I mean, what else am I gonna do on Chinese New Year eve? Work? Yeah, sure, that too… ahem….
So where do we start? The beginning’s always good, I guess. Yeah, let’s do that, let’s start from the beginning….
Rafa Benitez, the man who made Valencia into one of the best teams in Europe, became Liverpool’s first ever Spanish manager. And naturally, just like his predecessor, Rafa felt it was easier and safer to sign players he was familiar with – which saw a whole bunch of Spanish imports joining the ranks at Anfield. Garcia, Alonso, Nunez, Josemi. Don’t get me started on Josemi……
Oh, and Michael Owen departed for Real Madrid. And before that bit of transfer news happened, his strike partner, Emile Heskey left for Birmingham. But hey, no problem, right? We got the the club’s most expensive signing ever – Djibril Cisse. And he’ll be partnering Milan Baros. And we’ve got young Sinama-Pongolle on the bench. Sure we need a good fourth striker, but for the time being, this lot’ll do, right?
In defence, Rafa decided to completely dismantle the defensive back four of the good ole days – those days being from 2000 to 2002. Granted, Henchoz had not been seeing much first-team action during last season as well. But with Rafa’s arrival, Henchoz’s time was up. And now Hyypia had a new permanent defensive partner in the center – Jamie Carragher.
The thing about Carra – wherever he plays, he gives 100%. You just know Shankly would love this dude.
Now, just look at the squad:
1. Kirkland and Dudek competing in goal. Despite Dudek’s occasional mistakes (and which goalie never made mistakes), he really ain’t too bad. I just wish he didn’t screw up every time we play THAT team. That’s just hard to take, man… Now young Scott Carson’s in the picture too. Don’t know much about him, yet.
2. In defence, we have Josemi, Traore, Finnan, Carragher, Hyypia, Riise (when Kewell was not injured), and Pellegrino being a recent addition. Youngster Stephen Warnock makes occasional cameo apperances.
3. Midfield – the heart and soul of Liverpool. The captain, the general, the leader of the band – Stevie G. Losing Owen was bad, but losing Gerrard would have been calamitous. I know Alonso’s a very talented and skillful player – in some ways, many believe he’s a BETTER player than Gerrard. But Stevie G brings to Liverpool FC more than just footballing skills – he brings determination, heart and desire. A real player’s captain, this is one dude that will be near-impossible to replace – unless you have Roman Bags-O-Money as club owner. The rest of the midfield crew are Alonso, Hamann, Garcia, Kewell, Nunez, Biscan, Smicer (yes, he’s still at the club), and Diao (before he left for Birmingham on loan). Anthony Le-Tallec, who was on loan at St Etienne, has returned as well.
4. The strikeforce comprises Cisse, Euro 2004 Golden Boot winner Baros, Sinama-Pongolle, and Academy grad Mellor. Morientes, of course, is the latest addition.
Now on paper, that’s a GOOD squad already. If only, IF ONLY, these group of players had the opportunity to play together for more than a couple of matches in a row.
If there’s one word/phrase that could be used to describe our season thus-far, it would be ‘injury-hit’. Kirkland, Smicer, Kewell, Cisse, Alonso, Sinama-Pongolle are all down with long-term injuries, while others in the squad have been in and out of the treatment room on far too many occasions. I don’t know why we’re suddenly facing such bad luck with injuries – is it the way we’re playing? Too much training? Lousy physios? What’s the problem???
OK, forget the injuries. Let’s talk performance, baby.
Boy, did we play scintillating football. The passing, the movement, the relentless attacking. I’ve not enjoyed watching a Liverpool side play such attractive attacking football since Dalglish’s Red Army stormed the league in 1987/88. (Yes, believe it or not, I was a closet supporter from the Dalglish era. But back then, saying you supported the Reds is a bit like saying you support Man U during the 90’s, or that you’re supporting Chelsea now. You get accused of being a glory-hunter. Well, I’m still here. Still a Red. Still pining for the good ole’ days. That should count for something, eh?)
Supporters everywhere knew that we had the makings of great side here.
Now if only they could play away from home like that too.
There’s no two ways about it – we have a shocking, SHOCKING away form this season. 4 wins, 3 draws and 6 defeats. That’s 15 points from a possible 39. I’ll say it again – SHOCKING.
Our home form’s not half bad – 3 defeats, with 9 wins and 1 draw. It’s not championship form, of course (Chelsea and Man U are undefeated at home – says a lot why they’re in the top two), but it’ll do for now while we chase 4th place.
So where are we going wrong? Not enough goals? That can’t be it – we have the 4th best goal difference stats in the league, and we’re only 8 goals behind Chelsea in the ‘Goals For’ column. This, despite losing Cisse for the rest of the season too.
How about the defence, then? Well, the tables don’t lie. We’ve conceded 27 goals so far, and 17 of them on the road. That’s 17 goals in 13 away games.
Say it with me now – SHOCKING.
One might speculate that the reason could well be due to Rafa’s decision to get the defenders to use a zonal-marking system as opposed to the traditional English way of man-marking players. Thing about zonal marking is it requires a high degree of understanding and communication between the defenders so that every player knows where you are and who you’re marking. And when an opposing player starts drifting inside your penalty area, players need to let each other know of the danger and someone should immediately mark the intruder. It takes some time to learn, and longer to master. Good news is that, occasionally, you get the impression that the players are getting the hang of it.
Then you see them conceding two soft goals against Southampton, and you go, “What the hell?”
Then, there’s the issue of the quality of some of the players as well. I’ll say it straight out – Josemi’s just not right for Liverpool. If the club ever releases a DVD of ‘The Greatest Footballing Blunders Ever Made’, this guy would have had a starring role. You got the impression that on too many occasions, he let a defender pass him by thinking someone else would come to his aid. Well, that’s not the way how it goes in England, bub. Every other player has his hands full too, you know. You gotta take care of your own problems. Bring down the player if he’s too fast for you. So you’ll get a yellow card, big deal. They seem to be giving away yellow cards these days for fun…. Anyway, Josemi hasn’t been played for several games now (partly due to injury, and partly due to poor form too, I guess..) and Finnan’s been doing a decent job in his place. If only Finnan didn’t spend so much time in the treatment room too…
Then there’s Traore. Fast, gangly (that’s sport-speak for ‘freak with long legs’) and occasionally an expert on clean, timely tackles. Problem with this fella is consistency and concentration – the latter demonstrated vividly against Burnley in the FA Cup.
Traore probably wouldn’t even be playing so regularly, if not for Kewell’s injury which has seen Rafa push Riise into the left-wing position. Now, I’m not complaining about that – Riise’s been far more effective this season than he has been for several seasons now, but given our deficiencies at left-back, I only hope Kewell comes back from injury soon so Riise can return to plug that defensive hole.
Hamann’s not had his best season so far, and one get’s the feeling that his time at Anfield is numbered too. He still plays a useful role in disrupting the opposition’s attack, but his lack of pace nowadays is becoming more of a problem than it ever was before.
Garcia is a frustrating one. Great, sublime, skill at times – but it’s maddening to see him try something crazy and only end up losing possession as a result. His crossing (despite the assist for Morientes’ goal last week) still needs work, as does his overall delivery into the box. But I still think this guy can be a great player – just needs a little more work.
I don’t have to say anything about the attacking lineup – we’re ok on that, I think. Morro’s a much needed addition to the squad – a big man with a deadly eye for goal and very strong in the air. He had a subdued debut against ManU, but he’s getting better in every game since. Our main problem is simply that two of our 5 recognized strikers (including Mellor) are injured, so hopefully, as long as Morro and Baros stay injury-free, we should still pack quite a punch upfront for the rest of the season. Although we WILL have problems in the Champions League since Morro is ineligible for that competition.
Personally, with the number of injuries we have and the problems we’re facing playing away from home, I’m pretty much writing off advancing too far in the Champions League this season. Hopefully we can thump Bayer Leverkusen at home and qualify for the last eight, but I’m not too confident that we’ll make it past the rest into the semis.
The League Cup (or Carling Cup) is still very much a strong possibility. We played very well against Chelsea at Anfield and we could count ourselves unlucky to lose that game. In a neutral venue, backed by the travelling Red Army, I think we could do very well. Besides, the League Cup is ours. We’ve won it so many times already, they should engrave the Liverbird crest on the cup.
But the main objective this season remains qualifying for next season’s Champions League. It’s not just the prestige. It’s not just the money that will help Liverpool keep up with the likes of Man U and Arsenal (forget Chelsea, they’re wayyyyyy too far ahead).
It’s about convincing Steven Gerrard that this is a club that is worth playing for. And that, in the final analysis, could mean a lot next season.
Good luck Rafa. Let’s get the Toffees, and show them there’s only one Merseyside club that deserves to be playing at the highest level.
Viva la Liverpool!