Monday, 27 February 2012

Liverpool lift League Cup after roller coaster final

Liverpool won their first trophy in six years and lifted the League Cup for a record eighth time yesterday after their first appearance at the new Wembley saw them triumph on penalties over Malky Mackay's Cardiff City side.

The Bluebirds took the lead in an enjoyable and entertaining contest, before the imperious Martin Skrtel equalised and super sub Dirk Kuyt looked to have won it for the Reds in extra time. Not to be denied, Ben Turner salvaged a penalty shootout with a last gasp strike for the Championship side. An eventful and nerve-racking shootout was decided by Gerrard; not Steven but cousin Anthony, whose decisive spot kick rolled past Pepe Reina's post to hand Liverpool the Carling Cup in enthralling fashion.

Many expected manager Kenny Dalglish to start with boyhood Cardiff supporter Craig Bellamy, however instead he handed starting berths to Andy Carroll and Luis Suarez up front, while Henderson and Downing began on the wings and Gerrard partnered Adam in the centre of midfield.

The Reds were strong favourites heading into the contest thanks to their sensational run of away victories against Premier League opposition throughout the competition and the fact that they were facing a team from a division below, whose League form had dropped in the build up to this showpiece occasion. When Glen Johnson curled the ball onto the crossbar only two minutes in, Liverpool's status as favourites appeared to be legitimised.

However, after Cardiff's first sight of goal saw Kenny Miller shoot high and wide, the Scot's incisive pass played Joe Mason in to give the Welsh side the lead against the run of play. Miller's through ball beat the poorly positioned Agger and Enrique, allowing the 20-year old Republic of Ireland U21 international to slide the ball beyond the helpless Reina.

At that point, the Merseysiders had enjoyed 65% of possession and Andy Carroll had peppered Tom Heaton's goal with headers, clearly showing their dominance and the unexpected nature of Cardiff's opener.

Despite conceding, Liverpool remained on top and went on to create numerous chances during the first period. On the half hour mark, Jose Enrique hesitated before curling over with his weaker right foot, and then Adam's 25-yard strike shaved the post. Front pair Luis Suarez and Andy Carroll attempted a one-two in the box that would have given the latter a gilt-edged opportunity, however he was thwarted by a brilliant last-ditch challenge from Hudson, who was performing excellently alongside Ben Turner at the back for Cardiff.

For all their opponents' impressive defending, the Reds weren't helping themselves by misfiring when in sight of goal. Two further goalscoring chances were squandered before the break. First, Henderson embarrassingly failed to connect when Downing's wonderful cross put the ball on a plate for the under-performing former Sunderland star. Then, unmarked Dane Daniel Agger headed straight at the keeper from Gerrard's top-quality floated free kick, when had he placed the ball either side of Heaton the sides would have been heading it at the interval on level terms.

Following our first half dominance and considering the amount of chances we had wasted, I had a gut-wrenching feeling at half time that it just wasn't going to be our day. Cardiff were defending too well and the worry remained that the Reds would fail to find that crucial cutting edge once again this season. My fears were nearly confirmed soon after the break when Miller lashed inches wide.

However, after Craig Bellamy replaced Jordan Henderson, Martin Skrtel regained parity for the Premier League side. Carroll leaped highest to head Downing's right wing corner towards goal and Suarez was there to turn the ball agonisingly against the post. Fortunately, centre back Skrtel reacted swiftest and finished like a striker to equalise for the Reds and delight half of the 89,044 spectators inside a typically packed Wembley.

The tough, clean shaven Slovakian celebrated comically, shoving Adam out of they way as he ran back to his position, desperate to restart the game and begin the quest for a winner. That committed and focused never say die attitude has been evident in every one of the number 37's performances this season and was crucial in helping the Reds to secure success yesterday.

Surprisingly, Skrtel almost scored the second as well, volleying into the belly of goalkeeper Tom Heaton from Charlie Adam's corner on 74 minutes. Having already found the net on four occasions during the campaign, Skrtel is not only showing his skill at the back but also displaying his predatory ability at the other end, regularly chipping it with a helpful handful of goals.

However, three minutes before the end of the 90, Skrtel lost his defensive partner, as Daniel Agger was replaced by Jamie Carragher due to a suspected broken rib. With the prospect of extra time looming large, Cardiff striker Kenny Miller missed the best opportunity to win the game in normal time. Miller found himself in an ideal position in the penalty area after he'd evaded Adam’s attention and seemed destined to burst the net.

To the Reds' relief, he fired over the bar when he should have really clinched the winner. Carroll deserves credit for lunging in the direction of the shot and thus perhaps putting Miller off enough for him to miss the opportunity and keep Liverpool in the contest.

Extra time followed much the same pattern as the second half. Liverpool controlled possession and tested Heaton frequently yet Cardiff defended resolutely and frustrated their opponents. Suarez and Carroll both headed wide and the former also saw an effort cleared off the line, however the turning point came on 103 minutes when Dirk Kuyt replaced Andy Carroll.

The Dutch striker is renowned for scoring on big occasions and he didn't disappoint. Five minutes into the second half of extra time the number 18 surged past tired Cardiff defenders. His initial shot was terrible but fortunately the ball was cleared back to him and he struck an instinctive first time effort, which sneaked inside the post and into Heaton's net.

It was an absolutely fantastic finish from Kuyt and one that was worthy of winning any Cup final. Frustratingly, it didn't do so as Cardiff responded in the dying stages.

Corners were like buses for the Bluebirds. One hadn't come throughout the previous 120 minutes, however two arrived at the death. The first set piece led to a scramble and Kuyt heading off the line. At that point, Kuyt seemed destined to be the hero of the encounter. However, the second corner reached Ben Turner, who finished through the legs of Reina and then wheeled away in celebration, whipping his top off in the heat of the moment and earning himself a booking.

Mixed emotions were prevailing heading into the penalty shootout. Cardiff's miraculous, dare I say Istanbul-esque, recovery left me feeling that their name was already written on the Carling Cup. On the other hand, Liverpool's German-like efficiency from the penalty spot left a semblance of hope.

That was nearly extinguished after the Reds' first two penalties though. Gerrard's spot kick was a good effort that brought out a world-class stop from Heaton and hence there were few complaints that could be made. Adam's penalty, conversely, was shockingly awful and reportedly remained in orbit long after the post-match celebrations had died down.

Fortunately, Miller and Gestede hit the woodwork with their penalties and Kuyt, Downing, Johnson, Cowie and Whittingham converted theirs, leaving Anthony Gerrard under enormous pressure when he stood up to take the decisive kick. It was a poor penalty from Stevie's cousin that completely missed the target.

The ensuing celebrations from the Liverpool players, management and supporters were a delight to behold and, although Cardiff certainly played very well and played their part in making a fantastic Cup final that will increase the League Cup's prestige, the Reds merited their victory.

We had 39 shots to Cardiff's 11 and enjoyed 53% of possession, as well as earning nearly 20 corner kicks, displaying the amount of pressure we put the Welsh side under.

Liverpool always seem to do it the hard way in Cup finals and give their fans unforgettable roller coaster rides that unquestionably beat any amusement at Alton Towers. However that just makes them much more exciting than the usual dull fair served up in finals and makes victory all the sweeter.


Wednesday, 22 February 2012

Reds on the road to Wembley: Carling Cup Final Preview

There is no doubt that the Carling Cup has been undervalued and undermined in recent times by big teams, including Liverpool, selecting under strength sides and appearing unconcerned about achieving progress in or being eliminated from the country's secondary domestic cup competition, instead merely viewing it as an opportunity to play some squad players and youngsters at best or a detrimental distraction at worst.

However, in the past, before the modern phenomena of massive squads and excessive rotation, the League Cup received far more respect and, historically, Liverpool have been notably successful in the competition, currently holding the record for the highest number of League Cup triumphs.

The fact that the Merseysiders had been unable to lift the League Cup for 20 years since its creation in 1960 was a source of frustration and, crucially, motivation for Bob Paisley and Joe Fagan's sides. As a result, they stormed the competition from 80/81-83/84, lifting the League Cup on a remarkable four consecutive occasions and truly stamping their unmistakable mark on the tournament.

As the League Cup has experienced a metamorphic transition from the Milk Cup that Liverpool hoisted high repeatedly in the 80s, to the Coca-Cola Cup clinched in 94/95 and then to the Worthington Cup won in 00/01 and 02/03, the Reds have achieved satisfying success in the competition.

The club's first success in the newly named Carling Cup could be secured on Sunday, under the managerial reign of Kenny Dalglish. It is perhaps not coincidental; therefore, that King Kenny was a key member of the team during the Reds' League Cup heyday in the 1980s.

The respect for and desire to win the League Cup that occurred during his playing career at Anfield has joined him in the dugout, and that has unquestionably been the driving factor behind this season's Carling Cup run.

It has inspired the legendary Scot to select strong starting line-ups throughout the campaign, from the second round tie against League One outfit Exeter City to the second leg of the semi-final versus cash-rich Premier League rivals Manchester City in front of a packed Anfield. The 60-year old has a clear desire to clinch the first cup available this season and his passion has translated into impressive performances on the pitch.

These include away victories at the Britannia Stadium, Stamford Bridge and Eastlands, places that are all difficult to go to and require exceptional performances to claim anything from. The fact that every round saw Liverpool drawn to play away from home was long lamented. However, in hindsight it was a blessing in disguise considering our below-average home form, which has been plagued with parasitic draws.

On the other hand, though, when a Carling Cup clash was finally staged at Anfield, the Reds stepped up to the plate and delivered a terrific display, which saw them comeback from behind twice to draw 2-2 with Manchester City and secure progress to the final thanks to a 3-2 aggregate victory. Although City took the lead twice, Liverpool were by far the dominant side and controlled the contest, enjoying plenty of possession and carving open numerous opportunities.

They earned the good fortune they received when referee Phil Dowd admittedly harshly pointed to the spot after Daniel Agger's shot deflected off Micah Richard's foot and onto his hand.

Liverpool now head into the Carling Cup final on Sunday as firm favourites to emerge victorious. Opponents Cardiff City, who received the support of a young Craig Bellamy, currently lie fifth in the npower Championship, which is a respectable position that leaves them likely to achieve at the very least a play-off place.

Their recent form, however, has been far from impressive. The Bluebirds have won just one of their last five fixtures, losing three, including a 0-3 reversal at Portman Road, home of Ipswich Town, on the weekend. Liverpool, conversely, enter the contest in good form after smashing six past Brighton in the FA Cup and, despite falling to a 2-1 defeat in a match rife with controversy at Old Trafford recently, have been consistently improving since their woeful 3-1 defeat away to Bolton Wanderers in the middle of January.

Nevertheless, there must not be a hint of complacency amongst the squad or supporters. Arsenal found out to their peril that underdogs can occasionally bite last season when they squandered the opportunity to claim their first domestic cup triumph since 2005 thanks to a late goal from Birmingham City's Obafemi Martins following a hilarious cock-up from the Gunners' defence.

With Johnson, Enrique, Skrtel and Agger all in arguably the best form of their respective careers and working well as a cohesive unit, the Reds' back four is undoubtedly superior to that Arsenal defence. However, Liverpool's lack of goals could be a problem. Suarez, Gerrard and Carroll will have to work effectively together to overcome this hurdle and lead Liverpool to their first Cup win in six years.

Regarding score predictions, I suspect a 2-0 victory is likely but, ultimately, any win in a Cup final is most welcome and will be accepted gratefully.

If Kenny's side display the same sort of commitment, passion and talent that the Scot showcased during his playing career and that have helped them reach this stage of the competition, then there is no reason why Liverpool cannot return to Merseyside from their first visit to the new Wembley as Carling Cup winners.


Monday, 20 February 2012

Reds hit suicidal Seagulls for six

Liverpool smashed six past Brighton and Hove Albion at Anfield yesterday to secure a place in the quarterfinals of the FA Cup, where they will host Premier League rivals Stoke City. For the first time in FA Cup history three own goals were scored in a tie by the same team, as Liam Bridcutt and Lewis Dunk had afternoons to forget. Skrtel, Suarez and Carroll scored the others, with Kazenga LuaLua's admittedly impressive strike the only response the visitors managed to muster.

It was nearly 29 years to the day since Brighton achieved a 2-1 victory at Anfield at the same stage of the FA Cup with the help of former Liverpool midfielder Jimmy Case. Perhaps more relevantly, Gus Poyet's side beat high-flying Newcastle United 1-0 in the previous round and gave the Reds a run for their money in the third round of the Carling Cup earlier in the campaign.

Kenny Dalglish thus afforded the Championship play-off contenders all due respect and began with a strong starting line-up. Steven Gerrard, Andy Carroll and Luis Suarez all started in the same game for the first time and linked up well, the latter two both finding the back of the net while the captain was influential in forcing Bridcutt to concede his second own goal of the evening.

During the opening stages the home side were in the ascendancy and they took the lead only five minutes after the kick-off. All eyes were on El-Abd as he repeatedly manhandled Andy Carroll in the box in the build-up to Gerrard's corner, yet amazingly Andre Marriner ignored the tussle and failed to penalise Brighton's number six. Nevertheless, when the skipper swung in the set piece Skrtel rose highest to head home at the near post and give Liverpool a crucial early lead.

The Seagulls responded, though, with Reina easily collecting Vokes' shot before Brighton earned a set piece in a dangerous area after Henderson, who failed to provide sufficient width throughout on the right hand side, clipped LuaLua's ankles. The brother of Blackpool player Lomana picked himself up to arrow a thumping free kick into the bottom corner to stun the Kop and equalise for the resurgent visitors.

An entertaining, end-to-end cup-tie was emerging and Brighton were holding their own but the Merseysiders remained dominant and continued to carve open goalscoring opportunities. On 20 minutes Downing played a one-two with Suarez inside the box and then attempted to hook home but his effort bounced across the face of goal.

The Uruguayan, who had received the support of compatriot and Brighton boss Gus Poyet during the Evra saga, came alive after the mid-point of the first period. The world-class Suarez, who had performed so well before the recent controversy, returned and threatened constantly. Just before the half hour mark, he glided effortlessly into the box and beat goalkeeper Brezovan with a stabbed shot but Calderon's desperate clearance off the line denied the diminutive forward.

His tall strike partner Andy Carroll then headed onto the roof of the net from Gerrard's centre when he should have done better, before the breakthrough finally arrived close to the interval. Adam's corner caused havoc in the Brighton box and eventually Johnson's header was cleared off the line, only for the ball to rebound off Bridcutt's shins and cross the line of the Anfield Road end goal.

The second half thankfully continued in the same fashion to the first, with Liverpool creating countless chances and converting a fair few of them. A little help was required from some woeful Brighton defending, but it was still pleasing to see the Reds thump a side at home instead of succumbing to yet another draw, which has been the tendency this season.

Suarez was inevitably at the heart of the action, trying and failing to chip Brezovan four minutes after the restart and then having his appeals for a penalty after Dunk appeared to handle in the area fall on deaf ears. On 57 minutes, though, a free flowing move resulted in the Reds bagging their third and effectively ensuring a positive outcome from the contest. The move ended with the noticeably improved Stewart Downing squaring to Carroll, whose superb finish from 12 yards resembled the type of finishing displayed during his time in the North East at Newcastle.

It was only his sixth goal of the season and, remarkably, Downing's first assist of the campaign, which reveals the poor form they have undeniable been experiencing. However, the pair performed significantly better yesterday, with Downing in particular making a credible claim for a starting berth in next Sunday's Carling Cup final against Cardiff City.

For all the hosts' brilliance, the visitors certainly didn't help themselves with some calamitous defending costing them dearly. This was evident twenty minutes from time when Alan Navarro, who was born close to Anfield and played for the Reds' reserves, embarrassingly failed to deal with Henderson's looped ball, allowing Gerrard to get in behind Brighton's defence and strike goalwards from a tight angle. It was a similar position to his goal against Newcastle in December, however this time it found the net thanks to a diversion off Bridcutt, who could do nothing to stop scoring his second own goal of the encounter.

The defending of the humorously named Dunk was even worse three minutes later when he made a mess of trying to clear a cross. He had plenty of time and space but attempted to clear using his chest and thigh. The result was a humiliating howler from the number 5 and Liverpool's fourth goal, three of which had been own goals.

King Kenny then made a triple substitution, swapping Downing, Henderson and Gerrard for Maxi, Kuyt and Shelvey respectively. The Dutchman was involved in the action almost immediately, boyhood Liverpool fan Noone bringing him down in the area and subsequently conceding a spot kick.

Wanting to increase his confidence, Dalglish made sure that Suarez took the penalty. Unfortunately, his confidence may well have fallen as a result of Brezovan easily saving his poor penalty, which went straight down the middle and failed to test the Czechoslovakian keeper. Nevertheless, a goal to round off the action after 84 minutes atoned for his earlier error and rewarded Suarez's encouraging and exciting display. It was also pleasing to witness him link up with Carroll, who headed Enrique's cross back across goal for Suarez to nod home.

A streaker invading the pitch in injury time and hugging Jamie Carragher left the crowd in hysterics and provided an entertaining conclusion to what was a hugely enjoyable FA Cup tie.

Liverpool may not have deserved the margin of victory they secured, however they certainly performed well, dominating possession and carving Brighton's defence open repeatedly. They managed an impressive 28 shots, 15 of which were on target, and found the back of the net six times. Finally the Reds have smashed a team for six at Anfield and hopefully this victory should signal the death of the frustrating home draw.

This display and result provides the perfect confidence boost ahead of the Carling Cup final and after last week's defeat at Old Trafford. Moreover, with Stoke City travelling to Anfield in March for the next round of this competition, Liverpool will be firm favourites to progress and could be visiting Wembley yet again this season.

There is no reason why; with a bit of good fortune and a lot of hard work, Liverpool cannot complete a domestic cup double.


Sunday, 12 February 2012

Behind enemy lines

It was a day of firsts. The first time I wore smart trousers and a shirt to a football match. The first time I drank so much alcohol so early in the morning. The first time I ate a substantial and tasty four-course meal before kick off. The first time I experienced hospitality as a VIP 'behind enemy lines' at Old Trafford.

Prawn sandwiches 'n' all.

After baulking at the ludicrous price of hospitality at Anfield, my dad managed to acquire two free tickets to be wined and dined as a VIP at Manchester United vs. Liverpool from my generous and helpful next-door neighbour. We gratefully snapped them up and travelled north early Saturday morning, reaching Manchester at 10:00 am.

For just under three hours we enjoyed exquisite food and good company, even from the United fans on our table, who remarkably identified me as a Red minutes after arriving thanks to the Hillsborough wristband I was wearing. The conversation was amicable and the banter good-natured, nevertheless, and at 12:45 pm all eyes were on the football.

Well, they were supposed to be at least.

In reality, though, everybody was focused on the pre-match handshake that the FA had unwisely refused to scrap. Except me, that is, because, sat on the other side of the stadium, I didn't witness the debacle that occurred. After watching the incident again, though, it is clear that the media have painted a story hugely different to the reality. This is Anfield explains what actually happened here.

For me, Evra was equally to blame for the handshake incident, if not more culpable. Replays made it patently clear that he withdrew his hand as Suarez offered his, and then grabbed the Uruguayan’s hand to supposedly make a point. Cynically, you could claim that the Frenchman set up the incident to make Suarez appear even more of a racist. Personally, I believe that, understandably, neither of them wanted to shake the other's hand.

One thing's for sure, Evra is nowhere near as innocent as the media have portrayed him to be and Suarez certainly doesn't deserve the widespread and hypocritical condemnation he has received from the media and Manchester United alike.

Ironically, when the football finally began, Evra, Suarez and Ferdinand (who refused to shake Suarez's hand) were all involved in a collision, which nearly left Ferdinand injured as he fell awkwardly. Suarez came out best from that contest and appeared to be through on goal but unfortunately the move fizzled out and the chance had gone.

Nonetheless, Liverpool started the match the brighter and had their best opportunity of the match 10 minutes in. A brilliant, free-flowing move from the visitors culminated in Suarez feeding Johnson and the marauding right back cutting inside and shaping to shoot left footed inches wide of De Gea's goal.

Unfortunately, United then came back into the match and claimed the ascendancy. Welbeck got a faint touch on Rafael's shot but Reina managed to make a save, before Rooney dragged a shot wide after Agger had been sloppy in possession. Fine play from the hosts on the half hour mark crafted a gilt-edged goalscoring opportunity for Paul Scholes.

The 37-year old, who recently returned from retirement to help United endure their injury crisis, picked out fellow golden oldie Ryan Giggs on the left wing. The Welsh winger's subsequent cross found Scholes in the box and United's number 22 drew an impressive and instinctive stop from Reina with a free header.

The Reds replied shortly before the interval, Skrtel volleying just over the bar from a corner kick. On the stroke of half time, an encouraging counter-attack saw Suarez glide past Evra like he wasn't there before streaming through on goal. Only a last ditch challenge from Ferdinand stopped him heading in one-on-one with De Gea.

Suarez complained bitterly at referee Phil Dowd for not awarding a free kick and potentially sending Ferdinand off, and expressed this frustration by foolishly booting the ball at the dugout when the whistle went for half time. TV replays later showed that the England defender had made a fair challenge, however that was irrelevant as the players went in squabbling at half time, arguing vociferously in the tunnel.

As a result, United appeared fired up when they came out for the second half. They consequently netted two goals in five minutes, severely hampering the Reds' chances of taking any points back to Merseyside with them. First, Giggs' corner ws flicked on by Henderson and volleyed home by Wayne Rooney. Then, Spearing fatally lost possession to Welbeck, who put Rooney through and saw the former Evertonian delight the Toffees by sliding the ball beyond Reina and doubling the Reds' misery.

United's number 10, who had been comically labelled the 'scouser in the wig' by the travelling Kop, almost sealed a hattrick when he went through on goal on the hour mark. Thankfully, his snapshot was off target and the Reds' blushes were temporarily spared.

Dalglish then made two much needed substitutions. Carroll replaced Spearing, who had performed adequately apart from his error for United's second, and Bellamy replaced the shocking Stewart Downing, who did little to justify the £20 million spent to secure his signature in the summer.

Bellamy tried to inject some pace into Liverpool's play and Carroll put himself about up front, but it wasn't until Dalglish had made another sub that the away side really stood a chance of getting back into the contest. Adam replaced Kuyt and five minutes later Luis Suarez prodded home after Ferdinand had failed to deal with Adam's free kick.

The eerie silence at Old Trafford was hilarious and I struggled to constrain my celebrations in amongst the Mancs.

In injury time, Liverpool pushed for a leveller they probably didn't deserve. Johnson's superb strike from the edge of the box drew a world-class save from De Gea and Suarez headed over when ideally placed to equalise, however he was offside anyway and, as a result, United collected all three points.

What Patrice Evra did after the match was inexcusable. He ran to the away fans and incited them, in a similar fashion to Gary Neville in years gone by, before celebrating provocatively and idiotically in front of Suarez, who sensibly ignored him and walked promptly down the tunnel.

It was outrageous and utterly disgraceful behaviour from Evra, yet it has been widely overlooked by the media, or worse, justified as a supposedly legitimate response to alleged racism from Suarez.

To be fair, both Suarez and Evra acted like petulant school boys yesterday and their behaviour tarnished what was an otherwise entertaining encounter. Liverpool performed below their best and perhaps didn't deserve a point, but the overall match was still relatively enjoyable.

Suarez has today come out and apologised for refusing to shake Evra's hand, however there was little else he could do. It will be interesting to see whether Evra apologises now, although I expect he won't. I also suspect the FA, seemingly conducting a witch hunt on Suarez, will charge him with some offence yet fail to likewise charge Evra who, if anything, deserves more punishment for his completely unacceptable and childish behaviour.

Overall, for me it was an enjoyable day with the prawn sandwich brigade at Old Trafford. It is just a shame that the whole Suarez-Evra saga has reared its ugly head again.

Let's hope it is finally put to bed as soon as possible.


Thursday, 9 February 2012

How Craig Bellamy has proven me wrong

There are very few occasions when I can accept being proved wrong. It's admittedly a character flaw of mine but it's true nevertheless. It's even more rare that I positively enjoy being proved wrong. However, witnessing Craig Bellamy prove me emphatically wrong this campaign has been delightful.

When the Welsh winger rejoined the Reds on last summer's transfer deadline day, scepticism was my initial reaction, and that remained the case for a little while. His fiery personality, questionable attitude and tendency to cause dressing room disruption by falling out with managers led me to believe that his presence in the Liverpool squad would merely cause disharmony and division, which would offset any potential benefit derived from his performances on the playing surface.

In reality, though, so far Bellamy has behaved himself off the field and been arguably one of our best players on it.

This is in contrast with his first spell at the club, which was markedly less successful, much more controversial and lasted only a single season. In 2006/2007 Bellamy signed for Rafael Benitez's Liverpool from Blackburn Rovers for a reported fee of £6 million. He failed to make a significant impact until he scored twice and provided an assist for another goal in the Reds' 4-0 victory at Wigan's JJB Stadium at the start of December.

However, the fact that it was his first outing since being cleared of assaulting a woman demonstrated his controversial character, despite being cleared of all charges. His reputation worsened further when he attacked fans' favourite John Arne Riise with a golf club before a big Champions League match in Barcelona. Bellamy then scored in the match (celebrating, of course, with a golf swing) at the Camp Nou and also, ironically, set up Riise's winner, which, in my eyes at least, failed to compensate for attacking Riise and creating division among teammates before such a big game.

The controversy Bellamy courted and the fact that he disagreed with boss at the time Benitez regarding his most productive role in the team, led Rafa the gaffer to sell the striker to West Ham United in the summer of 2007 for a small profit that helped to finance the purchase of Fernando Torres.

After notching 7 goals in 24 appearances for the Hammers he moved to Manchester City, where his explosive talent began to shine through. A particular example that sticks out in my mind is when he scored twice in City's 4-3 Manchester derby defeat at Old Trafford in September 2009. His first on that occasion was an unbelievably good strike from range that was crowned Goal of the Month.

However, his relationship with Roberto Mancini soured and he was sent out on loan to his boyhood heroes, Championship club Cardiff City. While back in Wales he clearly relished the experience and undoubtedly impressed, scoring 11 times in 35 appearances. Nevertheless, he couldn't resist another shot at being successful at Anfield, leaping at the chance to move to Merseyside on a free transfer at the start of this season.

Bellamy has since been one of the Reds' outstanding performers. Not only does he possess a formidable goalscoring record (he is Liverpool's top scorer with nine, the same total he achieved in the whole of his first season at Anfield), he also adds indispensable guile, creativity and invention to our attack.

The number 39 terrifies defenders when he cuts in from the wing and his conscientious approach has won him the instant backing of the Kop, whose love for him is apparent. Although he has mainly been used as a substitute due to niggling injuries, his arrival always lifts the atmosphere at Anfield and he tends to have an impact on games almost immediately.

Dalglish's evident man-management skills and his willingness to allow Bellamy licence and freedom up front have also undeniably suited the former Celtic player and brought out the best in him. Finally, it looks like Bellamy has a manager that he respects and wants to perform consistently well for.

At 32, Bellamy isn't a long-term solution to Liverpool's measly chance conversion rate of 9%, the lowest in the League. However, so far he has seemingly been given a new lease of life since returning to Anfield and has won over the critics, including myself.

When you compare the impact he has had for free with the admittedly improving but still lacking form of Andy Carroll, who cost the club a massive £35 million, there is no doubt that Bellamy has been an exceptional bargain buy. If King Kenny can make a similar signing in the summer it'll go a long way to solving our striking problem.

Moreover, off the field Bellamy appears a reformed character as well. Instead of fights in bars, he is now in the news for his generous charity work in Sierra Leone, which he deserves plenty of credit and praise for.

All in all, Bellamy has been a brilliant signing and I am glad that he has proven me wrong!


Tuesday, 7 February 2012

Feline fun lightens up dull Spurs stalemate

Liverpool played out a rather dull 0-0 draw at home to high-flying Spurs last night. A tight and competitive game produced few goalscoring opportunities of note as the two teams, who were both in good form heading into the contest, effectively cancelled each other out. The fact that the main talking point after the match was a pitch invasion from a stray cat spoke volumes.

The statistics before the game painted an unclear picture. Liverpool had won just once and lost four of their last five Premier League clashes with Spurs and were thrashed 4-0 at White Hart Lane earlier this season. However, Tottenham's 2-0 win in the corresponding fixture last season was their only Premier League victory in 17 visits to Anfield.

Luis Suarez was available for selection for the first time since Boxing Day after missing nine games due to suspension and many expected him to start. Somewhat surprisingly, though, Dalglish decided to leave him on the bench at the beginning, with Carroll supported by Kuyt and Bellamy up front. Meanwhile, Gerrard, Adam and Spearing formed a triumvirate in the centre of midfield.

The night started under a blanket of fog and there were worries that the fixture would be cancelled as a result. After referee Michael Oliver had confirmed that the match was going ahead, the first noteworthy event occurred on five minutes, when Gerrard played Carroll through after surging forward from deep. The number nine was brought down by a challenge from Dawson but he wasn't penalised as he won the ball fairly.

When a cat ran across the pitch after 12 minutes the Kop took full advantage of an opportunity to display their famed quick wit. The traditional chant of "attack, attack, attack, attack, attack!" was converted into "a cat, a cat, a cat, a cat, a cat!" in response to the rude interruption from the pacy pussycat.

Stewards eventually ushered the cat away and many spectators discussed the possible avenues the feline may have taken to end up on the Anfield pitch. The fact that those discussions took place for such a prolonged period indicated the scarcity of entertainment offered from the humans on the pitch.

Supporters had to wait until the half hour mark for any half decent sight of goal and even then there was little to get excited about. Tottenham's Gareth Bale and Niko Kranjcar saw shots blocked and saved respectively, while Kuyt headed Adam's free kick wide. The best chance of the half fell to Spearing when his fantastic strike flew inches wide from 20 yards after Gerrard had laid the ball into his path.

Moments before the break Bale attempted an audacious flick through his legs from Walker's cross but he failed to trouble Reina. The latter then burst threateningly into the Reds' box but Agger deflected his shot behind. The former, meanwhile, was involved in a confrontation with the Dane soon after the restart. The well-respected Welsh winger infuriated Agger with one of the most blatant dives I've ever witnessed.

As a result, the 27-year old yelled at Bale and a mass melee ensued. Thankfully, neither player marked their 100th Premier League outing with a red card, as the referee only booked Bale for simulation. He therefore has the shame of being the only player to see yellow twice for simulation in the Premier League this season.

Frustratingly, there was still little goalmouth activity at either end until the hour mark, when Liverpool started to look the better of the two teams and appeared more likely to sneak a winner. Kelly's rasping shot was turned behind by ex-Red Brad Friedel just before the hour mark and the unmarked Agger headed agonisingly wide from Adam's resulting corner.

The substitution that the majority in the crowd had been waiting impatiently for occurred mid-way through the second half, as iconic Uruguayan striker Luis Suarez replaced Dirk Kuyt.

His arrival noticeably lifted the atmosphere around Anfield, however it was his strike partner who had the next sight of goal. Andy Carroll met yet another corner with his head but unfortunately the ball went straight at Friedel and the American made a relatively easy save.

With 20 minutes remaining Suarez nearly courted even more controversy, as he accidentally kicked Parker in the stomach when contesting a loose ball in the penalty area. At first sight, it looked like a nasty and deliberate foul that could have earned him a red card and put him in the headlines once again. On closer inspection, though, it was evidently an honest mistake and the fact that he attended the 31-year Englishman to check if he was OK immediately after perhaps convinced the referee to simply book the returning number seven.

Carroll then squandered a great chance by firing aimlessly over when well placed in the area. It was a poor finish but it thankfully wasn't representative of his performance, as Carroll played well and demonstrated his aerial prowess regularly last night.

The closing stages saw the game open up and a few gilt edged chances created. The first and best goalscoring opportunity fell to Gareth Bale, as he went clean through one-on-one with Reina after evading the Reds' offside trap. The Spaniard was at his best though and made an impressive stop with his legs to deny the visitors the opener and probable winner. Suarez then headed Gerrard's set piece straight at Friedel from close range, before Downing drilled into the Kop and Suarez was denied again by the Spurs stopper.

The mood after the match was mostly negative. This was Liverpool's eighth Anfield draw of the campaign, which is simply nowhere near good enough. Moreover, the Reds now have the lowest chance conversion rate (9%) in the League, which, whatever Dalglish may say, is a worrying statistic. On a positive note, Tottenham were denied a goal for the first time in 23 Premier League games by the hosts' backline.

Ultimately, drawing at home to title-contenders Spurs won't cost us fourth place. Failing to beat the likes of Swansea, Norwich and Blackburn at Anfield will more seriously affect our chances of qualifying for the Champions League.

Simply put, draws against sides we should beat must be cut out if we are to have any chance of a top four finish.


Saturday, 4 February 2012

Top four finish vs. Domestic cup double

Rarely has such a response to a defeat been so emphatic and impressive. After falling to an abysmal 3-1 defeat away to relegation candidates Bolton Wanderers, Liverpool manager Kenny Dalglish slated his side, accusing the players of not being worthy of wearing the famous Red shirt.

Consequently, those same players have reached the Carling Cup final and the fifth round of the FA Cup thanks to triumphs over Manchester City and Manchester United respectively, the country's top two teams. Moreover, that scintillating form has carried over into the League as well, the Merseysiders putting Wolves to the sword on transfer deadline day to move, temporarily at least, into fifth position.

Those victories are the perfect preparation for what will almost certainly prove to be a make or break period for Liverpool's season. In February, the Reds host high-flying Tottenham Hotspur, make the short trip to bitter rivals Manchester United, compete in the fifth round of the FA Cup and look to secure their eighth Carling Cup in their first appearance at the 'new' Wembley. Arsenal are the first to travel to Anfield in March and the Reds could also have a rearranged Merseyside derby in the third month of 2012.

Heading into those crucial and exciting fixtures, the question remains: should Liverpool prioritise achieving a top four finish or clinching a memorable domestic cup double?

There is no doubt that it is fantastic to be going to the 'new' Wembley for the first time.

Without European football to consider, Kenny Dalglish has been able to show the Carling Cup a huge amount of respect and picked strong starting elevens in virtually every round. As a result, the Reds have embarked on an entertaining and enjoyable run of wins that has taken them all the way to Wembley. They are now firm favourites to beat Cardiff City and lift their first trophy since the Charity Shield was hoisted high at the Millennium Stadium in 2006 after beating Chelsea.

Also, although Brighton will be no pushovers, the Reds should progress to the quarter-finals of the FA Cup and, with Manchester United and Manchester City already out, there is no reason why they cannot compete to complete a historical domestic cup double.

Liverpool have a tradition of respecting domestic cup competitions and doing well in them. In 1980 the Reds won the League Cup for the first time and went on to claim the cup on four consecutive occasions. They have also won the FA Cup seven times, with only Tottenham, Arsenal and Manchester United recording a higher number of triumphs in the world's best domestic cup competition.

Unfortunately, though, half a dozen years have passed since they last won the FA Cup in 2006. The need, therefore, to finally win another cup competition is tangible. The Reds need to clinch some silverware to emphatically confirm that they have recovered from the disastrous Hicks, Gillett and Hodgson era and are on the road to retaining their rightful position at the pinnacle of English football. For that, amongst other reasons, some would take a domestic cup double over a top four finish.

Others, though, have argued that a top four finish would be more beneficial to the Reds, especially in the long-term. Clearly, Liverpool must improve on their sixth placed finish from last season. Although King Kenny performed a minor miracle to secure that position in the table after the woeful start to the season under Hodgson, it remains unsatisfactory for a team of Liverpool's prestige.

The League is the bread and butter that arguably provides a true reflection of the Reds in comparison to their rivals. In order to remain competitive at the top table of English and European football, Liverpool must achieve a top four finish because it is that much harder to attract world-class players without the pull of Champions League football and the wages that can be funded through the money earned by qualifying for the renowned competition.

Another season outside of the Champions League and Liverpool may well struggle to keep pace with the elite for an extended period of time, particularly considering the rise of Tottenham Hotspur and the money of Manchester City. Therefore, a top four finish is of paramount importance and must be prioritised above cup success, according to some Kopites.

Nevertheless, it cannot be underestimated how much winning the FA Cup could contribute to attracting top quality players to Anfield. Despite being seemingly undervalued season after season, it remains the world's most watched and respected domestic cup competition. Winning it could encourage foreign stars to choose Merseyside above London or Manchester.

Perhaps more importantly, it doesn't necessarily have to be a case of either-or. Clinching the Carling Cup at the end of February could inspire Liverpool to claim success in the FA Cup as well and possibly even finish in the top four to put the cherry on top of the proverbial cake.

Take the 2000/2001 season for example. Under Gerard Houiller, Liverpool won the League Cup and the FA Cup, as well as securing their third UEFA Cup win with a 5-4 extra time victory over Alaves. The Reds also qualified for the Champions League thanks to a third place finish sealed with a thumping 4-0 victory at Charlton Athletic's Valley Parade on the final day of the season.

Ultimately, though, if I had to choose between a top four finish and a domestic cup double I would pick the latter, as Liverpool FC exists to win trophies. However, I am eternally optimistic and believe Dalglish's side are good enough to, with a lot of hard work and a little luck, achieve both and make the legendary Scot's first full season back in the Anfield dugout a memorable one.


Wednesday, 1 February 2012

Rampant Reds rip Wolves to shreds

Liverpool continued their recent resurgence by claiming their first Premier League victory of 2012 with an emphatic 3-0 win away to struggling Midlanders Wolverhampton Wanderers. The impressive scoreline and performance mirrored the quality displayed in recent Cup wins over Manchester sides City and United. After a competitive first half, Carroll netted soon after the restart before the on-fire Craig Bellamy doubled the Reds' lead. Dirk Kuyt rounded off the scoring with a good finish from an acute angle 15 minutes from time.

Dalglish made five changes to the side that defeated Manchester United on the weekend. Steven Gerrard was excluded from the matchday squad with a slight knock while Carragher dropped to the bench and Spearing partnered Charlie Adam in the centre of midfield. Dirk Kuyt was also afforded an opportunity in the starting eleven after bagging the winner as a substitute against United.

The Dutchman almost immediately added to his goalscoring tally. Three minutes after the kick-off Carroll's knock down from Bellamy's cross caused havoc in the Wolves box, Kuyt nearly taking advantage of the situation to give the visitors an early lead and confirm their dominance but unfortunately he couldn't manage to turn the ball home from close range.

Michael Kightly and David Edwards then combined twice in two minutes for the home side, the latter hooking the former's delivery goalwards and being denied by Reina before Kightly was provider once again, Edwards heading harmlessly over from the 26-year old's set piece.

The Reds began to place more pressure on their hosts from that point on, though, with only a sprawling stop from Hennessey preventing Agger from opening the scoring with a header similar to that which gave Liverpool the lead in their previous match at home to United. Adam then scuffed wide when well placed before seeing his penalty appeals rejected by referee Taylor after he went down under a challenge from Arsenal loanee Emmanuel Frimpong.

Craig Bellamy, who was Liverpool's greatest attacking threat throughout, curled a free kick goalwards that Hennessey did well to stop and Henderson's low strike was held by the keeper before the break. Sandwiched inbetween, the lively Kightly volleyed inches wide after exchanging passes with Fletcher, reminding the Reds that their control of the contest hadn't yet translated into goals and the hosts could unlock the visitors’ defence on occasion.

Thankfully, though, the Merseysiders' came out of the blocks quicker for the second period and tall Geordie striker Andy Carroll secured the lead seven minutes after the restart. The number nine was involved in starting and finishing the move. His headed clearance from a Wolves corner sparked a counter-attack that culminated in Adam's precise cross finding Carroll unmarked at the back post. He beat the keeper with a smart finish and then wheeled off in celebration in front of the jubilant travelling Kop.

It was pleasing to see Carroll building on his hardworking display against United and bagging his fifth goal of the campaign. He finally appears to be regaining some semblance of the form that led Dalglish to splurge £35 million on him a year ago last night and, with Suarez due back soon, maybe the Reds can begin to improve their goal difference of +7. Nevertheless, his form still leaves a lot to be desired, particularly considering the gargantuan fee paid to secure his signature.

Conversely, teammate Craig Bellamy has instantly hit top form after returning to Anfield for a second spell on a free transfer in the summer. On the hour mark, the prolific Welsh striker scored his ninth of the season, equalling the total he managed when he was last at the club in 2006/2007 and taking him top of the Reds' goalscoring chart. Collecting Spearing's pass deep inside the Wolves half, Bellamy was allowed plenty of time and space to accelerate up the left flank and cut inside onto the edge of the box, where he slid a low shot into the bottom corner. Hennessey got a hand to the ball but was unable to prevent Bellamy doubling Liverpool's lead. He should have done better but the Reds couldn't have cared less.

Dalglish's men were in complete control for the rest of the match and created several goalscoring chances. Adam acrobatically volleyed Henderson's cross over before Agger headed just off target from Bellamy's corner. Hennessey then produced a top quality save to turn a deflected Kuyt strike over the bar but the number 18 was not to be denied his 50th League goal for Liverpool.

With 12 minutes remaining Enrique initiated a rapid counter-attack, which resulted in Kuyt playing a one-two with Adam and drilling home from a tight angle to net the Reds' third goal and secure all three points.

It was a momentous strike not only because it marked a half century of Premier League goals for Kuyt, but also because it was the Reds' 500th League goal under Dalglish's management and their 700th in all competitions with the King in charge. Perhaps more importantly, it signals a return to form for Kuyt, who has struggled to hold down a starting place so far this season. At 31, he is hardly a solution either up front or on the right wing for the long-term, but he can certainly do a more than adequate job and works tirelessly for the team. His recent improvement can only be a good thing.

Carragher came on in place of Agger 10 minutes from time, taking him third in the club's all time appearance list, overtaking the legendary Emlyn Hughes. Carra may struggle to break the next record, though, considering the encouraging partnership developing between Skrtel and Agger, which gleaned another clean sheet last night. However, that sheet was nearly spoiled five minutes from time when Sylvan Ebanks Blake saw his stunning effort at goal from distance beat Reina all ends up. Fortunately, it thumped the post and the final whistle blew soon after.

The statistics proved Liverpool's dominance. The away side claimed a chunky 58% of possession and had a sizeable 14 attempts on target, compared to only one shot on goal from Wolves, who remain in the relegation zone following their sixth defeat in a winless streak stretching back to the beginning of December. The Reds, on the other hand, have won three on the trot and head into Monday evening's match at home to Tottenham Hotspur confident of competing with the title contenders.

Harry Redknapp's side are in top form despite their manager's court trial regarding dodgy brown envelopes and will pose a serious threat. Nevertheless, if Liverpool can maintain the form that has seen them beat two other teams in the title race (City and United) then another impressive win is by no means out of the question.