Thursday, April 09, 2009

Move On, With Hope in Your Heart

Liverpool 1 (Torres 6)
Chelsea 3 (Ivanovic 39, 62; Drogba 67)

The score line says it all. A 3-1 defeat at the hands of our old foe, Chelsea, means that Liverpool’s participation in this year’s Champions League is almost over. With the 2nd leg still to play at Stamford Bridge, it looks a more daunting task than claiming this year’s Premiership title.

It is this kind of situation that you hoped the second leg would be at Anfield. But last night, the “12th man” was helpless as they saw Chelsea put the Reds to the sword emphatically.

Despite Liverpool’s league double over them this season, a Chelsea under Guus Hiddink seemed a totally different proposition from the ones put up by former boss, Luiz Filipe Scolari.

To their credit, they played with much conviction, ruthlessness and control. A tinge of Jose Mourinho’s Chelsea could be detected last night as they controlled the game well despite conceding an early goal.

With Anfield roaring the home side on, Liverpool found themselves on cloud nine after their number nine, Fernando Torres, volleyed home only after 6 minutes. The Spanish hotshot was able to convert after some good work down the right flank from Dirk Kuyt and Alvaro Arbeloa.

But Chelsea settled their nerves and responded immediately after a mistake from an off-coloured Fabio Aurelio. The Brazilian lost possession in his final third and a rampaging Salomon Kalou found Didier Drogba with a through-ball but the Ivorian striker could only blast it straight into Pepe Reina.

The in-form and revived striker caused the Liverpool defence much problem from then on and should’ve gotten himself a hat trick.

With Michael Essien doing a fantastic job patrolling just ahead of the defence led by John Terry, he effectively rendered Steven Gerrard a pedestrian throughout and the Liverpool captain was unable to link up with Fernando Torres. It was to be a very disappointing night for him.

But there won’t be a more disappointing sight than to see Liverpool conceding cheap goals, such as the two headers Branislav Ivanovic scored through two separate corner kicks.

Once again, Rafa Benitez’s zonal marking will be put to question. No doubt that the Liverpool players lost concentration on both occasion and were made to pay.

After the recent good form from the Reds, scoring a heap-load of goals against Real Madrid, Man Utd and Aston Villa, they found it difficult against a well-organised Chelsea.

Javier Mascherano’s absence was a major blow as replacement, Lucas Leiva, was constantly harried off the ball and was found wanting at times.

Liverpool’s left flank was also in a state of paralysis as they were unable to provide the ammunition while also shaky in defence. Albert Riera’s physical presence was always going to pose a problem for the opponent and therefore, Hiddink’s decision to play Ivanovic at right back was justified as Riera found it difficult against Ivanovic.

Meanwhile, Fabio Aurelio had a stinker. The Brazilian left back was caught out a few times by a marauding Kalou and was outpaced and outsmarted by the Ivorian. No surprise that Benitez had to haul him off before the full 90 minutes.

But to be fair to them, nobody who wore red last night deserved any sort of praise. They looked flat and the title race seemed to have drawn their attention away. It’s alarming to see so many slip ups and lost of concentration at vital areas.

The scoreline will be a bitter taste in the mouth for most Reds but must be relived that Chelsea were unable to capitalise on the mistakes. Sad to say, the scoreline flattered the home team.

With a gargantuan of a task ahead at Stamford Bridge, even the most optimistic Liverpool fan would concede that there won’t be a glimmer of hope this time. Chelsea have put the tie beyond the Reds and probably won’t allow Liverpool put to 3 goals into their net without reply, even without the service of suspended skipper, John Terry.

Of course in football, you win some and you lose some. “Hold your head up high” they sing and you know we will bounce back. I’m hoping to see a spirited reply at Stamford Bridge next week even though hopes seemed to have deserted us on the European front.

And there’s still 7 league games to play, one last shot at glory. Maybe being put out of the competition is a blessing in disguise for the Reds as they can now concentrate their firepower on the final assault for the throne that was lost 20 years ago.

Win or lose, football still offers hope and it is why we called it a beautiful game. Enjoy it in victory and in defeat, we cry and we move on.

Walk on, with hope in your heart!

Tuesday, April 07, 2009

Champions League Preview: Liverpool vs Chelsea

By Gareth Freeman

It seems almost as if this fixture is a part of the regular football calendar now, rather than a random draw. This is in fact the eighth time these two teams have met in the Champions League and by now we’re all used to watching these two play out some enthralling ties. Chelsea’s semi-final victory over the Reds last year was a dubious one and I’m sure Liverpool will be keen too even the score this time around. Another stat that might give the Anfield faithful a bit of comfort, in four Champions League meetings at Anfield – Chelsea have scored just one goal.

I don’t think it really matter whether you’re at home in the first or second leg to be honest. The best team over two legs will win, its as simple as that. With Liverpool’s current form they should go into this tie as favourites with the sports betting odds but we all know how good Chelsea can be. Guus Hiddink will have to do without Nicolas Anelka though, the Frenchman has been in fine form this season and his presence will surely be missed by the Stamford Bridge side. Didier Drogba missed Chelsea’s victory over Newcastle at the weekend but it looks as if he will be fit for the game at Anfield. Drogba is without doubt a great player but for me he hasn’t been in top-form this season and if he isn’t fully fit he won’t be at the top of his game.

For me there are three players Liverpool need to really get the better of if they are too beat Chelsea – Frank Lampard, John Terry and Petr Cech. In Lampard Chelsea have a midfielder almost of the standard of Gerrard (ok, not really but he does score the odd cracker). Lampard is Chelsea’s star man and stopping him will be crucial if Liverpool are to progress to the semi-final stage. Terry has already admitted he is ‘dreading’ marking Gerrard and Torres but if there is a centre-half equipped for the task it is John Terry. If he is on top of his game chances will be few and far between but with Torres, Gerrard and Benayoun Liverpool have the players to make the most of even half-chances. Cech is probably the best keeper in the world and beating him is never going to be easy, lets just hope he doesn’t pull off a wonder game.

In the other Champions League tie on Wednesday night Barcelona welcome Bayern Munich to Camp Nou in a game that will decide Liverpool’s opponents should they progress. Barca and Bayern are the joint top scorers in the competition this year and if you’re betting backing over 2.5 goals might be a good idea. I’ll leave you with one last fact ahead of tomorrow’s meeting with Chelsea - in 11 games against English opposition in the competition (inc. last year's final against Manchester United) Chelsea have only won three games. Liverpool's only other English opponent (without Chelsea) in this competition has been Arsenal, who they beat 5-3 on aggregate in last year's quarter finals.

Monday, April 06, 2009

Title Race Down The Wire

Fulham 0
Liverpool 1 (Benayoun 90+1)

Going down the wire seems a good expression of this season’s English Premiership title race but it’s more of an understatement after this weekend’s round of fixtures. Scintillating, fascinating and exhilarating. Those were the words epitomising 2 separate fixtures of the 2 closest title rivals.

Like a classic tug-of-war fashion, nobody seems to be giving up and when pressure seemingly gets on one side, they overcame and lived to fight another day. The battles were won but the outcome of the war is still a mystery.

And any slip-ups now surely will tip the scale. It’s either Man Utd or Liverpool, with Chelsea having an outside chance of sneaking it when nobody’s even talking about Guus Hiddink and his under-performing team.

United were set to face the team that were downed 5-0 by Liverpool last week while the Reds visited Craven Cottage to face the team that helped them a great favor last week after their shock 2-0 win over United.

That was the fascinating factor. In football, when adrenaline pumps and pressure gets on, form goes out the window and statistics doesn’t add up at all.

Villa, who were in dire form of late, visited Old Trafford to face a wounded giant. The humiliating defeat by Liverpool would surely give people the impression that United would have it easy at home as well.

But John Carew begged to defer. But sadly, despite some colossus effort, Villa still went down 3-2 with new kid on the block, Frederico Macheda scoring the winner in the 92nd minute of the game. Mark of the champions? Definitely.

Despite being outplayed at times and losing several key players, United managed to bounce back and avoid an embarrassing 3 games losing streak. The game was played at break-neck pace and it was end to end.

They were also playing after being put under intense pressure by Liverpool, one of those rare occasions where the ball was in Liverpool’s court and they managed to deliver it out. It is not, of course, without some minor hiccups.

Oh, I meant the crossbar and the post.

The last 2 games at Craven Cottage offered a comparison between the 2 title rivals and it’s fairly obvious to us that Liverpool have built up this newfound resilience in them which doesn’t last them to the 70th minute or the 80th minute but right to the end.

When United came and were outplayed, the fragility of their character was apparent. The heavy defeat by Liverpool did the damage and the players lost the plot. Paul Scholes thought he was in the beach of northern France playing beach volleyball while Wayne Rooney thought the corner flag at Craven Cottage had ‘punch me’ written on it.

Despite scoring 2 against Villa last night, the ‘best-player-in-the-world-tm’ showed that he’s the player you’ll want in better days but not on those dark and gloomy ones. A lack of determination and ‘get-stuck-in’ attitude meant that he was more of a liability.

In contrast, Liverpool lived true to the ‘it’s not over till it’s over’ motto made famous by Rocky Balboa. Despite severe frustrations and the seemingly familiar feeling of ‘it’s just not our day’, they fought on and found their deserved glory.

It came in the 91st minute, the 11th time Liverpool found the net beyond the 90th minute, a sign of character and resilience. This time, it was Yossi Benayoun who popped up with the beauty.

The Israeli captain infuriated the Reds camp last week after agreeing to travel for the international games and unsurprisingly, came back with a plaster and some medication for his foot.

The players came back from the international break giving Rafa Benitez some selection problems (not saying that it doesn’t affect Sir Alex but he should blame the red cards instead) but he still was able to field a pretty strong line up.

Eyes were lit up the moment they saw Andrea Dosenna on the left flank. Gerrard and Torres, the golden partnership, was reformed again.

Yet they were not able to put the ball in the net and with Dosenna’s headed balls more attracted to the goal frame and Gerrard’s lacklustre performance, it was probably meant to be yet another bad day at office.
We’ve seen Liverpool done it over the past few seasons when they were put in the driving seat to apply pressure on their rivals but fail to capitalize. This time round, Benayoun decided enough is enough and put an end to this mental blockage and misconception.

The away end of Craven Cottage was bouncing and singing “we’re gonna win the league” and were in raptures. So did Old Trafford 24 hours later. Such emotions and such excitement. With 7 games to go, the margin of error is getting thinner and the neck to neck race will really give fans of both sides the edge of the seat experience.

How many times have we, Liverpool fans, felt this way? Seldom. But finally we’re in it so I say let’s enjoy it. Whether we falter at the end or gain glory, I must say the team has moved on to another level with Rafa Benitez and what we’re going to achieve this season will be a perfect platform for the Reds next season.