Champions League Draw Gives Reds a Little of Everything

The potential outcomes for the Champions League group stage draw were as varied as the starting lineups of Rafa Benitez. Reds across the world seemed split about what they wanted from the world’s most elite club competition. Some supporters dreamed of facing European giants while others were content with fishing for Europe’s minnows.

In Monaco on Thursday, Liverpool drew a bit of everything, which should suit them just fine.

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Man Utd 2-1 Liverpool | Why Would You Shake His Hand? |

By Jonathan Carroll

Many vital questions remain unanswered about Liverpool after this derby match at Old Trafford and sadly most of them pertain to events irrelevant to the issue of winning football games. Welcome to the circus that is the Luis Suarez and Patrice Evra media orgy that has been a dream come true for many English tabloid writer as well as John Terry who must be asking what he has done to deserve this lack of attention for his own racism case. Continue reading

Six Beautiful Moments for Liverpool FC

In my post before Liverpool faced Real Madrid at Anfield on Tuesday, I hoped for the kind of Champions League moments that remain in the memory and define a campaign. Liverpool’s four goals and two other bits of brilliance made my wish come true in a greater abundance than I could have imagined.

Four minutes in, Fernando Torres signaled his ravenous intent with a brilliant backheel and turn that left the Madrid defenders in his wake. Keeper Iker Casillas threw himself down to keep the shot out, but I could see Torres was going to score on his old hometown rivals before the day was over. It seemed unavoidable. The beauty of that move stayed with me. When Torres gets on the ball it is so scary how naturally good he is. Like one man shouldn’t be that talented.

Shortly after that, Javier Mascherano’s powered blast from just outside the box forced Casillas into one of many acrobatic saves. Spain’s national keeper pushed the ball over, but the shot was so beautiful, and like Torres’ turn, it showed the Red resolve to break down the defense and sully Casillas’ clean sheet.

Those moments obviously would have been truly beautiful had they resulted in goals. But the brilliance of their execution and the doggedness of their intent were enough them to remain in my mind. Besides. They would have gone past most keepers. Casillas is simply too good and one must expect him to make so many saves that shock spectators and defy the laws of physics. Only the fact that Liverpool won with such conviction allows me to appreciate that I got to see one of the finest keeper’s on the planet display his artistry.

On sixteen minutes, Pepe Reina found Torres with a long ball into the attacking third. Torres tried to knock it down in the path of Dirk Kuyt, but Madrid’s Pepe got in the middle of it. Torres’ quick pressure on Pepe saw the ball go to Kuyt anyway. Before Pepe could recover, Torres was in front of goal, emphatically gestering at the empty space in front of him. I’m open!!!! Dirk responded with a crisp pass and Torres pulled the trigger first time. Goal.

Twelve minutes later, the linesman adjudged that Gabriel Heinze had handled the ball in the area. Though Liverpool were awarded the penalty, the replay showed the call to be a harsh one. Alvaro Arbeloa had taken the ball off his chest and the ricochet caught Heinze on the shoulder. The ref clearly decided Heinze was using his arm to interfere, but it seemed there was little the Argentinian could have done to avoid making the contact.

I felt a little guilty but didn’t complain when Steven Gerrard stepped to the spot and sent Casillas the wrong way. The ball rattled into the upper left corner. It was now three-nil on aggregate.

While the penalty may have been undeserved, from Torres’ goal onward, the match was always going to Liverpool. The Reds were too dominant and too determined for any other result.

Ryan Babel loves to cut in when he’s coming down the flank. But on 47 minutes he opted to stay wide, beating Sergio Ramos before launching a perfect left-footed cross into the box. Gerrard steamed in at the perfect moment and caught the ball on the half-volley. The shot fired past Cassilas into the top corner. The captain’s genius and timing put him level with Miroslav Klose as top Champions League scorer with seven goals.

Raul had some decent chances, but Madrid were never coming back from four-nil down on aggregate. Just to be safe Andrea Dossena fired home a powerful shot off Javier Mascherano’s pass in the 89th minute. Ryan Babel had started the play and capping off the evening with such teamwork after such a fantastic 90 minute team performance was the perfect outro to a stunning match.

I would have been satisfied with a one-nil home leg. Two-nil would have been heavan. Where Liverpool found the legs to play such earth-shattering football on Tuesday is beyond me. But I hope they can recall it against Manchester United on Saturday. We shall see.

Oh, Those European Nights

Steven Gerrard’s heat-seeking missle against Olympiacos. Didi Hamann’s sweeping free-kick against Leverkusen. Sami Hyypia’s calm, cool finish against Juventus. Luis Garcia’s 25-yard swerving volley against the same. Garcia’s controversial just-over-the-line winner against Chelsea. And of course the three goals in the epic Instanbul comeback that was the 2005 Champions League final.

Playing in Europe is not merely Liverpool’s quest for the title. It’s all the moment of jaw-dropping magic along the way. Advancement is great. But the selfish supporter in me wants to see the sort of goals that are a mixture of artwork and circumstance. Things lining up just right so that a moment you can’t quite believe and can hardly digest unfolds before you. The things you love about football compressed into a perfect little package.

Against Barcelona in 2007, Steve Finnan floated a long ball into the box to find Craig Bellamy’s, whose header put it over the line. I lost myself. I screamed so loud the friend next to me almost went deaf in one ear in the quiet New Hampshire pub where we watched afternoon matches. I didn’t know if Bellamy had scored or if it had been Dirk Kuyt’s insurance tap-in that counted, all I knew is we had just equalized against one of the biggest clubs in Europe and secured an all important away goal. In the second half, Bellamy laid the ball off for John Arne Riise who put it home. We’d come back to Anfield with two away goals and a lead.

In the quarter-finals we faced PSV Eindhoven. In the away leg, Tommy Smyth announced that both sides were clearly playing for a draw. Liverpool would win 0-3. Gerrard had a low blast. Riise put away one of his long range specials. And Steve Finnan’s service to Peter Crouch for the third away goal may have been the most perfect cross I have ever seen. Good thing Liverpool didn’t come to attack, Tommy.

The semi-final second leg began with us down a goal to Chelsea. It seemed a bigger deficit somehow against the London giants who were eager to avenge Luis Garcia’s light goal from two years before. But when Gerrard’s free kick on 22 minutes found Daniel Agger just  inside the box and just beyond the traffic. Our Danish full-back placed it with his first touch and Liverpool went through to win it in penalty kicks.

So I know I’ve been spoiled. While 0-0 would be a great result for us today against Real Madrid, I want goals. I want two goals. I want two spectacular goals. At least.

I hope Torres starts and gets a chance to knock one back against his old hometown rivals. Maybe Stevie G will treat us to an old-school blast from 20+ yards out just like the good old days. Sami Hyypia could very well thank Rafa for finally including him in the current European squad with a viscious header off a corner kick. Something to make me go crazy and blow out the eardrums of those around me.

I’m not picky. As long as it defies the odds, the defense and maybe even the laws of physics. That’s all I ask for.

Waiting for Ryan Babel…

When I first saw Ryan Babel play for Liverpool, I thought, here is a massive signing. During his brief, subbed-on debut against Aston Villa, abundant pace and skill seemed bundled up in his feet, ready to burst forth once the kid found his Premier League legs. Dutch players are known for adapting to the EPL quickly. See: van Nistelrooy. See: van Persie. Ryan Babel would soon impact Liverpool’s attacking play: I felt certain.

While we were all examining pricey wunderkind Fernando Torres closely, wondering if the Spaniard would live up to the hype and the price tag (in retrospect, 20mil seems like a bargain, doesn’t it?), Ryan Babel floated into Anfield from Ajax comparatively under the radar for 11.5m. Supporters had hopes for the kid to be sure. But the expectations were not the same as those we laid upon Torres. And while Torres was enthralling supporters and breaking opposition hearts with his 33 goals, Babel was quietly trying to display his mettle whenever Rafa Benitez fielded him.

I saw Babel as another Luis Garcia, one of my favorite players when I first began following the Reds. I felt long term injury kept Garcia from realizing his full potential for Liverpool. Though I cannot complain about the deal that sent the Spanish winger to Atletico Madrid since the same deal brought Torres to Anfield, I had really hoped to see Garcia given another chance to return to first team play and show what he could do as a settled player with Premier League experience.

For me Ryan Babel was a second chance at what Luis Garcia could no longer offer. Babel would need time to settle into the league and grow as a player. Like Garcia, Babel was a winger-striker. Living in flux between two roles. Delightfully elusive.  An attacking player with flair and inventiveness. Unafraid to take that crazy shot on goal while also able to carve out danger down the flank and create that deadly chance for a teammate. I could see all this in Ryan Babel. He just needed time.

My excitement seemed to be ratified by his insane goal against Chelsea in the 2008 Champions League semifinals. While Chelsea would knock Liverpool out of the competition, Babel’s goal was part of an extra-time Red surge that almost brought victory back within Liverpool’s reach. From 35 yards out, Babel fired an absolute rocket. Peter Cech was caught off guard and off balance. While Cech managed to get a hand to it, the Dutchman’s ball was much too much to handle and the big keeper could only push it into the far side of the net. Goal. Babel brought Liverpool within sight of victory. The Reds wouldn’t make it to the final, but for supporters, the wondergoal was a signal: all the promise Ryan Babel had hinted at with his speed and footwork throughout his first season, might just blossom into something truly special in 2008/2009.

Enter Albert Riera.

Liverpool’s 2008 transfer window may have seemed innocuous and understated following the Summer of Torres, but one attacking purchase turned out to be a serious step forward. For a reported 8m, Albert Riera joined Liverpool’s ranks. Liverpool had been longing for a quality out-and-out leftside winger for ages. Harry Kewell’s injury woes prevented him from reaching the potential he had shown with Leeds. Bolo Zenden rarely influenced the match with Liverpool the way he did with Middlesbrough and, later, Marseille. Riera was proving himself on the wing almost immediately.

Riera quickly carved out a deserved spot in Rafa Benitez’s starting XI. Full of guile and vision, the Spaniard left countless defenders behind and launched the ball into all the dangerous spaces. He even had an eye for goal himself. Between Riera’s remarkable start to the season and Dirk Kuyt‘s dogged consistency on the right, Ryan Babel was relegated to the bench. Babel became Rafa’s supersub. Coming on in the late minutes to try and use his pace to outwit tiring back lines. But he’s shown little growth since his first signs of potential in the fall of 2007. Competing for pitch has not helped his Anfield education.

Supersub could be a decent role for the pacy, goalminded Dutchman, but what the kid really needs is starts.

Babel should be far more mature than he is after almost two full years in England. He should have an eye for when to pass and when to penetrate. He still seems to get it wrong half the time. But when he gets it right, we can see what an exciting, dynamic player he can be.

Perhaps the best thing for Ryan Babel would be a go in the second striker role. With Robbie Keane gone, Babel may have a chance to establish a striking partnership with Torres. Given time they could forge an effective dynamic and playing just behind the prolific Torres would give Babel a chance to allow his best guises to cohabitate: goal-provider and goal-scorer.

The only problem with this is that Liverpool play their utmost best when Javier Mascherano, Xabi Alonso and Steven Gerrard are all on the pitch together. This usually pushes Gerrard into an advanced midfield role with Torres as the sole striker.

Perhaps the key for Ryan is finding his place in Rafa’s system. If he has one, he’ll get the starts. If he gets the starts, he’ll can grow into the player we all know he can be.

If he remains patient with Liverpool, Babel’s youth will prove to be a great advantage. Benitez clearly rates him. Given time to mature, Ryan Babel could prove to be an invaluable asset in Liverpool’s quest for title number 19, which also happens to be the number he wears on his back. He may not be in the starting formula today, but he’s got a long footballing future ahead of him. If he stays at Anfield, he may make the number 19 part of Liverpool’s history in more ways than one.

At least one supporter hopes to see it. Time holds the answer.

A Tale of Two Liverpool Football Clubs

There have been two Liverpool FCs this season.

There is the side who beat Manchester United, Chelsea and Real Madrid. Facing the best teams in the world, Liverpool played out of their skin. Against Chelsea and Manchester United they mixed a tight passing game with consistent possession to keep fierce pressure on the domestic giants, forcing them to concede. They beat Manchester for the first time in years and they broke Chelsea’s long unbeaten home streak. Against Real, Liverpool doggedly fended off the Spanish side’s persistent attacks and eventually stole the first leg with a fantastic away goal, headed home by Yossi Benayoun from a set play that came after steady pressure.

The other Liverpool FC dropped points in ten draws and two losses against mid and lower table sides. The Liverpool who felled Europe’s giants would be expected to dominate and destroy the likes of Stoke, Hull, Fulham, West Ham, Middlesbrough and even Tottenham. But it was not to be. The inspiration, drive and confidence the Reds displayed at Stamford Bridge and the San Bernabeu was nowhere to be found during the trip to White Hart Lane or to today’s visit to Riverside Stadium.

Liverpool looked the dominant side during the first half hour of play. Even after Xabi Alonso’s own goal from a Boro corner, supporters should have expected Liverpool to recover from the setback. The Merseyside club had already forced Boro’s Brad Jones to make saves in front of goal and had Liverpool kept on the pressure, surely he would be forced to concede goals to a Red onslaught.

But instead Liverpool’s drive evaporated. The own-goal took the wind from their lungs and the pace from their legs. Another Boro goal in the second half seemed to seal Liverpool’s fate, and despite positive substitutions from Rafa Benitez, the Reds could not recover from the deficit.

Had the first Liverpool shown up every week this season, the Reds could have  feasibly added another twenty points to their tally, accepting that the draws against Aston Villa, Arsenal and Manchester City are acceptible for true title contenders.  Instead they will surely be fighting for second place while Manchester United collect another title.

If Steven Gerrard and Fernando Torres regain and maintain their fitness, it is reasonable to think Liverpool can challenge for another Champions League trophy, since further advancement would mean facing more of the strong sides who bring out the very best in Liverpool, we can expect the first Liverpool to show up to the matches.

But there will have to be a reckoning come the next transfer window.  Fernando Torres cannot be Liverpool’s only star striker. They will need more convincing firepower to support and cover the Spanish genius. The attacking width of Albert Riera, Alvaro Arbeloa and Fabio Aurelio has been great for the Reds, but they could use some more wide creativity on the right hand side. An Arjen Robben or even a Shaun Wright-Phillips could make a huge difference in Liverpool’s attack and ability to break down the ten-men-behind the ball sides who have persistently prevented the Reds from securing the three points again and again.

This year Liverpool have stayed in the race longer than they have in years.  Liverpool have given Manchester United a true title challenge until today with far less resources than Sir Alex Ferguson’s side can boast. They have it in them to beat the biggest sides in Europe. But when they learn how to consistently beat the smaller sides in England, Liverpool will finally be able to take home title number 19.

The Spirit of ’81: Liverpool take on Real Madrid

The last time Liverpool FC faced Real Madrid in competitive action was the European final in 1981. Alan Kennedy’s goal was enough to secure the trophy for the Reds. At the time Liverpool were footballing giants both in Europe and at home.

Rafael Benitez has yet to win the Premier League title since taking the  helm in 2004, but Liverpool’s presence in Europe has been formidable under the Spaniard’s leadership.

Between Benitez’s success at Valencia and winning the Champions League his first season with Liverpool, the Reds have been able to attract a lot of  fine talent to Merseyside. Xabi Alonso, Pepe Reina, Dirk Kuyt, Jaiver Mascherano, Yossi Benayoun, Daniel Agger, Martin Skrtel, Albert Riera and one Fernando Torres have all gladly joined Rafa’s ranks and the smell of European glory has had no small lure for these capable players.

Rafa’s side is already much stronger than the one he inherited from predecessor Gerrard Houllier. And while Liverpool once again have faltered in the Premier League with far too many draws. The Champions League may continue to be the arena where Liverpool add to their sizable trophy cabinet.

Since 2005 Liverpool have overcome Leverkusen, Juventus, Chelsea, AC Milan, Barcelona, Eindhoven, Chelsea again, Inter Milan and Arsenal in European elimination play. Real are an imposing side, but Liverpool beat Barcelona two years ago, first securing a lead and two away goals in the away leg before returning to Anfield. This was without the talent of Fernando Torres, who will be hungry to score his first goal at the San Bernabeu stadium.

When Liverpool were selected to play Real, the Spanish giants were in a rut. But Madrid have too much quality to stay down for too long, and a recent burst in form shows they are definitely ready and hungry as the match with Liverpool approaches.

The big question for England’s most succesful side is the fitness of skipper and eternal lighting rod, Steven Gerrard. If he is ready to play today, the rest of the side can attack with more confidence and drive. Along with Fernando Torres, Gerrard is a true match-changer and could provide the inspired edge Liverpool will need to add to Alan Kennedy’s tally against Real Madrid.