Monday, 28 February 2011

Top four hopes dashed as Reds take a hammering

Liverpool's already distant dream of a top four finish was dealt a devastating hammer blow by Avram Grant's Hammers yesterday as a poor display from the Reds was duly punished by the embarrassingly superior West Ham United. Despite our recent resurgence and the fact that West Ham had the dubious accolade of the worst home record in the League prior to kick off, the injury hit Merseysiders failed to get out of first gear whilst the hosts put in possibly their best performance of the season to claim a well deserved 3-1 victory in front of the Upton Park faithful.

With Steven Gerrard and Luis Suarez returning to the starting line-up many expected the Reds to comfortably ease past the relegation threatened home side, however, although Suarez showed signs of promise, especially when he expertly set up our only goal, the Uruguayan was anonymous for large periods of the first half and Gerrard unusually failed to assert his considerable presence on a game that appeared to pass the Reds' captain by.

Meanwhile, Dalglish reverted to a 5-3-2 formation, with Danny Wilson making his Premier League debut alongside Martin Skrtel and Jamie Carragher in what proved to be a distinctly ineffective defensive triumvirate. Although the defensive improvement sparked by Kenny Dalglish and Steve Clarke has added much needed stability at the back, the Reds struggled against the physically imposing front pair of Demba Ba and Frédéric Piquionne and unacceptably conceded the same amount of goals in this game alone as they had in the previous eight matches put together.

Despite this the visitors started the better of the two sides, with Meireles looping a header just over the bar from Lucas' long pass then firing straight at Robert Green in the West Ham goal during the opening stages. The dynamic Portuguese international was almost inevitably involved once again after 14 minutes when Johnson met his whipped corner with a powerful header that Piquionne managed to block.

In fact, the hosts' only sight of goal throughout the early exchanges arrived when Hammers debutant Thomas Hitzlsperger curled a terrific volley towards goal from 20 yards out which Reina caught with surprising ease. However, the momentum swung in West Ham's direction midway through the first period when a composed passing move ended with Parker playing a neat one-two with Hitzlsperger before tantalisingly dinking the ball beyond Reina and into the corner of the net.

Although as a Liverpool supporter it was obviously disappointing to concede the crucial first goal, as a fan of beautiful football the beauty, precision and expertise displayed by Parker to score such a stunning goal was simply breathtaking, and partly explains the Reds' reported interest in him during the summer transfer window.

Liverpool almost instantly levelled though as Kuyt's shot from range brushed the side netting after it had zoomed inches past the post, however the Hammers remained in the ascendancy and controlled proceedings, bullying and dominating the disappointingly reserved Reds.

Both sides then had legitimate penalty claims turned down by referee Mark Halsey as West Ham defender James Tomkins sent Suarez crashing to the turf moments before the home side countered and Demba Ba was unfairly challenged in the area by the struggling Danny Wilson. Although both incidents should have led to spot kicks, there was a perverse sense of justice because both the hosts and the visitors received equally incorrect decisions from the below par Halsey.

Unfortunately the first half went from bad to worse in the closing stages as the injury prone Martin Kelly suffered what appeared to be a serious hamstring injury before Demba Ba doubled our arrears. The loss of Kelly, who has become an irreplaceable component of our defence under Dalglish, could prove to be more damaging in the long term, however the Hammers' second goal was equally fatal in the short term, as Ba met O'Neil's intelligently crafted cross with a thumping header that left Reina with no chance and the Reds with a daunting mountain to climb.

When in-form but annoyingly injured midfielder Raul Meireles had to be replaced by the infuriatingly out of form David Ngog just after the interval the chances of an Istanbul-esque recovery appeared slim and, with West Ham performing to a level rarely seen by the relegation candidates, our Champions League aspirations were quickly dwindling away as well. This was reflected in the early stages of the second half as West Ham continued to threaten while the Reds, unlike their hosts, failed to exert a spell of sustained pressure on their opponents.

On 53 minutes Ba was inches away from adding further to the Hammers' lead as his shot flew inches wide from 25 yards out. After that the influential Hitzlsperger drilled over from the edge of the box before a moment of magic from Luis Suarez finally created a clear-cut chance for the visitors. On the hour mark Liverpool's new number seven turned away from Tomkins with consummate ease, encouragingly resembling former number seven and current temporary manager Kenny Dalglish. Suarez then dispatched an excellent strike that seemed destined to find the net, however Robert Green pulled off a wonder save to deny the Uruguayan forward.

Jacobsen then charged forward and struck over Reina's bar before Piquionne met Noble's corner and glanced a free header wide of the target when he really should have done better from close range. With just under 20 minutes remaining Reds' skipper Steven Gerrard sprung into life and went closest to reducing the deficit. A baffling and bizarre decision to award a throw in to West Ham when O'Neil had clearly smashed the ball against teammate Wayne Bridge proved to be of little consequence, as the subsequent throw fell to Ngog. Gerrard latched onto the Frenchman's pass and lashed a brilliant left footed effort towards goal, forcing Green to expertly tip over the bar.

Fortunately Liverpool did find a way back into the game with six minutes left when a terrific turn from Suarez instantly created space for him to flash the ball across the face of the goal and to the back post, where Johnson met the ball and bundled over the line to provide a glimpse of hope for the away side.

However, with the Reds' ever increasing desperation clearly demonstrated by Ngog's wasted effort that went high and wide from distance, Carlton Cole eventually delivered the hammer blow in injury time as he out-muscled Skrtel and beat Reina far too easily with a near post strike which the Spanish keeper should have comfortably stopped.

Following the abrupt and unwelcome halt to our eight match unbeaten run this disappointing defeat will inevitably be dissected strenuously in an attempt to explain this unexpected result. A lack of strength and battle at the back and a failure to sufficiently support Suarez up front are the main two reasons for yesterday's loss, and a shallow squad unable to cope with injuries must surely be the explanation underpinning poor results like this, however the occasional off day is acceptable. Under Dalglish our form has improved vastly and as a result the odd set back should not be a cause of worry, although annoyance at another poor performance on the road is understandable.

The Reds must now concentrate on next Sunday's massive match against Manchester United at Anfield. With the Mancs in the driving seat to claim a record nineteenth League title a Liverpool victory next weekend should inspire Dalglish's men for the rest of the run in while also pleasantly hindering United's title challenge.

I for one cannot wait!


Friday, 25 February 2011

Kuyt keeps Reds' Dublin dream alive

Dirk Kuyt guided home an 86th minute header to secure a 1-0 aggregate victory over Sparta Prague and safe passage through to the last 16 of the Europa League, where the Reds will face Portugese side SC Braga after they overturned a first leg deficit to claim a 2-1 aggregate win over Polish outfit Lech Poznan.

An enthralling and entertaining end-to-end encounter had somehow remained goalless, leaving the daunting and exhausting prospect of extra time still a very real possibility. However, the determined Merseysiders eventually claimed the one-goal win their expansive performance deserved when Dutchman Dirk Kuyt reached Raul Meireles' corner to head home from close range in front of a delighted Kop.

With Glen Johnson, Steven Gerrard and Andy Carroll all out injured and Luis Suarez ineligible due to his European appearances for Ajax, the return of Daniel Agger and Joe Cole to the starting line-up was a welcome sight. Meanwhile, Daglish displayed his faith in our young players once again as Kelly, Wilson and Ngog were all given starting berths in the legendary Scot's first European match in charge of Liverpool at Anfield.

The match began excitingly, with both sides creating chances on a regular basis throughout the first period, in refreshingly stark contrast to the dull bore draw served up a week previously. Only two minutes in strong penalty appeals were ignored after Pamic appeared to handle Meireles' free kick in the area. Although the ball clearly struck his hand it appeared to be unintentional and the referee rightly waved played on.

A great tackle from Martin Kelly was then required to thwart the visitors just as the Liverpool half opened up for two Sparta players, before the hesitant Christian Poulsen wasted a good chance to create a goalscoring opportunity when the defensive minded Dane was unsurprisingly caught in two minds when well placed on the edge of the box.

Prior to kick off many expected Sparta to sit back and look to keep it tight, however the Czech side displayed a willingness to get forward as they realised the effect a crucial away goal would have on the tie. This was reflected in their early attacking play, as Kadlec scooped a volley just over Reina's bar on 12 minutes and, only a minute later the Spaniard was called into action again as the 18-year old Sparta striker headed Sionko's right wing cross goalwards.

The hosts responded with a period of sustained pressure themselves, with Kyrgiakos' bullet header forcing Blazek to claw the ball around the base of the post, before Kelly cut onto his left foot and sent an inviting cross into the area for Joe Cole, who had done well to get in front of his marker. Unfortunately the diminutive Londoner misjudged his header and it went disappointingly wide, betraying his rustiness following a long spell on the sidelines.

After that Reina dangerously flapped at a corner kick, however apart from that Liverpool remained in the ascendancy, creating numerous chances yet failing to convert any. Mid-way through the half Meireles was inches away from continuing his remarkable goal-scoring streak when he surged onto Kelly's incisive cross and guided a first time strike inches over the bar on the stretch.

On 25 minutes Cole collected Poulsen's pass and forced Blazek into a good stop after he'd shifted the ball superbly onto his right foot, however the shaky Poulsen, who had lost possession unnecessarily previously, lost the ball yet again 10 minutes before the interval, allowing Kweuke to steam forward menacingly.

Thankfully Kweuke rushed his effort and Agger was able to block, before moments later setting up our best opportunity of the match as his raking ball evaded the unaware Repka and ran through for Kuyt, who promptly squared for Ngog. Blazek palmed his effort into the air when the young French striker should have scored and, although the ball nearly ran for Cole, the keeper eventually recovered and the chance was squandered.

On the stroke of half time Lucas was inches away from breaking the deadlock with a dipping effort from 20 yards, but it flew agonisingly off target and the teams went in level at the break. Following an eventful first half Liverpool were disappointed not to have claimed the lead but patience was needed from an expectant Anfield. Veteran vice captain Jamie Carragher replaced the injured Martin Kelly at half time, subtracting slightly from our attacking threat down the right hand side but also adding significant stability at the back, which proved crucial in restricting the away side in the second half.

The off form Ngog, who wasted several clear-cut chances, embarrassingly and infuriatingly miskicked from Kuyt's cutback, displaying a worryingly bad technique and squandering a good opportunity in the process. On the hour mark Kusnir forced Reina into a good save before Cole danced away from two Prague players but unfortunately couldn't trouble Blazek with his effort from range.

After 67 minutes Kuyt's effort was blocked after Meireles' cross had been headed away. Fortunately the ball fell to Agger, who swung the ball back into the danger area only for Cole to head wide of goal. Cole was involved again moments later when Kuyt excitingly skipped past Repka's tackle and centred the ball dangerously, however it flew agonisingly past Cole as he was slightly too short to reach Kuyt's inviting cross. Then, the influential Meireles intelligently slipped the ball behind the Sparta defence and into space for Ngog but the 21-year old was thwarted at close range by Blazek.

By this stage centre halves Kyrgiakos and Agger were struggling with injury and the Reds were frequently down to ten men as the fearless Greek received treatment whilst Agger hobbled on bravely. With Carra settling in at centre back seamlessly and Lucas Leiva filling in adequately at right back Reina remained relatively untested and the hosts persistently attacked, eventually claiming the crucial opening goal with time running out.

Following 174 minutes of goalless football Raul Meireles curled a corner delightfully into the danger area, where Kuyt directed a header into the net from close range. It was a simple yet crucial finish as it gave the home side a vital lead and ruled out the possibility of a further 30 minutes of exhausting extra time, which would have left Liverpool drained ahead of Sunday's visit to Upton Park.

There was still time for Cole to go close on two occasions though, as clever play from the Reds' number 10 carved out an opening in the box, however the over-zealous Ngog stole the ball from Cole and struck goalwards, forcing Blazek into a fine stop, although Cole was better placed to find the back of the net.

With the tension tangible inside Anfield Lucas 'took one for the team' as he sliced down an advancing Spartan from behind, as he looked set to run threateningly at our defence. To the Reds' relief Reina punched away Vacek's delivery to set up one final chance as Cole went through on goal but could only stab wide of the post when one-on-one with the keeper.

It was a typically dramatic end to a game that epitomised Liverpool since the return of Kenny Dalglish. Defensively solid this was our sixth clean sheet in the last seven games, whilst the creation of many clear-cut chances entertained the sell out Anfield crowd. Although Daglish may have thanked Hodgson for helping us to get this far in the competition, it is only the inspiration gleaned from the 'Dalglish effect' that has revived our fortunes over recent weeks, and helped to secure our place in the last 16 of the Europa League last night.

With SC Braga next up Liverpool will be favourites to progress to the quarterfinals and should have their eyes fixed on a Dublin date on 18th May to possibly contest the final of UEFA's secondary competition.


Sunday, 20 February 2011

Meireles- The magic midfield maestro

To say that Roy Hodgson was disliked by Liverpool supporters may be the biggest understatement of the season. The 63-year old Londoner’s outdated tactics, meagre CV, uninspiring football and farcical media comments created a cataclysmic chasm between the manager and the Kop that has never been witnessed in the post-Shankly era. Hodgson’s inability to establish any semblance of form within the players paled into insignificance compared to his utter failure to connect with the Reds’ passionate fan base, and left new owners Fenway Sports Group (FSG) with no other choice but to fire the failing former Fulham manager.

However, the signing of dynamic Portugese midfielder Raul Meireles is perhaps the single ray of sunshine to emerge from the six-month period of doom and gloom that characterised Roy’s mercifully brief reign. Following a slow start Liverpool’s new number four has accelerated his development excitingly and now possesses a crucial role in our midfield. A sensational goal-scoring spree over recent weeks has seen Meireles bag an enviable five goals in six matches, as well as a special place in the hearts of Kopites, who have inevitably been impressed with the Iberian’s imperious form.

The 27-year old midfield maestro secured his first goal with an incisive and impressive strike in the Merseyside derby during Dalglish’s first game back at Anfield, and since then the floodgates have opened and a refreshing amount of goals have flown from the fulcrum of our midfield.

His breathtaking beauty against Mick McCarthy’s Wolverhampton Wanderers must surely be the Reds’ goal of the season, whilst his next strike at the Kop end proved crucial in unlocking Stoke City’s stubborn defence, allowing the Merseysiders to control the rest of the encounter and entertain the Anfield faithful with some expansive football

Unfazed by the media hype surrounding Fernando Torres’ Chelsea debut, Meireles defended resolutely at Stamford Bridge to deprive the Spanish striker of any joy, as he formed the side’s vital heart-beat with Brazilian team-mate Lucas Leiva, who patrolled the pitch diligently and sprayed passes all over the field of play. To top off the afternoon appropriately Raul intelligently anticipated where Steven Gerrard’s right wing cross would land before racing enthusiastically to reach the ball and net a fantastic left footed winner.

A further strike at home to Wigan Athletic has cemented Raul’s position in our midfield and, despite the disappointing 1-1 draw that eventually ensued, has led to comparisons with club captain Steven Gerrard, who has fulfilled a similar end-to-end role for the club previously.

Meireles’ ability to defend, pass, move and score means he performs a crucial function for the team and, although those abilities aren’t displayed to the same world class level of Steven Gerrard, possessing another quality all action player in the mould of our iconic Scouser skipper is more than welcome following years of dangerous over-reliance on Liverpool’s ageing number eight.

However, this type of scintillating form was rarely seen during his first few months at Anfield. Combative and strong, many expected Meireles to revel in the competitive, physical Premier League and anticipated a brief settling in spell, however he struggled to make an impact in our midfield due to the inconsistent way in which former manager Roy Hodgson employed him.

One week Raul would play on the right hand side of midfield and others he would start in an even more unfamiliar position on the left wing and, although the vast majority of supporters and pundits alike know that his best and preferred position is in the centre of midfield, Hodgson rarely played him there. When he did, for example during our comprehensive 3-0 home victory over West Ham United, Meireles demonstrated his obvious talent and apparent ability, however this never seemed to convince an uncertain Roy Hodgson as to his best position in the side.

It comes as no surprise then to learn that Meireles’ recent resurgence has corresponded with a change in manager, as Liverpool legend Kenny Dalglish has returned to the Anfield managerial hot seat and has played Meireles extensively in a free, forward thinking role in the centre of midfield.

Incorporating him into the traditional philosophy of pass and move football has led to the thriving and flourishing Raul Meireles significantly contributing to our current run of good results, and has justified the sizeable fee of £11 million that was paid to secure his signing in the summer.

Making the most of underperforming stars was a key aspect of Roy Hodgson’s job description when Martin Broughton and Christian Purslow appointed him in the summer. His inability to improve the performance of misfiring players was a crucial reason behind his sacking, and this, alongside his failure to establish a rapport with the fans, made him incredibly unpopular with supporters. Conversely, Kenny Dalglish’s instant bond with the Kop and his immediate improvement of players such as Raul Meireles has already led to many calling for him to be given the job on a long-term basis.

In fact, that’s why to say that Kenny Dalglish’s return has saved the Reds’ season is possibly the second biggest understatement of the campaign.


Friday, 18 February 2011

Spartan stalemate as dull Reds fail to impress

Kenny Dalglish's first match managing Liverpool in European competition left the legendary Scot and Reds supporters underwhelmed as Liverpool laboured to a hard fought but quite frankly boring 0-0 stalemate in Sparta Prague's Generali Arena. A performance characterised by determination yet worryingly lacking creative spark and invention left the Merseysiders favourites to progress to the next stage of the Europa League, however the match itself will not live long in the memory of those who had the misfortune of watching it.

Despite the pre-match hype surrounding the inclusion of several promising youngsters in the squad, including exciting 16-year old winger Raheem Sterling, only England under 19s captain Conor Coady made the bench as the King selected a fairly experienced starting line-up composed of first team and squad players.

This was reflected in the opening stages as the visitors dominated possession, controlling the tempo of the game and successfully quietening the home crowd, whilst also allowing everybody to have a touch of the ball and settle into the match, in a throwback to the old traditions employed away from home by previous managers such as Bill Shankly and Bob Paisley.

However, this dominance of possession never evolved into any sort of penetration of the hosts' defence, as lone strike David Ngog was unusually isolated and struggling for support up front, in an unwelcome throwback to the style of play utilised by former incumbent Roy Hodgson and, in his last year at least, Spaniard Rafael Benitez.

Although they were chasing the ball for large periods, Sparta were the more threatening of the two, with Kweuke firing an ambitious volley off target, former Reading midfielder Matejovky striking wide and Pamic forcing Pepe Reina to beat the ball away inside the first twenty minutes. In fact, Liverpool's first effort worthy of note arrived a full thirty minutes into the contest, Meireles seeing his shot blocked after the ball had fell invitingly for the Portugese following a similarly stopped effort from Ngog.

The normally faultless Reina was almost caught out 10 minutes before the break when the Spanish stopper flapped aimlessly at Kusnir's deep cross and only managed to make a one-handed half clearance. Fortunately the ball fell to Pamic, who could only blaze high over the bar when well placed.

Soon after the frustratingly injury-prone Fabio Aurelio had to be replaced by Joe Cole after the Brazilian left back, who was playing in a slightly unusual midfield position, had picked up an abductor strain. Cole, himself returning from a lengthy time on the treatment table, tried desperately to add life to our performance, winning a corner on the stroke of half time. Meireles swung the set piece in promisingly, however Dirk Kuyt couldn't turn the ball goalwards from close range after Ngog had nodded it on to the Dutchman.

A slow, dull and ineffective first half display left temporary boss Kenny Dalglish with a few stern words to say during the interval. Defensive solidity was crucially intact, however Ngog was struggling to keep the ball up front against the nasty former West Ham defender Tomas Repka, meaning that the likes of Kuyt, Meireles and Cole playing just off him made little impact on the game.

Unfortunately the tedious pattern of the first half was replicated in the second, as neither side seemed able to gain control of the match or put the opposition goal under a spell of sustained pressure. Liverpool appeared comfortable in possession however there remained a lack of urgency, imagination and creation in attack and this left the Sparta defence with very little to do. Sparta meanwhile tested Reina more often, however our well-drilled back four managed to cope with the Czech side's forays forward with relative ease.

This was demonstrated after 65 minutes when Keric found himself in a promising position inside the Reds' box, however Sotirios Kyrgiakos was there to expertly ease the Croatian striker off the ball and shepherded the ball safely behind for a goal kick. Two minutes earlier Kweuke had headed well wide from Vacek's right wing cross and five minutes later Liverpool almost broke the deadlock as Lucas and Glen Johnson combined to create our best opportunity of the match. The ever improving Brazilian played a sublime pass through to the on-rushing Johnson, who burst into the box before shooting inches wide of the far post with the outside of his right foot, when a left footed attempt was advisable.

The most entertaining event during the remainder of the match arrived when play was momentarily stopped by referee Florian Meyer as Pepe Reina was engulfed by the enormous amount of smoke from a flare that had been mindlessly set alight by the home supporters, most likely due to the lack of entertainment on offer on the pitch.

When the shroud of smoke had finally cleared Sparta responded to Johnson's earlier effort by going close themselves, Kweuke forcing Reina to make an impressive and instinctive stop after Vacek's corner fell favourably for the Spartan number nine. From then on the hosts were on top, however they still found it difficult to carve out clear-cut chances. Nevertheless, they went close with the final attempt of the match five minutes from time when Vacek's shot zoomed menacingly towards goal, thankfully swerving inches wide of the post to the relief of the Reds.

Following an hour and a half of boredom many fans responded with annoyance after the match however, although I can understand the frustration at a tediously dull performance, the result remains positive and should provide us with a platform to build on during the second leg in a weeks' time. Keeping it tight away from home and securing a draw to take back to Anfield is a tried and tested technique in two-legged European ties and, whilst we expected more in attack, the clean sheet secured is crucial.

The worrying factor was the isolation of Ngog up front, but thankfully we no longer have to rely on the young French striker and have Suarez and Carroll to rely on in the short term while Ngog improves, matures and develops into a well-rounded striker, hopefully adding an extra element to our attack in the future.

With the FA Cup returning this weekend Liverpool have a week until we face Sparta Prague again in the return leg. Should the Reds meet expectations and proceed to the next round then further confidence will be gained to extend the Dalglish revolution until at least the end of this campaign.


Sunday, 13 February 2011

Reds held as Wigan end winning run

Liverpool's run of four successive victories without conceding a goal came to an end yesterday as they were held to a disappointing 1-1 draw at home to a spirited Wigan Athletic side, who are fighting for their lives at the wrong end of the Premier League table. Raul Meireles continued his sensational scoring spree, netting his fifth goal in six games to give Liverpool a first half lead, however Steve Gohouri bundled home an equaliser midway through the second period and the hosts failed to find a winner during the remaining minutes.

With Steven Gerrard and Daniel Agger missing out due to injury and exhaustion respectively Liverpool reverted to a 4-4-2 formation, as Luis Suarez made his full debut up front alongside Dutch striker Dirk Kuyt. Jamie Carragher also partnered Martin Skrtel at centre back after impressing on his return from injury last weekend at Stamford Bridge.

The game got off to a bright beginning, with both sides looking to get forward as often as possible as the lively Latics replicated the attacking, free flowing football displayed by Dalglish's Reds during their recent resurgence and encouraged by their suave Spanish boss Roberto Martinez.

After only three minutes Liverpool had a penalty appeal harshly turned down by referee Kevin Friend when Luis Suarez was tripped in the box as he attempted to reach Kuyt's cross following a rapid break away from a Wigan corner. Unfortunately the referee refused to point to the spot and Maxi's header from the resulting corner was well blocked by a Wigan defender.

Wigan then claimed the initiative and striker Hugo Rodallega was influential for the vistors, as he inevitably became the focal point of the Latics' attacking threat. First, the Colombian reached the by-line and whipped in a low, inviting cross that required a full stretched Jamie Carragher to clear. Then, Wigan's number 20 attempted an audacious acrobatic effort from 20 yards after he'd received the ball with his back to goal. Thankfully his strike looped well over the bar and the pendulum then swung in our direction as the game ebbed and flowed quickly, creating an entertaining encounter.

On 19 minutes Dirk Kuyt fired a rasping shot from the edge of the area that Ali Al Habsi eventually gathered with his second attempt, before Raul Meireles struck again to give Liverpool a crucial, if slightly undeserved lead. Aurelio's cross was deflected into the path of the Portugese international, who fizzed a fantastic volley into the corner of the net from 12-yards out. It was a great goal from the clean-shaven midfield maestro, who has developed an almost insatiable desire to burst the net over recent weeks, which has seen him claim an increasingly important role in our midfield.

Luis Suarez intended to impress on his full debut for the Reds and he didn't disappoint, showing signs of excellence throughout and posing a consistent threat to Wigan's backline. This was demonstrated midway through the half when the Uruguayan superbly skipped past a defender like he wasn't even there, before curling a delightful shot goalwards that clipped the far post and went agonisingly wide.

On the half hour mark Meireles unleashed a long-range drive that dipped just over the bar, however moments beforehand Liverpool were reminded of Wigan's threat when Carra was forced to make another crucial clearance from N'Zogbia's teasing cross after Diame had fed the ball through for the inventive and imaginative winger.

Wigan ended the half on top, creating several opportunities and probing the Reds' backline enthusiastically as Moses failed to test the keeper with a poor effort from 25 yards, before Skrtel had to be alert to react and clear the danger after Watson's speculative shot from range nearly fell promisingly for Rodallega. N'Zogbia smashed a free kick goalwards that forced Reina into a good save on the stroke of half time, meaning Liverpool went in at the interval with the lead but Wigan went in with confidence high following an encouraging first 45 for the visitors.

Disappointingly for the home side the momentum remained with Martinez's side during the early stages of the second half, as the period opened with a great chance for Wigan, who, untraditionally, were attacking the Kop end. Charles N'Zogbia reached the by-line and centred the ball to Rodallega at the front post, who tamely scuffed wide from yards out under pressure from Martin Skrtel.

That close escape should have served as a warning sign, however that didn't appear to be the case as Diame's thunderbolt was blocked by Carragher before the half went from bad to worse for the Reds as the inspirational and unfortunately ill Raul Meireles was replaced by the rusty David Ngog, who failed to provide the same level of attacking threat following several weeks without first team action.

On the hour mark Aurelio lined up a free kick but the Brazilian's poor attempt failed to test Al Habsi, and it was Wigan who remained in the ascendancy. Rodallega's shot was comfortably stopped by Reina midway through the second period after he was forced wide of goal following neat approach play from the Latics. Only two minutes later though Wigan equalised through Steve Gohouri when the Ivorian tapped home after he had ghosted in unnoticed at the back post to reach N'Zogbia's raking cross.

Seemingly satisfied Wigan began to sit back and aimed to preserve their precious point, while the distinctly dissatisfied Liverpool looked to steal all three points by finding a late winner. This nearly arrived with 13 minutes remaining when Suarez was denied by the woodwork for the second time as his sensational free kick smashed against the bar.

Suarez was at the centre of everything we did in the closing stages as he curled the ball just over following some good build-up play from the Merseysiders, before smart footwork from the Uruguayan allowed Aurelio to lash the ball inches over the top from the edge of the box. In injury time a corner into the box was headed over by Martin Skrtel, as Liverpool simply couldn't find a way to breach Wigan's backline and claim a crucial second goal to continue our encouraging and enjoyable winning streak.

After four back-to-back wins had culminated in a tremendous victory over the Champions last weekend many, including myself, deemed this match to be a formality and, despite warnings from Dalglish, the players appeared to follow this line of thinking as well as the intensity of recent weeks was missing yesterday afternoon.

The bizarre midweek international friendlies certainly contributed to this, however that doesn't excuse what was a disappointing display from the Reds. Credit must be given to a very good Wigan side, but you cannot help thinking that we would have comfortably secured the points had we played to the same level as we had done against Chelsea.

Our attention now turns to two consecutive Europa League knockout games against Sparta Prague. Although the Czech side won't be pushovers, Liverpool should progress relatively comfortably, hopefully regaining lost momentum ahead of Premier League fixtures versus West Ham United and Manchester United in the coming weeks.


Thursday, 10 February 2011

Is Champions League qualification achievable?

The dramatic and decisive change in Liverpool supporters’ attitudes and expectations has been a fascinating phenomenon to behold. Following four successive victories and clean sheets many supporters now see a top four finish as a realistic aim when, only a month previously Kopites were bemoaning our dreadful form and worrying about slipping into mid table mediocrity and even possibly a relegation dog fight.

It's simply stunning how a change in manager has resulted in such an emphatic end to the negativity surrounding Anfield and has led to an almost completely different view of the club's short and long-term future. Barring a few new signings and a couple of departures it is essentially the same squad that Roy Hodgson had at his disposal, however Dalglish has rapidly reversed our fortunes, restored confidence to our squad and instilled vital hope and belief in both the players and the supporters once again.

The fact that he has done so in such a short space of time compounds both Hodgson's argument that he needed more time to implement his style of play and revive our ailing fortunes, and his view that our squad wasn't strong enough to compete above mid-table level.

Also, with the Reds sitting in sixth place, only half a dozen points behind Tottenham and Chelsea, some supporters believe that Champions League qualification is a realistic and achievable aim for the remaining fourth months of the current campaign.

With a strong defensive basis restored under Kenny Dalglish and Steve Clarke Liverpool have finally stopped shipping goals as often, and a platform for collecting points has been crucially established. Our midfield now boasts the in form Raul Meireles breaking forward to score goals and supply assists, as well as the calming presence of Lucas Leiva patrolling the pitch and spraying passes and the imperious Steven Gerrard, who must be one of the best all round midfielders the club has ever seen.

Critically, the Reds now have an exciting forward partnership of Luis Suarez and Andy Carroll ready to fire us up the table and, although the departure of Fernando Torres weakens our attack, the potential of these two new arrivals compensates for the loss of the Spaniard.

However, while I fully appreciate the 'Dalglish effect' and the recent reversal in our fortunes, I still see us as outsiders for a top four finish because of our frankly abysmal start to the season and the relative weakness of our squad compared to our rivals.

Our shameful and humiliating opening to the campaign is a disturbing and unwelcome memory after a period of stability and improvement under new temporary manager Kenny Dalglish, however it cannot be ignored when considering our prospects for the rest of the campaign. Such a terrible beginning to the season left us floundering in mid table with a mid table manager with mid table expectations certainly not helping our cause and, although Kenny has returned us to where our current squad should be, I cannot see us improving on a sixth placed finish.

Our first eleven contains some very talented individuals, including the likes of Reina, Carragher, Meireles, Gerrard and Suarez, and a cohesive, confident unit has been created following the appointment of Dalglish. Nevertheless, we still lack width in midfield and depth on the subs' bench. Whilst Chelsea and Tottenham can call upon internationals such as Ramires, Malouda, Pavlyuchenko and Kranjcar to come off the bench and help them to secure points, Liverpool have to settle for free or cheap signings and youngsters such as Milan Jovanovic and Jonjo Shelvey to provide cover for injured or underperforming first team stars.

Moreover, our lack of width and failure to secure another left back mean that consolidating our current position of sixth in the table should be our aim for the rest of the season. With fixtures against both Manchester clubs as well Arsenal and Tottenham Hotspur to come our light squad will be tested to its limits, and as a result making up the six point difference between us and the top four appears slightly unrealistic.

Instead, our focus should be on taking one game at a time and qualification for next season's Europa League will probably result. However, the mere fact that the possibility of qualifying for the Champions League is being discussed indicates the amazing impact the arrival of Kenny Dalglish has had.

The King is making us dream again!


Monday, 7 February 2011

Magnificent Meireles leaves traitor Torres feeling blue

Liverpool's midfield maestro Raul Meireles netted his fourth goal in five games yesterday as the Reds shocked Stamford Bridge to secure their third away win of the season, leaving new £50 million Chelsea striker Fernando Torres surely questioning the logic of his move away from Anfield after only a single match.

A determined defensive display from Dalglish's impressive side set a firm foundation for us to go on to claim a remarkable 1-0 victory in what was quite possibly the most over hyped fixture of the season so far. Understandably the debut of Fernando Torres dominated the pre-match hysteria, however the 'Spanish Owen' failed to dominate the match as Liverpool's centre back trio of Daniel Agger, Martin Skrtel and the returning Jamie Carragher successfully nullified the daunting threat posed by Chelsea's attacking triumvirate of Torres, Drogba and Anelka, a strike force with a combined value of approximately £90 million.

Liverpool continued with three centre backs and two wing backs in the form of Johnson and Kelly following the relatively successful trial against Stoke in midweek. Meanwhile, Dirk Kuyt ploughed a lone furrow up front as Suarez started on the bench and Carroll remained on the treatment table with a thigh injury.

This defensive structure, inspired by former Chelsea player and assistant manager Steve Clarke, proved effective throughout as the hosts struggled to penetrate the resolute backline constructed by Liverpool's current assistant manager. Although the Londoners enjoyed plenty of possession during the opening stages, Liverpool were efficient and enthusiastic as they successfully disrupted the Blues' rhythm.

With Liverpool defending superbly chances were at a premium, and Chelsea were restricted to shots from range as Torres and Drogba struck high and wide within the first 20 minutes. Ivanovic's glanced header drifted wide mid-way through the half after the Serbian international had muscled past his marker to reach Frank Lampard's corner, before Chelsea squandered a great opportunity as Jamie Carragher brilliantly blocked Torres' shot after he'd been played through by Didier Drogba. It was a simply outstanding block from the Reds' vice captain, who was absolutely determined to ensure that the traitorous Torres endured a miserable debut for his new club.

From that point onwards Liverpool began to claim the initiative, and ended the first period in the ascendancy as the Merseysiders built on and developed the confidence and belief instilled by new boss Kenny Dalglish and derived from a recent run of positive results.

Raul Meireles' low long-range effort was tame and comfortably stopped by Cech just past the half hour mark, before Maxi squandered the best chance of the match moments later. Skipper Steven Gerrard drilled the ball across the Chelsea goalmouth from the left hand side to Maxi, who somehow contrived to hit the cross bar from scarcely three yards out. Unbelievably the Argentine had managed to smash the ball against the bar when only a touch was needed to tap the ball over the line and give the visitors a crucial lead.

Many thought that would be a morale sapping moment for the Reds and that it would turn out to be a pivotal stage where the game swung in Chelsea's favour. However, thankfully that wasn't the case as Liverpool finished the half the better whilst the hosts grew increasingly frustrated, with that frustration bubbling over during first half injury time when Cech and Ivanovic had an angry confrontation after their lack of communication had almost allowed Meireles a clear cut chance following a cracking cross from Kelly.

Liverpool continued to frustrate the Blues throughout the second half and Pepe Reina was virtually a spectator as the Reds' solid and stable performance meant the home side created few good goalscoring opportunities. In fact, it was the visitors who seemed to pose the greater threat as our counter attacks became more threatening while our defence comfortably dealt with the Champions at the back.

This was demonstrated on 55 minutes when Glen Johnson's scintillating strike flew just over the cross bar from 25 yards out after Kuyt had laid the ball off for the English full back. Only a minute later Chelsea's cries for a penalty fell on deaf ears after Cole had went down under Carra's challenge, before Drogba's effort immediately after the collision deflected wide of the woodwork.

Nicolas Anelka, who was rumoured to be heading to Anfield as part of the Torres deal at one stage during the transfer window, found space 'between the lines' mid-way through the second half however his low effort from distance failed to test Reina as it skipped past the post.

Soon after Fernando Torres received a raucous and ironic cheer from the Liverpool supporters as he was replaced by Kalou following an ineffective first 66 minutes for his new side that delighted his former fans. Moments later our joy was doubled as Raul Meireles took advantage of some shockingly poor defending to secure the all important opener for the Reds. Gerrard's right wing cross appeared to be easy for Cech to gather, however haphazard defending during a fatal mix up between Cech and his backline under pressure from Kuyt allowed Meireles to run unmarked to reach the ball and fire home magnificently from 10 yards.

Although Chelsea's catastrophic defending certainly helped the away side, the Liverpool players and fans couldn't have cared less as they celebrated the first goal scored by a Liverpool player at Stamford Bridge for seven years deliriously, while the crestfallen Torres looked on disbelievingly.

On 73 minutes Reina had to remain big at his near post to stop Malouda's shot from the angle after the Frenchman had been found in the box by his compatriot Nicolas Anelka. However, apart from that the expected barrage of pressure from Chelsea failed to materialise and the hosts were restricted to only a couple of penalty claims as the Reds retained control superbly at the back.

The first of those arrived ten minutes from time when referee Andre Marriner correctly ignored Chelsea's appeals after Lucas had accidentally handled in the box. The ball clearly struck the Brazilian's hand however it was by his side and there was obviously no way he could have moved his hand out of the way in time, even though he did attempt to do so. From that potentially dangerous situation Liverpool broke quickly and intelligently, with Cech eventually making a good save to deny Aurelio after the Liverpool substitute had combined well with Kuyt to fashion an opening.

Liverpool rode their luck in injury time though and were fortunate to escape unscathed when the referee failed to award a spot kick after Glen Johnson had evidently, aggressively and unfairly shoulder charged Ivanovic off the ball in the box as the defender competed with Agger in the air.

It should have been a penalty however Liverpool had earned the right to a bit of good fortune after one of our best performances of the season so far. A tremendous team display was embellished with individual brilliance from the likes of Jamie Carragher, who defended expertly and patrolled the backline brilliantly, and Raul Meireles, whose energetic and conscientious display was rewarded fittingly with yet another impressive goal.

Special praise must be reserved for Kenny Dalglish and Steve Clarke, who masterminded an excellent performance and decisively won the key tactical battle over Carlo Ancelotti.

Incredibly this is only our third away victory of the campaign, however such an impressive victory against an ordinarily imperious Chelsea side should spur on Dalglish's troops to an improved showing on the road in 2011. Also, with the Reds sitting in sixth only six points behind fourth placed Chelsea, Champions League qualification now seems a distant possibility, as opposed to the pipedream that it was correctly considered to be earlier this season.

Following four wins on the bounce and with relegation candidates Wigan Athletic and West Ham United next up, Kenny Dalglish and his willing troops must surely be dreaming of and aiming for a top four finish, although the focus will rightly remain on taking one game at a time, in keeping with the Liverpool Way so scrupulously observed by the legendary Scot.


Thursday, 3 February 2011

Debut delight as Suarez sinks Stoke

Luis Suarez completed a dream debut last night as he netted his first goal for Liverpool in front of the Kop to seal another home victory for Kenny Dalglish's ever improving side. An uneventful first half was followed by an entertaining second as the hosts controlled the contest and eventually secured a 2-0 victory, helping the Reds to consolidate their seventh place status after claiming nine points from nine.

Kenny's starting line-up left many dumbfounded as six defenders were named in the team, with Glen Johnson playing on the left hand side and Fabio Aurelio on the right. It was a team sheet that only the legendary Dalglish could get away with, however the Scot's brand of positive football was maintained as Liverpool dominated, particularly after the opening goal had forced Stoke to at least attempt to leave their defensive shell.

After a raucous reception for new £35 million signing Andy Carroll Liverpool started the brighter and kept possession comfortably without managing to penetrate Stoke's stubborn backline consistently. After five minutes former Liverpool midfielder Salif Diao hacked Kyrgikoas' goal bound header off the line, before Martin Skrtel reclaimed possession impressively in the Stoke half and strode forward surprisingly but confidently. Unfortunately, that was the extent of the Slovakian's attacking prowess as he slashed a shot well wide from the edge of the box.

Despite our promising start the visitors managed to get a foot hold in the match and contained Liverpool efficiently during the first period. Tony Pulis' team even managed to create some opportunities of their own as loan signing John Carew headed off target from close range before Diao struck wide from 25 yards out just past the half hour mark.

However, the Reds concluded the half in the ascendancy and began to play some enterprising football, with Johnson's powerful header from Kelly's right wing cross forcing Begovic into an acrobatic save 10 minutes before the interval. Moments later Kuyt glanced Gerrard's centre wide of goal as Liverpool improved and threatened the Stoke defence.

A free flowing and fast move forward almost saw the home side claim the lead on the stroke of half time as Aurelio, Gerrard and Lucas combined brilliantly to set up Dirk Kuyt. The Dutch striker shot goalwards promisingly but Begovic was up to the task and made a good stop to keep the scores level going into the break.

After a close, competitive first half Dalglish's side were desperate for an early goal to break the deadlock and force Stoke forward, leaving gaps at the back for the likes of Meireles, Gerrard, Kuyt and eventually Suarez to exploit. Thankfully we didn't have to wait long to open the scoring as Meireles struck again only two minutes into the second period to continue his recent run of goals and give the Reds the all important first goal.

Gerrard's low, drilled free kick deflected unexpectedly to Sotirios Kyrgiakos, who ushered the ball intelligently into the path of Raul Meireles amidst a manic penalty area. The Portugese then slammed the ball emphatically through the crowded box and beyond Begovic. It was yet another fantastic goal from the extremely impressive Meireles, who has experienced a new lease of life under Dalglish and appears to be establishing an exciting understanding with similar attack minded players in our side.

That crucial goal gave Liverpool breathing space to calmly control the rest of the contest with consummate ease, however Stoke reminded us of the slender nature of our lead on the hour mark when Carew fired the ball narrowly wide of Reina's post after collecting a pass from ex Red Jermaine Pennant.

Three minutes later Luis Suarez received a rapturous reception from an expectant Kop as he replaced Fabio Aurelio. The Uruguayan didn't disappoint as he displayed flashes of brilliance throughout his thirty minutes on the pitch, inspiring the Reds' attack and provoking a fearful and forceful response from the visitors, who welcomed Suarez to the Premier League with a thumping challenge immediately after his arrival.

Undeterred, Liverpool’s new number seven continued to impress the Anfield faithful, eventually scoring our second eleven minutes from time as the Kop erupted in celebration of what will hopefully be many Suarez strikes. A long ball forward was prodded past the Stoke defence by Dirk Kuyt, who also set Suarez through one-on-one with the keeper in the process. Suarez remained composed and cleverly wrong-footed Begovic before scuffing a left footed effort towards the empty net. Wilkinson rushed back but Suarez wasn't to be denied as his sliding clearance only sliced the ball onto the inside of the post and into the net.

With the points guaranteed Liverpool proceeded to attack the Kop end goal at will, with the persistent Jonjo Shelvey forcing Begovic to tip brilliantly over the bar after the Londoner had twisted and turned into space inside the penalty area. The resultant corner was cleared to captain Steven Gerrard, whose fierce strike zoomed inches over the bar from the edge of the box.

Liverpool have now secured three successive victories and look to have truly turned a corner following a simply wretched beginning to the season. A breath of fresh air has permeated Anfield after the dramatic return of Kenny Dalgish, and a sense of positivity and togetherness, values that are inherent in the Liverpool Way but were lost under Hodgson, has returned with the legendary Scot. Also, new owners FSG have made an important statement of intent, signing two incredibly promising and thrilling signings who should significantly improve our frontline.

Now, with Luis Suarez impressing immediately and Andy Carroll waiting in the wings, Liverpool fans are left asking one question; Torres who?


Tuesday, 1 February 2011

Liverpool major movers in dramatic deadline day

We thought he was different. When Fernando Torres scored hatfuls of goals during his first few seasons at Liverpool we loved him. When the Spaniard said that he wanted to remain on Merseyside for the rest of his career we believed him. When he claimed that he would never even consider a move to another Premier League team we trusted him. We were convinced that he was not just another foreign mercenary in it for the money.

Yet, after a manic end to the January transfer window, we were proved emphatically and cruelly wrong as Fernando Torres joined Chelsea, signing for a British record fee of around £50 million and leaving Liverpool fans furious at his traitorous, back stabbing, money grabbing move to the London club.

It all started on Friday night when, after hours of celebration following the news that a deal to sign Luis Suarez from Ajax had been agreed, Fernando Torres shocked the Reds by handing in a transfer request. This was promptly rejected by a defiant Liverpool, however his desire to leave left the club with no choice other than to negotiate with Chelsea, who had earlier submitted a £40 million bid that was immediately and sternly rebutted.

The puzzlement and confusion regarding the transfer request led to a storm of speculation filling the media and the web over the coming days, with supporters unable to comprehend his desire to leave, particularly considering the signing of a world-class striker in the form of Luis Suarez and the inspirational return of Kenny Dalglish, who employs a pass and move style particularly suited to Torres' talents.

On deadline day Chelsea, determined to finally acquire a long-term target, upped their bid to £50 million, which Liverpool reluctantly accepted. With time rapidly dwindling Torres eventually completed his switch with around half an hour of the transfer window remaining, drawing his four year stay at Liverpool to an abrupt, controversial and unnecessary end.

The fury and anger at his departure has permanently tainted his relationship with the Anfield faithful, many of whom will now instantly forget virtually all of the positive aspects of Torres' time at the club, justifiably labelling him as a backstabbing Judas. In fact, I believe the nickname "The Spanish Owen" most aptly describes the lying Iberian.

Nevertheless, the gargantuan transfer fee of £50 million for an underperforming player hell-bent on leaving the club is a sensible piece of business both on and off the pitch. In modern day football player power is rife and there would be no purpose in keeping a player who isn't happy at the club, no matter how crucial he is to the side. Also, Torres has lacked form and fitness for nearly 18 months now, leaving Liverpool with a tremendous amount of money considering his best form was several years ago and will require time and patience in order to return.

Although Torres remains a world-class striker capable of terrifying any defence on his day, those days where he has displayed his frightening brilliance have been few and far between, with the only example of his awesome ability this campaign arriving ironically in our 2-0 win over Chelsea. His move to the Blues now allows both player and club to move on, with Liverpool moving swiftly to replace the Spanish striker on a busy final day of the transfer window.

The exciting capture of Ajax striker Luis Suarez was completed on transfer deadline day, with the 22-year old signing a five and a half year deal and claiming the legendary number seven shirt previously worn by temporary manager Kenny Dalglish. The Uruguayan has a reputation for prolific goalscoring but also appears to have a discipline problem that occasionally sees him pick up unnecessary cards. However, he is one of a select few to score over a century of goals for Dutch giants Ajax, where he shares the prestigious company of Johan Cruyff and Marco Van Basten.

Also, his impressive form at the World Cup clearly demonstrated his potential, and he could develop into a fantastic striker at Liverpool alongside fellow new signing Andy Carroll, who signed for a club record fee of £35 million from Newcastle United yesterday. Carroll is also 22 and has penned an identical deal to Suarez, however that is where the comparison ends, with the tall, strong Englishman providing an intriguing alternative to the diminutive and technically gifted Suarez.

Liverpool's new number nine has only played Premier League football for half a season, however in that time he has managed 11 goals in 20 games, an enviable record considering the relatively low expectations of the recently promoted Magpies. There is little doubt that Carroll has a promising future ahead of him, however doubts have been raised about his off field antics and the huge fee paid to secure his signing.

Despite these legitimate concerns I am certain that Dalglish will be able to curb Carroll's off field excesses whilst moulding and shaping him into a world-class player capable of playing at the highest levels of both domestic and international football. Moreover, although £35 million is clearly an excessive amount for a relatively untested player, Liverpool were left in a desperate state due to Torres' petulance and had few other feasible options so close to the deadline.

Had Chelsea revealed their intention to sign him earlier then Torres could have handed in a transfer request and left the club with time to assess the available replacements and sign another striker for a reasonable amount of money. Instead, the Torres deal was rushed through at the last minute, leaving Liverpool with the undesirable situation of needing to splash out on Andy Carroll.

Nevertheless, Liverpool can be pleased with their deadline day dealings. The Reds have replaced an underperforming and uncommitted 26-year old with two young strikers with bags full of potential and promise that will now hopefully come to fruition at Anfield. The restructuring of the squad has been accelerated by the arrival of two extra exciting and enthusiastic strikers who will surely revitalise and breathe new life into our attack. Of course they will both require time to settle into the club and, in the case of Suarez, the English game, however the length of their contracts affords them the time to adapt and develop in an ever improving Liverpool side.

Most encouragingly and significantly Liverpool fans have finally experienced the drama of a hectic deadline day, something that rarely occurred under the previous owners. In recent years Liverpool supporters have bemoaned the lack of investment and watched on despondent as Hicks and Gillett plundered the squad in order to repay their debt.

In stark contrast new owners Fenway Sports Group (FSG) have shown a refreshing desire to improve the squad through significant investment in crucial areas of the side. Although Liverpool's net spend only amounts to just over £2 million, the important aspect is that the money received from the Torres deal was reinvested in the squad immediately, rather than going to the banks' coffers.

With similar investment a real possibility in the summer Liverpool fans should be hopeful and positive looking to the long-term future, even if the fact that we fell for Torres' lies still infuriates and vexes in the short term.