Friday, 27 February 2015

Reds crash out of Europe on unhappy return to Istanbul

Liverpool lost 5-4 on penalties against Besiktas to crash out of the Europa League in Istanbul last night. Despite playing in the Ataturk Stadium, the venue where the Reds miraculously recovered from a three-goal deficit to beat AC Milan and win the Champions League in 2005, Liverpool couldn’t reproduce any of that magic and deserved to exit the competition at the hands of Slaven Bilic’s sde, who edged the contest over the two legs.

The visitors had the better of the first half, but the hosts dominated after the break and levelled on aggregate thanks to substitute Tolgay Arslan’s strike. Only one team was going to win it during normal and extra time, and it wasn’t Liverpool, who did well to hold on for a penalty shootout. However, their fate was ultimately sealed when Dejan Lovren, with a depressing sense of inevitability, skied their fifth penalty way over the bar.

Admittedly, Liverpool entered the tricky test in Turkey with depleted resources. Sakho and Henderson were added to an injury list that already included Gerrard and Lucas, while Markovic was suspended and Coutinho rightly rested. As a result, Can and Allen started together in midfield, Toure and Lovren came in at the back and Balotelli partnered Sturridge up front as Rodgers went for two up top.

In hindsight, that wasn’t a wise move by the Northern Irish manager. Liverpool clearly lost the midfield battle, particularly in the second half, while Sturridge, who should have started on the bench with Lallana coming in to shore up the midfield, was ineffectual.

Balotelli may not have been much better, but he put in the best performance of Liverpool’s attackers, holding up the ball well, producing good link up work on occasion and, perhaps most importantly, keeping his cool amidst extreme provocation from Besiktas’ defence, who kicked him all evening.

Balotelli was one of Liverpool's best performers against Besiktas
During the opening stages Liverpool did their best to quieten the unbelievably loud home supporters. The Besiktas fans still didn’t shut up, but the Reds were the better of two poor teams, keeping possession quite well and produced the first meaningful goalmouth action on 20 minutes. Moreno got down the left wing, dodging Opare’s challenge, and then pulled the ball back for Sterling, whose decent effort from the edge of the box was pushed away by Gonen.

15 minutes later, Sturridge squandered what turned out to be Liverpool’s best chance to score throughout the entire 120 minutes. Balotelli capitalised on a slip from a Besiktas defender and found his strike partner in a good position in the box. Decisively, however, Sturridge failed to shoot first time, instead turning back on himself and allowing defenders to get back. His eventual effort was disappointingly weak and comfortably dealt with.

Sturridge should have done better with this shot
Moreno’s low effort was also saved and Balotelli blazed over, while Sosa stung Mignolet’s hands for the home side, but nobody was disappointed to see a dire first half come to a close. Unfortunately, though, Besiktas came out for the second half a different team, while Liverpool’s performance only went downhill.

Hutchinson, Kurtulus and Tore all saw shots from range either fly just over the bar or be collected by Mignolet, as the Turkish outfit saw plenty of the ball but lacked a cutting edge during the first 20 minutes after the restart. Liverpool, meanwhile, barely saw the ball at all and struggled to get out of their own half as they were overpowered and overwhelmed in midfield.

Substitute Arslan supplied the cutting edge that his side had been lacking on 72 minutes, only three minutes after firing a warning shot inches wide of Mignolet’s left hand post from 35 yards out. Demba Ba flicked the ball to the 24-year old with a name suspiciously similar to the lion in C.S Lewis’ ‘The Chronicles of Narnia’ series, and he let rip with a curling left footed drive that roared into the top corner and left Mignolet with no chance.

Arslan- or Aslan!- levels the tie on aggregate
In response, Rodgers introduced Manquillo for Ibe and Lallana for Balotelli, but they were brought on 10 minutes too late. As a result, although the ship was steadied a little, there was no danger of Liverpool usurping Besiktas’ position of authority in the tie.

In the dying stages of normal time, the Reds’ nemesis Demba Ba should have won it for the hosts, but somehow he contrived to strike against the bar when he simply had to score after the ball fell favourably for him yards out from a late corner.

Ba also had a few opportunities to score during extra time, but apart from that the dreaded additional half hour passed without much to write home about and Liverpool entered only their fourth penalty shootout in European competition aiming to maintain their 100% winning record.

Unfortunately, Besiktas were flawless from the spot and, although Lambert, Lallana, Can and Allen all found the net from 12 yards, Lovren was ludicrously chosen to take the all-important fifth spot kick. Unsurprisingly, the unconfident summer signing, who has endured a torrid time on Merseyside since arriving from Southampton, blazed over.

You've got to feel sorry for Lovren. He shouldn't have been taking the penalty
Why Mario Balotelli wasn’t left on when penalties were clearly a possibility late on and Sturridge was struggling to make an impact is beyond me. He’s one of the best penalty takers in the world and yet he’s sat watching on as Dejan Lovren, of all people, walks up to take the decisive spot kick! Brendan Rodgers clearly has some questions to answer.

Yes, exiting the Europa League frees up Liverpool’s fixture schedule and allows them to concentrate on the League and FA Cup, but it also frustratingly cuts off another route to both silverware and Champions League qualification.

Rodgers now has to try and rally his tired and dejected troops to prepare them for a big match against Man City at midday on Sunday. I don’t envy him.


Monday, 23 February 2015

Reds sink Saints to close in on fourth

Liverpool produced a professional and accomplished away performance to claim a 2-0 victory at Southampton’s St Mary’s Stadium and capitalise on slip ups by top four rivals Manchester United and Tottenham Hotspur on Sunday teatime.

A world class wonder goal early on from Philippe Coutinho and a clinical second half strike from Raheem Sterling were sufficient to move the Reds up to sixth in the table, reducing the gap with the top four to just two points and extending Liverpool’s remarkable unbeaten run to eleven League matches.

It was far from a classic performance from a Brendan Rodgers team, with the manner of victory more reminiscent of Rafael Benitez’s reign in the Reds’ dugout, but it was exactly what Liverpool needed to take three vital points from a tough fixture on the back of a tricky Europa League match at Anfield on Thursday evening.

Rodgers made three changes to the team that narrowly beat Besiktas, Lovren coming in for the injured Sakho to face his former employers, Markovic replacing Moreno on the left wing and Sterling starting in place of the rested Sturridge up front.

Beginning at break neck pace, the match provided entertainment and controversy right from the first whistle, with two Southampton penalty shouts sandwiching a goal-of-the-season contender from Coutinho.

Straight from the kick-off, debutant Djuricic went through on goal and appeared to be hauled down from behind by Emre Can, who seemed uncomfortable in the unfamiliar position of left sided centre back. Thankfully, referee Kevin Friend waved played on, and he was right to do so, as there was no malicious intent in the challenge from Can and Djuricic went down easily.

At the other end, Markovic fed Coutinho with a simple short pass and the Brazilian proceeded to smash a cracking 30 yard strike past Forster and into the net off the underside of the bar.

Coutinho scored a world class goal-of-the-season contender
It was a simply awesome strike from a player in top form, who is allaying concerns about his lack of end product with important goals like this one and the similarly stunning one he produced late on against Bolton Wanderers in the FA Cup fourth round replay.

Southampton responded well, proceeding to dominate possession and control the match like Liverpool normally do. Moreover, the Merseysiders’ defence appeared fragile, nervy and vulnerable in the absence of the ever-improving Mamadou Sakho. However, Liverpool did appear to have Lady Luck on their side, as three further incidents saw them benefit from debateable refereeing decisions.

Soon after the opener, Djuricic was taken down in the box again, this time by a blatant foul from Allen, but Friend inexplicably awarded nothing once again and Mignolet made an important stop to deny Elia after the loose ball reached the Dutchman’s feet.

There was another huge moment involving Mignolet and Elia on the stroke of half time. The former appeared to handle as he rushed out to the edge of the box to dispossess the latter, who was bearing down on goal. It was an extremely tight call, but it’s fair to say that the Belgian keeper was fortunate to remain on the pitch.

Mignolet could have seen red for this incident
From the resulting corner, the increasingly exasperated home support appealed for another penalty after the ball struck arch-villain Dejan Lovren on the arm. The referee did well to not award a penalty for what was clearly ball to hand when it would have been understandable, if not acceptable, had he pointed to the spot to atone for earlier errors.

In a first half revolving around penalty shouts, Liverpool also appealed for a spot kick on the half hour mark after Saints’ skipper Fonte had felled Sterling in the area. It looked a stonewaller at first sight, but replays later showed that Fonte got the ball first and hence it was probably the right decision not to give a penalty.

The second half was far less frantic from Liverpool’s point of view, as the visitors managed the game much better and afforded their hosts very few opportunities to equalise. There were also thankfully no penalty shouts; the first period had already provided more than enough for one match.

Alberto Moreno was introduced for the ineffective Lazar Markovic, who has gone off the boil in recent weeks, at half time, and provided more of an outlet down the left hand side, linking up with fellow substitute Daniel Sturridge on 66 minutes during a good counter attack, which culminated in Henderson’s mishitting the Spaniard’s cutback, giving Forster an easy save.

The English stopper had no chance seven minutes later, however, as he was let down by his defence, who suffered a catalogue of errors in the build up to Liverpool’s decisive second goal. The hosts lazily handed possession to Sterling, who found Moreno on the left. Targett then cleared Moreno’s cross straight to Sterling, who happily accepted Southampton’s offer of help, striking past Forster to put the game to bed.

Sterling capitalised on poor Southampton defending to end the match as a contest
Southampton still had a few chances in the closing stages, but the deflated atmosphere amongst the home supporters showed that most of them believed the game was over.  Mignolet saved Tadic’s low free kick well and there was an almighty goalmouth scramble in injury time, but the Reds never looked seriously in danger of folding and saw out the 90 minutes to secure three points from a massive ‘six-pointer’.

Liverpool may have started the season very slowly, but they are the form team now heading into the business end of the season, and therefore there’s every reason to believe that they can finish in the top four. If Rodgers can manage his squad so that they can juggle their Europa League and Premier League commitments, the Reds won’t be remaining in European football’s inferior competition for very long.


Friday, 20 February 2015

Ballsy Balotelli bags winner against Besiktas

Mario Balotelli converted a late penalty in controversial circumstances to give Liverpool a vital 1-0 win against Besiktas in the first leg of their Europa League round of 32 tie.

The enigmatic Italian, who has been experiencing an encouraging upturn in form after a couple of match-changing cameo performances from the bench, produced the goods when it mattered most again, coolly striking into the bottom left corner from the spot with five minutes left after perhaps disrespectfully taking the ball out of captain for the night Jordan Henderson’s hands.

It was no more than Liverpool deserved after they dominated for most of the evening and created the best chances. However, credit must be given to the Turkish visitors as well, who, under the guidance of charismatic manager Slaven Bilic, put in a decent defensive display and more than held their own for large spells.

There was much pre-match debate about how seriously Liverpool would take the competition, but Brendan Rodgers showed how important the Europa League is to him by picking a strong starting eleven. The only change that he made to the team that beat Crystal Palace was bringing in Ibe for Markovic, who is ludicrously banned for four matches following his extremely soft red card in the Reds’ last Champions League match against Basel.

It may have been an enforced change, but it also proved an inspired one, as the young winger, who is set to sign a new five-year contract at the club, tortured Besiktas’ left back Motta with a superb man-of-the-match display. Whenever Ibe was on the ball you felt as if something was going to happen, and he invariably produced a piece of incisive attacking play. He already looks like the next Raheem Sterling, which is the biggest compliment he could be paid.

Ibe was tremendous again last night
Unfortunately, Daniel Sturridge, clearly still working his way back to full fitness, didn’t seem as dynamic as usual last night, although he did link up with Ibe to create the only goalscoring chance of note during the opening stages.

Ibe beat a man and then fed Sturridge, who seemed in a cul-de-sac near the by-line but produced a clever turn to make a yard of space for himself and then saw Gonen save his shot. The number 15 should have looked to pull it back to a teammate instead, but it was an incredible piece of skill to create the space for himself inside the box.

The rest of the first half was fairly quiet, tight and nervy, as neither side really stamped their authority on the game. It was only when Demba Ba nearly resurrected a ghost from Liverpool’s past on 36 minutes that the match sparked into life.

The formed Chelsea striker, who scored a goal that proved fatal for the Reds’ title chances last season after a slip from Steven Gerrard, played a neat one-two and was in on goal in a similar fashion once again. Thankfully this time, though, Mignolet made an excellent save low to his left to prevent Ba plaguing the Merseysiders once again.

Ba was denied by Mignolet this time around
From then on, it was end-to-end stuff before the break. Sturridge fired a free kick over from 25 yards, Moreno forced Gonen to tip over his rocket of a strike from fully 40 yards and Henderson had two good opportunities, flicking just wide from a corner kick and then sending a free kick, which looked for all the world to be heading in, agonisingly inches off target.

The second half started where the first had finished; with Liverpool creating- and wasting- chances. Ibe was also still performing superbly, producing a lovely piece of skill three minutes after the restart before passing to Henderson, who crossed to Moreno at the back post. Unfortunately, the Spaniard’s volleyed effort was poor and wayward.

Even more frustratingly, Adam Lallana missed an open goal two minutes later, blazing into the Kop following a calamitous mix up between Gonen and Franco when he really should have found the back of the net.

Lallana really should have done better from six yards out
At the other end, Ba nearly capitalised on one of a couple of sloppy passes from the under-par Can, but Skrtel bailed out his teammate with a good block, before the German international moved into midfield with 25 minutes remaining as Lovren replaced Allen.

More importantly, Balotelli was also introduced at the same time and made an immediate impact; first, he found Sturridge well with a good pass but the England striker’s first touch let him down. Then, he won a free kick out on the left, which he fired goalwards menacingly, testing Gonen in Besiktas’ goal.

With the clock ticking down and Kopites wondering whether the breakthrough was going to come, the excellent Ibe escaped the attention of Motta once again down the right and embarked on a run into the penalty area, where he was eventually abruptly upended. Referee Szymon Marciniak had no choice but to point to the penalty spot.

At that point, disharmony broke out amongst the Reds’ ranks, as Henderson, Sturridge and Balotelli all squabbled over who would take the penalty in the absence of skipper Steven Gerrard, who watched on as a pundit from the ITV studio.

It may not have been fair or in accord with Rodgers’ rules, but I’m glad Balotelli took the penalty in the end; I was more confident that he would score than Henderson or Sturridge, and he proved me right, sending the keeper the wrong way and coolly slotting home.

It was a ballsy move from Balotelli because his Liverpool career would have been all but over if he’d missed. Fair play to him for stepping up to the plate and taking responsibility; I just hope he carries on scoring and creating goals and making an impact from the bench. I'm happy to eat as much humble pie as he serves up.

"Why always me?"
At the end of the day, it may not have been as exciting or entertaining as Liverpool’s 8-0 win the last time they faced Besiktas, but it was an important and positive result nonetheless. Travelling to Turkey with a clean sheet and a one-goal lead means that basically all the Reds need to do next week is score an away goal and the tie will be pretty much over.

That hopefully won’t prove too difficult in the Ataturk Stadium, a place that holds many special memories for Kopites after all.


Sunday, 15 February 2015

Reds beat bogey team to reach last eight

A second half comeback, featuring goals from Daniel Sturridge and Adam Lallana, was enough for Liverpool to win at Selhurst Park for the first time in 18 years and dump their bogey team Crystal Palace out of the FA Cup at the fifth round stage yesterday teatime.

Frazier Campbell had given the hosts the lead against the run of play in the first half thanks to a defensive mishap, but in the second period the Merseysiders added lethalness in front of goal to their dominance of possession and therefore ran out deserved winners, suffering surprisingly few nervy moments in the closing stages as Crystal Palace failed to put up a fight and Liverpool progressed to the last eight.

Steven Gerrard and Raheem Sterling both missed out through injury, but Brendan Rodgers, who sees the FA Cup as a priority this season, still named a strong starting line-up, with Lallana replacing the cup-tied Ibe and Allen coming in for Gerrard the only two changes to the team that beat Tottenham 3-2 in a thrilling game at Anfield on Tuesday night.

This cup tie unfortunately did not provide the same sort of thrills and high octane action as the Spurs match, but Liverpool did dominate throughout, enjoying a remarkable 78% of possession during the opening ten minutes as Alan Pardew’s men decided to play like the away team, sitting deep and absorbing pressure.

However, their negative tactics couldn’t quieten the noisy home fans, who were given something to shout about after quarter of an hour. For all their possession, the best the visitors could produce was a miscued volley from Sturridge and a penalty appeal following suspicions of handball from Pape Souare in the box.

All their good play was undone, though, when defensive ineptitude, conspicuous by its absence in recent weeks, cost Liverpool dear. Skrtel, Mignolet and Can were all at fault as Frazier Campbell gave Palace the lead. The Slovakian centre back dithered with a high ball in behind and his header was weak, allowing Gayle to compete for it with Mignolet, who could have done better with his punch clear. The ball fell straight to
Campbell, who Can had left unmarked, and he swept home from six yards.

It was not nice to watch the return of defensive ineptitude
It was the sort of defensive shambles that made me worry that we were going to witness a return to the dark days of earlier in the campaign, which arguably reached their lowest point with a 3-1 defeat at Selhurst Park in mid-November.

Thankfully, that wasn’t the case, as Liverpool maintained their dominance and started creating chances as well, Lallana driving wide after some exquisite one touch football, Allen firing inches off target from 20 yards and Markovic striking over following an impressive run from left to right.

Palace’s Joel Ward also somehow managed to avoid handling in the box when Scott Dann blocked Coutinho’s blaster and the ball bounced back out. It looked like Ward had handled, but on closer inspection referee Robert Madley made the right call as the 25-year old remarkably kept the ball between his chest and the floor.

Madley made an error, however, when he somehow failed to award a spot kick following a blatant foul by Souare on Sturridge in the box. It was the sort of tackle that is classified as a foul outside of the box, but never inside the box for some strange reason.

The Eagles’ main threat was Dwight Gayle, who scored twice to end Liverpool’s title hopes last season. Palace’s number 16 was getting underneath the skin of his opponents, diving twice to get Henderson, and almost Sturridge as well, booked.

Additionally, in what was, with hindsight, one of the most important moments of the match, Gayle was denied by a brilliant save by Mignolet with his left ankle when clean through just before half time. Had he scored then, the game would have taken a very different course.

As it was, Liverpool went in at the interval only a goal behind and, after going two up front as Balotelli replaced Markovic at the break, the Reds instantly reaped the rewards, quickly levelling and then taking the lead.

First, Sturridge ran on to a cute chip over the top by Henderson and rifled home a wonderful left footed volley on 49 minutes.

The pre-match practice...

...clearly paid off!

Mignolet immediately then had to turn away Gayle’s low shot, before Lallana gave Liverpool the lead just under ten minutes after Sturridge had equalised.

The slowly improving Mario Balotelli was involved, crashing a 20-yard free kick through the wall after being fouled following clever link up play on the edge of the box. Speroni couldn’t hold the Italian’s strike and Lallana was first to react, steering home superbly from close range to put the Merseysiders in the driving seat.

Perhaps the most pleasing thing to see was Balotelli with a smile as wide as the Mersey as he celebrated with his teammates. It was a sign that Mario is beginning to enjoy his football a bit more, and a happy Mario is much more likely to make me and most other Liverpool supporters eat humble pie than a miserable Mario.

A happy Mario is a super Mario!
The match then died down a little, as Liverpool dominated, keeping the ball for so long at one point that the travelling Kop began chanting ‘ole’ after every completed pass. The Reds were content to control the game and keep hold of what they had; replacing Sturridge with Lambert and Coutinho with Lovren thirteen minutes from time in what were far from like-for-like changes!

All Palace could produce was a free kick in injury time, which Gayle blasted well over the bar from a promising position on the left wing. Apart from that, Mignolet was unthreatened, and Liverpool’s progress to the quarter-finals was never really in doubt.

With Arsenal and Manchester United the only big names left in the competition, Liverpool have every chance of reaching Wembley. In fact, I’m starting to believe that our name is on the trophy.


Wednesday, 11 February 2015

Super Mario strike secures crucial win

Liverpool emerged from a thrilling game against top four rivals Tottenham Hotspur with a crucial 3-2 win at Anfield last night.

Markovic opened the scoring early on, before the prolific Harry Kane levelled for Spurs on the half hour mark. Gerrard put the Reds ahead again from the spot after the break, but Dembele controversially equalised soon after for Mauricio Pochettino’s men. With time running out and a draw not good enough for the hosts, remarkably substitute Mario Balotelli popped up to net the winner from close range, which takes Liverpool within a point of Spurs and only three off fourth spot.

With Lucas Leiva out for a month and Raheem Sterling also injured, Steven Gerrard began alongside Henderson in midfield, while Daniel Sturridge, starting his first game since returning from injury, formed a front three alongside Markovic and Coutinho. Ibe also deservedly retained his starting position at right wing back after impressing in the Merseyside derby on Saturday.

The match started surprisingly open, with both teams creating chances right from the off. Although Harry Kane probably should have been awarded a penalty on nine minutes after going down under a risky challenge from Mignolet, Liverpool were in the ascendancy and warranted their early lead when it arrived after a quarter of an hour.

Sturridge had been denied twice by Lloris, Gerrard had sent a 25-yard free kick inches over the bar and Markovic had volleyed off target before the 20-year old Serbian linked up with Sturridge to open the scoring. The England international plucked the ball out of the air and found Markovic in plenty of space. He advanced on goal before finishing low into the right of the goal, beating Lloris, who should have done better, and netting the opener.

Unfortunately, the seemingly unstoppable Harry Kane was in confident mood, as evidenced by his ambitious Alonso-esque attempt from the halfway line, and soon levelled for Spurs with a little help from Mamadou Sakho. The French defender, whose form has dipped slightly after previously putting in many good performances, slipped at the crucial moment, affording Kane the room to finish through Mignolet’s legs after receiving the ball from Lamela.

Markovic opened the scoring...

...but Kane quickly equalised
Spurs’ main threat and talisman, Kane continued to cause the Reds’ defence all sorts of difficulties, seeing Mignolet make a good save when he was one-on-one with the Belgian, although he’d already been incorrectly flagged offside. He even also tracked back to tackle his opposite number Daniel Sturridge as he ran goalwards, showing exceptional work rate and desire and a tackling ability that some defenders would be envious of!

Not one to be overshadowed by Kane, Sturridge almost produced a piece of magic to give the Merseysiders the lead in first half injury time. Ibe reached the by-line and cut the ball back for Sturridge, who hit the post with an ingenious improvised back flick from six yards out. If he’d scored, it would have been a fitting way to mark his return to the starting line-up, but unfortunately it wasn’t to be.

Liverpool’s number 15 was involved, however, when their second goal arrived eight minutes after the restart. Twisting and turning in the area, Sturridge was felled by Rose and referee Phil Dowd rightly pointed to the spot. Steven Gerrard stood up and coolly scored his tenth goal of the season.

Gerrard made no mistake from the penalty spot
Frustratingly, what Dowd gave with the one hand, he took away with the other, and, after Mignolet made a magnificent save to tip Lamela’s piledriver over the bar, Liverpool suffered from some shoddy officiating.

First, Gerrard was harshly booked for bringing down Kane with what would have been considered a brilliant tackle only a few years ago. Kopites’ annoyance at that decision was only magnified when Dier produced a very similar tackle on Sturridge in the penalty area seven minutes later but no penalty was given.

Then, the linesman failed to notice that Kane was in an offside position, allowing the striker to square to Dembele after Mignolet had done well to palm away Eriksen’s effort on goal. The former Fulham midfielder turned the ball into the back of the net from close range under pressure from Emre Can.

Dembele's goal shouldn't have stood
The German utility player, who could do nothing to stop Dembele levelling, was moved into his preferred midfield position with 20 minutes remaining as Lovren replaced skipper Steven Gerrard, who was struggling with a hamstring injury.

The change was inspired, as Can put in a fantastic performance in the middle of the park, releasing the pressure with a marauding run on 73 minutes that culminated in him being fouled by Walker, who also sneakily kicked Can after he went down. Can, who seems to be a target of thugs who want to kick opponents while their lying helpless on the turf, did well to not react to the provocation or exaggerate the injury to get Walker sent off.

When Mario Balotelli entered the fray with 15 minutes left, replacing Sturridge, it was billed as his ‘make or break’ moment for the umpteenth time. I must admit, when he came on I proceeded to rant about the folly of giving him another chance and expecting him to finally come good. I was delighted when he well and truly made me eat my words on 83 minutes.

Fellow substitute Adam Lallana was put through by Ibe down the right and the former Southampton skipper squared to Balotelli, who completed the relatively simple task of turning home unchallenged from four yards out before ‘celebrating’ in his characteristically nonplussed manner.

Better than Aguero and Rooney? Maybe not
It was the Italian’s first Premier League goal since November 2012 but, spun in a more positive light, he has now scored more Premier League goals in 2015 than Aguero and Rooney combined!

Whether or not Balotelli has turned a corner still remains to be seen, but it is beyond question that Liverpool have recovered from their early season plight and now are back on track for a successful season. The Reds have lost just one game in 21 in all competitions now and are firmly in the fight for fourth spot. It is crucial that they beat another competitor for Champions League qualification next time out in the League at Southampton’s St Mary’s Stadium.


Sunday, 8 February 2015

Goalless at Goodison for Gerrard's final derby duel

The 224th Merseyside derby, Liverpool legend Steven Gerrard’s last one in a Red shirt, proved an underwhelming affair as it ended goalless at Goodison Park.

The skipper, so used to performing at the top of his game and scoring vital goals against the Toffees, was unable to produce a memorable moment during his final match against Liverpool’s local rivals, while his teammates also failed to do enough to secure three points that would have done Brendan Rodgers’ side a world of good in the race for Champions League qualification.

In a surprise move, the Liverpool manager handed youngster Jordon Ibe a rare start at right wing back in the main team news. The fearless 19-year old, who was recalled from a loan spell at Championship side Derby County in January, impressed throughout and went closest to grabbing a winner with a shot that hit the post midway through the first half.

His unexpected inclusion was a wise move from Rodgers, as Everton had clearly prepared to combat the threat posed by Coutinho and Sterling and had not accounted for the possibility of Ibe giving their left back Bryan Oviedo a torrid time.

Buoyed by their late comeback against Bolton Wanderers in the FA Cup in midweek and on the back of an encouraging run of good form, the confident visitors began the better, Sterling striking into the side-netting after beating Robles to Coutinho’s through ball and Gerrard calling the keeper into action with a curled 25-yard free kick in the opening ten minutes.

With Liverpool dominating possession and Everton happy to sit back and absorb pressure, the away side never really looked like coming under any serious pressure. However, at the same time, they struggled to break down the Toffees’ stubborn and well organised defence.

If anyone was going to put an end to the goalless gridlock at Goodison, it was Ibe, who went close on two occasions in ten minutes midway through the first period. First, Robles did well to deny him from close range as he looked to tap home Sterling’s deflected effort. Then, he embarked on a remarkable mazy run from inside his own half that culminated in him rattling the frame of the goal with a thunderous effort from 20 yards that would have gone down in Merseyside derby history had it snuck in.

This shot would have gone down in derby history had it found the net
Coutinho then tried to replicate his goal against Bolton but saw Robles pluck his curled effort out of the air ten minutes before the break. For Everton, meanwhile, Steven Naismith squandered their only real goalscoring opportunity, his poor first touch preventing him troubling Mignolet after the out of sorts Can allowed a right wing cross to float over his head at the back post.

The German international was slightly off form yesterday, as was the nervous looking Sakho; only Martin Skrtel’s excellence and the Toffees’ impotent strike force ensured the Reds’ sheet remained clean.

Liverpool came out of the blocks quickly after half time, Coutinho assisting Sterling for two shots on target, while Steven Gerrard almost grabbed the headlines with a spectacular acrobatic effort from a corner kick that would have found the net but for a deflection off Naismith.

A great effort on goal from Gerrard
However, once Coutinho was replaced by Sturridge on 55 minutes, the Reds’ attack was less penetrating. Although it was probably right to introduce Sturridge, the wisdom of taking off Coutinho must surely be questioned. After all, the diminutive Brazilian has been at the heart of everything good about the team during its recent revival following a woeful start to the season.

In Coutinho’s absence, Ibe appeared to provide the necessary creative spark, beating Oviedo for the umpteenth time and delivering a good cross into the area with 20 minutes remaining. Sturridge’s resulting effort was blocked in the goalmouth area and, after the ball was cleared and then worked back into the danger area by the persistent Can, Moreno eventually blasted wastefully over the bar.

Despite the admittedly dull football on display, the derby retained its intensity, with the customary handbags resulting in bookings for Naismith and Henderson following Besic’s nasty challenge on Ibe. Lambert then came on for the ineffectual Sterling, seeing Robles save a relatively tame shot from a chance that he would have converted in a Southampton shirt two minutes after entering the fray.

Lambert isn't the same striker as he was at Southampton
Meanwhile, Ross Barkley finally came on for Everton with five minutes left after appearing set to replace Naismith towards the end of the first half. Martinez must regret not introducing the England international earlier, as he was the catalyst behind the Toffees’ improvement late on.

First, he picked out Coleman in space with a wonderful cross field pass. Only an excellent save from Mignolet prevented the Irishman netting the winner with the hosts’ first and only shot on target. Then, he sent Lennon in with an incisive reverse pass, but thankfully Mignolet caught his dangerous looking cross.

Gerrard also curled wide for Liverpool in the closing stages, but neither side really put the other under a sustained period of intense pressure at the end and, on balance, a draw was probably a fair result. If it was a boxing match the Reds would have won on points, but they never delivered the knockout blow that was required to take home all three points.

With Tottenham beating Arsenal in the other derby of the day, it’s becoming congested in the places surrounding fourth spot. Spurs and United are on 43 points, while the Gunners have 42 and Liverpool have three fewer than Wenger’s men.

It’s now crucial that Liverpool somehow find a way to stop the prolific Harry Kane and beat Tottenham at Anfield on Tuesday night; if they do, then a derby draw won’t seem so bad, but at the moment it’s certainly a case of two points dropped, not one point gained for Liverpool.


Thursday, 5 February 2015

Liverpool late show keeps Cup dream alive

Raheem Sterling and Philippe Coutinho scored spectacular late goals to secure progression to the fifth round of the FA Cup at the expense of Bolton Wanderers in dramatic fashion at the Macron Stadium last night.

Neil Lennon’s men had taken the lead thanks to a harshly given but clinically dispatched Eidur Gudjohnsen penalty on the hour mark. However, the dismissal of Neil Danns with 25 minutes remaining after his second rash challenge on Joe Allen changed the game, and the Reds’ best two performers this season produced the goods when it mattered most to keep the Merseysiders’ Cup dream alive.

Skipper Steven Gerrard returned to the starting line-up to make incredibly his 700th appearance for the Reds, becoming only the third player in Liverpool’s illustrious history to achieve the remarkable feat. He played in the centre of midfield alongside Joe Allen, as Henderson and Lucas were rested. Returning slowly to action after injury, Daniel Sturridge started on the bench once again, while Balotelli was thankfully nowhere to be seen.

700 not out for the skipper
With both teams mirroring each other’s formation and adopting an attacking approach, the opening stages were unusually open, with the frequent occurrence of counter attacks producing an enjoyable contest in keeping with the esteemed traditions of the FA Cup.

Rodgers’ men were slightly in the ascendancy, Gerrard side-footing straight at Lonergan, who also denied Sterling and saw Coutinho drag an effort from range wide in the opening 15 minutes. The hosts more than held their own, however, and maintained an attacking threat, Gudjohnsen blazing over when well placed in a manner reminiscent of the goal-scoring opportunities he spurned at Anfield and Wheater calling Mignolet into action with a downward header from Feeney’s free kick.

The best chance of the half came on the hour half mark when Sterling hit the woodwork. Moreno had squared the ball to Lallana, who spun on the edge of the box and then played in Sterling. The youngster cleverly worked some space for himself by adjusting his feet, but agonisingly saw his bending right footed shot bounce back off the post with the keeper beaten.

It was a great effort on goal but Liverpool just lacked that bit of luck that you need sometimes. At times, it felt like bad fortune was going to cost the Reds dearly last night, as not only were they repeatedly denied by the woodwork, they were also on the receiving end of some poor decisions from the match officials.

At the end of the first half, Raheem Sterling was wrongly flagged offside when clean through on goal and also inexplicably refused a free kick when quite clearly clipped by Bolton defender Dorian Dervite as he embarked on a similar run down the centre. Worst of all, referee Roger East awarded the Championship side a highly questionable spot kick 13 minutes after the restart.

19-year old Zach Clough knocked the ball past Martin Skrtel and then went to ground under the slightest of touches from the Slovakian centre back. Contentiously, East pointed to the spot and Gudjohnsen did the rest, calmly converting past Mignolet from 12 yards.

Gudjohnsen converts a controversial penalty
It was an unbelievable decision and one that could have proved particularly costly, but, to be fair to East, he made a correct and important call five minutes later, as he showed Danns a second yellow for his second dangerous challenge on Joe Allen of the match. Admittedly, the referee had no choice as, despite Neil Lennon’s ludicrous post-match protestations, Danns clrearly had to be sent for an earlier bath. However, considering his performance up to that point, it wouldn’t have been entirely surprising if he’d been unduly lenient on Bolton’s number 18.

Unexpectedly, immediately after the sending off Bolton had two great opportunities to score a second and give Liverpool a mountain to climb. First, Clough ran the length of the pitch but fired just wide. Then, Gudjohnsen’s header from Feeney’s fantastic cross was weak and thus unable to trouble Mignolet from close range. The Icelandic striker really should have done better, and will be ruing his inability to direct a decent header goalwards today.

With time running out, Rodgers went all out for victory, sending on Fabio Borini and Daniel Sturridge and pushing Emre Can higher up the pitch as Liverpool pressed the matter in order to keep their Cup dream alive. Thankfully, the strategy eventually paid dividends, although travelling Kopites suffered some nervy moments as the clock ticked down and the visitors continued to be frustrated by a combination of good defending and bad luck.

Henderson’s deflected strike hit the post and Can’s curling effort was brilliantly tipped on to the bar by Lonergan, while Sterling was denied by excellent last ditch defending by Dervite as the Reds wondered whether it was just not going to be their night.

To Rodgers’ relief, the breakthrough finally came with four minutes of normal time left. The superb Can dinked a wonderful pass over the top and into the path of Sterling, who peeled away from his marker and magnificently struck a first time volley through Lonergan’s legs and into the net with his weaker left foot.

A superb finish from Sterling
It was an excellent goal, but not enough to satisfy Liverpool, who tasted blood and wanted to kill off Bolton and win the tie without the need for extra time. Borini’s tame header was saved by the keeper and Gerrard’s shot from the edge of the box was blocked, before Philippe Coutinho produced a magical goal worthy of winning any Cup tie in the first minute of injury time.

Cutting in from the left, the diminutive Brazilian fired a stunning strike that flew in off the bar, giving the goalkeeper absolutely no chance. Critics say that Coutinho’s main weakness is his lack of an end product, and that was only his third goal of the season, but if he can keep up his current form and give us more moments like that, then he’ll justify the new and improved contract he recently signed and put himself in contention for Liverpool’s player of the season prize.

The match-winner Coutinho is mobbed by his teammates
It might have seemed in doubt at some stages last night, but Liverpool’s dream of seeing skipper Steven Gerrard lift the FA Cup at Wembley on his birthday after his final game in a Red shirt is still alive thanks to the brilliance of Raheem Sterling and Philippe Coutinho.

Perhaps just as importantly, the Merseysiders’ momentum has been maintained ahead of crucial upcoming League matches against local rivals Everton and fellow contenders for Champions League qualification Tottenham Hotspur.


Sunday, 1 February 2015

Sterling and Super-sub Sturridge see off Hammers

Liverpool supporters were hoping for big things from Daniel Sturridge when he finally returned from a lengthy absence through injury, and they weren’t disappointed yesterday afternoon, as the 25-year old England striker scored the Reds’ second against West Ham United only 12 minutes after coming on as a sub at Anfield.

Adding to an earlier strike from Raheem Sterling, the goal sealed three points that elevate the Merseysiders up the table above their opponents and perhaps marks the tantalising start to a new ‘SAS’ partnership that will fire in the goals that have been the only thing lacking from Liverpool’s play during their recent upturn in form.

Left out of the squad altogether against former employers Chelsea, Sturridge began on the bench as Brendan Rodgers sensibly eases the long term injury casualty back into the side. He may be chomping at the bit to get back in and amongst the goals and make a contribution to the team again, but his boss recognises that it is essential that Sturridge is managed properly now and stays fit for the rest of the campaign.

The main team news surrounded who wasn’t even sitting on the bench, namely Steven Gerrard and Mario Balotelli. The former was rested after playing 120 minutes in midweek and ahead of the FA Cup fourth round replay at Bolton next Wednesday, while the latter was dropped after failing to seize the opportunity afforded him once again in the League Cup semi-final second leg at Stamford Bridge. He only seems set to stay on Merseyside this January because Liverpool cannot shift him, not because the club wants to keep him.

The competitive match began brightly, with both teams going for it. For Liverpool, Sterling and Coutinho, at the heart of their attack, were massively influential, while Andy Carroll, returning to the club who spent £35 million to acquire his services four years ago to the day, was the Hammers’ focal point going forward.

£35 million worth of 'talent'....
After Markovic saw his close range shot blocked and Lallana drilled a 30-yard volley way off target, the aforementioned Coutinho and Sterling combined wonderfully, the number 31 back-heeling the ball beautifully to the number 10 to complete a clever one-two. Unfortunately, Coutinho’s low shot was saved by Adrian at the near post.

Carroll headed two corners wide and into the arms of Mignolet respectively as Sam Allardyce’s side responded, but it was Liverpool who ended the first 45 minutes in the ascendancy, creating the best chance of the period during first half injury time.

Firstly, Liverpool should have clearly had a penalty as Joey O’Brien had his hands all over Sterling as he spun the 28-year old in the box. Unbelievably, referee Andre Marriner awarded the Reds nothing. Play went on, though, and the Hammers failed to clear the danger, the ball eventually falling perfectly for Markovic, who could only fire wide when well placed.

The Reds in general, and Raheem Sterling in particular, started where they left off after the interval. Full of energy and running, Sterling was causing West Ham’s defence all sorts of problems, floating a brilliant cross to Moreno, who sliced a volley well wide, and then snatching at a long range effort after linking up well with Markovic.

His endeavour was eventually rewarded on 51 minutes, however, as a fluid Liverpool move culminated with his fine finish breaking the deadlock. Sterling chested down Moreno’s cross to Coutinho, who subsequently sent Sterling through on goal with a delightful first time pass. The 20-year old did the rest from five yards out.

Sterling peals off in celebration after opening the scoring
Coutinho nearly got in on the goalscoring fun himself fifteen minutes later, but Adrian saved his low shot well after the Brazilian skipped past three defenders. On 68 minutes, the moment everyone inside Anfield had been waiting for arrived, as Daniel Sturridge replaced Lazar Markovic to make his first appearance in a Red shirt since the third League game of the season at White Hart Lane.

It only took him twelve minutes to make an impact. Receiving a neat pass from Coutinho, he took a lovely touch before drilling it low beyond Adrian to the delight of Kopites everywhere. Daniel Sturridge is back, and he promises to be better than ever.

Oh, we've missed this stupid celebration
West Ham appeared to admit defeat at that point, and although O’Brien found the net from a corner kick deep into injury time, he couldn’t prevent Liverpool keeping their third consecutive clean sheet in the League for the first time since the start of the 2013/2014 season because Nolan was penalised for blatantly fouling Mignolet.

All in all, it was a great day to be a Liverpool fan. With Sterling, Coutinho, Lallana and Sturridge all on top form and performing in unison, Sakho, Skrtel and Can somehow forming a rock solid back three and Mignolet improving with every game, optimism abounds among Kopites who widely expected to endure, rather than enjoy, this season.

Beat Bolton in midweek and then emerge victorious from next Saturday’s Merseyside derby, and Liverpool will really be cooking.