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.

Desperation Only Increases

Originally published on LFCOnline.com website.

The Reds started another league fixture flat and slow, spluttering to a frustrating 0-0 draw against Hull City at Anfield.

Brendan Rodgers altered the side in an attempt to successfully navigate the third of seven matches in 21 days. After the masterclass in precision and professionalism Liverpool received at the feet of Real Madrid midweek, the home crowd was hoping to see their side recover against the Tigers. Yet, this match always looked like two mid-table teams slogging away in an anaemic attacking display.

Hull City controlled things from the opening whistle for nearly the first 10 minutes. It forced Liverpool onto the back foot and unable to get on the ball or a foothold.

After Liverpool won a corner in the 10th minute and Dejan Lovren’s header was cleared off the line by Ahmed Elmohamady, the Reds started to warm into the contest. Moments later, Sterling worked a nice turn to find Balotelli on a diagonal run right of goal, where the striker lashed a laser shot on-target, forcing a save. It was well-worked and well-struck but a tight angle.

In the wake of that chance, supporters began chanting and urging the players’ performance. For a time, Liverpool’s defensive press surged with greater urgency. As they saw more of the ball, the pace of play started to increase on the attack as well. Yet, there were far too few opportunities of quality for the rest of the half.

Despite improving play, Liverpool continue to look like a side with too many players unclear of exactly what they are supposed to be doing. Lack of certainty about individual responsibilities, indecisive runs, lack of awareness where teammates are likely to be continued to amplify the collective anxiety and hesitation. Add to that touches that lack in required sharpness, everything seemed a struggle. With far too much frequency, balls were played just sightly off the mark, too soft, too high, or too late. It all contributed to costly delays, allowing Hull to close down and pressure the ball with even greater strength and effectiveness in dulling Liverpool’s attack.

Emre Can struggled to make an impact, after returning bravely from an ugly early ankle turn. Javier Manquillo was routinely caught high up the pitch. Both Raheem Sterling and Adam Lallana were accordingly muted and Balotelli continued to go missing for stretches and push far too much when he was involved.

The malaise and lack of clear cut chances continued to leave Liverpool looking increasingly desperate. So much so that every time a player fell over too easily in the area it seemed to nullify any potentially proper penalty call. Twice in the first half Neil Swarbrick looked the other way, once early and once late.

In the eighth minute, Sterling was barged over from behind in the right corner of the penalty area and the assistant referee pulled him up for his subsequent reaching out and grabbing the ball with his hand on the fall.

In the 36th minute, Lallana broke free scrappily in the left side of the area and was brought down with a late challenge, after barely flicking a cross over the goal mouth.

As the first half closed, Hull regained control. Jake Livermoore had a shot from a snap pass by Hatem Ben Arfa, who had slipped and benefitted from Liverpool’s defense switching off with three minutes left to play.

Liverpool’s return to the way they began the game found them late and chasing, as Hull looked lively with a sequence of clever layoffs that finally found Tom Huddlestone slashing a shot that was deflected for a corner. Ultimately, it was unthreatening and generally symptomatic of Liverpool’s play.

The second half began with no changes for either side and a similar listlessness. As the match advanced, Hull settled into the away side spoiler role, repeatedly challenging with late tackles, many due to Liverpool’s own poor passes. However, the toll sapped and compounded the lack of fluidity for the home side.

Neither goalkeeper was truly challenged for two thirds of the match. Then, in the 61st minute, Philippe Coutinho and Rickie Lambert entered the match for Joe Allen and Adam Lallana. The changes enlivened Liverpool, with Coutinho making an almost immediate impact with his quick one-touch passes and clever runs.

In the 64th minute, Gerrard sent a corner kick to the near post that Can flicked to the far side, where Balotelli was crashing to the net but missed the header entirely. In fact, Balotelli’s frustrations nearly boiled over multiple times in the second half, as the frustration felt by both him and fans intensified. Playing as a single striker has not aided his floundering form and the addition of Lambert up front turned the match in Liverpool’s favour.

Pressure began building, as the Reds probed, and finally pinged passes around the pitch. Lambert showed some composure, holding up the ball and laying it off with greater strength and touch. Hull struggled to regain possession and the Anfield faithful once again rose in songs of support, desperately urging the Reds forward for a deadlock-breaking score.

In the dying minutes, Liverpool tried to oblige, but it was never meant to be. In the 88th minute another potential penalty was waived off, when Balotelli was pushed from behind in the box. While it would have been a soft penalty, it illustrated how many decisions the referee did not make, but even more just how desperate Liverpool as a team have become to score goals.

In the final action, Gerrard nearly found his way through a blockade of defenders in the box, Coutinho miraculously hung onto the ball atop the area, firing a shot, but both efforts resulted in mere corners kicks.

The two combined again to free the Brazilian on the left, racing into the box. He passed to Balotelli, who in an near repeat of the QPR ending, tried to flick in a winner, but Eldin Jakupovic was equal to it.

Frustration and questions continue to mount with little relief and few answers. No goals were conceded but neither were any scored. Ultimately, Liverpool struggled against a mediocre team in mediocre fashion. Rodgers continues to tinker but cannot seem to find a side that clicks. In most matches this campaign at least one player has been clearly off their game. This match saw multiple muted performances. Despite Rodgers’ suggestion that they deserved three points the desperation only increases.

A Half Step Is A Gulf Too Wide

Originally published on LFCOnline.com website.

The supporters were buzzing around Anfield in full voice for a beloved European night, chanting and urging them home.

Yet, despite the opening 20 minutes of a high tempo and aggressive pressure Liverpool were undone by the tournament’s defending champions Real Madrid.

The opening 20 minutes of the match were more than encouraging for the Reds. A frenzied pace and persistent pressure characterized Liverpool from the opening whistle. Within the first minute Jordan Henderson put a marker tackle on Cristiano Ronaldo, suggesting what kind of night might be in store. However the Merseysiders could not find a finish to capitalize on the hungry start.

Real Madrid patiently waited for their chance to gain some possession, despite Liverpool preventing them from finding any kind of rhythm. After the initial phase waned, the Reds found passing out of their half more difficult. The pace of the game slowed slightly, allowing Madrid half a step more when on the ball.

That half step would prove enough. For in the 23rd minute, Ronaldo drifted inside and started a sequence of play that included passing to James Rodriguez, before driving hard right through the middle of Liverpool’s defense. Rodriguez then chipped a sublime ball, beating five players, including splitting the center halves, back through to Ronaldo. From there, Ronaldo picked it on the bounce and spun a class finish to the far post, beyond an outstretched Simon Mignolet. It might have seemed against the run of play, but that was all it would take.

Madrid grew stronger with the goal. The visitors started to take control, possessing and probing the Reds defense, pinning them back in their defensive third. Liverpool tryed to maintain their shape, but were unable to maintain the high press against the pinpoint passing of the Madristas.

In the 30th minute, Karim Benzema doubled the away advantage, beating Glen Johnson in the air from a deep diagonal Toni Kroos cross. Essentially unchallenged, the Frenchmen climbed high and delicately looped a header up and over Mignolet, descending into the far back corner of the net. It was another class finish from the Spanish giants.

With a second goal, Real Madrid settled into cruise control, swarming defensively initially and fouling any hint of penetration from the Reds. Kroos’ yellow card for knocking Raheem Sterling off the ball before posing any genuine threat in the 35th minute illustrated Madrid’s level of tactical nous and confidence. Liverpool were too easily defused.

Liverpool were nearly exposed again, playing a high defensive line and allowing Ronaldo a chance to get in behind. Instead, Johnson surrendered a corner. Liverpool’s inability to defend set pieces was cruelly exposed again. Benzema pounced on a loose ball in the box from a corner kick in the 41st minute for his brace. Conceding another corner, this one was the result of three Madrid touches in the box before it found the back of the net. At 3-0 down the match was essentially finished.

A couple of minutes later, Joe Allen nearly found the far post from a quick Mario Balotelli cross, but Ilker Casillas flashed a glove and could have reached it, but did not need to as it was always hooking wide.

Then, in stoppage time, Philippe Coutinho nearly got on the scoresheet, rattling a shot off the far post from distance in the final seconds of the half. In many ways, the moment illustrated the night – a half chance from distance that could not be finished.

The second half was far less eventful, apart from Mario Balotelli getting substituted at the break in favour of Adam Lallana. The attacking tempo and quick passes returned in Balotelli’s absence. Apart from a few more half chances, the Reds may have been able to get on the ball but could never pose much genuine threat. Madrid dropped into game management mode.

Ronaldo nearly had a brace in the 64th minute, when he pulled down Benzema’s cross and was in one-on-one with Mignolet. However, the keeper got a foot on the shot deflecting out of play.

As the game wound down, the Anfield crowd rallied their voices again in an attempt to raise the home side, which was wracked defensively and in serious need of confidence. Granted the overcoming the Galaticos was always going to be a big ask, but the Reds are reeling presently and desperately in need of solutions that seem just out of reach.

There were some positives but not enough of them to counterbalance the sheer quality of the ten-time European Cup winners. Coutinho looks closer to his former self. Sterling clearly remains the Reds best player on the pitch. Meanwhile, Lallana will make more of an impact as the season continues. Even newcomers, Emre Can and Lazar Markovic showed that their futures are bright. Still, it does not seem enough, nor does the potential look to be realised as quickly as needed.

Balotelli being pulled at the half, after another display plagued by poor decisions and ineffectiveness, only highlights the precarious lack of positive moves available. Brendan Rodgers will need to secure another league win against Hull City this Saturday in the hope of salvaging belief.

Patience, already in short supply, will only become more strained if Liverpool cannot find a way to grind out results against mid to low table teams. The danger of falling too far off the pace is real in this current crucial run of fixtures. Thoughts of how early it still is in the season can simply no longer apply.

Liverpool Steal One at Loftus Road

For the first fixture in arguably the most critical run of matches for Liverpool this calendar year, the Reds steal a desperate and undeserved 3-2 victory away against bottom-dwellers Queens Park Rangers at Loftus Road.

The Reds began in remarkably lackluster fashion, looking very much like a side struggling to find their form and showing the wear of playing with increasing desperation. In truth, Liverpool needed all the luck they could gather to win with all the frenzied action happening from the 90th minute and stoppage time with three goals inside four minutes.

To their credit, Queens Park Rangers established themselves early. In the third minute, the Hoops created the first chance of the game when Bobby Zamora held off Dejan Lovren at the top of the penalty area, chesting a ball to an onrushing Charlie Austin who overhit the shot high into the stands. Then seconds later, Rangers sent a long diagonal free kick that Zamora headed into the area from the right side.

While neither chance prevailed, QPR’s tactics were clear. They would control possession for most of the first half, targeting Jose Enrique on Liverpool’s defensive left side, threatening with ariel service, and controlling the match. In combination with Liverpool’s poor play, these were early themes that would characterize the entire match. Looking up from the bottom of the table inspired far more fight in the home side.

Rangers would create three genuinely strong chances to the Reds one near opportunity in the first half.

Nine minutes in Charlie Austin benefitted from poor Reds defensive passing, as the ball ricocheting around the final third, fell to him freely breaking behind and into the box where Simon Mignolet stood strong, stopping the initial shot but giving a rebound, which a falling Austin could not finish.

In the 28th minute Leroy Fer ripped a clearcut chance off the crossbar, overhitting a cutback cross from Zamora who had broke into the area again on the right with pace and strength.

Six minutes later, poor defensive passing helped Fer hit the crossbar again, this time from a header, which touched off a mad scramble in front of the Reds net. With Mignolet caught off the line, Austin and Sandro collided on the line and Glen Johnson was able to steward the ball out of danger.

Only in the dying minutes of the first half did Liverpool nearly snatch one, when Mario Balotelli threaded a ball to Steven Gerrard, who plowed forward into center of the area, finding a half yard to shoot, and bending one just outside the far right post. It was by far the best chance of the half for the Reds.

The second half began all square and scoreless, much as the first, with Liverpool chock full of errant touches and unlucky bounces, while QPR looked to press every advantage for an opener.

Two minutes into the half, Liveprool again failed to clear defensively and Sandro drove a wicked, low drive across the face of the goal from the right, forcing Mignolet into a strong, stretched save.

It took nearly two thirds of the game before Liverpool looked like they were even in the match. They began to string together some brighter sequences of play, before QPR’s Sandro had to be treated a subsequently substituted by Armand Traore.

In the 61st minute, Baloteli missed an absolute sitter from fortunate run of play. Raheem Sterling penetrated, looking for Balotelli, when Adam Lallana became recipient of a deflection and shot. The rebound landed right in front of Balotelli five yards from the frame where he missed very, very badly, in Torres-like fashion. It was one of many signs that the Italian is feeling the pressure and not perceiving it as much a privilege. He looked more jaded in the match than any he has played in red.

In an attempt to try and take control of the game, Brendan Rodgers sent Philippe Coutinho and Joe Allen on for Lallana and Emre Can respectively. Both were immediately lively, with Coutinho threading passes that threatened to give the Reds and attacking advantage. Sterling too seemed to respond, finding another gear and some graft to begin opening up QPR’s defense.

Sterling’s pace and intelligence would be rewarded after he was fouled just outside the box on the right and quickly restarted play to Johnson. Benefitting from a QPR side that was completely switched off, Johnson drilled a low and hard cross into the box which a slowly recovering Richard Dunn deflected in for an own goal.

The goal seemed to breathe even more life into the Reds, who started to find a bit more pace and punch in their attack.

Then in the 85th minute Traore would preview what was to come, pouncing on a ball floating in the Reds’ defensive third from a series of weak headers, he found Mignolet equal to the task for another strong save.

No less than two minutes later, in what seemed a near repeated sequence of poor clearance headers, QPR’s substitute  Eduardo Vargas had a ball fall to him inside the six-yard box that couldn’t be missed, as he smashed home the equalizer.

Yet the Reds countered with a mad break, started by Sterling, who found a surging Gerrard, in turn, who slipped the ball to Coutinho on the left of the area. Coutinho darted centrally, beating two and got a favorable deflection on his shot that spun into the side of the net.

It looked like the winner.

However, moments into stoppage time Liverpool conceded another corner, which served only to highlight just how poor their defense had been in the air and on set plays. None other than Vargas beat every Red to the near post to flick a header home and equalize again.

Within seconds of the restart, Liverpool nearly found another winner from a desperate rush forward, but Balotelli could not find the net with his near post flick.

Then in the 94th minute, Liverpool mounted another break. This time Coutinho released Sterling, streaking behind the defense and looking to cross to Balotelli, but Steven Caulker reached out in-stride and knocked in an own goal in the dying seconds. Liverpool received another most fortunate gift.

Sometimes it is better to be lucky than good. Still, Lady Luck is a fickle female and while she seemed to reward the visiting side, certainly Mario Balotelli has only received scorn. This was a match the Reds should have lost, potentially triggering the entire campaign coming off the rails, but, they escaped with three points and moved five rungs up the table.

Just how fortunate they were cannot be dismissed as they prepare to face European giants and defending Champions League winners Real Madrid midweek.

No shortage of questions can be posed to Brendan Rodgers, but to be fifth in the Premier League after playing as poorly as they have for so long, with all the contributing factors, has to be taken as some measure of encouragement.

Nevertheless, answers cannot come soon enough. Nearly every player was looking to give Balotelli his first goal, almost to devastating effect. The sooner he and Lambert break ducks and Sturridge returns cannot come soon enough for a team scrambling to stave off a crisis.

Sterling Caught Between Club and Country

Originally published on LFCOnline.com website.

Gary Lineker is right. Alan Shearer is wrong. It is as simple as that.

Caught in the middle of the club and country debate, Raheem Sterling has become the latest casualty of the tired dilemma.

While one ex-England striker decries the workingman’s lament and scoffs at a nineteen year-old being tired, another recognizes that teenagers are still young, moody, and developing.

Truth, Raheem Sterling is barely still a boy in what is very much a man’s world.

It should be remembered that in less than a year since Sterling’s meteoric rise towards fulfilling his potential, he couldn’t keep his own personal life out the press. It threatened to derail his fledgling career. Everyone saw the talent, but the kid was struggling, both on the pitch and in court.

With help, he clearly sorted himself out and embarked on a sensational run of form that has marked him as one of the best young players in Europe, if not the world.

Unfortunately, his star has shown so brightly in the last few months, he has arguably become the most talismanic player on the pitch for both club and country — a heavy burden for any nineteen year-old, let alone one only recently righted from the trappings of too much too soon.

Yet again, Sterling finds himself in the dailies for all the wrong reasons, only this time wrongly faulted.

England manager Roy Hodgson has played Sterling as the pawn in his ongoing row with Liverpool’s Brendan Rodgers, benevolently suggesting Only this time Hodgson might well have mislaid his hands on the wrong piece, mistaking his most valuable for the least.

Hodgson’s decision to reveal his conversation with the Sterling makes the player look bad to some, but makes Hodgson look only more the fool. Worse still, to hang a player out publicly (all the more unseemly as an act of praise), question the training methods of the club, and engage in this farcical back-and-forth with Rodgers makes the case against himself only stronger.

To question any high profile club willing to invest millions into their players, in an effort to maximize performance over the course of a campaign with the understanding that international duty may be included, is embarrassing, despite anyone that might support Hodgson.

Players of Sterling’s age and quality are by definition different and should be treated differently as well. Clubs can never be thrilled with the risk of releasing their prized assets, but they generally do so and with very little recourse at that.

While the debate rages on a multiple fronts, there has been no shortage of comments highlighting Hodgson’s folly.

Renowned Dutch conditioning expert and recent Wales assistant Raymond Verheijen even scoffed at Hodgson’s antiquated ignorance on facts, as well as remarking how the requirements of a still growing body differ those of a fully matured man.

While Rodgers might currently see the at the prospects of sending any of his players to St. Georges Park, he must be having quite the laugh at Hodgson. In fact, look for Rodgers to fiercely protect Sterling but also add a quip or two to invite further Hodgson stupidity in Liverpool’s upcoming press conference. It is unlikely, Hodgson will be able to avoid the bait.

Fresh off a fine World Cup, like it or not, European club football has eclipsed the international game, in terms of consequence. The money alone has made that a fact. Rupert Murdoch would not continually pursue the pipe dream of a super league were that not the case.

Plus a simple truth has endured for over a decade. If a national side does not possess any quality players from one of the top twelve or so European clubs, that national side is no good. Denying this is pure vanity.

International football continues to be important, but its power has waned in deference to the power of money and annual club contests that generate it. In the process, club versus country has been rendered a falsity.

Rather than tangling with a manager at one of those resurgent giants of European club football, at the expense of his brightest young talent, Hodgson would be wise to take a more cooperative stance. Should he continue to show his clownish colors, Hodgson may just find a number of players more often unfit for international duty. Surely, Sterling will think twice before the next call.

Liverpool Lost?

Originally published on LFCOnline.com website.

Liverpool continue to miss opportunities to lessen the burden of struggle and slide deeper into a hole that now can only be described as a troubling trend.

A poor defense, poor attack, poor performance leaves Liverpool 0-1 losers to FC Basel in Switzerland.

A victory at Saint Jakob-Park would have offered Liverpool some serious breathing room in their Champions League group, while building confidence, and relieve mounting pressure on the side. Yet, the Reds continued to flounder, lacking creativity, threat, and pace, relying far too much on Sterling and playing far too predictably.

Within the first minute of the match, Liverpool surrendered the first of eight corner kicks, rendering  flashbacks of past weeks. However, a quick and steady clearance helped fuel a counter attack sequence that began with Mario Balotelli pulling a long forward pass down and finding Javier Manquillo racing down the right flank, getting behind the defense, and firing a low, hard cross to Raheem Sterling. Only after Sterling slotted home his own rebound off left post was it clear that he was offside.

The match came to a standstill a few minutes later as Behrang Safari injured himself and had to be substituted. The stoppage did Liverpool no favors, blunting any thought the Reds might mount an early, sustained blitz. Derlis Gonzalez replaced Safari, and Basel switched to three at the back, with Gonzalez operating in the midfield. Basel would come to dominate the midfield

In the 13th minute, Simon Mignolet made a poor decision to pass weakly,  straight up the middle to a centrally located Gerrard, who was immediately pressured and lost the ball, which ended up at the feet of Streller who slid wide of the central defense for a half chance that was smothered for a corner. The combination of bad decision making and weak execution would be a theme for the evening.

For much of the first half, Basel laid tracks down the right side continually turning Jose Enrique inside out before faltering in the final third. The frequency and ease with which Basel was able to work the ball down that flank highlighted just how exposed Liverpool’s defense has looked of late.

Apart from a corner in the 43rd minute that Dejan Lovren nodded down to the turf, where it bounced soft and high to Basel keeper Tomáš Vaclík, Liverpool’s attack was lackluster and repeatedly offside.

After the break, it was much the same until the 51st minute. Basel’s Ahmed Hamoudi found acres of space on left, angled into the penalty area, and drove a hard strike to the near post, forcing a strong Mignolet save.

A minute later, Liverpool surrendered an easy goal from another disastrous defending display on a set piece. Martin Skrtel failed to clear a Basel corner, somehow getting the back of his head on it and sending it down and on goal. Mignolet awkwardly swiped it right into the path of Basel’s captain, Marco Streller, who pounced and roofed the ball into the net.

Not until the 61st minute did Liverpool really look like equalizing. Balotelli blistered a swerving free kick that handcuffed Vaclick and rebounded to Lazar Markovic whose shot deflected out fro a corner.

At the 70 minute mark Adam Lallana replaced Phillippe Coutinho. Five minutes later, Liverpool created another half chance, hesitations and all, when Balotelli found Lallana breaking inside, who slotted the ball to a free Sterling in the penalty area. Sterling , however, was smothered before he could even release a shot on goal. It was arguably the Redmens’ best chance of the night and it was snuffed before it provided any real test.

Away from home in the Champions League, Liverpool were punished for another poor performance. Basel was prepared and positive enough to make Liverpool pay. From that point, defending Liverpool’s impotent attack remained far too easy and the Swiss champions leapfrogged the visitors in the Group B table.

Heading back to England for league play, Liverpool looks lost, lacking identity, intensity, and inventiveness. While the return of injured players will likely help, it remains to be seen if they will provide the kinds of solutions needed for this sputtering side. The away win at Spurs looks more and more like an anomaly, as this squad is clearly nothing close to last year’s team.

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