Sunday, 28 September 2014

Bolt out of the blue causes derby dismay for Reds

A late sucker punch scuppered Liverpool’s hopes of kick-starting their season yesterday lunchtime.

As Phil Jagielka’s 30-yard strike thundered into the top corner of the Kop end net in the 90th minute, dismayed Kopites watched on with heavy hearts. Their hopes of a derby win that would breathe life into Liverpool’s ailing League campaign had been well and truly dashed by a bolt out of the blue from their greatest rival’s skipper.

It was a world class goal worthy of winning any game. Although both teams shared the points, for Everton it felt as if they had picked up all three points, while Liverpool suffered a crushing sense of defeat as the perfect opportunity to kick start their season slipped away.

It had all started so surprisingly well. As is typical, the Merseyside derby began at a frantic pace; Gareth Barry getting booked after only 45 seconds, but Liverpool were the better side and made all the early running.

Sterling and Lallana were particularly impressive, buzzing industriously around the target man Mario Balotelli, who saw his first minute free kick blocked by the Everton wall. Both sides then had fairly decent appeals for spot kicks harshly turned down by referee Martin Atkinson.

First, Moreno was very lucky to avoid being punished for recklessly felling Lukaku in the box. Then, Barry was even more fortunate to still be on the pitch after raising his hands above his head to block Sterling’s goal-bound strike. Had the 33-year old seen yellow for a second time at that point, the match could have panned out entirely differently.

Moreno and Hendo's appeals fell on deaf ears
As it was, after Howard had denied Balotelli and Lallana, the early high tempo dissipated and the match began to settle into a familiar rhythm, as Liverpool were dominant and did most of the attacking, but Everton posed a considerable threat when they counter-attacked with energy and pace.

Organised and efficient at the back, Martinez’s men had clearly worked on their defence, which had been the leakiest in the League. Although Liverpool’s back four likewise looked tighter, they were tested far less frequently, and when they were, issues still arose.

A perfect example came on the half hour mark, when Baines was evidently hungrier for the ball than Markovic, winning it from the Serbian in the area and nipping worryingly behind Liverpool’s lines before squaring dangerously across the goal. Only a last ditch clearance from Lovren prevented the lurking Lukaku tapping home.

Markovic didn’t fare much better at the other end either, seeing his shot from range sail harmlessly wide on 41 minutes. The Serbian is struggling to make an early impact on the team, and his replacement for the final half hour Philippe Coutinho clearly had a far more positive effect, cleverly engineering space and goalscoring chances with neat touches and quick passing and generally adding a new lease of life to Liverpool’s attack.

The Reds had one final chance to break the deadlock before the break, Henderson threading a great pass through for Sterling, whose shot was saved by Tim Howard after the American stopper had intelligently worked the angles so as to limit the amount of the goal that the teenage sensation had to aim for.

Having had 16 shots on goal compared to Everton’s three; Liverpool should have not only been in front, but out of sight by the end of the first 45 minutes. Instead, they remained frustrated and disjointed, as evidenced by Lovren colliding into Balotelli as he attempted to head home from close range a few minutes after the restart.

Liverpool required a moment of magic to revitalise them and reward their dominance. Thankfully, that bit of inspiration arrived halfway through the second period and, as is so often the case, Steven Gerrard was the one to step up to the plate and produce the goods in the Reds’ hour of need.

When Balotelli won a free kick on the edge of the box, Gerrard took control of the situation, ushering away the Italian and proceeding to curl a dipping effort into the back of the net. Admittedly, Howard should have done much better as he got a very strong hand to the ball, but Gerrard and the vast majority inside Anfield couldn’t have cared less. 

"Who said I was past it?"
Cupping his ear in celebration, this was Gerrard’s way of silencing his critics, including those amongst the rank of Kopites, and reminding them that he still has so much to offer the team, even at 34.

The resurgent Reds pushed for another, Sterling skinning Hibbert down the left and squaring to Balotelli, whose side footed effort bounced against the bar. At first sight it seemed as if the Italian had missed an unmissable effort, but, with the benefit of TV replays, Howard must be given credit for producing a remarkable save, as he somehow managed to get his shoulder in the way to deflect Balotelli’s shot against the bar.

Coutinho’s shot was blocked by Stones, before Henderson’s follow-up effort was well saved by Howard and Balotelli’s low shot went wide as Liverpool searched for the second goal that would kill off the game as a contest. However, as the clock counted down, they nervously retreated backwards, inviting pressure from the visitors, who duly punished them in the closing stages with a sucker punch that you could sense coming.

Although there was nothing Liverpool could do to stop Jagielka’s sensational 30-yard strike screaming into the net, it certainly didn’t help that Lovren’s headed clearance went straight to him, while Moreno’s stupid slide challenge on Lukaku moments after the restart gifted Everton a free kick in a dangerous position, which Barry back heeled just wide. Had the Toffees nicked an unbelievable late winner from that set piece, the Spanish new signing would have had some difficult questions to answer.

A worldy from Jagielka stole a point for Everton
At the end of the day, a draw that feels like a defeat does little but prolong Liverpool’s stalled start to what has been a deeply frustrating season so far. There’s nothing they can do but pick themselves up and go again in Basel on Wednesday and then against West Bromwich Albion next weekend. Two wins from those two fixtures might just make things look a little rosier for the Reds.


Wednesday, 24 September 2014

Penalty madness as poor Reds progress

Liverpool required 120 minutes plus a penalty shootout consisting of 30 spot kicks to beat Middlesbrough in the third round of the Capital One Cup.

The match may have got off to a dream start, but it almost ended as a nightmarish disaster for Liverpool last night. 17-year old debutant and Academy graduate Jordan Rossiter provided the perfect opening as he netted after only ten minutes, but Boro responded and were arguably the better team for the rest of the game, Adam Reach equalising on the hour mark.

Aitor Karanka’s side stayed strong and took the game to extra time, where substitute Suso looked to have won it for Liverpool, but another remarkable twist in the dying stages kept the visitor’s hopes of a cup upset alive, as Toure conceded a penalty which Patrick Bamford duly converted. Thirty penalties later, the relieved Reds were celebrating the narrowest of victories in the most weird and wonderful of cup ties.

It was a fitting conclusion to a match that reminded us why we love cup football. However, Rodgers will be far from happy with how the game transpired, as the same old problems cropped up yet again, this time against obviously weaker lower league opposition. Liverpool’s attack rarely troubled Jamal Blackman, a Chelsea loanee who was making his first ever senior appearance in goal for Middlesbrough, while defensive errors preceded both of Boro’s goals, as the game followed a frustratingly familiar pattern.

Intending to use the low-key fixture as an opportunity to rest senior players and give squad members a chance to stake a claim for more regular first team action, Rodgers made a host of changes to the starting line-up. Toure and Enrique came in at the back, while Rossiter debuted alongside Lucas and Lallana in the middle and Lambert fulfilled his boyhood dream of captaining the club.

Surprisingly, although other key players, such as Gerrard and Balotelli, were rested, Sterling started and played for the full 120 minutes, which was a strange decision by Rodgers. Surely it makes more sense to rest Raheem in the Capital One Cup than in the Premier League, which is what the Northern Irish man did recently when Aston Villa visited Anfield.

Nonetheless, the match went much to plan in the opening stages, and Jordan Rossiter made the ideal start to what will hopefully be a long and successful career at Anfield after only ten minutes. The talented teenage midfielder reacted quickest after Blackman made a good save to deny Lambert, striking the ball through the keeper’s legs and into the net from 30 yards out.

Dream debut: Rossiter started the match and his Liverpool career perfectly
It was a great goal and fantastic to see an Academy graduate doing so well on his debut, although caution must be urged and comparisons with club captain Steven Gerrard are to be avoided because Rossiter needs the time and space to develop without being burdened with the ‘next Gerrard’ tag, which could well be more of a hindrance than a help.

Unfortunately, Liverpool failed to build on their lead and Middlesbrough slowly came back into the match, producing a couple of decent goalscoring chances before the break as Kike’s left footed shot was blocked on the half hour mark and Lee Tomlin called Mignolet into action with a powerful 25-yard strike eight minutes prior to the interval.

The North East outfit, who made seven changes to the team that beat Brentford 4-0 on the weekend, carried on from where they left off after the restart as well, Tomlin cracking a shot wide instantly before Boro’s efforts were rewarded on the hour mark with a fully deserved leveller.

Predictably aided by poor defending, Adam Reach buried a free header from four yards out in front of ecstatic travelling supporters after referee Mike Jones had awarded a free kick following a handball offence by Sakho.

Reach netted a deserved leveller for the visitors
Smelling blood, Boro went for the win and almost pulled off a giant killing within the 90 minutes. Reach headed another effort wide, while Adam Clayton was denied by Mignolet and the woodwork as Liverpool lived extremely dangerously, relying more on good fortune than robust defending to keep Boro at bay.

Nevertheless, Liverpool should have been awarded a spot kick in injury time, as ex-Red Daniel Ayala headed the ball against his own hand, but Boro rode their luck and, to be fair to them, their performance had already earned them the right to extend the contest by an extra half hour.

With hopes of a gentle build-up to Saturday’s Merseyside derby dashed, Liverpool improved in extra time as they sought to finally win a match that should have been so much more straight-forward. Suso, who should have started, replaced Markovic on 97 minutes and soon shot over after good work by Lallana, Sterling and Balotelli.

The silky Spaniard wasn’t to be denied, though, and he scored what seemed destined to be the winner on 108 minutes. Enrique and Sterling had already tested Blackman in quick succession, before Suso rounded off a fine move down the left by firing home from 12 yards, much to the relief of the Kop.

Taking one last roll of the dice, Karanka made a double substitution, introducing forwards Jelle Vossen and Patrick Bamford. It paid off, as the latter turned out to be Boro’s late rescuer, although he was helped in large part by tactical naivety from Sterling and simple stupidity from Kolo Toure.

In injury time of extra time, Sterling gave the ball away by trying to do too much with it when he really should have just been taking it into the corner. As a result, Bamford broke clear before being ploughed down by Toure. A penalty was inevitably given, and Bamford dusted himself down to convert and send the match to a penalty shootout.

Thankfully, Bamford’s skills from the spot seemed to desert him in the shootout, as he was the only player to miss his penalty until Sterling’s night went from bad to worse when his decisive penalty, which could have ended the shootout and won the match, was saved by Blackman.

A penalty taking master class ensued, with every member of each team taking a spot kick, some twice. Eventually, Albert Adomah was the unlucky one to miss, inflicting an arguably undeserved sudden death on Middlesbrough, who had been valiant opponents but just lacked Liverpool’s experience in high pressure penalty shootouts.

Relief and joy for the Reds at the end of the penalty shootout marathon 
Liverpool’s lucky escape was a relief, as an early cup exit in the week before the Merseyside derby would have been extremely demoralising. However, the drama and excitement of a thrilling night of football mustn’t mask the fact that the Reds simply weren’t good enough again, either defensively or in attack.

A promising performance and morale boosting win against neighbours Everton, who are also struggling currently and exited the Capital One Cup last night following a 3-0 defeat at Swansea, is essential to kick-start Liverpool’s season.


Sunday, 21 September 2014

Allardyce's Hammers nail poor Reds

The Reds have some serious questions to answer and issues to address after their third defeat in five games.

The lacklustre and lethargic Liverpool were easily defeated by Sam Allardyce’s surprisingly energetic and attack minded Hammers, who began at lightning pace and never really looked like losing the two-goal lead they established after only seven minutes.

Raheem Sterling may have restored hope with a Vladimir Smicer-esque strike midway through the first half, but the Merseysiders failed to build any momentum on the back of the teenage sensation’s goal, Morgan Amalfitano netting on his home debut in the closing stages to seal the fate of Rodgers’ bedraggled troops.

Liverpool made four changes from the team that fell to defeat at home to Aston Villa last Saturday, as they reverted to a diamond formation, with Fabio Borini making his first start of the season as Balotelli’s partner in a front two. Sterling started behind the pair, Gerrard occupied the holding role and Henderson and Lucas were positioned in the middle of the park, while Skrtel returned from injury to replace Sakho.

Mimicking Liverpool’s imperious and irresistible displays last season, the home side shot out of the blocks quickly and raced into a fully deserved two-goal lead, making the most of some truly dreadful Liverpool defending.

After only 75 seconds, the Reds’ vulnerability from set pieces was exposed and exploited, as Tomkins nodded a free kick into the box across goal for the unchallenged Winston Reid to tap home.

Reid opens the scoring early on
Six minutes later, Liverpool needlessly lost possession in their own half, allowing Noble to send Diafra Sakho away on the right and, although the 24-year old Senegalese striker failed in finding teammate Enner Valencia at the back post, he succeeded in inadvertently netting, taking advantage of Mignolet’s hesitancy and ineptitude in the Liverpool goal to double West Ham’s advantage.

Those goals, plus two further testing efforts from Creswell and Downing that Mignolet was forced to repel, prompted Rodgers to re-organise his team, replacing Manquillo with Sakho and changing to a back three, with Sterling and Moreno functioning as wing backs on either flank.

The move appeared to pay instant dividends when Sterling halved the deficit moments later. Balotelli, booked soon before for handbags with West Ham keeper Adrian, impressively hooked down a cross and saw his shot blocked by opening goalscorer Reid. Thankfully, the rebound fell for the on-rushing Raheem Sterling, whose awesome strike from the edge of the box flew into the corner of the net.

The goal and the photo of the match
It was a brilliant effort from Sterling, whose performance yet again proved to be one of few positives. However, his goal failed to galvanise the visitors and did not produce the resurgence that many Kopites had hoped for.

Instead, West Ham remained the better side, Enner Valencia calling Mignolet into action again with a curling free kick, while Liverpool’s incompetence and incoherence at the back was exemplified by a clash of heads between Lovren and Sakho, which saw the former Southampton defender stay down with a head injury for a worrying amount of time before eventually re-entering the fray worse for wear and heavily bandaged.

The introduction of Lallana for Lucas at the break was a wise move, adding a degree of creativity and inventiveness to the Reds’ otherwise pedestrian midfield. However, it was insufficient to seriously trouble Sam Allardyce’s team, who looked relatively comfortable as they dealt with a Liverpool attack that looks drastically less threatening without Daniel Sturridge and a certain mischievous Uruguayan forward.

Balotelli saw a couple of strikes dealt with by Adrian, while Borini fired goalwards from a narrow angle and curled just over the bar, but the two Bs are just not in the same league as the SAS, while swapping Borini with Lambert 15 minutes from time did little to change the course of the game either.

In fact, Liverpool were so devoid of ideas that a speculative 30-yard strike from Martin Skrtel, hardly a player renowned for long range screamers, was the closest they came to equalising in the closing stages of a hugely frustrating match that merely underlined the fact that expectations for this season must be revised downwards in light of both last season’s over-achievement and the massive squad re-organisation that took place over the summer.

Two minutes from time, ex-Liverpool midfielder Stewart Downing exploited the space inevitably resulting from Liverpool pushing forward in search of a leveller, feeding Amalfitano, who poked the ball into the corner to score on his Hammers’ home debut and hammer the final nail into Liverpool’s coffin.

Amalfitano sealed the win for the Hammers
The quicker this match is forgotten, the better. Liverpool need to move on and swiftly get their season back on track, and they have the opportunity to do that with both the midweek League Cup match against Middlesbrough and the Merseyside derby next Saturday lunchtime, which both take place at Anfield.

At the same time, however, they must learn from the many mistakes they made at the Boleyn Ground, particularly those that have been cropping up time and time again, namely defensive errors from set pieces. Liverpool look absolutely terrified when defending corners and free kicks, and that has got to change if they are to progress going forward.

Brendan Rodgers has to go back to the drawing board and get things sorted out urgetly to reverse the Reds’ decline and prevent their season spirally downwards swiftly.


Tuesday, 16 September 2014

Liverpool late show sees off Ludogorets

1,742 days later and nothing has changed.

Fully five years after they last participated in the Champions League, Liverpool kicked off their 2014/2015 European campaign in typically exciting fashion, requiring late drama at Anfield to pick up all three points from their first group stage match against Bulgarian minnows Ludogorets on Tuesday night.

Mario Balotelli’s first goal in a Red shirt eight minutes from time appeared to have won the game for the hosts, but substitute Dani Abalo exploited some poor defending to seemingly break Liverpool hearts in the last minute of normal time. Thankfully, Ludogorets pressed the self-destruct button in injury time, keeper Milan Borjan foolishly conceding a needless spot kick, which skipper Steven Gerrard dispatched with archetypal coolness to seal a much-needed confidence boosting win for the Merseysiders.

There was a tangible sense of anticipation heading into the contest, as everyone associated with the club was delighted to be experiencing Champions League football at Anfield once again after so long away from the European elite.

The Kop produced a stunning pre-match mosaic
However, Saturday’s defeat at home to Aston Villa also left Liverpool lacking confidence, and they struggled to break from the lethargic pattern of that performance, particularly during the first 45 minutes.

Even with teenage sensation Raheem Sterling back where he belongs in the starting line-up, Liverpool started slowly and never really got going during a frustrating opening period in which the visitors more than held their own. As against Villa, Liverpool dominated possession, having over two-thirds of the ball but lacking a creative cutting edge, as Balotelli dropped increasingly deep and Ludogorets’ defence was rarely tested.

In fact, the Bulgarian side even possessed an attacking threat and were arguably unlucky not to have been awarded a penalty on the half hour mark, as Dejan Lovren riskily shoved Marcelinho off the ball rather too enthusiastically in the box. It would have been a soft spot kick, but it certainly fell into the ‘seen them given’ category, and it came as a surprise that referee Matej Jug, who up to that point had lived up to the stereotype of an overly fussy European official, refused to point to the spot.

At the other end, Balotelli saw a couple of shots saved, before Liverpool produced the best piece of football of the half seven minutes prior to the interval. Sterling and Moreno combined beautifully down the left wing, and the ball was then worked to Lallana in the penalty area via new vice-captain Jordan Henderson. Unfortunately, the former Southampton man couldn’t claim a goal on his European debut, as the ball got stuck beneath his feet and his effort was eventually blocked.

Lallana squanders a gilt edged chance as he struggles to get the ball out from underneath his feet
Although Lovren disappointingly headed the resulting corner over the bar, the signs were slightly more encouraging at the end of the first half, and Liverpool also started the second period positively, Coutinho and Henderson shooting wide from range.

However, as time passed and the minutes remaining for the Reds to find a winner dwindled, the home supporters became understandably increasingly anxious, and that was transmitted to the pitch as well, Manquillo nervously snatching at a shot and lofting the ball high over the bar when he should have done better after being put in by Henderson’s pass.

The similarities with the Villa match continued with just over twenty minutes left, as manager Brendan Rodgers made a double swap once again, replacing the tired Lallana with Borini and introducing Lucas for the out-of-sorts Coutinho as the Reds reverted to a more adventurous but less stable diamond formation.

Instantly Liverpool looked more likely to break the deadlock, as Borini and Henderson both had headed efforts, the former being turned over the bar by Borjan and the latter rolling agonisingly wide of the far post.

Roman Bezjak provided Liverpool with a stark reminder of Ludogorets’ threat on the counter attack as he fired a low shot against the post, but Balotelli appeared to have won the match for the Reds when he netted his first goal for his new club on 82 minutes.

In typical Balotelli fashion, the Italian scored a brilliant and hugely important goal despite doing very little else during the rest of the match. The number 45 juggled Moreno’s cross away from surrounding defenders and then superbly smashed the ball into the net with the outside of his right foot, before celebrating in front of the Kop with his characteristic fist pump.

Who else but Balotelli?
Anfield erupted in a mixture of relief and joy, while the revitalised Balotelli, infused with a fresh injection of confidence, smashed another shot goalwards from 20 yards, which the keeper awkwardly and unconvincingly punched clear.

Unfortunately, Liverpool’s defending was as questionable as the Ludogorets’ stopper’s goalkeeping, and they paid the price for some sloppiness at the back in the last minute. Sterling lost the ball in Ludogorets’ half and Younes Hamza played a great ball through the Reds’ wide open defence to fellow substitute Abalo, who took advantage of Mignolet’s foolish decision to rush out of his goal and side-stepped the Belgian before comfortably firing home an arguably deserved equaliser.

The hosts could have had few complaints if the match had ended all square, but thankfully they enjoyed a slice of luck in the third of four minutes of injury time, which allowed them to clinch a desperately needed win.

Manquillo epitomised Liverpool’s never-say-die attitude by being in Ludogorets’ box in the dying moments looking to create something to help the Reds’ claim what at that stage was an improbable win. Fortunately, goalkeeper Borjan miscontrolled a pass and then tripped Manquillo in the box as he tried to recover. The referee rightly awarded a penalty and, as he has done so many times before, Gerrard did the rest from the spot, converting from 12 yards to score his 40th European goal and win the match for Liverpool.

Stevie saved the day with a last gasp goal from the spot
It was an enthralling and entertaining conclusion to Liverpool’s first Champions League game in five years. Although, as Gerrard said afterwards, the Reds’ performance was at best only OK, the result is all that matters at the end of the day, and it’s great to get off to a winning start.

If Liverpool’s future Champions League performances can replicate the quality of the atmosphere at Anfield on Tuesday evening, then Brendan Rodgers’ men should have no problem getting out of group B and potentially progress far in what is arguably the best competition in the world.

One thing is for certain; it’s great to be back!


Sunday, 14 September 2014

Reds suffer setback as Villains strike again at Anfield

Liverpool suffered their second defeat only four games into the new season, as their bogey team Aston Villa beat them 1-0 to extend their remarkable unbeaten streak at Anfield to four seasons. 

Compact and organised, Paul Lambert’s team frustrated their hosts throughout the 90 minutes and were good value for the win that elevates them to second place in the table. Liverpool, meanwhile, were devoid of the ingenuity and the creative spark necessary to break down a packed defence and sorely missed the injured Sturridge and the rested Sterling, who watched on from the stands and the substitutes’ bench respectively.

Following Sturridge’s injury picked up on international duty, Rodgers revised the Reds’ formation, reverting to a 4-2-3-1 of sorts as Balotelli spearheaded the attack and Henderson and Gerrard sat deeper, while Markovic and Lallana, Balotelli’s fellow home debutants, began alongside the recalled Coutinho in the attacking triumvirate behind the Italian striker.

It didn’t seem to work very effectively, particular in the first half, although that is inevitable to a certain extent when you have so many new players working together and trying to figure out how best to connect with their new teammates. In time, they’ll click and perform better than they did yesterday.

More worryingly, Liverpool’s long term defensive issues were exposed once again during the early stages, as Aston Villa routinely exploited the Reds’ nervousness at set pieces. Lacking an authority figure taking control at corners, Liverpool looked vulnerable every time Villa swung the ball into the box, and it was from just such a scenario that the visitors took the lead in scrappy fashion after nine minutes. Sakho needlessly conceded a corner, which Senderos got his head to before a game of human pinball eventually culminated in Gabriel Agbonlahor turning home from close range.

Agbonlahor took advantage of poor defending to open the scoring at Anfield
The former Arsenal defender was proving a particularly tricky customer at both ends of the pitch, peeling away to head another set piece over the bar minutes later and also routinely kicking out at Balotelli in a bid to wind him up. He was lucky to stay on the pitch midway through the first half when he kicked out at Balotelli off the ball, but unfortunately referee Lee Mason missed the incident.

Although he thankfully kept his cool, the rough treatment he received not just from Senderos, but also from Alan Hutton succeeded in keeping Balotelli quiet. Apart from a few off-target shots and a couple of neat passes, the number 45 was frustrated by a Villa defence coping admirably in the absence of skipper Ron Vlaar and by teammates lacking a creative cutting edge in the final third.

As the half progressed, Liverpool gained a noticeable territorial advantage and dominated possession, but all their play was in front of the Villa backline and thus easily dealt with. The closest the Reds came to clinching a leveller before the break was when Adam Lallana, whose performance proved one of few bright spots, struck just wide from the edge of the box after Balotelli held off Senderos and laid the ball off to the former Southampton midfielder.

Disappointingly, unlike in January, when the introduction of Lucas at the break changed the course of the game and enabled Liverpool to earn a point versus Villa which arguably should have been three, little changed after the interval. The Reds continued to enjoy 75% of possession, but Villa also remained steadfastly resolute at the break, and not even the much-longed for introduction of Raheem Sterling on the hour mark could put a dent in the Midlanders’ solid rear-guard.

Not even Sterling could break down Villa's solid defence
Rodgers took his last roll of the dice with twenty minutes left on the clock, as he made a double substitution, introducing Lambert and Borini to the fray. Neither made a significant impact, Borini’s first touch back in a Red shirt a misplaced return pass from a throw in that went straight out of play and handed the ball back to Villa. He will have to do better to return from the outskirts of the squad and earn some first team football.

The only chance Liverpool created in the closing stages came when Coutinho twisted and turned on the edge of the box before firing a brilliant shot goalwards that easily beat Guzan but couldn’t beat the framework of the goal; the ball agonisingly smashing against the post. When Sterling’s rebound was then blocked by Henderson, Kopites knew it was just going to be one of those days.

Credit to Villa, they came with a game plan and executed it perfectly. They nicked a scrappy goal and then sat back and frustrated us, which worked a treat. The task for Rodgers is to work out how to beat opponents who come to Anfield and do that. Lots of work needs to be done on the Reds’ defence as well, although that was already well known before 90 frustrating minutes yesterday teatime.

Roll on Tuesday night and the return of Champions League football! Hopefully a win over the fantastically named Ludogorets will dispel the disappointment that almost inevitably dwells on Merseyside when Villa come to visit.


Thursday, 11 September 2014

Who should be Liverpool's new vice-captain?

Following the sad but inevitable departure of Danish centre back Daniel Agger to his boyhood team Brondby, there is a vacancy for Liverpool’s vice-captain. In this article, I evaluate four of the main contenders and provide my opinion on who should be Steven Gerrard’s second in command.

Jordan Henderson

The 24-year old all action midfielder has cemented his place as a firm fans’ favourite after undergoing a remarkable transformation under the guidance of excellent man-manager Brendan Rodgers.

After signing from Sunderland for £16 million in the summer of 2011, Henderson struggled in his first season at the club and, when Rodgers replaced Dalglish in the Anfield hot seat a year later, Henderson’s Liverpool career seemed over as he was offered to Fulham in part-exchange for American striker Clint Dempsey. Both Rodgers and Kopites are, in hindsight, absolutely delighted that he turned down the offer of a move to the capital.

Henderson has a bright future at Anfield
Henderson’s career trajectory has since sky-rocketed upwards, as he has proven his many doubters wrong and gone from strength-to-strength, firmly establishing himself as a first team regular by playing in 35 Premier League matches in 2013/2014. He was sorely missed during three out of the final four games after he picked up his first career red card in injury time of the 3-2 win over Manchester City.

Still only young and with plenty of potential, Henderson is beginning to become a regular in Roy Hodgson’s England squad as well and seems capable of performing at the highest level for the foreseeable future. He might make a brilliant understudy to Steven Gerrard, particularly since they share a similar position in the team and, who knows, former Liverpool defender Mark Lawrenson may be right in describing Henderson as the perfect candidate to take over from Gerrard once he eventually retires.

Martin Skrtel

The clean-shaven Skrtel is a seasoned campaigner at Anfield and already captains the Slovakia national team, so he’s undoubtedly in with a shout of becoming the Reds’ next vice-captain. The number 37 has been at Liverpool for nearly six years and, in that time, has proven his worth to the team, despite suffering some shaky spells and possessing a tendency to sporadically make silly and costly errors, normally in the form of own goals.

However, the responsibility of vice-captaincy may bring out more consistency in his performances and, unlike Sakho, Skrtel possesses a credible goal threat, contributing a very impressive seven goals last season.

Skrtel celebrating one of his seven goals
More pertinently, the 29-year old has considerable experience and would be capable of leading and organising from the back, providing a good example for youngsters such as Tiago Ilori and Jon Flanagan as well. Hence, he would be an able replacement for his former centre back partner Agger. 

Dejan Lovren

The summer signing from Southampton already appears to have assumed the mantle of leader of the back four, so it might not be a stretch to extend his leadership responsibilities over the whole team.

An excellent defender and able communicator, Lovren looks set to be the Reds’ much needed long term replacement for former vice-skipper and club legend Jamie Carragher. The Croatia international seems certain to be an integral part of Rodgers’ squad going forward and centre back has traditionally been a strategic position for captains to organise from.

Lovren completed a big money move from Southampton this summer
However, it might be a bit early to promote him to vice-captain. He needs to settle in and beat off competition from Sakho and Skrtel to become a permanent fixture in the Reds’ back four before being given the extra responsibility associated with the vice-captaincy.

Daniel Sturridge

Sturridge is an outside contender for the vice-captaincy because strikers rarely make good skippers and the England forward, who recently picked up an injury while on international duty, is still only young at 25.

Following the dissolution of the prolific SAS partnership after the departure of Luis Suarez to Barcelona for £75 million this summer, the primary responsibility for filling the 30 goal gap left by the Uruguayan has fallen upon the former Man City and Chelsea striker.

Sturridge's eccentric signature goal celebration
Making him the vice-captain might increase his confidence and demonstrate Rodgers’ faith in the forward, spurring him on to step up to the plate and fire in the goals that make Kopites forget about Luis Suarez.  

However, he lacks the leadership and organisational qualities when compared to Henderson, Lovren and Skrtel and it just seems too difficult to lead by anything other than example from the front line. As a result, I’d be surprised to see Sturridge selected as Liverpool’s new vice-skipper.


Jordan Henderson appears to be the best candidate for the vice-captaincy. Lovren is too new to the club, Skrtel too error prone and striker Sturridge will simply find it tough to lead from the front line, particularly considering he doesn’t seem to be a natural leader anyway.

Skilled, energetic and dedicated, Henderson’s rise has been meteoric and making him Gerrard’s understudy would be just reward for all the hard work he has put in to proving his critics wrong. Allowing him to take over Gerrard’s duties in his absence may well be the perfect precursor to him wearing the armband on a permanent basis at some point in the future.


Saturday, 6 September 2014

Replacing Suarez with a squad: Reviewing the Reds' summer revamp

Luis Suarez bookended Liverpool’s summer transfer window.

His departure to Barcelona for £75 million on 11 July sparked a spending spree that saw a grand total of nine new signings arrive to try and fill the Uruguayan’s considerably sized boots. The fact that his return to Liverpool’s Melwood training ground to pick up a few personal items and say his goodbyes to former teammates was one of the main stories on Merseyside on transfer deadline day demonstrated the success of the Reds’ summer revamp.

Suarez with his former teammates
Liverpool’s lack of activity on deadline day was a sign of success. As football fans get caught up in the excitement and drama of deadline day, they often forget that frantic activity on the final day of the transfer window is more often a sign of failure than of success. As the media whips up speculation and anxiously counts down the minutes until the transfer window slams shut- it never closes quietly!- the fact that leaving your business until the last minute does not make footballing or financial sense is frequently overlooked.

On the financial side, transfer fees and wages become inflated as sellers know that buyers are becoming increasingly desperate to add to their squad as the clock ticks down to midnight, or 11pm, as the case may be. On the footballing side, new signings who arrive late on in the transfer window miss out on spending pre-season with their new teammates, making it more difficult for them to gel and form a cohesive unit.

Consequently, the fact that Liverpool, alongside Manchester City and Chelsea, did not make the headlines on deadline day demonstrated the success of their respective transfer strategies, while Arsenal and Manchester United belied the panicked nature of their transfer activity by spending big and working on deals into the twilight hours of the final day of the summer transfer window.

Is Falcao worth £350k a week?
While Manchester United spent a whopping £24 million on signing Radamel Falcao from Monaco on a season long loan and hurriedly ushered Danny Welbeck and Javier Hernandez out of the door to finance the out-of-the-blue signing, Liverpool quietly offloaded two squad players surplus to requirements, namely Sebastian Coates and Oussama Assaidi, who joined Sunderland and Stoke respectively on loan for the season.

It was a good way to end a busy and productive summer transfer window in which Liverpool manager Brendan Rodgers has sought to replace a superstar striker with a strong squad. So far he seems to have been fairly successful , although only time will tell whether or not Liverpool “do a Spurs” and repeat the mistakes that Tottenham Hotspur made last summer when they financed a whole host of signings by selling star performer Gareth Bale to Real Madrid.

On the evidence of Liverpool’s 3-0 win over Tottenham on Sunday lunchtime, however, it appears reasonable to conclude that Rodgers has completed his revamp of the Reds’ squad quite well. Undoubtedly, the Reds’ squad has far greater depth now and is much more thoroughly equipped to cope with competing on four fronts.

Importantly, Rodgers also has options off the bench to call upon. At White Hart Lane, there wasn’t a single inexperienced youngster sat on the substitutes’ bench; every sub had experience at the highest levels of club football and had been involved on the international stage as well. As it turned out, Rodgers didn’t need to call upon them as his side had already taken Tottenham apart, but in closer games when a little inspiration from the bench is required, it is reassuring to know that the Northern Irishman can call on the likes of Coutinho, Lambert and Markovic to come on and change the course of the game.

Moreover, the Reds’ revamp has seen improvements in all areas of the pitch, particularly problem positions. Everyone in the footballing world knew that the Reds’ defence needed major work over the summer, and Rodgers has spent big to try and rectify the glaring holes in Liverpool’s defence that unquestionably cost them the title last season.

At centre back, Dejan Lovren arrived for £20 million from Southampton and has already assumed the mantle of leader of the back four, marshalling it superbly in the opening few games. Admittedly, he’s prone to the odd error, but his pace normally compensates for that and allows him to make some spectacular recovery tackles. Most significantly, he looks like the long term leader that Liverpool have been lacking at the back since the retirement of Jamie Carragher in 2013.

The loss of Agger is disappointing, but more for emotional than footballing reasons. It’s always sad to see a faithful club servant leave, but the reality is that he wasn’t going to play a key part in Liverpool’s defence heading into the future.

Additionally, the left and right back positions have been bolstered by the acquisitions of Alberto Moreno and Javier Manquillo respectively. The former, signed for £12 million after protracted negotiations with Sevilla, looks like a talented left back in the John Arne Riise mould, and promises to provide plenty of attacking verve down the left wing, as demonstrated by his brilliant solo run and goal versus Spurs.

The latter, who arrived on a two-year loan from Atletico Madrid, finally provides Glen Johnson with much needed competition. He seems encouragingly feisty in the tackle, although he’ll have to channel that aggression correctly in order to avoid adding to the couple of bookings that he has already picked up.

At the other end, Mario Balotelli- why is it always him? – arrived from AC Milan in the shock signing of the summer to provide the touch of genius and healthy dose of madness that Liverpool lost when they sold Suarez. It’s a risky gamble, but one that certainly seems reasonable to make considering Arsenal signed Danny Welbeck for the same £16 million transfer fee.

I know which I'd prefer, and it's not the one that Roy Hodgson loves
With Lambert arriving and Borini staying put, Rodgers has four strikers, which is needed when competing amongst the European elite. Moreover, versatile attacking players like Coutinho and Sterling mean that the Reds shouldn’t struggle for goals this season, even without their superstar striker from last season, who would have missed a sizeable chunk of the campaign through suspension anyway.

Meanwhile, Liverpool’s midfield has vast reserves of talent following the signings of Lallana and Can. With Gerrard, Henderson, Lucas and Allen also competing to fill three midfield positions, Rodgers has an exciting array of options from which to choose, and he’ll welcome the resulting selection headache.

All in all, the Reds’ squad has been comprehensively and successfully revamped. Between the posts is arguably the only place in which improvements have not been made, although there are rumours that the out-of-contract former Barcelona goalkeeper Victor Valdes may arrive to provide back-up to first choice Simon Mignolet, which would be a good free signing assuming the Spaniard’s wage demands are reasonable and fitness levels adequate. 

Every signing seems to make sense on an individual level and each department of the team has been improved. The only remaining issue is how long it will take for them to form a cohesive unit and whether or not this will be a season of transition or a campaign in which Liverpool can kick on and compete at the highest levels.

Despite losing Suarez, Rodgers’ and Liverpool’s successful strategy and footballing philosophy remains in place and the Reds are carrying on their progress by building a strong squad to replace their superstar striker. After all, the club is and always will be bigger than any one individual.


Monday, 1 September 2014

Reds ease to win at White Hart Lane

Liverpool bounced back from defeat at Man City on Monday by bursting Spurs’ bubble at White Hart Lane on Sunday lunchtime.

Two wins from two had propelled Pochettino’s men up the table and won them plaudits in the London-centric media, but they were brought back to earth with a bump by Brendan Rodgers’ men, who outperformed them throughout and were good value for their three-goal victory. Classy and in control from start to finish, the Reds returned to winning ways in style following Monday night’s disappointing defeat away to City.

The main team news saw Mario Balotelli make his Liverpool debut up front alongside Daniel Sturridge, coming in for Coutinho, who dropped to what was a strong looking bench. Although clearly rough around the edges, Balotelli showed plenty of promising signs. Powerful and strong on the ball, he posed a constant threat to Tottenham’s backline and deservedly received a standing ovation from the travelling Kop when he was substituted on the hour mark.

Encouragingly, he linked up well with Sturridge and Sterling, the latter of which put in a man of the match performance. Right from the off, the tricky and talented Sterling tormented Tottenham’s defence, opening the scoring soon after Balotelli had spurned a glorious opportunity to start his Liverpool career in the perfect fashion.

Two minutes in, the Italian peeled away to the back post to meet Sturridge’s cross and head goalwards, but unfortunately his bullet header went straight at Lloris, who made a good save. Thankfully, the visitors only had to wait six more minutes for the opener, which concluded a clever move down the right hand side. Sturridge fed Henderson, who played an intelligent square pass across the box to Sterling. Great movement enabled him to evade his marker and he netted from a tight angle with aplomb.

Sterling celebrates with his teammates
Despite being second best in the possession stats, Liverpool were in control. Tottenham enjoyed nearly two-thirds of the ball during the first 20 minutes, but were struggling to create clear-cut chances, Adebayor’s elevated effort onto the roof of the net immediately after Sterling scored the best they could produce.

Liverpool, conversely, may not have seen as much of the ball, but were looking extremely dangerous on the counter attack. One such counter attack saw Sterling spin out of a tackle and set free Sturridge, whose left footed shot went just past the post.

Balotelli then fluffed his lines with another close range header, before being the victim of a reckless sliding challenge from Eric Dier, who amazingly escaped punishment, even though Joe Allen was booked moments later for a far less grievous offence on Erik Lamela.

Undeterred, the enigmatic Italian remained focussed and well-behaved, and added an extra dimension to Liverpool’s attack. His clever back heel set up Sturridge, whose curled effort forced Lloris into a save, and then on the half hour mark he demonstrated immense strength to hold off a defender before playing the ball through to Sturridge. Lloris was out quickly to clear, but it went straight to Balotelli, who shanked his effort well wide, to the great amusement of boss Brendan Rodgers.

The match pivoted on six minutes either side of half time. Before the break, Mignolet made a fantastic save to deny Chadli and bail out his centre backs after both Sakho and Lovren tried and failed to beat Adebayor in the air. That save was absolutely vital, as the outcome of the match could have been very different had the teams entered the interval at 1-1.

As it turned out, Liverpool scored a second soon after the restart to put them firmly in the driving seat, although they benefitted from some generous refereeing from Phil Dowd. Admittedly Dier did pull back Allen in the box, but the Welshman certainly won the penalty by going to ground when he clearly could have stayed on his feet. Not that Steven Gerrard cared; he stepped up to convert his 43rd successful spot kick for Liverpool, surpassing Jan Molby’s total to set a new club record.

The Reds' next terrific trio
When Alberto Moreno then scored a superb solo goal on the hour mark, it truly was game, set and match Liverpool. Exploiting an error from Spurs sub Andros Townsend, Moreno embarked on a brilliant run down the left wing and then blasted beautifully into the far corner in a manner reminiscent of former Reds’ left back John Arne Riise.

If Moreno can continue to score goals similar to the ones the ginger Norwegian bagged in his prime, the memory of his mistake for Man City’s first goal on his debut will soon be banished. 

With the game over as a contest, Rodgers immediately introduced two new faces, Markovic and Can replacing Balotelli and Allen respectively. The former was neat and tidy, while the latter also showed signs of promise. They may not make the same instant impact as Balotelli, but they both appear to be valuable additions to the Reds’ squad.

Intent on replicating last season’s 5-0 win at White Hart Lane, Sturridge tested Lloris, the French stopper producing a solid save to turn his strong shot behind for a corner, from which Lovren headed over.

Liverpool’s last real chance fell to Sterling after Can had surged forward and fed him the ball. The England international danced past the entire Tottenham defence in remarkable fashion to engineer space in the box, but produced a pitiably weak effort with the goal at his mercy.

Rodgers summed the moment up comically when he said, “Raheem ran into the box like Ricky Villa and finished it like Ricky Gervais!” When you’re 3-0 up you can afford to miss golden chances like that and have a good laugh about it afterwards.

Liverpool now enter the international break on a much brighter note. Three points, three goals and a clean sheet at Spurs are all achievements to be proud of and provide a platform on which the team can build once they return from international duty.