Manchester and Chelsea Drop Points… Can Liverpool Gain Ground?

The world’s finest footballers are known for defining their positions. Henry the striker. Gerrard the midfielder. Cech the keeper. But if you look back in their past they’ve often played roles in other parts of the pitch before finding and defining their niche. Peter Cech was once a midfielder. Steven Gerrard began his Liverpool career as a right back. Henry was a winger before becoming one of the world’s most prolific hitmen.

Paul Scholes, Manchester United’s longtime pivotal midfielder, must have spent some time in goal as a kid. His two-handed, goal-mouth block of Bobby Zamora’s header in Fulham’s 2-0 victory over the Red Devil’s yesterday was a brilliant piece of goal-keeping. But as he wasn’t wearing Edwin van der Sar’s blue shirt, the ref sent him off for the blatant handball. It was a curious move by a veteran like Scholes, but maybe Scholes forgot he was an outfielder and had slipped into some happy childhood memory of playing keeper. Fulham would retain the lead and add another goal before the final whistle.

Elsewhere, Chelsea visited White Hart Lane in a riveting London derby. Spurs were up to the task from the start and after much good possession, Tottenham gained the lead with a fine goal from Luka Modric after service from the newly resigned Aaron Lennon. Chelsea were unable to capitalize on United’s loss. Now Liverpool have the chance to profit from both of these premier league giants dropping points on what could prove to be a pivotal weekend.

A win for Liverpool would bridge the gap to the top to a mere point, though Manchester have a match in hand. More importantly, a good performance for Liverpool tomorrow would continue the momentum the Reds have built since beating Sunderland 2-0 two weeks ago. Since then breathtaking results against Real Madrid and Manchester have given supporters the glimmer of hope that the title may still be within reach.

Even after a win tomorrow, Liverpool would still have much work to do while hoping for more setbacks for their Mancunian neighbors. United would need to drop five points between now and the end of the season with Liverpool dropping no points at the same time. But at the very least, with back to back losses for United, other sides will see that points can be taken off the champs and will follow Liverpool and Fulham’s example in a meaningful way.

Next weekend United will face league upstarts Aston Villa without the help of Nemanja Vidic, Paul Scholes and Wayne Rooney who are all suspended. Scholes has been an important player for years, but Vidic and and Rooney have been absolutely essential players in the current season. Rooney came back from injury with immediate success to put United on an important streak. Vidic has been a pillar of defense in helping United keep the sheets clean when Red Devil goals have not been in abundance. Liverpool supporters can’t count on it, but Manchester could have problems against Villa with these suspensions in place. Liverpool will need to keep the winning streak going in hopes that the Red Devils slip further.

The title is not quite in reach for Liverpool yet, but yesterday’s results certainly give the Reds reason to continue the good fight.

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Fernando Torres: Spainiardicus Devastatii

Manchester United v. Liverpool – 14 March

Nemanja Vidic let the ball bounce, breaking a cardinal rule. (I assume the Cardinals used to prove their piety to the Pope by keeping their footballs as close to the ground as possible. Or something like that.) He might have headed it away if he knew how abruptly Fernando Torres would be on the scene. But instead, thinking either that 1.) he had loads of time or that  2.) Torres had transformed into a tree sloth… Vidic sinfully let the ball bounce.

Torres wasted no time in punishing the Serbian defender. It was like something out of an old roadrunner cartoon. Torres zipped in behind Vidic. Time seemed to stop. I expected some kind of sound effect like swoosh as Torres swooped in and boing as he slowed to make his move, and then Torres’ faux latin name would appear on the screen: Spainiardicus Devastatii. Or something like that.

What really happened is this: Liverpool’s star strike hooked his leg around Manchester United’s star centre back and booted the ball forward into space, beyond Vidic’s reach. Vidic dutifully lost his balance and tumbled to the ground. It was a wonderful mix of athleticism and slapstick. Torres ran onto the ball with enough time and space to himself to manufacture a genius moment.

Torres was now one-on-one with keeper Edwin van der Sar. But by my math it was more like one-on-none. In fact, van der Sar might have later wondered why he didn’t sit down and have a rest, as he would need his energy for Liverpool’s coming goal onslaught. Or maybe he should have brought a book.

Though van der Sar has had an amazing year with more clean sheets than a toilet paper factory, much of his success has always relied on having the world’s greatest defense between him and serious threat. But Torres had shrugged that defense off with guile, determination and downright carniverious hunger. He’d yet to score on Liverpool’s arch-rivals since joining the Merseyside outfit and this was perhaps the finest chance he could have. Torres ran in, waited for the perfect moment and deftly fired the ball low into the opposite corner. Vidic held his hands to his head. The Reds were level.

For Liverpool, who rarely score at Old Trafford, the goals would keep coming. Patrice Evra tackles Steven Gerrard in the box. Gerrard converts the penalty on 44 minutes. In the second half, Vidic gives Gerrard an impromptu physical as Liverpool’s captain charges toward the box. I couldn’t tell if Gerrard was turning and coughing as Vidic pulled him down. Vidic gets the red card. Fabio Aurelio converts the free-kick on 77 minutes. Few would have expected a ten man Man U to come back against such a convincing Liverpool performance, (although, the hosts did make some penetrating runs and threaten from set play), but few would have expected Andrea Dossena, subbed on for Albert Riera, to cap of the evening with a stoppage time goal bursting with cheek. Running onto another poorly defended long ball, Dossena beat out his cover and caught the ball with a side-foot-full-volley-chip-lob. Exactly. The strangeness of the goal was only amplified by the fact this was Dossena’s second goal ever for Liverpool, his first coming one match before in the 4-0 drubbing of Real Madrid.

The win was a team effort, but Torres blazed the trail. He broke through Man U’s brick wall defense and brought the Reds back on terms after being a goal down in a stadium where goals, nevermind wins, have not been coming Liverpool’s way in recent years.

The kid opened the floodgates.

Two successful spot kicks came from Gerrard following the Torres route, and Dossena’s chip was a fine echo of Torres turning a long ball into a goal.

Liverpool came to Old Trafford with difficult gaps in the roster, key players Xabi Alonso and Alvaro Arbeloa both out with injury, and with Torres himself showing signs that he was not fully recovered from his recent injury hiatus. But both Torres and Liverpool called up the mental fitness to dissect their oldest and usually undissectable arch-foes.

The kid really is something special. And if he stays fit, there should be plenty more of these displays in Liverpool’s future. Hopefully Setanta, Sky Sports, et al. cue up the sound effects for the next time.

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.

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.

Ashley Young’s Guns

Imagine Ashley Young bursting into the penalty box, clad in Michael Palin’s Spanish Inquisitor costume, fists on hips, proudly rattling off his best attributes: Amongst my weaponry are such diverse elements as speed, invention, passing, crossing, ruthless efficiency, a nice claret and blue uniform… ah… I’ll come in again!

Weaponry indeed. He may be Aston Villa’s most valuable asset. Bought as a striker for an initial £8m from Watford, Young has since been deployed on both wings and in the hole just behind the forwards, with much success. While Young is a true threat on goal, his real impact comes from his brilliance at playmaking and assisting. He made 15 assists in his first full season for Villa last year with 1069 succesful passes. This was a mere 221 fewer passes than recent PFA winner Cristiano Ronaldo made in the same season and more than twice as many assists.

Liverpool have Stephen Gerrard. Manchester United have Ronaldo. Everton have Mikel Arteta. Many credit Carlos Tevez with saving West Ham from relegation in 2007.  Pedro Mendes may have done the same for Portsmouth the season before that. The pivotal player is not merely one who is gifted and versatile on the ball, but also one who lifts his teammates and elevates their level of play. Sometimes it’s a matter of leadership. Sometimes it’s simply allowing other players to trust you fully, knowing your attacks and possession will be so convincing, they can enjoy the confidence to take risks and cause danger as you create space and soak up the defenders who rightly fear all you can do on and off the ball.

Many would assert it is Gareth Barry who fills this pivotal role for Villa, and such an argument has plenty of merit. But in my opinion Young has been a veritable lighting rod for the Villans this season. Apart from a three-match ban after a dangerous, two-footed tackle on Sunderland’s Dean Whitehead, Young has had a pristine season. The threats he creates for himself and for others is unsettling to defenders and he has a knack for putting his opponents off balance with the simplist of turns and drives. His ability to create space, retain the ball and service his fellow attackers in key moments has been one of the utmost importance to Villa’s impressive current standing in the table. And since Gabby Agbonlahor, Villa’s top striker, is one who relies on a good delivery from his supporting attackers, Young is the perfect midfield foil to the tall, pacy hitman.

As of this writing, Villa are in third place, a mere five points shy of the top. So far they’ve shown serious intent to build on their good standing in recent years and this could be the season they finish in the top four and enjoy a campaign in next season’s Champions League. The upcoming match hosting Chelsea will be an important test. If Villa lose, they slide down to fourth. If they win, they will enjoy a five point buffer over the Blues as well as plenty of confidence and resolve from having defeated a league giant.

Expect Ashley Young to continue to fight hard for his team’s success. His pace and creativity will be all important against Chelsea. And it’s very likely that his threat from advanced positions will cause Chelsea to commit multiple players to shutting him down, opening up more space for Agbonlahor, Heskey, Barry, et al. Even if Young doesn’t deliver the killer goal or assist, his presence will influence the match and give a lift to his teammates, against Chelsea and against the other challenges to come as Villa strive to build on their impressive run of results.

Nobody expected the Ashley Young inquisition. Not all that weaponry for a mere £8m anyway.