Friday, 31 August 2012

Hearts held as Reds progress to group stages

Liverpool secured their place in the group stages of the Europa League last night after achieving a 2-1 aggregate victory over Scottish side Hearts. Heading into the second leg at Anfield, Rodgers' Reds were confident of progressing after claiming a one-goal lead a week earlier north of the border. They had their hearts in their mouths, though, when a calamitous error from Pepe Reina gifted Hearts the opener five minutes from time and set up the unwelcoming prospect of extra time. Thankfully, Suarez saved the day with a superb solo strike to level the contest on the night and therefore send the Reds through.

Rodgers showed yet again that he has faith in the club's youngsters, handing Adam Morgan his competitive debut as well as starting both Kelly and Shelvey. As promised, Stewart Downing was given an opportunity to start as a left wing back and the England international impressed, flying down the wing on regular occasions and providing useful crosses.

A prime example of this arrived on the quarter of an hour mark, when Downing latched onto a long ball and then sent a dangerous deep cross to the back post. Gerrard squared the ball back to Suarez, whose header was desperately cleared off the line. Hopefully Downing can continue this good form and really challenge Enrique for a starting berth at left back because not only could that finally bring the best out of the 28-year old, it would also prevent the club wasting money on a reserve left back. Downing has stated his willingness to play in the position and it could be a win-win situation for both club and player.

Hearts retained a threat of sorts during the first period and kept the ball relatively well, but the hosts were creating most of the goal scoring chances. On the half hour mark, Steven Gerrard showed that he still possesses tremendous talent when his brilliant jinking run took him into the box and only a sprawling save from MacDonald denied the Scouse skipper an outstanding goal.

Fellow local lad Adam Morgan thought he had capped his debut in perfect fashion when he had the ball in the back of the net from Suarez's low cross. Unfortunately, as he wheeled off in celebration the officials cut short his elation as they deemed the ball to have already exited the field of play during the build-up.

Towards the end of the half Hearts had a few opportunities themselves. First, Sutton headed off target from Paterson's cross. Then, Templeton shot high and wide after turning on the edge of the box. However, although their form in front of goal was frustrating, Liverpool remained in the ascendancy in the second half. Unsurprisingly, they played patient, possession-orientated football but the end product was crucially missing.

Shortly after the hour mark Raheem Sterling, who has been a revelation during the first few fixtures, replaced Morgan in an attempt to inject an extra dimension to Liverpool's attacking play. It almost worked too, as soon after Suarez went through one-on-one and beat the keeper. The Uruguyuan was only denied due to McGowan racing back and the ball ricocheting off the defender and onto the post. Gerrard's long range strike than had MacDonald scrambling but the ball flew wide, before the number eight fired into the side netting from a tight angle after Sterling had danced into the penalty area.

The visitors had remained in the contest, though, knowing that one goal from a piece of individual brilliance or a moment of madness was likely to earn them an extra half hour of Europa League football at least. Unfortunately, the latter occurred on 85 minutes when David Templeton's seemingly tame long range shot was embarrassingly fumbled into his own net by Pepe Reina.

The Spaniard's own goal was remarkably similar to the one he conceded against Arsenal in August 2010, which cost the Reds an opening day victory in Roy Hodgson's first Premier League game in charge. It should be little cause for concern, however, because a crucial element of Reina's brilliance is his ability to bounce back immediately after mistakes. Expect a fine performance from the number 25 when Arsene Wenger's men return to Merseyside on Sunday.

Liverpool were desperate to avoid a draining extra half an hour of football. There was widespread relief, therefore, when Suarez equalised on the night minutes before the final whistle to clinch a 2-1 aggregate victory for the home side. Picking up the ball in the middle of the park, Suarez beat two men before expertly finishing with his left foot from a very tight angle. Touchingly, he then revealed a shirt of support for Lucas Leiva, who was recently ruled out for three months due to a thigh injury, during the celebrations.

After coming through a difficult Europa League play-off, Liverpool now face Udinese, Young Boys and Anzhi Makhachkala in what could potentially by the group of death. It will certainly represent an intriguing challenge for the Reds' youngsters and squad players to try and overcome. If they succeed in doing so, first team football in the near future will not be an unrealistic prospect for them.


Monday, 27 August 2012

Two Martins cost Liverpool two points

Liverpool were left disappointed yesterday after goals from Yaya Toure and Carlos Tevez cancelled out strikes from Skrtel and Suarez, giving Manchester City an undeserved point from a match that the Reds dominated. Frustratingly, both of the visitors' goals could have been easily avoided, as silly defensive errors from the two Martins, Kelly and Skrtel, meant the Merseysiders forfeited two points.

Boss Brendan Rodgers encouragingly selected Liverpool's youngest starting eleven in the Premier League since December 2003, as Raheem Sterling was rewarded for his impressive display against Hearts in midweek with a starting berth alongside fellow youngsters Borini, Suarez, Allen, Lucas, Coates and Kelly, none of which are older than 25.

Unfortunately, only five minutes in the hosts were forced to make a substitution, as Lucas Leiva, who was sorely missed when injured last season, pulled up with a thigh injury and had to be replaced by Jonjo Shelvey. The Reds can only hope that he recovers quickly and, if not, new signing Nuri Sahin, who watched on from the stands yesterday, can fill his boots adequately. Nevertheless, Joe Allen withdrew to Lucas' holding role and performed excellently, with first half statistics revealing 100% pass accuracy from the promising Welsh midfielder, who completed 21 short passes and two long balls.

The match sprung to life with two goal scoring chances at either end in quick succession after 20 minutes. First, Liverpool went close when Borini connected with Sterling's superb in-swinging cross but somehow missed the target from close range. In response, former Manchester United striker Carlos Tevez went uncomfortably close to breaking the deadlock for Mancini's men. The controversial Argentine beat Reina to the ball inside the six-yard box and then saw his shot bobble along the goal line and rebound off the far post, as lucky Liverpool breathed a sigh of relief.

At that point City were slightly edging the contest, and they further threatened as Nasri's free kick floated wide and Balotelli fired high and wide. However, Liverpool were by no means out of it and, after Kompany's block from Gerrard's shot almost inadvertently ended up in the back of the net, the skipper's subsequent corner was powerfully headed home by Skrtel to open the scoring in emphatic fashion.

Suarez then curled just wide after receiving a smart pass from Allen, before the teams entered the interval with Liverpool in the ascendancy.

Five minutes after the break Borini snatched possession and played Suarez through but unfortunately the number seven couldn't connect properly and the ball trickled wide as a good chance was wasted. Yaya Toure wasn't so profligate in front of goal when presented with a gilt-edged opportunity to equalise just after the hour mark. Sterling was predictably out muscled by Tevez, whose cross was fatally mis-controlled by Kelly at the back post, allowing Toure to pounce and turn home from close range.

Considering City's penchant for coming from behind to clinch crucial victories, the away side were arguably favourites to go on and claim all three points. Surprisingly, though, Liverpool responded to reclaim the lead only three minutes later. Luis Suarez curled a brilliant 25-yard free kick around the wall, past Hart's despairing dive and into the bottom corner of the net.

Liverpool conspired to bring about their own downfall, though, as an embarrassing error from Skrtel ten minutes from time gifted City a second leveller. The Slovakian centre half sold Reina short with a pass back that was never going to reach the Spaniard. Tevez foxed in, navigated Reina and netted.

Although Skrtel must accept personal responsibility for his mistake, the occasional defensive mishap is almost inevitable when a passing philosophy involving building from the back is prioritised. In the circumstances, Skrtel should have hoofed the ball long up the channel but hindsight is a beautiful thing and maintaining Rodgers' pass and move style of play is an imperative that shouldn't be abandoned due to Skrtel's howler.

There was still time for both teams to search for a winner. Shelvey's strike from the edge of the box flew inches over the bar, before Dzeko fired narrowly over for City. The match ended with Liverpool piling on the pressure and City hanging on for a point, but unfortunately the Reds couldn't make their pressure count and had to settle for a point.

Of course, the fact that Liverpool "settled" for a point demonstrates how well they played. Before the match, Brendan Rodgers would undoubtedly have accepted a draw. Such was the quality of the hosts' performance, though, it seems unfair that City managed to scrape a point.

Nonetheless, Liverpool can be satisfied with their collective performance, as well as with displays of individual brilliance from the likes of Suarez, Sterling, Gerrard and Allen. This display and result should fill them with confidence ahead of the upcoming visits of Arsenal and City's Manchester rivals United.


Friday, 24 August 2012

Sterling stars as own goal separates the sides

Seventeen year-old Raheem Sterling was the star of the show as Andy Webster's own goal gave Liverpool a crucial away goal and 1-0 lead over Hearts heading into the second leg of their Europa League play-off round contest next Thursday at Anfield. The debutant was a constant menace down the left hand side, particularly in the first period, and contributed to what was a warranted win for the Merseysiders and an entertaining match all round.

The atmosphere was electric inside Tynecastle as both the home supporters and the travelling Kop anticipated a good old fashioned fixture between Scottish and English sides. It was therefore appropriate that Brendan Rodgers' experimental line-up included seven Englishman and a Scot, with veteran defender Jamie Carragher skippering the side in the absence of Steven Gerrard.

Although Adam's low strike at goal after eight minutes was the first time either keeper was tested, Hearts were undoubtedly in the ascendancy during the opening stages. Novikovas fired in a shot from 30 yards that swerved towards Reina's goal and almost dipped into the net before the stopper managed to turn it behind for a corner. Sutton then fired dangerously wide after beating Carragher, before Templeton's effort curled over Reina's bar.

Just as the hosts were beginning to build up some momentum, the Reds responded by retaining possession better and thus taking the sting out of Hearts' attack. Moreover, Sterling began the fight back, tormenting the Maroons' defence with his pace and skill.

First, he cut inside from the right and tried his luck, before he jinked into space and went close to looping the ball over MacDonald from 25 yards out. After Borini failed to control Henderson's perfectly weighted, defence splitting pass, Sterling stunningly set up the Reds' best goal scoring opportunity seconds before the interval. The number 31 terrifically intercepted a pass and then raced through on goal, where he faced one defender and the goalkeeper. Unselfishly, Sterling squared to Borini, who frustratingly hit the post when he really should have scored.

Hearts started the second half brightly with a couple of shots from range, before Adam did brilliantly to beat two men in the middle, race towards goal and then drag wide of the post. Two substitutions saw Downing make his 50th Liverpool appearance and Joe Allen secure his European debut, before the visitors' patience was eventually rewarded 13 minutes from time when Andy Webster turned home Martin Kelly's right wing cross under pressure from Borini to break the deadlock.

Sterling almost doubled our advantage five minutes later as he curled wide after fine build-up play from the Reds in which they passed the ball crisply for a long spell. Soon after, though, Hearts responded in the closing stages, pushing for a late equaliser and putting Rodgers' side under significant pressure.

Driver almost clinched a leveller when the ball broke for him and he struck it on the turn but Reina was down quick to gather. Paterson then went close twice. First, he sent a volley crashing towards goal from the edge of the box, which Reina stopped excellently by diving and pushing the ball wide. Then, he hammered an effort yards wide in injury time.

Referee Meyer then blew the final whistle to conclude a useful evening for Liverpool. Their patient, possession based performance was pleasing and several youngsters staked a claim for more first team playing time with noteworthy displays. Most importantly, the Reds are now in the driving seat ahead of the second leg in a week's time, where they should secure safe passage through to the Europa League group stages.


Sunday, 19 August 2012

Disastrous start for woeful Reds

Brendan Rodgers' first Premier League game in charge of Liverpool ended disastrously, as his sorry side suffered an embarrassing 3-0 defeat away to West Bromich Albion on the opening day of the 2012/2013 campaign.

The Reds could do nothing to stop Zoltan Gera's stunning opener minutes before the break, but shocking defending was to blame for falling further behind in the second half. Both Agger and Skrtel conceded penalties in a matter of minutes, the former seeing red, with Long missing the first but Odemwingie converting the second. Loanee Lukaku rubbed salt in our wounds with a late header and, but for some fine saves from Reina and profligate finishing, the Baggies' margin of victory could quite easily have been larger.

Joe Allen was handed a debut in midfield next to Gerrard and Lucas, while Kelly replaced the injured Enrique in the starting line-up, as Glen Johnson filled in at left back. Meanwhile, Suarez, Borini and Downing formed an attacking triumvirate.

The first half was fairly even but the visitors managed to create more goal scoring opportunities and therefore slightly edged it. Luis Suarez, in particular, was notably creative and inventive going forward but he frustratingly lacked a cutting edge in front of Foster's goal. The Uruguayan nutmegged one, jinked past another and hammered straight at the keeper on nine minutes, before he fired into Foster's arms after beating two West Brom defenders soon after. The number seven then sliced wide when well placed after latching onto Lucas' through ball.

Down the left hand side Glen Johnson was also posing a threat, marauding forward and getting involved as much as possible. After Borini's shot curled just wide from his cut back, Johnson delivered a brilliant cross to Suarez, who agonisingly headed over the bar on the half hour mark when he really should have nodded home.

Apart from Long's lob landing on top of Reina's net, the hosts hadn't troubled the Spanish keeper too severely. However, there was nothing Pepe could do to stop Gera's tremendous volley zooming into the top corner of the net after Agger's headed clearance from a corner had landed at the Hungarian's feet 25 yards from goal.

Gera's goal to break the deadlock moments before the interval was a decisive body blow that the Reds' struggled to recover from in the second half. Although shortly after the break Suarez struck a free kick just wide of goal after Mulumbu had flattened him, West Brom were in the ascendancy and troubling the Reds' shaky back line for the remainder of the second period.

On 57 minutes referee Phil Dowd awarded the home side the first of two correctly awarded spot kicks when a slight touch from Agger sent Long tumbling in the box. As he was the last man, the Dane was also shown a straight red card to add insult to injury.

Thankfully, Long's weak penalty was akin to a back pass and Reina easily dealt with it. He didn't enjoy such good fortune moments later, though, as Peter Odemwingie smashed home a second penalty after Skrtel had accidentally and mindlessly kicked Long when attempting a pass.

The Reds' response was uninspiring, as Suarez squandered yet another chance, firing over from close range after Foster had spilt Allen's corner, before Cole, who had been introduced to try and add some life to our attack, suffered yet more horrendous luck as a hamstring injured meant he had to be replaced with Carroll, who lacked the motivation to make a difference due to the rumours surrounding his future.

West Brom were so dominant in the closing stages that they could have properly humiliated their visitors. Carragher had poor finishing from Morrison to thank on 73 minutes after Lukaku had eased past the number 23 effortlessly, leaving him on his backside as he squared the ball to his teammate, whose effort cleared the crossbar. Lukaku later nodded home at the back post from Ridgewell's lofted cross to secure a 3-0 victory for the Midlanders.

It was a victory that they fully deserved after an impressive performance. Liverpool, on the other hand, were taught some serious lessons yesterday. Their defence performed abysmally, crumbling far too quickly at the slightest hint of pressure from their opponents. Moreover, although he created chance after chance, Suarez failed to convert those chances a worrying amount of times, a problem that appears likely to continue from last season. Surely it's time for Rodgers to spend a decent amount of money on a finisher.

Suffering your heaviest defeat on the first day of the season since 1937 is hardly the best preparation for upcoming fixtures versus Manchester City, Manchester United and Arsenal. The only thing Liverpool can do now is learn their lessons from this defeat and move on as quickly as possible.


Monday, 13 August 2012

What did I miss?

In short, a lot. While I was visiting family and attending the Olympics, Anfield witnessed the Reds progress to the Europa League play-off round on Thursday and the return of a Liverpool legend on Sunday, while boss Brendan Rodgers was also busy buying and selling in the summer transfer market, as he continues to build his squad ahead of the start of the Premier League at the Hawthorns on Saturday.

To earn a place in the Europa League play-off round versus Scottish side Hearts Liverpool had to overcome FC Gomel, and they did so in style, securing a 4-0 aggregate victory thanks to goals from Borini, Gerrard and Johnson after Stewart Downing's strike in the first leg gave the Reds a slender lead to take back to Merseyside.

Lucas Leiva started alongside Gerrard and Shelvey in the centre of midfield, as his recovery from injury picks up pace. The Brazilian international performed excellently, keeping possession well and interacting with skipper Steven Gerrard encouragingly.

It was the flourishing partnership between forwards Fabio Borini and Luis Suarez that proved the most fruitful early on, though, as the pair combined on 21 minutes to open the scoring. Lucas slid the ball through to Suarez, who danced his way down the Anfield Road touchline and shot at goal. The rebound fell to new signing Borini, who took advantage of the goal scoring opportunity and hammered home.

Suarez, who was full of confidence after recently signing a new long-term contract despite Uruguay's early exit from the Olympics, was also involved in the Reds' second goal five minutes before the break. He dribbled through the heart of the defence and tapped the ball past the advancing Bushma to allow Gerrard the simplest of tap-ins from close range to net his 150th goal for the Reds.

The number eight went close to doubling his tally after the interval, as his shot rattled the woodwork, before Borini released Suarez down the right wing and he arrowed narrowly wide. Liverpool's complete dominance, reflected in the fact that they enjoyed 67% of possession, was rewarded with a stunning third goal from Glen Johnson twenty minutes from time. The ball bobbled up into the England international's path and he controlled with his knee before firing an unstoppable volley past Bushma and into the net from 30 yards out.

It was a goal, and overall performance, that new £15 million signing Joe Allen would have enjoyed watching as he sat in the Directors' Box. There's little doubt that the 22-year old was keeping a close eye on the performances of Shelvey, Gerrard and Lucas in the centre, as they will be both his teammates and competitors for a place in what is likely to be a three-man midfield, in which Allen could fit quite comfortably.

His possession football and fluid style of play could complement Lucas, in particular. When I saw him play for Team GB against South Korea he reminded me of Scott Parker because he intervened with several good tackles while also keeping the midfield ticking over. The Welshman's display was one of few positives to take from a disappointing performance from the hosts, who crashed out at the quarter-final stages, inevitably on penalties.

Having spent two years under his guidance at Swansea, Allen will appreciate the style of play Rodgers' intends to implement at Anfield and could prove a vital signing in introducing the Northern Irish manager's philosophy, just as the arrival of Xabi Alonso helped to spark the Spanish revolution under Rafael Benitez.

While Allen swapped Wales for Merseyside, Craig Bellamy went in the opposite direction on the same day, returning to boyhood team Cardiff City for an undisclosed fee. Thankfully, during his second stay at Anfield Bellamy was't involved in off-field controversy and focused on his football, producing several striking performances from the substitutes' bench. He could have done a job for Liverpool next season, but considering his injuries, age and wage it was probably the right time to allow him to return to the Championship club for family reasons.

In other transfer news, Daniel Agger seems destined to remain at Anfield despite interest, and reported offers in the range of £20-25 million, from Champions Manchester City. The Dane recently indicated his intention to remain at the club in a typically spectacular manner: by tattooing "YNWA" on his knuckles!

Although a sizeable offer from City must have been tempting, Agger's quality makes him effectively irreplaceable and ending his central defensive partnership with Skrtel so close to the start of the season would have been risky.

While transfer activity is crucial in the short run, the long-term plan has always been to increase the number of Academy graduates reaching and making an impact in the first team. That's why it was so pleasing to see 17-year old Raheem Sterling score a sensational opening goal only three minutes into Liverpool's final friendly at home to Sami Hyypia's Bayer Leverkusen. Enrique's incisive pass found Sterling, who cut inside, beat two defenders and then curled right footed into the bottom corner.

That stunning strike was followed by a far simpler goal from Lucas on the half hour mark, as he tapped into an unguarded net from close range. Half-way through the second half Carroll's strike from the edge of the box tripled the Reds' lead, as the tall Geordie demonstrated his potential. It was a pleasing afternoon all round, despite Sidney Sam beating Reina with an impressive shot 15 minutes from time to bag a consolation for Hyypia's side.

Most importantly, the match on Sunday was a chance for Kopites to express their gratitude for Hyypia's ten years of sterling service to the club. He is a true Liverpool legend who will never be forgotten.

You'll Never Walk Alone, Sami

Friday, 3 August 2012

Reds claim Gomel win to kick off Europa League campaign

Despite being second best for large spells, Liverpool claimed a 1-0 win in Brendan Rodgers' first competitive match in charge of the Merseysiders, as Stewart Downing's sweet second half strike secured a slender advantage for the Reds to take into the second leg of their third round Europa League qualifier against little known Belarusian outfit FC Gomel.

The former Swansea boss picked a relatively strong starting line-up, as new signing Fabio Borini made his competitive debut up front while Jamie Carragher captained the side to commemorate his 700th Liverpool appearance despite regular skipper Steven Gerrard occupying a place in the centre of midfield next to Jay Spearing and Jordan Henderson. Meanwhile, Australian stopper Brad Jones started between the sticks.

The hosts started the match in the ascendancy and went on to dominate the opening 45 minutes, creating several inviting goal scoring opportunities that they thankfully squandered. Only two minutes in Igor Voronkov strode forward from deep and struck a dipping effort that grazed the roof of Jones' net, before Liavitski's shot hit Skrtel's legs. After Cole had to be replaced by Sterling on 22 minutes due to a slight hamstring strain, Gomel threatened again, as Platonov evaded Gerrard's challenge to cross into the danger area, where Voronkov headed wide when well-placed merely six yards out.

For the rest of the half, Russian forward Alexander Alumona was the focal point of the home side's attack. The 28-year old only signed from the impossibly named FC Shakhtyor Soligorsk, where he netted 18 goals in 56 appearances, just over a week ago yet he must already have made a considerable impression on Gomel's supporters after harassing the Reds' back four last night.

First, he turned sharply and drilled over the bar, before Jones' palms were stung by his shot on the half hour mark. Another strike wide of the upright soon followed, before he struggled with Skrtel to reach a long ball forward, shrugging off the Slovakian but failing to slide the ball beyond the keeper from close range. Some lackadaisical defending by Skrtel and Johnson meant a typically impressive block from the magnificent Carragher was required to prevent Alumona tapping into the net five minutes before the break.

As planned, Glen Johnson only completed half of his 100th game for Liverpool as Martin Kelly replaced the England right back during the interval. Rodgers surely must have demanded more of his troops in the second half because the performance level throughout the first period was simply nowhere near good enough.

His message appeared to be ineffective, though, as Gomel began the second half where they left off. Soon after the break, a long ball forward allowed Platonov to spring the Reds' offside trap and bear down on Jones' goal. Fortunately the forward's touch was too heavy and the ball rolled harmlessly behind.

Liverpool enjoyed an even bigger let off on 65 minutes, when only an extraordinary moment of play kept the scoreline goalless. Kazeka's shot from distance hit the post and Alumona mis-kicked the rebound into the path of the unmarked Platonov, who somehow contrived to steer wide when it appeared easier to break the deadlock.

After Lucas Leiva replaced Henderson to encouragingly continue his recovery from injury, Stewart Downing made Gomel pay for their profligacy in front of goal. Collecting the ball outside the area, the former Villa winger hit a powerful effort into the bottom corner of the net.

That killer strike seemed to take the proverbial wind out of Gomel's sails and they were less of an attacking threat from that point on. Nevertheless, neither did the goal inspire a renaissance from the Reds in the closing stages, who remained frustratingly unable to seriously pressurise their weaker opponents for a prolonged period.

In the end, Liverpool's extra quality told. Gomel were clearly the better side for the majority of the match but a touch of class from Stewart Downing for the Reds proved to be the difference. A much improved display at Anfield next Thursday is needed and expected.