Sunday, 27 October 2013

SAS send Baggies packing

Luis Suarez demonstrated why Liverpool were so determined to keep hold of him during the summer in a masterful performance yesterday.

Smashing his record of not managing to score against West Bromwich Albion, Suarez banged three past the Baggies to not only claim the match ball, but also put the Reds firmly on the path to a well-deserved win and second place in the Premier League table, two points behind table-toppers Arsenal. Daniel Sturridge joined in the fun later on, magnificently chipping the ball over the keeper and into the net from the edge of the area to allay any anxiety that may have existed after Morrison pulled one back for the visitors from a controversial spot kick. 
Suarez smiles for a photo with the match ball
Suarez was on the offence from the go, dragging a shot wide of the far post six minutes in. We then saw both the good and the bad of the number seven soon after, as he first went down far too easily in the penalty area in an unsuccessful attempt to win a penalty and then opened the scoring with a sublime show of individual talent. 

Picking the ball up deep, the Uruguayan immensely bypassed three West Brom defenders with embarrassing ease and then fired low past Myhill and into the bottom corner. He was at it again only five minutes later, somehow managing to find the top corner with a header from 18 yards out after Cissokho’s powerful centre found Suarez, more by chance than design.

Playing in the most advanced of the central midfield positions behind the stunning SAS, Henderson pressed the West Brom defence persistently, safe in the knowledge that Lucas Leiva, who returned to the line-up following the birth of his second child, was there behind him to keep guard of the defence. His efforts were almost rewarded with an impressive goal five minutes before the break but his curling strike towards the top right hand corner went narrowly over the bar.

At the other end, the only real chance Steve Clarke’s men created came on the stroke of half time when ex-Red Nicolas Anelka nipped between Skrtel and Mignolet and prodded goalwards, but thankfully our clean shaven number 37 recovered in time to make a clearance that denied the Baggies a goal that would have brought them back into the contest and made the second period far less comfortable for the dominant hosts.

Man of the moment Luis Suarez, meanwhile, was still searching for his hat-trick, terrorising Albion’s backline in the process. Ten minutes before the interval he hit a free kick just wide of the post and it wasn’t until ten minutes after the restart that he found what he was looking for. Latching onto Gerrard’s perfect set piece delivery, Suarez glanced a header into the net at the Kop end to score his- and Liverpool’s- third goal, ensuring three points would be added to Liverpool’s account at the end of the 90 minutes.
"Luis. Magician." John Henry says it all in a two-word Tweet
Sturridge then blazed against the bar as the Merseysiders threatened to run riot, but the Baggies were controversially rewarded a penalty midway through the second period to temporarily rain on the Reds’ parade. Billy Jones went down under Lucas' tackle in the penalty area and, although referee Jonathan Moss allowed play to proceed, he changed his mind when his assistant flagged for a penalty. From the spot, Morrison scored what turned out to be a consolation for West Brom, although at the time a swift second goal from the visitors would have been a serious cause for concern.

As it turned out, Kopites had no reason to worry, as Sturridge dispelled all concerns with a goal that brought a smile to the face of every Red. Twenty yards from goal, the in-form England international unexpectedly sent a stupendous chip over Myhill and into the back of the net. 

Sturridge celebrates in his traditional manner
It was an unbelievably good goal from Sturridge, but not enough to steal the limelight from Suarez, who left the field to a standing ovation a minute from time as he was replaced by Luis Alberto. Before then he had cheekily tried to add a fourth to his total with an improvised overhead kick, but Myhill did well to push the acrobatic attempt onto the crossbar.

Considering West Brom’s form going into the match yesterday- they were unbeaten in five and had won at Old Trafford- and their recent record in this fixture- the Baggies had won their last three League matches versus Liverpool- this was a really pleasing victory. Liverpool were imperiously good from the first to the final whistle, dominating in a fashion not seen since the dizzying heights of Rafael Benitez’s era at Anfield.

With Suarez and Sturridge firing on all cylinders, both individually and as a partnership, this was the perfect preparation for Liverpool’s most difficult task of the season; next week’s visit to the Emirates Stadium. If the Reds replicate this display they’ll have every chance of securing a win that will send an emphatic message to the rest of the Premier League.


Sunday, 20 October 2013

Reds held by ten-man Toon

You know it's been a disappointing match when an away draw feels like a dismal defeat.

There is no doubt Liverpool should have beaten Newcastle United yesterday lunchtime. Our recent record against them has been impressive- the Reds had won 10 of their previous 14 Premier League games against the Geordies- and, after the ascendancy was handed to us on a plate just before half time when Mbiwa saw red for fouling Suarez and Gerrard notched his 100th League goal from the spot, there was little excuse for failing to go on and claim all three points.

As it turned out, the Merseysiders failed to capitalise on the situation and Newcastle, to their credit, fought valiantly to earn a well deserved point, which they could have even conceivably converted into three but for the brilliance of Liverpool's famed SAS.

Right from the off, the Reds didn't appear to be at the races. With players like Gerrard, Sturridge and Suarez perhaps suffering from fatigue after some important international fixtures and others, namely Glen Johnson and Aly Cissokho, playing for the first time since injury, Rodgers' side lacked the sharpness and dynamism that has characterised their first half displays this season. Meanwhile, the hosts seemed intent on building on their 2-1 victory at Cardiff last time out and performed significantly better than they did earlier on in the campaign.

Despite taking seemingly countless corners, the visitors weren't able to profit from them and it was Newcastle who opened the scoring midway through the first half. Yohan Cabaye, who was vilified in the summer by the Geordie faithful after pining for a move away from the North East, went some way to winning back their affection when he somehow managed to strike past Mignolet and into the bottom corner from a ridiculous range.

Mignolet perhaps should have dealt with Cabaye's effort better
Admittedly the ball bounced awkwardly just in front of him, but I can't help feeling Mignolet should have done better.

Sakho nearly responded immediately for Liverpool, stooping to direct his header over the bar when he perhaps should have at least hit the target, but Newcastle retained their momentum and went close to doubling their lead. First, Cabaye blasted just wide before Moussa Sissoko hammered an effort on target, forcing Mignolet to make a smart stop.

The Magpies squandered their momentum four minutes before the interval, though, when last man Mbiwa fouled Suarez as he was rushing through on goal and was inevitably and correctly sent off by referee Andre Marriner, despite the vociferous protests of the Newcastle players. Captain fantastic Steven Gerrard predictably kept his cool and calmly converted the resulting penalty to bag his 100th League goal.

Gerrard's 100th League goal was supposed to be the start of Liverpool's supremacy
At that point many spectators envisaged Liverpool going on to dominate the second half, taking advantage of their extra man and the level scoreline to net further and comfortably collect all three points. Unfortunately, it didn't quite go to plan. Instead, the Merseysiders continued their irritating habit of poor second half performances and remained sluggish, only really coming to life when they were shocked into action by Paul Dummett unexpectedly regaining the lead for the Geordies.

When Dummett found the back of the net moments before the hour mark, it was in large part due to some shoddy defending from Sakho and Cissokho from a free kick. Failing to emulate their defensive teammate Skrtel, who had only minutes earlier crucially intervened to prevent Remy going through on goal, the French pair failed to clear the ball into the box and Dummett ghosted in behind them to connect at the back post and guide the ball beyond Mignolet.

Thankfully, at the other end of the pitch Suarez and Sturridge saved the day, combining to equalise on 71 minutes. Moses did well to find the number seven, who clipped the ball across the box to Sturridge and the England international headed into an open net with little difficulty from yards out.

Suarez set up the Reds' second equaliser
Suarez then smashed against the cross bar as Liverpool threatened further, monopolising possession and dominating during the closing stages but ultimately failing to break down the stubborn Barcodes. Luis Suarez had the chance to clinch a last gasp winner with literally the last kick of the match but frustratingly Krul dealt with his free kick from the edge of the area to deny the Uruguyuan.

After Newcastle surrendered the driving seat and handed control of the contest to Liverpool, it is deeply frustrating that we didn't go on to punish the hosts and win the match comfortably, which is what we should have done. Taking a step back, though, and looking at the bigger picture, a point at St James' Park isn't disastrous. Alan Pardew's men can trouble any opponents on their day and few will find a trip to Tyneside easy.

At this point in the campaign, even after this disappointing draw, there are far more reasons for Liverpool fans to be optimistic than for them to be pessimistic and, if the Reds can remain in the top four ten matches into the Premier League season, Kopites' cups will be more than half full.


Tuesday, 15 October 2013

What Liverpool fans can learn from the rise of Jordan Henderson

Liverpool fans are special.

Not only are they the most passionate fans in the world, with a love for the club best demonstrated in the stirring renditions of ‘You’ll Never Walk Alone’ before every home match, they are also the most knowledgeable supporters, possessing an encyclopaedic understanding of everything football-related, from players, both senior and youth, to managers and from teams to tactics.

Our uniqueness doesn’t make us infallible, however. Although on the whole Kopites can judge a player with a high degree of accuracy, they can, on occasion, be proven wrong in hindsight and are not immune from the tendency to create scapegoats that are burdened with the majority of the criticism during difficult spells. This has been the case in recent years with two players in particular, namely Dirk Kuyt and Lucas Leiva.

The former was lambasted as being merely a workhorse, capable of running all day but lacking quality and a decent strike rate, a criticism thrown at him despite being asked to play as a right winger rather than a central striker by Benitez, a move that lowered the amount of goals he scored in the short term but turned out to be inspired as the Dutchman proved the critics wrong and became an integral part of the current Napoli manager’s starting line-up and a fans’ favourite in the process. He also developed the helpful habit of scoring goals at just the right moments in big matches, helping sway supporters’ opinion of him.

The latter was perhaps derided even more than Kuyt, being vehemently slated by supporters opposing Benitez, who claimed the Spaniard’s supposed blind loyalty to the Brazilian was evidence of Benitez’s unreasonable stubbornness and refusal to admit transfer policy mistakes. Thank God he didn't listen to them and stuck to his guns. Few fans can now envisage a Liverpool side without the steady hand of Lucas Leiva on the tiller, guiding the Reds’ ship to its intended port of call.

His ability to keep things ticking over nicely in the heart of the midfield with timely tackles and accurate passes often goes unseen by those whose study of football goes little deeper than watching Match of the Day, but if you analyse the game in greater depth it becomes apparent that Lucas’ often underappreciated role is fundamental to the success of star players such as Suarez, Sturridge and Coutinho, who receive far more plaudits and accolades than the number 21 quietly going about his work.

Henderson is the new Lucas Leiva
This season the emergence of Jordan Henderson has provoked striking comparisons with the development of his midfield teammate Lucas. Signed from Sunderland in the summer of 2011 for £16 million, nobody denies that Henderson initially struggled to make an impact on Merseyside. Hampered with excessive expectations due to his hefty price tag, Henderson was often lumped in with Carroll and Downing in the category labelled ‘Players Dalglish blew big money on’.

However, despite Dalglish giving him regular appearances in the team, they were rarely in his preferred position, the Scot ordinarily placing him on the right wing of a conventional midfield four or sometimes even starting him at right back, a position he obviously appeared uncomfortable in. It was all rather a lot for a person who was only 21 years old.

Admittedly, Henderson is still rarely picked in his preferred central role, his start next to Gerrard versus Crystal Palace an exception triggered by the suspension of Lucas rather than a rule, although he performed so well that some suggest Lucas may have a task on his hands returning to the team, particularly if Glen Johnson is fit and able to take over at right wing back after the international break. However, Henderson appears to have developed to such an extent that he now adds the key asset of versatility to the team.

Additionally, he no longer has primarily defensive responsibilities. When Dalglish played Henderson at right back it was usually in a flat back four as an emergency move due to injuries. This role was clearly unnatural to Henderson and he wasn’t suited to it. The subtle difference with Brendan Rodgers is that when he picks Henderson at right wing back it is not a rushed decision in dire circumstances, it is part of a well-thought through plan that the Northern Irishman is fine-tuning to rejuvenate the Reds with a flexible 3-4-1-2 formation. With three centre backs and Jose Enrique on the other wing, Henderson can concentrate on attacking. He fulfils his defensive duties ably without being denied the ability to express his creative talents further forward. This is perhaps why Steven Gerrard is the only Liverpool player to have created more chances in the League than Henderson this season.

The energy with which Henderson has gone about his impressive work has also struck Reds. Industrious, athletic and conscientious, Henderson has the engine to drive him on for 90 minutes and more, which explains why, alongside Gerrard and Mignolet, he is the only player to have played every single minute of Liverpool’s league matches during this campaign.

It’s hard to countenance how Henderson was offered to Fulham as a makeweight in the Dempsey deal 12 months ago; such has been the speed and the significance of his development. While the American has now returned to the States to play for the little known Seattle Sounders, Henderson has gone from strength to strength in Liverpool Red, and it’s not unrealistic to expect him to challenge Manchester United’s Tom Cleverely for his spot in Roy Hodgson’s England squad in the not too distant future, possibly earning a ticket to Brazil for the World Cup in 2014 should the Three Lions safely negotiate two tricky group matches and qualify.

Henderson deserves to be in the England squad
What lessons can we as supporters learn, then, from the rise of Jordan Henderson?

Primarily, that it is important not to rush to judgement regarding a player’s ability, particularly when they arrive at the club at a young age. This is unquestionably difficult, as rushing to judgement on a player seems almost instinctive in the instant results culture that exists in the highly pressured world of elite professional football.

Speaking as chief of the hypocrites, in another article for this site I unwisely labelled Samed Yesil ‘awful’, which was a mistake in hindsight. More widely, Iago Aspas has already been written off by a large number of fans, ignoring the fact that he scored four and created four when granted the freedom to play in his preferred role down the middle during pre-season, when Sturridge was injured and Suarez was at the Confederations Cup. It may have been an anomaly but it might also prove that he has some potential that may be realised when he has settled in at the club. The point is, we can’t know for sure and consequently should avoid judging him at this early stage of his Anfield career.

Additionally, we must not undermine the value of hard work, stamina and conscientious performances. Yes, I understand and agree that expending all their effort is the minimal requirement for a handsomely paid professional footballer, but we must also recognise that the exceptional energy levels and industry of particular players does add an element to the team that isn’t provided by others. While Henderson is covering every blade of grass for 90 minutes week in, week out Coutinho, for example, is concentrating on carving out goalscoring chances in a relatively small portion of the pitch and is often substituted as he gets tired towards the end of matches and thus becomes less effective. Both players undoubtedly add value and are assets to the Reds, just in different ways which complement and enhance each other. The argument that ‘all he does is work hard’ is therefore normally invalid.

Following a protracted and difficult settling in period, Henderson appears to be coming good and game after game looks much more likely to follow the career path of Lucas Leiva rather than Stewart Downing, which is immensely encouraging. If he continues to improve and remain an integral part of Brendan Rodgers’ side then the vast majority of Reds supporters will be more than happy that he has proven them wrong.


(This article originally appeared on This is Anfield.)

Sunday, 6 October 2013

SAS strike again to punish Palace

It feels good to be top of the table, however briefly.

Liverpool’s super SAS strike-force fired them to a 3-1 victory over the struggling Crystal Palace at Anfield yesterday, propelling them to the top of the Premier League table, one point ahead of second placed Arsenal, who play West Bromwich Albion this afternoon.

A frenetic and fruitful first half saw Suarez and Sturridge score in quick succession, before Steven Gerrard netted his 99th League goal from the penalty spot to put the outcome of the contest beyond doubt. A far less eventful second half was notable only for Liverpool’s lull and Palace’s consolation goal, bagged by 22-year forward Dwight Gayle in front of a boisterous away support with 15 minutes left on the clock.

Liverpool’s first half supremacy wasn’t absolute, however, as the visitors began promisingly, Jerome glancing Puncheon’s cross wide with his head when he should have tested Mignolet on eight minutes. After a difficult start to the season consisting of five defeats from six, Ian Holloway set his side up to have a go in the knowledge that they were expected to take nothing from the contest. With Raheem Sterling clearly out of place at right wing back, the Eagles looked capable of troubling the Reds’ back line.
"I can't wait to hear that song; I'll have a tear in my eye. That song is worth just standing there, it's worth a 10-0 hammering.” Never mind the points; Ian Holloway was happy enough just to hear the Kop sing ‘You’ll Never Walk Alone’
Thankfully, at the other end Palace’s defenders faced an impossible job trying to contain the dynamic Suarez and Sturridge, who came to life to terrorise the visitors’ defence and calm Kopites’ nerves with a couple of early goals. First, Suarez swapped passes with his best mate Jose Enrique, who deserves to keep his place in the team purely on the basis of his understanding with the Uruguayan, before sweeping the ball into the back of the net despite losing his footing in the penalty area.

Slipping couldn't stop Suarez scoring
Then, after Sturridge’s shot had been saved, the England international twisted and turned his way beyond Ward and fired across goal into the bottom corner. With their front two in this kind of form, Liverpool can expect to get results and pick up points even if the rest of the side fail to reach top gear.

Palace responded positively, Toure clearing off the line and Mignolet making a fine save to deny Puncheon, but a soft penalty ten minutes before the break put to bed any hopes the Londoners may have had of finding a route back into the match.

On one of his many promising runs forward, Sterling cut into the box and was pulled back by Moxey as he tried to reach Suarez’s pass. It would be fair to say Sterling ‘won’ the penalty, as the exceedingly generous Anthony Taylor pointed to the spot. Gerrard stood up to confidently convert past Speroni, claiming another club record as he scored in his 15th consecutive season.

Nobody doubted Gerrard would find the net from the penalty spot
Ending the half with a bang, Liverpool peppered Palace’s goal with efforts on target. Victor Moses squandered the chance to get in on the goalscoring fun by somehow hitting the bar from close range when it seemed easier to score, before Speroni thwarted Sturridge twice and Suarez once as the Reds’ attack delighted Anfield.

Unfortunately, the same kind of intensity couldn't be maintained into the second period, as Liverpool took their foot off the accelerator and seemed to prefer a pleasant Saturday afternoon stroll to battering their opponents and boosting their goal difference. In fact, it appeared more likely that Palace would score a consolation than that the home side would extend their lead, Gayle shooting high and wide on 67 minutes. He eventually got the goal Palace’s performance deserved with a quarter of an hour remaining, glancing a header into the far corner from a corner kick before celebrating in front of the travelling fans.

Five minutes from time Sturridge hit the woodwork, but the Merseysiders failed to net the fourth goal that would have added a respectable gloss to what was a fairly average second half performance.

It’s hard to criticise Liverpool when they sit top of the table after one of the best starts to a season in the Premier League era, but they must start extending their good performances into the second 45 minutes of matches if they are to continue to claim residence in the highest echelons of the League.
"It's not enough to just win games, for me, I'm very much someone who worries about playing well. We'll take the three points but we need to improve our level with the football.” Brendan Rodgers’ evaluation is spot on
In terms of positives, ignoring the obvious sensational form of the SAS, Henderson played particularly well in place of the suspended Lucas, who looks to have a job on his hands to reclaim his place in the team based on the former Sunderland player’s performance yesterday and recent form. The back three of Sakho, Skrtel and Toure also put in decent displays, finally giving vice-captain Daniel Agger some competition for a starting berth.

Ultimately, it’s good to be back to winning ways and hopefully the momentum gained from wins over the two worst teams in the League will be carried over into fixtures against Newcastle and West Brom after the international break.