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Archive for September 2008

The Lad Can Play: Lauri Della Valle

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Tuesday, September 30, 2008 by

Games with Chelsea tend to be quite memorable and hyped up. Little, however, was made of the most recent encounter between the two clubs. Admittedly it was the two sides’ reserve teams that met yet, given that they play in different sections of the league, it was an unusual encounter nevertheless.

It may still turn out to be a memorable one, however, as the friendly featured the first reserve team appearance of Lauri Della Valle.

The Finnish striker with an Italian father (hence the name) joined Liverpool last year amid a flurry of articles about his immense potential. Malcolm Elias, the man charged with finding new players for the academy, was quoted as saying that “he is a special talent; there's no doubt about that” whilst scout Ian Brannagan said that “I believe a year will suffice Lauri at the Academy. After that he'll be ready to move to Melwood.”

That Liverpool had been so persistent to get the player to sign also heightened expectations: they had been following him for almost a year before Della Valle agreed to join. Then again, he had a very good reason to do so.

A year earlier, he had moved to Inter Milan but found it tougher than expected. Not because of the distance from home but rather because of lack of team spirit. Within six months he was back home and that experience convinced him that he would take more care in choosing his next team.

And he had plenty to choose from, with a host of big clubs expressing their interest. Liverpool, however, played their cards right and eventually Della Valle joined last year. His impact was immediate, scoring some eleven goals in his first ten games for the U17. That soon won him promotion to the U18 side which is where he has started this season.

Goals have been harder to come by yet his overall level of play hasn’t disappointed and the initial positive reports have all been borne out. That much was evidenced by Liverpool offering him a four year professional deal after the Chelsea game – Della Valle has just turned seventeen so before that he could only sign a pre-agreement – and he’s already training with the reserves.

That makes him the youngest player in the Melwood set-up which goes to show just how highly rated he is. There is, of course, good reason for this. Physically stronger than your average teen, Della Valle has that added awareness of what is happening around him on the pitch that marks out special talent.

He can find space between defenders just as much as he can play through an intelligent pass to others around him making a run into space. There is also an end result to his game: he can bring others into play but above all he is a goalscorer.

Interested in reading more about Liverpool's young players? Find many more profiles here.


Why should I care...

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... that Liverpool are about to score their 1,000th Premier League goal?

This meaningless piece of information was mentioned on television during the derby as if it was an important milestone and it is all part of the revisionist program according to which football began at the start of the Premier League. Liverpool have been set up since 1892 and the most of the time has been spent in the top flight regardless of the name of the competition.

So why should anyone be interested in a meaningless statistics that only tell the part of the story that Premier League marketers want us to hear?


A Look At: Elephants, Lions & Eagles

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Monday, September 29, 2008 by

Growing up as a football mad teenager, the weekly purchase of Guerin Sportivo was a must. The Italian magazine was cheap enough and, in any case, I could easily get the money for it off my parents with the excuse that it was helping me learn Italian.

But what made it such a must read in the eyes of a kid fed up with the banalities that proliferated what were roughly the English equivalents of Match and Shoot was the serious edge to its writing. Games were analysed in detail, arguments eloquently put forward and players from every corner of the world spoken about.

This latter insight – remember, this was the pre-internet era – always fascinated me. How much football did these guys get to watch to be able to talk with such authority about an eighteen year old in his debut season in South America? How many people did they know and how did they manage such a wide range of contacts?

Those questions remained at the back of my mind until reading Filippo Maria Ricci’s – a regular writer in Guerin Sportivo - opening chapter in his book ‘Elephants, lions and eagles’. Ricci’s opening gambit reveals that most of his early writing about African football was gleaned by visiting African embassies in Rome in the hope of gaining access to newspapers from the respective countries.

An ingenious way – even if a myth shattering one – of getting a leg up the journalistic ladder.

Ricci’s interest in Africa, however, wasn’t exclusively down to it providing him with a previously untapped niche’ but rather a genuine one. And it is around that love of African football and his regular trips to the continent to follow up stories that this book is centred.

As with any book written from such a personal perspective, you have to allow room for the author’s own idiosyncrasies. So it is here where Ricci, wittingly or not, is often guilty of name-dropping people he met on his trips, something that can be irritating if you pay too much attention to it.

I didn’t but the same cannot be said of the tactic of resorting to articles he’d written – translated, of course – about the particular subject he happens to be talking about. It smacks of laziness and an attempt to add pages to a book that is very much on the anorexic side of thin. Whatever the aim of adopting such a style was, it has passed me by.

It is disappointing because otherwise the book is hugely enjoyable. Ricci is engaging, has a very interesting story to tell ad adds insight on a continent about which very little is known.

It also suffers because of inevitable comparisons with the high standard set by other When Saturday Comes books (Morbo and Tor in particular) but, even so, - and despite other shortcomings – I don’t regret buying and in the main it was a good read.

Anyone who is still thinking about making the purchase however, would be well advised to proceed with eyes open so as to avoid being disappointed.


Good Game Bad Game [vs Everton]

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Sunday, September 28, 2008 by

As with the game against Manchester United, I felt awful before this game. And, as with the game with Manchester United, I shouldn't have bothered. Rarely have Liverpool dominated with such ease at Goodison Park (61% of possession, the stats showed at the end) and really it was a game that could have been won by a bigger margin.

If there's a sure sign of how much Rafael Benitez has developed since joining Liverpool, it is the manner in which his teams face these type of games. Whereas in his first seasons Liverpool struggled to cope with the physical nature of teams like Everton and Bolton, they are much more capable of handling them now.

It was a fantastic performance throughout where all players did their bit. Talk of going for the title is still premature but the season is shaping up nicely.

Good Game
Apart from one heart stopping moment Pepe Reina handled the very little that Everton threw at him with ease. That was down to a fantastic game by both Jamie Carragher and Martin Skrtel. The latter seems to be getting better with every game and with his strength he can easily handle the physical challenge of players like Yakubu (and it wasn't a penalty).

For some reason, Alvaro Arbeloa has a number of critics but I think that he's been very good this season. None more so than yesterday where his defending was very good and he got up to support the attack as often as he could.

It seems to have escaped a lot of people's attention but both goals came after Albert Rieira won the ball and started off an attack. I won't say that he's a great player because it still is too early for that yet the signs are promising.

I could copy my comments each week as far as Xabi Alonso and Dirk Kuyt are concerned. The first imposed the tempo and the second worked hard for the side. Both are valuable for Liverpool even though their efforts aren't always recognised.

Steven Gerrard was, yet again, immense and his running ensured that Liverpool retained control of the game. My man of the match. That might seem a bit unfair on Fernando Torres who scored two excellent goals (and a brilliant third that only Mike Riley knows why he had to call it off) yet overall Gerrard did that little bit more.

I still expect more from Robbie Keane but setting up the first goal for Torres will boost his confidence.

Bad Game
It might seem like I'm picking on him but I thought that Andrea Dossena was out of sorts. He hasn't settled in yet, is lacking that bit of confidence and seems to be playing on a different wavelength then the rest of the side.

Substitutes
Forget Crewe, Benitez should have called up a couple of reserves for this game since, given the ease with which it was won, it might have been a great opportunity to give them a chance! Of those who came on, Fabio Aurelio managed to strengthen the left hand side after Rieira seemed to have been losing his rag a bit. Once again, Lucas Leiva came on in a successful Goodison Park win. It is also nice to see that Benitez has been reading this blog and gave Jermaine Pennant another chance just as I was suggesting earlier this week.


The Week In Words

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Liverpool are such a big club. Anybody who tells you he wants to leave a club like that is lying.
Nice to hear from Emile Heskey.

It is very frustrating to know that you've been a playing such big part of the team and all of a sudden you are in the shadows but that's the manager's choice and you just have to get on with it. There's no point complaining.
And perhaps Heskey has been advising Jermaine Pennant about life away from Anfield.

Chelsea, attempting to turn Stamford Bridge into a London tourist attraction, have revamped their museum that now includes a special video history of the club narrated by celebrity fan Richard Attenborough, as well as Jose Mourinho’s famous coat and his Chelsea desk, plus Avram Grant’s Champions League runners-up medal.
And we say that they've got no history.

When teams are defending the way they did, with that determination, they are difficult to break down and you need a little break like that.
It is not often that I turn to Alex Ferguson for thoughts, but this comment after their win against Bolton, coreousy of a made up penalty thanks to Rob Stiles, encapsulated all that didn't happen for Liverpool against Stoke.

It's now six wins out of five for Hughie McAuley's side and the Reds have scored 15 goals in the process.
Someone on the official website isn't too good with his maths. (The error has since been spotted and corrected.)

You really need to use your brain in these type of games. Of course passion is important in a derby, but you win with your brain and with your muscles as well.
Rafael Benitez on what wins you derbies.

Very disappointing, especially after the first half, when we had the better chances - Cahill tried to be too clever with his, when he should have put his lace through the ball. After the break we tried to play more football, which was our downfall. Cahill should not have been sent off - as Moyes said, it wasn't even the worst tackle in the match and their guy went down as if he was shot. Gerrard was again trying to referee the match - I'm sure Riley was going to send Arbeloa off, but Gerrard had a quiet word and it was yellow.
Nice and objective from Everton fan Simon Paul talking to the Guardian


Lucas Must Learn that Mediocrity Isn’t Good Enough

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Friday, September 26, 2008 by

Not one to dwell too much on what the reaction might be, Rafael Benitez has never shirked away from making controversial choices because people might not agree with them. Few of his decisions, however, will match the levels of surprise hit the last time Liverpool travelled to Goodison Park.

With the game stuck at 1-1 and Liverpool struggling to build play, Benitez came up with a strange solution: take off Steven Gerrard and replace him with Lucas Leiva.

The Brazilian had been hyped up on his arrival yet for all the promise, few saw him as the best suited to replace the captain in such a high profile game.

Yet the move paid off. Liverpool started to get more into the game after that change was made and it was Lucas’ shot that Phil Neville handled on the line to give Liverpool the match winning penalty.
It also gave Lucas the ideal platform on which to build and confirm all the good that had been written about him. Sadly that hasn’t happened. Lucas has been given many opportunities but on very few occasions has he shown anything of special note. True, it is hard to pin-point games where he has been poor but quite simply it is often difficult to notice Lucas at all.

Take the recent game in Marseilles. Throughout the ninety minutes it was easy to forget that Lucas was even on the pitch such was his ineffectiveness. When the post-match statistics popped up, however, Lucas was up there with the top five passers in the game. Even more surprisingly, 80% of his passes had found a red shirt.

The reason behind this is fairly simple. Lucas follows the old Liverpool mantra of getting the ball and passing it on to the nearest team-mate. In that respect, Lucas excels.

Yet that is only half of the equation: Liverpool players were also expected to move into space in expectation of the return pass or to keep the move flowing forward. And that is where Lucas fails. He gets rid of the ball but rarely does anything particularly creative with it nor does he move too far away for the part of the pitch where he operates and this limits the impact that he can make.

This has also made him an easy target for criticism. The number of fans dissatisfied by how he plays is increasing with every game and they are getting more vociferous.

They have good reason for this. Lucas can occasionally thread through incisive balls, he is clearly an intelligent player and the high esteem in which he is held back in Brazil and indicator of his talent.

All this, however, is not enough to offset the current impression that he doesn’t add anything to the team.

For, what made Liverpool such a strong team for such a long time wasn’t simply their style of play but also the aversion of mediocrity: which is what Lucas has been for most of his time at the club. Time has come for him to start showing that he is better than that.


Too Early To Give Up On Pennant

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Thursday, September 25, 2008 by

There have been many critics of Jermaine Pennat – a good portion of them Liverpool fans – yet I have always failed to understand the reason for all the negativity. I appreciate that he’s probably not good enough, or at least not consistent enough, to be playing each week for a team with title ambitions but, as a squad player, he isn’t a bad option.

Especially considering the competition.

We all know that Dirk Kuyt works hard and plays a valuable role for the team (even if some are much less willing to agree to his utility than others) yet the creativity that he brings to the side is minimal.

Who else is there? Yossi Benayoun has played on the right but that is largely through default. Give him a choice and he’d opt for a central role and that’s probably where he’s at his best. You might also point at Nabil El Zhar. The Moroccan youth has promise but a genuinely better option than Pennant he is not.

What Pennant does lack in comparison to those three is the ability to play in different roles which is probably why Rafael Benitez tends to prefer them when choosing his substitutes. Or at least that is my assumption because the other areas where Pennant is lacking – scoring and consistency – are problems for the others as well.

Specifically in his role, however, he is the best of the lot. Pennant has pace, his crosses the ball into dangerous areas and is the most creative even though his apparent reluctance (whether imposed or not I don’t know? to go past people rather than crossing as soon as he finds space is frustrating.

Pennant has also improved in his attitude, which at the time of his transfer was the biggest worry, and ever since joining Liverpool he has been impeccable. He has never complained about being dropped, has always worked hard and when he’s had to play for the reserves he's always done his utmost.

His attitude was typified this week against Crewe. Making his first appearance for the season, he knew that this was the perfect opportunity to show his worth and so he did, setting up the second goal and being one of the better players on the pitch.

That is unlikely to win over support from those too entrenched in their negative opinion of him. But will it be enough to change Benitez’s mind? Hopefully yes.


No Darby or Spearing for Crewe game

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Tuesday, September 23, 2008 by

There were many dissenting voices to my article about the academy and whether players coming through it are being ostracized both in the comments on this blog as well as on the forums that picked it up.

The main arguments were that, if good enough, players will come through and, even though I've got my reservations about that (would Jamie Carragher have made it at Liverpool if he'd come through now?) it is acceptable enough.

What I find hard to accept, however, is Dave Usher's snippet of news that neither Stephen Darby nor Jay Spearing have been called up for today's game against Crewe. I'd have accepted seeing Darby on the bench given that Phillip Deggen was always going to start with this one but if you're not going to utilise two of the most consistent reserve team players in the Carling Cup, when are they going to get their chance?

Before the pro-Rafa group jump on my case, this is not a criticism of the manager. He has brought in many good young players and he will undoubtedly use a number of them today. The reserves team has undoubtedly improved since he's been at the club.

My gripe is that the whole strategy isn't doing the club and the players themselves any favours. If neither Darby nor Spearing were going to get their chance in the League Cup, why not send them on loan to a decent Championship side (and not a struggling Division One side like Hereford, where poor Robbie Threlfall has been sent)? Surely, they would have had a better chance of improving?

Instead they were given hope that they would get to play some time during the season which, given today's news, looks unlikely. How their confidence and morale will be hit by this is anyone's guess, but it is hardly going to do them any good.

Do read Dave Usher's preview of the Crewe game, as well as his excellent match reports on The Liverpool Way.

In the meantime, have you read my post on the future of Liverpool's academy? Do so here and let me know what you think.


Are Liverpool Killing Off the Academy?

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Monday, September 22, 2008 by

Liverpool’s reserves lost in the league for the first time in over a year last week, a record that brings back happy memories of an era where the second string used to routinely win the Pontins League under the guidance of future first team manager Roy Evans.

The strategy back then was also very similar tot e one that Rafael Benitez has been adopting even if the range of nationalities has been widened drastically. Players with potential are brought in with the aim of allowing them to develop within the club. Back then it was the likes of Ian Rush, Steve Nicol, Alan Hasen, Ronnie Whelan and Gary Gillespie, now it is Daniel Pacheco, Damien Plessis, Krisitan Nemeth, Dean Bouzanis, Nabil El Zhar and Mikel San Jose.

There is, however, one big difference: Beniez hasn’t been strengthening the reserves as much as he has been stacking them. A run down through the reserves squad reveals that there are more than 25 players available for Gary Ablett to chose from and that’s without including out of favour first teamers like Jermaine Pennant who made an appearance last week.

It is an anomalous situation. On the face of it, there is little wrong with such an approach. Most of the players have cost very little so the risk is minimal and if even one player become a first team regular then the club would have saved millions. And, even if they don’t , a good number of them have already built such a reputation that were they to be sold they would make a profit.

All of which adds to the situation’s attractiveness.

Yet for all those plus points, it is hard to escape the feeling that things have been overdone. Most of the players are in the 17 to 20 age bracket, a crucial period for one’s development. Playing regularly is critical to keep on improving yet this is impossible particularly with the limited game numbers of the current league structure.

And that’s only half the problem. With so many players jostling for playing time, how can Ablett even contemplate looking at how the kids at the academy are doing? How can the likes of Nathan Ecclestone (pictured), David Amoo, Marvin Pourie and Michael Scott – all players who need to step up a level to continue their development – progress if there are so many ahead of them?

Just as it was under Gerard Houllier, the impression is that the Academy is being treated like a foreign body not as part of the whole structure through which players can progress. Benitez’s recent admission that he intends to restructure the academy is as close to confirmation of that as you are likely to get.

Does this imply that Benitez would willingly block the progress of players because they are coming from the Academy? Of course not yet, having brought in so many players, the message that he is putting across is that there isn’t any room in his set-up for them.


The Week In Words

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Sunday, September 21, 2008 by

He could be one of the greatest players in the history of the club, he's that good.
Dave Usher tries to make Javier Mascherano blush.

Two down, one (or is it two?) to go. First, Thaksin Shinawatra faced up to facts and sold up at Manchester City. Then Mike Ashley announced last night that he is looking to sell Newcastle United. All it needs now is for that pair of cowboys at Liverpool to be chased out of town and the Barclays Premier League will have the early-season hat-trick it wanted.
The ever eloquent Oliver Kay.

Approached within the stadium, Gillett said that the idea of an Arab takeover is not the panacea for success that it seems.
Yes, especially compared with the incredible success the H&G regime has been

In fact, I'd go as far to say that the famous No 7 shirt worn by Keegan and Dalglish rests in pretty safe hands.
Alan Smith heaps the pressure on Robbie Keane

The Dubai ruler, Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, now views Liverpool as a personal rather than government venture but has received little encouragement so far from the Americans, despite the credit crunch delaying their plans for a new stadium and fans' protests continuing against their reign.
Nothing new...but Andy Hunter gives reason to retain hope.

AFTER being described as Duracell bunnies, it was appropriate that Liverpool should continue banging their drum in Europe last night.
Ian Doyle milks an anecdote

I saw less agile manoeuvres on the gymnastics mat in Beijing.
Andy Proudfoot's take of Gerrard's goal against Marseilles.

No sooner had finger nails begun to be chewed in the away end than Gerrard popped up to score with a wonderful curling effort which brought back vivid memories of a near identical strike at Luton in the FA Cup three seasons ago.
And this is Tony Barrett's take of that goal

I wasn't happy with his overall performance last night. He must improve both his tackling, positional play and use of the ball. It's time now he started to impress, not disappoint.
Tommy Smith is critical of Lucas Leiva. Judging by most forums, join the queue Tommy.


Good Game Bad Game [vs Stoke]

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After the week Liverpool had, it was almost inevitable that something like this would happen to end it on a sour note. Last week it was suggested that in beating Manchester United, Liverpool had finally overcome the problem that had held them back in the past. To an extent that is true yet Liverpool must also win these games to have a realistic chance.

Liverpool’s problems arose once again from the wide areas not because there weren’t any players willing to take crosses but rather as no one really tried to go past a man. This would have stretched Stoke’s defence and opened up spaces in the middle. Instead, cross after cross arrived into the box yet the Stoke defence could deal with them comfortably.

Of course, things would have been greatly different had Steven Gerrard’s goal been allowed to stand just as it would have been different if Liverpool had more to prepare for this game rather than a day and a bit. But none of that matters now.

The important thing is to get ready for next Tuesday in the Carling Cup when, hopefully, the reserves will get their chance to show what they can do.

Good Game
Pepe Reina was strong in the rare occasions the ball got near him and he dealt with Stoke’s set pieces with a fair degree of ease. So too did Jamie Carragher and Martin Sktrel who more than matched anything that Stoke put at them on both physical and technical level. Would it, however, been better to use Daniel Agger given his ability to move the ball forward and act as an additional midfielder? It would also help if one of the two were to make their physical presence count more when we're taking corner kicks.

Alvaro Arbeloa too had a decent match where he was careful defensively and got forward often. The problem was that neither he, nor Dirk Kuyt – who also had a decent game – offer that much creatively which is what Liverpool needed most today.

In midfield Steven Gerrard tried his hardest (probably too hard) to get a goal but sadly, this was a day when hardly any of his shots got on target and that allowed Stoke off rather lightly. Better, on all counts, was done by Xabi Alonso who was immaculate today and probably Liverpool’s man of the match.

There was also another very promising showing by Albert Rieira who has really landed on his feet. He was the only one who tried something different and perhaps should have stayed on the pitch for longer.

Bad Game
Sadly, this was another poor game from Andrea Dossena who is really struggling to adjust. He’s not a bad player yet, at the moment, he’s playing like Stig Inge Bjornebye used to, sending in crosses without bothering to look at the options.

Just as worrying is Robbie Keane’s form. Forget the fact that he hasn’t scored any goals yet, his overall play has been poor and, apart from a half against Aston Villa, hasn’t had a decent game in a Liverpool shirt as yet.

It was also a poor showing form Fernando Torres. Like Gerrard, he tried hard to score yet granted the games clearest cut chances, he failed to convert them.

Substitutes
Ryan Babel came on for Rieira and played well but sadly this time could not conjure a winner. Yossi Benayoun’s skills and abilities to go past people could have come in handy today. Unfortunately, when he came on he didn’t try this and just as the rest of the team resorted to crosses far too often.


Spreading the Word: Brazil Talent Factory

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Thursday, September 18, 2008 by

Rafael Benitez has never hidden his admiration for South American players. Argentines were at the core of his Valencia side but at Liverpool it is to Brazil that he is turning to with increasing regularity. The surprise arrival of Vitor Flora means that there are now four Brazilians in Liverpool’s first team squad (Flora, Fabio Aurelio, Lucas Leiva and Diego Cavalieri).

With that in mind, it might be useful to keep in mind this article on the Brazil talent factory which takes a look some of the most promising players.

Have you read our feature on Vitor Flora yet?


Good Game Bad Game [vs Olympique Marseilles]

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Wednesday, September 17, 2008 by

A draw would have been enough, so a win is quite and added bonus. Liverpool played well trying to exploit the gaps left as Marseilles pressed forward but the tiredness from last Saturday showed. Marseilles, on their part, were very good and had they scored an equalizer no one would have complained. Their attacking play was full of inventiveness and nice flicks but, fortunately for us, they were unable to get that final touch right.

Given Atletico’s trashing of PSV as well as Marseilles' potential, this could turn out to be a huge win for Liverpool.

Good Game

There might have been others around the pitch who had an equally good game but Pepe Reina gets the man of the match award from me for the number of excellent saves that he made – including that last gasp block on Niang – which were important as either one of Steven Gerrard’s goals.

The principal reason why Marseilles failed to score more than one was the form of Jamie Carragher and Martin Skrtel. Carragher might have been caught out for the first goal but other than that neither one put a foot wrong. Alvaro Arbeloa wasn’t in their class but he too had a decent game, tackling high up the pitch to keep Marseilles back.

Earlier this week I spoke about Ryan Babel’s need to add continuity to his game. Well, if this was his answer then long may it continue. His attacking play added another dimension to Liverpool’s game and gave Marseilles an added worry.

It was Babel who won the penalty that Steven Gerrard scored twice. Doing so took calmness whereas his first goal was pure class. An excellent game throughout.

Bad Game
This was Andrea Dossena’s big opportunity to show his worth after Fabio Aurelio, yet again, picked up an injury.

Unfortunately, the Italian defender had a nightmare and he couldn’t get near any of the Marseilles players. Talk to people in Italy and they’ll swear that the talent is there but, as yet, he hasn’t shown much in a Liverpool shirt.

The post-match statistics showed Lucas Leiva as one of Liverpool’s top passers of the night. That might have been but neither he nor Javier Mascherano seemed to have much of an impact on the game where Benoit Cheyrou was allowed to dictate play with ease.

Fernando Torres might have played but he clearly wasn’t fully fit. He still troubled Marseilles but, given his high standards, was well below par. So too Dirk Kuyt who never really got going. Perhaps it was the effort put in last Saturday yet this was a rare off game for him.

Substitutes
A further fifteen minutes’ look at Albert Rieira and once again he looked good. Eager to take people on and with a good vision of the game, he almost created Liverpool’s third goal and, if he can build on this start, will turn out to be a very good buy.

Yossi Benayoun tried hard to fill Gerrard’s shoes but that is an impossible task. He still showed some good touches but needs to impose himself more when given an opportunity. Robbie Keane barely had a touch of the ball, coming on as a late substitute.

Have you read our analysis of the victory over Manchester United? Do so here.


Reds on Loan: Leto Scores in Europe

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One of the major reasons for which Liverpool chose Olympiakos as Sebastian Leto's destination for a year on loan was the possibility of the Argentine winger to play in the Champions League.

That didn't last long with the Greeks knocked out at the final qualifying round. Still, there's still the UEFA Cup as consolation and Leto has started that in brilliant fashion scoring the second in Olympiakos' 2-0 away win at FC Nordsjaelland.

His goal can be seen here.


Babel Must Prove He's Not Just a Supersub

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Monday, September 15, 2008 by

Last Saturday, Ryan Babel probably enjoyed his best moment in a Liverpool shirt. Scoring a long-awaited winner against Manchester United is not enough to put him among the greats of the club, no where near, yet it will be remembered for quite some time.

The manner in which his shot went in may have been blessed by a touch of good fortune yet credit is due for both his positioning and calmness in a situation that could have easily seen the ball hitting those at the back end of the Kop. Babel made what could have been a very difficult shot look easy.

Not the same, however, can be said for most of a Liverpool career which has been complicated by a perplexing case on inconsistency.

Just as telling as the manner of Babel’s goal against United were the circumstances surrounding it. Whilst Steven Gerrard’s introduction on to the pitch was met with the kind of ovations that are reserved for the captain, Babel coming on for Rieira probably made more of a mark on the game and not simply for the goal.

Wes Brown had already had a difficult afternoon trying to contain the Spaniard. With tiredness setting in, he didn’t stand much of a hope for Babel.

That’s how it is most of the time. Of his eleven goals for Liverpool, eight have come as a substitute. And that is indicative of his overall performances with Babel shining when asked to come on late in the game yet struggling when given the full ninety minutes to make his mark.

For a player blessed with so much talent and ability – not to mention one who cost around £14 million - that isn’t enough. This is, after all, a player who Kenny Dalglish predicted would ‘terrify’ players and who has been likened to Thierry Henry.

Shades of Henry are there and not only in Babel’s instinctive predisposition of running at players with the ball at his feet. Henry too had difficulty convincing people about his suitability to play upfront with Juventus playing him on the right hand side of midfield. Then Arsene Wenger stepped in, put Henry up front and neither one ever looked back.

The same could apply for Babel. Even though he was occasionally used in midfield for Ajax, the general acceptance was that he was a striker. It is in that position that he plays for the Dutch Under 21 side and that is where he plays for the senior team as well. At Liverpool, however, he’s yet to be given an opportunity to do so.

That might be at the root of the problem. Benitez clearly feels that by playing out wide Babel will have more of an opportunity to develop. But perhaps that’s not true either: otherwise why would he have gone for David N’Gog to replace Fernando Torres against Aston Villa rather than the much more experienced Babel?

There is another theory, one that finds strength in the rumours that did the rounds at Ajax, according to which, as yet, Babel does not have the mental strength needed to handle top end football. A bad pass, a bad move or even an overcritical fan is enough to unsettle him. When his time on the pitch is brief, that isn’t much of a problem. If he’s on from the start, however, then that’s not the case.

Whatever the reason, the arrival of Albert Rieira puts the heat on Babel. Whereas before Benitez lacked options and often had to turn to Babel by default, that isn’t the case any more.

Unless the player himself is satisfied with bit-part appearances, Babel has to show the determination and consistency needed to win his place in the starting eleven. Otherwise, goals like the one against United will simply serve a reminder of a talent that could have achieved so much yet ultimately failed to do so.


Good Game Bad Game [vs Manchester United]

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Sunday, September 14, 2008 by

I have a confession to make: I didn’t feel too good before this game. We’ve been playing too poorly to be in any condition to face United especially without Steven Gerrard and Fernando Torres.

I shouldn’t have troubled myself because it was pride and determination rather than form that decided this game. Liverpool dominated for long stretches during this game and thoroughly deserved to win. I still believe that this means very little as far as final league positioning of both teams is concerned, yet it is a win that should be savoured nevertheless.

Good Game
After that early goal, Pepe Reina was rarely troubled yet his save from Ryan Giggs’ dipping shot was crucial and all the more easier to appreciate. Alvaro Arbeloa had a solid if unspectacular game on the right. He moved forward much more than he had in previous games and is showing signs that he’s fitting.

Even better, however, was Fabio Aurelio on the other side. More than capable when it comes to defending, he continuously troubled United going forward both with his ability to get past people and with his passing. If – and it is a big if – he can stay fit this could be a big season for him.

In the centre of defence both Jamie Carragher and Martin Skrtel were immense. The Slovak in particular is really growing into his role and is now starting to show that he is not just a hard case but can play a fair bit as well.

With a win against United on his City debut and another one for Liverpool, Albert Rieira must be thinking that all this is easy. It was a hard game for him to make his debut yet he immediately struck up an understanding with Aurelio and did a very good job.

The two main stars of the show, however, were in central midfield. Xabi Alonso dictated play as only he can and United, shorn of Michael Carrick and inexplicably without Owen Hargreaves, couldn’t stop him.

That Alonso had Javier Mascherano play alongside him, however, was a major boost. The Argentine did absolutely everything: tackle, defend, pass, dribble, attack. It was through his persistence that Liverpool got their second goal. My man of the match.

I’m still undecided whether Dirk Kuyt had a good or a bad game. On the one hand there is his persistent running and harrying of players that United clearly didn’t like, particularly after Van Der Saar made that mistake which led to the first goal. Yet his complete inability to stop the ball from bouncing off him on his first touch is irritating and is costing Liverpool.

Bad Game
It is harsh to say that Yossi Benayoun had a bad game but more rather an ineffectual one. He tried hard yet he’s not a right midfielder and it shows. Worse, however, was done by Robbie Keane who offered Liverpool very little. More than that, he keeps on mis-hitting the ball whenever he comes near a crucial position which is quite frustrating.

Substitutes
This is why Rafael Benitez keeps Ryan Babbel as a substitute. Play him from the first minute and he is anonymous, put him towards the end of the game and he can be a match winner as he did on this occasion.

He may not have contributed much but the sight of Steven Gerrard coming on galvanized everyone and gave Liverpool the energy to keep on going forward. After the week he’s had, Sami Hyppia deserved to come on to the pitch to play his part in a win over United even though it was in the centre of midfield.


The Week In Words

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IT'S no wonder players are going round saying losing with England never hurts as much as it does with their own club. You'd probably feel the same if you'd been messed about as much as Jamie Carragher has by his country.
Mark Lawrenson in a pro Liverpool comment shocker

"They didn't want me to move elsewhere, so that's why I was told the news of having been left out, just after the transfer window had closed,'
Sami Hyppia and how not to treat a club legend

So keen were they to jump into bed with the first “billionaires” to come along with a sackful of promises, that they found themselves landed with Gillett & Hicks.
Harsh but fair? Ian King's take on Liverpool's current situation (and another pro-ground sharing argument)

THE fingertip tooth brush, Eye protectors for chickens, Duster slippers, The Butter Stick.

All totally useless (and genuine) inventions which lasted only as long as it took the patent office manager to stop laughing. To this illustrious list I suggest we add the modern day equivalent, equally barmy, impractical and no use whatsoever: the transfer window. Can anyone else remember why this was brought in?
Andy Proudfoot doesn't really like the Transfer Window. As you might have guessed.

It's nice that he chose to say it how it is, but maybe he should have waited until his playing days were done before making any revelations.
Paul Heron on why Carragher has no future in diplomacy.

The term world-class is appended to many England players but the best measure is that of the players themselves. The FIFPro World XI for the three seasons from 2004 to 2007 shows only John Terry (three times) and Frank Lampard and Steven Gerrard (once each) have been selected.
Brian Moore seems to be hinting that Steven Gerrard does not deserve to be called world class.

We were beaten by a far better team.
Alex Ferguson’s quote perfectly rounds off the week


Spreading the Word: This is Anfield Podcast

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Friday, September 12, 2008 by

As far as I’m aware there aren’t that many football podcasts, certainly not a lot of good ones. The one that comes out of the BBC World Football Phone-In tends to be very good whilst the ones that are done by the Times and the Guardian have their good moments but far too often try too hard to be funny.

In this barren landscape steps the ‘This is Anfield’ podcast. I’d listened to this once before, in the aftermath of the home game against Inter last season, and it was very, very good. The only problem was that it was done rather sporadically so it was hard to keep track of when a new one was coming up. So I ended up never hearing another episode.

Until the start of this season, that is when I happened across their latest offering. And good thing I did.

Their formula is very simple: get intelligent Liverpool fans and leave them to talk about their club. In the latest episode there’s got David User, the editor of the Liverpool Way fanzine, who is witty, intelligent and has that dark mood that seems to be edging its way among fans at the moment. Then there’s John Barnes who, as most former players tend to be, tries to be as politically correct with his criticism as possible. He’s still got a lot of interesting things to say.

The best of the podcast, however, is reserved for the second half when Rogan Taylor comes along. As expected, Taylor makes a determined sales pitch for his Share Liverpool project and it is hard to argue against his points. More than that, Taylor also talks about the current situation at the club, on and off the pitch, and everything he says makes a lot of sense. As with Usher, it can be a bit depressing but hey, how can it be too different given the way things are going?

The problem remains the same: unless you happen to be a regular visitor to the site it is hard to keep track of when a new episode is out. But, given the quality, it is definitely worth it make the effort.

To listen to the This is Anfield podcast, go here. If there are other podcasts you think are worthwhile listening to, share it with the rest of the readers by leaving a comment.


A Closer Look At Albert Rieira

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A lot has been written about Albert Rieira since he joined Liverpool in the final hours of the transfer window but most of it was based on his time at Manchester City which, given that it was a bit back and a totally different situation, doesn't really amount to much.

So instead we've asked someone who has seen him play fairly regularly in recent years, a guy (I think) who goes by the pseudonym of Striker and who writes Spanish Football Sports, one of the best blogs about Spanish football around.

Encouraginly, he's got quite positive things to say.

"Albert Riera is an excellent 27 year old midfielder that will give Liverpool plenty of happy afternoons. He is an attacking midfielder with a tremendous shot that gives the side another weapon in its arsenal.

He already has English Football experience - 2006 with Man City (on loan) - and this will help his adaptation to Liverpool and the English life. His Spanish teammates and coach at Liverpool will also quickly speed up his incorporation & keep the mind on the job at hand.

Riera had a wonderful season with Espanyol last season, so much so, that he was called up to the National Team on various occasions (5 caps), even scoring goals in vital qualifying Group ties (Denmark for example)

In a nutshell, good signing for Liverpool. Albert Riera will find English Football to his liking as he will have space to appear all of the sudden in the goal square or space to shot from long distance.


A Look At: Football Punk

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Tuesday, September 09, 2008 by

With an increasing number of sports pages devoted to the sport, a number of magazine and countless websites all purporting to cover every angle of the game of football, it is difficult to see any room for new publications.

Yet they come nevertheless. The latest is Football Punk, an offshoot of the successful Golf Punk magazine which is owned by former Liverpool defender Phil Babb. It’s aim, apparently, is to become the “thinking man’s magazine” even though editor Ian Cruise has been reported as saying that there will be features on the “lives of the players and the homes they live in”.

Looking through the first issue of Football Punk, it is hard to see where the thinking comes in. Instead a number of interviews that try to be all blokey (typical question: what would you sing at a karaoke night) that apart from being boring have already been done elsewhere plus a feature on football in Milan that’s so weak that it looks to have been done by a ten year old after a hurried search on the internet.

Of course, however, you accept a couple of weak features here and there if that’s only the backdrop to the serious thing. Sadly, that never happens.

There’s an article on Paul Gascoigne’s internal struggle that is neither original nor interesting, an interview with Fernando Torres that fails to add anything of particular insight, a piece on the problems with criminality that Sven Goran Erikson is likely to encounter in Mexico that is riddled with hearsay plus a much vaunted interview with Harry Redknapp that prefers to pussy foot around rather than ask the sort of questions that would come to mind when talking to the Portsmouth manager.

Ironically, the only piece that really grabbed my attention was an interview with Ryan Giggs which offers a revealing insight on what makes this player such a winner (winning a tenth title was great, but the most important thing was to win it, never mind how many I’ve won before).

The overall impression, however, is quite negative. Or, to put a kinder slant to it, perhaps aimed at a much younger generation, one that feels that Match is too childish but not ready to go for something more serious like When Saturday Comes or Champions.

But there’s an added twist. For the first four issues, Football Punk is being distributed with Golf Punk magazine so I gave that a look as well. And I started to really like the articles which, for someone who has never set foot on a green, let alone tried a round of golf, is saying something.

There’s a real purpose behind the interviews in Golf Punk whilst the ‘serious’ features really do live up to that billing. Of course, there remain a number of articles that try to be all matey whilst there no need for too much thinking in the Bunker Babes’ pages. But so good is the rest of the magazine that you don’t mind them. If Football Punk were to develop into something of this sort, then it would certainly be more than worthwhile.

Which is not to say that it would manage to oust Four Four Two, whose readership would probably make up for Football Punk’s target audience. Indeed, the real problem with Football Punk is probably that of purpose. With Golf Punk it is very clear what that is trying to achieve: offer a fresh and more populist view of golf that appeals to those golfers who like the game but do not necessarily identify with its conservative image.

It is something which Golf Punk does very well and a formula which could have been easily replicated for other sports with a similar image like athletics and tennis. Yet a populist image is not something that football lacks.

A review copy of Football Punk (along with that of Golf Punk) was kindly supplied by the magazines’ publisher JF Media.


The Lad Can Play: Vitor Flora

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Monday, September 08, 2008 by

Given the high percentage of foreign players coming into the English game each season, it is to be expected that a fair share of them arrive as unknowns. What usually happens is that once attention about a player is heightened by the knowledge that he is going to move to England, information about his abilities (or lack of) starts trickling through.

For Vitor Flora, however, unknown really meant unknown. Whichever way you looked and whoever you asked, no one had heard of him before the announcement that he had joined Liverpool. The only two things known about him were that he was Brazilian and that he played as a striker and that information had been gleaned off the press release that informed the world of the move.

“I'm afraid he's a total unknown even in São Paulo and there's nothing on him,” Jon Cotterill said when A Liverpool Thing got in touch with him. A football commentator for TV Globo in São Paulo and the author of the blog on Brazilian football Pitaco do Gringo, Jon is something of an expert on futebol so that someone like him hadn’t even heard of Flora is quite something.

“I've seen some sites where Brazilians were talking about him and they are just as surprised as anyone by the move.”

There was, however, a good reason for this surprise for Liverpool hadn’t got to know about Flora through conventional means but rather off the internet, more specifically Youtube.

Apparently, it was whilst watching a video of the most promising players in the previous year’s Paulista U17 championship that one of Liverpool’s scouts in South America got to know about him. That initial interest was followed up and eventually it was decided that he was good enough for Liverpool.

Despite being just eighteen, Flora already has quite a story. Hailing from São Joaquim da Barra, a 44,000 large town in the suburbs of Sao Paolo, he made his first steps in football with the legendary side Santos. It didn’t last long, however, as the player barely into his teens couldn’t adapt to being so far away from his family.

From Santos he moved on to Botafogo Ribeirão Preto, where he started to make something of a name for himself. At this point, it is important to point out that this isn’t the legendary Brazilian side hailing from Rio de Janeiro but rather a much smaller one hailing from the city of Ribeirao Preto .

Playing in the U17 championship, Flora scored ten goals which prompted his enterprising father to make a video compilation of his son’s best moments and send it out to the top sides in São Paulo, Rio de Janeiro and Rio Grande do Sul.

This caught the attention not only of Gremio but also of Italian giants Juventus who took Flora on for a trial that lasted forty five days. Ultimately, however, no agreement was reached partly because Juventus wanted to send him out on loan to a Serie B side but largely because they weren’t willing to pay as much as Flora’s father, and agent, was asking for.

Back in Brazil, other clubs were evaluating making a move for Flora with Santos and Cruzeiro interested but these whilst they thought about the deal, Liverpool stepped in to make Flora one of the more unlikely transfers in the club’s history.

It is an interesting bet and not without precedents even though in reality it is much more similar to the plot of the football-themed movie series Goal than the transfer that took Denilson to Arsenal. For, although Denilson too hadn’t played any senior football back in Brazil he already had a good reputation. No one knew anything about Flora making the transfer all the more intriguing. As Jon Cotterill told A Liverpool Thing, “it still sounds a bit odd to me as no one seems to have taken any notice of him here in Brazil.”




Interested in reading more about Liverpool's young players? Find many more profiles here.


The Week In Words

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Sunday, September 07, 2008 by

IF the Premier League was ordered according to artistic merit, Liverpool's current lack of invention and creativity would see them languishing at the wrong end of the table instead of the top. Impotent in attack and all but sterile on the flanks, they are presently about as expressive as a teenager when asked about their day at school.

There's more entertainment in those couple of lines by Tony Barrett than all off Liverpool's games so far this season.

"He's funny, doesn't mind telling people to f*** off, and he even votes Labour. I love him."

Jamie Carragher clearly has a soft spot for Alex Ferguson

There's definitely too many foreigners in the game. What's the point of spending all this money on the academies if we're not pushing local kids through? Liverpool FC is our club. It's a big part of our city and you've got to give young Scousers with aspirations the chance to succeed.

Carragher again

“He also had offers from other English clubs but he said no to them because he wanted to come and play for us. That means a lot to me because it shows the commitment he has to play for Liverpool.”

We liked him because he effed off Everton, is what Rafael Benitez meant to say.

To play in front of the red crowd, every minute has been a privilege. Even after my unfortunate own goal against Chelsea in the Champions League semi last April - where all our dreams were crushed - I felt the support and sympathies from you as real and important.

John Arne Riise probably doesn't visit too many Liverpool forums, does he?

I know I will have to work very hard to get into the team because there are a lot of good players here but that is a challenge I am looking forward to.

New signing Albert Rieira obviously hasn't seen Liverpool play lately.

'I was the happiest player in the squad after the draw.'

Florent Sinama Pongolle on his reaction to the Champions League draw

“When there are 95 registered Brazilian players in the Champions League, 94 French players and 45 Englishmen, then it is difficult. If you lose with the national team, that is the soul of the game… When I was with Juventus and we played against Arsenal you had 10 or 11 English players. OK, Europe is open now, but you need to take care. If you are Manchester United you need to have some players from Manchester. Football is beautiful and popularity brings money, but then people want to make more money, not because it is a game but because it is a product. I need to protect the game and say to people this is not a good way. My philosophy is to protect the identity of the clubs and the country. I like Arsène Wenger, I like Sir Alex Ferguson, I like their players and they do what is best for the clubs, but it is not my philosophy.”

He might not particularly like Liverpool but Michel Platini is right on this one.

"If we are talking about spending money then maybe Manchester City will win the title this year.

Rafael Benitez is afraid of Manchester City.

I am not worried about this. We are really pleased with our signings. We can sign players like Skrtel, Mascherano and Agger who people didn't know about before, but they certainly do now. You will make mistakes but we are trying to progress and, as I said you have to take gambles sometimes. We have a good scouting department and we know about a lot of players in the market.

...or maybe he's not

Back when Manchester City weren't trying to sign up every top player under the sun, Benayoun was on their radar, and they tabled a £6m bid in an attempt to beat off competition from Tottenham and West Ham. Despite needing the cash to fund his now defunct move for Garth Barry, Benitez rejected the offer, and that show of support played a big part in Benayoun's decision to turn down Spartak.

Now go prove to Rafa that he made the right choice, Yossi


Good Game - Bad Game vs Aston Villa

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Monday, September 01, 2008 by

On the face of it, a 0-0 draw away at a side with genuine top four ambitions isn’t such a bad deal especially if your best two players are out injured. Such justifications may be easy to find yet it is wrong to find comfort in them for the truth is that Liverpool could have won at Villa Park. For all the hype surrounding them, with their hyped up wide players being kept quite Aston Villa didn’t show anything special. Then again, neither did Liverpool and this time they couldn’t find it in them to find a late winner making this very much two points dropped rather than one gained.

Good Game
He didn’t have to much to do, yet when he was needed Pepe Reina was always up to the job. So far, he’s been Liverpool’s best player this season which says a lot about how the team has been playing.

Alvaro Arbeloa is a player who, for some reason, a section of Liverpool’s support doesn’t really have a liking for. On today’s evidence it is hard to see why because Ashley Young hardly got past him once and he was always willing to move forward even though this season he’s being much more cautious when doing the latter.

The opposite applies to Martin Skrtel who has rapidly become something of a cult hero. With good reason, because against Aston Villa he gave another strong display regardless of whether he had to deal with the brute strength of John Carew or the speed of Gabriel Agbonlahor. Of course, it helps if you have someone of the experience of Jamie Carragher who didn’t put a foot wrong either. The manner in which he inspires those around him means that Gerrard’s leadership skills at least won’t be missed.

Villa Park marked the return of Javier Mascherano and it didn’t take him long to show what Liverpool have missed. Winning the ball, passing and running at defenders: he did it all against Aston Villa. It is clear that he’s desperate and that’s never a bad attribute to have either.

Mascherano would have normally walked away with the best player award but today he was overshadowed by Xabi Alonso. The Spaniard was off colour in the first games but, whether spurred on by the desire to show that he is better than Gareth Barry or the result of a changed tactical arrangement, he got to control the midfield and marshall Liverpool’s play. Given Gerrard’s absence, it will be up to Alonso to take control of midfield and, based on this game, he well on his way to doing so.

Dirk Kuyt was his usual self, running about and chasing for loose balls. The goal against Liege has given him renewed confidence and hopefully he’ll be able to build on that. Perhaps the most promising thing to come out of Liverpool’s game is Robbie Keane’s performance. He started off anonymously but once Fernando Torres (who it would be unfair to judge given his early departure) went off, he grew into the role and was Liverpool’s best creative outlet.

If Alonso is the one who Liverpool will be looking to step up during Gerrard’s absence then Keane will have to start paying back the confidence shown in him until Torres gets back.

Bad Game
It is slightly harsh to say that Andrea Dossena had a bad game but he does need to improve. Going forward he’s doing decently enough, sending in some powerful and accurate crosses, but defensively he leaves a lot to be desired. The same applies to Lucas Leiva who put himself about but managed to do very little with the ball.

Substitutes
Seeing David Ngog come on for Fernando Torres was surprising to say the least and the young Frenchman didn’t have the best of debuts. His control was often poor, his passing erratic and he didn’t really seem to know what was being expected of him. Mind, he could have scored with a strong curling shot that was deflected over and this was a nineteen year old making his debut, so expected anything better would have been too much. Still, wouldn’t Ryan Babel have been a better option?

Once again, Fabio Aurelio came on as left midfielder which goes to show how lacking Liverpool are in that area. With others around him tiring, he didn’t get much of the ball or too many opportunities to cause problems. Which sort of applies to Liverpool’s final substitute Yossi Benayoun. Asked to play as the second striker, he was clearly out of his depth and never really managed to get going which, again, raised the question of why Babel wasn’t given a run.