Sunday, 30 October 2011

Reds bag three points at the Baggies

Liverpool extended their unbeaten run to seven competitive matches yesterday with a 2-0 win against West Bromich Albion at the Hawthorns. Charlie Adam's controversially awarded penalty gave the Reds an early lead before Carroll's toe poked finish on the stroke of half time secured the three points for the visitors.

Manager Kenny Dalglish paired Carroll and Suarez up front and the duo worked well in tandem, gelling encouragingly and threatening the Baggies' defence frequently. Meanwhile, Agger and Skrtel, who were both making their 100th Premier League appearances, were solid at the back throughout, although they were rarely tested by a poor West Brom attack.

Notably, Pepe Reina captained the Reds for the seventh time as both Gerrard and Carragher were out through injury. However, the last time Liverpool were without the Scouse pair they claimed an emphatic 3-0 victory away at Wolverhampton Wanderers. Additionally, prior to April's loss at the Hawthorns Liverpool had not been defeated by the Baggies since 1981.

As the Merseysiders returned to the Midlands the omens were therefore clearly in their favour. The officials also appeared to be partial to the away side as a hugely controversial spot kick was given in our favour only nine minutes in. Suarez was heading outside of the box when he went down under a challenge from West Brom winger Jerome Thomas. Referee Lee Mason appeared reluctant to point to the spot and required vigorous flagging from his linesman to pluck up the courage to award the visitors an early spot kick.

Charlie Adam stood up and confidently fired into the bottom corner as ex Manchester United keeper Ben Foster dived in the opposite direction.

Although Roy Hodgson and his side complained vociferously, it was clearly a foul in the penalty area and therefore Lee Mason eventually made the right call. The fact that Suarez was beginning to dribble outside of the area is irrelevant.

Liverpool remained in the ascendancy from that point on while Albion, who went into the match on the back of a four game unbeaten streak, failed to get a foothold in the contest and Reina was left as a virtual spectator for large spells. Former Reds manager and current Baggies boss Roy Hodgson was so infuriated at his team's display that at one point he threw his coat down on the turf in disgust as his frustration boiled over. It was an amusing scene for the visiting fans, who regularly bemoaned the 64-year old's lack of passion whilst in the Anfield hot seat.

The spot kick that had given the Reds' the lead may have been debateable, however mid-way through the half another perhaps even stronger appeal for a penalty was ignored by referee Mason. Suarez's cross reached Andy Carroll, whose header goalwards was blatantly blocked by Reid's arm. The proximity of the players may have been a factor in the spot kick not being given, however the referee had a perfect view of the situation and should have recognised Reid's arm moving to block the ball and deny Carroll illegally.

Nevertheless, a sequence of play on the stroke of half time saw Dalglish's side double their lead and characterised the entire 45 minutes. A combination of incisive attacking play from the away side and woefully poor defending from the hosts led to Carroll netting his second goal of the season. Olsson handed the ball straight back to Liverpool from a West Brom free kick and Lucas exploited his error by finding Suarez. The Uruguayan then played in his strike partner Carroll who, despite a heavy first touch that gave Foster a glimmer of hope, toe poked the ball beyond the Baggies keeper and into the back of the net.

It was embarrassingly bad defending from Hodgson's side; particularly considering the former Fulham manager prides himself on defensive solidity. Equally, it was encouraging to see Carroll and Suarez linking up once again and developing their relationship further. Most importantly, the second goal gave the Reds a crucial cushion, which made the second half task of allowing Albion no way back into the encounter much easier. Liverpool have paid the penalty for not extending their lead recently and, had they entered the interval only a goal to the good, then, as the Norwich match showed, a second half resurgence from the home side could have seen yet more points dropped.

Albion's best spell arrived early on after the restart, however the only opportunity they gleaned came when Tchoyi shot marginally wide after Agger had allowed him too much space on the edge of the box. After that, the Reds regained superiority and spent the rest of the match controlling possession and creating chances. On 57 minutes a brilliant block from Olsson was required to deny Suarez after Carroll had passed to him, before Suarez attempted to lob the keeper but he never looked likely to trouble Foster. Carroll and Suarez then combined again and the latter dinked the ball into the back of the net but he was frustratingly flagged offside.

Foster was forced into a fingertip save from Enrique's fiery effort and was also called into action to stop a sweet strike from the ever-improving Andy Carroll, who later shot wide after collecting Suarez's cross. In the closing stages Liverpool hit the woodwork for the tenth time this season, Stewart Downing firing against the post as he looked to round off the game with a third for the visitors.

Had he found the net it certainly would not have been an injustice to the hosts, who deserved absolutely nothing from the clash. In fact, it was slightly disappointing that the Reds didn't add to their lead. Yet again we created chance after chance and failed to really thrash our opponents when we had the opportunity to do so. Nonetheless, a professional performance, two goals, three points and our third clean sheet of the campaign are significant positives to take from the match.

Liverpool sit nicely in fifth position, three points ahead of Arsenal and only one point behind their London rivals Chelsea. This routine 2-0 win may not have been as thrilling as the 5-3 epic played out by the aforementioned London sides, however it keeps us ticking along.

Carry on in this rich vein on form and it is only a matter of time before the goals start flooding in.


Thursday, 27 October 2011

Potters smashed by sensational Suarez

Liverpool took one step closer to visiting the new Wembley for the first time last night, progressing to the quarter finals of the Carling Cap following a hard-fought, richly deserved and slightly surprising 2-1 victory over Stoke City, secured thanks to two top quality goals from the simply sublime Luis Suarez.

Similarly to Saturday, the Reds dominated the first half yet failed to take any of the numerous chances they created, and were duly punished for their profligacy minutes before the break as Jones gave the Potters the lead against the run of play. The visitors responded though, equalising through a breathtaking Suarez strike before the superb number seven went on to seal the win with a smart header five minutes from time.

Heading into the contest the hosts had lost just once in 21 matches at the Britannia Stadium, while the visitors had not left the Potteries victorious from any of their previous four visits. On the other hand, Stoke had progressed past the fourth round of the Carling Cup only once in 33 years and the last time these teams met at this stage of the competition Gerard Houiller’s Liverpool side of 2001 inflicted an embarrassing 8-0 defeat on their opponents.

The facts and stats appeared to balance; however the first 45 minutes were anything but equal, as the Reds began the brighter and remained in the ascendancy throughout. Dalglish made a notable eight changes to the starting line-up that had drew at home to Norwich on the weekend, pairing the misfiring Andy Carroll alongside the on-form Luis Suarez up front. The former has received as much criticism as the latter has praise so far this campaign but, after Walters’ curled effort dinked just over the top right hand corner seven minutes in, it was encouraging to see the expensive duo link up early on.

After running with pace and purpose Carroll saw Sorensen parry his effort into the path of Suarez. Unfortunately, the Uruguayan was unable to control the ball as it rebounded to him too quickly and the opportunity was lost. Lucas, Agger, Suarez and Maxi then combined excellently and excitingly to slice Stoke’s defence apart. Brazilian midfielder Lucas burst into the box and squared the ball to his fellow South American Suarez, whose close range effort forced Sorensen to make an outstanding save.

Lacking confidence, Carroll then failed to take advantage of an opportunity presented to him by a Stoke error, shooting straight at Sorensen from 10 yards out. Kelly made the Danish keeper work harder when his well-struck left footed drive nearly found the net. Sandwiched inbetween those incidents Walters’ header from a typical Delap long throw was chalked off after Ryan Shawcross impeded Reina.

Against Norwich the Reds’ first half dominance was eventually rewarded with a stoppage time strike from Craig Bellamy. The reverse was the case last night, as the frustration resulting from being unable to break the deadlock doubled when Stoke grabbed the opener completely against the run of play moments before the interval. 21-year old recent arrival Sebastian Coates was taught a tough lesson on the unforgiving nature of English football, as Walters took advantage of his fatal indecision to pinch possession and cross to Kenwyne Jones, who headed past the helpless Reina.

There was still time for one last opportunity before the break, as Spearing’s through ball set Suarez in on goal. Honestly, and somewhat unusually, he stayed on his feet despite contact from Shawcross and, unbalanced, his shot dragged disappointingly wide.

Stoke couldn’t keep him quiet for much longer though, as he netted an incredible equaliser ten minutes after the restart. Cheekily nutmegging Shotton, Suarez then curled a perfectly hit shot beyond the grasp of Sorensen and into the corner. It was a truly special strike from a very special player of unquestionably world-class talent.

Somewhat surprisingly, the second half proceeded with less goalmouth action than the first 45, however Liverpool continued to control possession and always looked the more likely to score a second. For the umpteenth time this season free signing Craig Bellamy came on in the closing stages and made an immediate impact on the match. After replacing Maxi on 82 minutes the controversial Welsh winger cum striker played an intelligent one-two with Carroll before hitting the post with a bobbling shot from the edge of the box.

Only a minute later Suarez struck again to give the Reds the lead for the first time in the contest. A long ball was headed clear by the Stoke defence under pressure from the lurking Carroll but Henderson hoisted the ball back into the box, where the unmarked Suarez superbly headed past Sorensen at the back post. It was a fantastic cross from the former Sunderland skipper and arguably an even better finish from Suarez.

With his work complete, match winner Luis Suarez worryingly hobbled off accompanied by a physio, however thankfully he is not believed to be seriously injured and should be fit to replicate this display against Roy Hodgson's West Brom on the weekend. Tony Pulis also made a substitution, replacing Jones with ex Red Peter Crouch. The lanky striker was at the centre of the action late on, appealing for a penalty after being held back by Coates in the box at a corner and hitting just over the bar from four yards out, although it wouldn't have counted anyway as he was flagged offside.

To be fair to the Potters, they had a legitimate grievance as referee Lee Probert failed to spot Coates holding onto Crouch's arm, although Crouch may have fell over a little dramatically. Overall though, they had nothing to complain about as they got what they deserved from the cup-tie; absolutely nothing. Throughout the match Liverpool were far superior in virtually every department and fully deserved their impressive victory.

The likes of Manchester United, Arsenal, Chelsea and Manchester City may remain in the competition but Liverpool will remain strong contenders for the Carling Cup if they continue in this rich vein of form and Luis Suarez conjures up the sort of magical performance he produced last night.


Sunday, 23 October 2011

Reds fail to kill off Canaries

A thrilling yet ultimately exasperating match ended with Liverpool being held to a 1-1 draw at home to Norwich City on Saturday teatime. Craig Bellamy’s goal on the stroke of half time rewarded the Reds’ first half supremacy, however Grant Holt equalised with a bullet header on the hour mark that galvanised the visitors. Both sides had late chances to claim all three points but heroics from Reina and Ruddy kept the scores level and the points shared.

After completing back-to-back promotions, the Canaries have continued to thrive in the Premier League under the guidance of highly respected boss Paul Lambert. Earlier in the season Norwich visited both Stamford Bridge and Old Trafford and, although they failed to emerge with any points on either occasion, their attacking style proved threatening and attracted support from neutrals. As a result they travelled to Anfield with no fear.

Kenny Dalglish selected a suitably strong starting line-up. Glen Johnson returned from injury to fill in at right back, while Bellamy was handed a starting berth on the left wing and Dirk Kuyt made his 250th appearance for Liverpool up front alongside Luis Suarez.

In response to recent Parliamentary proceedings investigating the Hillsborough disaster, the Kop held up a ‘JFT96’ mosaic prior to kick off to remind the politicians of the strength of feeling on Merseyside. Meanwhile, on the pitch the match began with an early onslaught from the home side, which persisted throughout the first period.

Only two minutes in Skrtel rattled the cross bar with a powerful near-post header from Charlie Adam’s drilled corner kick, before Suarez turned excellently on the edge of the box and stabbed a shot wide. Soon after, Adam’s raking cross-field pass found Bellamy on the left wing. The Welshman’s cross was struck goalwards first time by Suarez, forcing Ruddy to superbly tip his effort onto the post. Disappointingly, Downing fired the rebound wide when well placed.

There was a brief interlude where Norwich gained some respite from the relentless pressure the Reds’ had put them under. Reina was required to make a smart stop on 16 minutes after Hoolahan broke into the box and drilled one at goal, before a long spell of possession for the visitors culminated in Johnson’s header being deflected behind for a corner, from which Reina collected Morrison’s goalbound header.

Nevertheless, the Reds remained in the ascendancy and continued to create numerous chances. Suarez flashed a strike across the face of goal after latching onto Johnson’s neat pass, Kuyt headed Bellamy’s corner against Adam and the ex Tangerine looped the ball over the bar but the Canaries retained parity until first half stoppage time. Number 39 Craig Bellamy latched onto a poor clearance inside Norwich’s box and struck a low finish past Ruddy, finding the net with the help of a deflection off Martin to send the hosts in with a one-goal lead at the break.

In truth, Delia Smith’s outfit should have been dead and buried at half time. Echoing the dominance of possession and control of proceedings reminiscent of every successful Reds’ side, Dalglish’s men had created chance after chance yet frustratingly failed to take the majority of opportunities they crafted. This failure to kill off the opposition proved costly, as the away side came alive in the second period.

Although Suarez's shot was deflected onto the base of the post after a world-class turn and Bellamy headed Downing's cross into Ruddy's arms, the game completely spun on the introduction of Grant Holt on 56 minutes. The rugged 30-year old Norwich skipper made an instant impact, beating Reina plus two Liverpool defenders to reach Anthony Pilkington's tremendous right wing cross and power a header into the Kop end net. Reina made a mistake by coming for the ball and may have been able to prevent Holt scoring had he remained on his line, however that fact should not detract from the quality of the Norwich number nine's header.

Reina compensated for his error five minutes later though, as his stunning one-handed save denied Holt what appeared destined to be a certain second. The roles had been reversed and the Canaries were now in the ascendancy, threatening Reina's goal and refusing to settle for a point. After 71 minutes Hoolahan drove over from distance, before Reina had to be off his line quickly to thwart a counter-attack that otherwise would have seen a Norwich attacker go one-on-one with the Spaniard.

Referee Peter Walton refused to point to the spot four minutes from time after Barnett had sent Adam crashing to the turf, instead penalising the centre midfielder for supposedly diving. With the hosts getting desperate, two last gasp, gilt-edged chances were created. First, Carroll headed Henderson's cross agonisingly wide of the post from a few yards out. It was a glaring miss from the out of sorts Geordie, who would normally convert that type of chance in his sleep. Then, his superb strike partner Suarez excellently turned Gerrard's cross goalwards with a first time volley. Only a top quality save from Ruddy could deny the Uruguayan the winner and preserve Norwich's point.

Prior to kick off manager Kenny Dalglish insisted that the threat posed by Paul Lambert's side was comparable to that of last weekend's visitors Manchester United. Few believed the Scot at the time and, had Liverpool took the many first half opportunites they created, the players could have made their manager's pre-match comments sound foolish. Unfortunately, Norwich punished them for failing to do so in the second half, netting an equaliser at a key stage in the match and going on to claim an identical result to that of United the previous weekend.

If the Reds are to compete with the likes of United, City and Chelsea for a place in the top four then results like this simply must be cut out. We must start taking our chances and killing teams off rather than allowing them a route back into the contest. Of course, the Canaries deserve congratulating for their resilience and forward-thinking style of play but Liverpool shouldn't have given them any possibility of getting back into the match after that first half performance.

A killer instinct must be developed soon if we are to keep up with the Premier League's forerunners.


Friday, 21 October 2011

FSG Takeover: One year on

A year ago this month Liverpool fell to an unacceptable 2-0 defeat in the Merseyside Derby in the first game under the ownership of Fenway Sports Group. Principal owner John Henry and chairman Tom Werner watched on alongside Ian Ayre and Martin Broughton as the Reds were overawed and easily beaten by the Toffees. They must have then been astonished to here manager at the time Roy Hodgson describe that display as the best performance under his reign.

The initial surge of optimism that had surrounded their dramatic takeover was followed by a loud and unmistakable crash back down to earth, as the reality of the task facing them became increasingly, and worryingly, clear. Undeterred, FSG set about their task with gusto. Admitting their ignorance regarding the mechanics of football they humbly swatted up about the beautiful game and avoided the terms ‘soccer’ and ‘franchise’ at all costs.

This approach paid dividends and led to wise decision making. As well as appointing the vastly experienced Damien Comolli as Director of Football and promoting astute businessman Ian Ayre, they crucially replaced the hapless Hodgson with club legend Kenny Dalglish. Consequently, when the Reds returned to Goodison Park at the start of this month the outcome was reversed, goals from Carroll and Suarez securing a two-goal victory. This reversal reflected the massive reversal of fortunes the club has experienced both on and off the field only 50 weeks into FSG’s ownership.

Off the pitch FSG have brought the club back from the brink of financial oblivion and stabilised our finances, wiping out the majority of the massive debt piled onto the club by the previous parasitic pair of American owners and drastically reducing the Reds’ interest payment on their debt, which had cost us roughly the monetary equivalent of a Luis Suarez (£25-30 million) a year.

This has had beneficial effects on the pitch as well as, after paying off the debt accrued under Hicks and Gillett, FSG have invested heavily in the squad, purchasing proven quality players of the calibre of Luis Suarez, Andy Carroll and Stewart Downing. They have concentrated on buying young, talented and preferably British players with Premier League experience. In spending big in this area they have revitalised and added fresh impetus to the squad short term and have increased the long-term potential and value of the squad.

FSG made perhaps their biggest decision so far during their reign in January when they finally sacked Roy Hodgson and brought in Kenny Dalglish, originally on a temporary basis and eventually permanently when they witnessed our sudden change of fortunes following his return to the Anfield dugout.

Hodgson was simply never going to succeed at the club and his departure became inevitable, with many fans complaining that the owners gave the former Fulham manager and current West Brom boss too much time to prove himself. These same supporters than voiced their displeasure at Henry and co. taking until the middle of May to appoint Kenny as permanent manager. Although with hindsight they probably should have acted more swiftly in both of those cases, considering they were (and still are) new to the sport it was perfectly reasonable that they took their time over making two important decisions.

Similarly some, frustrated with the delays experienced under Hicks and Gillett, have criticised FSG for failing to take significant steps forward regarding the stadium issue. However, the majority realise that leaving our home of 119 years is a massive decision and one that cannot be taken lightly. Upon takeover Henry and Werner appeared intent on remaining at Anfield because of its history and character and looked set to renovate it to expand the seating capacity and increase match day revenue.

They had previously employed this strategy with Boston Red Sox’s Fenway Park with huge success, selling out every ball game for the last five years. However, with difficulties arising from the housing that surrounds Anfield, it now appears more likely that FSG will decide to proceed with building a new stadium, as Ian Ayre searches for businesses to purchase the naming rights to any new ground. Although no final decision has been made and the Americans will continue co-operate with the local council and consider all options, it appears we may have to say goodbye to our historic and storied home sooner or later.

For bringing in club legend Kenny Dalglish as manager, providing financial security and investing heavily in the playing squad FSG's first year as owners will be remembered fondly. Most importantly though, following the ousting of Hicks and Gillett and arrival of Henry and Werner, unity has returned to the club. No longer is a civil war erupting in the background while the team struggles on the pitch. Finally, the owners, manager, players and supporters are all singing from the same proverbial hymn sheet, adhering to the Liverpool Way and working as hard as possible to return the Reds to where they belong; in the Champions League and competing for the title.

What a difference a year makes.

A year is a long time in football.

The clich├ęs are countless but, thankfully, FSG have resisted the temptation to recite empty platitudes and have instead concentrated on delivering results both on and off the field.

Long may the good times roll!


Wednesday, 19 October 2011

Reds go down to Gers defeat

Liverpool’s hastily arranged mid-season friendly match against Ally McCoist’s Rangers ended in defeat last night, as the Reds went down to a Lee McCulloch strike mid-way through the first period. The rationale behind organising a friendly unusually taking place in the middle of the campaign and between two important Premier League fixtures was that it would enable the Reds’ new signings to experience something emulating a European match and prepare them for upcoming seasons when they’ll hopefully be competing in the real thing.

As a result Dalglish, who was returning to his home city of Glasgow, picked a relatively strong starting line up, with the fit again trio of Johnson, Agger and Aurelio claiming a place on the team sheet alongside the likes of Lucas, Bellamy and Carroll, as well as debutant keeper Alexander Doni. Meanwhile, former Gers Charlie Adam and Danny Wilson started as subs.

Unfortunately, Doni was arguably man of the match as the outfield players were understandably disjointed due to rarely playing with each other and Rangers, who remained in the ascendancy until the closing stages, regularly tested the former AS Roma stopper, forcing him to make several saves in order to keep the visitors in contention.

This onslaught began 18 minutes in when a low drive from Ortiz forced the first save of the night from Doni, before Whittaker eased past Coates and tested Liverpool's back up keeper once again shortly after. It was a case of third time lucky for the Gers when the Reds failed to clear a corner, affording McCulloch the opportunity to lash home, which he took all too easily.

Dalglish's defence hadn't learnt their lesson though as there was a big let off ten minutes prior to the interval when Davies unsuccessfully attempted to lob Doni after a long ball from the back took out our entire back line. Going forward we weren't much better either, as the Merseysiders only meaningful sight of goal saw Maxi's effort blocked by the Scottish side's defence.

At the break McCoist made five changes while the visitors remained unchanged, however the pattern of play wasn't altered and the hosts continued to dominate the Reds' poor second-string side. After 56 minutes Doni did well to tip Lafferty's shot onto the post, and also managed to prevent the ball rolling over the line. However, his heroics came at the cost of a dislocated finger, and young Danish keeper Martin Hansen swiftly replaced him.

Just after the hour mark a good chance went begging for the Reds after a mistake from Ross Perry let Maxi in. Unselfishly he tried to release Carroll but unfortunately it was intercepted. Either side of Lafferty hitting the cross bar and Rangers skipper David Weir, who was making only his second appearance of the season, striking a nice volley off target, Dalglish made seven changes, introducing former Rangers players Charlie Adam and Danny Wilson. The Ibrox crowd, who had spent significant sections of the evening booing former Bhoy Craig Bellamy, showed Adam their appreciation of his nine years of service to the club by giving him a warm welcome.

The number 26 inspired a late Liverpool push, as Skrtel knocked down his good ball into the box to Jordan Henderson, whose effort was deflected wide. The resulting corner was header over by Carroll. The tall Geordie than tumbled over in the box but his cries for a penalty fell on deaf ears, as the Reds' brief resurgence towards the end proved fruitless and couldn't rectify their earlier errors.

Overall this friendly, designed to allow youngsters and players on the fringe of the first team to stake a claim for a starting place, will be quickly forgotten as nobody performed well enough to give Kenny a selection headache ahead of Saturday's Premier League clash at home to Norwich City.

For cash-strapped Rangers the revenue generated from attracting a crowd of over 27,000 will be the main positive from the match. For Liverpool a greater sense of perspective should be acquired. As the footballing world concentrated on the two Manchester clubs competing in the Champions League, this contest scarcely received a mention in the national media. While those up the M62 were dining at the top table of European football, we were succumbing to a disappointing friendly defeat. How far we fell under Hodgson and during Rafa's final year was re-emphasised last night.

The need to qualify for Europe next season could not be more apparent, if only to avoid arranging another meaningless mid-season friendly.


Sunday, 16 October 2011

Stevie strikes in United draw

Liverpool failed to inflict a fourth successive Anfield defeat on Manchester United yesterday, as Javier Hernandez’s close range header 10 minutes from time cancelled out an earlier strike from returning skipper Steven Gerrard. The first half was keenly contested, with determination and drive aplenty yet little in the way of goalmouth action to justify the tag of the ‘biggest game in club football’. However, when Gerrard netted in front of the Kop on 66 minutes and Fergie quickly responded by introducing Rooney, Nani and Hernandez the game livened up and, despite United’s equaliser, frantic defending from the visitors late on was required to keep hold of their point.

Residing over his 250th League game in charge of Liverpool, Dalglish decided to make only one change to the side that secured a 2-0 victory in the Merseyside derby last time out. Despite netting his first Premier League goal of the campaign versus Everton, Andy Carroll was replaced in the starting eleven by Steven Gerrard, who made his first start since suffering a groin injury in the corresponding fixture last March.

The hosts were firmly in the ascendancy during the opening exchanges, however the first chance of any note fell to United after 16 minutes when the overlapping Evra crossed to Phil Jones at the back post. Thankfully the 19-year old could only head into the side netting when well placed.

The Reds responded with a short corner routine between Gerrard and Adam ending in the number eight's cross threateningly travelling across the goalmouth, before the in-form Luis Suarez audaciously attempted to lob De Gea from all of 40 yards. Unfortunately the Uruguayan failed to trouble the former Athletico Madrid stopper.

Goalscoring chances remained few and far between though, with both sides adopting a seemingly negative approach. United started Welbeck on his own up front and centre back Phil Jones in midfield in a clear statement of intent to constrain their opponents. Meanwhile, Suarez ploughed a lone furrow up front for Liverpool as the midfield struggled to break down the away side's determined resistance to support him and the diminutive number seven lacked the physical prowess that Carroll possesses to hold the ball up.

Both sides were cancelling each other out and it wasn't until ten minutes before the break that a genuine goalscoring opportunity arrived. A timely intervention from Martin Kelly began the move, before Charlie Adam escaped the attention of Jones and found space to shoot against the legs of Evans. Suarez, determined to extend his goalscoring streak, latched on to the loose ball and shimmied past Evans before wasting a glorious opportunity by disappointingly shooting straight at De Gea.

Fletcher's shot hit the hoardings, Skrtel's nose bled as he ran fully 70 yards into United's half and Lucas and Jones had a nasty clash of heads off the ball, however the teams went in at the interval still searching for that elusive opening goal to really bring the match to life.

Only three minutes into the second period United were given a soft free kick in an inviting position on the edge of the box after Ashley Young had ran into Lucas, who could do little to avoid the collision. Reina, who became only the sixth player in Liverpool history to appear in 160 consecutive League games, was uncharacteristically sloppy in dealing with the shot, as he spilt the ball onto his knee and breathed a sigh of relief as it ran to safety.

Kuyt and the Kop then screamed for a penalty in unison after the Dutchman's header appeared to be handled by the underperforming Jonny Evans in the box. Unfortunately referee Andre Marriner didn't see the offence; although awarding a spot kick may have been a bit harsh considering Evans was arguably moving his hand down in an attempt to avoid the ball.

Moments prior the hour mark Henderson, who was highly influential in the closing stages, replaced Brazilian teammate Lucas Leiva. The turning point arrived shortly after as, in a similar manner to the build up for Suarez's gilt-edged first half chance, Adam and Kelly played a neat one-two before the former Blackpool playmaker strode confidently beyond several attempted tackles.

Minimal contact with Ferdinand sent Adam tumbling on the edge of the box and earned the Reds a well-placed set piece. Many complained bitterly because Ferdinand was not shown a second yellow but, considering the theatrical nature of Adam's fall following a tiny touch from the England international, Kopites had little to moan about. Skipper Steven Gerrard stood up and all too easily side-footed the ball through the breaking wall and into the net in a manner reminiscent of his goal at Old Trafford last season.

An unexpected schoolboy error from the vastly experienced Ryan Giggs and Suarez's dancing to distract De Gea clearly contributed to Gerrard breaking the deadlock, however he couldn't have cared less as he sped off to celebrate Liverpool's 1200th Premier League goal in front of an ecstatic Kop.

Alex Ferguson had left his big guns on the bench and soon after the goal he decided to employ them, sending Nani, Rooney and Hernandez on for Park, Young and Jones respectively. The move paid instant dividends as two of those substitutes combined to equalise for the Red Devils. Nani's left wing corner skimmed the head of Welbeck and reached Hernandez, who'd escaped the attention of Skrtel, at the back post. The 23-year old Mexican headed beyond Reina from close range to seemingly secure a point for the visitors.

There was still time for a winner though and the Merseysiders pushed the hardest to clinch all three points. Kuyt had a chance to immediately restore our lead however De Gea made a good save to deny the number 18 after he'd stretched to reach Downing's fantastic left wing cross. Henderson also went close twice and showed signs of quality that should quieten his critics. First, his tremendous lobbed effort forced De Gea to acrobatically tip the ball over the bar, before his flicked header landed agonisignly on the roof of the net.

Post-match allegations that Luis Suarez aimed racial abuse at Patrice Evra marred what was an otherwise encouraging day overall for Dalglish's men.

Steven Gerrard is finally back fully fit and firing, claiming the man of the match award for yesterday's display. Charlie Adam showed his quality with several surges forward from the heart of midfield. Jordan Henderson performed excellently for the final half hour and, sloppy defending at the set piece that led to the equaliser aside, the back four were solid throughout.

Moreover, we controlled the Champions for most of the match and, although we perhaps should have nicked a late victory, the fact that we are disappointed at only collecting a point against Manchester United demonstrates how markedly we have improved since Dalglish's return in January.

Four points from fixtures against Everton and Manchester United is certainly satisfactory. Next up in the League are Norwich, West Brom and Swansea. Nine points are a must from those three matches and, should they be collected, we will be sitting in a good position heading into more challenging clashes with Chelsea and Manchester City.


Thursday, 13 October 2011

Why Ian Ayre is wrong

Managing Director of Liverpool FC Ian Ayre has caused controversy and stoked debate in the media and amongst supporters alike after airing his views on how the Premier League negotiates its overseas TV deal. The 47-year old scouse businessman was instrumental in the boardroom coup to oust former owners Tom Hicks and George Gillett and also successfully negotiated a shirt sponsorship deal with multinational bank Standard Chartered worth a reported £80 million, significantly more than with previous sponsors Danish brewers Carlsberg.

As a result he has received widespread praise from fans and, after originally arriving as Commercial Director in 2007, new owners Fenway Sports Group (FSG) promoted him to the more prestigious role of Managing Director in March 2011, replacing the departing Christian Purslow who, ousting Hicks and Gillett aside, was widely maligned on Merseyside for taking over on-field affairs when his remit was intended to restrict his role to solely selling the club.

Nevertheless, his recent comments suggesting that clubs should sell TV rights to Premier League matches individually as opposed to the current system of collective bargaining have received a mixed reception from fans. Presently, Premier League clubs sell domestic and international TV rights as a group and distribute the income equally. This results in teams like Wigan Athletic, Norwich City and Swansea, whose fan bases barely extend beyond their geographical area, receiving the same amount of cash as clubs that attract international supporters (or viewers) such as Liverpool, Manchester United and Arsenal.

Total revenue from international TV deals for 2010-2013 stands at a whopping £1.4 billion and, as the Premier League ‘brand’ continues to expand into over 200 countries that amount appears likely to rise again next time around, possibly even surpassing the value of the domestic TV deal for the first time. Ayre therefore clearly wants to exploit the Reds’ substantial fan base in growing markets such as Asia and claim a larger slice of the pie for Kenny Dalglish and co. to invest in building up a successful squad.

On the surface this appears completely reasonable. The majority of overseas viewers tune in to watch stars such as Steven Gerrard, Wayne Rooney and Robin Van Persie play for their respective sides so surely those sides should reap the majority of the benefits from these massive TV deals.

An important issue, though, is that football is fundamentally a sport to be enjoyed, not a business to produce profit. As a result it functions differently. There is a desire for fair competition in order to keep the League interesting. Massive income differences and disparities in wage expenditure lead to predictable outcomes as the teams who can afford better players inevitably win and finish in the top positions. The fact that they then gain additional revenue from Champions League qualification and participation perpetuates the problem. To exaggerate this problem further by introducing individual TV arrangements is not a wise move in the long-term, even though the Reds may derive short-term gains from any potential change.

Ayre repeatedly references Barcelona and Real Madrid in Spain and claims that in the future we will be unable to compete with them in the Champions League because the fact that they can negotiate their own TV deals and thus generate more income means that they can spend more on transfer fees and wages and therefore remain dominant in European competition.

That assertion is debateable considering the spending power of the big four and the success of English clubs in the Champions League over recent years, however crucially he fails to recognise the lack of competition that damages La Liga dramatically. Astonishingly, Real Madrid and Barcelona have occupied the top two places at the end of six of the last eight La Liga campaigns, with Rafael Benitez’s Valencia side of 2003/2004 the only other team to claim the top prize. As a result La Liga has become a predictable and dull League, with champagne football from Barca and Madrid its only saving grace.

Part of the appeal of the Premier League is the fact that on any given day any club can beat any other. Blackpool can travel to Anfield and claim an historic win. Newcastle can go to the Emirates and emerge victorious. Chelsea can sink to a 3-0 defeat against Sunderland at Stamford Bridge. This unpredictability has led many to label the Premier League as the best league in the world and has kept fans interested on a domestic and international scale. Consequently, TV companies such as Sky have been willing to pay ridiculous figures for the rights to show matches.

Ironically, therefore, a potential result of allowing clubs to negotiate TV deals individually, as Ayre advocates, would be reducing supporter interest through restricting competition and hence lowering the quality of the Premier League’s ‘brand’ and, as a result, reducing income from TV deals in the long run.

Not only are the consequences of Ayre’s proposed reforms undesirable for the League as a whole and for Liverpool in particular long term, their overtly capitalist overtures do not sit comfortably with the legendary Bill Shankly’s infamous socialist views. The 30th anniversary of the Scot’s death was commemorated recently, and Shanks would surely be spinning in his grave in response to the business-like approach that has been imposed on the beautiful game and seemingly incorporated at Anfield.

Although I generally disagree with Shankly’s socialist political beliefs and, on the whole, endorse capitalism, this following quote perfectly summarises why Ian Ayre is, on this issue at least, in the wrong:

“The socialism I believe in is everyone working for each other, everyone having a share of the rewards. It’s the way I see football, the way I see life.”


Saturday, 8 October 2011

Who was the Reds’ star summer signing?

The Bank of England pumped a whopping £75 billion into the British economy on Thursday in a desperate attempt to improve the UK’s miserable growth figures and stave off another seemingly inevitable recession. The measure taken by Governor of the Bank of England Mervyn King has been subject to fierce debate in the media and criticism from many quarters.

Conversely, nobody has questioned the decision of Liverpool’s new American owners FSG to invest approximately £60 million to revamp the Reds’ squad in the summer, and the crucial cash injection has paid instant dividends where it matters most; on the pitch.

It is somewhat ironic; therefore, that arguably our finest summer signing has been bargain buy Craig Bellamy. When the 32-year old Welsh striker re-joined the Reds on deadline day on a free transfer from Manchester City after five years away from Anfield, many supporters, including myself, understandably had their doubts. He returned with a reputation. His age, volatile temperament and tendency to cause division in dressing rooms and fall out with managers made Dalglish’s decision to purchase him a bold one.

However, the legendary Scot’s gamble appears to have paid off. Bellamy is proving a useful back-up option to Suarez and Carroll and a potent weapon from the bench. After making his second Liverpool debut as a late substitute at the Britannia Stadium, Bellamy began the match at Brighton and his man of the match performance earned plaudits from the pundits. Linking up well with fellow forwards Suarez and Kuyt throughout, Bellamy made a big impression. Not only did he calmly convert the opener early on, he also crashed a tremendous free kick against the cross bar from all of 35 yards and played a part in Kuyt’s late sealer.

While few doubted his footballing ability and match winning talent, his temper still made him a loose cannon and a liability in the eyes of many commentators. Thankfully, after entering his thirties he finally seems to have matured, enduring a torrent of abuse from the home supporters during the derby whilst preparing to take a corner in front of the Gwladys Street Stand and even ignoring plastic bottles which had been thrown at him. Moreover, his arrival proved pivotal to the outcome of the match, as it was the number 39 who ran determinedly at the Toffees’ defence before perfectly playing in Jose Enrique to assist Andy Carroll’s deadlock breaking goal.

In that instant three relatively recent signings (two from the summer) combined to net and set us on our way to collecting three crucial Premier League points and claiming local bragging rights until we next face Moyes’ men in February. While Carroll has received a mixed reception and Bellamy has been widely welcomed with understandable caution, Spanish left back Jose Enrique has received nothing but praise from supporters and management alike.

The 25-year old only had one year left on his contract at Newcastle United when King Kenny snapped him up for a meagre £6 million days before the opening match of the season at home to the Geordie's fierce rivals Steve Bruce's Sunderland. The former Valencia full back was thrown straight in at the deep end and coped admirably, impressing instantly and finally filling the gaping hole in our defence that had previously existed at left back.

Taking the injury prone Fabio Aurelio's starting berth, Enrique has proven a steady and capable performer defensively, while also adding another attacking outlet to the side. His pace, garnered from years as a sprinter in his youth, enables him to fulfil the dual function of dependable defender and marauding winger with aplomb. Additionally, his passing and crossing ability has helped to start attacks from defence. For example, his incisive through ball set up Suarez to score at home to Wolves and his defence-splitting cross field pass set fellow new signing Jordan Henderson through one-on-one with keeper Asmir Begovic away to Stoke City.

In front of him, Stewart Downing has lived up to his £20 million price tag and silenced the critics who doubted Dalglish's decision to invest such a hefty chunk of his transfer budget in the Boro born winger. Able to play equally well on both the left and right wing, Downing's dribbling ability has added an extra dimension to our attack, while his crossing capabilities should bring out the best in Andy Carroll in time.

Liverpool fans already knew his potential after watching him score the only goal in our end of season dead rubber at Villa Park and in the Reds' opening day draw at home to Sunderland he displayed yet more promise, at one point storming down the right wing and thumping an excellent strike against the woodwork in what would have been an early goal of the season contender that fellow professionals would have struggled to surpass.

A man of the match display at the Emirates followed, before he was at the forefront of our ultimately fruitless attempts to break down the Potters' defence. This form has translated onto the international stage as well, Downing's fantastic cut-back assisting former Villa teammate Ashley Young to score the only goal in England's qualifier with Wales at Wembley last month.

Unfortunately, on the opposite flank former black cat Jordan Henderson hasn't replicated the lightning quick start of Liverpool's other new arrivals. Brought in only nine days after the transfer window opened, Henderson was Dalglish’s first summer signing. However, he has still failed to settle into the Scot's starting line-up. Admittedly, after being employed on the right wing instead of his preferred central role for the majority of the campaign so far, it is understandable why Henderson hasn't quite hit the heights he is clearly capable of reaching based on his superb displays in the red and white of Sunderland.

A poor showing at the under-21s European Championships this summer has been follow by an unremarkable opening to the new campaign. Apart from a clever finish at home to Bolton Wanderers, Henderson has been rather disappointingly quiet, failing to make the sort of impact his £16 million price tag demands. Although it is unfair to slate him at this stage and I'm confident that Henderson, at only 21, has a bright future ahead of him at Anfield, Manchester United's investment of the same sum of money in England winger Ashley Young appears more astute.

Had eccentric but excellent Blackpool boss Ian Holloway been less stubborn than the Reds would have captured the much-coveted Charlie Adam in January and I would not now be writing about him being one of our best summer signings. Nevertheless, since Dalglish finally signed his fellow Scot Adam has lived up to the hype and proved that our drawn out pursuit of the 25-year old was not in vain.

Comparing him to Xabi Alonso may be a tad pre-mature, however it is certainly understandable considering the wand of a left foot Adam possesses. The number 26's passing range has left the Anfield faithful astounded, while his daisy cutting goal versus Bolton and tremendous strike that rattled the cross bar on the stroke of half time at Goodison demonstrated his goalscoring threat.

Bar the red card he deservedly received for two rash tackles at White Hart Lane, Adam has been a good addition to the squad, forming a flourishing partnership with Lucas Leiva which could see skipper Steven Gerrard struggle to return to his preferred position at the heart of the midfield.

So, who was the Reds' star summer signing?

For value for money you cannot look past Craig Bellamy, for defying the critics Downing deserves recognition and for living up to expectations Charlie Adam warrants credit. However, for settling in instantly and finally resolving our long-term issues at left back, Jose Enrique gets my vote.


Sunday, 2 October 2011

Derby delight as duo leave Everton feeling blue

Liverpool's £58 million strikeforce paid off handsomely yesterday, as second half strikes from Andy Carroll and Luis Suarez secured a 2-0 victory in the 216th Merseyside derby. Earlier, Everton and England midfielder Jack Rodwell had controversially seen red for an innocuous challenge on Suarez and Tim Howard had denied the previously unstoppable Dirk Kuyt from the penalty spot in a typically eventful and fiery derby clash. The Reds' numerical advantage and superior class eventually told though and three crucial, confidence-boosting points were collected ahead of Manchester United's visit to Anfield in a fortnight.

When Kenny Dalglish was last at Goodison Park in a managerial capacity two decades ago he witnessed his Liverpool side repeatedly squander a lead, eventually succumbing to a 4-4 draw in a thrilling yet taxing FA Cup tie. That proved to be the King's final match in the Reds' dugout prior to his return in January, as the accumulated stress of managing the side in the wake of the Hillsborough disaster understandably took its toll.

Despite this disappointing climax to his first managerial reign, Dalglish's record in Merseyside derbies was impressive. Under his guidance the Reds recorded 13 victories in 22 meetings with their near neighbours. His statistics at Goodison Park were even more notable; the Scot tasted defeat only once in 10 trips across Stanley Park.

Consequently, Dalglish sent his troops out with the twin aims of maintaining his impressive derby record and halting their recent run of poor form on the road. To that end, the only change to the team that claimed a 2-1 win over Wolves at Anfield last Saturday saw the out of sorts Henderson replaced with Dutch forward Dirk Kuyt, who is notoriously prolific against Everton, particularly from the penalty spot.

Although the first chance of real note fell to Luis Suarez, as the Uruguayan’s tame header when perfectly positioned was easily stopped by Howard, the Toffees began on top, immediately responding through Tim Cahill, as the Aussie was thwarted by a fine save from the alert Reina. The hosts were pressing high up the pitch and pressurising their visitors, with Distin cleverly nutmegging Enrique before lifting a shot over the bar and Saha driving a good left footed effort just wide from the edge of the box.

The turning point came mid-way through the first half when Jack Rodwell was given a straight red for a firm yet fair tackle on Luis Suarez, whose reaction to the challenge was disproportionate and perhaps contributed to the 20-year old's dismissal. Rodwell's studs were clearly showing but his foot wasn't that far off the ground and he evidently claimed the ball before slightly catching Suarez with the follow through.

A yellow card would have been harsh, yet card-happy referee Martin Atkinson, who also sent off Sotirios Kyrgiakos and Steven Pienaar in a Merseyside derby a year ago, immediately flashed a red in Rodwell's direction.

The occasional incorrect decision from an official is understandable and acceptable, but what frustrated fans of both sides most was the referee’s irritating inconsistency. This was demonstrated moments after the sending off when Cahill only received a booking for a high challenge on Adam that was arguably worse than the offence committed by his teammate. Moreover, later on in the half Hibbert committed a horrible tackle on Adam that could have legitimately seen him sent off, yet Atkinson failed to even award a free kick.

Whatever the rights and wrongs of the red card, one fact was undeniable; Liverpool clearly benefited from the decision. With one less blue body in the middle the away side were granted more space to control possession and create chances. Adam and Lucas, who had previously been severely tested by their midfield opponents, were now pulling the strings in the middle.

Just after the half hour mark Suarez shot into the side netting from a difficult angle after Martin Kelly had played a through ball into the number seven's path, before Jagielka's rash and wholly unnecessary foul on the diminutive Uruguayan on the edge of the box saw Atkinson correctly award the Reds a spot kick.

Dirk Kuyt stepped up and, considering the fact that he once kept his cool to convert from the spot twice at Goodison, it seemed almost inevitable that the net would bulge and the visitors would go into the half time interval with a one-goal lead. Somewhat surprisingly Kuyt's perfectly placed penalty lacked the necessary power to find the net and Howard made a fantastic save to keep the scores level.

There was still time for Adam to thunder a beautifully struck 20-yard effort past the helpless Howard and against the underside of the cross bar before both sides entered the break to the sound of boos reverberating around Goodison in response to referee Atkinson's below par performance.

Seeking to exert their dominance, the Reds began the second period in the ascendancy, Carroll's header being cleared off the line and American keeper Howard making a good save to deny the tall Geordie. However, the hosts still posed a threat, Saha shooting narrowly wide from 35 yards on the hour mark to keep Reina and his back four alert.

The second half swung on the introduction of club captain Steven Gerrard and free transfer Craig Bellamy. The former added drive to our midfield while the latter instantly fulfilled the purpose for which he was brought back to the club on transfer deadline day. The Welsh striker ran uninterrupted with purpose and menace down the left wing and played a perfectly weighted pass to the overlapping Enrique, who pulled the ball back to Carroll from the by-line. The heavily (and unfairly) criticised number nine turned the ball home before wheeling away in celebration, relieved to have finally bagged his first Premier League goal of the campaign.

A mix up between Distin and Baines in the Blues' box ten minutes later presented Suarez with an unmissable chance, which he coolly converted from close range.

With the points all but in the bag, Liverpool inevitably ended the game in complete control, Kuyt hitting the post during injury time after the Toffees had fell asleep at Suarez's swiftly taken corner.

The home crowd's frustrations at both their side's defending and the referee's display bubbled over in the closing stages, with plastic bottles thrown at Craig Bellamy (who thankfully kept his cool) and coins, as well as verbal insults, aimed at Suarez. Nevertheless, while cash-strapped Everton chairman Bill Kenwright was searching for the coins on the Goodison turf, Liverpool departed with the points in the bag and their integrity intact.

Former Reds boss Roy Hodgson bizarrely described our 2-0 reversal at Goodison last October as the best performance during his tenure. Although such a grandiose description could not be attached to yesterday's display, the fact that Liverpool emerged victorious on this occasion is most important and, with Carroll and Suarez combining to prove the critics wrong and Bellamy surprising me with his maturity, there are plenty of reasons to be pleased and remain positive.

We can now only hope that the momentum built up by three consecutive victories isn't lost during the upcoming international break and that everybody returns fully fit and ready to compete in another massive match at home to fierce rivals and current champions Manchester United.