Saturday, 21 December 2019

Liverpool, champions of the world

World champions: Liverpool lift the Club World Cup (BBC screenshot)

They did it the hard way, but after 120 minutes of hard work Liverpool were crowned world champions in Doha. A stubborn Flamengo side and some questionable officiating were ultimately not enough to thwart one of the greatest club sides ever assembled, who further secured their legacy by adding another trophy to an ever-expanding collection.

The Premier League leaders were made to fight for it, but they have shown time and time again that they are more than willing to do so. The official status as the best on the planet is really only telling people what they already knew: this team is something special.

The victory delivers the first Club World Cup in Liverpool’s storied history. Anfield has seen some great sides over the years, but now for the first time they can sing of ‘the best football team in the world’ backed up by silverware.

They should have been 1-0 up within the opening minute. A simple chip over the top found Roberto Firmino clear of the back line, but he could not cope with an awkward bounce and fired over the top under pressure from the recovering centre-half. The early barrage did not relent, as Liverpool continued to exploit the space in behind – minutes later Klopp’s side were in again, this time with Salah, but Naby Keita also struck over from the Egyptian’s pull-back.

Memories of the 2005 final were conjured up as the minutes ticked by without a goal. The champions of Europe continued to dominate, but rather than a Rogerio Ceni masterclass it was profligate finishing keeping the scores level. There was some solace in the fact that Gabriel ‘Gabigol’ Barbosa was being completely stifled, but with red shirts flooding forward routinely there were creeping fears that one counter-attack could make things extremely uncomfortable.

These doubts were hardly assuaged by two near-misses from Bruno Henrique, who repeatedly found joy down Trent Alexander-Arnold’s flank. One of these opportunities came from a poor piece of distribution from Alisson, providing a stark demonstration of how one lapse in concentration could swing the game. Indeed, as the half progressed the Brazilian side started to move into the ascendency – a wildly skewed clearance from the usually imperious Virgil van Dijk summed up the loss of composure.

A series of soft free-kicks given by the referee did not help Liverpool’s attempts to regain their early rhythm, but the officials cannot be blamed for the sloppy passes and naïve defending that dogged Liverpool’s game throughout much of the first period. Flamengo looked sharper and hungrier: their semi-final did take place earlier, but excuses and mitigation is not what wins teams the title of world champions. This was a long way from Liverpool at its devastating best.

A strong start to the second half was needed. The Premier League leaders obliged, but in a cruel reflection of the first half Firmino once again failed to convert from close range. This time he was tantalisingly close, crashing his strike against the inside of the post and away. The challenge lay in sustaining the pressure – Salah flashed one wide moments later, offering more encouragement to those who had travelled from Merseyside.

Instead of the breakthrough, there came a creeping sense of déjà vu. Following the two big chances for Liverpool to take the lead, Flamengo found their feet – it was only a good Alisson save that prevented Gabigol from opening the scoring. This earned the former Internacional stopper even more jeers from the numerous fans who had made the pilgrimage from Rio de Janeiro.

The hour mark came and went without a goal. Extra-time would not have been high on Klopp’s Christmas list, with the festive schedule already packed – the German was visibly frustrated on the touchline as his side toiled. Nonetheless, an extra thirty minutes looked increasingly likely as both sides struggled to create. The problems were intensified by a nasty injury to Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, forced off after a hefty blow to his ankle.

Captain Jordan Henderson nearly averted the extra period with a lovely strike from long distance, but he was denied hero status by a smart diving save. It then looked as though Salah would be handed the chance to win it from the spot after Mane broke clear and went down under the challenge from Rafinha. However, a lengthy VAR check - purportedly over whether the incident occurred inside or outside the box - somehow contrived to give no foul at all. The match continued into extra time.

By this point proceedings were threatening to descend into farce, as the Brazilians tried everything to hold on. The theatrics and gamesmanship, present throughout the 90 minutes, were turned up to a new level: the highlight was undoubtedly Gabigol departing on a stretcher with cramp.

But this Liverpool side did not lift the European Cup and reach the summit of the Premier League without being able to fight to the bitter end. In the 99th minute, the deadlock was finally broken. Fittingly, it was Firmino who found the net at the third time of asking. Mane played him through after a defence-splitting pass from Henderson, and he showed the composure to sit the goalkeeper down and fire it into the unguarded net.

The rest of the match passed as an exercise in game management. Liverpool showed the maturity that has been their biggest area of improvement in recent seasons, keeping chances to a minimum. Even the best sides are subject to some jitters in the last minutes of a final, and hearts were in mouths when Lincoln skied a chance from a great position, but Klopp’s side saw it out to earn the crown of world champions.

It was not the finest game that this team of stars has played, but it was perhaps the most fitting way to reach the top of the world. There is class and brilliance, but there is resilience and guile in equal measure. It is this which separates them from even the great sides of old, none of whom ever triumphed on this stage: it may well be the same qualities which see the Premier League drought ended come the end of the season.

Friday, 13 December 2019

A-Z of the 2000s: Fernando Torres

This piece was originally published as part of a series on These Football Times:

A young Torres at Atletico

Few names evoke the first footballing decade of the millennium more than Fernando Torres. He fits the 2000s brief irresistibly, graduating to Atletico Madrid’s first team in 2001 and peaking at Anfield prior to his 2011 departure. His subsequent move to Chelsea, short-lived stint at AC Milan, emotional return to Atletico and intriguing swansong in Japan are more than mere footnotes in his remarkable career, but history will remember Torres as the dominant forward he was in the 2000s.

Torres is nicknamed El Nino: The Kid. Now 35, his retirement announced, the epithet remains – he is immortalised as the fresh-faced talent who made his way through the Atletico Madrid youth system. Born in Fuenlabrada, Torres made the short journey into the capital in 1995 having scored fifty-five league goals for youth side Rayo 13. He had no hesitation when Atletico came calling, having been imbibed with his grandfather’s love for the Rojiblancos.

Success in the academy followed, and it became increasingly clear to the club that they might have somebody special on their hands. It was of course not yet known that he would go on to define an era, but those who make it their business to do so were certainly keeping a watchful eye on his progress. Just a year after joining Atletico he was the subject of a failed raid by their city rivals, Real Madrid. In 1998, he triumphed in the prestigious Nike Cup, and was subsequently voted the best player in Europe in his age group – the Spaniard is separated from Cristiano Ronaldo by less than a year, but it was not the Sporting Lisbon talent who was making the biggest waves.

As a result of his ever-rising stock, Torres had a release clause set at three million euros before he had even turned sixteen. This was included in his first professional contract, signed in 1999. The age of El Nino was about to dawn.

It was apparent by the turn of the century that Torres was ready to move on from youth football. A cracked shinbone briefly halted his meteoric rise, but he was nonetheless handed his senior club debut before the end of the 2000/01 season amidst a clamour amongst fans to see the boy who had been setting the academy alight. He showed no signs of slowing down: his first senior goal followed just a week after his first appearance. Anyone who had not been paying him attention was forced to do so in the summer of 2001 - Torres travelled to the u16s European Championships with Spain, where it became abundantly clear that The Kid had grown up. He departed a victor, having scored a tournament-high seven goals, including the winning strike in the final against France. Unsurprisingly, he was named as the best player of the tournament.

He returned to the Estadio Vicente Calderon as a bona fide member of the first-team setup. His goal output finally took something of a dip, the first indication that Torres might actually be human, but the six league goals paint an incomplete picture. The integration into the senior side was a relatively smooth one: he featured 36 times on the way to Atletico’s return to La Liga. His first goal, against Levante, was a vivid indication that Torres’ talents translated to the senior tier; an audacious lob from the edge of the box gave fans a taste of the brilliance to which they would grow accustomed. Atletico Madrid were promoted as champions.

Torres duly arrived in La Liga in the summer of 2002 having established himself as a mainstay in Atletico Madrid’s starting eleven. The goals that had briefly been in short supply came flooding back: El Nino netted thirteen times in the Spanish top flight, making him the club’s top scorer and helping to guide Atletico to an 11th-place finish. By the end of the next campaign, he was the third-top scorer in the whole league – his contributions dragged the Rojiblancos to an impressive 7th place. Still a teenager, he was rewarded with the captain’s armband.

This was not the Atletico Madrid that modern fans would recognise. Torres was made captain of a ship in disarray, and year after year was called upon to steady it. The club’s own sporting director, Jesús García Pitarch, admitted shortly before the striker departed that it was “ridiculous” that he was still there. There was an undeniable truth in this, and it was hardly surprising that Torres began to grow weary with carrying his boyhood club: he contributed the most goals in 2004/5, just as he had done in the preceding two campaigns. And then he did the same the next season. And the next. In total, by the summer of 2007, he had amassed 75 goals in 173 top flight games and almost single-handedly kept Atletico in La Liga. It is not unreasonable to suggest that the club would never have grown into the powerhouse it is today were it not for the contributions of Fernando Torres.

The favourite son could not stay at home forever. Torres had been repeatedly linked with a move to England from almost as soon as he reached Atletico’s first team, but until this point the captaincy had weighed heavily enough on him to keep him anchored. It was the words written on the inside of that armband that ultimately provided the clue to his next destination: You’ll Never Walk Alone.

Torres trains for Liverpool
In fact, the link to Liverpool was little more than incidental – Torres and a group of friends had simply liked the motto when they heard it and chosen to adopt it as their own, and while the forward was unwilling to get the sentiment tattooed, he chose to carry it with him in another form. Nobody was even meant to see it, but the armband came loose one game. From this moment the move seemed almost like fate.

On a more mundane level, it was Rafael Benitez rather than ethereal forces that brought Torres to Merseyside. The manager broke Liverpool’s transfer record to unite with his fellow Spaniard, reportedly agreeing to a fee in the region of £25 million. Any doubters were quickly silenced: El Nino, now in his floppy-haired phase, was reaching his purest form.

No longer tasked with carrying the entire hopes of a football club, Torres played with a newfound freedom at Liverpool. Equally, Steven Gerrard was palpably relieved at having someone with whom he could share his own burden – the two struck up an immediate chemistry. Torres was suddenly receiving the kind of service he had never before experienced, and he thrived off it. It only took until his home debut to get off the mark: Chelsea got their first glimpse of a man who would go on to torment them, who they could only eventually stop by buying him. Gerrard picked him out, he breezed beyond Tal Ben Haim and slotted it away. Simple. Ruthless.

Torres continued in this vein throughout the campaign. Beyond the adoring walls of the Calderon there had always been lingering doubts in Spain about whether he really had the clinical touch required of an elite striker, but for those keeping an eye on his progress in England these concerns were being emphatically allayed. Torres plundered 24 league goals in his debut season, chipping in with four assists for good measure. He also contributed a hattrick in his only League Cup appearance, and notched six goals on the way to the Champions League semi-finals. The sheer variety of these goals was almost as impressive as the number - he was already achieving the kind of hero status he had earned at Atletico.

The ultimate vindication came at Euro 2008. The countrymen who had questioned him, had viewed him as a fun but frustrating forward, bowed down in adulation as he scored the goal that crowned the start of Spain’s international dominance. As Jens Lehman came rushing out he could only watch on in horror as Torres stole in before him, easing Phillip Lahm away before producing a deft chip into the corner for the only goal of the final. The strength, the composure, the delicacy: only occasionally does a forward boast such a complete skill set, and one who can excel in all these qualities at the biggest moments is rarer still.

Torres duly returned to Liverpool as a European champion, having finally earned universal recognition as one of the game’s best strikers. The Anfield crowd were well and truly besotted – nobody ever thought that there could one day be a number 9 to surpass Robbie Fowler, a man so good he was simply nicknamed ‘God’, but this felt like the second coming. In his first game back, he fired one in from well outside the box. After an injury-enforced interlude, he returned to sink Everton with a brace in the Merseyside derby. Scousers were growing their hair out. A proliferation of dogs named ‘Nando’ could be found throughout the city. He was the focus of a Nike advert that encapsulated the extent to which he had captured Liverpool hearts and minds. This was someone special, and everyone watching him knew it.

Sadly, the injuries were soon to start mounting up. His hamstring issue recurred and proved troublesome for much of the 2008/09 campaign, such that he only managed 24 appearances in the league. He still found time to score a decisive brace against Chelsea, and produce an iconic ‘five times’ celebration after scoring in a 4-1 victory over Manchester United, but as the decade came to a close it began to become apparent that Torres was slowly descending from his dizzying peak.

Even injury-plagued, though, he was able to make the PFA Team of the Year for a second consecutive season. In the last match of the campaign he made it fifty Liverpool goals in all competitions since joining, a landmark reached even more quickly than Fowler had managed. He marked the occasion with a bullet header, generating improbable power from an awkward position to send the ball flying into the top corner. Head, feet, it did not matter: when he made it to the pitch, he would take his chances.

Eighteen league goals followed in 2009/10: this was once again a return of almost a goal a game, as the season would ultimately end for Torres in April after a knee issue required surgery. By this point Liverpool were descending into farce on par with the sort that Torres had left behind at Atletico, and he once again found himself a shining light in a team largely bereft of direction. He had left his homeland craving titles, and they were looking ever more distant.

An eventual move was thus almost inevitable, although this did not prevent the manner of the departure breaking Liverpool hearts. Chelsea parted with £50 million to acquire their old foe on a dramatic January deadline day in 2011, but in truth the London club never really received the world-beater they thought they had signed. It was little surprise that Torres’ body began to betray him after close to a decade of carrying his sides: the signs had been there while he was still at Liverpool, and it was only ever a shadow of El Nino that pulled on a Chelsea shirt.

He did at least gain the titles that had for so long eluded him – personal triumph was traded for European glory. These accolades were no less than his career warranted, even if he was not pivotal in guiding Chelsea to the successes. Factoring in later silverware from his return to Atletico, his honours list is now an extensive one: Champions League winner, two-time Europa League champion and FA Cup victor reads very nicely alongside the title of European and World champion.

It is the period where his domestic trophy cabinet remained barren, however, for which he will principally be remembered. The Torres of the 2000s may not always have been blessed with world class teammates, but he was good enough to win the hearts of two cities - and eventually a nation.  

Friday, 1 November 2019

Liverpool 5-5 Arsenal (5-4 on penalties)

Curtis Jones celebrates his moment
of Kop glory (Source:

A youthful-looking Liverpool team produced a hugely entertaining and faintly ridiculous tie against a typically chaotic Arsenal, eventually emerging victorious on penalties after 18-year-old Curtis Jones kept his nerve from the spot.

Both defences looked out of their depth in a remarkably open encounter
that at times looked set to threaten Arsenal’s own record for the number of goals in a League Cup game. Klopp’s side could at least plead their extreme youth in mitigation, but their opponents will be scrambling for excuses after being matched step for step by an outrageously determined home side, who sent the game to penalties with a last-gasp Divock Origi equaliser.

The casual observer would have been forgiven for mistaking this for an exhibition match, but in fact there was a place in the quarter-finals at stake. Nonetheless the Liverpool manager turned to his youngsters, a tactic to which supporters have grown accustomed in this competition. There was a debut for Welsh defender Neco Williams, who was joined in defence by 17-year-old summer acquisition Sepp van den Berg.

The deadlock was broken after just six minutes in remarkably straightforward fashion. A simple ball from Williams took Joe Willock out of the equation entirely, leaving Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain in acres of space. Sead Kolasinac scrambled across towards the former Arsenal man, but this just left more room in the middle: Shkodran Mustafi produced a desperate dive to try and deny the waiting Rhian Brewster, but could only succeed in turning the ball into his own net.

It was Arsenal rather than the hosts that looked like the side lacking experience in these opening exchanges. Unai Emery’s side left gaping holes when pressed by Liverpool’s hungry attack. They were in again minutes later when Adam Lallana carved open the defence with a lofted pass – only a poor touch from Oxlade-Chamberlain prevented a second goal.

The visitors, however, struck next. The first signs of naivety in the Liverpool back line were exploited, as they remained far too static and allowed Lucas Torreira to ghost in and score after a fine Caoimhín Kelleher save. Replays showed that the Uruguayan was in fact offside, but there was no VAR in operation to bail out the shoddy defensive work.

The goal allowed Arsenal to grow in confidence, and as increasing pressure was applied to Liverpool’s defence the inexperience became more and more apparent. Gabriel Martinelli turned the game on its head in the 26th minute, making it 2-1 after Kelleher could only palm the ball into his path. There was again too much passivity among the ranks as the initial square pass came in, and the Irish stopper should have done better when van den Berg deflected the ball towards him.

It was 3-1 by the 36th minute.  Another individual error was punished by an increasingly ruthless Arsenal side – 16-year-old Harvey Elliott, who became the second-youngest player ever to start for Liverpool in last round’s victory over MK Dons, played a blind pass that Ainsley Maitland-Niles cut out easily. It was then a simple task of passing across the box to Martinelli, who was on hand to tap in his second of the game.

Roles were reversed in the 42nd minute, when Martinelli clipped Elliott while back defending a corner. The youngster is obviously raw, but showed his talent with a clever change of pace to win the penalty, which James Milner converted without fuss.

There was still time for glorious chances to be spurned by both Martinelli and Divock Origi in a frenetic end to the first half.

The break did little to calm things down. Brewster nearly nicked in behind Mustafi minutes after the restart before Bukayo Saka got in a couple of sighters for Arsenal. In the 54th minute the away side made it 4-2, in a moment of contrasting fortunes for two of the more experienced players: James Milner produced an uncharacteristically loose pass inside his own box, and Mesut Ozil kept the ball in play with a delightful flick. This allowed Maitland-Niles to convert into an empty net, Kelleher having been left in no-man’s land by the initial misplaced ball.

In any other game that might have settled it, but in a match where defences were well and truly second-best there were more twists to come. Less than five minutes had passed before Oxlade-Chamberlain reduced the deficit once more, producing a stunning swerving strike to beat Emiliano Martinez. The ball sat up invitingly and he met it emphatically on the bounce to put one over on his old club.

With 61 minutes on the clock Divock Origi stepped up to level the game. He produced a wonderful Cruyff turn to beat his man before firing beyond Martinez in front of The Kop. This was met with a huge roar from a crowd that seemed almost as bemused as they were impressed: it was a rare outing for the chaotically high-pressing but wide-open Liverpool that has been largely banished at senior level since the arrivals of Virgil van Dijk and Fabinho.

The competition for goal of the game intensified further when Willock got involved in the 70th minute. He was left with too much space on the edge of the box and clattered the ball into the top corner beyond a helpless Kelleher, changing the complexion of the game once more.

This looked to have finally clinched it, but there was yet more madness to come. Origi added to his impressively growing collection of iconic moments, meeting a great cross from Williams to acrobatically convert a dramatic 94th-minute equaliser.

This sent it to penalties. There were remarkably few nerves on display given the youth of the players stepping up on both sides, and ultimately the only slip-up came from one of the more senior squad members. Dani Ceballos, a second-half substitute for Arsenal, saw his effort turned away by Kelleher in a moment that the keeper is bound to savour for a long time. Academy product Curtis Jones then made indelible memories of his own, wrapping things up by netting the winning penalty into the corner.

It is hard to draw any meaningful conclusions from such an utterly absurd game, but it was fitting that on a night when VAR was conspicuous by its absence we witnessed footballing entertainment in its purest form.

Thursday, 26 September 2019

When Ireland Played as One

To this day, England’s record victory stands at 13-0. The rout was achieved in February 1882, against an opponent playing its first ever international fixture: The Irish National Football Team. Even following the division of Ireland in 1920, this united team would continue in some guise for another three decades.

The pre-partition side was only the fourth ever national team to be formed, following in the wake of England, Scotland and Wales. The fledgling state of the international scene meant that opponents were limited, with Ireland exclusively competing against the Home Nations for the majority of its existence. The game was also still in its infancy domestically, particularly when compared with the flourishing leagues of England and Scotland, so the national side had to be creative.

A recreation ground in County Cork, circa 1900

Ireland turned to youth. Following the 13-0 drubbing in their first match, the team got off the mark in their next fixture against Wales courtesy of a player who remains the youngest ever goal-scorer for an Irish side of any description. Samuel Johnston bagged an equaliser at Wrexham’s Racecourse Ground at the age of just 15 years and 160 days: in the intervening 137 years of international football, there have only been two younger goal-scorers.

The goal did not prove significant in the context of the match, as Wales went on to win 7-1, but this innovative spirit would eventually prompt a change in Ireland’s fortunes. They had to endure a galling run of 14 defeats and a draw, including a demolition in the inaugural British Home Championships in 1884, but this was a team still finding its feet. The first win finally came in 1887, with a 4-1 triumph over Wales in Belfast. Within the next few years, and at the 13th attempt, Ireland avoided defeat to England for the first time. In a bid to build on this burgeoning success, the Irish National side took a bold step.

In 1897, for the first time ever, a coach took charge of a national team. Ireland turned to Billy Crone, a former defender who had played twelve times for the national side in its earliest days, to oversee a meeting with England. It did not pay immediate dividends, with Ireland suffering a 6-0 defeat, but in the next game Crone presided over a 4-3 triumph against Wales. A defeat to Scotland followed, meaning the national side once again propped up the Home Championship standings, but the appointment of a national manager some fifty-seven years before England or Scotland followed suit undoubtedly contributed to the Irish National Team becoming more competitive.

Further radical steps followed. In 1899, the IFA lifted the restriction on selecting players not based in the domestic leagues, thus opening up a wider talent pool for selection. Just four years later, they had broken the duopoly on the British Home Championship: up to this point only England and Scotland had triumphed, but with a manager and English-based players at their disposal the Irish were able to force a three-way tie. Much of this can of course be attributed to the lack of a goal difference rule at the time, but it was nevertheless still a notable achievement.

The pinnacle of the Irish National Football Team, however, came eleven years later. In the last British Home Championships before the First World War, Ireland – managed by Hugh McAteer - upset the odds to win the tournament outright. England, who they had only defeated for the first time the previous year, were brushed aside 3-0. A brace from Billy Gillespie then secured a 2-1 win over Wales: this would not have been possible prior to the IFA reforms at the turn of the century, with Gillespie playing his club football in England for Sheffield United. A 1-1 draw with Scotland then confirmed Ireland’s status as champions, something that would have been unthinkable just a few years previously.

It was a cruel twist of fate that this would be Ireland’s last international fixture for five years. The outbreak of war undid much of the national team’s progress, and in the Home Championships immediately following the end of the conflict they finished bottom. They suffered the same fate in the 1919-20 iteration of the competition, despite only falling to one defeat: this would be the last time a sole and undisputed all-Ireland side would compete together.

1920 saw the passing of The Government of Ireland Act. This followed bitter fighting between the British and the Irish Republican forces in the south – while the legislation initially saw both parts of the island remain under British control, republicans had already gone about establishing a parliament and assembling a functioning state. The Anglo-Irish Agreement of 1921 duly provided for the official establishment of the Irish Free State. In fact, Northern Ireland were included in this arrangement, but were provided with an opt-out: this they exercised, and in 1922 Ireland became an island divided.

Almost in parallel to the political developments, the FAI emerged as football’s governing body in the south a year prior to the split becoming official. It had gained official recognition as the association representing the Free State by 1923; the sectarian divisions that pervaded so many aspects of life in Ireland had reached football, and there was now a team for the north and a team for the south. 

Even so, there was far from complete segregation in the early years of the competing federations. Players would routinely play for both national sides: the IFA in particular continued to select on an all-Ireland basis, and there was generally little reluctance from those in the Republic to accept a call-up. This was starkly highlighted in September 1946, when England played both teams in the same week: the IFA ignored a request to only pick players from its own jurisdiction, and two men consequently featured against the English in both fixtures in the space of three days.

This willingness to turn out for both national sides was a rare display of unity at a time when cultural divisions were generally only deepening. It showed, perhaps, that at a human level there were far more similarities than differences amongst the people of the island of Ireland. Nonetheless, from a purely sporting perspective, the situation was unsustainable. 1949/50 saw both sides enter qualifying for the World Cup: The Republic played in a group with Sweden and Finland, while Northern Ireland sought to gain qualification through the Home Championship. Ultimately neither country made it to Brazil, so the two teams did not meet, but the same players representing multiple countries in a single World Cup campaign was obviously problematic.

It was clear that such a situation could cause far more major problems in the future. Furthermore, the IFA’s repeated selection of what was essentially a continuation of the all-Ireland team engendered resentment from the FAI, if not the players – they questioned why it should be Northern Ireland who carried the gauntlet for the whole island. A rule was duly introduced by the Republic that effectively prohibited players from turning out for the IFA-run side, and with this the all-Ireland side truly came to an end.

The elusive question of Irish identity would of course go on to cause far deeper divisions, and it was to produce one more problem in the footballing context. In the years following the split, both national teams competed under the name Ireland – when players were moving freely between the two this was an oddity more than a significant issue, but with the two teams entering the same tournaments with different players at their disposal it became imperative to differentiate them.

FIFA’s solution was to prohibit either team from calling themselves Ireland. Both nations objected, but perhaps surprisingly it was Northern Ireland who most stubbornly clung to the name. Again, that both countries felt so fiercely Irish is evidence of a common thread transcending all of the various differences: as late as the 1970s the North continued to defy FIFA through use of the name Ireland on match programmes and other official literature. This decade saw a significant shift, however, and the IFA abruptly shed the ‘Ireland’ moniker. Save for Northern Ireland’s vaguely reminiscent emblem, the last vestiges of the all-Ireland team were gone.

Both sides have gone on to experience their own various highs and lows as independent footballing nations, but always the nagging question remains of what could be achieved if they were to unite. The political question remains fraught, but sport has a unique way of bridging the gaps: if the early days of the all-Irish IFA team did not prove this, the current rugby union setup certainly does. The time may not be right for such a move, and ultimately it is something that can only be achieved with a significant appetite from both of the national associations, but 106 years on from Ireland’s last tournament triumph in the Home Championships it certainly provides something to think about.

Sunday, 15 September 2019

Liverpool 3-1 Newcastle: Reds win again at Anfield

Jurgen Klopp sprung a surprise in attack
Liverpool showed impressive resilience to come from behind and beat Newcastle, stretching their unbeaten run at Anfield to a remarkable 43 games.

Klopp opted to start without Roberto Firmino, who had played in Brazil’s defeat to Peru on Wednesday. The German likely also had Tuesday’s trip to Napoli in mind, but with Liverpool and Manchester City having already broken clear of the rest of the pack it is apparent that every point will count in the league.

Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, making his second start of the season, was duly tasked with using his midfield base to provide some of the penetration usually offered by the Brazilian. This was noticeably lacking in the opening exchanges, however, and with just eight minutes on the clock Jetro Wilems exploded past a lacklustre Liverpool defence and fired beyond Adrian.

Liverpool’s immediate response was a good spell of possession, but they were always expected to see the lion’s share of the ball against a Newcastle team largely content to sit deep. Steve Bruce’s men limited the European champions to half-chances for the next fifteen minutes, with Salah and Mane largely anonymous despite repeatedly switching positions in an attempt to unsettle the back line.

With 23 minutes on the clock Origi was presented with a reasonable chance to equalise, but could not connect properly with his header. Another aerial dual caused controversy moments later, when Jamaal Lascelles looked for all the world to have dragged Joel Matip down by the neck, but Andre Marriner waved away the protests.

Sadio Mane then produced the perfect response to this setback, making devastating use of his first real opportunity. He received Robertson’s pass before curling the ball delightfully into the top right corner to level things up.

This sparked the Liverpool team into life. The passes and movement came with renewed pace and fluidity, and Newcastle’s back line were caused particular problems by the marauding runs of the full-backs. This momentum could have been arrested when Divock Origi was forced off through injury with ten minutes left to play in the half, but Firmino immediately got to grips with the pace of the game following his shorter-than-expected break.

He played a delightfully-weighted pass into the path of Sadio Mane with his first real involvement since his introduction, and the Senegalese doubled his tally after nicking in ahead of a sluggish Martin Dubravka. Liverpool went in with the lead at half time.

Newcastle again unsettled the hosts at the start of the second period, but this time Klopp’s men regained control more quickly. Gini Wijnaldum went close to an exceptional goal against his former team, controlling Robertson’s pass and unleashing a looping volley that went just over.

The game then quietened down for a time, although Firmino continued to look very lively. Only a good save from Dubravka prevented Andy Robertson from converting a clever chipped pass from the Brazilian on 62 minutes; he tried a shot himself shortly afterwards, but the Slovakian stopper again saved with his legs.

Firmino eventually got his second assist with twenty minutes to play, doing so in sublime style. His disguised flick into the path of Mohamed Salah was inspired, and the forward did not need a second invitation. He placed it firmly beyond Dubravka, putting the game to bed.

The closing stages were something of a procession as a result, although Liverpool did have a fourth chalked off after Firmino was caught narrowly offside before he squared it to Mane. Xherdan Shaqiri came on for the final ten minutes: the lesser-spotted Swiss attacker sacrificed international duty in order to focus on his club commitments over the international break, and will be hopeful of putting some pressure on the regular starters as the fixture congestion increases.

The busy winter schedule will certainly test Liverpool, who perhaps fall down in depth when compared to City, but for the time-being there can be no complaints at all with the 100% record from the first five games.

Wednesday, 8 May 2019

Liverpool 4-0 Barcelona: Anfield’s Greatest Night

The squad celebrate in front of The Kop
A year ago, Fabinho Tavares was in Monaco. The man hailing from Campinas in Brazil only arrived at Liverpool in the summer: now, arm-in-arm with his diaspora of teammates, he sings the club anthem as passionately as any of the supporters on The Kop in celebration of the most unlikely of triumphs against Barcelona. With this team, at this moment, the message conveyed by the song is symbiotic: it is a pledge by those wearing the shirt that they will always give everything for the fans, and a promise in return that such commitment will be met with unwavering loyalty.

It is this which makes nights such as these possible: the wall of noise from the first whistle willed Liverpool onwards, simultaneously conveying the fierce pride in the team that is not contingent on the result and yet also the real belief that if anyone can do this it is Liverpool. This faith was not misplaced – against all odds, against all logic, a 3-goal deficit was overturned against the side captained by the best player ever to grace a football pitch.

After the first leg, Jose Mourinho gave his thoughts on Liverpool’s prospects. He remarked, with a wry smile, that at Anfield on European nights they can even score goals that are not goals – this was a reference to Luis Garcia’s ghost goal in 2005, the year Liverpool last went on to lift the Champions League. Sure enough, in another semi-final fourteen years later, a miracle was to occur again.

It would be a disservice to this team, however, to chalk the win up as little more than a freakish anomaly, a case of the opposition or the officials wilting when faced with the Anfield noise and the historic weight that underwrites the claims that it makes. As Klopp said in his post-match remarks, the success was made possible by a convergence of many factors at once: a crucial element, of course, is the sheer talent of the footballers in his team. It can be said with some confidence that this is the best Liverpool side of a generation.

They have now reached back-to-back European finals, and in the league look on track to finish with the third-highest top-flight points tally of all time. The very fact that they outclassed Barcelona in a 4-0 win should speak for itself – only the very best in the world can even stand a chance at achieving such an outlandish result. Messi, Suarez, Busquets, Alba, Ter Stegen – all of these are masters of their crafts, and the list could go on, and yet they were not merely nullified but decimated.

The quality is on display throughout this Liverpool team, from the back to the front. Alisson has proved to be the world class addition in goal that fans craved, and could well be the difference when they return to the final this season to right the wrongs from Kyiv – he played a pivotal role in ensuring Barcelona did not get a crushing away goal, thus contributing to overturning a 3-goal Catalan lead in the Champions League just as he did with Roma last year. There would not even have been a semi-final to salvage had he not produced a superhuman stop against Napoli way back in the final group stage game: football repeatedly confirms the cliché that it is a game of ludicrously tight margins, and elite players can provide the infinitesimal edge that makes the world of difference.

There is no shortage of such players in defence either – indeed, while the Brazilian had to be alert on a couple of occasions to repel Coutinho and Messi, the wall in front of him ensured he was not even as busy as he was at the weekend against Newcastle. Virgil van Dijk deserves all of the plaudits he is receiving: he was already worth every penny of his eye-watering price tag when he signed, but he has since matured into arguably the best defender in world football. When he hangs up his boots, he will be remembered as one of the greats of the game: he is that good. Messi, usually the master of creating pockets of space out of nothing, had no answer to him: the greatest of all time was anonymous.

The Dutch colossus was far from unsupported – Joel Matip has put in the quiet hard yards during this campaign to climb the pecking order, and has showed that he is by no means out of place against the very best. His skill set compliments Van Dijk’s to form a formidable partnership. They are flanked by unquestionably the two best full-backs in the country. Andy Robertson has been a revelation since signing for a meagre £8 million from Hull, and played his part in keeping Barcelona’s superstars quiet before being forced off at half time.  Klopp’s one real mistake over the two legs was leaving Trent Alexander-Arnold out of the first game, but the boy from the academy still had enough time to pull his team back from the brink in a way he has dreamed of since his days of spying on Gerrard at Melwood.

He set up the second, tirelessly closing down Jordi Alba before picking a pinpoint cross worthy of his idol – when Wijnaldum tapped in, the words of “hello, hello, here we go” seemed to echo down the years. The crucial fourth, the goal that decided the tie, also came courtesy of a piece of magic from the full-back; he showed the ingenuity and presence of mind to whip in a quick corner, catching Barcelona unawares and allowing Divock Origi to finish past Ter Stegen. It is hard to encapsulate with mere words what it means to see a local boy who understands the club so intimately playing a leading role in its revitalisation: he is surely an icon in the making.

The local link is something to be cherished, but what is even more precious is the extent to which the wider squad has bought into the ethos of the club. This is not a group of players just doing their job: one need only look again at Fabinho singing his heart out, or Gini Wijnaldum in tears, or the injured Mo Salah turning up to cheer on the impossible sporting a “Never Give Up” shirt. For this, so much of the credit must go to the one factor to which the manager did not draw attention: Jurgen Klopp himself.

He demands of his players what he demands of the fans; he requires a team of believers rather than doubters, a team who lives the game like he does and who can feed off the emotion of it and turn it into results. Those who do not want to commit fully must leave: Coutinho, pulled off after an hour and watching from the bench as the humiliation of his new side was completed, is the living embodiment of this. What remains is a side who will never say die, a group of players and fans who are truly Liverpool regardless of from where they come.  

By all accounts, they had reasonable grounds to write themselves off. In front of the defence the squad looked to be falling apart at the seams: Naby Keita was ruled out for the season just as he started to hit his best form, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain missed out due to another minor setback following his long lay-off, and crucially the talismanic figures of Roberto Firmino and Mohamed Salah were both unavailable. To those outside of the bubble that Klopp has forged, there was no hope.

Within ten minutes, however, a stand-in had them ahead; Divock Origi has had remarkable peaks and troughs in his time at the club, but his recent fine form has come at such a pivotal time that he has earned the affections of fans for life. The loss of Robertson at the break could have dented this momentum – instead, his replacement scored twice in two minutes to restore parity in the tie at 3-3. Who knows what would have been had Suarez not been so intent on riling up Robertson, and Wijnaldum had never taken the field: once again, ludicrously tight margins. Origi’s second may have been made by Alexander-Arnold, but it still required an excellent finish; he showcased quick reactions to deftly divert the ball beyond Ter Stegen under the most pressured circumstances imaginable. With that flick, the impossible was accomplished.

Barcelona’s role in all this cannot be reduced to the mere victims of Liverpool’s onslaught, and the inquests as to how this was allowed to happen have already started in the Spanish press, but Jurgen Klopp and his warriors will not even be remotely interested in the verdict. In their minds, they know how this happened: a group of world class players gave everything they had, willed on by the fervent belief of 50,000 fans and millions more not in the stadium, inspired by one of the greatest managers of a generation. Sometimes this is enough for silverware, and sometimes it is not, but it is all that can be asked for – one more push in Madrid may well be enough to deliver the trophy that Klopp’s reign so richly warrants.  

 - @JamesMartin013

Wednesday, 10 April 2019

Liverpool 2-0 Porto: Put Some Respect on The Name

On Tuesday night, Liverpool triumphed 2-0 in the first leg of their quarter-final match against Porto. The fixture, a repeat of last year’s round of sixteen tie, was considered by many to be a formality – no team reaches the last eight in Europe’s elite competition by accident, however, and the Portuguese champions threatened on multiple occasions. A mixture of profligacy on the part of Marega and some important saves by Alisson kept Liverpool’s clean sheet intact, but wasted chances at the other end mean that Klopp’s men cannot go into the second leg with progression as assured as it was last season. Nonetheless, they have put themselves in a strong position to make it to the semi-final; this is a notable accomplishment in any campaign, but to do so while sustaining a challenge for the league title shows just how far this team has come in a short space of time.

The Porto faithful had a haunted look about them when Liverpool took the lead after just five minutes. They had been here before – superior opposition turning up with both skill and luck on their side is a deadly cocktail, one that resulted in a 5-0 humiliation in their own back yard just fourteen months ago. When Keita’s positive drive forward was not tracked and his subsequent shot evaded Casillas courtesy of a huge deflection, there was a feeling that it might be a similarly long night. The players in red appeared to be gripped by a similar vision – at any rate, the waves of pressure remained relentless after going in front.  This made for an entertaining contest, but it exhibited the sort of naivety that is more closely associated with the Liverpool of a year ago. It was the kind of performance that can produce 5-0 wins, but is just as capable of resulting in the squandering of comfortable leads. The second leg of the Roma tie in the semi-final stage of this competition last season come to mind. On this occasion, however, the advantage did grow rather than evaporate: Porto had created and wasted a number of reasonable opportunities, but a glorious sweeping move up the pitch was finished off by Roberto Firmino to double the home side’s lead.

Alexander-Arnold chalked up the assist, but it was Jordan Henderson who truly made the goal. His delightful ball to the full-back gave the youngster the freedom of Anfield in which to pick out Firmino, who was left with the simplest task of the lot. The only surprise was that the Brazilian deigned to look at the ball when steering it in from a matter of yards. Liverpool’s captain has been enjoying himself of late in a more advanced position: Klopp’s growing faith in Fabinho as the sole man in a deeper role has allowed Henderson to move into more natural territory, and Liverpool are reaping the rewards in attack. The ease with which Porto created chances of their own might tempt Klopp into shackling his number fourteen with defensive duties once more when it comes to the Chelsea game at the weekend, but Henderson will feel that he has proved that he can be the answer to Liverpool’s problem of lack of creativity from the midfield.

He was not the only one making his case.

Naby Keita has been steadily growing in influence after a very stuttering start to his Anfield career. The season has been littered with the odd promising cameo, but there has often been a sense that he is playing within himself. The vital equaliser against Southampton, and the evident delight and relief it caused him, looked as though it might prove to be a turning point – even this goal, though, a header at the back post, was not exactly a realisation of the dynamic, all-action Keita that Liverpool fans had been promised. That player arrived against Porto. Per @DanKennett, the Guinean made six tackles, ten recoveries, six dribbles and two key passes – this is before his goal is even mentioned. This array of qualities, the sense that he is doing the job of two men, is what was so eagerly anticipated when Liverpool secured his signature; the recapturing of such form just as Jurgen Klopp’s side reaches the business end of its push for two of the biggest trophies in the sport could not be more well-timed.

Let’s consider that for a moment. It’s April, and the Premier League and Champions League are still very much up for grabs. This is a remarkable feat: on one level it is exactly where Liverpool Football Club belongs, but equally it is essentially unchartered territory in the context of the past two decades. Fans have generally had to content themselves with a push for one or the other, and often neither, and yet some supporters still have the temerity to bemoan the fact that the margin of victory was not so large as to allow players to be rested in the second leg. Of a Champions League last eight clash. That this team is now at the point where a 2-0 triumph in the business end of the European Cup is not a universal source of euphoria, and can even draw criticism, demonstrates the astonishing progress that has been made under Jurgen Klopp. For what it is worth, Liverpool fans should know more than most how fickle fortunes can be in football – there are real reasons to hope that this period of challenging will blossom into a genuine era of great success, but in the mean-time everyone should be consciously striving to enjoy the journey. Nonetheless, the fact that the bar has been so substantially raised is as clear an indication as any that this is a team back amongst the European elite. There is true quality from front to back: enough to dispatch of the likes of Bayern Munich, and to pile pressure on a City side that broke records for fun last season. Henderson’s defiant celebration against Southampton delivered a message to everyone doubting him as an individual, but also to those who doubt the team: it is time to put some respect on the name.

Of course, nothing is won yet, and with opposition of such elite calibre there are no guarantees that the campaign will end with silverware on either front. However, the belief within the team is tangible; not only tangible, but justified. It is hard to deny that the team is one of the best in Europe at the moment - Liverpool will not fear a potential semi-final meeting with Barcelona in the Champions League. On the domestic front, Klopp has nearly steered his side through the toughest spell of the season unscathed – a succession of potentially tricky fixtures while City’s run was favourable could have spelled the end for the title race, but through talent and tenacity Liverpool have relentlessly kept up the pressure. Victory over Chelsea at the weekend in the final against a side from the top six this season would be a massive psychological triumph ahead of Manchester City’s games against Tottenham and Manchester United in the space of a week, but thanks to the efforts of the challengers up to this point the match against Sarri’s men is not make or break in this regard. Whatever happens, the overwhelming feeling towards this team amongst fans must be pride: every last one of the supporters is dreaming of clearing the final hurdle that has proved a stumbling block since 1 
990, but even if it proves too high once more there can be no denying that every single member of the team has given absolutely everything they have. There is no more that can be asked.

- Follow me on Twitter @JamesMartin013
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