Studs Up


All Hail Record-Breaking Barca.
April 23, 2009, 5:29 pm
Filed under: Football

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Last night, Barcelona thumped 3rd placed Sevilla 4-0, to confirm their superiority at the top of La Liga. A total annihilation of one of their nearest challengers, moving them 6 points clear with just 6 games remaining, and all wihout their star player Lionel Messi involved, this was a seriously good game for Barcelona. But significantly, in rattling in 4 goals (which can be viewed here), they also moved onto a total of 92 league goals for the season. This beats the previous club record that was held by Johann Cruyff‘s famous “Dream Team” of the early 90s. Given that Cruyff’s side contained players such as Pep GuardiolaGheorghe HagiRonald KoemanMichael LaudrupRomário and Hristo Stoichkov, this is a stunning achievement.

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Is there a finer team in Europe at the moment? It is difficult to think that there could be. Either way, I’m sure I am not alone in my eagerness to see the next chapter in their quest for Champions League glory this season. But as Ben King at Soccerlens points out, there might well be a certain Czech goalkeeper who is not sleeping all that well right now.

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New Kit Update
April 23, 2009, 2:23 pm
Filed under: Football

Here are some of the latest pictures of EPL sides’ new kits for next season. First up, Chelsea:

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To me the design for these tops with chest padding and some sort of throat-zip makes them look like a cross between a Cycling top and an American Football shirt. The style is clearly a theme for them, as can be seen from this possible picture of Middlesborough‘s new kit for next season:

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And for this reason, I am very glad that Adidas are not designing a new kit for Liverpool this year. Having said that, Newcastle‘s kit for next season is much more tasteful and conventional:

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Adidas must be more than a little concerned that two of their sides look to be in grave danger of relegation to the Championship. Although my intense dislike for Sam Allardyce and Phil Brown (both on a personal and a footballing level) causes me to hope otherwise, I cannot see both struggling clubs from the north-east surviving.

Finally, here is a sneak preview of Everton‘s new kit for next season:

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Having reunited with previous kit manufacturer Le Coq Sportif, Everton are clearly trying to recapture the magic of the early 80s with this latest offering. I actually really like it, although having seen Liverpool’s upturn in domestic fortunes whilst wearing a retrospective grey away kit, I’ll be hoping that it does not have a similar effect on Everton’s ability to challenge for the title.



Some Further Thoughts on “The 4-4”.
April 23, 2009, 1:45 pm
Filed under: Football, Liverpool FC

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Having let the dust settle on Liverpool and Arsenal’s bizarrely entertaining encounter on Tuesday night, here are some of the related articles I enjoyed reading.

When Chris Bascombe defected from the Echo and started making up complete rubbish for the News Of The World (causing some controversy it must be said), Tony Barrett stepped up to become the main writer for matter relating to Liverpool Football Club, and I always enjoy his articles. So first up is his official report for the Echo on the Tuesday night’s game:

http://www.liverpoolecho.co.uk/liverpool-fc/liverpool-fc-news/2009/04/22/liverpool-4-arsenal-4-it-s-russian-roulette-100252-23444258/

Secondly, I thought Phil McNulty‘s article in his Blog for the BBC was a fairly spot on analysis of both the events of the game, the context in which they took place and how they affect what’s left of the title-race. So here it is:

http://www.bbc.co.uk/blogs/philmcnulty/2009/04/rafael_benitezs_mood_was_so.html

Next up, Matt Hughes‘ comment for The Game football supplement in The Times nicely reminds the reader that Liverpool’s title challenge was not ended by Andrey Arshavin (if indeed it has been ended), but by their early season draws at home including 0-0s against Stoke, West Ham and Fulham. It’s worth a read:

http://timesonline.typepad.com/thegame/2009/04/rafa-benitez-should-have-gone-for-broke-earlier.html

And lastly, Scott Bennett’s opinion of the game for EPL Talk was certainly different. Bennett found it hard to reconcile himself with the idea that a game packed so full of defensive errors could be regarded as a classic. His argument is interesting:

http://www.epltalk.com/liverpool-arsenal-flatter-to-deceive-in-8-goal-cock-up/6133

Plus, I wanted to spare a thought for Ray Kennedy (the former Liverpool player whose 20-year battle with Parkinson’s has left him in financial crisis), and the excellent show of unity and support for him from both Liverpool and Arsenal supporters. Ray Kennedy was nothing short of a legend at Liverpool, his seemingly unlikely transformation from striker to midfielder will be remembered as one of (Sir) Bob Paisley’s shrewdest manoeuvres, which is really saying something. But he was also a member of the Arsenal side which won the double in 1971, and therefore commands a place in their hearts also. Before the game, mosaics were raised (pictured below) to raise awareness for the Ray of Hope Appeal

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16 goals, a near heart-attack, and total agony.
April 22, 2009, 12:45 am
Filed under: Football, Liverpool FC

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I can’t remember a time when two games were played out in such bizarre and dramatic circumstances, that were also so pivotal to a team’s season. Liverpool’s last two games, both 4-4 draws, have contained a rich mixture of despair, excitement, desperation, anger, adrenaline and ultimately total despair from the point of view of their supporters. One thing’s for certain, anyone who reckons Rafael Benitez is an advocate of boring football needs a firm punch to the throat.

Plenty has already been said about the 2nd leg of Liverpool’s UEFA Champions League Quarter-Final clash with Chelsea. It was a brave show of resistance from a Liverpool side shorn of their inspirational skipper, in a game littered with defensive errors, but ultimately a result over the two legs that was essentially established after the first 90 minutes. But while Tuesday night also included most of the elements described above, Liverpool had plenty of reason to feel optimistic ahead of their must-win game with Arsenal. But they didn’t win. It’s worth pointing out that Arsenal came to Anfield with their league season all but finished, and Arsene Wenger effectively chose to rest both of his 1st choice strikers. Had Van Persie and Adebayor been playing, Liverpool might not have been able to dominate the majority of the game to the extent that they did. But as it was, merely having 3 times the number of efforts on target (Arsenal scored with each of theirs), the lion’s share of possession and numerous corners without reply was not enough to secure the right result. And as has been said often, football is a results business. Credit to Arsenal, and obviously to the irritatingly baby-faced Andrey Arshavin in particular, for finishing the 4 chances they created (or were gifted) with such lethal efficiency. But for Liverpool, some serious thought has to go into how they managed to score 4 goals at Anfield and still failed to win the game.

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Either way, the league title is now all but in the grasp of Sir Alex Ferguson’s Manchester Utd. Fergie showed himself to be capable of stooping to levels that were possibly previously considered below even him with his pathetically engineered and downright offensive comments regarding Rafa Benitez last week. To make things personal to the extent that he did, especially in such aggressive and cruel fashion, had nothing to do with a sporting contest. If fact, his crass behaviour barely warrants a mention in the context of a proper game of football contested by two excellent sides with generally dignified managers. And for this reason, I’d expect any neutral to be disappointed with Tuesday night’s result, because Utd now have an enormous advantage going into the final stages of this season, and Ferguson’s crude behaviour looks like going unpunished. It’s not quite over, but barring a hugely surprising collapse on the part of defending champions, Liverpool will be licking their wounds this summer following another blank season.

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However, at the beginning of the season, the charge levied at Rafa Benitez was that he was not capable of building a team capable of challenging seriously for the league title. That has quite clearly been shown to be complete and utter rubbish. In Fernando Torres, notably only the Premiership’s 10th most expensive player, Liverpool have the most electrifying and devastating striker in the league (his goals-to-games ratio for this season shows that if he’d started more than half of Liverpool’s games this season, their league prospects might look rather different). And their captain Steven Gerrard, homegrown and forever Red, is one of the  best players in the world. But Benitez has added to these two stars with players such as Xabi Alonso, Dirk Kuyt and Yossi Benayoun, players who do not command the sort of fees and wages paid by Chelsea and Man Utd for the likes of Ballack, Essien, Drogba, Ronado, Berbatov and Rooney. And these players have stepped up and shown themselves to be capable of producing fantastic goal-scoring football within the incredibly systematic tactical set-up built by Benitez. There may not be a team capable of playing the sort of flowing football that Arsene Wenger’s Arsenal can conjure up on their day, but last night his young Gunners were made to look utterly helpless at times by the high-tempo pressing approach of Liverpool. Yet they banged in 4 goals and came away with a proud point. Nevertheless, Benitez has made his own point this season to his critics (who sadly include at least one of Liverpool’s owners), and Liverpool fans can at least bask in the knowledge that the great Spaniard has signed a new long term deal that looks like granting him the control he needs to bring the major trophies that they richly deserve.

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Those fans could be loudly heard singing You’ll Never Walk Alone after Arshavin’s killer 4th goal had been scored, and before Benayoun’s potential lifeline of a 4th Liverpool goal had gone in at the Kop end. Liverpool is a special club with special fans, and they covered themselves in glory in the closing stages of Tuesday night’s game, during a week in which it has emerged that secret Police Files relating to the Hillsborough Disaster might be opened early. Bill Shankly once said that football was more important than life and death, but the families and friends of the 96 fans who died 20 years ago can tell us otherwise, and so the victory secured by the determined and defiant fighters of the Hillsborough Justice Campaign this week counts for more than 3 points ever could. They may not be able to succeed in either the English Premier League or the UEFA Champions League this season, but with more wins achieved via goals in the last 10 minutes of games than any other team this season, Rafa’s boys have shown that they never give up. And neither do their loyal supporters.

Well done to Liverpool for an amazing game, but also to an excellent Arsenal side for playing their part last night. I certainly wish them the very best of luck ahead of their European tie with Utd. They’ll have the support of every Merseysider. In the meantime, while their record of 18 league titles looks set to be equalled, Liverpool can march on in the knowledge that they need only to cling to the same never-say-die attitude they have shown this season, and with Rafa in charge (hopefully with the aid of “King” Kenny Dalglish), the wait for the elusive 19th will surely be short.



Monday Night Link-Up
April 20, 2009, 5:10 pm
Filed under: Football

real-spatch

I don’t really have an opinion on which position is the most important in football. The world’s most expensive player ever, Zinedine Zidane, was an attacking midfielder. And looking at the Top 10 Most Expensive Transfers in the history of football, no particular position features above all others, even striker. However, one position is conspicuous by its absence, and that is full-back.

This leads me to this week’s Monday Night Link-Up. Jonathan Wilson, writing for The Guardian, puts forward a very interesting argument for the importance of full-backs, and not just in the modern game.

Check it out:

http://www.guardian.co.uk/football/blog/2009/mar/25/the-question-full-backs-football



Beyond The Pale?
April 17, 2009, 5:00 pm
Filed under: Football, Liverpool FC

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The war of words between Sir Alex Ferguson and Rafa Benitez has burst back into the limelight today following an incredible Friday pre-match press conference involving the Manchester Utd manager. Ferguson’s comments regarding the Liverpool manager are, in my opinion, absolutely outrageous. He calls Benitez “arrogant”, suggests that he behaves unlike any Liverpool manager before him, and even labels him “beyond the pale”, all of which seems very extreme indeed. Moreover, Ferguson has been joined by Sam Allardyce, who is apparently upset about a gesture that Benitez made following Fernando Torres’ 2nd goal against his Blackburn side at Anfield last Saturday. Benitez made a hand signal, which can be seen here (about 1 minute 20 seconds in), which Allardyce has somehow interpreted as some sort of disrespectful gesture towards he and his team. Ferguson seems to share this interpretation, but in calling for more respect, both seem to have conventiently forgotten that Allardyce described Benitez as a man who “loves to whinge” ahead of last weekend’s game. In addition to this, has Ferguson forgotten Mourinho’s dance down the touchline following Costinha’s goal in 2004? Sure that was a little bit more extreme than Rafa’s brief gesture, yet Ferguson recently described the Portuguese as terrific for football. So where is the consistency?!

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Paul Tomkins article on the subject points to a few of the inconsistencies in Ferguson’s stance, but the most striking thing for me is that Ferguson has, seemingly out of nowhere, decided to abandon his “not bothered” approach to his verbal battle with Benitez and has now fully waded in. If anything, he has raised the stakes, because although Benitez has questioned Ferguson’s behaviour towards the FA and referees, as well as suggesting that the Utd manager feels under pressure from Liverpool, he has not to my knowledge made a personal attack. But, in directly calling Benitez “arrogant” and “beyond the pale” Ferguson now has.

All in all, something doesn’t sit quite right. Why did Allardyce wait so long to disclose his discontent at Benitez’s perceived contempt? Why is Ferguson making headlines talking about Benitez in the run up to an FA Cup semi-final with Everton, not Liverpool. Could it be that Ferguson is a little bit worried now that his Utd side have 10 matches to play between now and the end of the season, while Liverpool only need to prepare for 6? Benitez did suggest that it might suit Ferguson as little better if it where Liverpool who progressed to the UEFA Champions League semi-finals at the expense of Chelsea. So, Ferguson’s sudden tirade in the aftermath of Chelsea’s amazing win does tend to support that theory.

Either way, I may be biased (well, obviously I’m very biased), but Ferguson and Allardyce seem to me to be completely out of order. They are conspiring to make things genuinely personal, which is just taking things a bit far. Benitez has received much criticism for supposedly labelling Everton a “small club”, but was what he said as extreme as the wonderful comments of Bill Shankly? The great man once said “there are two good football teams in Merseyside, Liverpool…. and Liverpool Reserves”, but rather than being lambasted for disrespect, he was hailed as a great character, and rightly so.

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Ferguson has definitely stepped things up a notch in his verbal sparring with Benitez, but the ultimate measure of success will be in trophies at the end of the season. Arsenal visit Liverpool on Tuesday night, and anything other than 3 points for the home team will hand the title to Man Utd on a nice silver platter. So I for one will be hoping that the jibes of Allardyce and Ferguson do not have their desired effect.



Boring and Predictable?
April 8, 2009, 9:55 pm
Filed under: Football

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When the draw was made for the quarter finals of the Champions League, my response to it was negative. Firstly, it seemed to me that we were set for a repeat of last year’s competition, in which the semi-finals were overloaded with English teams. And in addition to this, even as a Liverpool fan, I could barely be bothered with yet another clash with Chelsea. “Here we go again” I thought, as I turned my focus towards the failings within FIFA and UEFA that were eating away at the fabric of the game. But, with the 1st round of ties now completed, things are not panning out in as routine a fashion as I’d expected.

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Last night, Porto surprised everybody by coming and having a really good go at Man Utd, and it paid off for them quite handsomely. It’s unfortunate from a Porto supporter’s perspective that Bruno Alves’ horrific back-pass gifted Utd a route back into a game that was running away from them, but with their 2-2 draw they remain in with more than a shout of progressing to the semi-finals. This comes as a big surprise for me, as I’d expected Man Utd to completely roll them aside at Old Trafford. Now Utd must win at the Estádio do Dragão, a feat yet to be performed by any English club. So, while it would be absurd to write off Utd, at least you can say that the tie is exciting and difficult to predict, which is more than many would have been expecting.

And then there is the all-English tie. Amazingly, Rafael Benitez has prepared his Liverpool side for no less than 21 encounters with Chelsea since he came to Liverpool in 2004, with another to come next Tuesday. The majority of these matches have been cagey and boring, and I feared more of the same tonight and next week. However, while tonight’s game with Chelsea did not make pleasant viewing for me at all (I’ve not seen a worse Liverpool performance at Anfield on a European night in years), I have to admit that it seemed at least like it must have been a great game of football for a neutral to watch. And not only was it a good game, it was also a major upset that will have raised eyebrows across Europe. In their last European game, Liverpool inflicted the heaviest ever defeat on Europe’s most successful club, and since then they have rattled 4 goals past Man Utd at Old Trafford and 5 past Aston Villa at Anfield. So anyone who was predicting that they would be out-passed, out-muscled and outplayed by Chelsea tonight is a shrewder reader of the game than most.

So, does this represent another victory for football? Well, not for me. Obviously it is hard for me to sit back and objectively analyse a game that also happens to be a crushing defeat for Liverpool, so perhaps I am a little biased in taking little pleasure from a game that certainly seemed to be played in the right way. But even if the score had been 7-5 to Liverpool, I would still be finding it totally absurd that Liverpool are playing Chelsea yet again in the Champions League. To put it in perspective, the last time a season went by during which Liverpool and Chelsea did not meet in the Champions League at some stage, Liverpool had not qualified for the competition at all. So while tonight’s open and reasonably attractive encounter may have been a real relief from the usual drab games between the two sides, wouldn’t it still have been much more exciting for a neutral to watch two much more unfamiliar European sides battling instead?

In fact, the vast majority of neutrals will not have been watching Liverpool vs Chelsea tonight, and quite rightly so. If I were not a Liverpool fan, I would most certainly have been watching Barcelona destroying Bayern Munich in the other quarter final. Bayern knocked 12 goals past Sporting Lisbon during their encounter in the 1st knock-out stage, and were therefore considered to be a formidable and dangerous opponent for Barcelona. However, although I have only seen highlights, it would appear that Messi, Eto’o, Henry etc have swept them aside with the same attacking force that has seen them score a massive 85 goals in La Liga. You can always rely on Pep Guardiola’s Barcelona side to entertain, and if they keep getting the ball to their front 3, they will keep winning games.

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Before anyone gets too carried away with a set of quarter-finals that have so far been unanimously attractive and exciting whilst producing a couple of unexpected results, it is important to note that we could still very easily see another semi-final draw containing 3 English clubs. Moreover, the dismal nightmare scenario of a repeat of last year’s final is still horribly possible. But, I do think that the approach that has been adopted by all of the teams so far has been excellent, and the result has been 4 excellent games. So perhaps it is not all doom and gloom for European football… perhaps.