Sunday, 29 January 2012

Kuyt's late strike completes Manchester Cup double

Liverpool completed a thrilling cup double over Manchester sides City and United yesterday lunchtime, as goals from Daniel Agger and Dirk Kuyt secured a 2-1 victory over the latter in the fourth round of the FA Cup. The victory came on the back of progression to the Carling Cup final at the expense of Manchester City on Wednesday evening and had the backdrop of an intense and excitingly electric atmosphere at Anfield.

Prior to kick-off there was tension in the air as both clubs desperately tried to emphasise that the atmosphere should be passionate, not poisonous and that the headlines the following day should be celebrating a footballing spectacle, not decrying an off-field debacle. As expected, Patrice Evra was roundly booed and jeered by the home supporters but, thankfully, they never crossed the line and nothing worse than what Kenny Dalglish later described as "friendly banter" occurred.

Dalglish's first match in charge upon his return last January was at Old Trafford in an FA Cup third round tie that Liverpool lost 1-0 but deserved more from, as poor refereeing decisions cost us dearly. Arguably, the Reds' performance this time around only justified a draw but, for all their possession, United lacked Liverpool's cutting edge up front (that's the first time I've typed that this season!) and football is ultimately about putting the ball in the back of the net not passing in neat little triangles for 90 minutes.

The statistics heading into the clash sent mixed messages. In the FA Cup Liverpool had only beaten their visitors three times out of 16, suffering defeat 9 times. Yet, the Merseysiders had never lost an FA Cup game at Anfield with King Kenny in charge and were also looking to maintain their four-match unbeaten home run against Alex Ferguson's side.

The opening stages were relatively even, with both sides jostling for the ascendancy. The first chance of the match fell to Maxi five minutes in. The Argentine winger stung De Gea's fingers with a right-footed drive. It was the 21-year old keeper's first and only half decent save as he went on to endure a torrid afternoon. His Spanish counterpart in the opposing goal then comfortably saved from Ryan Giggs' drive, before the Red sea parted in front of Antonio Valencia as he ran right through the middle of a host of Liverpool defenders and fired a shot past Reina and onto the post.

It was a lucky escape for the hosts, who quickly responded by taking the lead moments later. After Smalling had headed Enrique’s goal-bound long-range effort behind, Gerrard whipped in the resulting corner and Agger rose highest to head home from close range.

Gerrard could have doubled the home side's lead soon after, as Carroll did well to set the skipper free in space on the right. Unfortunately, the number 8 squandered our last real chance of the first half, blasting harmlessly over when well placed to test De Gea.

From that point on, United dominated the game, with golden oldies Ryan Giggs and Paul Scholes monopolising possession in the middle and pulling the strings for the visitors. Nevertheless, they failed to seriously test Reina and the Reds' backline remained resolute. Disappointingly, though, five minutes before the break Enrique made a fatal error, losing the ball and then being out-muscled by Rafael, who pulled the ball back to Park from the by-line. The South Korean playmaker fired home first time to capitalise on some poor defending and equalise for the Red Devils.

The second half proceeded in much the same fashion, United controlling possession yet failing to carve out many chances while Liverpool defended well but often left Carroll to plough a lone furrow up front. Just before the hour mark a long punt up field had Reina rushing off his line. Worryingly, he missed the ball and Welbeck appeared to be in. Fortunately, the magnificent Martin Skrtel, who was on top form once again, covered the keeper and cleared at the critical stage.

The pivot of the match then came when Dalglish made two substitutions, replacing Carragher and Maxi with Kuyt and Adam respectively. The latter helped regain control of the middle of the park, particularly after Scholes had been substituted, while the former grabbed the late winner.

On 66 minutes Gerrard beat the wall with a free kick after Rafael had been penalised and booked for deliberately blocking Downing. De Gea did well to move across his goal and make a save. Similarly to earlier, Reina was then forced to act as a sweeper and head clear from the edge of the box with five minutes remaining after Skrtel made a rare mistake and lost a high ball in the sun.

Heading into the closing stages, a draw and a replay appeared likely, however there was always a sense that, given the backdrop to the tie, a dramatic ending could be in store. To the Reds' delight, that was the case and the drama occurred in front of the Kop. Carroll flicked Reina’s long punt up field on into the path of Kuyt. The Dutchman, who sprinted past the poorly positioned Evra, latched onto the ball and fired past De Gea, as Anfield erupted in jubilation.

It was delightfully terrible defending from Evra and De Gea and the perfect way for Kuyt to grab the winner for Liverpool. He almost added another immediately after, as Carroll's header rebounded off the woodwork and fell to the number 18, whose shot fell agonisingly wide of the post.

This superb victory rounded off a thrilling week of domestic cup action, which has provided the ideal response to last weekend's woeful performance at the Reebok Stadium. Both games saw Anfield rocking, Liverpool performing well and proving that they can compete with the top clubs in the country.

Hopefully these victories can inspire an epic cup double and, in the long term, help Liverpool to compete at the highest level week in, week out in the bread and butter of the League.


Thursday, 26 January 2012

Home draw leaves Wembley-bound fans happy

Liverpool will play at Wembley for the first time since 1996 after reaching the Carling Cup final following a 3-2 aggregate victory over title-contenders Manchester City last night.

Heading into the second-leg at an atmospheric Anfield with a 1-0 lead, Liverpool started the better but fell behind thanks to a spectacular strike from City's Nigel De Jong. Gerrard equalised with a controversially awarded penalty and after the restart the hosts were in the ascendancy once again. Nonetheless, Dzeko levelled the score on aggregate with a second potentially decisive away goal for the Citizens, before former City striker Craig Bellamy saw his exquisite strike send his new side into their first domestic cup final in six years, where he will face his hometown team Cardiff City.

After Saturday's bitterly disappointing 3-1 defeat away to Bolton Wanderers, Dalglish was scathing in his criticism of the players, declaring them unfit to wear the shirt and demanding an instant response against City. Nevertheless, the Scot only made two changes to the starting line-up from the weekend, as Downing and Kuyt replaced Maxi and Carroll respectively.

Fortunately, the players responded and produced a much-improved performance, which warranted the Wembley cup final place it secured. The Reds began dominant, Joe Hart making an excellent early stop with his legs from Enrique's stabbed close range effort before Stewart Downing flashed wildly wide. Adam's crisp strike was then well held by the England stopper, before Bellamy evaded Stefan Savic's challenge and struck goalwards, calling Hart into action once again.

It had been one-way traffic towards Joe Hart's Anfield Road end net throughout the opening exchanges, with Nasri's wayward effort the best the visitors could come up with. Nigel De Jong's world-class goal, therefore, came completely against the run of play on the half hour mark. The Dutch karate kid was stretching to even reach Silva's square pass yet somehow managed to dispatch a dipping shot past the helpless Reina and into the top corner of the net to give City the lead out of the blue.

That sucker-punch could have taken the wind out of Liverpool's sails and handed the initiative to Mancini's men, yet thankfully Dalglish's men displayed determination to regain their aggregate lead, and did so in contentious circumstances five minutes before the break.

Micah Richards blocked Agger's goalbound effort with his foot, only for it to deflect upwards and hit his hand. Referee Phil Dowd provoked outrage from the City supporters and players by pointing to the penalty spot.

Admittedly, it was a harsh decision. Although Richards was clearly risking conceding a penalty by raising his hands in the box in the manner that he did, with the benefit of TV replays it was obviously harsh to penalise Richards for such an offence. Of course, Dowd didn't have access to those replays at the time, but if the situation had been reversed and the penalty had been given against Liverpool in similar circumstances then I would have been outraged. Nevertheless, Gerrard stood up and saw his impressive strike beat Hart for pace, putting the Reds back in control of the contest.

That stroke of luck gave Liverpool the impetus to come out from the half time interval reinvigorated and start the second half on top. Despite Argentine forward Sergio Aguero replacing Stefan Savic, who was clearly out of his depth, at half time, the visitors struggled to pose a serious attacking threat and remained far too open at the back for Mancini's liking.

On 47 minutes Kuyt's shot drew a decent save from Hart, before the 24-year old displayed razor-sharp reflexes to expertly tip Skrtel's goalwards prod over the bar. He than thwarted Downing's far post volley from the influential Kuyt's cross, as Liverpool continued to pile on the pressure.

By this stage, the game was beginning to resemble the League encounter here in November, as it appeared to be Joe Hart vs. Liverpool FC yet again. Frustratingly, the second half also mirrored the first, as, after dominating early on, Liverpool fell behind again on 67 minutes when Kolarov's whipped cross travelled dangerously across the face of the goal and was turned in by the unmarked Edin Dzeko at the far post.

The similarities fortunately continued further, as the home side levelled on the night and claimed the lead on aggregate with 14 minutes remaining. After Lescott had originally sliced a clearance into the stand, the resulting throw in found Kuyt, who
ran with the ball valiantly before picking out Bellamy. The ever-energetic Welsh striker neatly exchanged passes with Johnson before firing low beyond Hart and into the bottom left hand corner.

It was a well worked and fully deserved goal from the number 39, who was a constant source of menace to the City defence throughout last night's match. Alongside Dirk Kuyt, who also put in one of his best performances of the season, the pair ran City's backline ragged and reaped the rewards.

With time running out City mounted their first and final assault on Reina's goal. Adam Johnson called the Spanish keeper into action before Agger intervened to block Dzeko's shot. In injury time Aguero's acrobatic effort was comfortably collected by Reina and City could muster little else, as the final whistle blew and the celebrations began.

After such a long time away from Wembley, it is fantastic to be heading down there at the first possible opportunity in the season. Throughout this exciting Carling Cup campaign Dalglish has treated the competition with plenty of respect, regularly selecting strong starting elevens and consequently recording five consecutive away victories, including at the Britannia Stadium, Stamford Bridge and Eastlands, which are all tough places to visit.

The Reds are now firm favourites to beat Cardiff City in the final and claim their eigth League Cup success in their esteemed history. They must not be complacent, though, as Arsenal were defeated in the final by Birmingham, who went on to be relegated, last season and Dalglish's men do not want to suffer the same outcome this time around.

Nevertheless, Liverpool were fantastic last night and have every reason to be optimistic ahead of the FA Cup 4th round tie with City's Manchester rivals United on Saturday.

For once, we are all happy after a home draw!


Sunday, 22 January 2012

Bolton blues for woeful Reds

Liverpool suffered a major setback in the fight for fourth yesterday as the Reds fell to a disappointing 3-1 defeat away to relegation threatened Bolton Wanderers in a performance that infuriated manager Kenny Dalglish described as the worst of the season.

A poor display from the back four, who have been the bedrock of the side so far this season, cost us dearly as mistakes in defence could be cited as reasons for conceding all three goals. Mark Davies strolled through the middle of our defence to bag the opener, before Eagles was allowed far too much time to play in Reo-Coker, who duly dispatched the ball beyond Reina unchallenged from close range. Bellamy pulled a goal back before the break, however quickly after the restart Steinsson swept home Bolton's third to quash any hopes of a Red recovery.

Daniel Agger, Craig Bellamy, Andy Carroll and Maxi Rodriguez all returned to the starting line-up as Liverpool looked to extend their winning streak at the Reebok Stadium to five straight games. Unfortunately, the visitors started slowly, conceded early and consequently never appeared likely to take anything from a game they were expected to comfortably collect all three points from.

Only three minutes in former Reds striker David Ngog flicked the ball into the path of Mark Davies, who dribbled right through the centre of our disorganised defence and stabbed a low effort into the bottom corner of the net.

Moments later Jose Enrique, a renowned and reliable left back, lost possession to Chris Eagles in the left back position. The Spaniard desperately tried to recover however the former Manchester United youth team player muscled past him and flashed a threatening shot across the face of goal. It marked the end of a worrying start for the away side and, in particular, their defence.

You know your defence is off form when Jose Enrique is struggling.

Liverpool were almost offered a route back into the contest after 27 minutes when Charlie Adam's free kick into the box struck Carroll and bounced against the hand of Zat Knight. Frustratingly, referee Kevin Friend refused to point to the spot, despite TV replays showing that Knight moved his hand towards the ball, indicating that it was an intentional offence and a penalty should have been awarded.

To add insult to injury, Nigel Reo-Coker doubled Bolton's lead on the half hour mark. Inadequate midfield cover gave Eagles plenty of space to pick out the 27-year old, who ghosted past the Reds' defence and into space, where he finished past Reina from close range. It was another example of the hosts taking advantage of some woeful defending from the Merseysiders, who were outclassed throughout the first period.

Nevertheless, Craig Bellamy, as he has so often this campaign, gave the away side a glimmer of hope heading into the interval, latching onto Carroll's flick on, beating the Bolton defence for pace and then delicately slotting past the out-rushing Bogdan and into the net to reduce the arrears. There was still time for Bogdan to stop Gerrard's left footed drive but Bolton ended appropriately in the ascendancy, Martin Petrov's strike bringing out the best in Reina after David Ngog went down easily under a challenge from Adam.

The second half began as disastrously as the first. Five minutes after the restart Steinsson restored the home side's two-goal cushion, reacting quickest to sweep a low volley into the corner of the net after former Middlesbrough centre back David Wheater had headed Petrov's deep corner back across goal.

Liverpool's attempt to mount a comeback was pitifully poor. Kuyt and Downing replaced Maxi and Adam respectively on 65 minutes but they added very little to our attack and we never really looked like getting back into the game at any point. Carroll was virtually anonymous as he continued to struggle to recapture the form he displayed for Newcastle that led Kenny Dalglish to splurge a whopping £35 million on him.

Twenty minutes from time Daniel Agger struck one of his trademark drives from distance goalwards, watching his shot clip the top of the cross bar and fly behind for a goal kick. The effort was typically impressive from the Danish centre back, however it failed to inspire a resurgence from the Reds and the game petered out to a disappointing conclusion. In the closing stages Eagles went close with a shot that deflected inches wide of the woodwork, but by that point the game was over as a contest.

With massive cup matches against Manchester City and Manchester United coming up soon, there is no doubt that some, if not most, of the players had at least one eye on next week's fixtures. It has never been the Liverpool Way to do that though and the most important match is always the next one. The Reds neglected that principle and paid the price.

We can only hope that this performance was so bad that it sparks a reaction on Wednesday evening and Saturday lunch time that sees us advance past City to the Carling Cup final and into the 5th round of the FA Cup at the expense of their local rivals.


Wednesday, 18 January 2012

Why do Liverpool keep drawing at Anfield?

Home draw. Two words which prove that familiarity, in certain circumstances at least, breeds contempt. Anfield residents have become increasingly accustomed to home draws throughout this campaign and have grown to despise them. A home draw is the most resented result, with the occasional defeat interspersed within a run of victories preferable to a seemingly endless unbeaten streak of ties.

Incessant draws at Anfield are not a new phenomenon though. Only four seasons ago, the Reds finished as runners-up to Manchester United in the Premier League title race. That 2008/2009 season saw Liverpool record the lowest number of defeats (2) without claiming the top prize. Seven home draws, a figure only surpassed by Aston Villa and the relegated Middlesbrough, were widely blamed for costing the Merseysiders their first Premier League title success and manager at the time Rafael Benitez was slated for picking overly defensive sides at Anfield.

Worryingly, Kenny Dalglish's men have already equalled that total of home draws so far this season and subsequently are slipping further behind in the race for fourth, sitting currently in seventh place behind surprise package Newcastle United. As home draws cost us the title in 2008/2009, they could cost us Champions League qualification this campaign.

The main cause for this irritating run of draws at Anfield is an apparent lack of firepower up front. Liverpool have only managed to score a measly 14 goals at home this season, a record that is comparable to Wolverhampton Wanderers' and beaten by Blackburn Rovers, who have been rooted to the bottom of the table for considerable spells of the season.

Despite clearly adding a spark of creativity and invention to our attack, Suarez has struggled to score in prolific numbers, while Andy Carroll is failing to fit into the Liverpool Way of playing football and his teammates have failed to fully utilise his aerial ability. The £35 million spent to secure his services seems more like a rip-off with every passing match.

Craig Bellamy has been promising and displayed plenty of potential during his frequent substitutes appearances. Nevertheless, Liverpool clearly need some reinforcements in attack to boost our goalscoring record and convert some draws into wins.

Dalglish will hopefully provide a solution to this problem by purchasing a proven goalscorer during the January transfer window, however the legendary Scot could also improve our record at Anfield by revising some of his tactics. Don't get me wrong; since King Kenny returned to the dugout the overwhelming effect has been positive. The players are performing far more entertaining football and we are no longer stuck in mid-table worrying about relegation, as we were under his predecessor Roy Hodgson. Any fans claiming that Dalglish should be sacked after this run of consecutive draws are incredibly short sighted and need a healthy dose of perspective.

Nevertheless, at times Dalglish's starting line-ups have been baffling. For example, against Stoke at Anfield on Saturday Kenny started with five at the back and Dirk Kuyt alone up front. Consequently, we did not possess the attacking firepower necessary to break down Stoke's resilient back four and suffered another stalemate. Had the previous incumbent of the Anfield dugout selected such a line-up he would have been slaughtered by supporters but Dalglish has built up so much credit with the Kop that he is exempt from criticism.

Moreover, time and time again Maxi has proven that he is an effective winger who can find the back of the net regularly, yet the Argentine remains on the bench while Stewart Downing who, although possessing crossing ability and a menacing run, has struggled to score and influenced proceedings less than Maxi, continues to be one of the first names on the team sheet.

Other factors beyond the Reds' control have also kept Liverpool continually collecting just a single point from clashes at Anfield. Visiting goalkeepers seem to have transformed into world-beaters whenever they visit Anfield. Joe Hart made some sensational saves to earn City a 1-1 draw, as did Norwich keeper Ruddy and Blackburn's stand-in stopper Mark Bunn. Former Utrecht keeper Michel Vorm, meanwhile, grabbed the headlines with an excellent save from Glen Johnson's last gasp effort to secure a 0-0 draw for Swansea in early November.

Moreover, Liverpool have had terrible luck throughout the campaign, hitting the woodwork more times than any other team in the division, chipping off the paint of the woodwork for the 18th time versus Newcastle United in the last game of 2011. Yes, hitting the bar or post is technically missing the target so you could criticise our attack but the fact that we have been so close yet so far from adding nearly 20 extra goals to our tally demonstrates very bad fortune.

There's very little the Reds can do about opposition keepers' form and hitting the post unfortunately, so Liverpool must concentrate on improving the attack, adding to our strikeforce and selecting attacking line-ups to match our enterprising style of play. Ultimately, this run of draws must come to an end and our home form must be improved radically and quickly if we are to continue to compete for a top four finish and Champions League qualification.

Anfield must become what the legendary Bill Shankly described as a 'bastion of invincibility' once again.


Sunday, 15 January 2012

Sorry Reds slip to Stoke stalemate

Liverpool drew their seventh home game of the season (and their sixth in the last eight) yesterday after they were held to a frustrating scoreless draw against Tony Pulis' Stoke City in front of 44,691 at Anfield. Lacking creative vision, guile and invention, the Reds struggled and ultimately failed to break down the Potters' resolute defence and the visitors returned home with a fully deserved point for their toil while the hosts were left to lament yet more dropped points.

Manager Kenny Dalglish selected a bewildering starting line-up, as the Reds began with five at the back and Dirk Kuyt on his own up front while record signing Andy Carroll was confusingly left to warm the bench once again. They were tactics simply not suited to defeating Stoke City at home and only the 60-year old's stellar reputation kept him from serious criticism. The outrage would have been noticeable, though, had former Reds boss Roy Hodgson selected a similar starting line-up. Meanwhile, former Liverpool forward Peter Crouch started for Stoke.

Only three minutes in Matthew Etherington scuffed a shot wide after good work from Walters down the right wing, before the ex-Spurs and West Ham winger embarked on a 20-yard run unchallenged right through the middle of the park, eventually calling Reina into action with a crisp strike from the edge of the box. The best chance for the Merseysiders during the opening exchanges saw Adam annoyingly fail to turn in Gerrard's corner at the far post.

The Reds were finding it increasingly difficult to penetrate Stoke's resilient defensive wall and resorted to pot shots from range as the first period progressed. Downing unleashed a 30-yard drive that glided over the bar, Gerrard was hugely optimistic as he struck from a similar distance and also failed to test Thomas Sorensen before Jordan Henderson skipped cleverly past Whelan but weakly shot towards goal and saw Stoke's Danish stopper comfortably collect the ball.

At the interval, some stern words must have been said in the home dressing room and a response was certainly required as the first 45 minutes were not of the requisite quality. Unfortunately, there was little evidence of any significant change in the second half as Liverpool continued to labour in vain while Stoke remained typically firm at the back. Sorensen remained relatively untroubled, Johnson cutting in from the right wing five minutes after the restart but shooting wide of target with his left foot.

Shortly before the hour mark £35 million man Andy Carroll replaced ineffective winger Stewart Downing, whose automatic place on the team sheet must be threatened by Maxi Rodriguez, who has proved his goalscoring ability when afforded a rare opportunity so far this season. The tall Geordie striker was subsequently the target of Stoke's defence, with the likes of Shawcross and Huth repeatedly manhandling Carroll at set pieces yet escaping punishment from, you guessed it, Howard Webb!

Stoke's only sight of goal in the second half arrived on 67 minutes when Walters intercepted Henderson's pass intended for Gerrard but fired high and wide of Reina's goal. The returning Jamie Carragher also made a vital interception to deny Dean Whitehead, although apart from that the Potters were content to constrain and frustrate their hosts.

With 17 minutes remaining Craig Bellamy came on in place of Henderson and immediately added a desperately needed extra dimension to our attack, as he has done so often since signing from Manchester City on a free transfer at the end of the summer. The Welsh striker floated a fine cross towards the back post, where Kuyt managed to connect but sent the ball into the side netting. Moments earlier the Dutchman had squandered the best opportunity of the match, agonisingly watching his diving header from Enrique's left wing cross fall just the wrong side of Sorensen's post.

The final goalscoring opportunity of the game came when Bellamy whipped a corner into the mixer and Skrtel header into the ground, the ball consequently bouncing inches over Stoke's bar and into the Kop.

Liverpool's frustration was perhaps typified when Adam attempted and failed to lob Sorensen from the halfway line in an Alonso-esque fashion. How we could have done with a player possessing Alonso's passing ability to unlock the away side's defence yesterday! For once we could not claim to have created chances but simply failed to convert them. Throughout the course of the 90 minutes we had only five attempts on target, a measly figure for any side with top four aspirations.

It was a very disappointing day for everybody connected with the club and much better will be expected, and demanded, when we entertain Manchester City in our next home match on the 25th January. Although a draw will be enough on that occasion to see the Reds advance to the Carling Cup final, Liverpool must break this stifling run of home draws that is halting our progress and calling Kenny's tactical acumen into question.

Seven draws from eleven home matches is simply nowhere near good enough and Dalglish and co. must work to reverse this decline as soon as possible if Champions League qualification is to remain a realistic goal.


Thursday, 12 January 2012

Stevie strike takes Reds one step closer to Wembley

Liverpool took a big step towards appearing at the new Wembley stadium for the first time last night after Steven Gerrard's 13th minute spot kick secured a 1-0 aggregate lead over Manchester City to take into the second leg of the Carling Cup semi-final contest in just under a fortnight's time.

An assured and professional performance from the Merseysiders saw them dominate the opening stages and claim the initiative after bagging an early away goal. Dalglish's men then retreated noticeably during the second half and shut up shop, defending resolutely to hold onto what is a crucial and unexpected victory.

Surprisingly, Jose Enrique dropped to the bench and was replaced by Martin Kelly, with Glen Johnson moving to right back. The promising 21-year old performed well, though, except for one back pass that almost allowed Aguero to equalise for the hosts. Craig Bellamy began against his former employers while Steven Gerrard made his first start in the competition since October 2007, when he was again on target against Cardiff City.

Conventionally in the 4-2-3-1 system Dalglish prefers, Gerrard operates in a central attacking role behind the main striker. Instead, last night he partnered Spearing (and then Adam) in protecting the back four while Henderson played further forward. This allowed the influential skipper to escape the attentions of the combative Nigel De Jong and gave him more time and space to pull the strings from a deep lying starting position, which he did superbly.

In the recent League fixture between the two teams, Liverpool began brightly but failed to convert a gilt-edged opportunity and subsequently fell behind, struggling to recover from then on. This time, the Reds similarly started in the ascendancy, keeping possession and creating chances. The crucial difference was that last night our encouraging opening play was capped off with a goal.

Four minutes in Downing's clever pass allowed Carroll a clear run and shot at goal, but Joe Hart was out typically quickly to block the effort with his boots. The City and England keeper was then called into action again soon after, Gerrard forcing him to make a full stretch save to turn his excellent curled effort around the base of the post. The number eight's resulting corner picked out Stewart Downing in space and Hart displayed world-class reflexes to instinctively get a hand to the former Villa winger's deflected volley.

At this stage it was beginning to seem like Liverpool vs. Joe Hart rather than Liverpool vs. Manchester City. As has been an incredibly irritating recurring theme throughout the course of the campaign, the Reds were once again coming up against a keeper in top form. Thankfully, on 13 minutes Hart was beaten. Another corner from Gerrard went to Agger, who was fouled in the box by Stefan Savic. Referee Lee Mason correctly pointed to the spot and Stevie stood up to direct a fantastic penalty into the bottom left hand corner just beyond the grasp of Hart.

On 23 minutes Jay Spearing had to be replaced by Charlie Adam after he pulled up with a tight hamstring. Fortunately, after the match Dalglish confirmed that the injury was not serious and shouldn't significantly halt his recent progress, which has seen the diminutive midfield man start four consecutive matches.

Carroll had Hart scrambling across the goal line 10 minutes before the break after his glancing header from Kelly's cross fell just wide of the target. City came back into the game towards the end of the first period, with Reina doing well to turn Nasri's shot wide and Milner wastefully firing over when well placed after Micah Richards had surged ominously past Johnson and pulled the ball back from the by-line.

Liverpool went into the break satisfied following a good performance and with an even better scoreline. Manchester City, meanwhile, must have received a rollicking from manager Roberto Mancini, who cannot have been happy with such a below-par display from his pampered millionaires.

On 56 minutes they were gifted an excellent opportunity to equalise in what was a real let off for Liverpool. Unsure what to do, Martin Kelly attempted a long back pass to Reina. Unfortunately, the ball went straight to the unnoticed Aguero, who attempted to round the Spanish keeper. Reina remained big and did enough to ensure the eventual shot found the side netting and not the Reds' net.

Reina was involved again moments later, producing a top quality instinctive stop to block Richards' goalbound header from Nasri's corner.

On the hour mark left back Jose Enrique replaced left winger Stewart Downing, representing a definite shift towards focusing on restricting City and holding on to our advantage, as the visitors went to five at the back, with some initial confusion from Glen Johnson as to where Dalglish wanted him to play. Nonetheless, Johnson made a simply terrific tackle to take the ball away from Aguero at the crucial stage in the box. The number 2 had to time the tackle perfectly otherwise he would have conceded a penalty, but thankfully he did so and City were thwarted yet again.

City were absolutely monopolising possession, claiming 75% of second half possession, yet they were missing David Silva, whose creative ingenuity may have provided the spark to unlock Liverpool's stubborn defence. The hosts were inevitably frustrated, Kolarov demonstrating this annoyance by bizarrely trying to net from a ridiculous distance. His effort unsurprisingly sailed harmlessly over the bar.

Just to confirm our defensive intentions, Jamie Carragher replaced Craig Bellamy ten minutes from time, meaning six Liverpool defenders were on the pitch at the conclusion. The Citizens' final opportunity of note saw Nasri swing the ball into the box where Aguero's close range header landed safely on the roof of the net.

Apart from that, the only talking point from the closing stages came when Glen Johnson won the ball with a two-footed sliding tackle, which closely resembled the challenge that saw City captain Vincent Kompany sent off on the weekend versus local rivals Manchester United and consequently suspended for both legs of the semi-final. Mancini hypocritically slated referee Lee Mason for not sending off Johnson in post-match media interviews, despite claiming Kompany should not have seen red against United.

For me, it is clear that both tackles were good, honest challenges, a dying breed in football unfortunately. They were clearly similar, but the point is Kompany was wrong to see red so it was right that Johnson didn't because both tackles were very alike.

Nevertheless, Johnson will be available for selection for the second leg, when Liverpool will look to build on this tremendous foundation and secure a place in their first domestic cup final in five years. Before kick-off I would have accepted a draw or even a narrow defeat so to claim a 1-0 victory is fantastic and puts us in pole position in the tie.


Saturday, 7 January 2012

Reds recover from Oldham scare to secure 4th round place

Liverpool recovered from an early scare to secure a safe passage through to the fourth round of the FA Cup last night. League One side Oldham Athletic arrived at Anfield as overwhelming underdogs, yet they were on top in the opening stages and their dominance culminated in Robbie Simpson giving them a deserved lead 28 minutes in. Fortunately, Liverpool responded quickly and went in at the break 2-1 ahead thanks to a deflected goal off Craig Bellamy and Gerrard's well-struck penalty. Jonjo Shelvey and Stewart Downing then netted their first goals for the Reds in the second half, while Andy Carroll also bagged a confidence-boosting goal.

As expected, manager Kenny Dalglish made several changes to the side that were comprehensively defeated by Manchester City on Tuesday night, with the entire back four changed and Maxi and Bellamy handed starts on the wings. Meanwhile, club captain Steven Gerrard made his first start since October, as he continues his recovery from injury.

Prior to kick-off the Kop sung Gary Ablett's name during a minute's applause for the former Liverpool and Everton defender who tragically died at the age of 46 on New Year's Day following a 16-month battle with non-Hodgkin's lymphoma.

With the match firmly put into perspective, Oldham began the better. After 10 minutes former Ipswich and Newcastle striker Shefki Kuqi stole possession from Coates, navigated past Carra and was through on goal with a great chance to give the visitors an early lead. He hit the side netting to the relief of the Reds. The Latics kept attacking though, as Adeyemi headed a corner inches wide before Taylor danced past Aurelio, exchanged passes with Kuqi and almost fired Oldham in front. The breakthrough eventually arrived shortly before the half hour mark, when Simpson's sweetly struck left footed half volley from 25-yards gave Oldham a shock lead.

Up to that point Liverpool had been lethargic and had failed to establish a foothold in a game they were expected to win with ease. If the match had continued in the manner in which it began, the Merseysiders would have suffered their most humiliating home ground humbling of the season. Thankfully, the old and wise adage that a team is at their most vulnerable straight after scoring proved apt and Oldham's opening goal summoned up a response from the rattled hosts, who quickly equalised when Shelvey's shot was deflected past goalkeeper Cisak by Bellamy. The reply certainly had an element of good fortune to it, but the Reds didn't care. They were just delighted to be back on level terms so swiftly.

Maxi Rodriguez, who has impressed when afforded the opportunity to showcase his talent, was then involved in two goalscoring chances. First, he was thwarted by a fine save from Cisak and Bellamy slipped as he tried to connect with the rebound. Then, after putting Cisak under heavy pressure the keeper's kick hit him and ricocheted into the box, where Bellamy looked to take advantage but could only head into the grateful keeper's arms.

Liverpool were now firmly on top and confirmed their dominance on the stroke of half time, when Gerrard superbly placed a penalty into the top right hand corner of the Anfield Road end net after Maxi had been pushed in the area by Adeyemi.

Following a worrying start to the match, Liverpool had recovered and went in at the interval with the lead and the momentum. With only one goal separating the sides, though, the contest was by no means over.

M'Voto and Bellamy went close at either end in a lively start to the second period, before Cisak produced a superb save on 58 minutes to prevent Kelly from furthering the Reds' lead from Gerrard's left wing corner. Only 10 minutes later Liverpool clinched a third goal and put the outcome of the tie beyond doubt. The highly influential Craig Bellamy, whose impressive displays and record in front of goal have led many fans to argue that he should be handed a more regular place in the starting line-up, pulled the ball back to Shelvey, who struck with ease into the net from close range to bag his first goal for the Reds and continue the good form he returned from Blackpool with.

Dalglish then replaced Aurelio, Bellamy and Kuyt with Flanagan, Downing and Carroll, with all three substitutes playing a part in polishing off our performance with two goals in the closing moments. First, Andy Carroll lashed home his first goal at Anfield from the edge of the box.

Flanagan's strike was then well stopped by Cisak, but the ball fell for Downing, who shot high into the net from close range to finally open his goalscoring account.

The 5-1 scoreline perhaps paints a slightly biased picture of the match. Oldham proved formidable opponents and certainly did themselves and their supporters proud, with their brave attacking start to the match proving fruitful and befitting the FA Cup third round. Liverpool did enough to get through and scored five goals to satisfy the majority of the 44,556 supporters in attendance.

Unfortunately, a moronic minority of those supporters stole the headlines for all the wrong reasons. Oldham defender Tom Adeyemi broke down in tears towards the end of the match after an idiot in the Kop end hurled racial abuse at the 20-year old Norwich loanee.

The incident is under investigation by the club and Merseyside police, although nobody has been arrested yet. It will inevitably mar Liverpool's usually sterling reputation, particularly in the wake of the Luis Suarez saga.

The unpleasant event spoiled what was an entertaining cup-tie.


Friday, 6 January 2012

What do Liverpool need in the January transfer window?

The January shopping season has arrived and football certainly isn't immune to the almost obsessive search for a bargain. Ever since its advent in 2002, the January transfer window has seen massive transfers take place for big money. Take last January for example, when a whopping £107 million changed hands in the space of 24 hours, as Fernando Torres was replaced with Luis Suarez and Andy Carroll on deadline day.

Others, though, take a rather more cautious approach to the January transfer window arguing, with some justification, that it is notoriously difficult to find top quality players willing to leave their clubs at that point in the season and, if you can, the price is normally hugely inflated, as evidenced by the massive fee of £35 million spent to secure the services of Andy Carroll from Newcastle United last January.

This January, Liverpool manager Kenny Dalglish looks to be adopting the latter approach, with little talk of overhauling the squad compared to the summer, when the legendary Scot made substantial and necessary changes, as numerous players left and arrived at Anfield. Nevertheless, Dalglish has demonstrated that he is willing and able to spend money when required and appears likely to dabble in the transfer market to make slight improvements to his squad.

His priority surely must be signing another goalscorer. After deciding against appealing Luis Suarez's eight game ban for racially abusing Manchester United defender Patrice Evra, King Kenny is left with only two other striking options; Andy Carroll and Dirk Kuyt.

The former has been burdened with a massive price tag and has subsequently felt the full force of the pressure that is involved in playing for Liverpool FC. He has also struggled to adapt to the Reds' style of play, which is understandable considering the amount of time he has spent warming the substitutes' bench. As a result, he has netted a paltry total of two goals in the Premier League. The latter, meanwhile, has faced pressure for his position on the right wing from Jordan Henderson and has only occasionally appeared up front. Following years of sterling service and a guaranteed place in the starting eleven, Kuyt is no longer one of the first names on the team sheet and Dalglish appears to be attempting to slowly replace 31-year old Kuyt with younger blood.

Liverpool's main problem so far this season has been a lack of goals. At the back we are rarely conceding, with the Reds claiming the second stingiest defence in the League behind title favourites Manchester City, but up front we are regularly creating countless chances but finding converting them much more difficult. We appear to need, therefore, another striker both to cover for Suarez in the short-term and also to provide added firepower to our attack in the long-term.

Transfer speculation has suggested that Aston Villa's Darren Bent could be the subject of a January bid from Liverpool. Bent has a deserved reputation for prolific goalscoring. Upon his arrival in the Midlands in January 2011, he secured the winner on his debut against Manchester City, before going on to bag a further nine goals in 16 League appearances. During previous spells at Tottenham and Sunderland he achieved 17 and 25 goals in a season respectively, illustrating his credentials as a goalscoring centre forward.

Bent is also English and has extensive experience of the Premier League, which fits in with the type of player that the club purchased in the summer and are looking to build the squad around.

Unfortunately, though, Bent won't come cheap. Aston Villa paid Sunderland a club record fee of £18 million, with the potential for that fee to increase to £24 million if he makes a certain number of appearances, which means that they are unlikely to accept anything less than £20 million for Bent's services. On the flip side, of course, Villa could be willing to offload their number nine now if the price is right so that they avoid paying an additional £6 million to Martin O'Neil's new club.

There has also been talk of Fernando Torres returning to the club only a year after he left for a record breaking £50 million. Since moving to Stamford Bridge the Spanish striker has seriously struggled to find any semblance of form and has completely lost his confidence in front of goal. There have been tentative moments where it was thought the Torres of old might emerge again, however those Blue dreams have been promptly distinguished. This was epitomised in Chelsea's 4-1 victory over Swansea at the end of September, when Torres scored but was later sent off for a rash two-footed tackle. Manager Andre Villas-Boas has also began selecting 22-year old Daniel Sturridge, who was on-loan at Bolton Wanderers last season, ahead of Torres, demonstrating his fall from grace. It therefore appears that Liverpool sold Torres at his peak value in what is now deemed an amazing deal for the Merseysiders and a stupid waste of Roman's Russian roubles for the London side.

Torres' return to Anfield remains incredibly unlikely due to the controversial manner in which he left and the fact that he broke several promises he made to the fans and therefore lost all trust and support he had previously received from them in abundance. Nonetheless, it must be remembered that he was at his best when combining with Steven Gerrard and, if the pair could re-ignite their relationship and also link up with Luis Suarez, an explosive attacking combination could be created. For me, to be accepted back at the club Torres would have to issue a full and frank apology to the fans and Chelsea would have to accept a price of lower than £20 million because he clearly is worth nowhere near as much as they paid for him.

Liverpool also need to buy a genuine right winger. Up to this stage of the campaign, Dalglish has mainly selected Jordan Henderson or Maxi Rodriguez on the right hand side of midfield. This strategy has borne little fruit, as the former is clearly much better in the middle of the park, while the latter is useful as an impact player and is acquainted with the back of the net but lacks the crossing ability needed to fully utilise the height of Andy Carroll.

Stewart Downing has provided width and crossing ability on the left but, while it's always better to have one rather than none, the Reds must be looking for another decent winger in the transfer window. Admittedly they are rare these days and FSG may have to shell out a fair bit of cash to sign one, but, nonetheless, another winger would add another dimension to Liverpool's attack and provide competition for Downing who, despite impressing, has failed to find the back of the net so far.

The Reds could arguably profit from signing another central midfielder as well, considering Gerrard's niggling injuries and Lucas' absence for the foreseeable future. However, with Adam, Henderson, Shelvey and Spearing sufficient cover already exists and they should be given the opportunity to prove their worth and cement a place in the side.

Overall, relatively little work needs to be done in the transfer market, with a few sensible additions in certain departments required, rather than a radical overhaul of the squad. That fact just goes to show how well Comolli and co. did in the summer in securing several impressive signings and demonstrates how far Liverpool have come since the dark days of Roy Hodgson's reign, when massive investment in the squad was desperately needed.


Wednesday, 4 January 2012

Reds swept away by City

Liverpool suffered a disappointing setback yesterday after falling to a 3-0 defeat to Premier League forerunners Manchester City at Eastlands. The Reds were comprehensively outclassed by their multi-billionaire opponents, who remained in control from when Reina gifted Sergio Aguero a goal in the tenth minute onwards. Former Barcelona man Yaya Toure doubled the hosts’ lead just past the half hour mark and, despite Barry's dismissal offering a glimmer of hope, Milner's 75th minute penalty quashed all suggestions of a dramatic comeback from the visitors.

Prior to kick-off Liverpool rather confusingly released a statement explaining that they weren't going to appeal Luis Suarez's eight-match ban for racially abusing Manchester United left back Patrice Evra, despite remaining adamant that the Uruguayan is innocent of all charges. As a result, Suarez's ban began last night and he was omitted from the squad, Dutchman Dirk Kuyt partnering Andy Carroll up front in his place.

Moreover, club captain Steven Gerrard and on-form Welsh winger Craig Bellamy were left on the bench. Dalglish was understandably being cautious with Gerrard following his horrendous fortune with injuries recently, however leaving out Bellamy, who netted twice against Newcastle and has been a menace to many opposition defences so far this season, was a harder decision to defend.

Liverpool began the match brightly but crucially missed a gilt-edged opportunity only seven minutes in. Downing was played clean through on the City goal but the number 19, anxious to net his first goal for his new club, squandered a great chance, seeing Hart stop his low shot. A terrible error from Pepe Reina soon after handed City the all-important first goal and the initiative. Aguero stole possession from Dirk Kuyt and his innocuous shot from distance inexplicably ended up in the back of the net after Reina dived over the ball.

It was a poor mistake from the Spanish keeper, who was visibly frustrated with himself immediately afterwards. Somewhat unusually, Reina has failed to hit the heights of form he has achieved in previous seasons and the Reds' impressive defensive record owes more to finally having a settled back four rather than their keeper's form.

City continued to pile on the pressure, Dzeko's shot rolling just the right side of the post after taking a wicked deflection mid-way through the half. Liverpool mustered a response of sorts, Adam's well-drilled effort being turned away to safety by Hart and Henderson firing wide, however the Citizens remained in the ascendancy. On the half hour mark Reina made a great stop to turn over Kompany's header, however City struck three minutes later, when another corner came in and this time Yaya Toure escaped Johnson's attention and headed into the net via the underside of the bar.

Silly individual mistakes and a failure to place the home side under a sustained spell of pressure meant that Liverpool went in at the interval with a mountain to climb. Nevertheless, the Reds started the second half brightly and were further inspired by the introduction of Gerrard and Bellamy soon after the restart, with the pair providing an instant boost of energy and purpose.

Unfortunately, though, goalscoring chances were few and far between. Bellamy cut inside onto his right foot and dragged a shot wide but otherwise Hart remained relatively untroubled. The catalyst for a late Liverpool push for a point could have came on 73 minutes when England international Gareth Barry was sent off for a second bookable offence following fouls on Spearing and Agger.

Frustratingly, and rather remarkably, the game didn't swing in Liverpool's favour. Instead, only moments later City put the outcome of the contest beyond doubt, James Milner driving a penalty past Reina and high into the net after Skrtel had felled Toure in the area, causing referee Mike Jones to point to the spot. Manchester City manager Roberto Mancini courted the headlines for flashing an imaginary red card in a vain attempt to get the Slovakian dismissed, however sending Skrtel off would have been incredibly harsh considering Toure was clearly looking for the decision. A penalty was fair; a red would have been punitive.

Adam Johnson almost added a fourth as he curled an effort against the woodwork. Had he netted the scoreline would have been identical to that of the Tottenham match, when Liverpool last played this poorly. Amazingly, the Reds claimed 64% of possession yet were comfortably beaten by a City side who were fair more clinical in front of goal. Both sides had six shots on target yet Liverpool rarely seriously tested Hart while City scored with 50% of those efforts.

There's little Liverpool can take from this humbling experience except for the small consolation that Steven Gerrard got more minutes out on the pitch. The Merseysiders' must now pick themselves up and progress past Oldham in the FA Cup on Friday, before returning to Eastlands next Wednesday to face Manchester City once again in the first leg of the Carling Cup semi-final. Hopefully on that occasion Dalglish's side will improve on this display and secure a positive result to take back to Anfield for the second leg.