Tuesday, 30 December 2014

Lallana comes to life as Reds smash Swans

Liverpool and Lallana ended the year on a high at Anfield last night.

The team produced their best collective performance of the season as they steamrolled Swansea, smashing four past their Welsh visitors to leapfrog them in the table. The former Southampton skipper, meanwhile, showed why the Reds parted with £25 million to secure his services during the summer as he put in his most promising display in a Red shirt.

Linking well with his fellow frontmen Raheem Sterling and Philippe Coutinho, Lallana scored twice, his first requiring a slice of luck but his second a strike of pure class. His goals were sandwiched in between Moreno’s opener and ex-Red Shelvey’s own goal, with Sigurdsson’s strike for the away side unable to spark a revival.

With fixtures coming thick and fast over the festive spell, Brendan Rodgers made the most of his deep squad, re-introducing Manquillo and Moreno to the action as attacking wing backs on either side.

Both looked far more comfortable with three centre backs behind them because it minimised their defensive duties and maximised their ability to do what they do best; bomb forward. One of those centre backs was the versatile Emre Can, who retained his place in the starting line-up after impressing at Turf Moor during the second half after he’d replaced Toure at the break.

Perhaps what will please Rodgers the most is that Liverpool managed to win convincingly, scoring four goals for the first time since March, without having to call on captain Steven Gerrard, who remained an unused substitute.

Right from the off, Liverpool were in control, although the first half was relatively uneventful, at least in comparison to the action packed second period. Skrtel headed the first chance of the match straight at Fabianski, Lallana scooped over the bar after the keeper had parried Sterling’s effort and Coutinho shot weakly at goal from 12 yards before Moreno started and ended an exquisite team move to break the deadlock on the half hour mark.

The Spaniard passed to Lallana, who in turn picked out Henderson. The captain for the night’s low square pass across the box was perfect for the on-rushing Moreno, who tapped home from close range to give Liverpool the lead they deserved at the break.

Apart from Shelvey’s elbow on Emre Can, which referee Andre Marriner missed, the only thing Swansea could muster in response was a goalmouth scramble on the stroke of half time following Sigurdsson’s free kick. Mignolet eventually came and collected, avoiding one of his customary calamities.

In fact, in a sign of Liverpool’s changing fortunes, it was the opposing keeper who made a stupid and costly error for a change six minutes after the restart. The Mignolet-esque Fabianski dawdled on the ball after receiving a back pass and his rushed clearance smashed into the quick-thinking Lallana, bouncing over the Swans’ keeper and into the Kop end net.

Moreno opened the scoring
Lallana capitalised on Fabianski's error
Sigurdsson swiftly responded for Swansea
Lallana's second was a class goal
Shelvey thought he was still playing for Liverpool for a moment!
Although obviously owing more to Swansea’s mistake than Liverpool’s ability, the first goal was an example of fruit coming from Liverpool’s high-pressing game, which replicated the excellent displays of the 2013/2014 season last night.

Unfortunately, Swansea immediately halved the arrears as Sigurdsson converted from close range after Sakho’s header fell perfectly for him. The Frenchman was under pressure from Bony, who was also competing for Routledge’s cross, and otherwise put in a pretty good display, but his error could have proved costly, as it instantly gave the away side hope of a comeback.

Following two goals in two minutes, the match came to life. Sterling shot against the post only seconds after Bony had tested Mignolet, before Fabianski denied Lallana from 20 yards. The 26-year old soon doubled his tally for the evening, however, as he beat a couple of defenders to work space for himself before striking low into the bottom right hand corner to restore Liverpool’s two-goal cushion with a superb strike on the hour mark.

Involved in everything, Lallana nearly set up Sterling for a fourth five minutes later, but the angle was impossibly tight so Sterling could only shoot into the side-netting after latching on to Lallana’s incisive through pass and rounding Fabianski. When the fourth goal did arrive on 69 minutes, it was due to Shelvey being pre-occupied with combating the threat posed by Lallana in the box and thus inadvertently turning Henderson’s right wing corner into his own net.

Excellent throughout, Lallana’s name was chanted by the Kop and he received a magnificent reception when he was replaced by Lazar Markovic with 13 minutes remaining, Seeing the best of Adam Lallana is one of the things to look forward to in 2015, and he could prove an integral part of the team if his form continues in this vein.

Balotelli also came on for the final few minutes, replacing Sterling after the youngster somehow got away with putting his hand in Federico Fernandez’s face right in front of the linesman. The Italian had a chance to score his first Premier League goal for Liverpool but squandered it with a weak shot straight at Fabianski after a neat one-two with Coutinho.

All told, it was an excellent evening’s work from the Reds, who have now only suffered one defeat in ten matches in all competitions and enjoyed back-to-back League wins. Only five points off fourth and with Leicester, Sunderland and Aston Villa next up in the League, Liverpool look to finally be heading in the right direction.


Saturday, 27 December 2014

Reds win ugly at Burnley on Boxing Day

It wasn’t pretty, but Liverpool secured the all-important three points at Turf Moor yesterday.

The Reds were second best for large spells, but ground out a crucial Boxing Day victory thanks to a little bit of class from Philippe Coutinho and Raheem Sterling on the hour mark, the former cleverly setting up the latter for his first Premier League goal since September. Encouragingly, Liverpool saw off the threat posed by the hosts to keep only their fifth League clean sheet of the season and return to Merseyside with a win that elevates them to ninth in the table.

Pacey 17-year old winger Sheyi Ojo sat on the bench for the visitors in the main team news, as Rodgers made no changes to the starting line-up that took to the field against Arsenal at Anfield last time out.

That meant that Australian keeper Brad Jones remained between the sticks, although he only lasted 16 minutes before he pulled up with a thigh injury and had to be replaced by Simon Mignolet. Prior to that point, Sean Dyche’s men had started in the ascendancy, their star striker Danny Ings striking the best chance of the game against the woodwork after a defensive lapse from Skrtel.

Once Mignolet entered the action, he looked nervy. The spell on the sidelines that was supposed to help him regain his confidence away from the limelight had clearly not had the desired effect. He still looked indecisive from set pieces and uncertain with the ball at his feet, dallying and thus smashing a clearance dangerously against Ings on 21 minutes and then ridiculously delaying a clearance so that it actually went behind for a corner kick at one point during the second period. The January transfer window, in which Rodgers can recruit a new stopper, cannot come quick enough.

Mignolet produced another unconvincing performance
At the other end, Liverpool struggled to get going, as Burnley hurried them enthusiastically and forced the away side into errors. The best chance they could create came on the half hour mark when Gerrard picked out Lallana with a quality pass, but the former Southampton skipper’s tame shot was comfortably saved by Heaton.

The Clarets could sense an upset and went close to opening the scoring before the break, Lucas’ toe the only thing stopping Arfield’s volley from distance finding the bottom corner before Boyd fired inches over from 20 yards.

During the interval, Rodgers replaced Toure with Emre Can, which was a brave move considering it left him with only one substitution left to use to bring on an attacker to get the goal that Liverpool desperately needed. It was a sensible decision, though, as the versatile German settled in at centre back swiftly, shoring up the defence and keeping the ball far better than Kolo, whose woeful 63% passing accuracy was 11% lower than Can’s.

The course of the match wasn’t altered a great deal, but Burnley’s attack seemed slightly blunted, failing to register a shot on target throughout the course of the 90 minutes. An otherwise fairly average match came to life just after the hour mark with a piece of magic from the Reds. Coutinho flicked a superb ball over the top of Burnley’s defence, and Sterling strode through confidently, rounding Heaton and then finding the back of the net to give Liverpool an arguably undeserved lead.

Sterling is slowly getting back to his best
It was a great move that demonstrated the difference having quality players in your squad makes, particularly in tight games where neither side is hitting top form.

Liverpool improved after taking the lead, Coutinho drilling a shot wide and then his replacement Rickie Lambert seeing his effort chalked off due to offside only minutes after entering the fray. There were still a few hairy moments during the closing stages, Boyd firing just over the bar with a couple of minutes left on the clock, but the Reds held on to emerge with three vital points from a potentially tricky fixture.

Although not as exhilarating as the high octane draw with Arsenal last Sunday, I’ll take a scrappy and instantly forgettable 1-0 win every day of the week right now. Liverpool need to start winning matches and, with time, their form will pick up as a result.

At the moment, taking an away win and a clean sheet from a game in which they were far from their best is unquestionably a sign of improvement for the Reds. However, they must perform much better to take maximum points from their match against high flying Swansea at Anfield on Monday night.


Monday, 22 December 2014

Super Skrtel saves a point against Arsenal

Martin Skrtel’s header deep into injury time rescued a draw for Liverpool from a game they deserved to win.

Anfield enjoyed 100 minutes of action packed and thrilling football on Sunday teatime, as Liverpool and Arsenal produced their customary contest to remember. Ultimately, though, both sets of supporters left with mixed emotions. Kopites were delighted with the grit and determination shown to grab a late equaliser but frustrated not to claim three points from a game they should have comfortably won, while Gunners were gutted to concede late on but, on reflection, probably accept that they did not deserve more than a point.

Liverpool entered the match with a little bit of momentum following their victory against Bournemouth in midweek, and boss Brendan Rodgers broadly stuck with the same starting line-up, with Sakho coming in for the injured Lovren the only change. The move paid off, as the Reds proceed to comprehensively dominate the first half, enjoying a remarkable 79% of possession during the first 17 minutes. Unfortunately, however, for all their possession, Liverpool sill struggled to really test Arsenal stopper Wojciech Szczesny.

On the left wing, Lazar Markovic posed a potent threat, building on his promising performance in midweek and furthering his claims for more regular first team football. On 12 minutes, the Serbian’s pass put in Adam Lallana for the first goalscoring chance of the match, which the former Southampton star smashed just over the bar.

Slowly but surely, Markovic is improving
He then had two chances in quick succession just after the half hour mark, seeing Szczesny spread himself brilliantly to save his slightly disappointing effort after he’d cleverly broke into the box and then striking into the stands from the edge of the box after good build up play from Sterling.

Philippe Coutinho was another stand-out performer, pulling the strings in the middle and causing Arsenal’s defence all sorts of problems. Moreover, crucially he finally produced an end product, opening the scoring on the stroke of half time in superb fashion. Arsenal lost possession in their own half and, after Henderson had found Coutinho, the diminutive Brazilian somehow worked a yard of space for himself before pulling the trigger and driving the ball into the bottom left corner off the post.

It was a tremendous effort from Coutinho, and just reward for Liverpool’s complete and utter dominance right from the first whistle. It was immensely irritating, therefore, to see Arsenal, who had put in a woeful first half display, pinch an entirely unmerited equaliser with seconds of first half injury time left, although the Reds didn’t help themselves with some shoddy defending from another set piece, which Alexis Sanchez won with some amateur dramatics.

The resulting free kick was kept alive by the visitors in the box as the hosts repeatedly tried but failed to make a clearance. Eventually, Skrtel unacceptably lost an aerial battle with Debuchy, allowing the French defender to head home from close range in front of the stunned Kop.

Coutinho gave Liverpool a deserved lead...

...but Arsenal hit back straight away through Debuchy
No Premier League side has conceded more goals from free kick situations than the three let in by Liverpool, who must learn to defend, not just set pieces but in general, as a matter of urgency.

Although evidently remaining the inferior of the two teams, Arsenal improved after the break, their best performer during the first half Santi Cazorla curling over from 20 yards four minutes after the restart. In response, Lucas predictably shot over when presented with a good opportunity on the edge of the box and Gerrard stooped low to head just over after Sterling had cheekily used his hand to round the out-rushing Szczesny.

The sucker punch came just after the hour mark when Arsenal produced their best move of the match to claim the lead against the run of play. Cazorla got to the dead-ball line and pulled it back for the unmarked Giroud, who turned home from close range as Liverpool’s poorly positioned centre backs watched on despairingly.

Giroud strikes low through Jones
Liverpool’s defence deserves plenty of criticism for their failure to recognise and combat the threat posed by the lurking Giroud, but at the same time Arsenal must be given credit for their clinical finishing. At that point, they’d found the net with six consecutive attempts on target, beating Brad Jones twice and Newcastle’s Jak Alnwick four times.

What Liverpool wouldn’t give for that efficiency in front of goal; the Reds’ profligacy was pathetic in comparison, as only ten of their 27 shots were on target. Sterling, Coutinho, Gerrard and Lucas all went close as the home side continued to push, while Fabio Borini, introduced for Markovic with 20 minutes remaining, made an impact on the match. Unfortunately, it was on balance a negative one.

His obvious desire to prove himself was pleasing, and he tested the goalkeeper on two occasions, Szczesny tipping his glancing header over and parrying away the Italian’s strike at the near post. However, he stupidly got himself sent off in injury time by picking up two eminently avoidable bookings.

The first one was for slamming the ball into the turf in protest at a throw-in decision, while the second came only three minutes later when he nonsensically went into a challenge with Cazorla with a ludicrously high foot. He could have no complaints when referee Michael Oliver dismissed him.

Admirably, the ten-man Liverpool battled on, Sterling shooting over and Gerrard testing the keeper with a decent effort from range. They eventually got their reward for their efforts seven minutes into nine minutes of injury time, which had been added on after an earlier head injury to Skrtel. The wounded Slovakian rose highest to magnificently head home Lallana’s right wing corner.

Skrtel's leveller felt like a winner
It was a brilliant goal that felt like a winner due to the nature of it coming so late on at the conclusion of another pulsating and thoroughly entertaining Liverpool-Arsenal match. Unfortunately, the Reds didn’t manage to get the win that would have narrowed the gap between them and Arsenal to two points, but at least Rodgers’ team didn’t lose ground to the Gunners, which would have left their top four aspirations in tatters.

Furthermore, this was a much improved performance which, when combined with the display at Bournemouth, will give Liverpool substantial momentum heading into three very winnable matches against Burnley, Swansea and Leicester over Christmas and the New Year. Win those, and we’ll be able to say that the Reds have turned the corner come 2015.


Saturday, 20 December 2014

Mignolet or Jones? The Goalkeeper debate

You know things are going seriously wrong when the first choice goalkeeper is dropped, particularly when the back-up is so poor. 

It was a thus a sign of Brendan Rodgers’ desperation when he brought in Australian keeper Brad Jones for Simon Mignolet to face the Reds’ arch-rivals Manchester United for one of the biggest games of the season at Old Trafford.

Following an immensely disappointing start to the season and on the back of a dull goalless draw at home to Sunderland a harrowing exit from the Champions League, calls for Rodgers’ firing were growing and the Northern Irishman seemed to be running out of ideas.

His subsequent decision to relegate Mignolet to the bench and promote Jones to the starting line-up seemed to have the intention of sending a message to his squad more than anything else; he was letting them know that nobody’s place in the team is safe. 

Mignolet seemingly licking his lips at the prospect of being on the bench
For that reason alone, it was a good move; Jones made some mistakes against Manchester United but I doubt the outcome would have been very different had Mignolet been in goal, and the players now know in no uncertain terms that they must perform to keep their place in the team.

Whether Jones will perform well enough to keep Mignolet out of the team for a significant amount of time is highly questionable. Although he did OK for most of the match against United, Jones should have done better for two of United’s three goals. He dived ridiculously early and in entirely the wrong direction for Rooney’s opener and then was hopelessly out of position when van Persie netted the hosts’ third. Moreover, he was responsible for Bournemouth’s goal on Wednesday evening, somehow letting Dan Gosling’s strike squirm underneath his body and into the net.

It wasn’t great goalkeeping, but Kopites have become accustomed to that this season. Jones may not be a huge improvement on Mignolet but, tellingly, he’s not a whole lot worse either. After initially impressing following his £9 million transfer from Sunderland, saving a last minute penalty to safeguard a win against Stoke on his competitive debut, Mignolet has slowly gone downhill ever since.

His distribution remains dire, he fails to exude a commanding presence in his penalty area and there is always the sneaking suspicion that he is going to make another costly error. Confidence in him among the players and the supporters is at an all-time low, and even his one redeeming quality, shot-stopping, has not been evident enough to compensate for his many other considerable deficiencies.  

Admittedly, it doesn’t help that he has such a shockingly bad defence in front of him, but at the same time his performances have hardly instilled confidence in his defence either. The relationship between goalkeepers and their defence is a symbiotic one; their performance and confidence levels feed on each other, and unfortunately the negative perpetual cycle of poor displays from the back five has been a major determinant of Liverpool’s unacceptably slow start to the season.

In the short term, it seems as if Jones will have to make a costly mistake for Mignolet to return to the first eleven. So far, he has made mistakes, but they haven’t substantially affected the outcome of matches; we wouldn’t have beaten United anyway and, although Bournemouth’s goal led to a brief resurgence, Liverpool ultimately weathered the storm and got the win their performance deserved.

"Hands up if you're an average at best goalkeeper"
To be in the position where all the goalkeeper has to do to keep his place in the team is not make costly mistakes is far from ideal, though, and is untenable in the long term. Liverpool need a quality goalkeeper who doesn’t just avoid making mistakes, but also instills confidence in the team with his commanding presence and wins points by producing top saves when it matters.

That’s why it is absolutely essential that the Reds enter the market for another goalkeeper in the January transfer window. In fact, another part of Rodgers’ reasoning behind his decision to drop Mignolet was probably sending a message to the owners that they need to get their cheque book out and sign a quality goalkeeper.

The two options most discussed in the media are Petr Cech and Asmir Begovic. The latter was a target at the same time that Liverpool were pursuing Mignolet and, in hindsight, the Reds made the wrong choice. Although a decent keeper who would represent an improvement on Mignolet and Jones, for me Begovic is too similar to Mignolet. The Merseysiders could not be certain that Begovic wouldn’t follow the same career trajectory as Mignolet since, like the 26-year old Belgian, the 27-year old Bosnian has never played for one of the game’s biggest clubs.

If Rodgers can convince Mourinho to sell Cech, who has been relegated to the substitutes’ bench at Stamford Bridge due the brilliant form of Thibaut Courtois, then he should sign the Czech goalkeeper. He’s a world class goalkeeper with a proven track record and is likely to be looking for a new challenge.

Cech makes a clearance against Liverpool last season
Admittedly, at 32 he’s a little old, but he could still potentially enjoy five seasons at Anfield because goalkeepers tend to enjoy longer careers. Petr Cech just seems to be the right fit for Liverpool and vice versa, so it would be fantastic to see him arrive at Anfield in January; as long as it’s not just for the League Cup semi-final!


Thursday, 18 December 2014

Sterling the star as Reds reach semis

Liverpool successfully negotiated a tricky trip to Bournemouth and claimed a confidence boosting win that sealed their place in the semi-finals of the League Cup last night.

Heading into the League Cup quarter-final on the back of crashing out of the Champions League and losing 3-0 to bitter rivals Manchester United, many Kopites expected their team to struggle on the south coast against the table-topping Championship side. In fact, one could make the argument that Eddie Howe’s Cherries, who had been on an unbeaten streak stretching back to the end of September, were the favourites going into the contest, despite their billing as underdogs.

Thankfully, Liverpool showed their superiority, put in a promising performance and avoided slipping up on a huge banana skin. Victory was ultimately secured thanks to two goals from Raheem Sterling, his first since September, sandwiched in between the ever-improving Lazar Markovic’s first goal for the club. Former Evertonian Dan Gosling pulled one back for the hosts with a little help from Brad Jones, but, after a troubling ten minute spell, the Reds weathered the storm and emerged as worthy winners.

Sticking with the 3-4-3 formation that he employed at Old Trafford on Sunday afternoon, Rodgers picked a strong starting line-up as he could not risk another defeat. Victory was vital, so there was no room for resting star players, as Gerrard, Henderson, Lallana, Coutinho and Sterling all started. It was perhaps a little surprising that Balotelli was not on the bench after arguably one of his better performances against United. It was downright shocking to see Fabio Borini, long presumed dead due to his inexplicable absence, among the substitutes, and he even got a few minutes of action during injury time.

Bournemouth came out of the traps quickly, Callum Wilson missing a massive chance as he shot wide from six yards after easily beating Skrtel and Lovren only four minutes in. However, Liverpool responded two minutes later through Lallana, who tested Artur Boruc with an impressive 20 yard drive, and then proceeded to dominate the rest of the first period.

The visitors benefitted from the hosts’ noble but misguided insistence on trying to play their usual attractive brand of passing football; this meant that they did not have to deal with tough physical opponents willing to get in their faces and pressurise their fragile defence. Instead, they engaged in a tactical chess match with the Championship side, which suited the Merseysiders down to the ground.

Moving the ball quickly from side-to-side and monopolising possession, Liverpool had their hosts exactly where they wanted them. Skipper Steven Gerrard, who looks much more assured and confident with Lucas rather than Allen alongside him, was particularly influential, seeing plenty of the ball and pinging about passes in his typical manner.

Importantly, unlike against United, Liverpool capitalised on their early dominance on 20 minutes when Raheem Sterling concluded a magnificent 52-pass move by opening the scoring. Markovic had switched play to Henderson, whose clever headed assist was deftly turned home by the head of the newly bald Sterling. It was a great goal, and fitting reward for both Liverpool’s evident superiority and the youngster’s perseverance in the face of unfair criticism in recent weeks.

Seven minutes later, Liverpool crowned another clever move with a fine strike from someone else who has come under fire so far this season. The ball bounced favourably for Lazar Markovic after Coutinho had cut in from the left and tested Boruc, and the Serbian midfielder sent a powerful side-footed strike into the net from the edge of the area to bag his first goal in a Red shirt.

Sterling opened the scoring...

...and Markovic added a second soon after
Ironically, a whistle from the home crowd had decisively distracted their defender Tommy Elphick in the build-up to the goal, but the Bournemouth number five’s decision to play to the wrong whistle couldn’t detract from Markovic’s joy at what was a well-taken goal.

Liverpool were enjoying 73% of possession and appeared comfortably in control, but they gave Bournemouth a chance to get back into the match with the final goalscoring opportunity before the break on the half hour mark. Simon Francis burst down the right and pulled the ball back to the unmarked Yann Kermorgant, who had a clear sight of goal from ten yards out. Liverpool were let off the hook, though, as the 33-year old Frenchman lent back and thus smashed over the bar when he had to score.

It was a warning to the Reds that a single goal was all that Bournemouth needed to change the course of the game and swing the momentum back in their favour. Thankfully, Liverpool seemed to heed that warning as they continued from where they’d left off at the start of the second half, Sterling scoring his second of the evening six minutes after the restart to put the Reds in the driving seat.

Unlike his first goal, which was the culmination of patient passing, Sterling’s second strike came at the end of a quick and direct counter attack. Bournemouth lost the ball high up the pitch and, two passes later; Sterling was sliding a shot into the corner of the net after turning Tommy Elphick inside and out.

At that point, Liverpool hoped to enjoy a comfortable second half in which they could continue to build their confidence by keeping a clean sheet and maybe adding a couple more goals to their tally. That plan went out the window when Bournemouth pulled one back six minutes later through Dan Gosling, whose low left footed shot from 12 yards somehow found a way into the net, despite Jones getting a lot on it.

Sterling seemed to have put the match beyond Bournemouth...

....but Brad Jones let the hosts back in
The Aussie keeper should have done so much better, and his mistake meant that the Cherries sensed a route back into the contest. They pushed hard for 10-15 minutes, Wilson claiming for a penalty after clashing with Sakho, Fraser flashing a header across goal and Gosling smacking a shot against the woodwork, but Liverpool weathered the storm and looked surprisingly comfortable in the closing stages.

At the other end, Sterling should have had a hat-trick but somehow contrived to miss the target from six yards out after a delightful flick from Lallana. It would have been nice to see Sterling take home the match ball, but ultimately Kopites can have few complaints following a refreshingly positive evening for Liverpool, who now face Chelsea over two legs in the semi-finals in January.

Those ties will be by no means easy, but right now the Reds have to take one game at a time and focus on taking this form into their game at home to Arsenal on Sunday. If this win is to provide anything more than temporary respite for Rodgers and his team, they must get something against the Gunners.


Monday, 15 December 2014

Toothless Reds punished by ruthless Red Devils

What a difference a world class goalkeeper and clinical strikers makes.

Liverpool fell to an immensely frustrating 3-0 defeat at Old Trafford on Sunday afternoon, as Louis Van Gaal’s men were superior at both ends of the pitch and therefore claimed three crucial points, elevating them to third place in the table and creating a sizeable ten-point gap between the Reds and the Red Devils.

United’s goalkeeper David de Gea was in world class form, making six excellent saves to deny the Merseysiders and clinch the Man of the Match award. At the other end, Rooney, Mata and Robin van Persie took advantage of yet more dreadful Liverpool defending to score from half of their shots on target.

Unbeatable: David de Gea
In contrast, Sterling and Balotelli missed several golden opportunities and, although the surprisingly selected Brad Jones did enough between the sticks to merit keeping his place against Bournemouth in midweek, the Aussie keeper should have done better for United’s first and third goals.

The relegation of Simon Mignolet to the bench for what Rodgers described as an ‘indefinite period’ was not the only surprising team selection decision, as Liverpool reverted to three at the back and played without a conventional striker as the recalled Lallana and Coutinho flanked Raheem Sterling, who played as a false nine.

It was a brave team selection by Brendan Rodgers, but the underlying logic was compelling and convincing. The idea was to pack the team with pacey forward players intent on pinning United back and pressurising them from the off.

Those tactics appeared to pay off during the opening stages, as Liverpool started the better, enjoying two-thirds of possession and routinely forcing their hosts into mistakes as United repeatedly lost the ball with sloppy passes. Unfortunately, though, the Reds couldn’t capitalise when they were presented with possession by United.

The game turned in the twelfth minute when United scored the vital first goal only 30 seconds after Raheem Sterling had squandered a gilt-edged opportunity to reward Liverpool’s dominance with a goal at the other end.

Adam Lallana, who was confusingly replaced by Balotelli at the break despite being one of the best performers during the first half, threaded through a lovely defence splitting pass for Sterling, whose shot was repelled by de Gea. The number 31 should have done better, but de Gea made it difficult for him by standing tall and not committing, wisely waiting for Sterling to make the first move.

United immediately countered through Antonio Valencia, taking advantage of the fact that left back Alberto Moreno was stranded up field. Valencia beat the covering Joe Allen all too easily, nutmegging the Welshman, and was then given all the time in the world to pick out a cross by the hesitant Lovren. The 29-year old Ecuadorian passed perfectly for the on-rushing Rooney, who had been unacceptably left by Coutinho, and the former Everton striker turned home from 16 yards out.

Rooney opened the scoring only seconds after Sterling should have
Jones was poorly positioned and dived too early, but blame should really be apportioned between Allen, Moreno, Lovren and Coutinho, who all made it far too easy for United.

Encouragingly, Liverpool responded well. Sterling weaved through the United defence again but was denied by de Gea, while Gerrard saw his deflected shot saved by the Spaniard and also found Moreno in the area with the pass of the match. Frustratingly, the former Sevilla man couldn’t take advantage as a poor first touch let him down.

When you’re out of sorts and short of confidence, nothing seems to go your way, and that was the case for Liverpool seven minutes before the break as they were on the receiving end of a poor decision from the linesman. Juan Mata was clearly in an offside position as he headed home after van Persie flicked on Young’s left wing cross, but the goal stood.

Mata was blatantly offside as he headed home from close range
Admittedly, Skrtel and Lovren should have been tighter to their men and Mata easily evaded Moreno, but it doesn’t help your cause when the officials fail to spot what was a fairly obvious offside. Yes, van Persie only got a slight touch on the ball, but you could tell from the change of direction of the cross that the Dutch striker had got something on it. I guess when it rains, it pours.

There was still time before the break for de Gea to collect Sterling’s relatively tame header, and the England international was central to the action after the interval. First, Henderson profligately headed his cross over the bar. Then, he wasted the best chance of the match. Jonny Evans’ terrible back pass put him in one-on-one with de Gea, but somehow Sterling failed to find the net, taking the ball far too wide with a poor first touch and taking too much time to fire goalwards.

It really was an awful miss from Sterling, who will be disappointed with his display due to the amount of chances he squandered, but it’s unfair that so much pressure is heaped on him. He’s only just turned 20 and yet is shouldering the burden of being Liverpool’s sole attacking hope, which is noticeably hitting his form and hampering his development as a player. He came on leaps and bounds last season when he played a supporting role as an apprentice under two world class strikers, but is understandably struggling in the absence of Suarez and Sturridge this term.

To be fair to the Italian, Balotelli did provide some support to Sterling, but he also came up against the unbeatable de Gea, who stunningly tipped his strike onto the cross bar from 12 yards out five minutes before van Persie ended the game as a contest.

As always, the defence should have done better for the third goal. This time, Lovren, who always looks like a mistake waiting to happen, fatally scuffed a panicked clearance straight to Mata, who picked out van Persie and then celebrated with his teammate after he’d easily turned into an open net, with Jones stranded on the other side of the goal after committing too early once again.

Robin van Persie had Lovren to thank for his fouth goal in four games
The game was over, but there was no way de Gea was going to let in a late consolation for Liverpool, as he superbly denied Balotelli on two further occasions. Brad Jones also made a pretty decent save from van Persie in the last goalmouth action of the match, but there was no chance of him stealing his counterpart’s thunder.

At the end of the day, the match just confirmed that Liverpool need to acquire a world class goalkeeper and at least one, if not two, decent strikers in January. Manchester United were fairly ordinary for large spells, like they have been throughout their six-game winning streak, but won the match because their keeper was magnificent and their forwards clinical. Liverpool, meanwhile, were quite impressive and creative in midfield, but had no end product and a defence capable of self-destructing at any moment.

Right here and now, Brendan Rodgers has a huge task on his hands as his team face table-topping Championship side Bournemouth in the League Cup on Wednesday and then welcome Arsenal to Anfield next Sunday. I hope he has a plan as to how Liverpool can get something from those matches, because after this defeat I have no idea how the Reds can turn things around.


Wednesday, 10 December 2014

Heartbreak as Reds crash out of Champions League

Liverpool were unable to pull off another miraculous European rescue as they exited the Champions League at Anfield last night.

An overly defensive starting line-up, shockingly bad first half performance and one of the most ridiculous refereeing decisions I have ever witnessed all meant that Liverpool failed to secure the win that they needed to qualify for the knock-out stages of the Champions League, finishing third in Group B with five points and therefore dropping into the Europa League following a 1-1 draw at home to Swiss side Basel.

Fabian Frei rewarded Basel’s superiority and punished Liverpool midway through the first half when he scored with a sweet strike and, although skipper Steven Gerrard conjured up a piece of magic from a free kick to roll back the years and give Kopites hope with ten minutes remaining, the Reds’ late push proved insufficient to prevent a crushing Champions League exit.

Truth be told, Liverpool didn’t deserve to progress, not just because of this sub-par performance, but also because Rodgers’ side simply haven’t been good enough over the course of the six group stage matches. One win in six in a group in which they were favourites to finish as runners up really isn’t acceptable, even considering the Merseysiders’ extended absence from the elite European competition.

Boss Brendan Rodgers must take his fair share of the blame. His starting line-up was perplexing to say the least. Picking four central midfielders, two of which are primarily defensive midfielders, giving the woeful Enrique a guest appearance at left back and leaving both Coutinho and Lallana on a bench that contained no strikers were all decisions that made absolutely no sense. It seemed like the sort of line-up you’d expect him to pick if it was an away game in which a point would suffice, not a must-win make or break home match.

The players also appeared to fail to comprehend the magnitude of the occasion as they put in a first half performance that they should be ashamed of. Defensively nervy and devoid of ideas going forward, Liverpool were abysmal, deflating the Anfield crowd and encouraging their opponents, who were assured in possession, mobile off the ball and threatening in attack but were ultimately a competent European outfit made to look like world-beaters by a Liverpool side that is a pale shadow of last season’s.

Shkelzen Gashi, top scorer in the Swiss Super League, fired a warning shot just over the bar on 13 minutes after playing a neat one-two with Luca Zuffi, before Fabian Frei gave Paulo Sousa’s men a deserved lead on 25 minutes. It all started when Liverpool gave possession away cheaply as Mignolet stupidly threw the ball out to the heavily marked Lucas on the edge of his own box. Basel worked the ball patiently and eventually Zuffi laid it off for Frei, who fired a shot into the bottom right hand corner from 20 yards out.

Frei celebrates scoring the opener at Anfield
That should have been a wake-up call for Liverpool, but they didn’t respond by upping their game and actually looked capable of falling further behind before the break. On the half hour mark, only Streller’s ambitions to net a worldie at the Kop end kept the Reds’ task from becoming doubly difficult, as the unmarked 33-year old unwisely attempted to volley Xhaka’s chipped cross when it would have been far easier to head home from close range. Gashi did have the ball in the back of the net a couple of minutes before the interval but thankfully he was flagged offside.

Forced into making a double substitution at the break, Rodgers took Lambert off, introducing Markovic to the action and pushing Sterling up into the lone striker’s role. Moreno, who should have started, also replaced Enrique and offered much more than the Spaniard down the left hand side.

To be fair to Rodgers, he clearly made the wrong decision with his starting line-up, but his changes at half time were clever, and Liverpool were slowly improving in the second half up until the ludicrous sending off.

Ironically and irritatingly, Lazar Markovic was particularly effective, embarking on a couple of decent runs and generally injecting a bit of much-needed urgency and directness into the hosts’ play. It looked all set up for him to make himself a hero and win over the many supporters who remain unconvinced of his qualities following his £20 million summer move from Benfica.

Unfortunately, he was denied the opportunity by a scandalous decision by referee Bjorn Kuipers. How he can show Markovic a red for grazing Safari’s cheeks with his fingernails is beyond me, and Safari’s reaction was unsportsmanlike conduct as he clearly tried to get Markovic sent off.

I'm genuinely struggling to remember a worse red card decision
Some have claimed that there was malicious intent on Markovic’s part, but it didn’t look like that at all. He seemed to be merely trying to push Safari off the ball, misjudging his distance from the Basel number 19. At worst, it was a free kick, but I think even a booking would have been harsh, so a red card is just unbelievable.

The hope at that point was that the Reds would be spurred on by a sense of injustice. Thankfully, after a brief lull as Liverpool came to terms with the mountain they had to climb, the home side noticeably improved, Skrtel thundering a magnificent effort just over the bar from 30 yards. However, it wasn’t until Steven Gerrard scored a wonder goal that Liverpool really got going.

As he so often does in these situations, Gerrard came up with the goods when it really matters. He bent an inch-perfect free kick over the wall and into the top left corner of the net off the post from the edge of the area. It was an excellent goal that explained why Stevie still deserves to be one of the first names on the team sheet for the biggest matches.

Stevie is still the man for the big occasion
Throwing Martin Skrtel up front, Liverpool went all out to get the second goal, inevitably leaving them vulnerable at the back; Mignolet had to make saves from Zuffi and Embolo and also saw Xhaka slam a shot wide in the closing stages.

At the other end, though, the Reds went genuinely close to clinching a late winner. First, Henderson’s rubbish header from Gerrard’s cross almost inadvertently dribbled over the line following a deflection off Gashi. Agonisingly, the wrong-footed Vaclik just about recovered in time to stop it rolling slowly into the net.

Henderson then produced a much better effort on goal, sending a sweetly struck strike goalwards from the edge of the box, which forced Vaclik to make a decent save. Skrtel also struck just wide from Sterling’s cross, before the young England international saw the keeper easily deal with his tame shot in what proved to be the last act of the night.

It was gutting, particularly because Liverpool almost pulled off a seemingly impossible European comeback once again but just couldn’t quite do enough to secure second place in Group B. Perhaps the most frustrating thing is that it all could have been so different had Liverpool played they like did during the final ten minutes right from the start. Attacking endeavour and purpose was needed right from the word ‘go’, but was only evident when all hope seemed lost.

Inconsolable: Gerrard and Henderson on the full time whistle
Now, Liverpool embarrassingly drop down into the Europa League, which is not where they want to be. In previous seasons, I would have preferred finishing fourth in the group and dropping out of Europe altogether, as at least that would have avoided the damaging effect of a Thursday-Sunday match schedule on the Reds’ League form.

However, the winners of this season’s Europa League qualify for next season’s Champions League and, considering how tough it is going to be to finish in the top four, winning the Europa League may be the easiest route back into Europe’s elite competition. It would kill two birds with one stone, ensuring cup success and Champions League qualification. It could also potentially prevent bitter rivals Manchester United, who Liverpool face at Old Trafford on Sunday, from qualifying for the Champions League if they finish fourth, which would be brilliant.

As difficult as it will be, Liverpool now need to just pick themselves up and go again against Manchester United on Sunday. Who knows, they could beat United and then Arsenal at Anfield, stranger things have happened. If they do, Liverpool supporters will enjoy a much merrier Christmas, even without Champions League football to look forward to in 2015.


Sunday, 7 December 2014

Reds held to bore draw by Black Cats

Liverpool played out a frustratingly dull goalless draw against Sunderland at Anfield yesterday.

For the second week in a row, the Anfield crowd was starved of entertainment as the Reds struggled, and ultimately failed, to overcome opponents who they must beat if they are to achieve the top four position they aspire to.

Remarkably, it wasn’t until the 63rd minute that a shot on target was registered; when it finally did arrive, it wasn’t exactly worth the wait, as Lucas’ tame effort from the edge of the box was more of a back pass than a shot on goal. Unsurprisingly, the instantly forgettable clash was shown last on Match of the Day.

With a must-win match at home to Basel in the Champions League on Tuesday night in mind, Brendan Rodgers rested Steven Gerrard again, as former Sunderland star Jordan Henderson took the skipper’s armband while Gerrard began on the bench.

Henderson wore the armband against his former employers
In hindsight, that was not the wisest choice by Rodgers, as Gerrard injected some life into the attack when he came on and was in good form following his goal against Leicester in midweek. He should have started and then been replaced once the job was done.

Fabio Borini was once again left out of the matchday squad altogether in another puzzling piece of team news. The Italian’s absence from the bench meant that Liverpool lacked another striker to call upon to assist or replace Rickie Lambert, which would have been helpful considering the damning fact that only Aston Villa and Burnley have scored fewer goals at home than Liverpool this season.

Sunderland had the better of a first half that was as dull as the first 45 against Stoke City a week earlier. Neither side managed to dirty the opposing keeper’s gloves, but the Black Cats were happier with how they had played at half time, Wes Brown heading the best chance of the half over the bar literally seconds before the referee blew his whistle.

Their main striker Connor Wickham also had two penalty appeals turned down by referee Neil Swarbrick during the first 45 minutes. The first, coming after only two minutes, was a close one. Although the contact from Skrtel was minimal, he entered the challenge in such a way as to risk conceding a spot kick. Had the match been played at Sunderland’s Stadium of Light, the decision just might have been different.

His second appeal ten minutes from the break was much more dubious, as the former Ipswich striker hit the deck under pressure from Johnson and Lucas despite neither player touching him. He was rightly ignored by the referee.

Liverpool, meanwhile, struggled to get going. Lambert headed Lallana’s cross over the bar and Coutinho drove just wide after cutting inside from the left, but apart from that the hosts appeared bereft of ideas, unable to take the initiative and break down the visitors’ fairly resilient but relatively untested defence.

Frustratingly, it was little different after the interval. On perhaps the only positive note, though, Sterling seemed on the road back to his best form during the second half; the mesmerising mazy dribbles that he embarked on several times looked the most likely route to breaching the Black Cats’ back line.

It was following one of his diagonal runs that Lucas passed the first shot on target back to Sunderland’s untroubled stopper Costel Pantilimon. From another, Coutinho shot straight at the keeper, while at the other end Simon Mignolet was called upon to make a decent save from Gomez’s thunderous drive from range. Getting desperate, Sterling went down easily under a challenge from Brown after another twisting run, but he couldn’t con Neil Swarbrick.

The final chance of the match involved Liverpool’s two substitutes, Gerrard and Markovic, who both made a positive contribution from the bench; the former predictably lifted the crowd and the latter provided a surprisingly good account of himself when given a rare opportunity by Rodgers.

Gerrard made a difference when he was introduced for Lallana
With four minutes remaining Gerrard produced the type of wonder pass that his replacement in defensive midfield Lucas Leiva could only dream about making. Lambert nodded it back across to Markovic, who hit it well but was denied by a superb block from John O’Shea.

Truth be told, this was a tedious match that will not live long in the memory. Credit to Sunderland, they came with a clear game plan, stuck to it and, as a result, returned to Wearside with a valuable point. The Merseysiders should have done so much better, though, and must up their game against Basel in midweek if they hope to reach the knockout stages of the Champions League.


Wednesday, 3 December 2014

Two on the trot as Reds slays Foxes

Liverpool won their second successive match for the first time since October on Tuesday evening.

Building on their 1-0 victory at home to Stoke City on the weekend, the Reds came from behind to seal a 3-1 win at Leicester City’s King Power stadium thanks to goals from Lallana, Gerrard and Henderson.

Still far from their best, Liverpool laboured at points and Leicester remained in with a shout until Henderson’s strike seven minutes from time, but, at the end of the day, getting three points is all that matters. Improved displays will come with time as the Reds’ confidence grows but, right now, Brendan Rodgers’ side cannot afford to be too picky as to how they go about winning games.   

Skipper Steven Gerrard returned to the starting line-up after being rested against Stoke and put in a decent display in an advanced role in which he is clearly more at home. His strike soon after the restart was crucial, and he obviously enjoyed celebrating it in front of the travelling Kop.

Behind him, Lucas put in another accomplished performance. The defensive solidity he brings and the fact that his presence frees Gerrard to play further up the pitch presents a convincing case for the Brazilian’s inclusion on a more regular basis.

Raheem Sterling, meanwhile, is slowly recapturing his form and probably posed Liverpool’s greatest attacking threat, although he squandered a great chance to open the scoring after a quarter of an hour when his heavy touch took him away from goal as he tried to round Kasper Schmeichel from close range. Attempting a delicate chip over the keeper and into the net may have been the better option.

At the other end, Simon Mignolet was a liability. On 19 minutes he nonsensically passed the ball straight to Cambiasso. Thankfully, the 34-year old former Real Madrid and Inter Milan midfielder proved that he is past his best by somehow rolling a shot past the post from 30 yards with the goal gaping.

It was a massive let off for Mignolet, but his evening went from bad to worse two minutes later when he netted an own goal. Admittedly, there was nothing that he could do about it, as Ulloa’s shot rebounded off the post, hit the back of the Belgian’s head and rolled into the net following a frenetic build up to the goal, which included Skrtel’s headed clearance off the line. However, the number 22 has a lot to do to dissuade Rodgers from entering the transfer market for another stopper in January.

Importantly, Liverpool responded quickly through Adam Lallana. Under pressure from Lambert, Wasilewski headed Lucas’ cross only as far as the former Southampton midfielder, who did well to keep his sweet strike down, firing low into the net to level the scoreline only five minutes after the hosts had gone ahead.

Mignolet was Liverpool's worst performer

Lallana levelled quickly with a good goal
Unfortunately, the Reds failed to build any momentum from that equaliser, Sterling’s lung-bursting 20-yard solo run, which ended with him handling the ball on the floor after being crowded out by Leicester’s defence, the closest they came to taking the lead before the break.

In fact, the Foxes were arguably in the ascendancy, and unquestionably started the second half on top, immediately testing Liverpool’s troubled defence, which did just about enough to retain parity until Steven Gerrard scored against the run of play on 53 minutes.

However, Liverpool required the self-destruction of Leicester captain Wes Morgan to gain the upper hand in the game. First, his poor clearance from Sterling’s cross fell perfectly for the on-rushing Gerrard, who calmly picked his spot and slotted home. 

Gerrard is better utilised higher up the pitch
Then, just under ten minutes later he took Lambert down as the tall striker latched onto his under-hit back pass. As he was in on goal, referee Lee Mason had no choice but to send Morgan off.

At that point, Liverpool should have been firmly in the supremacy and used the rest of the match to increase their confidence by bagging a couple of goals. Instead, if anything Leicester seemed to be even more dominant with ten men than they were with a full complement of players.

On more than one occasion chaos ensued in the Liverpool area as the Reds fought hard to hold on to their lead. Cambiasso’s shot was inadvertently blocked by teammate Vardy, before Vardy’s strike was deflected just past Mignolet’s left hand post by Skrtel as Liverpool lived life on the edge.

At the other end, Schmeichel was fortunate not to concede a penalty after taking down Gerrard in the penalty area, although the number eight admittedly appeared to be attempting to win a spot kick. It was a tough but probably correct call in the end by Lee Mason.

Seven minutes from time, Jordan Henderson exploited an error by Kasper Schmeichel to make sure of the victory. The son of Manchester United legend Peter failed to deal with Gerrard’s cross, allowing Sterling to superbly back heel the ball to Henderson, who turned home from close range with ease.

Henderson's celebration was bizarre
The final goal summed up the match quite well. Although it was a fairly even contest between two struggling teams, Liverpool made slightly fewer individual errors and Leicester failed to capitalise on the ones that they did make. Conversely, the hosts’ numerous mistakes were punished by the visitors, who displayed a clinical nature in front of goal often lacking in recent displays, scoring from all three of their shots on target.

Compared to last season, this wasn’t a great win, as it was far from pretty. However, in the context of the current campaign, this was a hugely important victory and, should the Reds go on to beat Sunderland and Basel in their next two fixtures at Anfield, they’ll enter their titanic lash at Old Trafford in mid-December in the perfect manner.


Sunday, 30 November 2014

Reds scrape Stoke win to end losing streak

Liverpool returned to winning ways with a narrow and nervy win at home to Stoke City on Saturday.

Glen Johnson’s brave headed effort in front of the Kop with five minutes left proved the difference, as Brendan Rodgers’ side recorded their first victory in all competitions since the end of October. It marked the culmination of a much-improved second half performance following an instantly forgettable first half from both sides.

Mark Hughes’ men, who had more possession and shots on target than their hosts, may have felt that they deserved a share of the spoils, but the Merseysiders ultimately wanted it more than the Potters as the need to arrest an alarming decline in the team’s fortunes proved critical heading into the potentially decisive festive fixtures.

The major team news was that Steven Gerrard was dropped to the bench exactly sixteen years to the day since his Liverpool debut.

Gerrard goads the abusive away fans while warming up
That bold decision by Brendan Rodgers, who late claimed to be unaware of the skipper’s landmark, was accompanied by a few other interesting selections, as Enrique, Toure and Lucas came in from the cold and were handed starting berths. Moreover, the in-form Rickie Lambert retained his place in the team as Balotelli and Sturridge remain injured.

Enrique and Toure were part of a back four that kept a clean sheet for only the third time this season, while Lucas put in a commanding performance in front of the defence that demonstrated his quality, which has gone largely untapped this season. He appears a far more accomplished defensive midfielder then Gerrard and even marauded forward on occasion, squandering one gilt-edged opportunity in the second half when he shot straight at the keeper when well-placed as Liverpool broke with a two-man advantage.

The first 45 minutes were absolutely dreadful. Not a single shot on target was recorded as Mignolet and Begovic barely got their gloves dirty, while both attacks struggled to get going. If anyone was going to produce anything for the Reds, it was either Coutinho or Sterling, who looked the liveliest, but overall it was another disjoined performance from a cagey Liverpool side clearly lacking in confidence.

Stoke, meanwhile, were happy to soak up the minimal pressure, knowing that, with their aerial prowess and Liverpool’s defensive weaknesses, all they needed to do to craft a decent goalscoring opportunity was win a set piece.

Thankfully, the second half was to the first what day is to night. Having almost certainly been on the receiving end of a stern word or two from Rodgers during the interval, Liverpool demonstrated far more determination, desire and urgency during the second period, possessing more of an attacking threat and doing enough to warrant the three points.

Captain for the day Jordan Henderson almost broke the deadlock six minutes after the restart, drilling a volleyed effort that many in the ground thought had breached the net just wide of goal. Stoke responded by going close on two occasions.

First, Mignolet diverted Diouf’s effort away with his feet after initially appearing caught in two minds as to whether or not to come off his line as the Senegalese striker latched on to Bojan’s pass and bore down on goal. Then, on the hour mark the former Barcelona player fired a threatening strike against the woodwork. Raheem Sterling immediately went up the other end and slotted a low left footed shot just wide of the far post as the players finally gave the supporters a spectacle to watch.

Sterling shot just wide
Encouragingly, Liverpool were playing much higher up the pitch and also producing some intricate passing movements that helped to unlock the visitors’ defence, Allen disappointingly shooting over the bar from six yards out following clever play by Coutinho and Sterling.

Their momentum was building and it only seemed a matter of time until the Reds took the lead; thankfully their pressure eventually told, although they had to suffer another fright a couple of minutes before going ahead. Stoke’s left wing corner wasn’t properly dealt with on the first time of asking by Liverpool, allowing Diouf to spin and volley goalwards from close range. Only a magnificent chested goalline clearance form Sterling denied the Potters’ number 18.

It wasn’t a moment of creative genius that prised open Stoke’s defence at the end of the day, but rather some much needed directness and determination. Gerrard swung in a cross to Lambert, whose looping header bounced back off the bar. Spotting the opportunity, Johnson reacted fastest and somehow managed to get his head to the ball, sending it into the net from a few yards out to score his first Premier League goal since December 2012.

It was a brilliant goal born simply of a greater desire to reach the ball than the Stoke defenders, one of whom inadvertently booted Johnson in the head, leaving the much-maligned England international bleeding.

Johnson put his head where it hurts to win the points for the hosts
The scars were a small price to pay for the precious points, though, which were eventually secured following seven minutes of injury time, in which Mignolet made an exceptional save, tipping Bojan’s tremendous volley over the bar to prevent a Stoke sucker-punch.

Scrapping a 1-0 win at home to Stoke City is certainly not where Liverpool want to be, or should be, but beggars can’t be choosers, and I’m just delighted that the Reds have finally won a match, however they went about doing it. It may have been ugly, but Kopites won’t be complaining if it’s the first step on the long road back to the level where Liverpool should be at.


Thursday, 27 November 2014

European fate remains in Reds' hands despite draw in Bulgaria

A late Ludogorets leveller dampened Liverpool’s spirits but did little to affect their Champions League chances.

Their task remains the same as it would have been had they held on to victory; they must beat Basel in the final group stage match at Anfield on 9 December to progress to the knockout stages. Considering his side’s recent run of poor form, Brendan Rodgers will be pleased that the Reds still control their European destiny, although another unconvincing performance blighted by defensive errors is unlikely to turn Liverpool’s season around.

Having arguably hit rock bottom at Crystal Palace on Sunday, Rodgers made three changes to the team, as Toure, Lucas and Henderson stepped in for Lovren, Coutinho and Lallana, who all dropped to the bench.

Unfortunately, the alterations appeared to make little immediate difference, as Liverpool conceded after only three minutes, damaging their already battered confidence. Simon Mignolet, the Belgian keeper who was called ‘worse than Dracula’ by Liverpool legend Bruce Grobbelaar this week, was to blame, although Kolo Toure must receive his fair share of criticism too.

The Ivorian centre back’s poor clearance went straight to Marcelinho when he had the time to clear his lines properly. The number 84’s shot was then embarrassingly fumbled into the path of Dani Abalo by Mignolet, and he easily turned the ball home from close range.

It was a shocking way to the start the game and certainly didn’t bode well for the remainder of the match, but thankfully Liverpool levelled five minutes later with the assistance of some arguably equally atrocious defending from the hosts.

A meek headed clearance of Henderson’s pass was pounced upon by Rickie Lambert, who jumped and headed home from a few yards out to net his second goal in two matches for his boyhood team. It was great to see Lambert get on the scoresheet once again, and if he can continue his goalscoring run against Stoke and Leicester then Balotelli might have a job on his hands forcing his way back into the starting line-up.

Mignolet must improve rapidly

Lambert has taken the opportunity afforded him by Balotelli's injury
Following a frantic opening, the pace of the game began to slow, with Ludogorets looking the most likely to regain the lead, perhaps primarily due to the delicate and fragile nature of Liverpool’s defence.

Yordan Minev exploited a gap in the Reds’ back four to curl over the bar after a quarter of an hour, before Toure was fortunate to see his stabbed clearance from a cross go inches wide of his own goal. Mignolet was also vulnerable, briefly fumbling Fabio Espinho’s 30-yard free kick just after the half hour mark to the amusement of the home crowd.

However, Liverpool somehow entered the interval in front thanks to a goal against the run of play eight minutes before the break. Raheem Sterling, who performed better than he has done recently and whose pace and skill posed the main threat to the Bulgarians’ defence, laid on an inch perfect cross for Henderson, who converted at the back post to give Liverpool an unlikely and arguably undeserved lead.

Henderson gave Liverpool an unlikely lead at the break
More good news emerged from Switzerland at roughly the same time as well, as Cristiano Ronaldo scored to give Real Madrid the lead against Basel, Liverpool’s main rivals for the runners-up spot in Group B.

Needing a win to keep their hopes of clinching second place alive, Ludogorets came out of the blocks quickly, Dani Abalo sending a dipping shot wide of goal soon after the restart before Espinho curled a free kick just over the bar on the hour mark following a foul by Johnson, which the home side protested had actually taken place just inside the penalty area.

Liverpool, meanwhile, after creating but failing to convert a couple of chances to add to their lead, retreated deeper and deeper.

On 65 minutes Lambert’s header was blocked in front of goal and Henderson blazed the rebound over the bar from six yards out after some initial good build up play by Sterling. The 19-year old England international then combined with Gerrard to set up Henderson on another occasion, but this time his shot drifted wide of target.

Liverpool’s final goal-scoring chance came with eight minutes remaining when Gerrard’s pass sent Sterling through, but, struggling with injury by that point, Sterling could only shoot straight at the keeper. He was swiftly replaced by Moreno for the final few minutes.  

Stuck inside their own half, Liverpool came under significant pressure during the closing stages, Cosmin Moti and Junior Quixada missing the target for a Ludogorets side revitalised by a couple of substitutions.

With a depressing sense of inevitably, the Merseysiders eventually caved under the pressure, conceding from a poorly defended corner with two minutes left. Ludogorets won two headers in the box, Dyakov flicking the ball on to Terziev, who beat the sleeping Glen Johnson to power home from close range at the back post.

Why Johnson continues to be picked is beyond me
Ludogorets’ late leveller was deflating, as it deprives Liverpool of the morale boost that would have come with their first win in five. Thankfully, though, it does little to change the Reds’ Champions League chances. Win at home to Basel and they are through; it’s as simple as that. I, for one, cannot wait for what promises to be another European night to remember at Anfield.