Tuesday, 30 November 2010

Lennon late show breaks Red hearts

Liverpool fell to a late defeat on Sunday as a last minute strike from Aaron Lennon condemned the Reds to yet another miserable away day. A pulsating Premier League match saw both sides play exciting end-to-end football, with Liverpool claiming the lead through Martin Skrtel on 42 minutes before squandering three fantastic opportunities to put the game to bed.

Unfortunately Tottenham responded and controlled the second half. Defoe missed a penalty and had a goal chalked off for offside either side of Martin Skrtel's own goal before terrible defending allowed Lennon to fire past Reina and to break Red hearts during the dying moments.

Roy Hodgson selected a bold starting line-up as Liverpool reverted to an unfamiliar 4-4-2 formation, with David Ngog partnering Fernando Torres up front. Lucas and Meireles started in the centre as Gerrard missed out due to an injury picked up on international duty.

The result was an interesting and eventful opening as both sides tried to win the game, in contrast to our usual dull and defensive approach on the road. One thing never changes though; Paul Konchesky was abysmal once again.

After only four minutes he was easily skinned by Lennon, who proceeded to centre the ball for Modric. Thankfully the Croatian midfielder's volley lacked power and bounced into the arms of Reina.

Maxi went close with a stabbed effort on nine minutes but it just shaved the post on its way wide after the Argentinean had worked a yard of space for himself inside the box.

Maxi tried to find the back of the net once again soon after when he collected Torres' lay off before shooting inches wide from 20 yards. More significantly Tottenham's playmaker Rafael Van der Vaart had to leave the action after pulling up with an injury.

Many expected this to be the turning point that handed the initiative to the visitors, but that wasn't the case as Tottenham continued to threaten our backline. Kaboul hit a Spurs free kick high and wide from 25 yards out before a brilliant piece of defending from Carra was needed to retain parity.

Pepe, who looked uncharacteristically nervous throughout, split Modric's cross at the feet of Defoe. The England striker seemed destined to break the deadlock, however his compatriot Carragher denied him as a sensational block from the scouse stand-in skipper saved Reina's blushes.

From then on Liverpool took control of the first half and played some purposeful and promising attacking football. Ngog powered Kuyt's dangerous cross wide of goal before Torres' shot was blocked by Kaboul. Meireles then tested Gomes with a well- struck effort from all of 30 yards before Liverpool took the lead moments from the break when Martin Skrtel instinctively stabbed home the loose ball inside the box from Meireles' free kick.

The away side then spurned three excellent chances to seal the points. Two of those arrived before the half time interval when a brilliant recovery tackle from Bassong stopped Torres as he was prepared to pull the trigger after the Spaniard had expertly set up Maxi with a beautiful flick only a minute earlier. Agonisingly Maxi had stumbled at the crucial moment and the chance was gone.

An identical opportunity fell to Torres at the beginning of the second period as the Spanish striker sped through on goal. Disappointingly he took one touch too many, allowing Bassong to slide in with another terrific tackle in the box.

That was Liverpool's only real clear cut chance in the second half as, although we had started positively, Hodgson reverted back to his depressing type and we sat deep in a desperate attempt to cling on to our one-goal advantage. This played right into Tottenham's hands though as Harry Redknapp's side never say no to the chance of playing attacking, free flowing football.

After 51 minutes Meireles headed Bale's bouncing volley off the line after another mistake from Reina had presented the ball to the flying Welsh winger. Assou-Ekotto then drilled the ball goalwards from distance but Meireles deflected it over and Lucas cleared the resulting corner.

What appeared to be a pivotal point in the match arrived on the hour mark when Spurs were correctly awarded a penalty after Gareth Bale's free kick was bizarrely and blatantly blocked by the hands of Ngog.

The French striker looked embarrassed and rightly so, because his pointless error gave Tottenham the perfect opportunity to exert their dominance. To the relief of the Reds Jermain Defoe dragged his spot kick just wide of the post. The hosts didn't have to wait long to equalise though as Martin Skrtel's own goal soon levelled the scores.

Modric burst past Carragher and into the box far too easily before his low cross was turned over the line by the desperate Skrtel. The Slovakian, who had only scored twice previously, had now frustratingly scored at both ends to leave Liverpool fighting a resurgent Spurs side.

At times it felt as if we were battling with the officials as well. On 70 minutes Kuyt was sent crashing to the turf by Assou-Ekotto's challenge but Martin Atkinson refused to point to the spot. Lennon's cross then wreaked havoc in the Liverpool box with a mere 10 minutes remaining, as the ball eventually fell to Bale, whose volleyed effort was blocked by Pepe Reina.

Raul Meireles thrived in his preferred role in the centre of midfield and he almost stole a winner for the visitors when his superb left footed strike screamed inches past the post. It was a terrific effort from the Portugese, however it was our last sight of goal as Tottenham pressed forward intently while we tried to hang on to what would have been an invaluable point.

Jermain Defoe nearly compensated for his penalty miss on 89 minutes when he volleyed past Reina from close range. Thankfully we had a stroke of luck as he was flagged offside.

It simply wasn't going to be Defoe's day. Unfortunately it was going to be Tottenham's day though as they claimed a last gasp winner during injury time. Crouch and Kyrgiakos contested a long ball in the air and the former Liverpool striker succeeded as he flicked the ball on for Lennon, who stormed past the pathetic Paul Konchesky with frightening ease.

Spurs' number 7 fired past Reina to leave Liverpool devastated. Not only had we lost in the worst manner possible, but we had also lost inspirational defender Jamie Carragher to a long-term injury late on.

However, despite the disappointing defeat and irritating injury some significant positives can be taken. For the first time this season we actually had a go away from home. In the first half we attacked and played some good, impressive football that we haven't seen for far too long.

We might have returned to a depressingly dull style of play in the second half, however the fact that we performed so well in the first period demonstrates that we do have a very good side that can compete with even the best opposition either at Anfield or on the road.

It will require a change of heart from Hodgson, but if we can replicate that away form for the rest of the season then we have a real chance of challenging for a top four finish.


Thursday, 25 November 2010

Why the future is bright for Liverpool's young stars- Part Three: Daniel Pacheco

After a seemingly never-ending barren spell where Liverpool’s young stars have failed to make any sort of an impact on the first team the Reds finally have a crop of young players who appear destined to challenge for a place in the first team in the not-so distant future. In this five part series I examine the youngsters who are on the fringes of the starting eleven and consider their possible futures at the club.

In part three I consider the future of Daniel Pacheco.

For far too long now Liverpool have been crying out for a creative and attacking midfielder to complement Steven Gerrard and Fernando Torres. Our midfield has clearly lacked a player with the invention and incision to unlock tightly packed defences. If he fulfils his potential then Daniel Pacheco could be precisely the player we have been crying out for.

The promise and potential possessed by the Spanish sensation is unquestionable. Signed from Barcelona, where he earned the nickname El Asesino ("The Assassin") thanks to his lethal finishing skills, Pacheco has gone on to prove his ability since his arrival in 2007, with many encouraging cameos for the first team adding to his prominent status in the reserve side.

After helping the reserve side to become both the Premier Reserve League’s Northern and National Champions in 2007/2008 Pacheco progressed further and made his first team debut as a substitute in the dead-rubber Champions League match at home to Fiorentina last season.

His League debut came soon after and he shone during his brief spell on the pitch as a substitute against Wolves, however he made his biggest impression on the first team during our inaugural Europa League game against Unirea Urziceni.

With 15 minutes remaining Liverpool were stuttering and stumbling to what would have been an embarrassing stalemate at home to a little known Romanian side most supporters expected us to comfortably defeat. Pacheco was sent on to invigorate and inspire our faltering midfield, and that’s exactly what he did.

His invention and creative spark provided a glimmer of hope from an otherwise dull and disappointing match and, crucially, he was involved at the heart of the move that sealed the Reds’ one goal victory. Pacheco showed composure and calmness to cleverly head fellow substitute Ryan Babel’s left wing cross into space for David Ngog to head home from close range.

Pacheco played a significant role in constructing Ngog’s vital goal that put us in good stead for the return leg and, more importantly, spared us the inevitable derision that would have resulted had we failed to beat an opponent with little to no European pedigree.

Despite his noteworthy impact and growing support amongst fans Pacheco struggled to force his way into the first team picture for the rest of the season. Nevertheless he was regularly placed on the bench, an indication of both Rafa’s desperate desire to get results immediately with tried and trusted players, and to keep the promising young stars in the picture.

Following a quietly impressive campaign for Liverpool Pacheco went on to excel at the 2010 UEFA European Under-19 Championship, where he claimed the tournament’s golden boot after scoring four goals whilst helping Spain to a second placed finish.

Pacheco proved to be one of the most influential players in the Spain squad as he scored two crucial goals against bitter rivals Portugal, as well as netting past Italy and England in subsequent matches to send the confident Spanish into a final they were expected to win against France.

Unfortunately for the Iberians they suffered a 2-1 reverse in the final, however Pacheco could remain pleased with his contribution as he provided an assist for his country’s goal to fittingly finalise his fantastic form throughout the competition.

Rumours persisted linking Pacheco with a return to his homeland of Spain during the summer as clubs began to take notice of the 19-year old’s eye-catching displays and attractive attacking ability. Thankfully for Liverpool the in-demand youngster decided to remain on Merseyside amid the anticipation of more first team opportunities.

This belief appeared reasonable when he was awarded the number 12 shirt in place of his previously obscure number 47 shirt. Pacheco then played for the whole 90 minutes against Rabotnicki at Anfield and he was part of a Liverpool side that passed the ball fluently and displayed real potential in their first competitive match of the season.

Disappointingly both Liverpool and Pacheco’s fortunes have greatly deteriorated since then, with Roy’s Reds failing to pick up points or perform well while Pacheco has been abruptly sidelined.

He has started against Trabzonspor and Steaua Bucharest in the Europa League, however the Spaniard’s only taste of Premier League football arrived when he came on as a substitute in the dying moments of the humiliating defeat to City. Apart from that Pacheco has scarcely managed to even gain a seat on the bench, leaving many puzzled fans inevitably angry with Roy Hodgson.

As a result of his isolation from the first team picture and speculation linking him with a move away from Anfield, I had to think twice before deciding to write about Daniel Pacheco.

The 19-year old Spaniard appeared to be rising through the ranks at Anfield as he began to feature on the fringes of the first team during Rafael Benitez’s last season at the club. Fans awoke to his talent and potential, with some even suggesting that he had the ability to claim a more regular place amongst the attacking triumvirate normally deployed behind the lone striker Fernando Torres.

Hopes for Pacheco’s future were raised further following the appointment of Roy Hodgson. Unfortunately, although many believed Hodgson would afford promising young players more chances in the first team than his predecessor, Pacheco seems to have fallen out of favour with the new manager, causing rumours to re-emerge suggesting that he wants a move away from Liverpool.

The former Barcelona youth player certainly seems to have a bright future, but will that potential be fulfilled at Liverpool or elsewhere?


Sunday, 21 November 2010

Liverpool humiliate hopeless Hammers

Liverpool returned to form in dramatic fashion yesterday as Roy Hodgson's side mercilessly thrashed the hapless West Ham 3-0 at Anfield, with all three goals in the first half securing a vital victory for the Merseysiders that takes us to 9th place in the table, only three points behind Bolton Wanderers, who sit in the final Champions League position.

Goals from Glen Johnson, Dirk Kuyt (penalty) and Maxi Rodriguez effectively sealed the win after 38 minutes as the dominant home side stormed past their opponents with ease throughout the opening period. The Reds remained composed and calm as they professionally saw out the game in the second half without allowing the League's bottom side a way back into the contest.

Jamie Carragher captained the hosts in the absence of regular skipper Steven Gerrard as Carra made his 650th appearance for Liverpool. Somewhat fittingly this landmark feat came against the same opponents he had faced on his first League outing for the Reds 13 years ago.

Liverpool started brilliantly and opened the match with three sights of goal in as many minutes. First, Green easily saved Maxi’s angled shot before the England keeper, who has struggled to recover from a dreadful World Cup, was called into action once again when he was forced to palm away Ngog's low shot after the French striker had comfortably skipped away from Jacobsen.

Maxi almost split the hoardings with a fierce strike from 20 yards after four minutes and a sublime pass from Meireles evaded the entire West Ham defence but was just too heavy for Torres as Liverpool began brightly with the home side's high tempo pouring pressure on the visitors.

Hodgson had decided to revert to a 4-4-2 formation with David Ngog partnering Fernando Torres up front, and this nearly proved successful on 10 minutes when the pair combined well to set up the Spaniard. Unfortunately, his shot screamed wide of the far post from the edge of the area.

Liverpool continued to push forward and purposefully attack the Hammers' defence, and were eventually rewarded after 18 minutes when we deservedly claimed the crucial first goal. The keeper tipped over Meireles’ blast and the resultant set piece was swung into the box, where Johnson cleverly controlled with his chest and powered the ball home right footed from 10 yards out.

It was a fantastic goal from Johnson as England's first choice right back confirmed his recovery from injury by putting in a terrific performance. He attacked with purpose and marauded freely down the right wing, causing worry in the away side's defence and a sense on anticipation on the Kop.

The Reds needed Johnson to display defensive stability as well though moments later when a rare attack from the visitors finished as Johnson's timely header prevented Obinna latching on to a cross.

Torres wasted a great opportunity when he mistimed his volley after the influential Glen Johnson had centred the ball for the Spaniard, however that mattered little as we doubled our lead three minutes before the half hour mark.

An obvious double handball from Gabbidon thwarted Torres as he was about to run through on goal. Thankfully, the referee noticed and correctly pointed to the spot. With normal penalty taker Steven Gerrard watching from the stands, Dirk Kuyt stepped up to comfortably slot the ball down the middle as Green dived to his left. The reliable Dutchman received a thumbs up from Stevie as Anfield's delight at a good display from the home side became apparent.

West Ham's first and only chance of real note arrived 10 minutes before the break when Illunga's cross was headed goalwards by Carlton Cole, who showed why Liverpool were fortunate to miss out on his signing with an anonymous performance.

Pepe made a comfortable save to stop the Hammers striker as Liverpool made the away side rue that miss further when Maxi guided Konchesky's left wing cross past the keeper with a delightful flicked header moments later.

That third goal effectively sealed the points and meant that Liverpool could relax and enjoy the second 45 minutes. The desire to boost our goal difference was significant, however the main priority was to deny West Ham any possibility of getting back into the game.

Hodgson's men fulfilled that task amply with a composed display and, although some will be disappointed at the failure to secure additional goals, the three points were comfortably in the bag.

After 47 minutes Meireles floated a corner in that Johnson nodded wide of target before Liverpool were denied a second penalty when referee Lee Probert failed to recognise Gabbidon's blatant handball as the Welshman blocked Torres' menacing strike.

Just past the hour mark Torres continued his search for a goal when he blasted over after finding a yard in the D. He went even closer with 19 minutes left on the clock as Green made an excellent save to tip Torres' fearsome snapshot against the crossbar.

The ball spilt out to Christian Poulsen on the edge of the box and the Dane, who was awarded a start in the League for the first time since our horror show at home to Blackpool, fired a testing strike goalwards. West Ham's stopper made another great save to keep the score resembling some sort of respectability.

Roy used the remainder of the game to give Babel, Shelvey and Aurelio some much-needed game time. Aurelio, who returned after another frustratingly common injury, particularly impressed and showed his potential with a venomous strike that screamed inches over the bar from range.

It was a tremendous effort from the Brazilian left back that reminded me of ex Red John Arne Riise, who secured a regular place in Gerard Houllier's Liverpool side while also becoming a firm fan's favourite during his time on Merseyside.

Supporters can only hope that Aurelio will now finally put his injury problems behind him and take the position of left back away from Konchesky, who is yet to win over the majority of fans.

Overall the performance from the home side was very impressive. Glen Johnson was sensational at right back, Raul Meireles looked at home in his favoured role at the heart of the midfield and Torres looked hungry for goals once again. Maxi and Kuyt also worked hard on the wings and provided vital width to our play.

Although this win will inevitably generate optimism and confidence within Liverpool's squad, the opposition must be taken into account. Yes, you can only beat the side you are put against, but West Ham at home is a match that we have always expected to win comfortably, particularly considering the fact that the Hammers haven't won at Anfield since 1963.

The real test of our Champions League credentials will come next Sunday when we travel to White Hart Lane to face Harry Redknapp's Spurs side. Tottenham will be flying and full of confidence following their Istanbul-like comeback against Arsenal and will provide stern opposition for the Reds.

With our atrocious away record we can only properly assess our chances of a top four finish in a week's time. Until then, let's hope the confidence engendered from our performance and victory against West Ham will spur us onto victory against their fellow Londoners.


Tuesday, 16 November 2010

Why the future is bright for Liverpool’s young stars- Part Two: Jonjo Shelvey

After a seemingly never-ending barren spell where Liverpool’s young stars have failed to make any sort of an impact on the first team the Reds finally have a crop of young players who appear destined to challenge for a place in the first team in the not-so distant future. In this five part series I examine the youngsters who are on the fringes of the starting eleven and consider their possible futures at the club.

In part two I examine summer signing Jonjo Shelvey.

Forget Istanbul, the 2006 FA Cup Final and Fernando Torres if you believed some of the hype surrounding the signing of London lad Jonjo Shelvey then Rafael Benitez’s capture of the “next Steven Gerrard” could be the defining moment of the Spaniard’s Anfield reign.

Liverpool’s new number 33, who has also captained and netted for England’s under-19’s, has made an immediate impact on the Reds first team since his arrival from Charlton Athletic for an initial fee of £1.7 million this summer and has provided a glimpse of hope for the future in what has been a miserable season.

The 18-year old midfielder attracted the interest of previous manager Rafael Benitez and several other big clubs after impressing for the Addicks when he made his breakthrough into the first team at the tender age of 16.

Shelvey was given his first team debut by Alan Pardrew in April 2008 and claimed his first goal for the London side in an FA Cup clash against Norwich at the start of the following year. In the process he became both Charlton’s youngest ever player and their youngest ever goal-scorer.

Moreover, Shelvey collated a decent goalscoring record during his time at Charlton, scoring a total of eight goals in 49 appearances before he made the big step-up from League One to Premier League football when he joined Liverpool in May of this year.

Although his attack minded style and eye-catching displays for the Addicks proved his potential and promise, the big question remained; could Shelvey make it at a club the size of Liverpool?

From what we have seen of the clean-shaven Englishman so far many supporters are convinced that the answer to the above question is “Yes”, he could be another youngster to force his way into current manager Roy Hodgson’s plans.

Jonjo made his debut as a substitute in the ill-fated Carling Cup clash at home to Northampton Town. His arrival spurred the Reds on as Shelvey brightened up our display and tested the visitor’s resolve with some searching set pieces. It was one of his dangerous corner kicks that David Ngog turned home to take the game to penalty kicks.

Unfortunately Liverpool crashed out of the competition as their League Two opponents claimed the biggest victory in their history, however Shelvey could be pleased with his personal performance because not only did he play an important role in grabbing a late equaliser, he also displayed composure and confidence to slot home his spot kick in front of the nervous Kop.

Only a month later Shelvey made his full debut for the Merseysiders when under-pressure Reds boss Roy Hodgson selected a side composed of squad players and youngsters to tackle the intimidating atmosphere of Napoli’s Stadio San Paolo.

Undaunted Shelvey put in a hard-working performance to help the Reds claim a 0-0 draw in Italy. Also, he displayed his great passing range and fulfilled a crucial role in our attack, as he was central to the link-up play between the midfield and lone striker David Ngog.

This system was successful as Shelvey received the ball from Poulsen and Spearing before holding the ball up until support arrived from Jovanovic and Babel on the wings, as well as from Ngog up front.

That promising performance in Naples did not go unrecognised by either the supporters or the manager as Hodgson awarded Shelvey cameo roles as a late substitute in successive Premier League victories over Blackburn and Bolton, before he was picked to make his first start in front of the Anfield crowd against Napoli.

Although it was the breakdown of his superb run that eventually led to Gerrard’s equaliser, for large periods Shelvey disappointingly failed to make the same impact on the Italians as he had in the previous contest, partly because he was deployed in an unusual role on the right hand side of midfield.

Despite this, Shelvey was conscientious and committed as Liverpool laboured and struggled in what proved to a be a fruitless attempt to break the visitors down, until Steven Gerrard stole both the points and the headlines with a break-taking hattrick in the last 15 minutes.

Since then Shelvey completed 45 minutes at Wigan’s DW Stadium and combined well down the right wing with Kelly at times, however he was still restricted by the fact that he had been shafted out onto the right of midfield.

It seems a common problem with Hodgson because not only is he unsure as to where to play Jonjo Shelvey, he is also undecided regarding Raul Meireles’ place in our midfield four.

If Shelvey is to develop into the top quality player he promised to be when he shone in the red of Charlton Athletic then he must continue to play in his preferred role, which is as an attacking central midfielder. Confusingly, Hodgson has played the 18-year old on the right hand side of midfield as well as in his ideal role behind the main striker.

Moreover, Shelvey has plenty of competition for the ‘trequartista’ role in the Liverpool side with Gerrard, Cole, Meireles and Kuyt all international players who revel in the freedom granted to them in that crucial position playing ‘in between the lines’ of our attack.

Nonetheless, the early signs look good for Shelvey. Comparisons to Steven Gerrard are unwelcome and unwarranted at such an early stage of his development, however he certainly shares a few of the skipper’s characteristics.

He is committed, strong and has a very good passing range. He can also tackle when required and is never afraid of hard work. These are all attributes that are needed for him to make the step up to becoming a regular in the starting eleven. Jonjo still has to work on his heading and shooting skills, as well as enhancing and perfecting his current abilities, however the teenage footballer still has time on his side.

Shelvey has already secured a place on the bench for most matches and, although I would stop short at giving him grandiose title’s such as “the next Steven Gerrard”, with NESV’s focus on producing young, talented players, there is no reason why Jonjo Shelvey couldn’t continue to improve and become a permanent fixture in the Liverpool first team in the future.


Sunday, 14 November 2010

Rubbish Reds suffer Stoke setback

Another away match, another example of hapless Hodgson's inadequacy and another dreadful performance from Liverpool as they crashed to a 2-0 defeat at Stoke and to their fourth defeat on the road this season.

Second half goals from Stoke strikers Ricardo Fuller and Kenwyne Jones condemned Liverpool to a disappointing defeat, and piled yet more pressure on Hodgson and his side, who, after two below-par performances and results, have lost all confidence built up by the previous run of three victories in a row.

Liverpool's first half display was simply dreadful as we sat back and absorbed endless pressure from the home side and failed to pose any sort of attacking threat to Stoke.

The midfield was stifled by the absence of width and failed to provide support for the understandably frustrated Torres, who was left isolated up front on his own for the majority of the match.

The home side were hardly on top form themselves, however the pathetic nature of their opposition meant that they controlled the first period as the one-way traffic streamed towards our goal continuously.

Stoke had a good claim for a penalty dismissed after only six minutes when Maxi was all over a Stoke attacker as he tried to reach Delap's long throw. Fortunately, and somewhat surprisingly, the protests were waved away by the referee.

Delap's long-throws continued to cause mayhem in the Liverpool box as the Reds backline struggled to deal with Stoke's main threat. On 10 minutes Meireles managed to clear the ball, but it landed at the feet of Whitehead, who smashed a low strike goalwards from 25-yards out.

It forced Reina into a great save as the Spaniard turned the ball behind for corner. Ex Red Jermaine Pennant whipped the set piece into the danger area, and Jones rose highest to flash a free header wide when he really should have done better. As that corner was contested in the area Liverpool escaped another very good penalty claim when Skrtel clambered all over Jones.

Whitehead went close again three minutes later when he shot narrowly over the bar, before a Delap throw in caused havoc in the Liverpool area once again when Jones missed a great chance to score after Huth had flicked the ball through for the former Sunderland striker.

Both Gerrard and Meireles saw snapshots saved by Begovic as the Liverpool midfield tried to relieve the pressure on our defence, however Liverpool couldn't assert themselves on the game and Stoke remained the more likely to break the deadlock.

Moments after the half hour mark Fuller played Jones through on goal. A poor first touch from Trinidadian stalled the move slightly, but an awesome interception from Carra was required to prevent the ball reaching Etherington, who was lurking ominously.

A decent Liverpool move ended when Gerrard dragged the ball seven yards wide on 42 minutes, but the hosts had the last opening of the first half when a lovely ball from Pennant, who was made to look like Ronaldinho by the frankly awful Konchesky, took the move past the Liverpool left back as well as Maxi Rodriguez.

Gerrard blocked the eventual shot from Stoke, however it provided yet more evidence of the home side's dominance and the haphazard nature of Liverpool's first half performance, which lacked composure and attacking poise as well as defensive solidity.

Manager and supporters alike were not only expecting, but demanding a much-improved second half display from the Merseysiders, however the second period started terribly and, if anything, got progressively worse as the game drew on.

A poor and sloppy back pass from Konchesky forced Reina to hoof into touch four minutes before the hour mark. Ordinarily this mistake would have little consequence however this proved to be a costly error when Rory Delap's throw in caused a mad melee in the penalty area.

The goalmouth scramble that ensued eventually ended when Fuller stabbed the ball home as desperate and dreadful defending from the visitors couldn't prevent Stoke grabbing the first goal and with it the initiative.

After that, Delap connected with the rebound to his own throw in and tested Reina with his strike, before a misjudged header from Skrtel gave Jones the perfect opportunity to double Stoke's lead and double our misery. Fortunately, Jones dragged his shot wide and Liverpool still had a chance of claiming something from the contest.

The Reds' best chance came on 64 minutes when Kuyt cut Gerrard’s superb ball back to Maxi. The anonymous Argentinean shot straight at Begovic from seven yards to squander our only real sight of goal. A minute later Gerrard fired another set piece into the box where Kyrgiakos headed back across the six-yard box to fellow centre back Martin Skrtel, who volleyed disappointingly wide.

Babel was then sent on for Maxi with 15 minutes remaining as Hodgson attempted to inject some pace into our lethargic midfield. The enigmatic Dutch attacker tried to make an immediate impact when he smashed goalwards from 30 yards, however he failed to find the net as our frustration grew.

That frustration almost bubbled over on 80 minutes when there was a scuffle between Jones and Kyrgiakos in the centre circle. Liverpool couldn't use that energy for any positive purpose though as Konchesky summed up our performance when he wasted a free kick in a good position by embarrassingly launching the ball way over the bar.

To add insult to injury Stoke doubled their lead in the dying stages. Gerrard's long pass intended for Babel was easily cut out and the home side counter-attacked rapidly. Pennant raced comfortably past Konchesky before playing Kenwyne Jones through on goal. Stoke's number 9 eased past Skrtel and made no mistake to beat Reina and send the Britannia ballistic.

Lucas was shown a second yellow card after a rash challenge on former Ipswich player Jon Walters as the game ended disastrously for the away side. An angry and despondent section of the travelling support sung for King Kenny to replace Roy Hodgson in the Anfield hot seat as the pressure grows on the Liverpool manager.

I am by no means a fan of Hodgson or his style of football, however the gutless and heartless display from the players yesterday is unacceptable regardless of who is sat in the dugout.

Gerrard and Carragher appeared to be the only players showing any sort of fight or drive to get us back into the match and that, considering their wages and the fact that they are wearing the famous Red shirt of Liverpool, was a damning indictment on the other players.

The comparison of war and sport is often crude and inappropriate, however if the players had shown even half of the commitment to the cause displayed by the soldiers they were commemorating before the match then the outcome would have been significantly different.

As I predicted, the Chelsea win is now but a distant memory because we have failed to build upon that win following the failure to secure anywhere near enough points against Wigan and Stoke.

Liverpool have now dropped points against Birmingham City, Sunderland, Blackpool, Wigan Athletic and Stoke City. That is simply not good enough from any Liverpool side, regardless of any ownership or managerial change, and must be changed quickly if we are to take anything from this season.

If not, we can kiss goodbye to the Champions League for another season.


Friday, 12 November 2010

Why the future is bright for Liverpool’s young stars- Part One: David Ngog

After a seemingly never-ending barren spell where Liverpool’s young stars have failed to make any sort of an impact on the first team the Reds finally have a crop of young players who appear destined to challenge for a place in the first team in the not-so distant future. In this five part series I examine the youngsters who are on the fringes of the starting eleven and consider their possible futures at the club.

In this first article I take a closer look at young French striker David Ngog.

David Ngog seems a surprising player to start my analysis of Liverpool’s youth. The former PSG player has already become such an intrinsic member of Liverpool’s first team set up that it often surprises people to find out that our second choice striker is still only 21.

Bought for a mere £1.5 million Ngog went straight into Liverpool’s first team squad upon his arrival in July 2008. He was then eased into the first team picture during his opening season at the club.

He played a bit-part role as Liverpool supporters witnessed one of the best seasons in recent history. Liverpool racked up a total of 86 points, scoring 77 goals and finishing only four points behind eventual Champions Manchester United.

Meanwhile, Ngog was used sparingly, starting five games and appearing as a substitute in 14 matches whilst scoring three goals. The first of those arrived in Eindhoven where Liverpool played out a dead-rubber Champions League group stage fixture versus PSV.

After the Merseysiders had recovered from a one-goal deficit to take a 2-1 lead, Ngog raced on to a Robbie Keane pass to score with aplomb and round off an eventful evening for Liverpool’s future stars, with Martin Kelly and Jay Spearing also featuring.

It was a brief yet beautiful glimpse of the rough diamond that needed to be polished and carefully treated in order for it to eventually develop into an expensive asset.

We were to see far more of Ngog’s talent the following season as the injury-prone Fernando Torres spent large spells on the treatment table, forcing Benitez to throw Ngog straight into the starting line-up on a frequent basis.

He appeared in a total of 33 games, starting 17 of those and finding the net eight times, giving him an enviable scoring rate of a goal every four games. Excluding substitute appearances Ngog claimed an exceptional record of nearly a goal every two games.

The highlight of those eight strikes came in October when Ngog displayed maturity and composure beyond his relatively few years when he confidently rolled the ball past Van der Sar and into the Kop net as Anfield erupted in celebration of a magnificent, match-winning goal from Ngog.

Although the rest of the squad and the manager received harsh criticism for what was a simply shocking season, Ngog was one of the (very) few who could hold their heads up high.

He may not have fully compensated for the loss of Fernando Torres, however he provided an adequate replacement considering his age and the fact that he had never experienced such an extended period of top-level first team football before.

Ngog has continued his speedy development even further this season, and remains our top scorer with a total of seven goals so far. Six of those have come in the Europa League as he has flourished when given the opportunity to start in the earlier stages of UEFA’s secondary European competition.

However, the memorable goal from our season up to this point has to be Ngog’s stunner at home to Arsenal on the opening day of our Premier League campaign. The soon to depart Argentine international Javier Mascherano slid the ball through for Ngog who rifled the ball excellently past the helpless Manuel Almunia at the near post.

It was yet another example of his fearsome ability in front of goal, and the promising potential that may be realised at some point in the future.

Despite the clear progress displayed by David Ngog during his time at Anfield the tall, gangly striker remains the subject of fierce debate amongst supporters divided in their views on our number 24.

Some supporters argue that he is too slow and weak to fully fulfil the centre forward’s role at the club. They suggest that his lack of pace lessens the danger posed to opposition defenders and that his inability to successfully hold the ball up leads to many attacks stalling before they’ve even begun.

Others point to his impressive goalscoring record and his hard working, professional attitude as evidence to suggest that he may have the potential to develop into a real star in the famous Red shirt of Liverpool.

One thing the vast majority of fans are agreed upon though is that Ngog should not have to shoulder the responsibility that comes with stepping into the boots of one of, if not the best striker on the planet at such a tender age.

Unfortunately due to the lack of funding afforded by Hicks and Gillett throughout their parasitic reign, neither Benitez nor Hodgson have had the ability to buy full and proper back up for Torres.

However, media-men and fickle fans both seem to forget the fact that Ngog is still only 21 when discussing whether he is good enough to step in for Torres. Similar youngsters such as Arsenal’s Carlos Vela seem to generate far more positive attention from journalists while Ngog is continually derided.

There is no doubt that Ngog would have received far more praise had he signed for Arsene Wenger’s Arsenal rather than for Rafael Benitez’s Liverpool. Wenger, with his admittedly remarkable record of signing young talent, would have been lauded for picking out a potential gem.

Benitez, on the other hand, was frequently criticised for failing to purchase a “better” striker, unfairly disregarding the financial handcuffs he had to work in.

Although Ngog is now starting to win over some of his doubters, he could soon see his prominent place in the squad fade rather quickly should NESV decide to fund the purchase of additional strikers in the next few transfer windows.

Nevertheless, I can see Ngog developing into a quality Liverpool player in the future, but only if he continues to play a role in the first team and is given the opportunity to prove his worth to the manager, regardless of the possible increased competition.

Only time will tell whether the French youth international will become the next Thierry Henry or the new Anthony Le Tallec.


Thursday, 11 November 2010

Frustrating Reds held by lively Latics

A below-par Liverpool had to settle for only a point from last night's visit to Wigan as Roberto Martinez's men claimed a fully deserved 1-1 draw. Torres scored his fifth goal of the season to set us off to the perfect start, however the home side controlled proceedings for the rest of the game and grabbed an equaliser through Rodallega on 52 minutes.

Liverpool showed little in attack from then on as Wigan looked the most likely to score a late winner. In the end Hodgson's side will be delighted to escape with a draw as we reverted to the type of form experienced before our recent upturn.

Roy Hodgson decided to stick with the eleven that started against Chelsea and at first this appeared to have been a wise move as Liverpool raced out of the traps to dominate the opening 15 minutes.

Only two minutes into the game Lucas Leiva, who was lauded for his inspirational performance on Sunday, showed a glimpse of what he can do in attack as the Brazilian smashed a stunning strike goalwards after Maxi had laid the ball off for him. The Wigan keeper had to be on top form as he expertly tipped Lucas' ferocious effort over the cross bar.

Liverpool's threatening football paid dividends after seven minutes when Gerrard's raking ball from deep split the opposition defence wide open, allowing Torres to speed through and poke the ball beyond Al Habsi.

It was a terrific pass from the skipper and a composed finish from the Spaniard as the dynamic duo continue to develop their blossoming partnership that has helped haul the Merseysiders out of the bottom three and back into contention for the Champions League places.

The instrumental Gerrard combined with Kuyt five minutes later to nearly double our lead as he delightfully dinked the ball over a Wigan defender to the Dutchman. Kuyt then neatly headed the ball back into the path of the captain, who volleyed just over the bar from 12 yards out.

From then on though Liverpool recoiled into their defensive shell as Wigan posed more of a threat to our frail backline and began to play some decent forward thinking football.

N'Zogbia charged forward and flashed the ball frighteningly across the six-yard box on 25 minutes before Wigan had the ball in the back of the net minutes past the half hour mark. An incredibly sloppy pass from Lucas gifted possession to N'Zogbia, who surged forward, played a one-two with Rodallega and eventually found the net.

Liverpool had a lucky escape though as Rodallega was correctly flagged offside. The away side failed to heed that warning sign though as Rodallega went close once again shortly before half time when the Columbian striker's shot hit Carragher's hands in the penalty area.

It was deemed to be ball-to-hand by referee Peter Walton, but that didn't deter the home side as Rodallega was only inches away from tapping home Stam's excellent cross a few moments later.

That was the last chance of the first 45 minutes and Liverpool were relieved to enter the interval with their lead still intact because, although the early signs were promising, they were also misleading as Wigan were by far the better side for the rest of the half.

Wigan extended their good spell into the second half while Liverpool's lethargy showed no signs of ending. With six minutes of the half played the hosts finally claimed the equaliser that most spectators expected to happen far earlier. Pepe Reina could only palm Stam's cross into the path of Hugo Rodallega, who sidefooted the ball home for the fourth time this season.

It was a dreadful start to the half for Liverpool because not only had Wigan drew level, Raul Meireles also had to be replaced by Jonjo Shelvey after the £11 million summer signing had picked up an injury.

The situation didn't improve either when Reina had to shepherd Rodallega away from goal as he was poised to double his tally for the evening. Diame then cut inside and tested Reina with a well-struck 25-yard shot before Maynor Figueroa, who was strongly linked with Liverpool throughout the summer, drilled the ball just past the upright.

The game appeared to be petering out into a bore draw but fortunately it livened up slightly with time running out as both sides made tentative attempts to steal all three points.

With 18 minutes remaining Shelvey, Kuyt and Kelly combined well down the right before Stam headed Kelly's cross behind under pressure from Maxi Rodriguez. From the resulting corner Kuyt managed to find the net after Shelvey's deflected shot fell perfectly for the 30-year old however he was clearly offside and the goal was chalked off.

It was a case of hearts in mouths for Liverpool two minutes later when Stam's cross perilously flashed across the goalmouth. Thankfully nobody was there and Kelly eventually cleared.

Steven Gerrard had a great chance to snatch a winner after 80 minutes when he was played through one-on-one with the keeper by Maxi. Naively Gerrard decided to strike the ball first time when he could have easily took his time and approached the goal calmly before slotting home. Instead, his shot struck the underside of the bar and bounced away to safety.

N'Zogbia's effort was comfortably held by Reina before the former Newcastle player shot high and wide as both sides were forced to settle for a single point when Liverpool would have been expecting to collect all three and Wigan must have felt they deserved more from a game they clearly controlled from 15 minutes onwards.

This result was disappointing because we were expecting so much more after such a positive performance and result against Chelsea only four days ago. It is easy for the players to be motivated for a massive home match, however greater desire is needed to win at Wigan on a wet Wednesday evening.

Frustratingly that desire was lacking as Liverpool's attacking purpose faded worryingly quickly following Torres' goal. Not only did we fail to seriously test the weak Wigan defence for any sort of sustained spell, we also looked vulnerable at the back as the back four failed to deal with several dangerous crosses that rolled across our six-yard box.

Liverpool now travel to the Potteries to play Pulis' Stoke City on Saturday teatime, and must be looking to take all three points from the Britannia Stadium if we are to achieve the realistic target of four points from six. Ordinarily this game is easier to take points from though because Stoke are notoriously difficult to beat at home.

They will certainly pose a real test for Hodgson's men, however with the Reds a single point off fifth position a win could propel us even further up the League table. Conversely, we're only four points above the relegation zone and another poor performance could see us scrapping in the lower reaches of the table yet again.

It's really that precariously tight at the moment, and Liverpool will struggle to impose themselves on the League table unless our form quickly returns to the heady heights of that shown against Chelsea.


Monday, 8 November 2010

Torres gives Chelsea the blues

Fernando Torres returned to top form and scored two stunning first half goals to earn Liverpool a 2-0 victory over Champions Chelsea, in what was Liverpool's biggest triumph of the season.

In front of a passionate and noisy Anfield the injury prone Spaniard put in his best display of the season to rip apart the visitors defence and provide Reds supporters with a moment to remember from an instantly forgettable start to the season.

Dirk Kuyt returned to the starting line-up following time on the treatment table and started just behind Torres up front. The Dutchman's hard work and link up play with the Spaniard proved invaluable throughout the 90 minutes.

Hodgson boldly selected youngster Martin Kelly at right back with Johnson and Kyrgiakos out due to injury and illness respectively. The local lad repaid the manager's faith in him though as he performed competently defensively while also marauding forward when appropriate.

Liverpool's 12th man was on top form once again as the Anfield crowd created an intimidating atmosphere for the away side. As is typical in these big clashes between the top teams, the start was cagey with neither side claiming control of proceedings until the 11th minute, when Liverpool superbly took the lead.

Kuyt dropped deep to receive a pass from centre back Martin Skrtel before splitting the Chelsea defence with a lovely ball to put Torres through on Petr Cech's goal. Cole and Terry desperately raced back in an attempt to recover, however Torres made no mistake as he dinked the ball over Cech and into the net.

It was a fantastic team goal from the Merseysiders that seemed to instantly change Torres' fortunes. After a season of under-performing as a result of injuries robbing him of any trace of confidence, one top quality goal in a massive match immediately revived the Torres of old.

Only moments later Torres displayed this confidence as he received the ball in the middle of the park from Konchesky before turning purposefully and speeding towards the Chelsea goal.

Unfortunately he dragged his shot wide of the upright from 20 yards out, but the renewed desire to aim for goal at every given opportunity shown by Torres demonstrated his sudden change in form.

Chelsea tried to respond soon after however Reina was alert to comfortably stop Kalou's tame far post header after England left back Ashley Cole had delivered a fine cross from the left wing.

It turned out to be the only half-chance created throughout the first 45 minutes by Carlo Ancelotti's side as their Italian manager was made to rue his decision to leave star striker Didier Drogba on the substitutes bench.

After that Kelly's floated cross created the next chance as Maxi volleyed over after Fernando Torres had flicked the ball into the Argentinean’s path. Kelly was also central to our next sight of goal when he confidently cut inside before firing a threatening shot goalwards.

John Terry's foot denied the home side as Chelsea had a fortunate escape for the second time in five minutes. Only moments earlier Zhirkov had clearly handled the ball in the penalty area. Although the ball was coming at the Russian quickly Liverpool still had a good shout for a spot kick.

Liverpool had completely dominated the first half and created numerous chances to double their lead. Thankfully, Fernando Torres took one of those chances on the stroke of half time to put the Reds firmly in control.

The combative Raul Meireles stole possession from Cole in a crucial position in the centre of the pitch. The Portugal international then spread play out to the left hand side where Torres excellently cut onto his right foot before magnificently curling the ball past the stunned Cech.

It was an unbelievably good goal from Torres. The technique used to expertly guide the ball past the keeper was simply stunning. It was an exquisite reminder of the world-class ability possessed by the 26-year old.

Liverpool had produced their best first half performance of the season, becoming the first team to score two goals against Chelsea in the Premier League this season. Although many other factors obviously influenced the pattern of the first period, the defining element was the team selection.

For once, Hodgson got it right as he bravely picked Kuyt despite of the World Cup finalist's recent time on the treatment table. Conversely, Ancelotti must have regretted his choice to leave Didier Drogba on the bench as, while Kuyt provided excellent support for Torres up front Drogba was left to shiver in the cold of the Anfield dugout.

This meant Liverpool posed a potent attacking threat whilst Chelsea scarcely threatened at all. To remedy this Ancelotti sent on Drogba at the start of the second period, and it had remarkable results as Chelsea proved the accuracy of the belief that football is a "game of two halves."

Despite this, Liverpool created the first opportunity of the second half when Cech did well to hold Maxi's firm strike from distance. Chelsea controlled the ball throughout the rest of the half however they failed to frighten the Liverpool defence until the hour mark, when the away side had three good chances in quick succession.

First, Drogba dragged a free kick wide of goal after Martin Skrtel had fouled the Ivorian, before Ramires squandered a good chance as the Brazilian headed Cole's cross over the bar when he was free in the area. After that, Zhirkov charged forward down the left hand side and struck the ball left footed towards the near post.

Thankfully, Reina managed to get a hand to it and divert the danger behind the goal. The visitors continued to pour forward though and went close again on 66 minutes as Reina made a simply sensational save to uphold Liverpool's two-goal lead.

Drogba's right wing cross found Malouda in space in the six-yard box, where the French international stabbed the ball goalwards. It seemed certain to make the net bulge, but Reina made a world-class save from point-blank range to deny the Londoners.

Liverpool's defence had had to deal with relentless pressure from Chelsea, however Hodgson's well-drilled unit had been successful in keeping the opposition out so far.

The attack managed to relieve some of that pressure though with less than 20 minutes left when Maxi tested Cech once again with a volley from range before Torres' incredibly ambitious effort was deflected behind for a corner kick.

The set piece came out to Meireles, who's shot was deflected in the direction of Kuyt. The industrious Kuyt took a touch before firing a shot goalwards and forcing Cech to make a good save with his feet to keep his side in the contest.

Time was running out for the visitors, but they had one final fantastic chance to get back into the match with only four minutes remaining. Anelka's shot screamed under Reina and bounced off the cross bar.

Carragher and Drogba fought for the rebound and thankfully Carra superbly won the ball to clear the danger and effectively seal the three points for the Reds.

I wrote this about the Chelsea match after last weekend's victory at the Reebok Stadium:

"Both the grit displayed against Bolton and the flair shown versus Blackburn will be needed if we are to take anything from that clash."

Liverpool fulfilled this statement perfectly. The first half display was full of verve and attacking purpose and creative football, with two fantastic Fernando Torres goals securing a vital lead to take into the second period.

The second half characterised the grit and determination and desire to win that is such a fundamental aspect of The Liverpool Way, which every Liverpool side intends to adhere to.

It was by far the best victory of the season and a pleasure to watch. Lucas and Gerrard controlled the midfield, Kelly impressed when thrown in at the deep end and Kuyt was tremendous on his return from injury. For the first time this season I cannot honestly say that any player's performance disappointed me.

However it will count for little unless we pick up points again on Wednesday when we travel to the DW Stadium to face Wigan Athletic. We then face a trip to Stoke where Tony Pulis' side will provide formidable opposition at the atmospheric Britannia Stadium.

No less than four points out of six are required if we are to extend our run of good form and continue to climb the tight Premier League table.

If they aren't secured then this win will be but a distant memory.


(Thanks to Sam Davies from Red and Proud's Facebook page for providing the title of this piece.)

Saturday, 6 November 2010

Hattrick hero papers over the cracks

A Steven Gerrard master class in the last 15 minutes earned Liverpool a vital 3-1 victory over Italian opponents Napoli at Anfield this Thursday, leaving the Reds three points clear at the top of Group K with only two more group matches left to play.

The captain came on at the start of the second half and dramatically changed the game as Liverpool put in a much-improved performance during the second period.

He eventually took control of the game all by himself. As the final whistle drew near Gerrard claimed a stunning hattrick to silence the away fans to the delight of John Henry and his wife, who were both witnessing the Anfield atmosphere for the first time.

Hodgson had promised to select a strong starting eleven before the match, however that wasn't the case as he awarded starts to Shelvey, Spearing, Poulsen and Jovanovic. Glen Johnson also returned from injury to reclaim his right back position ahead of the visit of former club Chelsea on Sunday.

Liverpool were quick out of the traps and made all the running during the first few minutes as they aimed to replicate recent performances that have seen the Reds collect six points from six, however the visitors settled into their stride quickly and continually posed a greater attacking threat throughout the first half.

Only three minutes into the match the menacing Lavezzi broke down the right hand side before fizzing the ball low into the danger area. Konchesky was relieved to see his attempted clearance hit the side netting instead of the back of the net.

Uruguayan striker Edinson Cavani miscued a shot wide of the post from inside the box on nine minutes before he squandered an even better chance midway through the first half. Cavani latched onto a brilliant through ball but could only fire the ball high over the bar when well placed in space on the right hand side of the box.

Lavezzi remained the away side's main threat, as his mazy runs and fierce shot worried the Liverpool backline. The Argentine striker went close again as he flashed a venomous shot inches wide of Reina's post after he had stolen possession from Jonjo Shelvey, who's poor pass went straight to the Napoli forward.

The 25-year old didn't have to wait long to punish the Reds though as he took advantage of another error from the home side to give the Italians the lead on 28 minutes. Christian Poulsen's bizarre backwards header went straight to Cavani, who instantly fed the ball through to the on-rushing Lavezzi.

Lavezzi sped into the penalty area before coolly and calmly slotting the ball underneath Reina and into the Anfield Road net. The volatile away fans went crazy in their wild celebrations while the 30,000 home supporters were left to rue yet another mistake from the much-maligned Dane.

Liverpool tried to respond before the break through both Ngog and Johnson, as the former stabbed a quick strike wide of the target after exchanging passes with Poulsen, before the latter cut inside onto his left foot and rasped a well-struck effort towards goal in a similar fashion to the goal that he scored at home to Sunderland last year.

Unfortunately, the outcome was different this time as Morgan De Sanctis was up to the task and made a good save to deny the England right back.

After a below par and uninspiring first half performance Liverpool needed a lift to boost confidence ahead of a crucial second half in our European campaign. Thankfully, Hodgson provided that confidence-booster as he replaced the quiet Milan Jovanovic with club captain Steven Gerrard.

The skipper's very presence seemed to lift the spirits of the side and the supporters, and led to a dominant second half display from the hosts.

On 51 minutes a good Liverpool move led to Meireles squaring the ball into the box for David Ngog, who was in a great position to send the ball past the keeper and into the net. Disappointingly, De Sanctis made a good stop to prevent the French forward, before Gerrard ballooned the rebound well over the bar.

Ngog was involved in our next opportunity as well when his right wing cross found Shelvey in space at the back post on the hour mark. The former Charlton player completely misjudged the flight of the ball though as it bounced off the top of his head and looped into the stand.

It was a good chance for Shelvey but his poor technique led to his header failing to test the keeper, however he is only young and still has time to develop the skills he is currently lacking.

At this stage Liverpool were controlling the course of the match and dominating possession of the ball as the Italians dropped deep and mainly concentrated their efforts on protecting their one-goal lead.

However, despite our dominance, we couldn't manage to regularly open up the opposing backline because we lacked the width needed to get behind their defence. While the introduction of Gerrard was certainly a positive move, the removal of Milan Jovanovic left us with five central midfielders playing in the middle of the park.

Meireles, Gerrard, Spearing, Poulsen and Shelvey are all central midfielders, however they were asked to share duties on the wing. This left us lacking any natural width and struggling to create chances to get back into the game.

Portugese midfielder Meireles steered disappointingly wide from 10 yards out as the Reds' frustration began to grow. After that, Gerrard curled a beautiful, low free kick inches past the post from the edge of the 18-yard box, as the skipper provided a glimpse of the skill he would exhibit soon after to win the match for the home side.

With under 15 minutes left Liverpool equalised in unusual circumstances. Jonjo Shelvey had lost his way after a marauding run had taken him past several Napoli defenders. Steven Gerrard never gave up though as he latched onto a poor back pass to ricochet the ball into the net after blocking De Sanctis' desperate attempt to clear the danger.

The goalkeeper pretended to be injured in order to try and win a free kick for his side and deny Liverpool a crucial equalising goal, but surprisingly the European referee was having none of it. French referee Fredy Fautrel made the correct decision by refusing to be convinced by De Sanctis' play-acting.

Liverpool had finally grabbed their first goal, and were now probing forward in search of a second to seal the victory. That winning goal arrived on 88 minutes when Steven Gerrard confidently converted from the spot after Johnson's menacing run had been abruptly halted by a foul in the penalty area.

With victory now effectively secured the night was rounded off perfectly when Gerrard superbly bagged his third goal, and with it the match ball. The ball fell into the path of the captain following a well-timed tackle from substitute Lucas Leiva. Gerrard went on to expertly clip the ball over the helpless keeper and into the net.

It was a brilliant end to a fantastic performance from Gerrard that rescued yet another game for his boyhood team. However, Gerrard's excellence should not be used to paper over the cracks of what was a shoddy performance from the rest of the team.

The first half consisted of square and backward passes before a long hoof up the field for Ngog to attempt to control. It was simply nowhere near good enough, and that showed by the lack of clear-cut chances for the hosts.

Gerrard revived the team's fortunes during the second half, but our lack of width still stifled our play and left us relying on moments of magic from the captain to secure the victory.

Winning naturally breeds confidence and although this was far from the best team performance of the season our third win on the spin will provide hope for the team heading into Sunday's clash against Chelsea.

Let's just hope that the team's form gradually improves as the wins keep on coming.


Tuesday, 2 November 2010

Why Rafa is right

Former Liverpool manager Rafael Benitez had another one of his infamous so-called "rants" yesterday as he responded to Roy Hodgson's derogatory comments about the Spaniard's management whilst he was in charge at Anfield.

Like his "rant" against Sir Alex Ferguson in January 2009 Rafa was spot on in his accusations. That, as the Liverpool legend would put it, is a fact.

After Liverpool's shocking start to the season that has included embarrassing defeats at home to Northampton Town and Blackpool and has also seen us collect only eleven points from ten Premier League games, Roy Hodgson has tried to divert some of the pressure away from himself by blaming Benitez for leaving the 63-year old with a squad full of "expensive failures" to work with.

Benitez rightly retorted Hodgson regarding the squad that the former Inter manager has inherited from the current Inter boss.

He said, "With £10m net spending, I left that squad with £300m value (and) 13 internationals."

While Hodgson certainly has been left with some players in the squad who are not good enough to wear the Liverpool shirt, the overall quality of the players is evident to see.

Rafa's squad that finished last season in seventh place contained a record number of internationals travelling to the World Cup from a single club side. They may not have performed during the previous season, however their quality cannot be doubted, either by Hodgson or any of Benitez's other retractors.

All of this was also achieved with very little money. Benitez's claim of having a net spend of £10 million could be seen as a little harsh on himself, as the financial situation at the club left his hands tied in the transfer market.

In fact, Benitez made a profit in his last four transfer windows at the club, as the former owners' transfer policy evolved from "sell to buy" into "sell not to buy".

Whereas formerly Benitez was allowed to invest money from player sales and therefore continually develop the squad, towards the end of his reign he was denied even those funds.

All the same, Benitez left a good squad to work with. It is by no means a great, title winning squad, however it is also definitely not a squad worthy of the relegation places, which is where Liverpool have been for far too long this season.

Hodgson had also tried to engage in petty politics, claiming that Benitez had banned Kenny Dalglish from the club's training ground during his time at Anfield.

This was a low blow to inflict, and Rafa rightly responded to his accusations, saying, "I brought back Kenny Dalglish to do a role in the club and Christian Purslow gave him another role."

Whether or not Rafa banned Dalglish from the training ground is completely irrelevant and Roy was simply using that to divert attention away from his shoddy management and under-performing players.

It just provided yet more evidence to support Benitez's attacks on Hodgson concerning the Englishman's bizarre media interviews.

"I think that Mr Hodgson, he doesn't understand," insisted Benitez. "Every single press conference is even worse than the last one. He's talking about things that he doesn't know. And some people cannot see a priest on a mountain of sugar."

The strange Spanish colloquialism may leave many fans confused, however it simply means that Hodgson cannot see the truth staring him in the face. Although Rafa didn't specifically state that plain truth, I suspect that Benitez is implying that Roy is simply not good enough to manage Liverpool, and that Hodgson is one of the few people failing to realise that fact.

Benitez went on to state, "We gave the fans their pride again. We fought for the fans, we fought for the club and we fought for our players. So maybe he cannot understand this."

Hodgson's failure to stand up for Torres, as well as his subtle hints that the supporters' protests against the previous ownership were harmful to the team, have caused doubts as to whether he understands how to defend the club and stand up for the supporters.

This is in contrast to Benitez, who repeatedly lauded the supporters and chastised the parasitic owners during his spell at the club. Not once did he speak against the fans in anyway and he never failed to defend his players when they required him to state his confidence in their ability.

Rafa then, in his own unique and endearing way, ended with some wise words that his successor will do well to listen to and act upon.

"Instead of talking about flips and flops, he has to concentrate on his job, try to do his best and not talk about the level of his players or the new players. Concentrate, try to do your best because it will be the best for the club and it will be the best for the fans."

Hodgson must stop providing the media-men with journalistic gold and return to focusing solely upon developing his tactical approach and instilling the right confidence and ability in his players through intense and meticulous training.

Some might correctly claim that Benitez is acting similarly to Hodgson because he is talking out about issues not affecting his current club, when he should instead be concentrating on preparing his side for their visit to Tottenham Hotspur this evening.

However, the crucial difference is that Benitez's Inter have been successful so far this season, whereas Hodgson's Liverpool have been anything but.

While we lie in 12th position with a mere eleven points and ten goals, Inter Milan sit second in Serie A on 18 points, scoring a total of 21 goals in all competitions including ten in only three Champions League matches.

Benitez has earned the right to discuss his former side's state as he has continued the formidable form of his predecessor at the San Siro, whilst also converting the Italians to a more attractive and attacking style of play then that exhibited under Mourinho.

The same could not be said about Hodgson, who must shut up and improve quickly if he is to remain as Liverpool manager for the rest of the campaign.


Monday, 1 November 2010

Maxi late show seals win for Reds

A late toe-poked finish from Maxi Rodriguez at Bolton's Reebok Stadium yesterday evening not only earned Liverpool their first away win of the season, but also ended Roy Hodgson's personal 442 day record without a victory away from home.

Whilst last Sunday's 2-1 victory over Bolton's Lancastrian rivals Blackburn Rovers displayed the attacking potential within Liverpool's ranks, this weekend's triumph emphasised the defensive grit and determination in this Liverpool side as they ground out a vital victory.

This wasn't the case during the opening stages though, as Liverpool controlled the play and created the first few opportunities of the match.

After four minutes Torres directed Gerrard's corner just over the bar at the near post, before the dynamic duo linked up again moments later to send the Spaniard clear on goal. Unfortunately, Torres took one touch too many and eventually stabbed his disappointing effort way wide of the target.

When fit and firing Torres would have smashed that first time into the back of the net, but the recent barren spell he has experienced has left Liverpool's first choice striker bereft of confidence. Torres' obvious lack of confidence is a major reason contributing to our paltry record of only 10 goals in 10 games.

Torres was put through on goal once again six minutes later, this time thanks to a wonderful defence-splitting pass from Maxi Rodriguez. Great anticipation from Juusi Jaaskelainen denied Torres though, as the Bolton keeper did well to rush out of his box to clear the imminent danger.

Bolton responded mid-way through the half and began to pose a threat to the Liverpool goal. Steinsson's low shot was blocked by Kyrgiakos before Holden's fantastic, thumped effort on the volley called Reina into action as the Spain keeper beat the ball away.

The home side were suddenly asking questions of our defence, whilst the visitors struggled to either fashion or take advantage of the few chances that were created.

Cole arced a shot well wide of goal and Gerrard embarrassingly miscued his strike off target after a rare moment of flowing football and attacking inventiveness, however our good start had turned sour as the game became scrappy, much to the benefit of Owen Coyle's men.

Matt Taylor fizzed the ball goalwards twice during the closing stages of the half, but Reina managed to stop him on both occasions and the sides went in level at the break.

Although Roy would have been pleased by his team's defensive solidity, he must have been looking for more forward thinking football and incisive attacking play during the second 45 minutes, as Liverpool's first half efforts had failed to seriously worry the Bolton backline or test their Finnish keeper.

Despite of this Bolton were quicker out of the traps and pressurised our defence early on in the first half, with both Lucas and especially Konchesky needed to make timely tackles to deny Fabrice Muamba and Kevin Davies respectively.

Liverpool's only sight of goal before the hour mark came when England defender Gary Cahill blocked a shot from Fernando Torres, who continued to search for that elusive goal but evidently became increasingly frustrated as the match wore on.

In fact, Liverpool surprisingly possessed a greater attacking threat once energetic French striker David Ngog had replaced the hamstrung Joe Cole. Torres' deflected effort was well saved by Jaaskelainen before the Spaniard held the ball up and fed Meireles down the right wing.

The clean-shaven midfielder then clipped a ball to the back post, where a Bolton head denied Maxi a golden sight of goal. From the resulting corner Kyrgiakos provided yet more evidence of his prowess in the attacking third, as the Greek flashed a header just over the bar.

The Reds then survived a feeble penalty shout when Davies went to ground under the challenge of Kyrgiakos, before we completed our best move of the match with 20 minutes left to play.

Liverpool surged forward with Torres intelligently nodding Gerrard's cross to the feet of Maxi, who smashed an acrobatic effort inches over the bar from the edge of the box. It was a tremendous attempt from the Argentine and good build up play as well, however Liverpool were still left looking for a late winner to claim all three points.

Bolton hit back and had two good chances to secure a win themselves as Elmander shot inches wide before Davies went perilously close to giving the home side the lead on 76 minutes.

Taylor whipped a threatening ball into the six-yard box and the England striker was a whisker away from finding the net as his skimmed header almost crept in at the back post.

With the game seemingly petering out to a dull draw Liverpool stole a sensational winner four minutes from time. Torres instinctively and expertly flicked Lucas’ incisive pass through the legs of Cahill and into the path of Maxi. His scuffed shot found the back of the net after deflecting in off the legs of Jaaskelainen.

Although the finish was scruffy nobody cared as the well worked move and resulting goal secured our second victory on the trot, moving us out of the relegation zone and into 12th place, a mere three points behind Tottenham Hotspur in fifth and only five points off Manchester City in fourth.

Considering Liverpool's formidable recent record in this fixture (we had emerged victorious after the previous seven games against the Wanderers) this would ordinarily be viewed as a routine win.

However, thanks to our form on the road and Bolton's unbeaten home record this season, our second victory on the spin was greeted by mass euphoria from the travelling contingent of Reds who have endured far too many miserable away days throughout the past two seasons.

While we certainly weren't anywhere near top form yesterday, a clean sheet and away victory are opportune confidence boosters ahead of Chelsea's visit to Anfield next Sunday.

It will certainly be Hodgson's biggest test during his brief time as Liverpool manager, and, despite our recent upturn, any points secured from that match must be seen as a massive bonus. Both the grit displayed against Bolton and the flair shown versus Blackburn will be needed if we are to take anything from that clash.

Here's hoping that Hodgson can prove his side have turned a corner by claiming a serious scalp in the form of Carlo Ancelotti's Chelsea next weekend.