Thursday, 29 March 2012

Why is Liverpool's League form so bad and how can it be improved?

Five defeats in six League matches; even interspersed with triumph in the Carling Cup and progress in the FA Cup, that statistic is unacceptable. Liverpool are seventh in the League, which is worrying considering that is one position lower than where we finished last season.

Perhaps even more frightening, is the fact that the Reds' form is that of relegation candidates, not challengers for the top four. Three points from a possible 18 leaves Liverpool 19th in the form table, with only the doomed Wolverhampton Wanderers suffering a worse streak of form.

Many in the media, and some in the stands, are turning on manager Kenny Dalglish as a result. Ludicrously, King Kenny has been compared to Roy Hodgson, simultaneously ignoring both the former's Cup success, and the transformation his return brought to the club last season, and the latter's abysmal record while in the Anfield dugout.

Moreover, it musn't be forgotten that the squad Dalglish inherited from Hodgson was hardly top four material and a major part of Dalglish's job has been removing the deadwood signed by his predecessor, including the likes of Paul Konchesky and Christian Poulsen, who were both signed for ridiculous fees.

Consequently his gross spend on players has been quite high (over £100 million). However, his net expenditure has been relatively modest (£40 million) and £30 million has been trimmed from the annual wage bill, suggesting that Liverpool are on secure financial ground under new owners FSG. Also, that money has been spent wisely on promising young players who should mature and flourish under the guidance of Dalglish, Comolli and Clarke at Anfield.

Undoubtedly the main reason for Liverpool's current woes in the League is a failure to convert the chances that have been created. The Reds' chance conversion rate is 10% lower than the Premier League average and their top scorer, Luis Suarez, has only found the back of the net eight times; a measly figure compared to the 26 netted by Van Persie, the 21 scored by Rooney and even the 14 bagged by Blackburn's Yakubu.

Andy Carroll's poor form and lack of goals have often been blamed for the Merseysiders' lack of a cutting edge, however the stats paint a remarkably different picture. When the number 9 has started the Reds have picked up an average two points per game at a 59% win percentage. Without the tall Geordie in the starting eleven, Liverpool have a win percentage of just 39% and have collected 0.5 fewer points.

The solution is not, as some have suggested, cutting our losses and selling Carroll in the summer, but rather starting him more often and giving him greater opportunities to forge a fruitful partnership with Suarez.

More goals are also required from midfield if Liverpool are to improve their form in front of goal. Currently, only Steven Gerrard looks likely to burst forward from deep and score, and he's been plagued with injures throughout this campaign. On the right of midfield both Maxi and Kuyt are ageing and lacking form, while Henderson hasn't impressed. We need to sign a genuine winger in the summer to replace Henderson on the right wing. On the left, Downing has been slowly improving, although he is yet to justify his £20 million transfer fee.

When Gerrard, Suarez and Carroll start together Liverpool have had a 100% win percentage. Clearly, that triumvirate needs to be encouraged and strengthened and the heart of our attack must be based around them. Signing a clinical striker is also crucial both to complement the current striking set-up and add quality to the squad, as well as introducing an element of healthy competition that could bring out the best in others.

The pressure on Dalglish to succeed has been immense. It is expected of those who work at Liverpool to be the best and hence the legendary Scot has picked strong starting line-ups in the cup competitions and effort has been directed towards progression in the Carling and FA Cup in order to prove that he can still hack it in the upper echelons of football management, perhaps at the expense of League form.

History seems to suggest that improved showings in the League come a season after impressive cup runs. For example, after clinching the historic treble of Worthington Cup, FA Cup and UEFA Cup in 2000/2001, the Reds went on to finish as runners-up in the League a season later. Furthermore, after lifting the Champions League at the end of his first season in charge, Rafael Benitez then improved his side's League performance by a whopping 24 points in the following campaign.

Changes in League form are an intrinsic feature of football. Just ask Spurs, who have fallen from title contenders to struggling to remain in the top four, and Arsenal, whose League form has improved dramatically (the Gunners have won six out of six) despite dropping out of all cup competitions at the early stages.

Kenny Dalglish has earned up enormous amounts of credit with the supporters and the boardroom and deserves time to turn Liverpool's League form around.

In time, I’m sure he'll succeed.


Sunday, 25 March 2012

Woeful Reds lose to Wigan

Liverpool's dire League form continued yesterday, plummeting to a new low with a 2-1 defeat at home to 19th placed Wigan Athletic. The Reds' criminal lack of cutting edge proved fatal again as, although Suarez equalised after Maloney's spot kick had given the Latics the lead, Wigan skipper Gary Caldwell scored an impressive winner in front of a stunned Kop and Dalglish's side failed to muster a response, leaving Ali Al-Habsi relatively untested and angry home supporters disgruntled at yet another League campaign petering out into nothing before the conclusion of the season.

With the Reds' original target of a fourth place finish already seemingly out of reach following a midweek humbling at QPR, under-fire boss Kenny Dalglish placed his faith in Liverpool's youth, handing John Flanagan a start at right back and putting Raheem Sterling and Nathan Eccleston on the bench. Meanwhile, Pepe Reina made his 250th League appearance for Liverpool and his 350th game in all competitions for the Merseysiders.

Jose Enrique, who was culpable for the third goal conceded against QPR on Wednesday, was again at fault 11 minutes after the kick-off, as Victor Moses won possession from the former Newcastle player far too easily, before bursting threateningly into the box. Thankfully, the excellence of his teammate compensated for Enrique's error, as Skrtel produced a magnificent block to deny Moses just as the number 11 was about to pull the trigger.

Liverpool's start to the match was flat, lacking tempo and emphasis, especially in attack. The best chance of the first period went the home side's way, though, as Downing and Suarez played a brilliant one-two to open up the visitors' defence on 25 minutes. The former's shot then flew across the face of goal, heading inches wide of the far post.

Only moments later, referee Lee Mason rightly awarded Wigan a penalty after Skrtel's high boot on Moses had impeded the Englishman.

It was a silly challenge from the Slovakian, however, he has been excellent so far this season and remained one of our best performers yesterday, so it would be harsh to overly chastise him. Shaun Maloney was forced to wait a considerable amount of time before taking the spot kick because Moses was receiving medical treatment. It was worth the wait for Wigan fans, though, as his well-struck penalty left Reina with no chance.

That opener sparked Liverpool into life a little, and it was the usual suspects who attempted to equalise before the break. Five minutes prior to the interval, Suarez's curled effort from distance required a flying stop from Omani keeper Ali Al-Habsi. Gerrard's shot on the stroke of half time bounced into the ground and was then palmed away from danger by Al-Habsi.

Fortunately, that slight improvement at the end of the first period carried over into the start of the second half, as Suarez and Gerrard combined to devastating effect. The pair played a one-two to slice open the Latics' defence, before the number seven struck a low first time effort into the back of the Anfield Road net.

Suarez thought he'd given Liverpool the lead six minutes later, as he nudged Skrtel's header over the line and wheeled away in celebration.

Frustratingly, Lee Mason managed to spot Suarez's sneaky handball and correctly disallowed the goal, as well as flashing a yellow card in the Uruguayan’s direction.

It was all set up for Liverpool to dominate the rest of the second half, peppering the Wigan goal with shots and eventually clinch a late winner and claim all three points. Unfortunately, Wigan hadn't read the script, and instead regained the lead just after the hour mark. Gary Caldwell found himself in the Reds' box and, remaining cool under huge pressure, side-footed the sliding Carroll before finishing past Reina. It was a well-taken goal from Wigan's number five, however the hosts' shoddy defending was simply unacceptable.

A major response was required but never materialised. With five minutes remaining Raheem Sterling made his senior debut for the club, replacing Dirk Kuyt. Sterling received press attention before the match as he and his mother apparently threatened to move back to London if he wasn't given more first team opportunities.

Dalglish shouldn't give in to pressure like that from youngsters. They should only reach the first team on merit. However, when Sterling did come on he made an impact, injecting an element of pace and urgency into the side for but a brief moment, before referee Lee Mason blew the final whistle and ended any of the Reds' faint hopes of earning a point from the contest or Champions League qualification from the campaign.

This was Wigan's first ever win at Anfield and they deserve credit for playing very well, sticking to their attractive style of play yet unusually combining it with resistance and solidity at the back, which should help them to stay in the Premier League if they replicate that form in the final few fixtures.

For Liverpool, that defeat meant the Anfield side have only won five out of their 15 home games this season, which is their lowest return since 1953. It was embarrassing stuff and form befitting of Hodgson's miserable reign, not Dalglish's resurgent rule. The League season is now effectively a write-off and energies must be focused on winning the FA Cup, while youth should be given a chance in the remaining Premier League matches.

Crucially, the Reds must halt this run of poor form immediately; starting with a trip to Newcastle United next Sunday.


Thursday, 22 March 2012

QPR, Coates and capitulation

Liverpool completely capitulated at QPR's Loftus Road last night, suffering an embarrassing 3-2 defeat to Mark Hughes' relegation threatened side despite possessing a two-goal lead heading into the final quarter of an hour.

A world-class wonder goal from Uruguayan centre back Sebastian Coates- his first for the club- gave the Reds a deserved lead, before Dutch striker Dirk Kuyt looked to have secured all three points with a poked finish on his 200th League appearance for Liverpool. Frustratingly, that comfortable lead was unacceptably squandered as Shaun Derry, Djibril Cisse and Jamie Mackie netted to completed a remarkable comeback and claim only their second victory in 17 Premier League fixtures.

Luis Suarez and Martin Kelly recovered from knocks sustained late on in the FA Cup quarterfinal versus Stoke City to start against QPR. Meanwhile, Charlie Adam returned to the starting eleven to partner Jay Spearing and Steven Gerrard in the centre. The former Blackpool playmaker, who has attracted criticism recently, was involved early on in a bright start for the visitors, as his long through ball sent Suarez racing clear of the hosts' backline. The 33-year old keeper saved well as the Reds' number seven attempted to finish.

Downing then threatened to break the deadlock after Kelly had played him in on goal, and it took a great last-ditch tackle from Onuoha to deny him. Liverpool's early pressure also saw them win many corners and on nine minutes Kuyt almost turned in one of those but Joey Barton cleared off the line to retain parity for the under-fire home side.

The opening stages of the first half were controlled and dominated by Liverpool and Cisse's shot that dragged wide after a quarter of an hour was the only sight of goal the hosts had. However, the former Liverpool striker, who is the Lord of the Manor of Frodsham after purchasing a £2 million manor house in Cheshire while on Merseyside, went frighteningly close to giving QPR the lead against the run of play on the half hour mark. His excellent shot from the edge of the area beat Reina and had half the ground up off their seats but it eventually became apparent that the ball had rolled along the back of the net, rather than into the net.

Soon after, Martin Kelly went off injured and was replaced by Sebastian Coates, as Jamie Carragher reverted to right back. QPR's improvement continued heading into the interval, with Diakite's strike flying over from 30 yards out after 44 minutes. Moments before the break, Adam and Traore were involved in a collision and both had to be replaced at half time, the latter by Taiwo and the former by Henderson.

Eight minutes after the restart Coates gave the Reds the lead in sensational style. The ball fell to him from a corner kick and, without a moment's hesitation, he performed an amazing scissor kick that dipped past the helpless Kenny in the QPR goal and into the net.

It was a fantastic goal from Coates, whose reputation amongst Kopites has hence been enhanced exponentially. That goal alone is almost basis to justify his place in the starting line-up on the weekend against Wigan Athletic at Anfield.

At that point, the away side were settling comfortably on the ball, passing the ball around positively and retaining ascendancy in the contest, with little significant resistance from the R's. Downing tested Kenny with a rifled shot on 57 minutes, before Kuyt doubled the Reds' advantage just less than 20 minutes from time. At first it seemed as if our old enemy the woodwork would deny us again, as Suarez's shot from the edge of the area rebounded off the post. The ball fell to Downing, whose shot was well saved by Kenny, only for Kuyt to pounce on the loose ball and tap home from close range.

Many among the away contingent expected a comfortable close to the match; perhaps even with further goals from Dalglish's seemingly back on form team. Unfortunately, what actually occurred was a nightmare collapse, as individual errors cost Liverpool dear. Moreover, a huge collective psychological meltdown also appeared to shatter the Reds' confidence.

First, Jordan Henderson, who has recently been relegated to the bench due to poor form, was beaten in the air at a corner by Shaun Derry, who evaded his marker and headed home. Then, Djibril Cisse exploited the fact that the usually excellent Martin Skrtel was out of position to connect with a fine left wing cross and equalise for QPR. Finally, Mackie completed the hosts' comeback and the visitors' capitulation by nutmegging Reina after Enrique's shockingly bad attempt at a clearance, which was so awful that Aurelio should be back in contention for a place in the team to face Wigan next up.

This was our fourth defeat out of the last five League fixtures, and quite possibly the worst defeat as well. To fall to pieces so dramatically after being in such a formidable position is unconsciable. Quite how we managed to lose is baffling in and of itself, and the fact that we did pretty much rings the death knell on our bid to finish in the top four.

Shamefully, our simply woeful League form has reduced us to a Cup team. The focus now must be on lifting the FA Cup and taking it back to Merseyside to put alongside the Carling Cup in the Anfield trophy cabinet.


Monday, 19 March 2012

Liverpool see off Stoke to reach semis

Liverpool will appear at Wembley for the second time this season after beating Stoke City 2-1 at Anfield yesterday to reach the semi-finals of the FA Cup, which will be hosted at the iconic national stadium. Well-worked goals from Luis Suarez and Stewart Downing handed the home side victory, with ex-Red Peter Crouch finding the net for the Potters.

Manager Kenny Dalglish made only one change to the team that trounced local rivals Everton 3-0 in midweek, marginalized Argentine winger Maxi Rodriguez replacing the out of form Jordan Henderson. Prior to kick-off, both sets of supporters gave a heart-felt round of applause for Bolton midfielder Fabrice Muamba, who tragically collapsed during the Trotters' FA Cup quarter-final tie at Tottenham Hotspur and is currently in intensive care in a London hospital.

With the match firmly put into sobering perspective, the game began in a scrappy manner, as neither side asserted their superiority and claimed the ascendancy. The first meaningful sight of goal came two minutes in, when Maxi, one of the shortest players on the pitch at 5ft 8in, ironically managed to beat the sizeable Stoke defenders in the air to nod marginally over the bar from Steven Gerrard's set piece.

The visitors responded 10 minutes later when Shotton swung a cross into the box after receiving the ball back from his surprisingly short throw. His centre found Crouch in space at the far post but the lanky number 25 fortunately headed straight at Pepe Reina.

At that point, it looked likely to be a long afternoon of yet again struggling to break down a regimented defence and failing to combat Stoke's main threat; their aerial prowess. The former was proved incorrect mid-way through the first period, when Luis Suarez exchanged passes with Maxi before smartly firing a first time finish into the bottom corner from 20 yards.

Unfortunately, the latter was a little harder to disprove, as Stoke instantly hit back through Peter Crouch. The equaliser came about in controversial circumstances though because, although Stoke's Ryan Shawcross was clearly the last player to touch the ball from a left wing corner, referee Kevin Friend incorrectly awarded another corner to the Potters.

As Ryan Shotton blocked Reina to prevent him challenging for the ball, Etherington whipped a cross in that Crouch simply headed home after escaping the attention of Andy Carroll. Reina furiously but understandably ran out to complain to the referee afterwards and therefore received a yellow card for dissent.

The two goals seemed to open up the contest and certainly created a more entertaining spectacle to enjoy watching. Andy Carroll blazed high into the Kop on the half hour mark, before boyhood Everton fan Jonathan Walters, who netted the only goal from the penalty spot in the League match at the Britannia Stadium towards the start of the season, failed to trouble Reina with his strike after sprinting down the right hand side.

The final goalscoring opportunity of the half arrived after Shawcross was penalised for grabbing hold of Suarez on the edge of the box. Despite the former Manchester United defender's protestations, a free kick was rightly given and Gerrard stood up and saw his effort fly just wide of the upright.

After the interval, Liverpool started the second half the brighter and skipper Steven Gerrard was influential yet again in the centre of midfield, drilling towards goal only for Sorensen to make a save 30 seconds after the restart. The number eight's continued good form, as well as his blossoming partnership with fellow local lad Jay Spearing, is encouraging heading into the business end of the season.

Gerrard was also inadvertently involved in setting up Stewart Downing, another ever-improving player, to score Liverpool's second minutes before the hour mark. The England international, who signed for an estimated £20 million from Aston Villa in the summer, cut in from the right and played an accidental one-two with Gerrard's heel before calmly moving into space and clinically striking past the keeper to restore the Reds' lead.

In response, Stoke boss Tony Pulis introduced former Liverpool winger Jermaine Pennant in place of Ryan Shotton. Meanwhile, Dutchman Dirk Kuyt replaced Maxi Rodriguez and was involved in the action straight away, firing straight down Sorensen's throat from 20 yards out after a decent passing move from the hosts. Luis Suarez, who was routinely booed and barracked by the travelling fans, then attempted to beat Stoke's Danish stopper with an ambitious effort using the outside of his right foot but the Uruguayan failed to extend Liverpool's lead.

With 17 minutes remaining long-throw merchant Rory Delap was brought on in place of Whitehead. The visitor's intention was to utilise their main skills, which lie predominantly in aerial clashes, and bombard the Reds' penalty area in the closing stages. However, the closest they came to equalising for a second time saw Cameron Jerome successfully thwarted by the impressive Martin Kelly when he somehow found space in the box. Apart from that, the Potters failed to truly trouble Reina and the only down side came when both Suarez and Kelly limped off the field with niggling injuries.

Soon after the completion of the 90 minutes Liverpool were drawn to play either Everton or Sunderland in the semi-finals of the FA Cup. A Wembley clash with local rivals Everton is a mouth-watering prospect, however Martin O'Neil's men will also be worthy opponents should they proceed past the Toffees following a replay on Wearside.

As Champions League qualification looks increasingly unlikely, it was crucial that Liverpool continued their exciting progress in the domestic cup competitions. Yesterday's victory was fully deserved and the performance was also encouraging. Kudos to Stoke for putting up a fight and contributing to an engaging cup-tie, but, in the end, nobody could really argue that the result wasn't fair.

Que, sera sera, whatever will be, will be, we're going to Anfield South (again!), que sera sera!


Friday, 16 March 2012

Can Liverpool still finish fourth?

10 points to make up in 10 games. The equation seems relatively simple, yet it represents an ominous mountain the Reds are attempting to climb in the run in to the end of what has been a thrilling season of ups and downs, which has kept Kopites on the edge of their seats during Dalglish's first full campaign in charge since his dramatic and timely return in January 2011.

Fourth place appears a modest goal for a club of Liverpool's history and stature. 18 League titles, five European Cups, seven FA Cups and a record eight League Cups surely demand loftier ambitions then settling for fourth? However, considering the Reds' recent past and the turmoil that has engulfed the club both on and off the pitch, qualifying for next season's Champions League is clearly the pinnacle of any possible achievement in the Premier League. Far more investment from FSG is needed before winning number 19 can be considered a realistic target.

Champions League football is crucial in modern football and the longer Liverpool are away from the European elite, the harder it will become for the Merseysiders to return to the top tables of both domestic and European football. The cash and status that can be obtained from participating in the Champions League are vital to attracting world-class players and being able to satisfy their wage demands. Without these the gap between Liverpool and the likes of United and City will continue to widen.

The fight for fourth place has developed a status akin to the struggle for survival and tussle for the title. Liverpool are competing with Arsenal, Chelsea and Newcastle United for a fourth place finish.

The race will almost certainly go down to the wire, but what form are the Reds' rivals in and has the fixture computer been nice or nasty to them?


In keeping with tradition, the Gunners' season was almost over in a single week when they crashed out of the FA Cup to Sunderland after suffering a humiliating 4-0 reverse at AC Milan in the Champions League in the middle of February. Left with only fourth to fight for, some called for the sacking of legendary boss Arsene Wenger.

When London rivals Tottenham then took a two-goal lead at the Emirates, Arsenal's season looked to be officially over. However, a stunning fightback saw them clinch a remarkable 5-2 victory that kept their season alive. Top scoring striker Robin Van Persie then struck twice to steal three points from Anfield, before an Istanbul-esque comeback in the second leg of the Champions League last 16 tie with AC Milan ultimately ended in failure, a 3-0 home win not enough to keep them in the competition.

Nevertheless, Arsenal are the form team heading into the business end of the season and sit in pole position, only one point behind third placed Tottenham Hotspur. Their toughest two fixtures to come are at home to Manchester City and Chelsea, but apart from that they have a relatively easy run in, with QPR, Wolves, Wigan, Stoke, Norwich and West Bromich Albion all eminently beatable opponents.


Owner Roman Abramovich's typical impatience saw 34-year old former Porto boss Andre Villas-Boas sacked in March after recording only three wins in 12 League matches. Whatever the rights or wrongs of the Portuguese’s dismissal, the boost ordinarily experienced by a team when a new manager arrives (in this case Roberto Di Matteo on a temporary basis) has led the Blues to win three in a row.

That momentum could prove crucial in propelling them into the Champions League places. However, they will encounter some difficult fixtures in the run in. Tottenham and Newcastle both visit Stamford Bridge during the remaining matches, while Chelsea will have to travel to the Etihad Stadium, Villa Park, the Emirates and Anfield.

Newcastle United

This season's surprise package, the Barcodes have done tremendously well under the stewardship of the mild-mannered Alan Pardrew. The Geordies have made St James' Park (or, as it's now affectionately known, the Sports Direct Arena) a fortress this season, losing only twice in front of their own fans.

The Magpies' impressive form owes much to the fantastically named Demba Ba, who arrived for free in the summer and has hit the ground running, bagging a brilliant 16 goals, comparable to Sergio Aguero, who cost Manchester City in the region of £40 million.

Newcastle end the season with two tough games at home to title chasing City and away to Everton. Before then, they also face Swansea and Chelsea away, as well as hosting Liverpool.

For all their over-achievement so far this season, Champions League qualification appears a step too far for the resurgent Geordies.


Liverpool's season has been unpredictable, characterised by exhilarating highs, such as Carling Cup success, and devastating lows, like cruelly losing at home to Arsenal in the dying stages of a game there is no doubt we deserved to comfortably win. In front of goal the Reds have struggled, netting only 33 goals, which is the lowest in the top nine and little more than the likes of Wolves, QPR and Bolton have managed.

Prior to the Merseyside derby, Liverpool had lost three League games in a row for the first time since 2003. However, a triumph over local rivals Everton, inspired by skipper Steven Gerrard's hat-trick, should build confidence and improve form heading into the closing stages of the campaign.

The Reds' hardest fixtures are arguably the final two, when they face Chelsea at home on the penultimate weekend of the season and then travel to high-flying Swansea to round off the campaign. By that stage, though, success in the FA Cup may be a higher priority.

So, can Liverpool still finish fourth and achieve the Champions League qualification that has long been their stated aim from this season?

Well, the odds are undoubtedly against the Merseysiders. Arsenal are flying, Chelsea have the temporary high of a new manager and Newcastle are no pushovers. It is possible that FA Cup success could generate confidence that translates into League points, however, it remains highly unlikely that the Reds will manage a top four finish. There is simply too much ground to make up in too little time.

Here's hoping that Dalglish's men can prove me wrong!


Wednesday, 14 March 2012

Derby delight as super Stevie steals the show

Liverpool returned to form in sensational style last night, thumping Everton 3-0 in the 217th Merseyside derby. Skipper Steven Gerrard was the hero on the night, taking home the match ball from his momentous 400th Premier League match after netting three world-class goals that gave the Reds the three points their impressive and encouraging performance warranted.

Following Saturday's abysmal defeat on Wearside, unfairly under-fire manager Kenny Dalglish made four changes to the starting line-up, with Carragher, Carroll, Gerrard and Downing returning to the side. Meanwhile, Toffees' boss David Moyes, who was celebrating a decade of service to Everton in which he has failed to leave Anfield victorious, made six changes, leading to accusations of the 48-year old Scot concentrating his efforts on their FA Cup quarterfinal fixture with Sunderland on the weekend to the neglect of last night's derby.

The hosts began in the ascendancy, opening the encounter with a high tempo, crafting goalscoring chances and testing the Toffees' American stopper Tim Howard. The first sight of goal saw Howard save Gerrard's shot after Suarez had played the number eight into space inside the box. The ball fell invitingly for Henderson, however Rodwell, whose red card in the derby at Goodison Park earlier in the campaign was rightly rescinded, produced an excellent saving block to prevent a near certain goal.

Encouragingly, Andy Carroll and Luis Suarez began to work effectively as a partnership last night, and the first time they linked up almost saw the latter net the opening goal. It was route-one stuff from the Reds, as Carroll flicked on Reina's long punt perfectly for Suarez, whose left footed half-volley was beaten away by the Blues' keeper.

Up to that point, Everton's only significant attacking move ended with Steven Pienaar, who returned to the club on loan from Tottenham Hotspur in January, drilling harmlessly high into the Kop. In the middle of the first half the visitors began to come back into the contest, however they still struggled to create much of note. The closest they came was when Anichebe brought the ball down in a threatening position on the edge of the box but slipped under pressure from the seemingly ever-present Steven Gerrard and thus failed to test Pepe Reina.

Moments later, Gerrard was in action at the other end, giving the Reds a deserved lead with a top-quality strike. A counter-attack released the marauding Kelly into space inside the box and, after Howard had blocked his shot, Gerrard lofted a superb left footed effort over a crowd of bodies and into the unguarded net.

It was a simply sublime finish from the skipper that must be a serious contender for goal of the season.

After being involved in the build up to the first goal, Kelly went close to doubling the lead soon after as he drilled inches wide of the post following a confident and bold run into the danger area. Thankfully, the only response Everton managed to muster before the break saw Reina easily collect Stracqualursi's header. Unfortunately, though, talismanic captain Steven Gerrard appeared to be injured as he limped off the pitch at the interval.

Nevertheless, Gerrard returned for the second half and grabbed his and Liverpool's second of the evening only six minutes after the restart. Henderson's intelligent pass released Suarez into the box and the Uruguayan went past Distin and Jagielka before wisely leaving the ball to run into the path of the skipper, who thumped the ball into the roof of the Kop end net.

Yet another example of Carroll and Suarez working well together arrived quickly afterwards, as the latter stabbed just wide of the far post after more delightful and inventive trickery from the former. Kelly was then inches away from turning home Gerrard's dangerous cross on the slide, as Liverpool dominated the match and could, quite possibly should, have ended the game as a contest at that point.

Despite striking Gerrard's corner well over on the hour mark, Jay Spearing's performance was promising. The diminutive defensive midfielder broke up Everton forays forward successfully and kept play moving swiftly forward, in contrast to Charlie Adam, who has been criticised for unnecessarily slowing down play and remained on the bench throughout last night as a result of recent below-par performances.

Everton almost pulled one back on 61 minutes as Baines cut the ball back for Rodwell but Enrique was on hand to crucially clear his low shot off the lead and maintain the Reds' two goal advantage. David Moyes then made a triple substitution in an attempt to stimulate some attacking play from his troops. Two of those subs, namely Osman and Jelavic, linked up only for the latter to shoot wide when he was in an offside position anyway.

Apart from that, the substitutions had little impact on the flow of the match and Liverpool continued to dominate proceedings, pushing for a third to round off the evening nicely throughout the final 20 minutes. After 70 minutes, Carroll played Suarez into space inside the box but his attempted outside-of-the-foot effort rolled well wide. Howard then saved Enrique’s shot, before Gerrard netted the home side's third as the Kop triumphantly sang "You'll Never Walk Alone."

Stevie stormed forward menacingly and unselfishly played Suarez in on goal. Suarez reciprocated the favour, squaring the ball to the skipper, who fired into the open goal with aplomb.

It was a well worked goal and a fitting way to conclude an entertaining and enjoyable contest, which was conducted in an unusually sporting manner from both sides, with no red cards and only four bookings.

The fact that Gerrard and Suarez were the main protagonists in the goals was not surprising considering their unquestionable status as star performers on the night. Gerrard proved why he is still Liverpool's best player and should be England captain, playing superbly well in his favoured role at the heart of the Reds' midfield. Luis Suarez was also excellent up front, constantly tormenting the Blues' backline and linking up encouragingly with Carroll, who also put in a very good display.

Considering Everton's nine-match unbeaten run and our recent poor form, I expected a tense night and a typical draw to leave us completely out of the running for fourth position. We may still be lying in seventh, ten points off the Champions League places, however, this excellent display could propel up towards a brilliant end to the season, hopefully culminating in a return visit to Wembley and a fourth placed finish.


Sunday, 11 March 2012

Liverpool suffer Sunderland slip up

Liverpool's poor League form frustratingly continued on Saturday as a 1-0 reverse at the Stadium of Light condemned the Reds' to their third defeat in a row for the first time since October 2003.

That worrying statistic matched a similarly worrying performance from Kenny Dalglish's side, who lacked imagination, craft and guile in attack and failed to summon any sort of form that might have enabled them to overcome Martin O'Neil's resurgent Black Cats. In the end, as seems to so often be the case away to Sunderland, a bit of bad fortune did it for the Reds, as Bendtner took advantage of a lucky bounce of the ball to hand the hosts their sixth home victory of the campaign.

Manager Kenny Dalglish made two changes to the team that suffered late heart break a week earlier at home to Arsenal, as Sebastian Coates replaced Jamie Carragher to make his second Premier League start while much-vaunted Welsh winger Craig Bellamy came in for England international Stewart Downing. Meanwhile, former Sunderland star Jordan Henderson, who swapped Wearside for Merseyside in the summer, started on the right hand side of the Reds' midfield.

The opening stages were tentative as both sides struggled with the windy conditions and goalscoring opportunities were few and far between. Former Manchester United defender John O'Shea flicked Larsson's cross over the bar on eight minutes and ex-Gunner Nicklas Bendtner fired straight at Pepe Reina soon after, but apart from that there was little to write home about.

Liverpool's attack was ineffective for much of the first half, taking over half an hour to threaten the Black Cats' backline. Encouraging link up play between Kuyt, Suarez and Bellamy resulted in Adam lashing a shot over Mignolet's bar, as Sunderland's Belgian shot stopper remained a virtual spectator. Seven minutes before the break Gardner tried his luck from distance but Reina watched it fly past his post, as the teams headed in at the interval on level terms.

With little entertainment on offer, the match turned into a real dog fight in the second half and raw grit and determination were required to collect three points. Unfortunately, Liverpool appeared to lack their legendary fighting spirit and really struggled to find a way back into the contest after falling behind soon after the restart.

Moments after Colback's shot flew over the bar and the Wearsiders' talented youngster James McClean hammered high and wide, Bendtner broke the deadlock. Campbell's effort was turned onto the post, hit the diving Reina on the back, rebounded back off the post and rolled to the 24-year old Dane, who had the simply task of converting from close range.

The scenario would have been comical had it not been so tragically irritating. It reminded me of the infamous beach ball incident at the Stadium of Light in 2009, which was also a stroke of misfortune that proved to be decisive.

From that point on, the home side seemed to retreat in an ultimately successful attempt to preserve their lead, while the visitors mustered a meek response that was never likely to amount to a serious attempt to grab an equaliser and work a way back into the match.

Just before the hour mark, Suarez and Henderson exchanged passes but the Uruguayan’s poor shot trickled harmlessly wide. With 22 minutes remaining Dalglish made a double substitution to try and stimulate a late push from the Carling Cup winners. Skipper Steven Gerrard replaced Craig Bellamy while tall Geordie striker Andy Carroll was inevitably jeered as he came on in place of the disappointing Charlie Adam, who has yet to convince many that he deserves his almost automatic starting berth in the first team.

The substitutes immediately linked-up, Carroll chesting a diagonal ball down for Gerrard, who took a touch before shooting straight at Mignolet. The untroubled and untested Sunderland keeper comfortably collected the ball to his chest. The home supporters then applauded Henderson off the field as Downing replaced him. Unfortunately, the former Villa and Middlesbrough winger couldn't spark life into the Reds' performance as their frustration persisted.

Nevertheless, in the dying stages Liverpool had one last chance to snatch a late leveller and steal a point from a game they deserved nothing from. Steven Gerrard stretched to cross into the area, where Kuyt came so close to getting something onto it but he failed to make a firm connection and the ball rolled wide. Had the Dutch striker got his head on it he, in all likelihood, would have rescued a point for the away side.

As it was, Liverpool returned to Merseyside with no points and low to no confidence, a desperate situation considering only a fortnight ago they were celebrating success in the Carling Cup final at Wembley. Annoyingly, that victory seems to have left the players feeling underwhelmed in the following League games and that showed in their performance and the result yesterday.

They may have had one eye on the big week coming up, commencing with the Merseyside derby at Anfield on Tuesday and concluding with the FA Cup quarterfinal at home to Stoke City on Sunday. However, there are no legitimate excuses for yesterday's display and the Reds' recent League form.

Dalglish has come under fire as a result as some have began to question his ability in the face of persistently disappointingly results. Personally, I still see the King as the right man for the job and he definitely deserves much more time to implement his style and continue to re-shape the squad, hopefully with some new signings in the summer.

One thing is for certain though; results must improve soon. Football is a results based business and Kenny can survive only so long on the enormous credit he has built up over the years.

What better way to start an upturn in form then with a convincing win against Everton in midweek!


Sunday, 4 March 2012

Reds robbed by ruthless Robin

Arsenal's sensational striker Robin Van Persie delivered a sucker punch in injury time to condemn Liverpool to a 2-1 defeat in their first Premier League game since lifting the Carling Cup a week ago. The prolific Dutch forward scored his 30th and 31st goals of the season to clinch victory for the Gunners from a game they really deserved nothing from.

The hosts dominated throughout and, after Wojciech Szczesny denied Dirk Kuyt from the spot, an own goal from Laurent Koscielny handed Dalglish's side the lead. Wenger's men persevered though and stole all three points at the death to leave Liverpool ten points behind their fourth placed rivals, albeit with a game in hand.

With Glen Johnson, Daniel Agger and Steven Gerrard all out to due injury, Martin Kelly, Jamie Carragher and Jay Spearing were brought into the starting line-up, Carragher captaining the side. Meanwhile, Dirk Kuyt, who was so nearly a Wembley hero after netting what seemed destined to be an extra-time winner against Cardiff, replaced Andy Carroll in Dalglish's starting eleven.

Injured skipper Steven Gerrard paraded the Carling Cup prior to kick-off and, buoyed by the fact that it was only six days rather than six years since they last won a trophy, Liverpool began in the ascendancy and went on to comprehensively control the first half, creating countless chances yet frustratingly struggling to convert them.

Nevertheless, the first chance fell to Theo Walcott after a perfectly weighted pass from Mikel Arteta found the 22-year old in a threatening position. He fired across goal but fortunately Reina managed to get a firm hand to the ball and prevent the Gunners' number 14 bagging an early opener in front of the Kop.

From that point on it was all Liverpool. On nine minutes Reina's punt forward put Suarez through on goal but Szczesny came out bravely to head clear and Kuyt flashed a half volley over the bar from the rebound. Downing then bore down on goal but was denied by a last ditch tackle, before referee Mark Halsey rightly awarded the Reds' a spot kick after Suarez was tripped in the box by Szczensy.

Considering his abysmal penalty against Cardiff City in the Carling Cup final, it was laughable but worrying when Adam initially picked up the ball to take the spot kick. Thankfully, Dirk Kuyt persuaded the former Blackpool playmaker to allow the ever-reliable Dutchman to take the penalty instead. Annoyingly, though, Szczesny thwarted Kuyt's unspectacular spot kick and then made a tremendous save from his follow up effort.

It was embarrassingly Liverpool's eighth penalty miss of the season, which is a startling statistic considering the Reds' usual German-esque efficiency from the spot that was displayed at Wembley last weekend. We can only hope that Gerrard, who is unquestionably the team's best penalty taker despite Tom Heaton's world class save from his spot kick in the Cup final, returns to fitness soon and starts tucking penalties away.

Liverpool didn't have to wait long to take the lead, though, as moments later French defender Laurent Koscielny comically turned Henderson's low cross into his own net. It was no more than what the Reds deserved after a high-tempo, attack-minded opening to the contest. Not content to rest on their laurels, the home side pushed for a second and very nearly found it a minute later when Suarez hit the post after the keeper palmed away Henderson's effort on goal.

On the half hour mark, Arsenal struck back against the run of play. Liverpool left back Jose Enrique allowed Bacary Sagna far too much space to whip a fantastic cross into the danger area, where Van Persie clinically headed home to equalise for the visitors.

Despite the away side's leveller, Liverpool remained on top and ended the half pressurising the Londoners and attempting to quickly regain the lead.

Five minutes before the break Suarez brilliantly beat three Arsenal defenders in the area in a fashion resembling his solo slalom to set up Dirk Kuyt's opener in the Reds' 3-1 victory over Manchester United almost a year ago. Unfortunately, his top-quality approach play didn't get the goal it warranted, as the on-form Szczesny turned his shot round the post.

Skrtel's towering header went just over from the resulting corner and Kuyt hit the post on the stroke of half time, as the home supporters ate their pies at the interval pleased with their team's performance but frustrated at their forward's finishing (or lack thereof) and the opposition keeper's form, which was the only factor giving Arsenal a chance of claiming something from the clash.

Soon after the restart, ex-Everton midfielder Mikel Arteta went down after a collision with Jordan Henderson. With a touch of typical class, Liverpool supporters joined the Arsenal fans in applauding the Spaniard as he left the action on a stretcher to be replaced by Abou Diaby.

The 25-year old made an instant impact, forcing Reina to gather the ball after firing low to his left. At that point, Arsenal were tentatively coming into the tie and enjoying slightly more possession. Mid-way through the second period Carra had to make an important clearance after Rosicky's inviting ball floated across the face of the Reds' goal.

Nonetheless, Liverpool still remained a threat and squandered a fine opportunity to reclaim the lead 21 minutes from time. Kuyt played a delightful cross into the heart of the Arsenal area and Kelly had an open goal to tap into but lamentably he fluffed his lines at the critical point and the gilt-edged chance had disappeared.

Reina was called back into action to impressively save with his feet when Walcott's deflected strike flew goalwards, as the closing stages developed an end-to-end feel, with neither side seemingly prepared to settle for a point. Reina denied Walcott again on 79 minutes as the Reds' keeper collected the England winger's header, before Alex-Oxlade Chamberlain replaced Diaby, who departed from the action after only 28 minutes.

During the eight minutes of injury time that had been added on to compensate for the time lost waiting for Arteta to be safely escorted from the pitch, Van Persie struck a devastating late winner. Song's exquisite lofted pass picked out Van Persie, who fired a world-class volley past Reina at his near post to nick a cheeky winner for the Gunners and break Red hearts.

The statistics show Liverpool's superiority. Despite Arsenal's reputation as pass masters, the Reds claimed 54% possession and took 12 corners compared to the visitors' zero. The hosts' 12 shots on target were two more than Arsenal achieved, although only four of those were on target and none found the back of the net as the Merseysiders had to rely on an own goal to find the back of Szczesny's net.

Ultimately, the season-long problem of lacking the ability to score goals came back to haunt Liverpool yesterday and Kenny Dalglish will, in all likelihood, spend his 61st birthday today lamenting our lack of goals and attempting to construct a solution to our goalscoring woes. In the long term another striker will almost certainly have to be purchased, but in the short term Andy Carroll and Luis Suarez must rediscover their shooting boots, and their teammates could do with digging theirs out as well.

Yesterday was a six-pointer and the defeat hands the Reds the double blow of dropping points and seeing one of their main rivals for Champions League qualification acquiring a crucial three points.

In the coming weeks a cutting edge has to be introduced, otherwise Liverpool will be lagging behind the pack for the rest of the season.


Thursday, 1 March 2012

Carling Cup? Check. Now what's next?

The final whistle has blown. The epic encounter that was the Carling Cup final is over after 30 enthralling minutes of extra time and a penalty shootout that was just as exciting. Liverpool captain Steven Gerrard has lifted the League Cup, the champagne has been sprayed and the action analysed.

After the sheer burst of exhilaration and joy at finally winning another cup after six long, trophyless years, what, in the cold light of day, will the effect be of clinching the 2011/2012 Carling Cup?

Well, first it cannot be understated how good it is to win a trophy after such a long time in the footballing wilderness, no matter how undervalued that trophy may be. Since 2006, the last time Liverpool won a competition, the club has changed hands twice and has faced off-field turmoil that has irrefutably affected on-field performances and shaken the club to its core.

Fans understandably became more concerned with the club's balance books then the manager's team sheet, as the Reds' very existence was put in danger by two notorious conmen. During the reign of Hicks and Gillett the likelihood of winning a Cup or competing for a title was dramatically reduced as their debt began to escalate and things went from bad to worse on the pitch.

The fact that John W Henry and FSG have arrived and immediately stabilised the club's finances while investing significantly in the playing side is a cause for celebration in and of itself. The fact that, after just under 18 months, their labour is beginning to come to fruition and Liverpool are back winning trophies is both remarkable and enjoyable.

After travelling through the storm of the Hicks and Gillett era, we are beginning to enjoy the following golden sky promised by the words of Liverpool's famous anthem "You'll Never Walk Alone." Crucially, confidence could be garnered from this Carling Cup triumph that will provide the momentum to clinch Champions League qualification and earn the Reds a return visit to Wembley in the FA Cup.

Stoke City visit Anfield next up in the FA Cup and Liverpool are firm favourites to progress past the Potters and claim a semi-final tie at Wembley. In the League, meanwhile, the Merseysiders lie in seventh position, seven points behind fourth-placed Arsenal but with a game in hand on their competitors for that final Champions League spot.

The Gunners, who travel to Anfield on Saturday revitalised after recovering from 2-0 down to beat local rivals Tottenham 5-2, are an illustration of what could have happened to Liverpool had they suffered a giant killing at the hands of Cardiff in the Carling Cup final.

When Arsenal lost 2-1 to Birmingham in the 2010/2011 final the frustration was palpable as their barren spell without a trophy, which had lasted the same length of time as Liverpool's, continued. Wenger's side were consequently demoralised and their season quickly capitulated. Within a month they crashed out of the Champions League and FA Cup while their title challenge faltered irredeemably.

That parasitic virus of failure has persisted this season as well, with consecutive defeats away to AC Milan and Sunderland leaving Arsenal with only a top four finish left to fight for.

It is clear, therefore, that losing a Carling Cup final isn't simply a case of disappointingly missing out on the opportunity to place a 'Mickey-mouse' trophy in the cabinet. Situated so delicately in the footballing calendar, the Carling Cup final can be a determining factor in a team's season. It seems to boost the victor's confidence and generate momentum for the final run in at the business end of the season while simultaneously deflating the defeated side and leaving them with an uphill struggle.

They were worthy opponents and I hope to see Cardiff in the Premier League next season, but I won't at all be surprised if they now go on to struggle to achieve even a play-off position, particularly considering the cruel way in which they lost, repeatedly getting false confidence and then being punished by a Liverpool side packed with players with far more experience of big, high pressure contests.

Of course, Europa League football has also been secured by winning the Carling Cup and Liverpool should be pleased to have at least some form of European competition next season. However, the Reds must not settle for anything less than Champions League qualification. That must remain the goal and focus must be retained on obtaining as many points as possible in the League in order to make a sustained push for fourth spot.

Moreover, should we fail to finish in the top four then either the Europa League or the Carling Cup must be used as an opportunity for squad players and youngsters to get a game. It is simply not feasible to play strong starting elevens in four competitions, especially as the Europa League schedule is so gruelling. This season, because Dalglish's side have only participated in three tournaments, picking strong teams in all of those games has been practicable and, as a result, the Carling Cup has been won. However, the burden of games would not allow this if Liverpool only managed to qualify for the Europa League.

The hope amongst Liverpool fans is that this season could be similar to 2001/2002 when, after beating a Championship side on penalties in the League Cup final, the Reds went on to win the FA Cup, the UEFA Cup and claim Champions League qualification.

If that is the case then it's going to be a memorable season that will go down in the record books.