Wednesday, 29 January 2014

Reds run riot in derby demolition

Liverpool asserted their dominance over Everton with a magnificent 4-0 victory over their local rivals at Anfield last night.

Liverpool had every reason to celebrate last night
Storming into a three-goal lead after only half an hour, Luis Suarez added a fourth five minutes after the interval to put the outcome of the contest beyond doubt and secure three richly deserved Premier League points for the hosts, who were simply superb throughout a thrilling 90 minutes of exceptional football.

It was the Reds’ largest derby victory since Ian Rush famously scored four in a 5-0 victory at Goodison Park in 1982. Sturridge, who scored two in two minutes in the first half, had the chance to bag a hat trick and replicate that result from the penalty spot in the second half but surprisingly spurned the opportunity and blasted high into the Kop.

That proved inconsequential, though, as the game was long over by that point.

That fact demonstrates the Reds’ supremacy right from the word ‘go’. Liverpool started with a high tempo as the derby, as it always does, began at a frenetic pace. Henderson, Suarez and Sturridge all tested Howard in the opening stages, before the American keeper was called into action once again to deny Sterling, who had been sent through on goal by Sturridge.

He could do nothing to prevent Gerrard breaking the deadlock three minutes later, though, as the skipper rose highest to emphatically head home Luis Suarez’s left wing corner at the near post.

Gerrard's game always seems to step up a level in the derby
The irony of the team then celebrating in front of the travelling supporters who had previously been throwing objects at Suarez was delicious.

To make matters worse for the visitors, Gareth Barry inadvertently injured teammate Lukaku at the corner kick which led to the goal, meaning he had to be replaced by Naismith, who posed a much less severe threat to Liverpool’s defence.

Nonetheless, Everton responded brightly, Mignolet beating away Barry’s effort and Mirallas shooting narrowly off target. However, ruthless counter-attacking football from Liverpool proved lethal.

First, Coutinho took advantage of the space afforded him by Everton, sliding a wonderful pass through to Sturridge, who finished with typical ease. Then, Toure’s long ball forward, which should have been dealt with easily by Everton, breached the Toffees’ flat backline and allowed Sturridge to lift the ball over the onrushing Howard and into the net.

Sturridge thanks God for his two goals in two minutes
While Howard was in no man’s land, Kopites were in dreamland.

Everton regrouped and came out with renewed purpose after the break, starting the second period the better and putting the hosts under early pressure. Their resurgence was short-lived, though, as another mistake from the Blues allowed Luis Suarez to put the final nail in their coffin only five minutes after the restart.

Capitalising on a poor pass from Jagielka, Suarez stole possession on the half way line. The Uruguayan still had plenty to do, but proceeded to dribble half the length of the pitch to reach the penalty area and send a clinical finish into the back of the net.

It was the customary piece of class that we’ve come to expect from the inimitable number seven, who must surely be the best striker in the world right now.

Unfortunately the other half of the SAS couldn’t make it five, as Sturridge blazed his spot kick high into the Kop after Howard had been penalised by referee Martin Atkinson for bringing down Sterling in the box.

The most disappointing point in the night came when Sturridge was later substituted, as the frustrated number 15 made his annoyance at being replaced by Moses while still chasing his hat-trick abundantly clear to boss Brendan Rodgers.

Apart from that unsavoury incident, for which Sturridge quickly apologised after the match, the Merseyside derby couldn’t have gone better for the red half of the city.

Steven Gerrard returned to form with a bang, Coutinho was at his creative best and the SAS were firing on all cylinders, while Flanagan slotted effortlessly back into the team with a good display at right back and Skrtel showed why he has been the Reds’ best defender so far this season with another assured performance.

This convincing win cements Liverpool’s place in the top four and, combined with Arsenal dropping points at Southampton, potentially puts them back in the title race, as they sit only six points behind the Gunners, who are the next to visit Anfield in ten days’ time.

If the Reds demonstrate the same sort of passion, intensity and quality for the rest of the season there seems no reason why they cannot compete with the likes of the London side at the top of the table, leaving Everton to battle it out with Manchester United for fourth place.

YNWA

Tuesday, 28 January 2014

The re-birth of Merseyside?

Almost thirty years after Liverpool and Everton dominated English football, I look back at the decade of Mersey dominance and ask whether the neighbours’ impressive form this season is the first sign that Merseyside will soon have a greater impact on the footballing landscape.

Merseyside has always been passionate about football
Few cities are more fanatical about football than Liverpool. The beautiful game is intrinsic to its identity and runs right through the fabric of the city. Often the first topic of discussion in workplaces, school playgrounds and living rooms, the passionate debates that regularly take place between Reds and Blues are tempered by a mutual respect, engendered in no small part by the unity and solidarity shown in the wake of the Hillsborough disaster, that truly distinguishes the Merseyside derby as the ‘friendly derby’.

In the Premier League era, however, the city of Liverpool has been overshadowed by the city of Manchester and the country’s capital, London. During the 22 years of its existence, the Premier League trophy has only been located in a trophy cabinet outside of one of these two cities once; in 1994/1995, when big-spending Blackburn Rovers bought themselves temporary success, only to finish seventh a season later before suffering the indignity of a nineteenth place finish and relegation to what was then more straight-forwardly known as the First Division in 1998/1999.  

Before Sky TV and the Premier League revolutionised the game by flooding it with cash in the 1990s, Merseyside was the beating heart of British football. Liverpool were indisputably the best team in the country, and arguably the best in Europe, while Everton were enjoying the most successful spell in their history under the managerial stewardship of former player Howard Kendall.

The two neighbours repeatedly picked up the major trophies, routinely facing off against each other as well in the pursuit of success.

In 1984, Liverpool won their fourth successive League Cup, beating the Toffees 1-0 at Maine Road in the Cup final replay thanks to a goal from Graeme Souness. Two years later, an Ian Rush double and a goal from the Australian Craig Johnston in response to Gary Lineker’s opener secured the Reds’ third FA Cup against Everton in front of almost 100,000 spectators at Wembley Stadium.

Most poignantly, the Merseysiders met at Wembley for the 1989 FA Cup final, only a month after 96 Liverpool supporters had tragically lost their lives attending the semi-final against Nottingham Forest at Hillsborough. On a day when football was clearly seen as secondary, Kenny Dalglish’s men fittingly won 3-2.

Their dominance of English football was such that Liverpool and Everton became known as the “Mersey Monopoly”. The label had alliterative appeal and was undeniably accurate as, alongside their frequent Cup success, the Reds’ and the Blues’ dominance in the League was equally absolute. Liverpool won five League titles and Everton finished top of the table twice, while from 1984/1985 to 1986/1987 the neighbours were the sole occupants of the top two positions.

The ban on English teams participating in European competition in the wake of the Heysel disaster in 1985 prevented the two teams conquering the continent as well and, as the eighties came to an end, so did their dominance. Both teams entered into a significant decline at the beginning of the 1990s, Liverpool regressing under Graeme Souness and Everton languishing in the bottom half of the table as the neighbours initially struggled to adapt to the demands of the Premier League.  

Fast forward roughly 20 years to today, and Liverpool and Everton prepare to compete in the second Merseyside derby of the season at Anfield on Tuesday night following arguably their best seasons in a significant amount of time.

Top of the table on Christmas Day, Liverpool’s form was so good in the second half of 2013 that some even tipped them for the title and, although a title tilt now seems less likely as the Reds lie eight points behind table topping Arsenal, they are certainly in the running for Champions League qualification.

Meanwhile, with only two League defeats, Everton have impressively lost the fewest games this season and, only one point behind their fourth placed neighbours, the Toffees have a realistic chance of finishing in the top four for the first time since 2004/2005.

Many thought that they may struggle in their first season after the departure of David Moyes but, on the contrary, they have come on leaps and bounds under Martinez, whose refusal to revert to defensive tactics against the bigger teams, as Moyes often did, has reaped dividends and won him universal support from the Goodison faithful.

The convergence in styles between Liverpool and Everton is particularly noteworthy. In Brendan Rodgers and Roberto Martinez, the Reds’ and the Blues’ possess two promising young and upcoming managers with a deep commitment to a very similar footballing philosophy.

Both aim to inflict ‘death by football’ on their opponents, passing the ball patiently, dominating possession, maintaining control of the contest and ultimately ripping defences apart with devastating attacking play.

Rodgers and Martinez are remarkably similar
This shouldn’t be surprising, since both were influential in the rise of Swansea City, Rodgers building on the foundation laid by Martinez to take the enterprising Welsh outfit into the Premier League in 2011. Moreover, John Henry held talks with Martinez, who was in charge at Wigan at the time, about taking over at Anfield, before ultimately deciding to go with Rodgers in the summer of 2012 after the departure of Kenny Dalglish.

So, with both Liverpool and Everton making significant progress under Rodgers and Martinez respectively, will this season usher in a new golden age for Merseyside football? Is the re-emergence of a “Mersey Monopoly” on the horizon?

The short answer is no.

The likes of Chelsea, City, United, Arsenal and, to a lesser extent, Tottenham have too much money and too many world class players to surrender ascendancy so easily to the Merseyside clubs, particularly Everton, who are nowhere near to competing financially with other top clubs.

FSG may have more financial resources at their disposal than Bill Kenwright, but Liverpool still lack the commercial clout of their rivals and must be prudent with their cash, as evidenced by Chelsea coming in and stealing Mohamed Salah from underneath their noses by submitting an £11 million bid while they quibbled over a couple of million quid.

FSG are richer than Bill Kenwright, but they can't compete with Roman Abramovich
Although, in all likelihood, we are never going to witness Merseyside dominance of British football on the scale seen during the 1980s again, it is certainly credible to suggest that Liverpool and Everton are going to have a greater impact on the footballing landscape in the next few years.

Both the Reds and the Blues are flourishing under managers who appear to be in it for the long haul and, should they continue to progress at the exponential rate which they have so far this season, there’s no doubt the footballing significance of the city of Liverpool will continue to grow.

Regardless of the outcome of Tuesday night’s six-pointer, there appears to be a bright future for Merseyside football.

YNWA

(This article was originally posted on This is Anfield). 

Saturday, 25 January 2014

Moses and Sturridge fire average Reds into next round

A bit of quality and goals at important points separated Liverpool and Bournemouth in their FA Cup fourth round contest at Goldsands Stadium.

For the majority of the match it was difficult to distinguish between the mid-table Championship side and the team chasing Champions League qualification. Liverpool were distinctly average, while Bournemouth rose to the occasion in their biggest match since the visit of Real Madrid in pre-season, giving the visitors a good run for their money and providing a decent account of themselves.

In the end, however, Liverpool’s quality told and, although they never hit top gear, Moses’ goal midway through the first half and Sturridge’s strike on the hour mark were enough to send the Merseysiders into the fifth round of the FA Cup.

Brendan Rodgers’ decision to start a strong team was quite surprising considering the fact that Liverpool play Everton in the second Merseyside derby of the season at Anfield on Tuesday night. Nonetheless, with no other Cups available for the Reds to win, the Northern Irishman clearly valued progress in the FA Cup enough to start the match with his big guns out on the pitch, rather than resting on the bench. In addition, injuries limited the amount of rotation he could engage in.

Sturridge, Suarez, Coutinho and Gerrard all started, with Jones, Kelly and Moses the only changes to the team that drew 2-2 at home to Aston Villa last time out.

Bournemouth began the brighter, asserting early pressure on their opponents. Brad Jones looked particularly vulnerable, flapping worryingly at a few set pieces, including Francis’ curling free kick, which the Aussie keeper had to back track to tip over the bar.

The Cherries also regularly exploited the lack of protection offered to Kelly by Coutinho down the Reds’ right hand side, as Charlie Daniels broke clear and centred a left wing cross to Andrew Surman, who flicked a header wide of goal.

At the other end, Liverpool rarely looked like threatening, playing most of their attacking football in front of Bournemouth, whose defence dealt relatively well with the infamous SAS. Surprisingly, and encouragingly, Victor Moses, who has been rightly lambasted for failing to impress during his loan spell at Liverpool, was the away side’s greatest threat, dribbling purposefully down the left wing on two occasions and reaching the by-line but lacking support in the box.

After Gerrard wastefully sent a free kick high over the bar, Moses also opened the scoring on 26 minutes. Liverpool counterattacked and Suarez sent a cross square to the 23-year old Nigerian international, who sent a powerful low strike through the legs of a few defenders and into the bottom corner from the edge of the box.

Moses was much improved against Bournemouth and opened the scoring
Bournemouth keeper Lee Camp should have done better at his near post, but that doesn’t detract from the quality of Moses’ impressive strike. Hopefully it will inspire him to perform better during the second half of the campaign.

Although they had the lead, Liverpool were still not particularly impressive and Bournemouth threatened to reply quickly. Ten minutes after the opener, Kelly was exposed down the right wing and Daniels and Surman combined before the latter’s strike was deflected behind by a crucial block from Kolo Toure. The resulting corner was headed just over by Elphick, as the South Coast side showed their potential.

Frustratingly, Henderson then blasted high over the bar when well-positioned after composed build-up play from Suarez, as the former Sunderland man wasted a golden opportunity to put the visitors firmly in the driving seat at the interval.

Seven minutes after the restart, Skrtel, who performed ably throughout and was arguably Liverpool’s best defender, won a key aerial battle with Surman to prevent the striker testing Jones. The Slovakian even managed to control his normally insatiable desire to pull opponent’s shirts at set pieces. 

Unfortunately, Kelly couldn’t keep his hands to himself, and was extremely fortunate to escape punishment from referee Lee Probert after he clearly pulled Francis’ shirt in the box at a corner kick.  

To rub salt in Bournemouth’s wounds, moments later the SAS struck a fatal blow. Suarez expertly slipped Sturridge through on goal, and the England international scored his 10th goal in 14 FA Cup career appearances in front of the Three Lions’ manager Roy Hodgson, who was watching on from the stands.

From Bournemouth to Brazil: Sturridge's goals will surely earn him a spot in England's World Cup squad
Although the hosts responded positively, Grabban thrashing wide at the near post, that passage of play was probably the moment Liverpool won the match. Of course, had the Cherries nicked one back it could have created an interesting and nervy conclusion to the contest, but the second goal seemed to be the clincher, particularly coming so soon after Bournemouth were unfairly denied the opportunity to equalise from the penalty spot.

In the closing stages Sturridge and Suarez went close to adding to the Reds’ lead, the former lobbing the keeper but hitting the bar and the latter sending a looping strike over the bar when he perhaps should have done better.

Jones had to beat away Grabban’s toe-poked effort in injury time, but late pressure from Bournemouth thankfully never materialised and Liverpool progressed through to the fifth round of the FA Cup.

The Reds made hard work of what should have been a relatively routine cup tie, but all that ultimately matters is that the Merseysiders won the match and earned a place in the fifth round draw tomorrow afternoon.

Winning when you’re not at your best is a trait of top teams and it’s encouraging to see the Reds claiming victories despite failing to reach top gear. However, let’s hope they put in a much-improved performance versus Everton on Tuesday and achieve a similar score line in the crucial six-pointer against their neighbours.

YNWA

Wednesday, 22 January 2014

What's wrong with Simon Mignolet?

Few players have started their time at a new club better than Simon Mignolet. 

The £9 million summer signing from Sunderland heroically saved a penalty from Stoke’s Jonathan Walters in the dying stages to secure a 1-0 win for Liverpool on his debut at an electric Anfield on the opening day of the Premier League season.

Mignolet grabbed the headlines with his penalty save on the opening day
In the process, he instantly adhered himself to Kopites, many of whom had initially been sceptical as to whether Rodgers had made the right move in shipping out fans’ favourite Pepe Reina on loan to Napoli and replacing him with the 25-year old Mignolet.

The Belgian’s performances during the first half of the campaign seemed to confirm that Rodgers had made the right decision. An excellent shot-stopper, Mignolet kept a clean sheet in each of Liverpool’s first three League fixtures and consistently impressed as the season progressed, despite an unstable and below-par back four arguably preventing him from significantly adding to his tally of shutouts.

Since Boxing Day, however, Mignolet has suffered a noticeable and worrying dip in form. In the space of four days, goalkeeping errors from Mignolet arguably cost Liverpool crucial points against their rivals for a top four finish.

First, Mignolet made a hash of Negredo’s tame effort to give Manchester City a vital lead on the stroke of half time, which they didn’t surrender in the second period. Then, he could only manage to push Samuel Eto’o’s effort into his own net at Stamford Bridge when he really should have done better.

Both goals were eminently preventable and turned out to be the decisive ones which determined that City and Chelsea would take all three points, leaving Liverpool with nothing to show from their trips to the Etihad and Stamford Bridge over the festive season.

In the last two matches, Mignolet has also been at fault. At the Britannia Stadium, his failure to save Walters’ fairly weak strike could have set up a nervy conclusion to the contest had Sturridge not gone up the other end soon after and bagged a fifth to finally kill off Mark Hughes’ side.

Moreover, versus Villa his feeble attempt at punching away Agbonlahor’s cross proved insufficient, allowing Benteke a simple headed finish into an empty net from close range to double the Villains’ advantage.

The question is then, what’s wrong with Simon Mignolet?

Inextricably linked with that question is another one, namely; what’s wrong with Liverpool’s defence? This is because there is a symbiotic relationship between a goalkeeper and their defence. Without a well-functioning stable defence, there’s only so much a goalkeeper can do to keep a clean sheet. At the same time, without an in-form goalkeeper behind them, the back four are inevitably going to struggle to keep opposition strikers out.

The relationship between the goalkeeper and the defence is thus of the utmost importance, since together they are responsible for preventing the opposition scoring and providing a solid foundation which the midfield and attack can build on in their pursuit of goals.

Everybody knows that Liverpool’s attack has been in red hot form this season, with Manchester City the only team in the Premier League- if not the world- possessing a more potent and powerful strike-force right now. However, their goals have arguably been masking what is a worryingly weak backline.

At right back, Liverpool fans would like to see the real Glen Johnson turn up on a match day, since the enterprising and adventurous yet defensively capable England international we know and love seems to have been replaced by an ineffectual and mistake-prone imposter.

On the opposite side, Cissokho has hardly proven an adequate replacement for long-term injury casualty Jose Enrique. At the heart of the defence, Rodgers doesn’t seem to have found his first choice centre back partnership. Frequent injuries to the likes of Sakho and Agger haven’t helped matters, either.

It wouldn’t at all be surprising if the defensive instability in front of him has finally begun to detrimentally affect Mignolet’s form in recent weeks. Add to that a drop in confidence brought about by decisive mistakes at important points in big matches, and it’s easy to see why Mignolet’s form has gradually eroded.

What is the solution, then?

Unfortunately, unlike Manchester City, who could take Joe Hart out of the limelight and temporarily replace him with Costel Pantilimon when the England international was out of form, Liverpool can’t really rest Mignolet since Brad Jones probably wouldn’t be able to make the step up necessary to adequately replace him.

In addition, it would be a bit harsh on Mignolet to drop him after only a few mistakes. After all, outfield players make a similar number of mistakes, it’s just goalkeeping errors are much more obvious to spectators and pundits and therefore receive far more attention.

Jones may appear in the FA Cup
Nonetheless, Saturday’s lunchtime encounter at Bournemouth in the FA Cup may be a good time for Jones to take over between the sticks.

Ultimately, I’m still convinced Mignolet is the right choice for Liverpool’s number one in the long term. The only area of his game he really has to work on is his distribution and footwork. Other than that, he is a superb keeper with the potential to build a decent career for himself at Anfield.

In the short run, however, it’s important that Rodgers settles on a stable back four and that that defence gels together and starts performing well.

That could be the key to Mignolet regaining confidence and thus the form he was in at the start of the season.

YNWA

Sunday, 19 January 2014

Reds snatch a draw from the jaws of defeat

Tactical naivety in the first half cost Liverpool two points at home to Aston Villa yesterday.

The task of fitting the fit again Daniel Sturridge into Liverpool’s starting line-up was always going to be a difficult one for Brendan Rodgers. Unfortunately, the Northern Irishman made the wrong call yesterday evening, relegating Lucas Leiva to the substitutes’ bench and reverting to a 4-4-2 formation that meant Gerrard and Henderson were out-run in the centre of the park by Villa, whose extra man in midfield arguably made all the difference during the first 45 minutes.

Confident and purposeful, Villa, who have picked up the majority of their 24 Premier League points on the road, fulfilled their manager’s pledge to play attacking football and came to win the match, rather than just park the proverbial bus.

Passing in neat triangles and moving fluidly, the ageing Gerrard particularly seemed to struggle to keep up with Villa’s impressive midfield, which ran the show in the first period. Meanwhile, Skrtel and Toure seemed unable to cope with the physical presence of Benteke up front, whose aerial ability was exploited extensively by the away side.

From the first whistle, Villa kept possession well and created good goalscoring opportunities, Agbonlahor nudging the ball inches wide of the target after being sent through by Benteke only a minute into the match.

Westwood then drove straight at Mignolet, Weimman fired over the bar and Clark cannoned a header against the base of the post as Villa searched for the goal that would reward their dominance.

Had they failed to capitalise on their control of the contest, the Midlanders may have become demoralised and allowed the hosts back into the match. As it turned out, though, Weimman and Benteke netted twice in the space of ten minutes to put the Villains firmly in the driving seat and punish a dreadful first half performance from the Reds, who looked distinctly average playing in an unfamiliar 4-4-2.

First, Weimman ran all of 70 yards to latch onto Agbonlahor’s cross and tap home from close range to complete a speedy Villa break in style.

Weimman converts Agbonlahor's cross to break the deadlock
Agbonlahor was involved again for the second goal, although he benefitted from yet another mistake from Mignolet. The Belgian keeper should have comfortably caught or punched clear the 27-year old’s right wing cross but instead could only get his fingertips to it, allowing Benteke to stoop and head into an unguarded net in front of a frustrated Kop, who had expected a fairly routine home victory but were instead watching their team being taught a footballing lesson by the visitors.

That's two in two matches for the improving Benteke
As good as Villa were, Liverpool were equally bad. Their only notable piece of attacking play came on the stroke of half time when, thankfully, Sturridge pulled one back to halve the deficit just before the break. Suarez passed to Henderson, whose clever flick through found Sturridge and the England international lofted the ball over Guzan and into the net.

Sturridge's goal provided light at the end of the tunnel for the Reds
Arguably more important in changing the course of the game than Sturridge’s goal was the tactical changes Rodgers made at the break. Replacing Philippe Coutinho with Lucas was the right move, as it not only allowed Gerrard to play further forward, where he is clearly far more comfortable and effective, but also provided the defensive stability in midfield that Liverpool desperately missed during the first 45 minutes.

For those critics who question the impact of Lucas, the transformation in Liverpool’s performance during the twenty minutes the Brazilian was on the pitch is all the evidence they should need to recognise the often hidden role Lucas plays. Doing the simple stuff effectively, Lucas established the platform from which the Reds’ attacking players could build. We can only hope the knee injury that forced him to be replaced by Allen on 66 minutes is not a serious one.

Only seven minutes after the restart, Liverpool were level. Luis Suarez was at the centre of a controversial incident yet again, as referee Jonathan Moss pointed to the penalty spot after the Uruguayan went down under the challenge of Guzan in the box.

The number seven was vehemently accused of diving by many, although there was clearly contact and Guzan knows that he runs the risk of conceding a spot kick when he rushes out in the manner that he did. Suarez can’t be expected to hurdle that challenge and had every right to go to ground, just like any other striker would in those circumstances.

Gerrard made no mistake from the subsequent spot kick to equalise for the Reds.

Gerrard levelled the scorelines from the spot
Although they retreated significantly and clearly aimed to hold on to their point during the latter stages, Villa retained an attacking threat, Delph’s curled effort from 20-yards out only just going wide of Mignolet’s goal.

It was the home side that looked most likely to snatch a winner, though, as Suarez curled one of his classic free kicks inches wide of the post from 30 yards out with thirteen minutes remaining and then saw Guzan beat his shot away from a tight angle deep into injury time.

At the end of the day, on the balance of play a draw was a fair, if disappointing result. Villa were superb in the first half and fully deserved their two-goal lead. Liverpool, on the other hand, were frankly abysmal during the first 45 minutes, although they deserved credit for coming from behind to get something from a match they could have easily lost.

However, Liverpool can’t afford to repeat that first half performance many more times if they are to remain in contention for Champions League qualification.

YNWA

Monday, 13 January 2014

Goals galore as SAS reunite to fire Reds to thrilling Stoke win

There’s never a dull moment following Liverpool FC.

With their attack in red hot form and their defence conversely performing decidedly worryingly, Kopites are always guaranteed goals when they watch their team play, often from the edge of their seats or behind their sofas for the entire 90 minutes.

Yesterday’s 5-3 victory at the Britannia Stadium provided the perfect case study. A combination of exhilarating forward play and lax defending led to a pulsating end-to-end match, which was nail-biting and marvellously entertaining in equal measure.

It all could have been so different, however. As Brendan Rodgers mentioned after the match, for 39 minutes Liverpool put in the perfect away performance. After taking the lead only five minutes in, they took advantage of poor defending to add a second on the half hour mark and looked confidently in control.

However, hitting the self-destruct button with some woeful defending just before the break meant the Merseysiders had to win the match all over again in the second half. With the help of some favourable refereeing decisions, Liverpool eventually emerged victorious from the eight-goal thriller, although they shredded their supporters’ nerves in the process.

It made a pleasant change to being bored to tears, which is what often happens when Liverpool play at the Britannia Stadium, as Stoke are notorious for breaking up the game and making it difficult for superior opposition to play the expansive brand of football they enjoy, often turning the match into an unappealing spectacle as a result.

Prior to yesterday, Liverpool hadn’t scored more than once in a League game at Stoke since March 1982. Breaking the deadlock early on helped end that hoodoo. Aly Cissokho’s optimistic volley from range took a wicked and decisive deflection off Shawcross, which wrong-footed Butland to find the back of the net.

Some haphazard goalkeeping from Mignolet then nearly gave Whelan an opportunity to equalise, as the hosts asserted pressure through a series of corners from former Liverpool midfielder Charlie Adam.

It turned out to be a collection of calamitous defensive errors from Stoke, however, that led to the next goal being scored. Mignolet’s long punt forward caused confusion in a Stoke defence clearly terrified by the very presence of Luis Suarez, who exploited embarrassingly bad defending from Wilson and Shawcross to nip in and convert past Butland.

Unfortunately, Liverpool’s backline weren’t performing much better than their counterparts, and Stoke’s contingent of ex-Reds took advantage to draw the Potters level before the break.

First, Peter Crouch, who claimed an FA Cup winner’s medal during his three-year spell on Merseyside, beat Toure too easily, glancing Arnautovic’s header beyond Mignolet and into the net. Then, after Coutinho had squandered a great chance to immediately restore the Reds’ two-goal lead by firing straight at Butland, Stoke frustratingly equalised on the stroke of half time.

Loose play at the back forced Mignolet to make a hurried clearance, which gave possession back to Stoke and, eventually, a mix-up between Henderson and Gerrard allowed Adam, who arguably failed to live up to his potential while at Anfield, to drill an excellent effort into the corner of the net.
Cissokho and Hendo celebrate the opener

Suarez is as incredible as the Hulk himself

Crouch is lethal in the air

Adam's strike was impressive
In previous seasons, Stoke’s goals before the break would have taken the wind out of Liverpool’s figurative sails and the Potters would probably have gone on to claim victory. This season, however, the Reds are more resilient and believe, with good reason, that they can score one more goal than their opponents, regardless of how many goals they leak at the back.

Moreover, it made a pleasant change to benefit from, rather than suffer as a result of, questionable refereeing decisions. Referee Anthony Taylor failed to spot Sterling handling Wilson’s clearance and then dubiously pointed to the spot when the 19-year old went down under the Republic of Ireland defender’s innocuous challenge.

It was by no means as theatrical as Manchester United’s Young and Januzaj or Chelsea’s Oscar and Ramires. However, it was a very soft penalty that would have angered us had we conceded it, although undeniably Wilson did at least make some contact with Sterling.

Nevertheless, Steven Gerrard, who had unusually spent the majority of the match sitting as the deepest lying midfielder in front of the two centre backs, stepped up to calmly slot home his 34th successful spot kick for the club.

On 66 minutes, the SAS were reunited as Sturridge replaced Philippe Coutinho to complete his comeback from an ankle injury. He made an instant impact. The number 15 spearheaded a swift counter attack and set up his strike partner. Suarez made no mistake as he superbly curled into the bottom corner.

It was the Uruguayan’s 22nd goal in only 16 League games, which is only one fewer than he managed in 33 matches in 2012/2013.

Liverpool don’t like making things easy for themselves, though, and, after Mignolet made a decent save to push away Walters’ close-range header, the Belgian stopper allowed the boyhood Everton supporter’s shot to beat him and find the back of the net, when he really should have comfortably dealt with the fairly weak strike.

At that point, many anticipated a nervy final few minutes as Liverpool retreated into their shell and held on for dear life to their fragile one-goal lead. That’s just not Brendan Rodgers’ style, though, and thrillingly Sturridge added a fifth three minutes before the end of normal time to finally put Stoke to the sword.

Suarez’s cross found Sturridge, whose initial effort was well saved by Butland. The England international persevered admirably, however, and turned the ball over the line from close range.

Gerrard kept his cool from the spot

Suarez curled in his second

We've missed Sturridge's stupid dance
There was still time for Crouch to head against the woodwork, Suarez to see a shot stopped by Butland and Mignolet to make a decent save to prevent Gerrard scoring what would have been a bizarre own goal from a Stoke corner.

Thankfully, though, Liverpool secured the three points that took them back into the top four.

Encouragingly, this was the sixth time Liverpool have scored four or more goals in a League game this season, which is an impressive total only Man City’s attack can match. Worryingly, however, the Reds have now let in two or more goals in seven of their last eight away League games.

Do I really need to say where we need to improve? Those facts speak for themselves.

Next up, Aston Villa travel to Anfield next Saturday teatime. Let’s hope for a slightly less nerve-racking and far more comfortable home victory to prepare us nicely for the final League match of the month; the Merseyside derby.

YNWA

Sunday, 12 January 2014

The rise of Liverpool's Raheem Sterling

Sometimes one person’s misfortune is another’s lucky break.

In the case of 19-year old Raheem Sterling, his opportunity to impress came after Daniel Sturridge suffered an ankle sprain in training at the end of November. With the previously prolific England striker on the treatment table throughout December and only now on the brink of a return to first team action, Sterling took the chance to show his worth with both hands.

At that pivotal point in both Sterling’s season and his development as a player, he was arguably in the last chance saloon.

There was pressure on Sterling from the moment Rafael Benitez beat off competition from a raft of other top clubs in 2010 to sign him from QPR for an initial fee of £600,000, which could ultimately rise to the princely sum of £5 million. At the time, he was only 15 years old.

He appeared to rise to that pressure, however, during the first half of the 2012/2013 campaign, when his impressive performances earned him a new long-term contract at the club. Unfortunately, after putting pen to paper on that contract in December 2012 Sterling’s form began to drop, and he only started three more League matches for the rest of last season.

A frustrating thigh problem did nothing to help his cause, either,  as he was absent for the final seven weeks of the season and also missed out on going to the Under-21 European Championships in Israel with England.

Sterling missed out on the U-21 Euros, but is he good enough to go to the 2014 World Cup?
Beginning the current campaign with little doubt that he would be on the fringes of the first team, some were suggesting a loan move may have been the best option for Sterling. As off-field issues also proved a distraction, there were questions about Sterling’s attitude and temperament that needed answering as well.

Prior to Sturridge’s ankle injury, Sterling had made just one Premier League start this season. With the so-called SAS firing on all cylinders, there was just no room for Raheem in the Reds’ attack and he frequently found himself on the side-lines.

However, Sterling has now started nine consecutive matches, and a consistent run of games has worked wonders for his form.

Not that that was immediately obvious at the time. Sterling and Moses were both handed starts against Hull City due to Sturridge’s setback, but neither performed well in what was an afternoon to forget for Kopites, as Rodgers’ men fell to a 3-1 defeat at the KC Stadium.

Now, though, the difference in quality between the two has become glaringly obvious. While Moses has languished on the bench and failed to take any of the opportunities he has been given to impress, Sterling has gone from strength to strength.

After scoring only his fourth goal for the club in his 50th Liverpool appearance during Suarez’s demolition of Norwich City at Anfield, Sterling went on to find the back of the net in consecutive matches against Spurs and Cardiff, and would have extended that scoring streak to three matches had competent officials been present at the Etihad Stadium on Boxing Day.

Most recently, Sterling was involved in both of the goals against Oldham Athletic, assisting Aspas for the opener and seeing the Latics’ Tarkowski divert his strike into his own net late on to guarantee Liverpool’s place in the fourth round of the FA Cup.

Evident over the last few weeks have been the attributes that made Benitez willingly to part with so much money to sign a talented 15-year old with bags of potential almost four years ago. Creative, inventive and skilful, Sterling enjoys running at defenders and his pace enables him to put opponents on the back foot.

Although he admittedly has to work on his decision making and become more clinical in front of goal, he has found the net more frequently in recent weeks and appears to have developed a fruitful understanding with Luis Suarez, who is surely the perfect mentor for any 19-year old hoping to make a name for themselves at Anfield.

Could Suarez and Sterling form the new SAS?
With Sturridge on his way back from injury and FC Basel’s Mohamed Salah reportedly on the verge of a move to Merseyside, Sterling could well face extra competition for his place in the starting-line up soon, and some highly questionable reports have even linked him with a loan move to Welsh outfit Swansea City.

However, Brendan Rodgers’ policy of rewarding those in form with more matches should benefit Sterling, who has become one of the first names on the boss’ team sheet after stepping up to the plate and performing well recently. Moreover, with Liverpool looking to improve their squad depth in the transfer window, it would make no sense to sign a player like Salah and then immediately ship out the in-form Sterling on loan.

Raheem is on the rise and the Reds’ will be rewarded for being patient with him and allowing him to continue to flourish at Anfield.

YNWA

(This article originally appeared on This is Anfield).

Friday, 10 January 2014

Liverpool loan update: To recall or not to recall?

Did Liverpool make mistakes in the loan market during the summer transfer window? If so, is it time to correct them this January?

When used effectively, the loan market can bring significant benefits to a club. For Liverpool, the aim of the loan market is primarily to give youngsters and squad players the opportunity to play regular first team football and either impress enough to warrant a return to Anfield or appreciate in value so the club can then sell the player on a permanent basis for a decent fee.

There are examples of when the Reds have utilised the loan market wisely.

Although at the time many rightly questioned the decision to loan out Andy Carroll to West Ham United, in hindsight it turned out to be the right move, since Liverpool coped in his absence and his form at the Boleyn Ground was sufficiently impressive to persuade ‘Big Sam’ Allardyce to cough up an extremely generous £15 million to secure the injury-prone Geordie’s services on a permanent basis. In addition, very few supporters now question the wisdom of loaning out fans’ favourite Pepe Reina to Napoli considering the form of his replacement Simon Mignolet.

However, questions have been asked about the other loan deals that the Reds conducted last summer. Specifically, some have argued that the likes of Borini, Assaidi and Suso would have provided better attacking options than the disappointing Victor Moses, and the form of Aly Cissokho has done little to convince Kopites that his future lies at Anfield, although it has arguably improved over recent weeks.

So, the question becomes, should Liverpool recall the players they have loaned out and send their loan signings back to their parent clubs?

Fabio Borini

Niggling injuries hampered Borini’s form during his sole season at the club following a transfer from AS Roma for roughly £8 million. The 22-year old’s goalscoring rate of one goal in ten matches was far from impressive, and he also seemed to have the knack of squandering unbelievably good goalscoring chances.

With Suarez, Sturridge and Aspas ahead of him in the pecking order, it made sense to loan Borini to Sunderland, where he has netted three times in 18 appearances, which is hardly prolific but it must be remembered that he’s playing in a struggling Sunderland side, who are one of the Premier League’s lowest scoring teams.

He may only have managed to score three goals, but all of them have come at crucial times in big matches.

Borini scored a late winner vs Newcastle
After opening his account with a stunning late winner in the derby against Newcastle, Borini went on to force extra-time with a late leveller in the League Cup quarter-final versus Chelsea, before assisting Ki Sung Yeung for a dramatic winner two minutes prior to the game heading to a penalty shootout.

Moreover, on Tuesday, Borini converted a spot kick against Manchester United to hand Sunderland a 2-1 win in the first leg of the League Cup semi-final, delighting both Sunderland and Liverpool supporters in the process.

In the long term, Borini might have a future at Anfield, although he’ll have to score more goals at Sunderland to fully convince me he is able to perform for Liverpool. In the short term, however, Borini should remain at the Stadium of Light and continue his development, since the Reds are hardly struggling in the Italian’s absence and he will have far more first team opportunities on Wearside than on Merseyside. If he continues to impress Gus Poyet then Rodgers can either cash him in or call him back to Anfield.

Oussama Assaidi

Assaidi arrived from Heerenveen for £2.5 million a complete unknown and remained anonymous throughout the 2012/2013 season, failing to start a single Premier League match and being confined to occasional substitute performances and Europa League matches.

Ironically, he has only really caught the attention of Kopites while on loan at Liverpool’s upcoming opponents Stoke City. Like Borini, Assaidi’s three League goals in the Potters’ red and white stripes have been eye-catching and have come against top teams.

He’d already hit a spectacular long range strike in Stoke’s League Cup tie at Birmingham City; before he grabbed the headlines with a beautiful last gasp winner from the edge of the box in Stoke’s remarkable 3-2 win over Chelsea at the Britannia Stadium.

Mourinho didn't see that one coming
On Boxing Day, Assaidi’s opener from distance was the only thing that gave Mark Hughes’ men festive cheer following a 5-1 defeat at Newcastle. The Moroccan’s goal against Everton on New Years’ Day was also welcomed at his parent club.

Despite the goals he has scored, the 25-year old Assaidi is unlikely to have a future at Anfield and has probably found his level at Stoke City. It would be unwise to recall him since he is not up to the standard of Coutinho and Sterling, who he would be in direct competition for a first team place with.

The best move to take is to let him remain at the Britannia Stadium and hopefully see him appreciate in value to the point where we can sell him to Stoke and at least recoup our initial outlay, if not make a profit.

Suso

The decision to loan Suso out to Almeria was severely questioned by many Liverpool supporters. He was arguably one of the club’s most promising youngsters and many thought he deserved the chance to fight for a first team place at Anfield.

From all accounts, the 20-year old attacking midfielder has had a successful loan spell in Spain, scoring twice and providing five assists in 16 Almeria appearances. As a result, some have called for Rodgers to bring him back to Anfield to add depth to our attack and further his development. Sterling is thriving, so why shouldn’t Suso, the argument goes.

Suso in action for Almeria
While Suso should certainly return in the summer, it might be best for him to remain in Spain for the moment. He still needs to develop the physicality necessary to survive in the Premier League and hasn’t quite shown what his best position is yet either.

Letting him continue to quietly improve and develop his game away from the spotlight in Spain might be wiser than throwing him into the deep end at Anfield.

Victor Moses

Nobody denies that Moses has failed to live up to expectations at Liverpool. In August he was widely welcomed as an exciting arrival and a debut goal against Swansea City was promising. Since then, though, the 23-year old has failed to add to his tally and his performances have been so underwhelming that many have made a cogent case for ending his loan spell early and sending him back to Chelsea.

Moses was substituted at half time vs Oldham
He’ll have to have a remarkable second half of the season to convince me that Liverpool should sign him on a permanent basis, but, for strategic reasons, I think Rodgers should keep him at Anfield. Chelsea’s strike force has been fairly ineffective so far this season and it wouldn’t make sense to send Moses back to Stamford Bridge and thus give Mourinho more attacking options. I’d much rather see Moses on the bench providing back-up at Anfield then seeking to enact revenge on the Reds in London.

Aly Cissokho

With Jose Enrique out with a long-term injury and few other alternatives, Aly Cissokho has started more regularly at left back in Liverpool’s defence in recent weeks and has shown signs of promise, particularly with his penchant for attacking football down the wing.

The Frenchman’s spell at Anfield began in the worst possible manner, as he picked up an ankle injury in his first start against Notts County in the League Cup, which meant he missed almost two months of football. As a consequence, Cissokho struggled to find form and, although he may be improving, there is still a lot of work for him to do if he is to persuade Rodgers to make his move from Valencia a permanent one.

Cissokho currently has little competition at left back
Nonetheless, Cissokho will almost certainly remain at Anfield for at least the remainder of the campaign because Liverpool are short of options at left back.

Conclusion

In the end, the most important question is not whether or not Liverpool made mistakes when loaning out certain players and signing others on a temporary basis last summer. After all, the very nature of a loan move is that it is reversible, so clubs have the flexibility to bring back players if they change their mind.

The most important question is whether the players in question will contribute to the club in some capacity in the short and long run. The answer differs depending on the player’s form and circumstances.

Moses and Cissokho both perform a short term role at the club, even if it is just stopping Mourinho having another striker at his disposal in the case of the former, although neither appears likely to convince Rodgers to sign them on a permanent basis. Conversely, Borini and Suso may have futures at Anfield, however, for the moment, it’s probably best they remain out on loan. The best course of action regarding Assaidi, meanwhile, is to leave him on loan at Stoke and try to sell him in the summer.

In this crucial January transfer window, which could determine whether or not Liverpool qualify for next season’s Champions League, it would demonstrate a lack of ambition on the part of the owners if, rather than investing in quality new signings who will drive the Reds into the top four and contribute to their long term success, they settle for recalling youngsters and squad players from loans.

YNWA

Monday, 6 January 2014

Aspas on target as Reds secure Cup progress

Liverpool provided more evidence that they can win when they are not at their best yesterday.

Against a determined and well-drilled Oldham Athletic side, Liverpool maintained their concentration, persevered diligently and scored important goals at critical moments to kill off their League One opposition.

The Reds were by no means at their brilliant best, but nevertheless did enough to reach the fourth round of the FA Cup, where they will travel to either AFC Bournemouth or Burton Albion to play the part of Goliath in another ‘David vs Goliath’ Cup contest.

Following a busy Christmas and New Year schedule and with important Premier League fixtures coming up in January, not least the Merseyside Derby at Anfield on the 28th, Brendan Rodgers used this Cup match to give his squad players some game time.

As an inevitable result of starting several players who haven’t played together before, many of whom also lacked game time after spending much of the season warming the bench, Liverpool were a little disjointed and took time to get going.

Moreover, some took the opportunity to impress and make a case for more regular involvement in the first team better than others.

Aly Cissokho showed his attacking qualities once again down the left wing, while it was good to see Martin Kelly back in first team action on the opposite flank. Luis Alberto performed fairly well and was arguably unlucky to be substituted at half time, although Coutinho was clearly an improvement on the Spaniard, while Aspas grew in confidence after breaking the deadlock. However, disappointingly Victor Moses was relatively anonymous throughout. The Chelsea loanee must improve if he wants to get more game time.

After a minute’s silence for former Oldham and Liverpool player Wayne Harrison, who died on Christmas Day, touchingly turned into a minute of applause, the Reds crafted the first decent opening of the match after a quarter of an hour. Cissokho’s centre found Moses, who laid the ball off to Aspas. In turn, Aspas set up Alberto and the number six curled inches wide from the edge of the box.

Alberto’s rasping drive was then beaten away by Oxley midway through the first 45, before he set up Aspas on the stroke of half time, only for the former Celta Vigo striker to drag his shot wide of goal.

Following a first half of few chances and much frustration, Rodgers made a double substitution at the break that inspired a match-winning fifteen minute spell after the interval. The introduction of Lucas in place of the ineffective Moses allowed Gerrard to move further forward, where the skipper seems to have much more of an impact. Replacing Alberto with Coutinho may have been a bit harsh on the former, but the latter undeniably added an extra element of class that the Latics struggled to cope with.

Three minutes after the restart, Gerrard’s corner caused havoc in the Oldham box, with Kelly’s shot eventually being deflected over. Gerrard then headed Coutinho’s right wing corner just over the bar as the hosts began to crank up the pressure on the visitors.

The deadlock was finally broken on 55 minutes, when Sterling’s cross picked out Aspas, whose accurate half-volley lacked power but possessed precision and thus found the back of the net.

Hopefully his goal will spark an upturn in Aspas' form
After going ten games without netting a goal prior to yesterday’s match, Aspas almost bagged his second Liverpool goal in the space of two minutes, as his header from another Sterling cross unluckily hit the woodwork.

The impressive Sterling was also involved in setting up Coutinho soon after, only for the Brazilian to make a hash of his strike, which flew high into the Kop when he should have really at least tested the keeper.

To their credit, Oldham didn’t just lie down and die after falling behind and, after riding the storm of Liverpool attacks, enjoyed their own spell of pressure, as Philiskirk fired just over the bar from 25 yards out and Petrasso forced Jones into making a good save after beating Agger.

Worryingly, with ten minutes remaining the Danish centre back went down injured and the Merseysiders had to end the match with ten men after already using all three of their substitutions. In the long term, Agger joining Sakho on the injury list leaves Liverpool short of options at centre back.

Immediately, though, his injury raised the uninviting prospect of a nervy final ten minutes at Anfield, as the improving away side must have backed themselves to take advantage of their extra man and bag an equaliser to earn a replay.

Thankfully, however, Liverpool scored their second at an important point, which ended the match as a contest and meant that Kopites could relax during the closing stages. Only moments after Agger had limped off, Sterling’s shot, which was heading off target, was diverted into his own net by James Tarkowski.

The only other noteworthy moment after the second goal came when Anton Rodgers, son of Liverpool boss Brendan, received warm applause from the Kop after coming on as a substitute. It was also nice to see the pair embrace at the end of the 90 minutes.

Brendan and Anton embrace after the final whistle
At the end of the day, both teams could be satisfied with the outcome. Oldham gave a good account of themselves and kept the match competitive, while Liverpool showed that they can win when they are not at their best and got to assess the ability of several players on the fringe of the first team.

Now let’s get back to the ultimately much more important business of clinching a top four place in the Premier League, starting with a potentially tricky trip to the Britannia Stadium next Sunday afternoon.

YNWA

Friday, 3 January 2014

New Year, new players

The January transfer window could make or break Liverpool's season.

Any illusions that Liverpool may not need reinforcements in the January transfer window were put to rest on the hour mark at Stamford Bridge when 19-year old Academy graduate Brad Smith replaced the injured Joe Allen to make his senior debut for the Reds. 

With Sakho also added to Liverpool’s injury list, which already included first team regulars Steven Gerrard, Daniel Sturridge and Jose Enrique, in the closing stages against Chelsea, it became clear that new signings would be needed in the New Year, not only to add squad depth and provide cover in the case of injuries, but also to inject some extra quality in order to maintain the Reds’ push for a top four finish. 

And, as the top of the Premier League is so thrillingly congested this season, an injection of fresh talent at the start of 2014 could be the difference between achieving the long held goal of Champions League qualification and having to settle for a place in the Europa League after failing to achieve our aims for the 2013/2014 campaign. 

Although Liverpool’s midfield has sufficient talent, its lack of depth makes reinforcements in the middle of the park Brendan Rodgers’ transfer priority.

Lucas does invaluable defensive work behind the scenes, Allen is improving, Henderson has come to life during the first half of this campaign and Steven Gerrard remains one of the best midfielders in the world despite his age. If one of those four gets injured, however, the Reds are worryingly short of options in the centre of the pitch.

The short term solution may well be a dramatic and romantic return to Anfield for the much-loved Xabi Alonso, who clearly loves the club and has been repeatedly linked with a move back to Merseyside, especially as his contract continues to run down at Real Madrid.

The 32-year old Spaniard’s passing ability would excite Kopites and fit perfectly into Rodgers’ playing philosophy; however a return appears less likely now that reports in Spain are claiming that his agent is in the process of negotiating a new contract at the Bernabeu. 

Alonso was a fans' favourite at Anfield
Derby County’s Will Hughes, who has been described as Rodgers’ preferred long term successor for Steven Gerrard, may also be an option, although reports suggest Rams’ manager Steve McClaren wouldn’t be willing to sell his 18-year old star until the summer, since he wants him available for the Championship club’s promotion push.

Persuading Chelsea to sell Juan Mata to us may be a long-shot, but the want-away 25-year old was linked with a £35 million move to Anfield on the final day of the summer transfer window and is clearly out of favour at Stamford Bridge.

It would be the deal of the transfer window that would immediately solve our midfield issues if Mata moved to Merseyside, but I doubt Mourinho wants to sell to Liverpool at the moment, however much he wants to see the back of his number ten. We can always dream, though.

In recent days, Liverpool have been most strongly linked with attacking players, even though, with Suarez, Coutinho and Sterling all hitting form and Sturridge due to return from injury soon, attack is arguably the one area requiring the least work in the Reds’ squad.

Nonetheless, it is important to bring in more back-ups in case Suarez, who Liverpool undeniably heavily rely upon, picks up an injury or suspension. In addition, the players rumoured to be close to a move to the club seem exciting.

Basel’s 21-year old Egyptian winger Mohamed Salah rose to prominence with goals against Chelsea and Spurs in the Europa League last season. Pacey and more than willing to run at defenders with the ball, Salah could be a useful addition to the squad at £7 million, although it would be disappointing if his arrival deprived Sterling of first team opportunities, since the number 31 has been a star performer recently.

Salah has been strongly linked with a move to Merseyside
Meanwhile, Spain international Cristian Tello could arrive on loan for the rest of the season from Barcelona, with the potential for the deal to be made permanent in the summer. With 10 goals in 47 La Liga appearances, Tello may be more prolific in front of goal than Sterling and Moses and, like Coutinho following his arrival from Inter Milan, could thrive playing regular first team football after leaving a big European club where he’s been starved of frequent playing time. 

His Barca teammate Martin Montoya has also been linked with a move to Liverpool. The right back has attracted the interest of the likes of Arsenal, Chelsea, Bayern Munich and Borussia Dortmund and appears open to a move after struggling to dislodge Dani Alves from his starting berth.

Out-of-contract in the summer, Montoya would be a bargain signing who could provide much-needed competition for Glen Johnson, who has arguably become complacent as nobody has provided him with serious competition for his place in the first team.

Whether these players or others arrive at Anfield this January, it is crucial that Rodgers makes the most of this transfer window. FSG must provide him with the financial wherewithal necessary to improve the squad and provide the boost needed to maintain the momentum built up from the first half of the campaign.

With minimal distraction from cup competitions, this season is, in all likelihood, Liverpool’s best opportunity to break back into the top four and return to the promised land of the Champions League. If Rodgers can repeat the success of last January’s transfer window, when he brought in Sturridge and Coutinho for a combined fee of £20 million, the Reds will have every chance of dining at Europe’s top table next season.

YNWA

Thursday, 2 January 2014

Mid-season review: Progress made but more to be done

With exactly half of the 2013/2014 season complete, now is as good a time as any to assess Liverpool’s performance so far this campaign and answer some important questions. 

How would you rate the season so far?

If you’d told me this time last season, when Liverpool sat in tenth place 21 points behind League leaders Manchester United, that the Reds would top the table on Christmas Day in 2013 and end the year a mere six points off first place, I would have laughed heartily and dismissed you as a deluded optimist.

That shows how much progress the Reds have made in the space of a single year.

Having laid the groundwork for his football philosophy, Rodgers’ style of play is paying substantial dividends in the form of goals galore and points on the board. Teams now travel to Anfield afraid, while Kopites turn up expecting to enjoy watching Liverpool dominate opponents and win matches relatively comfortably.

While Anfield is becoming a fortress once again, Liverpool remain impressive on their travels as well, with 19 goals on the road making them the third most prolific away side in the League.

Admittedly, the Merseysiders’ defence has been vulnerable at times this season and has frequently frustratingly conceded needless goals, which has meant Mignolet has only kept five clean sheets in the League, but apart from that it is difficult to fault Liverpool’s displays so far this season, especially when you compare them with those of previous campaigns.

9/10

Who is your player of the season so far?

The transformation of Luis Suarez is almost as unbelievably remarkable as the transformation of Liverpool.

Suarez is a new man this season
In four months the Uruguayan has gone from hated traitor to adored hero. No longer arguing over the clauses in his contract in an attempt to manoeuvre a move away from Anfield, Suarez has now put pen to paper on a new long-term contract and is scoring at a rate that justifies his status as the highest paid player in Liverpool’s history. With 19 goals in just 14 League appearances, surely there is no better footballer in the world right now than Liverpool’s number seven.

Apart from Luis Suarez, Jordan Henderson has performed tremendously well so far and has cemented a regular place in the starting line up with solid, reliable and increasingly creative performances from midfield. His blossoming understanding with Luis Suarez is also extremely encouraging and will hopefully develop further in 2014.

Which player has disappointed you most this season?

Glen Johnson has been inconsistent so far. The England right back has always been liable to criticism for defensive laxity, however this season he has regularly looked more vulnerable and, for all his purported attacking ability, he has managed to provide only one assist.

Picking up an ankle injury against Manchester United early on in the campaign certainly impacted on his form, while a lack of competition for his right back position has perhaps made the 30-year old complacent.

Johnson's form has been below-par
Considering his age and high wage, Johnson’s form must pick up in the second half of the season to earn an extension to his contract, which expires in 2015. Rodgers may also want to sign another right back in January to demonstrate to Johnson that he isn’t guaranteed a place in the team.

What has been the best performance so far this season?

Liverpool’s best performance was undoubtedly their annihilation of Tottenham Hotspur at White Hart Lane. Beating Spurs 5-0 was the perfect way to end a streak of six defeats at the Reds’ bogey ground and was so good that Andre Villas-Boas was sacked the morning after the humiliating defeat.

Flanagan's goal vs Spurs was celebrated in style
Dominant from start to finish, two strikes from Suarez, one for Henderson and encouraging goals for youngsters Flanagan and Sterling secured a memorable victory for the Merseysiders and sent a clear message out to the rest of the Premier League; Liverpool mean business.

What has been the worst performance so far this season?

The 3-1 defeat away to Steve Bruce’s Hull City was embarrassing. Lacklustre and lifeless, Liverpool never really got going and were deservedly beaten by the Tigers. Apart from Steven Gerrard’s goal from a first half free kick, the only positive to take from the match was the passion Kolo Toure showed when the Ivorian beat the ground repeatedly in frustration after David Meyler gave the home side the lead with 20 minutes remaining.

Toure doesn't like losing
Let’s hope Liverpool get some payback against the Tigers at Anfield on New Years’ Day.

What position will Liverpool finish the season in?

On Christmas Day, when Liverpool sat top of the table, a title challenge seemed a realistic prospect. On New Years’ Eve, following two remarkably similar defeats to Manchester City and Chelsea, most Kopites have re-evaluated their expectations and would be content with a top four finish.

Although I’ve always thought it unlikely that the Reds would jump from seventh to first in one season, I wouldn’t rule out a title tilt just yet.  With so many teams congested at the top of the table- nine points separate eighth placed Newcastle from table toppers Arsenal- anything could happen and, if reinforcements are brought in in the transfer window, the injury list shortens and Liverpool enjoy their customary upturn in form during the second half of the season, winning the title isn’t beyond the bounds of possibility, as it usually is by this stage.

Ultimately, a first placed finish is probably a season away for the Reds. However, I do expect them to qualify for the Champions League, and perhaps even manage a third placed finish.

YNWA

(This article originally appeared on This is Anfield)

Agger and Suarez help Liverpool win the hard way

Liverpool proved they can win games the hard way against Hull City at Anfield on New Years’ Day.

Returning to winning ways after two disappointing defeats against Manchester City and Chelsea over the Christmas period, Liverpool started 2014 with a 2-0 victory over Hull City that demonstrated that they can grind out wins and pick up points the hard way when necessary. With local rivals Everton also dropping points away to Stoke City, the win moved Liverpool back into the top four at the expense of Roberto Martinez’s men.

Despite their remarkable 6-0 victory over Rene Meulensteen’s Fulham on Saturday, the visitors didn’t travel to Anfield intending to play a more expansive brand of football, but rather parked the proverbial bus in order to frustrate their hosts. In particular, they targeted Luis Suarez, who was granted relatively little protection from nasty challenges by referee Robert Madley.

Nevertheless, Liverpool had sufficient grit to secure the result thanks to a first half header from Agger and a piece of magic from Luis Suarez at the start of the second half.

Injuries forced Brendan Rodgers to make several changes to the starting line-up. Cissokho came in at left back as Agger reverted to centre back to cover for Sakho, while Henderson dropped back into Allen’s position next to Lucas and Aspas was handed a start behind sole striker Suarez.

The defensive changes appeared effective, as a clean sheet was kept, Agger opened the scoring and the attack-minded Cissokho put in a decent display. In midfield, Henderson’s creativity was slightly stifled in a more withdrawn role, while Aspas failed to produce anything particularly noteworthy, although that is hardly surprising considering his evident lack of match fitness after spending so much of the season warming the bench.

A tepid start to the match was almost ended on 19 minutes, as Suarez superbly headed Coutinho’s free kick into the net from close range, but frustratingly the number seven was flagged offside. It was a very close but ultimately correct call by the linesman. 

Liverpool were denied an opener by a correct offside decision this time
Sterling then went close when he latched onto Suarez’s header and fired at goal, but Hull keeper Allan McGregor was equal to the youngster’s effort and made a good save.

The breakthrough finally came eight minutes before the break when Agger rose highest to head home Coutinho’s right wing corner and, after the well-timed opener, the floodgates almost opened as Henderson and Coutinho could, and perhaps should, have added to the Reds’ advantage.

Back in the team and on the scoresheet. Things are looking up for Agger
First, Henderson advanced well from a deep position to reach Aspas’ lay off and run into a great position on the edge of the box. Unfortunately, his shot went inches wide of the post when he really should have made it 2-0. Then, on the stroke of half time, Henderson picked out his colleague Coutinho, only for the Brazilian to strike the ball inches wide of the post in a similarly agonising fashion to Henderson.

Thankfully, Liverpool didn’t have to wait long after the interval to double their lead and prevent a slender one-goal advantage producing a nervy second 45 minutes. Five minutes after the restart Suarez was fouled once again, but he responded in the perfect way, picking himself up and curling a world-class free kick into the top left hand corner from 25 yards out.

Suarez scored his customary world-class goal
With Luis Suarez in the team, free kicks in the vicinity of the goal are almost as good as spot kicks for the Reds at the moment. The Uruguayan’s strike yesterday was his 20th League goal of the season, and he became the first Liverpool player to score 20 League goals in successive seasons since the great Robbie Fowler achieved the feat in the 94/95 and 95/96 seasons.

On the hour mark, Steve Bruce made a triple substitution in an attempt to breathe some attacking life into his Hull side, while Steven Gerrard made his return from injury as he replaced Aspas. The skipper looked lively and his presence raised Henderson’s game as well. Worryingly, though, Rodgers also had to replace Johnson with Toure, probably due to the England international picking up an injury, which is the last thing Liverpool need right now.

The rest of the second half was fairly uneventful. However, those who left early to beat the traffic missed arguably the moment of the match in injury time. Picking the ball up in his own half, Philippe Coutinho proceeded to delightfully slalom past numerous Hull players, taking on the Hull team single-handedly but ultimately being thwarted by McGregor at the final hurdle as his shot was saved.

It was almost the perfect way to conclude not only the match, but also the Reds’ Christmas and New Year period.

After the highs of victories over Spurs and Cardiff and the lows of arguably undeserved defeats at City and Chelsea, it was good to end the hectic festive fixture list with a hard-fought but relatively routine home win.

Let’s hope we enjoy plenty more of those in 2014.

Happy New Year!

YNWA