Tuesday, 29 April 2014

The stunning story of Luis Suarez

Just as nobody expected Liverpool to be quite so good this campaign, few predicted that Suarez would enjoy such a stunningly successful season.

The Uruguayan ended the 2012/2013 season having hit rock bottom. Following the notorious ‘bite-gate’ scandal, Suarez sat out the final four fixtures of the campaign as he completed just under half of his ten-match ban for biting Chelsea defender Branislav Ivanovic in a bizarre off-ball incident which revealed the darker side that seemingly haunted the talented but troubled number seven.

One of all too many moments of madness
That iniquitous act, adding to his long list of previous offences, including allegations of racism, goal-line handballs and even another biting incident, left him public enemy number one. Suarez’s only support in the footballing world came from inside Liverpool. That was until the summer, when he damaged his reputation among Kopites by desperately trying to manoeuvre a move away from Anfield to Premier League rivals Arsenal, even threatening to get the PFA involved in order to force the club to sell him.

As a result, many Liverpool supporters, understandably aggrieved by the betrayal of yet another star striker, called for the club to cash in and sell Suarez. He was deemed a liability due to his volatile character and it was maintained that the club was bigger than any one player and would cope in his absence. Doubts were also raised as to whether denying him the move he so evidently wanted would reduce his commitment to the Reds’ cause, negatively affecting both his attitude and performance levels.

Those worries proved unfounded, however, as Suarez has produced world class performances week in, week out during what has been the best season of the 27-year old’s career. The 30 goals he has scored in the same number of games and his dynamic partnership with fellow frontman Daniel Sturridge has not only propelled the Reds towards the upper echelons of the Premier League table, but also earned Suarez personal glory.  

Luis Suarez- PFA Player of the Year
On Sunday evening, following Liverpool’s disappointing two-goal defeat at home to Chelsea, Suarez was crowned PFA Player of the Year in a ceremony in London. It showed not only his stunning form, but also his welcoming back into the footballing community.

Having been despised by everyone but his own supporters for so long, it was momentous that Suarez received such an important award as the result of the votes of fellow professional footballers. Many of them may dislike him for his supposed diving and, perhaps more pertinently, the fact that he almost always scores goals against them, but none of them could deny his unmistakable world class talent.

As important as Suarez’s goals have been to Liverpool this season, the transformation in his attitude has arguably been more significant and will reap considerable long term benefits for the club. The Uruguayan’s ability has been well-known for a long time, but only this season has he finally matured and come of age as a player.

The passion and will to win rightly remains there, but it is tempered by rationality previously conspicuous by its absence. He will still appeal for every decision and fight until the end for all three points, but the nagging worries that he might lose it and kick out at an opponent or sink his teeth into their skin have subsided. Rodgers and club psychologist Dr Steve Peters seem to have worked their magic on Suarez and helped him see sense. He finally recognises that a touch of madness isn’t necessary to be a footballing genius.

His maturation has perhaps predictably coincided with greater responsibility. In the absence of Steven Gerrard and vice-captain Daniel Agger, Rodgers has often handed Suarez the captain’s armband. In addition, Suarez seems to be revelling in his role as mentor to young Raheem Sterling. 

The benefits for Sterling from that relationship have been obvious- the 19-year old has managed his highest goal tally this season and his performances will almost certainly seal him a place on the plane to Brazil this summer- but Suarez has substantially benefitted from it as well, albeit in an intangible manner.

Suarez and Sterling have been on top form this season
The responsibility it has given him in the development of a young player has arguably helped instil in him a far more healthy and constructive mentality and I, for one, cannot wait to see the pair combine with Daniel Sturridge in the Champions League next season. If this season is anything to go by, Europe’s top defences better be worried.

Just as Liverpool appear to have turned a corner this season and seem to be on their way to competing at the top of the table on a routine basis once again, Suarez seems to have gone through a crucial stage of development this season.

He’s a better person and a better player and, should his career continue on its current trajectory, it won’t be long before he becomes a Liverpool legend as well.


Monday, 28 April 2014

Allardyce-esque Mourinho parks two buses to derail Liverpool's title bid

Two parked buses blocked the path to number 19 and directed Liverpool’s title challenge down a worrying diversion yesterday. 

Facing the immovable object of a stubborn Chelsea defence, the irresistible force that is Liverpool’s attack was found wanting. The Reds had 73% possession, 26 shots to Chelsea’s 11 and took eleven more corners than their visitors but were second best in the statistic that matters most; goals scored.

It wasn’t for a lack of trying from Liverpool, however. The majority of the match was consumed with relentless pressure from the hosts, who were frustrated throughout the 90 minutes by a Chelsea side instructed by boss Jose Mourinho to employ every underhand tactic in the book to disrupt the Merseysiders’ momentum and spoil the game as a spectacle.

Mourinho didn't want his team to play football
Time-wasting from the first to the final whistle, the Blues took an age to take every single set piece and remained on the floor for as long as possible whenever one of their players was fouled. Perhaps just as frustratingly, the Londoners adopted anti-football tactics.

Routinely putting ten men behind the ball and playing with a back six at times, Chelsea left Liverpool’s attacking players absolutely no space whatsoever to weave their magic and clearly had no intention of producing any creative football at the other end of the pitch either. It was the type of football West Ham manager Sam Allardyce would have been proud to play.

Providing a master class in how to play on the counter-attack, Chelsea broke away from their defensive shell to score in injury time at the end of both halves. The cruel irony of Chelsea scoring during injury time that was awarded to compensate Liverpool for the Blues’ time-wasting was almost as painful as watching Steven Gerrard slip to let in Demba Ba to net the crucial opener on the stroke of half time. At least traitorous former Liverpool forward Fernando Torres didn’t score on his return to Anfield, the Spaniard mercifully squaring for Willian to deliver the sucker punch in the dying seconds.

Anticipating another epic Liverpool-Chelsea encounter, Anfield was on top form prior to kick-off, delivering a rousing rendition of ‘You’ll Never Walk Alone’. Unfortunately, Liverpool failed to deliver the sort of start to the game expected by their supporters.

Wary of how Arsenal, Man City, Tottenham and Everton were blown away in the opening stages when they visited Anfield, Mourinho’s men focused all of their efforts on restricting Liverpool’s sights of goal and quieting the crowd.

They succeeded in achieving their aim, as Coutinho shooting into the side-netting and Sakho blazing over the bar when well-placed were arguably the best goalscoring opportunities Liverpool managed to create during an immensely frustrating first half.

Tomas Kalas, the young Czech centre back thrown in against Luis Suarez for his Premier League debut, was putting in a decent display as part of a well-functioning and difficult to break down defence, while stand-in stopper Schwarzer was saving everything Liverpool fired in his direction from distance.

Towards the end of the first half the Blues even began creating some goalscoring opportunities of their own, Salah complaining after Atkinson rejected his appeals for a penalty when his shot struck Flanagan on the hand and Kalas squandering a gilt-edged opportunity as he skewed a free header wide in front of the Kop.

Three minutes into injury time a mistake from Liverpool and a stroke of luck for Chelsea allowed them to score the opener that they would then cling on to for dear life during the second half. Receiving a square pass from Sakho, Gerrard agonisingly slipped at the crucial moment and Ba capitalised, running through on goal and finishing underneath Mignolet to punish the distraught Gerrard. Desperately trying to make up for his mistake, Gerrard attempted long-range wonder strikes repeatedly in the second half to no avail.

The gutted Gerrard looks on as Chelsea celebrate the opener
On the hour mark, Rodgers introduced former Chelsea striker Daniel Sturridge from the bench, replacing Lucas who, despite ably deputising for Henderson alongside Allen in midfield, lacks match sharpness and is a different sort of player to the energetic, all-action Henderson. The Reds really missed the suspended number 14 yesterday as his boundless energy could have helped unlock Chelsea’s defence.

The best chance Liverpool had to equalise came when Joe Allen fired a stunning volley goalwards, but frustratingly Schwarzer was there to make another tremendous stop, clawing the ball out of the bottom corner to deny the Welshman his first goal of the season

Schurrle responded for Chelsea, Mignolet repelling his curled shot, but the 23-year old German was replaced by centre half Gary Cahill with twelve minutes remaining, as Chelsea stubbornly refused to move their two parked buses.

Struggling to infiltrate and get behind the Blues’ packed backline, the Reds resorted to long range efforts on goal, the best of which came from Steven Gerrard, whose shot was gathered at the second attempt by the goalkeeper.

Crucially, the home side were bereft of options from the bench. Rodgers threw on Aspas in place of Flanagan for the final ten minutes, but Liverpool’s substitutes bench couldn’t compare with Chelsea’s, which, despite including a couple of youngsters, was occupied by the likes of Willian, Torres and Cahill, players who cost the Blues roughly £90 million.

Annoyingly, Aspas’ only contribution during the closing stages was to nonsensically decide to play a short corner, which went straight to a Blue shirt anyway!

Suarez saw his first shot of the game saved by Schwarzer in injury time but there was just no way through for Liverpool and, with seconds left on the clock, Chelsea delivered the sucker punch, an interception on the halfway line allowing Torres to run through on goal unopposed. Thankfully he didn’t score himself, instead opting to square to Willian, who passed the ball into an empty net.

Willian and Torres celebrate Chelsea's second
It was a horrible way to end a disappointing and frustrating afternoon.

As frustrating as Chelsea’s tactics were, they were actually a compliment to Liverpool, as they amounted to a tacit admission that the Blues are nowhere near as good at playing football as the Reds. They won merely because of Mourinho’s remarkable ability to park buses.

In addition, Liverpool have to get used to teams playing like Chelsea did, since that is what they will continue to come up against in the future as they develop into a strong, attack-minded team. Rodgers’ summer homework will be to develop a plan B to help the Reds win games when parked buses frustrate their usually irresistible plan A.

The title race is now out of Liverpool’s hands because if Man City win their remaining three games then they will almost certainly be crowned champions on goal difference. Expect the Premier League to throw up some twists and turns yet, though, and remember the words of our famous anthem: ‘Though your dreams be tossed and blown, walk on with hope in your heart’.


Monday, 21 April 2014

Table topping Reds beat Norwich to go five points clear

Liverpool achieved their aim for the season with three games to spare yesterday lunchtime.

Their 3-2 victory over Norwich City at Carrow Road means that the Merseysiders can no longer finish lower than third place, guaranteeing their spot in next season’s Champions’ League group stages.

Brendan Rodgers’ men have loftier aspirations, though, and are now firm favourites to win their first League title since 1990 after going five points clear at the summit thanks to this victory and Chelsea’s surprise defeat at home to relegation-threatened Sunderland.

Liverpool never like doing things the easy way, however, and they endured some nervous moments during the closing stages at Carrow Road yesterday, as Norwich fought valiantly to salvage something from a match they seemed destined to lose after only twelve minutes of play.

Goals from Sterling and Suarez gave the visitors a commanding early lead and, although Hooper pulled one back for the home side after the interval, Johnson then diverted Sterling’s effort into his own net to seemingly end the match as a contest. However, Snodgrass rose above Flanagan to head home a second for Norwich to set up a tense finale with thirteen minutes remaining.

Thankfully, the Reds weathered the storm and clinched three crucial points, leaving them three ‘cup finals’ away from making their dreams reality.

With Henderson suspended and the injured Sturridge failing to even make the match-day squad, Rodgers was forced to tweak the system that had served his side so well throughout their ten match winning run. Allen and Lucas, who both played superbly well, were introduced alongside Gerrard in the centre of the park, while Coutinho and Sterling flanked main front man Luis Suarez.

As usual, Liverpool began the match at 100mph and they scored twice to leave struggling Norwich up against the ropes. First, the magnificent Raheem Sterling was given the space to take a couple of touches before letting rip with a brilliant 25-yard drive, which flew past Ruddy and into the back of the net.

Before Norwich’s nemesis Luis Suarez then bagged his twelfth goal in six games against the Canaries, Allen went close after Coutinho’s incisive pass put him in on goal. The Welshman’s forceful strike on goal brought out a decent save from Ruddy.

The home side couldn’t keep the Uruguayan quiet for much longer, though, and, soon after, he combined with Sterling to double the Reds’ advantage and become the first Liverpool player since Ian Rush in 1986/1987 to score 30 League goals in a season. The 19-year old’s delightful square pass found the unmarked Suarez in the box and he completed the easy task of guiding the ball past Ruddy from close range with aplomb.

It was a simple yet skilful goal from the dynamic duo.

Sterling scores a screamer...

...then celebrates with the boss who gave him his big break

Suarez gives Sterling credit for setting up his 30th League goal of the season
It also crucially gave Liverpool a vital two-goal cushion in the contest, which was maintained moments later thanks to some excellent last ditch defending from Joe Allen, who also fired just wide on 26 minutes.

But for the brilliance of Raheem Sterling, Allen would have been the man of the match yesterday, as he slotted in seamlessly in the middle of the park. The fact that Liverpool’s squad has the quality and depth to be able to enjoy seamless transitions in personnel is a testament to Rodgers’ recruitment policy and one of the key reasons why the Reds are competing for the title.

Nevertheless, Norwich, spurred on by a home crowd far more supportive of Neil Adams then they were of Chris Hughton, fought back and, with the help of Liverpool’s error-prone defence, somehow found a way back into a match in which they had appeared dead and buried.

Mignolet's mistake allowed Hooper to score
Just after the half hour mark Mignolet had to beat Redmond’s shot away to safety and, after the restart, the hosts enjoyed a sustained spell of pressure, which eventually led to Gary Hooper halving the deficit. A mistake from Mignolet proved costly again as the Belgian keeper was comfortably beaten in the air by Bradley Johnson. His header fell for Hooper, who tapped into an empty net.

Buoyed by that goal, Norwich looked capable of causing Liverpool serious problems but, thankfully, the Reds enjoyed a slice of luck on the hour mark to help restore their two-goal cushion.

After Suarez shot narrowly wide, Sterling intercepted a poor square pass from Johnson and sped goalwards from the halfway line. The backtracking Johnson managed to catch up with the rapid Raheem but only succeeded in deflecting his effort over Ruddy and into the back of his own net.

Although it was impossible not to feel sorry for Johnson, who looked crushed as he held his head in his hands; that is the type of good fortune that all title winners need. The fact that Liverpool are scoring goals in that manner suggests that it might just be their season.

Another deflection fell favourably for the Reds with twenty minutes remaining when Redmond’s drive was deflected narrowly wide of the post off the head of Martin Skrtel, who was on top form yet again yesterday. From the resulting corner Russell Martin headed onto the roof of the net as Norwich commendably didn’t give up.

Their efforts were rewarded on 77 minutes, as Snodgrass rose highest, towering above Flanagan, to head Olsson’s left wing cross into the corner of the net to give Norwich hope that the Premier League might just throw up another crazy and unexpected result.

Substitute Ricky Van Wolfswinkel went closest to equalising for Norwich in the closing stages, Mignolet managing to stop his free header finding the net and thus denying the Dutch striker what would have been his first goal since the Canaries’ opening day draw at home to Everton.

After Lucas spurned a great chance to score a fourth in injury time, Norwich punted the ball into the box as even their keeper went up in a desperate attempt to steal a point, but thankfully Liverpool held firm, Flanagan and Johnson resorting to hoofing the ball clear in the dying moments.

Job done: Stevie and Suarez congratulate each other after the final whistle
At the end of the day, although they made it unnecessarily difficult for themselves, Liverpool once again showed that they could cope with the pressure and secured a victory that puts them in the driving seat in the title race.

With their goal for the season of Champions League qualification secured, it’s time for Liverpool to claim the 19th League title their performances this campaign deserve.


Tuesday, 15 April 2014

In Memory of the 96

On 15th April 1989, 25 years ago today, Liverpool supporters set out to Hillsborough, Sheffield to support their team in the FA Cup semi-final. Tragically, 96 supporters never returned. They had been crushed to death in the pens after fatal over-crowding.

The Hillsborough memorial at Anfield
These are the names of the 96 who lost their lives;

John Alfred Anderson (62)

Colin Mark Ashcroft (19)

James Gary Aspinall (18)

Kester Roger Marcus Ball (16)

Gerard Bernard Patrick Baron (67)

Simon Bell (17)

Barry Sidney Bennett (26)

David John Benson (22)

David William Birtle (22)

Tony Bland (22)

Paul David Brady (21)

Andrew Mark Brookes (26)

Carl Brown (18)

David Steven Brown (25)

Henry Thomas Burke (47)

Peter Andrew Burkett (24)

Paul William Carlile (19)

Raymond Thomas Chapman (50)

Gary Christopher Church (19)

Joseph Clark (29)

Paul Clark (18)

Gary Collins (22)

Stephen Paul Copoc (20)

Tracey Elizabeth Cox (23)

James Philip Delaney (19)

Christopher Barry Devonside (18)

Christopher Edwards (29)

Vincent Michael Fitzsimmons (34)

Thomas Steven Fox (21)

Jon-Paul Gilhooley (10)

Barry Glover (27)

Ian Thomas Glover (20)

Derrick George Godwin (24)

Roy Harry Hamilton (34)

Philip Hammond (14)

Eric Hankin (33)

Gary Harrison (27)

Stephen Francis Harrison (31)

Peter Andrew Harrison (15)

David Hawley (39)

James Robert Hennessy (29)

Paul Anthony Hewitson (26)

Carl Darren Hewitt (17)

Nicholas Michael Hewitt (16)

Sarah Louise Hicks (19)

Victoria Jane Hicks (15)

Gordon Rodney Horn (20)

Arthur Horrocks (41)

Thomas Howard (39)

Thomas Anthony Howard (14)

Eric George Hughes (42)

Alan Johnston (29)

Christine Anne Jones (27)

Gary Philip Jones (18)

Richard Jones (25)

Nicholas Peter Joynes (27)

Anthony Peter Kelly (29)

Michael David Kelly (38)

Carl David Lewis (18)

David William Mather (19)

Brian Christopher Matthews (38)

Francis Jospeh McAllister (27)

John McBrien (18)

Marion Hazel McCabe (21)

Joseph Daniel McCarthy (21)

Peter McDonnell (21)

Alan McGlone (28)

Keith McGrath (17)

Paul Brian Murray (14)

Lee Nicol (14)

Stephen Francis O'Neill (17)

Jonathon Owens (18)

William Roy Pemberton (23)

Carl William Rimmer (21)

David George Rimmer (38)

Graham John Roberts (24)

Steven Joseph Robinson (17)

Henry Charles Rogers (17)

Colin Andrew Hugh William Sefton (23)

Inger Shah (38)

Paula Ann Smith (26)

Adam Edward Spearritt (14)

Philip John Steele (15)

David Leonard Thomas (23)

Patrick John Thompson (35)

Peter Reuben Thompson (30)

Stuart Paul William Thompson (17)

Peter Francis Tootle (21)

Christopher James Traynor (26)

Martin Kevin Traynor (16)

Kevin Tyrrell (15)

Colin Wafer (19)

Ian David Whelan (19)

Martin Kenneth Wild (29)

Kevin Daniel Williams (15)

Graham John Wright (17)

Justice for the 96. Never Forgotten. You'll Never Walk Alone

Monday, 14 April 2014

Teary Stevie leads Liverpool to crucial City win

Liverpool had the hallmark of champions as they claimed a thrilling 3-2 win over Manchester City in their biggest game in nearly a decade. 

Not since Istanbul has a Liverpool game carried such importance.

Both teams entered the contest knowing that a 100% record in their remaining fixtures would see them crowned Premier League champions. With two games in hand, though, a draw would have been a much better result for Manchester City, whereas the Reds needed to win at all costs.

As tickets traded for thousands of pounds online and the media devoted most of its coverage to this fixture despite it being FA Cup semi-final weekend, nobody wanted to miss what was billed as the game of the season.

Thankfully, a match full of goals, drama and controversy lived up to the hype. Most importantly, Liverpool passed the hardest test of their title credentials and emerged from the exhilarating contest top of the table with only four games remaining.

Before kick-off, which, like all matches this weekend, had been delayed by seven minutes to commemorate the 25th anniversary of the Hillsborough disaster, Anfield impeccably observed a minute’s silence in remembrance of the 96.

Although former Liverpool centre back Alan Hansen rightly pointed out this week that no on-field achievement can make up for the tragic loss of 96 fellow supporters, it would certainly be fitting if the Reds won the League in their honour, and that inspired Rodgers’ men to begin the match at break-neck pace, taking the game to the visitors right from the first whistle.

The over-excited Luis Suarez got himself foolishly booked for a rash tackle on Martin Demichelis only five minutes in, but then made up for it by setting up Sterling to score the opener a minute later. The number seven slid a pass through to Sterling, who magnificently wrong-footed the dumbfounded Kompany and Hart before passing the ball into an unguarded net.

It was a brilliant goal from the ever-improving youngster, who surely must be in the on-watching Roy Hodgson’s plans for the World Cup in Brazil this summer.
Anfield remembers and honours the 96

Sterling celebrates his opener with Suarez

Skrtel screams with joy after scoring Liverpool's second
With the Kop roaring them on and jeering every touch of the ball from a City player, Liverpool continued their relentless pressing during the majority of the first 45 minutes, Sturridge just unable to convert Sterling’s low cross after quarter of an hour.

To make matters worse for Man City, their talismanic midfielder Yaya Toure limped off midway through the half with a muscle injury incurred while curling a shot over the bar.

Gerrard, whose passion proved the driving force behind Liverpool’s win and was evident in his post-match tears, thought he’d doubled the Reds’ lead on 26 minutes when he sent a thumping header goalwards from Coutinho’s corner. Unfortunately, Hart compensated for his defence’s embarrassingly poor marking with a fantastic save.

The hosts didn’t have to wait long to add a second to their tally, though, as moments later Martin Skrtel, who has chipped in with a healthy amount of goals during this campaign, delightfully glanced Gerrard’s corner beyond Hart and into the back of the net to score his seventh goal of the season and send Anfield into euphoria.

After Sturridge headed off target, Suarez hooked and Coutinho dragged efforts wide of goal, but the Merseysiders couldn’t find the third goal that would have been the final nail in City’s coffin and, starting at the end of the first half and continuing into the second period, Manuel Pellegrini’s men came back into the contest.

They were unlucky not to be given a penalty when Sakho sliced down Dzeko in the box and then Sterling headed Kompany’s header off the line after Mignolet flapped at a corner kick. The Belgian stopper made up for his mistake a minute later, however, as he produced a wonderful save to keep out Fernandinho’s volleyed strike.

Man City began the second half where they had ended the first and the wise introduction of Milner from the bench also helped them turn the flow of momentum 180 degrees.

They had reason to complain soon after the restart, however, as referee Mark Clattenburg failed to penalise Luis Suarez for going to ground ludicrously theatrically following the slightest of touches from Demichelis. If he wasn’t going to award a free kick then Clattenburg really should have shown Suarez a second yellow, but thankfully the Uruguayan got away with it.

It was a case of the boy who cried wolf, though, when Suarez’s later penalty appeal was ignored following a blatant foul from Kompany in the penalty area.

At the heart of City’s attack, Spanish starlet David Silva terrorised Liverpool’s defence in the opening stages of the second half. The 28-year old had the ball in the back of the net ten minutes after the restart but it was fortunately ruled out because the ball had already gone out before Milner crossed to Silva. City had soon halved the deficit, though, as a free flowing passing move culminated in Silva turning home after again receiving an assist from the game-changing Milner.

The Reds were really on the ropes when the away side equalised just after the hour mark, as Mignolet was fooled by a deflection off Glen Johnson, which diverted Silva’s low cross beyond the Belgian and into the Kop end net.

Having been in the ascendancy and seemingly had the game won, Liverpool suddenly found themselves right back where they were at kick-off. With City also now confident of pushing on and claiming victory, the Reds had to climb a huge mountain to keep their title dreams alive.

Just as in Istanbul, although admittedly in less dire circumstances, they dusted themselves off and summoned that inimitable never-say-die Liverpool spirit to inspire them to victory. That didn’t stop Kopites suffering a few scares; however, as Silva spurned a glorious chance to give City the lead for the first time when he couldn’t convert Aguero’s low centre on the slide.

Silva was at the centre of City's comeback

Coutinho and Flanno celebrate the third goal

Kompany rues his mistake
When an error from the City captain then allowed Coutinho to regain the lead for the Reds, it felt like it was going to be Liverpool’s day. Kompany, who had been an injury doubt before the game, sliced a clearance right into the Brazilian’s path, and he smashed a sensational first-time effort past the grasp of Hart and into the bottom right hand corner.

Although Henderson rightly saw red in injury time following a late challenge on Nasri, Liverpool enjoyed more good fortune in the closing stages to help them see out the game until its conclusion. Skrtel quite clearly punched away a cross into the box, but fortunately Clattenburg didn’t see the incident and City were denied a late penalty.

To be fair to City, they were gracious in defeat, Pellegrini refusing to blame the referee despite having some quite legitimate grievances with the officials. Liverpool, meanwhile, celebrated as a team, wholly united and dedicated to their title goal and ecstatic after taking one gigantic step closer to their first title in almost a quarter of a century.

Skipper Steven Gerrard, who was the beating heart of Liverpool throughout what he described as the longest 90 minutes of his life, was crying with happiness and raw emotion. He took the lead in immediately focusing on the next match against Norwich next Sunday, barking out a rallying cry to his teammates as they huddled together after the final whistle.

Gerrard issued a rallying cry to his teammates 
It was the battle cry of a Liverpool lad through and through, who is absolutely desperate to get his hands on that Premier League trophy on the final day of the season. After beating City, most Kopites think it’s his destiny to do so at Anfield on 11th May.

Make us dream.


Wednesday, 9 April 2014

Captain Fantastic: How Rodgers has transformed Steven Gerrard

If anybody deserves a Premier League medal, it’s Liverpool skipper Steven Gerrard.

The 33-year old has won everything except for the League title during a long and illustrious career at Anfield. His boyhood dream to lift the Premier League title aloft at Anfield on the final day of the season seemed destined to go unfulfilled, as Liverpool languished in seventh place at the end of last season, a gargantuan 28 points behind table topping Manchester United.

Not even the most optimistic Kopite predicted that Brendan Rodgers would be able to turn around the team and get them competing for the League title again before Steven Gerrard sadly but inevitably hung up his boots and retired from professional football.

Now, however, unbelievably Liverpool sit top of the table at the beginning of April, with their destiny in their own hands. Win the next five matches and they will be crowned champions of the Premier League for the first time.

The transformation in both the club’s fortunes and Steven Gerrard can be largely attributed to the phenomenal work of boss Brendan Rodgers, whose tactical genius has propelled Liverpool up the League and revitalised the club captain.

Rodgers realised that, after years of Gerrard covering every blade of grass as an all-action attacking midfielder, the ageing England captain needed to modify his game and adapt to a new role in the team in order to continue to play on a regular basis for the Reds.

Gerrard will captain England at the World Cup this summer
As exhilarating as it was watching Steven Gerrard in full attacking flow, the time has come where his legs simply won’t allow him to continue to play in that manner. In response to the unavoidable reality of Gerrard’s ageing, Rodgers astutely assigned the club captain a new position; the so-called ‘quarter-back’ deep lying midfield role.

Things didn’t necessarily go according to plan at first and Gerrard arguably took time to settle into the role. Away at Stoke City he was unconvincing, despite netting a spot kick, and when Aston Villa visited Anfield the following week Gerrard’s flaws were exposed.

Playing next to Jordan Henderson in the middle of the park as part of a dysfunctional 4-4-2 formation, Gerrard was unable to cope with Villa’s midfield, who took advantage of their extra man to run the game during a first half in which the Midlanders claimed a surprise two-goal lead. Gerrard’s performance only improved when Lucas, who has more experience in the holding midfield role, replaced Coutinho at the break, affording the skipper the freedom to move further forward.

Nevertheless, even in that game, which Gerrard himself admitted wasn’t one of his best, the number eight provided evidence that he can adjust to the role that Rodgers wants him to play in. After all, it was his raking ball from deep that set Luis Suarez in behind Villa’s defence and, after the Uruguayan had been felled by the goalkeeper, Gerrard converted from the spot.

In that moment alone, Gerrard demonstrated two skills crucial to his new role. Firstly, he sprayed a long defence-splitting pass forward for Liverpool’s strike force, in this case Luis Suarez, to exploit. Then, he made the most of a set-piece.

The former is particularly crucial for Liverpool, since it provides much needed variation in their style of play. Although it is right that Rodgers emphasises keeping possession with short passes and building from the back, it is also important that the Reds don’t become one-dimensional. That’s where Gerrard comes in. Unlike Lucas, his main competitor for the sitting role in front of the back four, Gerrard can spray pinpoint passes across the park, with devastating effect.

Moreover, Gerrard’s ability from set pieces is another important way in which he contributes to the side. All bar one of his 14 goals this season have come from set pieces. Eleven of those came from the penalty spot, from which he has been ruthlessly efficient, bagging a late winner at Craven Cottage and almost netting a hat-trick of penalties at Old Trafford.

Gerrard's headed effort in the derby is his only goal from open play
Meanwhile, he has found the net from two beautiful free kicks, the first proving the only bright spot from a disappointing afternoon in Hull and the second vitally breaking the deadlock before the break at home to Sunderland. In addition, Gerrard has provided a League-high seven assists from dead-ball situations.

Despite taking time to transition to his new deeper role, Gerrard now seems to be taking to it like a duck to water. It seems the natural and appropriate evolution of a midfielder approaching retirement who wants to prolong their playing career as long as possible, making the most of his passing range and ability from set pieces while also allowing relative youngsters like Henderson and, to a lesser extent, Allen, the freedom to develop as more attack-minded midfielders.

If Gerrard were finally to fulfil his boyhood dream and lift the League title at the end of this season, it would be a just reward for not only an impressive season, but also a remarkable career. The Kop, and most neutrals, will be cheering him on every step of the way.


Monday, 7 April 2014

Reds grind out win to take one step closer to the title

These are the type of games that title winners grind three points out of.

This match was arguably as big a test of Liverpool’s title credentials as the game against Manchester City at Anfield next Sunday lunchtime will be.

The weight of expectation was on the visitors following eight consecutive League victories and there was the added pressure of being the last to play on a weekend when fellow title challengers Manchester City and Chelsea recorded convincing home wins.

On top of that, Liverpool faced two disgruntled ex-Reds determined to enact revenge on their former employer in the form of Stewart Downing and Andy Carroll and Sam Allardyce always makes his teams notoriously difficult to play against.

Nevertheless, Brendan Rodgers’ side showed character to hold their nerve and claim a crucial 2-1 victory in the capital, which could be as vital to the Merseysiders in their pursuit of number 19 as any of their previous high-scoring victories.

Rodgers made one change to the side that put four past Tottenham last weekend, replacing the injured Daniel Agger with Mamadou Sakho alongside Martin Skrtel at centre back. The pair were tasked with combating the primarily aerial threat posed by the Hammers’ 6 foot 4 front-man Carroll and were relatively successful, with the tall Geordie having to resort to illegal means to have an impact in front of goal.

A relatively uneventful first half sparked into life in the final few minutes. Up to that point the match had been fairly even, with the only goalscoring opportunity of note coming after 20 minutes when Luis Suarez superbly sent the ball looping over everyone and it rebounded off the cross bar with the goalkeeper well beaten.

Suarez beat Adrian but couldn't beat the woodwork
With two minutes left before the interval, the number seven tried to flick the ball past Tomkins but was denied in the box by the 25 year old’s hand. Referee Anthony Taylor had no choice but to point to the spot, from which Gerrard coolly converted to seemingly give the away side a crucial half time lead.

Gerrard converted his first penalty with aplomb
Unfortunately, a combination of foul play from Carroll and inept refereeing contrived to prevent Liverpool going in ahead at the break. Instead of competing fairly to reach Mark Noble’s right wing corner, Carroll essentially slapped Mignolet on the face, understandably causing the Belgian keeper to spill the ball and allowing Guy Demel to prod home from close range.

Assistant referee Stuart Burt appeared to offer Liverpool a reprieve as he flagged for a foul, but Taylor scandalously overruled his assistant, ignoring both the Liverpool players’ protests and the replays of the incident that had been inadvertently played on the big screens.

Liverpool's protests fell on deaf ears
It was the sort of decision that made me question whether it was going to be Liverpool’s day. At 1-0, the Reds were clear favourites and would have had the momentum to secure the victory with further strikes after the break.

However, conceding an equaliser in those controversial circumstances in the dying embers of injury time could really have been a body blow, not just to Liverpool’s chances of beating West Ham, but also to their chances of clinching the title.

Thankfully, Rodgers and his men responded calmly and rationally. Displaying his tactical nous once again, Rodgers replaced Coutinho with Lucas at the break, reverting to a diamond formation, which allowed the full backs Johnson and Flanagan to bomb on down the wings, acting almost as third and fourth strikers at times.

With Gerrard sitting deep almost as a third centre back and Lucas and Henderson doing the leg work in the middle, the Merseysiders clearly gained the ascendancy and enjoyed more of the ball during the second 45 minutes.

They still had to deal with the threat of Carroll, though, who thundered a powerful header against the cross bar after beating Johnson to Diame’s cross on the hour mark. Overall, however, the Hammers struggled to craft decent goalscoring opportunities and, after the below-par Sturridge shot over the bar, Liverpool were awarded another penalty.

Lucas threaded a clever and incisive pass through for the on-rushing Flanagan, who went down under the challenge of the Spanish stopper Adrian. Although Adrian admittedly got a hand to the ball, it was insufficient since it failed to divert the ball away from Flanagan’s path and, had he not brought down the young full back, he would have had the opportunity to shoot goalwards.

It may have been a close call, but giving the visitors a second penalty was certainly far more reasonable than allowing Demel’s goal to stand at the end of the first half. Unsurprisingly, Gerrard made no mistake from the resulting penalty, converting his eleventh spot kick of the season with consummate ease to regain the lead for the Reds. It was also the skipper’s 173rd goal for the club, taking him above the spectating Kenny Dalglish in the club’s all-time record goal scorers’ table.

This is what scoring his second spot kick meant to the skipper
The closing stages were inevitably nervy for the away side, although that didn’t stop them continuing to have the best sights of goal. After Suarez’s claim that Armero had handled the ball in the box was turned down, the Uruguayan sent another extraordinary effort crashing against the bar and then was put through on goal by Sterling but saw his toe-poked effort blocked by Adrian.

Downing fired over from the edge of the box for the hosts, but apart from that West Ham never seriously worried the Reds, who held on to claim three crucial points which take them back to the top of the table with five games remaining.

This win takes the Reds one small but significant step closer to realising their title dreams. Let’s hope that this time next week we are not mourning the shattering of those dreams by Manchester City, but rather celebrating another victory over one of our title rivals and believing more than ever that number 19 is on its way to the Anfield trophy cabinet.