Apr 13, 2014

Lucky Liverpool Remind Us Why The Premiership Race is Far From Over

Liverpool got a lucky winner at Anfield today to defeat Manchester City 3-2 and inch closer to their first league championship in 24 years. It was a spirited victory for Brendan Rodgers' men on an emotional day when Anfield marked the quarter century anniversary of the Hillsborough disaster. If Reds can "hold serve" and win their remaining four games, they will rightfully look back on this match as one of the deciding moments of their first championship campaign of the Premiership era.

It is now time to paraphrase a line Harvey Keitel's character from Pulp Fiction: "Let's not start [performing fellatio on each other] just yet." That wasn't the paraphrase, just the PG-13 version of the quote. The paraphrase is: Let's not get ahead of ourselves. 

Not only because Liverpool's victory was lucky in the end. You create your own luck in many instances, and Reds were on the other side of this equation the last time these teams met. Getting lucky victories is itself fine and good and over the course of a season these things tend to cancel themselves out. Plus, like we said, you do create your own luck. No, the cause for concern here if you're a Liverpool supporter was the way in which the team fell apart under the City onslaught in the second half and the lack of a response, both on the pitch and tactically.

Credit certainly goes to the creative elan of City's superb midfielders David Silva and Samir Nasri and the disruptive force of James Milner whose entry clearly tilted the balance in favor of the visitors. But Liverpool also let City back into the match--well before halftime even and then didn't (or weren't able to? Which may be more troubling) put up a fight. Where was Luis Suarez in the second half? His one memorable scene was a shameful dive that should have earned him a second yellow card. Liverpool's defenders were at times hopelessly overmatched and it was only thanks to Steven Gerrard's work that Reds' defense didn't fall apart completely. 

It wasn't just on the pitch that Liverpool were overmatched, but tactically as well. Why did it take Rodgers so long to go to his bench -- and not until after the equalizer -- when City were clearly having their way with his defense? Milner came on in the 50th minute and Reds quite obviously didn't have any answers for him. Why did Rodgers let that play out for 16 minutes -- and again allow two goals to be scored -- before he brought in a defensive substitution? Why bring a defensive substitution when the game is tied anyway and your team needs the victory? These are all questions nobody is going to be asking because Liverpool came out winners. That and the Kop faithful venerate Rodgers by this point and are not going to second-guess him, especially after such a crucial victory. Which is fine. Rodgers deserves credit for Liverpool's surprising success this year. But that doesn't mean he's infallible. 

These shortcomings may come back and haunt the Merseysiders before the season is over and could prove fatal in their title pursuit. Liverpool are fortunate their clash with Chelsea will also be played at Anfield, where they clearly revel in the raucous atmosphere. But remember, Jose Mourinho is a brilliant defensive mind. Don't expect his side to roll over the way City did in the early stages of today's game. Besides Chelsea, Liverpool also play a Norwich side desperate for points and visit Selhurst Park where Crystal Palace defeated Chelsea a fortnight ago.

Yes, Liverpool are closer to a Premiership title than ever and yes if they win out they will hoist the silverware no matter what happens elsewhere. But as we saw today, this team still has flaws and Liverpool fans should be careful before they, um, start celebrating just yet.

Dec 6, 2013

Yes, the U.S. Can Advance From its World Cup Group

As you may have heard, the U.S. Men's National Team was drawn into a group with Germany, Portugal and Ghana today for this summer's World Cup in Brazil. That sucks, and there is clearly no justice at all where these things are concerned. I mean seriously: how can there be any pretense of fairness when you have one group with France, Ecuador, Honduras and Switzerland and another with Italy, England and Uruguay. Like, WTF? And who did Argentina pay what did Argentina do to get Nigeria, Iran and Bosnia? But we know full well by now what a corrupt mess FIFA is and there is no point in belaboring this any further. So let's move on, shall we?

Okay, good. So the U.S. is facing a tough task this summer, no question about that. And let's be realistic: Juergen Klinsmann's men are not going to beat Germany, in fact they will in all likelihood not manage a draw, either. And the fact that this is the last group stage game will not change matters. The U.S. has made great strides under Klinsmann and he surely would like nothing better to beat his former protege Joachim Loew on the sport's greatest stage. You can fully expect Klinsi to develop a terrific gameplan and for a little while the Yanks might keep it interesting before the Teutonic machine finds its rhythm and puts at least a goal or two past Tim Howard. In the end, as so often in this sport (cue Gary Lineker quote), you can expect die Mannschaft to take all three points.

Well guess what: Germany will probably take three points from all opponents in this group. And not only because Germany are good -- they are good, and one can make the point that they are the best national team in the world at present. But more significantly, the two other teams in this group are simply not very good.

We are talking about one team, Portugal, that very nearly missed this tournament altogether, needing a second-half hat trick from Cristiano Ronaldo in their play-off with Sweden to gain a spot. The same Portugal team that struggled to beat Luxembourg and dropped points at home against Northern Ireland and Israel in its World Cup qualifying group. That drew Gabon in one friendly and lost at home to Ecuador in another. We are talking about a club that is one injury to one player away from being downright pathetic. Like Luxembourg and Northern Ireland pathetic. The U.S. can beat this Portugal team. Forget that: the U.S. should beat this team and if they don't beat this team they will likely have nobody to blame but themselves.

In fact, Portugal should finish dead last in this group. Because not only is the U.S. better than Portugal, but Ghana is too. The Black Stars advanced all the way to the semifinals of this year's Africa Cup of Nations and made short work of a tough Egypt side in their World Cup qualifier. And yet, the U.S. should be able to defeat Ghana as well. For one, the Yanks are better, deeper and more well-rounded than they were the last time these teams met at Rustenburg, South Africa, in June 2010, while exactly the opposite can be said of Ghana. Michael Essien is now 31 years old, which is well past the prime age for a midfielder. True, they may not need him much anymore as Ghana has several formidable midfielders. But the team is thin and inexperienced in defense and may not have many answers for the sheer physicality of a player like Jozy Altidore. Consider that Ghana's most reliable defender is a guy, Harrison Afful, who stands 5'7 and plies his trade in the Tunisian league. The Black Stars gave up three goals the last time they faced a non-African opponent, and that was Japan.

Yes, Ghana had the Yanks number the last two World Cups, ousting them from both tournaments. In Brazil these teams face each other in the first match, assuring that history, at least this history, will not repeat itself. Besides, the past can only be a guide of future results for so long. No European team had ever won a World Cup outside of their home continent until Spain did. A black man was never going to be president of the U.S. The price of real estate was always going to go up. The U.S. has always (well, twice) lost to Ghana at a World Cup. Those U.S. teams were far more limited, plodding, bunkering versions of themselves. Under Klinsmann the Yanks have begun to develop something of a more freeflowing, attacking style. For a team like Ghana whose weakest link is its back line, that should be a problem. Especially if they think history is on their side.

Make no mistake: this is a pretty tough group. Tougher than the one the Yanks faced four years ago in South Africa, though not as difficult as some of the others in next year's tournament. Just ask England and Mexico, who can effectively forget about making the elimination round after today's draw. Or how about being in a group with Holland and Spain? Yeah, the U.S. faces a tough task. But it's not an impossible one. They play these games for a reason, after all (having said that, England and especially Mexico shouldn't even bother showing up for theirs. I mean really).