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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Tottenham v Liverpool: A White Hart, top-four six-pointer

Photo courtesy of liverpoolfc.com

Photo courtesy of liverpoolfc.com

By Séamus Leonard

The holiday season is often a defining period in the English Premier League calendar, and a visit to fellow title and top four hopefuls Tottenham is the start of a five-game stint that will likely determine what Liverpool’s ambitions for the rest of the campaign will be. Continue reading

The Art of Moving the Ball in the Midfield: Nuri Sahin vs. Norwich City

By Kevin Koczwara

Real Madrid got a steal when it signed Nuri Sahin from Borussia Dortmund for a reported €10 million in the summer of 2011. Sahin had just help lead a young and surging Dortmund side to the Bundesliga title, tearing through opponents in the process, and was named player of the year in Germany before Madrid activated the Turkey international’s buy-out clause in his contract.

The purchase was a bargain for Madrid, but Sahin endured a tough time in Spain’s capital as the midfield under Jose Mourinho is deep, to say the least. With the likes of Xabi Alonso, Sami Khedira, Esteban Granero, Kaka (who currently can’t find playing time), Mesuit Ozil and Lassana Diarra taking up playing time, Sahin was way down the pecking order and had limited opportunities. Injuries hampered Sahin’s first season as well. But a move away from the Bernabeu was in the card’s this summer and Brendan Rodgers and Liverpool came calling with a loan move to help revitalize the 23-year-old’s career. It’s something Sahin jumped at and it looks like the move has begun to pay off for the midfielder and the team.

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Juan Agudelo and LFC’s Global Branding Initiative

By Kevin Koczwara

Club soccer is ruled by money. Manchester City looks like it’s on its way to buying a title after opening up it’s rich (super-duper rich) owner’s pockets during the last few transfer markets. Simon Kuper and Stefan Szymanski outlined in their book “Soccernomics” how money influences the trophy cabinet.

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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.

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.