Derby Day: Manchester United v. Liverpool FC

When the EPL releases the fixture list at the beginning of the season, I always scan through, looking for the big matches. I like to get a feel of the rhythm of the season, when the climaxes may fall, when Liverpool will have the largest obstacles, when I’ll need to take time off from work. Also, it’s important to start planning the excuses early in case a family reunion falls on an important match weekend.

So I’d been anticipating Saturday’s fixture against United since summer. But if you told me then Liverpool would be a mere seven points clear of the top and that this match could be Liverpool’s last chance to bring the title within reach in the final months, I would have slapped you across the face in disbelief. (I would have apologized and gotten you some ice almost immediately, but, c’mon: stand back if you’re going to suggest something outrageous like that!)

A win tomorrow doesn’t mean trophy number nineteen will join the other glories in Liverpool’s cabinet. Though, a win for United will almost certainly mean the title for them. No, a Liverpool win would simply gives supporters the will to keep hoping for a few more weeks. Hoping the Reds can keep winning and that United slip, more than once, somewhere, somehow.

Statistics lend no comfort. Liverpool have not secured a single point at Old Trafford under Rafael Benitez. In recent years, a draw would be deemed a fantastic result when trekking down the road to play United. But tomorrow we need something more if Liverpool hope to fight for anything higher than second place.

For comfort, for courage we can look to the other big matches of the season. In the home match against United, Rafa beat the Red Devils for the first time in his Liverpool career. A 2-1, come-from-behind win. I lost my voice screaming in glee when Javier Mascherano found Ryan Babel in front of goal and Babel’s piercing shot screamed past Van Der Sar, putting Liverpool ahead when they had gone down a goal in the opening minutes.

Liverpool brought Chelsea’s juggernautish, unbeaten home record to a halt with the 0-1 win at Stamford Bridge in October. Xabi Alonso’s goal was enough to secure all the points, but Liverpool’s great passing game and pressure kept Chelsea from any convincing rebuttal. Liverpool supporters would have been happy with a point at the Bridge. Instead they got three. At the time, it felt like a miracle.

Chelsea’s visit to Anfield brought three more points for Liverpool, this time with two late goals from Fernando Torres. Video replay would show Chelsea midfield goliath Frank Lampard should not have been sent off for his “tackle” on Xabi Alonso, but once again, Liverpool’s determined possession and pressure even against the full Blue xi revealed that while they’ve struggled against Stoke and Middlesbrough, they can dominate the best sides in Europe. Liverpool would have won against a full xi. I’m sure of it. It might have been 1-0 or 2-0 but they were always going to win.

Liverpool come into the United match after an unbelievable 5-0 aggregate win against Real Madrid, having scored four goals Tuesday night when the European giants visited Anfield. We must remember, Rafa Benitez has a knack for understanding and breaking down the Spanish sides after his great successes with Valencia, and we cannot expect United to leave so much space for Liverpool attacks. United are the consummate professionals at keeping a rigid defense while mounting serious attacks.

But what the Madrid victory gives Liverpool is a crushing wave on which they could be riding high. If Liverpool can continue the momentum, if the players can pass and attack with the vigor they displayed against Real, they’ll have a serious chance.

Statistically and historically, a win at Old Trafford would be a supreme upset for Liverpool. Spiritually it could be just the prescription to cure the ailments they’ve shown against the middle- and lower-table sides. If they can bag the points at OT tomorrow and translate the success into dominance over the rest of the teams they face in the League, they might have a chance, no matter how slim, to win the title. It will depend on United slipping further, but if Liverpool win tomorrow, they will also show other sides that United can be beaten. They’ll leave the door open for Arsenal, Middlesbrough, Manchester City and others to take a shot at the Champions. And from there, who knows?

I don’t expect Liverpool to win the league. But if they start by defying expectations at Old Trafford tomorrow, I won’t give up on the dream either.

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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.

Coming Soon: Abramovich Sacks His Own Mother

Mourinho. Grant. Scolari. Hiddink. The revolving door of Chelsea FC management continues to spin. A newcomer to the world of the English Premier League might wonder at first glance if Chelsea is another incarnation of Newcastle United, forever dreaming of success, struggling with results,  and then sacking the boss when the season falls apart. But Chelsea’s achievements quickly dispel that theory. Two league titles, one FA Cup, two League Cups and a Community Shield (if you care about that sort of thing) all since Russian oil tycoon Roman Abramovich bought Chelsea in 2003. Chelsea also enjoyed a record home unbeaten streak in the League, an 86 match run that ended only this season when Liverpool beat them 1-0.

After purchasing the club, Abramovich quickly plunged his own financial resources into the subsequent transfer windows, buying up enough top shelf talent to transform Chelsea into his own personal dream team. The Russian oligarch eschewed the role of pragmatic investor and acted more like a twelve-year-old plugging a cheat code into a video game. Up up down down triangle square: Chelsea’s bank account suddenly bubbled over with funds and it became hunting season in the superplayer market for the West London club. The detriment his rash spending caused European football (setting ridiculous standards and overblowing the value of the talent) may seem less consequential in today’s market since Manchester City’s £130m bid on Kaka makes Abramovich’s deals look modest. But the Russian’s moves and methods were quite a shock when he first made them and he quickly transformed Chelsea from a mid-table standard to a title contender.  And to think this was the same club that had fought to avoid relegation to the old third division in the early 80s.

To steer his platinum squad to victory, Abramovich brought in Jose Mourinho for an initial salary of £4.2 million.  And indeed, all the aforementioned trophies were gathered during the Portuguese manager’s expensive, dynamic reign. But a poor Champions League outing last season escalated the tensions that had been boiling between owner and manager for many months and before anyone could grasp what had happened: Mourinho was gone. By all official accounts, he resigned, but what, if anything did Abramovich do to hold on to the man who had brought Chelsea so many rewards? Very little it would seem.

Almost immediately, Abramovich gave the job to Avram Grant. Grant was promoted from director of football to manager, a surprising move since Grant’s resume, with no coaching experience outside of Israel, was very sparse in contrast with Mourinho’s. For a club of Chelsea’s new found stature, his appointment proved baffling to the football world.  His main qualification seemed to be his longstanding friendship with Abramovich. And yet, despite the widespread skepticism of his managerial worth, Grant guided Chelsea into second place in both of the coveted races: a mere two points behind Manchester United in the Premier League, and losing to them in the Champions League final on penalty kicks. Many would consider this a brilliant start to a promising managerial career, but not Abramovich. Second best is nowhere near good enough. Grant’s contract was terminated at season’s end.

To start the 2008/09 campaign, Abramovich brought in Philippe Scolari. Here was a proper heir to Mourinho’s kingdom, at least on paper. Scolari is a legend of international football, having coached the Brazilian national team to a World Cup victory in 2002 and bringing Portugal as far as the semi-finals in 2006. Many questioned whether he could adapt this international effectiveness to the world of club football, but overall it seemed his abilities and experience combined with Chelsea’s overwhelming talent and depth should prove to be a highly successful marriage.  At the beginning of the season Chelsea looked virtually unstoppable. The goals kept coming and clean sheets abounded. But streaks thrive and fade and the winning run gave way to a series of unconvincing results. And though Chelsea are currently only seven points behind league leaders Manchester United, the gap was enough for Abramovich to pull the lever to the trap door beneath Scolari.

What Abramovich fails to understand is good leadership often needs time.  Apart from Chelsea the other two clubs to find repeated success have been Manchester United and Arsenal. The former’s results have been staggering, the latter’s impressive.  But it took Sir Alex Ferguson years to establish himself as a successful coach for Man U.  And while Arsene Wenger has not won trophies for Arsenal every year, his board has been patient with him as his long-term planning and youth development have been healthy for the Gunners both as a competitive force and as a global brand. Once these men established their ability to achieve, neither have had to worry about keeping their jobs in the years when they haven’t won big. So far, their organizations seem willing to take the long view and stand by the men who have delivered the success. Abramovich has no such patience. Otherwise, Mourinho would still be steering the boat.

As Chelsea’s new manager, Guss Hiddink, takes charge, he must look at his predecessors and realize job security is not implicit when Abramovich is writing the paychecks, and frankly, even a League title may not ensure a renewed contract if Chelsea are knocked out of the Champions League, a prize Abramovich is so intent on claiming. Hiddink does almost have a luxury in that his contract only extends to the end of the current season. He won’t be fighting to keep a job, only, perhaps, to extend it. This somehow seems like less pressure than Mourinho, Grant and Scolari bore during their stints in charge. I suppose it depends on what Hiddink’s goals are as Chelsea manager. Perhaps the pressure will be the same if he sees a future with the Blues beyond this year.

But even if Abramovich’s mother were to take the reigns as Chelsea manager after Hiddink doesn’t meet the great expectations bestowed upon him, she’d surely stay up late nights, sleepless, wondering if her son will sack her if she doesn’t get maximum points in the next match against Wigan. Maybe Chelsea managers should except that Abramovich’s hatchet is inevitable, and start taking bets on who can last the longest.

Roman is interested in immediate results. There’s no waiting for glory as far as he is concerned.  Anyone who doesn’t bring the instant trophies will be out the door. No question. José. Avram. Philippe. Guus. Mum. Anyone.

Anyone.