Sunday, 20 June 2010

Tough Start and Finish for Reds

Liverpool face a difficult beginning and end to the 2010/2011 Premier League campaign. Apart from allowing us to open at home for the first time in seven years the fixture computer was once again cruel to Liverpool, providing us with a difficult close to the campaign, and a near impossible start to what could turn out to be a crucial season for the Merseysiders.

Whilst it is always good to be starting at home, we could not have been given a much harder task, as Arsene Wenger's Arsenal side visit Anfield on the 14th August for the first match of the new season. Last season Liverpool lost 2-1 at home to Arsenal, in a game that proved that football truly is a game of two halves.

Liverpool dominated the first half, and could have been several goals ahead, however we had to settle for a one-goal lead going into the break. When the teams came back out for the second 45 minutes the tide had turned, and an unfortunate Glen Johnson own goal swung the momentum totally in favour of the Gunners.

Another Anfield goal for Andrey Arshavin sealed the three points for the visitors, and left Liverpool wondering whether they would ever regain any resemblance of form or good fortune. The diminutive Russian must be licking his lips at the prospect of this opening day encounter.

It does not get much easier for us the next week as Liverpool travel to Manchester to face Roberto Mancini's City side. With City almost certain to spend an eye-watering amount of money on new players, and Liverpool unlikely to receive any significant financial backing from our parasitic owners, this could turn out to be a crucial six pointer only two weeks into the season.

If we are to fight for fourth position again then we have to get something out of this match, however, unless new attack minded players are brought in over the summer, I can see us scraping this one out in an attempt to glean a point from a difficult second match. Don't be surprised if the City game ends up a 0-0 bore draw just like last season's clash.

September throws up another two difficult fixtures as we face Birmingham at St Andrews on 11th September before facing our arch rivals Manchester United a week later. The trip to the West Midlands will be a tricky task, as Alex McLeish's men were strong and difficult to beat at home last season.

If they manage to maintain their level from last season then this could be a very difficult match for the Reds, however I expect Birmingham to drop a level this season, partly due to "Second Season Syndrome" and also because of the loss of their inspirational goalkeeper Joe Hart, who has returned to his parent club, Manchester City. Should Liverpool gain a good start to the season then we should have sufficient momentum to beat Birmingham.

The week after that we play United at Old Trafford. As always, that will be an incredibly difficult match, and, with the gulf in class that existed between the two clubs last year, maybe we should not expect anything going into that game.

Looking at these opening fixtures both excites and worries me at the same time. They excite me because if we can get a couple of wins under our belts against the bigger sides that we face in the opening matches then we could be on our way to a much improved display next season.

However, they also worry me because we could easily lose four out of our first five fixtures. Another season of pain and struggle could await Reds supporters. This fearful attitude, which I believe most fellow supporters share with me, demonstrates how we have fallen from the top echelons of English football.

As supporters we used to relish these highly anticipated clashes as we sensed the almost inevitability of victory. Now, most of us are left paralysed by the fear of defeat, and that, for me, was the worst part of last season. We started so poorly, and had an unreal amount of injuries, which shattered all confidence and form that we had, and led to us having an awful season.

We can only hope that the new manager, whoever that may be, provides life and attacking spirit to the team once again, so that they can go out and enjoy the big matches in the knowledge that we have the quality to beat our rivals.

The first Merseyside derby of the season is on 16th October as we make the short journey across Stanley Park to Goodison. I fully expect us to take maximum points from this tie as we have a magnificent record against our neighbours. Liverpool have lost at Goodison Park just twice this decade. However bad our form has been we always seem to find a way to beat the Toffees, and we should have too much for them once again this time around.

The fixture list for November echoes the fixture list for the whole season, as we start with a tough match at home to Champions Chelsea on 6th November before travelling down to the Capital to play Harry Redknapp's Spurs side towards the end of the month. Throw in trips to Stoke City and Wigan, places that are always difficult to go to, and November looks like another challenging month for the Reds.

Thankfully, the Christmas and New Year period is a time where we can pick up a high amount of points. We face Fulham (H), Blackpool (A), Wolves (H), Bolton (H) and Blackburn (A) from 18th December to 5th January. There is no reason why we cannot gain at least 11 points from those games.

Blackpool away on Boxing Day will be difficult, however by that stage most teams will have worked out how they play and have planned a way to gain victory over the Premier League's new boys. Blackburn away is another difficult trip, however we should be able to claim all three points, especially if we have developed a large amount of momentum from the prior matches.

We also have the possibility of several Cup matches and the Anfield Merseyside Derby to look forward to during what could turn out to be a very busy January. Should Liverpool manage to reach the semi final stage of the Carling Cup (something that is very unlikely based on recent results in that competition) and progress to the Fourth Round of the FA Cup then we will have eight matches to play. Whoever is the next manager must rotate the squad during this month with future Europa League games in mind.

Liverpool then visit Stamford Bridge at the start of February before hosting Manchester United at the beginning of March. Those two games could prove vital in the title race, even if we aren't participating in it ourselves this season.

Whilst a trip to Stamford Bridge is never easy, I believe that we can beat the Mancs at Anfield. With the home crowd in full support of the team, and our impressive recent record at home to Ferguson's side; another pulsating Liverpool victory over United could be on the cards.

April arrives, and so does Liverpool's tough run in. Manchester City visit Anfield
on the 9th before we travel to the Emirates a week later. Potentially tricky home games against Birmingham City and Newcastle United follow before we end the season with three incredibly difficult May matches. On 7th May we play Fulham at Craven Cottage. A week later Tottenham Hotspur are our opponents, and then we finish our campaign with an away match at Aston Villa.

All of those games are difficult ties where we could be dropping points. The same could be said for the start of the season. Liverpool must look to glean as many points as possible from these games, and pick up the bulk of our points in the middle of the season, where we face some of the teams we are expected to beat easily.

It could be either a glorious season where we bounce back from the disappointments of last year, or it could be another campaign where we never really hit top form, and are struggling to grab enough points to claim a top of the table finish.

Whilst the later seems more likely considering our current position, both on and off the pitch, we must walk with hope in our hearts and hope for the former.


Friday, 11 June 2010

Rafa. Legend. Fact.

You may hate his zonal marking, you may despise his so-called "negative" tactics, and his signings in the transfer window may infuriate you, but there is still one thing that nobody can deny.

Not only is Rafa Benitez one of the world's best football managers, he's also a genuinely warm and friendly guy.

Contrary to the popular (and incorrect) image that the media seem to have manufactured for him, Rafa is a very friendly and humble bloke. Ask most of the people who have met him and they'll tell you the same.

Rafa showed his amazing love for the club, and the supporters especially, this week as he returned to Merseyside in secret to donate £96,000 to the Hillsborough Family Support Group (HFSG), £1000 for every fan who tragically died on that fateful day.

It was a great gesture by the Spaniard, and one which reveals his true love and passion for the club. Most other managers who had suffered the same sort of abuse that Benitez endured from the media, the owners and even some supporters, would have left the club and not looked back.

Yet Rafa not only returned to Liverpool quickly after his appointment as manager of Champions League winners Inter Milan, but also donated a large sum of money to HFSG.

Of course, you'll always get some journalists, and a minority of supporters, who will say that it was just a PR move designed to gain popularity amongst Reds fans. Firstly, Rafa doesn't need to gain popularity as many supporters already see him as a Liverpool legend. Also, as I've shown above, few others managers would even consider doing what Rafa did. It was a magnificent move from Benitez, and one that endears us to him greatly.

Rafa, we wish you all the best at Inter. Rest assured, you're a Liverpool legend.

(UPDATE: Rafa has also just recently (24th June) given a substantial amount of money to the Rhys Jones Memorial Fund. Rhys Jones was an avid Everton fan who was tragically shot dead on the way home from football training. Rafa said, "I am doing this on behalf of the people that cannot. I know that every person would have loved to give the Fund a donation but they are in hard times and can't find the extra cash." Benitez has also donated money to a Merseyside care home. These acts of generosity show that Rafa is a true gentlemen, and a Liverpool legend. Thanks Rafa, You'll Never Walk Alone.)

You'll Never Walk Alone

Thursday, 3 June 2010

It's only gonna get worse....

The news that Rafa Benitez has left the club by mutual consent has left me saddened, angry and frustrated.

After 5 years of sterling service to the club he has been dismissed for one poor season. For me this is unacceptable, especially when you consider the financial handcuffs that have been placed on him. The remarkable fact that he has made a profit in the last four transfer windows reveals the full extent of the financial burden that has been placed upon Benitez.

All the same, he has delivered success. Whatever the media and a certain section of supporters may say, that is an undeniable fact.

In his first season in charge he led us to Champions League success, and provided what will prove to be the best night in our Liverpool supporting lives in Istanbul.

The following season Rafa brought home our seventh FA Cup; with a Cup run that included victories over both Manchester United and Chelsea culminating in a thrilling penalty shoot out victory over West Ham United after the teams had been locked at 3-3 following 90 minutes of pulsating football.

A regularly overlooked fact from that season is that Liverpool finished with 82 points, only one point behind Manchester United, who finished second. That left Liverpool nine points behind champions Chelsea, a significant improvement from the 39-point gap the season before.

Season 2006/2007 saw Liverpool competing in yet another European Cup final, our second in three years of Rafa Benitez's tenure. Although we disappointingly lost 2-1 to AC Milan, Liverpool were dominant on the night and deserved much more from what was a tight contest.

Liverpool went far in the Champions League yet again the following season, eventually succumbing to Chelsea at the semi final stage. After a late John Arne Riise own goal had gifted Chelsea an away goal in the first leg, Liverpool fought bravely in the second leg at Stamford Bridge, however we just missed out on our third Champions League final in four seasons, losing 4-3 on aggregate after extra time had been played in the second leg.

Last season was perhaps the best season I have ever witnessed as a Liverpool fan. We pushed Manchester United all the way in the League, and played some sensational attacking football in the second half of the campaign, as we regularly smashed teams 3 or 4 nil.

Highlights include the 1-0 win at the Bernabeu, beating Villa 5-0 at Anfield, and annihilating both Real Madrid and Manchester United in the same week as we beat the Spanish side 4-0 at Anfield on Wednesday night before thrashing United 4-1 at Old Trafford on Saturday lunchtime.

The most memorable moment out of those two games for me was seeing Andrea Dossena (probably one of the worst players to wear a Red shirt) celebrating after scoring the fourth goal in both encounters!

Liverpool went on to finish four points behind Manchester United in second place, a stunning feat considering Liverpool had a net spend of only £2.5 million that summer. Also, we reached the quarterfinal stage of the Champions League before being defeated by Chelsea. We had embarrassingly lost the first leg 3-1 at Anfield, however the Reds almost pulled off an Istanbul style comeback in the second leg.

An amazing long range free kick from Aurelio and a Alonso spot kick levelled the tie on aggregate, however a mistake by Reina allowed Drogba to grab a goal back, and then things went downhill as a thumping free kick from Alex and a penalty from Frank Lampard put Chelsea in full control.

Liverpool now needed three goals to get through, and we nearly managed it as Lucas and Kuyt scored to leave us with 7 minutes to complete an unbelievable comeback. However, Lampard scored his second with seconds remaining to send us out.

This season has been incredibly disappointing, and the manager must take his fair share of blame for that. Reading knocked us out at the third round of the FA Cup. We were knocked out at the fourth round of the Carling Cup by Arsenal. We failed to get out of the group stages of the Champions League for the first time under Rafa Benitez, and, most infuriatingly, performances were well below par in the League, eventually condemning us to an abysmal seventh placed finish.

Now, many have blamed Rafa for this season, and claim that the team have gone backwards during his reign. The opposite is true. We have progressed massively under Rafa, winning several trophies and generally performing well in the League. Also, he nearly delivered number 19 during one of the most enjoyable campaigns I have ever witnessed.

The most worrying aspect of his dismissal for me is that it leaves Liverpool in free-fall. With rising debts, and no prospect of a buyer coming in to save us anytime soon Rafa was the glue stopping the club from falling to pieces. He provided a stable and successful management set up, and also remained a voice speaking out against the Yanks.

My worry is that Hicks and Gillett will appoint a puppet manager who will remain silent whilst they destroy our club from the comfort of their American homes. They'll appoint a manager who will accept the horrible situation they have put us in, instead of a boss like Rafa, who continually spoke out against the parasites.

And with Rafa now gone, and the American owners still in place, Liverpool are crashing and burning, with no sight of a way back.

We as fans now must continue to support the club, and we must adjust our expectations. No doubt some lunatics will claim that a change in management will immediately lead to League success, blind to the fact that the manager wasn't the problem. For me, I don't expect anything better than a seventh place finish next season. With City, Spurs, Chelsea, Arsenal and United all getting stronger I cannot see a way for us to break back into the top four.

Things won't start to look up until the parasitic owners, who are bleeding us dry, have been ousted.

Thanks for the brilliant memories Rafa. We are so disappointed to see you leave. Best wishes with your further career.