Monday, 23 March 2015

Reds lose as stupid Stevie sees red

Steven Gerrard’s last Liverpool appearance against arch-rivals Manchester United was disappointingly short-lived, as the skipper saw red only 38 seconds after coming on at half time following a senseless stamp on United midfielder Ander Herrera.

The foolish mistake by a pumped up Gerrard left Liverpool with a mountain to climb as they were already one-goal behind by that point and, although Brendan Rodgers’ side performed valiantly, a terrific second goal from Juan Mata meant the match was United’s to lose.

Sturridge responded by scoring with the hosts’ first- and only- shot on target with just over 20 minutes remaining, but ultimately the Merseysiders got what they deserved from a typically fractious and ill-tempered contest; nothing.

Brendan Rodgers stuck with the same team that beat Swansea 1-0 on Monday night for a massive six-pointer that was perhaps wrongly billed ‘winner takes all’ in the fight for fourth. Returning injury casualties Gerrard and Lucas began on the bench alongside Mario Balotelli, who was also another firework thrown into an already explosive encounter when he was introduced in the second half.

On the back of their best performance of the season so far in their 3-0 win over Spurs last Sunday, United started the better, beating Liverpool at their own game. Pressing high up the pitch, Van Gaal’s men kept the ball superbly, leaving the Reds, who only managed just over 30% of possession for most of the first half, immensely frustrated.

One particularly important battle that the visitors won took place between Alberto Moreno and Juan Mata down Liverpool’s left wing. Defensively vulnerable, the latter was tormented by the former, who was in top form and indisputably the man of the match. For both of Mata’s goals, Moreno was culpable. It came as no surprise when he was replaced by Mario Balotelli midway through the second half.

The opener arrived on 14 minutes and started with Ander Herrera slicing Liverpool’s defence to shreds with a pass that exposed the out of position Moreno. Mata took full advantage, latching on to the ball and firing coolly across goal and into the net in front of the Kop.

Match winner Mata celebrates scoring the opener
For the rest of the first half, United continued to dominate and they deservedly went in at the break with a lead, but they also benefitted from some dubious officiating at points. For example, on 22 minutes Phil Jones somehow got away with clattering through Lallana, leaving the former Southampton man with an injury that would eventually necessitate his replacement by Gerrard. Referee Martin Atkinson didn’t even give a free kick for what was blatantly a bookable offence.

Liverpool, however, hardly earned any good fortune. They were poor throughout the first half and only managed to carve open one decent goalscoring opportunity when Henderson and Sturridge combined to set up Lallana, who drilled agonisingly inches wide from 12 yards.

For United, Carrick was the linchpin in the holding midfield position, and the Englishman also posed a threat going forward, heading a corner over the top and then warming Mignolet’s hands with a cracking effort from 30 yards out in first half injury time.

Introducing Steven Gerrard for the injured Lallana at the break was widely held to be a wise move by Brendan Rodgers. The Reds needed his stabilising presence, which swung the game in their favour against Swansea, as well as his ability to bring the likes of Coutinho, Sterling and Sturridge, who had been starved of service during the first 45 minutes, into the game. Gerrard also had the ability to stir up some passion from his teammates, who arguably had insufficient fire in their bellies.

Unfortunately, Stevie had an excess of fire in his belly, and it spilled over into senseless stupidity. Only moments after spreading a lovely cross-field pass out to the right and then producing a blood-and-thunder, tough but fair tackle on Juan Mata, the number eight ridiculously lashed out after being tackled by Herrera, inexplicably and inexcusably stamping on the Spaniard.

Atkinson had no choice but to dismiss Gerrard
It was a stupid thing to do, as Gerrard rightly acknowledged as he humbly took responsibility and apologised afterwards, and Martin Atkinson had no choice but to send him off. However, it won’t, as some have speculated, cost the Reds a place in the top four.

Number one, Liverpool still have a chance of achieving Champions League qualification. Number two, the Reds’ terrible form from August to December will be much more to blame than Gerrard’s red card against United if they do miss out on elite level European football next season.

Coutinho curled one of his classic efforts on goal just over the bar in response, while Phil Jones was also lucky to stay on the pitch after a poor, late and high tackle on Henderson, but a booking was probably just about right. Just before the hour mark, though, Mata made Liverpool’s task seemingly impossible with a superb second strike.

This was just a great strike
Di Maria chipped a lovely ball into the box and the former Chelsea player, who had been left unmarked in plenty of space by Moreno, backpedalled a yard before fantastically finishing with an awesome acrobatic scissor-kick volley. It was gutting to see it go in, but you had to admire the 26-year old’s talent.

The arrival of Mario Balotelli on 64 minutes made things even more interesting and explosive. The Italian almost immediately got booked for a brainless foul on Jones in the corner and also had to be restrained by fans on the front row after appearing ready to snap following a foul by Smalling that left the number 45 in a heap against the hoardings.

Those front row fans did more to help Liverpool win than Alberto Moreno!
To be fair to Mario, though, at least he showed some commitment to the cause and looked to make things happen, which is more than can be said for some in a Red shirt yesterday.

Hopes of a miraculous comeback were raised on 69 minutes when Sturridge pulled one back, firing first time past De Gea, who should have done better, after being slipped in by Coutinho.

Sturridge halved the deficit
It was a good goal by Sturridge and one that will hopefully boost his confidence, but, although they put United under a bit of pressure in the closing stages, ten-man Liverpool struggled to create good goalscoring chances and remained vulnerable on the counter.

That proved evident in injury time, when Can bundled into and brought down the breaking Blind in the box to concede a penalty. Thankfully, Mignolet produced a great save to deny Rooney only his second goal at Anfield.

"Why did I put Fraser Forster in my fantasy football team instead of Mignolet?"
The drama still wasn’t over yet, though, as Balotelli sent an incisive pass through to the on-rushing Skrtel in the dying seconds. Unfortunately, it was just too far ahead of the Slovakian, who lost out to De Gea. Even worse, Skrtel stupidly left a foot in on the United keeper. As a result, Liverpool’s most important defender will probably receive a suspension that means he misses vital upcoming matches.

Some late stupidity from Skrtel could prove costly
All in all, it was a bad day for Liverpool, but it need not be fatal to their top four chances. There are still eight games to play and, although United have a five point lead over the Reds, they still have to face Man City, Chelsea and Arsenal. There may be no room left for error, but Rodgers’ men are certainly in with a fighting chance of achieving Champions League qualification.


Tuesday, 17 March 2015

Fluke Henderson goal secures win at Swansea

Liverpool were far from their best but persevered manfully to secure an important three points at Swansea, taking them only two points behind fourth placed Manchester United, who they face at Anfield on Sunday lunchtime.

Swansea dominated a first half in which Liverpool performed poorly and had their keeper Simon Mignolet to thank for keeping the scores all square at the interval. In the second half, the Reds’ display noticeably went up a gear or two. They also benefitted from a slice of good luck, as Henderson scored a fluky winner when a Swansea tackle rebounded off his shins before looping over Fabianski and into the net.

It was the type of good fortune that teams tend to be on the receiving end of when they are performing well, and Liverpool took full advantage, holding on in the closing stages to capitalise on Spurs and Southampton dropping points earlier in the weekend.

After enjoying an unusually extended rest period, it was reasonable to expect the visitors to come flying out of the blocks, particularly considering their run of recent good form and their decent record against the Welsh side- the last time Liverpool lost to Swansea Brendan Rodgers was managing them in 2011.

However, instead the Reds never really got going during a frustrating first half that the hosts dominated. Sturridge’s shot dribbled wide and Coutinho curled one into the arms of Fabianski, but Swansea were on top and went closest to opening the scoring before the break.

Bafetimbi Gomis posed Garry Monk’s side’s most potent attacking threat, exchanging passes with Wayne Routledge before testing Mignolet with a low drilled strike from 20 yards on the half hour mark.

The Belgian keeper had to be on top form to then turn Gylfi Sigurdsson’s curled effort wide, before former Liverpool midfielder Jonjo Shelvey, who didn’t self-destruct against his former employers for a change, saw his shot crucially deflected wide off Lallana from the resulting right wing corner.

Mignolet saved well from Sigurdsson's strike
Brendan Rodgers must have had a stern word or two for his troops at the break as, with make-or-break matches against Manchester United and Arsenal up next, there was no room for slip ups against mid-table Swansea. Thankfully, whatever the Northern Irishman said at half time, it must have worked because the away side came out after the interval seemingly with a renewed sense of determination.

They certainly performed at a far higher level, pressing their hosts higher up the pitch and creating goalscoring opportunities. The usual suspects were involved, Sterling setting up Coutinho, whose low shot was saved at the near post by Fabianski on 57 minutes.

Joe Allen, perhaps not particularly renowned for his attacking ability, was also involved going forward, prodding Lallana’s cross goalwards from close range but seeing Fabianski hold well. It might not have been capped by a goal, but all-in-all this was another impressive performance from the Welsh midfielder. Despite providing a calming and re-assuring presence when he came on last night, skipper Steven Gerrard still has a job on his hands displacing Allen from his well-deserved place in the starting line-up.

Only minutes after handing the captain’s armband back to its rightful owner, Jordan Henderson, who had otherwise been performing pretty disappointingly, benefitted from a huge slice of good luck to score what turned out to be the winner.

Racing on to a flick on from Sturridge, Henderson saw Jordi Amat reach the ball first and hack a clearance against his shins. The ball then looped over Fabianski and landed in the net, much to the delight of the travelling Kop.

Henderson scored the winner
Of course, Henderson cannot claim much credit for the strike, but the fact that he has now scored in three consecutive Premier League games shows his development in an area that many identified as a weak point for the former Sunderland man and also reinforces his case for assuming the captaincy upon Gerrard’s departure in the summer.

Swansea, noticeably deflated after falling behind in such unlucky circumstances and kicking themselves for failing to score when they were in the ascendancy, failed to mount a serious assault on the Liverpool goal during the closing stages. Yes, only having a slender lead made things nervy for Liverpool, but it wasn’t like Mignolet was being bombarded with efforts on goal from the hosts.

In fact, if anything, the Merseysiders may well have added to their lead as the clock ran down, Coutinho curling another one of his classic strikes just over the top right hand corner and Sterling lifting a volleyed effort over the bar under pressure from Fabianski after receiving a good pass from Sturridge.

The England striker also went close to doubling Liverpool’s margin of victory himself when Sterling returned the favour by setting him up in the final minute of injury time. Unfortunately, his right footed strike rebounded off the post, denying him the opportunity to bag a much-needed confidence boosting goal.

Although far from a classic, this win represents another important step towards Champions League qualification for Liverpool, who have taken 32 points from the last 36 available and kept six consecutive clean sheets on the road, a feat last achieved in the glory days of Bill Shankly.

It’s frustrating that title winning form is required to only achieve Champions League qualification, but it’s also delightful to see the Reds performing as they did last season and recovering so spectacularly to be firmly in the fight for fourth.

Bring on United on Sunday!


Monday, 9 March 2015

Reds held by Rovers in Cup quarter final

Liverpool will have to face off against Blackburn Rovers again after the Championship outfit held them to a dreary goalless draw at Anfield in the FA Cup quarter final on Sunday afternoon.

Despite dominating- the Reds enjoyed 70% of possession and had 21 shots- Liverpool lacked a cutting edge in front of goal- only 4 of their shots were on target- and therefore struggled to break down Gary Bowyer’s well drilled defence, whose performance deserved a replay at Ewood Park.

Rodgers made two changes to the team that beat Burnley comprehensively in midweek, Johnson coming in for Allen, who was strangely left out altogether despite a recent upturn in form, and Markovic replacing Moreno.

Unfortunately, he was forced into making a substitution after only three minutes, as Skrtel was stretchered off the pitch following an aerial collision with Rovers’ Rudy Gestede that left the Slovakian briefly unconscious.

The players and ref call for medical assistance as Skrtel lies flat out
It looked like a nasty clash and it must have been to keep the tough-as-nails Skrtel lying on the ground motionless for over five minutes, but the number 37 giving the crowd the thumbs up as he was stretchered off was an encouraging sign and, based on reports, he now seems to be OK and should be ready to face Swansea next Monday.  

Kolo Toure came on in his place, leaving Liverpool with an unusual back three composed of the Ivorian, Lovren and Johnson. As a result, they appeared far more vulnerable and suspect to breaks from Blackburn.

Mignolet also appeared vulnerable as he worryingly flapped at a free kick into the box on 12 minutes but, to the Belgian’s relief, Gestede’s header dropped wide. At the other end, a brilliant tackle in the box from Blackburn captain Matt Kilgallon denied Lallana as he was about to pull the trigger, Coutinho curled a couple of efforts into the Kop and Toure turned home from an offside position after the ball fell to him in the box, but the hosts’ remained frustrated by the resolute Rovers.

Sturridge’s strike at the end of eight minutes of injury time couldn’t break the deadlock, either, and so the Merseysiders went in at the break knowing that they needed to perform much better and to finally find the back of the net to avoid an exhausting additional fixture in the form of a Cup replay. Frustratingly, that improvement failed to materialise.

In fact, six minutes after the restart Mignolet was required to produce a phenomenal save to prevent Rovers taking a shock lead. Baptiste’s header from a right wing corner was heading into the top right corner before Mignolet barged Lallana out of the way and superbly tipped over the bar.

Mignolet's great save was the moment of the match
That was pretty much the visitors’ last sight of goal, as Liverpool were in the ascendancy during the rest of the second period, enjoying 89% of possession for one five minute spell, but failed to produce the moment of magic or enjoy a slice of good fortune that would have won the match for them.

Just before the hour mark, Sturridge was pulled back by Kilgallon in the box as he tried to latch on to Sterling’s through ball, but referee Andre Marriner gave nothing. To be fair, it would have been harsh as it looked like the England striker went down easily because he knew he was unlikely to reach the ball with goalkeeper Eastwood rushing out to collect.

Toure then headed onto the post, before the arrival of Mario Balotelli added a little something extra to Liverpool’s attack. The Italian maverick may not have been at his mercurial best, but he certainly had more of an impact than the man he replaced, as Markovic was largely anonymous.

Balotelli saw one shot fly into the stands, while another was comfortably held by Eastwood, but his best moment came when he set up his teammate Daniel Sturridge. He picked the ball up and fed a lovely volleyed ball over Rovers’ defence for Sturridge to run on to, but unfortunately he volleyed off target.

Ultimately, it just seemed destined to be one of those days. For all their dominance, Liverpool looked leggy following a congested fixture schedule and couldn’t quite unlock Blackburn’s defence. However, the away side did nothing to suggest that the Reds should fear travelling to Ewood Park for a replay.

This goal remains firmly in the Reds' sights
It may be an irritating inconvenience, but Liverpool should be confident that they’ll come through the replay and reach the semi-finals at Wembley Stadium. They should also be thankful that this slip up came in the Cup, not in the League, as a goalless draw at home to a ‘lesser’ side like Blackburn in the League would be a far worse setback that couldn’t be rectified with a replay.


Thursday, 5 March 2015

Liverpool brush aside Burnley

Liverpool produced an exemplary professional performance as they coasted to a 2-0 victory over relegation threatened Burnley at Anfield last night, avoiding a potentially very slippy banana skin.

The visitors, who have picked up points at the Etihad and Stamford Bridge so far this season, were the sort of team that the Reds are expected to beat but often haven’t in the past. As a result, they posed a particularly tricky challenge, and there was also the potential for complacency from the hosts on the back of an excellent victory over title chasers Man City on Sunday.

Thankfully, though, fears of slipping up against a so-called ‘lesser’ side and disrupting the substantial momentum that the Merseysiders have built up during an astounding unbeaten run proved unfounded, as Liverpool got the job done with time to spare on a night when their competitors for Champions League qualification left it late to bank all three points.

Stand-in skipper Jordan Henderson was a key performer once again, as he put in a performance that demonstrates he has the credentials to be Liverpool’s next captain, scoring a sensational opener in the first half and wonderfully assisting Sturridge for the Reds’ second early on in the second period.

Manager Brendan Rodgers only made one change to the team that beat City on the weekend, replacing the out of form Markovic with Sturridge, as Sterling reverted to the right wing and Lallana and Coutinho operated either side of the England striker.

Although Sturridge is still far from top form, he did find the back of the net in the second half, which can only be good for his confidence. He also went extremely close to opening the scoring only a minute in, as he combined cleverly with Sterling and Lallana down the right wing, before cutting inside and seeing Heaton produce a good save to turn away his left footed strike from 12 yards.

Liverpool went on to dominate the rest of the first half, and Jordan Henderson was at the centre of everything. On 6 minutes, he headed a corner over the bar from 10 yards, before his effort from range was tipped wide well by Heaton midway through the half. On the half hour mark, the number 14 broke the deadlock, only moments after almost sending Sturridge in on goal with a raking Gerrard-esque cross field pass.

Coutinho cut in from the left but saw his shot superbly blocked by Keane. Henderson reacted first, pouncing on the rebound to send a sweet strike into the bottom right hand corner on the half volley, leaving Heaton helpless.

Henderson opened the scoring with a cracking strike
It was a goal of top quality and the former Sunderland midfielder’s second in four days, showing that, like his teammate Coutinho, he is beginning to add goals to his already accomplished game.

Speaking of the Brazilian, Coutinho nearly produced a carbon copy of Henderson’s goal against Man City a couple of minutes after the vice-captain’s opener, but his curling shot from 25 yards went just wide of the goal. He then sent Sturridge in on goal with a fine through pass but he spurned the best chance to double the Reds’ advantage before the break, Heaton saving Sturridge’s relatively tame and disappointing effort.

Burnley’s one decent chance came right at the end of the half, as Mignolet held Barnes’ header well after Tripper had sent a free kick deep into the box. Sean Dyche’s men never really looked like threatening, though, and lost almost all hope of getting something from the game when Henderson and Sturridge combined superbly to bag the Reds’ second of the evening six minutes after the restart.

Producing another Gerrard-esque pass, Henderson fantastically picked out Sturridge six yards from goal at the far post with a simply awesome delivery. Sturridge did the rest, heading home clinically from close range to all but end the match as a contest.

Sturridge scored a confidence boosting second for Liverpool
At that point, Liverpool knew the game was pretty much won and, although it would be stretching it to claim that the Reds shut up shop, they certainly seemed satisfied with a 2-0 scoreline. Moreno shot wide, Lallana saw his effort blocked by Keane and Can’s strike was collected by Heaton, but there was no concerted push to add to their goal tally.

It’s difficult to find fault with what was nearly a flawless performance from Rodgers’ side, but they could perhaps be criticised for failing to capitalise on the opportunity to rack up a cricket score and boost their goal difference.

After all, of those in the fight for third and fourth, only Tottenham have a worse goal difference than Liverpool. Moreover, both Arsenal and Manchester United have goal differences substantially superior to the Reds’, which could prove pivotal come the end of the season, as demonstrated by the advantage that City’s superior goal difference gave them in the title race with Liverpool in 2013/2014.

Nit-picking aside, though, Liverpool were excellent last night and full value for the three points. Unfortunately United got lucky with a late winner at Newcastle, while Arsenal and Tottenham survived late comebacks against QPR and Swansea respectively, but all the Reds can do is keep winning.

If they do that and extend their 12 match unbeaten streak even further, continuing to beat both their rivals for Champions League qualification and ‘lesser’ teams, then they will surely be a shoe-in for fourth spot, if not third.


Monday, 2 March 2015

Coutinho and Hendo put City to the sword

Vice-captain Jordan Henderson and midfield magician Philippe Coutinho scored two wonder goals to secure a thrilling and important 2-1 victory over title-chasers Manchester City at Anfield on Sunday lunchtime.

The pair’s superb goals were just reward for a fantastic performance from the home side, particularly considering they only got back from Turkey at 4.30am on Friday morning. To perform to such a high standard against a top team who had enjoyed 48 hours more recovery time following their midweek European travails is testament to the character of the squad that Brendan Rodgers has assembled.

At the same time, the fact that match winner Coutinho was rested against Besiktas speaks volumes for the Northern Irish manager’s wise squad management, which involved Henderson and Markovic also starting after missing out in midweek, the former due to injury and the latter with suspension.

The injury prone Sturridge wasn’t risked after playing 115 minutes in Turkey. Instead, Sterling, Lallana and Coutinho formed a front three that ran City’s backline ragged throughout the 90 minutes. Two of those three combined twice in the opening stages to almost open the scoring, while the third provided the assist when Henderson did break the deadlock.

First, Coutinho split City’s defence with a beautiful pass to play in Lallana, who should have done better with a toe-poked shot that was comfortably saved by Hart. Hart was then caught unawares as Lallana smashed in a brilliant half volley from a tight angle after receiving a short corner from Coutinho, but the former Southampton skipper was flagged just offside.

When Liverpool did bag the opener that their early adventurous play deserved, it came from an unlikely source, as Jordan Henderson rocketed home a spectacular strike from the edge of the box.  The ever-present Coutinho was inevitably involved in the build-up, capitalising on an error by Kompany to release Raheem Sterling, who then squared to Henderson. The number 14’s awesome effort went right in the postage stamp, leaving Hart with no chance.

This is what that goal means to Hendo...
Having never scored more than six goals in a Premier League season, goalscoring is perhaps the main area of his game that Henderson has to focus on improving if he is to successfully take over from Steven Gerrard at the end of the season. If he adds goals like this one to his game, there’s no telling how far he can go with his career.

To be fair to them, City responded well, Aguero almost making Liverpool pay for a mix up at the back as the Argentine striker hit the post. At the other end, Sterling beat Mangala easily on the left and flashed a dangerous cross/shot across the face of goal, but nobody was there to double the Reds’ advantage and, just two minutes later, the visitors levelled. Pellegrini’s men pinged the ball around nicely and eventually Aguero slipped a great ball through to Dzeko, who fired home a right footed shot.

Dzeko levelled for City
Liverpool had a few more chances before the break, Lallana dragging an effort wide and Coutinho shooting straight at Hart, but they were unable to regain their lead, as City improved. However, the visitors were still the happier side entering the interval at all square.

After the break, although City immediately started the better and should have taken the lead with an Aguero header that thankfully went over the bar, Liverpool dominated. Coutinho, in particular, was exploiting the space in between City’s midfield and defence afforded the Brazilian thanks to their tactically na├»ve 4-4-2 formation, which remained unchanged from Tuesday night when Barcelona’s Luis Suarez demolished their defence in style.

The impressive Lallana whipped in a great cross to Sterling, but he could only bundle wide. Lallana then found the net for a second time himself, finishing from close range after Martin Skrtel had nodded a free kick down for him. Frustratingly, it was chalked off again though as the Slovakian was marginally offside from the free kick.

Liverpool were having all the play and, even after Pellegrini brought on Milner for Dzeko and went to five in midfield, the away side still couldn’t stifle the Reds’ creativity or gain much of a foothold in the contest. The hosts just couldn’t seem to find that killer final pass, though.

Consequently, as he had against Southampton a week earlier, Coutinho decided to take matters into his own hands with a piece of individual brilliance fifteen minutes from time. Cutting inside from the left after receiving a pass from Sterling, the diminutive Brazilian struck a world class effort into the far corner in sensational fashion.

Coutinho scores his weekly worldie!
It was an absolutely awesome goal from Coutinho, who is going from strength to strength and fast filling the shoes of Luis Suarez. The Reds’ creative catalyst and attacking fulcrum, Coutinho keeps on coming up with the goods when it matters most, which could prove pivotal in the race for fourth. When he plays like this, he’s simply unstoppable, and no defence in the country is going to look forward to facing him as we head into the business end of the campaign.

As he had after Henderson’s wonder goal, Aguero almost provided an instant riposte, flashing a right footed shot across goal from a tight angle. Apart from that, though, City struggled to even get hold of the ball, let alone create chances, as Liverpool sensibly kept possession well. Sturridge even had a chance to make it 3-1 with minutes remaining, but he shot wide when he should have scored after a mistake from the dreadful Yaya Toure had let him in.

This win takes Liverpool up to fifth on 48 points, only two behind fourth placed United and three adrift of Arsenal. Moreover, with winnable matches against Burnley and Swansea coming up, Liverpool should still be full of confidence when they come to face United and Arsenal in two crunch contests at the end of March and beginning of April respectively.

For the moment, though, let’s just enjoy what was a great performance and an even better result.