Saturday, February 28, 2009

Rafa Conjures Up Another Major European Upset

UEFA Champions League
1st Knockout Round 1st Leg

Real Madrid 0

Liverpool 1 (Benayoun 82)

13 European Cups between the two sides but for the past 2 decades, the two teams were rarely on the same football wavelength. One was even hailed as the ‘Galacticos’, as if a team representing Earth if ever celestial beings were interested in a game of football.

The other, meanwhile, trudged through the 1990s through mire of uncertainties and then early 2000 with much false hopes.

But the rise of a genius from the Iberian peninsular has brought back some glory days to the fields of Anfield Road. The phoenix has risen from the ashes or should we say, the Liverbird.

He has made Liverpool into a fearsome and organised side in Europe and a side to avoid during the draws. Critics would of course points out his shortcomings with Liverpool’s continual failure to bring back the 19th title back to Anfield but in Europe, this man’s tactical ingenuity is respectable.

He has placed Liverpool back in the upper echelon of European football, which many fans thought it was a God-given right. They failed to see how much hard work this man put in.

Sack him, they say. Like how the Jews echoed ‘Crucify Him!’ This is a genius either you love or you hate. Even the press wasn’t kind to him. Rumours were rampant throughout the week, with the build-up to this match not about whether Steven Gerrard would start or the face-off of the Prince of Madrid and El Nino, the Kid.

It surrounded his uncertain future at Liverpool, the contract that was left on his table untouched, his apparent quirks and the conflict with the Yank owners.

But we know Liverpool has a survival instinct not many teams possessed. They usually come up with their best when they’re besieged and beleaguered. Craig Bellamy and his golf club took centre stage in the press 2 years ago just prior to a colossus encounter with Barcelona.

Fast forward and we saw the similarities. And it was during these times where we saw the team unify and solidify their resolve.

In the glittering lights of the Santiago Bernabeu, they dug in against an overwhelming force. ‘No chance’, many says. 10 goals from their last 2 league games and unbeaten in 9. Surely Liverpool would be steamrolled over?

But the Reds trenched in, nullified the so called superstars and made them look ordinary. The press would say the Galacticos had an off-day but how often is it that big teams have theirs and it’s usually when they’re against Liverpool?

The art of nullifying and suffocating is hard to grasp, especially from the point of view of a football fan watching for entertainment. But it is at a canter for Rafa Benitez and his men.

Real Madrid spoke of the 3 goals that would come and of course Liverpool being fearful. But I guess that was exactly what the Reds would want to hear. The disdainful arrogance was all they need to inspire themselves.

The visitors were set up perfectly, albeit the injury of their skipper forcing him to start on the bench, they were like a flawless machine.

With the in-form Raul and Gonzalo Higuain leading the line, they must’ve been a handful. But how Liverpool gave them hardly a sniff is quite a feat. None of them were found anywhere near the penalty box.

Pepe Reina, whose allegiance is to the other side of Madrid, was a virtual spectator with only Arjen Robben causing any sort of concern. Other than that, Liverpool looked comfortable and were hardly threatened.

On the other hand, Liverpool were not adventurous understandably. The first 20 to 30 minutes, they bid their time to settle down in front of a intimidating crowd before giving Real Madrid something of a concern.

Fernando Torres tested Iker Cassilas with a stinging shot. His effort was a culminated by some poor defending; something Real never had a reputation of. Then he was once again tested by Xabi Alonso from the halfway line; something the Spanish midfielder has a reputation for.

With chances few and far between, Real were thoroughly frustrated and worse still, impatient. Studying their body language, Rafa must have been smiling on the inside. Because we all know teams who are impatient and frustrated usually gives away something.

With Fernando Torres withdrawn due to injury, it seemed more unlikely for them to grab an all-important away goal. Yet it is times like these, as I’ve mentioned, that they rise above their circumstances and make things happen.

An unnecessary foul by a supposed Liverpool-bound Gabriel Heinze gave Fabio Aurelio a chance to show what he does best. The Brazilian full-back impressed on the night with solid defensive work, stopping Robben while also provided an attacking outlet with controlled runs.

It was a peach of a free kick and just as the camera pans to show us the emotion on his face, it was full of belief and conviction.

Seconds later, with everything moving in slow motion, Yossi Benayoun rose the highest to head home from 10 yards out. Casillas had no chance of stopping it. The Israeli captain was left unmarked in a crowded penalty area and he made them pay.

Without Gerrard and Torres, Liverpool found their saviour from the land of Zion. Though not necessary a religious figure, he gave the visitors something to cheer for and obviously, a strong belief that they’ll make it into their 3rd quarter finals in 4 seasons.

And it was all too late for Real to conjure up any sort of comebacks. They were suffocated and by the time the Reds took the lead, they had no more fight in them. Juande Ramos had options on the bench but it’s just not worth the hassle.

A classic Liverpool performance in Europe and yet another goliath of European football fell under Benitez. Even though it is only half time and there’s still a second leg to play for, it is indeed a result that Liverpool fans should be thankful for.

It was supposed to be a result that sends shockwave across the board yet Liverpool does it ever so often that one have to wonder how did they always have to live up to just a mere underdog.

Though they prosper under such title, perhaps it’s time people take notice of what the Reds are about. If they could transpire this form over 38 games in the Premiership, maybe Sir Alex would have something to worry.

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

CL Preview: Liverpool vs Real Madrid

By: Gareth Freeman

From a Liverpool point of view the draw for the first knock out stage of the Champions League could have been a lot kinder on Rafael Benitez but from a football point of view this is a mouth-watering contest.

I’m inclined to agree with Pepe Reina, who earlier this week said Liverpool were well matched with Real and there was little to chose between the two sides. I’m going to run through the Spanish giants’ strengths and weakness and see if I can offer any betting tips along the way.

Real may have lost a lot of ground to Barcelona in the league this season but they are still a decent side and are the form side in Spain. They’ve won their last nine league games in a row, including a 6-1 drubbing of Real Betis in their last match. Rafa’s boys will have to be at the top of their game to take Juande Ramos’ side down.

The good thing for the Reds is that in cup competitions league form counts for very little. Benitez is also a master tactician and I’m sure his game plan will be spot on by the time these two meet at the Bernabeu on Wednesday night. Steven Gerrard has also passed a fitness test to face Real and this is just the kind of boost Liverpool need going into a tie like this.

The Madrid midfield is where the real danger men are in the Spanish side. The Dutch duo of Sneijder and Van der Vart are exceptional players going forward and Sneijder in particular is deadly from set-pieces. I’m sure everyone will remember Arjen Robben from his Chelsea days and if anything his game has improved since he moved to Spain, expect him to cause a lot of problems.

For me Real’s right-back Sergio Ramos is a very dangerous attacking threat. However, his defending can be questionable at times and that should allow Albert Riera space down the left-wing to cause Real problems. Real also opted to include Lassana Diarra in their Champions League squad over striker Klaas Jan Huntelaar, which could be a bonus as the Liverpool lads will know more about the former Pompey midfielder than the Dutch striker.

Ruud Van Nistlerooy will play no further part this season and that should come as some relief to the Liverpool defence. However, they do have Raul and Gonzalo Higuain who are more than capable of scoring goals and it will be a difficult task for Carragher and co to keep the Madrid attack quiet.

Personally, I think a draw is on the cards in this match. Rafa’s priority will be to defend and perhaps nick an away goal so I think he’ll line up the Liverpool defence as tight as possible so they can take advantage of home advantage in the second leg. If you’re thinking of having an online football bet on any of the other games on Wednesday night I think Bayern Munich should be too strong for Sporting Lisbon, even if it is in Portugal, and there should be fairly decent odds on that as well.

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Reds Title Bid Up In Smokes

Liverpool 1 (Kuyt 78min)
Man City 1 (Arbeloa OG 48min)

Liverpool’s title bid was derailed further after a disappointing 1-1 draw with Manchester City, who were giving their bitter rivals a huge helping hand. Now with 12 games to go and 7 points apart, it is difficult to see Man Utd. slipping up.

It is the inevitable feeling of ‘same old, same old’ as Liverpool conceded first and had to fight tooth and nail to get back on equal terms. But the fight-back was all too late and without inspirational skipper, Steven Gerrard and the influential Xabi Alonso, it fell short.

Sitting through the first half was just as it was throughout the whole season. There was nothing to show for. Despite dominating possession, the partnership of Dirk Kuyt and Fernando Torres failed to puncture a hole in City’s defence.

Against the flow of the game, the best chance of the first period fell to the in-form Stephen Ireland, who disappointingly failed to put the ball past Pepe Reina and his subsequent follow up wasn’t good enough. It alarmed Liverpool a little but there was still an apparent lack of urgency.

Former Reds, Craig Bellamy, was in the City line-up and seemed a bit out of place playing alongside the likes of Robinho and Vincent Kompany. But he showed his worth when he converted his chance in front of Annie Road End and sent the City supporters into raptures.

The shot took an awful deflection off Alvaro Arbeloa and he is certainly making his presence known amongst the stars and reminding the Anfield crowd of his quality.

As inevitable as it is for Liverpool to concede first, they’ll always manage to do a comeback and they did after much knocking on the door.

The same player who finished off the amazing 3-2 turnaround earlier in the season, Dirk Kuyt, was on hand again to slot past Shay Given and give the Liverpool supporters some hope.

Subsequently, Yossi Benayoun had a fantastic chance to grab all 3 points for Liverpool but his volley was saved superbly.

Without Gerrard, the home side failed to conjure up any sort of inspiration and even Torres, who was thoroughly shackled by Richard Dunne and Micah Richards throughout, was ineffective and looked isolated up front.

With the title slipping away, Liverpool only have themselves to blame. Leading at a certain point in the campaign, they have managed to let it slip and are now desperately trying to get any sort of momentum going.

The only momentum they seemed to got into this season is drawing games, which isn’t the best case scenario for a title winning team. Despite only losing once throughout, the 11 draws all season is costing Rafa Benitez’s side big time.

With the in-form Real Madrid looming and Rafa’s stubborn refusal to put pen on paper, Liverpool’s position have been strangely precarious despite being so high up the table.

There’s still hope. But hope could be deceptive. It is hard enough to imagine Man Utd. going into a Newcastle-esque meltdown and at the same time, pinning hopes on Liverpool winning the rest of the games.

I highly doubt a comeback of that epic proportion would happen. Yet in football, who knows? We could turn the kind of form in those comebacks we had into the league form. I’m harbouring a little hope here. Just a little…