Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Chelsea 0-2 Liverpool: Bellamy stars to give Chelsea the Blues again

Liverpool triumphed at Stamford Bridge for the second time in nine days, to move a step closer to a trip to Wembley.

With less than two days rest since Sunday's hard-fought Premier League draw with Manchester City, Reds' boss Kenny Dalglish shuffled his pack, making 7 changes to his starting line-up. The plan worked, with the visitors putting in a commanding performance to reach the semi-finals of the competition for the first time since 2005.

Key to Liverpool's victory was Welsh striker Craig Bellamy. Following the tragic death of Bellamy's friend and international manager Gary Speed on Sunday, the forward was left out of the squad to face City. He returned at Stamford Bridge, and after shedding a tear during an emotional minutes applause for Speed, Bellamy was at the heart of most of the Reds' good work.

The Reds' survived an early penalty appeal when Uruguayan defender Sebastian Coates clearly felled David Luiz, but rather than give the penalty, referee Phil Dowd instead booked the Brazilian. Luiz was then lucky not to be shown a second caution when he pushed Andy Carroll in the Chelsea box, but again Dowd saw no offence.

In the 22nd minute though, Dowd did eventually point to the spot when Alex handled the ball. Carroll stepped up to take the kick, but fired it straight down the middle where Chelsea keeper Ross Turnbull was waiting.

The rest of the half saw few chances, with the only noteworthy act being a terrible foul by Lukaku on Henderson, although Dowd incorrectly booked Blues left-back Ryan Bertrand instead of the Belgian striker.

The second half saw Chelsea come to life, with Florent Malouda looping a header on to the bar, but it proved to be a brief respite for the home side as just before the hour the visitors took the lead.

When a superb Henderson ball released Bellamy down the right, the Welsh striker bided his time before hitting a perfect cross to the back post, where the waiting Maxi Rodriguez tapped home. It was Maxi's second goal at Stamford Bridge in 9 days and his 10th in his last 9 starts.

Five minutes later it got even better for the Reds. Bellamy's trickery won a free-kick down the left, from which he delivered a fantastic ball for Martin Kelly to head home his first Liverpool goal.

The home side were shell-shocked. Andre Villas Boas sent on Nicolas Anelka and Juan Mata, but along with ex-red Fernando Torres, they found it impossible to prise open a stubborn Liverpool defence, with Coates particularly impressive.

The last twenty minutes saw Liverpool cruise home, with the only sore point of the evening coming when Lucas Leiva was stretchered off with a nasty looking knee injury. Such is the Brazilian midfielder's growing influence on the Reds side, Dalglish will hope the injury is not as bad as first feared.

With ten minutes to go, Dalglish brought Bellamy off to a standing ovation from the 5,500 strong visiting fans. In appreciation for the Welsh striker's efforts in a tough week, the travelling Kop sung 'There's only one Gary Speed'.

Liverpool now join Manchester City, Cardiff City and Manchester United or Crystal Palace in the semi-finals as they bid to reach the new Wembley for the first time. For Chelsea, this was the latest in a growing list of defeats for new boss Villas Boas. Their Champions League decider against Valencia in two weeks now takes on added importance.

Sunday, November 20, 2011

Chelsea 1-2 Liverpool: Johnson's late strike sinks Blues

In a game where ex-Reds Fernando Torres and Raul Meireles were tipped to cause their former club problems, it was ex-Chelsea defender Glenn Johnson who proved to be the match-winner as his late goal gave Liverpool maximum points.

In fact, £50m striker Torres and Portugeuse midfielder Meireles only entered the fray minutes before Johnson beat Ashley Cole then coolly slotted past Peter Cech to give the visitors all 3 points.

Both teamsheets contained surprises, with Andre Villas Boas opting for Didier Drogba, so often a thorn in Liverpool's side, leaving Torres and Engand new-boy Daniel Sturridge on the bench. With Chelsea's rearguard having looked fraile in the 5-3 home defeat to Arsenal, Kenny Dalglish opted to add more movement and guile to a mis-firing Liverpool attack, bringing in Craig Bellamy, Dirk Kuyt and Maxi Rodriguez.

The plan nearly paid dividends within the first five minutes, as Luis Suarez almost released Maxi, then minutes later the Argentine found himself beyond the Chelsea back four once again, only for the home defence to recover.

At the other end, Juan Mata should have done better when he volleyed back across goal, then Dider Drogba's 25-yard free-kick whistled past Pepe Reina's post, with many of the Stamford Bridge crowd thinking the ball had gone in.

As the half wore on, the visitors controlled the game, with central-midfield pairing Lucas and Charlie Adam dictating the play. The pace and movement of the Liverpool attack constantly had the home side under pressure, David Luiz in particular.

On 33 minutes, the Reds enterprise was rewarded. When Cech found John Obi Mikel from a goal-kick, Adam made up 20 yards to instantly dispossess the Nigerian midfielder. Bellamy played a quick one-two with Suarez, before unselfishly releasing Maxi, who calmly side-footed past Cech.

With the home side visibly floundering, the Reds continued to get in behind their opponents, so it was a relief to the home fans when the half-time whistled sounded. When both teams came out for the second-half, Villas Boas changed the shape of his side, hauling off Mikel replaced by Sturridge.

The change saw the home side more of an attacking threat, with Spaniard Mata able to get on the ball more. On 55 minutes, they were rewarded, as Florent Malouda advanced unopposed to the Liverpool box. The French International's mis-hit shot rolled across the six-yard box, where Sturridge was waiting to tap home.

With their confidence up, Chelsea went for the jugular. From a whipped Drogba free-kick, Branislav Ivanovic's flicked header forced Reina into a fine one-handed save low to his left.

Liverpool re-grouped, with Jordan Henderson replacing Bellamy as the Reds employed a more disciplined formation. Chances were few and far between until Malouda scuffed a shot wide from six yards with 15 minutes left.

As the game entered it's closing stages, Villas Boas put his faith in a fairytale ending by bringing on ex-Reds duo Torres and Meireles. But the change seemed to fire up the Reds, with substitutes Henderson and Stewart Downing combining to tee up Kuyt, who fired wide.

With three minutes to go though, the Reds netted the winner. Adam's raking pass found full-back Johnson rampaging down the left. The defender, who played for the Blues under Jose Mourinho, nutmegged Cole before stepping inside Malouda. Faced with Cech, Johnson showed the composure of a seasoned striker to calmly slot a left-foot shot into the bottom far corner, much to the delight of Reds' boss Kenny Dalglish, who ran down the touchline arms aloft.

The scoreline was no more than the Reds deserved. Having dominated the first-half, the Reds were put under pressure early in the second-half following the equaliser, but, with Daniel Agger and Martin Skrtel strong in defence, they showed great character to regroup and ultimately go on to win the game. After a disappointing result at home to Swansea City two weeks ago, Dalglish will be delighted to get back to winning ways. Next up is the small matter of runaway leaders Manchester City.

Thursday, November 10, 2011

Home (Not So) Sweet Home!

With the Reds struggling at home with only 2 wins from 6, our columnist Robert Nevitt assesses what is going wrong with our performances at Anfield.

As the saying goes, “There’s a fine line between success and failure”.

If John Ruddy hadn’t had the game of his life when Norwich came to Anfield, we’d have won comfortably. If Andy Carroll had hit his shot 6 inches lower against Swansea on Saturday, surely the floodgates would have opened. We would then be sitting in 4th place, on the back of 3 straight league wins, 4 victories if you count the Carling Cup win over Stoke City.

But, and here’s where the fine line comes into play, we’re not. Against the Canaries, Ruddy was sensational, making save after save. Combined with the profligacy of Luis Suarez and a Pepe Reina rush of blood to the head, we allowed Norwich to come back and earn themselves a point. Against Brendan Rodgers’ side, Carroll justified the away fans chants of “what a waste of money” by crashing his harder-to-miss six-yard effort against the bar. We subsequently struggled, allowing Swansea’s diddymen, Allen, Gower and Britton, to control the game and if truth be told, we were lucky to escape with a point.

The result is that instead of sitting fourth on 23 points, we lie in sixth on 19. Above us are Alan Pardew’s surprise package Newcastle, Spurs (who also have a game in hand) and Chelsea, who we visit next. Also breathing down our necks is a Robin Van Persie-inspired Arsenal, who seem to have recovered from their shocking start to the season. What could have been a relatively good start to the season, is slowly turning into a mediocre one.

So where is it going wrong?

Despite the league defeat at Stoke, where we should have got at least a point, and the 9-man capitulation at White Hart Lane, solid 2-0 successes at Arsenal, Everton and more recently West Brom mean our away form is actually quite good. This is backed up by the fact that our entire Carling Cup run has been played on the road, with trips to Exeter City, Brighton and Stoke again, all safely negotiated. It is at Anfield where the problems are occurring. The two draws against the promoted sides came on the back of sharing of the spoils against Man United and Sunderland. Only Bolton and Wolves have left Anfield empty-handed so far this season.

Whilst collectively a home record of 2 wins from 6 looks poor, assessing each game individually shows that even if the result didn’t go as planned, there were still positives to be taken. On the opening day against Sunderland, the first 45 minutes saw the new-look Reds knock the ball about confidently. The visiting keeper should have been sent-off early in the game, Suarez missed a penalty and Stewart Downing hit the bar. We deserved to have been more than a goal up at half-time. But, after the break, mainly down to fitness issues, we didn’t reach the same level of performance, allowing Sunderland to grab a point through Sebastian Larsson’s fantastic volley.

When our rivals from the other side of the East Lancs road visited, despite a tentative first-half where we showed United too much respect, the second-half saw us boss the game and take a deserved lead. Even when Javier Hernandez equalised, we were the team who looked most likely victors with Jordan Henderson twice going close.

As already mentioned, we threw everything but the kitchen sink at Norwich, but only found the net once through Craig Bellamy. A 15-minute dip midway through the second-half resulted in a Grant Holt to equalise, meaning once again we had to settle for a point. Against Swansea, even though our overall performance level dropped, Carroll missed his glorious chance and Swans keeper Michel Vorm was arguably man of the match following his heroics to deny Suarez, Glen Johnson and others. In fact, our worst home performance of the season was against Wolves, where we got 2-0 up then sat back, conceded and ultimately had to hang on for victory.

Of course, you can’t always put poor results down to bad luck or refereeing decisions, so what needs to change in order for us to start winning at home?

Well, not a great deal in my view.

In the past we were often criticised for not creating chances, for not making the opposition goalkeeper earn his wage. That is something which can’t be levelled at us so far this season. Already we’ve hit the woodwork on no fewer than 11 occasions. Against Norwich, Suarez alone had 11 unsuccessful attempts, whilst the Swansea game saw 25 efforts at the visiting goal. The recurring theme is not that we need more creativity, but that we need to be more clinical. On TV and in the press, the finger of blame has been mainly pointed at Suarez, but the truth of the matter is he is the one missing most of our chances because he is our main attacking threat. The likes of Carroll, Dirk Kuyt, Henderson and Stewart Downing all need to start threatening too to help share the burden.

Tactically, I’ve heard some fans call for a change to how we set-up. A switch to 4-3-3 has been mooted, or to add an extra holding midfielder, thus giving protection to the attack-minded Charlie Adam. Personally, I don’t agree. Defensively I think we are OK, especially when the calming presence of Daniel Agger is in the team. I realise Swansea was the first time we have kept a clean sheet at home, but if we want to be more attacking, then more gaps are going to appear at the back. As an attacking unit, I think our current set-up of 4-4-2 is the way to go. For me, Adam has been impressive alongside Lucas, displaying an ability to carry the ball as well as his excellent range of passing. With our right sided midfielder, be it Henderson or Kuyt, tucking in to help the midfield duo, Johnson or Kelly have been able to get forward from right back, whilst on the other side, Jose Enrique has settled in brilliantly.

In front of Enrique is where I feel the key position in our current formation lies. Stewart Downing was bought to stay wide and provide the ammunition for our front two, particularly Carroll. After looking the real deal at the start of the season, Downing’s form has dipped. He is still steady, he provided the cross from which Carroll hit the bar on Saturday, but I feel he doesn’t take the game by the scruff of the neck enough. With Bellamy itching to get in on the action, I feel it may be time to give the Welshman a run on the left, especially for home games.

Whilst I don’t think it is time to hit the panic button quite yet, I do think it is imperative that we start to see an improvement in our results at Anfield. A team’s home record often defines their season’s achievements. Last season, champions Man United won an amazing 18 out of 19 games at home. That’s 54 points amassed, only 4 points less than our total last season. The more success a team has at home, the harder it becomes for visiting teams. Going back to United, part of the reason their home record is so good is the fact that teams turn up at Old Trafford already beaten. On the other hand, when a team visits Anfield, they believe they can take something from the game. 

So in conclusion, don’t panic. It’s still early days for Kenny’s new-look reds. With a bit more clinical finishing in front of goal and a few tweaks of personnel, we will be fine. We aren’t that far away. After all, there’s only a fine line between success and failure.
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