Monday, 31 December 2012

Super Suarez sinks sorry QPR

Liverpool returned to winning ways with a convincing 3-0 victory over Queens Park Rangers at Loftus Road yesterday. In the absence of boss Brendan Rodgers, who returned to Merseyside at lunch on doctor's orders, assistant manager Colin Pascoe oversaw an impressive performance from the Reds, as Luis Suarez (2) and Daniel Agger put the outcome of the contest beyond doubt after only half an hour had been played.

Liverpool were as good as QPR were bad during a first half that the visitors completely dominated. The London side, low on confidence following a disappointing season and seemingly uninspired by new manager Harry Redknapp, were embarrassingly poor and, in the words of Bill Shankly, were lucky to get nil. Their opponents, on the other hand, oozed class and were in the ascendancy from the first to the final whistle.

Luis Suarez, in particular, appeared highly motivated and determined to win the game almost single-handedly, although, thankfully, for once he didn't lack support up front. On his return to his former employers Sterling performed well, while Downing continued his recent run of form and Henderson took advantage of a rare starting opportunity.

The first sight of goal Suarez had saw the number seven's shot punched clear by Julio Cesar. It wasn't long, though, until the Uruguayan was beating the goalkeeper for fun. On ten minutes Henderson fed Suarez, who had cleverly worked himself some space before gliding effortlessly past his marker and finding the bottom corner with consummate and classy ease.

Suarez slides past the defence and opens the scoring
Six minutes later, Suarez doubled his personal tally and the Reds' advantage with a close range finish after he'd picked up possession from Downing on the right wing and seen his low cross rebound back to him.

By this stage Liverpool were coasting and centre backs Daniel Agger and Martin Skrtel, who had been hassled endlessly only days earlier away to Stoke City, now had their cigars out and their feet up due to QPR's utter inability to test them. The Dane did put the Sunday papers down for one moment, though, to add to the Reds' lead minutes before the half hour mark. A short corner was played to Gerrard, whose whipped cross was headed home by the towering Agger.

Agger watches his header beat Cesar
The away side could have been ahead by five or six at the interval, as they persistently searched for goals to boost their goal difference. Henderson flashed a shot narrowly wide while Gerrard's deflected strike was cleared off the line after Suarez had wreaked more havoc in QPR's box.

In response, Adel Taarabt, arguably the hosts' only bright spark, shot straight at Reina and then wide of the target. It was the sum total of a woeful first half display from a team seemingly destined to be enduring wet Wednesday night trips to Huddersfield next season.

After the break, Liverpool, satisfied with three points and three goals, took their foot off the gas while QPR improved a little, although not enough to mount a hugely improbably comeback. They may have managed to begin their revival by recovering from two goals behind at home to the Reds last season, but there was no prospect of them repeating that remarkable feat. 

Their lack of professionalism was also amplified when Stephane M'Bia was rightly booked by referee Anthony Taylor for diving. QPR's only vaguely positive movement came when Armand Traore's drilled cross flashed dangerously across the face of goal. Apart from that, their only second half achievement was preventing a cricket score.

The only causes of frustration for Kopites were the refusal to substitute key players like Steven Gerrard and Luis Suarez, who could clearly benefit from a rest during a hectic festive fixture list, especially when the match was evidently already won, and an injury that could rule Enrique out for several weeks.

Nonetheless, Liverpool could be extremely pleased with their afternoon's work, which elevated them to ninth in the table, eight points off fourth and only five behind fifth-placed Arsenal, who admittedly have a game in hand. If Luis Suarez can remain fit and keep up this form then there's every chance the Reds will enjoy a much improved second half of the season. 

Key to their progress now is discovering how to remove the inherent inconsistency Liverpool have been suffering from. The roller-coaster ride may be enjoyable in a perverse way, but consistent and continued improvement is both preferable and possible. 

Trying to instill some consistency in his side is likely to plague Rodgers more than any virus, but if he wants to remain in the Anfield hot seat then he's got to find a way to snap his troops out of their yo-yo like form.

Happy New Year! You'll Never Walk Alone

Thursday, 27 December 2012

Potters punish poor Reds

A dream start was followed by a nightmarish performance last night, as Liverpool fell to a disappointing but ultimately unsurprising defeat at Stoke City's Britannia Stadium. Gerrard's early penalty gave the travelling Kop hope but goals from Walters (2) and Jones secured three fully deserved points for the Potters and frustratingly continued the Reds' unpredictable yo-yo form.

Brendan Rodgers naively selected the same side that beat Fulham 4-0 at Anfield four days previously, ignoring the fact that games against Fulham at home and Stoke away are markedly different prospects. As a result, Liverpool's defence struggled to cope with the physical presence of Stoke's attack. A third centre back and 5-3-2 formation would have been advisable but Rodgers seemingly lacked the pragmatism to alter his starting line-up depending on the opposition.

Many expected an unexciting encounter with little in the way of goalmouth action. They were proved comprehensively wrong after a thrilling start to the match produced three goals. First, Gerrard converted Liverpool's first spot kick of the season with ease after Suarez was clearly fouled in the penalty area by Ryan Shawcross.

Unfortunately, defensive errors then cost the Reds dearly. Agger failed to deal with Shawcross' long punt up field and, after Skrtel slipped at the crucial moment, Walters ran through and beat Reina to level only a few moments after the hosts had fell behind. To make things worse, on 12 minutes Jones evaded his marker, Agger, far too easily and headed Whealan's corner beyond Reina and into the net.

Leap for joy! Jones celebrates a remarkable turnaround
With their incessant pressing and evident desire, Stoke managed to subdue Liverpool's normal dominance and, as the Potters are notoriously difficult to score against, the visitors faced an uphill struggle. Gerrard shot wide from range and Begovic made a good save to prevent Suarez's blast from a narrow angle finding the back of his net, but the comeback that the Reds attempted to instigate was insufficient. Stoke retained an attacking threat as well, Reina impressively tipping Matthew Etherington's threatening right footed strike over the cross bar.

Liverpool's task became doubly difficult four minutes after the restart, as Walters controlled the ball and magnificently volleyed past the helpless Reina following Jones' flick on from a throw in. 

Not good enough- Liverpool's defence lament conceding again
Ever the controversial figure, Luis Suarez, who has been on the receiving end of criticism from Stoke supremo Tony Pulis in the past, was booked for a rash challenge on goalkeeper Asmir Begovic before Howard Webb disallowed his goal following Henderson's handball in the build up. 

The Uruguayan's frustration visibly grew as his teammates once again relied on him to try and carve out a route back into the contest. He failed to do so and, bar a curling Gerrard effort that Begovic stopped, Liverpool rarely looked like troubling a Stoke side who moved above them in the table as a result of last night's defeat. 

To improve, Liverpool must first concentrate on replicating Stoke's enviable home form and making Anfield a fortress once again. Moreover, with average players and a mid-table side, Rodgers must be more flexible and willing to compromise his principles if necessary to get a result. The defensive grit and determination that was desperately needed against the Potters was fatally missing last night. 

Nonetheless, there's little he can do with the squad as it is at the moment. The January transfer window cannot open quickly enough for Liverpool.


Sunday, 23 December 2012

Liverpool thump four past Fulham

Liverpool returned to winning ways in emphatic fashion against Fulham at Anfield yesterday, smashing four goals past the hapless Londoners, who failed to produce anything in response. Martin Skrtel opened the scoring spectacularly, Steven Gerrard- back to his best- doubled the hosts' lead, the ever improving Stewart Downing put the outcome of the contest beyond doubt soon after the interval and Luis Suarez ended his mini goal drought with his first December goal in injury time.

Following last weekend's embarrassing home defeat to lowly Aston Villa, a win and positive performance against Fulham were imperatives in front of a long-suffering Anfield crowd, who had only witnessed three League victories this season prior to kick-off. As promised, Joe Allen and Raheem Sterling were rested, as Shelvey, Lucas and Gerrard occupied the centre of the pitch while Suso and Downing supported lone striker Luis Suarez.

After beginning the better of the two teams, Liverpool were rewarded eight minutes in with a fantastic strike from Martin Skrtel, who thumped home from inside the penalty area after a corner landed favourably for him.

Skrtel slides in celebration of opening the scoring
The Slovakian's fellow centre back lacked his goalscoring prowess, as a stunned Anfield found out when Agger unbelievably fired over the bar from literally yards out following good build up play from Gerrard and Suarez. At that point, particularly after Reina anxiously dealt with Richardson's shot, nervy Kopites thought it might be one of those days where the Reds fail to add to their early lead and get punished as a result.

Thankfully, the superb Steven Gerrard, who was delightfully pinging passes across the pitch from his deeper role, calmed some of those nerves ten minutes before the break when he broke forward to latch onto Downing's clever pass and impressively found the bottom corner with his shot. 

Captain fantastic enjoys netting the Reds' second of the evening
Revelling in his preferred right wing role, rather than being stuck at left back, Downing continued to impress, putting the match to bed as a contest six minutes after the restart. The England international, who recently revealed Rodgers has allowed him to leave if he wants, surged into the box from the right hand side and fired past Schwarzer with panache.

From that point on, it was really all about seeing how many goals Liverpool could score to boost their goal difference and propel them as far up the table as possible. In pursuit of that aim, Johnson and Downing shot wide, while Gerrard forced Schwarzer to make a good save before Suarez somehow managed to bundle his way through Fulham's defence but was eventually foiled by the out-rushing goalkeeper.

Nonetheless, after Reina prevented Hugo Rodallega's free kick clinching an undeserved consolation for the woeful visitors, Suarez scored the fourth of the evening and his eleventh of the season, converting Enrique's cut back from close range.

Cherry on top of the cake- Suarez adds a fourth in injury time
Suarez's strike was the proverbial cherry on top of the cake that was Liverpool's performance yesterday. Ironically, though, one of the most pleasing aspects of the Reds' victory over Fulham was that so many other players found the back of the net, hopefully reducing our reliance on the skillful Uruguayan in the future. A clean sheet was also crucial as, with Reina not at his best, defensive confidence must be earned and maintained.

Up to eighth and only five points off fourth, things seem to be looking up once again for Liverpool. A productive Christmas period is crucial to kick starting our season and heading into the New Year with more momentum and points on the board.


Monday, 17 December 2012

Benteke brilliance hands Villa victory over Liverpool

Liverpool's brief run of form came to an abrupt end on Saturday, as Aston Villa managed to claim a 3-1 victory in front of a stunned Anfield crowd. Star striker Christian Benteke was clearly the man of the match, as, sandwiched between his two goals, he set up Weimman with a world class assist, which demonstrated why the Midlanders' £18 million man Darren Bent has been confined to the substitutes' bench over recent weeks.

Despite their good record versus Villa- Liverpool have gained more points (72) against the Villains than against any other team- the Reds were simply not at the races and, for all their possession and goalscoring chances, they never looked like earning anything from the contest after Benteke put the visitors three up soon after the interval.

After Anfield observed a moment of applause for Phil Taylor, the former Liverpool player and manager who passed away recently, Liverpool began the match the brighter, pressing high up the pitch and forcing Villa's defence into mistakes. Five minutes in Lichaj almost turned Downing's cross into his own net, before the ex-Villain struck just wide of Guzan's goal from range.

Perhaps Liverpool's best chance went begging midway through the first period as, after stealing possession from Herd just outside the area, Suarez squared to the well placed Shelvey. Unfortunately, Shelvey took too much time on the ball and was eventually well tackled by Baker just as he went to pull the proverbial trigger.

Liverpool fans sportingly joined Villa supporters in their nineteenth minute applause for Stiliyan Petrov, the Bulgarian international who is still battling with leukaemia. They were stunned into silence ten minutes later, though, when the visitors took the lead completely against the run of play. Benteke collected the ball 25 yards from goal and arrowed the ball past Reina and into the corner of the net.

Suarez then smashed a shot into the side netting and Weimman took advantage of a poor back header from Johnson to loop the ball over Reina and onto the roof of the net, before the 21-year old Austrian tucked Benteke's ingenious back heel beyond Reina to double Villa's lead and leave Liverpool with a mountain to climb in the second half.

Weimman wheels of in celebration in front of a disbelieving Kop
Introduced at the break to add an extra dimension to our attack, Cole quickly helped Benteke to put the outcome of the match virtually beyond doubt. He was dispossessed in a crucial part of the pitch, allowing Villa to counter attack and Benteke to shrug off Skrtel before neatly finishing past Reina.

Man of the moment- Benteke made the difference
Liverpool's response was feeble and Villa stood firm to secure a hard-fought victory. Suarez's low free kick caused panic in the box but Villa eventually cleared, while Agger also scuffed an effort wide. In fact, at the other end Weimman almost doubled his personal tally, heading Bannan's cross just wide. Gerrard may have nodded Johnson's shot into the net from close range to clinch a consolation for the home side, but it was a case of too little, too late for Liverpool.

Considering Villa's lowly position in the Premier League table and the fact that they'd only scored four goals away from home prior to Saturday, this was a really disappointing result and a significant setback. Just as Kopites began to believe momentum was being gathered and Rodgers' side were making progress, they went and performed woefully and were deservedly defeated.

One step forward, two steps back seems an apt description of Liverpool's progress so far this season. It's innately frustrating for supporters but it appears an unavoidable aspect of re-building the club up from the ashes of Hicks, Gillett and Hodgson. 

All we can do is patiently wait for things to turn around and continue to wholeheartedly support the manager and players.


Monday, 10 December 2012

Reds claim smash and grab win against Hammers

Liverpool staged an impressive comeback to record back-to-back wins in the Premier League for the first time this season. After Johnson's stunning opener, the Hammers went in ahead at the break thanks to Noble's penalty and Gerrard's own goal. A well worked goal from Joe Cole and Collins' own goal meant the visitors returned to Merseyside pleased with their afternoon's work and with three crucial points in the proverbial bag.

With Suarez suspended after picking up his fifth booking of the season versus Southampton last weekend, Jonjo Shelvey started up front as a makeshift striker, with support from Sterling and, initially, Downing, although he reverted to left back when Joe Cole replaced the injured Jose Enrique approaching the half hour mark.

Class act- Johnson gave the Reds the lead
West Ham arguably started the better, Diame's strike thankfully rolling inches wide after a deflection off Carlton Cole had completely wrong-footed Pepe Reina. It was Liverpool who took the lead, though, after 11 minutes thanks to a piece of individual brilliance from Glen Johnson.

The England international marauded down the right wing before hammering a beautiful shot past the helpless Jussi Jasskelainen. It was a goal of the month contender that Johnson did well not to celebrate, instead respecting the former team he'd just scored his third goal against.

Johnson, who has arguably been one of the Reds' best players this season apart from the mercurial Luis Suarez, then almost assisted Sterling in doubling their lead a few minutes later. Jarvis was unable to cope with his pacy run forward and, after he squared the ball to Sterling, the teenager fired just wide of the target.

When Johnson went forward, though, his opponent Jarvis could often exploit the space he left behind and, midway through the first period, Agger was required to make a crucial block to prevent Cole turning Jarvis' cross home. For all the benefits of his attacking play, better opponents may be able to punish Johnson more for allowing them too much space behind him.

West Ham were still very much in the game at this point and, with a little help from referee Probert and Reds' skipper Steven Gerrard, managed to head in at the break in front. First, the referee ridiculously awarded the hosts a penalty after Demel blasted a shot that hit Allen's hands from point-blank range. There was absolutely nothing he could have done to move out of the way, yet West Ham had a penalty that Noble duly converted. Then, Liverpool shot themselves in the foot, as West Ham continued to apply pressure, culminating in Gerrard heading Jarvis' threatening cross past his own goalkeeper.

The Hammers' dominance continued into the second half, as Liverpool struggled to impose themselves on the contest and find a way back into the match. Nolan's shot was blocked by Agger and Collins headed Taylor's outswinging corner wide of the target, as the home side arguably looked more likely to score next. Apart from Sterling's excellent curled effort that brought out a good save from the keeper, Jasskelainen remained largely untroubled.

The momentum swung in Liverpool's favour, though, when West Ham's key man, Mohamed Diame, pulled up with a hamstring injury and had to be stretchered off. Combined with the arrival of Henderson, who seemed much more confident after netting the winner in Italy on Thursday, that point changed the match. Only five minutes later, Sterling and Henderson swapped passes to set up Cole, who shot into the corner of the net before refusing to celebrate scoring against his ex-employers.

Soon after, Henderson broke down the right and crossed into the middle towards Shelvey. Collins got to the ball first but he only succeeded in looping the ball over his own keeper and into the net, much to the delight of the Liverpool players and ecstatic travelling Kopites behind the goal.

Smash and grab- Shelvey celebrates a dramatic comeback
Thankfully, Liverpool held onto their lead to clinch their first League win immediately after a Europa League match in nine attempts. It was arguably a rare example of Liverpool winning when they didn't deserve to. West Ham played well enough to warrant at least a point, but the Reds were ruthless in attack despite missing their star striker. 

The performances of Shelvey, Cole and Henderson were particular positives, while Johnson's goal will live long in the memory. Most importantly, sitting fifth in the form table and only four points off fourth place, Liverpool's season is definitely beginning to turn around and gradual progress in the right direction is being made. 

After their worst start to the season in over a century, Liverpool are back on the road to recovery.


Saturday, 8 December 2012

Reds through by the skin of their teeth

Liverpool scraped through to the knockout stages of the Europa League last night after suffering a late scare. During injury time, when Jordan Henderson's solitary strike seemed enough for the Reds to progress, Di Natale went worryingly close for Udinese, firing inches over the bar with the last kick of the match, to the relief of Rodgers' side. Had he scored, Liverpool would have been out of Europe.

As it was, Henderson's first European goal secured top spot in the group for Liverpool, as they qualified alongside Anzhi Makhachkala, despite the Russian side's 3-1 defeat to Swiss side Young Boys. Overall, the Merseysiders' display warranted their third win in Italy and a place in the next round of the Europa League, although manager Brendan Rodgers will be disappointed that the Reds didn't manage to get the job done with a game to spare.

Five changes were made to the line-up, as Luis Suarez started up front, Henderson joined Allen and Sahin in the middle and Enrique swapped positions with Downing, the former reverting to left back while the latter returned to his usual left wing position. For Udinese, Danielle Padelli, literally a one-time Liverpool player, started in goal. His sole appearance for the Reds came in Robbie Fowler's final match at Anfield, as the hosts drew 2-2 with Charlton Athletic in 2007.

Only 11 minutes in, though, the away side were forced into a change, as a blow to Nuri Sahin's nose meant he was replaced by Jonjo Shelvey, who had hoped to rest in order to remain fresh for Sunday's visit to Upton Park. Shelvey was then involved in the build-up to the opener on 23 minutes.

Suarez drilled a free kick into the wall after Heurtaux had fouled Shelvey. Downing's resulting corner was headed on by Suarez to Suso. The Spaniard laid the ball off to Henderson, who swept home to give Liverpool the all-important first goal.

Hen party! The Reds' number 14 celebrates scoring in Italy
Liverpool grew in confidence and almost doubled their lead only four minutes later when a skillful passing move culminated in Johnson turning home Downing's cross. Unfortunately, the Reds were denied by the linesman's offside flag.

The visitors had two further chances to add to their advantage before the break and, almost inevitably, they both fell to Luis Suarez. First, his optimistic effort flew off target when he should have looked up and squared to either Shelvey or Downing, who were both in better positions close by. Then, his stunning overhead kick from close range was denied the goal it deserved by a fantastic stop from Padelli.

With Young Boys and Anzhi drawing 1-1 in Switzerland, Liverpool occupied second place in Group A during the interval. They knew, though, that a single Udinese goal would see them plummet down to third in the group and crash out of European competition.

The temptation may have been to play it safe and try and close out the match. Thankfully, in the second half Liverpool managed to find the right balance between keeping a clean sheet and pushing forward to try and put the outcome of the contest beyond doubt.

In pursuit of that second goal, Suso squandered a good early chance, disappointingly firing wide when he really should have at least tested the keeper. However, there's no guarantees he would have scored considering the form Padelli was in. On 65 minutes he magnificently stopped Henderson's exceptional volley finding the back of the net. Soon after, he made a great save to deny Suarez after he'd jinked past several Udinese defenders, as Liverpool began to wonder whether they'd make a mistake in letting the keeper leave in 2007!

The Reds' cause was seemingly further helped when Pasquale was sent off ten minutes from time after earning two yellow cards for poor challenges on Suso. However, from that point on Liverpool began to retreat and defend what they'd secured. Their strategy appeared successful, until Enrique foolishly and needlessly gave away a free kick with only a minute left of injury time.

Although the set piece was cleared, the ball found its way back to the dangerous Di Natale, Udinese's star striker who had been sent on with five minutes to go to try and break Scouse hearts. He was inches away from doing so, as, with the last kick of the match, he smashed a volley just over the bar.

Too close for comfort- Di Natale almost broke Red hearts
Fortunately, Liverpool enjoyed that little bit of good fortune that was missing earlier on in the campaign, which may be a sign that their season is beginning to turn around. With Young Boys eventually beating Anzhi 3-1, Liverpool finished top of the group on 10 points. That means they will face one of the four lower ranked Champions League drop-outs or a Europa League group stage runner up. The second leg of their last 32 tie will also be at Anfield.

With European competition now finished until February, Liverpool can concentrate on domestic football and picking up crucial points that will push them up the Premier League table over Christmas. Let's hope they enjoy some more comfortable victories than this one over the holiday season.


Sunday, 2 December 2012

Reds sink Saints

Liverpool clinched a vital victory over Southampton at Anfield yesterday afternoon thanks to a headed effort from Daniel Agger. The Reds were clearly the better side throughout and should have added to their tally but failed to do so, therefore allowing the possibility that the Saints may snatch a late leveller. Fortunately, the visitors lacked the required firepower up front and the hosts secured three crucial points and a pleasing clean sheet.

The main team news was that Lucas Leiva returned from injury, making his first start since August alongside Allen and Gerrard in the middle of the park. Downing was thankfully demoted to the bench, as Enrique reverted to left back while Shelvey and Sterling supported Luis Suarez in attack.

Before kick-off, there was a minute of applause to remember the life of Stephen Packer, a player for Liverpool's under-9s who tragically died of cancer recently.

Liverpool's players pay tribute to Stephen Packer
Soon after the start of the contest, boyhood Liverpool fan Rickie Lambert, who scored at Anfield for his primary school team, had the first sight of goal, firing just wide from distance. Until his strike at the end of the half, Southampton didn't test Reina again and Liverpool remained firmly in charge.

Midway through the first period, Shelvey took a clever quick free kick to Suarez, who in turn teed up Gerrard. The skipper's shot was crucially cleared by a Southampton defender. Johnson then flew forward and shot straight at the spectacularly named Gazzaniga, before Shelvey's strike was turned away by the visiting goalkeeper. 

Undeterred, Shelvey continued to probe the away side's defence and went extremely close to breaking the deadlock after 35 minutes. A rapid Red counter attack culminated in the number 33 firing a shot against the junction between the post and the cross bar. It was an excellent effort from Shelvey, who is quickly becoming a permanent feature in Liverpool's first team and consistently performing to a very high level, impressing Kopites with his work rate and skill.

The opener that the Merseysiders' play deserved finally arrived two minutes before the break. Suarez curled a magnificent free kick against the bar and the ball was then delivered back into the box, where Daniel Agger superbly nodded into the corner to give Liverpool a crucial advantage heading into the interval.

Agger celebrates with his teammates
The second half progressed in much the same fashion. Apart from Ramirez's strike well over Reina's goal from range, Southampton showed little in the way of attacking intent, while Liverpool continued to search for that second goal to kill off the contest, ultimately striving in vain.

Suarez and Enrique have been working well recently, and the pair almost combined again on 70 minutes, a neat one-two playing the Spaniard in on-goal. Unfortunately he lacked the goalscoring prowess of Suarez and shot just wide of the target.

Agger's header from Shelvey's corner then looped narrowly wide, before a free-flowing move involving Johnson, Sterling and Gerrard ended with Suarez punching the ball over the bar from close range. Referee Michael Oliver caught him red-handed and showed him his fifth yellow card of the campaign, which rules him out of next weekend's tricky trip to West Ham United.

Despite firing 24 shots and claiming 69% of possession, in the end Liverpool had to settle for a narrower margin of victory then they would have liked. Lucas' return, a clean sheet and someone other than Suarez scoring are all positives to take from the match, although Liverpool must start taking more of their chances if they are to travel further up the table. 

All in all, though, with teams above the Reds in the table dropping points, Liverpool can be pleased with what could be the first win of many in a month full of eminently winnable fixtures.