Liverpool and Manchester United battle for Champions League place

Liverpool come full circle on Sunday as Manchester United visit Anfield – a grudge match in every sense of the word – and yet intensified by what lies at stake. When the sides met at Old Trafford in the middle of December Brendan Rodgers debuted his innovative 3-4-2-1 formation, but his team still ended the game on the wrong side of a 3-0 thrashing. The Reds dropped to 10th in the table and 10 points behind their arch-rivals, and at that stage their prospects of a top four finish looked incredibly bleak.

But the seeds of Liverpool’s revival were sown in those harrowing 90 minutes at Old Trafford. The 3-4-2-1 has been an ever-present since, it has led to greater defensive solidity and allowed Liverpool to replicate a hint of their attacking zest from last season; most importantly they haven’t suffered defeat in the league since, and they now sit two points behind their fourth-placed rivals with nine games remaining.

 

Liverpool v Manchester United Betting Odds:

Liverpool win 21/20

Manchester United win 12/5

Draw 12/5

(All odds provided by AllYouBet.ag are accurate as of today and subject to change)

 

The system may have come by design, but the personnel in the eleven that will probably start at Anfield very much by accident. Brad Jones infamously displaced Simon Mignolet in goal and his novel trait of playing dodgeball, rather than, say, goalkeeping, lasted until a Boxing Day injury picked up at Burnley. The Belgian has subsequently found his best form since his move to Merseyside behind the settled back three of Emre Can, Martin Skrtel and Mamadou Sakho.

Can’s elevation to a ball-playing right-sided centre-half came in that trip to Turf Moor, after an injury to Glen Johnson and half-time substitution of Kolo Toure. Sakho’s opportunity on the left finally came after Rodgers’ patience with £20million summer recruit Dejan Lovren wore thin. Those three and Mignolet have formed an effective defensive unit and underpinned Liverpool’s surge up the table since the turn of the year.

 

P 13 W 10 D 3 L 0 F 24 A 8

Those are the numbers behind the Reds’ transformation since the bleakest of midwinters; a season that looked a write-off is now full of opportunity and progression. The highlight of their current five-game winning streak came with Philippe Coutinho’s stunning winner against Manchester City, but it has also included important victories against Tottenham and Southampton, teams that they have left behind in pursuit of Champions League football next season.

A similar outcome against Louis van Gaal’s Man United on Sunday will see Liverpool enter the top four for the first time since August. United fans may have feared retribution from their Red rivals on Sunday, but the manner of their 3-0 win over Spurs last weekend has changed the conversation somewhat. It was easily their best performance since the turn of the year and has soothed the heavy criticism of the manager and his playing style in the wake of the FA Cup defeat to Arsenal.

It hinted at a reinvigoration at both ends of the pitch; David de Gea remains in fine form while Wayne Rooney, restored to the strike force, has struck four goals in as many games. While results have remained mostly positive throughout the season, a progressive style of play has mostly eluded van Gaal. The Spurs result is a small sample size, granted, but it had United playing fluid football, quicker in tempo and largely to their strengths.

 

The increasing use of Marouane Fellaini has been a lightning rod for criticism of van Gaal and his tiresomely lampooned “philosophy”, but it’s a red herring. United have failed to convince this season not because of a perceived over-reliance on long-balls, but because of painfully slow build-up play that made them pedestrian and predictable. Against Spurs they combined Fellaini’s physical presence with quick counter-attacking – it was, for the first 45 minutes, brutally effective, and could well cause problems at Anfield.

While Liverpool are not the defensively brittle side they were earlier in the season, the first half of their 1-0 win at Swansea on Monday night was their most unconvincing defensive performance in months. Garry Monk’s men cut off the attacking supply line from deep and repeatedly got in behind their backline. The Reds have discovered, though, what United have thrived on this season – ways to win football matches.

 

Problem-solving has come to define both teams in recent months. A head-to-head joust for the fourth Champions League spot is not where either side wants to be in the long-term, but this is a defining game in what will prove a defining end to the season for both Brendan Rodgers and Louis van Gaal.

 

Betting Instinct tip – With both teams aware of the cost of defeat, consider backing fewer than 2.5 goals at 9/10 with Intertops.eu.

 

JamesDutton JAMES DUTTON is a freelance journalist who has written for The Mirror, The Guardian and The Times. James helps to  run The False Nine football website, contributes to The Anfield Wrap and is a columnist for uMAXit Football. Follow him on Twitter.

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Liverpool signings‏: A second look

New signings are exciting, aren’t they? Very few things divide opinion and generate discussion quite like the world of transfers. Signings are one of the most scrutinised aspects of a manager’s achievements in the Premier League and often hold a strong position in deciding popularity.

 

Liverpool v Manchester City Betting Odds:

Liverpool win 9/5

Manchester City win 27/20

Draw 12/5

(All odds provided by AllYouBet.ag are accurate as of today and subject to change)

 

Brendan Rodgers is one such manager. Following Liverpool’s exasperatingly poor start to the season, many were suggesting the new recruits weren’t quite worth the sterling spent on them. Since their turn of form, that opinion has changed somewhat. Since Fernando Torres joined and begun his Liverpool career with what was frankly a phenomenal season, players at Liverpool haven’t been given a fair amount of time to settle in and adjust. Luis Suarez looked merely decent when first signed and then went on to fully illuminate as one of the top players in the world let alone the Premier League. The Premier League is very much unique in its style and culturally the UK is also vastly different to the rest of the world. It’s easy to forget that it can take a painfully long time to adapt to even the most subtle changes. With that in mind, let’s have a brief look into the summer signings brought in by Liverpool and try to fairly assess their performances thus far.

Rickie Lambert
As a Liverpool fan, I was actually quite happy with the signing of Lambert for what was a relatively small fee at £4million. The consensus seemed to be that he was signed as a backup option and not expected to be stealing headlines. That is the role he’s played, but at no point has he looked like a player who should be playing up-top for a team challenging for a Champions League place. He’s chimed in with a couple of league goals in 18 appearances in what has been an uneventful season for the boyhood Liverpool supporter. Given his performances for Southampton last year I think most will agree they’d hoped for a bit more from Lambert.


Adam Lallana
Lallana was the second player poached from the hands of Southampton. His season started late owing to injury, and he initially looked quite mediocre as he got used to the way Rodgers wanted him to play. Since then, Lallana has started to recapture the form that saw Liverpool part with 25 Million for the 26 year old attacking midfielder. He has been a little inconsistent at times, but his intelligent passing and sharp turning have helped restore the missing potency to Liverpool’s attack. If he can get through the rest of the season without injury and with a bit more game time, I’m confident he’ll develop into an important player for Liverpool.


Emre Can
Can’s signing raised a few eyebrows when a few ‘experts’ of the Bundesliga suggested he didn’t have the technical ability to carve a career in the Premier League. Over the course of the season – and indeed the course of Rodgers’ tactical changes – Can has played in midfield and more defensive positions. He’s shown plenty of quality and plays as if he is years beyond the 21 he actually is. His powerful runs from deep have helped create a lot of counter attacks and his physical strength has helped him in massively improve Liverpool’s defence. Whilst the German is prone to the odd mistake, his range of passing and calmness have also been very impressive. Can has the blueprint to become an excellent player and will no doubt be a key figure for his country in the future.


Lazar Markovic
Markovic has been a bit of a strange one. He’s rarely had a constant impression during games but shows glimpses of exceptional talent at points; reminiscent of another former Liverpool cult hero, Luis Garcia, in that sense. He was one of the first to get a lot of criticism from fans despite being just 20 years old and adapting to a new country. Furthermore, Liverpool play a very different brand of football to Benfica. His first few outings were quiet at best, but you could see the things he was trying to do were clever. His control has been quite wonderful at times, and as the season has moved on we have started to see his running with the ball and technique impress also. He glides with the ball in a similar fashion to Messi (please note I am not suggesting in any way, shape or form that he is even moderately close to Messi in terms of ability. I just mean in the actual way he moves at speed with the ball at his feet with no flamboyant step-overs at any given opportunity) and has a genuine bit of class about him. The strike against Sunderland that hit the bar springs to mind. If he is to become a top player at this level though, he needs to improve his consistency and influence games more than he currently does. This will of course come with experience and familiarity with the Premier League.


Dejan Lovren
Lovren has been poor, very poor. Many – myself included – thought he was a sapient addition to the defense, which was something very much required. His distribution hasn’t been good, his decision making questionable at best and he doesn’t seem to instill any confidence in the fans as a consequence of that. He had a good year for Southampton last year. He was composed and brought an element of calmness to the pitch. During his time with Liverpool he’s looked constantly panicked. He needs to replicate his last season in order to have a place in the Liverpool squad over the coming years and cut out the mistakes. I’d expect Rodgers to try and improve the Croatian’s defensive positioning over the remainder of the season as that seems to have contributed to many of his errors.


Alberto Moreno
Moreno caught the eye early in his Premier League career with a spectacular goal against Tottenham. His lightning pace has been vital to Rodgers’ introduction of the wingback role to the formation, while Moreno’s ability to get forward has played a key part in Liverpool’s resurgence this season. Down the other end of the pitch, Moreno has shown to be a very competent defender in 1-on-1 situations also. It’s unfortunate for him that Jordi Alba is his main competition in the Spanish squad as the 22-year-old is proving to be able to play at the highest level.


Javi Manquillo
I’m not going to patronise you and pretend I really knew who Manquillo was prior to his 2 year loan deal. Signed from Atletico Madrid, the young full-back has been a pleasant surprise to most fans. He’s had a few very good moments but nothing spectacular in terms of performances. That being said, he also does very little wrong. He is very mobile, a capable crosser and defensively very sound as well. I’m not sure if this counts as a compliment anymore but he’s shown what a liability Glen Johnson actually is. If Manquillo was British I think he’d have attracted a lot more attention in the press than his performances currently have.


Mario Balotelli
Few players divide opinion quite like Balotelli does. Most seem quite disappointed that he didn’t celebrate his signing with some sort of bunga bunga party. I think the press give him a particularly harsh time and generally seek to make prejudicial comments about the Italian. We know he isn’t someone who plays the game simply and we know he isn’t someone who flamboyantly displays his stable of emotions. That’s who he is. I genuinely heard a commentator suggesting that he should be dropped for not thanking a teammate after a pass, it was shocking. He hasn’t scored anywhere near the amount of goals that was expected and his decision making can very often be frustrating, but we knew what we was getting with Mario. He actually does work quite hard on the pitch despite what some commentators suggest. He hasn’t benefited from being alone up-front and will hopefully start scoring – or at least supplying – more goals now Sturridge is back from injury. It’s been said a plethora of times already but Balotelli does have an abundance of talent; he is someone who is still maturing as both a person and footballer. He hasn’t played as well as his reputation suggested he should but it hasn’t been anywhere near as bad as a lot of people seem to be making out. I think he has a future at Liverpool still and hope he is given further chance to prove me right


 JAKE COLLINS  is passionate about literature, music and sports. He currently works in  London and lives in Essex. Read more of his work in Jake’s blog, or follow Jake on Twitter and Google+.

Role-Reversal For Liverpool and Chelsea Six Months On

Fringe players like Emre Can performed against Real Madrid in midweek, but how many will keep their place against Chelsea?

Fringe players like Emre Can performed against Real Madrid in midweek, but how many will keep their place against Chelsea?

Has it really been six months?

 

Steven Gerrard, receiving a square pass from Mamadou Sakho on the half-way line, lets the ball slide under his right boot. Unbeknownst to the Liverpool captain, Demba Ba is lurking not far away, and as the Senegalese races to pick up the loose ball, Gerrard slips. Liverpool’s centre-backs are split, Ba has a free run on goal and slots the ball comfortably past the onrushing Simon Mignolet.

It’s a sequence that has been immortalised since in vines, photoshops and tweets; the moment where Liverpool’s title bubble burst. The goal panicked Brendan Rodgers’ outfit, who put in one of their most dysfunctional performances of the season; 73% of possession, 21 shots from outside the box and 29 open play crosses. It smacked of desperation, and they haven’t been the same since.

How the past six months have changed the outlook of this fixture as Chelsea return to Anfield, four points clear at the top of the Premier League, and 12 clear of a Liverpool side struggling to rediscover the swashbuckling, marauding verve that propelled them on an 11-match winning streak and three games away from a first league title in 24 years.

 

Liverpool v Chelsea Betting Odds:

Liverpool win 9/4

Chelsea win 11/10

Draw 47/20

(All odds provided by AllYouBet.ag are accurate as of today and subject to change)

 

Liverpool were the title favourites and Chelsea were the underdogs that day in late April, with Jose Mourinho in full “us against the world” siege mentality. The roles have reversed substantially; as many who micro-analysed Liverpool’s rotated starting lineup away to Real Madrid this week will have told you, it is now Brendan Rodgers who has his team in lockdown mode.

The pressure to claim a result against the champions-elect has been magnified by a return of only four points from the three recent, yet presentable, fixtures against Queens Park Rangers, Hull City and Newcastle United. And given the ‘relative’ success of a second-string line-up restricting Real Madrid to victory by a solitary goal at the Bernabeu on Tuesday, Rodgers has much to ponder ahead of another acid test.

 

The first of which lies in team selection, namely whether any of the seven midweek changes will retain their place come Saturday. Herein lies the conundrum for Rodgers, after Liverpool put in their most defensively organised and disciplined performance since the Merseyside derby in late September.

It seems likely, however, that the Liverpool boss will revert to type; Kolo Toure’s finest hour in a Liverpool shirt has been eulogised across the internet over the past 24 hours, but Dejan Lovren will be recalled, despite his less than impressive start to life at Anfield. Lucas Leiva’s hour of control and ball retention will give way to Steven Gerrard’s ailing legs and Hollywood diagonals, while the continued promise of Javier Manquillo will give way to the familiar calamity of Glen Johnson.

 

In Chelsea, Liverpool are facing a team without any real or obvious weaknesses, who have strolled through the first quarter of the Premier League season barely challenged. Jose Mourinho’s side have dropped points only twice this season, but both times when protecting single goal leads away to the two Manchester clubs. Will Mourinho once again choose to counter-attack and contain, or go for the jugular against a team with such obvious defensive frailties?

With the added firepower of Diego Costa and Cesc Fabregas, it would be unreasonable to expect Mourinho to “park two buses”, as Rodgers quipped after the Blues’ dogged and defensive display in their 2-0 win at Anfield last season.

 

Rested for the Champions League trip to Maribor, the trio of Thibaut Courtois, Oscar and Costa will be pushing for selection, though Mourinho may be persuaded to persist with Didier Droba, who has scored 11 career goals against Liverpool, nine of them for Chelsea. During Mourinho’s previous dominant start to a Premier League season in 2005-6, his Chelsea side bullied Liverpool in a 4-1 win, with the Ivorian tormenter-in-chief that day.

The element of surprise could be Liverpool’s biggest weapon on Saturday, though the high-tempo, aggressive starts that so typified last season’s title charge have been conspicuous by their absence so far in 2014-5. A slow, probing and controlled performance would play right into Chelsea’s hands; Rodgers cannot play Mourinho at his own game.

 

An unlikely victory would send Liverpool joint-fourth, if only temporarily, and dispel the “dark cloud” that former striker John Toshack claimed was hanging over Anfield this week. Or Chelsea will power onwards to the most ominous and inevitable Premier League title in recent times. Resistance is futile.

 

Betting Instinct tip – Despite, or perhaps because of, Steven Gerrard’s likely return, Chelsea are stronger favourites now than in May. A repeat 2-0 away win is 15/2 with Intertops.eu

 

JamesDutton JAMES DUTTON is a freelance journalist who has written for The Mirror, The Guardian and The Times. James helps to  run The False Nine football website, contributes to The Anfield Wrap and is a columnist for uMAXit Football