Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Liverpool 1-2 Wigan Athletic: Dismal Reds humbled by Latics

Liverpool's dismal league form continued as Wigan Athletic picked up a surprise, but deserved, 2-1 win at Anfield. 

Gary Caldwell's second half winner meant Kenny Dalglish's side have now lost 5 out of their last six Premier League games, leaving them a massive 13 points behind Champions League qualification and eight points adrift of sixth-placed Newcastle United.

Following Wednesday night's late capitulation at QPR where the Reds surrendered a two-goal lead to return from London empty-handed, Dalglish resisted the temptation to make wholesale changes. With Glen Johnson and Martin Kelly both injured, youngster John Flanagan made only his second league start of the season, whilst Sebastian Coates' wonderful scissor-kick effort at Loftus Road as not enough for him to make the starting eleven before Jamie Carragher. With Charlie Adam out with an injured hamstring, Jordan Henderson was recalled, whilst Andy Carroll was surprisingly named only as a substitute again. Joining the £35m record signing on the bench, there was a return to first team duty of reserve striker Nathan Ecclestone, whilst exciting 17-year old winger Raheem Sterling was involved in the matchday squad for the first time.

In a flat opening to the game, more akin to an end of season dead rubber, both teams struggled to make any telling in-roads towards their opponent's goals. It wasn't until the 10th minute that any defenders were called into action, when Martin Skrtel produced a fine block to deny Wigan winger Victor Moses.

Having bossed possession but created noting, the home side did eventually threaten. Henderson should have done better when he veered away from goal when it looked easier to shoot, before Stewart Downing shot narrowly wide of the far post after a neat one-two with Luis Suarez.

But, just as it looked like the Reds were improving, relegation-threatened Wigan struck first blood. As Liverpool attempted to clear a Latics' free-kick, Jay Spearing's lay-off to Flanagan was intercepted, with the ball quickly sent into the Reds' box. As the ball bounced six yards out, Skrtel swung a boot to clear but instead connected with Moses' head, giving referee Lee Mason no option but to give a penalty. Spot-kick taker Shaun Maloney was made to wait nearly five minutes as Moses received treatment, but the Scot kept his nerve to calmly stroke home his first Wigan goal to give Roberto Martinez' side the lead.

With groans starting to spread around Anfield, the hosts upped their game, albeit only by a couple of notches. First, Suarez curled a shot from the edge of the box which Ali Al-Habsi saved well, and then the Omani goalkeeper did well to turn over a deflected Steven Gerrard effort after the Liverpool skipper had combined with Suarez.

As the teams came out for the start of the second half, Carroll replaced the ineffective Henderson as the Reds reverted to a 4-4-2. The change had an immediate impact, as within two minutes the home side were level.

Skrtel fed Suarez who in turn played the ball out wide to Gerrard. The Reds' skipper bided his time before laying the ball across goal for Suarez to side-foot first time into the far corner. A huge sigh of relief could be felt round Anfield, with the expectancy now that the Reds would go on to win the game convincingly.

This notion was furthered soon after as it looked like Suarez had doubled his account. When a deep cross found Skrtel at the back post, the Slovakian rose high to head back across goal. As the ball bounced less than a yard out, Suarez jumped and diverted the ball into the net. As the home contingent celebrated, referee Mason correctly ruled the Uruguayan striker had used his hand to divert the ball home, and subsequently booked the Reds' number seven.

If the Reds' fans felt aggrieved at the decision, it was soon replaced by a feeling of anger as Wigan regained the lead thanks to an unlikely source. Again the danger stemmed from a set-piece as Liverpool could only clear a free-kick to the edge of their box, from which Latics' midfielder James McCarthy sent a volley towards goal. As the ball ricocheted off Carragher, it dropped to centre-half Caldwell, who showed tremendous composure to turn inside the last defender Carroll, before sending the ball under Pepe Reina into the Kop net.

Anfield had hardly heralded more than a whisper all afternoon, but Caldwell's goal completely silenced the home crowd. With the Reds displaying no idea how to get back into the game for a second time, the silence was replaced by a series of moans and groans as the natives displayed their displeasure at another lacklustre performance.

The mood was briefly lifted on 83 minutes, when Sterling became the Reds third-youngest ever player when he replaced Dirk Kuyt. The diminutive winger is widely regarded as the best talent in Liverpool's impressive youth set-up and his late cameo did nothing to suggest otherwise as he looked confident in possession and showed good pace and technique when running at the Wigan defence.

But even the presence of Sterling couldn't help Liverpool find the equaliser and despite a late Suarez effort, Wigan comfortably held on for a historic first-ever win at Anfield. More importantly for Martinez and his men, the victory gave them and their pocket of travelling fans renewed optimism in their battle to stay up as they moved to within a point of safety.

For Liverpool though, this was the latest in an increasingly worrying run of results. Despite the fact that the Carling Cup has already been won and there is a FA Cup semi-final to look forward to, Liverpool's poor league campaign is in danger of overshadowing their cup achievements.

Before Christmas, the Reds form in the league was good with profligate finishing the reason results were not going their way. But now, worryingly, as well as lacking a cutting edge, they are now starting to ship goals on a regular basis. With summer signings Henderson, Adam, Downing and, to a lesser extent, Enrique having failed to impress on a consistent basis, the pressure is building on Dalglish. Add to this the fact that record signing Carroll continues to struggle to nail down a first team place, then what had looked like a battle for fourth with the likes of Arsenal and Chelsea, now looks like a fight to merely stay in the top 8 with Sunderland, Everton, Swansea City and Norwich City all breathing down the Reds' necks.

The one bright spot from a torrid afternoon for Liverpool was the appearance of Sterling. If the Reds are to take anything positive from this season's dire league campaign, then Dalglish could do worse than use the last eight games to blood the young winger and some of the other promising youngsters at his disposal.

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

QPR 3-2 Liverpool: Rangers Comeback Stuns Reds

A late Jamie Mackie goal sealed an amazing win for Queens Park Rangers, as Liverpool surrendered a 2-0 lead to kill off any lingering Champions League hopes.

Kenny Dalglish's men were seemingly cruising with 13 minutes to go following goals from Sebastian Coates and Dirk Kuyt. But, in a crazy end to the game, the hosts hit back through Shaun Derry and ex-red Djibril Cisse, before Mackie's 90th minute strike gave Rangers an unlikely win.

Following the Reds 2-1 FA Cup win over Stoke City, Dalglish made two changes to his starting line-up, bringing in Charlie Adam and Kuyt for Maxi Rodriguez and Andy Carroll. With confidence high, they started the game on the front foot, with Jay Spearing setting Luis Suarez away, only for the Uruguayan to shoot straight at home keeper Paddy Kenny.

With 10 corners won in as many opening minutes, Martin Skrtel was next to go close when he headed over, before Dirk Kuyt's goalbound shot was cleared off the line by Anton Ferdinand.

The Reds continued to dominate with Stewart Downing and Skrtel again going close, with only a Cisse daisy-cutter to show for the hosts. However, shortly before the half hour mark, the hosts finally made an impression when a neat move saw Pepe Reina called in to action to deny Bobby Zamora. Former Anfield-hitman Cisse then went even closer when he beat two challenges before letting fly with a vicious 25-yarder which fizzed past Reina's upright.

Liverpool were then forced into changes as first Martin Kelly left the field injured, replaced by Coates, then on the stroke of half-time a hefty challenge saw Charlie Adam's night come to an early end, with Jordan Henderson taking his place after the break.

After Cisse tested Reina shortly after the restart, Liverpool reasserted their supremacy and were soon ahead. From a Liverpool corner, Downing's shot was cleared off the line by Zamora. As the ball rebounded into the air, Uruguayan defender Coates produced a sensational 16-yard scissor kick to fire high into the QPR net.

After finally making the breakthrough, it looked like a case of "how many" as Liverpool pressed, with Suarez becoming increasingly influential. On 72 minutes, the Reds number seven produced a bit of class to turn his man and fire against the post. As the ball bounced out, Downing's shot was saved by Kenny, but Kuyt followed up to slide the ball in from inside the six yard box.

With nothing to lose, QPR attacked and pulled what looked like a consolation goal back on 77 minutes when Derry rose to head home from a corner.

But still the three points looked to be heading safely back to Merseyside. Gerrard fired over from a free-kick, before Suarez was taken off replaced by Carroll.

But in a crazy last 5 minutes, the game was turned on its head. On 86 minutes, sub Taye Taiwo got behind the Reds' static back line to deliver a cross for Cisse to head in the equaliser.

Then with time running out, a slip by Jose Enrique saw Mackie clean through and the striker kept his head to put the ball through Reina's legs to seal a remarkable comeback and a vital three points for Mark Hughes' men.

For Liverpool, it was yet another case of a game in which they dominated for long periods, only to come away with nothing. Twelve points behind fourth place, Champions League qualification is now beyond Dalglish and his side. More worryingly though, the manner in which they surrendered their lead shows that, despite their cup triumphs, the Reds still have a long way to go before they can be classed as true top 4 challengers.

Sunday, March 18, 2012

Liverpool 2-1 Stoke City: Downing Fires Reds Back To Wembley

Stewart Downing struck a second-half winner to give Liverpool a 2-1 victory over Stoke City and send the Reds back to Wembley for a potential all-Merseyside FA Cup semi-final.

So far, Downing's Liverpool career can be classed as unspectacular. But, after a Man-Of-The-Match display in the Carling Cup final triumph last month, the England winger helped to further silence his critics with a fine left-footed strike to settle a keenly contested tie.

Despite the obvious importance of a FA Cup quarter-final for both teams, the match, and indeed football, was put into perspective following the distressing collapse of Fabrice Muamba in Bolton's clash with Tottenham Hotspur the previous day. All four corners of Anfield paid tribute to the Trotters' midfielder, who is currently fighting for his life in the London Chest Hospital, with a round of applause and chants of his name throughout the match.

As for the match, still without the injured trio of Daniel Agger, Glen Johnson and Craig Bellamy, Liverpool boss Kenny Dalglish opted for only one change to Tuesday's derby winning team, bringing in Maxi Rodriguez for Jordan Henderson. For the Potters, Peter Crouch led the line against his former club.

The early exchanges were typical of a cup tie, with both teams struggling to find time on the ball and tackles flying in. Martin Kelly was booked only five minutes in for a challenge on Stoke winger Matthew Etherington, whilst referee Kevin Friend repeatedly blew up for over-physical challenges.

On 23 minutes though the football finally took over when Liverpool struck first blood. Collecting a pass from Steven Gerrard, Luis Suarez played a one-two with Maxi before brilliant firing home from 20 yards with a measured curling shot into the bottom corner.

After a 0-0 draw with Stoke in the league game at Anfield earlier this season, the Kop were relieved with an early breakthrough. But, worry reappeared on their faces only three minutes later as the visitors levelled.

After Jonathan Walters was inches away from connecting to a Ryan Shotton cross, Ryan Shawcross' flick-on from a corner fizzed across goal and behind. However, referee Friend awarded another corner rather than a goal-kick and when Etherington's set piece arrived in the six-yard box, Crouch was on hand to head in against his former employers.

The Potters were now high on confidence and playing the better football. They could and maybe should have gone into the half-time interval ahead when Walters' fired the wrong side of Pepe Reina's post after being put through by a fantastic Dean Whitehead through ball.

After the break though, Liverpool came out re-invigorated. With Jay Spearing starting to dominate the midfield battle, Gerrard forced Thomas Sorensen into a save low to his left. Suarez then should have done better when headed wide from six yards after a wonderful Downing free-kick.

But the Reds pressure finally paid off five minutes later. Downing received the ball on the right and played a pass into Gerrard on the edge of the box. As the ball rebounded off the skipper's heel, Downing seized possession, skipped past the on-rushing Shotton, then fired hard and low past Sorensen, for only his second goal in a Liverpool shirt since his £20m summer move from Aston Villa.

Stoke tried to get back into the game by bringing on another ex-Red in Jermaine Pennant, but Liverpool looked most likely to score again with Spearing firing over from 20 yards and sub Dirk Kuyt shooting straight at Sorensen from distance.

The last throw of the dice for Tony Pulis was to send on throw-in specialist Rory Delap, but despite a few nervy moments as the midfielder lined up last minute launches into the Liverpool box, the home defence held out comfortably.

After winning the Carling Cup, Dalglish's men are still on course for a domestic cup double. The semi-final draw pitted the Reds up against the winners of the Everton-Sunderland replay. With the Wembley semi-finals scheduled for the weekend of April 14/15, the Reds will almost certainly play on the 14th, so as to avoid playing on the 23rd anniversary of the Hillsborough disaster. With the 14th April also being the date of the Aintree Grand National, an Everton victory would set-up an all-Merseyside semi-final and an amazing day of Scouse sports action.

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Liverpool 3-0 Everton: Gerrard hat-trick gives Moyes the Blues

Cometh the hour, cometh the man.

Since making his debut 400 games ago in late 1998, Liverpool skipper Steven Gerrard has answered the Reds rallying calls on a frequent basis.

After a run of three defeats on the bounce, culminating in the dismal weekend showing at Sunderland, Kenny Dalglish's men knew defeat to Merseyside rivals Everton would see the Toffees leapfrog above them.

Step forward Gerrard. Fit again after sustaining a hamstring twinge on England duty, the Reds talisman hit a stunning hat-trick to ease the pressure the Anfield men and leave Blues' manager David Moyes still searching for his first win at Anfield on his 10th anniversary as Goodison Park boss.

After differing fortunes at the weekend, both sides made changes to their starting line-ups. For Liverpool, as well as the returning Gerrard, Dalglish recalled Andy Carroll and Stewart Downing. He also added to the scouse element of his team by naming Jamie Carragher ahead of Sebastian Coates. After a fantastic home win against Tottenham Hotspur on Saturday, Everton boss Moyes clearly had one eye on this weekend's upcoming FA Cup quarter-final with Sunderland, when he surprisingly named six changes to his side with Phil Neville, Tim Cahill, Leon Osman and Nikica Jelavic amongst those relegated to the bench.

At a packed and vibrant Anfield, the home side started quickly. With the triumvirate of Gerrard-Suarez-Carroll starting together for the first time in a league game, the Reds speed and movement was noticeably different to that displayed on Wearside on Saturday. Luis Suarez nearly played in Carroll as early as the second minute, then only four minutes later neat work between Suarez and Gerrard saw Tim Howard save, then Jack Rodwell produce a fantastic block to stop Jordan Henderson firing home the rebound.

Everton finally got a meaningful touch of the ball when Leighton Baines brilliantly skipped down the left flank to tee up Steven Pienaar, but the South African midfielder fired wildly into the Kop.

With Everton adopting a 5-man midfield, Liverpool continued to look the most likely team to score. After a recent dip in form following his off-the-field problems, Suarez looked back to his normal lively best. When a Carroll header fell in front of the Uruguayan striker, keeper Howard had to be at his best to stop keep out Suarez left-foot drive.

On 33 minutes though there was nothing Howard could do as Liverpool took the lead. When an Everton attack broke down midway through the Liverpool half, a flowing Reds counter-attack saw Suarez feed the ball wide to the overlapping Martin Kelly. When the right-back's shot was spilled by Howard, Kelly's pressure saw the ball rebound to the edge of the box, where Gerrard was waiting to brilliantly chip the ball over a packed defence into the empty net.

Minutes later, the impressive Kelly bombed down the right again and this time sent a low shot fizzing just past the far post.

Everton responded with lone striker Denis Stracqualursi's header forcing Pepe Reina down low, but the Reds deservedly lead as the half-time whistle went.

Throughout the half-time interval, rumours were abound that Gerrard was suffering with an injury, but the Reds skipper did take his place as the game restarted. And within five minutes he had doubled his and Liverpool's account.

Suarez run down the right saw him reach the byline before cutting back. As he lined up a left-footed shot, the on-rushing Gerrard beat him to the ball and duly thumped it high past Howard from no more than 10 yards.

Suarez then produced a similar bit of magic down the left to set-up Carroll, who fired agonisingly wide of the far post. Kelly then fluffed a chance to cap a fine performance when he failed to connect to a cross from only six yards out.

Finally Everton changed tactics, with the attacking trio of Jelavic, Osman and Royston Drenthe introduced just after the hour mark. It nearly worked when Jack Rodwell's goalbound shot was cleared by Jose Enrique, and Jelavic hit the side-netting after more good work by Baines.

But that was as close as the Toffees would come as Liverpool hit cruise control. With the result sewn up all that was left to be answered was whether or not Gerrard would get a chance to wrap up his hat-trick, a question which was emphatically answered as stoppage time approached.

Once again Suarez was involved. The striker received a pass from Gerrard and bore down on goal, but instead of going himself, he cut back and rolled the ball across goal for his skipper to fire left-footed into the roof of the net to complete his hat-trick, the first scored in a Merseyside derby since Ian Rush was in his pomp.

After a dismal set of results in the league, this victory, and in particular the performance of Gerrard, will give Dalglish's men confidence as they prepare for Sunday's FA Cup quarter-final tie with Stoke City as they look to close in on a domestic cup double.

Sunday, March 11, 2012

Sunderland 1-0 Liverpool: Lacklustre Reds undone by Bendtner

Liverpool's hopes of Champions League qualification were all but ended as Nicklas Bendtner's goal gave Sunderland victory in a turgid affair at the Stadium of Light.

Following last week's loss to Arsenal, Kenny Dalglish's side started the game 10 points adrift of the fourth-placed Gunners, but the manner of their performance suggested they felt that was too big a gap to make up even before Bendtner pounced to give Sunderland all three points.

The Reds lined up with Uruguayan defender Sebastian Coates preferred over Jamie Carragher in place of the injured Daniel Agger, whilst record signing Andy Carroll again had to make do with a place on the bench. He was joined by skipper Steven Gerrard, who returned to training this week following a hamstring train, but with the Merseyside derby coming up on Tuesday evening, Dalglish chose not to rush his talismanic captain back too soon. For the home side, boss Martin O'Neill was unable to call on the services of suspended duo Lee Cattermole and Stephane Sessegnon.

In a disjointed opening 25 minutes, the Black Cats looked the brighter of the two sides, with Liverpool struggling to string more than two passes together. Former Manchester United defender John O'Shea headed over the bar before the visitors eventually came to life when Charlie Adam's in-swinging free-kick nearly deceived home keeper Simon Mignolet, before the Belgian stopper tipped over the bar.

Mignolet was called into action again before half-time when he raced off his line to thwart Luis Suarez, after the Uruguayan striker had wriggled his way into the box.

Recent clashes between Sunderland and Liverpool have resulted in some comical goals. Two seasons ago a beach ball made the headlines when it deflected Darren Bent's shot into the net, whilst last year, Liverpool controversial scored from a Sunderland free-kick Michael Turner claimed the kick hadn't been taken. Eleven minutes after the break this time, Bendtner scored an equally bizarre goal to give Sunderland the lead.

Fraizer Campbell's shot from the edge of the box beat the despairing dive of Pepe Reina, only to hit the post. As the ball rebounded out, it hit the back of the Spanish goalkeeper's head, rebounded back onto the post before falling to the feet of Bendtner, who gleefully fired a left-foot half-volley past the disorientated Reina.

A goal behind, Liverpool did raise their game, albeit by a fraction. Adam shot wide, before he was replaced along with Craig Bellamy, as Gerrard and Carroll were sent on. A nice flick by former Sunderland midfielder Jordan Henderson then set up Suarez, though the striker fired disappointingly wide.

Stewart Downing was Dalglish's final throw of the dice with 10 minutes remaining, but, apart from a late Dirk Kuyt chance where he should have done better with a header after good work by Gerrard, Sunderland were rarely threatened and deservedly took the three points.

Despite their Carling Cup win two weeks' ago and a FA Cup quarter final next weekend, Liverpool's league form will cause major concern for Dalglish. This loss was the Reds' third on the trot, whilst they have only picked up 16 points from their last 14 games. A top four finish now looks far beyond the Anfield men, but Dalglish will be keen to ensure his side's season does not peter out, starting with the small matter of the visit of Everton on Tuesday evening.

Thursday, March 08, 2012

Time to Experiment!

When Arsenal goal-machine Robin van Persie brilliantly volleyed past Pepe Reina to give the Gunners a 90th minute winner at Anfield on Saturday, Liverpool's hopes of Champions League qualification all but disappeared. Robert Nevitt looks at what this means for the rest of the Reds' season.

Arsene Wenger's men now occupy fourth and the final Champions League spot and more worryingly for the Reds, they now sit 10 points in front of us. Although we do have a game in hand on the teams above us, which is Tuesday night's Merseyside derby, the likelihood of Kenny Dalglish's men finishing in the top four is fast diminishing.

The reasons are all too obvious. Whilst league leaders Manchester City have acquired a maximum haul from their 14 home games so far, we’ve dropped nineteen points from a possible 39 at Anfield. Some people will say we have been unlucky, with goalkeepers performing heroics and the woodwork coming to the opponents rescue on about 20 occasions, but can we rue bad luck all the time? The truth of the matter is we've been wasteful. Too many missed chances, as well as six failures from the penalty spot means we haven’t scored enough goals. Van Persie’s Anfield brace took his tally to 25 goals for the season. As a team, we have only netted 5 more!

So, after Saturday’s defeat, what does the rest of the season hold for the Reds?

With the Carling Cup already proudly on display in the Anfield trophy room following the penalty shoot-out triumph over Cardiff City, the Reds are already guaranteed a place in Europe next season, albeit on Channel 5 in the Europa League. In a week’s time we face Stock City at home in the FA Cup quarter-final. With the two Manchester clubs and Arsenal already out of the competition, it is realistic to believe that we can return to Wembley and complete a domestic cup double.

As for the league, whilst no-one at Anfield will publicly admit that the Top Four is out of our reach again, reality shows that we have a mountain to climb. Probably the best we can hope for is to finish fifth, although current occupiers Chelsea will no doubt improve following the sacking of Andre Villas-Boas, meaning leapfrogging them would be a feat in itself. Obviously, as always, the club should finish as high as we possibly can, but, with Champions League hopes all but gone, I can’t help but think that we should use the rest of the league campaign to try things out in readiness for next season.

Last summer, the Shankly gates could have been replaced by a revolving door, such was the rebuilding job undertaken by Dalglish. Out went the dead wood with Konchesky, Poulsen, Jovanovic, Cole, Aquilani, Ngog and several others surplus to requirements. In their places the likes of Adam, Henderson, Downing and Enrique arrived. Despite the expected failure to finish in the top four, there is no doubt that Liverpool have progressed this season, so this summer should be a quieter affair, with only a few tweaks needed. It is in these last dozen league games that we can use our squad to identify where these tweaks are needed.

One of the strengths of the current side has been our defence. Martin Skrtel has been transformed from a mistake waiting to happen to one of the best centre-halves in the league. Thanks to the tutelage of Steve Clarke, Skrtel now looks calm and assured on the ball, whilst he is dominant in either penalty area. Alongside him, Daniel Agger has been a rock, but the Dane’s injury means he is likely to miss a large chunk of the remainder of the season. Against Arsenal, Dalglish chose to recall Jamie Carragher in place of Agger. Whilst I think talk of Carra’s demise is a bit exaggerated, we now what he is about and what he brings to the team. Instead of going with the tried-and-tested Carra, I do think the loss of Agger gives us an opportunity to give Uruguayan defender Sebastian Coates a prolonged taste of English football. Coates has looked impressive in his handful of appearances so far and a run in the team now could see him pressing for a permanent first team place come the start of next season. 

Time to Give Coates a Chance
As stated earlier, when we look back at the end of the season, one of the main reasons we will cite for failing to make the Top Four will be a lack of goals. Whilst chances are being created, I think one of the reasons for this is our formation. Most of the time we play 4-4-2 or 4-2-3-1. However, I don’t think these formations suit the players we have. We do not possess a decent right midfielder, Henderson prefers it more centrally, whilst if Kuyt is to play on the right, it needs to be in a front three as he hasn’t got the pace to break from midfield. Centrally, playing Gerrard in the middle two restricts the impact our talisman can have in an attacking sense. Finally, whilst Suarez is tremendous wherever he plays, using him to lead the line seems a bit of a waste to me. He would be better running at goal rather than with his back to it.

With this in mind, I’d like to see us try out a 4-3-3 formation. In it, Henderson/Spearing would sit in front of the back four, with Gerrard and Adam occupying the other places in a narrow midfield. Carroll/Kuyt would lead the line with instructions to stay centrally and hit the six yard box whenever we get the ball in or around the box. Suarez would start on the right of the front three, a position from which he couldn’t stop scoring for Ajax, with Bellamy/Downing on the left. Both “wide” players would be allowed to rotate and float to stretch defences. Width would be provided by, as now, the excellent attacking play of full-backs Johnson and Enrique.
Raheem Sterling - The next big thing?
The final thing I would like to see us do between now and the end of the season is introduce some more youngsters to the first team set-up. This time last year, John Flanagan and Jack Robinson both came in to great effect, gaining valuable experience whilst no doubt improving their game. In the current reserve and Under-18’s set-up there is a wealth of talent. Wisdom and Coady both look capable of making the step up to the first team in the not so distant future, but it is the attacking talents of Raheem Sterling and Suso who fill Reds fans with excitement. On Tuesday against a strong Everton reserve team, both winger Sterling and Spanish playmaker Suso were superb in the mini-derby draw. With the likes of Maxi more than likely to depart in the summer, introducing Sterling and Suso to the first team, even if it was brief cameos from the bench, could result in both players following Flanagan and Robinson’s in gaining valuable first team experience. 

So rather than let the season slowly peter out, we should use the last dozen games to do some experimentation. If it goes wrong, it's best it does now when it doesn't matter rather than the start of next season where it would mean we were once again playing catch-up.

Saturday, March 03, 2012

Liverpool 1-2 Arsenal: Van The Man Punishes Profligate Reds

Liverpool's familiar problems in front of goal reared their head once more as Robin van Persie struck late to give Arsenal victory at Anfield.

Even during their Carling Cup triumph last weekend, Kenny Dalglish's side displayed their profligacy with a combination of the poor finishing, woodwork, good goalkeeping and penalty misses all on show. Against Arsene Wenger's men, the Reds started where they left off at Wembley, but were this time punished as Gunners captain van Persie netted a double to all but end Liverpool's Champions League qualification hopes.

With the Reds on a high after securing their first trophy in six years last time out, Dalglish was forced into some changes with Glen Johnson, Daniel Agger and Steven Gerrard all missing through injury. In came Jamie Carragher for a rare league start, Jay Spearing and Martin Kelly, whilst Wembley hero Dirk Kuyt was preferred to Andy Carroll. The visitors themselves came into the game in high spirits having come from 2-0 down to beat North London rivals Tottenham Hotspur last weekend. After injury concerns, boss Wenger was able to name talisman van Persie as well as centre-half Thomas Vermaelen.

With the Anfield crowd in celebratory mood after the Carling Cup was paraded prior to kick-off, the home side started on the front foot forcing a number of early corners, from which Martin Kelly headed over after only two minutes. With the Reds seemingly cutting through the Arsenal defence with ease, Stewart Downing should have done better when Gunners' keeper Wojciech Szczesny came rushing out of his box only to head the ball to the England winger, only for Downing to fail to connect properly to his attempted lob.

In a rare Arsenal break, Theo Walcott's first-time shot forced Pepe Reina into a good save low to his right. But it was at the other end where all the action was happening, and on 19 minutes, it looked as if Liverpool's fine start would be rewarded.

Good work between Luis Suarez and Kuyt saw the Uruguayan through on goal. As he rounded keeper Szczesny, Suarez fell to the floor, with referee Mark Halsey immediately pointing to the spot, although TV replays proved inconclusive on whether or not there was contact. Kuyt stepped up to take the kick but his weak effort was saved by Szczesny, with the Polish stopper reacting quickly to also keep out Kuyt's follow-up effort. It was Liverpool's sixth spot-kick miss of the season, eight if you include the two missed in the shoot-out last weekend.

Four minutes later though the home side did take the lead, but as against Brighton in their last home fixture, they needed a helping hand from the opposition. A flowing passing move saw Jordan Henderson free on the right. The midfielder delivered a low teasing cross into the box towards Suarez, which was inadvertently turned into his own net by Laurent Koscielny.

Minutes later it was nearly two. An equally impressive move saw Kuyt play in Henderson, whose low shot was turned away by Szczesny, with Suarez firing the rebound against the post.

Up to that point, Arsenal had struggled to get into the game, but just after the half hour they came alive and inevitably it was through that man van Persie. When right-back Bacary Sagna sent over a fantastic cross, the Dutch forward got in front of his marker to nod past Reina.

Undeterred, the Reds carried on attacking. Suarez brilliantly wriggled past four Arsenal defenders before forcing Szczesny into a fine tip around the post, whilst on the stroke of half-time, a low Adam cross was agonisingly flicked onto the post by Kuyt.

After the break, Liverpool continued to waste chances, with full-back Kelly the main culprit when he failed to connect to Kuyt's cross when faced with an open goal from only six yards out.

The visitors response saw Reina brilliantly keep out Walcott's deflected shot, then thwart the same player when the England forward headed straight at him from six yards.

As the game entered a lengthy stoppage time period due to an injury sustained by Mikael Arteta at the start of the second half, the visitors snatched victory. Alex Song lofted a delightful pass over the Liverpool defence, from which van Persie brilliantly volleyed past Reina, for his 25th league goal of the season and 30th in all.

Liverpool were shell-shocked and despite the introduction of Andy Carroll, could do nothing to prevent their first home defeat of the season. The victory puts Arsenal in pole-position for the 4th Champions League spot, with Liverpool lying 10 points behind the Gunners.

Whilst Arsenal have struggled to find their best form for most of the season, van Persie's constant supply of goals has kept them in touch. Liverpool on the other hand have dominated most games, but failed to score. Whilst the Reds will be happy with their progress so far this term, a goalscorer in the class of van Persie is needed if Dalglish's men are to take the next step.
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