Monday, 23 February 2015

Southampton 0-2 Liverpool: Post-Match Thoughts

In a week of upsets that saw Spurs draw against West Ham and United lose to Swansea, Liverpool travelled to St Mary’s knowing that a victory would see them move to within just two points of fourth. Although the team didn’t exactly put in a vintage performance, they came away with the three points they needed – Liverpool now face Manchester City next week with a little less pressure on them, and with the chase for fourth place well and truly on.

A fair few eyebrows were raised when the team news was released – Sakho missed out through injury meaning Lovren started on his return to his former club, Moreno was rested and Sturridge started from the bench as part of the cautious approach to his return. The wisdom of starting Coutinho again was also questioned by many; this questioning didn’t last long! After just three minutes he gave Liverpool the lead, curling the ball perfectly into the top corner off the underside of the bar from 25 yards out. It was a contender for goal of the season – the extra shooting practice he’s been doing is clearly paying off, and he really does seem to be becoming the real deal. That said, the lead wasn’t deserved by any means; Southampton had shown their attacking intent right from the outset, and had a good case for a penalty after just 20 seconds.

The theme of poor refereeing decisions influencing proceedings continued throughout the match. Not long after Liverpool had brilliantly taken the lead, Southampton had a second, better penalty appeal turned down. Joe Allen lunged in to try and dispossess Djuricic, but missed the ball and went crashing into the new Saints midfielder. Kevin Friend, however, waved the strong appeals away. The injustice was partially righted midway through the half – Jose Fonte sent Raheem Sterling crashing to the floor with a clearly reckless challenge. Admittedly he made contact with the ball first, but to call the challenge controlled would be a stretch.

Friend’s reluctance to penalise blatant fouls did have one positive effect: the game was certainly free-flowing, with the play being end-to-end at times. While this was trying on the nerves, it did make for a good spectacle. Liverpool clearly missed Sakho; the defence, who have been extremely solid of late, were an absolute shambles for much of the first half. Simon Mignolet, who has gone from out-of-favour to key asset in the space of a couple of months, made a few vital stops to keep the lead intact. At the other end, Matt Targett was being absolutely tormented by Jordon Ibe. However, the other attacking players were posing less of a threat: Sterling had a very quiet half, Lallana’s sole job seemed to be to shuttle the ball five yards to Ibe, and other than the wonder-goal Coutinho’s impact was very limited. In truth, Liverpool were lucky to reach the break with a lead.

Things settled down a little after the break; the decision to bring Moreno on for Markovic was a key factor in this. Clyne had looked dangerous throughout the first period. This was unsurprising, as Markovic is a right winger and not a left wing back. The whole Liverpool defence seemed to pull themselves together – Skrtel in particular had an excellent game after the shaky start, dominating in the air. Sturridge was introduced midway through the half, and while he didn’t have the game of his life he did improve the team as a whole. His coming on for Lallana seemed to liven up Sterling, whose movement had been uncharacteristically poor prior to this change. It was Sterling who put the game to bed: he played a lovely ball into Moreno after Schneiderlin had given it away cheaply, then capitalised on a slip from Targett to slot past Forster.

The win was far from vintage Liverpool. In places, it was downright poor. However, the key thing is the victory – it means we’re just two points off fourth, and only three away from Arsenal in third. It was also a fifth consecutive away clean sheet, a feat not achieved by the club since 1985. Hopefully we can keep up this excellent defensive form when we host City this weekend: the win at St Mary’s takes a lot of the pressure off what is bound to be a tough game, but a win would obviously be excellent in our hunt for a Champions League spot.
-James Martin

Follow me on Twitter @JamesMartin013

Friday, 20 February 2015

Liverpool 1-0 Besiktas: Post-Match Thoughts

In the opening game of their Europa League campaign, Liverpool got off to winning ways by narrowly beating Turkish side Besiktas. The visitors had their chances on the breakaway – Ba nearly scored a very similar goal to the one he netted at Anfield in Chelsea colours last season but was denied by a great stop from Mignolet – but the reds were largely on top. This didn’t, however, translate into too many clear cut opportunities: it wasn’t until the 85th minute that Liverpool could break the deadlock. The goal came from the spot – after some bickering over who should take it, the Italian showed his supreme composure to dispatch the penalty and give Liverpool a deserved lead going into the away leg.

Many people felt that Balotelli should have been given a place in the starting eleven. In his last two games he had come on and got the winning goal and assist respectively, but Rodgers opted to start him from the bench once again. After scoring the winner yet again in this match as well as putting in an excellent all-round performance after coming on, the manager will be under even more pressure to start him for our crucial game against Southampton on Sunday. The striker has a deadly combination of skill and power; he shields the ball from defenders exquisitely, and seems to be able to either skip past them or win free kicks with ease. I have maintained from the start that, given a proper opportunity to play with a strike partner, Balotelli could definitely still come good for us – his talent is, to my mind, unquestionable. Although the media like to make a big thing of his attitude and will consequently focus on his “stolen” penalty, I actually loved to see him take charge from the spot. He’s undoubtedly the best taker in the team, and his desire to get the winning goal for Liverpool shows his hunger for success with our club. I sincerely hope that Rodgers now gives him a proper run of starts with Sturridge; they provide a lethal combination of pace and power that oppositions simply won’t be able to handle.

I now have to fight my instinct to devote this entire article to how much I love Balotelli and move on – to not mention Jordon Ibe in this match report would, after  all, be nigh on criminal. The youngster was exceptional once again, picking up yet another man of the match award. I will freely admit that I was dubious when Rodgers recalled him; young players need to be managed well and given time to develop properly, and McLaren seemed to be handling him well at Derby. That’s why I’m not manager! The decision has proved inspired: his pace, skill, tenacity and confidence above his years have made him a deadly addition to this Liverpool side. He caused his full back all sorts of problems all evening, and eventually won the penalty off him. He has a scarily bright future if he continues the way he’s going at the moment, and while the main reason for recalling him was likely the Europa League he’s certainly staking his claim to be regularly picked ahead of (the also very talented) Lazar Markovic.

Rodgers will certainly not be complaining about the selection headache he’s being given. The fact that there are so many form players having to vie for a place in the first team shows just how well every single Liverpool player is doing at the moment: even Dejan Lovren has looked competent after coming on in the last couple of games! Admittedly the only real stand-out performers in the Besiktas game were Ibe and Balotelli (Can had a shocker, Henderson tried way too many ambitious long balls and Sturridge appeared to have forgotten how to get his head up), but in general the picture is exceptionally positive. One man who certainly isn’t having to fight for his place any more is Simon Mignolet: his form of late has been better than that of almost any other Premier League keeper. His save when Demba Ba got through one on one was a defining moment of the match, and while it won’t be remembered as such it could well be the save that gets us through to the Europa League last 16. His turnaround in form is, in many ways, surprising. Whilst I have maintained for ages that he is a very talented shot-stopper who will be world class once he improves his claiming of the ball and authority in the box, I certainly didn’t think that he would add these qualities to his game overnight. I’m certainly not complaining about it though, and I’m sure Rodgers isn’t either!

Hopefully the players can all continue to perform on Sunday, when we play a crucial game in our pursuit of fourth place. Southampton currently occupy the final Champions League spot, and if they were to beat us then we would move seven points adrift of them. A win, however, would put us within a point of them; a good result at St Mary’s is imperative if we want to somehow make up for our abysmal start and make this season a success. If we are able to continue our scintillating form then I have no doubt that we can not only get the win, but also finish in fourth or even third place.
-James Martin
Follow me on Twitter @JamesMartin013


Sunday, 15 February 2015

Crystal Palace 1-2 Liverpool: Casting Out the Selhurst Demons (An Exorcise in Patience)

Yesterday’s FA Cup clash saw Liverpool return to a ground that has been a real problem for them in recent times. As well as being the site of a 3-1 defeat earlier in the season, it was also the venue for our capitulation that totally ended our chances of the title last season. As such, it was all the more sweet to get the win that saw us advance into the quarter finals – the team showed excellent character, as Rodgers would say, to come from behind and seal a 2-1 victory.

Despite the narrow margin of victory, Liverpool looked in charge for almost the entire game. After putting on a lot of earlier pressure but failing to convert any of the multiple chances, they went behind to Palace’s first real chance of the game. Dwight Gayle was quick to pounce on the short header of Skrtel; though he was denied by an excellent stop from in-form keeper Simon Mignolet, Frazier Campbell was on hand to slot home on the rebound. From this point onwards Palace created almost nothing. They sat deep and invited pressure, an invitation that Liverpool took up eagerly. The rest of the half was a series of half-chances, with the most clear cut opportunity falling to Adam Lallana. After a nice passage of intricate passing play, he found himself in the box with space to shoot. He hit it well enough, but Speroni was on hand to deny the visitors an equaliser.

The start of the second half marked the start of something that a lot of fans have been craving ever since we got a taste of it at Spurs towards the start of the season: the Sturridge-Balotelli partnership. It certainly didn’t disappoint; within 15 minutes of kick-off, Sturridge had bagged the equaliser and Balotelli had assisted what turned out to be the winning goal. The Italian, as predicted, looked a different player with a strike partner – his movement, so often criticised, was good. He also looked very dangerous with the ball at his feet; his close control and trickery enabled him to win the free kick that Liverpool’s second goal came from. Hopefully Rodgers will give this partnership a chance to flourish – both strikers are undoubtedly very talented, and if Sturridge can draw the best out of Balotelli then we will have a deadly duo on our hands.

The strikers weren’t the only positive of the half. Another highlight was the level of control the team had. With about twenty minutes to go they eased off the gas going forward a little, but rather than sitting much too deep and allowing the opposition to pile on pressure as usual, they played a very effective possession game. Despite being the home team, it was Palace who were being forced to do all the chasing of the ball, and most of the time they were just chasing shadows. For this, Joe Allen must take some credit. While he may not be living up to the “Welsh Xavi” tag that Rodgers somewhat unwisely placed upon him, his composure on the ball and excellent technical passing definitely played a part in allowing Liverpool to control the game. He also showed another element to his game, one very rarely seen: at 1-0 down his ferocious half volley was inches away from finding the corner.

So where does this result leave us in terms of our cup chances? In short, this is our best chance in years of winning the thing. Chelsea and Manchester City have both already been knocked out, meaning the only other “big” teams left in the tournament are Arsenal and United, who both play today. We are now in the quarter finals – the draw takes place on Monday evening, and if Liverpool can keep up the sort of form they’re in currently then they can be confident of a result whoever they get drawn against.
-James Martin

Follow me on Twitter @JamesMartin013

Wednesday, 11 February 2015

Seeing is Believing: Liverpool 3-2 Spurs

As has been the trend in modern times, Liverpool vs Spurs once again treated us to a multitude of goals. The reds have developed a nice habit of comfortably cruising past Tottenham of late, but that was never going to happen in this match – as the two sides on the best form in the league, this was always going to be a cracker. It did not disappoint; Spurs came back from behind twice but were eventually beaten by a goal from Mario Balotelli of all people.

The whole game felt like it had been scripted for maximum entertainment value. Right from the off the game had an exceptionally high tempo to it, with both teams eager to press the ball and stop their opponents from gaining the upper hand. Liverpool looked the better of the two sides though; their pace on the break made the side look very dangerous indeed, and chances were coming thick and fast thanks to multiple sloppy passes from Spurs in dangerous areas. 15 minutes in the reds opened the scoring – Lazar Markovic received the ball after Daniel Sturridge had done well to hold it up, then fired across Lloris (who should probably have done better) to get his first Anfield goal. Two excellent chances for Sturridge followed soon after, but the striker looked understandably rusty and the hosts failed to extend their lead. Barely 10 minutes after the Markovic goal it was level again; Harry Kane decided to get his obligatory goal out of the way nice and early, slamming it through Mignolet’s legs.

The rest of the first half continued in much the same vein – both teams looked properly up for it, and the game was very much end to end. However, it wasn’t until eight minutes into the second half that Liverpool struck again. It was from the penalty spot: Gerrard just managed to squeeze it into the corner beyond Lloris after Sturridge had been brought down by a clumsy challenge from Danny Rose. Phil Dowd, who had an awful game, did his best to deny us the pretty blatant penalty kick – fortunately the assistant was competent, and flagged for the foul. Sadly the same cannot be said of the other linesman, who’s error cost us a goal just nine minutes later. The first mistake came from Phil Dowd; Gerrard won the ball cleanly and fairly, but the referee blew for a foul. The resulting
free kick was taken brilliantly by Eriksen, but the Dane was denied by an excellent save from Mignolet, who had a brilliant game. The ball then fell to Kane, who was standing in an offside position – this was missed by the assistant referee, and the subsequent Dembele goal stood.

Credit must go to Rodgers for the response to this second equaliser. His three switches were an unmitigated success. Firstly, Gerrard (who had a slight hamstring issue) was taken off for Lovren, allowing Can to move into midfield. The German was already a man of the match contender for his performance in the back three, but was arguably even better in his preferred role in the centre of the park. After this, with 15 minutes to play, Sturridge – who still isn’t quite ready for a full 90 – was replaced by Mario Balotelli. This change was quickly followed by a tactical switch that saw Markovic make way for Lallana. It was Balotelli and Lallana who combined for the winning goal: with seven minutes to play, Ibe showed immense skill to beat his man and then flick it into Lallana. The ex-Southampton man then drilled it across the box with excellent precision, and then the fairytale moment that has been threatening to happen for so long finally came to fruition. Balotelli made a nice run in behind his man, and coolly guided the ball into the far corner of the net from close range. What a moment.

The result is great for Liverpool, as it sees us move to within a point of Tottenham and just three points of fourth place (although United and Southampton wins tonight would increase that to a gap of five). However, just as pleasing as the result was the performance. Everyone played well, but there are a few main positives that I want to highlight. The first is the exceptional performance of Jordon Ibe – despite being just 19, I voted him my man of the match for the second game running. He terrorised Danny Rose throughout the match, and showed great positivity with his multiple cut-ins and direct runs. The fact that his performances are good enough to prompt people to draw comparisons with Sterling says it all; whether or not he does have equal or better potential to Sterling is of course debatable, but he certainly has a very bright future ahead of him. The second positive was the performance of another young player, Emre Can. He made a couple of vital blocks and tackles while in defence, and then showed his exceptional power and pace with some bursting runs from midfield. He was voted man of the match by LFC fans on Twitter. For me, he’s the most exciting of our summer signings – he has all the hallmarks of a potentially special player. Thirdly, Sturridge is closing in on a full 90 minutes; although he wasn’t at his sparkling best in this game, he still managed to get two assists. If you can do that on an off day, that pretty much says it all. Fourthly, Balotelli! He’s finally got his first Premier League goal for Liverpool, and at a wonderful time. Hopefully that will give him confidence, and also give Rodgers the motivation to reintroduce him to the team regularly – I’d love to see him given a chance up top with Sturridge. Fifth, the first Anfield goal for Markovic: he’s another summer signing with huge potential, and hopefully he can kick on having scored his first home goal against one of the league’s best keepers. Finally, Mignolet deserves a special mention. I’ve been defending him all season – although he had a definite dip in form, he was never the root of our problems – but now he doesn’t need me to defend him. He’s drawing praise from even his most ardent of critics by not only continuing to show off his excellent shot stopping abilities, but also suddenly showing confidence and authority when claiming crosses. It’s a big claim, but I think he’s been one of the league’s best goalkeepers since Christmas.

To sum up, this win is huge for Liverpool Football Club. As well as properly putting ourselves into the intensely close race for a top four spot, the multiple amazing individual performances were extremely encouraging. Even if we do miss out on fourth place this season (which, for the record, I don’t think will happen), we’re certainly building a formidable outfit for the near future. Don’t be surprised to see us back competing for the title next season – for now, let’s get that Champions League spot.
-James Martin
Follow me on Twitter @JamesMartin013