Reds Stop Slide in Sofia

Originally published on LFCOnline.com website.

Having lost four straight, Liverpool skidded into Sofia desperate to keep their Champions League hopes alive, while turning around their recent form and fortunes.

The night could not have started more poorly for Liverpool, when after three minutes their defense was scrambling all over the pitch and conceded the opener. Ludogorets advanced directly with pace. Kolo Toure could not clear and Marcelinho lashed 30 yard effort that bounced off Simon Mignolet, in a bungled save attempt. Dani Abalo knocked in the rebound, capping a dream start for the home side.

Five minutes later, Liverpool benefitted from some much needed good fortune when Ludogorets fullback Yordan Minev misplayed a cross, letting it bounce in the penalty area. The ball looped, giving Rickie Lambert time to snap a header across the face of goal and into the side netting.

Clear errors on both ends resulted in each of the first two goals.

For large portions of the first half the Bulgarian side gained the upper hand and looked to go ahead. At times, Liverpool could hardly string more than a pass together, struggling to regain their composure.

In the 37th minute,  against the run of play, Liverpool benefitted from another mistake. Ludogorets gave the ball away to Raheem Sterling, who raced down the left channel, before curling a cross low on the far post for a tight angle Jordan Henderson tap in. It was not an easy finish, despite Henderson making it look so.

The second half grew scrappier but produced little more than fits and starts. Apart from one dangerous chance for Sterling to seal it, neither side could craft any true threat.

However, Liverpool dropped deeper, yielding possession and absorbing the Bulgarian side’s pressure. For the final ten minutes, Ludogorets set up shop in the Liverpool defensive end, which would pay dividends.

In the 88th minute, Ludogorets equalized on a late corner. It was a poor kick towards the near post, but the flick by Svetoslav Dyakov found its way to Georgi Terziev, who smashed in a header at the far post. The Reds were beat to each touch in the sequence.

While a draw keeps Liverpool in the tournament with control of their own fate, this one has to feel like another defeat. The Reds were a few minutes away from grinding out the kind of away European win, upon which they could potentially build some confidence. However, the Merseysiders failed to hang on. They continue to miss opportunities but at least stopped the slide before hosting Stoke City at the weekend.

More Problems for Reds at Palace

Originally published on LFCOnline.com website.

News of Daniel Sturridge injuring his thigh fell hard on Merseyside this week, but the mood only darkened after Liverpool lost 3-1 to Crystal Palace at a soggy Selhurst Park.

International breaks, combined with poor performances, continue to wreak havoc on the Reds’ current campaign. More injuries, this time to Jordan Henderson and Mario Balotelli, forced manager Brendan Rodgers into some lineup changes, giving Rickie Lambert his second start.

The move looked to pay dividends from the start, as Lambert netted his first goal for the club in the second minute of the match. Receiving an excellent diagonal pass over the top from former Southampton teammate Adam Lallana in a deep midfield position, Lambert darted into the penalty area from the left. A sublime first touch and a cool finish opened both his and the Reds’ scoring account. It was a well-worked goal, almost training ground stuff from the visitors.

However, the early tally would be the height of Liverpool’s performance on the afternoon. Almost immediately from the ensuing kickoff Crystal Palace caused a scare. Still, Liverpool were able to regain composure and possession, cautiously moving the ball around the back, rarely advancing beyond midfield.

To their credit, Palace were prepared to drop deep banks of four and absorb any real Liverpool threat. Apart from a handful of offsides, the Reds were unable to build on the early lead and capitalise on the bright start.

Then in the 17th minute, Liverpool conceded the equalizer. After dealing a minor cut to the head of Joe Allen, who needed to receive treatment, Yannick Bolasie carved open the Liverpool defense. Driving hard into the middle of the pitch, Bolasie unleashed a rocket shot that would ping off the post and rebound to a fast-reacting Dwight Gayle for an easy equalizer.

The goal breathed life into the Selhurst Park faithful and the home side who grew even more resolute in the desire to catch Liverpool on the counter attack with pace and power. Bolasie, in particular, caused all kinds of problems for a Reds defense that looked increasingly slow and shabby after conceding.

Space between Liverpool’s attacking line and midfield widened as midfielders continued to drop deeper in their effort to pick the ball up from a defense that was shaky playing a high line. Combined with little movement or outlets available up front, Crystal Palace easily absorbed any attack prior to the final third.

In the 34th minute, the Reds mounted a counter attack of their own, when Allen drove down the left side before peeling back and crossing a quality ball to Lambert on the far post, but the striker couldn’t find the target. It was the best threat Liverpool would mount in the first half after the early goal.

The second half started with no changes from either side and proved equally sloppy as the first. Liverpool continued to concede ground, combined with poor clearances, and looked vulnerable defensively. In attack, it seemed that the best threat would come from hopeful free kick opportunities. Steven Gerrard, however, could not put any of his chances on goal, repeatedly firing high and wide from a variety of dead ball positions.

After an hour, the game began to grow increasingly stretched as each side tried to break the stalemate. The Eagles began to press forward, routinely building attacks from poor Liverpool clearances and inability to maintain any kind of sustained possession.

The 70th minute was illustrative of the match for most of the second half, when Liverpool advanced in numbers, Glen Johnson crossing a dangerous ball that tempted Palace goalkeeper Julian Speroni off the line to knock the ball down. With no Reds runners following up, the ball was cleared quickly for what nearly developed as a dangerous three-on-two break the other way for Palace. One of the few poor touches by Bolasie would see the counter falter.

Liverpool did try to throw numbers forward in an attempt to get a win. Yet, the final ball continued to be wanting and Palace easily scuppered anything that entered the box.

Beginning in the 72nd minute a series of three substitutions every two minutes slowed the match for both sides temporarily. Liverpool’s Fabio Borini replaced Lallana, and Emre Can substituted Allen. Then James MacArthur came on for the home side, taking off Jason Puncheon.

Soon after, Palace’s Bolasie, who had switched to the right side, easily rounded Dejan Lovren on his way into the penalty area, before cutting the ball back to a wide open Joe Ledley, who calmly slotted home the finish.

Three minutes later, the match would be put out of reach entirely. After a marginally dodgy foul by Martin Skrtel, Palace were awarded a free kick centrally, about 25 yards from goal. Eagle’s captain, Mile Jedinak then curled an exquisite right footed strike into the top corner of the goal. Despite Simon Mignolet’s efforts to reach it, there was not stopping it.

From that point, Palace coasted to victory sustaining possession and bossing the match past a physically and mentally fatigued Liverpool.

In spite of the positive start, Liverpool again conceded and looked bereft of solutions to the problems that only have deepened for the club. Rodgers too seems unable to remedy the troubles that have now undoubtedly destroyed any fragile confidence that his side has been able to muster.

Defensively, the Reds continue to be easily pulled out of position and exploited by pace and power. Additionally, the inability to address arial attacks seems to worsen with each match. The midfield continues to be overrun and outnumbered, causing countless disruptions to any sustained effort at seizing control and building an attack. Few genuine goalscoring chances are being created and even fewer goals are being scored.

Twelve matches into the season, Liverpool are currently not even a shadow of the swashbuckling side that took the Premier League by storm last year. Perhaps more worrying, every time it seem as though the side has hit bottom, they find a way to fall a little further.

An Encouraging Performance

Originally published on LFCOnline.com website.

Brendan Rodgers first trip leading Liverpool into the Bernabeu began with a surprising line-up.

With a number of consistent starters on the bench, the manager’s selection no doubt divided opinions among supporters. Yet, with Chelsea at the weekend, victory unlikely against the competition’s defending champions at their home ground, and a squad that has not exactly performed well of late, changes were not completely out of order. This new starting eleven competed bravely in a 1-0 defeat to Real Madrid.

From the opening whistle, Liverpool looked lively and hungry to play, passing with greater pace and precision than recent weeks. Despite an early attempt in the fourth minute, when James Rodriguez quick shot from inside the arc was saved by Simon Mignolet and the Reds continued to get on the ball.

Early on Liverpool worked the ball but still lacked precision in the final third. Both sides played at a frenzied pace, committing numbers in attack. In fact it looked like Liverpool might risk getting caught upfield and exposed on the counter attack. However, they worked hard to maintain a good shape and balance defensively.

Still, in the 10th minute Martin Skrtel nearly gifted Madrid a goal, lingering and losing the ball just outside the area to the pressure of Karim Benzema, who pounced and found a trailing Christiano Ronaldo. Yet, Mignolet flashed a save to deflect the shot over the bar for a corner.

From that point, Real began to seize control of the match and Liverpool began to drop deeper into their half, trying to be compact while looking to spring forward with pace. Any counter attacks amounted to little more than interruptions in Real’s possession. They virtually set up camp in the Liverpool half, working ball around the pitch, probing, with Luka Modric pulling the strings and looking to pull the Reds out of shape and break into space quickly.

There were a couple of scares. In the 16th minute, Kolo Toure crashed into Mignolet causing some panic when the ball did not find its way out of play, but Liverpool recovered. A couple of minutes later Ronaldo sprinted past three Reds before firing a a shot from an unlikely angle, right at Mignolet.

Liverpool’s urgency then started to increase again for a short stretch, as they buzzed around and frustrated Madrid without the ball and looked to move the ball quickly when in possession. However, in the 27th minute, the home side broke through when Marcelo swung a cross from just inside the left of the penalty area towards the back post, where Benzema peeled off Toure’s shoulder and finished into the roof of the net. While the quality sequence of play may have found Toure momentarily ball watching, as well as freezing Mignolet on his line, the service and finish were top class.

After the goal, Madrid showed that their squad not only has more quality but is a physically strong, rugged side capable of imposing themselves on their opponent. In particular, the center half pairing of Sergio Ramos and Varane were able to quickly close down isolated forward runs by Fabio Borini and Lazar Markovic. Still, Liverpool continued to fight and refused to surrender.

In the 34th minute, Ronaldo nearly tallied with a wicked free kick from 28 yards out, forcing a blocking save from Mignolet.  A moment later, Verane chipped an impressive diagonal ball over-the-top, on to the chest of Benzema, whose advancing run split Skrtel and Toure, but Toure put the ball over the crossbar and out of play. For a short time, Real attacked in a series of waves that rained shots down on the Liverpool goal but Mignolet was up to the challenge.

In the final five minutes of the half, Liverpool gathered a few minutes of possession that found them deep in Real’s box but unable to find any cutting edge.

The second half began with no changes to the sides and Real fell into control again. Two minutes after the restart, Skrtel was booked for a late challenge on Ronaldo just outside left corner of the box but the free kick amounted to nothing.

In the 53rd minute, Markovic picked the ball up deep in Liverpool’s end and went on a blinding run through half of the home side before being chopped down by Rodriguez, who received a yellow card for the foul. The move marked another run of play that saw Liverpool attempting to make a contest of things.

Three minutes later Alberto Moreno flashed a shot in from outside the penalty area for an easy Casillas save. It was the first real attack the Real keeper was called upon to react.

Then in the 58th minute, Adam Lallana received a Moreno pass with a nifty turn to slip between two Real defenders and into the box, only to slide a shot wide right of the outstretched Casillas and goal. It was the closest that Liverpool would come to threatening.

Before long, Real’s Ronaldo and Benzema turned Liverpool’s defense inside-out and had them scrambling, but Toure recovered to block a Ronaldo shot out of play. Even though the Reds defense was occasionally frantic, they maintained the organisation and closed quickly, absorbing the attack.

However, in the 69th minute Marcelo nearly found Benzema again with a low cross that skipped to the far post before the striker mishit high and wide.

Immediately after, Raheem Sterling came on for Markovic and Steven Gerrard replaced Lucas Leiva. In the ensuing action, Marcelo broke down the wing and pulled a low cross back along the pitch to substitute Gareth Bale. In Bale’s first real threat for the home side, he nearly dashed the Reds’ hopes when he slammed a shot off the crossbar.

Then at 76 minutes, Philippe Coutinho replaced Emre Can, who put in an admirable shift, and Liverpool looked to possibly steal a draw.

Gerrard sprayed diagonal balls from deep to try and push the attack forward with more urgency and directness, but Sterling and Coutinho never quite settled into the match and Real coasted to a one goal victory.

Although Liverpool rarely tested Real’s defense and did ultimately falter, this was a performance that offered encouragement after a run of inconsistent and struggling form. They looked energetic and committed, even pinging the ball around the midfield with purpose in a manner that has been sorely missing.

Even in defeat, this was an encouraging performance and gave the travelling supporters a determined show. Questions remain and solutions are still wanting, as the result was never really in doubt, but spirited display by the unlikely starting eleven revealed that this Liverpool side remains in the fight and continues to seek answers. Playing in Madrid may provide easy motivation, but so too should Chelsea’s arrival on Saturday. The effort and work shown in this match will be needed again.

Inconsistency and Missed Opportunity

Originally published on LFCOnline.com website.

After winning dramatically midweek in the Capital One Cup, Liverpool looked to carry some confidence into the league fixture at St. James’ Park. Yet, Newcastle entered the match with three straight wins, stretching it to a fourth with a 1-0 home victory.

In the opening minutes, Liverpool endeavoured to move the ball around and build possession. However, Newcastle dropped deep in their half and looked to counter attack with pace. It proved the home side’s tactical set-up for the match. The Reds, however, did not take up the role of the positive side and found it difficult to generate any threatening penetration in the final third.

After Liverpool surrendered a corner in the fourth minute, there was not another from either side until Newcastle again earned a corner in the 21st minute. For the Reds part in that time, they rarely found their way into the Newcastle penalty area.

The most action in the first 25 minutes was when Gabriel Obertan pulled up with a thigh injury on a run down the right flank, forcing Newcastle boss Alan Pardew to use a substitute. It highlighted a slow first half, punctuated by the occasional foul but little to no urgency for either side.

It took until the 37th minute before there was any real chance on goal. Newcastle’s Papiss Cisse turned a corner kick that sailed to the back post on goal, where Glen Johnson headed it off the line with a diving header, saving Simon Mignolet some blushes after missing the clearance.

Three minutes later Liverpool won a corner. Steve Gerrard served up a great ball to the near post where Martin Skrtel headed just past the goal, missing the best chance for a finish in what could only be described as a plodding first half.

The second half began with a second substitution for the Magpies, as Ayoze Perez replaced Cisse up front. Still, the second half brought much of the same as the first, with Liverpool passing the ball around without any threat.

Yet, the Reds dodged a dangerous moment in the 47th minute when Glen Johnson senselessly fell to the ground on the edge of the box, looking for a whistle that never came. It allowed Perez nearly to find Rolando Aarons.

A minute later, Moussa Cissoko chopped Joe Allen down with a viciously high tackle that resulted in a yellow card that could and probably should have been red. Mario Balotelli took the ensuing free kick and bent a long, curling shot from 25 yards out that bounced just before the Newcastle goal keeper Tim Krul, but was handled easily.

Balotelli would try curling another in the 55th minute. It was just as easily caught by Krul and highlighted how much Liverpool’s attack lacked incisiveness.

Then two minutes later, the Reds’ best chance would come when Balotelli drifted out the the right sideline, before finding Gerrard who made a diagonal cross deep into the near post, finding the head of Philippe Coutinho, but the Brazilian headed wide of the mark. The move seemed to breathe some life into the Liverpool attack, helping sustain a more substantial push beyond midfield.

Then in the 62nd minute, referee Andre Mariner made another critical call when Daryl Janmaat wildly chopped Balotelli down, right in front of the technical areas. Balotelli had worked hard coming back to collect the ball amidst a scrap of physical challenges. Still, it was another rash challenge from Newcastle and Janmaat escaped with only a yellow.

In the 66th minute Remi Cabella came on for Sammy Ameobi for the home side, and Fabio Borini replaced Allen for the Reds. Borini’s inclusion was an attempt to push forward with greater speed and intent but Liverpool continued to struggle trying to penetrate and break down the Magpies. Newcastle remained resolute, organized and capable of absorbing Liverpool’s pressure.

In the 70th minute, Raheem Sterling would chest down a ball into the onrushing path of Borini, who pulled a shot wide left, again from outside the box. Then, in the 73rd minute, the game turned…

After Johnson cut in from the right flank and took a shot that was easily blocked, Newcastle would start a sequence of play that would send the ball to the other end and in the net. It took three passes to reach the Liverpool box with each Newcastle player receiving the ball free to advance with little or no pressure. Perez would eventually pounce on a poor touch from Alberto Moreno to score. While Moreno’s touch was easy to blame it was Dejan Lovren’s positional indiscipline that would compound things and open up the back line for the scrappy finish.

As pressure mounted, Liverpool’s attack continued to splutter. Moreno would misplay a poor back pass from Jordan Henderson in the 76th minute that started a two-on-one break for Newcastle that could have sealed it, but for a shoelace save from Mignolet.

Rickie Lambert would make a cameo appearance in the 80th minute, replacing Coutinho. Yet the two forward setup did little to add to the attack, as Newcastle would try to press their advantage, mounting a handful of attacking waves that put the Reds on their back foot for much of the reminder of the match.

Despite remaining three points off fourth position, Liverpool continue to suffer from a crisis of confidence. The Reds look bereft of answers to the increasing number of questions in all areas of the game. The defense continues to make collective and individual errors, the midfield continues to struggle in transition, speed of play, and finding space, and the strikers, whether one or two, continue to lack clear chances and misfire.

While Daniel Sturridge cannot return to the starting eleven soon enough, the Reds’ problems are growing and need to be righted quickly, before the season slips away in a series of what-ifs and could-have-beens. The fortunes of the midweek cup clash did not continue.

With a Tuesday trip to the Bernabeu this match was an opportunity missed, especially against a team finishing without a first choice striker. To Newcastle;s credit, they are riding a wave of good form that has powered them to four straight victories. Meanwhile, Liverpool’s inconsistency continues, leaving them with as many losses as wins and still looking for solutions.

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