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Archive for February 2008

Reserves Offer Liverpool Hope For Future

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Tuesday, February 26, 2008 by

If there has been one positive note to the season, it is the progress registered by the reserves. Gary Ablett has done a fantastic job in moulding them together as a team but, in reality, he’s been blessed with a group of exceptional individuals many of whom look more than capable of making it all the way

Five of the Best
5 Stephen Darby

As dependable as they come, Darby rarely misplaces a pass, loses out in a tackle or gets caught out of position. He’s not one to bomb down the flank and as such is less likely to get noticed. Yet he will become a very good player if he is given the chance to develop.

4 Damien Plessis

After all the young French players signed by Gerard Houllier and who left without making any sort of impact, here might be someone who could actually progress to the first team. Plessis fulfills an important role in midfield in winning the ball and making sure that it reaches a red shirt – a mini Mascherano or Didi Hamann if you like. Like most of the players on this list, he needs to bulk up a little bit but, when he does, he will be quite a player.

3 Kristian Nemeth
The Hungarian striker has certainly made an impression since joining in the summer. His technique is very much above average and he is an instinctive striker. What he lacks is a little bit of experience and the strength to cope with the demands of English football, both of which will come with time.

2 Jay Spearing
Perhaps unlucky to play in a role where there is so much talent in the first team, Spearing has been nothing short of exceptional in the reserves. His tackling, distribution and vision are all top quality and he is definitely ready for the first team.

1 Emiliano Insua
Reports over the weekend claim that so impressed was Kevin Keegan by Insua’s performance at left back last week against Newcastle’s reserves that he wants to sign him during the summer.

That might not be true but it would hardly be surprising so impressive was he on the night. In fact, he has been excellent from the start of the season and it is somewhat perplexing that he hasn’t featured at least as a reserve in one of the cup competitions, especially given Liverpool’s problems in that spot.


Pennant's Failure to Impress

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Monday, February 25, 2008 by

It is always the big men who take the credit. Much of the focus after last Tuesday’s win over Inter Milan was how the introduction of Peter Crouch changed the complexion of the game, with his height providing an additional dimension to Liverpool’s play.

Which, in all honesty, it did especially as the Inter defenders didn’t know how to react. Crouch not only had the liberty to head the ball with ease but he was given much more time to control it than he normally is in the Premiership.

Yet, another substitute’s pivotal introduction was all but overlooked. It was Jermaine Pennant who provided the cross for Liverpool’s first goal and it was the same player who went for the simple pass to Steven Gerrard from which the Liverpool captain scored.

Four days later, however, and not only had Pennant’s contribution gone largely un-noticed but he didn’t even make it on to Liverpool’s bench for the game against Middlesbrough.

It has been that kind of year for Pennant.

At the start of the season he had been playing extremely well, kicking on from the Champions League final where he probably was the best player on the pitch. His form prompted Rafael Benitez to express his amazement at how the player had been overlooked by England despite an apparent lack of alternatives.

Then came an injury in Turkey against Besiktas and suddenly Pennant was back to the starting point. Recovery was painfully slow and, despite returning at the start of January, he’s been struggling to get into the side.

Whether that is down to lack of match fitness or Benitez’s own choice is as yet unclear although you would suspect that it is the latter.

It is a somewhat surprising choice given that when he plays Pennant can offer something that is normally lacking from Liverpool’s play: threat from out wide.

Is Pennant good enough to be a regular for a title winning side? Probably not, but he is good enough to be a valuable squad player in a team looking to win the championship and probably the best winger that Liverpool have at the moment.

Against Inter, Pennant proved as much but instead Benitez is favouring Dirk Kuyt to play there, perhaps getting greater confidence by the Dutchman’s work rate than Pennant’s unpredictability.

In a sense, it has been a wise decision seeing that it has allowed Kuyt to slowly get his confidence back, yet it is also taxing the team’s attacking instinct. For, while Kuyt can send in accurate crosses, he doesn’t have Pennant’s speed or his ability to get round players.

Having improved immeasurably since joining the club two summers ago, the current situation must be hard on Pennant. Yet all he can do right now is patiently wait for his next chance and hope that this time his contribution does get noticed enough to ensure Benitez’s confidence.


Good Game Bad Game [vs Middlesbrough]

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Sunday, February 24, 2008 by

Rafael Benitez will feel that he can never win. If he changes the team, he is accused that he is rotating too much; when he doesn’t he’ll be told that he should have played other players.

Against Middlesbrough, he kept the same starting eleven as the one that had defeated Inter Milan in midweek barring Jamie Carragher who was missing through suspension. Seeing how the game proceeded, however, there will inevitably be those who question the decision to keep out Xabi Alonso particularly after a lacklustre display by Lucas.

Good Game
Not at fault at either of the two goals, Pepe Reina’s handling throughout the game was faultless and as always he exuded confidence. In the centre of defence, Sami Hyppia had another good game without doing anything particularly spectacular.

Ryan Babbel seems to be earning Benitez’s trust and he had another decent game today. It was surprising when he was taken off. Javier Mascherano was slightly below par in the first half but improved immeasurably in the second. Confidence in his own abilities is returning for Dirk Kuyt who worked extremely hard as always but also put in some excellent moves.

Man of the match obviously goes to Fernando Torres who scored a terrific hat-trick and could have had even more.

Bad Game
Steve Finnan, Alvaro Arbeloa and Fabio Aurelio weren’t particularly bad but neither were they good enough. The same applies to Steven Gerrard, despite almost scoring towards the end. Worst of all Liverpool players on the pitch was Lucas Leiva, who runs a lot but his passing – especially in the final third – often leaves a lot to be desired.

Substitutes
Every time that John Arne Riise touched the ball, it went straight to a Middlesbrough player. As always Yossi Benayoun tried hard to influence the game and his skill on the ball can unsettle players. Peter Crouch came on too late in the game to make a difference.



A Message from Norway

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Thursday, February 14, 2008 by

Everton are doing quite well in this year's UEFA Cup and yesterday's impressive 2-0 away win at Brann Bergen effectively put them in the next round.

All of this is of little interest to most Liverpool fans but this banner that was seen hanging off a bridge in Bergen yesterday should raise a smile. Well in, Norwegian reds.


The Truth Behind the Gerrard to Inter Rumours

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Wednesday, February 13, 2008 by

If there’s one sign that Liverpool are about to face Inter in the Champions League, then it comes from the rumour that Steven Gerrard is to move to Milan.

It is a trick that they have taken out of Real Madrid’s book (remember when they refused to deny reports that David Beckham was to join them just before a semi-final clash with Manchester United?) and this isn’t the first time that they’ve resorted to it.

Last year rumours about Inter’s interest in David Villa started doing the rounds just before they met Valencia in the Champions League. Whilst there might be some truth in the rumours – and given Villa’s form last year, every big team was interested in him – there was no real offer for him.

The same is the case of Steven Gerrard. Putting aside that Controcampo – who first came out with the story - is the kind of paper that would make a tabloid writer sick, there is no real offer from Inter for Gerrard. Gazzetta Dello Sport might be slightly more upmarket, yet it also delights in frivolous rumours especially ones that might give an Italian team some sort of edge.


The Lad Can Play: Jay Spearing

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Tuesday, February 12, 2008 by

Despite years of rumours about conflicts first with Gearard Houllier and then, to a much lesser extent, with Rafael Benitez, nothing was ever heard of Steve Heighway who opted to keep an extremely low profile.

The academy director went about his job in the same manner as ever, keeping his opinions to himself but at the same time aggressively defending the right to run the academy as he saw fit.

Only once it had been revealed that he was to retire and his U18 side had managed the impressive feat of retaining the FA Youth Cup did he finally express his views.

One of the things that Heighway said was that ‘his’ captain was already good enough to play for the first team but this wasn’t going to happen.

True enough, nine months down the line and Jay Spearing - the player that Heighway was referring to – remains stuck in the reserves waiting for his first taste of first team action. This in itself doesn’t come as a surprise considering the competition that Spearing has to face given that he is a central midfielder.

Even so, however, Spearing has been playing well enough in the reserves to merit at least inclusion in the squads that faced Cardiff, Luton or Havant and Waterlooville in the cup competitions.

Which, quite frankly, is shocking. True, the reserves league has become a joke where teams play too few games and often it is a case of kids against kids. Yet this isn’t Spearing’s fault and regardless of all the limitations, he has been excelling game in, game out.

Apart from height, there isn’t one area where Spearing can be found lacking. He is a tenacious tackler, a great passer, the other players look up to him for leadership, he’s got great awareness of how the game is opening up and, lately, he’s been showing that he knows how to score.

Just as Heighway said, he seems more than ready to play for the first team. All that he needs is an opportunity to prove this. Whether that will be forthcoming, however, is looking extremely doubtful.


Good Game Bad Game vs Chelsea [a]

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Monday, February 11, 2008 by

A draw at Stamford Bridge is a good result, of that there is little doubt. Yet it could have been so much more, had Crouch taken one of the chances that fell his way and had Liverpool manage to capitalise better on Chelsea’s discomfort in passing the ball.

Let’s not fail to look at the positives, however. Liverpool played well – much better than they have so far this year – and easily managed to stifle Chelsea who, apart from Ballack’s late try barely had a sniff at goal.

Yet there remains a lack of apparent style when going forward. Benitez seems to change his system every week so the side inevitably lack rhythm. This was once again apparent against Chelsea where Liverpool struggled to create anything in the final third of the field.

Good Game
Pepe Reina was rarely called into action but he was always alert especially during Chelsea’s corners. Apart from a heart stopping back header to Reina late in the game, there’s very little to fault in John Arne Riise’s game as the Norwegian confirmed that he’s the best left back at the club.

The same doesn’t apply to Steve Finnan who is feeling the pressure of Alvaro Arbeloa. Against Chelsea, however, he was another who did reasonably well even if, like Riise, he looked under instructions not to venture too much forward.

After a brief return to right-back a week earlier, Jamie Carragher returned to the centre of defence and had another solid game. However, he was overshadowed by Martin Skrtel with the Slovak defender giving absolutely nothing away. Given that he lacks understanding with his team mates and can barely utter a word of English, this was quite an impressive performance.

The Slovak defender would have been the man of the match if it hadn’t been for another outstanding game by Javier Mascherano. There were rumours that he might be tired having just flown from an Argentina game but, if that was the case, it certainly didn’t show as he won absolutely everything.

Of Liverpool’s midfielders, Steven Gerrard was the only one who really knew with the ball when the side pushed forward. He continuously exploited gaps in Chelsea’s midfield but, unfortunately, rarely had good options to pass the ball.

Bad Game
Lucas Leiva started for the second game running and, although he wasn’t expected to play on the left this time round, he still didn’t seem to have to clear an idea as to what his role was. It might seem harsh to mark Dirk Kuyt as one who had a bad game as he worked hard on the right flank. Yet he was rarely of any danger and it is hard to determine why he was chosen to start there when there are two right midfielders in the squad both of whom have been playing well.

The opposite applies to Ryan Babbel who seems to be playing by default given the lack of alternatives. He often had space where to run and saw plenty of the ball but failed to really cause too much danger.

Come the end of the season and Peter Crouch might look at the two Chelsea games as the ones that brought to a close his Liverpool career. In the first he got sent off to ruin Liverpool’s chances of progressing in the League Cup whereas this weekend he failed to convert two great chances to give Liverpool what would probably have been a definitive lead.

Substitutes
It is decisions like the one to bring on Jermaine Pennant that raises doubts over Rafael Benitez’s suitability for the job. Not that bringing Pennant on was the wrong option but that he chose to put him on the left hand side of midfield thereby limiting the use of an extremely one footed player.


Few Tears Shed Over Sissoko Departure

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Tuesday, February 05, 2008 by

If there’s one golden rule that should be followed by all Liverpool managers, it is that they shouldn’t try to liken their players to more famous counterparts.

Gerard Houllier, for instance, loved doing this so over the years we had the new Marcel Desailly (Djimi Traore), the new Patrick Vieira (Salif Diao) and the new Zinedine Zidane (Bruno Cheyrou). Inevitably they all failed to meet the expectations set by Houllier and the tag that he had given them eventually came back to haunt the manager.

Rafael Benitez isn’t one to delve into similar frivolous comparisons, yet not even he could resist likening Momo Sissoko to Patrick Vieira when the Mali international midfielder was signed from Valencia.

Even though few doubted the manager who had just won the Champions League, many winced at this. It was quite a tag for a player about whom so little was known but who had just been bought for £5.5 million, not an inconsiderable amount particularly as he wasn’t even a regular for Valencia.

It was the desire to justify that outlay which led Benitez into using Vieira as an example, his way of relaying what he saw in Sissoko that made him agree to spend so much.

Within a few weeks, any pressure that Benitez might have felt was gone. Sissoko wasn’t the finished product, everyone could see that, but there was enough raw potential in him to indicate that the manager had got his comparison right.

His tackling was impeccable, tactically he gave balance to the side and he could run all day without even breaking sweat. Passing was a bit off but that would improve in time.

Or so we thought. Because Sissoko’s ability to find a red shirt with the ball never got better: if anything it got worse.

Particularly after Benfica. If there was a turning point in Sissoko’s Liverpool career, it came during that February night in Portugal. A horrific clash with Beto turned his life upside down as it looked as if he could lose his sight.

Sissoko eventually returned a couple of months later but he never seemed the same. His passing was as frustrating as always but this was compounded by his inability to be as effective in the tackles as before.

The arrival of Javier Mascherano was the final blow. Not only was the Argentine midfielder better in every single aspect but he was denying Sissoko the games that he must have needed to improve and regains some form. Departure became inevitable.

That Liverpool ultimately made a profit off of him perhaps says more of Juventus’ transfer inefficiencies – these are the same people who thought it a good idea to buy Jean Alain Boumsong – then the players’ real valuation.

His farewell record to the fans upon signing for Juventus was a classy touch by him but, even so, few will be those who miss him.


Guthrie Deserves Anfield Chance

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Monday, February 04, 2008 by

Sink or swim. That seems to be the rationale behind most loan deals that the big clubs set up for their players. Of course, they do look at the club they’re joining, their style of play and whether the player will get playing minutes. Ultimately, however, what they’re doing is testing the player to see whether he is good enough or not.

Yet loan deals are increasingly serving another purpose: that of putting young players in the shop window. Whereas before many used to be let go on a free after spending a couple of years trying to make headway in the reserves, the fact that they’ve been playing at a reasonable level is more likely to attract buyers or at least add to their value. Rather than being loaned to gain experience, they’re being sent out to be sold.

There’s nothing to indicate that this is the case of Danny Guthrie but a number of clubs seem to think so. Bolton are ready to keep him whilst both Sunderland and Fulham have expressed an interest in him. All of which is indicative of how well his season at Bolton is going.

Everything was set up for Guthrie to fail: a couple of senior players – both of whom played in his position – went public about their unhappiness at how the team was being run, the manager who got him to the club was sacked a few weeks into the season whilst on the pitch the team was struggling.

Yet Guthrie has done anything but fail. He forced his way into the team under Sammy Lee and stayed there once Gary Megson took over. Even with the rest of the team doing poorly, he has played exceptionally well, certainly better than more experienced players. The confidence with which he played in high profile games like that against Bayern Munich – where he was arguably the best player on the field – and Manchester United was certainly eye-catching.

In short, he’s proven that he’s good enough to play in the Premier League. The question is: can he play for Liverpool?

Nothing other than seeing him play in a red shirt for a number of games can answer that question but looking at what he has done so far, it would certainly seem so.

On those few occasions that he played for Liverpool, he seemed comfortable despite being out of position on the right. Then he went to Southampton for the second half of last season and promptly became a key player for them in the centre of the pitch as they surged to the play-offs. Now he’s gone to Bolton where he’s forced himself into the team.

In short, every time’s been asked to play at a higher level he’s done so with relative ease. Were he to play for Liverpool, there’s every probability that the same would happen.

The other major issue revolves around the competition that he would face to get a game at Liverpool. Even with the departure of Momo Sissoko, he would still be up against Xabi Alonso, Javier Mascherano, Steven Gerrard and Lucas Leiva. But again, the same argument holds. There was the feeling that Guthrie was going to be wasted at Bolton given the presence of Kevin Nolan, Gary Speed and Ivan Campo but he has still managed to find his space.

Given half a chance, he would do so at Anfield as well.


Benitez Must Look to the Past if he is to Move Forward

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Saturday, February 02, 2008 by

There is an unnerving familiarity about the way that Liverpool are playing at the moment. With the passing of every game, the team is increasingly resembling that of Gerard Houllier’s final season: one that is overly reliant on a couple of individuals’ brilliance (for Gerrard and Owen read Gerrard and Torres), with a squad weighed down by players who either aren’t good enough or simply don’t care and a manager apparently too stubborn to change his ways.

And the sense of deja-vu doesn’t end there. Just as Houllier took the public backing that he received when he returned from his heart-attack to mean that the fans would support him no matter what, so too Rafael Benitez is in danger of feeling that, given their recent backing, the support won’t turn against him.

Indeed, whilst there are still many who feel that he deserves more time given his past successes, what the fans were really angry with was Tom Hicks’ manner of running the club and how he went behind the manager’s back. It had as much to do with principle as it did with faith in the manager.

In hindsight, Hicks would probably acknowledge that putting public pressure on Benitez wasn’t needed as the Spanish manager is doing a fine job of alienating the fans by himself.

Most certainly, he is the only one who sees the validity in playing Harry Kewell. It is easy to pick the Australian as the weak link in the side when in reality there are at least four or five others who have been playing poorly.

Yet no one has played with as little interest and passion as Kewell has who pays more attention at avoiding tackles than he does to beating his man. He has lost whatever pace he had and offers Liverpool absolutely nothing. Apart from everything, why play someone who is out of contract in the summer and who doesn’t look like he will be offered a new deal?

Kewell’s regular inclusion is a tacit omission by Benitez that he does not have anyone who is good enough to play on the left wing. And that is half the problem because in reality Liverpool are lacking on both sides of midfield. Liverpool often lack width which makes them predictable: all West Ham did to starve Torres of chances was to start the game with three central midfielders

For all the doubts that he might not be a top class player, Jermaine Pennant has to be a better solution than Benayoun who might be right footed but tends to cut inside too much to be a threat. If he really doesn’t want to play Peter Crouch alongside Fernando Torres – as his regular inclusion of Dirk Kuyt and Andriy Voronin seems to imply – then it would be better to play Benayoun there.

The good news for Benitez is that he has some time to turn around the club: the fans’ protests have seen to that. In the past he’s shown that he’s more than capable of moving on players who aren’t delivering (Josemi, Antonio Nunez, Jan Kromkamp, Mark Gonzalez) and he is more than adept at finding good players even without spending too much (Alvaro Arbeloa, Daniel Agger, Pepe Reina) so in that regard he’s better placed than his predecessor.

What has been lacking is a distinct playing style, the willingness to dominate games and play. It is in that direction that Benitez must start to push his team and results will inevitably follow. Otherwise, he’ll be yet another to have failed to learn from the mistakes of others with no one but himself to blame.


January Transfer Window Round-up

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Friday, February 01, 2008 by

A degree of normality has been restored at Anfield, even though stories about the club’s debt and the possible takeover by DIC continue to filter out. At least, the scare against Havant & Waterlooville has put the focus back on the playing side of things even though this hasn’t been giving the fans much comfort.

Nor did Martin Skrtel, Liverpool’s only major transfer this January who enjoyed a shaky start to his Anfield career against the part-timers, something that led a number of ‘fans’ to question his abilities. Seeing that Daniel Agger was similarly unimpressive in his first games for the club, it would appear that some people never do seem to learn.

Skrtel’s arrival once again puts question marks over Sami Hyppia’s long term future at the club and there have been rumours that Celtic are looking to sign him once his current contract runs out at the end of the season. That remains a possible scenario but not one that many Liverpool fans would hope comes true. Hyppia deserves his tenth season at Anfield and to see out his career at the club.

On the opposite side of the age scale, Jack Hobbs is just starting out his career and has been sent to Scunthorpe to gain experience. They lost 2-0 to Burnley on his debut but many of those who saw him play were impressed by him. Hopefully, he will turn out to be as good as Paco Herrera – the man who spotted him playing for Lincoln – predicted he could be.

Lee Peltier, who made a handful of League Cup appearances, has been sold to Yeovil whilst Besian Idrizaj was all set to join Oldham on loan for the rest of the season before backtracking in the last minute.

One player who didn’t fulfill predictions was Momo Sissoko who failed to build on a good start to his Liverpool career and leaves the club. What is amazing is that Juventus have agreed to pay a fee close to £8.1 million which means that Liverpool have actually made a profit off of him.

Giving his erratic displays over the past few months few will miss Sissoko especially now that things regarding Javier Mascherano seem to be moving on. The Argentine is a massive player and it would have been criminal for Liverpool to miss out on him. Hopefully, this is one that will be tied up soon.