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Archive for December 2008

Spreading the Word: The Academy Blog

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Wednesday, December 31, 2008 by Paul Grech

Looking at which are the most popular articles on this blog, it is clear that there is a certain hunger for information about Liverpool's reserves and academy.

Something that should ensure a fair degree of popularity for The Academy blog. Updated regularly, apart from reports it includes profiles of academy players past and present. The blog's author is clearly someone is a regular at academy games so there is quite a lot of insight that you get here that isn't to be found elsewhere.

Set up only a couple of months back, the biggest hurdle it will face is that of keeping the blog updated. If he does, then it should develop into an impressive point of reference.


A Look At: Best Books of the Year

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Tuesday, December 30, 2008 by Paul Grech

The end of the year seems to be the ideal time for compiling lists and whereas others have looked at the best goals or their favourite games from 2008, I’ve opted for a completely different list: the best five books I’ve read during 2008.

5:Elephants, Lions and Eagles: A Journey Through African Football by Filippo Ricci
I’ll admit that I expected a bit more from this book. More in the sense of quality – it being a book published by When Saturday Comes I was thinking of something along the lines of Morbo or Tor – and also in the sense of quantity in that this book is actually quite lightweight.

Yet, despite not quite being what I had hoped for, Elephants, lions and eagles was still a very enjoyable book. Ricci, an Italian sports writer in love with the African continent, looks back at a career spent covering the game there and has plenty of anecdotes which he tells in a lighthearted fashion. His tendency to put revert to translations of articles of his that had appeared in the Italian press does seem to be a bit lazy but if you’re willing to overlook that then you’ll like this book.

4: Football Dynamo: Modern Russia and the People's Game' by Marc Bennetts
Having moved to Russia initially for a year after falling in love with its literature, Bennetts has stayed there ever since, and apart from acquainting himself with the fine arts he has also found time to engage in another passion of his: football.

This in turn led him to writing a book which delves into the current situation of the Russian game. His timing was perfect as Football Dynamo was issued just after Russia’s excellent showing in the European championships and Zenit St Petersburg’s triumph in the UEFA Cup but, apart from making the book more appealing to a wider audience, these events don’t have any bearing on the success of Football Dynamo.

For it would be unfair to deflect any of the credit off Bennetts whose personal experience – and work in getting interviews with the great and good of Russian football - have allowed him to offer greater insight on a country that for many remains a huge mystery.

3: The Italian Job by Gianluca Vialli and Gabriele Marcotti
Although this was published some way back, this was the first time that I’d read this book and have to say that within the first few pages I instantaneously regretted not doing so earlier. Vialli isn’t your typical footballer – for one thing he came from a very well to do family – and he is more intelligent then most: in fact far too intelligent, in fact, then try to bore people with an autobiography.

So instead he set out to try and identify the key differences between football in England and Italy. Aided by the excellent Gabriele Marcotti – who I consider one of the top football writers around – he has looked at both his personal experience and that of a number of the top personalities in the game to try and give life to those intricacies that give different flavours to the game in the respective countries.

The result is a book that knocks away any pre-concieved ideas that you might have and one that explains why it is that the same game is viewed in such a different manner.

2: Dynasty: Fifty Years of Shankly's Liverpool' by Paul Tomkins
Tomkins has risen from a punter in a football forum to one of the most respected Liverpool writers around. Despite often being criticized for trying to put a positive spin on any situation, the fact remains that anything he writes is both well researched and well argued.

That is certainly the case for Dynasty, a book that in many ways is his most ambitious project yet. Tomkins tries to determine Liverpool’s greatest ever manager by trying to put values to a number of variables such as the quality of the squad each one inherited and their performance in the transfer market.

If that sounds like a statistical overkill, don’t worry because that element has been kept to a minimum. Ultimately, Tomkins doesn’t come with a definitive answer to his query but this remains a great read nevertheless.

1: You'll Win Nothing with Kids: Fathers, Sons and Football' by Jim White
As with the Italian Job, this book had been around for some time but for some reason I always postponed buying it. When I did, however, it was love at first read and I ended up reading through the night to finish it.

White is a football journalist with a couple of books to his name but rather than Manchester United, his preferred subject in the past, he has looked to his son’s youth football team for inspiration this time round. Indeed, You’ll Win Nothing with Kids is White’s diary of a season spent coaching (and becoming chairman) of his son’s club and if that sounds like an uninspiring topic then you’re well wrong.

It helps, of course, that White can write intelligently and laces his work with loads of humour which ultimately means that he has served up a book that is equally funny, emotional and inspiring.

Current Reading
At the moment I’m juggling between the story of the final days of Soviet football, Futbolstrojka, and Jonathan Wilson’s impressive look at the history of tactics Inverting the Pyramid: A History of Football Tactics.

On My Wish List
Apart from two sports-but-not-football themed books in the form of Michael Lewis’ The Blind Side: Evolution of a Game (gridiron or American football, call it what you will) and Running with the Legends (athletics) I’m looking to use the current favourable Euro to sterling conversion rate to buy James Montague’s When Friday Comes: Football in the War Zone which sound just like the sort of book that I like.

Further book reviews can be found here.


Update on Anfield of Dreams

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Friday, December 26, 2008 by Paul Grech

A couple of months back, I reviewed the book Anfield of Dreams by Neil Dunkin and although it wasn't exactly my kind of book, there are many who don't share my opinion. Proof of that comes not only from the very healthy sales figures but also by the recent nomination for the British Sports Book Awards 2009 for the Best New Writer title.

Regardless of how it goes, well done to Neil for bein shortlisted and it is the just reward for his perseverance.

In the coming days, I'll be putting up a list of my favourite football books from 2008. In the meantime, you can look here for all the books that I've reviewed earlier on.

Further book reviews can be found here.


Reported Liverpool Target Keirrison Moves to Palmeiras

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by Paul Grech

Earlier this year, we spoke about Liverpool's reported interest in Brazilian striker Keirrison. Whether such interest was real or not, he won't be moving to Anfield any time soon as he has just moved to Palmeiras.


Good Enough and Old Enough: Insua Deserves to Play

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Wednesday, December 24, 2008 by Paul Grech

One of the criticisms that is often levelled at Benitez is his reluctance to play young players. That there are many valid reasons for this - lack of quality and the ability to handle the pressure of playing at such a level being two of them - doesn't really matter.

That said, perhaps Benitez is perhaps too reticent when it comes to giving young players a chance. Yet there is something with playing at the Emirates that seems to inspire him. Last year he started the league game with Damien Plessis at the heart of midfield whilst this season it was Emiliano Insua who got his opportunity at the left hand side of defence.

And to say that the Argentine impressed would be an understatement. Indeed, probably the biggest compliment that can be handed out to him is that he looked like a left sided Steve Finnan.

The impression that Insua had finally reached the stage where he could easily handle Premier League football was served a couple of weeks earlier at Ewood Park. His performance on that day, although highly promising, was nevertheless discounted because it was ‘only’ Blackburn.

Those who still hold doubts about his ability, however, are on the decrease. Defensively, against Arsenal Insua held out very well both when faced by the pace of Bacary Sagna and when asked to deal with the trickery of Samir Nasri. Even more impressive was the way he went forward where his ability to find space and the precision of his crossing should have found a better response by the strikers.

Perhaps the biggest tell-tale sign of Insua’s maturity was in the manner that the senior players treated him. There is the tendency to avoid passing the ball to players who are still very much in the learning curve, thus limiting the possibility of them running into danger. Not so with Insua where both Alonso and Gerrard were actively looking to give the ball to him. If any proof of his capabilities was still sought, such confidence by those two should provide it.

Even so it is still too early to go make any definitive judgements: those who saw a young Gregory Vignal excel at Goodison some years back will surely agree. What can be said is that he has won the right to an extended run in the side. Hard luck to Andrea Dossena, who for all the criticism is trying to adapt to a different environment and a new role, but one of the virtues of having a competition for places is that it rewards those who are doing best.

For Benitez, however, it is not that simple. Leaving out the Italian international in favour of a nineteen year old would tacitly strengthen the feeling that Dossena is damaged goods, that he simply isn’t good enough for Liverpool. Considering that Liverpool have just spent £7 million on him – a good amount of which would have to be written off were he to be sold within the next twelve months – that is easier said than done. The temptation to stick with Dossena in the hope that he comes good will surely be there.

Especially as there are many who are more than eager to highlight any of Benitez’s failed transfers. In this case, any such criticism can easily be answered. For it was Benitez himself who bought Insua as a seventeen year old and then oversaw his development to the first team.

If anything, Insua can be put forward as the prototype of what he is trying to achieve with the reserves: get players young, develop them and then slowly introduce them into a team that is functioning well. Which, come to think of it, would also shut up those who say that not enough opportunities are made available by Benitez to young players.


More on Liverpool's Irish Link-up

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Tuesday, December 23, 2008 by Paul Grech

Liverpool's Academy has just signed an agreement of co-operation with the Irish club St Kevins Boys FC. Football director and St Kevins, Ken Donohoe, talks about his club.

About St Kevins Boys Football Club
St Kevins Boys Football Club was founded in 1959. Since its formation the Club has grown from providing football for 1 team to looking after in excess of 40 teams, consisting of all ages and standards. This season the Club has 40 Teams, 600 Players, 82 Managers and organises its own Saturday Mini Leagues, Summer Leagues and provides regular Coaching seminars and other topical workshops for interested managers.

As the Club membership has grown over the years, so too have the facilities. The Club owns its own Clubhouse, All Weather Training facilities and enclosed ground, adjacent to the Clubhouse.

The Club continues to upgrade and enhance all facilities for members. Particular thanks must go to all the members and friends who participate in our Klotto Draw each week, our annual bumper Christmas draw and our Golf Classic. Without their support, we would not survive financially. Fundraising plays a major role within our Club, whether its for the Club Development or assisting teams finance trips abroad.

The Club has its own Coaching Academy under the direction of SKB Director of Football, Ken Donohoe and is continually endeavouring to uplift the standards of play within the Club.

Like most other schoolboy clubs, St Kevins is managed on a voluntary basis, with managers, coaches and committee members all contributing to the cause free.

The Club plays its home DDSL schoolboy fixtures in Ellenfield Park,Whitehall, the AUL Complex and the College of Surgeons, Cloghran, while the 7-a-side games are played at Ellenfield Park and Coolgreena Close.

Among the club's most famous exports are Damian Duff, Liam Brady, Ian Harte, Stephen Carr and Alan Maybury. No doubt we will have many more players competing for international honours, at both junior and senior level. We must not forget club stalwarts like junior international players such as Anto Wilkins, John Ryan, Phil Long, Austin Hannon, Keith Maher, Philip Lennon, Johnny Carroll ,Stephen Higgins and Conor Dillon who have contributed to the success of the club at junior level.

Last season seven of our Schoolboy players left to sign for UK Clubs: Anthony Bolger to Aberdeen, Cian Bolger (not related) to Leicester City, Robert Brady to Manchester United, Jeffrey Hendrick to Derby County, Ethan Mannion to West Bromwich Albion, Jean Biansumba to Nottingham Forest and Eoin Wearen to West Ham United. While Conor Murphy is expected to join Hull City in the near future. Another two players who left us three years ago are both beginning to play regularly in the lower divisions in England – Renee Gilmartin (goalkeeper) at Walsall and Karl Moore who is on loan at Millwall from Manchester City.

Currently all our Premier teams are in the top two of their Leagues at their respective age groups from under 11 to under 17 inclusive and are in the last 32 of their respective National Cup competitions.
In 2009 St Kevins Boys will celebrate their 50th Anniversary and indeed the Club has come a long way since it’s foundation in 1959 to provide organized football for boys in the Whitehall area. This season the Club has forty teams playing League football weekly catering for over 800 boys with another 120 players involved each Saturday in our mini coaching leagues.

The facilities that St Kevins Boys have to offer any schoolboy player determined to make a career in the game both on and off the pitch in terms of coaching and facilities are second to none and provides them with an ideal grounding in preparation for a possible move into a career in football.

SKB Academy has impacted significantly over the years since it’s inception in 1999 on the standard of club players and on the image of St Kevins Boys Club as a serious and well managed base for young players to commence their football education in pursuit of personal and professional excellence.

The Club’s mini-league programme, which runs from September to May each season, is also regarded as one of the best in Dublin. Taking in youngsters as young as five, it helps develop basic skills in an instructive but fun way on Saturday afternoons.

About Ken Donohoe
I am Football Director of St Kevins Boys and have been since 2000, this position oversees the entire football programme within the Club and the responsibilities include: the appointment of a Club coach and daily consultation with him on coaching schedules, programmes, and feedback on all related issues. The appointment of managers/coaches for all our teams and putting in place a training schedule for them. The football Director is an elected position on an annual basis via all the members of the Club which enables me to sit on the six man executive Committee which is ultimately the decision making body of the Club. I am a UEFA B licence holder.

For further details contact: St Kevins Boys Club Office at 01-8374411 or e-mail info@skbfc.com


Liverpool Look to Ireland for New Talent

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by Paul Grech

Home Farm. The name of the amateur Irish side (that has sadly fallen on to troubled times) can still elicit wonderful memories partly due to the idyllic sounding name but largely because, as a kid, my sticker album used to inform me that it was the club that sold Ronnie Whelan to Liverpool.

Whelan, you see, was one of my favourite players back then: I’ve always been a fan of the hardworking midfielder type. That someone so good could have been bought for so little before anyone really had a chance to notice him seemed fantastical to me.

Which, thinking about it, it is. Can you any one of the big four signing a player from outside the top-flight – let alone an amateur one – and give him an opportunity after a couple of years? Of course not because modern clubs act in a different manner, they try to get to the player before they’re even out of their early teens.

There are a number of reasons for this but perhaps the most plausible relate to coaching – it is easier to mould a player into a better one if you get to him from an early age – and to finances as a player is likely to cost much more if he’s already established at a lower club.

There is, however, a further snag in the form of academy regulations that stipulate that players must be from within a certain distance from the club. Something that has forced clubs into exploring various creative ways of getting the players that they want but which may not be from the ‘right’ area.

Which perhaps explains Liverpool’s academy’s latest venture, a partnership with Irish youth side St. Kevins Boys Football Club. If that name means nothing to you – and to be honest neither did it to me up till a couple of weeks back – then you should look at some of its most famous exports that include Liam Brady, Damian Duff, Ian Harte, Stephen Carr and Alan Maybury. Last season, the club’s under-15 Premier team contained no fewer than ten Schoolboy Internationals seven of whom are now playing for professional Clubs in England and Scotland.

“Liverpool approached St Kevins in August 2008 with a view to forming a coaching and development link with us,” Ken Donohoe, the football director at St Kevins, explains. “They have researched quite a number of prominent Clubs in the Republic of Ireland and they ultimately felt that St Kevins fulfilled all their requirements.”

“Discussions began at the end of August and concluded towards the end of September when a points of principle document was produced to the satisfaction of both clubs.”

“Liverpool will send teams of coaches over to St Kevins Boys on a regular basis throughout the season and selective St Kevins Coaches will travel to Liverpool to be involved in coaching there as well as taking part in Liverpool in-house coaching days.”

“St Kevins will host a soccer school which Liverpool will underwrite both financially and by supplying a team of coaches in July 2009.”

While the benefits for St Kevins are apparent, you have to dig deeper to find out what’s in it for Liverpool. “Players from the Republic of Ireland that Liverpool might be interested in would be encouraged to sign for St Kevins Boys where they would come under the supervision of our club coach Alan Caffrey who works to a programme with our best players similar to what players of the same age are doing at Liverpool. “ In other words, Liverpool will have a mini-academy in Ireland through which they can channel the more talented players to the club.

“ Obviously, being associated with Liverpool F C will have an enormous PR effect for St Kevins Boys as Liverpool are one of the most popular clubs with young players in the Republic of Ireland so obviously some of the better ones might be attracted to us because of this,” Donohoe continues. “In Liverpool’s case they now have a base to which they can encourage prospective players to come to where they will be guaranteed the best facilities and coaching available to them outside of the Liverpool Academy itself.”

Already, this November Liverpool sent out a team of coaches that included Mike Geraghty, Darren Hughes, Callum Walshe and Tony Elliott along with Stuart Gelling head of Community / Academy coaching at Liverpool F C.

“All our coaches were invited to attend the sessions on both days which was held in one of our satellite training centres at the College of Surgeons Sports Grounds at Dublin Airport. After the Saturday session Stuart Gelling delivered an address to our members on the structures of Liverpool F C Academy. All reports suggest that these two days were very successful.”

Whilst this might be an innovative experiment as far as Liverpool are concerned, it isn’t the first such partnership that St Kevins have set up.

“We had a very, very successful partnership with West Bromwich Albion from 2004 till 2008. Obviously we have had to officially terminate that link but we have formed very good solid personal and professional relationships with senior staff and we will continue to have some contact with them as very few of our players would be of the high class caliber that Liverpool might seek.”

It will be some time before we’ll know whether this partnership does produce any such ‘high class’ players because, as with any youth venture, it takes a long term view. “It takes time for partnerships such as this to develop to the point where a high degree of trust and understanding of each side’s needs is recognized and hopefully that some of our players in the future might be good enough to sign for Liverpool” Donohoe admits.

But at least it ensures that if there is another Ronnie Whelan out there then Liverpool are better placed to find him.

Interested in Liverpool's academy? Have you read our piece on its latest graduate Martin Kelly? If not, you can do so here or else read through our regular feature on reserve team players, The Lad Can Play.


Good Game Bad Game [vs Arsenal]

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Monday, December 22, 2008 by Paul Grech

What a strange match to call. For good parts of the game when both sides had eleven men on the pitch, Liverpool were in control. That's not to say that they were dominating or should have been ahead - although there was that glorious opportunity for Gerard at the end of the first half - but they were certainly controlling the game.

Then came Adebayor's sending off and Liverpool suddenly seemed content with a draw. Perhaps it was the absence of Benitez (and, in my opinion, he should have let Sammy Lee get on with the job rather than try to control everything) or else letting in a goal on the break but Liverpool eased off. Credit also Arsenal, whose players upped the tempo but the truth is that Liverpool didn't exploit the extra man.

Should Adebayor have been booked on those two occasions? Probably not, but if you go for the ball with your foot angled in that manner then you are asking for trouble especially if the referee has already booked you for a similar challenge.

Viewed in isolation, this is a good result at a ground where both Chelsea and Manchester United (deservedly) lost. As with so many games of late, however, you get the feeling that at the end of the season Liverpool will rue these dropped points.

Good Game
Not at fault with the goal, Pepe Reina didn'r really have much to do given Arsenal's lack of threat up front. Much of that, of course, is due to Daniel Agger - who ws much improved here - as well as Jamie Carragher even though the latter was at fault with the goal.

Alvaro Arbeloa will probably be remembered most for the way he went down for Adebayor's challenge (and it was rather theatrical) but overall he had his usual solid game, defending well and good when going up. Carragher recently pointed him out as the most under-rated player in the squad and you can't really argue with that.

That Benitez was the one who chose the squad could be seen by Emiliano Insua's inclusion in the team and, as happened at Blackburn, the young Argentine had a very impressive game. Not at all overawed by the occasion or ground, he was excellent defensively and even better when going forward. It might seem like a bit of knee jerk reaction (especially as he visibly tired towards the end) but for me he was the man of the match and deserves to keep his place against Bolton.

In midfield, Albert Riera clearly relished playing at the Emirates and his control of the ball can be a joy to watch when he's on form. Shorn of the cover of Javier Mascherano, Xabi Alonso was perhaps less apparent today which goes as well for Lucas Leiva who still had a very good game and is clearly growing in confidence after Benitez's public backing.

Hard working as always, Dirk Kuyt gave Gael Clichy a hard time. He laid the ball which Gerrard should have put in and then had a strong shot that Almunia did brilliantly to turn into a corner. The Arsenal keeper, however, could do very little to stop Robbie Keane's shot and finally the Irishman seems to be getting his form back.

As always, Steven Gerrard was good and a pivotal player for Liverpool. Even so, he really should have put away that ball at the end of the first half.

Bad Game
No player really had a bad game here but no one really tried that hard once Adebayor went off which was a massive disappointment.

Substitutes
There is the argument that it is because of his lack of games but for me, Ryan Babel is trying his hardest to get Liverpool to sell him. Asked to add a little bit of pace to Liverpool's game, he answered with a series of bad controls and even worse passes. Disappointing to say the least.

So much that Nabil El Zhar, who cost a fraction of Babel, was a more dangerous option. The Moroccan should have scored from Insua's cross but overall he did what he was asked in stretching Arsenal's defence. In the long run, he probably isn't good enough for Liverpool (and Jermaine Pennant, if on form, is possibly a better option) but he does his job.

David N'Gog didn't stay long enough on the pitch to merit a comment.


Reds on Loan: Leto Shines in Greece

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by Paul Grech

Sebastian Leto: highly rated by Rafael Benitez, not so highly rated by the Work Permit committee and by a good number of Liverpool fans.

Similarly, whilst Benitez might be hoping that Leto's Italian passport comes through during his loan spell at Olympiakos, many see it as a way of putting him in the shop window in the hope that someone actually decides to buy him.

Whatever your position on the Argentine winger, he has been doing pretty well in Greece and, wherever his future lies, playing regularly for a year will probably do him more good then staying on Liverpool's substitutes' bench would.

His year will certainly end on a high, thanks to this fantastic goal against Thrasyvoulos when he picked the ball from his own half and ran past the whole defence before firing home.


More Than Talent Needed to Progress

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Thursday, December 18, 2008 by Paul Grech

The last time Liverpool travelled to Arsenal for a league game, it was in very different circumstances.

A twist of fate meant that the two cubs were to face each other three times over two weeks with the league game being sandwiched between two Champions League encounters.

With Liverpool well out of the title race at that stage, it was hardly surprising that Rafael Benitez ran the risk of leaving out a host of regular starters.

No one, however, could have imagined that he would go as far as giving nineteen year-old midfielder Damien Plessis his first start.

Up till that point, Plessis had enjoyed a reasonably good season with the reserves where he had been one of the better players in the side that eventually won the national title. And, even though Jay Spearing had often been the better midfielder in the reserves, no one really begrudged him his opportunity.

This did not diminish the level of surprise. Perhaps Benitez wanted to show that he too could find talented young players or else he enjoyed the irony of fielding a French teenager against Arsenal of all teams but that was his choice.

Whatever the reason it turned out to be the right one. Rather than being overawed by the opposition or the venue, Plessis went about his task of distributing the ball with the calmness of a veteran. By the end of the game, there were few better players on the pitch than him.

Despite the congestion in Liverpool's central midfield, he seemed well capable of forcing his way through. Yet six months and a handful of games later he's still to replicate the form of that day.

Nor has he enhanced his claims whilst playing for the reserves where, in line with the overall disappointing season, Plessis has often appeared disinterested. When Gary Ablett recently spoke about the lack of fight shown by his players, claiming that one or two thought that they'd already made it, it wouldn't be at all surprising if he had Plessis in mind.

For all factors seem to indicate that this is the case. His passing has been often been sloppy and his application almost non-existent. The player who played with such authority at the Emirates last season is nothing more than a fading memory.

It could be argued that the apparent lack of motivation might be down to lack of opportunities, the feeling that he isn't progressing. Yet, if that is applicable to everyone in the reserves set-up, it surely isn't the case for Plessis who has been given more opportunities than anyone from that team bar Nabil El Zhar.

Perhaps it might be worthwhile for someone to point out Antony Le Tallec, a more talented French player than Plessis who didn't really appreciate his time at Liverpool and was too eager to move away. Given his talent, Le Tallec should be playing for one of Europe's top sides, instead he is at mid-table French side Le Mans. A glimpse into the possible future for Plessis if ever there was one.


Good Game Bad Game [vs PSV Eindhoven]

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Wednesday, December 10, 2008 by Paul Grech

As positives go, Rafael Benitez will rarely have gone back home in a more pleasant mood. A win that guarantees top place in the group, a vibrant performance by players who up till now had struggled to impress, key men finally given a rest and three academy products given their opportunity. In all, an almost perfect night which allows Liverpool to shift their focus fully on the league.

Good Game
Blameless for their goal, Diego Cavallieri looked safe throughout the game, showing that he is indeed an able deputy to Pepe Reina. The central defensive line up of Jamie Carragher and Daniel Agger worked well enough as they easily coped with the little that PSV could muster. So too Alvaro Arbeloa even though he will be wondering just why the referee chose to book him. Following up from a good game against West Ham, Andrea Dossena once again did well where his defending is slowly improving and his attacking play more confident.

In the build up to this game, Benitez hinted that he was expecting more from Javier Mascherano. Having helped PSV go into the lead thanks to a sloppy clearance, he gave his boss further food for thought with a shaky display peppered with a number of mis-hit passes. As with the rest of the team, however, he progressively got better in the second half.

Thankfully for Mascherano, there was Lucas Leiva who, probably eager to prove a point, played very well on the night. Strong and determined when going on the ball, he was always a step ahead of the rest with his passing precise to boot. Among the best players on the pitch.

Perhaps it is something to do with the Dutch air but the same goes for Ryan Babel who scored an all-important equalizing goal and then terrorized the PSV defence with his running. On the opposing flank, Albert Riera was less incisive yet scored a fantastic goal so it is hard to fault him

Another great goal was scored by David N’Gog and he too had a positive night to answer the recent criticism. Strong and with good technique, he held off the PSV defenders and was impressive with his link-up play.

And finally there is Robbie Keane. He may have failed to score but he was much improved particularly in the second half when PSV just couldn’t cope with him. This might seem overly generous, but he was critical in turning the game in Liverpool’s favour and as such is my man of the match.

Bad Game
On a night like this, how can you say that anyone had a bad game?

Substitutes
One of the most pleasing aspects of the night was seeing Stephen Darby, Jay Spearing and Martin Kelly making an appearance here. Of the three, Darby was perhaps the most impressive as he showed that defensively he is ready enough. Spearing gained in confidence as the game wore on whilst Kelly didn’t have much to do because, by the time he came on PSV had already given up. Still, it is a positive sign for the trio and gives them hope for the future. Then again, Benitez did the same with Lee Peltier, Miki Roque and Danny Guthrie back in 2006 but none of them managed to really progress at Liverpool.


Standard Revisited

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Friday, December 05, 2008 by Paul Grech

The UEFA Cup isn't normally a competition to which you would pay too much attention unless your club is playing in it and, even then, there's no guarantee that it will provide much excitement.

Yet it does offer some interesting games. Watching Herta Berlin against Galatasaray, for instance, provided one with the opportunity to see Andrei Voronin look as disinterested as always, even though his wasn't a bad performance.

The best show on the night, however, was provided by Standard Liege who trashed Sampdoria 3-0. This was Standard's third win in the group where they lie on top and have already qualified. Not to mention that they beat the other team from Merseyside in qualification.

All of which points to the fact that they've got a pretty decent team. It also means that, in hindsight, it shouldn't have come as a surprise that Liverpool found it difficult to get past them in the qualifyong round of the Champions' League.

Sadly, with richer clubs already circling, it is unlikely that they'll be able to hold on to their best players beynd January. Which is a pity because, if they do manage to hold the team together then they have every chance of winning this competition.

Not bad for a team that had been written off far too summarily last June. Surely there's a lesson to be had there.


This is Not the Agger We Know. Yet.

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Thursday, December 04, 2008 by Paul Grech

Lately there have ben some rumblings of discontent coming from Liverpool's perrenial substitutes like Yossi Benayoun and Ryan Babel. Both are unhappy at the lack of playing time and you wouldn't want it to be any other way. Indeed, the percieved benefit of having a strong squad is precisely that it keeps players sharp and determined to fight for their place.

It is a situation that Benitez appears to be more than happy to deal with even if it means making tough choices.

Because, whilst the form of Benayoun and Babel hasn't been such to really raise any questions, it wasn't the same earlier in the season when Martin Skrtel was prefered to Daniel Agger.

A strong end to last season had confirmed that the Slovak defender was a genuine talent yet the class and level of performance that Agger had shown the previous season put him among the best defenders on the continent. Surely he should be the one to star, was the general consensus.

Not for Benitez, however, whose choice fell on Skrtel. And, not for the first time, he was proven right.

So much that it took Liverpool some time to recover from Skrtel's injury. Not that there have been any major problems - Tottenham aside - but the team just didn't seem to be the same.
Just as Agger doesn't seem to be the same player. Part of that is down to the fact that he had been kept away for so long. Slowly, he has been improving yet, apart from setting up the first equaliser against Wigan, little has been seen of his passing skills.

Indeed, in theory his talent to act almost as an added midfielder should have given Liverpool the edge against sides like Fulham. Him occasionally moving foward could have opened up space for the other players. Yet that didn't happen.

Agger didn't do anything wong yet he didn't play as well as we know he can. As it is Skrtel would be justified to expect his place back once he returns (and gets his fitness back) to re-form his partnership with Jamie Carragher.

Which, in a way, is a comforting thought. Liverpool's future as far as central defenders are concerned seems secure with Agger and Skrtel being the long term answer.

In the meantime, however, one of the two will have to lose out and, going by what we've seen so far, that will have to be Agger.


The Lad Can Play: Martin Kelly

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Wednesday, December 03, 2008 by Paul Grech

There is something of a debate going on at the moment about the merits, or lack thereof, of Liverpool's academy.
Ten years ago, when the academy was set up, it was impossible to imagine it as being anything other than a success.
How could it be otherwise for the club that had seen the emergence of a raft of world class playes in the form of Steve McManaman, Robbie Fowler, Michael Owen, Jamie Carragher and Steven Gerrard?
But instead the only real graduate of the academy to come through has been Danny Guthrie and even he barely played for Liverpool.

True it has produced two FA Youth Cup winning sides but the majority of the players who played in those triumphs have already been let go. Only a couple - Jay Spearing and Stephen Darby - have progressed as far as the reserves and , even so, both are struggling to make any headway in the first team.

The cause for that depends on which side of the debate you happn to stand. For some, it is all down to the lack of quality coming through whilst for others the result of the internal bickering that has led to the reserves being transformed into a mini-academy by Benitez.

Both points of view have their merits. Whereas the number of young, largely foreign, players that have been imposed on the reserves has to be demoralising for those at the academy, none of the players that have been let go have really gone on to prove Bennitez wrong.

Whatever the reason, something somewhere isn't working.

Yet it isn't all bad. During last week's Champions League game with Marseilles, the Liverpool bench features Martin Kelly. Cynics might say that his inclusion was purely down to UEFA's home grown players ruling but the defender's progression has beens such that there is genuine belief about his chances of breaking through.

Such belief is based on a series of impeccable displays for the reserves where, despite the presence of a number of players brought in by Benitez, Kelly has managed to cut out a space for himself.

This either in his prefered position at the centre of defence or else at right back. Indeed, as you might expect of a player who used to wear a shirt bearing Carragher's name at the back, Kelly can play in any position across the back four.

Even the manner in which he approaches games seems to have been modelled on his hero's where he uses his physical presence to good effect. That said, in all fairness there is a bit more class to Kelly's game and the young defender always seems to be in control of the situation.

All of which bodes well for the defender who was forced to sit out almost two years of his time at the academy because of a series of injuries. Perhaps he could be the one to finally show that the academy is producing players and that, if they're good enough they will get their opportunity.

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


Good Game Bad Game [vs West Ham]

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Tuesday, December 02, 2008 by Paul Grech

When I first started writing this blog it was precisely for days like this: a form of therapy when the frustration of a bad result just wouldn’t go away.

And it was a bad result, albeit not a bad performance. Indeed most of the side played well yet there was no rhythm. Everything was too disjointed particularly in the final third which strengthens my personal belief that this particular system that worked so well towards the tail end of last season doesn’t fit well when the team is shorn of Fernando Torres.

Certainly, Robbie Keane looks uncomfortable playing in it. Actually, scratch that, the impression is that he doesn’t really know what is expected of him, whether he should act as a striker or in support of someone else. In the end he is neither.

The booing at the end was disappointing, yet the sentiment is hard to hold back. Playing this way, missing such opportunities to forge ahead is exactly why Liverpool won’t win the league title. What’s worse, it will fuel the belief among opposing teams that they can come to Anfield and get at least a draw.

On the bright side, we were due to go a rough patch and, if this is it, then we can at least draw comfort from the fact that we are top of the league nevertheless. Not really any consolation, I know, but that’s the best I can offer.

Good Game
It may have been flagged off (wrongly) for offside, but Pepe Reina’s save at the death was simply breath-taking. Indeed, in what was largely a quite evening, he still was more than ready whenever needed.

The inclusion of Sami Hyppia may have been a surprise, especially against a fast player like Bellamy yet the Finn did well enough even though he will be wondering how at least one of those headers didn’t go in. As always, it was an impeccable show by Jamie Carragher who always positioned himself immaculately.

During the weekend, Benitez defended Andrea Dossena insisting that the Italian will come good and this evening we saw the first sign that he might just be right. Going forward he was excellent and his crosses always caused troubled. Yet, even defensively, he was very good in the rare occasions when he was put under pressure.

Same goes for Alvaro Arbeloa. Someone recently told me that I’m too critical of him which took me aback because I’m actually a big fan of Arbeloa. So much, I guess, that I tried to hide my bias by being overly critical. Well, not tonight as I think he proved that he is indeed worthy of being Steve Finnan’s heir.

Someone who I’ve knowingly been critical of lately is Yossi Benayoun. Coming on as a substitute, the Israeli has often appeared far too flustered. Given a starting slot, I thought that he did extremely well both creatively and also by the amount of effort he put even, so much that he probably overshadowed Kuyt in that department. My man of the match.

That might seem slightly harsh on Xabi Alonso whose passing and calmness in midfield is a work of art. What a shame it would have been to get rid of him.

Perhaps no player wanted to win this game as desperately as Steven Gerrard and certainly no player felt the pressure as much as he did. The team looks towards him when it needs inspiration but the expectations are certainly weighing him down. A good game, nevertheless, even if overshadowed by the wayward shots.

Dirk Kuyt was asked to play up-front on this occasion and as always did well even though his form has dipped slightly of late. What I like is how his technique, that was often ridiculed in the past, seems to be coming to the fore more these days.

Bad Game
Having started off so brightly, Albert Riera’s form has dipped sharply. Against West Ham he was probably at his worst and practically everything he tried didn’t work out. It might sound as if I’m picking on Robbie Keane but, as I said earlier, he doesn’t really seem to know what he should be doing. One half chance throughout the sixty minutes he was on the pitch is far too little for a player of his abilities.

Substitutes
That David N’Gog is the only striking alternative left to Benitez says a lot about the depth of the squad. The French teenager tries hard yet he simply doesn’t have the composure and experience to change he course of a game as he was asked to do today. Ideally, he would be introduced slowly in games where Liverpool are cruising but when was the last time we had one of those? Kristian Nemeth, once fully fit, would in my opinion be a better option.

Last week Ryan Babel said that he was frustrated at Liverpool. Well, the feeling is mutual, mate. Apart from a great run and shot, he did very, very little and the fact that he was on the pitch for just ten minutes shouldn’t be allowed to be used as an excuse.


Spreading the Word: You'll Win Nothing With Kids

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Monday, December 01, 2008 by Paul Grech

Book Review: You'll Win Nothing With Kids by Jim White

As soon as I turned over the first page of this book, not only was I informed that the author was a Manchester United fan but also that he counted a book called 'Are you watching Liiverpool' among his earlier works. Not the best of starts, you'll agree. Indeed I almost put it back down there and then.

Thankfully I didn't because not only has White managed to keep his bias in check but he's written probably the best book I've read this year.

That he does so on a topic that doesn't exactly hit you as being of much interest - kids' football - adds to his merit.

This book premise is quite straightforward. As the coach of his son's team he tries to set as good an example as possible while at the same time doing his utmost to ensure that they win some games whilst having fun. Often, however, it doesn't work out that way as the pressures of the job get to him.

The reason why the story is so interesting is that White has written about himself with no apparent attempt to hide or paper over his failings. He admits, for instance, that he gets overly agitated when he should be buffering the children from unnecessary pressures. Similarly, although he doesn't actually say it you can tell that he feels that he should be doing more to help the team's confidence shorn goalkeeper without ever actually doing anything.

In more than one way, You'll Win Nothing With Kids is also a criticism of the way kids' football is approached in England. You get angry coaches who think nothing of damaging children emotionally because their team isn't winning, continuous struggles to get the local authorities to help and the damaging repercussions of lack of parents' support. The comparison with the organisation of foreign teams during an end of season trip to Holland is telling.

That said, for all the seriousness of such arguments, this is ultimately a very funny book with a feel-good end to it. Read it.