Wednesday, 28 August 2013

Reds pay high price to scrape into third round

That was almost exactly what Liverpool weren't hoping for.

The Reds may have well progressed into the third round of the Capital One Cup last night but they paid a high price to get there. Injuries to Aly Cissokho, Joe Allen and, most significantly, Kolo Toure, who had to be stretchered off the pitch, leave Liverpool’s squad depleted ahead of the visit of Champions and arch-rivals Manchester United in the Premier League on Sunday lunchtime, while the rest of the team are likely to be more tired than they otherwise would have been after they required half an hour of extra time to finally defeat League One outfit Notts County.

The evening all started so well, as Liverpool’s customary dominance paid dividends, goals from Raheem Sterling and- you guessed it- Daniel Sturridge giving the hosts a healthy first half lead that was richly deserved. Frustratingly, though, Brendan Rodgers’ men once again failed to fully kill off their clearly inferior opponents and allowed their persevering visitors back into the game after the break, Yoann Arquin pulling one back on the hour mark before super sub Adam Coombes levelled late on. To the relief of the majority in attendance at Anfield, extra time strikes from Sturridge and Henderson spared the Merseysiders’ blushes.

Brendan Rodgers selected a surprisingly strong starting line-up, with skipper Steven Gerrard, star striker Sturridge and first choice keeper Simon Mignolet all starting alongside youngsters Sterling and Ibe and debutants Cissokho and Alberto. The idea was that Liverpool’s big guns would get the game won and then be taken off during the second half to enjoy a well-earned rest.

It seemed to work as well after only four minutes, as 18-year old Raheem Sterling opened the scoring in style, firing low into the bottom corner after impressively gliding past County’s stationary back line. The downside of picking a strong starting line-up was demonstrated only six minutes later, though, as loan signing Aly Cissokho sustained an injury and had to be replaced by Daniel Agger.

In the absence of Coutinho, Gerrard and Sturridge were inevitably the heart of the Reds’ attack and worked tirelessly to create opportunities, the former pulling the strings with clever short and long passes and the latter terrifying the away side’s defence. On 19 minutes, Agger headed Gerrard’s devastating set piece against the post, before Sturridge took control of a fantastic through ball from the skipper and fired across the keeper and into the net to round off a superb attacking move also involving Alberto and Allen.

Sturridge looks to the heavens after opening the scoring

Sturridge celebrates in his usual manner
Firmly in the driving seat, Liverpool set about trying to bag further goals to build up confidence ahead of their clash against United. Agger headed another Gerrard cross goalwards, this time seeing Bartosz Bialkowski punch clear, while Sturridge and Sterling combined to set up Gerrard, whose shot hit the post. Even Kolo Toure, a player hardly renowned for his goalscoring prowess, joined in the fun, firing a 40 yard shot that was blocked after the Kop had urged the Ivorian to have a pop from distance.

Things all changed after half time, however. Whether due to complacency or simply the interval naturally disrupting their momentum, the Reds took their foot off the gas and invited Chris Kiwomya’s side back into the contest.

The away side appeared more adventurous after the break and, after Dumbuya fired a weak effort straight at Mignolet, the marginally onside Yoann Arquin jumped highest to head home a cross and reward County’s purple patch of form, raising their confidence and the noise level of their supporters.

Toure flicked the ball against the post and Sturridge shot wide after they were both cleverly found by captain Gerrard, but they could do nothing to reverse the flow of momentum and kill off Notts County, who bagged what had earlier seemed an extremely unlikely equaliser six minutes before the end of normal time. Adam Coombes, who only moments earlier had replaced David Bell, drilled an effort into the back of the net after the Reds’ defence left him unmarked in a dangerous position.

It was a massive setback for Liverpool, who had hoped to win the match as soon as possible and then rest players, but instead found themselves exerting an extra half hours’ worth of energy to defeat opponents they should have beaten with minimal effort.

It seemed like it was just going to be one of those nights when Kolo Toure was forced to leave the pitch on a stretcher after 100 minutes, leaving Liverpool without their promising new centre back against Manchester United and, more immediately, down to ten men as they had no substitutions remaining.

Coombes' late leveller sent the visiting fans crazy

Toure will be missed
Fortunately the nightmare ending for Liverpool and fairy-tale finish for the minnows, which seemed destined to occur at that point, didn't happen. Rather than struggling to hold out for penalties against an increasingly confident and assertive away side, Liverpool showed why they are the superior side.

First, Daniel Sturridge- who else? - found the net from a narrow angle after Coutinho’s through ball had set him in on goal. Then, Jordan Henderson netted an excellent individual effort, nutmegging his marker and calmly slotting into the Anfield Road end net to avoid the lottery of a penalty shootout and put Liverpool through to the third round of the League Cup.
"The most important thing was to get through. We didn't expect it to be like that but we got through so we're in the hat." Brendan Rodgers
Although Liverpool’s problems are so glaringly obvious even Stevie Wonder could see them, there remain positives to take from last night’s match. Yes, it demonstrated that the Reds’ cutting edge is so blunt that they can’t even kill off League One opposition and the injuries sustained will give Rodgers a headache, but Sturridge showed that he is in scintillating form that will frighten David Moyes’ back four on Sunday. With four goals in three matches, Sturridge is on fire this season and Suarez may well struggle to win back his place as the main striker when he returns from suspension. Moreover, Liverpool’s youngsters also took the opportunity to impress, Sterling making a particular impact with a well taken goal early on and selflessly filling in at right back when the hosts were down to ten men in extra time.

Ultimately, however high a price the Reds had to pay to progress in the Capital One Cup, it was probably worth it. The humiliation of ending one of only two Cup campaigns at the second round stage would have been almost unbearable and would have completely destroyed the momentum gathered from two opening victories in the Premier League.

Kudos must also be given to Notts County. They were resilient and performed ably, while their supporters played their part in creating a thoroughly entertaining, if infinitely irritating, Cup tie.

Liverpool have been drawn to face Manchester United at Old Trafford in the third round of the League Cup. It may well be Luis Suarez's first match back from suspension. That should be interested. 


Sunday, 25 August 2013

Sturridge slays Villains in Stoke re-run

Liverpool fans could be forgiven for feeling a sense of déjà vu.

Thankfully not the usual sense of déjà vu that often haunts Kopites after the Reds commit the same old mistakes to lose all-important points but, rather, the satisfaction that comes from watching Brendan Rodgers’ men produce a near carbon-copy of their opening day triumph.

The opposition, Aston Villa rather than Stoke City, and the venue, Villa Park rather than Anfield, may have been different but the story line of the match was pleasingly familiar. A dominant first half from Liverpool was rewarded with a fine strike from Daniel Sturridge, which ultimately proved to be the winner as the Reds frustratingly failed to add to their advantage but stood firm and held onto their fragile lead, with the help of a fantastic late save from new stopper Simon Mignolet.

Admittedly, there were some differences between the Reds’ two opening fixtures. Stoke City entered the first match of the season lacking momentum after a disappointing 2012/2013 season and struggling to implement new manager Mark Hughes’ intended attacking reforms. Although Aston Villa were similarly poor last season, coming perilously close to relegation, they have hit the ground running this season, impressing in two trips to the capital. First, they shocked the Emirates and stole the headlines on the opening day of the season by beating Arsenal 3-1. Then, they ran Jose Mourinho’s Chelsea mighty close in midweek, despite ultimately succumbing to a 2-1 defeat at Stamford Bridge. As a result, they put up more of a fight than the Potters and managed to threaten for most of the second half, not just the last 15 or 20 minutes.

However, their recent endeavours may have left Aston Villa tired, as they struggled to get into the game during the opening stages of their first home fixture, Liverpool enjoying a remarkable 75% of possession and making almost 300 passes during the first half hour, nearly 200 more than their hosts. Having opted to pick an unchanged starting line-up, Rodgers reaped the rewards, witnessing his attack continue to gel and interchange with fluidity, Aspas and Sturridge taking turns to be the main striker and Coutinho and Henderson buzzing around industriously and harmoniously in behind them.

That co-operation and creativity was on display in the 21st minute, as Coutinho, who was called the heir to King Kenny’s throne by Peter Beardsley this week, and Sturridge, who has been revelling in the striking role in which Rodgers has deployed him in the absence of the suspended Suarez, combined wonderfully to put Liverpool in front. An intelligent dummy from the Brazilian Coutinho worked space in the Villa box for Sturridge, who glided effortlessly past a number of challenges before firing the ball into the roof of the net from yards out.

Sturridge scores his second of the season vs Villa
Villa responded, though, and came back into the contest towards the end of the first half. Five minutes before the break Kolo Toure, who has impressed so many supporters since signing on a free transfer, made a fantastic saving challenge and, when Benteke finally managed to escape his meticulous attention, Mignolet was on hand to palm away his curled effort. Weimann then powered the ball over the bar on the stroke of half time, as Villa, who had been crushed by Liverpool’s domineering possession football, showed signs of causing the Merseysiders’ problems.

Raising the tempo after the interval, the Villains pushed forward in pursuit of an equaliser, testing the visitors’ defence and forcing them to play on the counter. Thankfully, Liverpool’s back four remained resolute and strong, putting in a commendable performance, while Mignolet made a few good saves as well to keep the hosts at bay. Westwood struck high over the bar twice for the Midlanders, before Gerrard slid in to make an excellent block from substitute Karim El Ahmadi’s shot.

It was the front pair of Benteke and Agbonlahor who posed the greatest threat to Liverpool’s lead, though. After the former had headed wide, the latter produced an instant left-footed shot that rolled just wide, as Villa gained confidence and the away side showed signs of struggling under the pressure.

This was seen in the closing stages when both the good and the bad of Simon Mignolet were put on display. First, he did well to save Tonev’s rasping shot from the edge of the box. Then, he evidenced his poor distribution skills, unwisely passing to the under-pressure Agger, whose rushed back pass forced his keeper to pointlessly concede a corner, which thankfully ultimately came to nothing.

Mignolet was responsible for saving Liverpool two points, though, as he produced an excellent save three minutes from time to deny Benteke what seemed like an inevitable leveller. The Belgian striker broke clear of the Reds’ defence and would have had the entire goal to aim at had Toure not heroically thrown himself in his direction at the last moment, narrowing his shooting angle. A top notch save from the former Sunderland stopper was still required and Mignolet produced the goods, launching himself to his left to parry Benteke’s effort behind.

Toure already appears an ideal replacement for Carragher
At the other end, Sturridge went down under Guzan’s challenge in the penalty area but referee Mark Clattenburg was probably right to refuse to point to the spot. In the end, the travelling Kop was just delighted to hear Clattenburg’s final whistle bring to a close a challenging contest.
“I feel we've got a lot of creativity in the team, but we can't always be the Harlem Globetrotters! It's about winning and for us, a 1-0 is as good as a 4-0 or 5-0.” Brendan Rodgers
Critics can continue to correctly point out that Liverpool lack a cutting edge up front and must learn to get the second goal earlier in matches in order to kill teams off, but it’s hard to be critical after the Reds have won their first two matches in the season for the first time in five years. At this stage of the season, it’s all about winning games by hook or by crook and getting as many points on the board as possible. Three or four goal victories can wait until later in the season, when momentum has been gathered.

For now, Brendan Rodgers can be satisfied with how his troops have begun the campaign and hopefully lead his side to a convincing win over Notts County at Anfield in the Capital One Cup on Tuesday in order to build up yet more confidence ahead of Manchester United’s visit to Anfield next Sunday.


Sunday, 18 August 2013

Stoke put to the sword in opening day win

What a great game to kick-off the season!

If the opening game of the 2013/2014 Premier League season between Liverpool and Stoke City is anything to go by then football fans are in for a treat. It was a match that had almost everything. Efforts against the cross bar, disallowed goals and late drama that saw a debutant goalkeeper make an exceptional save from a spot kick to become the hero of the afternoon despite earlier evident nervousness.

Even though the only thing to ultimately separate the sides on a wet lunchtime on Merseyside was Daniel Sturridge’s fantastic first half strike, the match was certainly far more entertaining as a spectacle than many expected heading into the contest. The last two times these teams faced off at Anfield the outcome was a goalless draw, while the visitors had failed to find the net once in five attempts at Anfield in the Premier League. As a result, despite the optimism generated by an encouraging run of positive pre-season results, many Kopites anticipated a difficult, bruising encounter with limited goalmouth activity to entertain the spectators.

Liverpool were desperate to seal three points at home on the opening day of the season for the first time since Michael Owen’s brace sunk West Ham United in 2001, and this was reflected by their early dominance. However, the away side were the first to go close to opening the scoring, Huth smashing  a strike against the bar following a goalmouth scramble started by Mignolet nervously flapping at a corner.

Thankfully, though, Stoke failed to build on that early chance. Stuck in their defensive ways despite the best efforts of new boss Mark Hughes, the Potters played far too deep throughout, fatally allowing Steven Gerrard the freedom to pull the proverbial strings from deep. The number eight took advantage of Stoke’s tactical naivety and negative approach, providing the beating heart of the Reds’ expansive style during the first 45 minutes.

Unexpectedly, the away side, who were giants compared to the dwarfs in Red, even struggled to deal with the skipper’s set pieces, as Sturridge headed one of Gerrard’s set pieces into the net but rightly saw his goal ruled out for offside before Toure headed another Gerrard delivery against the woodwork.

As bad as Stoke were, Liverpool’s attack was also firing on all cylinders, with the quartet of Coutinho, Sturridge, Aspas and Henderson interchanging positions in a delightfully fluid manner, linking up superbly and showing that there is far more to the Reds’ front line than a certain spoilt number seven. Behind them, Lucas was the perfect foil to Steven Gerrard, breaking up play and using the ball wisely, allowing Gerrard to concentrate on supporting the attack.

Enrique and Henderson both had great opportunities to open the scoring but were denied by the on-form Begovic, before Daniel Sturridge, who performed remarkably well considering he missed most of pre-season through injury, blasted Liverpool into the lead eight minutes before the interval. The England international collected the ball and unleashed an unstoppable strike past Begovic and into the bottom corner from range.

The Reds celebrate scoring the first goal of the season
It was a crucial goal as, had Liverpool entered half-time level with Stoke, anxiety would inevitably have set in at Anfield and it would have become increasingly difficult to unlock an away side clearly designed to scrap for a draw. Stoke did their best to draw level before the break and the Reds looked slightly suspect at the back, as Mignolet made a confidence-boosting save from Walters’ threatening strike soon after the goal before Lucas cleared off the line on the stroke of half time after another impromptu game of pinball had ensued in the penalty area following a corner kick.

The first half of the second period was spent largely pursuing a second goal to kill off Stoke, while the latter stages saw Liverpool gradually become more defensive, as the visitors came out of their shell slightly and sought a late equaliser that their performance didn't warrant.

Mark Hughes’ men had goalkeeper Asmir Begovic, a reported target for Brendan Rodgers in the summer transfer window before he ended up replacing Reina with Mignolet, to thank for keeping them in the match. After Coutinho curled wide moments into the second half, yet another superb save denied the hosts, as Henderson directed a left-footed effort on target from the Brazilian’s cross but saw Begovic punch the ball away.

When Henderson finally did beat Begovic just after the hour mark, he was frustratingly denied by the woodwork, as his curling shot bounced back off the inside of the post after good work from Aspas had created the opportunity for the former Sunderland midfielder. Not even Steven Gerrard’s sensational 30-yard free kick was good enough to beat the Potters’ inspired keeper, who clawed the ball behind fantastically.

At the other end, Mignolet had to be on his toes ten minutes from time to tip former Liverpool midfielder Charlie Adam’s effort from the hallway line over the bar. Then, with only three minutes of normal time left, Sterling foolishly conceded a soft free kick from which Agger inexplicably handled, handing the visitors the perfect opportunity to steal a point from the penalty spot.

Thankfully, though, Simon Mignolet had done his homework and knew that Walters had placed his previous five spot kicks in the same place; low to the goalkeeper’s right. The 29-year old Irishman followed his predictable pattern and Mignolet dived low to make a superb stop. In fact, his save to prevent Jones netting from the follow-up was perhaps even more impressive, as the Belgian made himself big to make another fantastic save and become the hero of a thrilling afternoon.
Mignolet salutes the ecstatic crowd

It was the perfect ending to what would otherwise have been characterised as a nervy competitive debut. Parallels can be made with Pepe Reina’s first few games for Liverpool, which saw the Spaniard struggle with crosses but excel at shot stopping, especially from spot kicks. His ability to make world-class, match-winning, points-saving stops after spending most of the match as a spectator is a particularly promising sign that Mignolet is capable of becoming a top notch goalkeeper.

Ultimately, Liverpool must be pleased with a victory over a bogey team on a day when the Reds have often struggled in the past. Of course, there is room for improvement in defence and we must kill these contests off much earlier in the future, but these are the types of games that we have failed to win in the past and the squandered points have cost us dear. This victory hopefully will be the first example of that changing this season.


Friday, 16 August 2013

Pre-season reflections: What have we learnt?

Pre-season must be taken with a pinch of salt.

Performances prior to the start of competitive football can be deceptive. Stars who shine in the relative anonymity of pre-season can freeze when it comes to the big stage, while those who struggle to motivate themselves for friendlies sometimes save their best football for the competitive environment in which they thrive.

Similarly, teams can steamroll over obscure opposition in pre-season and raise hopes for a successful season when, in reality, they struggle when it really matters. On the other hand, other teams, particularly those with international players who return to the fold in dribs and drabs, may have a disappointing pre-season that, nonetheless, doesn't appear to negatively affect them when the season starts.

Gaining fitness is and always will be the primary aim of pre-season. However, there remains room for cursory assessments of players and performances that could indicate how the season is going to pan out, while the conduct of managers and owners can also be considered to see if they have developed and avoided repeating previous mistakes. On both fronts, the signs are optimistic for Liverpool following the completion of their pre-season.

On the pitch, Liverpool’s attack was perhaps the one area which needed the most work. Although the January signings of Coutinho and Sturridge had certainly improved the Reds’ forward line last season, they remained over-reliant on Luis Suarez, as Fabio Borini continued to lack fitness and form, while Raheem Sterling was promising but couldn't be relied on to find the back of the net on a regular basis.

The situation was so dire during the first half of the season that, had Suarez got suspended or injured, the only other options up front would have been the awful Samed Yesil and the inexperienced Adam Morgan, who both, in fact, got more playing time than they otherwise would have.

Thankfully, Liverpool have been magnificent in attack during pre-season, netting 17 goals in seven games, averaging nearly two and a half per match. Not only have Coutinho and Sturridge remained in fine form, new signings Aspas and Alberto, brought in to add ammunition to our attack, have impressed as well.

Every LFC Fan wants this shirt!

Coutinho has been at the creative heart of our attack, with three goals and three assists exciting fans at home and abroad, causing the sales of ‘Coutinho 10’ replica shirts to surpass even the number of sales of the ‘Gerrard 8’ shirt in June, although his has since become the second most popular shirt name. His ingenuity and skillfulness make him the perfect playmaker and one definitely to watch during the 2013/2014 season.

Former Celta Vigo man Iago Aspas has also made the headlines, scoring four goals and creating four as well. It may only be pre-season, but he already appears to have the knack of scoring for Liverpool and looks to be linking up well with his teammates, regularly combining with the likes of Coutinho, Suarez and Sterling to find the back of the net.

From reports regarding his character, he also seems to have the right temperament to play at Anfield. Courageous, dedicated, loyal and with an ability to score important goals, Aspas hopefully will turn out to be a player in the mould of the much-loved Dirk Kuyt, who served the club so faithfully for six seasons, eventually winning over the vast majority of Kopites.

We may have only seen Sturridge for 45 minutes, but he was arguably our best player during the second half against Celtic, and he certainly seemed the most likely to grab an equaliser. He appears capable of taking over the mantle of the main striker from Luis Suarez, at least while he sits out the rest of his suspension.

Luis Alberto, meanwhile, had a quieter pre-season, although he has shown flashes of brilliance, with his volleyed goal against Valerenga a highlight. He will probably remain a squad player for most of 2013/2014, but the fact that our attack is deep and strong enough to have players of his ability and potential in reserve is pleasing in and of itself.

Fabio Borini may not have found the net during pre-season, but he seems to have finally recovered his fitness, even if good fortune in front of goal continues to desert him. Like Alberto, he’s a useful player to have in reserve and, at 22 years old, he has plenty of time to improve if he can just stay injury-free.

Most importantly, Liverpool have far more credible options in attack now.

At the other end, Kolo Toure appears to be an adequate replacement for Jamie Carragher. Defensively solid and reliable, the Ivorian offers more of a threat going forward as well, heading corners onto the bar and into the net against Valerenga and Celtic respectively, although his effort versus the Scottish side was frustratingly chalked off for offside.

With bags of experience in successful Premier League sides and a considerable amount of footballing knowledge to pass on to youngsters Wisdom and Kelly, free signing Toure appears the ideal replacement for Carragher.

Behind the back line, Mignolet has replaced Reina between the sticks. Although initially it seemed as if Liverpool were trading down in the goalkeeping department, Reina’s form has dipped in the last few seasons and his hefty wages made it financially unviable to keep him as competition for Mignolet.

Doubts persist in my mind regarding Mignolet but, having conceded only one goal during pre-season, my opinion of him has changed slightly. Maybe the gamble of signing a promising but unproven young shot stopper will pay off, only time will tell.  Nonetheless, as long as new vice-captain Agger isn’t sold to Barcelona and another left back is signed to provide competition for Jose Enrique, then Liverpool’s defence will also have been improved over the summer.

Midfield was perhaps the strongest area of the pitch for Liverpool heading into the summer break. Steven Gerrard’s capabilities need no explanation, while Lucas Leiva has proved his quality and simply needs to remain injury-free this season to progress. His progression may be further fuelled by competition from the rejuvenated Joe Allen as well, whose performances during pre-season have indicated that he could enjoy a much more successful second season at Anfield after struggling to settle in following a £15 million move from Swansea.

Allen celebrates his goal in Gerrard's testimonial with the man himself
In particular, the attacking flair and verve that he showed only occasionally last season has been seen more consistently during pre-season, with the Welshman assisting Gerrard to open the scoring against Melbourne Victory in Australia and netting against Olympiacos in the skipper’s testimonial. Fellow goal scorer in that game Jordan Henderson should provide extra strength in midfield and competition for places in the centre.

Pre-season has also seen the emergence of Jordon Ibe, who has built on his impressive debut display against QPR at the end of the 2012/2013 season, appearing in every one of the Reds’ friendly fixtures except for Steven Gerrard’s testimonial, netting the second goal against Preston North End. With Sterling grabbing three goals and Wisdom performing well enough to receive praise from Toure and warrant the position of fourth choice centre back ahead of Coates, Liverpool have learnt that they continue to produce youngsters capable of coping at first team level, providing Rodgers with more options to choose from.
“I think he’s a great player. He’s learning very well. He is going to be one of the best defenders in the Premier League.” Kolo Toure on Andre Wisdom
Off the field, Liverpool’s manager and owners have clearly learnt some important lessons from previous transfer windows. After the fiasco surrounding strikers in the 2012 summer transfer window, which saw Andy Carroll leave on loan and Rodgers unable to sign last minute replacement Clint Dempsey due to the owners’ refusal to cough up an extra couple of million quid, Rodgers has continued the policy of completing transfers as quickly as possible that he wisely implemented in January.

FSG, meanwhile, have shown they are serious about both long term financial stability and investing in the squad in the short term. The wage bill has been significantly cut by selling squad players, such as Jay Spearing, and loaning or selling more experienced players surplus to requirements, such as Downing, Reina and Carroll, whose wages were unjustifiably high. At the same time, the short term needs of the squad haven’t been neglected, with expenditure on quality young players who will not only have an instant impact but also potentially offer a recurring return on investment.

Alongside cost saving measures designed to reduce the Reds’ considerable wage bill, the Merseysiders’ pre-season tour has demonstrated that the club retains its global appeal despite failing to qualify for the Champions League since finishing seventh in the 2009/2010 season. In Indonesia, Australia and Thailand Liverpool played in front of packed houses full of supporters with an undeniable passion for the club and an understanding of its culture, as evidence by “Justice for the 96” banners and renditions of the club’s anthem “You’ll Never Walk Alone” more stirring than some heard even at Anfield.

The Reds' foreign fans are by no means superficial
Consequently, it is clear that commercial opportunities exist in Asia, which Ian Ayre and his team must work on exploiting if the club’s revenues are to be maximised, helping the Reds prepare for the impending introduction of Financial Fair Play rules and providing a solid and sustainable financial base from which to expand and enhance the playing squad, as well as fund stadium redevelopments.

Perhaps most importantly, we have learnt from pre-season that the club has people in charge who understand and respect the Liverpool Way of conducting business. This has been demonstrated by the exemplary handling of the Luis Suarez saga by both Brendan Rodgers and principal owner John Henry.
“What do you think they’re smoking over at the Emirates?” John Henry ridicules Arsenal’s bid for Suarez and wins instant approval from Kopites
The pair have presented a clear and consistent position of refusal to sell, making wise decisions and dealing with the media admirably. Suarez, Wenger and the rest of the footballing world have learnt that Liverpool will not be held to ransom and are absolutely determined to keep hold of their star players. This attitude and approach from those at the top should filter down to everyone else involved with the club, fostering a resolute commitment to getting the club back where it belongs.

Caution must always be emphasised and no conclusions can be drawn based on pre-season performances, but the signs are looking positive and Liverpool may just be beginning their long journey back to success.


(This article originally appeared on This is Anfield).

Monday, 5 August 2013

Gerrard: A dying breed of footballer

Footballers don’t know the meaning of the word ‘loyalty’ these days. It may well be a tired cliché, but it’s hard to argue against.

Huge TV contracts have enabled clubs to offer enormous wage packets that entice the best players from around the world to the Premier League to entertain the English public every week. That’s a good thing, but it undoubtedly and inevitably has had some unfortunate side-effects.

Call me xenophobic, but the foreign superstars that follow the money to England only stay as long as the medals keep piling up and the contracts get more lucrative. As a result, few stay long enough to develop a genuine affection for the club and affinity with its fans, let alone earn the status of club legend.

Just look at Liverpool, for example. For every Sami Hyypia, an undisputed legend, there’s a traitorous Torres and a subversive Suarez, who have scored sensational goals and spoken some meaningless platitudes about loving the club, the city and the supporters before seeking to jump ship at the slightest hint of choppy waters up ahead.

Consequently, we are experiencing a time when the footballing culture is one far less likely to cultivate loyal players that can be legitimately described as ‘legends’. Of course, that term has been misused to such an extent that any half decent player who goads hated rival fans after scoring a goal can be erroneously labelled a legend.

However, the true definition, namely a player who demonstrates extraordinary skill, dedication and loyalty while playing for a club they clearly love for the majority of their career, is much more difficult to live up to. In fact, at Liverpool in recent years only two players have merited description as a Liverpool legend: Jamie Carragher and Steven Gerrard.

Retirement led to a flood of tributes for Jamie Carragher and now Gerrard’s testimonial match against Olympiacos, comfortably won 2-0, gives me the perfect opportunity to sing the skipper’s praises.
"He's got that hunger and desire, when he plays he's never beaten; never ever beaten. He's very much a team player. 15 years here now & 630 games, he's a wonderful demonstration of loyalty and affection for one club." Rodgers on Gerrard
At times Gerrard may have been less appreciated, perhaps because he has become such a part of the furniture at Anfield that it is just assumed that he will be there to turn in top notch performances and score world class goals season after season.

Liverpool wouldn't be where they are today, though, without their captain fantastic. The number of times Gerrard has dragged Liverpool back into matches single-handedly is simply staggering. Whole seasons have been saved solely by Steven Gerrard’s contribution to what have often been otherwise ordinary Liverpool teams, supporting the view that he is the greatest ever player to pull on that famous Red shirt as his main rivals, such as Kenny Dalglish, played in teams packed with star quality, not the mediocre journeymen Gerrard has often had to put up with.

Not only has Gerrard won everything possible at Liverpool (except for, frustratingly, the Premier League title) he has always shown up in the big matches to put in a match-winning performance when it really matters.

On the way to the 2005 Champions League final, it was Steven Gerrard who rocketed a 35-yard strike into the Kop end net against Olympiacos in the dying stages to ensure we escaped the group stages.

You beauty! What a hit son, what a hit!
It was the number eight who then inspired the greatest comeback of all time in Istanbul, heading in Liverpool’s first, winning the penalty from which Alonso eventually netted our third and filling in at right back exquisitely to prevent the fresh legs of Serginho terrorising the Reds’ tired defence in extra time.

Only a year later, he performed so well in the 2006 FA Cup final versus West Ham that it was named after him.  It was his raking pass that set up Ciise to pull one back after the Merseysiders had fallen behind by two goals.  It was him who lashed a fierce drive home to level the score line ten minutes after the break. And it was Gerrard who somehow mustered the strength to fire an unbelievably good strike past Shaka Hislop from a remarkable 40 yards out to take the game to extra time at the point when most Kopites were resigned to defeat.

These are the memories that will live in the mind of this Kopite, who will be one of many to tell kids and grand-kids stories of Steven Gerrard swooping to save the day like Superman with an unerring regularity that you could almost set your watch to.

Steven Gerrard rescuing games from the jaws of defeat is a sight Liverpool supporters must treasure over the next few seasons as the 33-year old will unavoidably be forced to retire soon, and his influence over the team will, in all likelihood, diminish as well.

We saw last season the evolution of Gerrard from a player who would cover every blade of grass over the course of 90 minutes to a holding midfielder, putting in crunching tackles, breaking up play, pinging passes and setting up attacks from a deeper position. That wise tactical move, which begun under Benitez and was completed by Rodgers, enabled the skipper to miss only two Premier League fixtures, maximising Gerrard’s potential at a time in his career when he is more vulnerable to injuries.

When he eventually leaves that Anfield pitch for the final time there won’t be a dry eye in the stadium because, not only will they be witnessing the departure of the greatest ever Liverpool player, they will be waving goodbye to a footballer so loyal he dedicated his entire career to the local club he loved through thick and thin, spurning the temptations of hollow triumphs with rival clubs he had no affection for.

It will be a sad day when Gerrard says goodbye
We’ll be waving goodbye to a dying breed of footballer.