Cardiff 2/26/2012: Looking Forward

Well. Kenny Dalglish and the boys were never going to heed my advice, were they? Liverpool were always going to do things the hard way, weren’t they?

It’s never a Liverpool cup final unless it involves heart attacks and last-minute drama, and so it proved.

That makes it three out of three for me in terms of cup finals, and three of the most epic yet: Istanbul, Cardiff and now Wembley.

I have to say up front that this was not the trophy-winning team I had dreamed of seeing for Liverpool. My all-time favorites remain the spine of Rafa Benitez’s glory days, those years with Javier Mascherano marshalling the defence, Xabi Alonso dictating play, and Steven Gerrard in perfect tandem with Fernando Torres, and I maintain that if we had that as our current spine, we’d be further up the League table right now.

Much as I wanted to see a Liverpool trophy win, it wasn’t really with this team in mind.

For all of Dalglish’s man management genius, I hadn’t seen him do the business in Europe like Rafa did. Charlie Adam is no Alonso. Jordan Henderson and Stewart Downing have been so woefully below-par that I didn’t want to see them on the field, especially when much more capable replacements were on the bench. And Luis Suarez – or should that be Andy Carroll? – is no Torres.

I was looking forward to the final, but not excited. This was supposed to be a routine win over Championship opposition, surely a much easier opponent than Manchester City or Chelsea.

But of course, the romance of a cup competition took over – and what a performance Cardiff City put in.

And as I was increasingly irate at the ease with which Cardiff cut Liverpool open for the first goal, the infuriating anonymity of Henderson – both of our goals, and the majority of our good attacking play, came after he was taken off – the ineffectiveness of Suarez, even the declining shooting ability of Gerrard – so too did I start to play for the shirt.

Because, amidst all the frustration and the impatience, I also saw Downing put in his best shift in a Liverpool shirt – and believe me, given all I’ve thrown his way this season, he was phenomenal against Cardiff – and I witnessed, for the umpteenth time, the heroics of Dirk Kuyt.

We should have known. This was a man who has always placed team ahead of self, the man who, purely based on workrate and positional awareness, found himself in the right place at the right time, pulling off the right shot with the right accuracy. Liverpool’s resident clutch master. This was a man who, after seeing his captain miss the first penalty in the shootout, encouraged him and told him his team would be back in it. The captain’s captain. This was a man who, knowing he had to score his penalty, brushed aside the pressure and coolly slotted home his. The nerves of steel.

To be sure, the poor (though heart-stopping) manner of this victory continues to paper over the cracks that have troubled the team this entire season. On a day where Cardiff scored 2 from 7 shots on goal and 11 in total, Liverpool registered the same goal tally while hitting 19 on goal and 39 in total. When the confetti has settled and the champagne has dried, everyone will recognize again that this profligacy is simply not good enough.

And it certainly seemed that Liverpool were intent on making things hard for themselves, that they play better as the underdogs. Penalty shootouts might have been kind to Liverpool over the years, but it won’t remain that way every time.

But when that kickoff whistle blew, I threw myself into the game, cheering every constructive move and protesting every bad play. When Martin Skrtel hit his equalizer, I matched his fervor in celebrating. When the penalties were missed, I held my head in my hands and lamented. And when Anthony Gerrard missed the last penalty, I ran around the house with my arms raised.

Because winning is winning is winning.

All that matters now is where Liverpool go from here and how we do it. Looking forward is always the priority.

Except, of course, we now have the English calendar’s first trophy behind us.

What a relief.

We’re Off to Wembley!

16 years.

That’s apparently how long it’s been since Liverpool last visited Wembley.

Kenny Dalglish might reference the fact that Wembley was closed for a few years due to renovations and constructions, but the fact remains that it’s been 16 years.

Sure, we’ve made the trip to numerous other stadiums during that time (“we” meaning Liverpool, since I, of course, remain an overseas armchair cynic), but this is the famous Anfield South that Liverpool used to be so familiar with during all those glorious years.

What does Wembley mean to me?

To the detached fan, to some extent, every European stadium is the same, barring how the stands look, since the crowds are always quieted for the TV commentator and the signs only tailor-made to show the current zeitgeist surrounding that particular club.

Sure, we strain our ears to pretend like we catch the chants sometime (and we boast of this to our less fanatic mates), but we’re never actually sure if it’s the home crowd singing about Steven Gerrard’s transfer request or the away section about his forty-yard passes. So, really, aside from the legendary voice of George Sephton booming into Anfield’s PA system, we’re missing out on the local Scouse flavor. We can’t hear songs about the size of a former player’s primary appendage. And we certainly couldn’t hear the Kop serenade the Anfield Cat.

So whatever is being made of Liverpool’s return to Wembley as the traditional cathedral of English football – it sounds romantic and fantastic, but I will always focus on the prize.

And this time, the prize at stake isn’t just the League Cup (otherwise known to other just-as-enthusiastic celebrators as the Mickey Mouse Cup), but our future.

Because, as the first piece of silverware on offer in the season, this is a chance for Liverpool to achieve something tangible.

A chance to show that we’re not down and out. Not quite a resurgent force in the championship races just yet, but that the erstwhile Cup Specialists are back.

Many fans seem to abhor this nickname. Why let the abusers and labelers belittle you? Cup Specialists are Cup Specialists because they win Cups. They get their hands on silverware. That’s surely better than making a final and not winning it. (Should those clubs be termed Runner-Up Specialists? I rather like that idea. And I should know the irony behind that – we did famously “only” finish runners-up just three whole seasons ago.)

But since the unfortunate end to Rafa Benitez’s reign and the forgettable (but unfortunately unforgettable) tenure of Roy Hodgson, this has been a Liverpool determined to bounce back and show what it’s made of.

And, having taken the much harder path to Wembley and fought all the potential final clashes in the rounds leading to Cardiff, Liverpool won’t get a better chance than this.

Sure, it wouldn’t be a Liverpool final if Sunday didn’t feature much drama. After all, we did only win a fifth European Cup having scored three in six minutes, saved an incredible double-shot at point-blank range, and denied a striking powerhouse from the spot. And after all, we did only win the FA Cup with a rabbit out of Steven Gerrard’s magnificent hat and Pepe Reina’s equally magnificent gloves. Liverpool, final, and comfortable aren’t words that go easily together.

A clean and comfortable win wouldn’t be as fun for the neutrals and as stressful for my heart as an epic shootout would be. I am very aware of that.

But I’ll take the win and go home with the Cup. The parade doesn’t have to be a city-stopping affair.

After all, it’s been 16 years. Let’s just keep it simple and get it done.

ManUtd 02/11/2012: The Disaster

Well, it just had to be, didn’t it?

Before Liverpool’s trip to Old Trafford, a first in more than a year, there was so much to look forward to. Would Liverpool take their recent good form against Manchester United to them? Would we see a much-awaited front four of Andy Carroll, Luis Suarez, Steven Gerrard and Craig Bellamy? And of course, would we finally see the end to the seemingly ubiquitous and never-ending Suarez-Evra quarrel?

With Liverpool taking nothing back to Anfield, there is so much to write about. Kenny Dalglish’s preference for Jordan Henderson over Charlie Adam, and his curious insistence on using Stewart Downing (my take on both cases: absolutely inexplicable, indefensible and ridiculous). Jay Spearing’s inability to cope at the highest level. The depressing and infuriating lack of fight shown from Dalglish’s charges after going two-nil down so soon in the second half.

But it just had to be Luis Suarez who came away with all the unwanted headlines, didn’t it?

With his petulant snub of a pre-match handshake with Patrice Evra, Luis Suarez has made his position at Liverpool Football Club untenable.

Maybe he had a point to make, to show the English media, to show Evra that he really felt wrongly accused by the outcome of the case.

But he chose the entirely wrong way to do it.

Of course, we all recognize that Evra is not a saint himself. The transcript of the case proved this already. And his enthusiastic celebrations after the final whistle in front of Suarez and all around the stadium, trying to take home the plaudits in an emotional game, did not sit well even with his manager. Of course, we also all know that Sir Alex Ferguson is naturally inclined to bias towards United players, that he often is the issuer of hypocritical comments.

But does that mean Liverpool have to take this road in addressing this issue? Can Liverpool not detach themselves from unsavory comparisons and look at how they have reacted from an ideological and moral standpoint?

What happened to being the better man? A professional? Did Suarez have to be so short-sighted in failing to see the big picture? In case he still doesn’t know what the big picture is: it’s the issue of racism in (English) football. No, Luis, the case is not whether or not you feel personally aggrieved about it. It’s also no longer about the language issue. It’s about stamping out racism in English football. Liverpool went their painstaking ways to show their support for him throughout the case, and have come under intense scrutiny and criticism for doing so, and this was the occasion to finally put everything to bed, to settle everything once and for all.

Except Suarez didn’t realize this.

Nobody is saying that a pre-match handshake takes away all the underlying hard feelings, but this was different from the suggestion that got Sepp Blatter into such hot water. In this case, as much as Suarez and Liverpool have attempted to portray themselves as the victim of unfair judgment and a biased punishment, circumstances dictate that Patrice Evra was the victim of racial abuse. At face value, if anything, Evra should have been the one entitled to refusing the handshake, not Suarez.

In what has already been a contentious and emotional affair, continuing to play victim is not going to help Liverpool in the short or the long run.

But most importantly, while Liverpool have had their reasons to support Suarez so wholeheartedly throughout this debacle, Suarez has let even them down.

Perhaps, as a matter of principle, Suarez didn’t want to and was never going to shake Evra’s hand in the first place.

But to override Dalglish’s pre-match comments that Suarez had moved on, that he would shake Evra’s hand, was immature, irresponsible and embarrassing, not to mention a PR disaster. What is Dalglish going to do now that his star player has undermined his authority and his confident claims that this episode is over? Does he make his authority known to Suarez, that this type of public aggravation and this openly undermining of Dalglish is unacceptable? Or does he continue to play the “I didn’t see it” game and act like nothing happened?

Football, at the end of the day, is a game, a show of entertainment for fans who pay to enjoy an event. Is it worth it to make yourself such a polarizing figure just to prove your point? Suarez’s years of experience in world and European football should have been more than enough to teach him that football is as much political as it is tribal, but sadly, he seems to have missed the memo.

Meanwhile, Suarez himself is quickly becoming one of the most unpopular figures in English football. He might bafflingly still maintain his status as a Kop hero after Saturday’s match, but at what cost?

 

EDIT: Suarez has apparently apologized for his handshake snub on Saturday, and the Liverpool hierarchy have expressed their disappointment towards his actions. But while this represents a good start, the underlying issues will still linger for a while yet.

Tottenham 02/07/2012: The Non-Event

It was the key moment that kept replaying on the post-program highlights reel as the credits rolled on Hong Kong’s TV coverage. It was the highlight that, a few days from the match, still triggers fond memories. It was the unforgettable minute that saw a dedicated Twitter account set up and a chant devised just for it.

It was the Anfield Cat.

It is telling that, in a match billed as a huge encounter, potentially a statement of intent for the Top Four from Liverpool or for the title from Spurs, a stray cat remains the sole takeaway from the Anfield clash.

Perhaps it was because of the solid goalkeeping on display. Brad Friedel, still going strong at 40, remains reliable as ever and proved that he remains one of the best in the Premier League with a consistent, commanding performance in the Tottenham box. Pepe Reina kept yet another clean sheet, his highlight being his good stop from Gareth Bale’s one-on-one chance at the death.

Perhaps it was because of the impressive performances from both defences. Glen Johnson, filling in for the allegedly injured Jose Enrique, and Martin Kelly snuffed out Spurs’ wing threats in Niko Kranjcar and Gareth Bale. Martin Skrtel and Daniel Agger continued their status as one of the league’s premier defensive partnerships with yet another assured display.

In white, Kyle Walker proved that he has the defensive responsibilities of a top-quality full-back down pat, quieting the often-voracious Craig Bellamy, whereas Michael Dawson and Ledley King delivered a solid performance in the heart of defence.

Perhaps, too, it was because of the stifling and overcrowded midfield. Dirk Kuyt went about his business as usual, harassing and harassing Tottenham with his famous workrate as a defensive winger. Scott Parker did the same as a defensive shield for Tottenham, breaking up play and reclaiming possession.

With two midfield destroyers working to such good effect, it was little wonder that the rest of their colleagues in the middle of the park couldn’t find any space to work with. Charlie Adam looked for passes long and short, but was limited by the lack of space to find. Craig Bellamy was shunted out wide by the efforts of Walker and Parker, and couldn’t use his pace and direct running as he has done so effectively in recent weeks.

Jay Spearing, already boasting limited vision, creativity and passing range, broke down Liverpool’s own attacks with misplaced passes to nowhere. Steven Gerrard missed the mobility of a roaming, pacy, unpredictable striker as he was continuously suffocated and found his long shots blocked time and again. The same applied to Luka Modric and co.

And then, perhaps it was because of the toothless attacking. Emmanuel Adebayor had probably his least effective game for Spurs, starved of the kind of quality service and incisive support he has become so accustomed to. Andy Carroll worked hard, got into good positions and won headers against the considerably imposing Dawson, but his layoffs and second balls found no one present in the Spurs box.

So the search goes on for a clear win at Anfield, for someone to provide a spark when Liverpool most need it. With Carroll continuing his recent improvement and Luis Suarez returning, the Gerrard-Suarez-Carroll front three (possibly adding in Bellamy) should pose problems for many a Premier League defence – but only if Liverpool learn to play a pass-and-move style with, not despite, our #9.

90 minutes after the excellent Michael Oliver blew his whistle for kickoff, the solitary point seemed so anticlimactic, but so normal from an Anfield encounter.

The icing on the cake, of course, was that Liverpool’s official website deemed the unimpressive Jay Spearing as their man of the match, a just outcome from a forgettable clash of the titans.

LIVE! Liverpool v Tottenham (Feb 6, 2012) on The Red Armchair

This marks my first attempt at hosting a public live chat: I gave it a few tries on the more private domain of Facebook, and now, providing that this turns out well, I’ll be hosting live commentaries on select Liverpool games on The Red Armchair.

Stay tuned for tonight’s coverage on TRA.

CLICK HERE for LIVE COMMENTARY on Liverpool v Tottenham –

 

 

Wolves 01/31/2012: In Which He Came Of Age

After an uninspiring start to life back at Anfield, Kenny Dalglish oversaw a 3-1 win against Wolves that got the ball rolling. Raul Meireles hit a peach of a volley, and Fernando Torres scored his first under a former striking legend. Things were certainly on the up.

Then Torres put in his transfer request. And no matter what anyone at the Club did to mask his departure, and no matter how the Club emphasized the incoming transfers of Luis Suarez and Andy Carroll, the headlines were always going to be around Torres.

A painful transition of #9s ensued. Out went the poster boy of a briefly glorious generation. In came England’s new superstar forward.

That was a year ago. It’s fair to say that neither has set the world alight since their record-breaking moves.

On Monday night, Liverpol repeated the same fixture just over a year ago, with an almost entirely different teamsheet, and on the back of encouraging results in two competitions already nonexistent in the January 2011 calendar.

Fears that this would be another case of two steps forward, one step back were quickly allayed. There was nothing at Molineux that hinted at another away collapse a la Bolton.

But it was a first half that saw plenty of end-to-end football. As Dalglish’s side have often done this season, the visitors took on the mantle of a dominant home side with the majority of ball possession and chances created.

Dirk Kuyt’s lack of a first touch, Jordan Henderson’s lack of a creative footballing brain and Charlie Adam’s Scholes-esque lack of a half-decent tackle were equally as impressive as the indomitable defending and attacking of Glen Johnson and Jose Enrique, the rock-solid defending of Martin Skrtel and Daniel Agger, and the terrier-like defensive workrate of Jay Spearing.

Then there was Craig Bellamy, who, in the absence of Luis Suarez, proved probably the only creative outlet in a Red shirt. A Craig Bellamy who has put in performances that have shattered all expectations that came with his free transfer arrival, who has established himself a mainstay in the starting eleven, who has proved to be one of the signings of the season.

And then, there was Andy Carroll.

As staunch of a supporter of Carroll as I have been, and as much as I’ve insisted that he be given a chance to bed in and really show his worth, I will readily acknowledge that he has been a disappointment, especially given his massive reputation.

But at the same time, any stern critic of Mr. Carroll would have to admit that he has been on an upward curve in terms of recent performances, only with no goal to show for his efforts and improvements.

Not on Monday night.

This might not have been a powerhouse Andy Carroll at his scintillating best, but here was a #9 working his socks off for the team. Bullying defenders in the air and tormenting them on the ground, turning them with a touch and leaving them for dead, laying off long passes and turning them into attacking movements, making a nuisance of himself and buying space for his fellow colleagues.

And this time, he had a goal to show for his efforts. A predatory striker’s finish, one that he used to be known for while wearing black and white. Not unlike a certain former Red.

But a year on, on Transfer Deadline Day 2012, the talk of the town was not of Torres drawing another blank in a blue shirt against Swansea.

Because a year on, Andy Carroll finally exhibited his potential.