Tuesday, 17 July 2018

Shaqiri: It Just Makes Sense

Liverpool recently confirmed the signing of Swiss international Xherdan Shaqiri from Stoke. The fee is rumoured to be somewhere in the region of thirteen million pounds, a relatively trifling sum in the modern market. Klopp will be hoping that the winger can deliver serious value on the investment, and he certainly has the talent to do so – even if he completely fails to show his best form at Liverpool, however, it is still hard to envisage his stock depreciating in any significant manner. As the manager said, this deal is a “no-brainer”.

Plenty of supporters will remember getting very excited about Shaqiri when he was first linked to the club, back in the summer of 2014. At the time he was a 22-year-old talent who had showcased his potential in Bayern’s historic treble-winning season the previous year; he had struggled for consistent game time in the star-studded squad, but looked capable of being a world-beater in the right side.

Now 26, he has arguably never quite found that side – his spell at Inter lasted just six months, while Stoke lacked the quality to fully unlock his potential. However, Shaqiri was able to progress a lot personally during his time at The Potters. Frequently tasked with winning matches on his own, he delivered with impressive regularity: last season proved a stretch too far even for him, as Stoke found themselves relegated to the Championship, but Shaqiri’s own numbers were the best he has posted since joining the Premier League.

His core attributes look ready-made for a Klopp system. Almost any player in the world would be required to raise their distance covered during a match in order to fit in at Liverpool, but the Swiss winger is by no means a long way off the pace – his eagerness to put in the hard yards is apparent whenever he plays, and there is little doubt about his physical condition. His versatility is also important. Few if any new signings could be guaranteed a starting berth in Liverpool’s attack, and Shaqiri is no exception; it is likely that he will be required in a variety of positions across the course of a long season. This will not be a problem: not only has he played on both wings, his average positions for Stoke reveal a significant amount of time spent in a more central and withdrawn role. He is comfortable creating chances from this pocket – with the likes of Salah and Mane as runners, his assist numbers will only improve.

Add to this package his pace, trickery and unerring ability from long range, and it is easy to see why Klopp moved to sign him. In the modern game, 26 is still young – Shaqiri represents a significant improvement on the current options off the bench even if he doesn’t develop at all in his time at Anfield, but there is no reason to think that he can’t finally unleash the potential that he has shown in flashes for years. It is no coincidence that Shaqiri has been a standout player at each of the last three major international tournaments: when he is given minutes in a side with a bit of quality, we see the best of him. Klopp, a veritable master of bringing the best out of players, will only help in this regard.

The one real question is whether the winger will be afforded the minutes he needs to properly reach his excitingly high peak, but it would be foolish to attack the signing on this basis. For one thing, he is likely to rack up significant playing time across the course of the campaign. Furthermore, squad depth is something fans have been rightly craving for a long time – Shaqiri emphatically addresses this need, and this is a cause for celebration rather than complaint.  Imagine for a moment that Shaqiri was available to call upon in Kyiv when Salah was forced off early; the outcome might not have been any different, but it seems likely that there would have been a fair amount more confidence that the team still had a fighting chance if this level of quality could have been summoned off the bench.  

Finally, on a pragmatic note, what is there to lose? The preceding points are not empty words – Shaqiri really could develop into a player to rival those currently occupying Liverpool’s front three – but even if he does not do so, the club will suffer no great detriment. Even in a worst-case scenario where Shaqiri fails to make any impact whatsoever on the first team, it is easy to imagine that there would still be a host of clubs queuing up to take a ten-million-pound gamble on a man clearly blessed with talent. In other words, the club could likely recoup most of the fee with ease even in the unlikely event that things completely fail to work out. There are still his wages to think about, but with the likes of Bogdan and Markovic still on the books it would seem odd to take specific issue with Shaqiri.

Embrace the return to the summer of 2014. Liverpool are a team on the up, and this time the top talent has not only been linked to the club but has arrived. Shaqiri will not be a guaranteed starter, as he may have been back then, but that is just a sign of the progress the club has made – this progress will only be aided by the addition of this most talented of squad players, who with a bit of luck might yet become one of Klopp’s world-beaters.


Friday, 8 June 2018

McDonald’s FIFA World Cup Fantasy: How to Play

After a long and painful wait of more than three weeks since the end of FPL, fantasy football is back with FIFA’s official World Cup game. There are plenty of similarities – right down to the starting budget, which is the same except for valuation in euros rather than pounds – but there are some minor differences that could catch out the unprepared manager. Here is a quick look at what you need to know.

The starting point will be familiar to anybody who has played the Premier League game. Fifteen players must be selected, with a maximum of three players from any one team; each player has been assigned a value, and there is an initial 100 million euros to spend. Out of these fifteen, eleven must be selected for each round in a recognised formation. A captain can be selected to score double points for the round. So far, so familiar. However, the workings of the bench are where things start to get complicated. Unlike in FPL, there is the possibility for manual substitutions within a round – if a player has underperformed, he can be replaced with a bench option who is yet to play in that round. So, for example, if Mo Salah was restricted to thirty minutes against Uruguay and failed to score, a manager could replace him with Bryan Ruiz in anticipation of a points haul for the Costa Rican against Serbia. It will be noted that this example involves swapping a forward for a midfielder: this is allowable, provided the formation stays within the valid options. The same thing applies to the captaincy, which can be shifted from player to player throughout the round if the initial selection does not do as well as hoped.

With this in mind, it makes sense to ‘front-load’ the starting eleven with players who will feature early on in a round, in the knowledge that they can be removed later on if necessary. Padded out the squad with a Saudi Arabian defender? Stick him in. Worried about Salah’s game time? Captain him anyway. Even if it seems highly unlikely that players in the earlier games will score particularly well, it is nonetheless worth starting them, in the knowledge that they can be swapped out for a more promising option if they do indeed fail to produce. The only drawback of this is that it requires managers to be very much on the ball - it is all too easy to stuff the team full of Russians only to forget to take them out. If this sounds like you, then take note: there is a system of automatic substitutions, but it only comes into effect if you have made no manual captain switches or substitutions within the round. In other words, if you do not have time to continually check back in with your team during the tournament, it’s probably best not to do any mid-round tinkering at all; the safety-net of auto-substitutions for players who did not feature is likely to be more useful, but will not come into effect if you have made any manual changes. 

That’s the really hard part out of the way. Other differences include tweaks to the rules once the group stage ends. The budget, for example, increases by 5 million euros for the knockout stages to account for the fact that many budget options will have been eliminated. Transfer rules also change: there is an amnesty when the group stages end, during which unlimited transfers can be made without incurring a points hit. Player prices are also adjusted at this point to reflect their performances. Aside from this window, the transfer procedures are fairly similar to those of FPL – there is one free transfer per round in the group stage, any transfers beyond this limit cost four points, and there is one wildcard that can be deployed at any time in order to make unlimited free transfers before the next round. Notably, free transfers increase to three per round prior to the quarter-finals and semi-finals, and then five before the final round (which includes the third-place playoff). It is also important to flag up that free transfers cannot be saved: if a manager opts not to make a free transfer before a round, he simply forfeits that transfer.

There are also two chips to talk about. The concept is borrowed directly from FPL, but only one chip works in exactly the same fashion: this is the bench boost. This must be played before the start of a round, and serves to count the points from all fifteen players in the squad rather than just the eleven starters. The other chip, which also has to be deployed prior to the start of a round, is slightly more interesting. It is called ‘Maximum Captain’, and works by assigning the captaincy to whichever player ends up scoring the most points in the round. This would be a tantalising prospect in FPL; in the World Cup game it is of slightly less significance, in that the aforementioned scope to change the captain midway through a round already increases the chances of making a good captaincy, but it is nonetheless a powerful chip. Each chip can only be used once during the tournament; the rules somewhat unhelpfully fail to state whether they can be used in conjunction, either with each other or with a wildcard, but if it works in the same way as FPL then this will not be possible.

It only remains to sketch out the scoring system itself. It may seem odd to relegate this to the bottom of the article, but the rules here are almost identical to those of FPL – anybody who has played that game will be highly familiar with the vast majority of the system. In short, points are awarded for appearance, scoring, assisting and making saves; they are deducted for conceding, scoring own goals and getting carded. There are only a couple of slight differences. There is an additional mechanism whereby players earn two points for winning a penalty, regardless of the outcome of the spot kick, and lose a point for giving away a penalty. Handballs are excluded from this calculus. There is also no bonus points system. If a knockout game goes to extra time, points scored in this period do count. Penalty shootouts, however, are excluded.

Hopefully this has been useful in establishing what you need to know about FIFA’s official World Cup fantasy football game. Best of luck!

- Follow me on Twitter @JamesMartin013

See my Premier League season review for Colossus Bets here:
Part 1 - http://ow.ly/TE5J30k6iBx
Part 2 - https://goo.gl/3ewpPm

Friday, 1 June 2018

We Are Liverpool

There is nobody who handles losing quite as well as Liverpool. This is a taunt thrown our way by rival fans, who would undoubtedly have traded their seasons in a heartbeat to take our place in the Champions League final, but there is also a ring of truth about it. Defeat in Kyiv was cruel, and it was painful, but supporters left the stadium singing. You’ll Never Walk Alone proved as cathartic as ever, while Allez Allez Allez took on a defiant note: mark our words, we’re never going to stop. Soon, a video emerged of Klopp himself chanting at six in the morning, goofy smile firmly in place in spite of everything. Those outside of the Liverpool bubble might have questioned what on earth was going on – the team had, after all, just fallen short of glory by virtue of two of the worst goalkeeping mistakes ever witnessed at this level. Perhaps three words from a different song best sum it up: we are Liverpool.

This club sticks together. At times, it has had to do so – the 96 on the collar of every Liverpool shirt is a poignant reminder that nothing that unfolds on the pitch is of any lasting importance. Even so, it would have been easy for supporters to turn on Karius following the final, but that is not The Liverpool Way. In a strange fashion, it was his personal woes that helped bring everybody together so quickly; even on social media, which usually has a knack of amplifying the very worst in people, the overwhelming message was one of support for the young German. It is unlikely that there is anything that can be said to the 24-year-old that will stop him looking back on this match with horror in quiet moments for the rest of his life, but supporters looked to take some of the burden from him with a simple message. You’ll Never Walk Alone. People can say that we don’t sing it as loudly as we once did, or that everyone is now too bothered about filming it to belt it out, and perhaps there is some truth to this – when it really matters, though, it is more than a song. It is an ethos, one which enables fans to place their views on the long-term goalkeeping situation aside for a moment and just console a young man who needs support.

For his part, Karius also showed an understanding of how things are done at this club. It is telling that the first thing he did after the final whistle was go to the fans – disconsolate though he was, he knew that these were the people from whom forgiveness must be sought. It took courage to do this, and one need not look very far to think of players who would have just disappeared down the tunnel. Things like this mean something. Supporters should be at the heart of any club, and when the players recognise this an unbreakable bond forms; this is the same kind of bond that can carry a team through to a European final by sheer strength of support, sheer volume of songs. It produces an intensity capable of emanating from the stands and into the heavy metal football unfolding on the pitch. It is hard to say whether Karius himself will have a long-term future at Anfield, but if he leaves he can do so with his head high and with the respect of the only people that matter.

Mere days after the defeat, Liverpool announced a new addition to the team. Fabinho, snatched from under the noses of Manchester United, went some way to lifting spirits. In the midst of the excitement, it was easy to miss one comment from Klopp: “We have signed a fantastic player, but someone who is an equally fantastic person”. For this to be a preliminary comment about a signing is, in the world of modern football, quite remarkable – certainly it is anathema to the mindset of a coach like Mourinho, who can practically be heard scoffing at such a comment. Klopp, however, is not of the same mould. He is a team-builder; he recognises the importance of getting a group together, keeping them tightly-knit, and going on to achieve things as a unit. More than that, he intrinsically understands Liverpool: the parliamentary seat of Liverpool Walton has not been occupied by a Conservative for over fifty years, and the city and the club immediately embrace those who show a social conscience. Andrew Robertson has won everyone over with his immense performances, but also with his promotion of the local foodbanks. Salah is adored for his forty-four goals, but also for the joy he has brought to schoolchildren in the area. “This means more” is the tagline emerging from the club marketing department of late – it would be naïve to deny that this is at its heart part of a campaign driven towards selling replica shirts, but the sentiment does ring true. Of course, first and foremost Klopp and the fans want to put together a team of winners, but not at any cost – it does not profit a man to gain the whole world, but forfeit his soul.

This is the great consolation. The soul of the club is more than just intact, it is thriving under the management of a man who truly understands it. The core of the team also looks set to hold together – this group have made memories together on a journey all the way to the final, and they will be determined to return to complete the job. Already, additions are being made to address the weaknesses that meant we ultimately fell short: there are big reasons to be hugely optimistic into next season and beyond. This does not remove the pain of losing the final, and nor should it: although Liverpool’s ethos goes far beyond winning, it should not be forgotten that this club has victory in its very DNA. However, the regeneration of this footballing giant is well underway, and it’s never going to stop.

-   James Martin (@JamesMartin013)

Wednesday, 30 May 2018

No Kane, No Lukaku, No Regrets?

Well, I made it. Thirty-eight whole gameweeks with no Kane or Lukaku anywhere to be seen in my fantasy team. Not only that, it went pretty well – a final overall rank of 115,189th is not to be sniffed at, although it was disappointing not to sneak into the top 100k. The big question, of course, is whether this relative success was because of the enforced absence of two of the biggest hitters in the game or in spite of it.

The numbers show that the lack of Kane, perhaps predictably, hit the hardest. He finished the season as the highest-scoring forward in the game, and the third-highest player overall: given the sheer volume of other fantasy teams in which he appeared, a good week for the Spurs frontman almost always proved a significant setback to my progress. However, crucially, he was not all that far ahead of much cheaper options – Firmino proved to be a more than adequate alternative for an initial 8.5 million, while Jamie Vardy also got within 40 points of Kane. To put it another way, Kane’s advantage over this pair was less than a point per week; this all adds up over the course of a season, but for an outlay of four million more than it cost to acquire either of the other two, it is clear that the value lay with the cheaper options. The point is even more emphatic in relation to Lukaku, who was outscored by both of these cheaper strikers, as well as Sergio Aguero. This clearly suggests that the two most premium forwards were viable but not essential options, and this was arguably borne out by my respectable finish without them.

However, this is reductive for two reasons. Firstly, it assumes the ability to quickly determine who will be able to outstrip Kane and Lukaku up front in terms of value. In reality, this was one of my greatest problems in the first couple of months of the season. Vardy and Firmino hardly came out of the blue in terms of goal-scoring prowess, and indeed the Brazilian made it into my team from the start, but it takes a brave man to shun all of the more expensive options – in my hunt for a frontman who could truly serve as a like-for-like Kane or Lukaku replacement, I went through options including Jesus, Morata, Aguero and Lacazette at an alarming pace. Each hit their stride just as I had given up on them, as followers of early entries to this series will be aware. It is all very well rejecting Kane on the basis that he will not provide the best points-to-cost ratio over the course of a campaign, but this does not capture the reason why he is such a popular pick. The sheer consistency of his returns is what warrants the steep price tag: there is little danger that he will be a high-cost complete flop, which is exactly what the alternative big names proved to be when they appeared in my team. It was only when I abandoned these premium strikers in favour of the mid-tier options, favouring big investment in the midfield, that I truly started to move up the table.

Secondly, and on a related note, saving money on Kane and Lukaku has no inherent value. The additional money in the bank must be spent wisely, not only on alternative striker options but throughout the team. Again, this was a balancing act that it took a while to get right – a September rank below 4.5 millionth was not solely down to bad luck! It is all very well notionally banking seven million by selecting strikers other than the two I chose to avoid, but when this is lavishly splashed on premium defenders who are continually returning blanks this is not so much an achievement as it is stupidity. This was partially down to my defective strategy in terms of where it is usually wise to invest heavily, but it is also an inherent flaw in avoiding the traditional ‘reliable’ options: it is only once trends have genuinely begun to emerge that it starts to become apparent where the ‘smart money’ should be spent. It very much felt as though I just had to hunker down for the first few weeks, hoping that some of my near-blind punts would come off while waiting for something solid upon which to base my buys.

Eventually, I settled upon a ‘middle-loading’ strategy. Many players had come around to this by the end of the season, but the fact that I did not have serious money tied up in attack allowed me to get on it sooner – by the end of the campaign, my team included Sterling, Alli, Eriksen and Salah. De Bruyne was also a regular for much of the run-in. Aside from Salah, these all had ownership that was far from astronomical; price tags that for Kane and Lukaku owners proved prohibitive were positively affordable in my system, and so I profited off the strong returns from these premium midfielders more than most. There was a sustained period where De Bruyne’s returns alone dwarfed those of Kane and Lukaku almost every week. This meant big gains. Even Salah, owned by essentially any active player who wasn’t a masochist, proved more beneficial to me than he did to others because of my strategy; he was a shoe-in for the captain’s armband almost every week, while other players were tempted away by a nice fixture for Kane, or by a renewed purple patch for Lukaku. Of course, on occasion, one or both of these two did outscore Salah. It was a rarity, however, and the Egyptian’s record points tally for any FPL season illustrates that one won’t go too far wrong by repeatedly captaining him.

On balance, then, it is probably fair to say that rejecting both Kane and Lukaku out of hand probably worked in my favour. However, this was contingent on a variety of factors that are far from guaranteed; I managed to at least pick one of the two best mid-tier strikers as a replacement right from the start, and in Salah a genuinely elite player emerged who could pale the significance of contributions from the Spurs and United men. As such, I would struggle to recommend actively writing off players who are known to be very good as a genuine strategy, but then again that was never really the point – rather this experiment has shown that there is cause to truly stop and weigh things up before mindlessly splashing the cash on a big name just because ‘everyone will have him’. Certainly, these findings have shaped how I will approach next season: I intend to start off with some of the ‘safer’ big names, amongst which Salah now finds himself, before branching out into potentially better-value options once enough time has passed to see where that value truly lies.

- @JamesMartin013

Monday, 14 May 2018

Liverpool 4-0 Brighton: Reds Secure Top Four Finish

Liverpool ran out comfortable victors against Brighton on a glorious day at Anfield. They went into the match knowing that a draw would be enough to confirm a spot in the Champions League for next season, but from the outset it was apparent that they were not inclined to sit back and play for the point. The players knew that they had the quality to blow Brighton away, and duly did so – Salah, Lovren, Solanke and Robertson all got on the scoresheet in a 4-0 victory, which in truth was somewhat flattering to the visitors. The strike for Salah means that he is now the outright record-holder for the most goals in a 38-game Premier League season, overtaking the likes of Ronaldo and Suarez; his sensational performances have played a big part in firing Klopp’s team to fourth, and fans will be desperate for one more stellar showing two weeks from now in Kyiv.

It was the kind of performance that has become synonymous with Liverpool this season. The attack had a slightly different look to normal, with Mane, Firmino and Salah all operating behind Dominic Solanke, but it posed as much of a threat as ever – even in quiet spells, there was a feeling that the forwards could be unleashed at any moment. The attacks, when they did come, came in devastating waves: a period of calm would be shattered by a barrage of forays forward. Spartak, Watford, Maribor, Arsenal, Porto, even Manchester City: these are just some of the teams that have succumbed to the blitz tactics of Klopp’s side this campaign, and it was fitting that this approach was employed to full effect once more in this last game of the domestic season. A less satisfying recurring theme was the denial of stonewall penalties, two of which were waved away in the opening exchanges. Fortunately, this did nothing to halt the momentum. Inside half an hour, Liverpool had the opener courtesy of Mohamed Salah. Who else? This was the goal that took his tally to a record-breaking thirty-two in the league, and it was finished with typical composure. The final chance to praise his frankly unbelievable performances in the league cannot be missed: thirty-five million pounds simply isn’t supposed to get you somebody this good. It may well go down as one of the greatest transfers ever. Salah has brought goals to Anfield, but more than that he has brought joy - all of his individual accolades from this extraordinary season are richly deserved.

Liverpool had a second before half-time. Again, it was from a pleasing source: Dejan Lovren, much-maligned for long periods of his time with the club, fully deserved his goal. He has looked significantly better since Virgil van Dijk’s arrival, and has made some important defensive contributions – it is still the case that there is room to upgrade, but all too often people are quick to criticise and slow to praise. Some credit is due, and the Croatian got to drink in the plaudits after rising high to fire a header beyond Matt Ryan. Andy Robertson must also be mentioned; it was he who put in the cross after receiving the ball from Salah, and the delivery was inch-perfect.

While all this was going on, Chelsea were collapsing against Rafa Benitez’ Newcastle side. Nothing but a win would have kept their Champions League hopes alive, but at half-time they found themselves 1-0 down and yet to have a shot at goal. Things only got worse for them after the break, as an Ayoze Perez brace made it 3-0 and condemned the London side to the Europa League. Meanwhile, just to make the claiming of fourth place all the more emphatic, former Chelsea man Dominic Solanke made it 3-0 to Liverpool. The young striker has missed his fair share of chances in his debut campaign under Klopp, but he tucked this one away emphatically: he positively rifled the ball beyond Ryan and into the top corner after being put through by Salah. As with Lovren, there are significant question marks as to whether Solanke is really of the calibre required to cut it with Liverpool in the long term; he has youth on his side, however, and reminded everyone of his credentials with this goal. The rout was rounded off by another man scoring his first league goal for the club: Andy Robertson, whose performances since joining have been a revelation, signed off a wonderful personal campaign with a tidy finish into the bottom corner.

The win was comfortable enough to allow Klopp to withdraw Mane, Firmino and Salah from the action before the ninety minutes were up. This was a sensible move in terms of avoiding potential injuries before Kyiv, but one suspects sentimentality had a larger part to play in the manager’s thinking. Each of the trio were treated to richly-deserved standing ovations from the Anfield faithful: simply put, it has been a pleasure to watch the three of them play over the course of this campaign. Of course, Salah has been the main man in terms of goals, but all three of them have combined excellently to create one of the most dynamic attacks this league has ever seen. Firmino in particular is a uniquely wonderful player – he, more than anyone, is the embodiment of Klopp’s team.  Rumours have already begun to swirl about improvements in other areas over the summer window; a few additions behind the ‘fab three’, and the team will undoubtedly be a force to be reckoned with. However, for now, unwavering faith must be placed in the existing squad for one last time. It has been a Herculean effort to secure fourth place while also progressing to the final of The Champions League despite a relative lack of depth: each and every player can immortalise themselves on the 26th May with a win.

In a sense, however, the result against Real Madrid will change very little. Certainly the big picture remains the same – Liverpool have reinstated themselves as a regular presence in Europe, and have demonstrated that they can more than hold their own against the elite. They have a clear identity, more so than at any point in the last decade: it is an exciting, daring philosophy, one that not only delights fans but attracts even more talent to the club. All of this has been engineered by Jurgen Klopp, who has a knack for bringing the best out of his players and who is a major pull factor for potential signings. In short, the rejuvenation of a giant of the game is well underway. This cannot be changed by the result in Kyiv, but a win would be a glorious way to announce to the world that Liverpool Football Club is back. 

Thursday, 3 May 2018

Roma 4-2 Liverpool: Kyiv Awaits

Rarely has a defeat been greeted with such joy. Liverpool fans rose as one at the final whistle, their chants becoming a battle cry: bring on Real Madrid. For this is what lies ahead for this remarkable side that Klopp has assembled – a Champions League final against the team looking to win it for the third time in a row. The whispers, if not yet shouts, are becoming more insistent: “we could do this, you know”. Such things dreams are made of, and yet the Liverpool players are one win away from making it an unbelievable reality, forever enshrining themselves in legend in the process.

Memories of the Manchester City tie would undoubtedly have been fresh in their minds as they stepped out onto the pitch with a three-goal aggregate lead from the first leg. Their defence of such a margin began disastrously at the Etihad, but lessons had been learned: Liverpool did not start like a team with a lead to hold onto, instead going about their business in the usual attacking way. Reward was reaped almost immediately – Sadio Mane, who was exceptional throughout the evening, was on hand to fire past Alisson after a defensive error provided the opportunity to score. Some of the tension, inevitable in any Champions League semi-final regardless of the context of the tie, was released; Roma now needed four. Nobody who has supported Liverpool for any length of time thought that this was impossible, and anyone who was labouring under this illusion was quickly disabused of it. The hosts had one back just minutes later in freakish circumstances: a hacked clearance hit James Milner in the face and positively rocketed beyond Karius. It was hugely unfortunate, both for the team and the individual; Milner, of course, was responsible for the penalty at the end of the first leg too, but there was very little he could do about either incident. Roma sniffed a chance, and the crowd at the Olimpico whipped up a feverish atmosphere.

Liverpool, however, were unperturbed. Virgil Van Dijk was imperious in the face of the howls of the crowd, bringing an element of calmness that in the circumstances felt almost out of place. It was his countryman, though, who sparked wild celebrations from the away end – the Champions League continued its uncanny habit of producing irresistible narratives, as Gini Wijnaldum scored his first away goal since arriving in English football on the biggest possible stage. It was not particularly pretty – Van Dijk went up for a header from a corner and missed it, but the defensive clearance looped up towards Wijnaldum who was lurking on the edge of the six-yard box. The ball arched off his head and into the net: the roars of elation rose in a crescendo, as fans realised that it was not offside and that Wijnaldum, of all people, had just scored the vital second away goal. This left Roma needing four once again, and even this would only have been enough to force extra-time. The goal made Liverpool’s the most prolific Champions League campaign ever, surpassing that of Barcelona in 1999/2000; the sheer firepower looked to have proved too much for Roma.

In fairness to the Italians, they certainly did not give up. History, even recent history, can have intangible effects on teams – Roma played like a side who knew they could overturn impossible odds in the face of world class opposition. The first stages of the second half felt in many ways like the barrage to which Liverpool were subjected by Manchester City: wave after wave of attack crashed down upon the defence, which again caved early on. Alexander-Arnold missed his interception, which left the path to Karius free – the German parried the resulting shot into an awful area, and Dzeko made no mistake on the rebound. After this, the back line clung on for dear life as more attacks rained down, just barely managing to repel what was thrown its way. It would be petty not to note the part which the referee played in keeping Roma at bay. Dzeko was wrongly called offside just before getting hauled down in the box by Karius for what would have been a certain penalty, and then Trent Alexander-Arnold got away with a goal-line block which was shown by replays to be a handball. That said, the defence dug deep and deserved their slices of luck, particularly given that Mane had been denied a spot kick for a clear shove in the opening stages of the game.

The clock kept ticking over, and Roma seemed to have expended everything they had. Liverpool looked the more likely to get the next goal with fifteen minutes to play – the physical and psychological effects of constantly attacking without reward appeared to be taking their toll on the hosts. However, there was still time to make things nervy. In the 86th minute, Radja Nainggolan restored a semblance of hope with a sweetly-struck strike from outside the box. He did not look as though he genuinely believed that there was time for the comeback, but he conjured up a second wind for the players and fans around him. The noise, which had become somewhat muted, returned in abundance, and Roma responded. Klopp’s men stood firm once more, but as in the first leg fell victim to a highly questionable penalty decision. Ragnar Klavan, brought on to shore up the defence, had the ball pelted in his direction from close range – the official, taking it upon himself to stir up some late drama, pointed to the spot. Nainggolan was on hand once again to blast the ball into the net, and suddenly one more goal would produce extra time. In the end, though, it was not enough: the final whistle came just moments after the restart, and was greeted with unbridled joy by Liverpool fans across the world. That blast on the whistle signified the realisation of a dream: Liverpool are in the final.

There is now an excruciating wait until the 26th May, a date undoubtedly etched into the minds of all supporters. Still, the last time that Liverpool fans had a Champions League final to look forward to it was 2007 – they have waited patiently through the era of Hodgson, of Paul Konchesky and Andriy Voronin, and in that context three weeks is nothing. The context also provides some reassurance: regardless of what happens when Liverpool come face to face with the reigning European champions, it is clear that the club has truly embarked upon a new era. It is an era in which trophies will undoubtedly come, even if the upcoming final proves a stretch too far; Klopp is moulding a team that can compete at the highest level for years to come. All that said, the team will certainly believe that they might just be able to get their hands on the Champions League later this month: Kyiv awaits.  
- James Martin (@JamesMartin013)

Wednesday, 25 April 2018

Liverpool 5-2 Roma: Post-Match Thoughts

Rome wasn’t built in a day, but it looks to have fallen in the space of ninety minutes. Eusebio Di Francesco had marshalled his men through to this point, conquering the likes of Barcelona along the way, but venturing to the fields of Anfield Road was a stretch too far for the Italians. One of the greatest performances ever witnessed in a European semi-final saw Roma put to the sword; a rampant Liverpool smashed five past them, and in truth could have had many more. A late rally from the vanquished side saw them steal two away goals, but Klopp can now march on Rome with a three-goal lead. 

It says something about the new standards that the German has instilled that many fans came away from the match with at least a hint of frustration. The very notion that a performance in which five goals are scored in a Champions League semi-final is somehow not good enough is a bizarre one, and yet that was the feeling amongst some – the two late goals were sloppy ones to concede, and introduced at least a tiny hint of doubt into Liverpool minds. However, to dwell on this would be absurdly negative. Five goals. In a semi-final. The magnitude of the achievement is hard to take in. The Anfield side have very much announced their return to the top level of the game, and they are making opponents at that level look amateur. Such are the usually fine margins at this rarefied peak of the sport, fifteen of the last seventeen home first-leg winners have gone on to win the tie – a home win is often the slight advantage that can settle things, and Liverpool have produced a home demolition. A Champions League final is in touching distance: this is not a time for negativity, this is the most exciting time to be a Liverpool fan in at least a decade.

Not least amongst the reasons for this excitement is a certain Mo Salah. The Egyptian once again produced a display of the highest quality, tormenting his former club with his pace, trickery and finishing. Oh, the finishing. The first was a masterpiece of both power and precision, rifling a strike into the very top corner after he had been allowed to cut inside from the right. Alisson, arguably Roma’s best player this season, was left helpless as the ball flew past him: this was a feeling he would be getting used to for the rest of the night. The second goal, in its own way, was just as good: Salah timed his run to perfection before delicately lifting the ball over the onrushing Brazilian stopper. Anfield held its breath as it looped up – would it drop in? The colossal roar that followed provided the answer. 

This is far from a one-man team, however: both of the other members of the front three would hit the net before the night was done. It was Sadio Mane who made it three, sending the Liverpool fans into total raptures – he had missed some big opportunities in the first half, but was in the right place to turn home a cross from close range. Firmino, who had registered the assist for both of the Salah goals, then set about getting on the scoresheet himself. His first was almost a carbon copy of Mane’s goal. He showed the awareness to pick up a good position, and reaped his reward with an easy finish. His second, to bring the team’s goal tally up to a staggering five, was a simple header from a Milner corner; Roma looked broken, and could not even master the basics at this point. Incidentally, the assist makes Milner the all-time leading assister for a single Champions League season: this fittingly marks his remarkable renaissance. The injury to Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, so devastating on a personal level for a player just beginning to hit the form of his career, makes it all the more important that Milner can keep up these high standards.

Of course, the game ended on something of a sour note. Lovren, who had been integral to repelling Roma’s early onslaught in the first half, was caught out – a relatively simple ball over the top towards Dzeko was misjudged, and the Bosnian had time to take it down and finish past Karius at the near post. Then came the penalty: Milner was perhaps naïve to have his arm out as he moved to block the ball, but it is nonetheless a harsh interpretation to call it a deliberate handball. In any case, Perotti converted the penalty coolly to give Roma at least a semblance of hope. However, in any other circumstances, would Roma’s chances even be under genuine discussion having lost the first leg by three goals? The combination of the timing of their two goals and their success in overturning a margin of the same size against Barcelona in the last round have made people underplay the enormity of Liverpool’s achievement. There is an almost an attitude that it is ‘only’ three goals, and that somehow Klopp’s men are still very vulnerable going into the second leg. Anything could happen, that goes without saying, but whether the lead is three or five it would take a disaster to throw it away in Rome. The Anfield side are undoubtedly in the ascendency, and firmly so – for this, every single player on the pitch deserves immense credit.

- @JamesMartin013