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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Dirk’s Double Does the Damage – Match Report

22 01 2010

Liverpool’s victory over Tottenham Hotspur on Wednesday night gave everyone at the club a much needed boost following the FA Cup 3rd round defeat to Reading. This said, it was the third win in four in the league which has helped lift the Reds to within one point of fourth placed Tottenham. Dirk Kuyt’s sixth minute opener gave the injury-ravished Liverpool a deserved lead after finishing well from Alberto Aquilani’s lay off. Injuries to Glen Johnson, Daniel Agger, Fabio Aurelio, Yossi Benayoun, Steven Gerrard and Fernando Torres meant that the likes of Kuyt and Aquilani really had to step up to the plate on Wednesday, which they duly did.

Kuyt firing his first goal of the game

Chances were few and far between in the first 45 minutes, with Tottenham’s first chance coming just before Kuyt gave Liverpool the lead when Pepe Reina did well to smother the ball away from Niko Krancjar and Jermain Defoe. The visitor’s best chance came just before half time when Wilson Palacios slid a ball through to Luka Modric but Reina stood big and did well to deny the little Croatian. Liverpool’s only other first half chances came late from Martin Skrtel and Sotirios Kyrgiakos. The Liverpool versus Tottenham fixture is normally one of the better ones in a Premier League campaign but neither side really managed to claim the ascendency in the early parts of this one.

The beginning of the second half saw Liverpool lose concentration which nearly, and perhaps should have seen Tottenham equalise through who else but Jermain Defoe. A lack of concentration and subsequent mix-up from Kyrgiakos and Reina led to Defoe pinching the ball from Reina’s feet and slotting home into an empty net, only for the Kop to breathe a huge sigh of relief when the referee’s assistant adjudged Defoe as being offside. Replays suggest it was a somewhat fortuitous decision. This was the wake-up call that Liverpool were lucky to get but the next chance fell to the hosts as Philipp Degen’s run and cross was met by the head of Albert Riera whose header rattled Heurelho Gomes’ crossbar. It was desperately unlucky and left the Anfield faithful wondering whether it was a chance that would later be rued. Philipp Degen was to be involved again shortly after Riera’s chance when he flicked on a cross to Dirk Kuyt who blazed over from close range.

Jermaine Jenas then went close after about 65 minutes but Pepe Reina was in inspired form to palm the ball away to safety. Liverpool really should have put the match to bed after that when Kuyt’s high work-rate was rewarded as he stole possession on the halfway line before feeding Philipp Degen who wasted a golden opportunity. Manager Rafa Benitez had some special praise for Kuyt’s contribution in his post-match press conference where he said, “he was working very hard and maybe he could have scored four today,” Benitez told reporters. “His commitment is always 100 per cent, so we are pleased for him”. Spectacular efforts were next to follow from Albert Riera and then Alan Hutton for Spurs but neither goalkeeper was called into action on these occasions. This was to be the last chance for the visitors who lacked creativity in the final third with Tom Huddlestone and Aaron Lennon both sidelined through injury.

Benitez must take credit for some inspiring substitutions in this game as the introduction of Maxi Rodriguez and David N’Gog sparked Liverpool back into life and commanding centre-back Sotirios Kyrgiakos went close seven minutes from time but his left footed half-volley was beaten away by Gomes in the Tottenham goal. It seemed as if Rafa was content to take the 1-0 victory as he introduced Stephen Darby to the right side of midfield in a bid to shore things up but it was fellow substitute David N’Gog whose lively play helped wrap up the points. He first turned delightfully on the edge of the box to force a smart save from Gomes before getting Sebastian Bassong in a mess as the Cameroonian defender felled the France under-21 international just inside the penalty area to give Dirk Kuyt the chance for his and Liverpool’s second. Kuyt smashed home the penalty only for Howard Webb to demand a retake after encroaching from Lucas Leiva among others. At the second time of asking, Kuyt switched sides and cooly slotted home his eighth goal of the season.

Kuyt and Lucas acknowledge the fans after Kuyt doubles the lead

After the match Rafa Benitez not only had praise for Kuyt, but the whole team including fringe players Philipp Degen, Martin Skrtel and Sotirios Kyrgiakos who have equipped themselves well in the last two league games. Kyrgiakos reminds me of Sami Hyypia and this was demonstrated well in his handling of Mamady Sidibie against Stoke City and Degen looked full of running against Stoke and Tottenham whilst providing good defensive protection to Jamie Carragher at full-back. After the game, Benitez said “it is difficult to stop Crouch and Defoe, so I think the combination of Kyrgiakos and Skrtel did well,” before adding, “I said before, the squad is not as bad as people have said. Today we were without six players, but the rest of the squad showed character. We have to be pleased because everyone was working hard and the players who have not played too many games did well.” Without wishing to bemoan our bad luck with injuries too much, I do agree with Rafa. Everyone is keen to remind us that we are having a terrible season, yet we are now just one point behind Tottenham who are said to be having a fantastic season so things cannot be all bad.

To conclude, I think the addition of Maxi Rodriguez will turn out to be a shrewd piece of business, but it is the fitness of Benayoun, Gerrard and Torres that will be the key if we are to make the top four this season. Any team would miss Gerrard and Torres as they are pure and simply world-class, but the Tottenham game has shown that the squad is not overly-reliant on two players and it is now imperative that we kick on; starting away to Wolves.

Mark Jepson.





The Transfer Market

15 01 2010

The ‘Rafalution’ has certainly gone under the microscope at the minute and the media seem ever so keen to highlight his poor signings. Now, I’m not going to defend some of his signings as I’m sure you would agree that Nunez, Josemi and Kromkamp sent most fans into a cold sweat every time they made an appearance. However, when considering some of his poor signings against the flops bought by other top 4 managers, you will realise the media are being a little unfair.

Yes I could give a mention to Fergie, Wenger and Abramovich/Kenyon’s flops too. Crespo, Shevchenko and Veron or Kleberson, Djemba-Djemba and Taibi are all far worse signings than some of Rafa’s and a lot costlier too. However, Rafa seems to bring a lot of criticism on himself. His stubborn persistence with players such as Lucas Leiva (whose birth certificate I would like to see) separates him from the rest. If Ferguson makes a mistake, they are almost always sold on, more often than not for profit I hasten to add. The same with Chelsea to a degree, if a player is just simply not good enough, he will be sold, or in the case of Hernan Crespo be loaned out for about 3 years! Chelsea don’t have to worry about flops as much however due to their unrivalled wealth, or at least it was unrivalled until Manchester City’s owners graced our shores. It is this where I feel Rafa is being a little harshly treated. His ‘eye for talent’ is something that is also often challenged. I can assure you that there is nothing wrong with his eye for talent, he just does not have the financial means to always sign who he wants. It is for that reason that he ends up signing second or third choice players who are often gambles. Inevitably, gambles do not always pay off. Rafa has identified David Villa, David Silva, Daniel Alves, Simao Sabrosa, Sergio Aguero (before he signed for Atletico) among others as potential signings so there is nothing wrong with his eye for talent. However, when Rick Parry was at the helm and our worrying financial situation these were unrealistic targets. Instead he ended up with Jermaine Pennant, who was deemed to not be good enough for Arsenal yet we signed anyway, as well as Mark González, Fernando Morientes and Andriy Voronin.

Benitez has more often than not got it right when he has been able to spend big although he has had to sell before he can buy in the summer gone by. Can people really argue with the signings of a certain striker named Fernando Torres? How about Pepe Reina, Xabi Alonso, Javier Mascherano, Daniel Agger and Glen Johnson? I’m sure regardless of who you support you would not be disappointed to see anyone of these on your club’s team sheet. Furthermore, he’s trying to restructure the youth academy which, in my opinion, was long overdue. Although I’m not sure whether he should be getting involved in this area of the club, things certainly seem to be improving. As Gerard Houllier once said about the academy, ‘I’m not expecting the next Steven Gerrard, but I wouldn’t mind a few Jamie Carraghers.’ I feel Rafa has echoed those sentiments, and although there will never be another Steven Gerrard, he is slowly introducing one or two young players who are most definitely prospects. Martin Kelly’s man of the match performance on his debut against Olympique Lyonnais shows this. Furthermore, Jay Spearing made his debut in a home tie against Real Madrid. Gone are the days of rolling out McManaman’s, Fowler’s and Owen’s year after year, but it’s a step in the right direction.

Although it may seem hard to believe, I’m not so pro-Rafa that I would defend him whatever happens. Six defeats in a season that is still only in October is by no way good enough. However, as I may just have mentioned once or twice, we are rather struggling somewhat in terms of finance. Would it really be wise to sack him at the cost of around £20m? That is the sort of figure he would get as he only signed his latest deal on the 18th March 2009. Then a new manager arrives with a whole array of new ideas that would probably take another 5 years to implement fully and by that time Gerrard and Carragher will either be gone or well past their best. I guess what I am trying to say is that it was only a few months ago that Rafa led us to four points from winning the title and although Alonso has gone, not much else has changed.

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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