Friday, 31 December 2010

Liverpool's heroes and villains of 2010

As we stand on the precipice of a new year many will take time out to reflect on the previous years' events and look forward to what 2011 could hold and, while our focus should remain on the future, the events of 2010 must be remembered for their historic impact on the future of Liverpool Football Club.

In a year of twists, turns and turbulence many unexpected heroes have claimed a place in Anfield folklore with their contribution to the club, while others will forever be despised for their role in the destructive reign of our previous American owners.

In this piece I identify three heroes and three villains from 2010 and assess their impact on our great club.


1. New England Sports Ventures (NESV)

With the club in turmoil ahead of the approaching bank deadline that could have thrown our club head first into administration and financial meltdown, NESV patiently endured the frustrating legal battles between Hicks and Gillett and RBS that were blocking their purchase of the club. They could have quite easily dismissed Liverpool as a club in crisis, cancelled the deal with the Liverpool board and flown back to America.

However, they saw the historic opportunity to own one of the world's most loved sporting institutions and refused to buckle under pressure from Mill Financial and the former owners. Now, after they have removed the previous owners' acquisition debt and returned the club to a stable financial footing, they appear to be the right owners for the club's long-term future.

Their record with the Boston Red Sox suggests a willingness to invest significantly when necessary but also an emphasis on youth, self-sufficiency and the long-term health and prosperity of the club. Not only does this philosophy make commercial and sporting sense in the modern era, it also perfectly fits Shankly's ethos of the Liverpool Way and provides a platform for the club to compete for the club game's biggest trophies on a regular basis while also remaining faithful to the long-held and world renowned traditions of Liverpool FC.

2. Martin Broughton, Christian Purslow and Ian Ayre

Employed by the banks to sell the club Broughton, Purslow and Ayre were key players in the sale of Liverpool. Despite initial fears that they were acting in the best interests of the parasites rather than the fans, they eventually displayed a sincere determination to rid us of Hicks and Gillett and sell the club to the right owners.

They risked their own livelihoods by entering a vicious civil war with the previous owners that dragged the club's good name through the mud of public scandal. However, the High Court judged in their favour and allowed them to remain on the board and complete the final stages of the sale process.

Although Purslow's role in the removal of Rafa and the appointment of Roy casts a shadow over their time at the club, their passionate desire to rescue the club from Hicks and Gillett will be remembered far longer than their negative effect on the field, and, for the first time in the club's history, will see three businessmen become Liverpool legends.

3. The supporters

The fans' role at the club has always been vital. All dedication and passion displayed be players and the manager derives from the people backing the club to the hilt on the stands. However, the usual role of supporters was dramatically changed this year when fans accustomed to discussing all things football were suddenly given a crash course in Law and Economics as we attempted all routes of action to remove the lying parasites destroying our club.

Whether it be marching in a protest, organising email campaigns or participating in boycotts so many fans' groups played a vital role in utilising the strength of feeling against the owners and effectively portraying that to the local, national and even international media.

The supporters truly demonstrated fan power in action and achieved the aim of removing Hicks and Gillett and their debt that was saddling the club and halting on field progress.


1. Tom Hicks and George Gillett

After three years of debt, lies and broken promises 2010 saw the hated reign of Tom Hicks and George Gillett come to a eventful and painful end. While the demise of George Gillett was relatively unspectacular as he defaulted on a loan to Mill Financial, Tom Hicks was never going to leave without kicking up a massive fuss.

Under pressure from RBS they put the club up for sale in April however the unrealistic asking price of £800 million remained a stumbling block to any deal and, when the board finally agreed the sale of the club, Hicks refused to leave, instead attempting to fire Christian Purslow and Ian Ayre and replace them with two of his puppets, Mack Hicks and Lori Kay McCutcheon, who would vote with Hicks and block the sale.

The resulting legal battle led to the re-constitution of the original board however Hicks still didn't give up as he dragged the club through the British and, bizarrely, the Texan legal system. Finally the club was sold and possibly the biggest villain in Liverpool's history was defeated by the fans.

2. Javier Mascherano

Formerly a firm fans' favourite Mascherano's relationship with both the club and its supporters soured significantly as he left the club in a typically petulant fashion this summer. While supporters may have understood his desire to leave a club in turmoil both on and off the pitch, more loyalty was expected from a player whose career Liverpool rescued.

The current Argentina captain was rotting in West Ham's reserves when he joined Liverpool for over £18 million after impressing during a brief loan spell. His energy and determination earned respect from supporters and his crunching tackles proved vital to the defensive stability of the team.

However, in August he was the epitome of everything wrong with player power as he stubbornly went on strike and refused to play in our crucial match away to Manchester City, demanding a move to Barcelona. Liverpool missed his strong presence in the middle and succumbed to a miserable 3-0 defeat. With few alternatives the club granted his wish and sold him to Barcelona for an insulting £13 million, leaving Liverpool lacking a world-class defensive midfielder and out of pocket.

3. Roy Hodgson

Brought in to 'stable the ship' and revive our on field fortunes Hodgson has abysmally failed to fulfil this task and has marginalized himself from the club's supporters in the process. Under Hodgson Liverpool have collected their lowest amount of points at this stage for 57 years and lie only three points above the relegation zone after eight defeats and only six victories in what has been a dreadful League campaign. Partner that with his outdated, negative, ineffective and boring tactics and it's not hard to understand why upwards of 95% of fans want to see the former Fulham manager sacked immediately.

To make things even worse Hodgson has embarrassed both himself and the club with his comments in the media. Criticising the supporters for protesting against the previous owners, describing our derby defeat as the best the team has performed under his guidance and suggesting that he may have to sell some star performers to Manchester United are examples of only a few of Hodgson's howlers.

The final straw for Roy arrived following the pathetic performance in the humiliating defeat at home to bottom side Wolves. After the match he even blamed the club's fans for the predicament we find ourselves in currently. Although he has since apologised and claimed his quotes were taken out of context his relationship with the fans has been damaged irreparably. In attempting to take on the Kop Hodgson has effectively signed his resignation letter already.

That concludes my review of what has been a fascinating year supporting Liverpool Football Club. This has also been my first year writing about the club I love and, although there hasn't been much good news to write about, I have enjoyed every moment.

Let's just hope that next year I'll be writing about footballing heroes and villains and not the antics of some boardroom members.

Happy New Year!


Thursday, 30 December 2010

Wolves walk all over Roy's rubbish Reds

Roy Hodgson's Liverpool side crashed to a miserable 1-0 reversal at home to Wolves last night, leaving the former Fulham manager bereft of support from the stands as a chorus of boos from disillusioned supporters rung poignantly around Anfield on the final whistle.

A terrible performance lacking any sort of passion, determination or attacking threat was punished by the energetic visitors as Stephen Ward took full advantage of some shocking defending to score what turned out to be the winner for Mick McCarthy's men, who were propping up the table prior to kick off.

Before the match there was a minute's applause celebrating the lives of former Liverpool players Avi Cohen and Bill Jones, who both sadly passed away this week. That rousing reception, alongside the return of club captain Steven Gerrard, appeared to inspire the team early on when they created our best chance of the match after only seven minutes had been played.

A clever quick free kick from Fernando Torres released Raul Meireles inside the box but unfortunately his effort was well blocked by the desperate Wolves keeper Wayne Hennessey. From then on though Liverpool struggled to create any clear-cut chances and Wolves looked comfortable despite their abysmal away form so far this season.

Hunt's strike from the edge of the box landed on the roof of Reina's net on 9 minutes after Kuyt could only clear a corner as far as the Wolves midfielder before Ebanks-Blake shot from distance failed to test our Spanish keeper.

Ward then sent a dangerous looking cross into the area on 24 minutes however thankfully nobody in a golden shirt was there to convert, as the away side grew in confidence whilst the hosts were restricted to pot shots from distance that were all quickly blocked by the conscientious Midlanders. Lucas, Kuyt and Torres all had efforts easily blocked before Paul Konchesky blazed into the Anfield Road end to epitomise our attacking frustration just past the half hour mark.

Fittingly Wolves had the final half chance of the first period when Hunt headed Jarvis' deep cross off target at the back post three minutes before the break. Although most managers surely would have demanded more attacking verve from their players at this point Hodgson seemed to show no desire to do so as his under-performing troops were even worse during a nightmare second half.

Despite this it was the home side who created the first two opportunities of the second half. First, Ngog looped a header straight at Hennessey before the young French striker steered a shot wide from six yards after receiving a cross from the twisting and turning Glen Johnson.

Crucially though those were our only sights of goal throughout a frankly abysmal second period as Wolves controlled proceedings with poise and purpose, in stark contrast to the disorganised disaster Liverpool had become. After 51 minutes Liverpool had a massive let off when Ebanks-Blake couldn't make the most of a poor Pepe Reina clearance that went straight to the Wolves striker, before Zubar held off Kyrgiakos in the box and forced Reina into a good save low down.

Ebanks-Blake then headed Zubar's inviting cross over the bar before a costly collective mistake from Skrtel and Kyrgiakos allowed Ward to run through on goal and slot the ball beyond Reina and into the net. It was a simply shocking piece of 'defending' from two centre backs who represented their countries at the World Cup this summer.

Worryingly Wolves continued to dominate and the expected pressure from Liverpool that usually characterises matches when the Reds are trailing with time running out never materialised. Sylvan Ebanks-Blake, who has only managed four goals this season, terrorised our fragile defence as he burst into space and saw his shot blocked on the hour mark before he curled just wide of the target with only eight minutes remaining.

Liverpool almost stole a completely undeserved point in the dying stages when Gerrard delivered a free kick into the box and Skrtel rose to head home, however Wolves brave backline had outwitted the Reds as they rushed out seconds before the kick, leaving everybody in a Red shirt in an offside position.

Possibly the worst thing about this unacceptable result is that it is not unusual. In fact, under Roy Hodgson fans have come to expect the worst with this embarrassing loss adding to the humiliation suffered after defeats at home to Blackpool and Northampton Town.

The great Bill Shankly built Anfield into a bastion of invincibility and ever since teams have been frightened to visit because of the spine-tingling atmosphere generated that would almost inevitably spur the team onto yet another victory. Now teams looks forward to playing at Anfield, as they know the confidence-stricken outfit guided by a hopeless and hapless manager opposing them will provide little significant opposition. No matter how poor the visitors may be they know that if they have a go and boldly attack us they can easily escape Anfield with all three points safely in the bag.

With 97% of fans wanting to see Hodgson dismissed immediately according to many polls and chants such as the ironic "Hodgson for England" emanating from the Kop on a frequent basis, NESV must now act swiftly and sack the inept Hodgson. He has left us in 12th place in the League; only three points outside the drop zone following half a season of pain that has seen us suffer eight defeats.

There is no future for Hodgson or his outdated, ineffective and simply boring tactics. It is now simply a matter of when he will be fired, not if.


Tuesday, 21 December 2010

Why the future is bright for Liverpool's young stars- Part Five: Martin Kelly

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 final piece I discuss Liverpool’s most promising youngster, Martin Kelly.

For over five years Jamie Carragher has been the central and essential pillar of our defence. After years as a useful, adaptable and versatile defender Carra finally secured his desired position as a centre back under the guidance of former manager Rafael Benitez. With the 32-year old now approaching the end of his prestigious and eventful career Liverpool supporters have been searching for a young player with suitable grit, determination and most importantly passion to replace the iconic Reds defender.

As a result the emergence of Martin Kelly has offered hope to fans that Liverpool could have unearthed another player in the Carra mould. After only 17 appearances Kelly has shown his ability as both a right and a left back, as well as in his preferred role as a centre back. His versatility at such an early age inevitably draws significant comparisons with Jamie Carragher, and, alongside their shared characteristics, evidences the belief that Kelly could fulfil the role Carra excels in currently.

Although he missed two years of his development due to back problems as a teenager the 20-year old Kelly has progressed rapidly through the ranks at Anfield. It seems that far from hampering his chances of breaking into the first team, his earlier injury problems have instilled a resolute character within Kelly that will put him in good stead should he face any similar obstacles in his future career.

In 2007/2008 Kelly broke into the Reds’ title winning reserve side before he received a first team squad number for the following season, in which he made his Liverpool debut as a second-half substitute in our dead-rubber Champions League group stage match against PSV Eindhoven. He fulfilled his defensive duties adequately and must have impressed Benitez with a calm and composed display, however he wasn’t afforded subsequent opportunities in the first team and therefore decided in March to move to League One side Huddersfield Town on loan until the end of the season.

While playing for the Terriers Kelly was mainly used as a left back. Not only did this provide the Englishman with vital playing experience, it also developed the valuable adaptive quality necessary for young players to secure more opportunities in the Liverpool first team.

Moreover, he featured seven times for Huddersfield and scored the winner in their 3-2 win over Walsall in April 2009 as he began to develop his attacking ability while quietly impressing the watchful Benitez and his colleagues at Liverpool. Soon after his return to Liverpool at the start of the 2009/2010 season Kelly made his first competitive start for the Reds in their crucial Champions League match at home to French outfit Lyon.

Unfortunately Liverpool fell to a late and painful 2-1 defeat that left our chances of reaching the next stage hanging by a thread. However individually Martin Kelly put in an astounding performance at right back that provided a glimpse of hope from an otherwise thoroughly miserable night for Liverpool fans.

He was defensively solid and also posed a considerable attacking threat as his runs down the right wing threatened the Lyon defence on regular occasions. For him to make such a considerable impression on his Anfield debut in a critical Champions League match during a turbulent time for the Merseysiders was quite unexpected, however it was a pleasant surprise that showed the promise he possessed.

Disappointingly he suffered another injury setback during that match as he was sidelined with a groin injury after he had tried to prevent Lyon scoring their equalising goal. The fact that his commitment to preserving our lead had led to him sustaining an injury demonstrates both his devotion to the cause and his horrific luck. Even with the injury some supporters tipped him to replace Glen Johnson as first choice right back in the near future, however the injury meant he faced yet another significant spell on the treatment table.

Kelly eventually returned to first team action in February as a substitute in our Europa League clash against Romanian side Unirea Urziceni. He then made his Premier League debut when he replaced Glen Johnson during our 4-1 win over Portsmouth at Anfield, however Kelly has only really began to make a significant impact on the first team this season where he has featured regularly in the Europa League and has also impressed when afforded opportunities in the Premier League.

The Bolton born defender has been an almost ever-present member of our defence in the Europa League and has helped us through to the next round of the competition, only conceding a mere four goals in the process. However, he gained most plaudits for his tremendous display against Chelsea during November.

Kelly was unexpectedly thrown into the starting line-up as a late replacement for Sotirios Kyrgiakos, however he wasn’t fazed as he put in a brilliant performance to keep both Ashley Cole and Florent Malouda quiet for the whole 90 minutes. On top of that his assurance and comfort on the ball going forward posed problems for the Chelsea defence and displayed yet again his potential at both ends of the pitch.

He then followed this up with a steady performance three days layer when the Reds travelled to face Wigan Athletic at the DW Stadium. It was a disappointing night for Hodgson’s side as they failed to build on the momentum gained from such a comprehensive victory over the Champions Chelsea and could only manage a 1-1 draw, however Kelly quietly fulfilled his defensive duties to secure a point on a night when Wigan could quite easily have claimed all three.

Since then Kelly has completed 90 minutes against Steaua Bucharest and Utrecht and also played for the final five minutes of our convincing three goal victory over Aston Villa, however most importantly he has put pen-to-paper on a three year contract extension that will keep him at Anfield until at least June 2014.

That new deal represents the impact he has made on the first team set up and the importance of keeping a promising player who could step into Anfield stalwart Jamie Carragher’s boots in the future. In fact, many supporters have called for Kelly to start at right back on a regular basis in order to aid his development as well as to allow the defensively shaky Glen Johnson to exhibit his attacking brilliance further up the field. Although Kelly possesses less attacking prowess he is seen to be more solid and reliable at the back and could be the stable defender to counteract Glen Johnson’s forward thinking style ahead of him.

Personally I believe that Johnson should remain at right back for the moment as he is more effective when powering forward from deep because this allows him more time and space to exploit, however I do believe that Kelly will have an important role to play in our defence in the long-term and should be continually afforded chances to show his ability at both right back and centre back.

As much as I hate to use the phrase “the next Jamie Carragher” I believe that it can be aptly used to describe Martin Kelly, who is surely Liverpool’s most promising youngster and potentially has the brightest future ahead at Anfield.


Friday, 17 December 2010

Why can't Liverpool win away from home?

Liverpool have struggled both on and off the pitch this season. A long and wearisome (but finally resolved) ownership legal battle, a clearly inept manager and disappointingly dull performances on the pitch have left Anfield shrouded in a sense of pessimism and depression.

Most worryingly our record away from home has been shockingly bad. One win, two draws and six defeats have yielded a meagre five points from a possible 27 for Hodgson's underperforming side. Defeats at rivals Manchester City, Tottenham Hotspur, Manchester United and Everton have been particularly galling for fans hoping to see the Reds challenging further up the table this season.

The fact that all three promoted sides, as well as the likes of Wigan Athletic and Stoke City, have a better record on the road also dramatically demonstrates the dire straits our away form is in, and the desperate need for rapid improvement.

The reason commonly used to explain this unacceptable run of results is a lack of confidence. Just as winning breeds winning, losing breeds losing, so the argument goes. With Hodgson inheriting a side that won only five away games throughout the entirety of last season the few remaining supporters of the 63-year old former Fulham manager argue that our disastrous away record is due to the inherent lack of confidence engendered within the squad following an abysmal last season under former boss Rafael Benitez.

While confidence is always a crucial aspect in football and is vital to any successful side Liverpool's squad is still packed full of internationals with experience of competing in the world's best competitions and winning coveted trophies, who should be able to cope with the hostile atmosphere of opposition grounds.

Surely the reason for such a prolonged failure on the road must be more complex than simply a lack of confidence?

An infinitely more likely cause of our away day blues are the outdated, negative and unsuitable tactics employed by Roy Hodgson. Liverpool are expected to dominate and control the majority of matches they play, regardless of whether they are at home or away and regardless of who the opposition may be. Being a big club we are also expected to win those games we should win against teams of lower stature.

However, Roy Hodgson's tactical approach is one that concentrates on not losing games away from home, rather than taking the game to the opposition and emerging victorious. Also, his preferred style means that the team remains rigidly within their shape, leaving space and time for opponents to dominate and to pile pressure on our often unconfident and hesitant backline.

The lack of fluidity and forward thinking derived from the formation usually used by Hodgson means that even at Anfield we rarely dominate matches in the manner that we used to under Rafael Benitez. While Benitez's side managed to control both possession and hence the proceedings but often failed to convert the numerous chances created, Hodgson's team fails to fulfil even the basic requirements of a Liverpool side, namely keeping the ball, dominating play and trying to win the match.

Yes, confidence is affecting our ability to perform on the road, but it is the player's lack of confidence in their manager's tactical aptitude rather than their own playing ability that is leading to such dire form away from home.

However, in fairness to Hodgson he may not possess enough of the type of players needed to win games regularly on the road. What has been lacking from our play so often this season is the grit, determination and fighting spirit required to battle through tough clashes against physical opposition.

This is because our team has too many players like Maxi, Johnson and Konchesky who are either unable or unwilling to fight a physical contest and not enough committed and tough players like Jamie Carragher, Steven Gerrard and Sotirios Kyrgiakos.

While the manager must accept his fair share, if not the majority of responsibility for recent results, the players are not exempt from criticism either, with many of them appearing unwilling to put a strong tackle in and fight for the points when the going gets tough.

The rapidly approaching January transfer window must be a time where NESV wisely invest in improving the squad, in terms of our defensive stability and our attacking options. The question remains though as to who will be in charge to spend that money. Personally I can offer no reason as to why that man should be current boss Roy Hodgson, who has miserably failed on all accounts so far.

There is an argument that he should be given the money to buy his own players that fit his system, but can we really trust Hodgson's system and style of play when it is so evidently failing? While Liverpool's shocking record of one win in nine away matches is unacceptable, it fades in comparison to Hodgson's simply terrible record where he has managed only a single victory in 27 games on the road.

That not only suggests a tactical ineptitude from Hodgson, it also points to a mid-table manager suited to mid-table teams like Fulham, Viking and Malmo who are not expected to win matches away from home on a regular basis. At this difficult time for the club we cannot afford to keep a mid-table manager in charge.

I would love to be proven wrong, but if Hodgson does stay at the helm then I simply cannot see our away record improving any time soon.


Thursday, 16 December 2010

Dead rubber dull draw

Liverpool's final Europa League group stage match ended in a dull 0-0 bore draw as the Reds' youngsters and squad players failed to break down a resolute Utrecht defence.

With Liverpool already guaranteed top spot in Group K and Utrecht unable to qualify for the next round neither side placed any significance on the outcome of this match. However, it was hoped that this would relieve pressure from the contest and lead to an enjoyable, open match. Disappointingly the opposite occurred as the Dutch visitors showed little ambition while Hodgson's side lacked the attacking ability to break them down.

It was a night for youngsters both on and off the pitch as 8500 under 17's watched 19-year old Nathan Eccleston make his Anfield debut alongside Martin Kelly, Jonjo Shelvey and Danny Wilson free of charge as our new American owners encouraged the younger generation to taste the magical Anfield experience on a European night.

Unfortunately they had little to get excited about during a dreary first half as Utrecht decided to sit deep and Liverpool were more than happy to let them keep the ball in their own half as Hodgson's troops sat deep and failed to pressurise the opposition for the umpteenth time this season.

The match nearly got off to a disastrous start for Liverpool when Kelly's weak and misplaced pass sent Ricky Van Wolfswinkel through on goal after only three minutes had been played. To the Reds' relief captain for the night Martin Skrtel made a fine recovery challenge to deny the dangerous Dutch forward.

Milan Jovanovic then went close for the home side as he purposefully powered past several Utrecht defenders before crashing a fantastic shot against the cross bar from 30 yards out. It was a brilliant run and strike from the Serb however he and the rest of the Liverpool midfield failed to fashion similar opportunities throughout an underwhelming first half of uninspiring football.

After 20 minutes Van Wolfswinkel drifted into space inside the box but his shot was well blocked by Danny Wilson as he went to pull the trigger. After making an important intervention at the one end Wilson almost had an impact at the other end of the pitch as well when he headed Shelvey's left wing corner over the bar at the near post just two minutes later.

The game then proceeded with little goalmouth action or anything to write home about. Babel's right-footed effort was blocked by a defender just past the half hour mark and Brad Jones, deputising for Pepe Reina in goal, was called upon to punch away under pressure shortly after however apart from that the half ended with a whimper.

In fact, the only note-worthy event was the injury to Utrecht's main threat Ricky Van Wolfswinkel, who was stretchered off the pitch after picking up a serious injury in an innocuous aerial challenge with Wilson minutes before the break.

Utrecht started the second half the brighter side and had a couple of sights of goal, however they failed to seriously threaten Liverpool's backline as Mertens' 20-yard strike was easily gathered by Jones before de Kogel (literally translated 'the bullet') blazed a shot high into the Kop under pressure from Danny Wilson.

On 55 minutes Babel dragged a shot across the face of the goal and disappointingly wide after Aurelio's long clearance had turned into a good pass for the Dutchman. A minute later Daniel Pacheco replaced the enthusiastic but unproductive Nathan Eccleston and immediately livened up Liverpool's play. The diminutive Spaniard's first touch was a sublime through ball for Ryan Babel but unfortunately his cross couldn't find a Red shirt in the centre of the box.

The hosts then had their best passage of play three minutes later when Jovanovic cleverly turned away from two defenders before spreading the play out to the advancing Martin Kelly down the right hand side. His powerful cross perilously screamed across the face of the goal and narrowly evaded Babel in the middle as the Reds finally showed some semblance of attacking intent.

The previously anonymous Joe Cole was also getting involved in the action as his clever pass freed Fabio Aurelio inside the box on the hour mark only for the Brazilian to cannon an effort against Wuytens before Cole attempted another incisive pass to put Ryan Babel clear on goal, however Vorm was off his line quickly to sweep up the danger.

By this stage the game had finally opened up and even began to develop an end-to-end feel to it. With half an hour remaining De Kogel fashioned space for himself on the edge of the box and stung Jones' palms with a powerful strike that the Australian stand-in keeper did well to stop.

Vorm then made a comfortable save from Pacheco's low 20-yard shot before Mertens sped dangerously towards goal for the Eredivise side. Fortunately for Liverpool he made the wrong decision to pass at the crucial moment when he should have instead continued forward. His pass was intended for De Kogel but Wilson vitally cut it out and the chance had gone.

The game then experienced a lull as neither side built on the momentum developed, leaving the respective sets of supporters to provide the main entertainment, with the capacity away end singing a Dutch version of the Beatles' "Yellow Submarine" seemingly incessantly.

Those fans were even more raucous when Utrecht legend and current Liverpool star Dirk Kuyt replaced Milan Jovanovic. Kuyt spent five years at the Dutch outfit earlier in his career, scoring a respectable 67 goals and earning the admiration of the noisy Utrecht supporters in the process.

After 83 minutes Aurelio's brilliant left wing cross was feebly half-cleared by Keller and the ball landed at the feet of Joe Cole. The Englishman shot goalwards from close range however he was denied by a fine block from Keller as the Dutch defender recovered well to keep the game goalless.

An audacious long-range effort from Leon de Kogel then went high into the Kop before the Reds had one final opportunity to break the deadlock and grab a late winner with only a minute of the allotted 90 left.

Liverpool had a free kick in a good position after Cole had been brought down right on the edge of the box, however it was wasted when Cole smashed the ball into a near-by defender after Jonjo Shelvey had laid the ball off for the London lad. Thankfully the ball broke to the left where Aurelio delivered the ball back into the box. It fell for Cole in a great position however he couldn't adjust his body quickly enough to reach the ball and send it past goalkeeper Michel Vorm at the near post.

Although the outcome of this match has no bearing whatsoever on our European campaign this was still another disappointing match for Hodgson's team as they squandered the perfect opportunity to develop confidence by racking up a few goals against a mediocre side with little European pedigree.

While the large number of changes to the line-up may explain the failure to form a cohesive unit, the lack of attacking desire and forward thinking football cannot be so easily explained. It may have little effect during a dead-rubber European tie however this docile and weak performance could be translated into our upcoming Premier League fixtures.

The manager's job now is to reverse this negative attitude with a convincing victory at home to Fulham this Saturday in order to build up momentum ahead of a vital Christmas period.

Unsurprisingly I cannot see Hodgson doing that as he prepares to face his former employers this weekend.


Monday, 13 December 2010

Newcastle cause more away day misery for Reds

Liverpool crashed to their sixth away defeat of the season on Saturday as goals from Kevin Nolan, Joey Barton and Andy Carroll sealed a crucial 3-1 win for Alan Pardew's side in his first game in charge of the Toon following the controversial sacking of former manager Chris Hughton.

Fernando Torres returned to the side after the birth of his second son and partnered French striker David Ngog up front as Ryan Babel was dropped to the subs bench despite his excellent goal and performance at home to Villa on Monday. Hodgson persisted with the 4-4-2 formation used in recent weeks as Lucas and Meireles started in the centre with Kuyt and Maxi providing width on either flank.

The visitors started the brighter with Argentina international Maxi Rodriguez shooting high over the bar before Sotirios Kyrgiakos smashed a powerful strike goalwards that forced Newcastle keeper Tim Krul into a good save.

However, the home side claimed the initiative with the vital first goal on 15 minutes. Barton clipped a clever ball into the box where Carroll rose above Skrtel to head to Nolan, who had the simple task of tapping home from close range after he'd beaten Liverpool left back Paul Konchesky to the knock down.

It was incredibly frustrating for the Reds because that was the first sight of goal the Toon had had, however we almost responded in the perfect fashion only five minutes later when Glen Johnson picked out the great run of Maxi Rodriguez. Unfortunately he could only divert his header over the bar when well placed.

The quiet Fernando Torres smashed a right footed free kick wastefully into the wall on 26 minutes before Ameobi and Carroll combined superbly on the half hour mark to set up the tall Geordie striker. Thankfully his low, drilled effort was well held by Pepe Reina in the Liverpool goal.

Portugese midfielder Raul Meireles then nearly went from hero to zero in the space of three minutes. First his fierce strike deflected dangerously towards the corner of the goal but Enrique was there to clear off the line for the home side. After that his lazy and sloppy pass gifted a brilliant opportunity to Shola Ameobi, who saw his right-footed strike deflect perilously across Reina's goal and fortunately a foot wide of the target.

Liverpool ended the half on top and could have easily gone in at the break on level terms. A minute before the interval Maxi appealed in vain for a spot kick after he had went down under the challenge of Steven Taylor on the edge of the box. Frustratingly referee Lee Mason wasn't interested, however the Reds had another glorious opportunity to draw level only a minute later when Kyrgiakos' thumping header from Meireles' corner landed just the wrong side of the far post.

Hodgson's side had failed to secure an equaliser before the break however they didn't have to wait much longer for a goal to arrive. After a scrappy start to the second half Dirk Kuyt's equalising goal was suitably scrappy as the Dutchman's low and weak shot ricocheted off Taylor and rolled just past the grasp of Krul and into the far corner of the goal.

It was an unattractive goal but we didn't care as the Reds were finally back on level terms and in the contest once again. The momentum gained from the goal was then taken into the next 15 minutes as Liverpool searched for a second to put them firmly in the driving seat.

After 52 minutes Torres had a headed chance at the far post but he couldn't find sufficient power to beat Krul, and only a minute later he had an even better opportunity as a fantastic defence-splitting ball from Konchesky gave the Spanish striker a clear sight of goal as he went one-on-one with the keeper. Unfortunately his shot lacked any sort of conviction and Krul managed to make a good stop to prevent Liverpool taking the lead.

At the other end Liverpool had a huge let off as Carroll headed over when unmarked from a great Barton cross before a headed interception from Brazilian midfielder Lucas Leiva travelled to Torres in space on the edge of the box. He just missed the far post with a fine drive as the match became an end-to-end encounter.

19-year old Newcastle forward Nile Ranger replaced Shola Ameobi on the hour mark and almost made an immediate impact on the game as he fired inches past the far post after easily shrugging off Skrtel, who had fell to the floor embarrassingly easily under pressure from the substitute. More good play from Ranger forced Soto into an excellent last-ditch tackle moments later before the influential Toon striker linked up well with Ivorian Tiote only for the Newcastle midfielder to fire over the bar with 15 minutes remaining.

Newcastle were now firmly on top and the visitors were struggling to get out of their own half as they sat deep looking to cling on to a precious point. This negative approach was duly punished by the hosts when they claimed a crucial lead with only 10 minutes left to play as Liverpool's poor and unorganised defence failed to deal with a long ball. Andy Carroll won the ball unsurprisingly in the air and Scouser Joey Barton raced past the awful Skrtel to reach the loose ball and slot the ball beyond Reina and into the net.

The home side then put the final nail in the coffin during injury time as yet more unacceptable defending cost Hodgson's side dearly. The reluctant Lucas afforded Andrew Carroll all the time in the world to drill a brilliant strike into the corner of the net from 25-yards out as our defensive frailties away from home were clearly revealed by a determined and purposeful Newcastle side.

Alarmingly Liverpool have now recorded only a single victory on the road in our last nine away matches. Far more worryingly current boss Roy Hodgson has only managed to secure one victory in his last 27 away games. That statistic is both dreadful and unacceptable in equal measure, and must be reversed if we are to become anything other than the mid-table team Hodgson seems hell-bent on making us.

While one win in nine is disappointing and displays a severe patch of bad form it can be changed through hard work, determination and an element of good fortune. However, a record as bad as Hodgson's shows no sign of ever improving. Such a deep malaise away from home for Hodgson appears to be a fatal fault of his and I simply cannot see it changing any time soon, if at all.

Mercifully three of our next four League matches are at Anfield, which should allow us to rack up some much-needed points over the Christmas spell, however this will not remove or solve the problem of our simply pathetic away form.

It must be only a matter of time now before NESV act to change our fortunes away from home with the removal of the much-maligned Roy Hodgson.


Friday, 10 December 2010

Why the future is bright for Liverpool's young stars- Part Four: Jay Spearing

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 my penultimate piece I assess young midfielder Jay Spearing.

Amongst the plethora of young stars that I have considered so far it seems remarkable that Jay Spearing is the only player to have risen through the Anfield ranks to arrive on the fringes of the first team. Although many, including myself, would see this as a damning indictment of our youth development process before Benitez’s revolutionary changes, it also reflects favourably on Spearing, who has struggled determinedly through whatever has opposed him to remain in contention for a first team position.

Whilst many of his team-mates from Liverpool’s successive FA Youth Cup triumphs of 2006 and 2007 have suffered the pain of being released from the club they love to carve a career out for themselves in the lower echelons of England’s footballing hierarchy, Spearing has progressed further and is now a regular in the Liverpool squad and features in the majority of our Europa League and Carling Cup matches.

The 22-year old local lad has been on Liverpool’s books since the tender age of seven and has always shone in whatever position or age group he has been playing in. After enduring a frustrating year on the sidelines throughout 2006 thanks to a broken leg Spearing recovered in time to help the under 18’s to a fantastic 3-2 aggregate victory over Manchester City in the FA Youth Cup Final.

Determined to improve further and press a claim for a place in the reserve side Spearing captained Liverpool’s under 18’s to a second successive FA Youth Cup in 2007 as the Merseysiders edged past bitter rivals Manchester United on penalties in the final.

When Spearing lifted that glittering trophy at Old Trafford he must have felt on top of the world, however that scintillating success only further fuelled the desire to repeat that thrilling experience with the senior side.

Many believed that we could expect to see several local young stars on the periphery of the first team following such an impressive two-year period for Liverpool’s youth, however that failed to materialise as the gargantuan gap between youth, reserve and first team football became annoyingly apparent once again.

With some players leaving Liverpool and eventually ending up at obscure outfits such as Hibiscus Coast AFC, IFK Norrköping and even Accrington Stanley (who are they?) Spearing has done well to impress in the reserves and, when given the opportunity, for the first team.

Although he was primarily seen as a defender during his rise through the ranks at Anfield he has since matured into a central midfielder in the reserves set up, and played a major role as Liverpool won the Premier Reserve League in the 2007/2008 season.

Somewhat surprisingly his first appearances in the senior side arrived in the club game’s greatest and grandest competition, the UEFA Champions League. Former Liverpool manager Rafael Benitez afforded several first team opportunities to promising youngsters as both Jay Spearing and Martin Kelly made their debuts in the Reds’ dead-rubber Champions League Group fixture away to Dutch side PSV Eindhoven.

The local lads performed competently as second half substitutes to help Liverpool take a 3-1 victory back to Merseyside, however bigger things were still in store for Spearing when he experienced the spine-tingling Anfield atmosphere on a European night for the first time as a player. During Liverpool’s second round encounter with Real Madrid Jay Spearing replaced captain Steven Gerrard in the second half of the Reds astounding 4-0 victory over the Spanish giants.

He was only on the pitch for the last 15 minutes however Spearing displayed maturity and composure beyond his years as he patrolled the midfield manfully and held strong defensively while also getting the ball forward at every opportunity.

In fact, the Kop was so impressed with the clean-shaven scouser that they started to sing his name. It was a massive gesture that was well received by the diminutive midfielder as he later admitted that the chanting of his name has startled him and distracted him from the on-field action.

Spearing said, “It was hard to think straight when the Kop started singing my name. It is something I will never forget. Quite a few of the lads came up to me afterwards to say 'congratulations' - they were made up about the song. But I've got to look forward now, keep working hard and hopefully I'll get another chance."

That quote perfectly summed up Spearing’s fantastic attitude, and he fulfilled his promise and continued to work hard as he was increasingly given more chances to show his worth to boss Rafael Benitez. He made his first start for the club away to Leeds United in the Carling Cup last season and completed the full 90 minutes as a David Ngog goal secured a 1-0 victory for the Reds.

Jay then made his Premier League debut in the ill-fated clash against Sunderland at the Stadium Light as Liverpool were robbed of a point by the “beach-ball” goal. He receieved the Man of the Match award from the journalists on the official site, however that was not an accolade to be proud of as another heartless and gutless collective display on the road caused yet more away day blues for Reds supporters.

Spearing then featured in the Carling Cup match at Arsenal and against Portsmouth and Wolves in the League, however he felt that he needed more regular first team football and therefore joined Leceister City on loan until the end of the season, where he made nine appearances scoring one goal for the Foxes as they reached the Championship Play-off semi final.

He has since returned to Liverpool and has particulalry impressed fans with his passion on the pitch. Spearing played for the whole 90 minutes at home to Steaua Bucharest and could regulalrly be heard barking encourgament to his team-mates and dishing out instructions when needed.

His desire and determination clearly shown against the Romanians remind me of the passion shown by Anfield stalwart Jamie Carragher, who has become a firm fans favourite after many years of loyal service to the club he has grown to love.

Although this drive and grit are normally associated with players of Carragher’s type, namely defensive heavyweights willing to throw themselves into any tackle, Spearing displays a more calm and composed level of performance, preferring to keep the midfield ticking over with short and simple passes rather than to partcipate in tasty challenges with stronger, more powerful opponents.

This aspect of the game has never been seen as glamorous however it is essential in modern football to have at least one player to start moves from deep by feeding the ball to more creative players further forward through quick and precise passing. For me Jay Spearing does that job far better than Christian Poulsen and should be picked ahead of the aging Danish midfielder.

However, with the blossoming partnership between Raul Meireles and Lucas Leiva, as well as the imminent return of Steven Gerrard and the ankle injury that has put Spearing out of action for six weeks, the tenacious youngster has a massive mountain to climb if he is to reach the goal of regular first team football for his boyhood team.

Despite this I believe that his attitude, drive and determination can carry him through many problems and would like to see him as our fourth choice midfielder, with many years ahead to press a claim for a place higher in the pecking order.


Tuesday, 7 December 2010

Liverpool claim vital Villa victory

Former Liverpool manager Gerard Houiller endured a nightmare return to Anfield last night as his poor Aston Villa side were comfortably defeated by an under-strength Liverpool. The 63-year old treble winning Frenchman will have enjoyed and appreciated the warm reception he received from the Kop prior to kick off, however he had little else to please him from a match that saw Roy's Reds sweep past the struggling Villains.

After his impressive performance in the Europa League on Thursday Ryan Babel was afforded the opportunity to start alongside David Ngog up front as Fernando Torres missed out altogether due to the impending birth of his second son. Lucas and Meireles continued to develop their blossoming partnership in the centre of midfield as Hodgson stuck with the 4-4-2 formation that had proved so successful against West Ham United in Liverpool's last league outing at Anfield.

Despite of the attacking formation deployed the opening stages were scrappy. After three minutes Dirk Kuyt shot wide from 15 yards after the breakdown of Meireles' free kick, however neither goal was really threatened until the quarter hour mark when the game came alive with two well crafted goals in quick succession for the home side.

After 14 minutes Meireles swung a promising corner into the box after Ngog and Babel had combined to win the set piece. Martin Skrtel excellently escaped his marker to power the ball across goal where David Ngog was there to nod the ball past ex Liverpool keeper Brad Friedel with a superb diving header.

An early goal was exactly what Liverpool needed to provide crucial confidence for the rest of the contest. That belief was doubled only two minutes later when Babel latched onto Lucas' brilliant ball over the top of the Villa defence and fired a fantastic volley beyond Brad Friedel.

It was an unbelievably good goal from the enigmatic Dutchman as he excellently managed to spin away from his marker and strike a scintillating shot across goal and into the net within the same movement. Although there was a hint of offside the 23-year old deserved a stroke of fortune after the torrid time he has endured on Merseyside over the last few years.

The away side failed to make any sort of an impact during the first half and the only half-chance they created saw Dunne's header loop well over the bar after the Irishman had reached Downing's corner midway through the first 45 minutes.

Disappointingly Liverpool also failed to seriously test the visitors' defence, with Kyrgiakos heading Meireles' chipped free kick over at the back post before Meireles assisted once again to set up Babel as he steered a shot wide after receiving an excellent pass from the Portugal international.

Apart from that the Reds couldn't pressurise the Villa defence or build on their advantage, leaving Hodgson disappointed that his side had failed to capitalise on their early dominance and went in with only a two-goal lead.

The Midlanders then came out for the second half purposefully searching for a goal to get them back into the match, and one nearly arrived only eight minutes in when Reina had to be on top-form to deny Agbonlahor from point-blank range after Stewart Downing had picked out his team-mate in the penalty area.

Some supporters were slightly worried at this point because Villa had held the initiative since the beginning of the second period, however those fears were squashed only two minutes later as Liverpool brilliantly added a third. Reina quickly bowled the ball down the centre of the pitch for Maxi Rodriguez, who proceeded to play a one-two with David Ngog. The Argentine then fired magnificently into the top right hand corner from 12-yards to leave Friedel with no chance.

The well worked team goal from Liverpool arrived at the perfect time as Aston Villa were just starting to keep the ball and exert some pressure on Pepe Reina's goal. Not only did the third goal relieve the pressure on our defence, but the assurance of victory that it brought also took away the desire to sit deep and defend that has so often consumed Hodgson's side recently.

This allowed Glen Johnson to maraud forward from right back as he took advantage of the freedom granted by a comfortable lead. On 69 minutes Johnson jinked beyond two Villa defenders and into the box only to see his powerful strike beaten away by Friedel. Three minutes later he went close again when his drilled effort flew over the crossbar after Maxi's intelligent pass had sent the England right back racing into the box.

Liverpool continued to control proceedings and probed the Villa defence looking for extra goals to build up our flailing goal difference. With 15 minutes remaining Aston Villa's young midfielder Jonathan Hogg was forced to head off the line after Kyrgiakos reached Meireles' corner and powered the ball goalwards. The ball was then worked back into the box by the hosts, however unfortunately Skrtel could only shoot over the bar.

Hogg then blocked Lucas’ effort from the edge of the box after the ball had broken for the much-improved Brazilian midfielder. After that Downing's shot was blocked in the 89 minute, sparking a final rapid counter-attack from the Reds. Ngog played a one-two with Johnson before attempting to release Liverpool's number 2 however he lost control of the ball at the critical moment and the promising opening had disappeared.

This comfortable and convincing victory over a potential rival for a European spot not only boosts our confidence ahead of a typically busy Christmas schedule, but also proves that we can win games without key stars Fernando Torres, Steven Gerrard and Jamie Carragher.

Pepe Reina performed well throughout as the Spaniard secured the impressive record of being the fastest Liverpool keeper to reach the landmark figure of 100 clean sheets in the League. Ryan Babel demonstrated his ability in a central role and also combined well with David Ngog, who added yet another goal to his already enviable goalscoring record.

Raul Meireles and Lucas Leiva also impressed in the centre as they controlled the match easily and gelled well together. Neither was classified as "defensive" and yet both managed to share the workload and direct Liverpool's play from the heart of the team.

These players stepped up to the plate and showed their worth. They must continue to do this to help us challenge for an all important top four finish. Also, if they are to remain in Roy Hodgson's short and long-term plans then they must regularly show that they can fill the void often left by our big name players through injury.

Liverpool now lie eighth in the table and travel to the snowy North East to face managerless Newcastle United on Sunday. With Newcastle reeling after the departure of Chris Hughton it will be the perfect opportunity to improve our miserable record on the road.

If we have any serious aspirations of qualifying for the Champions League then three points are a must.


Saturday, 4 December 2010

Liverpool stumble past Steaua and into the next round

Liverpool secured a place in the next stage of the Europa League on Thursday after claiming a 1-1 draw against Steaua Bucharest in Romania. A clever Milan Jovanovic header had given the Reds the lead against the run of play midway through the first half, however the hosts grabbed an equaliser thanks to a terrible mistake from Pepe Reina. Hodgson's side then hung on for a crucial point that takes us top of Group K with nine points, three points ahead of our opponents who now lie in second place.

Pepe Reina was the only survivor from Sunday's clash with Tottenham Hotspur as the Spanish keeper captained Liverpool's inexperienced side in the absence of the injured Steven Gerrard and Jamie Carragher. Youngsters Martin Kelly, Danny Wilson, Jonjo Shelvey and Dani Pacheco were all given a chance to impress as Roy rested senior stars ahead of Aston Villa's visit to Anfield on Monday night.

The game got off to a scrappy side, with Steaua enjoying most of the possession yet failing to seriously pressurise the visitors. The first real opportunity arrived after 17 minutes when the unmarked Bicfalvi somehow managed to head Surdu's cross over the bar from close range.

It was terrible defending from Liverpool, but the finish was even worse as the Romanian's squandered a great chance to grab the early initiative. Milan Jovanovic and Ryan Babel superbly combined to make the home side pay only three minutes later.

The Serbian international started the move with a neat pass out to Babel on the right wing, before the Dutchman excellently cut back onto his left foot and clipped the ball brilliantly in for Jovanovic to cutely head into the corner.

After finally allowing him to play in his preferred role as a striker Roy Hodgson was witnessing a promising and energetic performance from the enigmatic Babel. On 26 minutes he latched on to an error from the hosts and broke free swiftly down the left hand side.

He centred the ball well for the unmarked Cole however the former Chelsea man's touch let him down as he lost the ball when well placed. The ball eventually broke for Pacheco but he could only drag the ball wide from the edge of the box. Unfortunately that summed up Joe Cole's disappointing evening as he struggled to find fitness and form after a over a month on the sidelines.

Babel continued to cause problems for Steaua's defence as he earned us a corner just past the half hour mark. It came to nothing though as Shelvey disappointingly hit the keeper's attempted clearance wide of goal from 22 yards.

Another defensive error from the Reds' backline gave the home side a great chance to claim a crucial equaliser on the stroke of halftime. Stancu battled with Kyrgiakos in the air and unusually beat the Greek to the ball before running through on goal. Unbelievably he stabbed wide of Reina's goal from a mere six yards out.

Liverpool had had a massive let off and knew that they had to improve defensively in the second half if they were to hold on to their slender advantage. Unfortunately that didn't happen as Steaua Bucharest started the second period on the front foot and Hodgson's side reverted to type by sitting back deeper and deeper.

Steaua added to their numerous squandered chances five minutes into the second half when Alves wastefully headed Tanase's cross straight at Reina for the Liverpool keeper to make a comfortable stop. Latovlevici then spanked a 30-yard free kick into row z to the frustration of the 20,000 Romanians supporters inside the ground.

Nicolita's attempted cross caused Reina problems after it took a wicked deflection and threatened to drop in under the keeper's bar. The stand-in skipper recovered well to push the ball over the bar, however the home side didn't have to wait long for the equaliser to arrive.

On the hour mark Eder Bonfim's weak header inside the box appeared to have no chance of beating Liverpool's well-respected goalkeeper Pepe Reina. However, a howler from Reina allowed the ball to slip through his legs and creep over the goalline to gift a vital goal to Steaua.

Reina, who had also looked uncharacteristically out of form against Spurs, showed his disappointment by smashing the ball up in the air, however his team-mates almost removed that anguish only five minutes later when the imperious Sotirios Kyrgiakos rose magnificently to head Aurelio's inviting corner agonisingly against the cross bar.

That was our only real opening throughout the second half as Hodgson employed his usual tactics away from home and asked his troops to sit back deep and absorb pressure from the hosts. Fortunately Steaua lacked the creative ability needed to break down our defence and couldn't trouble Reina regularly.

With 13 minutes remaining a whipped effort from the lively Stancu dipped just over Reina's far post before Steaua Bucharest captain Cristian Tanase fired a strike in from distance, but Reina got down well to deny the versatile midfielder.

Although this match will hardly be remembered as a classic a 1-1 draw is good enough to secure progression to the next round of Europe's secondary club competition. When Liverpool were drew against Steaua Bucharest, Utrecht and Napoli in Group K many suggested the Reds would struggle.

However, Liverpool's squad players and youngsters have proven the critics wrong and have guaranteed qualification with a game to spare. The performance was by no means spectacular, but Hodgson's conservative tactics were understandable and acceptable away from home in Europe.

A problem arises though when Hodgson uses these same defensive tactics away from home against sides we should be putting to the sword in the League and occasionally at Anfield as well. Roy must change to a more positive approach in domestic football and only use his current style of play in tough European away matches.

Liverpool can now forget about Europe until after Christmas. We must now concentrate on racking up as many points as possible from the upcoming League fixtures so that Liverpool can race back up the table.

Otherwise Liverpool fans may have to suffer another season of stagnation and Hodgson may be out of a job.