Friday, November 26, 2010

Behind Enemy Lines - The view from White Hart Lane

As a part of a new series of articles on The Anfield Opinion football journalist and Spurs supporter Ben Hardy has answered our questions on the upcoming fixture at White Hart Lane. 

Spurs come in to the game having recently won two high-profile games against current European Champions Inter Milan and local rivals Arsenal. Do you feel - given Liverpool’s poor away form - that a win is almost a certainty for your side on Sunday?

Nothing is ever a certainty in this game. Yes, we are strong at home and yes Liverpool have performed poorly away from Anfield this season. Yet we have seen Liverpool win convincingly against Chelsea and Spurs lose at home to struggling Wigan.

Confidence is in abundance around White Hart Lane, from the players to the fans. For the first time in the Premier League era, Tottenham are the favourites in this tie and I’m sure Harry Redknapp’s team has nothing but a win firmly fixed in their minds. However, as we have seen so many times already this season, Spurs can suffer badly after a mid-week European match with poor results against Bolton Wanderers and Wigan Athletic.

The fans would expect a win and they are being realistic in doing so, but it is certainly not a nailed on result.

Rafael Van Der Vaart has without question been one of the best players in the league this season, especially at White Hart Lane. How big an impact will his absence from the side have on Spurs should he miss the game?

It’s clearly bad news that the manager only rates him 50-50 for the game and would no doubt be a massive blow to have such a quality player missing. 7 goals in 7 White Hart Lane appearances is not something that can be achieved easily. His ability in the opposition box is outstanding and combined with his sublime touch and skill makes him one of the most dangerous players in world football and a massive loss for Tottenham.

 However, his absence has given Redknapp the opportunity to revert back to 4-4-2 and start with the fit again Jermain Defoe, who is always likely to cause trouble when he is partnered with his old pal Peter Crouch. It also gives Luka Modric a bit more freedom and the license to become the play maker and join in with the attacks.

Based on his season so far many Liverpool supporters feel Gareth Bale will be your main threat on Sunday. Who do you think, aside from Bale, can cause Liverpool the most problems? 

It’s true that the source of most of out attacks and goals is from the left hand side but hopefully it’s the right side that can cause some problems for Carragher and co on Sunday. Alan Hutton is enjoying a good spell in the team in which he’s shown some good attacking performances. Aaron Lennon is threatening to show good form after a good performance mid-week, and with Hutton behind him, it’s a position we can exploit against the Reds, especially if Liverpool start to switch their focus on stopping Bale.

Modric always carries a threat from the centre of midfield and Jermain Defoe will want to get back to scoring ways after coming as a substitute in the last two matches. Peter Crouch may feel he has something to prove against his former team, and with Defoe pushing for a start, he will be hoping to kick start the partnership and be one to inflict damage against Hodgson’s team. All of these players have the ability to pull out a man of the match performances and win us the game.

With Steven Gerrard out of the side travelling to London, Liverpool are far from full strength. Is there any players who you really fear going in to the game? 

Apart from the obvious threat of Torres and Joe Cole, for me, David N’gog is someone who can cause our defence problems.

Whether he starts or comes on from the bench, he is player who is always looking to get in behind players and get shots on target. We have already seen glimpses of his class this season, and his pace and energy give him the potential to be a match winner.

Finally, can we have a score prediction? 

1-1, We look to go into the game as favourites, however I feel the European hangover looks set to kick in once again. I’m sure Peter Crouch would love to get on the score sheet against his old club and I think he will.

You can follow Ben on Twitter.

Liverpool look to improve away record with win over Spurs on Sunday

In a recent interview Liverpool goalkeeper Pepe Reina claimed that the Reds still have a chance of finishing in the top four positions in the league. This Sundays game at White Hart Lane may well back-up that claim or help Liverpool’s critics to further dismiss it.

Speaking about Liverpool’s top four chances Reina said: “[It is] possible; why not? But we have to be sure that we deliver better performances otherwise it’s going to be really, really, really difficult.”

For the most part the Spaniard is correct in what he says. Statistically Liverpool can still finish in the top four, but going on the point’s totals in recent seasons this would take what would be considered championship winning form to come to fruition, with the majority of games – home and away – needing to be won.

It seems though that Reina, seen to be one of the iconic figures at the club and a potential future captain, is of a much different few to his manager, Roy Hodgson, who in the build-up to the Reds trip to London played down Liverpool’s hopes when on the road.

When asked about his team’s chances when playing away from home this season Hodgson said: “I believe if we continue to play the way we did against West Ham we may get one or two but it is the level of performance which counts.

Clearly Hodgson’s expectations from the season differ from that of Pepe Reina, with significantly more than “one or two” away wins needed for the Reds to be competing for a top four place, or for that matter even a place in Europe.

In the managers defence this could just be a tactic to try and settle his players, choosing to try and take the pressure off them by not setting the bar too high and thus allowing them to walk out on Sunday feeling a little less pressure from the boss.

But critics will argue that confidence breeds confidence, and a team that go in to a match having been told they can win will be much more prepared for the challenge ahead.

So far this campaign Liverpool’s form has been too volatile, with good performances, such as the one against Chelsea, being followed by the poor performances, in this example against Wigan and Stoke.

If Liverpool want to be pushing for the top places in the league this season then they must dramatically improve both their consistency and performances on the road – starting with the game against Tottenham on Sunday.

(Photo provided by Jose Porras) 

Thursday, November 25, 2010

Pacheco unhappiness another worry for Roy Hodgson as owners focus on youth development

With recent reports suggesting promising youngster Dani Pacheco is unhappy with life under Roy Hodgson, it has to be asked just how suited the veteran manager is to take the club forward and work with the philosophy set out by new owners New England Sports Ventures.

Both The Times and The Independent reported on Thursday that the Spanish Under-19 international had become frustrated with a lack of first team opportunities since he was dropped from the squad following the Reds now infamous loss at the hands of Northampton Town in the League Cup.

It’s not the first time a member of the first team squad has fell out with Hodgson, with Glen Johnson having a well publicised rift with the former Fulham boss, whilst Pepe Reina is also speculated to be concerned at the direction the club is heading under the current manager.

This is however the first time a young player has been reportedly at loggerheads with Hodgson, which will no doubt spark concern amongst senior figures at NESV, including John W Henry, who have placed particular emphasis on developing Liverpool’s promising talent in to world-class players.

Hodgson’s apparent lack of time for Pacheco isn’t the only thing which shows him as the wrong fit for the NESV ethos however, with his signings since arriving at Anfield being much older than what is expected by John W Henry and co.

In fact the average age of the players Hodgson has signed since coming to Anfield is 28.6 (Not including Danny Wilson, as the groundwork for his deal was completed under the previous regime). Whilst the average age of players sold by Hodgson comes to 23.

Of course these deals were made under the previous ownership, which meant Hodgson had an incredibly limited budget which undoubtedly left him searching for bargain deals in the summer transfer window.

However this isn’t an excuse for not trying to attract younger players to Anfield, with clubs such as Arsenal attracting a lot of promising players without having to break the bank to bring them to the club.

If Dani Pacheco is to leave in January it may represent one of the worst transfer decisions made in the clubs history, selling an extremely talented prospect, likely for very little money, without giving him enough of a run in the first team to prove himself good enough.

Whilst Jay Spearing, Martin Kelly and Jonjo Shelvey have been given some time in the starting eleven this season, Roy Hodgson must understand that our academy and reserve squads are filled with talented youngsters desperate for a chance in the first team, and filling positions with experienced journeymen simply won’t cut it with either the supporters or the owners.

Friday, November 19, 2010

Match Preview: Cautious optimism as unpredictable Liverpool take on struggling Hammers

In their current state a win over West Ham United should be somewhat of a formality. The Hammers have netted just eleven goals home and away this season, conceding twenty-two and picking up just nine points from thirteen games.

Yet the cautious optimism that greeted John W Henry upon his arrival on Merseyside seems to once again be prevalent among Liverpool’s supporters – with what has been a roller coaster league campaign thus far proving to be enough to make even the most passionate fan doubt what should be a forgone conclusion.

So far this season Liverpool have been predictably unpredictable, with the Reds most recent run of games being a prime example of just how varied performances both home and away can be.

Earlier in the month Roy Hodgson was breathing a sigh of relief following a crucial win over current league champions Chelsea. A corner had been turned, claimed his supporters – yet following the Reds best showing so far this season form once again slipped, with Liverpool putting in disappointing performances against Wigan and Stoke – which ended in a draw and a defeat respectfully.

It’s this erratic form which leaves supporters worrying about what should be the most predictable of fixtures. West Ham have yet to win on their travels, having drawn three and lost three away from Upton Park.

These worries have been further justified due to a number of key players being ruled out of the fixture, leaving the squad looking its weakest for many years.

Steven Gerrard faces up to four weeks on the sidelines with a hamstring injury, Joe Cole is suffering from the same problem and thus won’t start, whilst Lucas will miss the match through suspension.

To further add to Roy Hodgson’s midfield selection troubles youngster Jay Spearing – who may have been handed his first league start at Anfield – was ruled out of the fixture on Friday after injuring his ankle in the latter stages of training.

The back-four on the other hand has remained, for the most part, injury free in the build-up to the fixture, with centre-half Daniel Agger being the only major sidelined player as full-backs Glen Johnson and Fabio Aurelio are set to return to the squad having recovered from groin and Achilles injuries.

It’s not just Liverpool that are going in to the fixture with a weakened squad however, with West Ham missing Ben Haim, Collison, Hines, Kurucz, Hitzlsperger and most notably Scott Parker.

Injury woes or not this is a game Liverpool would expect to win. But the same was said for Blackpool and Sunderland at home, not to mention the embarrassment in the League Cup against Northampton.

A win against Chelsea is all well and good, but if the three points picked up against the champions are not backed up by further wins over significantly weaker teams the Liverpool will continue to remain in a state of limbo.

A win for Liverpool, which would seem likely, would see them heading up towards the European places in the Barclays Premier League, whilst a loss could send the Reds hurtling back down towards the relegation places – a sign of just how unpredictable a season Liverpool are having.

(Photo provided by Nicholas MacGowan) 

Monday, November 01, 2010

Alberto Aquilani should be given second chance at Anfield

Alberto Aquilani is a name often touted by Rafael Benitez’s detractors as being one of many expensive flops signed by the Spaniard. Yet the accusation couldn’t be further from the truth.

Aquilani’s first season at Liverpool was admittedly far from successful, but neither was it a complete write-off.

Due to injury the Italian only managed to start 12 games, whilst making 13 appearances from the bench. The majority of his appearances coming off the bench were in the latter stages of games, when the Italian had little time to make an impact and was still recovering from injury.

Yet despite having just 12 starts to his name, and just over the same number of appearances off the bench, Aquilani managed an impressive six assists and one league goal – a good return bearing in mind Liverpool struggled throughout the season in the final third of the pitch.

Since moving on loan to Juventus Aquilani has featured in seven of the nine games the Turin outfit have played in their Serie A campaign, starting five and coming on from the bench in two. In the games he’s featured the 26-year-old has managed to contribute a goal.

The fact Aquilani has already contributed a goal, something he managed only once in the league during his time at Anfield, is encouraging, even though the former Roma man has yet to assist any goals. More encouraging though is the fact that Alberto has remained fit and featured in the majority of Juventus’ league games this season.

Looking away from the stats and on to the pitch and further improvements can be seen. Alberto is incredibly clever on the ball, rarely being caught in possession and often triggering a number of attacking moves. On top of that Aquilani’s defensive performances have also been good, with the Italian never afraid to get stuck in to challenges and often getting his side out of sticky situations.

At Liverpool this season the centre of the park has been one of the side’s weaker points, with little creativity coming from anyone apart from new signing Raul Meireles. Lucas and Poulsen, whilst fairly sturdy as defensive midfielders, are not the most creative or attack-minded players.

This has led to Liverpool’s goal scoring problem from last season being escalated in this campaign, and you have to wonder how much different it would have been if Roy Hodgson had Aquilani amongst those he could choose from.

Admittedly at times the Italian seemed to have difficulty with the pace of the English game, but the vast majority of players who come to England face the same problem, for example it took Cristiano Ronaldo a couple of seasons to get in to the flow of things at Manchester United – now he is widely considered to be one of the best players in the world.

Aquilani’s fitness is also still an issue. Whilst he has remained fit during his time in Turin it is important that this lasts throughout the season. Should this be the case then it would be hard to argue that he should at least be considered for a move back to England.

Aquilani has remained fit and put in some fantastic performances since his arrival in Turin, and should that continue through the rest of the season then Liverpool should make sure Juventus don't utilise their option to buy the player and bring him back to Anfield.

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