Thursday, May 31, 2012

Brendan Rodgers - A cause for optimism

By Robert Nevitt

Well, it wouldn’t have been the name at the top of the wish list for most supporters. In fact, it probably wouldn’t have featured in most people’s top five.

But despite the reservations, the appointment of Brendan Rodgers as the new manager of Liverpool Football Club has been met with a surprising optimism.

The reason for the positivity?

Maybe it’s purely down to relief that the whole managerial saga is finally over and we don’t have to listen to Dave Whelan spouting off anymore...

It’s only been two weeks since King Kenny lost his crown, but it’s felt much longer. Since the issuing of a club statement in which John W Henry announced Dalglish’s departure and the subsequent city centre interview with Managing Director Ian Ayre, as a club Liverpool have been silent in regards to the search for the Scot’s successor, something which cannot be said for the media circus which accompanied the search.

With the press seemingly out of the loop as to what was going on behind the scenes at Anfield, they chose to cast their net wide to try to predict the name of Liverpool’s new boss. A ridiculous notion of interviews for 12 different candidates helped make it appear that FSG didn’t know what a) they were doing, or b) what they wanted.

Random links to managers, such as Jurgen Klopp and Frank De Boer, resulted in public rejections before any Liverpool move had been made, whilst Rodgers himself, with the Reds still to register a formal interest, declared himself happy in South Wales in order to save burning bridges with his employers.

As the days progressed and Liverpool remained silent, the media frenzy went into overdrive with names ranging from Pep Guardiola to Paul Lambert all linked.

Supporters groups didn’t help to paint the club in any better light when they demanded to be informed on the goings on behind the scenes or petitioned for talks with a certain ex-boss who has Spanish roots.

Then, in stepped Wigan chairman Dave Whelan, who provided anyone who would listen with running updates on the Reds’ interest in Roberto Martinez, whilst also lambasting FSG for their apparent lack of footballing knowledge. When a leaked photograph captured Martinez with Henry in Miami, it looked like the Spaniard would become the new boss.

FSG were apparently impressed with the Wigan boss, but be it his reluctance to work in the structure on offer or FSG’s desire to talk to Rodgers, the Swans’ boss was formally contacted and ultimately offered the job.

Hopefully now, Whelan will be silenced once and for all!

.. or maybe it is actually down to Rodgers himself ..

If, as they trudged away after the cup final defeat, someone had told any one of the travelling Kop that less than a month later we’d have replaced club legend Dalglish with Brendan Rodgers, there would have been a fair chance that they’d have contemplated climbing up the Wembley arch and jumping off.

The problem was that at first glance, Rodgers, along with Martinez, didn’t appear to be anywhere near ready for us. Part of the reason was that people knew little about him apart from the fact he had worked at Chelsea around the time of Jose Mourinho, had got the sack at Reading, but then masterminded Swansea City’s promotion to the Premier League and subsequent debut season.

It’s only when you take a detailed look at his career-to-date that you realise just why so many people inside football rate him so highly.

After injury cut his playing career short at the age of 20, Rodgers’ early years in coaching were served with the Reading youth team. During his nine years at the Royals, he continually strived to improve his coaching skillset, gaining valuable knowledge from trips to the likes of Barcelona and Ajax, principals which you could clearly see in his Swansea team last season.

When Jose Mourinho arrived at Chelsea one of his first acts was to headhunt Rodgers and give him the role as youth team manager at Stamford Bridge. Such was Rodgers’ success, he was soon promoted to reserve team manager, where he also helped provide dossiers on first team opponents.

By the age of 35, he had served his apprenticeship, so when Watford offered him his first crack at management he jumped at it. After a shaky start, his principals paid off and Watford finished in a respectable 13th position in the Championship with a 40% win rate.

Old club Reading soon came knocking and after an initial denial, the Ulsterman left for the Madjeski stadium, much to the upset of the Watford faithful. However, it was there that Rodgers faced his first and to-date only setback as a coach. Only six wins from 23 games left Reading languishing in the Championship relegation zone, resulting in Rodgers being dismissed only six months into his reign.

Seven months out of the game was eventually ended when he succeeded Paulo Sousa at Swansea City. Immediately things clicked into place, with the Swans free-flowing football a joy to watch. Promotion to the Premier League was achieved via a Wembley play-off win over old club Reading before a superb debut season in the top flight saw Rodgers gain a number of plaudits.

.. or maybe it’s the thought of Jordan Henderson having a successful pass rate of 93% ..

Sounds ridiculous doesn’t it, but if Rodgers was capable of turning ex-Sheffield United misfit Leon Britton into Swansea’s version of Xavi Hernandez, then surely he is capable of doing the same with the more talented Henderson.

The key to Rodgers’ success at Swansea has been the trust in his philosophy of keeping possession, but then pressing high up the pitch when his team hasn’t got it – both important traits of Liverpool’s all-conquering teams of the past.
"Our idea is to pass teams to a standstill so they can no longer come after you, eventually you wear them down."
Even when under pressure, Rodgers has instilled it into his Swans’ team to continue to play possession football to take the sting out of their opponents, rather than surrender the ball and retreat deeper and deeper, something which we were guilty of on too many occasions last season. Every one of the Swans’ starting line-up is comfortable on the ball, particularly the midfield triumvirate of Britton-Allen-Gower (and later Sigurdsson).

When Rodgers brought his team to Anfield before Christmas, so good was the performance of his side, that Anfield offered them applause when the final whistle signalled a 0-0 draw.

Of course dominating possession doesn’t guarantee you win football matches, you only have to look at Chelsea’s Champions league victories over Barcelona and Bayern Munich to confirm that. It’s what you do with that possession that counts and, on too many occasions last season, Swansea were guilty of not penetrating their opponents, scoring only 44 league goals.

But, with no disrespect to the likes of Danny Graham, Scott Sinclair and Nathan Dyer, Rodgers should be working with better quality at Anfield. It remains to be seen whether or not he sees the likes of Downing and Carroll as part of that improved quality, but if not, armed with a significantly bigger transfer budget than at Swansea, Rodgers is sure to be able to bring in his own players.

.. or maybe it’s the prospect of the new structure about to be put in place to assist Rodgers ..

One of the main doubts levelled against someone like Rodgers’ was the worry that the Liverpool job may be too big for him this early into his managerial career. With that in mind, it’s encouraging that FSG look set to introduce a structure designed to help their young boss.

Previously, Dalglish was assisted by Director of Football Damien Comolli. When poor signings at exaggerated prices heralded the end of Comolli’s tenure at Anfield, it was expected that FSG would simply look for a replacement to step into the vacant role.

However, the plan seems to be that rather than have a Director of Football, FSG will instead introduce a new management structure, including a sporting director, of which Rodgers will be focal point. He will still bring with him three of his trusted backroom staff from Swansea, but the introduction of the new US-style management roles will ensure Rodgers gets all the help he needs, whilst still having the final say on footballing matters.

.. or maybe it’s just a case of plain old blind optimism once again

In any walk of life, a new start is accompanied with a hope that things are going to get better. For a football fan it’s no different. At the start of every season we expect a successful campaign, whilst the arrival of a new player offers hope of that the career of a new club legend is about to begin.

Optimism was at a record high when Tom Hicks and George Gillett strode into Anfield flush with money, vowed to make us the best in the world and declared that work on a new stadium would start ‘within 60 days’.

It was on show again for Roy Hodgson’s first game in charge against Arsenal in August 2010 and even when Stewart Downing put pen to paper last summer!

Hopefully this particular bout has a better ending than on those three occasions.

Whatever the reason for the optimism, only time will tell whether or not the appointment of Brendan Rodgers as manager of Liverpool Football Club proves to be an inspired decision or not. What is certain though is that we as fans have an important part to play in order to help make it a success.

Regardless of whether you think Dalglish should have gone or not, and no matter who you believe should have been hired in his place, we must all unite and back Rodgers.

One of the main traits of Rodgers’ footballing philosophy is patience, something which we will need to adopt as well.

Thursday, May 17, 2012

The Dethroning of A King

By Robert Nevitt

Less than two weeks ago I despondently walked down Wembley Way having just watched our hopes of a domestic cup double disappear following the 2-1 loss to Chelsea in the FA Cup final. But, even though I'd just seen us lose, I can't remember feeling as gutted as I do today, following yesterday’s sacking of Kenny Dalglish. 

It's not like I didn't know the King’s dethroning was on its way, it had got to the stage where it was almost inevitable, with the pressure built up following a disastrous league campaign too much for American owners FSG to ignore. But still, it hurts.

For me, Kenny is a hero. When my Dad first took me to Anfield, Dalglish was the star of our all-conquering team. By the time I became a regular match-goer a few years later, he had become the player-boss and helped negotiate the tricky period after Heysel. On the pitch, he led us to the double and two years later in 1988, brought together Barnes, Beardsley and Aldridge in the best Liverpool side I have ever seen.

When tragedy engulfed the club again at Hillsborough in 1989, Dalglish was once more the person that held the club together, every day attending a funeral for one of the 96 victims, whilst offering much-needed support to their families, something he still does to this day.

Back to football, he brought another title to Anfield the following year, but finally the pressures from the tragedies got the better of him and he needed a break. Rather than give him time to recharge his batteries with a view to coming back, the club moved swiftly to appoint Graeme Souness, a move which never worked out, whilst only 8 months later a refreshed Dalglish returned to management with Blackburn Rovers, whom he led from the second tier to become Premier League Champions in 1995.

In January 2011, nearly twenty years after leaving Anfield, Kenny returned in our hour of need. After the club had been put through the mill thanks to Messrs Hicks, Gillet, Purslow and Hodgson, new owners FSG turned to the King as temporary boss. In an instant he re-invigorated the club. Even the loss of star striker Fernando Torres didn’t matter as the King was back in charge. The feel-good factor translated onto the pitch as a cracking second-half of the season saw a brand of exciting attacking football, helped by new arrival Luis Suarez. FSG had rightly handed Kenny a permanent contract before the season was up.

A busy summer saw lots of the squad’s deadwood shifted on, whilst a number of exciting looking signings only helped to fuel the expectation around Anfield that Kenny would get us back into the top four and bring us a trophy.

He duly delivered the silverware, our first in six years, when the Carling Cup was won in February (albeit in dramatic fashion) and he very nearly made it two in the FA Cup final. But, a disastrous league campaign, especially at Anfield, saw an 8th place finish, one behind Merseyside rivals Everton. A series of missed chances and outstanding goalkeeping displays were the story of the first half of the season, but after Christmas the team’s form dipped dramatically, with a run of six defeats in seven at one stage, as well as home defeats to West Brom, Wigan and Fulham. The poor spell coincided with the loss of Lucas Leiva, an integral cog in Kenny’s formation, whilst the impact of big-money signings Stewart Downing, Jordan Henderson, Charlie Adam and Carroll was well below what was envisaged.

Another major factor in the dip in form came when star striker Suarez was embroiled in a race row with Manchester United’s Patrice Evra. Whilst all condemned Suarez’ actions, Dalglish stood by his man, even when the Uruguayan was handed an 8-match ban. In hindsight, Dalglish will know his handling of the situation could’ve been significantly better, but with no guidance from owners FSG or managing director Ian Ayre, Dalglish took it upon himself to fight Suarez’ battle. When Suarez made the situation a great deal worse with the non-handshake at Old Trafford, Dalglish continued his staunch defence of the striker and was thus criticised by the press, a group with whom he was always loggerheads with anyway. Subsequently, FSG forced both Dalglish and Suarez to issue apologies the following day.

From then on, it was clear relations were strained between Kenny and the owners. When Director of Football Damien Comolli was relieved of his duties in mid-April, it felt like FSG were moving in for the kill. Numerous other sackings took place, before they finally targeted Dalglish when the season ended.

Personally, I would have given Dalglish another year in charge. Maybe I’m a romanticist, but after everything he has done for our club, he deserved it. With a bit more luck, two or three quality signings and the vital return of Lucas, next season could only see an improvement in our league fortunes. Add in the fact that the likes of Henderson, Downing and Carroll surely couldn’t have fared any worse in their second full seasons, then I think the decision to sack Kenny was premature to say the least.

But, at the end of the day the owners are businessmen and the fact that we were so far off the money of Champions League qualification meant they felt a change is needed. What is a worry though is the fact the Carling Cup triumph was ignored. Do they believe a season’s like Arsenal’s (3rd but no trophy), was better than ours (8th, 1 trophy and another final)? I know which will be remembered most fondly in fifteen years time.

Another reason Kenny may have gone is so that FSG can get in their own man. Whilst Hodgson was plunging us to new depths, Dalglish’s name was constantly heard at Anfield, so there was only ever going to be one person who could come in and save us. The fact that he started off so well meant FSG had no option but to hand him a permanent contract. This has been the first chance they have had to move him out and bring in their own man, someone who fits in with their philosophy.

Don’t get me wrong, even though I don’t agree with the sacking of Dalglish, I still think FSG have our best interests at heart. What they need to do though, and quickly, is start delivering on some of the things they promised. 19 months down the line from their dramatic takeover, we’re still no clearer to knowing what is happening in regards to stadium plans, whilst there are a number of key positions in the Anfield hierarchy currently empty.

One of those is now the managerial position. It’s something which we say every year at the end of May, but this is a massive summer for Liverpool. FSG must make sure that they appoint a boss big enough to handle expectations that come with managing Liverpool FC, whilst also able to help rebuild something of a footballing philosophy, just like Barca have done of recent years, something that has been missing in recent years.

Already, a host of names have been linked. Rafael Benitez is one, but I feel that ship has sailed, whilst the name of ex-Chelsea boss Andre Villas-Boas, who this time last year was one of the hottest properties around, is an interesting one. The likes of Roberto Martinez, Brendan Rodgers and Paul Lambert are others who have been linked, but, with no disrespect meant to the trio who all look good young managers, for me, none are yet at the level we require.

Last time we “settled” for a lesser option we ended up with Hodgson and look where that got us. Instead, we should aim high. Ex-Barca boss Pep Guardiola and rival Jose Mourinho probably wouldn’t come, but why not enquire. We are Liverpool, we should never underestimate our appeal or settle for second best. If we aim high but fall a bit short, we’ll still end up with a quality successor to Kenny in the shape of someone like Dortmund’s Jurgen Klopp.

After all, as I read on someone’s twitter yesterday, only an ace can better a King.

Monday, May 14, 2012

The Anfield Opinion End of Season Awards

By The Anfield Opinion Staff

With the 2011/12 season finally coming to an end, and with the players off for their summer break, Editor Michael Owen and Deputy Editor Robert Nevitt Analyse Liverpool's campaign and pick their best and worst of the season. 

Best Player

Michael Owen: Martin Skrtel

With Liverpool looking limp in front of goal this season, one of the team’s saving graces has been their solid back line, with no player being more reliable than Martin Skrtel. The Slovakian has had his critics over the years but has had a stellar campaign alongside centre-half partner Daniel Agger, a duo that has kept the long-serving Jamie Carragher out of the side. 

Robert Nevitt: Martin Skrtel

In the past, I had doubts about whether Martin Skrtel was good enough for Liverpool. Too often, the Slovakian attempted to get into a physical battle with strikers only to make a mistake, whilst his distribution could only be described as poor. This season though, I’ve gladly had to eat humble pie, as Skrtel has developed into one of the best centre-halves in the league. His defending has improved unrecognisably, whilst he now looks alot more comfortable in possession. He has become one of the leaders in the team, so much so that he has been rewarded with the captaincy on a number of occasions, whilst the icing on the cake as been the threat he now provides in the opposition box having netted four times this season. A mixture of Steve Clarke’s coaching and the calming influence of excellent defensive partner Daniel Agger have no doubt improved Skrtel’s all-round game, whilst Sebastian Coates and Jamie Carragher providing competition for places no doubt helps.

Worst Player

MO: Andy Carroll

It may seem a bit harsh given the forwards recent upturn in form, but it cannot be argued the Carroll’s first full season at Anfield has been less than impressive. A poor record in front of goal coupled with a bad attitude – as evidenced by his storm down the tunnel against Newcastle – has often seen the young striker slip out of favour with Dalglish. An end-of-season goal surge has done wonders for the front man, but a lot more is needed next campaign. 

RN: Stewart Downing

For so long, we’ve been crying out for a winger so when England international Stewart Downing arrived, there was hope that finally the problem would be solved. No league goals, only two in the cups, and less than a handful of assists for the winger means his first season has been anything but the success we all hoped for. He’s got all the physical attributes, pacy, good crosser, good with both feet, the problem seems to be more of a mental issue, with the winger seemingly lacking belief in his own ability. Too often he receives the ball in good positions but rather than attack the full-back, he waits for the likes of Enrique and Johnson to overlap, then offloads to them.

Best Signing

MO: Craig Bellamy

Coming back for his second stint at the club on a free transfer little was expected of Craig Bellamy this season beyond being a squad player. The Welshman, however, had different ideas, scoring some crucial goals for the Reds and putting in some fantastic performances along the way. The fact the former Newcastle man was a free transfer further adds to his credentials as the best signing of the season after a summer of high spending at Anfield has been question throughout the campaign. 

RN: Craig Bellamy

In the first few months of the season, Jose Enrique was a shoo-in for this award, but a horrendous dip in the left-back's form during the second half of the put paid to that. So my vote instead goes to Craig Bellamy. Signed on a free, Bellamy’s arrival came with very little risk. Having grown up since his last stint at the club, he has accepted his role as a squad member, one which suits him due to his failure to play two games in a week because of his injury problems. When called upon, he has offered pace, power, creativity, goals and a will-to-win. His performance in the Carling Cup Semi-final second leg against Manchester City was as good as anything we’ve seen this season. The biggest compliment I can pay him is that we look a far better side when he is in it.

Worst Signing

MO: Stewart Downing

Football analysts around the world hailed Liverpool’s addition of Stewart Downing last summer, with the Reds long being in need of an out-and-out winger to help and some much-needed creativity in the middle of the park. But Downing has failed to show some of the attributes that gained him so many plaudits at Aston Villa and Middlesbrough, notching up just two goals in all competitions with only a handful of assists.

RN: Stewart Downing

Sorry Stewart, but it’s an awards double for you. It’s not that Stewart Downing isn’t any good, in fact it’s purely the opposite. The problem with Downing is down to the fact that he could give us so much more. When he picked the ball up in the first game against Sunderland and ran half the pitch before smashing a shot against the bar, everyone thought this is exactly what we need. But we’ve hardly seen anything like that since. Instead he has been safe. In the position he plays, he should be one of our matchwinners, scoring goals and providing ammunition for our strikers. The fact that he hasn’t done that is one of the reasons why the man who paid an incredibly overpriced £20m for his services, Damien Comolli, is no longer employed at the club.

szólj hozzá: Li3Ev0Ge

Best Match

MO: Liverpool 3-0 Everton

A Steven Gerrard hat-trick in a Merseyside derby – do we really need to add anything else to make this a perfect game? In a torrid season for Liverpool, only a couple of individual results offered a silver-lining on an increasingly gloomy cloud. Whilst the Carling Cup win will ultimately be considered the highlight of the Reds season, I personally believe the Everton win was a considerably better performance from Dalglish’s men.

RN: Liverpool 4-1 Chelsea

Despite it being a poor season overall, there have been some excellent team performances. Against the likes of Norwich City and Arsenal, both at home, we battered the opposition only to see our finishing let us down. Victories at Stamford Bridge(x2) and Manchester City, coming from behind at Stoke City and completing a treble of victories over Everton all rank high, whilst the penalty shoot-out victory over Cardiff was a memorable match, if not a classic performance.  But, the team performance of the season came in the last home game against Chelsea. Three days after the cup final defeat and with the Blues preparing for their Champions League final, they made a host of changes, but not even those changes could discredit Liverpool’s performance. With Suarez and Carroll sensational, Liverpool’s speed and movement cut open the Chelsea defence at will, to score three times in the opening half-hour, then hit the bar and miss a penalty before half-time. A 5 minute blip saw Ramires pull one back only for Jonjo Shelvey to cap a fine performance with a 35-yarder to make it 4-1. The Reds’ home form had been poor all season, but they certainly saved the best for last.

Worst Match

MO: Chelsea 2-1 Liverpool

Liverpool may not have had a fantastic Premier League campaign, but they had the chance to end the season on a high by lifting the FA Cup at Wembley – what would have been the Reds second major trophy of the season. But, simply put, Dalglish’s men didn’t show up until around half an hour from the end, allowing the Blues to build-up a comfortable 2-0 lead before a second-half goal from Andy Carroll halved the deficit. A poor end to a poor season.

RN: Queens Park Rangers 3-2 Liverpool

Whilst the 4-0 defeat at Spurs and 3-0 defeat at Man City were both extremely poor, for me, the season’s low came in the 3-2 loss at Queens Park Rangers. For 75 minutes, we controlled things. Totally dominant we went two-nil up thanks to Sebastian Coates' stunning volley and a Dirk Kuyt tap-in, with the familiar story of missed chances denying us a bigger lead. However, with 15 minutes remaining, we hit self-destruct. QPR pulled a goal back through Shaun Derry, then after we had retreated deeper and deeper, former red Djibril Cisse equalised. As if surrendering a 2-0 lead to one of the relegation strugglers wasn’t bad enough, it got worse as more poor defending saw Jamie Mackie break free to complete the home side's comeback and leave us empty-handed.

Most Improved

MO: Jay Spearing

Since Jay Spearing emerged from the Academy at Kirkby, questions have been asked over whether he’s good enough to play for Liverpool. Based on this year’s performance the local lad certainly has a future at Anfield, stepping in for the injured Lucas Leiva and putting in some fantastic performances whilst those around him struggled. A poor performance in the FA Cup Final shouldn’t be the defining point in a season which has seen Spearing flourish.

RN: Andy Carroll

I'm tempted to go for Martin Skrtel, but having given him the Best Player award, I'll instead opt for our big Geordie, Andy Carroll. It seems ridiculous to label a £35 million player as the most improved player in our squad, but for me, that's what Carroll is. After looking lethargic, slow, cumbersome and goalshy, he often found himself on the bench, with a low point coming when, on his first return to Newcastle United, he was booked for diving and later substituted, much to the home fans’ delight.

But, credit to Andy, he has never moaned. Instead he knuckled down and slowly started to improve. His last minute winner at Blackburn Rovers gave him confidence which he carried through to the Everton semi-final where he repeated the trick. He was unlucky to find himself on the bench for the FA Cup final, but once again didn’t let it affect him. Instead, in his 30-minute cameo as a sub, he single-handedly dragged us back into the game with a performance which answered many of his critics. Three days later in our 4-1 revenge for the cup final, he was unplayable again as he left Terry and Ivanovic battered and bruised both physically and mentally. Finally, he is looking every bit a Liverpool player. It bodes well for next season.

Best Youngster

MO: Jordan Henderson

If there was ever a case where a fee put too much pressure on a player, it’s Liverpool signing of Jordan Henderson. Many have branded his season as disappointing despite, at the age of just 21, the midfielder being a prominent part of the Liverpool first team. Whilst the former Sunderland man has been largely underwhelming out on the right the brief amount of time Henderson has spent in the middle has allowed him to at least show a glimpse of what he is capable of. With a bit more confidence, and a run of games in the middle of the park, Henderson could well prove his doubters wrong next season.

RN: Jonjo Shelvey

When Kenny Dalglish replaced Roy Hodgson last year, he introduced some youngsters to the first team set-up, one of whom was Jonjo Shelvey. With the influx of big-money summer signings, chances for the likes of Shelvey reduced and thus he had to go out on-loan to Blackpool to gain first-team football. At Bloomfield Road he excelled, netting six times in 10 appearances as he was named as November's Football League Young Player of the month. Injury to Steven Gerrard saw Shelvey return to Anfield, where he featured a number of times, scoring two goals, one of which was a stunner in the 4-1 win over Chelsea. Comfortable in possession, Shelvey likes to get forward where possible. It is clear Dalglish rates him, so there are likely to be more opportunities for the youngster next season.

Sunday, May 13, 2012

Swansea City 1-0 Liverpool: Swans' Late Strike Sums Up Reds' Season

As referee Mark Halsey blew his whistle to signal the end of the season, you could almost here the collective thoughts of the visiting Liverpool fans.... Thank God that season is over!

The Reds' disappointing Premier League campaign ended in the most fitting of ways as Danny Graham's 86th minute goal sentenced Kenny Dalglish's men to their 14th league defeat of the season and ensured an eighth place finish, their lowest for 18 years.

For hosts Swansea City though, it was a perfect end to what has been a fine debut season in the top flight. Before the season's kick-off, some bookmakers had given shorter odds on Elvis Presley being alive rather than the Swans staying up. So with a mid-table finish ensured, manager Brendan Rodgers called for supporters to don Elvis wigs, a move which created a carnival atmosphere inside the Liberty Stadium.

With Pepe Reina, Martin Skrtel and Steven Gerrard all missing, Dalglish gave a start to goalkeeper Alexander Doni, Martin Kelly came into the defence, whilst  in-form Andy Carroll continued up front.

The early exchanges though were dominated by the home side, whose neat possession showed exactly why they have had such a good first season in the Premier League.

Diminutive midfielder Joe Allen dispossessed Jonjo Shelvey before firing a cross-shot inches in front of Graham's path, whilst Scott Sinclair saw a shot deflected behind after Liverpool keeper Alexander Doni had mistakenly picked up an Andy Carroll backpass.

Liverpool finally threatened on 14 minutes when Maxi Rodriguez fired wide, before the Argentinian was called on in a defensive capacity when he had to clear a Gylfi Sigurdsson shot off the line.

Since his January loan move from Hoffenheim, Icelandic international Sigurdsson has been a revelation netting 7 goals and he very nearly increased his tally when his free-kick forced Doni into a fine save low to his right.

Sigurdsson then turned provider when he sent Nathan Dyer clear, only for the pacy winger to fire straight at Doni.

Having been on-lookers for the majority of the half, Liverpool's strikers cut frustrated figures, so much so that Carroll was involved in a scuffle with Swans' centre-half Ashley Williams on the stroke of half-time, with both men lucky to escape with only a caution.

After struggling to wrestle possession off their hosts in the first half, the second period saw Liverpool improve, with Jordan Henderson forcing Michel Vorm into a save within 3 minutes.

With Carroll becoming more involved, the striker saw a shot blocked before his acrobatic overhead-kick forced Vorm into a fine 63rd minute save.

Ex-Cardiff City star Craig Bellamy entered the fray to a chorus of boos form the home crowd on the hour mark, and the Welsh international twice went close when, first, he fired wide then was denied by a fine Neil Taylor block.

The home defence were now under increasing pressure, with Carroll once more denied by Vorm, whilst Luis Suarez and Dirk Kuyt also went close. But, as has been the story of Liverpool's season, they were made to pay for their failure to hit the net when Swansea struck with just four minutes remaining.

Sinclair fed right-back Angel Rangel who delivered a cross for Graham to calmly beat Doni from close range.

As the thousands of Elvis lookalikes in the home end celebrated the final few minutes of their impressive season, Liverpool's own 'King' was left bemoaning his side's luck in front of goal once again.

The final whistle signalled the Reds fourteenth defeat of the season, meaning they have lost as many as they have won this season. With Merseyside rivals Everton claming the city bragging rights having finished one place above the Reds, Anfield boss Dalglish is now coming under increasing pressure for his side's campaign.

The Scot can point to the Carling Cup success and a FA Cup final appearance as examples that the Reds are on the right track, but with the league so often classed as the bread and butter, it remains to be seen whether American owners FSG will share Liverpool legend's belief.

Tuesday, May 08, 2012

Liverpool 4-1 Chelsea: Four-Star Reds Gain Revenge Over Blues

Liverpool gained some revenge for Saturday’s FA Cup final defeat as they thumped Chelsea 4-1 at Anfield. 

After pushing Chelsea in the final 30 minutes at Wembley on Saturday, the Reds continued where they left off with a scintillating first half performance that saw them lead 3-0 at half-time having also missed a penalty. Chelsea midfielder Ramires reduced the arrears shortly after half-time, but Jonjo Shelvey’s long range drive rounded off the win as Liverpool ended a poor home campaign with only their sixth win of the season in front of their own fans.

Andy Carroll was rewarded with a start after his excellent display from off the bench at Wembley, whilst Steven Gerrard missed out with a back injury. With a Champions League meeting with Bayern Munch in 11 days time, Roberto Di Matteo took the opportunity to rest players, making eight changes to the cup winning side with only suspended trio John Terry, Branislav Ivanovic and Ramires keeping their places.

Eager to make up for Saturday’s disappointment, the home side started quickly. Carroll continued to dominate the Chelsea rearguard, whilst Luis Suarez nutmegged his way past Terry before firing wide hen well placed.

The ever-improving Reds front two then combined when a pun forward was brilliantly laid off by Suarez for Carroll, whose attempted chip over Ross Turnbull flew just over the bar.

The home side suffered a scare when Ivanovic headed against Pepe Reina’s post from only six yards, but with confidence high, it was only a matter of time before the Reds broke the deadlock and the lead duly arrived on 19 minutes.

There seemed little danger when Suarez picked the ball up wide on the right, but the Uruguayan showcased his full repertoire of tricks as he burst past his marker before putting the ball through Terry’s legs for a second time. As the Uruguayan dribbled along the byline towards goal, his pullback rebounded off Michael Essien into the net to give the Reds the lead.

At Wembley, Chelsea were at their well-drilled best, but here they were being cut open at will. Terry was nutmegged for a third time, this time by Carroll, before the Chelsea captain’s slip allowed Jordan Henderson a free run on goal to coolly dispatch past Turnbull to make it 2-0.

Just three minutes later it was three-nil. Shelvey’s corner saw Carroll escape the attentions of the beleaguered Terry to head back across goal for Daniel Agger to nod home.

Although they had already seen three goals, the biggest roar of the night from the Kop came when former hero Fernando Torres, who was making his first return to Anfield since his £50m move, crashed a fierce shot towards the Reds goal, only to see it canon against the bar and away to safety.

But that was only a brief respite for the visitors’ defence as Liverpool continued to pile on the pressure. Carroll broke clear and forced Turnbull into a save, before he was savagely taken down from behind by Essien, who received a caution for his actions.

Stewart Downing then went close to his first league goal of the season when he crashed a dipping volley onto Chelsea’s bar, before the winger had an even better opportunity to break his duck on the stroke of half-time.

With Ivanovic struggling to control Carroll, the Serbian’s elbow to the striker’s chest saw referee Kevin Friend point to the spot. Downing took responsibility, but fired against the post as the Reds missed their eight spot-kick of the season.

Shell-shocked, Chelsea regrouped at half-time and gave themselves a lifeline within five minutes of the restart. Florent Malouda’s flighted free-kick hit Ramires and rebounded past the wrong-footed Reina into the net.

But just after the hour mark, any brief thoughts of a Chelsea comeback were banished as the result was put beyond any doubt. Turnbull’s poor clearance went straight to Shelvey, who controlled then struck a fine 35 yarder shot into the empty net to claim his first league goal for the Reds.

The Reds looked for more with Carroll and Suarez both going close, whilst at the other end, Reina showed he hasn’t lost his class despite some poor performances of late when he brilliantly denied sub Romelu Lukaku from less than six yards out.

Suarez was involved with an altercation with Ivanovic, before, with time running out, Maxi left the field with what looked like a parting goodbye. His replacement, Dirk Kuyt, entered the fray for what is likely to be his last appearance at Anfield in a red shirt. Youngster Raheem Sterling also saw the last 10 minutes of action, with the exciting winger nearly scoring with his first touch after being set-up by Suarez.

The final whistle brought to an end the league season at Anfield, one which has only heralded six league wins. Improvement next season is a must, but if the Reds’ front-pairing of Suarez and Carroll can continue their blossoming partnership, then surely this season’s dreadful league campaign will not be repeated.

Chelsea 2-1 Liverpool: Drogba Leaves Reds Feeling Blue Again

Didier Drogba was the hero for Chelsea and the scourge of Liverpool, once again as his second half goal handed the Blues their 4th FA Cup in six seasons. 

The Ivorian's 52nd minute goal, his fourth in Wembley cup finals, doubled his side's advantage following Ramires' early opener and, despite a spirited last 30 minutes from an Andy Carroll-inspired Liverpool, the Blues held out to give temporary boss Roberto Di Matteo the perfect addition to his CV as he bids to win the job on a full-time basis.

But the win didn't come without controversy. With the score at 2-1 after Carroll had halved the deficit, the big striker thought he had headed Liverpool level on 82 minutes, only for referee Phil Dowd to deem the ball hadn't fully crossed the line before Petr Cech brilliantly turned it on to the bar and away from danger. The Reds protested in vain, with TV replays proving inconclusive, whilst Chelsea fans offered a wry smile as they point to revenge for Luis Garcia's 'Ghost goal' in the 2005 Champions League semi-final.

Last year, the two sides were involved in the two biggest transfers in English football history when Fernando Torres left Anfield for Stamford Bridge for £50 million and the Reds immediately re-invested £35m of it in Newcastle striker Carroll. Despite recent goals from the expensive duo, the 15 months since the move have been largely a struggle, so it was no surprise that both players found themselves on the bench when the teams were announced.

With the pre-match cup final rituals of Abide With Me and the National Anthem completed, Chelsea were quickest to settle, with Drogba firing a speculative effort against the stanchion behind Pepe Reina's goal. But, the Blues didn't have to wait much longer for a breakthrough, as they took a deserved lead in as early as the 11th minute.

Jay Spearing got caught in possession in the centre of the park by Frank Lampard, who played an inch-perfect pass to Ramires. The Brazilian midfielder, who will miss the Champions League final with Bayern Munich through suspension, showed a tremendous burst of pace to easily escape the attentions of Jose Enrique, before finding the net at Reina’s near post, though the Liverpool keeper will feel he should have done better.

The Reds responded instantly with Glen Johnson’s cross eventually finding its way to Craig Bellamy whose goalbound volley was brilliantly blocked by Branislav Ivanovic.

But, that was the only threat Liverpool posed in a disappointing first half performance. With Carroll on the bench, Luis Suarez was deployed as a lone attacker, with the notion that captain Steven Gerrard would be able to support him along with wide players Bellamy and Downing. But, with central midfielders Spearing and Jordan Henderson badly struggling to gain control against the Blues’ trio of Lampard, John Obi Mikel and Ramires, Gerrard often found himself dropping deep to babysit the young duo. As a result, Chelsea were the team in the ascendency, with cultured playmaker Juan Mata effortlessly orchestrating the play just behind Drogba.

After the restart, the pattern continued. Chelsea captain John Terry shot over from a Lampard corner, before Drogba, the perennial tormentor of Liverpool, struck to put the Blues two-up.

Just as in the build up to the first goal, Lampard got the better of the below-par Spearing in the centre of the pitch, before playing the ball into Drogba’s feet just inside the box. With Martin Skrtel in close quarters, the striker controlled and then fired a left-foot shot into the far corner of the net to send the blue half of the stadium into raptures.

With nearly 40 minutes left to play, it looked like the final would turn into one of the most one-sided in recent memory. But, Dalglish’s 55th minute introduction of Carroll for the ineffective Spearing changed the dynamics of the game.

Suddenly, Carroll’s presence meant Liverpool had a focal point from which the other players could play off, whilst the Chelsea defence no longer had time to play the ball out from the back. Less than 10 minutes after his arrival, Carroll reduced the deficit.

Up to that point, Stewart Downing had been largely anonymous on the left wing, but he played a key part in the goal when he charged down Jose Bosingwa’s attempted clearance. The ball spun across goal to the feet of Carroll, who twisted Terry one way then the other before he found half a yard to arrow a left-footed shot high into the Chelsea net.

With thoughts turning to the cup final comebacks of Istanbul and their last FA Cup triumph against West Ham United in 2006, the red half of the stadium found their voice. With Carroll dominating both Terry and Ivanovic, space was being made for Suarez, Bellamy and Downing to exploit.

Carroll headed a Johnson cross over, and then nodded down for Gerrard to blast over from 18 yards. Suarez then wriggled his way past a couple of challenges before sending a low shot towards the bottom corner of the net only for Cech to dive low to his right to turn the ball behind for a corner.

Some momentum was lost when Bellamy’s speed was replaced by Kuyt, but the Reds continued to pepper the Chelsea goal. Johnson fizzed a shot wide, before Henderson blazed over from the edge of the box.

On 82 minutes, Liverpool thought they were back on level terms. A neat move down the right saw Johnson play Suarez, who sent an inviting chip to the far post. Waiting, unmarked, was Carroll, who, now full of confidence, rose and powerfully sent a header goalwards. The £35m million wheeled away in delight as it looked as though the ball had crossed the line, whilst the Red contingent of Wembley started to celebrate. But, Blues’ keeper Cech somehow stuck out a right arm to turn the ball onto the bar, before Ivanovic cleared as Kuyt honed in on the rebound.

Liverpool protested that Carroll’s header had crossed the line, with Suarez receiving a caution for angrily remonstrating with the linesman, but referee Phil Dowd was undeterred and Chelsea escaped. Calls will no doubt once again be made for video technology, but even a number of TV replays proved inconclusive.

With the wind knocked out of their sails by the decision, Liverpool’s tempo slowed, though they did still have chances to level matters. Defender Skrtel found himself clear in the box only to miscontrol and allow the excellent Ivanovic to clear, before a fantastic block from Terry thwarted yet another Carroll effort.

Five minutes of stoppage time saw Chelsea regain their composure and stave off any Reds threat to win the cup. The final whistle saw Di Matteo and his players embrace in celebration before Terry lifted the FA Cup for the fourth time. The Blues now head off to Germany in two weeks time as they bid to add the Champions League to their collection.

For Liverpool, the game was a synopsis of their frustrating season, with the words ‘if only’ in every Reds’ thoughts. If only Carroll’s header had counted. If only the big Geordie had started. If only Liverpool had started playing at 0-0 rather than give Chelsea a 2-0 headstart.

With two games of a dismal league campaign remaining, the failure to add the FA Cup to the already captured Carling Cup means Dalglish is likely to face an end of season inquest into a disappointing season. With the Reds seemingly at a crossroads with several of their summer signings having not worked out, another summer of rebuilding looks on the cards.

But, it’s not all bad news. In his excellent 30-minute cameo, Andy Carroll answered his critics to show that he can play a major part in Liverpool’s future. If the Reds are to improve on this season’s showing next year, they must surely find a regular place for the striker.

Friday, May 04, 2012

The Magic of the FA Cup - Where has it gone?

Pick any year from the 1970's to mid-noughties and it's a fair bet that you could name the FA Cup finalists, what the final score was and provide a blow-by-blow account of the winning goal. Do the same exercise for a more recent year and I bet it's more of a struggle. 

FA Cup final day used to be one of the iconic days of the football calendar. Almost everybody knew about it, they knew who was playing and by the end of the day, who had won and who the new cup final hero was.

But, when Liverpool meet Chelsea to contest this year's final on Saturday, many non-football followers will only know it's cup final day when they switch on ITV to watch You've Been Framed, only to instead see the likes of Steven Gerrard and John Terry doing battle on the Wembley pitch. Sadly, the once showpiece FA Cup Final has become just another game.

When I was a kid, the FA Cup final was a big event. Always the last game of the season, the build-up to the game started as soon as the league season had come to an end the previous weekend. In the days leading up to the final, Television, Radio and newspapers would all be crammed full of cup final content, ranging from player interviews to tales about the lengths some fanatical supporters would go to for a ticket, not to mention the often cringeworthy cup final songs. Nationwide, shops would run cup final promotions, whilst some houses would be decked out in the colours of their team. It was almost impossible for people not to know the Cup final was just around the corner.

On the day itself, the Cup final dominated households up and down the country. Early morning children's TV would always start the countdown to kick-off, with references to the upcoming game continually made throughout the programmes. The excitement really kicked in though when the BBC, or ITV, began their cup final coverage.

Hours of pre-match punditry, highlights from previous rounds and celebrity interviews kept us all entranced, whilst cameras let us see the player’s journey from their hotels to a stroll on the hallowed Wembley turf. By the time Abide with Me was blasted out, we’d all be gathered ready for kick-off. For two hours we would watch the drama of the match unfold, then watch the post-match celebrations, interviews and analysis. Later that night, we’d do it all again as we sat through the highlights show.

Just like the days leading up to the big match, the ones that followed were filled of talk about the final and the new cup hero.

That is what made the FA Cup the best and most famous cup competition in the world. So why has the nation fallen out of love with it?

Well there are a number of reasons. Whilst many say that the competition was somewhat devalued by Manchester United’s decision to withdraw from the 1999-2000 FA Cup in favour of going to Brazil for the World Club Championship, for me, an even greater factor has been the introduction of the Champions League.

With the financial rewards of qualification for Europe’s elite competition now so great, clubs are prioritising a top four finish over a decent cup run, with weakened teams selected in early rounds as they keep their star players fresh for league duties. Even if Liverpool win their second domestic cup of the season this weekend, people will still label their season as a failure due to their poor league campaign. Contrast this to the Manchester club which finishes second, Arsenal or the team that finishes in fourth. All will be trophy-less, but having achieved a top four finish, their seasons will be lauded as a success. Surely that isn’t right. In years to come no-one will remember who came fourth, but they will remember who lifted the FA Cup. Football is, and should always be, about winning trophies.

But there are also other reasons as to why the FA Cup has fallen away, with the game’s governing body in this country, the Football Association, a major factor.

When you think of the FA Cup, you think of Wembley. For any player growing up, it would have been his dream to play in a cup final at Wembley, to score the winning goal and to make the long walk up the steps to collect the cup. For a fan, Wembley held the same appeal; it was a big day out, a reward for reaching the final. One of the best feelings as a fan was to be at a neutral ground for a semi-final, watch your team win then start a ‘Wembley, Wembley’ victory chant.

So, when the FA decided to start staging semi-finals at Wembley, the cup lost some of its appeal. The final just became a carbon copy of the semi-final. Three weeks ago, I travelled to Wembley for the semi-final v Everton, this weekend I’ll do the same for the final. I’m excited because I want the Reds to win the cup, but the whole going to Wembley experience that I used to feel for the final has been lost because of the semi-final visit. It has turned into just another game. And don’t even get me started on the cost of it all!

Another factor is how the cup final is scheduled in to the calendar. Previously it was always reserved for the final action of the season. Nowadays it is sandwiched in in early May on the same day as league games. Last season, Manchester City won the FA Cup on the same day that their fierce rivals United captured their record-breaking 19th league championship, meaning City’s achievement was hardly noted. This weekend, the FA have gone one better by not only scheduling the game on the same day as league games, but also by moving it from its sacred 3pm kick-off to the later start time of 5.15pm, all so that they can maximise the TV audience (and the money going into their pockets)!

Add in factors such as ticket prices for the final and the way in which nearly half the allocations are reserved for corporate members, then it is easy to see why the average fan is falling out of love with the FA Cup.

The FA need to take note. The FA Cup wasn’t broke, so why have they tried to fix it.

The showpiece final must be reverted back to the last game of the season with a 3pm kick-off. It needs to become an occasion again, rather than just another game fitted in to the TV listings before Britain's Got Talent. 

Prior to the final, the semi-finals should be moved away from Wembley, after all there are more than enough fantastic stadiums dotted around the country. And finally, to increase the lure of cup success, how about offering the fourth Champions League qualifying spot to the cup winners?

Maybe then, the magic of the cup will return.

Wednesday, May 02, 2012

Liverpool 0-1 Fulham: Woeful Reds Beaten In Wembley Warm-Up

On a day when Roy Hodgson was named as the new England manager, two of his former club's met at Anfield, with Fulham running out winners to pick up their first-ever league victory on Merseyside.

With Saturday's FA Cup final clash with Chelsea at the forefront of Liverpool thoughts, manager Kenny Dalglish stated pre-match that this re-arranged league fixture was a chance for squad players to stake a late claim for cup final inclusion. So, it was no surprise that he made no fewer than nine changes to the side which convincingly beat Norwich City 3-0 at the weekend, with star trio Pepe Reina, Steven Gerrard and Luis Suarez not even named amongst the substitutes.

But, instead of staking their claim, the game only served to rule most out of the starting eleven out of Saturday's Wembley showpiece, as the Reds produced the latest, and possibly the worst, performance of a season full of lacklustre Anfield displays

What should have been a celebratory Wembley send-off, instead turned sour as the visitors, who were comprehensively beaten 4-0 at Everton on Saturday, took the lead as early as the fifth minute.

Fulham's player of the season Clint Dempsey found former Reds' full-back John Arne Riise, whose cross diverted off stand-in Reds' captain Skrtel and past Alexander Doni to give the Cottagers the lead.

With the home side struggling to up their tempo, the visitors could have stretched their lead through Pavel Pogrebnyak after more good work by Dempsey, whilst former Reds' reserve winger Alex Kacaniklic, who was let go by new England manager Roy Hodgson as part of the Paul Konchesky deal, consistently caused the Reds back line problems.

As the half-hour mark approached, Liverpool finally showed signs that they were awakening from their slumber. Dirk Kuyt, who was making what could turn out to be one of his last starts for the Reds at Anfield, thrashed a volley wide from the edge of the box, whilst Mark Schwarzer saved well from a powerful Andy Carroll header after a fine cross from Fabio Aurelio.

The one glimmer of light in a poor first-half for the Reds was Jonjo Shelvey. After a good display at Carrow Road on Saturday, the young midfielder once again impressed as he looked the biggest threat to the Fulham defence. After a goalmouth scramble, he saw a shot cleared off the line by Brede Hangeland and then he linked well with Carroll to break through and fire just wide of Schwarzer's far post.

But, that was as about as good as it got for the home side as Fulham regained control after the break and looked the side most likely to score. They nearly doubled their advantage when substitute Karim Frei cut inside and fired against a post and had an even better opportunity when Frei put 22-goal top scorer Dempsey clear, only for the American's to be thwarted by a good save from Doni.

Missing the invention of a Gerrard or Suarez, Liverpool toiled. The introduction of exciting 17-year old winger Raheem Sterling with 15 minutes to go, briefly lifted the very subdued Anfield crowd, but despite the youngster's pace and trickery, Schwarzer remained as nothing more than a bystander in the visitor's goal.

In the final minute of stoppage time, the home side won a free-kick 20 yards out, but, in keeping with their night's work, Shelvey's free-kick flew wildly into the Kop and signalled a mass exodus of unhappy supporters from the Kop.

With only one home game remaining, ironically against cup opponents Chelsea, Liverpool have won only five games, their worst record since 1953-54, a season in which they were relegated. With the previous season low tally of 54 points now increasingly looking out of reach, Dalglish and his under-performing side are finding themselves under increasing pressure. Only a second domestic cup success of the season on Saturday would see those pressures ease.

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