Benfica 2-1 Liverpool – Match Report

3 04 2010

Benfica 2-1 Liverpool. It is a score-line I am sure many Liverpool fans will consider to be a decent result; myself included. That all important away goal courtesy of Daniel Agger gives us something to go back to Anfield with in the hope of another famous European night with the 12th man that is the Kop firmly behind us. The circumstances concerning the way we were leading but still lost makes the result a bit harder to deal with.

Daniel Agger’s clever finish from a Steven Gerrard free kick in the ninth minute got us off to the perfect start and drew comparisons to the goal that he scored against Chelsea in the Champions League in 2007. It was a goal that seemed long overdue for Agger who had threatened to get on the score sheet in the previous match against Sunderland. After this however, Benfica showed their class with Paraguayan striker Oscar Cardozo coming close on a couple of occasions and we rode our luck a little when he spooned an effort over from inside the six yard box. His next chance was with his head after an excellent delivery from in-demand Argentine winger Angel Di Maria, yet the outcome and the score-line remained the same. Further headed chances were spurned by newly capped Brazilian international Ramires before Cardozo missed another. It was Di Maria to threaten next for the home side when his fierce strike flashed narrowly over Jose Reina in the Liverpool goal. On another night we could have easily been three or four goals down.

Great Dane: Daniel Agger gives Liverpool the lead in the 9th minute.

For me, it was disappointing how vulnerable we looked defensively, especially aerially, and I recall mentioning at the time via Twitter how it was the sort of game Sami Hyypia would have relished. This is why I believe Sotirios Kyrgiakos will come into the side to partner Jamie Carragher in the heart of defence for the second leg with Daniel Agger shifting to left back to deputise for the suspended Emiliano Insua and the injured Fabio Aurelio. What was also disappointing was the amount of criticism aimed at Insua by Liverpool ‘fans’. It is important to remember that he is still just 21 years old and has been thrust into the side due to Aurelio’s constant injury problems and Andrea Dossena and John Arne Riise have both moved to Serie A with Napoli and AS Roma respectively. It is the same situation with Lucas Leiva. He receives more criticism than he is due and fans normally state how he cannot pass or tackle. He is currently the fifth most successful tackler in the Premier League with a success rate of 69% and before last weekend he was in the top five passers in the league. Not bad for a player who cannot pass or tackle.

The suspension of Insua has resulted in talk of ‘three at the back’ but for me this would not be the best option as Benfica like to make the most of their wide men; in particular Di Maria. A five man midfield would probably need wing backs and then we are back with the problem of who plays at left wing back. Where would Glen Johnson feature if we had to play with three at the back without wing-backs? It would seem foolish to leave him out of a game that requires us to attack from the off. My final point on three at the back would be that it has been a long time since we have played with this system. I believe that it takes time for players to adapt to a different formation and now is not the time to change in what could be a season defining game. I will leave the team selection to Rafa.

Back to the game and after chances aplenty from Benfica came the big talking point of the match. Brazilian defender Luisao’s wild tackle from behind on Fernando Torres resulted in Ryan Babel receiving a straight red card for touching Luisao in the face. It could be argued that Luisao should have received a straight red card for the tackle itself yet Swedish referee Jonas Eriksson deemed that a yellow card would suffice. The tackle was of a reckless nature which then saw Babel remonstrate with Luisao before touching, and note not hitting out at, the Benfica captain in the face. It is a silly thing to do in the modern game even though it seems petulant, Fifa laws state that if a player raises or puts his hand in another player’s face then it is red card. If contact is made from a player to another player’s chest or below then it is a yellow card. Take note Ryan to push Luisao in the chest next time! Down to ten men with the whole of the second half and part of the first still to play ensured that it was going to be difficult to contain an attacking Benfica side.

Fracas: Ryan Babel receives his marching orders.

The second half saw us start brightly but things got worse on the hour mark as Insua felled fellow Argentine Pablo Aimar in the penalty area. This stemmed from us failing to deal with Oscar Cardozo’s powerful free kick which had moments before rattled the post. It was Cardozo who stepped up and powerfully tucked his spot-kick into the corner of the net. Either side of the equaliser saw further incidents; however, this time they were in the shape and form of missiles from the Benfica fans behind Jose Reina in the Liverpool goal. The second of the two missiles left its mark on the pitch and resulted in the referee consulting his fourth, fifth and six officials after the Additional Assistant closest to the missile was left nursing a sore ear. Lets hope we can show the Benfica fans how to behave properly in the return leg without the need of missiles to intimidate officials.

With ten minutes to go, Angel Di Maria skipped to the byline and his cross struck Jamie Carragher on his outstretched hand and a second penalty was awarded. You could tell after witnessing two penalties and a red card that this was not to be our night and a seventeenth defeat in a disappointing season loomed. Paraguay international Cardozo stepped up again to coolly slot his penalty into the same side of the net after waiting for Reina to dive the other way. This took his tally to thirty this season which will inevitably link him with a big money move to Manchester City among others in the summer. I do not normally like to blame referees for the outcome of games but he appeared to favour the home side with innocuous tackles from us being given as fouls whilst Ryan Babel got kicked in the head in the first half without a free kick being given. Jose Reina also got booked for time-wasting with a goal kick yet he only had the ball for a mere six seconds. I have not even accounted for the number of fouls and kicks Fernando Torres received.

Paraguayan striker Oscar Cardozo

With this considered, we did have a few chances of our own. Fernando Torres had the best of the chances after being released by Dirk Kuyt in the latter stages of the second half but he uncharacteristically and agonizingly spurned the opportunity by dragging his one-on-one chance wide of the post. Torres was later left with a chance to run at David Luiz but the Brazilian defender matched him for pace and strength and thwarted the attack.

We managed to see out the last ten minutes without further scare and the away goal provided by Agger could prove vital in the return leg as they so often do. Two further positives are that Javier Mascherano and Fernando Torres did not pick up a yellow card in the match which would have resulted in them being ruled out of the return leg through suspension. Providing and praying that we do not pick up any injuries against Birmingham City on Sunday, Rafa Benitez has a more or less full squad to choose from.

It will be tough in the second but a famous European night at Anfield always fills me with optimism and I would not be surprised to see us win 1-0.

Mark Jepson

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The Race for Fourth

24 03 2010

As the race for fourth place hots up, it is looking increasingly unlikely that Liverpool will finish in the coveted fourth Champions League qualifying spot. Currently lying in sixth place in the Premier League and having played one game more than fourth placed Tottenham and two games more than Manchester City and Aston Villa, it looks an increasingly uphill battle. That said, a look into the remaining fixtures perhaps suggests that Liverpool’s run-in is more favourable than that of our rivals.

The Champions League Trophy: The Race for Fourth.

Manchester City are for me favourites to clinch fourth place, largely due to them having nothing else to compete for and they have six of their remaining nine league games at home where they are yet to be beaten. They have two games in hand on Liverpool and one on Tottenham and despite the saying that you would rather have the points on the board, I fancy City to win their games in hand. This said, they still have to play Everton tonight, as well as their last five games being against Manchester United, Arsenal, Aston Villa, Tottenham and West Ham on the final day of the season, who themselves will be scrapping for their Premier League status. By no means are these easy games for City but if they have genuine aspirations of finishing fourth and even higher next season, these are the type of games they must find a way of winning.

Number One: Mancini's side are in pole position to challenge Europe's elite.

Moving on to Tottenham who have today announced the signing of Brazilian midfielder Sandro from Internacional. They face Fulham in the FA Cup replay at White Hart Lane tonight with the winner facing crisis-club Portsmouth in the semi final. Their Premier League race for fourth run-in is as difficult as Manchester City’s. Trips to Sunderland, Burnley and Manchester City, in what could essentially be a Champions League play-off, are tough enough yet they also have to face Chelsea, Manchester United and Arsenal in consecutive matches. Their record against the ‘big three’ is not too impressive and I struggle to see them picking up more than three points against the sides currently above them. When this is considered with their recent spell of injuries to key players such as Roman Pavlyuchenko, Jermain Defoe and Aaron Lennon, I think their most realistic chance of having a successful season is to win the FA Cup and qualify for the Europa League after a year without European football.

Defoe, with 17 Premier League goals, is out for three weeks.

This leads me on to Aston Villa who have already booked their place in the FA Cup semi final. I struggle to see them finishing fourth as for one reason, I don’t think their squad is big enough and they are suffering from a loss of form, particularly at home where they have won just once in their last six. Their squad is thin in the sense that when Gabriel Agbonlahor gets injured, they often resort to long balls for John Carew or Emile Heskey despite on their day playing attractive football. Their run-in is more favourable than Tottenham’s and Manchester City’s but they must still face City away, the only side yet to be beaten at home this season, as well as a trip to Chelsea and the Midlands derby with surprise package Birmingham City. Much like Liverpool last season, defeats haven’t been their downfall but they are picking up too many draws with the latest at home to local rivals Wolves proving this point. Villa have lost half as many games as Liverpool yet they have won two less. Their inability to turn these draws into wins could prove costly and I can only see them finishing seventh. The return of key players at Everton could even see them push for a top seven finish. As a result, like Tottenham, I see their best chance of having a successful season being an FA Cup win and Europa League football again next season.

The strain begins to show: O'Neill looks on as Villa drop two points against Wolves.

This leaves me with Liverpool. A season that offered so much hope after last season’s second place finish saw us crash out of the Champions League early and lose to Arsenal and Reading in the Carling and FA Cups respectively. The two-legged Europa League clash with Portuguese side Benfica is fast approaching and this is the last remaining trophy to aim for. However, given our current financial situation, a fourth placed finish would be received as warmly as a trophy itself. Our run-in is perhaps on paper the easiest out of the four sides battling for fourth with Chelsea the only side left to play above us. Yet our away form this season is woeful; we have only won four games away from Anfield so far. Four draws and eight defeats tells the rest of the story and proves this is where our weakness lies. Birmingham away will be a tough game after they came close to beating us at Anfield and will surely want revenge for David Ngog’s late dive that cost them all three points. However, the trip to St. Andrews aside, our only other two away games are Hull City and Burnley. No disrespect to either side but if we do not take six points from those two games then we simply do not deserve to finish fourth. Our remaining home games see us entertain Sunderland next before three visits from London sides Fulham, Chelsea and West Ham United. On paper, it looks like five or six wins from the final seven fixtures is not unrealistic. Football, as I’m sure you’re aware, is not played on paper.

The fitness of Gerrard and Torres is vital if Liverpool can maintain their push for fourth.

In a season of ups and (considerably more) downs and despite remaining optimistic it appears that the “Top Four’s” stranglehold over the Premier League is about to be broken for the first time since Everton finished fourth in the 2004-2005 season. The current squad have of course been there and done it before on club football’s biggest stage and this experience could prove vital. If we stay injury free and move on from “Rieragate” then who would bet against the masters of the comeback? Istanbul alone proves that anything in football is possible. I think it will almost likely go down to the wire but despite Rafa’s promise of a fourth placed finish; it is no longer in our hands.

Mark Jepson





So Long Rafa

15 01 2010

Thursday, 14 January 2010

Twelve points adrift in the Premier League, out of the Carling Cup, failure to progress in the Champions League and now out of the FA Cup at the first hurdle after an embarrassing defeat to Reading at Anfield. We should take nothing away from Reading as they deserved their win, but where does this leave us now? Shane Long’s extra time winner leaves us looking at the long road ahead.
 
In the space of nine months we have gone from title challengers, and almost winners, to scrapping for fourth place with Aston Villa, Manchester City and Tottenham Hostpur. Furthermore, Birmingham, Sunderland and Stoke are all cranking the pressure on us. In these nine months, not too much has changed. Alvaro Arbeloa and Xabi Alonso have left but they have been replaced by Glen Johnson and Alberto Aquilani. Whilst the off-field troubles are not helping, it’s Rafa Benitez’s tactics and team selection that are coming under scrutiny once again. His insistence on playing out of form players such as Emiliano Insua, Lucas Leiva and Dirk Kuyt week in, week out is not helping. Insua for one not only looks out of form, but looks rock bottom for confidence. In fact I would go as far as saying that Gordon Brown will be more confident of delivering Labour a fourth consecutive election win than Insua will be of delivering a good performance for Liverpool. His positional sense, heading ability and lack of pace all leave a lot to be desired but the squad is too thin for changes. Players are leaving so that the wage bill can be trimmed but replacements are not forth coming. Our owners insistence on selling players before we can buy is having a harmful effect on the club. In January Andrea Dossena has gone back to Italy for a small loss, and Andrey Voronin has also finally left for Dynamo with Ryan Babel and Philipp Degen also open to moves. Yet just Argentina winger Maxi Rodriguez looks like arriving in this window and after last nights toothless performance, he must be wondering what on Earth he has signed up for. An already thin squad is getting thinner. Take into account the injuries we’ve had and things do not look like getting any better. Once Fernando Torres gets injured, it’s left to David N’Gog or Dirk Kuyt to fill the void and provide the goals and quite frankly, they’re just not up to task. Performances like last nights will also leave Marouane Chamakh wondering whether a Bosman move to us is in the summer really is a good idea.
 
At least Rodriguez has signed to give us some much needed width as once again we are looking desperate in the wide areas. I don’t wish to keep singling out Kuyt as I think he is a good player, but creative right winger he is not. The same goes for wide left as Babel doesn’t look interested anymore and Riera keeps picking up injuries. Aside from Jose Reina, Gerrard and Torres we look distinctly average. Failure to qualify for next season’s Champions League means offers may have to be considered for our last remaining top players which is why qualification is imperative. Each loss that we suffer tightens the rope that is hanging around Rafa’s neck.
 
Yet as mentioned, the financial situation at the club means that sacking Rafa is almost impossible at this time as he has not long started a new five-year deal. As well as this, who could do a better job with the limited resources he would have? Whilst I am not suggesting that Rafa has not had money to spend, when you compare it to what our Champions League rivals are spending it looks an unenviable job guiding us to next season’s competition. Apart from Guus Hiddink, there isn’t really an abundance of managerial talent waiting for jobs although I assume Gary Megson is looking for an immediate return to management. He might be in our price range too. Although we all dream of the Jose Mourinho’s of this world managing our club it seems that managing Liverpool in this day and age is not as desireable as it once was. 
 
So after Shane Long’s winner last night, our FA Cup exit leaves me saying ‘So Long Rafa’, we will never forget Istanbul 2005 and Cardiff 2006 but perhaps you have taken us as far as you can.
 
Mark Jepson




2009 So Far

14 01 2010

First Written – 18th March 2009

December 2008 ended full of promise, hope, optimism and even allowed us kopites to smile at the thought of winning our first league title since 1990, coincidentally the year I was born, rather than wondering how we were out of the title race by November once again. Whilst Sunday’s victory over Chelsea allowed us to move back to second place in the league, it is looking increasingly difficult to see how teams are going to be capable of taking points off Manchester United.

The victory over Chelsea is all the more frustrating as it has been our first in the league of the year after very disappointing draws against Everton and Wigan to name just two. Along with this, take into account draws at Anfield to Stoke, Hull, Fulham and West Ham, that is just four points from a possible twelve. Eight points dropped to must supporters. It is this inability to beat the so called ‘lesser teams’ that makes January seem an even more frustrating month for Liverpool.

Robbie Keane’s departure back to Tottenham seems strange to say the least and with Fernando Torres struggling with fitness this year, Dirk Kuyt and rookie David N’Gog are our only other recognised first team strikers. Robbie Keane never really seemed to get a fair crack of the whip under Rafa Benitez, scoring just 7 goals. We’ve only lost one league game all season, to Tottenham ironically, yet we have had the most 0-0 draws in the league this season with 5. We’ve got more draws than an IKEA warehouse! Signing Keane for £20m to rarely use him, even when we are in need of a goal, suggests there are other issues at Anfield that the fans do not know about.

The lengthy saga of Benitez signing a new contract to constant takeover reports which today co-owner George Gillett further fuelled by saying he is ‘open’ to offers. On and off the field, it seems like a very lengthy first month of the year. Benitez not signing a new contract again shows a frosty relationship still between himself, the owners and the more and more unreliable figure that is Rick Parry. As well as the Keane blunder, Parry’s inability to offer key players Daniel Agger and Dirk Kuyt new contracts, as well as allowing Jermaine Pennant to go on a six-month loan deal to Portsmouth with just six months remaining on his contract, further showing that Parry is no longer up to the job. The frosty relationship suggests a power struggle within the Liverpool hierarchy and rather unfortunately, it seems as if Robbie Keane has been used as a pawn in the games.

Robbie Keane’s deadline day departure ruled out realistic possibilities of signing a replacement, despite murmurs of Javier Saviola joining from Real Madrid, or Aaron Lennon joining from Tottenham. It seems that the last six months have seen Benitez struggle to land Gareth Barry, a player he wanted, and suggests Keane was bought in but not by Benitez’s say so. The same six months has now seen Liverpool spend £20m on a player only to sell him back to the same club for just £12m. Although neither sums were paid up front and were dependant on success, it has not left my beloved Liverpool FC covered in glory. The cliché goes that a lot can happen quickly in a football, and it seems Liverpool are going to have to learn this the hard way.

Mark Jepson








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