Sunday, 27 April 2014

Ba Humbug: Mourinho’s Bus Crushes Liverpool

Football is dead, and our title dreams look to be going the same way. Today, Chelsea succeeded in demonstrating that dull, defensive, unimaginative play can yield results. For the first time all season, Liverpool fans were forced to endure 90 minutes of their team being frustrated time and time again by a defence that simply could not be penetrated. Despite being camped in their own penalty area for the vast majority of the game, Chelsea still prevailed as 2-0 victors, courtesy of goals from Ba and Willian.

Right from the outset, it was clear that Mourinho had no intention of switching from his usual strategy. Despite needing a win to keep any distant hopes of the title alive, he named an extremely defensive line-up, and the players’ instructions were clear: don’t leave your own half. Liverpool did their usual; at least they tried to. They came out all guns blazing, but upon arriving on the edge of the opposition area, they realised there was just no way through. Although most of the first half seemed to be being played in and around the Chelsea box, the Reds never looked like breaking the deadlock. Chelsea’s set-up and style of play was frankly repellent, but in fairness to them they executed it very well. Within the first minute they’d started time-wasting: this was reflected in the 3 minutes added on at the end of the half. Irony is a cruel thing- it was in this added time, which was only being played due to Chelsea’s cheating, that the away side pulled ahead. As if this twist of fate wasn’t already too much for Liverpool fans to take, it was the club icon, Steven Gerrard, who was at fault for the goal. He has been the figurehead of this title charge- the leader, the one everybody wants to win it for. It was his mis-control and slip that released Ba clean through on Mignolet. The Senegal striker made no mistake.

The second half was more of the same. About 10 minutes in, in a vain attempt to find a way through the Chelsea wall of defenders, Rodgers took off Lucas for the less-than-fit Daniel Sturridge. It was clear that he wasn’t yet ready to play; at least not in a match of this intensity and magnitude. Uncharacteristically, he failed to make any significant impact to the game. Joe Allen came close on a couple of occasions with speculative long shots, and Sterling had a penalty shout turned down, but in general a goal looked very much elusive. Chelsea forced us to resort to whipping balls into the box, where our lack of physical presence led to the ball being cleared time and time again. In the dying minutes of the game, Chelsea added insult to injury. Everybody was committed forward in a desperate attempt to salvage a point, and the ball broke to, of all people, Fernando Torres. Unchallenged, he ran the length of the pitch. At least he didn’t have the audacity to score against his former club- he squared the ball to Willian, who was left with a tap-in into an empty net.

But where does this result leave Liverpool? Mathematically speaking, the title is now out of our hands. Barring huge wins (we’re talking 6 or 7 nil) against Palace and Newcastle, City will take the league title on goal difference if they win their remaining fixtures. Psychologically speaking it’s a huge blow as well- we will have to show a real ability to bounce back against Palace next week, as anything but a win there will definitely end our dreams of the Premier League title. That said, it’s far from over. We are, after all, still top of the league! City have the game in hand- points in the bag are always better than a game from which points ‘should’ be gained. The pressure is now all on Manchester City- a potentially tough game against Everton still remains, and Aston Villa and West Ham have both proved to be a thorn in bigger teams’ sides at various points throughout this season. Of course it isn’t ideal to have to be relying on others, but, having come this far, we would be foolish to give up. Steven Gerrard will want to atone for his mistake (and atone properly, not just attempt many ridiculous long shots that kill our momentum), so you can be sure that everyone in the Liverpool camp will be hugely fired up for our last two games. Let’s hope this passion, passion that we’ve shown all season, combined with a little bit of luck, is enough to carry home the league title despite today’s setback.
-James Martin

Follow me on Twitter @JamesMartin013

Monday, 14 April 2014

Liverpool 3-2 Man City: We Shall Not Be Moved

 In a game dubbed (perhaps slightly prematurely) by many as the title decider, Liverpool and Manchester City produced an absolute thriller. During the first half it looked like Liverpool could turn it into an utter rout, but City came out very strongly in the second half and made a real game of it. Eventually though, Liverpool prevailed, and they now sit two points clear at the top of the Premier League table with just 4 games to play.

Even 3 hours before kick-off, hordes of Liverpool fans were flocking to Anfield, vying to get a good enough spot to catch a glimpse of the players on their arrival. The stadium complex was full of nervous energy; occasional chants of “we’re going to win the league” broke out, but quickly died away. The importance of the game was evident. Still, despite the tension, the fans (some of whom were lined up all the way down Anfield Road) were able to muster a rousing battle cry when the team finally arrived. The message was clear- we can do this.

In spite of the huge rivalry between Liverpool and City in this years’ race for the title, the two clubs still showed excellent respect towards one another in the emotional Hillsborough tribute prior to the game. Firstly, representatives of Manchester City offered a wreath of blue and red flowers, and then some of the away fans raised a banner that read ‘YNWA96’. The Liverpool fans subsequently applauded the City faithful, and the gratitude towards them was clearly heartfelt. When tragedies such as Hillsborough occur, the whole football community has a duty to put their rivalries to one side and stand united, and that’s exactly what happened in the lead-up to kick-off yesterday. The minutes silence was also impeccably observed by both sets of fans.

After these touching tributes, the animosity between the two clubs returned with a vengeance! City’s attempts to cheer on their team were drowned out by the roar of the Liverpool fans. Some of the aforementioned tension was dissipated almost at once- Liverpool, having made a trademark quick start, were ahead after just 6 minutes! It was scored by Raheem Sterling, who coolly dummied his way round Kompany and Hart before firing home. The elation, tinged with relief, was tangible.

The momentum was well and truly with us now, and it remained with us throughout most of the first half. Coutinho and Sturridge both had chances to score, but it remained at 1-0 until the 26th minute. It was a classic Liverpool corner- Gerrard whipped it in, and Skrtel, as he has done with such regularity this season, met it with his head and fired it past the keeper. City were being absolutely blown away. This might have been something to do with the injury to Yaya Toure early on- without his presence, City were unable to physically overpower the Liverpool midfield. This allowed the reds to play expansive, creative football, which led to chances.

Had Suarez and Sturridge been at their best, the first half would have been ‘vintage Liverpool’. As it was, SAS were misfiring slightly. Neither of them have been on top form in recent games (although Suarez not at his best is still better than most), and against City they really struggled. Sturridge just seemed unable to ever get involved properly, and Suarez, partially due to the constant fouling he was receiving from Demichelis, was also relatively ineffectual. Still, this did serve to show all the doubters that Liverpool are by no means a one-man-team, an accusation that many jealous people have thrown at the club since our acquisition of Suarez.  The team as a whole played well, and as such we totally dominated the team who going into the match were title favourites, without requiring a goal from Suarez or Sturridge.

Sadly, this utter control could not be maintained into the second half. For about 10 minutes Liverpool were able to keep City’s attacks at bay, but eventually, on 57 minutes, they cracked. Some nice interplay by the City forwards combined with some poor defending from Liverpool resulted in David Silva pulling one back for City. After this, Liverpool lost all the
remnants of their previous initiative, and City were all over them. As such, there was a sense of inevitability about the second goal, which came just 5 minutes later. It was a freak goal: Silva’s ball across the middle hit Johnson, and then rolled almost comically past Mignolet at the near post. At the time though, the Liverpool crowd certainly didn’t see the funny side. Groans of despair and anxiety filled the ground. These only increased in intensity when Manuel Pellegrini brought on Sergio Ageuro- the way the game was going, it looked likely that he would work his magic and put City in front. 

Thankfully, at this point, Liverpool showed the spirit and strength of character that is needed in any team who wish to launch a genuine challenge on the title. They dragged themselves slowly back into the game, and though they had to survive defensive scares (Silva’s stretching shot that went just wide of the post from Aguero’s cross was particularly nerve-wracking) they also started to make some attacks of their own again. In the 78th minute, they mounted one such attack. It looked to have fizzled out, but City captain Vincent Kompany scuffed his clearance. It came to Philippe Coutinho, who had already missed two great chances in the first half. This time, he was not wayward. With a powerful first-time drive, he put the ball right in the corner, beyond the reach of Joe Hart. Anfield erupted. Renewed cries of “we’re going to win the league” echoed round the ground, with real belief behind the words. The passion of the fans worked its way onto the pitch, and was picked up by the players. For the remaining 12 minutes, they fought for their life, showing a real hunger and desperation for the title. In stoppage time, Henderson fought a little too hard. He lunged in two-footed to try and get the ball and prevent a City attack. Though he won the ball, the manner in which he went in for it was only ever going to lead to one thing. Clattenburg, who up to that point had been having a howler (Suarez should have had at least two penalties), got this decision right.

As it was so late on it didn’t have any real effect in the short-term; Liverpool held on for what could be a crucial win in the race for the title. Gerrard’s emotion in the team huddle after the game summed up the passion mixed with a sort of desperation that every fan is feeling. We all want this extremely badly, and it’s in our hands, but with 4 games remaining it most certainly won’t be easy. Henderson’s three-match ban will make it no easier. He has been one of our unsung heroes this campaign- his generally excellent tackling, his desire to cover vast distances for the club during matches, and his passing (he has made the 2nd most passes of any player in the Premier League this season) have all been invaluable. Still, we have Allen available to step up, and he is a more than adequate replacement. Alternatively, Lucas could come in to the team for the next three games. He could take over from Gerrard at defensive midfield, and Gerrard could shift forward to fill the place where Henderson would normally be. The fact that we have these two decent options will hopefully mean that we can get the results we need even without Henderson.

The fans certainly believed that we could get the results we need to in the immediate aftermath of the game. Hardly anyone left straight after the final whistle; instead they stayed, and filled the ground with chants of ‘We shall not be moved’. This determined, stubborn attitude is just what the team needs to get themselves over the finish line and do what was unthinkable at the start of the season: win the league title. With Rodgers at the helm, and a team of passionate and technically gifted players out on the pitch, I’m really starting to believe that we really will not be moved.
-James Martin

Follow me on Twitter @JamesMartin013

Sunday, 6 April 2014

West Ham 1-2 Liverpool: Make Us Dream

Well, we got through it. This game against West Ham certainly wasn't good for fans' nerves, but in the end Liverpool pulled through to extend their win streak to an immensely impressive 9 games. The headlines will be dominated by Anthony Taylor, who made two extremely poor decisions that hugely changed the shape of the match. In the end though, all that matters to Liverpool is the three points, who with the win keep the title race in their own hands.

Right from kick-off it was clear that Liverpool weren't going to have it easy. West Ham started off strongly, defending solidly as well as mounting a few promising attacks of their own. The reds still had the lion's share of the chances however, with Sturridge blazing wildly over a couple of times and Suarez chipping an effort onto the bar. The first half was a frustrating, nerve-wracking affair, and the relief was tangible when we finally broke the deadlock through a Gerrard penalty. The captain is a true talisman for our club: his passion and drive (excuse the cliches) is infectious, and you can see his belief rubbing off on the entire squad. If we are going to pull off a sensational Premier League title win then he will be central to it.

Soon after this came Anthony Taylor's first awful decision. Right on the stroke of half time, West Ham won a corner. Mignolet came to claim the ball, but dropped it after being struck in the face by Andy Carroll. Guy Demel subsequently turned it in, but Liverpool were rightly convinced that the goal shouldn't stand. It seemed that the assistant referee shared their conviction- initially, he flagged for a foul on the keeper. Astonishingly though, Taylor, following a conversation with his assistant, over-ruled the decision! Had we gone on to lose points from this game, it would have been a cruel way to lose control of the title race.

Fortunately for us, the referee was to 'make amends' later on in the game. With 20 minutes to go the feeling of nervousness that defined the first half was back, and stronger than ever. It was at this point that we won our second penalty. There was no doubt about the first- Suarez won it by totally out-doing Tomkins, who then handled the ball in an almost identical fashion to Rafael in our game against United. The second was less stonewall: Flanagan burst into the box in hot pursuit of the ball, but Adrian appeared to get there just before him. Replays showed that he did indeed get the first touch on the ball, but he did then grab hold of Flanagan's foot. Either way, the penalty was given, and Gerrard set Liverpool back on the path to ultimate glory with an emphatic finish.

Try as our opponents might, they just can't seem to kill off the feeling of optimism and excitement that has descended upon the club. With only 5 games to go, and safe in the knowledge that victories in all of them will secure us the title that would mean so much, it is a truly amazing time to be a fan of Liverpool FC. Now we have to look to the game that could ultimately decide the destination of the Premier League trophy- Liverpool vs City.
-James Martin
Follow me on Twitter @JamesMartin013

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