Archive for the ‘Liverpool’ Category
I have two observations to make about the controversial goal scored by Luis Suarez yesterday, which has led to the player receiving both fierce criticism and also some strong support from many analysts and fellow players.
The first is that it is not the duty of players to make refereeing decisions.
Whether or not it should have been disallowed has in itself been debated. Some say that the ball ricocheted onto the arm of Suarez and therefore he couldn’t get out of the way. Others claim it was a deliberate attempt by the Liverpool striker to control the ball with his hand.
If it hadn’t been Luis Suarez, there would be much less attention given to the incident. Regardless of his undoubted talent, there have been too many controversial moments in a career where Suarez has rarely been out of the spotlight and as with some of football’s other controversial characters, such as Man City’s Mario Balotelli, the slightest hint of controversy involving Suarez attracts a media circus and endless analysis.
However, nothing in Suarez’s history should be referred to when looking at yesterday’s incident, if only for the simple fact that no one can claim with certainty that it was a deliberate handball.
Given that it was a handball though, should Suarez have been obliged to point it out to the referee? The answer to that is, of course, no.
If football was such an honest sport in which there was total fair play with no deceiving officials with skilfully crafted dives, or wasting time by feigning injury to disrupt matches and gain an advantage, then there would be a stronger argument for suggesting that Suarez had a duty to make known to the referee that the ball had hit his hand.
The reality of modern football is that it’s a world away from the above picture of a sport in which there is complete honesty, and in an ever more competitive sport – off the pitch as well as on it – there’s unlikely to be anyone playing the game today who would get a lucky break from a refereeing decision and then ask for it to be overturned.
If honesty existed then players wouldn’t argue against decisions such as free kicks or penalty decisions when they know full well that they’ve committed a foul. Nor would players accept decisions in their favour that have been awarded for fouls when there has been no contact.
The other point I wish to make is that it’s not the first time that such an incident has happened and it’s hard to understand why such great attention is being placed on Suarez. Even the Mansfield manager, Paul Cox, refused to criticize the player.
I don’t recall such a fuss being made when AC Milan’s Filippo Inzaghi directed the ball into the Liverpool net with his hand during the 2007 Champions League final in Athens. On that occasion Liverpool were the dominant side for much of the match – unlike the meeting between the two teams in the 2005 final – and Inzaghi’s goal was a pivotal moment in swinging the match in Milan’s favour.
There could have been Mourinho-style whingeing from everyone in Liverpool’s corner, but it wouldn’t have changed the outcome. It was a refereeing mistake and it went Milan’s way on that occasion. Against Mansfield, the decision was in Liverpool’s favour.
In the weeks, months and years to come, there’ll be scores more teams on the end of wrong decisions that prove costly. Most teams will benefit at some point, and suffer at other times.
But, after all, that’s football.
It’s funny how managers are treated so differently in the media.
Some are able to do no wrong, regardless of any periods of under-achievement or mistakes they might make.
Others can do nothing right, and their achievements are belittled – or credited entirely to someone else.
An example of the former is Mark Hughes, who did well with Blackburn, though achieved little beyond what was expected of him during spells with Man City and Fulham.
Hughes quit Fulham a year after taking charge, as the club failed to match his expectations. He wanted to manage at a club competing for trophies, or occupying Champions League positions.
Speaking of Fulham, his agent said at the time: “They are a great top 10, mid-table club and I think Mark really wants to be right up there competing in the Champions League positions, up there competing for titles. He’d like to win some cups.”
Quite what attracted Hughes to QPR given his lofty ambition remains a mystery. A promise of investment might have turned his head, but there was certainly no immediate prospect of silverware at a club battling to stay in the top flight.
The managerial change had little impact on the fortunes of QPR, and they finished the season in exactly the same position as they were in when Hughes replaced Neil Warnock – a single point outside the relegation zone.
Still, given a favourable perception of Hughes throughout much of the media, there’s unlikely to be too much criticism handed out, despite a dreadful time in charge of the team who are now firmly rooted to the foot of the table.
Contrast that to the reaction of Rafael Benitez’s appointment at Chelsea, which has been treated with rather a lot of scepticism – not only by fans of Chelsea but in the press, too.
“Benitez has plenty to prove” was the heading to an article by the BBC’s chief football writer, echoing the sentiments of Chelsea supporters who regard the Spaniard as not being a particularly good manager.
It’s unfortunate that such a view of Benitez has stuck, but it demonstrates the power of the media to influence minds, often based on some personal biases or club rivalries.
Benitez arrived in English football at the same time as Mourinho, though brought much less charm with him than the Portuguese – an important quality these days it seems, as other have found out.
In taking charge of Liverpool, he also took on a far greater challenge than Mourinho was tasked with at Chelsea. There was money to spend, but the amount was limited each season and in undertaking the complete overhaul of a squad which had failed to deliver under Gerard Houllier, Benitez needed to bring a host of players with the budget.
It would have been far easier to identify an entire team of superstars and sign them up instantly, as Chelsea’s wealth allowed them to do.
The sheer amount of work required to take Liverpool from a a fourth place to title challengers was something that critics were either unappreciate of – or who simply chose to ignore it in order to continue piling the pressure on Benitez.
At the start of the 2004-5 season, Benitez’s first in English football, he was competing with two sides who already had Premiership winning squads at their disposal – both had been crowned champions over the previous two seasons – and the might of Abramovich’s free-spending Chelsea.
The fact that Liverpool competed for the title at all during Benitez’s tenure is testament to the huge improvement which took place over during the five years he was at Anfield.
Yes, the final season was a disappointment but it was also one in which the whole club was emboiled in off the pitch problems. Football was overshadowed by politics and transfer windows passed by with Liverpool expected to make a profit through player sales rather than continue investing to secure their position as title challengers. Few managers, if any, would have coped more admirably under the circumstances than Benitez did.
Up until the final year, the overall picture was one of massive progress.
Under Benitez, Liverpool reached two Champions League finals, something not even Man United had managed to do in the Champions League era.
Domestically there was a memorable FA Cup triumph and even if other pieces of silverware wouldn’t impress the likes of Chelsea or Man United, such as the UEFA Super Cup or the Community Shield, they were nevertheless trophies that the overwhelming majority of Premier League sides would have been delighted with.
Outside of Merseyside though, little credit is given to Benitez for a lot of what was achieved between 2004 and 2009.
His Champions League win was with Gerard Houllier’s team, the critics say. But if that’s the case, then Jose Mourinho shouldn’t be given any credit for what he achieved at Chelsea, given that he was successful only thanks to the team that Claudio Ranieri built. Even some of the key signings who only arrived at Chelsea after Ranieri was sacked, such as Petr Cech and Arjen Robben, were players who struck pre-contract deals in January – long before Mourinho was in the frame.
Noone would believe that to be the case and Mourinho should rightly be credited as the man who secured the Premier League title with Chelsea, just as Benitez was responsible for leading Liverpool to Champions League glory in Istanbul. The argument against Benitez crumbles even further when bearing in mind that Xabi Alonso and Luis Garcia – two of Liverpool’s most important players throughout the successful campaign in Europe – were signed by him.
Of his signings, there were mistakes made certainly. But with the restrictions in place – i.e. no bottomless pot of cash – gambles had to be taken and some quite obviously didn’t pay off. Again, he’s not alone in that regard. If the list of failed signings at Man United and Chelsea were carefully analyzed, there would be mistakes there too. The question would be, is the team still improving? And in most cases, the answer is usually yes, despite the mistakes.
To focus on the mistakes serves to do little justice to an overall record that included huge successes. In 2009, Liverpool’s side included some of the continent’s best players in almost every position with the likes of Pepe Reina, Daniel Agger, Javier Mascherano, Xabi Alonso and Fernando Torres all players signed by Benitez.
The last argument levelled at Benitez is regarding the amount of money spent, something else used by his detractors to “prove” that he is simply not a top manager. As already mentioned, his Liverpool side was one that needed an almost complete rebuild of the squad, and with the squads of rival clubs were in a much healthier state, requiring much less investment.
But even after considering the vast difference in quality of the squads inherited, Jose Mourinho still outspent Benitez during the three years that they each managed in England together. Should not the ‘special one’ have been able to get more out of the considerable resources already at his disposal?
In Benitez’s case, he was under almost the same amount of pressure to deliver a title. Liverpool fans are often accused of believing that they have a divine right to compete for titles, but whilst many were realistic enough to see the size of the task Benitez faced, there was unrelenting pressure from the media for Liverpool to challenge for – and win – the Premier League title.
Other teams who haven’t historically been as successful as Liverpool, would be under no such pressure, even in the same circumstances. Tottenham, for example, invested heavily and on paper were able to put together a strong enough squad to compete with the top four teams. But their top four finish in 2010 was celebrated as a monumental achievement when the same end result at Liverpool would have been deemed a failure.
Now at Chelsea, there’ll be many who are hoping that Benitez fails in order to prove that they were right about him. But with a good set of players available, I fully expect him to have Chelsea competing for the title this season.
The doubters will be disappointed to know that Benitez is a man with quite a thick skin. And based on the vast majority of his nine years with Valencia and Liverpool, he’s also quite a good football manager.
In the final part of my look back at some of my personal highlights of following Liverpool in the Champions League, the final three matches are from the 2007/8 and 2008/9 seasons. For the rest of the series, click to read part 1, or part 2.
9. Marseille 0-4 Liverpool
Midway through the 2007/8 group stage, there looked to be only a remote prospect of anything resulting from Liverpool’s Champions League campaign that was worthy of celebrating.
Bottom of the group with one point from three games – six points adrift of group leaders, Marseille – Liverpool’s only hope of qualifying was to win all three of their remaining games. The Reds’ response, while not as dramatic as their Istanbul heroics, has to be considered as the most emphatic turnaround in fortunes of a side who looked certain to be heading out of the Champions League at the group stage.
The recovery began with a record-breaking 8-0 home win against Besiktas, and when Porto arrived at Anfield on matchday 5 needing only a point to guarantee their passage into the next round, they too were beaten 4-1.
But the big test was to come in Liverpool’s final fixture away to Marseille on a bitterly cold December evening.
With both sides level on points, Liverpool could only go through by winning at the Stade Velodrome – something no other English club had ever managed to achieve.
Steven Gerrard’s early goal, scored from the rebound after his penalty had been saved, helped Liverpool get off to a perfect start and Fernando Torres weaved his way between the Marseille defence to add an excellent second goal with only 18 minutes played.
Marseille created chances of their own, but when Liverpool got an early second half goal, the contest was over and Liverpool had survived yet another dramatic Champions League scare.
10. Liverpool 4-2 Arsenal
It might have been tempting to include Liverpool’s second round win over Italian champions-elect Inter Milan in the list for this series, but for sheer drama, the quarter-final against Arsenal was the stand-out Champions League game of the season.
A 1-1 first leg draw at the Emirates had led to some suggestions from the Arsenal camp that Liverpool would be looking to progress on away goals, and may have looked to simply play for a 0-0 draw at Anfield.
But any ideas Liverpool had of keeping a clean sheet were scuppered once Arsenal went ahead in the first half. That was cancelled out by Sami Hyypia’s equaliser before the interval, and with 20 minutes remaining of the second period, Fernando Torres put Liverpool on aggregate for the first time with a wonder strike at the Kop end.
There was enough time left for more twists in a pulsating finish which started when Theo Walcott’s 80-yard run was finished by Adebayor to give Arsenal a second away goal – and with six minutes to go, they were heading into a semi-final meeting with Chelsea.
But less than a minute later, Ryan Babel earned a penalty that was dispatched by Gerrard, and it was once again advantage Liverpool – and the sixth time throughout the two games that there had been a change in the aggregate leaders of the tie.
As Arsenal searched desperately for another equaliser, Liverpool grabbed a fourth goal on the counter attack. In the second minute of added-on time at the end of the second leg, the tie was finally decided with some certainty.
It wasn’t to lead to a third Champions League final in four years though, mostly thanks to injury time drama at the same goalmouth in the semi-final, when a John Arne Riise own goal gave Chelsea a draw at Anfield. That result proved to be crucial in helping the Londoners to finally overcome Liverpool in the last four.
11. Liverpool 4-0 Real Madrid
Despite the rich European pedigree of both teams, Liverpool and Real Madrid had never been drawn to play each other over a two-legged European tie. On departing Anfield following their first visit to the stadium in March 2009, Real Madrid may well have wished that statistic was still true.
Knocked out of the competition at the second round stage in each of the previous four seasons, Real Madrid had also started the season badly in Spain in their quest for a third straight La Liga title. But a change of manager shortly before Christmas had led to an improvement in results, and Juande Ramos’ team faced Liverpool on the back of a recent run of ten straight victories in La Liga.
Yossi Benayoun’s goal had been enough to settle a tight first leg at Santiago Bernabeu in Liverpool’s favour, and although Real Madrid hadn’t enjoyed much Champions League success since winning the trophy in 2002, there was more than enough quality in their team for them to turn the tie around on Merseyside.
Several of the Real Madrid team that started the match have since gone onto become key members of their title-winning team under Jose Mourinho, and of those who did go on to leave Madrid, Wesley Sneijder and Arjen Robben have each helped their new clubs to reach Champions League finals.
No amount of quality – or experience – could cope with Liverpool’s performance on the night though, and from the moment that Fernando Torres opened the scoring against his old city rivals after 16 minutes, the Reds never looked back.
Two goals from Gerrard and a further strike by Andrea Dossena handed Real Madrid their biggest defeat in the Champions League era, and just one goal short of their heaviest European loss of all time. But the star of the show despite the loss was Real Madrid goalkeeper Iker Casillas, who made a host of spectacular saves to deny Liverpool an even more convincing win.
In the resulting quarter-final, Liverpool were unable to overturn a first leg 3-1 loss at home to Chelsea, despite their considerable efforts in a 4-4 draw at Stamford Bridge.
Meanwhile, Real Madrid’s emphatic defeat signalled the start of a new era of ‘Galacticos’, and a €300m summer spending program was sanctioned – with an intention of seeing Real Madrid return to the summit of Spanish and European football.
Continuing the three-part mini-series of my top eleven matches watching Liverpool in the Champions League. Click here for part 1.
4. Liverpool 2-1 Juventus
Having progressed to the quarter-final stage of the 2004/5 Champions League, Liverpool were given the toughest possible route to the final.
A potential semi-final would involve taking on the runaway league leaders of either the Premier League or the German Bundesliga.
However, Liverpool first had to get past Serie A leaders Juventus, who had conceded just two goals on their way to the quarter-final, and knocked out Real Madrid in the last 16.
Fabio Capello was well aware of what Liverpool were capable of on a European night at Anfield, having twice seen his Roma team exit European competitions at the ground.
But even he would have been stunned by Liverpool’s start to the match, in which a 2-0 lead was established in the opening 25 minutes, firstly thanks to a close range strike by Sami Hyypia and then to Luis Garcia’s dipping 25-yard volley.
It was an important advantage to hold at such an early stage of the tie, though Juventus were powerful opponents with enough time to get back into the tie, and made for a nervy finale once Fabio Cannavaro had bundled in a consolation goal midway through the second half.
Liverpool deservedly held on for victory, and against all odds managed to keep a clean sheet in the second leg to set up an all English semi-final with Chelsea
5. Liverpool 1-0 Chelsea
Beaten twice by Chelsea in the league, and also in the League Cup Final at Cardiff, Liverpool were given little chance in a two-legged semi-final against Jose Mourinho’s expensively assembled Chelsea side who had already secured the Premier League title.
Neither manager took any risks in a first leg which ended goalless, so it was all set up for a tense evening at Anfield.
The stadium was packed out an hour before kick off for arguably Liverpool’s biggest home match in a generation, and the atmosphere reflected the occasion.
Decibel levels were raised higher still when Milan Baros was brought down in the area by Chelsea goalkeeper Petr Cech, but Luis Garcia played on and grabbed what ultimately proved to be the controversial winning goal.
From that moment, it was an exercise of attack versus defence, and for all of Chelsea’s superstars, they simply couldn’t find a way through – until injury time, that was.
Five minutes into a tortuous six minutes of added time Eidur Gudjohnsen was gifted a golden chance to equalise in front of a crowded Kop goal, which would have put the visitors into the final on the away goals rule. Fortunately for the majority inside the ground, Gudjohnsen scuffed his wide, and the 97th minute finally gave a cue for the start of the home celebrations.
6. Milan 3-3 Liverpool
So much has been written about the ‘Miracle of Istanbul’ that it’s almost impossible to come up with something new.
Every aspect of the incredible journey, of Taksim Square’s ‘red sea’, or the fans festival outside the stadium has been documented a thousand times already.
I was in Istanbul only for the day, leaving in the early hours of Wednesday 25th May, 2005, and ultimately returning on a flight at around 8.30am the following day. Fans awaiting flights after being bussed directly from the stadium to the airport spent the night camped outside the compact Sabiha Gocken airport – situated on the Asian half of Istanbul.
The match itself is pretty well-known, too. Milan dominated the first half, and with their side 3-0 up at the break, Milan’s supporters celebrated what seemed like the inevitable success which would be coming their way.
Liverpool had other ideas though, and Rafa Benitez’s combination of players who had underachieved over the last couple of seasons along with some influential signings managed to claw their way back into the game and three second half goals for Liverpool turned the match on its head.
The one stand-out moment from a personal viewpoint was the second part of Jerzy Dudek’s double save from Shevchenko in the second period of extra time. Watching from high in the top tier, almost perfectly in line with the goal-line, the moment when Shevchenko’s outstretched leg shaped to volley the ball past Dudek from only a couple of yards out was a moment when time itself seemed to freeze, only restarting once the ball had rebounded off Dudek’s arms and was heading towards the sky.
If there was any one moment in the match when the cup looked destined not to be going back to Italy, that was it.
Dudek was again the hero in the ensuing penalty shoot-out, his final save again being from Shevchenko – and Liverpool had indeed won it five times.
7. Barcelona 1-2 Liverpool
When considering Pep Guardiola’s achievements with Barcelona over the last four years, it’s easy to forget that the team Frank Rijkaard had put together.
La Liga and Champions League winners in 2006, Barcelona looked every bit like a side capable of being the first to successfully defend the trophy in the Champions League era.
With a side consisting of an attacking line-up of Ronaldinho, Eto’o, Messi and Deco, Barcelona were the benchmark for every other club in Europe, and massive favourites against Rafa Benitez’s Liverpool team who were still struggling to compete with Chelsea and Man United for the domestic title.
Deco put Barcelona ahead on the night, and the Catalans looked good value for their lead until Craig Bellamy levelled the score at the end of the first half.
Liverpool grew in confidence and were rewarded when John Arne Riise added a second goal to end Barcelona’s long unbeaten home run in the Champions League, and also extend Liverpool’s impressive record in the Camp Nou to four games without defeat.
Qualification was not a straightforward affair, however, and Barcelona’s win in the second leg at Anfield meant that Liverpool only made it into the last eight on away goals.
8. Liverpool 1-0 Chelsea
A surprisingly comfortable quarter-final win over PSV Eindhoven set up a second semi-final against Chelsea in the space of three years.
As in 2005, Liverpool had the advantage of the second leg being at Anfield. But unlike 2005, they failed to earn a draw at Stamford Bridge, and would have to win – potentially by two goals if Chelsea were able to net an away goal.
Daniel Agger provided the breakthrough for Liverpool, who were unable to make any further impression on the scoreline, despite dominating the match.
Dirk Kuyt hit the crossbar with a strike from long-range, and Chelsea, who posed almost no threat throughout the match, would have been happy not to be eliminated long before the game went to penalties.
Liverpool had won a Champions League and an FA Cup on penalties during the two previous seasons, and Chelsea were added to the list of Liverpool’s penalty shoot-out victims without even getting an opportunity to take their final two kicks.
Leading 3-1 after three spot kicks each, Dirk Kuyt’s accurate strike into the corner of Petr Cech’s goal sparked more wild celebrations on the Kop – and a visit to Athens for a Rafa Benitez’s second Champions League final in only his third season at Liverpool.
Chelsea take on Bayern Munich tomorrow in the 2012 Champions League final.
Bayern Munich are the first finalist in the Champions League era to enjoy home advantage in the final, and will be aiming for their fifth European Cup win.
For Chelsea, it is a second final appearance and they’ll be looking to become the first London team to be crowned European champions.
Whatever complaints some may have about how money and corporate sponsorship have created a competition that often appears more concerned with finance than football, it remains the biggest single match in the European football calendar, and the final is an event that I love.
It seems a long time since Liverpool were amongst those competing for the greatest trophy in club football, but during the years in which I attended matches regularly, I was lucky to be present at some of the club’s finest Champions League nights.
In the first of a three-part mini-series, here’s a run down of my personal all time LFC Champions League XI, listed in chronological order.
1. Liverpool 2-0 Roma
In Liverpool’s first season in the Champions League, progression to the second group stage may have represented reasonable progress, particularly when grouped with Barcelona, Galatasaray and Roma.
After collecting three points from their first four games, Liverpool needed to pick up something from the Camp Nou on matchday 5 to avoid being knocked out before the final match – against Fabio Capello’s Italian Champions, Roma.
A 0-0 draw in Barcelona kept the Reds in the competition, but they were still bottom of the group going into the match against Roma.
Requiring a win by at least two goals in order to guarantee progress into the last eight, Jari Litmanen provided the perfect start, scoring from the spot in the opening ten minutes.
Emile Heskey’s headed goal at the Kop end made sure of victory mid-way through the second half on a night which was also memorable for the return of Gerard Houllier to the dugout after 4 months out following life-saving surgery earlier in the season.
2. Bayer Leverkusen 4-2 Liverpool
Not many defeats live long in the memory but despite the result, the second leg of Liverpool’s Champions League quarter-final provided plenty of drama.
Holding a narrow 1-0 lead from the first leg, Liverpool went into the half time interval at the BayArena having scored a vital away goal. At 1-1 on the night, Leverkusen needed to score at least twice in the second half to progress.
But within minutes of Gerard Houllier withdrawing Dietmar Hamann from the action, the home side netted twice and stormed into a 3-1 lead.
Liverpool came back once more though, and it was Litmanen who provided another vital away goal with just ten minutes remaining, after beating three men before finishing superbly from the edge of the box.
With a semi final against Man United on offer for the winners, there was still just enough time for Liverpool’s defence to be caught out one more time and after Lucio fired Bayer Leverkusen into a 4-2 lead, Liverpool’s first taste of Champions League football came to an end.
3. Liverpool 3-1 Olympiakos
In Rafa Benitez’s first season in charge, Liverpool’s Champions League group consisted of two sides who had reached the semi final stage during the previous year’s competition.
Yet it was Olympiakos, the Greek champions, who topped the table with one game remaining. Liverpool were three points adrift in third place, and with Monaco facing the already eliminated Deportivo La Coruna in their final game needing only a point to qualify, it was likely that Liverpool and Olympiakos would face a straight fight between themselves for the second qualifying place. And so it proved.
A Liverpool win would only be enough to equal the number of points of Olympiakos, at which point the sides would be separated on the basis of results between each other.
And after losing 1-0 in Athens, Liverpool’s chances of qualifying became even more remote once Rivaldo had put Olympiakos ahead at Anfield. In the context of the head-to-head situation, it was an away goal and Liverpool then needed to win by two clear goals.
Substitute Florent Sinama-Pongolle scored an early second half goal, and it was followed up by a strike from another substitute, Neil Mellor with a little more than ten minutes on the clock. The seemingly impossible suddenly became realistic, but as time started to run out, it seemed a long and tense wait before Steven Gerrard’s stunning finish completed the dramatic turnaround with more than 86 minutes played.
Played out in an electric atmosphere at Anfield, the evening set the tone for everything which was to follow for Liverpool in the Champions League that season.
And the three-goal second half comeback might have been a source of encouragement to Liverpool’s players during half time in a certain Turkish dressing room five months later…
I wasn’t surprised to see King Kenny shown the Anfield exit yesterday. However, nor would I have been surprised if Fenway Sports Group, Liverpool’s Boston-based owners, had opted to stand by the man whom they themselves appointed only a year ago.
There were strong arguments supporting each course of action and whatever decision Liverpool’s American owners were to make would involve taking a risk.
Liverpool’s 2011/12 season is not an easy one to assess. Reaching the final of both domestic cup competitions in the same season is no mean feat, and in Liverpool’s case, it involved having to overcome the best two club sides in the country as well as Chelsea and Everton.
That the Reds couldn’t repeat their Carling Cup win over Chelsea when the two sides met in the FA Cup Final at Wembley may be the source of some regret at Anfield given that their opponents were far from being at their best. Once Liverpool got themselves going they were already 2-0 down, and the task was just too much of an ask in the time remaining.
As disappointing as it was, the FA Cup loss is unlikely to have had anything to do with Dalglish’s sacking, even though a return of two trophies would certainly have made FSG’s decision much more difficult – possibly resulting in a different outcome.
However, while the club’s results in cup competitions have been excellent, results in the Premier League have ultimately cost Dalglish his job – and that’s where progress really becomes difficult to measure.
Performances have generally been better than in either of the two previous seasons. It’s hardly an exaggeration to suggest that, with a couple of notable exceptions, Liverpool dominated all of their league fixtures in the first few months of the season.
Progress was clearly evident, as was the quality available throughout the squad despite the team’s difficulties in converting the many chances that were being created.
By February, Liverpool may have trailed the top three by some distance but fourth place remained a realistic goal. Only after a home defeat to Arsenal – another match in which Liverpool dominated and should have won – did the target of Champions League qualification appear unattainable, but even at that stage of the season it would have been unthinkable to imagine Kenny Dalglish losing his job.
Liverpool’s form in the three months following the loss to Arsenal is more likely to be the period of the season that has led to doubts in the minds of the owners as to whether Dalglish is still the man to get the most out of his players. Performances were poor, and were reflected by the results which followed.
Fulham won at Anfield for the first time in their history and in doing so, completed a league double over Liverpool without conceding a goal over the two games. Fulham were one of four teams that Liverpool failed to score against – a list which included Stoke as well as newly promoted Swansea. Meanwhile, West Brom won their first match at Anfield in 25 attempts dating back to 1967 and Wigan, who were being kept off the bottom of the table only on goal difference, also went home from Merseyside with all three points.
For all of the positives on show, there have been too many signs of a team simply not making the progress expected of them, which gave FSG two important questions to answer.
Firstly, was there a confidence that Dalglish would be able to guide Liverpool back into the Champions League next season with largely the same group of players who have been involved in the club’s lowest league placing for 18 years?
Putting aside all loyalty to Dalglish, it would be easy to understand why the owners would have doubts, especially when bearing in mind that having recognised at the turn of the year that all Liverpool were missing was better finishing, Dalglish found himself unable to bring about an improvement during the second half of the season.
Secondly, was there a trust in Dalglish’s ability to invest wisely, particularly after spending large amounts on players who have yet to represent good value for money?
Again, there are difficulties in defending last summer’s transfer dealings, when huge sums were invested in players specifically brought to Anfield in order to boost Liverpool’s prospects in the league.
The players brought in were those who knew the Premier League and who wouldn’t need the time to adjust to the style of English football. It’s not fair to make a final judgement of each player on the basis on one year, though not one summer signing can yet be considered a success at Liverpool.
When considering issues such as the above, John W Henry and co have clearly concluded that too many question marks remain over whether Dalglish is the man who they trust to help realise their ambitions for LFC.
Whilst I feel that any manager appointed at any club should be given at least two full seasons before he is under threat, it’s obviously important that the manager has the board’s full support at the start of the season. Any lack of confidence in Dalglish would only be highlighted further if, for example, Liverpool were to start next season badly, and uncertainties over the manager’s position once the season had started would only contribute to an unhelpful atmosphere at the club and threaten to destabilise the whole campaign.
For that reason, and taking into account the doubts that quite clearly exist in Boston, removing Dalglish immediately is probably the right move, even if it means losing a few friends on the Kop in the process. The success of FSG’s next managerial appointment will determine whether any frustration towards them for dismissing a Liverpool legend can be quickly forgotten.
Dalglish won’t leave the Anfield dugout as a manager who has failed, but rather as one who has succeeded in steadying a ship which has endured much turmoil over the last 2-3 years.
And despite the lowly Premier League finish, Liverpool FC is a much more attractive job to a potential new manager than it has been at any stage during the previous two years.
For that, Dalglish deserves more credit than anyone.
Four years ago, La Machine brought Liverpool’s streets to a standstill. And this morning marked the first of three days of Liverpool street theatre on an even bigger scale.
Despite grim weather, tens of thousands lined the city streets to witness to awaking of Giant Uncle, as he began a march through the city towards Stanley Park.
Earlier in the day, Little Girl Giant marched from Stanley Park towards the city, and following another route tomorrow for each of the giants they will meet on Sunday beside the city’s famous waterfront.
It’s the kind of event – involving huge numbers of spectators – that Liverpool tends to do brilliantly and if you’re planning on visiting, you won’t go home disappointed.
A dramatic injury time winner from Andy Carroll gave Liverpool a first league win since their 3-0 victory over Everton in early March.
And the two Merseyside rivals face each other on Saturday, this time with an FA Cup final place up for grabs.
Even throughout a miserable run of league results during the first quarter of the calendar year, Liverpool have been impressive in cup competitions. Man City, who were runaway league leaders at the time, were dumped from the Carling Cup, before Man United lost at Anfield in the FA Cup – one of only two away defeats to a Premier League team that they have suffered so far this season.
Things have been different for Liverpool in the league however. At 5.00pm on January 21, Everton’s draw with Blackburn had left them nine points behind Liverpool having played a game more.
Liverpool had the possibility of extending that lead to 12 points with a win against bottom-of-the-table Bolton in the day’s evening fixture, but a comfortable win for Bolton was the first of eight defeats that Liverpool have suffered in their 14 Premier League matches since the turn of the year.
In contrast, Everton have enjoyed a consistent run of results that has seen them not only catch their local rivals, but move ahead. Only Arsenal, Newcastle and the two Manchester clubs have gained more league points in 2012 than David Moyes’ men.
Everton don’t score many – their 4-0 win against Sunderland was their first win by more than two goals for exactly a year and the first time they’d scored three in a home match in any competition since mid-September – but they don’t concede many either, and only Chelsea and Liverpool have managed to score more than two goals in a game against Everton during the Blues’ last 56 competitive matches.
Rightly or wrongly Liverpool will be favourites in Saturday’s Wembley showdown, and it’s likely that everyone involved with Everton will be happy for most of the pressure to be on Kenny Dalglish and his team. The blue half of the city know that they’re capable of reaching the final, and don’t have to go far back to recall the last time they won a semi final despite being considered underdogs – in 2009 versus Manchester United.
Liverpool’s losing run may have ended, but Everton should still go to Wembley confident that they can not only finish above Liverpool in the league but also secure a win in the biggest Merseyside derby for more than 20 years.
Continuing from my earlier post concerning yesterday’s Premier League game between Newcastle United and Liverpool, the most unsavory aspect of the afternoon other than Liverpool’s performance was James Perch’s involvement in the sending off of Pepe Reina.
Watching the incident as it happened, it looked like a gentle headbutt by Reina and a massive overreaction by Perch. Even so, I expected Reina to be dismissed because regardless of how much contact may actually have been made, there was clearly some violent intent and the laws of the game demand that a red card be issued for such an action.
But the replays also confirmed the exaggerated role played by Perch, with one angle even appearing to show the possibility that there wasn’t even any contact at all between the players.
Whether the reaction by Perch – instantly throwing himself to the ground and rolling around as if punched by a heavyweight boxer – had any bearing on the referee’s decision or not will be known only to the official himself.
There have, however, been similar instances when players have touched heads and only a yellow card given – one example being Liverpool’s league fixture at Fulham earlier in the season when Clint Dempsey reacted aggressively to what had actually been an entirely fair challenge by Bellamy. Dempsey clearly aimed a headbutt at Bellamy during a heated exchange between the pair but was only cautioned, perhaps because Bellamy had stayed on his feet.
So could Reina have escaped with only a caution yesterday had Perch not feigned injury in a manner which unfairly did a fellow professional no favours? Again, only Martin Atkinson could answer that question.
But given there was no need to go to ground holding his face, there should also be measures in place to issue retrospective punishment to players such as Perch who can clearly be proven to have reacted dishonestly. Had he stayed on his feet and Reina not been dismissed, there would have been ample opportunity for the FA to review the decision after the match and issue a suspension if it was felt that one was warranted.
On the whole, the FA have done well in their aims of stamping out dangerous two-footed challenges and elbowing and have recently stepped up their anti-racism campaign, but playacting is an area which the FA have never properly addressed. Too many players know that if they can get away with it at the time then there’ll be no further repercussions.
It’s one of the last forms of cheating that is simply accepted by the nation’s football authorities, and a change in approach to dealing with the problem by those at the FA and the Premier League is long overdue.
How many footballers would roll around pretending to be injured despite not having been touched whilst watching on as an opponent is sent off, if they knew that that their own actions would be scutinised and could themselves lead to a lengthy ban?
Perhaps it’s time to find out.
Aside from the financial considerations, there’s a number of reasons why, after years of being an ever-present at Anfield, I started to grow fed-up with the modern game – and two of them were perfectly illustrated at Newcastle yesterday.
The first reason was the issue of cheating, and I’ll cover that in a separate article later today.
The second was the manner of Liverpool’s performance. I’m not of the opinion that paying spectators deserve to be entertained, or have a right to see good quality football. Despite the hype and promotion of “the product” by the Premier League and television companies, the game of football, even at the highest level, remains first and foremost a sport.
But the one thing which supporters should be able to expect is effort and determination – even on a bad day, as yesterday undoubtedly was for Liverpool. Such a quality was lacking from too many players to name individually, and that has been a theme during too many recent league games even if the manager has cited other reasons for an alarming run of league form.
Tiredness can’t be blamed. Liverpool have enjoyed progress in two cups, but have still played fewer games than many – if not all – of the teams who have competed in Europe this season.
Clubs with ambition should expect to be playing twice a week at this stage of the season, and it’s a certainty than Man United won’t be happy with not having a European game to play this week – or an FA Cup semi final in two weeks time.
Nor can blame be levelled at the quality of squad that Kenny Dalglish has available to him. While it may lack the same depth as some of the teams further up the league table, it is much stronger than it was in January 2011 when Dalglish took over.
The progress on the pitch was evident for much of the first half of the season, when only poor finishing cost Liverpool the points that their football often merited. The club’s season-long problems in converting chances is much more a reason for their current league position than a relatively recent run of poor results.
Contrary to the belief of some, it’s not yet a crisis. But the Reds face a difficult FA Cup semi final and also a fight to finish seventh, and only with a greatly improved attitude from Liverpool’s players will the club manage to stop a run of form which threatens to give the season a disastrous feel to it.