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Liverpool’s Other World Class Player

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Wednesday, March 31, 2010 by

Strikers have it easy as far as the glory business is concerned. Score a goal late on and you’re labelled a match winner, no matter what you’ve actually done throughout the game. In fact, it is even better if you’ve done absolutely nothing during the rest of the match “he’ll be quite for ninety minutes and then he’ll find a goal,” they’ll say “that’s why he’s a match winner”.

It is impossible for a goalkeeper to get similar recognition. For them there’s no hint of glory unless they keep a clean sheet and even that doesn’t necessarily guarantee appreciation. Apart from having to share credit with defenders, irrespective of whether they’re competent or not, the harsh truth is that like referees the less noticeable goalkeepers are the better. Because when they do get noticed it more often than not means that they’ve made a mistake which, in turn, is likely to result in a conceded goal.

Following through on this train of thought, goalkeepers can never get the recognised as being the ones to win games. It is goals that do that and, unless there’s some freak incident, a goalkeeper won’t be scoring goals. This is, however, fallacious reasoning: if scoring goals allows team to win then so does a save that prevents a goal from being conceded.

Indeed, it would be insulting to call Pepe Reina anything other than someone who wins games for Liverpool. More than ever this season, when goals have been particularly hard to come by and any advantage has had to be defended as much as possible.

That is where Reina has been excelling. Despite a drop in clean sheets, his importance to the side has increased immeasurably. Liverpool’s instability at the back has made it all the more important to have Reina as the last man, someone who can really stop the seemingly unstoppable.

That’s something that he’s often been asked to do and his response has always been impeccable. There are no bad games for him or ones where he simply goes through the motions. His attitude is, frankly, inspiring as is his dedication to the club.

Which brings us back to match winners. At Liverpool, so the public consensus seems to go, there are two players who can turn games around: Fernando Torres and Steven Gerrard. That belief, however, depends too much on that most obvious of statistics, the number of goals scored. Yet Reina is possibly even better for pure critical moments: stopping a shot that could have resulted in a goal, for instance.

It is such ability that marks him out as a pure game winner, just as it is that ability that elevates him as a true world class player.


Good Game Bad Game [vs Sunderland]

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Monday, March 29, 2010 by

On afternoons like this, it is justifiable to ask just why Liverpool haven’t played in this manner earlier in the season. Fast passing football, players moving when they had the ball and pressing hard when they didn’t: it was as if the team finally remembered how to play. Sunderland simply couldn’t cope with and will leave Anfield feeling lucky that they lost by just three goals. Lee Catermole and Lorik Cana, so impressive at the Stadium of Light, barely got a touch of the ball, Darren Bent completely anonymous and Frazier Campbell, so outspoken before the game, was so bad that there wasn’t even the need to boo him.

Good Game
A spectator for most of the game, Pepe Reina was still alert enough to turn away Bolo Zenden’s late shot. Similarly, Jamie Carragher didn’t have much to do although that changed once Kenwyne Jones came on with the physical presence that he brought with him. Daniel Agger will go home wondering how he didn’t get to score. Craig Gordon pulled off a couple of great saves off him and on another couple of occasions he wasn’t decisive enough. Still, the way he brought the ball out of defence was a reminder of just how good he can be.

It is a sign of Emiliano Insua’s character that, despite the criticism that was aimed his way after last week, he played with such confidence today. Good when going forward, nothing that the highly rated Jordan Henderson did seemed to trouble him.

On the other flank, Glen Johnson put in the kind of performance that will eventually shut up the critics who think that Liverpool paid too much for him. Not only did he score the second goal but he also had the vision to set up the third and overall his running caused Sunderland headaches throughout the afternoon. My man of the match.

During the week, there were those who questioned the utility of having someone like Javier Mascherano and this wasn’t really a game where he could highlight his talents. The truth, however, is that there aren’t many other players in the world who are as good as Mascherano in a defensive midfield role.

By his own admission, Steven Gerrard hasn’t been playing as well as in recent seasons but, perhaps aided by being withdrawn to a more traditional position in the centre of midfield, he was much more influential than of late.

If there’s a player who is living proof that Rafael Benitez will do what is best for the side, then Ryan Babel is surely that. Indeed, from being on the verge of leaving in January he now has a semi-permanent spot on the left, something that is partly due to the effort that he has been putting.

A player who has slowly been finding his feet at Anfield is Maxi Rodriguez. For him, this was probably his best game where he showed his intelligence, vision and tenacity. By next season, he should be well used to the physicality of English football and the refereeing.

The decision to play Dirk Kuyt as a central striker might not have paid dividends in as far as goals are concerned but it certainly helped open up the Sunderland defence who probably were a bit surprised at having to handle two strikers instead of one. When one of those strikers is Fernando Torres, it is even more complicated. Indeed, it is practically impossible. His first goal was simply breath-taking, his second a lesson in cool. Absolutely fantastic.

Bad Game
You kidding, right?

Substitutes
With Thursday’s game in mind, Fernando Torres was withdrawn with his place being taken by David N’Gog. As always, the young Frenchman was always willing to run and even created the space for what should have been number four but instead failed to hit the ball.

Alberto Aquilani was given a chance late on and, in all fairness, he didn’t really look that bothered. Nabil El Zhar too was put on late in the game and showed very little to justify the run out.


Good Game Bad Game [vs Portsmouth]

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Tuesday, March 16, 2010 by

At long last something that approaches a perfect night: great win, good goals, some impressive performances and an indication that this side can actually play a bit. It is easy to write this off as an expected result against a side that is all but relegated but Liverpool have struggled in so many other supposedly easy games this season that nothing can be taken for granted.

The only blemish of the night is that Portsmouth were allowed to score late on. At least it was something to celebrate for the supporters who had made the trip and who are going through such a troubled time. It bears thinking about that whilst Liverpool's biggest worry is not qualifying for the Champions League, here is a set of fans who are being faced by the very real posibility of not having a side to support next season.

Otherwise there was a lot to be positive about, not least the way in which the team moved. The big question now is whether they'll manage to build on this. With two tough games coming up there might be the temptation to rest some players so as to protect them. But it is a temptation that has to be resisted: this result breathes a new confidence in the players and it is something that should be exploited rather than stifled.

Good Game
One brilliant save in the second half was the pick for another exceptional game from Pepe Reina who was always found ready when needed. As he has been, after all, throughout the whole season. Jamie Carragher and Daniel Agger didn't concede a lot despite the fact that Piquone didn't give them an easy time. It was also pleasing to see their anger after letting in that goal as that is the sort of reaction you need to see from your players. There were moments where Glen Johnson seemed reluctant to punish his former side any more than necessary but those were swept away when he sprinted in the box only to be stopped by what surely was a clear foul. That was just one of the number of occasions where Johnson's running caused serious problems for Portsmouth, a reminder of just what he adds to the side.

Teams seem to be targetting Emiliano Insua as the weak link in Liverpool's back four and that was certainly  what Portsmouth were doing here. However, he stood his ground well and showed that the defensive side of his game, although not the best, is certainly improving.

A more in-form Steven Gerrard would have scored many more than the one that he got. Yet it was his chasing of what seemed a loose ball that led to Liverpool's first while a dummy from him gave Aquilani th chance to shoot for the third. This wasn't his best game for Liverpool but it sure served as a reminder of what he is capable of.

If Gerrard was reminding people of what he can do, Alberto Aquilani was showing off his skills. And boy did he impress. A great first goal in a Liverpool shirt was perhaps the best moment but throughout the game he produced an incredible amount of passes that, irrespective of the range, always seemed to find their intended recipient. My man of the match.

Equally as good was Maxi Rodriguez, a player who id a lot of running but has a touch of class about him. His passing is always precise and he can certainly spot gaps in defences: he'll be quite an addition when he has fully settled.

On the other side of the pitch there was Ryan Babel. The tendency to run into blind alleys remains but there is a passion and determination about him that wasn't always there at other times during the season. The goal will also boost his confidence a good deal as well.

Fernando Torres is one of the breed of players who can be deadly when fully fit, a condition he is approaching. Two goals proved his worth, particularly the second one which was pure class.

Bad Game
Passion, determination and good skill were all on show in this game so no one can really be said to have had a bad game.

Substitutes
It shows just how much Martin Kelly is rated that he was sent on for the last half an hour rather than the usual handful of minutes that Benitez usually grants younger player. Kelly is definitely good enough to play in the Premier League for a side as big as Liverpool and, although perhaps he should have done better for the Portsmouth goal, he has everything needed to became a fantastic player.

David N'Gog and Yossi Benayoun both came into a side that was assured of a victory so they had to fight more than anyone to make an impact. The little time that they had didn't really put them in the situation to shine.


Book Review: The Manager

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Monday, March 15, 2010 by

The Manager by Barney Ronay

Barney Ronay is a difficult one to pin down. A senior sports writer for the Guardian, he is often the one to pick up ackward stories - a recent piece went by the title 'Should Sepp Blatter Lock Himself in a Cupboard - and in all fairness he rarely writes anything that isn't interesting. The tonality he uses is more often than not humorous and this was echoed in his previous book 'Any Chance of a Game', a witty (and highly personal) take on parks' football.

That, however, sat at the other end of the football litterary spectrum to 'The Managers' which places itself as a serious examination of how the role of the manager has developed over the decades.

Today, that a manager is the man who makes all the decisions at a football club is taken forgranted. Yet it wasn't always the case as Ronay shows in this study of how managers came to exhert increasingly more influence at football clubs, not to mention the number of quirky facts that he brings to life along the way. It is also Ronay's belief that ultimately things will be back to where they were with the club's owners being the ones who make most of the decisions leaving the manager with a peripheral coaching role.

That this is presented (in an overly dramatic way) as ultimately being a bad thing is typical given British football's culture. But it also discounts the success of the system in most of Europe where it is the general manager who holds all the power. And, given how English clubs - not to mention the national team - are constantly looking to employ foreign managers would suggest that there is at least some merit to the continental system that allows the manager to actually get on with the job of managing the set of players that he is in charge of.

This somewhat insular view is perhaps the book's biggest failing. There will always be many out there with the belief that the manager is, as Ronay describes him, 'the most important man in football' and that might indeed be the best way in some cases. Yet using the history of the role - as well as the limited number of times in which a director of football has been imposed in England - as the reason for which it should be kept this way is, frankly, limited. Indeed, if anything, the evolution of the role should highlight precisely the opposite: that what seems to be the best way now may, in hindsight, prove to be exactly the opposite.

Rating: 2 out of 5.


Good Game Bad Game [vs Lille]

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Friday, March 12, 2010 by

You have to feel for Alberto Aquilani. Game after game, he has to watch as Liverpool contrive to make even the worst of teams look like world beaters conscious that, perhaps, he could change the way the match is going. It is frustrating for us to know this, one can only imagine how he must feel. This was another classic example. With two defensive midfielders on the pitch, there was no one to really give a sense of direction to Liverpool's play making it far too easy for Lille to cut off the danger. And, as has happened so often, Liverpool ended up hoping for an individual piece of brilliance which, given the general lack of confidence (not to mention character) was not going to happen.

It would be far to easy to blame this defeat on a freak goal, just as it is easy to blame the pitch or to mention that a 1-0 defeat isn't the end of the world. Yet we've been excusing bad performances all season and now know that it isn't likely that Liverpool will produce the sort of performance at home that is going to sweep away Lille. Not to mention that if Lille score then it would take three goals to overcome them.

The truth is that something has to give. Surely Benitez must realise that he can't keep playing with the same tactics and with the same players regardless of form. If not, then the sad truth is that he's digging his own grave just as Gerard Houllier did before him.

Good Game
I wasn't overly pleased by Jamie Carragher's words this weekend because, justified as they might have been, the only outcome is that they put needless pressure on Benitez. Based on this evidence, however, then Liverpool should hurry up the paperwork and offer a new deal. Defensively brilliant, he tried to give the side some leadership and passion. Unfortunately, it didn't seem to rub off. That said his partner at the back, Daniel Agger, also had a good game and both put in some great tackles.

Glen Johnson too was good, although perhaps he should have pushed forward more than he actually did. In fact, the Lille defence was clearly panicking on the rare instances that he did join in the attack. Javier Mascherano's passing may be wayward, but at least he is doing the basic element of his job - that of winning balls in midfield - well.

Another whose passing does not always come off is Ryan Babel. That was the case here too but, overall, he had a very good game and was the only one who really tested the Lille keeper. It was a major surprise that he was taken off as he deserved to stay on. Fernando Torres is being increasinly loaded with responsability and the belief seems to be that if he doesn't come up with soemthing, no one will. It is pressure that he is clearly feeling as his increasing frustration during this game showed, even if he did his job of being the best outlet for the team. Sad as it sounds, if teams keep going as they are, it wouldn't be much of a surprise if he decided to move elsewhere.

Bad Game
It might seem harsh to say that Pepe Reina had a bad game but surely he could have done better for the goal. Same too for Emiliano Insua who eventually started getting hold of Eddie Hazzard as the game wore on but early on he was getting beaten far too easily.

Lucas Leiva has had a good season, in my opinion, but here he simply failed to deliver as he gave the ball away for too often. Lucas is, in reality, a victim of the system that Benitez is adopting and as games wear on, the decision to keep playing both him and Mascherano is going to hurt him increasingly more because his every mistake is going to be magnified.

No one can attack Steven Gerrard because of lack of effort yet this does not excuse another night where most of his passes ended at the feet of an opposing player. He seems incredibly frustrated but it is getting harder to decide whether this is because of his lack of form or it is down to matters off the pitch. Meaning that he is losing faith in Benitez's systems.

On a night when there were so many bad performers, Dirk Kuyt was the worst by some distance. Bad passing, lack of movement and never really in the game, it is baffling how he stayed on for so long. Incredible.

Substitutes
Albert Riera came on and proceeded to play worse than Ryan Babel, the man he replaced and who had been doing reasonably well. Nabil El Zhar came when there was very little that he could do.


Spreading the Word: From A Banner to a Shirt

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Thursday, March 11, 2010 by

This is not a happy time for Liverpool FC. On the pitch the team is struggling, off it there's the ever looming shadow of financial melt-down. Yet there's one area where the club remains as strong as ever: the support of its fans. That much was on evidence in the trip at Wigan when the away section was full and kept on singing despite the lack of character that those wearing red on the pitch were showing. But, then again, that's how it has been all season.

And then there are the banners. There's no other club in Britain with such a rich tapestry of banners, all of which laced with humour, criticism or acknowledgement of past sucesses, most of which are collected in the excellent book Genius Does as it Must.

It is also unlikely that any club will ever catch up for the simple reason that the tradition that exists fuells the desire to keep on improving and getting new banners on the Kop. One of the most spectacular to make it of late is the one that features the silhouttes of four great Liverpool managers - Bill Shankly, Bob Paisley, Joe Fagan and Kenny Dalglish - along with Rafa Benitez who is obviously the current man in the job.

As always, there are those who disagree with the inclusion of Benitez arguing that he hasn't yet reached the status of the others being pictured and that having him should have meant the inclusion of Graeme Souness, Roy Evans and Gerard Houllier. Yet banners are there to inspire and support which is exactly what this one does: the inclusion of Benitez offers backing to the current manager whilst the mention of the four greats is there to offer inspiration through the memory of past achievements. So there isn't really much wrong with it.

So, it would appear, seem to think many fans given that their requests have led to shirts are being made bearing the image on the banner. Initial images of the shirt look great and for €12 it looks like a great deal. Anyone interested in getting the shirst can look here for more information or else drop a mail to irishkop@live.com.

Note: This is not a paid advert.


Looking for Some Hope

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Wednesday, March 10, 2010 by

What would you rather take, a fourth place finish or winning the Europa League? That question has been put about quite often of late and in itself belies the lack of confidence that there is in the current team, as if there is some tacit understanding that it is impossible to hope of getting both.

At least now that uncertainty is gone: Liverpool won't be getting Champions League football next season. Mathematically it might be possible but realistically, there's no chance of getting there now. So the best hope of salvaging some form of respectability from this season lies in making a real go at doing well in Europe even if it is in the competition no one really wants to play in. In fact, let's get comfortable with Thursday games because it looks like being the only one we're going to be involved in both this and next year.

There is also the minor matter of nine league games left to play for. Although play, in Liverpool's case this season, is something of a misplaced adjective. Dour, dull football completely devoid of speed and rhytm is probably the best description of the Liverpool way, at least this year. In recent weeks people have been saying that Liverpool have been grinding out results as if that were some form of praise. Getting a win against Tottenham with key players missing was pleasing as was the derby win. Otherwise, however, it has been pretty turgid. If you think differently then try to recall the last time Liverpool scored more than twice in the league.*

Part of the blame for that was the pressure to get fourth. Well, now that this looks impossible, how about a change of style? In fact why not use the remaining games as an early pre-season, looking to see what works and what doesn't? Play Alberto Aquilani, for one thing, see what he can do and whether he can hack it. If he does then at least next season he will be ready, if not then cut your losses.

The same goes for Martin Kelly and Dani Pacheco. Give them some minutes, let them get some experience and you're guaranteeing that there's greater depth to the squad next year. After all, it is not as if there will be a lot of money to splash about in the summer so those kids are as good a bet as any.

Above all, try to play with some style. No more starting games with two holding midfielders but instead put out a formation that looks to try and score goals after putting teams under pressure rather than one that hopes to catch a lucky break. Give us back some hope, a chink of light that maybe things will get better next season. If not, put us out of the misery that has been this season.

* To answer that question, in case you're still wondering, Liverpool haven't gone beyond two goals in the league ever since the 6-0 win over Hull at the end of September.


Good Game Bad Game [vs Wigan Athletic]

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Tuesday, March 09, 2010 by

It was Wigan this evening but it could easily have been Portsmouth or Sunderland or any other team that Liverpool have faced this season and simply failed to turn up. In fact, it feels as if Liverpool have failed to turn up this whole season. For this was another game of which the players should be ashamed. The ease with which Wigan defended their lead - and could easily have built on it - where Chris Kirkland didn't have one save to make all evening summarises just how woeful Liverpool were.

Good Game
Not at fault with the goal, Pepe Reina didn't have a lot to do but got on with his job well particularly when he blocked N'Zogbia who was through on goal. A lot has been said and written about Jamie Carragher these past couple of days but his commitment remains undiminished and he had a good game at the back. That there was Sotirios Kyrgiakos alongisde him helped as the Greek's massive physical presence and his experience at reading the flow of the game cut off a number Wigan's chances before they could really come to anything. Plus another goal-line clearance that kepy Liverpool in the game. My man of the match.

Emiliano Insua was initially shaky but as the game wore on he started getting more opportunities to move forward which is where he excells and put in some good crosses into the box. On the other side of the pitch there was Javier Mascherano who once again ably filled in at right back. There was nothing spectacular from him but he did his job well.

Of all the midfielders Lucas Leiva was the only one having his usual solid game and perhaps he was the least deserving of all to be substituted.

Bad Game
Where does one start? Steven Gerrard and Dirk Kuyt had difficulty in identifying who was on their team given the number of misplaced passes they disappeared. Kuyt in particularly probably had his worst game in a Liverpool shirt and the backpass that led to the Wigan goal was simply criminal.


Fernando Torres tried hard but clearly he isn't yet match fit. Yossi Benayoun started well and he is one player who occasionally had Wigan on the back-foot. He then faded away and it was no surprise to see him being taken off. Maxi Rodriguez didn't start badly but he too fell in to the general malaise of mis-placing passes. With Kuyt often drifting to the right side of midfield, the two kept getting in each other's way which didn't help Maxi who never really seemed to fully grasp where he was supposed to be playing or which runs to make.

Substitutes
His was a welcome return but Glen Johnson didn't really do anything special after coming on. Not the same can be said of Alberto Aquilani who sprayed around the passes when he was given a chance and overall hinted at just how good he can be. Why Benitez decided to wait until the final ten minutes were well under way before getting Ryan Babbel, especialy with Kuyt having the sort of game he was having, only he can tell.


A Different Corner

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Monday, March 08, 2010 by


There is something exciting about the thought of moving to an exotic new country and leaving everything behind. Even the most breathtaking of sights can be rendered unremarkable through familiarity. It is this desire to break free from the hold of everyday life that makes the dream of a drastic change seem so enticing.

For Richard Brentnall, however, that had very little to do with his decision to move to Spain. In a prologue that could well have been penned by Victor Meldrew, he complains about how British society is deteriorating as typified, among others, ‘by boorish, aggressive youths spoiling my Friday night’.

So he decided to leave. Tellingly, other than his friends, the one thing that he openly admits to being afraid of missing is his beloved West Bromwich Albion. And here starts a book long anomaly: whilst Brentnall vilifies the excesses of English football, he clearly longs to see his team play come the weekend.

Perhaps it is to get away from this longing that he decided to try and get to know Spanish football. And to write about his experiences. The result of this year long trek all over Spain is ‘A Different Corner’, a book that comes with the tagline of ‘exploring Spanish football’.

The standard for books about the Spanish game was set by Phil Ball’s classic, Morbo and realistically A Different Corner never really enters the same literary territory. Nor, in all frankness, does it aspire to: Brentnall simply wants to tell of his experiences of watching football in Spain, not analyse its history or explain why things are the way they are.

Inevitably, therefore, this is a highly personal book and you’ll have to like Brentnall – or at least accept him – in order to like this book. A major plus is that he puts in the effort of catching up not only with the heavyweights but also looks below the surface at clubs whose current standing is at odds with their history and even his local side, which he manages track after a good deal of effort.

And this is what makes it enjoyable. For those who will never have the opportunity of making the move that Brentnall has gone through, reading through the variety of local flavours he comes across gives a taste of what it must be like. Richard Brentnall might not have written a classic, but he has certainly penned a book that will fuel dreams.

Rating: 3 out of 5