Liverpool v Real Madrid

In the end it was not to be a repeat of gay Paree in 1981 with Alan Kennedy surging forward and being the unlikeliest player to score the winner.  The 2018 European Champions league final will be remembered for Gareth Bale’s cracking overhead kick and the two calamitous made by Karius.

Regardless of the result Jurgen Klopp has brought Liverpool forward.  There has been brilliant football and just as importantly there has been hope which this European run has brought.

When the dust has died down and eyes start looking forward to a new season in August the memories especially of those that went to Kiev will live on for a long time.  Even the run to the final will be something that will live on long in my memory.  Blowing Manchester City away and hugging the Father Christmas lookalike sat next to me as we scored against Roma.

Klopp has reminded us that football is about having fun and being part of the collective which everybody from players, cleaners, etc. to supporters all play their part.

Of course I am gutted and yes I know Liverpool’s history is of ‘first is first, and second is nowhere,’ but football is about ups and downs.  That’s why it’s important to enjoy the good times especially as there are a lot of bad times freezing against Stoke in a miserable draw.  It is now looking forward and to be stronger to go one step forward and win a trophy.

So onto the game.  Despite the awful mistakes by Karius the turning point was the injury on Mo Salah.  It was very much a cynical foul by Sergio Ramos who looked very much to have hooked Salah’s arm and bring him down.  Ramos as I have stated in a previous article is a defender who pushes boundaries and knows how to commit the ‘professional foul.’

Once Salah was forced off in tears it knocked Liverpool out of sync.  Take any of the front three off and Liverpool struggle to impose themselves in the game.  Certainly for the first twenty-minutes Liverpool looked the better team.

Madrid had packed the midfield to try and restrict the movement of Liverpool and no doubt to try and hit on the break whilst hoping Liverpool would run out of steam.  The defence though was struggling a bit as the Reds looked to try and find a way through.  As it was the options on the bench was pretty much restricted as half fit Lallana came on for Salah.

Another miss for Liverpool was Oxlaide-Chamberlain.  Prior to his injury his surging, direct runs, and ability to score from midfield was also instrumental in Liverpool getting to the final.  Something seemed to be lacking without Oxlaide-Chamberlain and at times in the league could be pedestrian in the midfield.

The difference in the end was that Madrid did have that bit of extra quality which was seen on the bench when Bale came on for Isco.  It was one of the best if not the very best goals to be scored in a European cup final.  Liverpool were hardly spoilt for choice for who they could bring on to try and change the game.

Goalkeeping has been something that has been discussed at Anfield since Reina left.  Mignolet was inconsistent and Karius didn’t seem to have the ability required of a top class goalkeeper.  Positioning, communication, distribution, organisation, kicking, and concentration all requirements of a good goalkeeper.  It is a much underrated position as a good goalkeeper such as Neuer or De Gea have proven.

Sadly Karius chose the biggest game of his professional career so far to not make on mistake but two massive ones.  With the ball in his hands he had just had to wait to be clear of Benzema but hit it straight at him and rolled into the net.

From a corner Mane equalised and suddenly the belief soared again that Liverpool could come through adversity again.  But then Zidane made the substitution with Bale scoring that overhead kick.  The game was wrapped up after Karius fumbled at the ball for it to go through his hands and into the net.  No doubt he probably wanted the earth to swallow him up.  Incidentally it took Karius great courage to go and apologise to the fans and being a Liverpool player he should never walk alone.

As it was it was the quality and experience of Real Madrid who have consistently stepped up to the occasion to win their thirteenth European cup and third in a row.

For Liverpool it’s about looking forward and trying to go one step further by challenging for the league and looking to go one step further in the Champions league.  Just as important though has been the memories that Liverpool have brought this season.  Hopefully next season it will be a happier one.

 

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Is it time to ditch the away goal rule?

Back in the early days of European competition when it was virtually stepping into the unknown, UEFA introduced the concept of the away goal from 1965-66.  The rationale behind this was to try to introduce a fairer means of deciding which team could progress if both teams drew both legs.  Previously matches had been decided at a neutral venue or even by the toss of a coin.

Liverpool in 1965 had famously progressed at the expense of Cologne to the semi-final of the European cup after two draws and a 2-2 draw at Feyenoord’s ground still couldn’t decide the tie.  Even then it took a second toss of the coin as it landed on its side in a divot on the pitch.

 

Due to the obvious unfairness of deciding a tie on the toss of a coin, plus the difficulties of arranging a replay match at a neutral venue, the idea of the away goal was introduced.

Another reason was that the consensus amongst most teams was to be more defensive away from home with the logic that the home tie would be the best position to win the tie.  Consequently the away goal was seen as a method to encourage the away team to be more attacking.

It was first used in a cup winners cup tie in the 1965-66 season when Budapest Honvéd beat Dukla Prague on away goals in the second round.  The following season it was introduced in the Fairs cup and after being applied in the early rounds in 1967-68 and 1968-69 was introduced for all rounds from 1970-71 in the European cup as well as the Cup winners cup and UEFA cup.

Back in those days, European football was like stepping into the unknown.  Travelling was arduous and there wasn’t much information in terms of the opposition.  Crowds could be volatile with all sorts of intimidation tactics being used such as camping outside the hotel and making as much noise as possible.

Added to which the pitches were not always immaculate, getting a result away from home was pretty decent as the home leg was always the one (especially if it was the second leg) were it was felt that you had an advantage.  The consensus back then was to weather the storm and finish the job at home or to hold out if you were away for the second leg.

One of the big European giants Benfica became the first team to benefit from the away goal rule in the European cup and saved their blushes in the prospect.  After drawing 0-0 against Northern Ireland champions Glentoran at home in the second leg it was Eusebio’s equaliser in Belfast that saw the Portuguese side go through on the away goal.  Incidentally Glentoran were four minutes away from a famous victory until Eusebio scored.  As it was Benfica reached the final only to be beaten Matt Busby’s Manchester United 4-1 in extra time to claim the European cup for the first time in their history.

It was a system that seemed to work quite well and was deemed to try to encourage the away side to score.  There were a few instances were winning by the away goal was highly celebrated.  After drawing 0-0 at Anfield, Liverpool put on a professional job drawing 1-1 away at Bayern Munich in the 1981 European cup semi-final.  Ray Kennedy’s goal enough to win see them through were another Kennedy (Alan) scored the winner against Real Madrid in the final.

As recent as 2009 a fantastic strike and equaliser by Iniesta at Stamford Bridge against Chelsea was enough to Barcelona to go through on the away goal.  The Catalan club would then go on to beat Manchester United 2-0 in Rome to complete a treble.

The question now is whether the away goal rule is still pertinent.  In some respects it could even be argued that playing the second leg away now means you have an advantage even if you draw the home leg 0-0.  For example if the away team scores then the home team has to score twice in whatever is left of the ninety minutes.  As Jonathan Wilson author the football pyramid states should a goal carry more worth than another?

Like everything else football has evolved.  There are no new frontiers with no significant secrets about teams or how they play.  Preparation is a lot more better and comfortable than it previously was where teams just wanted to get in and out.  Even a one or two nil loss wouldn’t be seen as too bad away in the first leg.  A lot of teams were confident that it could be overturned in the home leg.

Tactics have also changed were certain teams and coaches are reactive even if they are at home.  Consequently with better pitches compared to some of the mud baths that teams had to endure it can be more about overcoming a teams tactics over two legs.

It could also be said that if a reactive team gets a 1-1 draw away in the first leg then rather than trying to be more open will be as defensive as possible, knowing that even a 0-0 draw would see you through.  There is also the fact that even if the game goes into extra time then the away team has the advantage of knowing that the away goal rule will still count.  Something that the home team did not have the luxury of in the first leg.

The question being now is whether the away goal still has a relevance and is a fair away to decide a tie.  In some respects it could be argued that the rule does need to be reviewed.  No goal should be worth more especially as tactics and the game as a result have changed.

Of course the problem is what to replace the away goal with in European competition.  There are some options that spring to mind.  You could still keep the away goal but like the English league cup only counts after extra time. Others have suggested that if the away goals should only count if the away side has scored two or more. Alternatively the rule could be completely scrapped with extra time and penalties to decide the tie.  The latter would probably be the only way to go if the away goal is deemed to be unfair.

Times have changed and perhaps it may be worth UEFA reviewing the away goal.  Of course it is a fairer way than the toss of a coin and arranging a replay is not feasible.  Nevertheless should a goal be worth more than another and that is the nub of the matter.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Luis Garcia and the ghost goal

chelsea_garcia_1024Anticipation for one of Liverpool’s biggest games in years kindled furiously like a hive of electricity.  The red’s were due to play Chelsea in the second leg of the champions league semi-final after drawing the first leg 0-0 at Stamford bridge.  It was a chance for a new generation to be at the forefront of Liverpool making history in the way that Rome 77′ and the other big European finals was for their Parents.

The smart money was on Chelsea who were on their way to clinch their second league championship to reach the final.  Under Mourinho they had looked formidable that there were no real challengers for the Premier league that season.

Liverpool in contrast were struggling to finish in the top four under new Spanish manager Rafael Benitez.  Admittedly it was seen as a transitional season after the team regressed under previous manager Gerard Houllier.

It didn’t help that Michael Owen whose goals had been instrumental in ensuring a Champions league qualifier place had joined Real Madrid.  They had incidentally just managed to make the group stages as they lost 1-0 to GAK at Anfield but had won the first leg 2-0.  Hardly the stuff of European champions.

Sometimes though you have to suffer the misery of attending awful matches to appreciate the good times and big games.  Dour matches that are played in the freezing cold and sometimes heavy, driving rain.  A game that you wished you never went to and openly wonder it’s worth all this pain and misery.

That season Liverpool had certainly brought those thoughts into the equation.  An embarrassing and damn right bizarre own goal by Traore saw Liverpool crash out in the third round away to Burnley.  ‘Don’t blame it on the Henchoz, don’t blame it on the Biscan, don’t blame it on the Carragher, blame it on Traore, he just can’t, he just can’t, he just control his feet,’ certainly summed up his performance.

Although Xabi Alonso and Luis Garcia had been bought in the early part of the season there was still inconsistencies within the team.  Part of it was of players getting used to the tactics that Benitez wanted to use and partly down to the fact that some of them were certainly not good enough.

The group stages certainly didn’t suggest that Liverpool would be favourites or even a potential dark horse.  So far they were making hard work of it after losses away to Olympiacos, Monaco and a draw at home against Deportivo.  It meant that Liverpool had to beat Olympiacos by two clear goals to qualify as runners-up.

Confidence was high that Liverpool could do it.  After all they were at home but when Rivaldo scored from a free kick into the Kop goal in the first half a resigned resignation shook the stadium.  Liverpool it seemed had that ability to shoot itself in the foot and as a result would be dropping down into the UEFA cup as a booby prize for finishing third

As usual the pitch looked extra green as the floodlights shone brightly against the black December night.  Nothing seemed extra ordinary although Liverpool had shown their fight back skills with a last gasp Neil Mellor winner a week back at home to Arsenal in the league.

Pongolle had equalised for Liverpool but it was the last ten minutes of the game that it turned on its head.  Mellor who had shown a David Fairclough knack of scoring important goals made it 2-1 but Liverpool still needed that extra goal.

Time was running down as the crowd roared on Liverpool and it was Gerrard who at times physically dragged Liverpool kicking and screaming to rescue the team did so with a beauty of a shot.

All I remember was bedlam and the sheer relief and joy when the goal went in.  Once the final whistle went it was a chance to saviour a Indiana Jones moment of scrambling through the closing door and grabbing our hat as a final measure.  It was nice to walk out of Anfield knowing that we still had something to look forward to for the second half of the season.

After that match Liverpool suddenly seemed to have grown in Europe.  They looked so much assured after they beat Bayern Leverkusen home and away who had been European cup finalists in 2002.  Even the much derided Igor Biscan looked like the accomplished midfielder that he had been touted to be.  In Europe at least, the team looked organised and efficient.

Liverpool produced another professional performance as they beat Juventus 2-1 at Anfield and drew 0-0 in Turin to lead to that semi-final tie against Chelsea

Right from Sandhills train station the anticipation was building.  Something was brewing in terms of wanting to make the final so much.  Nerves, butterflies were fluttering inside stomachs.  It didn’t help when the soccer bus to the ground made a spluttering sound before stalling and breaking down.  Nervously I hoped it wasn’t going to be a sign of how things would go on later at the match

Stepping onto the Kop it seemed similar to the halcyon days of the old Spion Kop.  The noise was simmering nicely that it was like a volcano rumbling.  Everybody wanted to be inside as early as possible to generate the atmosphere and support.  Even bringing your chippy dinner into the ground was permissible.

Chelsea had been warned about the noise that Anfield could generate and they no doubt expected a bit of a rough ride with what was at stake.  They certainly didn’t expect it to be as vociferous and noisy.  As soon as they ran onto the pitch for their warm up you could see they were taken aback by the jet powered noise of the crowd.  Something that both John Terry and Frank Lampard later admitted to.

It was something out of the norm as the crowd just yearned to recapture old glories by reaching the European cup final.  The noise just crackled loudly like wildfire and you could feel and taste that excitement and yearning of wanting Liverpool to win this tie.

‘Rings of fire,’ by Johnny Cash which became the unofficial anthem for that European campaign  blasted out and it was a noise to match the old ghosts of games in years gone by.

We were only four minutes into the game when Baros beat Cech to the ball with the keeper taking him out as the loose ball fell to Garcia who scored to put Liverpool ahead.  I admit to a slight pause as I scarcely believed that we had taken the lead but joined in with the loud eruption that roared around Anfield as the referee gave the goal.  An early lead was what we had all hoped for and Garcia, a player that could frustrate one minute and in the blink of an eye produce something outstanding.   Garcia also had that knack of scoring important goals in big games.

The Kop was bouncing even the main stand and the Centenary was too as scarfs were waved high triumphantly.  It was like time had stood still slightly thinking back to that moment as Garcia wheeled away in celebration.

Part of the atmosphere must have played a part.  It had taken the Chelsea team aback and with that level of support seemed to inspire the eleven red men on the pitch.  The crowd wanted it badly and it showed with the songs, chants, and urging on of Liverpool to do the job.

Liverpool were thoroughly organised with Chelsea being limited.  Like a good drama there is always that moment when the hero is in danger of losing everything.

Deep into stoppage time with the crowd willing the referee to blow up I remember Gudjohnsen racing down the right hand side and my heart just stopping as he hit the ball just wide of the post.  There was that look of all footballers who have just missed a good and last chance of the game as he grimaced in disbelief.

It was more than a cheer, a roar or any loud noise as the final whistle went.  Everything just seemed to shake as people yelled in excitement at what they had just witnessed.  ‘You’ll never walk alone,’ blasted out on the tannoy as people stood on top of the seats to join in and saviour every bit of this victory.

This wasn’t in an era were Liverpool swept everybody before them like a Roman army in their prime.  It was no longer the time of expecting Liverpool to reach a major European cup final.  The current Liverpool then were not considered at the start of the season of being good enough to rub shoulders with the European elite.

Liverpool though would be another ninety-minutes away from being crowned the Champions of Europe.  This was against all the odds and why Anfield erupted.  A chance to write a new chapter in the history books and another adventure to tell future generations whilst we grow old.  With the final in Istanbul it hinted at adventure with it being ‘far away from home,’ as the lyrics in Scouser Tommy mention.

The ‘ghost goal,’ was dubbed that by Mourinho who sourly stated that the ball did not cross the line. He had conveniently forgot to mention that if the referee had not given it then he would have had to given a penalty and sent off Petr Cech for fouling Milan Baros.  Added to which there was still time on the clock for Chelsea to get a goal which would have changed things as they would have had the away goal in their favour.

All of that though didn’t matter as everybody was on a high as we all floated down the Walton Breck road.   It was a moment to bask in the victory and to worry about getting tickets for the final tomorrow.  A celebratory glass of a single malt whiskey topped a momentous occasion like this.

Critics had given Liverpool a ghost of a chance of getting to the final and perhaps it was quite apt that Garcia’s winner was dubbed the ghost goal.  There was however still a major turning point as flights were booked to Istanbul and the clock slowly ticked down to the 25th May.   Istanbul was to be a finale worthy of a blockbuster movie.

 

Roger Nouveau – the modern fan of the Premier league era

 

There was a time when the football season ended in May and certainly in the odd year when there wasn’t a World Cup or European championship then that would be that until August.  Granted there would be a little bit of transfer speculation but it felt like a proper break away from football that come late August you would embrace it like a glass of cold water after hiking across the Sahara desert.

Now the coverage is constant that you almost wonder if the season has ever really ended.  Every day during the summer months there is the endless constant speculation of who is moving where that at times it matches the political intrigue of Macbeth.

That though is the circus that is the Premier league.  It needs to feed the hype and speculation in order to keep selling its product which is how it and let’s be honest football clubs see supporters as customers.

The money that is not only being pumped into football through television deals but spent on players is mind-blowing.  With the average player going for thirty million pounds the sense of any true value has been lost.  For Sky the billions spent on securing the rights to screening Premier league football is not just about securing the survival of the channel but about the clubs spending big so that supporters world-wide will continue to watch.  Hence the continuation of subscriptions and now in the age of streaming the reliance on overseas television rights.

Consequently it is important to keep generating the speculation about talks of Bale going to Manchester United for example or Ronaldo returning back to the UK.  With huge sums of money being spent it is meant to convince people that the Premier league is the one to watch and that Sky can provide this exclusive access.

The drama of deadline day is now something that is part of football.  At times it represents as though it is a life changing moment such as the Berlin wall coming down.  If it was watched twenty-five years ago people would wonder if it was a spoof as the coverage at times resembled Chris’ Morris’s Day to Day.  Who for example could forget the hapless reporter who had a purple dildo waved in his ear outside Everton’s Finch farm?

Football now is about marketing and rather than being a fan of the sport is more about being seen at the event.  It is more about construing an image rather than participating as a supporter.   Everything now is all about presentation so that for example Liverpool v Burnley on a cold February afternoon is a unique game to remember.  From the naff Premier league anthem, the presentation tops that both sides wear as they shake hands to the referee picking the ball up from the podium.  Gone are the days when both teams ran out and prior to kick off a firm hand shake from both Captains before tossing a coin to decide who would kick off from which half.  Half and half scarves which are wrong on so many levels are now souvenirs for the tourist who visits and will most likely not return again.

Packages are sold for tourists to sample ‘the real passionate white-hot heat of the Kop,’ that has helped Liverpool win major games over the years.  Ironically those type of supporters who are used for the posters have been priced out.  For those that have remained they are now well into middle-age and less inclined to be noisy as they once were in their youth.

The sound of seats clanking up as Crystal Palace took the lead against Liverpool in the last ten minutes was louder than the cries of encouragement than Liverpool fans as a large majority slunked off.  Previously there would be a stunned pause and a loud roar, snarling, and willing Liverpool to equalise and even grab a winner.  Now those type of supporters who throw in the towel are the first into their cars to moan about how Klopp doesn’t know what he is doing whilst incredibly questioning the players passion.

Radio phone ins and social media keep the interest and drama of the product alive.  Everybody can be an expert and whereas a similar incident from thirty years ago would barely generate a headline now a dodgy penalty is given the coverage of JFK being shot.  A soundbite or controversial comment from the manager is used to keep the hysteria and if a club is having a bad run of results well then the hysteria hits meltdown.  Rumours of losing the dressing room and the dreaded vote of confidence are mooted.

This of course encourages the expert fan who never goes the game but watches from his armchair who gets on the blower to say something incredibly stupid.  Once on the air they will preach their ignorance which of course ignites another load of angry calls which feeds the frenzy rather than any genuine debate and discussion about the game.   In other words its click bait with newspaper distributing articles or tweets knowing full well they will get hits and replies.

Part of the hype has brought a sense of entitlement amongst this new elite of supporters.  Unless their team is two-nil up within ten minutes they are screaming and slamming their prized hampers with frustration.  Of course nobody likes to get beat or drop points in vital games but if the players have given everything then at least accept they have done everything.  Besides moaning is not going to help and only makes the players more nervous.

The problem in this Sky era of football is that it has made supporters accountants who believe the Premier league is the be all and end all.  It is a remarkable achievement by Sky and the Premier league that a season of mediocrity is more acceptable than getting to a Cup final.

Getting into the top four is seen as a trophy with the money that a spot in the Champions league generates.  The money though doesn’t go into the pocket of supporters and nor does it mean extra money to bolster that squad.  A budget has been set regardless and players although ambitious will move where the money is regardless of whether the team is in the Champions league or not.  Yet supporters believe this spin that has been spun and would put a top four finish above winning the FA cup and a trip to Wembley.

Football is now increasingly about the hype and making as much money as possible from this new world-wide fan base.  That’s why clubs fly over to Australia, the far east, even the USA because there is money to be made and not because it will help pre-season training.

The International Champions cup which is currently a pre-season tournament can be seen as a future replacement or rival with the UEFA champions league.  With the money that it generated (incredibly ticket prices for the Madrid v Barcelona game in Miami  went for $5,500) it wouldn’t be a surprise if this happened.

Of course this would be by invitation only and not by earning a place.  After all despite AC Milan being a pale shadow of the team that they once were they have a global appeal and therefore can sell.  These games would not be played in the home cities but various stadiums across the globe to generate more cash and global appeal.  In turn these clubs such as Barcelona, Real Madrid, Manchester United, Liverpool, and AC Milan would in effect be the footballing equivalent of the Harlem Globe Trotters.

This is why the controversial thirty-nine Premier league game was mooted.  Forget about upsetting the balance of fairness of the competition there is more money to be had from sales abroad and the television deals that would be made as a result.  Although dropped the idea still lurks like Jaws stalking Amity Island.

The £198 million deal for Neymar wasn’t just about signing a top player or even a signal of intent of winning the Champions league but about putting PSG as a major force in the global market.  Of course it is an intent to win the major honours but the price gets publicity, courts new supporters from across the world, and therefore increases the television deals.  Added to which is the marketing appeal that Neymar brings not just in terms of shirt sales but other promotions in the interest of PSG.

Madrid, Barcelona, Manchester United and any other big names spend big simply to boost their global appeal as well as improving the team.  Signing the top players keeps that interest and makes supporters excited that the latest big name has joined their club.

Increasingly football is moving away from its community and identity that clubs had.  Slogans such as ‘more than a club,’ ‘you’ll never walk alone,’ are increasingly sounding more like a brand rather than ‘the real thing,’ that it once had.  Even St. Pauli who view themselves as very much to the left in their ideals find that the skull and bones flag once flown as a symbol of defiance, has now been marketed.  Indeed you could argue that St. Pauli has now been sold as a ‘kult club,’ for people wanting something different.

Football is far removed from the working class game that it once was.  Certainly amongst the big clubs they are a brand that can be consumed as easily as a can of coke.  Hype and money keeps it ticking over with the global fan base proving ever more lucrative.  Just don’t surprised when the only connection that a football club has with its community is the name.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Liverpool 2016/17 season review

Expectations are always high at the beginning of the season.  This was especially so after Klopp had led Liverpool to the League  and Europa cup finals in the 2015/16 season.

The omens also looked good.  At the beginning of the 1987/88 season Liverpool played Arsenal away on the opening day and just like that year there was a delay.  This time it was due to the completion of the new main stand rather than a collapsed sewer under the Kop.  Nevertheless it could be seen as a positive omen.

Being a season ticket holder in the new main stand it certainly lived up to expectations.  Although high up the view was excellent especially as the seat is on the half way line.  It gave the advantage of being able to see better the teams shape and build up than my previous seat in the Kop.  There was also the novelty of leg room and the acoustics of the stand was spot on as the noise can carry when the fans are in full voice.

Without European football for that season it was wondered whether the benefit of playing no mid-week games would have the same effect as it did for the 2013/14 season.  Liverpool of course narrowly missing out on the league to Manchester City.  Certainly Liverpool got off to a flier beating Arsenal 4-3 a dramatic game whilst the first home game of the season a 5.30pm kickoff against Leicester saw the champions thrashed 4-1.

The football was a game of intense high pressing with teams unable to cope against Liverpool’s attack.  Mane the new signing from Southampton looked scintillating in attack whilst the likes of Lallana and Firmino came on in leaps and bounds.  Previously they had been inconsistent and only showed flashes of what they could do achieve.  This season they were not only consistent but players that Liverpool relied on.

A brief surge to the top made fans dream but unlike the 87/88 team the defence and overall quality was not as good and consistent that it needs to be.  With injuries to key players at certain points in the season and Mane unavailable due to the African cup of nations there was not the depth in squad to cover.  Furthermore the opposition had learnt to stifle Liverpool by playing deep, restricting space and making use of Liverpool’s vulnerability at set-pieces to score.  The bench also offered no real options in terms of changing things tactically on the pitch.

Indeed Liverpool’s record against the other top six clubs was impressive.  Mainly because with the likes of Spurs and Arsenal who were more open benefitted Liverpool who with their pressing game were able to exploit the spaces left open.

The realistic hope of course was that Liverpool would win one of the domestic trophies and finish within the top four.  Liverpool disappointingly were beaten 2-1 at home against  Wolves in the fourth round of the FA cup.  It appeared that Klopp had overestimated the quality of the overall squad as they struggled to get the better of the Championship side.  In the league cup Southampton beat Liverpool 2-0 over both legs which just left the pursuit for a top four spot.

Despite a few stumbles Liverpool managed to make it over the line although if they had not dropped points against the likes of Southampton, Palace, and Bournemouth they may have just finished third and avoid the Champions league qualifier.

Nevertheless for a fourth placed finish it was still achieved with a high points total of seventy-six that would have won Liverpool the league twenty years ago.  Although not spectacular it is an improvement in the league.   Prior to the season you would expect Liverpool to finish between fourth and six if you were judging on what was spent.

There have been highlights namely the back to back wins against Arsenal, beating Leicester, and Everton.  Then of course there is Emre Can’s spectacular goal against Watford.

Mane has deservedly won the Liverpool player of the year and has been sorely missed when he has been absent.  It is also worth noting that Simon Mignolet has improved significantly this season after temporally being dislodged by Karius.  Unless a keeper of the quality of Pepe Reina becomes available then a goalkeeper is no longer the priority that it once was last year.

The only negatives this season from me has been the atmosphere at games.  It is unfortunately one of the changing facets of football that the ordinary fan is being priced out.  There are more corporate tickets and with the likes of Liverpool, Manchester United, and Arsenal it is more being seen at the event rather than love for the team or even the sport.

When you have the likes of two middle-aged men in front of you more intent on showing each other pictures on their mobiles than watching Liverpool play Manchester City it is going to affect the atmosphere.  Then there is the panic if Liverpool are not one up within ten minutes that shows up the sense of entitlement some fans feel.  Silly comments are thrown about before going down to get a pint five minutes before half time and then sodding off in the 85th minute.

Of course you want Liverpool to win but there has to be a sense of realism.  This after all is not 1984 even if the outside world seems to portray Orwell’s dystopian novel.  Getting behind the team is crucial and again can help the team to snatch a result.  The sound of seats slamming as Palace scored the second rather than the sound of Liverpool fans roaring the team to grab an equalizer in the last ten minutes is galling.

Unbelievably there were a few idiots that booed after the draw against Southampton.  Was it frustrating?  Of course it was but the team had given everything and it just didn’t happen on the day.  We had a limited squad with a lack of options on the bench.  You can only do so much and Klopp has got the best out of the team.

For next season and certainly with European football the squad does have to be strengthened.  The defence certainly needs to be improved.  At times they seem shaky and certainly at set pieces seem more vulnerable in conceding a goal.  The team does need to learn to defend as it breeds that confidence with a solid defence.  A centre-half and left back are certainly required.

Another midfielder preferably someone with a bit of pace and guile, and another forward have to be priorities.  Besides this we also need more options to choose from the bench especially when it is difficult breaking teams down.

I am certainly not expecting a marquee signing as this isn’t the way the Fenway group do business but I certainly expect some activity as the defence and size of the squad were issues that became apparent during the season.

This season has seen Liverpool move in the right direction.  If they can keep hold of Coutinho and get Emre Can to extend his contract then it will be beneficial.  Can of course holds divisive opinions but I would say that he does has the ability to be one of the top midfielders in the game.  Critics seem to forget that he is only young.  He can at times be sloppy but he never hides and always tries to make the correct pass or make something happen.  If Can leaves Liverpool I certainly don’t want to regret watching his talent benefit another club.

With European football back and hopefully champions league it will be an exciting season which will hopefully see Liverpool win a trophy.  Above all though I want to enjoy the thrill that the likes of last season’s Europa cup run, the title tilt of 2013/14 and certainly wouldn’t say no to a similar season in the Champions league of 2004/05.

Football can be frustrating and bring despair.  At times you question your own sanity watching a dull 0-0 on a cold January night but games like Istanbul and last season’s game against Dortmund make it all worth while.  Sometimes you have to suffer a bit of misery to appreciate the joy.  That is after all what football is to the majority of supporters.

Above all though I just want to enjoy watching the mighty reds and hopefully experience another rollercoaster journey that Liverpool are good at doing.

The countdown begins to the 2017/18 season!

 

 

 

 

Liverpool v C. Palace and why top four is still up for grabs

P170423-039-Liverpool_Crystal_Palace-e1492967314296Credit where its due even if it is through gritted teeth, Allardyce got his tactics spot on last Sunday as Palace beat Liverpool for the third year running at Anfield.  It was a game that was always going to be difficult given the erratic performances and results against the so-called lesser lights.  Even so with the finishing line and a top four spot in sight it was a home game that Liverpool needed to make it count.

Palace though were well organised and it was a yellow wall as they played deep and ensured that any space in the middle of the park was restricted.  With Mane unavailable due to injury there was no one to test the Palace defence with skill and pace.   Coutinho and Firmino may have  the guile and skill they were unable to find a way through the brickwall that was Palace’s defence.  Granted Origi is a player who has pace but he too found it hard to get into space.

It meant that the only options to Liverpool was to go wide but with the lack of height and a mass of yellow shirts, Palace were easily able to defend from set-pieces as you would expect from a Sam Allardyce side.

Despite this Liverpool managed to take the lead from a fantastic free kick from Coutinho.  This should have been the catalyst for Liverpool to kick on or at the very least hold onto the goal lead.  Palace would need to push further up the pitch and  leave more space for Liverpool to take hold of the game.

The Liverpool defence this season has been fragile and at times resembles a punch drunk boxer attempting to last the final round.  With only three minutes before half time Liverpool should have had the nous to keep it tight and simple.  Instead Lovren failed to react quickly to the ball as Cabaye gained posession as he raced down the right to play a ball for Benteke to score and equalise for Palace.

Once again there was frustration at Liverpool’s inability to defend and not tightening their hold on the match to ensure they got the result required.

The second half was reverting back to type for Palace who again ensured that Liverpool were not given any space to cause problems.  Another lapse at a set piece from a corner saw Benteke grab his second with a diving header.  With the lack of options on the bench Liverpool were unable to put anyone who could change the game.  Alexander-Arnold, Grujic, and Moreno were thrown on but it was more in the hope of fresh legs rather than any tactical acumen.

Liverpool didn’t look capable of breaking down Palace and despite the six minutes of injury time were unable to snatch a point.  It was a disappointing result following the two excellent away wins against Stoke City and West Bromwich Albion.

There have been a few moans that Liverpool have blown it especially with Man Utd winning 2-0 away to Burnley.  At present that is simply not the case.  Yes Liverpool have made it difficult for themselves but with Manchester United due to play Manchester City this Thursday at the Etihad they also have games against Tottenham and Arsenal.  City themselves also have to play Palace.

Looking at those fixtures there are still difficult games that United could drop points.  Added to which they have injuries to major players such as Ibrahimovic, Pogba, Herrera, Mata, and Smalling.  With the distraction of the Europa cup semi-final against Celta Vigo it is not a given that United will not drop points in their remaining games.

Of course Liverpool themselves are now walking a tight rope and cannot afford to drop any more points.  The remaining games though are not as bad compared to other teams.

There also has to be a dose of realism regarding the situation for Liverpool at the moment.  The squad is light which isn’t helped with major injuries to key players.  Consequently there are not many options that Klopp can turn to.  Liverpool have the fifth highest paid squad in the Premier league and it could be argued are roughly where you expect them to be.

The crowd itself also needs to help in times  of when things are not going well.  Without sounding all ‘member berry,’ (This refers to South Park and its take on nostalgia)

there was a time when following a stunned silence at the opposition somehow managing to score that there would be a roar encouraging the team to get back into the game.  Instead the only noise you can hear are the sounds of seats as the mass exodus starts.

That is more or less waving the white flag rather than screaming encouragement for Liverpool to push forward and salvage something.  It is amazing what the players can do with the support urging them forward that at the very least they can make it as uncomfortable for Palace in the dying minutes.

Jurgen Klopp talked about everyone from the cleaners, coaches, players, fans and anyone associated with the club to be all pulling together and doing their bit.  Which is what some Liverpool fans need to do rather than making the early dart.

There is still a big job ahead for Klopp no matter whether they finish top four or not.  Defensively they need improving not just in terms of buying defenders but in terms of defending as a team.  All season they have looked shaky but just as it is important to attack as a team it is equally the same when defending.  All the good teams know how to take the sting out of the game and show the resilience in coping with any pressure.  Liverpool do not have that ability at present.

Added to which the depth of the squad needs improving especially if they qualify for the Champions league.  Looking at the bench this season shows how limited Liverpool are on who they can bring on to help change the game.

All said and done though the race for the remaining top four places (Chelsea and Tottenham are nailed on for first and second) is pretty much on.  City and United have been inconsistent this season even if the latter have been on a good run of form.  Liverpool despite the setbacks and problems they have faced this season still have a good chance of finishing within the top four and claiming a Champions league spot.  There does though need to be a dose of reality with what Klopp has to work with and the fact that some teams at present are ahead of Liverpool.

Is this the decline of Barcelona?

The demise of Barcelona has been greatly exaggerated over the years.  It has if anything since the 2004/05 season been one of their most successful periods in Barcelona’s history.  Four European cups, eight la liga titles, four Copa Del Rey, and three FIFA club world cups.  They have played football that at times seems to have been from another planet with the likes of football greats Ronaldinho and Messi mesmerizing fans and opposition alike.

They have of course been at the crossroads before in 2008 with critics deeming that the club had hit its peak after winning the European cup for a second time in 2006.  Rather than building on their success Rijkaard lost the discipline of the changing room with Ronaldinho and Deco to name but a few losing their hunger and seemed more intent on partying than playing football.  The joke being that Ronaldinho was in the gym was a euphuism that he was sleeping off a hangover.

Rumours abound that Jose Mourinho was to take over after Rijkaard had lost his job and that Barcelona needed an experienced winner to turn things around.  The club though probably made one of the best decisions since the club was formed by appointing former player and then current B team manager Pep Guardiola.  Eyebrows were raised as to whether he had the experience but with the aid of his assistant Tito Vilanova took the club to another level.  That team is now remembered alongside the great teams of Liverpool, AC Milan, Ajax, and their arch rivals Real Madrid who had dominated Europe.  Winning it for the fifth time in 2015 acknowledged that fact.  

Although Guardiola was unproven he knew the DNA and expectations of the club.  Furthermore he was a club legend who would be given time but more importantly he was single-minded, determined, and ruthless when needed.  It was not as some people view with hindsight an easy job.  The team had been floundering and the wrong decisions could quite easily have taken Barcelona back.  Added to which the intense pressure from the fans and media alike who scrutinised every decision from tactics to team selections only added to the pressure.

One of the first steps that Guardiola did was bring back the discipline that was sorely lacking.  Training was expected to start at the stated time with any latecomer suffering a  fine as well as a slow handclap by his teammates when he did appear on the training pitch.

Guardiola was also instrumental in bringing a sense of togetherness and working hard for the team.  Anyone who didn’t was shown the door.  Nobody could question his ruthlessness as Ronaldinho and Deco were the first to be shown the door.  The former was a signal of real intent considering he was one of the most talented players at the time despite his unprofessionalism towards the end.  Furthermore they didn’t want Ronaldinho’s behaviour to have a bad influence on a young Messi.

It was also to see a change in the tactics with Guardiola taking full advantage of the quality of his players at his disposal.  Play was to start from the back with the goalkeeper Valdes expected to be also good with his feet.  More importantly though was the intense pressing game that Guardiola wanted his team to play.

Possession was not only important but it was what you did with it that counted.  Losing the ball would see Guardiola wanting his team to put the opposition under intense pressure to regain the ball.  Preferably they would force the opposition towards the sidelines where the passing angle would be halved to increase their chances of regaining control.  Small indeed triangular groups would hound the opposition player and look to cut off their space and options in order to win back the ball.

Defence would now become attack and the Barca players were expected to move quickly and provide an option for their teammate who had the ball.  A lot of the time it would be two or three touches as they buzzed around quickly and menacingly ready to receive the ball at a moments notice.  Indeed the tempo of the game that Barcelona played and the movement was akin to a five a side match.

Every Barca player was expected to work hard and your contribution was to be for the benefit of the team rather than an individual.  With the team well-balanced from defence to attack it was no wonder that they put many teams to the sword and won plaudits for their entertaining play.

Incidentally it was to be the season that Xavi and Iniesta finally started to get the recognition that they deserved.  They suited the style perfectly and under Guardiola shone brightly.  Although Puyol may not go down as a Maldini he was an organiser and vocal leader who ensured that the defence retained its shape.

Guardiola also brought together a sense of unity as well as installing loyalty and belief in his methods.  Of course he would listen to ideas but Guardiola had a manner that is very much required in a modern coach of players not only understanding what he required but the reason why.

The season went off to a slow start in the league with a 1-0 away defeat to Numancia and drawing 1-1 in Barcelona’s first home game of the season against Racing Santander.  Many wondered if the team was still going to show the same inconsistencies that had plagued them for the last two.  However everything clicked into place after beating Sporting Gijon 6-1 away from home and won nine games in a row.

Slowly everybody started to take notice of this fast pressing game or what was termed ‘tiki taka.’  It was spell binding and enjoyable to watch for football fans.  At times Barcelona seemed to be from a different world as they raced away in the league.

In May 2009 Real Madrid the defending champions and needing a result to stay in realistic contention of retaining the title were humiliated with Barcelona thrashing Real 6-2 at the Bernabeu.  A few days later a last-minute well placed goal against Chelsea by Iniesta was enough to put Barcelona into the final against Manchester United.

Talk of a of a historic treble was now openly talked about with Barcelona winning the Copa Del Rey 4-1 against Bilbao.  With the league secured it was the chance of a third European cup title against the reigning champions Manchester United at Rome.

Despite a ropey start Barcelona asserted control after Eto’o had given Barca the lead after a well placed pass by Iniesta who hit a precision pass to Eto’o who raced on the right and put the ball past Van Der Saar.  After that there was only going to be one winner as Barcelona gave the Manchester club a footballing lesson.  A Messi header to make it two in the second half capped a fantastic season.  Indeed 2009 would see them win six titles which included the world club cup.

The following seasons saw Barcelona retain their league title (in what was to turn into the equivalent heavyweight clash of Ali V Frazier) with Real Madrid matching pound for pound but falling short by three points despite finishing the league on ninety-six points.

Inter Milan who would go on to win the European cup that year under Jose Mourinho had knocked out Barcelona in the semi-final 3-2 on aggregate.  Their defensive tactics holding well against the Catalans.

2010-11 season was to be seen as the pinnacle of Guardiola’s tenure in charge.  The pressure though was starting to show which wasn’t helped by Mourinho who Real Madrid had turned to in the hope of hauling in their nemesis Barcelona.

With the Catalan and Madrid clubs going toe to toe in every competition it was to be brutal mentally and competitively.  Mourinho’s aggressive mind games were pushed to the extreme to distract Barca but despite beating Barcelona in the Copa Del Rey it was to be the Catalan’s who would win the plaudits for winning the bigger prizes.  The league was retained for a third season in a row whilst beating Real Madrid 3-1 on aggregate in the semi-final of the Champions league.

Manchester United were comprehensively beaten 3-1 in the final of the champions leagu with Alex Ferguson describing Barcelona as the best side that he had ever faced.  With the plaudits raining down on the Catalans it particularly grated Real Madrid who considered themselves as the footballing equivalent of the Harlem globetrotter’s in terms of being renowned entertainers.

The question now was how long could Barcelona sustain this high quality football and the success it brought.  2011-12 was to be Guardiola’s last season in charge as he took a well-earned break after the pressure that came with managing Barcelona.  Madrid would wrest the league back with Barcelona having to be content with the World club cup and Copa Del Rey.

Guardiola’s successor was to be his assistant Vilanova with Barcelona hoping that they too would have a bootroom legacy like Liverpool.  Some critics even described Vilanova as Bob Paisley to Guardiola being Shankly.

Although Vilanova led Barcelona to the league title with one hundred points there was the feeling that the team was on the wane.  Losing to Madrid in the Copa Del Rey was bad enough but the footballing lesson given to them by Bayern Munich in the semi-final of the champions league rubbed salt in the wounds.  Thrashed 4-0 at the Allianz Arena and soundly beaten at the Nou Camp 3-0.  Questions were being asked especially as the club became more reliant on Lionel Messi.

Vilanova had to step down due to his cancer returning and sadly passed away in April 2014.  In his place the Argentinean Tata Martino was to take charge.  It was not to be a successful season in charge with the club not winning any trophies and blowing the chance to retain the league as they failed to beat Atletico Madrid who in turn won the title on the final day.  This was despite the fact that Neymar had been signed (incidentally his signing would cause all matter of scandal regarding the manner of the transfer deal).

Luis Enrique took charge with Luis Suarez being signed from Liverpool to provide Barcelona with a very potent attack.  It was to bring rich rewards as Barcelona won the treble yet again.  Juventus being beaten 3-1 in Berlin to be Champions of Europe for the fifth time.

Yet despite the trophy haul there had been criticism daft as it may seem directed at Luis Enrique and his team.  Indeed there were questions as to whether he would last longer than the season.  The quality of Messi, Neymar, and Suarez who scored one hundred and twenty-two goals between them though ensured that Barcelona continued to collect the trophies.

Last season saw Barcelona retain the league and Copa Del Rey but this season seem to be jaded and way off the pace.  After the first leg humiliation at the Parc des Princes as Paris St Germain put four past Barcelona questions are being asked and again whether this is the end of the line for Enrique.

It is inevitable that a team no matter how successful they have been will hit a dip.  The players that brought the success get old and either move on or retire.  When Puyol finally called it a day due to injury there was not just a defensive gap missing but that all important leader and organiser.  He was the one who ensured that everybody was in position or urging them to push themselves.

Despite the need of a centre half Barcelona seemed to be happy with Mascherano playing in that position.  Although he has done a good job and certainly does the job required of carrying the ball the Barcelona defence is not as strong as it should be.

Xavi is another big miss as he was part of the heartbeat of the team along with Iniesta.  They brought balance to the team, could move quickly but were ruthless with their passing even in the tightest of spaces.  Iniesta now is coming towards the end and the squad from the Guardiola era is getting less and less.

At present Barcelona do have the best attack in Europe with Suarez, Neymar, and Messi.  Indeed any time that has the latter is always going to be formidable but there is not that symmetry of the past where the team attacked and defended as a unit.

When Guardiola took charge there was a player that was suited to every position and in some respects were the best players in that position.  Add a few tweaks tactically that took teams by surprise it was a formidable team.

Although Messi was always seen to be the main man the team over time became more reliant on the Argentinean.  To the point that a couple of seasons ago when Barcelona played PSG they done everything to get a patched up Messi on the pitch whose presence managed to get them through.  Rewind a few years and although Messi missing would be a blow the team would cope quite comfortably now it is more reliant on Messi than ever.

Tactics is also another matter.  It is always hard to stay one step ahead and teams have learnt to play against Barcelona by restricting space and if possible forcing them further up the pitch.

The Barcelona team now is more direct than Guardiola’s and that is a case of trying to keep ahead of their rivals.  Furthermore each new coach that arrived had their own ideas and influences that they felt would get the best results for the club.  In that respect it could be argued that they have continually delivered the trophies that Barcelona fans demand and are becoming accustomed to.

No team though can keep that level of play or success up forever.  Barcelona will find the next few years tougher as their main players who helped bring them success retire.  When Messi which is a good few years away retires or moves then Barcelona will find themselves back to earth with a bump.  As it is they are now entering the earth’s atmosphere and it will be a bumpy ride when they have to start all over again.  Trophies will be hard to come by whilst their rivals could well be the ones that are ahead.  That though is the nature of football.

 

Brian Benjamin