Wednesday, 28 January 2015

Reds rue missed chances as Chelsea reach final

Liverpool were left disappointed after an entertaining evening of football packed with controversial incidents and talking points ended with them cruelly exiting the League Cup at the semi-final stage.

The Reds managed to take the Blues to extra time after it somehow ended goalless after 90 minutes at Stamford Bridge. However, the away goal they required during the additional half an hour proved frustratingly elusive, and Branislav Ivanovic headed home the winner on the night, although it mattered very little as Mourinho’s men would have reached the final anyway on away goals.

Brendan Rodgers stuck with the same team that performed so well in the first leg at Anfield a week earlier, with the main team news being the absence of Daniel Sturridge from the squad despite hopes that we might see the England striker sitting on the substitutes’ bench. Jose Mourinho, meanwhile, made nine changes to the team that suffered what the Portuguese described as a ‘disgraceful’ giant killing at the hands of Bradford City in the FA Cup fourth round on Saturday.

The end-to-end match was played at a frenetic pace and, with tensions running high, the players’ passions frequently boiled over. Diego ‘the Elephant Man’ Costa was, predictably, at the heart of the controversy once again, with the first of two stamps from the Spanish striker coming after just 12 minutes when he quite clearly and deliberately stamped Emre Can on the ankle while getting back to his feet from a challenge.

Stamp number one...
Referee Michael Oliver scandalously didn’t even book the thuggish striker, who then complained vociferously after being refused a penalty following a clumsy challenge in the area by Skrtel. Admittedly, it probably should have been a spot kick, but Costa shouldn’t have even been on the pitch by that point.

Putting the handbags to one side, Chelsea had the better of the game during the first 45 minutes, but Liverpool crafted far more clear-cut goalscoring opportunities and should have entered the interval in the lead.

Philippe Coutinho was the Reds’ creative heart, taking four Chelsea defenders out of the game with a wonderful run which opened up the goal for him on the half hour mark. Unfortunately, Courtois stuck out a leg to make a fine save at the critical moment. Moments before, Courtois had also denied Moreno after Gerrard’s incisive pass had put the Spaniard in on goal, while Kurt Zouma was also called upon to make an outstanding tackle to stop Sterling after he’d sped into the Chelsea box.

The closest Chelsea came to breaking the deadlock was a 25-yard free kick that Oscar steered wide of goal five minutes before the break. Apart from that, the hosts produced very little, as borne out by the statistics. During the first half, the Blues had four shots to the Reds’ six, and none of their efforts were on target.

After the break, though, Chelsea stepped up a gear or two, although some things never change, as Costa stamped on another Liverpool player, this time landing his boot on Martin Skrtel’s shin ten minutes after the restart. Remarkably, he got away scot free once again, avoiding even a yellow card.

...stamp number two. Six more and Costa will get a free coffee!
As the Blues pressed harder and gained greater inroads into Liverpool’s defence during the second half, Simon Mignolet stood up to the plate and produced a couple of world class saves that perhaps point to the much maligned Belgian keeper turning a corner.

First, he excellently kept out Costa’s deflected strike with his legs. Then, he made a tackle that Jamie Carragher would have been proud of to stop Costa in his tracks after he’d inadvertently been put in on goal by Henderson’s sliding clearance.

It was sensational stuff from Mignolet, who put in a fantastic performance overall and deserves plenty of praise. If he can keep this form up, he’ll make a lot of Liverpool fans eat their words.

A tackle Carragher would be proud of from Mignolet
In contrast, Mario Balotelli did nothing to prove his detractors wrong last night. Brought on for Markovic with 20 minutes remaining, he produced little of note and was to blame for Ivanovic’s goal. His body language was also awful, heading straight down the tunnel upon the final whistle. Adam Lallana surely should have been introduced instead of the lazy and ineffective Italian.

Gerrard and Sterling shot into the stands; while Costa saw a strike blocked by Johnson in the closing stages as the 90 minutes ended with neither side able to add goals to a game that otherwise had everything. Heading into half an hour of extra time, Liverpool knew that they needed to score as away goals now came into play.

When Branislav Ivanovic lost Balotelli and rose highest to head home Willian’s free kick three minutes into extra time, it didn’t really change a great deal. Liverpool still needed to score, although their reward would now be a penalty shootout rather than outright victory.

Ivanovic's goal made little difference in the grand scheme of things
Unfortunately, though, the goal seemed to deflate the tired Merseysiders, who never really put their hosts under a sustained spell of pressure during extra time and only managed to produce one gilt-edged opportunity to equalise.

On 100 minutes, Sterling cleverly worked his way down the left wing and sent a brilliant cross into the box for Jordan Henderson, who somehow directed his header wide from close range when he just had to score. Sterling subsequently sent a tame shot rolling wide and Lambert blazed over the bar, but Liverpool seemed a defeated side in the second half of extra time, while Chelsea are the experts at closing out matches, and that’s exactly what they did on this occasion as well.

Although Kopites can have legitimate complaints about the stamp-happy Costa remaining on the pitch, at the end of the day Liverpool have nobody to blame for failing to reach the League Cup final but themselves. They were the better team over the two legs and Courtois’ stunning form is the main reason Chelsea are heading to Wembley and not the Reds, but you simply cannot afford to miss that many chances against the best team in the country.

Until they get a striker who can take these chances, Liverpool are going to struggle when it matters most.


Sunday, 25 January 2015

Reds held at home to Bolton

On a day of Cup shocks, Liverpool had to settle for a replay after Bolton held them to a goalless stalemate at Anfield.

It is sometimes said that the last thing that Liverpool want in this situation is a replay because it would simply add to their already hectic schedule. However, as the alternative was crashing out of the competition to a Championship side and ending the dream of seeing Steven Gerrard lifting the FA Cup at Wembley on his 35th birthday for his final match in a Red shirt, Kopites will take a fourth round replay.

The 5:30pm kick off came at the end of a day of thrilling giant killings, as Chelsea spectacularly let a two-goal lead slip at home to Bradford, losing 4-2 to the League One outfit in the story of the day, while their fellow  title challengers Manchester City lost 2-0 at home to Championship side Middlesbrough.

With Tottenham and Southampton also exiting the competition at the fourth round stage, some at Anfield were anxious that Liverpool would be the latest giants to be slain on what was a black day for the Premier League. At the same time, however, victory promised to elevate the Reds to the status of one of the favourites for the trophy.

Brendan Rodgers rotated his squad with the second leg of the League Cup semi-final against Chelsea on Tuesday in mind, but Liverpool’s starting eleven was still strong, containing the likes of Sterling, Lallana, Coutinho and Henderson. Johnson and Allen returned from injury to start, while Gerrard and Skrtel were left out of the squad altogether. Mario Balotelli was also not in the 18, but for a lack of endeavour in training, rather than because he required a rest. His days on Merseyside certainly seem numbered.

Gerrard watched from the stands as his teammates tried to keep his Cup dream alive
Bolton began the better, enjoying a bright opening quarter of an hour in which they troubled Liverpool’s defence, particularly from corner kicks. However, the Trotters’ attacking duo Emile Heskey, returning to the club where he played over 200 matches, and Eidur Gudjohnsen perhaps unsurprisingly lacked the pace to seriously worry the Reds’ backline. The pair with a combined age of 73 were relatively well controlled, failing to register a single shot on target.

However, at the same time Liverpool were nowhere near as good as they were against Chelsea on Tuesday, and patently lacked a cutting edge up front. Furthermore, they also came up against Bolton’s goalkeeper Adam Bodgan, who was in inspired form between the sticks, denying Lallana, Coutinho and Johnson during the first 45 minutes.

The best chance of the half fell to Dean Moxey on the half hour mark, who was inches away from giving the visitors the lead when he sent a swerving crisp left footed half volley just wide of Mignolet’s right hand post from 25 yards out. It was a magnificent strike worthy of breaking the deadlock but thankfully it wasn’t to be.

At the interval, Rodgers replaced the dire Jose Enrique with 20-year old Lazar Markovic on the left hand side. The Serbian was far sprightlier than his Spanish teammate, and should have been awarded a penalty three minutes after the restart when Bolton captain Matt Mills took him down in the box, but frustratingly referee Kevin Friend was having none of it.

Bodgan then produced another top save to keep out Coutinho’s strike, with Manquillo reaching the loose ball but slicing a shot wide when well placed, before Gudjohnsen squandered two superb chances to open the scoring just past the hour mark.

First, the Icelandic striker side footed Tim Ream’s assist wide from 16 yards when he really should have hit the target. Then, he fired Josh Vela’s cutback into the Anfield Road end when he had the freedom of Merseyside to take his time and pick his spot.

They were the sort of chances that the goal machine that is Emile Heskey would have easily taken. Thankfully, by that point he was warming the bench after receiving a great reception from the Kop when he was replaced by Conor Wilkinson on 56 minutes.

It was great to see Emile Heskey back at Anfield
That was the peak of the game for Bolton, who then came under a substantial amount of pressure during the closing stages and were therefore happy to hold on for a draw and take a replay. To force the matter, Rodgers made a double swap, introducing Lucas and Borini to the action with just over 20 minutes remaining.

The latter immediately rounded off a good move by testing Bogdan and then had the best chance to score an arguably undeserved winner in the first of four minutes of injury time. Jordan Henderson’s free kick was cleared back out to him, but he picked out Borini with his second cross. Agonisingly, the Italian headed narrowly wide with Bogdan rooted to the spot.

There was still time for Lucas to fire straight at Bodgan, but it just wasn’t to be. Despite enjoying 68% of possession and having 24 shots, nine of which were on target, Liverpool weren’t good enough to beat Bolton and therefore must try again at the Macron Stadium at the start of February.

Credit to Neil Lennon’s men, they performed well and deserve a replay, but Liverpool really should have done better and got the job done first time around. Hopefully it will be a case of better late than never.


Wednesday, 21 January 2015

Reds outclass Blues but tie still in the balance

Liverpool’s League Cup semi-final with Chelsea remains finely poised after a first leg at Anfield that was encouraging and frustrating in equal measure. It was encouraging because Liverpool outclassed the best team in the country by some distance. It was also frustrating, however, because the Reds couldn’t find the winner their display deserved, leaving the Blues slight favourites heading into the second leg at Stamford Bridge next Tuesday evening.

Right from the off, the Reds were the better team, and only a questionable refereeing decision- one of many- allowed Eden Hazard to give the visitors the lead from the spot midway through the first period. The flow of the game didn’t change, though, and the Merseysiders eventually got the equaliser they deserved through a wonderful strike from Raheem Sterling on the hour mark.

The hosts continued to push and create numerous chances, the best of which Gerrard agonisingly placed against the post, but the League leaders somehow managed to hold on for a draw they scarcely deserved.

Steven Gerrard came in for Fabio Borini in the one change that Brendan Rodgers made to the team that beat Aston Villa 2-0 on the weekend. Playing in a forward three with Sterling and Coutinho, Gerrard was instructed to press Chelsea high and prevent them playing out from the back, and that’s precisely what the captain did, troubling Thibaut Courtois, who was forced to shank a clearance into the stand five minutes in as Gerrard closed him down following a poor back pass from Terry.

Across the pitch, Liverpool played with an urgency and tempo that troubled Chelsea. As well as dominating possession, the Reds closed down rapidly and won the ball back high up the pitch when they lost it, trapping the visitors in their own half. Of course, the Blues were only too happy to oblige and park the bus, particularly after they took the lead from the penalty spot on 18 minutes.

Only a minute after Gerrard had rolled back the years with a stunning strike from range that called Courtois into action, Can clumsily challenged Hazard in the area, giving referee Martin Atkinson an excuse to point to the penalty spot. It was a little harsh and Hazard certainly played for it, but to be honest it was probably one of few correct decisions that the officials made last night. Predictably, the Belgian playmaker planted the penalty in the bottom corner as Mignolet dove in the opposite direction.

Hazard scored from Chelsea's only shot on target 
To try and atone for his error, Can embarked on a remarkable run out of defence and all the way to the edge of Chelsea’s area on the half hour mark, but his pass was just awry when he attempted to pick out Sterling. It was an example of the attacking threat that Can adds to an otherwise  solid but uncreative back three, although he also looked vulnerable defensively whenever Hazard ran at him.

Collectively, Liverpool’s backline appeared exposed when Chelsea counter-attacked from a corner on 33 minutes, as Fabregas was given the freedom of Merseyside to attack Moreno with a teammate. Thankfully, the Spaniard did well to stall the Blues’ attack and his teammates bust a gut to get back and help him out. As a result, the danger passed as Hazard eventually lost the ball when he should have at least tested Mignolet.

On the stroke of half time another penalty decision didn’t go Liverpool’s way, as their vociferous complaints about Costa handling while grounded frustratingly fell on deaf ears. It was a poor decision by Atkinson, who was in a good position to clearly see Costa both handle the ball and move his hand in the direction of the ball, indicating intent and not just ball-to-hand.

In the second half, Liverpool adopted much the same approach. Mignolet remained in large part a spectator, being called upon to rush out of goal to clear when Costa was clean through 20 seconds after the restart but otherwise uninvolved, as Chelsea were content to sit back and soak up the waves of Liverpool pressure.

Until Sterling scored on the hour mark, it looked like Mourinho’s men might be able to frustrate the Reds in a manner similar to last season when they effectively ended their title challenge. Thankfully, the number 31, firing on all cylinders following a mid-winter break in Jamaica, produced a piece of magic to level.

He dropped into the hole to receive a pass from the equally excellent Henderson and then accelerated past the helpless Cahill before sending a brilliant low shot into the corner of the net with his weaker left foot. It was a goal of pure class from Sterling, who was absolutely brilliant alongside Philippe Coutinho last night.

Sterling celebrates his equaliser
That front three continued to terrorise Chelsea’s defence, Gerrard curling against the post and Coutinho firing a shot goalwards low and true that Courtois did well to push away. Lallana immediately posed a threat after replacing Gerrard with 20 minutes remaining, almost linking up with Sterling in the penalty area, before forcing Courtois into an excellent save with a cracking effort from the edge of the box.

Henderson and Sterling also called Courtois into action in quick succession, while the keeper was lucky to get away with handling outside the area and relieved to see Coutinho shoot high into the Kop from an improbable range and angle, as Liverpool kept searching for the goal that would have put them in the driving seat heading into the second leg at Stamford Bridge.

Frustratingly, it just wasn’t to be. Nonetheless, there are still plenty of positives to take from this match and every reason to be optimistic ahead of the second leg. Liverpool dominated and outperformed Chelsea, restricting them to one shot on target from the penalty spot and having 19 attempts themselves. All of this came against a team five points clear at the top of the table and brimming with confidence following a 5-0 victory over Swansea only three days previously.

The only thing that Liverpool lacked was a clinical striker. Had Sturridge been playing, the Reds could have obtained an almost unassailable lead and effectively ended the tie as a contest after the first leg. As it is, they travel to Stamford Bridge with the tie still in balance. Although it will undoubtedly be a different game in London as Chelsea will be more willing to come out and play, if Liverpool can reproduce this display then there is no reason why they cannot secure a place at Wembley.


Sunday, 18 January 2015

Borini and Lambert slay Villains

Two strikers scored and Liverpool kept another clean sheet as the Reds earned their fifth away win in a row at Villa Park and put in another performance that proves that they’re finally beginning to click. Fabio Borini turned home Henderson’s cross in the first half and Rickie Lambert rifled into the corner from the edge of the box with ten minutes remaining to secure the Merseysiders’ fifth win in six fixtures and consign their struggling hosts to yet another defeat.

Brendan Rodgers made one change to the team that beat Sunderland at the Stadium of Light last time out, bringing in Raheem Sterling for Steven Gerrard, who was left out of the squad altogether as a sensible precautionary measure ahead of Liverpool’s League Cup semi-final clash with Chelsea in midweek.

The opening fifteen minutes were fairly even and quiet, with Mignolet comfortably saving Benteke’s header from Hutton’s cross the only moment of note. However, Liverpool soon took control and, moments after Moreno’s effort had been chalked off for offside, the Reds gained the lead.

Captain for the day Jordan Henderson, who marshalled the midfield masterfully alongside the increasingly important Lucas, sent a brilliant cross into the danger area, where the unmarked Borini instinctively stuck out his leg to prod home the opener. It was terrible defending from Villa, but a world class assist from Henderson and a confidence-booster for the marginalised Borini.

Borini stuck out a leg to break the deadlock
Liverpool then took a grip on the game and really should have entered the interval with a greater lead. Coutinho’s header from Markovic’s cross was saved by Guzan, while Borini lashed high and wide before Raheem Sterling squandered the best chance to double the away side’s advantage. The young England international raced through on goal but tried to be too clever as he attempted a cute chip over the keeper. Instead, the ball landed straight in Guzan’s relieved hands; Sterling should have just stuck his laces through it.

Villa improved after the break, and they sent a few warning signs during the closing stages of the first period, Mignolet needing two attempts to gather Sanchez’s ambitious low strike and Cleverley poking wide when well placed on the stroke of half time. At the other end, Guzan made a great save from Moreno seven minutes after the restart, but apart from that Liverpool created comparatively little, while the Midlanders enjoyed a sustained spell of pressure.

Villa’s misfiring strike force was the main barrier preventing them scoring the equaliser their performance arguably warranted. Although Mignolet performed slightly better, making a world class save to deny Benteke on the hour mark, Liverpool’s defence still looked shaky and probably would have folded in the face of superior opponents.

Thankfully, though, Paul Lambert’s men lacked the striking capacity to end their goal drought, which has now stretched to over eight hours of football. Delph, Gill, Baker and Benteke all went close for Aston Villa, but the Villains just couldn’t find the back of the net for love nor money and, after weathering the storm, Liverpool went in for the kill.

Lucas Leiva, of all people, went very close to scoring the decisive second, seeing Guzan palm his 25-yard shot, which was destined for the bottom right corner, behind the goal. The resulting corner kick was eventually worked to substitute Rickie Lambert, who picked his spot and finished with aplomb, striking powerfully into the bottom left corner from the edge of the box.

Lambert celebrates scoring the all important second goal
It was encouraging to see Lambert do what he was signed for. The 32-year old has struggled so far throughout his Anfield career, perhaps primarily because too much responsibility has been thrust upon him. He has had to start games that he shouldn’t have as a result of a scarcity of other options available to Rodgers, and that has put him under unhelpful pressure.

He was signed to be an impact sub, coming off the bench and providing an alternative approach in the closing stages, and that’s exactly what he did yesterday at Villa Park. If he can continue in that mould, Liverpool will see a return on their £4 million investment in the former Southampton striker.

It was also great to watch the way in which the players celebrated with the travelling supporters after scoring the second. That showed just how much it meant to them and points to a unity and solidarity between the players and the fans that will continue to serve Liverpool well during the second half of the season, which promises to be much better than what many fans feared during the first half of the campaign.

This is a great photo
With the defence improving, a formation that seems to work and Sturridge soon to return, things are looking much rosier for the Reds. They remain five points off fourth and face a tough task trying to achieve Champions League qualification, particularly when their fixture schedule becomes messed up by Europa League commitments, but a series of good results has fostered a refreshing sense of optimism around the club currently.

There does seem to be a golden sky at the end of the storm after all.


Saturday, 10 January 2015

Magic Markovic strikes in Sunderland win

Lazar Markovic’s scrappy early strike proved to be the only goal in the lunchtime kick off at the Stadium of Light, as Liverpool beat Sunderland 1-0 to extend their unbeaten run to seven matches. The £20 million Serbian summer signing was in top form during an impressive first half, although his performance tailed off in the second half after being moved out of his preferred position on the wing due to a tactical re-shuffle necessitated by an injury to captain Steven Gerrard.

Similarly, the Reds were poor after the break, failing to capitalise on their first half dominance and an early red card to Sunderland’s Liam Bridcutt. As a result, they were holding on to their slender lead in the closing stages, rather than cruising home after bagging a couple more goals that would have given their goal difference a much needed boost.

Sterling sunning it up as his teammates slog it out in Sunderland
The major team news saw former Sunderland striker Fabio Borini start a match for the first time since Liverpool’s trip to the Bernabeu in November, as it was revealed that Raheem Sterling is on holiday in Jamaica after being granted permission to have a mid-winter break by boss Brendan Rodgers.

Although I can certainly see logic in resting Sterling, I have no idea why he has to be sunning it up on a beach in Jamaica and cannot instead be sitting on the bench in Sunderland ready to come on should his employers, who remunerate him handsomely, require his services. His pace in the closing stages against Sunderland’s tiring ten men would have come in handy.

In the absence of one of their best performers this season, Liverpool started well and proceeded to control the first 45 minutes, creating so many chances that they should have been out of sight by the time referee Craig Pawson blew his half time whistle.

Unfortunately, the Merseysiders were on the receiving end of some shoddy officiating after only three minutes, as Pawson, for reasons known only to him, decided not to point to the spot after former Manchester United centre back Wes Brown clearly fouled Markovic at the end of his marauding run into the box.

Thankfully, the ref made a much better call in a similar situation five minutes later. He played the advantage after Borini was fouled on the edge of the box, and Markovic showed his desire and commitment to persevere in the box and fashion a goalscoring opportunity for himself. The move ended with the number 50 unorthodoxly poking home his first League goal for Liverpool.

Markovic appears to be a good signing after all
Markovic nearly scored a more spectacular goal on the half hour mark, showing superb technique to send a shot against the bar from the edge of the box after amazingly jumping into the air. Skipper Steven Gerrard also performed well in a more advanced position, seeing Pantilimon tip his low shot wide and then his dipping free kick over the bar.

Fluid and quick on the ball, Liverpool were by far the better team and, had they had a decent striker fit and available, the Reds would have gone in at half time with an almost unassailable advantage. Coutinho was the creative linchpin once again, clipping a delightful pass to Henderson, who cleverly controlled and then smashed against the post. It wouldn’t have counted anyway as the linesman harshly judged that the former Sunderland midfielder had handled as he controlled Coutinho’s pass.

There was still time for Gerrard and Borini to send strikes into the side-netting before the break, as the Merseysiders wished that half time would never come.

As good as Liverpool were, Sunderland were equally bad, much to the evident frustration of their manager Gus Poyet. Strangely, though, their performance began to pick up after their number 4 Liam Bridcutt was shown a second yellow card following a tame foul on Emre Can only three minutes after the restart.

In the next five minutes, they had 71% of possession, culminating in their best sight of goal. Adam Johnson fired a superb swerving strike against the bar from 25 yards out, completely bamboozling the hapless Simon Mignolet, who fell over like a stumbling drunk. It was only funny after Skrtel, who performed well throughout, responded quickly and crucially reached the rebound just before an opponent.

Johnson's shot was superb and made Mignolet look stupid
That effort aside, Sunderland were short on ideas as to how to get back into the game. In fact, their best hope lay in Liverpool going down to ten men too, as Henderson, Lovren, Borini and Coutinho were all on a booking.

The otherwise excellent Coutinho came closest to stupidly getting himself sent off as, after being booked in the first half for failing to retreat at a free kick, he got away with a very similar offence on the hour mark. Yes, he was retreating, but he foolishly slowly walked in the way of another free kick and gave Pawson an excuse to show him a second yellow; thankfully, he kept his cards in his pocket.

Balotelli came on for Borini for the final 20 minutes and, after immediately hammering a ludicrously optimistic free kick into the wall, did little else apart from hilariously slip up as he bore down on goal on the break with seven minutes remaining.

Liverpool just couldn’t seem to get that crucial second goal that would have killed off Sunderland during a frustrating and nervy second half and, as the game entered the closing stages, the hosts threatened further. The Black Cats' attack wasn’t brilliant, but all they needed to do to trouble Liverpool’s backline was boot it into the box and compete for the knockdown.

The Wearsiders' best opportunity was headed over by substitute Mikael Mandron during the first minute of injury time. The sight of 6’8’’ goalkeeper Costel Pantilimon coming up for a last minute corner was worrying, but Liverpool just about managed to get it clear and, after some pointless handbags with five seconds left on the clock, referee Pawson’s final whistle confirmed that the Reds had secured a win that reduces the gap with fourth placed Southampton to just four points.

It could and should have been so much easier for Liverpool, who made it pointlessly hard for themselves, and, against better opposition, they would have been punished for their lack of a lethal streak in front of goal and the way in which their display deteriorated during the second period.

At the end of the day, a win’s a win, but Liverpool still have a lot of improving to do.


Tuesday, 6 January 2015

Gerrard to the rescue again as Reds progress

How will Liverpool cope without Steven Gerrard?

The talismanic club captain rescued the Reds yet again last night, as Liverpool emerged from a tricky FA Cup third round tie at AFC Wimbledon thanks to two goals from the skipper. He was the difference between the two teams, who were otherwise quite evenly matched as the Reds were severely tested by their League Two hosts.

Dominant during the opening stages, a strong Liverpool side enjoyed a remarkable 77% of possession in the first 20 minutes and fully deserved the one-goal lead that their number eight secured after 12 minutes. Gerrard ghosted into the box, shielded by the run of the otherwise disappointingly quiet Rickie Lambert, and got on the end of Javier Manquillo’s cross, deftly guiding it into the net with a clever header.

Gerrard celebrates with Manquillo and Lambert after opening the scoring
In complete control, the Merseysiders were reaping particular rewards down the respective wings, with the ever-improving Lazar Markovic embarking on several direct runs at AFC Wimbledon’s defence. At the end of one of them the 20-year old Serbian went close to doubling Liverpool’s lead, but his strike, which was halfway between a cross and a shot, blazed across goal from a tight angle.

That proved to be the Reds’ final chance of securing a second before the home side upped their game and fought their way back into the contest. Encouraged by their manager Neil Ardley to push further forward and put their visitors’ shaky defence under pressure, AFC Wimbledon enjoyed a concerted spell of pressure, Rigg forcing Mingolet into a great save and Tubbs hooking just wide after Liverpool failed to deal with a long ball forward.

They eventually got the equaliser that their resurgence deserved on 36 minutes, as the away side’s defence capitulated at a corner kick with depressing predictability. Mignolet embarrassingly flapped at a left wing corner, and the ball bounced around in the box before finally falling for Adebayo Akinfenwa.

Liverpool's defence needs to take a Defending 101 class
The 32-year old striker, nicknamed ‘The Beast’ due to his striking physique and status at the strongest player on FIFA 15, tapped home from close range to level for the hosts and pile more pressure on Simon Mignolet, who surely must be on offer at a discounted price in the January transfer window.

The first half ended with Henderson shooting out of the ground, while the second half started with another scare from a corner kick for Liverpool. Gerrard’s presence on the line was the only thing that prevented AFC Wimbledon’s Gillingham loanee Adam Barrett giving the League Two side the lead with a powerful header from a set piece.

Thankfully, though, after Rigg’s angled shot flew over the bar, Liverpool regained control, Henderson frustratingly seeing Manquillo block his goal-bound shot, Coutinho firing a decent opportunity wide and referee Jon Moss turning down the Reds’ penalty appeals after Barry Fuller, admittedly inadvertently, handled in the penalty area.

Fuller may have got away with his handball, but he wasn’t so fortunate a few minutes later when he hacked Coutinho down on the edge of the box with an agricultural tackle. The number 2 was rightly booked, but, more worryingly for AFC Wimbledon, Steven Gerrard was presented the opportunity to fire at goal from an inviting position similar to the one from which he levelled against Basel in December. The skipper stood up and superbly curled into the top corner to regain the lead for Liverpool.

Gerrard curled home a beautiful second goal
Dannie Bulman almost instantly equalised for the home side, firing inches over from 20 yards, but Liverpool were the team creating most of the goalscoring chances as the match entered its closing stages.

Gerrard was at the heart of everything good for the Reds, causing all sorts of problems for AFC Wimbledon as he routinely picked up the ball in acres of space and drove at their tiring defence. He was the one who set up Lambert to side-foot a tame shot goalwards that was kept out by Shea on 69 minutes, and Shea was scrambling across his goal a few moments later as Gerrard sent an ambitious effort just wide of the post from a free kick 35 yards out.

The skipper provided another assist for Coutinho, who wasted a good opportunity from seven yards out, while Markovic also should have done better when one-on-one with the keeper on 86 minutes. The number 50 was replaced by Toure for the final few minutes, as Liverpool decided to shut up shop and hold on to what they had. AFC Wimbledon searched for a second equaliser, substitute Azeez going close in injury time, but the Merseysiders just about stood firm.

In fact, with almost the last kick of the match Gerrard was denied the hat-trick his performance deserved as Callum Kennedy cleared off the line to prevent him concluding a counter attack with a third Liverpool goal. Gerrard taking the match ball home would have been fitting after he was the Cup hero yet again. His match winning performance was the highlight of the tie, but it evoked conflicting emotions among Kopites.

On the one hand, it was brilliant to see Stevie hitting top form as he enters his final few months at the club. On the other, his display served to show what Liverpool will be missing when he moves on, and it would be slightly disconcerting if he was our best player come the end of the season. The Reds need to be producing players ready to take the load once Gerrard has gone, not overly relying on their departing hero.

Nonetheless, the most important thing is that Liverpool are through and will face Bolton Wanderers at home in the fourth round, meaning a return to Anfield for the legendary Emile Heskey. Hopefully the Reds will easily negotiate that tie, keeping them on the road to Wembley for the FA Cup final on 30th May, which just so happens to be Steven Gerrard’s 35th birthday. It’s the stuff that dreams are made of.


Friday, 2 January 2015

Goodbye Gerrard: Liverpool's greatest ever player to leave

The day that every Kopite dreaded has finally come upon us. Steven Gerrard has announced that he will leave Liverpool when his contract expires at the end of the 2014/2015 season. The club will never be the same without him.

For many Reds, including me, Liverpool FC without Steven Gerrard is literally unthinkable. I started supporting the club in 1999 at the age of 5, only months after Gerrard made his Liverpool debut against Blackburn Rovers.

Ever since, Stevie has been central and essential to all things Liverpool, providing the club’s invaluable scouse heartbeat alongside fellow local lad Jamie Carragher during an astounding 17-year career. The pair will leave a gaping hole in the soul of Liverpool FC when the curtain finally comes down on Gerrard’s Liverpool career at the end of the season.

Gerrard celebrates one of his 180 Liverpool goals
Gerrard’s contribution to the club cannot be understated. Virtually single-handedly, he has prevented Liverpool spiralling into mediocrity. Often playing alongside teammates not fit to tie his boot laces, Gerrard rescued countless hopeless situations to secure improbable victory from the jaws of seemingly certain death.

Seen as the only one to turn to in times of desperation, Gerrard kept providing moments of magic when most needed even up until last month, when it was his perfect free kick with ten minutes remaining that sparked life into Liverpool’s performance against Basel and gave them hope of another historic Champions League comeback.

Unfortunately, on that occasion it wasn’t to be. Nonetheless, Steven Gerrard will always be remembered for what he did during another Champions League campaign, a decade ago in 2005.

The words of Evertonian Andy Gray- “Ohhhhh, you beauty! What a hit, son, what a hit!”-are forever etched into the memories of Kopites recollecting that unforgettable European night at Anfield against Olympiakos, when Gerrard secured the Reds’ progress to the knockout stages with arguably his best goal for the club.

Then, in the final itself, it was his header that began the turnaround, he was the man bursting into the box before being fouled for the penalty that led to the equaliser, and he was the only one with the legs to slog it out at right back against AC Milan’s sprightly substitute Serginho during half an hour of gruelling extra time. His man of the match performance was vital to Liverpool’s historic victory, and seeing him lift the Champions League will forever be the best moment of my Liverpool-supporting life.

The pinnacle of his career
Due to his agonising failure to win the Premier League, Istanbul will also undoubtedly be the pinnacle of his career. It was heart-breaking to see Stevie miss out on a Premier League winners’ medal last season. It was realistically his last chance to go out on top, and he was cruelly ultimately denied by an untimely slip against Jose Mourinho’s Chelsea, a slip that will forever haunt him.

Gerrard’s accomplishments far outweigh any disappointments he may have about his career, though. As well as being instrumental in the miracle of Istanbul, the 2006 FA Cup Final was dubbed ‘The Gerrard Final’ after he scored two goals, one a worldie in the first minute of injury time, to inspire the Reds to a seemingly unlikely shootout victory against West Ham after it ended 3-3 after extra time. Moreover, he was an integral part of the team that won the treble in 2001, the year in which he established himself as a Liverpool regular, and he also made 114 appearances for England, captaining the national side 38 times.

The word ‘Legend’ simply does not do justice to the man who will go down in history as the best player to ever play for Liverpool, not only because of his footballing achievements, but also for laudable loyalty to his boyhood team. At the peak of his powers, Gerrard could have walked into any team in the world, but he decided to resist the allures of so-called ‘bigger’ clubs, believing that one medal won playing for the team he loves was worth more than countless medals racked up elsewhere.

Even now, his loyalty to Liverpool prevents him from moving to one of their rivals, instead opting to end his career overseas, most likely in America with LA Galaxy.  His spell away from Merseyside is sure to be short, however, as Gerrard has been informed that the door is always open for him to return to the club in a coaching capacity. Former Liverpool boss Gerard Houiller, who led the Reds to the treble in 2001, has even said that he sees Stevie sitting in the Anfield hot seat at some point in the future, a prospect that will whet the appetite of any Kopite.

In the meantime, Liverpool will find it impossible to replace Gerrard, and it would be foolhardy to even attempt to do so, as Manchester United’s hilarious attempt to replace Sir Alex Ferguson with David Moyes demonstrated last season. There will only ever be one Steven Gerrard, and it will be fruitless thrusting someone into the limelight as his direct replacement.

It will be a sad day when we finally see the back of Stevie
Instead, what Rodgers must do is get as much out of Gerrard as possible during the remainder of the season to ensure that he goes out on a high, hopefully helping the club to finish fourth and lifting some silverware.

Then, we might just be ready to contemplate coping without the man who has come to define the club for almost two decades.

Good luck Stevie. It’s been a privilege. You’ll Never Walk Alone.

Liverpool's Heroes and Villains of 2014

As well as being a time of anticipation for what the future might hold, New Years is a time for reflecting on the year that has just past. In that spirit, I look back on Liverpool’s 2014 and profile three heroes and villains from what has been a rollercoaster year for Kopites.


1. Brendan Rodgers

Any manager that takes Liverpool within touching distance of their first Premier League title deserves to be acknowledged as a hero. The 41-year old Northern Irish man was instrumental in the Reds’ remarkable 2013/2014 campaign, which concluded with the Merseysiders still having a mathematical chance of clinching the title on the final day of the season, even if everyone knew it was a long shot in reality.

Rodgers has done remarkably well at Liverpool
His tactical versatility and attacking emphasis meant that Liverpool produced exquisite football for Kopites to enjoy every week, while also securing results, as the Reds experienced an unforgettable first half of 2014, winning 15 out of 19 League games and losing only once.

Undoubtedly, Rodgers has areas requiring development. Most notably, he needs to work out how to improve his leaky defence. However, the astounding success that the club enjoyed under his guidance and inspired by his footballing philosophy entitles him to time to turn things around, and earns him a place among Liverpool’s heroes of 2014.

2. Luis Suarez

He could so easily be placed in the villain category as a result of his acrimonious departure from Anfield following bite gate 3.0. However, Suarez’s scoring record makes it impossible not to ultimately view him as one of the Reds’ heroes from 2014.

12 of his 31 League goals in the 2013/2014 season came in 2014, and there is no doubt that Liverpool would not have been challenging for the title in May had Suarez not been scoring like it was going out of

It's still strange seeing Suarez in a Barcelona shirt
The Reds’ declining fortunes following his sale to Catalonian giants Barcelona for £70 million in the summer perfectly shows how much Suarez contributed to the club, and for that he will always be remembered fondly on Merseyside, even if the rest of the country continues to hate the ‘marmite’ figure.

3. Daniel Sturridge

Suarez’s sidekick, Sturridge matured into the exceptional striker he has always promised to be this year. Netting 14 times in 2014, the England forward revelled when given the opportunity to play centrally and formed a duo with Suarez so dynamic that it came to be affectionately known as the ‘SAS’.

Sturridge likes his strange celebrations
Alongside Suarez’s departure, Sturridge’s injury problems are a major determinant of Liverpool’s woes during the current campaign, and many are pinning their hopes on him being the hero who comes to the rescue to fire in the goals that propel the Reds up the table in 2015.


1. Liverpool’s defence

Put simply, Liverpool’s defence cost them the title in 2014. Shipping a grand total of 50 League goals in the 2013/2014 season, which was 13 more than main title rivals Manchester City conceded, the Reds’ back line relied on being bailed out by the brilliance of their teammates at the other end of the pitch.

Stoke City 3-5 Liverpool, Liverpool 4-3 Swansea, Cardiff City 3-6 Liverpool and Norwich City 2-3 Liverpool spring to mind as particularly embarrassing games for Liverpool’s defence. However, no shoddy defensive display was as costly as the one at Selhurst Park on the penultimate matchday of the 2013/2014 season, when the visitors somehow conceded three goals in nine minutes during the closing stages to throw away a three goal lead and all but end their title chances.

Liverpool's distraught defence against Palace
Things haven’t got any better in 2014 either. In fact, considering the substantial sums that were invested in defenders like Lovren, Moreno and Manquillo over the summer, in real terms Liverpool’s defence has deteriorated even further. Only a remarkable and much needed turnaround will prevent Liverpool’s defence retaining its place in the list of villains at the end of 2015.

2. Simon Mignolet

One excuse that Liverpool’s defence might offer is that it is difficult to defend well when they have such an unconvincing goalkeeper behind them. They’d have a point too, since Simon Mignolet has been simply dreadful this year. Indecisive and hesitant at set pieces, the Belgian stopper looks like a mistake waiting to happen with the ball at his feet and has failed to redeem himself with his shot-stopping ability.

Surprisingly dropped against Manchester United, he sat out matches against Bournemouth and Arsenal before receiving an unexpected recall at Burnley on Boxing Day after his replacement Brad Jones picked up a thigh injury. His time out of the limelight on the sidelines did not seem to have the desired effect, though, as he produced another worryingly poor performance.

Mignolet is not good enough to be Liverpool's first choice keeper
There seems little way back for Mignolet now, and it won’t come as a surprise if he leaves Liverpool in the January transfer window.

3. Mario Balotelli

What can I say about Balotelli that hasn’t already been said?

The Italian has always been a liability and Rodgers himself admitted that he took a huge gamble when, in an act of desperation, he signed Super Mario from AC Milan for £16 million in the summer.

It's more like Stupid Mario...
That speculative punt has spectacularly backfired, as the number 45 has managed a measly two goals in 15 games. Moreover, he has got in trouble off the pitch once again as well after the FA handed him a one match ban for posting a racist and anti-Semitic photo on Instagram. Perhaps most frustratingly, his attitude on the pitch has been atrocious, with his body language rarely suggesting anything other than complete and utter disinterest.

Rodgers has recently warned Balotelli to expect a spell on the bench, and it might be a long time before he can win back the many supporters who justifiably see him as one of Liverpool’s villains of 2014.


Gerrard penalty brace not enough as Foxes fight back

Liverpool let two precious points slip at home to Leicester City on New Year’s Day.

In truth, however, they were lucky to even get a point, as the Foxes were the better team for large spells and were unfortunate to concede two first half penalties due to dubious and debateable handball decisions. To their credit, the bottom of the table side showed great spirit to bounce back and score twice in two minutes in the second half to secure a point and halt Liverpool’s recent run of encouraging results.

Returning to the starting line-up, Steven Gerrard, who would later announce his decision to leave the club when his contract expires at the end of the season, showed his class, converting the two penalties with ease. Kolo Toure also came in for the suspended Martin Skrtel in the only other change to the team that produced the Reds’ best performance of the season against Swansea on Monday night.

Frustratingly, though, Liverpool failed to replicate that display against Nigel Pearson’s side. Probably suffering from fatigue following a busy festive season, the Reds lacked intensity in their play, and the pressing that re-emerged against Swansea after characterising the 2013/2014 season was absent against the Foxes.

To be fair to Leicester, they were highly impressive, and proved that there are no easy games at this level. From the first to the final whistle they threatened, Mahrez unexpectedly curling a free kick against the post and then firing just over the bar from Schlupp’s left wing cross during the opening exchanges.

To get into the game, Liverpool required a helping hand from referee Mike Jones, who awarded the hosts two highly controversial spot kicks. The first came after a quarter of an hour and quite clearly shouldn’t have been given.

Sterling's cut back clearly hit Morgan in the face
Raheem Sterling got to the by-line and, as he attempted to pull back a cross, Leicester captain Wes Morgan slid in and was hit flush in the face by the ball. However, Jones judged that it had hit his hand, and thus pointed to the spot. Morgan, who must hate facing Liverpool after he was also sent off in the reverse fixture at the King Power a month ago, complained vociferously, but, as always, it made no difference whatsoever, as Gerrard stepped up to score from 12 yards.

Undeterred, Leicester continued to press aggressively, Schlupp sending a fierce shot over the bar. However, they were harshly treated once again five minutes before the break. Philippe Coutinho weaved magnificently through Leicester’s defence and was eventually halted as the ball sprung up off the turf and hit Mahrez’s hand.

The handball was unquestionable, but the Foxes’ number 26 was so close to Coutinho that there was very little he could do to prevent the ball hitting his hand. Moreover, Mahrez was moving his hand out of the way of the ball, so the visitors received unduly tough treatment from the officials.

This time, Steven Gerrard went in the opposite direction, striking into the bottom left hand corner with aplomb to give Liverpool a 2-0 half time lead that they scarcely deserved.

Gerrard converts his second spot kick
Unfortunately, Liverpool failed to raise their game after the restart, and they could only rely on favourable officiating for so long. Eventually, a sense of fairness was restored as the away side superbly fought their way back into the match with two goals in two second half minutes to restore parity.

A combination of brilliant attacking football from Leicester and abysmal defending from the Reds facilitated the Foxes’ comeback. Their first goal owed more to the former, as Nugent stunningly sent a volleyed effort into the net from just outside the area, although there was confusion between Sakho and Toure in the build-up.

Moments later, Jeff Schlupp levelled for Leicester on the hour mark, striking low into the bottom corner from the edge of the box. It was a good effort on goal, but Liverpool’s defence gave him too much time in a dangerous position and Mignolet should have done better in goal.

Nugent pulled one back for Leicester...
...before Schlupp levelled
Liverpool tried to create chances in search of a winner in response, but they were stifled by Leicester’s disciplined and resolute defence, Lucas shooting straight at Hamer before he was replaced by Markovic as Rodgers sought to change things a little. Leicester still posed a threat going forward, and looked just as likely to nick a winner as Liverpool, an excellent last ditch challenge from Sakho required to stop Nugent on 73 minutes.

At the other end, Borini fired high over the bar from close range to conclude a good move before then inadvertently blocking Coutinho’s goal-bound effort, while Markovic disappointingly headed just wide of the goal when well placed. Ultimately, however, Liverpool were unable to find the winner that they did not merit and that would have been extremely harsh on a brilliant Leicester side.

The only consolation that the Reds can take from the New Year’s Day fixtures is that other top four challengers slipped up as well. Arsenal lost, while Manchester United and West Ham drew, which means that Liverpool remain within touching distance of Champions League qualification, although they obviously still have a lot of work to do to close the seven point gap between themselves and fourth placed Southampton.