But the amount of ifs in that sentence, at the same time when Chelsea and United look as strong as last season and City and Arsenal have improved, scare the hell out of me.

On Christian Poulsen

Been doing more of these incoming transfer posts than I expected. Although, I promise, unlike the previous, this one's actually happening.

And unlike a fair bit of reaction I've seen sailing through the intertubes, I'm not upset with this deal. Hodgson knows the player and likes the player – those signings are to be expected from any new manager at any club. It's £4.5m, and while a far larger proportion of whatever the budget will be than in years past, it's not a vast sum, considering what his previous club paid and despite his age. Juve have Momo (yes, I'd rather have Momo) and Felipe Melo for that position, and it's a fair price for a 30-year-old. While he's not the absolute terror that Mascherano is – few are – he's a tenacious, clever defensive midfielder that will fit into this squad, especially if El Jefecito finally gets his wish. Yes, he's a shit, but now he's our shit – and I admit to enjoying those snidely aggravating types (and, yes, I still miss Bellamy). He's not Joey Barton; punching Rosenberg was a one-off, if deplorable, occurrence. No matter the takeover rumors strafing about, this is still the world we live in.

My sole concern is how this affects Lucas. I think Poulsen has a place in this team, but not at the complete expense of the young, improving Brazilian midfielder. At 23, and after last season's growing pains and learning curves, this is the time for him to make the leap and fulfill his demonstrated potential. I liked the Lucas/Gerrard midfield in a fair few matches last year – 4-0 v Burnley, 6-1 v Hull, 2-1 v Atletico, 3-0 v West Ham (of course, there were also 1-1 at Birmingham, 0-1 at Wigan, 0-2 v Chelsea, and 0-0 at Hull) – and I liked it against Rabotnicki last Thursday. Lucas has had to be a strong character to improve with a loud minority against him, and I fear a loss of opportunities would set him back after captaining the side in its first competitive match of the season. There still needs to be a place for him.

Granted, this all assumes that Mascherano's on his way out. He's angled for a move this summer and last, and has lustily gazed at Benitez's Inter since Rafa left. I just want to the see the saga come to a conclusion and for Liverpool to not get screwed in the process (guess which one of those I think is more likely).

That would leave Liverpool a man short in midfield. Lucas and Gerrard – which will probably remain my "preferred pairing" – can't and won't start every single game. I'm guessing Aquilani features as Cole's back-up more than he starts in central midfield; although I do want to see the Aqua/Gerrard pairing get a start in the near future, I fear it'd lead to Liverpool massively exposed at times.

Regardless, with the amount of games played each season and the difference in opposition Liverpool will play over the course of it, there should room for both Poulsen and Lucas in this side. I hope.

11 August 2010

Fantasy Football

Update: Okay then, an OYB league it is. The code for entry is 278930-276658 at http://fantasy.premierleague.com. Since this will get lost by the above Poulsen post and the imminent season preview I'm about to put up, I'll try to pimp this on Twitter and at the end of the Arsenal match preview on Friday for "maximum exposure."

Meant to throw this up a couple of weeks back, thought it too soon, and promptly forgot, as is my wont. So, it's last minute, but there's still time to sign up fantasy football if you're of a mind.

I always use the Premier League's game – http://fantasy.premierleague.com – and I always sign up for Never Captain Nicky Butt's league, as it's easily the best fantasy football blog on the net. You can join Nicky Butt's league, which currently has approximately three million people or so, by entering the code 5850-2492 after clicking on the "join a league" link once you set up your team.

If there's interest, I'll be happy to set up an OYB league (again, I'm well aware how late this is to try to start one), so leave a comment or email me if you'd like me to. I can't promise any prizes, but if there's enough interest (at least 15-20 of you) to set one up, I might be able to swing something by May.

And for giggles, here's a pic of my team, hilariously (if I say so myself) named "Stick Your Dirk Kuyt." You'll notice I'm not starting any Liverpool players. Not even Kuyt, although I'll probably break down and buy him in a few weeks, depending on how he plays in Liverpool's system. It's the season of the reverse jinx.

10 August 2010

Fourth Annual League Table Guessing Game

You thought I'd stop doing this after infamously predicting Liverpool would finally win the title, only to see them slump to their lowest finish in more than a decade and have Benitez, who I've knelt at the altar of for years, sacked? You underestimate my shamelessness.

1) Chelsea
2) United
3) City
4) Arsenal
5) Liverpool
6) Spurs
7) Everton
8) Birmingham
9) Sunderland
10) Villa
11) Blackburn
12) Stoke
13) Wolves
14) West Ham
15) Fulham
16) Newcastle
17) Bolton
18) West Brom
19) Wigan
20) Blackpool

The only things I got right last season? Guessing Chelsea would finish ahead of United, Villa would finish sixth for the third straight season, and that Birmingham to make the biggest leap. Oh, and Burnley being relegated (that was a tough one). Still, I enjoy this one ritual of pure, unadulterated conjecture; I usually attempt to have some factual analysis behind the rest of my scribblings. Outside of City, it's been a summer with few signings; if any business happens, it's going to happen late in the window, which will make this guessing game even more of a moot point than usual. But you can't fight tradition.

I still think Chelsea have the strongest side in the league, I reckon Spurs will find it hard to compete on four fronts, especially if they qualify for the CL group stage, and I almost put City above United because Mancini has had a full preseason to implement his ideas (oh, and because of their massive spending spree), but the notion that the team will fail to gel and underwhelm remains inescapable.

What saddens me is picking Liverpool to finish fifth feels almost as optimistic as guessing they'd win the title last year. Pessimistic habits die hard. United is still United, Chelsea is still Chelsea, City's spent big, and Arsenal have marginally improved, adding Chamakh and Koscielny while shipping out Eduardo, Gallas, and Silvestre. Those sides look most likely to finish in the Champions League places. It's not as if Liverpool's squad has regressed – Cole, Jovanovic, Wilson, Shelvey in; Benayoun, Riera, Insua (?) out so far – and the boost of a new manager, as well as the lessened expectations, should help matters. But the team's depth (especially at striker and left-back) and the shadow of Hicks and Gillett still loom large.

Before yesterday's Martin O'Neill extravaganza, I would have guessed this season's top seven teams to be the same as last season's. But with Villa already on shaky ground – no new signings, Milner's exit imminent, rumors of unrest – it's hard to see them with yet another sixth-place finish. Yes, the loss of Jumpy, no matter how much I dislike him, seems worth at least three places. Like last year, it looks like there are a two-tiered top six or seven, a clutch of mid-table sides, and relegation candidates. Among the top six, Chelsea and United will be title contenders, while City, Arsenal, and Spurs will challenge for the Champions League places. The question is whether Liverpool's main competition will be City and Arsenal or Spurs (and whoever replaces Villa in the hunt for Europe).

Wolves seem most likely to join Stoke and Brum in making the leap to mid-table, having added Fletcher, Mouyokolo, Hunt, and Jelle van Damme. Birmingham and Blackburn should continue to cement their places and continue to be tough to beat, especially at home. Everton, Villa, Birmingham, and Sunderland look the strongest, but otherwise, there's little to choose from between the sides from 7th and 13th. Undoubtedly, one will be a "pleasant" surprise, while another will be surprisingly terrible.

As for the relegation candidates – the bottom five or six sides – Blackpool seem more certain that Burnley were last season, despite the immense awesomeness of everything that exits Ian Holloway's mouth. As much as I like Roberto Martinez as a manager, Wigan have been holding onto their Premier League place by fingernails for a few years now. Fulham should struggle without Hodgson – although bringing in Hughes should make for less of a decline than I originally expected (and I bet he's kicking himself for missing out on the Villa job). Coyle still has his work cut out for him at Bolton, while West Brom and Newcastle could also struggle. But Newcastle and Albion's cohesiveness in the Championship last season should be a boon – those type of teams are the ones who usually stay up. Incidentally, two promoted sides stayed up last season (Wolves and Brum) and the season before (Stoke and Hull).

I got exactly one final league place correct in last year's guess – the aforementioned Aston Villa in sixth. The laws of probability probably guarantee a better effort this year. A broken clock's at least right twice in a day. Maybe if I'm lucky I'll beat my record high of three from 2007.

I'll have my usual "in-depth" Liverpool season preview up in a day or two.

06 August 2010

Europa League Playoff Round: Trabzonspor

Yet another trip into far, foreign lands...

Neither one of these Europa League qualifying rounds has been good for Liverpool's carbon footprint, racking up the air miles. With Grasshoppers (SUI), Utrecht (NED), AIK (SWE), FK Qarabag (AZE) and Trabzonspor possible, Liverpool drew the Turkish opposition. At least they're not going to Azerbaijan. Not to mention there's a bit of history in facing this opposition, with Liverpool beating Trabzonspor in the second round of the 1976-77 European Cup on the way to lifting Ol' Big Ears for the first time in Rome. And a bit of history in traveling to Turkey, although Trabzon, unfortunately, isn't Istanbul (it's also around 650 miles further away).

It's another team I know little about in regards to players. While Trabzonspor are the most successful Turkish club outside of the big Istanbul three, and are are arguably the toughest opposition Liverpool could have drawn – winning the Turkish Cup last season and finishing fifth in the Süper Lig – I'm unfamiliar with the majority of their squad. Alanzinho and Yattara are well-regarded wingers. Striker Teofilo Gutierrez has made a handful of appearances for the Colombian national side. Unsurprisingly, they also have a few players who've been called up to the Turkish national team. And, no, I'm not completely reliant on Wikipedia for all of this information. Just most of it. Wikipedia does describe Trabzonspor's 22-year-old starting keeper, Onur Recep Kivrak, as "young and soulful," which amuses me to no end.

No matter how far the team has to travel or the league games that will bracket both legs, Liverpool should progress. For once, it's nice to have the first leg at home. Not only will Liverpool be able to set the marker for what's needed at Anfield, it'll ease the domestic schedule. Liverpool are at home to Arsenal before the first leg and at home against Trabzonspor before facing City the following Sunday. Meanwhile, City's will have to travel to Romania for their Europa League match before hosting Liverpool. And the match after the trip to Turkey, currently scheduled for Sunday (but should be moved to Monday), is against West Brom at Anfield. It could be a lot worse were the Europa League legs reversed, but I still wouldn't expect a full-strength side for either Trabzonspor match. I'm be utterly stunned if Torres, among others, features.

The matches will take place on August 19 and 26.

05 August 2010

Liverpool 2-0 Rabotnicki

Liverpool win 4-0 on aggregate

Johnson Carragher Skrtel Kelly
Gerrard Lucas
Pacheco Cole Jovanovic

Ngog 21'
Gerrard 40' (pen)

Not a bad first match at Anfield for Roy Hodgson.

Just like in the last leg, a 2-0 win is a little misleading. But unlike in Macedonia, where Liverpool scored on what were pretty much their only two opportunities, I'm amazed that the home side didn't put more past a dire side that were almost always on the defensive.

Liverpool set the tone from the opening whistle. Cole and Jovanovic were beyond lively, Gerrard sprayed passes of every length from every angle. Ngog had a 7th minute "goal" ruled out for offside and should have opened the scoring seven minutes later, failing to round the keeper when set up by Cole's wonderful vision, backheeling to Gerrard in space for a throughball. But the young French striker again struck in the 21st, with Cole again the provider – this time following a short corner, a whipped-in cross leading to a bullet header. And it was Ngog who won a spot kick five minutes before the interval, cleverly controlling around the defender before being pulled out, with Gerrard easily slotting in after sending the keeper the wrong way.

The second half was mere formality, but it's not as if the first-half wasn't with a two-goal advantage and Rabotnicki rarely getting the ball out of their own half. Liverpool were able to play however they wanted whenever they wanted, and it was only a six-man (at least) line in front of the penalty box that prevented more goals. Hodgson used his substitutions early in the second half, bringing on Aquilani, Maxi, and Spearing for Gerrard, Jovanovic, and Lucas before the 73rd minute, and Liverpool saw out the game on cruise control. The home side still tested the keeper, but were also increasingly over-intricate and casual with the tie in the bag. Mortifyingly, Rabotnicki nearly pulled one back on the break in the dying seconds, first seeing Kelly get back to prevent a tap-in header on the goal line before Petkovski hit the post from a corner. That certainly would have taken some of the shine off.

Unlike in the last leg, there's no way I can rehash every scoring opportunity. Ngog should have had a hat-trick – at times looking like a world beater, and at others looking like the raw 21-year-old he is – and should have won a second penalty in the 77th. I have no clue how Joe Cole didn't open his Liverpool tally, and it would have been more than deserved after his man of the match performance. Pacheco, Maxi, and Jovanovic had multiple excellent chances blocked, usually by the resilient Belica.

The front four were incredibly fluid – Pacheco and Jovanovic switched flanks at will – and passed and moved exceptionally. I can't wait to see similar with Torres and Kuyt (among others) back in the side. Lucas was everywhere in midfield while Gerrard was buoyant, obviously pleased to be in his self-proclaimed preferred position – both looking to get forward more than the central midfielders usually did under Benitez, but that's partly down to the quality of opposition. And special mention also goes out to Martin Kelly. The 20-year-old's already played right-back, center-back, and left-back so far this season, and has looked assured in all three. Yes, he had very little defending to do, but sent in dangerous crosses with either foot and bombed forward at every occasion. And unlike Liverpool's other full-back, he got back when he needed to.

Sure, a few more goals would have been nice as well as deserved, while Rabotnicki were probably the worst side Liverpool's faced since having to play three rounds of Champions League qualifying in 2005. But Liverpool did exactly what was needed in both legs, while we saw some sumptuous football today, especially in the first half. It's just the start that was needed.

But let's not get carried away until they do it against tougher opposition. Which Arsenal should provide in ten days time.