Tuesday, 2 June 2015

Where should Liverpool strengthen this summer?

It is clear that, after a below par season containing more downs than ups, Liverpool need to strengthen in the summer transfer window if they are to compete successfully for Champions League qualification, which surely must be the aim again next season.

But, where should Liverpool strengthen this summer? In this article I assess the areas of the Reds’ squad requiring the most work from Rodgers and his infamous transfer committee.

Attack: Complete re-haul required

I think every member of Liverpool’s striking department should be sold this summer except for Daniel Sturridge.

Mario Balotelli’s time on Merseyside has been an unqualified disaster from start to finish; he should be shipped out, probably back to his native Italy, as soon as possible regardless of the fee the Reds fetch for him. Fabio Borini has been lingering around like a bad smell for far too long and clearly doesn’t have a future at the club as much as he might like one. He too should be sold posthaste.

I feel sorry for Rickie Lambert, who hasn’t been given a fair crack following his £4 million arrival from Southampton last summer. He has been unfairly treated, but, at 33, he isn’t a long term solution and the club should be willing to listen to offers for him, even if I suspect rumours that Jose Mourinho is interested in him are slightly wide of the mark!

I also think that Raheem Sterling doesn’t have a future at the club, although that’s more due to his attitude and conduct off-field, particularly in contract negotiations, rather than due to issues on-field. The youngster has plenty of ability and potential, but clearly thinks that he’s far better than he actually is.

Sterling's attitude stinks
Liverpool offering him £100k a week was extremely generous considering his poor ability in front of goal, and for him to turn that down and then for his agent to say that Sterling would turn down even £900k per week simply serves to show that his future lies away from Anfield.

He should be sold for as much as possible and the cash generated reinvested in refurbishing an attack desperately requiring additions. Even when Liverpool were scoring over 100 goals in 2013/2014, their attack required investment as Iago Aspas was the only back-up to the dynamic Suarez-Sturridge duo. Now, Liverpool’s attack is even weaker and many changes need to be made.

Of course, Divock Origi will join the Reds this summer after immediately re-joining Lille on loan following his transfer to Liverpool last summer. The Belgian striker struggled last season and will take time to settle on Merseyside; we shouldn’t expect him to hit the floor running and instead he should be used as third choice striker.

The priority should be signing another world class striker to accompany Sturridge up front most weeks (the number 15 works best in a partnership) and replace the England international when he suffers one of his all too frequent injury setbacks. Christian Benteke has been suggested as a possible signing, but paying Aston Villa’s asking price of over £30 million would be a ludicrous repeat of the ill-fated Andy Carroll transfer which should be avoided. If we can get him for roughly £20 million, then maybe he’s worth a punt, but certainly not at any higher price.

I also think we need another striker of a similar sort of standard and quality as Origi in order to give options to Rodgers up front and replace Raheem Sterling potentially. If we can strengthen in these ways and end up with two world class strikers and two decent back-ups then we should score far more goals next season, bolstering our Champions League hopes significantly.

Defence: (Near) complete re-haul required

The form of Liverpool’s defence tracked the form of the rest of the team (or, perhaps more accurately, the form of the rest of the team tracked the form of Liverpool’s defence) last season. They started awfully, improved exponentially, and then collapsed dramatically.

There has been improvement, but more work needs to be done. First, Rodgers needs to figure out whether he wants to play with three or four at the back. Then, he needs to find reinforcements on both wings urgently.

On the right hand side, Glen Johnson has finally left the club after his contract ran out, leaving the out of favour Javier Manquillo, who has a year left on his loan from Athletic Madrid, the only option assuming that Rodgers doesn’t view playing Can out of position in defence as a long term solution. Of course, Jon Flanagan could potentially come back into contention, but we cannot rely on him remaining injury free.

That’s why the club have bid £10 million for Southampton’s Nathaniel Clyne, who appears a really promising young British prospect with bags of potential. The Reds just must make sure that they don’t overpay for a Southampton defender for a second season running. £15 million seems a sensible upper limit in terms of what they should offer for the 24-year old.

Hopefully Clyne will not be the next Lovren
On the left, meanwhile, Alberto Moreno did enough last season to remain first choice, although he struggles defensively and the injury plagued Jose Enrique is his only back up. Therefore, another left back should be second on Rodgers’ defensive shopping list.

Some will also argue, with some justification, that changes need to be made at centre back. After all, Dejan Lovren was awful last season and Mamadou Sakho spent a lot of time on the treatment table. The only problem is, Liverpool have gone out and spent £20 million on a new centre back in the previous two summer transfer windows, and that’s something that the club just cannot afford to do every summer.

Either we make a shrewd signing or two for low transfer fees to improve Rodgers’ options at centre back, or we persevere with the two players that we have invested so much in.  I think Skrtel and Sakho should be first choice next season because Skrtel is our best defender and Sakho looked half decent during the Reds’ run of good form last season and has sufficient potential to make it worthwhile being patient with him rather than rashly spending loads of money on yet another centre back, money which could be more wisely invested elsewhere.

Midfield: Tinkering required if transfer budget allows

Despite the departure of Steven Gerrard, Liverpool’s midfield looks fairly strong. At the very least, it requires less attention than the defence and attack this summer. In the middle of the park, Henderson, Allen, Lucas, Lallana and Coutinho can all be called upon to fulfil various roles and functions in the side, while Jordon Ibe and Lazar Markovic offer options out wide, as does Moreno and Sterling if he, against the odds, stays at Anfield.

Lucas is still a great sitting midfielder, while Allen did enough at times last season to deserve another season, if only as a back-up, and Henderson has the capability to step into Steven Gerrard’s role in the side, although I’m reticent to call him, or anyone else for that matter, Steven Gerrard’s replacement, because there will never be anyone like Steven Gerrard, who is a Liverpool legend unique in his footballing genius.

Milner is an experienced England international
If there is surplus cash, which seems very unlikely, maybe Rodgers could bring in another option for the wings, but tinkering at most is all that is required in the Reds’ midfield. If we can bring in James Milner, who is a useful hardworking utility player with a surprisingly impressive number of assists, from Man City on a free transfer than that would be a great bit of business and possibly all that we need to do to enhance the midfield.

Goalkeeper: Back-up stopper required

During the first half of last season, many, including myself, thought that Liverpool needed to sell Simon Mignolet and sign a new first choice goalkeeper, perhaps Petr Cech or Asir Begovic. However, after the Belgian proved his critics wrong by keeping 13 clean sheets and sharing the golden glove with Courtois and Hart, few are suggesting anymore that he needs to be sold.

Brad Jones is on his way out of Anfield, though, so another goalkeeper who is good enough to cover for a couple of matches if Mignolet gets injured is required on the cheap this summer.

Conclusion: Big summer ahead for Brendan Rodgers

In sum, Brendan Rodgers has a big summer ahead of him and should be very busy. He probably has a maximum of one season left to re-build the squad and achieve Champions League qualification. If he fails, he will be sacked; it’s that simple. It’s therefore vital that he completely re-hauls the Reds’ attack and makes important additions in defence, as well as tinkering with his midfield to improve it further.


Monday, 1 June 2015

Season 2014/2015 Awards

I look back at the highlights of a mixed season that included some title winning form at points but was ultimately bookended by disappointment by handing out awards for player of the season, young player of the season, most improved player of the season and signing of the season. I also pick my goal and game of the season.

Player of the season: Philippe Coutinho

The little Brazilian magician Philippe Coutinho has seen his star rise even higher this season, as he has been by far and away the Reds’ best and most consistent performer. Stunning long range efforts against Southampton, Manchester City and Bolton Wanderers immediately spring to mind amongst his impressive tally of eight goals.

Philippe Coutinho: worthy winner of our Player of the season award
Those breathtaking moments of individual brilliance that capture the headlines are only the tip of the iceberg, though, as Coutinho is always at the Reds’ creative heart. When Coutinho doesn’t perform well, Liverpool don’t perform well either, almost without exception. That’s how important he has become to the Reds this season, and why it is such great news that he signed a new contract with no hesitations in February.

If he can build on this season then there’s no reason why Coutinho cannot rival Luis Suarez in terms of ability and impact, although with considerably less controversy in all likelihood. I, for one, cannot wait to see Coutinho playing again next season.

Young player of the season: Emre Can

21-year old Emre Can has emerged as a particularly promising young player this season. Signed from Bayer Leverkusen for just under £10 million last summer, Can initially struggled to get game time, only becoming a regular fixture in the starting line-up after he came on at half time against Burnley on Boxing Day and performed brilliantly as part of a back three.

Ever since, Can has largely featured at right centre back, showing his flexibility and versatility, as well as his maturity and tactical awareness to be able to adapt to a relatively new position so quickly at such a young age.

Can celebrates scoring versus Chelsea
Admittedly, Can hasn’t faced fierce completion for the young player of the season award. Sterling’s form has taken a nosedive since his contract fiasco, Markovic has been hit and miss and, despite impressing when given opportunities, Jordon Ibe hasn’t played enough to be given serious consideration.

Going forward, it would be good to see Can to move into midfield, not only because it would be beneficial for his development as a player, but also because Brendan Rodgers needs to sign a specialist right back to fulfil the role that Can has been filling in for in the long term.

Most improved player of the season: Simon Mignolet

The improvement in Simon Mignolet has been scarcely believable. The Belgian was worse than useless at points during the first half of the season, but almost unbeatable during the second half. Previously meek and unassertive, Mignolet was seen as a liability at set pieces and poor with the ball at his feet. Now, he is far more confident in his penalty area and, although he still needs to work on his footwork, he has improved.

Most importantly, his old shot-stopping ability has re-emerged, resulting in him keeping an impressive 13 clean sheets in the league, the same amount as Courtois and Hart, who have both had far stronger defences protecting them.

Mignolet is now such a better keeper
Hopefully next season he can build on the second half of this season and be on top form right from the word go so that he can help Liverpool have a better season and also enjoy personal glory by claiming the golden glove outright.

Worst player of the season: Mario Balotelli

Unfortunately, there are far too many contenders for this award. Glen Johnson was awful, not putting up a fight for a new contract during another dire season. Dejan Lovren was extremely disappointing; many had high hopes for him following his big money move from Southampton, but he has failed to live up to expectations and many Kopites are now wishing Brendan Rodgers hadn’t tried so hard to sign him. Raheem Sterling has been rubbish for large parts of the second half of the season, primarily during his protracted contract negotiations, and many would now be pleased to see the back of him after controversial comments from his agent.

Balotelli has been a really bad signing
This award has to go to stupid Mario, however, because he has been consistently abysmal, rarely showing any signs of promise and, worst of all, having an attitude completely contrary to the ethos of the club. 4 goals in 28 appearances is a measly return on Liverpool’s £16 million investment in the Italian and, when the Reds really needed someone to step up to the plate and fill in for the injured Sturridge, Balotelli was found wanting again and again. The sooner the Merseysiders get rid of him, the better.

Signing of the season: Emre Can

This award is tough to decide as well, mainly because Brendan Rodgers invested the £70 million from the sale of Luis Suarez in a way that, with the benefit of hindsight, was far from optimal. £20 million on Lovren and Markovic? £16 million on Balotelli? £26 million on Lallana? £4 million on Lambert?

Can's been the best of a bad bunch of signings
A lot of money was wasted on average players; some of them, such as Markovic and Lallana, may have potential to develop and prove their worth in the future, like Jordan Henderson has, but nobody can deny inflated transfer fees were paid to secure their services, primarily because sellers knew that Liverpool’s coffers were swelled by the sale of Suarez to Barcelona at the start of the transfer window.

Nonetheless, Can was the pick of a bad bunch. For £10 million, his signing represented value and he has also consistently put in pretty decent and promising performances. Lallana has also been encouragingly good at times, particularly when linking up with Coutinho, but has been blighted by injuries and is yet to hit top form. Therefore, the signing of the season award goes to German Emre Can.

Best game of the season: Tottenham Hotspur 0-3 Liverpool

The fact that Liverpool’s best game of the season came only three games in demonstrates how disappointing the rest of the campaign was in comparison. Nonetheless, the 3-0 win at White Hart Lane was probably one of few highlights from a poor season, as Liverpool celebrated Brendan Rodgers’ 100th match in charge in style.

Balotelli put in his best performance in a Liverpool shirt, while Sterling was also impressive, scoring the opener earlier on and spurning an unbelievably easy opportunity when the game was already won, prompting Rodgers to amusingly say, “Raheem ran into the box like Ricky Villa and finished it like Ricky Gervais!”

Gerrard added a second from the spot soon after the break, while Moreno scored a great goal after marauding down the left wing in a manner reminiscent of former Spurs star Gareth Bale. It was a game that gave us hope that the Reds’ poor early season form was just a temporary blip that would soon be overcome. It also made us believe that our summer signings would be better than they turned out to be.

Not quite the terrific trio we'd hoped for
For giving us that false hope, Tottenham 0-3 Liverpool is our best game of the season.

Worst game of the season: Stoke City 6-1 Liverpool

The less said about this shambles, the better. Suffice to say, Liverpool were abysmal defensively and performed in a shameful way on Stevie Gerrard’s last ever match for the club. We can only hope that it doesn’t set the tone for next season.

Goal of the season: Coutinho vs Southampton

This was a stunning strike. Made all the better as it was literally the first bit of the game that I saw as I sat down on my mate’s sofa after arriving a little late to watch the match, Coutinho’s wonder goal was out of this world and set the Reds on their way to a vital 2-0 win against a competitor for Champions League qualification.

Receiving a simple square pass from Markovic, Coutinho cut in and curled a cracking right footed effort into the back of the net off the underside of the bar. It was a world class goal to add to his burgeoning collection of superb strikes.


Two steps back: 2014/2015 Season Review

It feels like Liverpool took two steps back this season. The club took one giant leap forward in 2013/2014, beating everyone’s expectations as they finished second and still had a mathematical chance of winning the title on the final day of the campaign after managing only a lowly seventh place finish the season before.

Hopes were high heading into 2014/2015. With Champions League football back at Anfield, the Reds were back where they belong and ready to take another tilt at the title too. That was the theory, at least. In reality, Liverpool’s 2014/2015 season, bar a brilliant but unfortunately comparatively brief resurgence post-Christmas, was one characterised by frustration and disappointment.

In the league, the campaign started slowly. An unconvincing home victory over Southampton on the opening weekend was followed by a comprehensive defeat at Man City’s Etihad Stadium and, although a 3-0 win at White Hart Lane, which included a superb individual effort from new signing Alberto Moreno, raised Reds’ fans hopes that Rodgers’ team would soon re-discover last season’s form, the month of September soon doused any residual optimism; the Reds failed to register a Premier League win, requiring a late Mario Balotelli winner to beat Ludogorets at home in the Champions League and only reaching the fourth round of the League Cup after a marathon penalty shootout against Middlesbrough.

This was a great goal from Moreno early on in the season
Things were seriously not looking good for Liverpool. They badly missed the firepower of the departed Luis Suarez and the injured Daniel Sturridge, and Rodgers quickly realised that his £16 million gamble on Italian maverick Mario Balotelli wasn’t going to pay off. At the back, meanwhile, Liverpool’s defence was leaking far too many goals, as Dejan Lovren, a £20 million summer signing from Southampton, failed to justify his hugely inflated transfer fee.

Real Madrid showed up in Merseyside in the middle of October and gave Liverpool a footballing lesson as they beat the Reds 3-0, with all three goals coming in 20 devastating first half minutes. It was hoped that the return leg in Spain a fortnight later would be a watershed moment when Liverpool’s season would finally turn a corner. With Chelsea visiting Anfield on the weekend, Rodgers picked a reserve side in the Bernabeu and, against the odds; they put in a fantastic and resilient performance, only losing 1-0 in the end.

It was highly credible considering Liverpool’s starting line-up and form up to that point. It turned out to be one of far too many false downs, though, as things only got worse for the Reds, who crashed out of the Champions League after only managing draws in games that they needed to win against Ludogorets and Basel.

Surprisingly, Liverpool’s turning point came in a manner perhaps nobody expected; a 3-0 defeat at Manchester United. Obviously, it was horrible to lose so comprehensively at Old Trafford, but the result didn’t reflect the balance of play, as Liverpool, perhaps given a much needed kick up the back side by a few unexpected team changes (Brendan Rodgers dropped Simon Mignolet and played Raheem Sterling as a lone striker for the first time), put in an encouraging performance, which included 19 shots, eight more than their hosts. The difference proved to be the goalkeepers, as David de Gea put in a match winning performance, while Brad Jones was below par, if still better than Simon Mignolet had been up to that point.

De Gea denied Liverpool victory, but things were looking up
From that point on, Liverpool slowly but surely improved, showing character to pick up a late point at home to Arsenal and then securing wins over Burnley, Swansea, Sunderland and Aston Villa. In fact, the Reds were producing title winning form; between the defeat at Old Trafford which started Liverpool’s resurgence and the crushing loss at home to Louis Van Gaal’s men, which unceremoniously ended their run of good form at the end of March, Liverpool won 15 out of 23 matches in all competitions, losing only twice.

Those two defeats came in Cup matches against Chelsea and Besiktas, as Liverpool’s focus narrowed to earning Champions League qualification and securing FA Cup success for Steven Gerrard after the news that all Kopites dreaded hearing, namely that the much loved skipper was finally leaving Liverpool, was released in January. With the FA Cup final falling on Gerrard’s birthday, there would have been no better way for Stevie to sign off.

To that end, Philippe Coutinho, a consistent performer whose star was quickly rising to prominence, scored stunning goal after stunning goal to secure Cup progress, firing in against Bolton and Blackburn, as well as against Man City and Southampton in the league. The little Brazilian magician scored eight goals in total, becoming the focal point of Liverpool’s attack and easily taking the Player of the Season award. He also crucially penned a new long-term contract at Liverpool, meaning that Kopites will be able to enjoy his mercurial talent for years to come.

Hopefully there's more of these Coutinho worldies to come
Another key performer was Simon Mignolet, who improved markedly, perhaps even miraculously, during the second half of the season after a woeful first half of the campaign which culminated in his demotion to the bench at Old Trafford and me opining that the end of his time at Anfield was inevitably nigh and that a new keeper had to be brought in promptly. My predictions of his demise clearly turned out to be greatly exaggerated, as he kept 13 clean sheets in all, the same number as Thibaut Courtois and Joe Hart.

Frustratingly, however, Coutinho’s mercurial talent and Mignolet’s suddenly enhanced goalkeeping ability weren’t enough to revive the Reds after two crushing defeats in must win matches against Manchester United and Arsenal. Heading into the United match the Reds were in fifth, two points off their fourth placed rivals from down the M62 and six behind the Gunners, who had played an extra game. After 2-1 and 4-1 reversals, Liverpool were seven points behind fourth placed City, who also had a game in hand on the Reds; fourth was now a pipe dream, and the success of the campaign now came down to whether or not Liverpool could lift the FA Cup on the final weekend of the season.

That didn’t happen, as Liverpool were so shell-shocked by the abrupt halting of their magnificent run of title winning form that they never recovered, putting in a pathetic performance at Wembley against Aston Villa and deservedly losing. The way in which Arsenal dispatched Villa with such consummate ease in what was an entertaining FA Cup final on Saturday serves to show the worrying gulf in class between the Reds and the Gunners.

Perhaps just as discouragingly, the players couldn’t even get up for Steven Gerrard’s final Anfield appearance and last ever Liverpool match, as they lost abysmally at home to Crystal Palace and away to Stoke City in their final two matches.

Gerrard deserved better from his last Liverpool appearances
It was a really depressing way to end a yoyo season that had far more downs than ups and only confirmed that the club has indeed taken two sizeable steps back after appearing to have enjoyed such progress in the previous season.


A brief polemic about Stoke shambles

I know that it’s been over a week since the last game of the season, and I am aware that most Kopites wanted to instantly forget about it, but unfortunately the good people at EE have messed about with my broadband package recently, rendering me unable to share my thoughts about that Stoke shambles.

It was nice in a way, being away from the inevitable internet inquest in the immediate aftermath; more heat than light is normally generated in those circumstances, but, if only for the sake of completeness, I’d like to comment on the 6-1 defeat at the Britannia Stadium.

With that said, here’s my brief polemic about that Stoke shambles:

Selection shambles

Kicking off right at the start, what on earth was Brendan Rodgers doing picking six central midfielders and no recognised strikers or wingers?! Surely Lazar Markovic, Jordon Ibe, Jordan Sinclair, or even Mario Balotelli or Rickie Lambert, deserved a start.

They may not have performed much better than their teammates, but they might have provided more creativity and width and imagination. When you play four central midfielders across the middle and two attacking midfielders in the form of Lallana and Coutinho up front, you’re setting yourself up for a dire game going forward.

Dire defence

Things were far worse at the back, however, and, ironically, a central midfielder played out of position was largely to blame. Culpable for all three of the opening goals, Emre Can had his worst game for the Reds by far.

Arnautovic beat him far too easily down the wing for Diouf’s two goals, the second of which was admittedly a good strike from the edge of the box, but the first was purely a gift from Simon Mignolet, who, I think, could have dealt better with Diouf’s second as well. Then, inexplicably, Can headed a cross down perfectly for Walters to score the third. It really was woeful stuff from the promising young player, but he shouldn’t have been playing in defence in the first place.

Can clearly can't defend
It was the last game of the season and his future next season is clearly in his natural midfield position, so he should have been given a starting berth there and the frozen out Manquillo given a second chance at left back.

Sakho was rubbish for the fourth goal as well, giving away possession far too easily, while Crouch had a free header for the sixth in the 86th minute. Stoke were good, and credit to them for a great game and a fantastic season, but the only goal that they scored primarily due to their skill was Nzonzi’s fifth from the edge of the box on the stroke of half time.

Letting down Stevie

For Steven Gerrard to leave Liverpool on this shambolic note is shameful. Liverpool’s best ever player enduring the club’s most emphatic Premier League defeat in his final appearance is just awful. He scored a well taken goal in the 70th minute in the only bright point to take, but it wouldn’t have provided the skipper any consolation. He deserved so much better from his teammates, and it is disgraceful that neither Stevie’s final Anfield appearance nor his last ever match could motivate them to actually put a shift in.

Gerrard was let down by his teammates
They just looked like they were on the beach already and wanted the season over and done with, which is not acceptable. They’re paid over £50k a week most of them, the least they can do is turn up and put a shift in, for the fans who parted with their hard earned cash to come and support them once again and for Stevie’s final match.  

All in all, it was absolute and utter rubbish and the players and the manager need to take a long hard look at themselves over the summer.


Sunday, 17 May 2015

Palace poop the party on Gerrard's Anfield farewell

Crystal Palace proved the party poopers as they beat Liverpool 3-1 in Gerrard’s final match at Anfield as a Liverpool player before he departs for the States in the summer. Goals from Jason Puncheon, Wilfried Zaha and Glenn Murray more than cancelled out Adam Lallana’s opener and gave Pardew’s men the win their performance deserved, as Gerrard’s Anfield career ended on a disappointing note.

Nonetheless, the most important thing was never going to be the result; it was always the farewell that Anfield gave Liverpool legend Steven Gerrard, and the crowd didn’t disappoint, as the skipper revelled in the reception he received from admiring supporters sad to see him go but immensely grateful for the way in which he has carried this football club throughout his inimical career.

Gerrard high five's all the Palace players and the officials as they give him a guard of honour
The guard of honour given to Steven Gerrard as he walked out onto the Anfield pitch for the final time with his daughters was undoubtedly the most noteworthy thing that happened until Adam Lallana opened the scoring on 26 minutes. Before then, the match felt like a testimonial and was played at pre-season pace.

Liverpool began the better, but ironically it wasn’t until Palace came back into the match that they claimed the lead. The visitors were settling down and beginning to threaten, when former Liverpool defender Martin Kelly sent a stray ball right into the path of the on-rushing Lallana, who eased past Scott Dann and finished past Wayne Hennessey to give the Merseysiders the lead.

Lallana celebrates his goal with his teammates
It would have been harsh to describe Lallana’s goal as against the run of play, but at the same time Liverpool weren’t exactly peppering efforts on Hennessey’s goal. Palace, meanwhile, were growing in confidence, and their attack was in particularly good form, although admittedly Liverpool’s defence was woeful.

Lovren was given a torrid time by the twisting and turning Bolasie, while Can was erratic, and it was his foul that gave away the free kick from which Puncheon equalised. Having already called Mignolet into action with a decent strike on the half hour mark, the 28-year old striker caught the Reds’ Belgian keeper out with a free kick swung into the bottom corner of the side of the goal that he was supposed to be covering.

Puncheon, the man of the match, equalised for Palace on the stroke of half time
It was shoddy keeping from Mignolet but no more than Palace deserved following a great response to going one behind. They only improved in the second half, too, while the Reds’ performance deteriorated, particularly defensively, where they were all other the place.

After seeing a couple of good penalty shouts turned down by referee Jonathan Moss, Palace substitute Zaha gave the Londoners the lead only 22 seconds after replacing South Korean team mate Lee Chung-Yong, scoring with his first touch as he bundled home Bolasie’s cross after Congolese skinned Lovren all too easily.

Zaha's goal had a hint of offside
In response, Rodgers made two changes, introducing Lucas and Lambert. Unfortunately, it seemed to make little difference, and Liverpool’s defensive difficulties continued to remain their Achilles heel. In fact, only a minute after those subs were made Bolasie blazed against the bar after a defensive mishap from Moreno allowed him to cut in from the right.

There were hopes of one final Steven Gerrard inspired comeback, and the skipper tried his hardest to make it happen, seeing Hennessey save his right footed shot well and curling a free kick from ideal Gerrard range just over the top left hand corner.

It wasn’t to be, though, and Palace made sure of the three points in injury time with the help of a poor decision from referee Moss, who pointed to the spot despite Lucas’ foul on Zaha clearly taking place just outside the box.

Glenn Murray stepped up and saw Mignolet save his initial spot kick but then turned home the rebound with relative ease before celebrating in front of the delighted away supporters in the Anfield Road end. There was also a hint of offside for Zaha’s goal, so Liverpool were slightly unlucky with the two goals that ultimately gave Palace the victory, but the Reds’ could have few complaints.

Credit to them, Crystal Palace were the better side and fully deserved the win that almost spoiled the party. At the end of the day, however, it was all about that man Stevie Gerrard, and remembering his fantastic Liverpool career and celebrating it one last time at Anfield.

He was given a memorable send off by the home crowd during the traditional lap of honour at the end of the final home game of the season, and the away supporters also stayed behind to salute Stevie as well in what was a sign of Gerrard’s universal appeal to football fans of all clubs.

Gerrard says goodbye to the Kop
There’s something compelling about his love for and loyalty to Liverpool that makes him likeable across the footballing spectrum, and he’s one of a kind that we are unlikely to ever see in the beautiful game again; a genuinely world class player who stays true to his beloved local boyhood club through thick and thin, sacrificing personal glory for its good.

Stevie, you will always be our hero and we’ll never forget the many memories you gave us of the times of our Liverpool supporting lives.


Monday, 11 May 2015

Champions League chase over despite credible Chelsea draw

Liverpool’s already extremely faint top four hopes were all but extinguished yesterday afternoon, as they could only draw 1-1 at Stamford Bridge, leaving them six points behind fourth placed Manchester United, whose goal difference is also far superior to the Reds’.

However, there were plenty of positives to take from the match against the newly crowned Champions. One of only four teams to take points off Mourinho’s men at the Bridge this season, Liverpool looked the better side, particularly in the second half, and, if there was going to be a winner, it would have been the Merseysiders. Unfortunately, as is the story of their season, they lacked a clinical front man.

The Reds’ lined up as a 4-2-3-1, as Gerrard and Henderson sat deep in midfield, while Lallana, Sterling and Coutinho buzzed industriously and productively behind lone striker Rickie Lambert. Glen Johnson also put in one of his best performances of the season at left back, but it’s difficult to understand why he’s still being picked when everyone knows that he will leave at the end of the season. Surely Javier Manquillo, who at least might have a future at the club, deserves a game.

After Liverpool gave a humiliating guard of honour to Champions Chelsea as they entered the field of play, the match began quickly and controversially. 

This must have hurt
Only a minute in, there was massive confusion as referee Andre Marriner accidentally showed Jon Obi Mikel a red card and then a yellow card following Fabregas’ horrendous tackle on Sterling, which was worth of a red. Eventually Mikel pointed out the error to Marriner, who promptly booked Fabregas instead. The silky Spanish midfielder was relieved it wasn’t a red.

Then, on five minutes salt was rubbed in the Reds’ wounds as Fabregas, who should have been in an early bath by this stage, sent in a right wing corner which Terry headed home to open the scoring after all too easily beating Rickie Lambert in the air. 

This was a poor goal to concede
Chelsea’s defence have scored more goals between them this season than Liverpool’s four main forwards, which is a sobering statistic revealing the gulf in quality between the two teams.

The rest of the first half was a much quieter affair, but Liverpool did come back into the match, Johnson striking into the side netting after marauding down the left wing and Coutinho forcing Courtois into a save. For Chelsea, Fabregas was by far and away their best player, making Mignolet punch clear on the half hour mark, but he was also lucky to avoid a second yellow after pulling Sterling back by the shorts.

Liverpool eventually got a slice of luck, however, on the stroke of half time when some shoddy Chelsea defending allowed Gerrard to respond to his critics by equalising. Ivanovic picked up a silly yellow for a foul on Lallana on the left hand by-line, giving Henderson the opportunity to dink the ball into the box.

All it took for Gerrard to escape the attention of Mikel was a bit of movement, creating space for him to deftly head home unmarked at the back post. His subsequent celebration was muted, but Gerrard must have loved silencing his Chelsea critics, who were of course out in full force again yesterday.

Gerrard's response to scoring was restrained
That equaliser was the harbinger of better things to come, as the Reds built on the platform that it gave them during the second period, in which they were much the better side. Soon after the restart, Lallana unfortunately scuffed a shot across goal after neat work between Gerrard and Henderson, while Coutinho also had a great chance after being set up by Sterling, but shot agonisingly narrowly wide with Courtois beaten.

Willian responded with a couple of threatening strikes for Chelsea, but Mourinho was so concerned that he chose to replace 19-year old Ruben Loftus-Cheek, who’d put in an accomplished performance on his Chelsea debut, with the far more experienced sitting midfielder Nemanja Matic on the hour mark.

Liverpool, meanwhile, made a couple of changes of their own. First, Jerome Sinclair was brought on for Rickie Lambert to make his Premier League debut. He did quite well, replacing the ineffective Lambert, who was responsible for Chelsea’s goal and made little impact on the match, managing only 15 touches during an average performance that failed to add credence to claims earlier in the week that Chelsea are interested in signing him to replace the departing Didier Drogba.

Then, with just over ten minutes left, Steven Gerrard was replaced by Lucas. Initially, he was booed by the Bridge, but those jeers soon turned into cheers as the whole of the ground promptly followed the lead of the Liverpool fans and Chelsea manager Jose Mourinho to honour one of the Premier League’s best ever players. 

The Bridge honours a legend for a few seconds before returning to mercilessly mocking him
Gerrard’s dismissive response, saying it was “nice for Chelsea fans to turn up for once”, was classic Stevie.

The final minute of the match almost saw Coutinho grab a dramatic late winner as the Brazilian’s deflected effort nearly wrong-footed Courtois. Unfortunately, he reacted quick enough to avert the danger and ensure that the Blues got a point that they arguably didn’t deserve on the balance of play.

At the end of the day, it’s disappointing to have the final nail hammered into the coffin of our Champions League hopes, but most Kopites knew it was already over. Moreover, it was pleasing to see the Reds put in a decent performance at a difficult venue where few teams come away with anything. Gerrard scoring one last time against his arch enemies Chelsea was also great.

Let’s hope he and the rest of the team can now give us something to cheer about by putting on a bit of a show in the Reds’ final two matches at home to Crystal Palace and away to Stoke City.


Sunday, 3 May 2015

Late Gerrard header rescues Reds against Rs

Steven Gerrard saved Liverpool with a last gasp winner in front of the Kop for perhaps the final time as the Reds beat QPR 2-1 at Anfield yesterday. It was a fairy-tale ending to an otherwise unremarkable end-of-season encounter, which began with Coutinho opening the scoring before Fer levelled for the visitors.

Stevie seemed to have missed his chance to clinch the points when he missed from the spot on 77 minutes, but, as it turned out, thankfully he wasn’t to be denied his opportunity to rescue the Reds one last time.

In the absence of the injured Balotelli, Rickie Lambert was finally handed a starting berth, while Lallana operated behind the former Southampton striker alongside Sterling and Coutinho as he made his first start since returning from injury.

QPR began the better and had the ball in the back of the net only one minute in, as Fer bundled home a corner kick in front of the Kop. Fortunately, the ball had already gone out of play so the goal was disallowed.

However, it was a big let off for a sluggish Liverpool side that started slowly, allowing Caulker, Fer and Henry to have further goalscoring opportunities which they thankfully squandered by failing to hit the target.

QPR’s confidence is at rock bottom levels, though, as they continue to wage a losing battle against relegation. Their captain didn’t help them out, either, as Joey Barton gave the ball away twice in quick succession, allowing Gerrard to drag wide and Lambert to shoot straight at Green before Coutinho netted the opener on 19 minutes.

Lambert squared the ball to the talented Brazilian, who, in his infamous manner, cut back onto his right foot before curling the ball beyond the diving Green.

Coutinho is a world class magician
The number 10 has now scored in all three of his appearances against QPR, and continues to look a cut above his attacking teammates. The likes of Lallana and Sterling are undoubtedly good players who have a vital role to play for the Reds going forward, but they aren’t world class like Philippe Coutinho. If he keeps on developing at his current pace then there’s no reason why he can’t have as big an impact at Liverpool as Luis Suarez.

The Merseysiders were on top for the rest of the half, but never really got out of second gear as the game had a typical end-of-season feel to it. Skrtel headed Gerrard’s corner off target, the skipper shot wide and Sterling scored but was flagged offside. Apart from that, it was fairly uneventful stuff at Anfield.

Five minutes after the restart Lallana squandered a good chance to double Liverpool’s lead, but he snatched at his shot and the ball fizzed wide at the near post. Even worse, Sterling wasted a glorious goalscoring opportunity on 54 minutes, as, Ronny Rosenthal-esque, he skied his shot into the Kop from yards out when all he had to do was tap home. I keep on saying it, but Sterling simply has to start scoring those before the club can even consider paying him in excess of £100k a week.

Jordon Ibe arrived on the scene with just over 20 minutes remaining and made an instant impact, getting to the by-line and cutting the ball back for Lambert, who disappointingly missed the ball. It eventually fell for Gerrard, but his shot was deflected behind for a corner, which was headed firmly goalwards by Lovren but Green dealt with it quite well.

At the other end, QPR were also enjoying their best spell of the match. Sandro’s effort was blocked by Lovren while Mignolet easily saved Phillips’ shot from the rebound, as Chris Ramsey’s men came back into the game and shocked the home crowd by equalising on 72 minutes.

Barton’s right wing corner found Fer and the 25-year old Dutchman volleyed past Mignolet before celebrating by revealing a shirt with a message of support for teammate Rio Ferdinand, whose wife Rebecca Ellison sadly lost her battle with cancer this weekend.

Fer shows his support for the Ferdinand family
QPR’s resurgence was pleasing brief, however, and they quickly self-destructed, as Nedum Onuoha soon conceded a spot kick after dragging down Skrtel in the box. Green frustratingly guessed right to deny Gerrard from 12 yards, but QPR couldn’t capitalise on the reprieve their keeper offered.

First, Onuoha was sent off for a second bookable offence after fouling Ibe. Then, Gerrard produced the goods to steal the points for the home side. Finding space in the penalty area, Stevie swooped to superbly head home Coutinho’s left wing corner, to the absolute delight of the vast majority inside Anfield.

This photo is just fantastic
It was great to see Stevie peeling off in celebration of a last gasp winner in front of the Kop one last time before he leaves for the States, and he received a magnificent reception when he then left the field of play to be replaced by Lucas.

He’s inevitably not the same player that he was 10 years ago, but he’ll always be one of, if not the, best Liverpool player ever, and certainly the player I’ve most enjoyed watching during my 15 years following the club.

Unfortunately, his goal probably won’t count for much because the Reds’ rubbish form has almost certainly cost them Champions League qualification already, even though fourth placed Manchester United have now lost three Premier League games in a row without scoring. Frustratingly, if Liverpool had beaten West Brom and Hull, then they’d be sitting in fourth right now.

I’d prefer not to think about that now, though; revelling in Stevie’s winner in his penultimate match at Anfield is much more fun!