Monday, 29 October 2012

Derby draw as ref robs Reds

Luis Suarez was predictably the centre of attention yesterday lunchtime, as the thrilling 187th League meeting between Merseyside rivals Liverpool and Everton ended in a 2-2 draw. The Uruguyuan celebrated hilariously in front of opposition boss David Moyes after his shot was deflected in off Baines, headed home a second and was denied a late winner by an absurd decision from the linesman.

He also could have been sent off for stamping on Distin's ankle and amusingly put a coin thrown at him from the crowd into his boot. Suarez's antics were only one part of what was a thoroughly entertaining Premier League fixture, packed with controversy, passion and fantastic football.

Surprisingly, Brad Jones was selected to start ahead of Pepe Reina in goal for the visitors, despite the Spaniard returning to training earlier in the week. Meanwhile, Glen Johnson was not risked after pulling up with muscle tightness on Thursday versus Anzhi, so Jose Enrique returned to the left back position he occupied for long spells last season.

As expected, the Merseyside derby began at breakneck pace. All four goals arriving in just over half an hour was slightly less expected. It all started after quarter of an hour, when Suarez drove the ball back into the area after Enrique's cross had evaded Sterling. Thankfully, a deflection off Baines took the ball into the Everton net and opened the scoring for the Reds.

Moyes always knew Suarez was a diver!
In response to Moyes' comments earlier in the week about diving, which were obviously if not explicitly aimed at Suarez, the number seven dived in front of the Scot in celebration. It was hilarious comedy from Suarez and, to be fair, Moyes took the banter well after the match. 

Moyes' misery was doubled six minutes later, when Suarez nodded home a Gerrard free kick to confirm Liverpool's early supremacy. Unfortunately, a mistake from stand-in stopper Brad Jones immediately allowed the hosts back into the contest. He punched a corner kick right back into the danger area, where Osman stood unmarked. Although the 31-year old still had a lot to do as many bodies were between him and the goal, he managed to half-volley home from the edge of the area.

Clinical- Osman exploits Jones' error to halve the deficit
On the half hour mark, youngster Raheem Sterling could have seen red. After originally being booked for obstructing Baines, he tripped his marker only minutes later. With Tim Howard protesting and the Goodison crowd baying for his blood, Andre Marriner was under severe pressure to show Sterling a red. Fortunately, after a quiet word with the captain, the referee decided against producing a second yellow card.

That was the extent of the officials' generosity, though, as they proceeded to make the Reds' task increasingly more difficult. In the build up to Everton's equaliser, the officials erroneously awarded the home side a throw in. Consequently, Fellaini's cross found Naismith, who evaded his marker Enrique before clattering home from close range.

The Toffees, who enjoyed 60% of possession during a remarkable recovery from going two goals down, continued to press before the break, the influential Mirallas seeing his shot from a tight angle palmed away by Jones and Coleman firing an impressive strike inches over the bar from distance. 

On the stroke of half time, Phil Neville disgustingly dived and deservedly received a booking. The hypocrisy and irony of the Everton captain blatantly diving in the week that his manager derided players who go to ground too easily was not lost on the travelling Kop, who chanted "are you watching David Moyes?"

During the interval, Rodgers reverted to three at the back, replacing Sahin and Suso with Coates and Shelvey respectively.The away side also benefited from the injury to Everton's most dangerous attacker, Mirallas, which forced Moyes to replace him with Gueye. The Liverpool manager's clever tactical change stemmed the tide of Everton attacks and demonstrated his ability to respond to changing game scenarios appropriately. 

Only four minutes after the restart, Liverpool had a gilt-edged opportunity to restore their lead. Enrique's excellent pass set Sterling through one-on-one with the keeper. Frustratingly, he lacked composure and mis-hit his shot, to the fury of Suarez, who was in a perfect position to score. At the other end, intervention from the on-form Skrtel was required to deny Jelavic a near certain goal after a clever one-two had took Agger out of the equation. 

Jelavic then proceeded to head wide twice, before the spotlight almost inevitably returned to Luis Suarez. As he challenged for the ball with Distin, he caught the Everton defender on the ankle. The Toffees unsurprisingly appealed noisily for Suarez to be sent off, although a booking was probably the right decision as Suarez's tackle was more mis-timed than malicious. 

With six minutes remaining, substitute Jordan Henderson did extremely well to steal possession on the by-line before crossing to Gerrard, whose snapshot was blocked by Jagielka. Fittingly, the match concluded with controversy. Gerrard's free kick into the box was knocked down by Coates to Suarez, who smashed home from yards out and then wheeled away in celebration. His joy turned to despair, though, when he turned round to see the linesman's flag up. 

Suarez and co. surround the officials at full time
It was an indefensible decision that cost Liverpool two crucial points. In a weekend when Liverpool so clearly suffered at the hands of officials, while Manchester United reaped incredible benefits from faulty refereeing, it's not surprising conspiracy theorists believe United's club officials wield undue influence at the FA. 

Nonetheless, Liverpool can take many positives from what was an entertaining Merseyside derby and, following four consecutive matches in which they were undefeated, the Reds have a platform from which to kick start their season.


Friday, 26 October 2012

Downing defeats Anzhi

Liverpool went to the top of Europa League Group A last night thanks to a rare right-footed strike from the marginalised Stewart Downing. Soon after the interval, the former Villa winger unexpectedly struck a magnificent effort past Anzhi Makhachkala goalkeeper Gabulov. The fantastically named Russian side failed to summon up a response and the hosts saw out the match to clinch three crucial points.

Brendan Rodgers selected a surprisingly strong starting line-up considering Liverpool face local rivals Everton in the Premier League on Sunday. Rodgers reasoned that a win was crucial to keeping pace in the Europa League and, as a result, picked experienced first team players such as Gerrard, Suarez, Johnson, Agger and Skrtel. Meanwhile, Brad Jones continued to deputise for the injured Pepe Reina, who could be back to travel to Goodison Park on Sunday.

Oussama Assaidi, who has been restricted to Europa League appearances since signing from Dutch side Heerenveen in the summer, was arguably the Reds' main attacking threat during a cagey first half. The Moroccan linked up superbly with left back Glen Johnson, and his mazy dribbles down the wing posed a consistent threat to Anzhi's defence.

Assaidi embarks on another mazy run
After 12 minutes he was involved in creating the first goalscoring opportunity of the match. The number eleven was sent into space down the left wing and cut inside before laying the ball off for Suarez, whose low shot was saved by Gabulov.

Assaidi was again the creator soon after, as Johnson's blasted effort was parried by the keeper, before Gerrard struck a free kick disappointingly into the wall following a terrible tackle from Christopher Samba on Luis Suarez, which rightly earned the former Blackburn Rovers man a booking. Midway through the first period Jonjo Shelvey was left holding his head in his hands after blazing embarrassingly high over the bar from the edge of the box after Suarez had set up a gilt-edged opportunity. 

With little creative play from Downing on the opposite wing, the Reds continued to rely on Assaidi and Johnson. Assaidi displayed his battling qualities well and then saw his shot saved, before Johnson played an intelligent one-two with Suarez and then went down in the box under the challenge of an Anzhi defender. Instinctively, it looked like a penalty although, on reflection, referee Bas Nijhuis probably was right not to point to the spot. 

There was still time for Sahin to head Gerrard's corner over the bar and Agger to strike a trademark shot from distance just over the bar. At the other end, Brad Jones had had little to do, except use nimble footwork to cleverly side-step Smolov to the delight of the Kop. On the stroke of half time the same player who he'd earlier embarrassed struck goalwards but Jones wasn't troubled as the ball flew wide.

At the break, Glen Johnson was brought off as a precautionary measure, being replaced by Raheem Sterling, as Stewart Downing reverted to left back. Liverpool pushed for the opener early on in the second half, Skrtel drilling at goal after confidently shrugging off an opponent and Gerrard heading Shelvey's hooked cross just over the bar. 

Eight minutes into the second half the home side's early pressure was rewarded with a goal, as Downing cut inside and hammered into the top right hand corner from 20-yards out to break the deadlock with an absolute stunner. 

Great goal- but can Downing perform on a regular basis?

It was a great goal from Downing, although he'll have to replicate that strike several times if he is to win back the faith of the fans, who have been justifiably disappointed with his sub-par performances in the past.

Suarez tried to swiftly double Liverpool's lead two minutes later, but his shot from distance went inches wide. Samuel Eto'o, who reportedly earns £50,000 a day, provided his employers with little value for money, as his first sight of goal last night came 20 minutes from time when his shot on the spin was well dealt with by the impressive Jones.

Ten minutes from time Daniel Agger cheekily tried to emulate George Best when he headed the ball out of Gabulov's hand and hooked into the empty net. Unfortunately, the Dane's audacity didn't pay off and he was promptly shown a yellow card. Thankfully, though, Anzhi rarely looked like seriously pushing for a late equaliser. Traore stabbed wide from inside the six-yard box, but apart from that the Russians seemed impotent up front.

This was Liverpool's third clean sheet in a row, which is certainly encouraging after an opening to the season in which too many goals were leaked at the back. The Reds may not be prolific at the other end and there is clearly room for improvement in front of goal, but if they can keep up this form then their season may start to slowly turn around.


Thursday, 25 October 2012

The future's bright, the future's Red

Liverpool's iconic anthem, You'll Never Walk Alone, promises that "at the end of the storm there's a golden sky." After a turbulent beginning to the 2012/2013 season, many Kopites are hoping there is a "golden sky" of future promise emerging from the club's youth ranks.

New boss Brendan Rodgers' greatest quality, with the arguable exception of his pass and move philosophy, is his faith in youth. That faith is well-placed as well, as the club's youngsters have been fantastic so far this season, especially in attack, where they have compensated for the scarcity of senior strikers.

So, soon after Suso signed a new long-term contract and Sterling became the second youngest player to score for Liverpool in the Premier League, there is no better time to assess our talented youngsters and consider whether any of them could become serious contenders for regular starting berths in the first team in the not so distant future.

Signed from QPR in 2010 for an initial fee of £600,000, which could rise to £5 million depending on the amount of appearances he makes, Raheem Sterling remarkably featured for the first team aged just 15, as he came on as a substitute during a pre-season defeat to Borussia Moenchengladbach in 2010, although it didn't count as his senior debut.

That achievement arrived in March of this year, as Liverpool fell to a disappointing 2-1 defeat at home to Wigan Athletic despite Sterling's substitute appearance. In between, Sterling raised his profile by bagging five goals in a sensational 9-0 FA Youth Cup win over Southend at Anfield.

The Jamaican born 17-year old has also progressed through the ranks with England, from under-16 to under-21 level. He was even called up for the senior squad's World Cup qualifying match versus Ukraine, although he remained an unused substitute. Consequently, Sterling has been compared to another Jamaican born England international who became a Liverpool legend; John Barnes.

Sterling slides in celebration after scoring his first senior goal
Like Barnes, Sterling is a skillful winger who threatens full backs with direct runs. His pace and low centre of gravity also make him difficult to deal with, although he may have to develop his upper-body strength if he is to cope with the physical demands the Premier League places on a player. At 5ft 7in, he is unlikely to ever pose an aerial threat, although, if his strike versus Reading is anything to go by, he does seem to have a keen eye for goal.

One certainty is that, should he come close to achieving the 84 goals managed by John Barnes in 314 games, then he'll be remembered as an Anfield legend. 

While Sterling may emulate Barnes and represent the potential re-birth of 80s style football at Anfield, Jesus Fernandez Saez is yet another impeccable attacking midfielder coming straight from the booming Spanish production line. Suso, as he is more commonly known, spurned interest from Real Madrid and Barcelona to join Liverpool from hometown team Cadiz in 2009, citing former manager Rafael Benitez as a key reason why he decided to move to Merseyside.

He played in the friendly against Borussia Moenchengladbach mentioned above, as well as Jamie Carragher's testimonial versus local rivals Everton, before experiencing competitive first team football for the first time against Young Boys in the Europa League earlier this season. Despite arguably being culpable for one of Young Boys' goals, Suso's creative brilliance was clearly on display. Hence, only three days later he appeared as a substitute against Manchester United in the Premier League.

Suso seems the perfect player for Rodgers' style of play and fluid formation, with versatility one of the attacking midfielder's key traits. His defensive game undoubtedly needs improving, although his defensive duties are likely to be kept to a minimum, allowing him to concentrate on what he does best; oozing confidence in possession, skillfully creating chances and chipping in with a goal himself on occasion.

Suso's silky skills excite Kopites
Alongside him in midfield is 20-year old Jonjo Shelvey, who has really reveled in the opportunities given to him by Rodgers. After being recalled from a loan spell with Blackpool by Kenny Dalglish, Shelvey made 16 appearances in the second half of last season. He has since gone on to achieve ten appearances so far this campaign and looks set to enjoy his finest season at the club since joining from Charlton in 2010. 

Combative and determined, Shelvey reminds me of a young Steven Gerrard both in his style of play and his attitude. His red card versus Manchester United, though, displayed his potential tempestuousness, a trait that Gerrard had to slowly faze out, and Shelvey will have to do likewise if he is to succeed at Anfield. Nonetheless, Shelvey is an exciting prospect who has the real potential to cement a place in the first team.

At right back, Liverpool appear to have a plethora of youngsters vying for the place of Glen Johnson's understudy. Martin Kelly is already essentially an established first team player, while Jon Flanagan impressed when afforded opportunities by former manager Kenny Dalglish last season, although Andre Wisdom appears to be preferred by Rodgers and has secured more game-time than his teammate. 

With five starts and one goal, Wisdom couldn't have asked for a better start to the season, in which he has put himself firmly into the first-team frame. Strong and tough in the tackle, Wisdom does the simple things well. He may not have the attacking talent of Johnson or Kelly, but he certainly has sufficient ability to compete with them, and seems to have surpassed Flanagan in the pecking order.

Eyes on the prize- Wisdom is a contender for the right back position
Ultimately, only time will tell whether or not the likes of Wisdom, Suso, Shelvey and Sterling will succeed at Anfield and become regular members of the Liverpool first team. The mere fact that so many youngsters are knocking on the proverbial door of the first team is a credit to the system set up by Benitez before he left, which is clearly churning out candidates for progression to the senior side.

With a manager who trusts in youth in the dugout and many Academy graduates fighting for first team places, the future may well be bright at Anfield.

It will always be Red....


Sunday, 21 October 2012

Superb Sterling sinks Reading

Liverpool finally clinched their first home win of the season yesterday, as youngster Raheem Sterling netted the only goal midway through the first period to grab all three crucial points for the hosts against opponents Reading. The Reds dominated a game they really should have won by a more comfortable margin, but Reading failed to capitalise on Liverpool's profligacy when presented with opportunities to pinch a point late on.

Brad Jones replaced the injured Pepe Reina between the sticks, as the Spanish stopper missed his first League game in more than six years, while Sterling and Suso started up front alongside Suarez and Andre Wisdom was handed a starting berth at right back, with Glen Johnson reverting to left back.

On top of the world! Sterling celebrates his first Liverpool goal
The home side gained the ascendancy early on and never relinquished their position of dominance. Unsurprisingly, Liverpool's front three posed the biggest threat to Reading's back four, regularly combining to trouble McCarthy in the visitors' goal. After Suso's shot was deflected behind off Sahin, Sterling saw his shot blocked after receiving a pass from Suarez before the Uruguyuan had a go himself, guiding a clever lob onto the roof of the Anfield Road end net.

Sahin still had time to fire just over the bar, before Liverpool were rewarded for their early dominance with an opening goal from Raheem Sterling on the half hour mark. Suarez intelligently hooked the ball over the Reading defence and the former QPR player sprinted through on goal, clinically striking low beyond the keeper and into the bottom corner to become the second youngest Red to net in the Premier League, behind the infamous Michael Owen. It was an impressive strike from the number 31, and no less than Liverpool's first half display merited.

On 34 minutes Suarez fired just wide of the target, before a minute-long ironic celebration from the home crowd ensued after referee East eventually awarded the number seven a free kick, although their jubilation was quickly quashed when Suarez picked himself up and fired the set piece into the defensive wall.

The second half continued much in the same manner as the first, although the Merseysiders' failure to convert the chances they created and add to their advantage meant Anfield became gradually more nervous as the prospect of Reading denying Liverpool their first home League victory and nicking an undeserved point loomed large.

After Sterling shot straight at McCarthy, Johnson drove just over the bar and Suarez saw his shot saved after gliding skilfully past three defenders, Reading went close twice and Brad Jones displayed his talent. First, the Aussie keeper denied McCleary in a one-on-one situation. Then, he got down well to turn McAnuff's strike from distance away from danger. It was evidence of Jones' ability to remain focused despite long spells of inactivity while watching his teammates monopolise possession and dictate the pace of the game.

At the other end, Suarez hooked Sterling's cross over, Skrtel headed just over from Gerrard's corner and, after replacing Suso, Enrique set up Suarez, who shot agonisingly wide as he realised it just wasn't going to be his day in front of goal.

On form- Suso impressed in his first game since signing a new contract
With five minutes remaining Sterling received the standing ovation his performance deserved as he departed the field to be replaced by Jordan Henderson. His spirited display arguably proved to be the difference between the two teams. If he continues in this rich vein of form then there's no reason why he can't become a first team regular, even if Rodgers enters the January transfer window to buy some much-needed back-up in the striking department. Special praise must also be reserved for Brad Jones, who kept a crucial clean sheet and performed competently in place of Pepe Reina.

Overall, this is the type of display that Liverpool must look to replicate. With so few attacking options, goals are inevitably going to be hard to come by so, while we undoubtedly need to be more clinical in front of goal,  nicking a solitary strike and holding on to keep a clean sheet may be our best hope of taking all three points from matches during this campaign.


Thursday, 18 October 2012

Staying put- why FSG have made the right call

In the week that they celebrated their second anniversary of purchasing Liverpool FC, Fenway Sports Group (FSG) have seemingly finally put to bed what was one of the most pressing issues at the time of their takeover: the American owners appear to have answered the long-asked stadium question.

Thankfully, they have provided the right answer as well, opting to remain at Anfield, the club's much-loved historic home, rather than build a brand new 60,000 seater stadium on Stanley Park.

Liverpool are staying put at their spiritual home
Ever since local rivals Everton left and Liverpool arrived in 1892, Anfield has been the stage where heroes in a Red shirt have risen to fame, club legends have been made and domestic and European dreams have been fulfilled, leaving a host of happy memories in the minds of countless supporters who have visited the venerated venue, most only once, some only occasionally and a lucky few every other week. 

Now, having completed a thorough yet comparatively swift cost-benefit analysis of the two available options, namely redeveloping Anfield or building a completely new stadium, the club's owners have come to the sensible conclusion that remaining at Anfield and increasing its capacity to 60,000 makes the most financial and footballing sense, allowing thousands more future supporters to enjoy the unbeatable match-day experience the ground offers. 

The economic cost of building a new stadium from scratch simply outweighed the benefit of having 15,000 more spectators paying £40 to watch the Reds every fortnight. Add to that the emotional cost of leaving Liverpool's spiritual home and it was clear to FSG that remaining at Anfield was the right course of action. 

Critics, frustrated following ten years of incompetence from David Moores and deceit from Tom Hicks and George Gillett, may claim that FSG took too long in reaching this rather self-evident conclusion, but taking two years to make a decision that is at the heart of the club's future isn't unreasonable, and at least they've made more progress than the previous owners, who did little apart from waste ridiculous amounts of money on nothing more than pretty pictures and make ludicrous promises they could never keep. 

Was this pretty picture worth £50 million?
Fortunately, FSG have avoided those pitfalls, conducting their affairs in a professional manner throughout the process, even if that process was slightly slower than some supporters would have liked.
With the redevelopment of Anfield now feasible due to the local community and council's support, the considerable benefit of extra capacity can be achieved at a fraction of the cost. Moreover, regeneration of the surrounding area may finally take place, opening up much-needed employment opportunities in the locality during difficult times. 

Most importantly, this could be the evidence fans needed to confirm that FSG are committed to this project, and therefore the club, in the long term, providing stability in the boardroom that has been missing over recent years. If they invest in redeveloping Anfield, then the owners will have to wait until the financial return of an increase in the value of the club results from the raised revenue funding player purchases and ultimately improving performances on the pitch. They're not going to cut their losses and run, leaving Liverpool in the lurch, if they have £150 million tied up in the club's stadium redevelopment plans.

The owners', and the club's, task now is not just to redevelop Anfield, but to transform it into the bastion of invincibility that legendary Liverpool boss Bill Shankly famously envisaged. 


Thursday, 11 October 2012

A work in progress: Assessing Rodgers and the Reds

One win and three defeats from seven League matches. Only nine goals scored, with 12 conceded. Languishing in mid table as autumn arrives. The worst start to the season in over a century. Things certainly aren't going as Brendan Rodgers would have planned in the summer when he took up his most prestigious role yet, as new manager of Liverpool Football Club.

Liverpool's league form leaves Rodgers disappointed
When the Northern Irishman took the helm in June most supporters greeted him with cautious optimism. Although King Kenny was (and still is) loved by Kopites, many of whom thought he was harshly dismissed, Rodgers' record at Swansea was impressive, guiding them to a laudable eleventh position last season after previously helping them to become the first Welsh side ever to gain promotion to the Premier League.

His possession-orientated style of play, more than anything else, attracted owners FSG to Rodgers, as he was seen as the right man to return the Reds to the traditional Liverpool Way while still coping with and adapting to the demands and pressures of modern football. At 39 years young, he seemed a decent candidate to provide stability in the long-run as well. 

Now, rather ridiculously, some 'supporters' are calling for his head after only four months in the job . Admittedly, they are a very small minority, but, in the age of social media, their ill-considered opinions and hastily drawn conclusions are heard louder than ever, and hence harder to ignore. 

There is no better time than the international break to refute Rodgers' critics and assess Liverpool's start to the 2012/2013 campaign. While results are unquestionably poor, their remain bright sparks of hope that indicate a better future on the horizon, providing certain fundamental problems are addressed as soon as possible. 

His core philosophy of passing football receives universal support from Liverpool fans, and is beginning to noticeably shape the way the Reds play. The Merseysiders enjoyed roughly two thirds of possession against Sunderland, Stoke and Norwich and even had more of the ball versus Manchester United, despite playing with only 10 men for over 45 minutes after Jonjo Shelvey's controversial dismissal. Remarkably, against Udinese recently Liverpool claimed a whopping 71% of possession yet still ended up losing 3-2. 

Rodgers has undoubtedly overseen an improvement in our passing game, which is most welcome. The transition to his way of doing things has had some pitfalls as well, though. For example, instead of lumping it long when we had a 2-1 lead in the closing stages versus Manchester City, Skrtel chose to attempt a pass back and sold Reina short, allowing Tevez to equalise. 

Skrtel watches on as Tevez takes advantage of his error to equalise
Moreover, against Stoke City last time out, the visitors' main two goalscoring opportunities came from loose passes at the back from Sahin and Reina respectively. In general, too, Liverpool have been far less defensively sound so far this season, which is an issue that needs to be rectified.

However, you don't need me to tell you where our primary problem has been so far this season. Our strike force severely lacks firepower. With Suarez and Borini the only senior strikers, and Andy Carroll curiously allowed to join West Ham United on loan, Liverpool have really struggled to have the kind of impact up front necessary to achieve European qualification.

Had the owners dished out an extra £1 million to sign Dempsey from Fulham then the situation may have been slightly better, although it's doubtful our form in front of goal would have radically improved. Nine goals from seven games simply isn't good enough, particularly when you take into account that five of those were bagged in one game at Carrow Road.

Solutions to our striking problems seem scarce until the transfer window reopens in January, frustratingly, and until then Rodgers will have to utilise the talent of youngsters like Suso and Sterling if results are to improve. Hopefully this will allow their burgeoning talent to blossom and repay Rodgers for his considerable and commendable trust in Liverpool's youth team. In fact, his faith in Academy graduates, which has seen many of them granted first team opportunities, is one of the main positives of Rodgers' spell in charge.

The defence may be shaky and our attack clearly needs strengthening, but Rodgers' underlying philosophy is beginning to embed in the team's style of play and Liverpool have some of the most promising youngsters in the country on their books. Nevertheless, the Reds need to return to winning ways soon if Rodgers is to retain the confidence of the Kop and the boardroom.

If not, short term pain could make his position untenable and thwart his long-term master plan to make Liverpool a force in British and European football once again.


Monday, 8 October 2012

Stubborn Stoke frustrate Reds

Frustration was yet again the overwhelming emotion at full time at Anfield yesterday, as Liverpool failed to break down Stoke City's typically stubborn defence and had to settle for a goalless draw, which will do little to improve their disappointing league position.The stalemate means that the Reds are yet to register a win at home in the League this campaign and, perhaps more worryingly, have failed to achieve back-to-back League victories since December 2011.

Andre Wisdom was handed his home debut, while Sterling and Suso returned to the starting line-up as Brendan Rodgers made eight changes to the team that succumbed to a 3-2 defeat against Udinese only three days earlier. Meanwhile, Michael Owen, who was linked with a controversial return to Anfield in the summer after his contract ran out at rivals Manchester United, didn't even make the bench for Tony Pulis' side, sparing the 32-year old an inevitable barrage of abuse.

In the opening 20 minutes, Stoke went close to capitalising on Liverpool's mistakes and taking the lead on two occasions. First, Sahin's pass back towards Reina was woefully inept and allowed ex-Red Charlie Adam to go one-on-one with his former teammate. Fortunately, the Spaniard's decent save spared Sahin's blushes.

Reina prevents Adam breaking the deadlock
Reina was then almost responsible for gifting the visitors the lead soon after, as his wayward pass went to Walters, whose chipped effort was turned over the bar by the back-tracking number 25. In between, trademark trickery from Suarez down the left wing saw him leave a couple of Stoke defenders chasing shadows before cutting the ball back for Sahin, whose drive was blocked.

Nevertheless, the game remained scrappy, as Stoke's dogged and determined defensive play, in particular their closing down, denied the hosts the space to play the expansive passing game they enjoy. Gerrard's 25-yard strike was turned behind by Begovic and Agger got a toe to Suso's incisive pass, sending the ball inches wide, but clear cut chances remained few and far between. 

There was still time for Gerrard to drag wide after good build-up work from Suarez and Sterling, before the Reds' attack gained additional potency after the interval, with the on-form Glen Johnson going close twice in the opening stages of the second period. After Begovic parried his strike from range five minutes after the restart, Johnson perfectly timed a run to reach Gerrard's imaginative pass and hook just over the bar.

On the hour mark, Suarez almost opened the scoring in sensational fashion. The Uruguyuan seemingly took on the entire Stoke defence single-handedly, embarking on a mazy dribble from the half-way line before striking wide left-footed when he really should have found the back of the net. 

Unfortunately, the other side of Suarez's character was soon on display, as he ridiculously dived in the penalty area when no challenge had been made. It was embarrassing stuff from the controversial number seven, but Tony Pulis' calls for him to be banned after the match are simply intended to divert attention from Huth's earlier stamp on Suarez's chest, which was a far more serious offence that should be looked at by the FA, and the fact that six Stoke players were booked due to their overly physical approach to dealing with the threat posed by Suarez.

The home side continued to search for that elusive goal, while the visitors appeared content to keep hold of a point. Sterling displayed his naivety 20 minutes from time when he shot against the base of the post instead of cutting the ball back for those better placed. Suarez also shot into the side-netting from an impossible angle, before Skrtel went closest to securing a late winner in the last minute of normal time. The Slovakian's hooked effort from Cole's ball into the box grazed the far post on its way agonisingly wide.

Skrtel sees his strike go inches wide
It was a fitting way to round off an exasperating afternoon of Premier League football, in which Liverpool were so close yet so far from collecting three crucial points. At risk of repeating myself, the Reds just lacked a cutting edge up front once again. Stoke performed exactly as expected- defensively, with plenty of men behind the ball and little desire to attack. It was Liverpool's task to find a way to break down their defence and beat Begovic.

Unfortunately, they weren't up to that task and, as a result, the Reds' worst start to the season in over a century continues. 


Friday, 5 October 2012

Ruthless Udinese punish wasteful Reds

Liverpool were left disappointed once again last night, after Udinese left Anfield with a 3-2 victory and three crucial Europa League points under their proverbial belts. The hosts dominated the first half, clinching a one-goal lead thanks to Jonjo Shelvey's header, but Di Natale's leveller literally seconds after the restart proved to be a sucker punch that really took the wind out of the Reds' sails and swung the momentum firmly in the Italians' favour. Coates' own goal and an excellent strike from Pasquale sealed the win for the visitors, as Suarez's impressive free kick provided little consolation.

Rodgers couldn't blame the defeat on selecting an inexperienced side, either, as the Northern Irish boss picked a strong starting eleven, including several senior stars who will expect to appear at home to Stoke City in the Premier League on Sunday. 19-year old left back Jack Robinson was the only youngster to be given a run out in front of 40,092 spectators at Anfield, of which I was one.

The Reds began in the ascendancy. Assaidi shot wide, Shelvey saw his strike blocked and Coates directed a header goalwards from Downing's outswinging corner but goalkeeper Zeljko Brkic denied the Uruguyuan centre back. In fact, the away side's first and only attempt on goal in the first half came on 14 minutes, when Benatia's header forced Reina to make a superb save to prevent the 25-year old Moroccan breaking the deadlock against the run of play.

Fortunately, Shelvey soon opened the scoring at the opposite end. After receiving a pass from Henderson, the clean-shaven midfielder fed Downing out wide and then continued his run into the box, where he headed the winger's cross into the net in a manner that reminded me of a young Steven Gerrard. It was a impressive goal from Shelvey, while the assist was one of few positive contributions from Downing, who otherwise looked off form last night.

Shelvey heads the Reds into the lead
The rest of the first period was taken up with the Merseysiders dominating possession, passing from side-to-side and back again but rarely penetrating Udinese's congested defence. Unsurprisingly, yet again a lethal streak was missing from Liverpool's play. Udinese, on the other hand, ruthlessly took the few goalscoring opportunities they created.

Only 30 seconds after the restart, the visitors crafted a free-flowing move that culminated in Di Natale finishing beyond Reina from 12 yards after latching onto half time substitute Andrea Lazzari's cross. On the hour mark, Henderson's low shot was blocked. Only five minutes later he was replaced by skipper Steven Gerrard, while Luis Suarez came on in place of Assaidi at the same time. The duo provided the team with a tangible boost, their quality adding an additional dimension to our play and their more direct style of play providing much-needed focus to our attack. 

With 23 minutes remaining, Downing outpaced his man down the right wing only to be blatantly fouled at a critical moment. Number 66 Giampiero Pinzi, who also agitated the Kop by regularly feigning injury, was shown a yellow for the tackle and swiftly substituted soon after. Referee Stefan Johannesson showing him a red card wouldn't have been unreasonable. Suarez collected possession from the subsequent set piece, directing a shot goalwards that was frustratingly inadvertently blocked close to the line by teammate Jonjo Shelvey.

Liverpool's profligacy in front of goal was soon punished, as Udinese struck twice in the space of two minutes. First, Coates embarrassingly headed a free kick into his own net. Then, Pasquale thumped a decent strike beyond Reina from outside the box to stun Anfield into silence.

Coates turns away distraught after heading past Reina
Nevertheless, Suarez curled an exquisite free kick into the net from 25 yards out to send the Kop into another round of "Just Can't Get Enough" and inspire hope that the Reds might just be able to muster another late dramatic European comeback at the magical Anfield. In pursuit of that dream ending, Suarez's header was saved from close range and substitute Sterling looped agonisingly over the crossbar, before Downing shot straight at the keeper to squander the Reds' final opportunity to equalise two minutes into injury time.

With 71% of possession and 21 shots, 16 of which were on target, Liverpool really should have emerged victorious from this contest. Frustratingly, it was the same old problems that prevented them from doing so. An unfamiliar back four failed in their duties, allowing Udinese to convert all three goalscoring opportunities that they created. In attack, meanwhile, the Reds couldn't take advantage of their dominance of possession, frequently passing for the sake of passing instead of testing the keeper. The hosts lacked a player or two willing to just put their foot through the ball and have a pop. 

They're persistent problems that won't go away over night. In the meantime, though, Liverpool must pick up results, retaining the current attractive passing style of play while developing a crucial cutting edge in front of goal and tightening up a shaky defence that is leaking far too many goals.