Saturday, 31 May 2014

Where should Liverpool strengthen this summer?

Although the transfer window is a month away from officially opening, many clubs, including Liverpool, have already been busy seeking to build up their squads ahead of the 2014/2015 season. Following their first serious title challenge in five years, Reds boss Brendan Rodgers, who recently put pen to paper on a new long term contract at the club, will be looking to improve both the quality and depth of his squad so that the Merseysiders can go one better than their second placed finish next time round.

What areas of his squad need most strengthening, though, if Liverpool are to finally win the Premier League? I look at four positions where reinforcements are required. 

Left back

Left back has been a long term problem position for Liverpool and, frustratingly, whenever a player has come in and looked like making the position their own; they seem to have been plagued with injuries. Both Brazilian Fabio Aurelio and Spaniard Jose Enrique are recent examples of Liverpool left backs initially impressing but struggling to regain form following persistent injury problems.

Enrique, like Aurelio, has spent too much time on the treatment table
Jon Flanagan provided a good account of himself when asked to play in an unfamiliar position at left back towards the end of last season and he arguably deserves the chance to fight to retain that place in the team next season. However, in the long term, the scouse Cafu will want to play in his preferred position of right back and Rodgers will want to sign a specialist left back to strengthen his defence, with Flanagan and Enrique providing ample back up.

Sevilla’s up and coming 21-year old left back Alberto Moreno, who will provide back up for Spain’s first choice left back Jordi Alba in Brazil this summer, has reportedly attracted Rodgers’ interest, although the club will have to stump up a hefty £15 million to acquire his services. At £30 million, meanwhile, Southampton’s 18-year old Luke Shaw is arguably overpriced. Chelsea’s Ryan Bertrand could prove a cheaper and more realistic alternative, although his lack of Premier League experience- he’s only made 16 appearances- makes him a gamble.

It may be expensive to sign an established name at left back, but it could be more costly if the club go another season without sorting out their persistent problem in that position.

Right back

Kopites were left asking where the real Glen Johnson was last season. Complacency, brought on by a lack of competition for both club and country, meant that the number two’s progress stalled during the 2013/2014 campaign. Admittedly, injuries didn’t help, but that couldn’t excuse his consistently poor performances.

Defensive errors became more common while he also appeared to lack his usual attacking potency, providing only two assists throughout the whole season. As a result, it’s no wonder his Liverpool future remains unclear heading into the final year of his current £120k per week contract.

Johnson's form dipped noticeably last season
Martin Kelly, meanwhile, seems to have disappeared into the ranks of obscurity in the Reds’ reserves, rarely even making the bench last season. Expect him to be offloaded in the summer, at the very least on a temporary basis.

Jon Flanagan provides the one bright spot at right back and hopefully he’ll make the position his own in the long term. In the short term, though, Rodgers should look to sign another right back to keep Johnson on his toes. The competition should hopefully help him return to form sooner rather than later.

Centre midfield

Gerrard and Henderson were tremendous last season, the former re-inventing himself as an excellent ball-playing deep lying midfielder and the latter finally showing that he has the quality to play at Anfield and justifying his £16 million price tag. In addition, Allen did enough towards the end of the campaign to warrant staying at the club and Lucas is useful as a back-up to Gerrard, although he arguably lacks the attacking nous to fit into Rodgers’ first team plans.

Nevertheless, Liverpool could do with an extra man in midfield, to provide both depth and additional quality in the centre of the park. Another player in the creative and energetic mould of Henderson wouldn’t go amiss, since the former Sunderland man was badly missed during his three-match suspension at the business end of the 2013/2014 season.

Southampton’s Adam Lallana has been on the Reds’ radar. The 26-year old has abundant talent and took to international football like a duck to water when handed his debut against Chile at Wembley by former Liverpool manager Roy Hodgson, implying that he could cope in the Champions League.
Lallana could be a great addition to the Reds' midfield
At £25 million, there’s a risk that he might be overpriced and, as the examples of Andy Carroll and Stewart Downing show, the Reds do not have a good track record in terms of purchasing exciting but expensive young English talent. It’s a lot of money to waste if Lallana fails to make the grade at Anfield. Bayer Leverkusen’s Emre Can, whose versatility could come in helpful, may be a safer signing at approximately £10 million, although clauses in his contract seem to be complicating any potential deal.

Up front

In total, Liverpool managed a remarkable 101 League goals last season. 52 of those were scored by the lethal SAS, while Sterling chipped in with nine strikes. Commentators ran out of superlatives as the trio broke all sorts of records and set the Premier League alight.

The least said about Iago Aspas and Victor Moses, though, the better. The pair were awful last season and are almost certainly going to be shipped out this summer. Loanee Moses will return to parent club Chelsea and Aspas, signed for just under £8 million from Celta Vigo, would surely be allowed to leave for a trivial transfer fee.

As good as the SAS are, they will need back up in case of injury or suspension, so two new strikers to replace Moses and Aspas would be welcome. Out of the blue, the Reds now seem very close to completing the signing of boyhood Liverpool supporter Rickie Lambert for £4 million from Southampton. The 32-year old England international may have only a few years of professional football left, but if he could repeat his 13-goal haul next season then that would certainly help the Merseysiders’ cause.

It would be a dream come true for Lambert if he signed for Liverpool
At the end of the day, he would be a much better option off the bench than Aspas and it would be a fairy-tale story if Lambert, who was rejected by the Reds as a youngster and subsequently worked in a beetroot factory, completed a dream move back to Anfield.


Thursday, 29 May 2014

29 years on: In memory of the 39

On 29th May 1985, 29 years ago today, thousands of Juventus supporters travelled to Heysel to watch their side play in the biggest match in club football, the European Cup final.

Tragically, 39 never returned.

The Heysel memorial at Anfield
A variety of causes, including the inaction of the police, unwise ticketing policy and, most importantly, the fragile nature of a stadium that was obviously not fit enough to stage such a massive occasion, led to 32 Italians, four Belgians, two French people and a Northern Irish man being crushed to death after a surge by a small minority of Liverpool fans caused a wall to collapse.

Contrary to popular opinion Liverpool supporters were not solely to blame for the disaster, however our role in and responsibility for the tragedy is inescapable.

This is a list of the 39 who died:

Rocco Acerra (29)

Bruno Balli (50)

Alfons Bos

Giancarlo Bruschera (21)

Andrea Casula (11)

Giovanni Casula (44)

Nino Cerullo (24)

Willy Chielens

Giuseppina Conto (17)

Dirk Daenecky

Dionisio Fabbro (51)

Jacques Francois

Eugenio Gagliano (35)

Francesco Galli (25)

Giancarlo Gonnelli (20)

Alberto Guarini (21)

Giovacchino Landini (50)

Roberto Lorentini (31)

Barbara Lusci (58)

Franco Martelli (22)

Loris Messore (28)

Gianni Mastrolaco (20)

Sergio Bastino Mazzino (38)

Luciano Rocco Papaluca (38)

Luigi Pidone (31)

Benito Pistolato (50)

Patrick Radcliffe

Domenico Ragazzi (44)

Antonio Ragnanese (49)

Claude Robert

Mario Ronchi (43)

Domenico Russo (28)

Tarcisio Salvi (49)

Gianfranco Sarto (47)

Amedeo Giuseppe Spolaore (55)

Mario Spanu (41)

Tarcisio Venturin (23)

Jean Michel Walla

Claudio Zavaroni (28)

On behalf of all Liverpool supporters I would like to offer my condolences to the families of the 39 people who lost their lives. We truly know how you feel. We are so sorry. You'll Never Walk Alone

Friday, 23 May 2014

Season 2013/2014 Awards

I look back at what has been an unforgettable season and hand out awards for player of the season, young player of the season, most improved player of the season and signing of the season. I also pick my goal and game of the season.

Player of the Season: Luis Suarez

I’ve run out of superlatives to describe Luis Suarez. He is simply world class. Only Messi and Ronaldo can claim to be better players than Liverpool’s number seven.

This season he has proven all the doubters wrong and demonstrated his commitment to the club by putting in exceptional performance after exceptional performance. Remarkably, despite missing the first six games of the season through suspension, Suarez came top of the goalscoring charts in 2013/2014, netting a stunning 31 goals, ten more than second placed Daniel Sturridge. If those two can continue their lethal strike partnership next season then Europe’s defences will be quaking in their boots when the SAS come to town.

Suarez is one of the best players in the world right now
Sturridge, Gerrard and Henderson also receive honourable mentions. Sturridge has been in fine goalscoring form, Gerrard has been revitalised in the holding midfield role that Rodgers has created for him and Henderson has won over the supporters with his energetic midfield play. However, I simply cannot look past Luis Suarez for the Player of the Season award.

Young Player of the Season: Raheem Sterling

This was the season that the 19-year old winger came of age. Thriving under the tutorship of Luis Suarez, Sterling has come on leaps and bounds, performing so well that he forced his way into Roy Hodgson’s England squad for the World Cup in Brazil this summer.

Despite a poor start to the season leading to rumours that he would be loaned out in January, Rodgers persevered with Sterling, who became a permanent fixture in the first team during the second half of the season.

His creativity, skill and pace have been wonders to behold and, crucially, his goalscoring record has vastly improved. Sterling netted ten times in 38 games last season, which was far superior to the mere two he managed in 36 matches in 2012/2013.

Sterling is a superb talent with plenty of potential 
21-year old Jon Flanagan has also performed admirably well, earning the nickname ‘the scouse Cafu’, but Sterling pips his teammate to the post to win the young player of the season award thanks to the potential he has to become an attacking superstar for years to come at Anfield.

Most Improved Player of the Season: Jordan Henderson

Jordan Henderson has become an indispensable part of Liverpool’s midfield this season. Without him, Liverpool struggled, as evidenced by the fact that the Reds threw away their title chances in games for which Henderson was suspended following an injury time sending off in the 3-2 win over City. The £16 million signing from Sunderland was sorely missed against Chelsea and Crystal Palace.

Henderson celebrates scoring at White Hart Lane
His energy, enthusiasm and commitment to the cause are invaluable and have won over many of the supporters who had previously written him off. The player who may well start alongside club teammate Steven Gerrard in midfield for England at the World Cup this summer has come a long way from the player who was offered to Fulham as a makeweight in a proposed deal for Clint Dempsey two years ago.  

Signing of the Season: Simon Mignolet

Let’s face it; Liverpool’s signings last season were largely flops. Loan signings Aly Cissokho and Victor Moses will be quickly shown the door, as will Iago Aspas and Kolo Toure in all likelihood. Luis Alberto may still be one for the future but has been starved of game time and £18 million man Mamadou Sakho hasn’t lived up to his sizeable price tag.

Mignolet beat off fierce competition from Iago Aspas to win the signing of the season award!
Goalkeeper Simon Mignolet, signed from Sunderland to replace the ageing Pepe Reina, has been the one bright spot. Admittedly he has the occasional howler and has to work on his distribution, but his shot-stopping has been world class from the moment he saved Walters’ spot kick in the last minute of the opening game of the season at home to Stoke City, and undoubtedly earned the Reds a few vital points.

Goal of the Season: Suarez’s first goal vs Norwich City (H)

There were so many to choose from, but this one comes out on top because of Suarez’s sheer audacity in even attempting to find the back of the net from that far out. The Uruguayan’s first of four on an evening when he tortured Norwich City once again was a thing of beauty, stunningly looping over the helpless Ruddy, whose slight positional error was ruthlessly punished by the lethal Suarez.

What a goal!
Game of the Season: Liverpool 5-1 Arsenal

Smashing five past Spurs at bogey ground White Hart Lane and doing the double over Manchester United was fantastic, as was beating Everton 4-0 at Anfield. I’ll also never forget the day the Reds beat Manchester City 3-2, which was when most Kopites really started believing that their team could finally end the long wait for their first Premier League title.

The game of the season, however, was the match that started the remarkable eleven game winning streak that defined Liverpool’s season. Arsenal travelled to Merseyside top of the table. They returned to London with their tail between their legs after being humiliated by the Reds’ attack, which blew away the Gunners’ shell-shocked defence with the strength of a hurricane.

What a game!
After only 20 minutes Liverpool were 4-0 up thanks to goals from Skrtel (2), Sterling and Sturridge. Sterling doubled his tally in the second half before Rodgers’ men took their foot off the gas a little, the match already well over as a contest. Arteta’s spot kick was scant consolation for Arsenal and could do nothing to diminish Liverpool’s joy at a simply unbelievable victory, which will be fondly remembered for years to come.


Saturday, 17 May 2014

Ahead of schedule: 2013/2014 Season Review

Even though the campaign ended in disappointment, Liverpool have come on leaps and bounds this season.

Viewed through the narrow lens of the final three games, this season could quite easily be deemed a failure for Liverpool. After all, the Merseysiders sat top of the table and had the destiny of the Premier League title in their own hands, but they threw it away thanks to a crushing defeat at home to Jose Mourinho’s Chelsea and an embarrassing 3-3 draw against Crystal Palace at Selhurst Park, which felt more like a defeat thanks to both the nature of the match and the fact that failing to pick up three points put Manchester City back in the driving seat in the title race.

However, viewed through the wide angle lens of the season as a whole, nobody can deny that this season has been a phenomenally successful one of huge progress for Rodgers’ Reds. Not only was it the first time that Liverpool have mounted a serious title challenge in five years, it was also the first time that the Reds have entered the final day of the Premier League season still having a mathematical chance of making their dreams a reality and claiming their much longed for 19th League title.

Sadly, it wasn’t to be, as Manchester City beat West Ham at the Etihad on the last day of the season to secure their second title in three seasons. Nonetheless, Liverpool’s fantastic League finish and the manner in which they climbed the table from seventh the season before to second at the end of 2013/2014 have given Kopites ample reason to be satisfied with this season and to look forward to the next one with eager anticipation, hoping that they can go one better next time around.

Way back in August at the start of the season, the aim of the campaign was to achieve Champions League qualification, although even a top four finish was deemed a tough task by many thanks to Tottenham’s sizeable spending and the perceived strength of the usual suspects in the title race. I personally would have been pleased with narrowly missing out on the Champions League and finishing fifth, as long as the Reds were pushing for fourth right up until the end. A season similar to the one Everton enjoyed would have represented progress after failing to qualify for European football at all in 2012/2013.

As it turned out, not being in the Europa League proved a blessing in disguise for Liverpool, as it meant they avoided the competition’s dreaded Thursday night fixtures and therefore often had a week to recover between Premier League fixtures, keeping them fresh and relatively injury free throughout the season.

Mignolet was the hero on the opening day
For the first time since Michael Owen’s brace sunk West Ham in 2001, Liverpool won at home on the opening day of the season, a dramatic late penalty save from new signing Simon Mignolet sealing a 1-0 victory over Mark Hughes’ Stoke side. The keeper went on to keep two more clean sheets in the Reds’ next Premier League fixtures, which were one-goal victories over Aston Villa and Manchester United respectively. Unfortunately, the Belgian shot-stopper could only keep five more clean sheets in the League and only once were they in consecutive matches, as Liverpool’s leaky defence cost them dearly time and time again.

At the other end of the pitch, however, Liverpool’s attack was going goal crazy on the way to a simply stunning total of 101 League goals. Luis Suarez returned from suspension at the end of September and scored twice on his return to Premier League football in a 3-1 win versus Sunderland. The Uruguayan went on to score another 29 times, breaking numerous records and earning both the PFA Player of the Year and the Football Writers’ Player of the Year Awards in the process. The other goal scorer at the Stadium of Light that Sunday teatime was Daniel Sturridge, who wasn’t quite as prolific as his strike partner, netting a mere 24 goals, 21 of which came in the League.

Liverpool’s encouraging run of good form during the first half of the season, which included a memorable five-goal thrashing of Spurs at historic bogey ground White Hart Lane, came to an end at Christmas time, as two 2-1 defeats in the space of four days away from home to title rivals City and Chelsea dampened Kopites’ festive cheer. On both occasions, the Reds deserved at least a point and suffered as a result of horrendous officiating. It was arguably primarily due to bad luck that Liverpool finished 2013 outside of the top four.

The Reds dusted themselves off, though, and produced a second half of the season that will live long in the memory. Remaining undefeated in the League in 2014 until the middle of April, Liverpool embarked on a breath-taking 11 game winning run, which began in style with a 5-1 victory over a shell-shocked Arsenal at Anfield. The Gunners, who were top of the table at the time, were blown away during a simply unbelievable opening 20 minutes, in which two goals from Skrtel and strikes from Sterling and Sturridge put Wenger’s men to the sword.

Arsenal got their revenge eight days later, knocking the Reds out of the FA Cup at the fifth round stage, but, with no distractions from cup competitions left, Liverpool could now concentrate all their attention on attaining number 19. They went mighty close to miraculously jumping from seventh to first in one season.

Schadenfreude is a strong emotion that football fans often feel and that was certainly the case for Kopites this season. The woes of bitter rivals Manchester United under the managerial reign of ex-Everton boss David Moyes were a source of constant amusement for Reds supporters throughout the campaign, and their joy abounded all the more when the Mancs were thoroughly beaten 3-0 at Old Trafford thanks in no small part to a brace of spot kicks from Gerrard, who missed a third spot kick to squander the chance to become the first player to convert a hat-trick of penalties in a Premier League match.

Liverpool fans love seeing Stevie kiss the camera at Old Trafford
Coming hot on the heels of a 3-0 win from a tricky trip to Southampton, Liverpool’s title credentials were increasing week by week and, when Chelsea fell to an unexpected defeat at Crystal Palace and Man City were held to a draw at the Emirates, they took full advantage, smashing four past a shambolic Spurs side at Anfield to move top of the table at the end of March.

City’s games in hand meant they were always in the mix, though, and made it essential that Liverpool defeated them when they arrived at Anfield in the middle of April. Liverpool had the hallmark of champions during a roller-coaster game in which they threw away a two-goal lead but, thankfully, Philippe Coutinho’s low strike sealed a vital win, which made the Merseysiders favourites in the title race for the first time.

With the pressure now on them as they led the pack in the title chase, Gerrard screamed “we don’t let this slip” at his teammates in the immediate aftermath of the City win. It proved to be a case of famous last words, as Liverpool’s skipper suffered a cruel twist of fate when Mourinho’s Chelsea came to town two weeks later.

The irony was painful and it was difficult to watch as Gerrard slipped on the stroke of half time, allowing Demba Ba to run through on goal and give the Blues the crucial opening goal. Mourinho refused to move his parked bus in the second half and the initiative in the title race was handed back to the Citizens.

Was this the moment the title was lost?
When the Reds then conceded three times in the final ten minutes to draw at Crystal Palace on Bank Holiday Monday most people knew that the title race was over, with boss Brendan Rodgers conceding defeat to City in post-match interviews. Although the feeling that Liverpool were never going to win their first Premier League title the easy way kept me believing until the final day of the season, that final ember of hope was extinguished when Kompany scored City’s second versus West Ham on the final day of the season.

The disappointment was deep, but Kopites rightly remain Red and Proud.

At the end of the day, there are so many positives to take from last season and very few negatives. The Reds are way ahead of schedule in terms of their progress and development as a side under the stewardship of Brendan Rodgers and the future is looking bright for the club. They finally have settled ownership, with FSG in it for the long haul, and a brilliant young manager in charge of an exciting team packed full of attacking talent and producing the type of free flowing passing football that is reminiscent of the glory years at Anfield.

I can’t wait to see them compete in the Champions League and challenge for the title again next season.


Wednesday, 14 May 2014

The rise of Rodgers

The Reds’ resurgence in 2013/2014 was largely attributable to the man in the Anfield hot seat.

Brendan Rodgers wasn’t universally welcomed when he became Liverpool manager in June 2012.

Many supporters, including this writer, felt that previous boss Kenny Dalglish had been harshly sacked, arguing that the legendary Scot deserved at least another season at the helm after achieving noteworthy domestic cup success, the Reds winning the League Cup and finishing as runners-up in the FA Cup to perhaps compensate for a disappointing eighth place finish in the League.

In addition, concerns were raised about Rodgers’ pedigree. Yes, he’d indisputably done remarkably well to help Swansea City reach and remain in the promised land of the Premier League, but his only other managerial experience came at Watford and Reading, lasting only six months at the latter.

FSG took a gamble on Rodgers, however, because they were attracted by what Liverpool Chairman Tom Werner described as the “relentless, attacking football” he had to offer. Moreover, at only 39 years old, the Northern Irishman was seen as the young up and coming manager that the American owner’s trusted to build a long term project that would return Liverpool to where they belong; namely, the summit of English and European football.

Reds' fans had their doubts on Rodgers' arrival at Anfield
Two years later and that gamble has clearly paid off- big style. Liverpool are at least a year ahead of schedule in terms of their progress under Brendan Rodgers, already challenging for and coming very close to clinching the title, despite only expecting to challenge for Champions League qualification in 2013/2014.

Rodgers has proved himself so comprehensively that he has the backing of the entire fan base and also the owners, who recently offered him a four-year contract extension, an offer that he gratefully accepted without having to think twice. The rest of the footballing world has took note of Rodgers’ talents as well, Rodgers beating Crystal Palace manager Tony Pulis to win the League Manager’s Association Manager of the Year award, as voted for by his fellow professionals.

Tactical maturity and evolution has been at the heart of Rodgers’ roaring success this season. Famed for a passing philosophy that reflects the much-talked about Liverpool Way, Rodgers has foundational footballing ideals that he adheres to devotedly. They are not rigid principles, however, and the Ulsterman is open to change, adapting without compromising his values as and when necessary.

He will always have a preference for passing football, for example, but no longer relies primarily on inflicting ‘death by football’ on opponents. In fact, Liverpool enjoyed tremendous success in the season just past by playing devastatingly good football on the counter attack, their formidable forwards repeatedly ripping the likes of Arsenal and Everton to shreds.

In addition, he has masterminded Liverpool’s midfield and attack expertly, producing a superbly balanced line-up in the middle of the park. On top of transforming club captain Steven Gerrard into an excellent ball playing deep lying midfielder, he has got the best out of the likes of Henderson, Allen, Coutinho and, perhaps most notably, Raheem Sterling.

Whether in a diamond or a 4-3-3 formation, the midfield Rodgers has constructed provides invaluable support to Sturridge and Suarez, who arguably form the most lethal strike partnership in the world currently.

The difference in quality between these two managers is like the difference between night and day
The meritocracy Rodgers has instituted at the club has also helpfully not only encouraged players to perform to the best of their ability week in, week out, but also offered them hope when on the fringes of the first team. Flanagan, for example, was deemed surplus to requirements earlier on in the season, but became a permanent fixture in the team at left back during the closing stages of the campaign after his hard work and determination changed his manager’s opinion of him. He is now arguably the best full back at the club.

Perhaps more remarkably, Jordan Henderson has become an essential member of the team, completing a scarcely believable turnaround after being offered to Fulham as a makeweight for Clint Dempsey during Rodgers’ first summer at the club. Few fans could imagine Liverpool’s midfield without the former Sunderland player now, and his boundless energy and enthusiasm were sorely missed during a three-match suspension for a rash red card late on in the win over Manchester City.

Without Rodgers’ meritocratic system those players would not have realised their considerable potential on Merseyside and Liverpool’s squad would be significantly weaker as a result.

After roughly 20 years in coaching, Rodgers possesses a wealth of knowledge that he has built up over the years. However, he still has a burning desire to learn more and knows that he has to continue to improve in order to remain at the pinnacle of his profession and maintain the team’s rapid pace of development.

The area in which he needs to mature the most tactically is on the defensive side of the game. If Liverpool’s attack is a Rolls Royce, then their defence is a Reliant Robin! The back line has simply not been up to scratch this season and Rodgers must reform and adapt his philosophy once again to remove the Reds’ defensive frailties and prevent silly goals spoiling Liverpool’s chances of achieving memorable success.

An element of naivety has been evident in the Merseysiders’ play, exemplified by their visit to Crystal Palace on the penultimate match day of the season, when they foolishly failed to shut up shop after conceding with just over ten minutes remaining. They proceed to throw away not only a three-goal lead, but also their remaining title chances.

It would probably be worthwhile Rodgers studying Manchester City manager Manuel Pellegrini’s tactics over the summer break, since the Citizens seem to have the perfect blend of attacking brilliance and defensive solidity. The Blues’ flair up front is matched, if not bettered, by the Reds, but their far superior defence is the reason why they won the title, while Liverpool had to settle for second. If Rodgers can learn from Pellegrini how to instil defensive discipline without compromising Liverpool’s enterprising style of play, his team will have a much better chance of taking the title out of City’s grasp next season.

Rodgers has developed a rapport with the supporters
The most important thing that Rodgers has done during his time at the club is make the fans believe and dream again. Not since Rafael Benitez led Liverpool to a second placed finish in 2008/2009 have Kopites had such faith in the manager. Rodgers is esteemed on the Kop in a similar way to the Spaniard although, crucially, he is a less divisive figure than Benitez, who was loved by some and hated by others by the end of his six-year reign.

If Rodgers’ career continues on its current trajectory then he can expect to receive many more Manager of the Year awards. Liverpool fans, meanwhile, will be able to see success and that golden sky that their club anthem talks about on the horizon.


Monday, 12 May 2014

Liverpool win feels like a loss as City clinch title

Liverpool beat Newcastle United but it felt like a defeat as it wasn’t enough to clinch the title on a disappointing final day of the season.

The Reds did what they had to do at Anfield, beating nine-man Newcastle 2-1 thanks to two almost identical goals from Agger and Sturridge, but things didn’t go their way at the Etihad, where Manchester City never looked like slipping up at home to West Ham. Requiring only a point to claim their second title in three seasons, the Blues beat the Hammers thanks to goals from Nasri and Kompany, allowing the latter to lift the Premier League trophy aloft on full time.

Following Monday night’s crushing capitulation away to Crystal Palace, where Liverpool let a three-goal lead slip, the players seemed deflated. While the fans still believed that the miraculous could happen, as evidenced by the brilliant atmosphere they created yet again, the players clearly didn’t, and it showed in their first half performance.

Lacklustre and pedestrian, Liverpool lacked the sharpness, pace and energy that had previously been so characteristic of their performances during the opening stages of matches. Surprisingly, despite their awful second half of the season and the fact that they had nothing to play for, Newcastle came back off the beach to put in a decent first half performance and they were arguably the better team in the first 45 minutes.

Their five man defence successfully frustrated the Reds’ attack and they even managed to bag a goal in front of the Kop thanks to some shoddy defending from Skrtel, who inadvertently sliced Gouffran’s cross past his keeper to score his fourth own goal of the season. Coming only moments after Phil Dowd had ruled out Suarez’s superb lofted effort from an intelligent quick free kick because the ball was still moving, it made me feel that it just wasn’t going to be the Merseysiders’ day.

Suarez's ingenious improvisation went unrewarded 
Thankfully, Mignolet made a crucial save from Gouffran soon after to spare the Reds’ blushes, the Belgian keeper blocking the French winger’s effort after he’d sped through on goal. Liverpool came back into the match during the closing stages of the first half, Suarez shooting straight at Krul after shimmying into space impressively and Sturridge agonisingly sending a header off target from close range when he really should have turned Henderson’s cross home.

News from the Etihad wasn’t encouraging, though, as Nasri gave City the lead five minutes before the break and it could have been worse, as the last act of the half saw Silva’s shot deflect onto the bar off the foot of former Liverpool striker Andy Carroll.

It was only a matter of time, however, before news came through of a second goal for City and Liverpool’s title hopes all but ended. Four minutes into the second half Kompany put City two up and, as a result, the game at Anfield became very much an end of season encounter with little but pride to play for.

The least Liverpool could do, though, was beat Newcastle so that they could say they did all they could to win the title on the final day of the season. Thankfully, that’s what the Reds did, as they stepped up a gear while the Barcodes hit the self-destruct button.

Just after the hour mark, Gerrard swung a free kick into the back post, where Agger athletically met it to turn the ball home and equalise in front of the Kop on his first start since the 4-0 win over Spurs at the end of March.

It was good to see Agger get on the score sheet
Sturridge thanks God for his 24th goal of a remarkable season
The Reds then produced a carbon copy of that goal to take the lead only two minutes later, Gerrard lofting another free kick into the far post, where this time Sturridge was to nudge home from close range.

As Liverpool finally sparked into life, Newcastle capitulated, Shola Ameobi somehow being shown a yellow card twice in a matter of seconds for dissent as he was bizarrely sent off before the restart. Substitute Paul Dummett then got himself sent off only six minutes after coming on, although his foul challenge on Suarez arguably only warranted a booking.

The last act of note during the closing stages in which the match petered out came when Sterling tucked the ball into the net after Lucas’ drive goalwards was blocked and the ball fell favourably for the youngster. However, he could have no complaints about his effort being chalked off for offside.

At the end of the day, Liverpool could have no complaints about missing out on the title and only finishing second. When you defend as poorly as they did in the big matches and concede 50 goals over the course of the season, you don’t deserve to win the title. Arab oil money may well be a large part of the explanation of City’s title success, but they deserve the title because they’ve emerged from a gruelling 38-game season with the most points.

On the positive side, to finish on 84 points and score 101 League goals is a massive achievement, particularly when you compare it to the Reds’ seventh placed finish last season. In addition, Liverpool are clearly at least a year ahead of schedule in terms of their progress under Brendan Rodgers and have Champions League football back at Anfield to look forward to in the 2014/2015 campaign.

This man has made us believe great times are on the way back to Anfield
Roll on next season!


Tuesday, 6 May 2014

Istanbul in reverse ruins Reds' title chances

Liverpool capitulated last night as Crystal Palace staged a scarcely believable comeback to claim a 3-3 draw and dent the Reds’ title chances almost irreparably.

It was all going so well for Liverpool on a night that they knew they had to win in order to keep up the pressure on title favourites Manchester City, who won at bogey ground Goodison Park on Saturday evening to remain in the driving seat.

Suarez's tears say it all
Allen’s first Liverpool League goal on his 50th appearance for the Reds gave them a first half lead, and two goals in two minutes from the SAS early on in the second half seemed to have put the game to bed as a contest, with it simply being a matter of how many goals the Merseysiders could rack up to close the goal difference gap between them and City.

Instead, unbelievable tactical naivety and shockingly bad defending meant Liverpool threw away a three-goal lead and effectively handed the Premier League title to City on a plate. Three Crystal Palace goals in nine minutes turned it into a nightmare evening for the visitors and all but extinguished their title dreams. Star striker Luis Suarez and many travelling Kopites were understandably left in tears.

Although mid-table Palace had nothing to play for after already securing their Premier League status, Tony Pulis stuck to his promise to play a full strength side and, as the Eagles had previously beaten Chelsea at Selhurst Park to dent their title chances, it was by no means certain that Liverpool would clinch the three points needed to keep their title aspirations alive.

Nevertheless, the Reds started the better and created several decent goalscoring opportunities before breaking the deadlock on 18 minutes. Johnson went down under the challenge of Bolasie in the box but his penalty appeal was harshly ignored by referee Mark Clattenburg. Sakho agonisingly headed Gerrard’s resulting right wing corner wide of goal, before Johnson also went close with a headed effort, directing Allen’s perfectly weighted lofted pass just over the bar.

Moments later, though, the ball was headed into the net, this time rather surprisingly by the smallest player on the pitch. Welshman Joe Allen evaded his marker and snuck to the back post, where he was free to head home Gerrard’s corner kick to give Liverpool an important lead.

Allen opened the scoring
Before the break, Palace came back into the match, testing Mignolet on two occasions. First, the Belgian stopper was called upon to turn Puncheon’s low strike around the corner. Then, he had to tip Jedinak’s shot over the bar.

You suspected, though, that all it would take to kill off Palace was a swift second goal after the break, and that’s what arrived. In fact, both Sturridge and Suarez scored to seemingly secure all three points for Liverpool beyond a shadow of a doubt.

After Speroni had beaten Sturridge’s shot clear and Suarez had blazed the rebound over the bar, the England striker marked his return to the starting line-up from injury with his 24th goal of the campaign, seeing his shot from the edge of the box deflected past Speroni and into the back of the net.

He went to celebrate with the substitutes who were warming up on the side lines but was then told to get the ball out of the net and make sure the match re-started as quickly as possible so that the Reds could rack up more goals. They immediately did, Suarez playing a superb one-two with Sterling and then burying the ball into the back of the net to inspire hopes of a Reds’ rout emulating their 9-0 drubbing of Crystal Palace at Anfield in the 1989/1990 season.

Suarez grabs the ball after scoring Liverpool's third
As it turned out, Liverpool instead threw away a three goal lead for only the second time in the Premier League era. For the record, the first time they imploded so spectacularly was away to Southampton in August 2000.

Central to Crystal Palace’s remarkable comeback was substitute Dwight Gayle. The 23-year old, who bagged Palace’s consolation in their 3-1 defeat at Anfield earlier in the season, caused Liverpool’s defence all types of problems and netted twice to break Kopites’ hearts.

It all started, however, when slack defending from Glen Johnson allowed Damien Delaney space to launch a speculative effort on goal. His 25-yard shot deflected off Johnson and flew into the top corner to give Palace hope and reward their fans’ excellent support throughout.

At that stage, Liverpool had to shut up shop and make sure that the game was won. At 3-0 up it was understandable why the Merseysiders were vying for more goals because the game appeared already won and there remained the possibility of reducing the goal difference gap between Liverpool and City. As soon as we conceded, though, goal difference became essentially irrelevant since we were never going to catch up with City after Palace scored.

The fact that Liverpool didn’t batten down the hatches and see out the match, instead opting to continue to relentlessly pour forward in search of more goals, arguably reveals that Rodgers falls into an equal and opposite error to Mourinho. The Portuguese Chelsea manager only knows how to play defensively, whereas his Northern Irish apprentice only seems able to play attacking football. That cost the Reds last night, as they were left wide open at the back and were therefore punished by Pulis’ Palace.

Although Coutinho immediately went close at the other end as his shot was tipped over the bar by Speroni, a Palace counter attack from the resulting corner concluded with Gayle reducing the arrears further. Having ridiculously sent seven men forward for the corner, Liverpool were exposed at the back as Bolasie broke and Palace poured forward. Eventually Bolasie squared to Gayle, who was allowed the time to turn home from close range by Flanagan, whose marking was far too loose.

Liverpool’s misery was complete two minutes from time when Skrtel was left to deal with two attackers on his own. As a result, Murray chested a long ball forward into the path of Gayle, who clinically fired past Mignolet to complete an unbelievable comeback for Crystal Palace.

Gayle dashes the Reds' title dreams
The visitors still had the chance to save both their blushes and their title hopes in injury time but frustratingly a fantastic goalscoring opportunity fell to Victor Moses rather than Luis Suarez during a goalmouth scramble. The former Crystal Palace striker agonisingly but predictably failed to score only his third goal for the Reds.

When Mark Clattenburg finally blew the final whistle five minutes into injury time he almost certainly blew the whistle on not just the game, but also Liverpool’s title hopes. The Reds may well be one point clear at the top of the Premier League table, but City have two home matches versus mid-table opposition remaining and have to lose one or draw both of them. Even if they draw one of those games, the Blues will still be in the driving seat due to their superior goal difference.

It’s going to take a miracle of Istanbul proportions for Liverpool to win the League from this position.


Thursday, 1 May 2014

Why Liverpool can still win the League

The doom and gloom surrounding Anfield on Sunday afternoon was understandable, but hope should now fill Kopites’ hearts. 

Liverpool’s unbelievable eleven match winning run came to an end as they were beaten in the League for the first time in 2014. Worst of all, it came to an end at the hands of expert  bus driver Jose Mourinho, not only bringing Chelsea back into the title race but, more importantly, putting the fate of the Premier League title out of our hands and into Manchester City’s.

However, although despondency was the understandable and inevitable response in the immediate aftermath of Liverpool’s home defeat to Chelsea and City’s victory at Crystal Palace later that afternoon, it is not justifiable now. With the help of a few days to reflect, it should be clear to Kopites that the title race is far from over, and the hope that is sung about in the club’s famous anthem every week should replace despair in their hearts.

After all, Liverpool have been in much more dire circumstances than this before yet have come out the other side victorious. The classic example is Istanbul in 2005, when the Reds recovered from a three-goal deficit at half time to eventually win against Italian giants AC Milan on penalties to claim their fifth European Cup on an unforgettable night in Turkey.

Gerrard encourages the fans to get behind the team in Istanbul
Only a year later, Liverpool pulled off another miracle, this time at the Millennium Stadium in Wales, as West Ham United were beaten on penalties in the FA Cup final after the Merseysiders had fought back from 2-0 down to level, before then falling behind again to a bizarre goal from future Liverpool left back Paul Konchesky. When all seemed lost, Steven Gerrard produced a piece of magic to level from fully 35 yards in injury time and the rest, as they say, is history.

Compared to half time in Istanbul and injury time in Cardiff, the situation Liverpool find themselves in is highly favourable. Yes, the title race is no longer in their own hands, but they remain top of the Premier League table with two games left to play, two points ahead of Chelsea and three in front of Man City.

Things could be better, but there’s not much for Liverpool supporters to complain about, particularly considering the goal for the season, namely qualification for the Champions League, has already been achieved. Also, they can still dream about what would arguably be an even greater triumph than victory in Istanbul nine years ago.

Although City are clearly in the driving seat, it is unlikely that they will enjoy a smooth ride to their second League title in three years and there remain potholes in the road for the Citizens to negotiate.

Pellegrini isn't looking forward to the trip to bogey ground Goodison Park
The main obstacle Manuel Pellegrini’s side face is a trip to Goodison Park to face bogey team Everton on Saturday evening. The Toffees’ hopes of finishing fourth may be fading fast after critical defeats at home to Crystal Palace and away at Southampton, but they still have Europa League qualification to fight for.

In addition, Roberto Martinez’s men will want to protect their impeccable home record against the Sky Blues. Everton have lost at home to Man City only once in the last 21 years and have beaten them eight times in their previous 12 trips to Goodison Park.

I have a feeling that Everton will do us a favour on Saturday and take at least a point off City, which would hand the initiative back to Liverpool ahead of their trip to Crystal Palace on Bank Holiday Monday. Even if they don’t, though, it’s by no means certain that City will take maximum points from their final games against Villa and West Ham.

The former may well still be fighting for Premier League survival and have a tendency to perform better against the big teams. Paul Lambert’s side won at the Emirates on the opening day of the season, managed to clinch a 2-2 draw at Anfield and beat Chelsea at Villa Park in March. They also beat Manchester City 3-2 in September. Meanwhile, Sam Allardyce will be under pressure to inspire his troops to take something from their final fixture of the season at City as he struggles to keep his job.

In the worst case scenario, City win all their games and finish level on points with Liverpool but with a superior goal difference. However, City’s goal difference is only eight better than the Reds’ currently and, say they beat Everton, Villa and West Ham by one goal each, I wouldn’t put it past Liverpool’s attack to score enough times to complete a remarkable turnaround.

It would require smashing four or five past Palace and seven or eight past the hapless Newcastle, but the SAS is one of the most prolific strike partnerships in the world right now and crazier things have happened at Liverpool!

Don't rule out these two going goal crazy!
There are still plenty of twists and turns left in the title race and it is expected to go to the wire. Liverpool never do things the easy way and it would have been out of place if they had claimed their first League title in nearly a quarter of a century without putting their fans through the mill in the process.

We’ve walked on through the wind and the rain. Now it’s time to start believing once again that there is a golden sky at the end of the storm.