Wednesday, 30 March 2011

Time to coronate the King

When Kenny Dalglish took over from Roy Hodgson to become temporary manager in January he was welcomed with widespread approval from the majority of supporters, who were delighted to see the much-maligned Hodgson replaced with club legend and fans' favourite King Kenny.

However, a few doubts about the Scot's appointment persisted, with the main worries centring on his understanding of the modern game following over a decade out of top-level management. With the Reds' confidence-stricken squad enduring a torrid season some doubted his ability to transform our weak and worryingly under-performing side.

Now, only 81 days after his appointment, those fears have been compounded and the initial enthusiasm that surrounded his arrival has proved to be well placed, with many, including myself, hoping that the 60-year old is offered a long-term contract by new American owners Fenway Sports Group (FSG) immediately.

Infusing the current squad with belief and confidence while also acquiring some top quality new signings in the form of Suarez and Carroll have been the King's main achievements, with the resulting resurgence transforming our performances and earning crucial Premier League points, taking us away from the jaws of a relegation dog fight and accelerating us towards the dizzying heights of the top six.

Whereas his predecessor Roy Hodgson would regularly cite the players' weaknesses and claim that replacements were necessary, thus undermining the squad's confidence even further, Dalglish has backed his squad to the hilt throughout while also acknowledging the need to gradually re-build with wise investment during the transfer window.

This rebuilding process began in January, when Dalglish oversaw the capture of Luis Suarez and Andy Carroll, two exciting young prospects who have instantly bolstered our attacking options. Alongside Damien Comolli and other senior officials Dalglish successfully replaced Torres and Babel with Carroll and Suarez, in deals which will benefit Liverpool in both the short and long term.

Perhaps more significantly Dalglish demonstrated that he can work efficiently and effectively with a Director of Football. Although many predicted that the King would not welcome Comolli's role due to his traditional British view of a dominant manager controlling everything football related, the reverse has proven to be the case, as Comolli has complimented Dalglish well, playing a crucial role in the recruitment of players while allowing Kenny to control training and player selection.

Doubts about his understanding of the modern game have also proven to be unfounded as the modern and progressive 4-2-3-1 formation employed has produced attacking and enterprising football, while also ensuring defensive stability at the back, with clean sheets in almost half (8 out of 15) of our matches under Dalglish's stewardship providing the platform to collect points and victories.

The initially sceptical media have warmed to Dalglish and his entertaining style of play as a result, which, although the opinions of London based media men are widely ignored by sensible Liverpool fans, is encouraging, despite the painful irony of them criticising Benitez for introducing the same successful 4-2-3-1 formation that Dalglish now receives praise for utilising.

Liverpool's promising youngsters have also received a considerable boost following the appointment of Dalglish, who fully appreciates the clear potential possessed by many in the Reds' youth set up after working in the Academy for two years. His willingness to blood young talent into the first team has been displayed by the likes of Martin Kelly and Jay Spearing, who have both featured and impressed regularly under Dalglish.

On top of that several other youngsters, such as Jack Robinson, John Flanagan and Conor Coady, have enjoyed trips to Europe with the first team, allowing them to taste first team football and clearly establishing a route through from the youth sides to the first team. Such refreshing trust in youth compares favourably with former incumbent Roy Hodgson, who mainly marginalized the Academy, preferring to stick with older, more experienced yet less talented players rather than select gifted youngsters.

Crucially, Dalglish excellently exudes legitimate authority over his squad by his sheer presence and stature within the club, with the resulting respect for the manager and his style of play coupled fittingly with the renewed atmosphere of enjoyment encompassing Melwood.

This support for the temporary boss has been evidenced by many senior stars stating their desire to see him stay at the club beyond the length of his current six-month contract, as well as commenting on the much-improved training sessions under Dalglish and his popular, highly esteemed assistant Steve Clarke.

With the fans and the players now fully backing Dalglish it seems almost inevitable that he will be offered a new, long-term contract in the not so distant future. His impact at the club has been so significant that FSG have changed their plan to get a younger manager and instead appear likely to appoint the King on a permanent basis in the summer.

However, the instant and considerable boost Dalglish's permanent appointment would provide should be utilised immediately, as this could provide the added impetus needed to compete and claim the top five finish necessary to qualify for next season's Europa League.

The King of the Kop must return permanently to his Anfield home.


Thursday, 24 March 2011

Do Liverpool really need the Europa League?

A week ago today Liverpool miserably failed to progress into the quarterfinals of the Europa League having endured a humiliating stalemate against little known Portugese side SC Braga. Thanks to that embarrassing aggregate defeat and the peculiarities of the FA Cup draw Liverpool must now finish fifth if they are to play European football next season, a feat which seems unlikely considering the four point gap between us and fifth placed Tottenham, who have played a game less than the Merseysiders.

With the Reds facing the very real possibility of missing out on a place in Europe for the first time in over a decade, the question arises; do Liverpool really need the Europa League?

Of course Champions League qualification, although incredibly unlikely, would be preferable, as dining at the top table of European football is quite possibly the pinnacle of world football, and the extra revenue it inevitably provides would be more than welcome. Conversely, it is painfully obvious that the Europa League is UEFA's secondary competition, with many of the big teams who find themselves in it prioritising their domestic league and cup competition above the much-maligned Europa League.

The demanding schedule of the Europa League can put a significant strain on any squad, particularly one as weak and thin as Liverpool's. UEFA wishes to keep the Champions League and Europa League on separate days in order to maintain the prestige and glamour of the former, however the latter suffers as the gruelling cycle of games every Thursday and Sunday inevitably takes its toll, lessening the quality of the competition and increasing the likelihood of debilitating injuries.

Should the Reds fail to qualify for the Europa League then next season we can fully concentrate our energies on performing well in the Premier League and returning to our rightful spot in the top four, hence securing Champions League qualification and providing a firm basis from which to challenge for number 19 in future seasons.

Liverpool have suffered most after the break up of the traditional big four and, with Manchester City and Tottenham Hotspur also flexing their expensive muscles, the fight for a top four finish will be fierce and competitive next season. A break from European football could benefit us by allowing us to intensify our efforts in the League.

On the other hand, Liverpool desperately need to reinvigorate the squad with several summer signings to boost both the starting line-up and the subs' bench, and a lack of European competition will almost certainly put off many potential new signings. Although the Reds can offer tradition, history and now, thanks to our new American owners, money, top level European football is coveted by all world class players, and a season away from the European spotlight could prove detrimental to our efforts to rebuild the squad.

Also, failing to qualify for at least the Europa League could test the patience of players like Pepe Reina to the limit. The 28-year old keeper is approaching the peak of his career and surely will not enjoy a European exile, no matter how brief it may turn out to be. The Spaniard is a key component of our side and our squad would be significantly weakened should he decide to leave in the summer.

Most importantly, dropping out of Europe for a season would dramatically demonstrate our rapid decline during the Premier League years. Although we remain the country's most successful club, with 18 League titles and five European cups substantiating our claim of being a big club, Manchester United, Chelsea and, to a lesser extent, Arsenal are the main challengers for the top honours currently. Without European football our claim to be a major player in English football appears feeble and unconvincing.

Although a break from the hectic nature of the Europa League could prove beneficial domestically, European football is a part of the Reds' heritage and would be sorely missed.

The Liverpool Way instils an inherent respect for the value of European competition and honours and, should the Reds fail to finish fifth, next season will be like a bog-standard banquet lacking the flavour and beauty that the wine of Europe brings.


Monday, 21 March 2011

Superb Suarez sinks Sunderland as Reds claim Wearside win

Liverpool recovered quickly from Thursday's disappointing Europa League exit to claim a key three points at the Stadium of Light yesterday. A controversial Dirk Kuyt spot kick and a wonder goal from Luis Suarez earned the Reds a satisfying 2-0 victory, leaving the Merseysiders four points behind fifth placed Spurs having played a game extra.

A game dominated by intriguing sub-plots, including the first meeting of Luis Suarez and Asamoah Gyan following the Uruguayan’s infamous handball at the World Cup and the return of Geordie striker Andy Carroll to face Newcastle's north east rivals, eventually swung in the Reds' favour, although some contentious officiating from referee Kevin Friend certainly contributed to the hosts' downfall.

After playing 90 exhausting minutes in midweek many, including myself, expected to see Andy Carroll begin on the bench, however Dalglish boldly selected him alongside Luis Suarez, and the pair struck up an encouraging relationship. Meanwhile, local youngster Jay Spearing was afforded another opportunity from the centre of midfield, and didn't disappoint with an assured performance next to Lucas Leiva.

Despite this the match started with the home side in the ascendancy, as Steve Bruce's Sunderland pressed high up the pitch whilst Liverpool were willing to defend deep and absorb pressure during the opening exchanges. However, although the Black Cats controlled the match, Liverpool crucially had the better chances, as Kuyt's shot was diverted wide after four minutes following Carroll's header, before the unmarked Dutchman nodded over only a minute later.

In fact, for all their dominance of possession, Sunderland failed to seriously test Reina throughout the match, with Gyan's dangerous cross flashing threateningly across the penalty area to signify their only real sight of goal. Soon after though Sunderland were forced to make two substitutions due to injury, which considerably changed the flow of the match in Liverpool's favour.

On the half hour mark the momentum fully swung in our direction, when Jay Spearing pounced on an error from John Mensah and burst forward purposefully. The Ghanaian desperately tried to recover with a lunging challenge, however he only succeeded in upending Spearing on the edge of the box.

The referee initially correctly awarded a free kick, however, after consultation with his linesman, Kevin Friend reversed his decision and pointed to the spot, infuriating the incensed home side. Dirk Kuyt stepped up to coolly slot the spot kick into the corner of the net, before joining his team-mates in completing the customary 'rocking the baby' celebration after the birth of Lucas Leiva's son Pedro Lucas this week.

Although it was clear to see with the aid of replays that a penalty should not have been given, Liverpool were due some good fortune and favourable refereeing against Sunderland following the beach ball fiasco that overshadowed our 1-0 defeat at the Stadium of Light last season.

From then on Liverpool were in control, creating several chances and always looking the more likely to score the second goal. This was demonstrated eight minutes before the break when the impressive Spearing played an incisive ball through to Suarez, whose shot was superbly stopped by a one-handed save from Sunderland goalkeeper Simon Mignolet.

Fortunately the pattern continued in the second half, while the understanding established between new signings Carroll and Suarez developed promising. After 51 minutes Anton Ferdinand tried to out-muscle Suarez, however good play from Liverpool's number seven earned the visitors a corner. Carroll moved into space intelligently at the back post to reach the set piece and head goalwards, only for Sunderland skipper Lee Cattermole to make a brilliant goalline clearance.

Carroll was involved again moments later when advantage was played after Titus Bramble had cynically brought down the tall England striker. The play ended when Raul Meireles skied his shot high over the bar, however the referee perfectly legitimately called play back and awarded a free kick for the foul on Carroll, despite the hosts' protests. Suarez then stepped up to bend the ball inches wide of the post.

Dalglish’s well drilled troops managed to restrict the home side's attack efficiently, with Reina having virtually nothing to do for large periods. This left Sunderland searching for any route back into the match, which only caused more frustration for them when two penalty appeals were ignored.

First, the Wearsiders appealed for a penalty after the ball had clearly hit Johnson's chest, and not his hand, before a blatant dive from Gyan didn't fool the referee. Sandwiched inbetween those two incidents Jay Spearing smashed a great left footed strike goalwards from 20 yards, which forced Mignolet into a fine save.

With 12 minutes remaining Suarez sealed the three points with yet another piece of fantastic play that will live long in the memory of Reds supporters. The Uruguayan eased past a defender before netting from an impossibly audacious angle. It was a simply stunning strike, worthy of winning any game.

Following dubious refereeing decisions and several hampering injuries Sunderland's misery was finally comfounded when John Mensah, who had already been booked, received a straight red after hauling down Suarez after Reina's up-field punt had appeared to set him in on goal. Once again the home side had legitimate complaints as a straight red card was a tad harsh considering Suarez didn't have control of the ball, however the outcome remained unchanged as it was indisputably at least a bookable offence.

Ironically, with the outcome of the match already determined, Sunderland had their first shot on target when Reina easily gathered Cattermole’s strike from range four minutes from time.

The fact that the hosts had failed to test Reina prior to that point reveals the impressive defence work that provided the foundation to this crucial victory. The dynamism of Suarez and endeavour of Carroll was also pleasing to see up front, and the performance of Jay Spearing in midfield evidenced the belief that the 22-year old has what it takes to take the next step up into more regular first team action. Such an assured display away from home could also prove to be a building block towards finally reversing our wretched away form, which has plagued our efforts for over 18 months now.

Also, with strong rumours circulating that John W Henry has decided to offer Kenny Dalglish a long term contract, surely this victory must secure the legendary Scot a permanent position at the helm of the club.


Friday, 18 March 2011

Braga leave Liverpool red-faced

Liverpool's European campaign ended with a whimper last night as we were held to an embarrassing goalless draw at home to SC Braga, meaning that the Portugese outfit progressed by a single goal on aggregate. An uninspiring performance from the Reds fatally lacked a cutting edge and the visitors took full advantage, happily 'parking the bus' while caring little about testing Pepe Reina, who was making his 300th appearance for the Merseysiders.

With Steven Gerrard injured and Luis Suarez suspended, Andy Carroll made his first start up front to provide what many predicted to be a potent attacking force. However, unfortunately having a physically imposing target man led to far too many aimless long balls as the Reds unwisely resorted to route one football due to the frustrating and anxious nature of the evening and Braga's resolute defence.

Prior to kick off Anfield impeccably observed a minute’s silence as a mark of solidarity with the Japanese people who have suffered so dramatically after the tragic recent events. With the match now firmly put into perspective, an inevitably edgy opening ensued, as both sides knew that conceding an early goal would greatly lessen their chances of reaching the quarterfinals of UEFA's secondary competition.

An away goal from Braga and Liverpool would've needed three in response to progress, whilst an early goal from the hosts could've opened the floodgates and led to Braga suffering a similar battering to the six-goal drubbing they experienced at the Emirates stadium earlier in the campaign.

Nine minutes in Cole went close as good play from Carroll set up the diminutive midfielder, only for his effort to be well stopped by the keeper. Carroll's follow up attempt was then deflected wide before the tall number 29 headed the resultant corner off target, as the Reds began to threaten the visitors' goal. Moments later Glen Johnson connected with a corner and headed wide when the ball appeared to be set perfectly for Carroll, who was just behind the England right back.

Carroll was flagged offside after a sublime flick from Maxi had set him through, before the away side responded and enjoyed a period of possession, while ultimately failing to seriously test Reina. Midway through the first 45 Alan, who had converted the decisive spot kick in the first leg, curled a shot wide after cutting inside and Lima saw his effort blocked as Braga tentatively searched for a game-changing away goal.

On the half hour mark Carroll was inches away from nodding Kuyt's cross home after the Dutchman had cleverly sprung the offside trap. Lucas then surged into the box and was unfairly barged off the ball, however unfortunately referee Domingos Paciencia ignored his legitimate penalty claims.

With half time rapidly approaching Andy Carroll guided Maxi's clipped cross wide of goal, as the match entered the interval at a frustrating stalemate. Yet again Liverpool had failed to display the creativity, invention and guile required to open up Braga's stubborn backline and, lamentably, the second half was even more disappointing.

Maxi crashed a strike over the bar from 20 yards out after 54 minutes, but apart from that Liverpool struggled to create any clear cut chances and the away side grew in confidence, posing a counter attacking threat particularly during the opening stages, when Lima smashed a free kick straight at Meireles before Alan stabbed wide from six-yards out after a corner had fell invitingly for Braga's number 30. After that former Newcastle United midfielder Hugo Viana thundered in a 35-yard free kick that Reina did well to hold under pressure from the lurking Braga frontline.

As the Reds' frustration grew and the crowd's anxiety became increasingly tangible, temporary manager Kenny Dalglish threw on Jay Spearing and David Ngog in a desperate attempt to inject life and attacking vibrancy into our play. The two youngsters were immediately involved in the action, Spearing firing harmlessly high and wide after Ngog's shot had been comfortably saved by Artur following a quick throw in. However, although it was encouraging to see two youngsters being trusted to perform in such a high profile match, these substitutions betrayed our obvious lack of squad depth that let us down for the umpteenth time last night.

With only a single goal needed to take the match into extra time Liverpool threw the kitchen sink at the vistors during the closing stages. Kuyt inadvertently blocked Carroll’s goalbound header five minutes before the end and Artur denied Skrtel in a one-on-one situation as our desperation reached a new, depressing peak.

In injury time there was still time for one last opportunity, as Meireles lifted an inviting ball into the box from 40 yards, however inexplicably Ngog failed to convert when a mere touch would have diverted the ball into the net and taken the game into extra time.

It was no more then we deserved though as our Europa League campaign came to a dismal and humiliating end in front of a subdued Anfield, on an evening that was characterised by far too many pointless long balls. As Andy Carroll was our only real threat the tendency to punt the ball long was annoying but inevitable. Disappointingly this stifled our usual build up play and left us lacking attacking potency.

Liverpool must find the right mix between utilising Carroll's talents with direct football and honouring the traditional pass and move style cherished for decades at Anfield. Considering he cost £35 million it is highly likely that Carroll will start the majority of matches, however this must not lead to excessive long ball football, otherwise the very fabric of our footballing identity will be radically changed.

This defeat, coupled with an unfavourable FA Cup draw, means that Liverpool must finish fifth if they are to secure European football next season, an extremely unlikely feat considering the Reds are six points behind fifth placed Tottenham Hotspur, who have played a game less than Dalglish's troops.

A European exile awaits us, and the long building process required seems more daunting then ever.


Tuesday, 15 March 2011

Crossing the line

Place a normal, respectable member of society into a football stadium and, for 90 minutes at least, that person can, and often will, act in ways completely contrary to their common character and behaviour as their passion for their club is released in continuous screaming, singing and shouting.

Fortunately, the majority leave that behaviour in its rightful place on the stands and quickly return to normal life afterwards, until the following weekend when the cycle inevitably begins again. The majority will also retain some sense of moral decency and will realise that singing obscene songs about the death of others is absolutely unacceptable, regardless of the tribal rivalry often associated with football or their supposed "passion" for the game, which is sometimes pathetically used to mask offensive chanting.

However, a moronic minority can infiltrate the reasonable majority and ruin the match and agitate the atmosphere by chanting mockingly about football disasters, as was recently displayed when, astonishingly, the vitriol and hate usually reserved for first team football spilt into youth football as Manchester United's under 18s visited Anfield in the highly anticipated FA Youth Cup quarter final versus Liverpool's flourishing youngsters.

During the match a section of United's support despicably sung about the Hillsborough disaster, provoking the emergence of disturbing recollections amongst those who were in Sheffield on that fateful April day while also insulting the memory of the 96 who tragically lost their lives, not to mention the great offence felt by everyone associated with Liverpool Football Club.

Of course, Liverpool fans cannot claim the moral high ground on this issue either, with chants about the Munich air disaster, where several of United's "Busby Babes" died following an aircraft failure, sung by a minority when the Reds face their Manchester rivals.

In fact, prominent supporter group Spirit of Shankly, who have since been rightly applauded for battling successfully against previous owners Hicks and Gillett, were initially widely discredited because of video footage that showed a significant amount of members singing unacceptable songs about the Munich air disaster.

Only sincere apologies and the scaling problem of Hicks and Gillett improved their tarnished reputation and earned them majority support, although many, including myself, remain reluctant regarding Spirit of Shankly following such disgraceful behaviour.

With that in mind, it is clear that this is a prevalent problem that is not consigned to only a few clubs; hence it requires a widespread solution. The immediate removal of offenders must certainly be an element of any attempt to stamp out offensive chanting, however a more vocal disapproval from sensible supporters in the surrounding area ought to remove the root cause of hateful singing as the few idiotic fans would realise the unacceptable nature of their infantile behaviour.

Although some may attempt to oppose these measures by citing freedom of speech as a justification for offensive chanting, the restrictions of free speech imposed by law also apply within a football stadium and cannot be discounted when discussing this issue.

With the majority outraged and thoroughly disgusted by songs about Hillsborough, Heysel, Munich and various other football disasters, now is the time to stop the minority crossing the line between harmless banter and downright disgusting behaviour any further.


Friday, 11 March 2011

Braga punish poor Reds

Liverpool's Europa League challenge experienced a setback yesterday as a poor performance in Portugal handed Braga a 1-0 lead ahead of the decisive second leg at Anfield in seven days time. An abysmal first half was followed by only a slightly improved second half display as the Reds failed to pose any sort of potent attacking threat and couldn't manage to grab a frankly undeserved equaliser after an early penalty had given the hosts a crucial lead.

With Steven Gerrard out due to a niggling groin injury and Luis Suarez suspended, Dirk Kuyt ploughed a lonely and fruitless furrow up front and our fatal lack of width was exposed once again as inexperienced central midfielder Jay Spearing played on the right wing while Joe Cole was shunted over to the left, where, predictably, he made little impact on the match.

The opening exchanges were dull and felt distinctively and surprisingly like a pre-season match as neither side really imposed themselves on the game. Although not preferable to the spectator, the low tempo that characterised the first 15 minutes suited the visitors perfectly, as Dalglish's men looked to subdue their dangerous opponents and hopefully grab an away goal on the break.

Unfortunately a reckless and ridiculous tackle from Kyrgiakos ruined this plan and gave the hosts the perfect opportunity to claim the lead on 17 minutes. The big Greek simply had to shepherd Mossoro into the corner as Braga's number eight was heading away from goal, however Kyrgiakos inexplicably and unnecessarily challenged for the ball and committed a foul in the process, allowing Alan to step up and tuck the ball into the corner of the net from 12 yards.

With an away goal now of paramount importance Liverpool were expected to respond positively, however the Reds found this difficult as they lacked a physical presence up front to hold the ball up so the midfield could join the attack. As usual Dirk Kuyt was conscientious, but he, like most of the midfield, was anonymous until the introduction of Andy Carroll in the second half.

After 26 minutes Raul Meireles blasted a free kick disappointingly into the wall after Kaka had felled Cole to give us a set piece in a promising position, before Spearing's brave block prevented Hugo Viana's effort testing Reina ten minutes later. A clever free kick routine was then cleared by the Reds, however it fell invitingly for Silvio, who displayed brilliant technique to smash a fantastic volley against the cross bar from distance.

At the interval the Reds' were relieved to have only a one-goal deficit, as Braga had threatened to double their advantage in the closing stages of the first period, whilst Liverpool never looked like even creating a chance, let alone scoring a goal. That simply had to change and thankfully finally did when Andy Carroll added some much needed impetus to our play after replacing the lethargic Christian Poulsen just before the hour mark.

The Geordie made an immediate impact as his sheer physical presence terrified Braga's back line and allowed the Reds to retain possession in the opposition's half and develop attacks with greater ease. This was demonstrated when Carroll's left footed shot from the corner of the box took a deflection and looped inches wide, only a minute after Cole's penalty claim had been ignored by referee Serge Gumienny.

After that Kuyt chested down Meireles' pass before turning and sending a good half volley goalwards, which was well tipped over by Artur in the Braga goal. Unfortunately that was the final noteworthy opportunity as the game petered out to a disappointing conclusion. In fact, the only notable event throughout the remainder of the match arrived in the final minute when Kaka's despicable elbow on Carroll, which warranted a red card, went unnoticed by the officials.

Although eye-wateringly dull, a 1-0 defeat leaves the tie perfectly poised ahead of the return match at Anfield next Thursday. With the Europa League representing our only chance of success this season, a much improved performance is a must if we are to progress to the quarterfinals. The creativity and threat up front must return and silly errors such as Kyrgiakos' cannot be repeated, although Braga's failure to create many clear-cut chances in front of their own supporters should indicate that a clean sheet is eminently possible at Anfield.

Significantly, the Reds haven't been defeated at home in European competition this season and that fact, combined with Braga's atrocious record in England, leaves the Merseysiders as slight favourites, although another anxious European night is expected as Dalglish's men strive to secure silverware that will efficiently and effectively gloss over a below par season.


Monday, 7 March 2011

Hat-trick hero Dirk destroys United

Dutch striker Dirk Kuyt scored his first hat-trick for the Reds yesterday, as Liverpool stormed past fierce rivals Manchester United to claim a phenomenal 3-1 victory. A tremendous display from the hosts warranted the comprehensive victory that resulted, and also demonstrated the tactical battle won by temporary manager Kenny Dalglish over his old foe Alex Ferguson in front of a vociferous Anfield.

A moment of magic from Suarez allowed Kuyt to open the scoring after 34 minutes, before a misplaced header from United winger Nani gave Kuyt a great opportunity to double our advantage only five minutes later, which the 30-year old forward gratefully accepted. Suarez was again involed as Kuyt scored his third tap in mid-way through the second half, before Hernandez headed home a late consolation for the despondent visitors.

Before the match the twin aims of securing qualification for European competition and disrupting the visitor's title challenge were at the forefront of Reds' supporters minds. Those lofty aspirations seemed more realistic when it was revealed that Suarez would be starting up front alongside Kuyt, as Dalglish set out to penetrate United's vulnerable back line, particularly considering the absence of Ferdinand and Vidic through injury and suspension respectively. Meanwhile, Lucas, Gerrard and Meireles lined up in midfield, Aurelio arrived in our back four in place of the injured Martin Kelly and Andy Carroll began on the bench following a lengthy spell on the sidelines.

Liverpool were on top in the opening exchanges, with Maxi dragging well wide of goal after brilliant play from the home side had carved open an opportunity for the Argentinian winger, before Suarez expertly controlled Lucas' pass with his chest and rifled a volley over from 25 yards. On 18 minutes Kuyt was inches away from tapping Meireles' header home, however the best chance fell to Dimitar Berbatov, as the Bulgarian's swerving and threatening volley clipped Reina's post on its way wide.

A reshuffle at the back was then required as Aurelio, who has been plagued with injuries throughout his five year stay at the club, had to be replaced by the imperious Sotirios Kyrgiakos after the Brazilian had pulled up with an injury. As a result Glen Johnson moved to left back while Jamie Carragher reverted to right back and Kyrgiakos partnered Skrtel in the centre. That substitution had delayed a United corner, but when the long-awaited set piece was finally swung into the box Meireles was forced to hook off the line from Brown's effort.

Suarez had shown flashes of skill and promise throughout the first period however a moment of truly world class ability was reserved for the 34th minute, when the Uruguayan emulated fellow South American footballing legend Diego Maradona as he superbly evaded three defenders inside a crowded penalty area, before rolling the ball across the line for Kuyt to tap home from inches out. It was an exquisite piece of excellence, which will live long in the memory of those who witnessed it.

Although the opener was all down to pure class from Suarez, Liverpool were gifted a second goal only five minutes later when Nani inexplicably ballooned a header back across his own goal, presenting the lurking Dirk Kuyt the perfect chance to double both his personal tally and our lead. Kuyt took full advantage to nod home and put the hosts in the driving seat going into what must have been an uncomfortable interval for Fergie's misfiring troops.

There was still time for a mass melee between both sets of players though as two terrible tackles disappointingly concluded an otherwise enjoyable and entertaining first half. First, Carragher was booked after a high tackle on Nani had floored the play-acting Portuguese, who then proceeded to ironically injure himself as he unwisely rushed over to the referee to demand Carragher's sending off.

The crunching challenge from Carragher, which admittedly warranted a red card, dispayed the age-old passion that continues to characterise this fiercely contested fixture, however Nani's pathetic crying afterwards betrayed the tainted form of commitment that permeates the modern game.

Minutes later Rafael jumped into a dangerous two-footed tackle on Lucas Leiva. It was a horrific challenge from the Brazilian right back on his compatriot and another clash of handbags inevitably followed. Referee Phil Dowd sensibly stood away to allow the situation to cool down, before flashing a yellow card in the direction of Rafael, who was relieved not to see red.

After such a poor first 45 minutes the away side were looking to grab a goal back quickly at the start of the second period, however Liverpool continued to control the contest, with Van der Sar managing to gather Meireles' cross just ahead of skipper Steven Gerrard after yet more sublime skill from Suarez.

United soon responded with a spell of pressure, as Hernandez hooked Giggs' cross wide before the Welshman, who became United's all time record appearance holder yesterday, screamed a shot inches over Reina's bar. On the hour mark Giggs' corner flew over everybody until Rooney recovered possession and sent the ball back into the danger area, where Meireles crucially cleared off the line from Berbatov's close range header.

Only five minutes later Kuyt and Suarez combined to put the outcome beyond doubt, as Kuyt reacted quickest to convert yet another tap in after Van der Sar had fumbled Suarez's whipped free kick straight into the path of the opportunistic Dutchman. With the points secured Andy Carroll replaced Raul Meireles to make his debut for the Reds, receiving an audible welcome from the Anfield faithful in the process. In keeping with his reputation, Carroll's first touch of the ball in a Liverpool shirt was a header that Van der Sar comfortably gathered.

By this stage the hosts were playing exciting exhibition football, with Kuyt drilling a volley over after Carroll had nodded Maxi's cross down, before Gerrard rifled a fantastic strike just over the bar from fully thirty yards. Meanwhile, the Kop sung a belated "Happy Birthday" to manager Kenny Dalglish, who greatly appreciated both the fans' gesture and the three points that were eventually acquired after Hernandez had netted a consolation with a free header inside the box in injury time.

This well deserved win takes Liverpool to the dizzying heights of sixth place in the Premier League and, perhaps more satisfyingly, halts Manchester United's charge towards a record nineteenth League title. Our now shared record of eighteen League titles is a great source of pride for Reds supporters and to see United surpass our total would represent a devastating and decisive shift in footballing power away from Anfield that has been steadily occuring throughout the Premier League era.

However, all that Dalglish and his men can do is concentrate on improving and building upon the confidence that has been generated from a recent run of encouraging results, only marred by the defeat to West Ham last weekend, which now appears to have been simply a momentary blip.

The Reds will now complete a Europa Leeague double-header against SC Braga before returning to League action at Sunderland's Stadium of Light, where we will look to consolidate sixth position in order to secure Europa League action next season.


Thursday, 3 March 2011

Why the Reds should recall Aquilani and Insua in the summer

With Juventus facing financial difficulty and the Reds lacking a fully fit, natural left back the possibility of Alberto Aquilani and Emiliano Insua returning to Anfield this summer from Turin and Galatasary respectively has been discussed and debated extensively over recent weeks.

Particular emphasis has been placed upon Aquilani, as the Italian midfielder has impressed during his brief return to his home country, appearing 22 times for Juventus and netting twice for his temporary employers. The 26-year old made only four more appearances during his single, injury ravaged season on Merseyside, bagging the same relatively low number of goals.

Signed for an excessive £17 million from Roma, former manager Rafael Benitez hoped that the Italy international would replace the recently departed Xabi Alonso at the fulcrum of our midfield but, although he displayed some genuine passing ability at times, the full extent of his passing range was never seen at Anfield. This rightly caused many to question the rationale behind Benitez spending such a significant chunk of his transfer budget on an injured player with a history of niggling ankle injuries.

On top of that Aquilani also struggled to settle into the Premier League as the physical nature of England's top division requires time to get used to and unfortunately, despite encouraging performances towards the end of last season, he didn't receive that time as Hodgson swiftly loaned him out to Italian giants Juventus last summer.

Aquilani had shown signs of promise towards the end of the season, with his fantastic strike giving us the lead against Athletico Madrid in the Europa League semi final. His fluidity and forward thinking also contributed to a better close to the campaign, and left many baffled when Hodgson loaned him out. Selling him and recouping funds to invest in the squad may have received a warmer reception, however loaning out a potential starter seemed illogical with Hicks and Gillett still holding the purse strings.

For me though the decision to loan young left back Emiliano Insua to Galatasary on the final day of the summer transfer window was an even more unwise move, as it not only left us lacking defensive depth, but also deprived the Reds of a quality left back with bags full of potential. Despite being only 22 years old Insua quickly sprung up through the reserve side and became an integral part of Benitez's back four, making a stunning 62 appearances and also representing Diego Maradona's Argentina at international level.

Although Insua suffered a drop in form and struggled defensively throughout last season, his attacking threat remained as he stormed down the left wing at regular intervals, adding a much needed extra element to our attack, as well as whipping in dangerous crosses that Andy Carroll would relish. Also, Insua has time on his hands to improve defensively and playing alongside defensive stalwart Jamie Carragher would accelerate his development further.

Insua eventually became irreplaceable in Benitez's eyes and, although the Spaniard can be criticised for his stubborn unwillingness to drop him when he under-performed, Rafa should be applauded for capturing an exciting prospect with plenty of potential that could still be fulfilled at Anfield. Similarly, Aquilani still has unfinished business at Liverpool and could return to silence his critics and add some much needed depth to our paper thin squad.

Aurelio, Gerrard, Kelly, Meireles, Cole, Agger, Carragher and Johnson have all missed action due to injury this season and, coupled unfavourably with the ruthless pair of asset stripping parasites who previously owned our club and our dangerous lack of squad depth is both understandable and unmistakeable. The fact that we will struggle after losing young right back Martin Kelly, a player who has become irreplaceable under Dalglish despite rarely appearing under Hodgson, starkly displays our meagre squad depth and urgent need for reinforcements.

With that in mind Roy Hodgson's decision to loan Alberto Aquilani and Emiliano Insua out in the first place is exposed as both incredibly foolish and short sighted, especially considering he replaced them with the much maligned Christian Poulsen and Paul Konchesky.

The promise possessed by Insua and the improvement displayed both this season and at the end of the previous campaign by Alberto Aquilani are credible arguments in favour of their summer return, however the most important reason why the Reds should recall the promising pair is because we shouldn't have let them leave in the first place.

Fans' Opinion

"Aquilani to come back. We're lacking creativity which he can provide given a chance." Ben Ford

"The creativity of Aquilani is what we need in our side. He should come back and prove he can cut it in the Premier League. I'm not sure about Insua though, he had a fair run in the side, although we were a side in decline at the time." Martin Fogarty

"I think Insua would fit in quite well, our left back spot has been really problematic. Aquilani, however, I'm not too sure. I don't think he'd fit in with the team, especially with Meireles and Gerrard both in our midfield." Raj 'El Rey' Sehmi

"At the moment Aquilani is playing well for Juventus but he isn't good enough in England, so I hope we could get £21 million for him. Insua is a waste so I'd sell him for £6 million, then we could bring in a few wingers." Gaurav Gaind