Wednesday, 29 October 2014

Liverpool late show sinks Swansea

The Reds reached the quarter finals of the League Cup last night thanks to late goals from Balotelli and Lovren. 

The pair of summer signings went some way to compensating for the slow starts to their Anfield careers by digging Liverpool out of a hole on Tuesday night. One goal behind thanks to Marvin Emnes’ strike midway through the second half, Liverpool looked to be heading towards the League Cup exit door.

Thankfully, though, Balotelli and Lovren averted another depressing defeat and saved the day. The former turned in Borini’s fantastic right wing cross on 86 minutes before the latter headed home a free kick in the last minute of injury time to book the Reds’ place in the last eight of a domestic cup competition for the first time during Rodgers’ reign in dramatic fashion.

The Northern Irish manager made nine changes to the side that disappointingly drew at home to Hull on Saturday, with Lovren and Manquillo the only survivors. Borini and Lambert were given the chance to impress up front as Balotelli began on the bench, while Steven Gerrard, Joe Allen and Raheem Sterling were sensibly left out altogether. In Gerrard’s absence, Henderson assumed the skipper’s duties.

As they did against Real Madrid and Hull, Liverpool started on the front foot, dominating possession, pinning Swansea back in their own half and creating chances. Frustratingly, however, the Reds were largely restricted to efforts from distance, finding it difficult to break into the Swans’ area and test goalkeeper Tremmel from close range.

Coutinho was the creative heart of the Merseysiders’ attack once again, but the couple of long range efforts that the Brazilian had during the opening stages failed to trouble Tremmel. Markovic, meanwhile, put in another sub-par performance which did nothing to allay Kopites’ concerns that Rodgers paid an exorbitant price for the Serbian when he bought him for £20 million from Portuguese side Benfica in the summer.

Markovic needs more time to settle into English football
He was given a gilt-edged chance to break the deadlock on the half hour mark but fluffed his lines spectacularly, as a move involving Lucas, Henderson and Coutinho culminated in the well placed Markovic scuffing his shot acres wide when, at the very least, he had to hit the target. It was an embarrassing miss from Markovic, who was ineffectual for the rest of the evening. The 20-year old will have to improve exponentially if he is to get regular League action.

One player who arguably impressed enough to warrant some game-time in more important matches was Fabio Borini. He linked up well with fellow Italian Balotelli, providing a wonderful assist for the number 45’s goal, and also looked dangerous during the first half, curling a left-footed effort inches wide and then forcing Tremmel to beat away another strike in quick succession ten minutes before the break.

More mobile and energetic than the ageing Lambert, Borini might just get the break he was hoping for when he turned down a move to QPR in the summer. He certainly deserves an opportunity, particularly considering how much Liverpool’s attack is struggling at the moment.

Swansea came back into the match during the final five minutes of the first half, ex-Red Jonjo Shelvey, who received a magnificent reception from the home supporters, calling Mignolet into action with a powerful low free kick on the stroke of half time.

Nonetheless, the game continued in much the same pattern after the restart, with Liverpool dominating but creating little and Swansea producing little of note either. It therefore came as a surprise when Marvin Emnes scored against the run of play on 65 minutes. Shelvey’s through ball to the Dutch striker looped off Manquillo and over Emnes’ head, but he intelligently watched the ball over his left shoulder before superbly volleying past Jones from a tight angle.

It was a cracking goal, which looked likely to prove the winner. Although Liverpool immediately responded through Johnson’s 25-yard strike, they remained unable to penetrate the penalty area and were looking severely short on ideas as to how to get back into the match.

That was until the arrival of Mario Balotelli with ten minutes remaining. Despite failing to find the net in 445 minutes of action, it only took the Italian six minutes to put Liverpool back on level terms. He beat his opponent to get on the end of Borini’s marvellous right wing cross and required only minimal effort to turn it past Tremmel from close range.

Thankfully, Liverpool completed the turnaround without needing half an hour of exhausting extra time. They did get a little bit of help from referee Keith Stroud, though, as he harshly sent off Swansea’s Federico Fernandez for a strong but arguably fair challenge on Coutinho. He dusted himself off and delivered a free kick into the danger area, where Lovren took advantage of Tremmel misjudging the flight of the ball to head into an empty net at the back post.
Toure and Lovren watch on as Emnes opens the scoring
Balotelli equalised with only his second Liverpool goal
Lovren's late winner prevented extra time
It was heartening to return to winning ways, particularly in dramatic fashion, and hopefully this game will prove a turning point, not just for Balotelli and Lovren, but for the Reds’ campaign as a whole. It is vital that Liverpool now build on this display and beat Newcastle convincingly at St James’ Park on Saturday in order to inject some crucial confidence into the team ahead of tough fixtures against Real Madrid and Chelsea at the start of November.


Sunday, 26 October 2014

Reds held at home to Hull

A bad week ended disappointingly for Liverpool yesterday afternoon. 

Following a humbling against Real Madrid in midweek, Rodgers was hoping for a response from his troops. Unfortunately they couldn’t muster a sufficient one, as Steve Bruce’s Hull side held them to a goalless draw at a downbeat Anfield.

The main team news was that Rodgers kept faith with errant striker Mario Balotelli despite several commentators calling for him to be dropped after his woeful performance and scandalous shirt swap on Wednesday. Many thought Rickie Lambert deserved a place in the starting line-up, but he began on the bench, surprisingly alongside Coutinho, who was unexpectedly replaced by Emre Can. Liverpool only really got going when the pair entered the action on the hour mark. 

Just as they had done against Madrid, Liverpool started the game well and were the better side for the opening 20 minutes, creating two decent goal scoring chances. First, Dejan Lovren saw his header from Gerrard’s corner cleared off the line by Elmohamady, before Balotelli’s shot from a tight angle was beaten away by Hull’s third-choice goalkeeper Eldin Jakupovic after the Italian had been fed by Sterling.

Balotelli worked the keeper with a shot from a tight angle
The atmosphere remained very subdued, however, and Liverpool struggled to build up any sort of momentum despite dominating possession, while Hull were happy to spoil the game and play on the break. Their strategy seemed to pay dividends, as the Tigers finished the half strongly and arguably should have entered the interval in front. 

They had a couple of good chances to take the lead before the break, Livermore firing at Mignolet when a shot a yard either side of the Belgian would have breached the net and Huddlestone seeing Skrtel deflect his 25-yard strike inches wide of the target. 

There was very little change in the flow of the game after the restart. In fact, the only occurrence of note before the arrival of Coutinho and Lambert on the hour mark was when Balotelli was booked for clobbering Alex Bruce with his arm. He could quite easily have been sent off, but thankfully referee Neil Swarbrick ruled that it was not intentional. 

Fortunately, the double substitution seemed to breathe life into Liverpool generally and Balotelli in particular. Frustratingly, although for once he couldn’t be faulted in terms of effort, the number 45 clearly has absolutely no confidence whatsoever in front of goal at the moment, and that showed as he squandered numerous gilt-edged goal scoring opportunities during the final half hour. 

Twice in quick succession, insufficient contact with the ball from Balotelli meant that he failed to find the net. First, he hurled himself towards the ball when a corner kick was flicked in his direction but couldn’t quite get anything on it. Then, he headed thin air when firm contact with the cross would have seen the ball nestle in the net. It was disappointing stuff from the £16 million summer signing, but at least he was getting himself in the right positions. 

Liverpool cranked up the pressure during the closing stages and pinned their visitors back in their own half, but should have tested Hull’s inexperienced keeper much more than they did. Jakupovic had only four shots on target to deal with, and he did so proficiently every time.

Getting increasingly desperate, the Reds even reverted to underhand tactics to try and force the issue, Henderson rightly receiving a yellow card following an embarrassing dive. Sterling and Coutinho both went close with good shots, but Balotelli was inevitably the centre of attention as the time remaining for Liverpool to scrape all three points dwindled away. 

The Reds had reason to feel aggrieved on 86 minutes when referee Swarbrick refused to point to the spot despite Balotelli being bundled over in the penalty area. Admittedly, he went down a little easily, but he certainly had a case. 

Ultimately, though, Liverpool had no one to blame but themselves for failing to steal a win, as Balotelli somehow spurned a glorious chance to redeem himself by scoring with almost literally the last touch of the game. Coutinho’s left wing cross put the ball on a plate perfectly for Balotelli six yards out, but he completely missed it, to the utter frustration and bewilderment of the majority of the 44,591 in attendance.

Why always him?
It was a horribly fitting way to end a week that Kopites will want to quickly forget. 


Friday, 24 October 2014

How do you solve a problem like Balotelli?

Brendan Rodgers always knew that Mario Balotelli would be trouble when he signed him.

The enigmatic Italian maverick arrived with a far from favourable reputation. Seen as workshy on the field and stupid off it, Balotelli’s only redeeming attribute seemed to be the moments of utter brilliance that he occasionally produces.

As a result, it was always going to be a gamble when Rodgers decided to spend £16 million to recruit him in the summer transfer window. The Liverpool manager took that punt because his hands were tied. With the likes of Falcao and Cavani turning down a move to Merseyside, it looked as if he would be stuck with just the injury prone Daniel Sturridge and ageing Rickie Lambert in attack, ignoring Fabio Borini, who Rodgers wanted to offload.

When faced with choosing whether to plough on with only two senior strikers or take a bet on his ability to get the best out of Balotelli, Rodgers went for the latter. Many are now questioning the wisdom of that choice.

The latest scandal engulfing the number 45 about swapping shirts with Pepe when Liverpool were 3-0 down at home to Real Madrid- dubbed ‘shirtgate’ by some members of the press- is merely the tip of the iceberg. It was a stupid and insulting act that summed up Balotelli’s attitude towards the famous Red shirt and the supporters.

The infamous shirt swap
Throughout the course of what has been a frustrating and difficult campaign so far, Balotelli has been missing, despite featuring in all but the opening two League fixtures. His only significant contribution to the team was the opening goal against Ludogorets. Apart from that, Balotelli has done precious little to prove that his manager was right to take the risk of signing him from AC Milan.

The statistics tell a damning story of Mario Balotelli’s Liverpool career to date. One goal in ten appearances yields an embarrassingly low goals-to-games ratio, and his chance conversion rate is even worse. No player in Europe’s top five leagues has had more shots than Balotelli’s 26 without scoring a goal this season.

A slow start to life on Merseyside can be forgiven. After all, none of Liverpool’s summer signings have really hit the ground running, with Adam Lallana arguably the brightest of what is turning out to be a fairly underwhelming bunch so far. Moreover, Balotelli has unexpectedly had to shoulder the burden of being the side’s main striker in the continued absence of England international Daniel Sturridge through injury.

However, what is totally unacceptable, both to the supporters and boss Brendan Rodgers, is the seemingly complete and utter absence of any semblance of work rate and effort from Mad Mario. Suffering a goal drought is OK; even the best players endure rough patches when they are not at their best. Moping around the pitch refusing to run for your teammates and looking entirely disinterested is another matter altogether.

Moody Mario’s attitude is that of a school child who thinks that he does not need to work hard just because every so often he conjures up a bit of magic out on the school playing fields. It’s embarrassing, both for him and the club, and completely contradicts the ethos of teamwork and togetherness that Rodgers has worked so hard to build up during his time in the Anfield hot seat.

Unfortunately, Rodgers’ options regarding what he can do with Balotelli are severely limited. His poor attitude is a deep seated issue that great managers such as Roberto Mancini and Jose Mourinho wrestled with, ultimately failing to find a solution and thus offloading the Italian striker.

If Rodgers is going to work his man-management magic and transform the 24-year old into a mature footballer, it will inevitably take time and patience, but every time Balotelli puts in another non-performance the boss’ and the supporters’ patience will understandably wear increasingly thin.

Balotelli looks dismayed against QPR
Rodgers might have decided that Balotelli has no future at Anfield and choose to cut his losses and sell him as soon as possible, but I suspect there will be few buyers willing to take him on in the January transfer window, at least not at a price that would avoid the club suffering a financial loss on their £16 million investment. Furthermore, selling Balotelli would mean that the Reds would have to enter the market for another striker, and quality strikers come at a substantial premium at the midpoint of the season. They are also frequently ineligible for European competitions.

I don’t expect Rodgers to admit defeat in his attempts to reform Balotelli’s character and salvage his Liverpool career just yet. It would severely damage his reputation as an excellent man-manager; plus he relishes a challenge, and Balotelli is a challenge and a half! However, at the same time Rodgers cannot allow his authority to be questioned and simply must discipline Balotelli.

The best way to do that is through dropping him to the substitutes’ bench for a few games and giving Rickie Lambert a run in the side, perhaps alongside Raheem Sterling, who was utilised in the central striker role during the second half against Madrid and played in the position extensively during his youth.

It might even be worthwhile giving Fabio Borini a chance to revitalise his Liverpool career; he certainly appears to have more desire to succeed at Anfield than Balotelli and, at 23, is young enough to potentially lead the Liverpool line for years to come, unlike Lambert, who is just seeing out his twilight years at his boyhood club.

Hopefully, Balotelli would respond to this wake-up call by actually showing more willing out on the pitch and replicating the effort that the likes of Lambert, Borini and Sterling put in. At the very least, it would teach him that he cannot just do whatever he wants without any consequences for his actions and demonstrate that he is not bigger than the team.

Whatever Balotelli believes, it’s not all about him. The sooner he learns that lesson, the better for everyone.


Thursday, 23 October 2014

Reds humbled by Madrid masterclass

Liverpool suffered a pasting at the hands of a merciless and mercurial Madrid side last night.

Despite a promising start, the Merseysiders were put to the sword by three goals in just under 20 first half minutes by the ruthless Real Madrid, as the Spaniards claimed the ascendancy in Group B while the Reds’ hopes of qualifying for the knock-out stages of the Champions League in their first season back in the elite European competition suffered a blow.

To make matters worse, star summer signing Mario Balotelli courted the headlines for all the wrong reasons yet again after scandalously swapping shirts with Real Madrid’s Pepe in the tunnel at half time. The move outraged supporters already exasperated at another lifeless performance from the Italian, who was replaced by Adam Lallana at the break.

The fact that manager Brendan Rodgers was oblivious to the shirt swap until the end of the game and replaced Balotelli not as a punishment for his misdemeanour, but rather to increase the work rate and movement down the middle was a damning indictment on Balotelli, who will now rightly face disciplinary action from the club.

Heading into the tasty tie on the back of Sunday’s narrow escape at Loftus Road was far from ideal, but Kopites hoped for another European night to remember at Anfield and played their part in spurring the team on, producing a spine-tingling rendition of ‘You’ll Never Walk Alone’ before kick-off. Unfortunately, it only took 20 minutes for their dreams of a repeat of Liverpool’s 4-0 win against Real Madrid in 2009 to be dashed.

Surprisingly, the hosts started the better, pinning their opponents back with an urgency, intensity and high tempo that characterised their displays last season but has been conspicuous by its absence during the current campaign. However, Carlo Ancelotti’s men anticipated a quick start and rolled with the early punches, Casillas turning away Gerrard’s 35-yard strike, which, for all their early pressure, was the only real chance that Liverpool created. The European champions then proceeded to deliver three devastating blows that left Liverpool reeling.

The first goal was simply out of this world. There was nothing the Reds’ defence could do to stop Cristiano Ronaldo scoring his first goal at Anfield and his 70th in the Champions League. Starting the move in midfield, the former Manchester United player sprinted forward determinedly, latching on to James Rodriguez’s stunning chipped pass before thumping home from 15 yards.

Ronaldo opened the scoring with a world class goal
It was one of those occasions when the Reds simply had to hold their hands up and acknowledge the superior ability of their visitors, who had just scored an unstoppable world class goal. Frustratingly, however, Liverpool could have prevented Madrid’s second and third strikes, which arrived promptly afterwards.

On both occasions, Liverpool’s vulnerability from set pieces was exposed yet again. First, on the half hour mark a half-cleared corner found its way to Toni Kroos. Joe Allen gave the German international too much time, allowing Kroos to float a cross to Karim Benzema at the back post, who looped a header beyond Mignolet and into the far corner of the net.

Then, Liverpool produced some school-boy defending that was even more embarrassing four minutes before the break. Somehow three men managed to miss a header from a corner, then Mignolet and Skrtel got in a tangle in the box before Benzema eventually turned the loose ball home to double his tally for the evening.

Benzema looped a header into the net...

...then bundled home after another defensive blunder from Liverpool
It was humiliatingly hopeless defending from a defence desperately needing the guidance of someone like Jamie Carragher. Rodgers should seriously consider getting Carra off the Sky Sports sofa and onto the Reds’ Melwood training ground in a coaching capacity.

Crushed and dejected, Liverpool knew there was very little chance of reproducing the magic of Istanbul and recovering from a three-goal deficit against another Carlo Ancelotti side, although it might have been a different story had Coutinho’s fierce strike in the dying embers of first half injury time found the back of the net rather than rebounding back off the post.

As it was, it was a case of damage limitation for Liverpool from then on. With the shirt-swapping Balotelli substituted, Sterling assumed the role of central striker while the Italian’s replacement Adam Lallana added some much needed energy in behind, skimming a low strike into Casillas’ arms six minutes after the restart.

Fortunately, the Merseysiders managed to prevent Madrid adding further goals and thus avoid the infliction of greater damage on their goal difference, as well as sparing their blushes. The visitors remained dominant, however, despite clearly taking their foot off the gas in anticipation of el clasico on the weekend, and they squandered two gilt-edged goal scoring opportunities.

First, Ronaldo sent an uncharacteristically poor shot against the shins of Mignolet when one-on-one with the Belgian keeper after Isco and Benzema combined to set him up. Ten minutes later, purposeful attacking play from Benzema allowed him to put the ball on a plate for another one of his teammates. This time it was World Cup sensation James Rodriguez who wasted the chance, side-footing a yard wide.

With the game won, Cristiano Ronaldo was substituted for the final 15 minutes, demonstrated just how absolute Real Madrid’s supremacy was. At the same time, however, the Kop took the chance to demonstrate its enduring class, clapping the Portuguese off the pitch in recognition of the world class ability that he had displayed during the match.

Ronaldo and Rodgers shake hands after the number seven was subbed
Despite the doom and gloom inevitably pervading Anfield after the match, Bulgarian minnows Ludogorets gave Liverpool reason to hope by beating Basel 1-0. As a result, all three teams vying for the runners-up spot behind Real Madrid sit on three points, which is the best scenario the Reds could have realistically hoped for in the circumstances.

The task for Brendan Rodgers now is for him to somehow find a way to lift his troops so that they can get something from their trip to Madrid in two weeks’ time. Looking to the long term, the Northern Irish manager must also develop the Reds so that they reach a point where they are able to compete with the likes of Real Madrid without being taught a footballing lesson.


Sunday, 19 October 2014

Roller-coaster ride as lucky Liverpool beat QPR

Liverpool were extremely fortunate to escape with three points from Loftus Road on Sunday.

From the first to the final minute, QPR were the better team, but Liverpool were the beneficiaries of two own goals conceded by Harry Redknapp’s men, rendering the hosts’ efforts fruitless and handing the Reds a win that their performance certainly did not merit.

Four goals in the final seven minutes livened up what had been an otherwise deeply frustrating match, but the dramatic ending could not disguise the fact that the Merseysiders’ display simply was not up to scratch and, but for the kind assistance of Richard Dunne and Steven Caulker, Liverpool could well have suffered a humiliating defeat against the team propping up the Premier League table.

Rodgers controversially started Raheem Sterling and kept him on the pitch for all 94 minutes despite the England international’s much-reported tiredness. It was a wise move, as the teenage sensation was instrumental in all three of Liverpool’s goals. He also moved captain Steven Gerrard into a more advanced role behind Mario Balotelli after he combined well with the Italian when played there briefly versus West Brom last time out.

Unfortunately, apart from one effort on the stroke of half time, Gerrard proved ineffective in that role and was subsequently moved deeper in the second half to try and help Liverpool’s central defence to cope with the threat posed by QPR frontman Bobby Zamora.

Lovren and Skrtel certainly needed some help, as Zamora was running them ragged and easily out-competing the pair, causing them no end of trouble. The 33-year old bullied Liverpool’s defence right from the word ‘go’, chesting the ball down for Charlie Austin to blaze over after only two minutes.

Austin then forced Mignolet into a good save soon after and sent a follow-up effort into the side-netting after easily evading half-hearted challenges from Johnson and Skrtel, as the R’s bright opening encouraged the boisterous and noisy home crowd.

QPR went even closer to scoring midway through the first 45 minutes, but they were denied by the woodwork twice as the visitors rode their luck. First, Leroy Fer fired a rising effort against the bar from Zamora’s square pass as the Reds were, as usual, all at sea defensively.

Then, the 24-year old Dutch midfielder hit the bar once again, this time heading Zamora’s cross against the upright. In the ensuing scramble, Sandro attempted to find the net but was denied by some desperate last ditching defending from Glen Johnson.

Johnson scrambles clear off the goal line
At that point, Liverpool were on the rocks. Defensively all over the place, the only thing keeping the scores level was QPR’s prolificacy in front of goal. Most other Premier League teams would have punished Rodgers’ side for their stereotypically shoddy defending, and Real Madrid will definitely be more ruthless on Wednesday if the Reds’ back four duplicates this performance.

At the other end, meanwhile, Mario Balotelli was performing abysmally. Languid and lazy, Balotelli looked disinterested throughout and infuriated fans with a sub-par work rate. His only efforts on goal in the first period were a shot that was easily saved by Alex McCarthy and a strike that embarrassingly ballooned into the stands.

Gerrard sent a shot narrowly wide of the far post after cleverly manoeuvring in the penalty area just before the break, but it would have been an injustice if Liverpool had gone into the interval in front. Much more was required from and expected of them during the second 45 minutes.

Frustratingly, that improvement failed to materialise. In fact, things arguably got even worse, as Balotelli somehow struck over the bar from six yards out with the goal at his mercy when it seemed easier to score. It was the type of miss that left Kopites wondering whether the name ‘Balotelli’ translates into ‘Ngog’ in French and ‘Heskey’ in English!

It was one of those days for Balotelli
That embarrassment on the hour mark was preceded by two frights at the back, as QPR kicked off where they left from during the opening 15 minutes after the restart. First, Sandro was given far too much space to send a powerful shot goalwards which forced Mignolet to make a good save. Then, Austin’s shot flashed across the face of goal from a tight angle.

The introduction of Allen and Coutinho midway through the half seemed to make a difference. Coutinho’s arrival was particularly important, as he injected a much-needed degree of energy and inventiveness into Liverpool’s sterile attack.

With that said, the Reds were always going to need some help from QPR to score. Thankfully, that assistance duly arrived on 67 minutes when Richard Dunne became the first Premier League player to reach double figures in terms of own goals. The former Evertonian centre back amusingly got his legs in a tangle and therefore diverted Johnson’s low cross into his own net after Sterling had taken a quick free kick.

When Bobby Zamora exited the action with eleven minutes remaining, Skrtel and Lovren must have breathed a sigh of relief. Unfortunately, his replacement, Eduardo Vargas, proved even more of a nuisance, scoring twice in the dramatic closing stages.

To start with, he equalised on 87 minutes, as, with a depressing sense of inevitability, Liverpool capitulated and squandered their fragile lead. Enrique was culpable for the goal, as it was his weak initial headed clearance from a free kick which allowed QPR to put the ball back into the box. The Spanish left back then overcommitted when challenging Vargas on the left wing, allowing him to find Austin and then latch on to his header down before smashing home, leaving Enrique trailing in his wake.

Brazilian substitute Coutinho thought he’d bagged the winner in the final minute of normal time when he concluded a swift counter attack that had begun with a crucial intervention from Skrtel by cutting in from the left and sweeping beyond the goalkeeper following good build up play by Sterling.

Coutinho deserves to return to the starting line-up
There were still to be two more twists in the tail, though, as suicidal defending at both ends made for edge of the seat entertainment in the dying moments. Immediately from the restart, QPR won a corner, which Vargas scrambled home in possibly the scrappiest manner possible thanks to non-existent defending from Steven Gerrard and shocking incompetence from Allen and Mignolet on the post.

When QPR were then awarded another free kick in a central position, it was heart in mouth time for Liverpool, who looked liable to concede from every set piece. Remarkably, instead of conceding a third, the Reds grabbed a winner themselves after clearing the danger and pouring forward.

Coutinho played a wonderfully precise through ball to Sterling, who confusingly decided to try and square the ball to Balotelli when he should have shot himself, but he got lucky as the back-tracking Caulker converted into his own net with literally seconds left on the clock.

Sterling and Stevie celebrate an undeserved last gasp winner
It was an absolutely crushing blow for QPR, who deserved so much more from a contest that they arguably controlled. Liverpool, on the other hand, were relieved to have somehow found a way to win a match they probably should have lost on the balance of play.

By hook and by crook, Liverpool secured three points that move them up to fifth in the table, which is heartening. However, apart from possibly the performances of Sterling and Coutinho, there really are no other positives that the Reds can take from this match. It was embarrassingly bad, and Madrid are going to hammer them in midweek unless they perform exponentially better against the European Champions.

I’m not holding my breath.


Tuesday, 14 October 2014

Four reasons why Liverpool have started the season slowly

After scaling the dizzying heights of the upper echelons of the Premier League table at the end of an enthralling and exciting 2013/2014 season that went down to the wire, Liverpool have crashed back down to earth at the start of the 2014/2015 season with a nasty bump.

The Reds’ sixteen match unbeaten streak during the second half of last season already appears to be fading into the distant folklore of Liverpool legend, as the Reds struggle to replicate that form without their world-beating superstar striker Luis Suarez. After going the entire month of September without winning in the League and with three League defeats suffered already, alarm bells have understandably started ringing at Anfield.

Here are five reasons why Liverpool have started the season slowly:

1. Persistently poor defending

Unbelievably and unacceptably, Liverpool’s defence remains in dire form despite boss Brendan Rodgers spending a considerable sum of money in what, at least so far, appears to be a vain attempt to remedy the mistakes at the back that plagued Liverpool last season.

In the middle, Martin Skrtel and Mamadou Sakho are both error prone and, although Dejan Lovren has the potential to be a promising future leader, his performances have failed to justify his £20 million price tag so far. An abdominal injury suffered on international duty with Croatia recently won’t do him any favours, either.

This is a crucial season for Johnson
Meanwhile, defensive solidity is also conspicuous by its absence on both flanks. Moreno is a left back in the John Arne Riise mould, which is encouraging to see, but he needs to work on the defensive side of his game, as evidenced by his error in the box which led to Manchester City’s opener on his Liverpool debut. Loanee Javier Manquillo has provided adequate cover for Glen Johnson while the England international has been injured, but the Spaniard hasn’t done enough to make the right back spot his own, while Johnson has a lot of work to do during the final year of his current contract to earn a renewal.

One of the most important issues facing Liverpool’s defence is how they deal with set pieces. At the moment, they look terrified every time a ball is swung into the box, and opponents know that they can reap substantial rewards from corners and free kicks. A leader, preferably Lovren, needs to step forward and take charge from set pieces, while greater defensive rigour in general is a must if the Reds’ are to turnaround their season and get their campaign back on the right track.

2. A misfiring attack

There’s just no denying it; Mario Balotelli is a poor man’s Luis Suarez. That’s why Liverpool only had to offer £16 million to entice AC Milan to sell him, while Suarez fetched an astronomical £75 million despite the scandalous bite gate 3.0 at the World Cup in Brazil. The two strikers are simply not in the same league.

One goal in eight appearances from Balotelli is not good enough, especially not in the absence of the unfortunately injured Daniel Sturridge. As a result, too much responsibility has been put on young Raheem Sterling, whose performances have been affected by the pressure of trying to single-handedly breathe life into Liverpool’s ailing attack.

It’s no wonder that he reasonably requested to be rested for England’s European qualifier in Estonia, although our old friend Roy sticking his foot in his mouth once again and revealing Raheem’s request to a media baying for blood after another mediocre England performance won’t do Sterling’s form any good whatsoever.

Hodgson seems to have an anti-Liverpool agenda
Lambert’s bit-part role has not afforded him the opportunity to impress, while the likes of Lallana and Henderson have contributed to the Reds’ attack from midfield, as exemplified against West Brom in the final match before the international break, but they haven’t been able to compensate for Balotelli’s indifferent start to his Anfield career.

Unlike their defensive issues, Liverpool’s problems in attack are likely to be transitory; yes, it is unlikely to be as dynamic and prolific as when Suarez, Sturridge and Sterling were working in tandem to produce perfect poetry in motion, but the return of Sturridge will make a big difference, Sterling is one of the most promising youngsters in the country, if not the world, and Balotelli has bags of untapped potential that will hopefully be released by a general upturn in the team’s fortunes.

3. New signings struggling to settle

Balotelli isn’t the only new signing struggling to find his feet on Merseyside unfortunately. None of the Reds’ eight summer signings have immediately hit top form. Can and Lallana have been hit by injuries, Lambert has been starved of opportunities to impress while Markovic , Moreno, Manquillo, Lovren and Balotelli are experiencing the inevitable transition phase which tends to happen when players join new clubs, as they get used to working with new coaches and teammates.

Lallana has been the best performing new signing
The circumstances Liverpool find themselves in make shortening that transition phase where players are adapting to each other’s games an imperative. The Reds need results, and they need them quick. However, a difficult period of transition in which performances and results sometimes disappoint was entirely predictable following a significant upheaval of playing personnel at the club.

4. Injuries

Throw a mounting injury list on top of a dysfunctional defence, misfiring attack and a host of new arrivals struggling to settle and you have a recipe for a perfect storm. Of course, injuries are part and parcel of competitive football, but it does seem as if Liverpool have suffered a stroke of misfortune on the injuries front during this campaign.

Lallana got injured during pre-season, hampering his ability to settle in at his new club. Johnson has only just recovered from a thigh injury sustained in the second game of the season. Worst of all, three players picked up injuries during the international break in September. Injuries to Allen and Can reduced Rodgers’ options in midfield, with the former’s ability to quietly keep play ticking along particularly missed.

However, most importantly, Daniel Sturridge suffered a thigh strain, with our old friend Roy once again to blame. Subsequently, he has missed seven matches and, significantly, Balotelli has been immediately burdened with the task of leading the line by himself, further increasing the already significant scrutiny of the Italian’s displays.

Sturridge's thigh injury has significantly impacted Liverpool's attack
The current international break hasn’t been much better, with Lovren pulling out of the Croatia squad with an abdominal injury and Serbian Lazar Markovic also suffering an injury scare. It may be seen as excuse making by some, but it’s difficult to escape the conclusion that injuries have cost Liverpool dearly so far in this campaign.


Thankfully, despite Liverpool’s depressingly slow start to the season, there remain reasons for optimism. Daniel Sturridge is training again and on the verge of a comeback, which will go a long way to sorting out the Reds’ attacking problems. Moreover, Rodgers is excellent at developing and improving players, and once he has had time to work on the new arrivals the Merseysiders’ form should pick up.

Injuries remain frustrating and could persist throughout the campaign, but there is little that can be done about that unfortunately. The most important issue that needs addressing is the weakness and vulnerability of Liverpool’s defence. That is arguably Brendan Rodgers’ most important long term project which may well come to define his spell in charge at Anfield.

If he fails to rectify the Reds’ deficiencies in defence, conceding too many goals will continue to undermine his team’s ambitions and prevent them achieving their targets, just as conceding 50 goals unquestionably cost them the title last season.

However, if the Northern Irish boss can plug the gaping gaps at the back and construct a solid defensive foundation on which to further develop his team’s exciting and enterprising attack, there’s no telling how much success Liverpool could enjoy under Rodgers’ stewardship.


Sunday, 5 October 2014

Baggies beaten by brilliance of Lallana and Henderson

Adam Lallana and Jordan Henderson were the stars as Liverpool returned to winning ways against West Brom yesterday.

The former Southampton skipper and Liverpool’s new vice-captain were instrumental as Brendan Rodgers’ side encouragingly entered the international break on a positive note following a difficult spell. Lallana rounded off a wonderful move to open the scoring on the stroke of half time, while Henderson struck home what turned out to be the winning goal on the hour mark after Saido Berahino had netted a controversially awarded spot kick to level for the visitors.

Following Wednesday night’s loss in Basel, Rodgers was looking for a response from his troops, and hence he made a bold decision regarding his starting line-up, dropping the misfiring Mario Balotelli to the bench and introducing Rickie Lambert to the first eleven for the first time in a League game since his summer move from Southampton.

It was a correct and clever move from the Northern Irish boss, demonstrating both his commitment to a meritocratic system and his willingness to assert his authority over Balotelli if necessary. Moreover, Lambert played quite well up front for 64 minutes, while Balotelli also threatened Albion’s defence when he replaced the number nine for the final third of the match.

Although Liverpool never hit top gear at any point and put in a performance far below the dizzying heights they managed to reach last season, they found a way to win against an improving West Brom side, and that was the most important thing on the final whistle.

With that said the Reds were the better team during the first half and just about deserved to enter the interval in front. In the opening 20 minutes Sterling and Lambert went close to opening the scoring, the former clipping a shot goalwards after embarking on a mazy run and the latter testing Ben Foster following a wonderful defence splitting pass from Manquillo.

West Brom responded, though, through their main man Berahino, whose goal haul of six is only bettered by Chelsea’s Diego Costa. The England U21 international stung Mignolet’s hands with an effort from range after Henderson had lazily lost possession and then sent a header from Pocognoli’s left wing cross sailing into the Kop from six yards out when he probably should have done better.

Berahino was eventually to find himself on the score sheet with a little help from referee Michael Oliver, but before then Liverpool broke the deadlock on the stroke of half time, as Adam Lallana bagged his first goal in a Red shirt.

The skilled technician showed quick feet to engineer space for himself on the edge of the box when surrounded by West Brom defenders. He then exchanged a delightful one-two with Henderson and concluded the move by firing into the far corner from close range, before celebrating ecstatically with his relieved teammates.

Lallana loved opening his account for Liverpool
It was a brilliant goal from the ever-improving Lallana, who, after a difficult start to his Liverpool career blighted by injury, is beginning to show the type of form that persuaded Rodgers to part with £25 million to secure his services. If he can continue to link up with Henderson so effectively, then Liverpool’s midfield will be a force for opponents to reckon with.

Unfortunately, however, the Reds’ defence continues to encourage rather than frighten opponents, as they know its weaknesses are eminently exploitable. That proved to be the case ten minutes after the restart. Although Liverpool can have legitimate grievances with the officials, poor defending cost them dear once again as well. Lovren ludicrously produced an unnecessary last ditch challenge on Berahino, slicing him down just outside the box and, after Michael Oliver erroneously pointed to the spot, Berahino picked himself up to convert past Mignolet from twelve yards.

Importantly, Liverpool responded positively and regained the lead quickly. Had the score remained 1-1 for a significant period, the Reds’ confidence would have been drained as Anfield grew increasingly nervous. Instead, the Merseysiders took the game to the Midlanders and retook the lead on the hour mark.

Raheem Sterling was bundled over in the box but honestly and wisely decided to play on rather than complain vociferously to the referee. He then laid the ball off to Henderson, who swept home from inside the penalty area.

Kopites love the passion in Hendo's celebrations
Interestingly, in the closing stages Steven Gerrard played in a more advanced role than he has become accustomed to, occupying the number ten role behind substitute Balotelli rather than the sitting role in front of Lovren and Skrtel.

It seemed to work, as the skipper was instrumental in many of the Reds’ attacks, firing an effort goalwards from Sterling’s square pass and then engaging in neat interplay with Balotelli before the Italian worked Foster. The pair linked up again in the final minute of injury time, as Balotelli lashed goalwards from Gerrard’s cleverly back heeled reverse pass, forcing Foster to make another good save.

Gerrard played so well behind Balotelli that Rodgers may have to do some thinking during the international break and considering revising the captain’s role in the team once domestic football begins again in the middle of October. With QPR, Hull City and Newcastle United next up in the league, hopefully this win will prove the beginning of a good set of results that puts Liverpool’s season back on track.

Crucially, let’s cross our fingers and pray that none of our key players come back crocked.


Thursday, 2 October 2014

Basel defeat damages Liverpool's European hopes

Liverpool slipped to what could be a critical Champions League defeat in Switzerland last night.

Lacking teeth in attack and shaky at the back, Liverpool were punished by their Swiss hosts, who won courtesy of a scrappy Streller goal soon after the half time interval. The disappointing but unsurprising defeat leaves Liverpool third in Group B and, with back-to-back matches against Spanish giants Real Madrid up next, the Reds’ European fate already appears to be in the balance.

Daniel Sturridge remained unavailable thanks to a thigh strain, while Mamadou Sakho was left out of the squad mysteriously and conveniently ‘injured’ in training only days after walking out of Anfield before kick off in a sulk  after being omitted from the match day squad for the Merseyside derby. Enrique unexpectedly replaced Moreno at left back to make only his second start of the season, while Coutinho came in for Lallana in the only two changes to the team that drew 1-1 with Everton on the weekend.

The twin problems of a seemingly impotent attack and dangerously vulnerable defence reared their ugly heads again throughout last night’s frustrating contest. Up front, Balotelli was typically immobile and the Italian only managed one shot on target as Basel’s defence, which shipped five goals to Real Madrid in their opening group stage match, dealt with the number 45 relatively comfortably.

With only one goal in seven appearances, Balotelli has made a slow start to his Liverpool career
At the back, meanwhile, Manquillo and Enrique were often exposed, while Skrtel and Lovren were both culpable for Streller’s winner.

It could have all been so different had Raheem Sterling held his line and not strayed offside two minutes in. The 19-year old converted Manquillo’s cross at the second time of asking after his initial effort hit the woodwork, but the linesman’s flag had been rightly raised and the effort was ruled out. Had the goal stood, the Reds would have had the momentum to go on and easily beat Basel, who were there for the taking, particularly in the first half.

As it was, Liverpool looked disjointed, hesitant and evidently suffering a dearth of confidence following an indifferent start to the campaign.

Skipper Steven Gerrard, who responded so emphatically to his critics with an excellent goal against Everton on Saturday, gave his detractors more ammunition on twelve minutes when he lost the ball in a very dangerous position deep in his own half. Only Streller shooting wide when he should have done better spared his blushes.

That moment was reflective of the rest of the match. Basel’s intense playing style and high tempo, which has proven so successful in defeating other English opponents, such as Manchester United and Chelsea, who have visited St Jakob-Park in recent years, forced Liverpool into mistakes and generally made Rodgers’ side seem uneasy and out-of-sorts.

In a quiet remainder of the half, Serey Die tested Mignolet with a toe-poked effort after embarrassingly leaving Enrique on his back side, while Mignolet’s opposite number Vaclik easily held Sterling’s strike and Lovren’s headed effort from a corner kick was directed into the turf, losing all its power and rendering it harmless.

It was in depressingly familiar circumstances that Liverpool fell behind eight minutes after the restart, as their soft defensive centre was exposed for the umpteenth time this season. A routine right wing corner was swung into the penalty area and it proved too difficult for the Reds’ defence to deal with, as it deflected off Skrtel, ricocheted off Lovren and then fell to Streller, who was the only one reacting to the second ball and thus had ample time to sweep home from close range.

When will the Reds' defence learn?
It was shambolic stuff from a defence that just doesn’t seem to learn from past mistakes, nor pay attention on the training ground.

Liverpool improved in response to conceding, but not a great deal. Balotelli forced Vaclik to make an unconventional save from his 35-yard free kick, while Sterling was denied by a timely intervention from a defender after racing past two opponents, before Rodgers replaced Coutinho with Lallana in an attempt to freshen up the Reds’ flagging attack.

It almost worked, as the former Southampton skipper was involved in the best move that the visitors produced on 76 minutes. He combined positively with Balotelli to set up Sterling, who had the perfect opportunity to equalise but fluffed his lines in a manner reminiscent of his miss at White Hart Lane earlier in the season. However, with their team 1-0 down rather than 3-0 up, Liverpool fans didn’t find his miss as amusing this time.

Manquillo wasn’t too impressed with Balotelli either a few minutes a later when he took down Gerrard’s through ball and netted despite being fairly obviously offside. Had he stepped aside and let the ball go through, the onside and on-rushing Atletico Madrid loanee would have had a clear sight of goal from close range.

Liverpool’s final chance to level and steal what would have been a good point came in the form of a re-run of Steven Gerrard’s goal on Saturday four minutes from time. The number eight curled another free kick goalwards from 25 yards but, unlike Everton’s Tim Howard, Tomas Vaclik was up to the task of keeping the ball out, displaying a safe pair of hands as he made a decent save.

All in all, it was an evening that Kopites would like to quickly forget. A lack of desire was correctly cited by Gerrard on the final whistle as one of the reasons for the defeat, as Basel simply wanted it more than Liverpool. A damning indictment on the Reds, hopefully the captain’s stern words will strike a chord in the dressing room and re-birth the intensity and passion that came to characterise Liverpool’s performances last season.

Gerrard bemoaned a lack of desire from his teammates
It looks like Real Madrid, who eventually overcame minnows Ludogorets 2-1 in Bulgaria, will run away with Group B now, and it will be a battle between Liverpool and Basel for the runners up spot that will secure qualification for the knock-out stages. In fact, it could all come down to the Swiss side’s visit to Anfield on the final group stage match day at the beginning of December.

If that’s the case, then Liverpool will have to prove that they want it more than Basel on an evening when both teams will be desperate to progress. Hopefully the home crowd might just stir the players’ souls and inspire them to victory on what already seems destined to be a European night to remember at Anfield.