Saturday, 31 December 2011

What did I miss? III

Yes, another catch-up article!

Apologies for the wait but this time my Internet decided to play up and I was without access to the World Wide Web from Christmas day onwards. I guess it gave me time to enjoy a relaxing Christmas and visit relatives. I hope you also enjoyed the festivities and have a smashing new year.

Anyway, the traditional annual Boxing Day fixture- surely one of the best dates in the footballing calendar- saw Steve Kean's struggling Blackburn side visit Anfield on the back of a 2-1 derby defeat at home to Bolton, their eleventh of the season. The Reds were therefore expectedly to comfortably collect all three points with a minimal amount of fuss, however yet again Liverpool dominated the contest at Anfield but failed to secure the win, instead having to settle for their sixth home draw of the season, which is the highest number of home draws in the League.

Kenny Dalglish paired Suarez and Carroll up front while skipper Steven Gerrard returned to the Reds' bench. Following a low-key start, Suarez had two attempts in quick succession. First, he drilled into the side netting from an acute angle. Then, the number seven's nimble footwork created a goalscoring opportunity that he curled wide left footed.

The best opportunity of the half arrived on the half hour mark when Enrique's dangerous centre from the left fell invitingly for Carroll; whose instinctive prod goalwards from close range was excellently tipped around the post by the on-form stand-in stopper Mark Bunn. The unlucky Carroll then had the ball in the back of the net but was denied by the linesman's offside flag. The away side were rescued by the offside flag for a second time soon after as Bunn brought down Maxi in the box but no penalty was given because the Argentine was deemed offside, despite TV replays suggesting he was at least in line with the defence when he met Downing's clever reverse pass.

To make things worse, on the stroke of half time Blackburn netted with their first attempt at goal. Morten Gamst Pedersen's right wing corner was inadvertently diverted into his own net by Charlie Adam, leaving Dalglish's side 1-0 down and Anfield shocked into silence, which was only punctured by the small corner of celebrating visiting fans.

It was frustratingly typical of our home games this season. Liverpool dominated proceedings, controlled possession and created numerous chances yet failed to score the all-important first goal and ended up heading in at the interval inexplicably in deficit.

Thankfully, the Reds immediately responded and levelly quickly after the restart. When Blackburn failed to clear a Liverpool corner on 53 minutes, Skrtel capitalised by lofting the ball to the back post, where the unmarked Maxi nodded home from close range. It was Maxi's fourth goal in nine appearances this campaign, which is a fantastic scoring rate considering his position as a winger and the fact that he has spent the majority of his time occupying the bench. Surely he must deserve an extended run in the side.

In the ascendancy, Liverpool continued to search and probe the Blackburn defence for a winning goal. It wasn't until a certain Steven Gerrard was introduced with 20 minutes remaining, though, that the hosts really began to batter their opponents and seriously threaten to steal all three points. His first touch was a fantastic free kick, which Maxi headed just over the bar. Suarez then nodded Johnson's in swinger just off target and Carroll shaved the base of the post when he directed Enrique's cross goalwards.

Despite coming under pressure late on, Rovers had one excellent opportunity to shock the footballing world and claim a stunning victory 10 minutes from time. David Dunn danced into the box and appeared destined to score but fortunately he ran into ex-Everton forward Yakubu and lost his footing at the vital moment, eventually shooting inches wide and spurning a glorious opportunity to claim the headlines.

That draw, coupled with a goalless stalemate at Wigan, left Liverpool with a mere two points from matches they were expected to collect six from, thus raising the pressure on the Reds to beat Newcastle last night and end a stifling pattern of drawing matches they should win in front of their own fans.

Jose Enrique, Andy Carroll and Craig Bellamy all started against their former employers while Henderson and Downing, who used to play for Newcastle's rivals Sunderland and Middlesbrough respectively, began on the wings. Once again, the Reds controlled the opening stages and threatened their opponents' goal. Agger strode into the Newcastle half in trademark fashion and flashed a shot across the face of goal, Adam struck over from 25 yards and Krul denied both Carroll and Downing, all inside the first 20 minutes. Typically, though, Liverpool's encouraging play was not rewarded with a goal and, in fact, the Barcodes broke the deadlock mid-way through the half when Daniel Agger diverted Taylor's cross over his own goal line under pressure from Demba Ba.

Fortunately, Liverpool levelled almost instantly, as Bellamy drilled into the bottom corner from 12 yards out to net the equaliser and his fourth goal in four matches versus the side he used to play for. Bellamy was involved again soon after as Skrtel, similarly to his goal at Villa, flashed a header across the face of goal from the Welshman's corner.

As against Blackburn, the second half- and the match- swung on the introduction of Steven Gerrard, who replaced Charlie Adam on the hour mark. He almost immediately crafted a glorious chance as he picked out Carroll unmarked in the box with an incredible pass. Lamentably, Carroll's first touch was simply shockingly bad and the chance was squandered. Nevertheless, Bellamy bagged his second of the night with a 30-yard free kick that sailed through a crowded box of bodies and into the net. Skrtel was then required to make a brilliant goal line clearance to keep the Reds' lead intact, before Carroll nearly compensated for his earlier error by rattling the bar with a towering header from Gerrard's cross.

Frustratingly, it just wasn't going to be the Geordie striker's night. However, the evening clearly belonged to Steven Gerrard, who capped a superb second half display with a world-class finish to put the outcome of the contest beyond doubt. Unbelievably, Stevie found the net with a left footed finish from a ridiculously tight angle after latching onto Henderson's clever pass.

Liverpool played out the final ten minutes in complete control and saw out the victory, moving into fifth place, level on points with fourth-placed Chelsea, who have a game in hand.

Examining these two matches, a number of similarities have emerged. On both occasions Kenny Dalglish was facing sides he had previously managed. Both matches saw Blackburn and the Barcodes take the lead against the run of play thanks to an unfortunate own goal after Liverpool had dominated possession and peppered their opponents' goal. Thankfully, the Reds equalised soon after in both games and Steven Gerrard came off the bench to claim the man of the match award with two outstanding cameo displays.

Fortunately, there was one crucial difference. Against Newcastle, unlike versus Blackburn, Liverpool took their chances. On Boxing Day, Liverpool found the net once from 27 shots. Yesterday, although only firing a total of 16 shots, the Reds scored three, which is a rare feat considering the last time we found the net more than twice in a game was at the end of August.

Liverpool will now look to carry the confidence generated from this win into their clash away at League leaders Manchester City on Tuesday. More importantly, they must improve their home form next year and have more scenarios similar to the entertaining Newcastle match and fewer like the disappointing Rovers game.


Thursday, 22 December 2011

Defiant Suarez and co. held to stalemate

Amid the furore surrounding Suarez following the FA's harsh and pre-mature decision to find him guilty of racially abusing Patrice Evra, it would have been easy to forget that Liverpool had another festive fixture last night. As it turned out, those unaware of the match hardly missed a Christmas cracker, as the Reds were held to only their second scoreless stalemate of the season. There was plenty of goalmouth action at both ends and goalkeepers Pepe Reina and Ali Al-Habsi were kept busy throughout the night, however neither side managed to break the deadlock and claim all three points.

During the warm up the players donned shirts emblazoned with 'Suarez 7' on the back and a picture of the Uruguayan celebrating a goal on the front, in a clear sign of support for their under-fire teammate. The squad also released a joint statement whole-heartedly supporting Suarez in the fight to clear his name.

Dirk Kuyt and Maxi Rodriguez returned to the starting line-up, replacing Craig Bellamy and Jonjo Shelvey respectively. The major piece of team news, though, saw Luis Suarez start up front, Dalglish clearly deeming him to have sufficient mental strength to cope with playing despite the last few difficult days he has had to endure.

Only four minutes in Suarez was demonstrating his talent, this time sublimely nutmegging an opponent on the edge of the box following neat approach play from the visitors, who were in the ascendancy during the opening exchanges. Unfortunately the delightful piece of skill came to nothing and Al-Habsi collected Skrtel's low shot with ease six minutes later.

Wigan had barely taken a step out of their own half by this stage, however on 12 minutes they suddenly broke forward and almost opened the scoring against the run of play following a threatening goalmouth scramble. This improvement from Roberto Martinez's men was sustained, with Reina doing well to hold Figueroa's effort and left scrambling by a fizzed 35-yard effort from Diame that flew into the side netting. Gomez also found space and shot just over the bar, as the relegation threatened Latics placed their opponents with top-four aspirations under pressure.

Glen Johnson's recent improvement defensively has been notable; with the Reds' number 2 keeping the enthusiastic and promising young right back Martin Kelly out of the team and retaining a place in the League's stingiest back four. On 26 minutes, though, he demonstrated that he still has a lot to offer in attack as well, the England international powering forward purposefully and exchanging passes with Maxi but disappointingly seeing his shot stopped by the alert and out-rushing Al-Habsi.

Wigan's Victor Moses remained the hosts' main attacking outlet, drilling an effort at Reina and later storming past several Liverpool defenders in what was a magnificent solo run before forcing Reina to beat away his ferocious shot.

The first half had been a largely even affair, with the home side coming back strongly into the contest after the Reds had controlled the opening stages. The second half frustratingly followed a similar pattern. As per, Suarez was at the heart of the attacking action soon after the restart. First, his free kick was well tipped over by Al-Habsi, before Caldwell clearly blocked his acrobatic effort with his hand.

Referee Michael Oliver inevitably and correctly pointed to the spot and, surprisingly considering prolific penalty taker Dirk Kuyt was playing, Charlie Adam stepped up to take the spot kick. Unfortunately, his poor penalty was straight down the middle and at the ideal height for Al-Habsi to make yet another good save.

That save seemed to inspire the home side. Gomez collected a pass 30 yards out and tested Reina with a firm shot from range. Moses then broke free down the right and crossed low into the area, with only a fabulous clearance from Skrtel cutting out the danger. Bellamy and Shelvey, Liverpool's heroes from their victory at Villa, were introduced with twenty minutes remaining in an attempt to inspire a late period of sustained pressure on their opponents.

However, unfortunately Wigan looked the more likely to steal all three points late on, Moses unbelievably stabbing wide when presented with a fantastic opportunity to grab a winner and Reina required to act as a sweeper to prevent Di Santo going in on goal after a decent ball over the top evaded the Reds' defence.

Many will see this as two points dropped and, because of where the two teams are in the League, that view certainly has some justification. However, in our last three visits to what is now the DW Stadium we have drawn twice and lost once, which demonstrates that Wigan are one of our bogey sides, particularly on the road. Moreover, on the positive side, we kept our eighth clean sheet of the season, with an impressive seven of those achieved away from Anfield.

On top of that, we continued to play attractive football and created a remarkable 21 goalscoring chances. Unfortunately, yet again Liverpool came up against an inspired keeper on top form. Ali-Al Habsi had a stunning saving accuracy of 100% and was clearly the star performer who earned his side a point. Yes, Wigan posed an attacking threat at times as well, but if it wasn't for their Omani stopper the Reds would have surely claimed another three points away from home.

Liverpool face bottom side Blackburn Rovers on Boxing Day and are overwhelming favourites to win the match and heap yet more pressure on Rovers' boss Steve Kean. Three points are a must if we are to keep up with the likes of Arsenal and Chelsea, who lie above us in fifth and fourth respectively.


Wednesday, 21 December 2011

Suarez's ban is absurd

I hate racism with a passion. As a Christian I believe God made all men equal, regardless of their skin colour. One of my best friends, who I have known since the age of 12, is Nepali. Racism is unquestionably a vile evil that has no place in any sector of society whatsoever. Period.

What is equally unconsciable for me, though, is injustice. Following the Football Association Commission’s decision to punitively and unfairly hand Luis Suarez an extraordinary eight-game ban and £40k fine, a sense of injustice prevails amongst Reds’ supporters. And, believe me, Liverpool fans do not use that term lightly.

Don’t get me wrong; the punishment would be entirely fair, just and reasonable if the accusations flung in Suarez’s direction were accurate. Racism should not be tolerated and anything less than a substantial ban would undermine the tremendous work of the ‘Kick it out’ campaign. The overwhelming weight of evidence, however, suggests quite the contrary or, at the very least, requires greater investigation and inquiry before a conclusion can be reached.

How the FA can assume to have reached a conclusion on the matter when it clearly remains an issue of one man’s word versus another man’s word is beyond me. Nobody- including officials and Evra’s Manchester United teammates- heard Suarez’s supposed racist remark, despite the alleged incident taking place inside a crowded penalty area.

Furthermore, Evra has a history of playing the proverbial ‘race card’. In December 2008 the Senegal-born French left back was handed a four-match ban for improper conduct following a confrontation with a member of Chelsea’s ground staff. The hearing concluded that Evra’s account of the events, primarily centring on an allegation of racial abuse, was “exaggerated and unreliable.”

They even discarded evidence from witnesses suggesting that the racial abuse had occurred; such was the patently fabricated nature of the 30-year old’s evidence. With that in mind, it is simply unbelievable that the FA have accepted Evra’s version of events over Suarez’s, especially with no witnesses to corroborate either view.

Moreover, the fact that Evra commented saying, “I don’t think that Luis Suarez is a racist”, surely lessens the likelihood that the accusations of him racially abusing an opponent are accurate. If even his alleged victim doesn’t deem him to be a racist then how can the FA prove beyond all reasonable doubt, or even on a balance of probabilities, that Suarez racially abused Evra, contravening FA Rule E3 (2)?

When you also consider the fact that Suarez has a mixed background (his grandfather was black) and is personally involved in a charity with the sole aim of encouraging people from different racial and cultural backgrounds to play football together, it is easy to understand why Liverpool are incredulous at the outcome of the Football Association Commission's deliberation.

The disbelief at the verdict is enhanced further when you contrast Suarez's case with the case of Chelsea captain John Terry. Not only is there clear video evidence to strongly suggest that Terry racially abused QPR's Anton Ferdinand during the Blues' visit to Loftus Road in October, said evidence is considered so weighty that even the Crown Prosecution Service are now involved in the matter, interviewing Terry recently and assessing the evidence for themselves after a complaint from a member of the public.

There is undeniably more evidence available for the FA to legitimately find John Terry guilty of racism than Luis Suarez. The fact that the latter has been all too hastily sentenced while the former continues to evade punishment is beyond my comprehension.

Liverpool have reserved the right to appeal the verdict and have a fortnight to do so. It is almost inevitable that they will appeal as their vehement defence of Suarez would appear bizarre otherwise and the impact such a lengthy ban would have on the Reds' campaign is too significant. It would radically alter Dalglish's plans in the January transfer window and, in all likelihood, lead to a change in the side's currently inviting and impressive style.

Ultimately, if there was more conclusive evidence (and not just subjective opinion) than the punishment dished out on Suarez by the FA would receive my wholehearted support, as this is an issue that overrides club loyalty and boils down to human deceny. However, aside from Evra's testimony, there is little evidence to support the allegations against Suarez and considerable evidence to suggest that the allegations are fabricated.

We will continue to support Luis Suarez through the wind and the rain.


Monday, 19 December 2011

A walk in the Villa Park

Liverpool eased to their fifth away win of the season with an assured and accomplished performance at Villa Park earning them a fully deserved 2-0 victory over Alex McLeish's beleaguered Aston Villa outfit yesterday. Two goals from poorly defended corner kicks in quick succession from the ever-impressive Craig Bellamy and on-form Martin Skrtel put the visitors in the driving seat only quarter of an hour into the contest and the Villains failed to muster a response, succumbing to their third loss in five matches.

Kenny Dalglish made only two changes to the team that beat QPR the previous weekend, Craig Bellamy and Jonjo Shelvey replacing Maxi Rodriguez and Dirk Kuyt respectively, the latter making his first start since returning from a loan spell at Blackpool. Meanwhile, the hosts fielded two ex-Reds in the form of Stephen Warnock and Emile Heskey.

Former Villa winger Stewart Downing, who switched to the Reds for a sizeable £20 million in the summer, received a frosty reception from the home supporters on a bitterly cold winter's day in the Midlands. He attempted to silence the boo boys seven minutes in but his shot at goal was comfortably collected by stand-in stopper Brad Guzan.

Nevertheless, three minutes later he was involved in the opening goal, as Shelvey flicked his corner goalwards, only for Guzan to block the ball and Suarez's follow up effort. Amid the confusion in the crammed penalty area Craig Bellamy popped up seemingly from nowhere to tuck home from close range and give the Reds the lead. The Merseysiders’ dominance of the opening stages was confirmed soon after, when Bellamy clipped an inviting corner into the penalty area, where Skrtel had evaded the attention of fellow centre back Richard Dunne and excellently glanced a header into the top right hand corner.

It was a fantastic corner from Bellamy and an even better header from Skrtel, who not only appears to be developing a promising partnership with Daniel Agger but also poses a significant attacking threat from set pieces.

During that period Villa's only sight of goal came when Heskey typically squandered a good goalscoring opportunity by heading straight at Reina from close range. It wouldn't have counted anyway as the 33-year old was flagged offside. In response to the shock of conceding two goals in such quick succession the hosts hesitantly went on the attack, N'Zogbia hitting the side netting from a tight angle, Delfounseo heading over and Reina stopping Petrov's weak effort.

However, Villa and their fans were severely deflated following Liverpool's rapid beginning to the match and never seriously looked like troubling Reina or his solid and settled back four, who are the tightest Premier League defence having only been breached 12 times this campaign. Liverpool, meanwhile, continued to control the contest and create chances, Shelvey seeing his effort turned around the post by Guzan from close range after a mazy run from Luis Suarez.

The second half continued in the same pattern of the first, Agger, nose-bleeding due to his presence so close to the opposition's goal, heading inches wide from Bellamy's cross a minute after the re-start. Luis Suarez then hit the woodwork twice in search of a third to put the outcome of the clash beyond doubt. First, he smashed an effort against the underside of the cross bar from eight yards out after stealing possession from the under-performing Dunne. Then, he displayed composure to chip a delightful effort past Guzan and agonisingly against the post from just inside the box.

It just wasn't going to be the Uruguayan’s day, as yet again Liverpool frustratingly found the frame of the goal frequently.

The only real effort Villa had during the second 45 saw Reina scrambling after Fabian Delph's strike from 30 yards looped over Skrtel and over the Spaniard's head. It very nearly landed in the net but thankfully went just over. Such a slice of luck would have brought the hosts back into the match and may have acted as a catalyst for resurgence from the Villains, but fortunately that wasn't the case and the Reds remained unquestionably in the ascendancy.

Just past the hour mark Charlie Adam burst into the area, with Shelvey available to his left and Suarez free on the right. The Scot decided to go alone and saw his shot deflected inches wide off Villa defender James Collins. The game then petered out to an underwhelming conclusion as Liverpool were more than happy to retain their comfortable lead while Aston Villa appeared to have given up all hope of getting back into the match. Dalglish handed Carroll, Carragher and Kuyt substitute appearances although neither of them pulled up any trees.

Villa Park emptied swiftly while the away end rocked to the sound of jubilation and celebration from the happily satisfied travelling Kop. Unlike previous seasons, where the Reds have really struggled on the road, this campaign has seen the return of confident, encouraging and enterprising football away from home, which has crucially earned points as well.

Special mention must be reserved for Craig Bellamy, who put in another tireless display and was at the heart of the action for both goals, and Jonjo Shelvey, who impressed in his preferred role behind the lone striker. Luis Suarez also played particularly well considering the controversy surrounding him presently.

Wigan Athletic are next up on Wednesday before Blackburn Rovers travel to Anfield for our Boxing Day fixture. Six points are expected and, if we replicate this performance, should be comfortably collected. It promises to be a Christmas Cracker for Dalglish's Redmen!


(Thanks to Samantha Wilson from Red and Proud's Facebook page for the title to this piece.)

Saturday, 17 December 2011

What did I miss? II

Computers! Who would have 'em? As I sat down and logged on to my laptop to type up my review of the QPR match last Sunday afternoon everything appeared as normal. I left the room for five minutes and returned to a blank screen and, after trying to turn it on again, found out that my battery was dead. Almost a week later and the new battery finally arrived in the post.

Thankfully, there was not a midweek game otherwise I would have missed two match reports. Now, as is customary (What did I miss?) when I am unable to reach a computer or it goes dead on me, this is a re-cap article to belatedly overview the Reds' previous fixture versus QPR at Anfield and look forward to Liverpool's trip to Villa Park tomorrow lunch time.

Liverpool completely and utterly dominated the first half last Saturday. This was reflected in the statistics. The home side claimed a sizeable 70% of possession, earned 10 corner kicks compared to the visitors’ paltry total of zero and created chance after chance. Maxi and Kuyt shot wide early on, Suarez's centre screamed across the face of goal and Henderson fired off target, before great play from Kuyt sent Maxi bearing down on goal but his attempt to slip the ball beyond Cerny was foiled by the QPR keeper.

Henderson, who had replaced the injured Lucas next to Adam in the centre of midfield, looked at home at the heart of the team while Adam pulled the strings in the middle of the park and was instrumental in orchestrating wave after wave of attack. Meanwhile, Kuyt, Suarez and Maxi were linking up delightfully and threatening QPR's defence regularly. The fact that the diminutive trio seem to connect and play so well together is worrying though for tall striker Andy Carroll, who will struggle to get off the subs' bench at this rate.

Unfortunately, when the whistle went for half time and the scores were still level it appeared destined to end up like our previous matches against promoted sides. Both Norwich and Swansea claimed draws at Anfield thanks to an inspired goalkeeper and profligate finishing from the Reds. Continuing the frustrating pattern, QPR stand-in stopper Radek Cerny was on top form and denied the hosts throughout the first 45, while that cutting edge was seemingly missing from Liverpool's first half performance.

There was widespread relief in Anfield then when Luis Suarez broke the deadlock only a minute after the restart to calm our nerves and reward our dominance. Adam's initial corner kick was blocked but the ball fortunately fell for the former Blackpool playmaker, who crossed to the unmarked Suarez. Leaping to reach the ball, the Uruguayan sent an unstoppable header past Cerny and into the Kop end net.

The Reds proceeded to search for a second to make sure of all three points, however once again Cerny was on top form to keep his side in the contest. Maxi and Kuyt were both denied by the excellent QPR keeper, while Kuyt dragged an effort wide, Johnson shot over and Agger saw his strike blocked by a defender.

After failing to double their lead, the Reds withdrew into their shell for the final 15 minutes and the momentum of the match swung in favour of the away side. Reina, who had remained a virtual spectator, was finally called into action as he had to punch clear from underneath his own cross bar following an ambitious and audacious corner kick from scouse footballer turned philosopher Joey Barton. Shaun Wright-Phillips then struck over the bar, before inadvertently turning substitute Craig Bellamy's cross against his own cross bar in the dying moments, as he narrowly avoided scoring a spectacular own goal.

Overall, despite irritatingly taking too long to take the lead and failing to extend it further once the deadlock had been broken, Liverpool could be satisfied with a domineering display of free-flowing, attacking football and three points in the proverbial bank. The fact that Suarez grabbed the headlines for the right reasons was also a positive.

Liverpool now face Midlanders Aston Villa tomorrow lunchtime with confidence high as a result of their impressive away form so far this season. The Reds may have struggled to break a stifling run of draws at home, however on the road they have claimed four victories, with only the Manchester sides and Tottenham winning more matches away from home.

Villa, meanwhile, are seemingly floundering under manager Alex McLeish. After controversially arriving from the Villains' relegated local rivals Birmingham City in the summer, McLeish has presided over a slow start at his new club. Last weekend's 2-1 victory over Bolton Wanderers was most welcome after a run of only one win in seven matches, however beating Bolton, who prop up the Premier League table following a calamitous beginning to the campaign, is hardly a noteworthy achievement.

I predict a close and competitive clash and either a draw or a narrow victory for the vistors.

What are the odds on Stewart Downing scoring the winner with his first goal for his new club coming against his former employers?


Thursday, 8 December 2011

Who should replace Lucas Leiva?

Last Thursday Liverpool confirmed the bad news. Lucas Leiva, who had to be stretchered off the pitch two days previously, marring the Reds’ 2-0 Carling Cup victory at Chelsea’s Stamford Bridge, is almost certainly going to miss the remainder of the season after sustaining an anterior cruciate ligament injury.

The news was met with widespread despair from fans disappointed to lose a star performer for the rest of the campaign. Despite obvious frustration and annoyance at the disruption to his considerable progress, Lucas may have gained a perverse sense of pleasure from the situation. No, the Brazilian midfielder isn’t a masochist. However, the fact that Kopites lamented the injury he has suffered reveals the massive swing in supporters’ opinion of the 24-year old.

Up until last season the majority of fans would have been unconcerned by an injury to Lucas. Many, in fact, would have seen it as a cause for celebration; such was the level of vitriol reserved for the supposedly underperforming former Gremio player. Under Benitez, Lucas was clearly made into a scapegoat, unfairly accused of stalling play and lacking bite and tenacity in the tackle.

This was mainly because he was compared to pass-master Xabi Alonso and tough tackler Javier Mascherano. Once the pair returned to Spain in acrimonious circumstances to join Real Madrid and Barcelona respectively, Lucas stepped out of their shadow and shone. His successful campaign last time around helped him to win Red and Proud’s ‘Player of the Season’ award, while this season he has formed a promising partnership alongside new signing Charlie Adam.

Breaking up play efficiently while keeping play ticking along nicely in the midfield motor room with accurate and incisive passes, Lucas had been superb up until his injury, teammate Jamie Carragher even comparing the impact he has had on the side to that of £22 million Uruguyuay sensation Luis Suarez.

His injury will undoubtedly hinder our midfield this season and us fans can bemoan that fact until we’re blue in the face, but Kenny Dalglish and his coaching staff must now unearth solutions to the problem created through Lucas’ absence. Several central midfielders will vie to take his place in the team and they all have various strengths and weaknesses that will be assessed in this article.

The seemingly obvious solution is to promote local lad Jay Spearing up from the subs’ bench and into the starting eleven. When given regular first team football at the end of last season Spearing impressed. His maturity and composure on the ball were notable and he appeared to have real potential that could be realised in the future. Dalglish evidently advocates this solution as well, starting the number 20 against Fulham in the Reds’ first fixture since the Chelsea match in which Lucas was injured.

However, that was Spearing’s first Premier League start of the season and he picked up an, admittedly unfair, red card, which just demonstrates the misfortune and frustration he has experienced so far this campaign. Nevertheless, Spearing is clearly capable of competing in the Premier League and deserves a chance to stake a claim for Lucas’ place. Not only will this develop his game further, it will show those currently in the Academy that working their way up into the manager’s first team plans is actually a possibility, and not a pipedream. Also, crucially Spearing’s style of play closely resembles Lucas’, ensuring that the team’s style of play could be maintained during any transitional spell in which Spearing became acquainted with first team football week in, week out.

Another option is to give London lad Jonjo Shelvey a run of games in which to prove himself. Following his acquisition from Charlton Athletic in 2010 Shelvey has appeared 15 times in the red of his new club. Without pulling up any trees, Shelvey quietly made an impression on the side. His attacking potential was particularly noted and many earmarked him as a potential star performer in the ‘trequartista’ role behind a front man.

It came as no surprise then when he shone when employed in that role by Blackpool boss Ian Holloway during his recent loan spell with the Seasiders. Bagging his first professional hattrick and scoring five in his first six games on the coast, Shelvey’s displays did not go unnoticed back on Merseyside. Only eight days ago Dalglish recalled Shelvey from his loan spell, revealing his intention to utilise his talents at his parent club in the absence of Lucas. Shelvey will provide necessary cover for Lucas in the middle, however it is unlikely that he will see much action, mainly due to the fact that his forward-thinking approach contrasts with Lucas’ holding role, meaning that he is not a natural replacement for Lucas.

The possibility of recalling another influential yet marginalized midfielder has also been mooted. Alberto Aquilani, presently on loan at Italian giants AC Milan, arguably should not even have been loaned out in the first place. After hampering injuries and a lack of opportunities dogged his early days at the club, Aquilani began to impress at the end of Benitez’s last year at the club.

Unfortunately, Roy Hodgson subsequently loaned him out to Juventus upon his arrival and, with Dalglish doing similar when he arrived at the club, Aquilani appeared to have no place at Anfield. Aquilani has never really been given a proper chance to stake a claim for a place in the side and, although once again he isn’t the ideal replacement for Lucas, he should return to Merseyside to bolster slowly growing squad depth. Dalglish claims that contractual issues mean that the club are unable to recall Aquilani, however I suspect the Scot is unwilling rather than unable to orchestrate the former AS Roma player’s return.

Finally, summer signing and ex-Sunderland star Jordan Henderson could be switched to his preferred central role. Signed for approximately £16 million, it is somewhat surprising that manager Kenny Dalglish has not employed Henderson in his favoured position of central midfield, instead shafting him out onto the right wing. Although Henderson has done his best and gradually improved, particularly in the last few weeks, he should be given a chance to prove himself in the centre of midfield. He has certainly earned such an opportunity with some impressive substitute performances of late. Also, this solution would allow the industrious Dirk Kuyt or goal-machine Maxi Rodriguez to fill in on the right wing and add to the Reds’ attacking threat.

So, who should replace Lucas Leiva? Well, firstly Alberto Aquilani should be recalled, as Shelvey has been, in order to swell the numbers and give Dalglish more options in midfield. Then, it should be a straight competition between those two and Spearing and Henderson. However, I believe the latter pair are more likely to fill in for him because they both have been in relatively good form and Spearing in particular replicates Lucas' style most evidently.

Whoever does eventually attempt to fill his considerable boots this season, the fact that Lucas' absence is such an important matter reveals how complete his transformation from scapegoat to samba star has been and how misguided many fans' original opinions were of him.


Tuesday, 6 December 2011

Ref and Reina to blame for Reds' defeat

A combination of poor goalkeeping, bad refereeing and a lack of a cutting edge in front of goal cost Liverpool dearly last night as the Reds fell to a 1-0 defeat at Craven Cottage, ending their impressive unbeaten run on the road which had stretched back to another loss in the capital, that time a 4-0 reversal against Tottenham Hotspur in September.

Clint Dempsey exploited an error from Reina late on to steal all three points for Fulham, after the game had swung on two refereeing decisions that went against the visitors. First, Suarez's legitimate goal was chalked off for offside. Then, Spearing ludicrously saw red following a strong tackle on Dembele. The Reds also hit the woodwork twice as it turned out to be one of those frustrating evenings for Dalglish's side.

The legendary Scot made five changes from the team that beat Chelsea in the Carling Cup six days previously, awarding Jay Spearing his first Premier League start of the season as a replacement for the injured Lucas Leiva, while pairing Andy Carroll and Luis Suarez up front together for the first time since our stalemate at home to Swansea. Meanwhile Maxi, who has netted twice in London recently and bagged an excellent hattrick in last season's stunning 5-2 victory at the Cottage, had to settle for a place on the bench.

A lively opening saw Skrtel exposed as Zamora threaded a ball into the box for Dembele. Thankfully Reina read the situation and stormed out of goal to make a crucial stop. Carroll and Suarez then linked up, the latter feeding the former, but the out of sorts Geordie fired his strike straight at Aussie stopper Mark Schwarzer.
His opposite number then had to be aware to prevent the influential Dembele's lovely low strike breaching his net on 17 minutes.

Following several impressive performances as a late sub, Henderson was rightly rewarded with a place in the starting eleven last night, although once again he was not placed in his preferred central position, despite Lucas' injury opening up a slot in the side there. Nevertheless, he took the opportunity to showcase his talent. Not only did the former Sunderland skipper keep possession brilliantly (claiming the highest pass accuracy of 95%), he also showed sparks of attacking ingenuity, directing a delicate shot agonisingly against the inside of the post on the half hour mark.

American striker Clint Dempsey, who has been linked with a move to Merseyside in the past, was involved either side of the interval, as Reina parried his effort on 37 minutes, before he went down under Bellamy's tackle during the opening stages of the second period and responding by getting forcefully into the Welshman's face. The handbags were inevitably pulled out and referee Kevin Friend showed both players a yellow card, Bellamy laughing at his bizarre booking.

Despite that unnecessary commotion, Liverpool began the second half in the ascendancy and created numerous goalscoring chances yet frustratingly failed to take any of them. Their efforts were also frustrated by referee Kevin Friend's poor performance. After Enrique's volley was spooned to safety by Schwarzer, Hangeland clearly obstructed Suarez in the area but no penalty was awarded when anywhere else on the pitch a free kick would surely have been given.

On the hour mark Daniel Agger attacked a corner confidently and headed just wide, before Enrique dinked an excellent pass over the defence and to Luis Suarez who, after navigating a passage past Schwarzer, netted with a great finish. However, the Uruguayan was denied by an arguable offside flag. TV replays certainly suggested Suarez was level with the line of the defence.

Infuriated, Suarez gave the linesman a noticeable glare and his anger was further stoked by constant abuse from certain sections of the Fulham support. In retaliation, he unacceptably flicked a middle-finger gesture in their direction. Having already been charged by the FA for allegedly racially abusing Patrice Evra earlier this season, you'd have thought that the number seven would decide to keep his head down and behave himself.

For all his talent on the ball, Suarez does himself no favours with his conduct (or, should I say, misconduct) on the pitch. Unfortunately, though, volatility appears to be part of the package when it comes to Suarez and, arguably, that spark also at least partly explains his drive and determination to achieve success.

The Reds suffered further misfortune 18 minutes from time when Spearing, who had fulfilled Lucas' role of breaking up play relatively successfully, winning 100% of his attempted tackles, was sent off for a strong challenge on Dembele, which saw the 23-year old win the ball but catch his opponent on the follow through.

Spearing's tackle arguably warranted a yellow card, but a red was patently excessive and annoyingly but inevitably proved to be the pivotal point of the contest. Liverpool had been dominant and appeared close to breaking the deadlock, however after Spearing's sending off Fulham looked the more likely to secure a winner, and duly did so with five minutes remaining.

Dempsey curled an effort onto the crossbar following Johnson's unfortunate slip, before Liverpool responded, substituted Stewart Downing hitting the bar with a wonderful strike from range. Only moments later the Cottagers took advantage of a mistake from Reina to break the deadlock. The Spaniard fatally spilt ex-Red Danny Murphy's shot into the path of Dempsey, who easily tapped home from close range to break Red hearts.

It was very poor goalkeeping from a keeper widely considered to be one of the best in the business. Reina will not be too heavily criticised though because of previous impressive performances. Moreover, one of the key factors in him being a world-class keeper is his ability to quickly recover from mistakes. Expect him to keep a couple of clean sheets in the coming weeks to compensate.

Despite this disappointing defeat, Liverpool played reasonably well and, although they hardly hit the dizzying heights of recent displays versus City and Chelsea, highly disputable refereeing decisions and an individual mistake ultimately cost us the points at the Cottage.

Nevertheless, with games against the likes of QPR, Wigan Athletic and Blackburn Rovers coming up over the festive period, the Reds should be able to rack up the points and climb the table ready for an assault on the top four in 2012.


Saturday, 3 December 2011

Carra- Time to hang up the boots?

For 15 years Jamie Carragher, alongside club captain Steven Gerrard, has been the scouse heartbeat of Liverpool FC. Personifying the historic ‘Liverpool Way’ Carra, as he has affectionately come to be known, delights supporters week in week out with countless committed and accomplished performances at the centre of the Reds’ defence, commanding and managing the back four with an unmistakable air of authority that sets our vice-captain out as a leader. Off the pitch, meanwhile, his refreshing honesty in interviews distinguishes him from the crowd while his ’23 Foundation’ charity gives back to the community that he was born and bred in, endearing the Bootle-born star to his many fans.

However, now many of those fans are beginning to wonder whether Carragher should remain an automatic starter in Kenny Dalglish’s line-up.

It seems bizarre to type this, but at 33 Carragher with, in all likelihood, around 45 years of life left to live, is considered to be ‘old’ by the footballing community. A veteran of 680 Liverpool matches, Carragher may have only found the back of the opposition’s net five times but, placed second in the Reds’ all time appearance list, Carra has been an ever-present throughout the many highs and lows experienced under Roy Evans, Gerard Houiller, Rafael Benitez, Roy Hodgson and Kenny Dalglish.

Winning virtually everything that can be won, bar that elusive Premier League title of course, Carragher is highly esteemed for surviving so long at the elite level of English football. Nevertheless, in the modern game youth is paramount and with, at the most, three years of his career left Dalglish is obviously searching for long-term alternatives at centre back, which was the main reason behind the purchase of Sebastian Coates from Nacional in the summer.

In the short-term though, one of the main concerns with keeping Carragher in the starting eleven is his apparent lack of pace. Undeniably, Carra has never been blessed with blistering pace and, as the ageing process takes its inevitable toll, he is only going to get slower. His encyclopaedic knowledge of the game, tactical acumen and positional sense allow him to be several steps ahead of his opponents at times and consequently compensates for his lack of pace. However, pace remains an essential attribute and it is therefore only logical for Carragher to occupy the bench when facing speed kings such as Arsenal’s Theo Walcott.

Thankfully, several replacements are ready to step into Carra’s considerable boots upon his eventual retirement and, in fact, are already beginning to challenge the number 23 for a place at the heart of the Reds’ defence. Together, they will attempt to replicate and preferably enhance and expand his skills set. Clean-shaven Slovakian centre back Martin Skrtel retains Carragher’s no-nonsense attitude and tendency for tough tackling. Although rarely played so far, Coates has also been lauded for similar attributes, and, at 6 foot 6, will add much needed height and aerial dominance to our back four once he hopefully matures into a Premier League performer. Daniel Agger, meanwhile, is a fantastic ball playing modern centre back who can ping a pass with pinpoint accuracy. If (and it’s a big if) he can steer clear of injuries, as Carragher has done so fortunately, then he could be a permanent fixture in Liverpool’s defence for years to come.

Perhaps most importantly, they will be following the perfect legacy of professionalism and dedication laid down by Jamie Carragher. After so many years at the pinnacle of the beautiful game, Carra will be fondly remembered as ‘Mr Liverpool’ when he retires, despite being a boyhood Evertonian. His love for and commitment to the club will never be forgotten and his successors will be expected to live up to his exceedingly high standards.

Moreover, Dalglish will almost certainly welcome him with open arms into the coaching set-up at Melwood upon his retirement and allow him to impart his wisdom to future Liverpool players. In fact, Carragher taking over the reigns and becoming manager of the club at some point in the future cannot be ruled out. Just look at how Dalglish has enjoyed two spells in the Anfield dugout since hanging up his boots.

So, is it time for Carragher to hang up his boots?

The short answer is no, Carra still has a few years left in his legs yet, although his role in the team will unavoidably decline in campaigns to come. However, he will always be loved for faithfully serving the club and the local community for so long and still has a large part to play in Liverpool’s future.