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





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.





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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