Champions Chelsea can punish complacent Liverpool

A week is a long time in politics. By the time Chelsea and Liverpool take to the field on Sunday there could well be a new Prime Minister of the United Kingdom. Or, as is more likely, the political parties will remain locked in darkened rooms, thrashing out deals and compromises to form another coalition government. As for the two football clubs, you could hardly drive a larger political wedge between them, with Chelsea sitting in the Conservative safe seat of Kensington – the only Tory club in the Premier League – and Liverpool a notorious Labour heartland.

 

Chelsea v Liverpool Betting Odds:

Chelsea win 21/20

Liverpool win 5/2

Draw 9/4

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

 

If a week is a long time in the political world, then a year in football is an eternity. These two faced each other with three games remaining last season in what is now a well run story; Steven Gerrard slipped, Demba Ba scored, Liverpool capitulated and Manchester City won the title. The Reds sold Luis Suarez and recruited poorly, the Blues sold David Luiz and recruited well.

With three games to go in 2014-15 Chelsea have already wrapped up the title and with nine points left to play for sit 13 ahead of second placed Man City, with Brendan Rodgers’ side a further 22 points back. The momentum that his side took into this fixture in April last year has well and truly evaporated after a chastening year, and defeat at Stamford Bridge would represent their 11th of the season, well and truly extinguishing their slim hopes of retaining their Champions League status for a second campaign.

 

Chelsea will be overwhelming favourites in a fixture that has so much less riding on it than would have been predictable even a month ago. Jose Mourinho’s team have strolled to the league title, barely breaking sweat in the second half of the season and undefeated since a 5-3 reverse at White Hart Lane on New Year’s Day, while three defeats in Liverpool’s last six have cost them hugely in their unlikely bid to make the top four.

While some managers would see the visit of the Reds as a chance to put down a marker, to emphasise your superiority in this league, for Mourinho only victory matters as their 1-0 victory over Crystal Palace showed last Sunday. After taking the lead on half time, every substitution was designed to make sure of victory and deny the opposition a way back; John Obi Mikel for Juan Cuadrado, Kurt Zouma for Willian and Filipe Luis for Eden Hazard. “Boring” it may be to some, but no one can deny the effectiveness of Mourinho’s tactics this year.

So entrenched in negativity have been perceptions of Mourinho’s side since the new year that many have overlooked their stellar start to the year, when they attacked with verve and dynamism, spearheaded by summer signings Diego Costa and Cesc Fabregas. Their second, and so far final, league defeat of the season came in that loss to Tottenham in January. It was viewed then as a sign of complacency creeping into their game, of defensive frailties and vulnerabilities that other sides had failed to pick up on.

 

Conversely it was the best thing to happen to them. It has led to the pragmatic approach, the defensive lockdown that has been behind their title victory. Only Hull have scored more than once against them in the past four months. The Blues may have the best eleven in the league, but they have a manager who saw the problems and addressed them, where others may have ignored them. It is as much Mourinho’s win as Eden Hazard’s, Diego Costa’s or John Terry’s.

Pragmatic has become a dirty word in footballing circles, its connotations with negative, defensive football too readily assumed. Instead it is the mark of doing what it takes to win, it is perhaps the ultimate skill set a manager can learn. It is what separates the best from the rest. While Mourinho has it in spades, his opposite number and former apprentice Brendan Rodgers, is still learning it. It would be lazy to accuse the Liverpool manager of being too idealistic for he is more pragmatic now than when he took over the Reds in June 2012.

 

The move to the three at the back midway through this season, the use of the midfield diamond last season, all manoeuvres that point to a coach who can be pragmatic. However that’s not to say he couldn’t have been more pragmatic. The 3-4-2-1 could have been hooked earlier, the 4-3-2-1 of the autumn should have been abandoned almost immediately, while the need to prioritise goals over defensive solidity has not been properly addressed.

As we enter the denouement of the 2014-15 season, the sense of regret and a missed opportunity abounds on Merseyside. Liverpool took their foot off the gas after a dire FA Cup semi-final showing against Aston Villa, taking just one point off West Brom and Hull City. Victories would see them sitting in fourth now, given the three consecutive defeats suffered by Louis van Gaal’s Manchester United; instead complacency crept in.

 

Brendan Rodgers has a poor record against top four sides this season, with only a home win against a disinterested Manchester City to shout about. But this isn’t where Liverpool have fallen short this year, it’s in failing to beat the bottom ten teams home and away; they’ve only done that over Burnley and QPR, the weakest two sides in the division.

Liverpool do not deserve to finish in the top four, and they will lose at Stamford Bridge on Sunday because fear has replaced bravado at Anfield, ever since Steven Gerrard slipped over and Demba Ba scored that goal.

 

Betting Instinct tip – Liverpool not to score is 31/20 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.

Gerrard v Gilet: Should Liverpool’s captain start against Tim Sherwood’s Aston Villa?

 

Signs and screams express Liverpool dreams; a community united in sticking by one of its own, celebrating his achievements, trying to give him that worthy once-and-for-all send off. But as the Kop club together to ‘GET GERRARD TO WEMBLEY’, the sentiment seems, more than sickly sweet, just a little bit strange.

 

Aston Villa v Liverpool Betting Odds:

Aston Villa win 9/2

Liverpool win 11/20

Draw 29/10

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

 

One can forgive the onus on Wembley, by which is of course meant the final proper, rather than Sunday’s capital-staged Aston Villa semi. Responsibility for that imprecision lies at the door of the FA, whose decision to move the semis to the panoptic National Stadium of Everything is only the latest move serving to sap all meaning from a once valued cup competition.

What’s more puzzling is the target audience for those signs and screams. Just who is supposed to ‘GET GERRARD TO WEMBLEY’? Is there an e-petition going around? Is this a call for Ed Miliband to include a ‘Gerrard Responsibility Lock’ in the Labour Party’s election manifesto? Or are they, as is more likely, talking to Brendan Rodgers and the Liverpool players, a plea for them to Do it for Stevie! and no mistake?

 

If the latter, it’s striking that fans give Gerrard no agency whatsoever, and that it’s left up to the rest of the squad to do the captain’s job for him. In this sense, the Kop’s calls tell a revealing story about their club’s season so far. Steven Gerrard, Istanbul’s one-man band who so stunningly dragged his teammates to a Champions League trophy, is all lined up to be 2015’s Antonio Nunez, reaping the harvest without planting the seeds. Worse, in fact, given that it was his rush of blood against Manchester United that has allowed the FA Cup to become Liverpool’s sole focus.

Whether Gerrard should or shouldn’t start against Villa is, apparently, one of the semi-final’s biggest subplots. The case for? ‘The FA Cup stars are aligned for Gerrard’ (Mystic Meg meets Sun Fantasy Football), ‘He’s a big game player’ (cough…), and ‘He loves scoring against Aston Villa’ (frankly, who doesn’t?). And against? Actual evidence, like, you know, Liverpool Being Miles Better Without Him.

 

Should Rodgers leave his skipper at shore, to whom will he turn to fulfill the role of Mr Liverpool? It won’t be an actual Scouser, of course, the manager having long since tired of the bore-off blasphemy that was Jon Flanagan’s ‘Flani Alves’ rebrand. Preferred candidate Daniel ‘Doubtful’ Sturridge is struggling with, you guessed it, another niggling injury. And Raheem Sterling appears to be missing after setting off in search of his tattooed-boy-from-Birkenhead hippy crack dealer. We hope you get the help you so clearly and desperately need, Raheem.

Presenting, then, Mario Balotelli, atFinallyMario, whose overdue Anfield success would anger exactly the right kind of people – from the bigots whose intolerance is unmasked when their football team fails, to the newspapermen desperate to scandalise and shame the innocuous.

The bond between Balotelli and the Liverpool fans is real, its strong, it’s even Gerrard-like. Take the Manchester United match, where pitchside supporters reached out to their hero with hugs and warm words, comfort banishing the pain and ignominy of defeat. There’s a reason why the Italian is set to be voted Liverpool fans’ player of the season, and it’s nothing to do with extra-club conspiracy. No, he just gets it, like Louis van Gaal at his club’s big rivals.

To sink Sherwood, Liverpool, Mario’s your man.

 

Betting Instinct tip – Liverpool to not only win this weekend but to win the FA Cup itself – on Gerrard’s birthday no less – is 33/20 with Intertops.eu

Kieran avatar KIERAN DODDS  is a masters student and writer. He has written about sport, politics and current affairs for the Guardian, the Huffington Post, Africa is a Country, When Saturday Comes, IBWM and others. Follow Kieran on Twitter.

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.

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+.

What We’ll Learn In The Transfer Window

Will Wilfried Bony to Man City be the biggest Premier League transfer this month?

Will Wilfried Bony to Man City be the biggest Premier League transfer this month?

A little change of pace this month, as we look ahead to what will happen during the transfer window. And as we all know transfers and the accompanying rumour mill with it’s glorious highs and crushing lows is far superior to the drudgery of actual football. Handily because nothing really happens until the last few weeks my tardiness isn’t that much of an issue.

 

Premier League Outright Betting Odds:

Chelsea 3/5

Manchester City 3/2

Manchester United 18/1

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

 

One thing (at the time of writing) that might possible already have happened/be in the process of happening is the transfer of Wilfried Bony to Manchester City. A devastatingly direct attacker with a deft first touch and a fierce strike, he can’t be anything other than great. His on-pitch time will be dependent on Sergio Aguero and his hamstrings but they’re made of rubber bands so Bony should get plenty of chances to impress.

On the other side of the city Louis van Gaal will do whatever he damn well likes. However he should probably look into sorting a defence that is, well it has, I mean…….it’s a bit crap really. He’s already brought in Victor Valdes, and might follow that up by buying his countryman Ron Vlaar who once got a 2! (out of 10!) for me on Football Manager. Make of that what you will (as I type this he’s just been ruled out for 4 weeks but I have a word count to hit so he’s staying in the article)

 

Arsenal will do what Arsenal do, there will be opinion pieces, banners and possibly some booing. At the end of it Arsenal will finish fourth and every single one of us will be ever so slightly closer to the blessed release of death.

Chelsea have completed the ‘transfers’ level of football so unless they fancy trying to beat their own high score we can ignore them during January.

 

Tottenham will sign a midfielder. He’ll pretend to be good for a bit, then it’ll turn out he’s rubbish. Aaron Lennon might leave, possibly for QPR where………..

*insert your own ‘dawwnn to the bare bones’ Harry Redknapp joke here*

 

Aston Villa are obviously far too boring for any of us to care about. Even if they do sign someone mildly interesting that poor soul will be subsumed by the overwhelming force of mediocrity that resides at Villa Park.

Nobody knows who is in charge of transfers at West Ham but let’s hope it’s the new fun loving version of Big Sam and he brings in Jay Jay Okocha, you know just for old times sake. Oh and they’ll sell Winston Reid to someone, maybe Arsenal.

 

The Anfield transfer committee will gather round the table, amalgamate their thoughts, you know some real blue sky thinking ‘there’s no such thing as a bad idea here, this is a safe space where we reshape the rules and turn dreams into reality’ and decide to spend twenty million quid on a center back who somehow manages to make their defence worse. Liverpool might try and punt Mario, but he’s performing so admirably in the role of scapegoat that that would surely be a grave error.

 

Southampton will sell someone who isn’t as good as people think he is for more money than he’s worth and will replace him with a better player from the Netherlands, their youth team or Celtic.

The only Leicester player I know is Esteban Cambiasso so it’s very hard for me to take much of a guess at their transfer activity. I’ll save any embarrassment by not bothering.

 

Stoke might sell Peter Crouch to West Brom now that Tony Pulis is in charge. I might make veggie burgers for tea tomorrow.

Now that he’s swapped Newcastle for Palace Alan Pardew will celebrate not being forced to exclusively sign French players with high sell on value by signing someone quintessentially English with no sell on value. Possibly the Queen, or some sort of Duke.

 

All I’ve got to say about Sunderland is that my mate met Gus Poyet once, I forgot to ask what he was like. I bet he’s a dick.

Everton should sign a defensive coach but they’ll probably sign someone from Wigan, Shaun Maloney maybe.

 

Burnley will continue their attempt to prove that a Championship team full of Championship players can survive in the Premier League by signing a Championship player.

Going to level with you here – I’m writing this on a train and my stop is coming up. So if I’ve forgotten your team then I’m sorry but you’re just not important enough (sorry Hull fans – ed.).

 

Follow me on Twitter where I occasionally RT something funny

 

Betting Instinct tip – with few transfers likely to go through before this weekend’s games, back a London treble: Arsenal, Chelsea and Tottenham all to win is 3.59 with AllYouBet.ag.

 

Ally avatarALLY MONCRIEFF is a freelance football writer and editor of All or Nothing magazine. Sometimes even he can’t tell if he’s being serious or not. Follow Ally on Twitter and maybe he’ll be your friend.

In-form Cazorla should relish Liverpool trip

Santi Cazorla will look to pull the strings once more after tearing apart Newcastle United last week

Santi Cazorla will look to pull the strings once more after tearing apart Newcastle United last week

What extraordinary times these are for Liverpool. After coming within one slip of winning a first league title since 1990 last term, they have endured an unimaginably nightmarish first half to this season. Gone is Luis Suárez and, perhaps not coincidentally, gone are the goals. The Reds, so easy on the eye as they powered through the Spring of 2014, are now a team with a distinct lack of direction and one in desperate need of inspiration. They have picked up just 14 points from the last 30 available and have already suffered defeats to the likes of Crystal Palace, Newcastle and Aston Villa. That they have only managed seven league goals all season at Anfield tells its own story.

They have been hit hard by the continued absence of Daniel Sturridge (he has not featured in a Liverpool shirt since August) while summer arrival Mario Balotelli has found life in front of goal difficult. Steven Gerrard’s performances have begun to deteriorate rapidly and Dejan Lovren and Simon Mignolet have suffered horrendous starts to the season. The Reds did manage to negotiate a potential banana skin in Bournemouth in the league cup in midweek, but serious questions still hang over their defensive solidity.

 

A miserable run of form culminating in last Sunday’s dismantling at the hands of Manchester United means they languish in eleventh place in the Premier League but they still have a chance of making the top four – down largely to the inconsistency of those above them more than anything else. The gap currently stands at seven points but it will surely widen quickly unless Liverpool experience a marked improvement in the next few weeks.

But things won’t get any easier for Brendan Rodgers’ men, with Sunday seeing the visit of Arsenal. The Gunners have recovered well since their calamitous defeat at Stoke City, with progression to the knockout stages of the Champions League as well as a convincing defeat over in-form Newcastle achieved since then. Olivier Giroud is back fit and firing and he has injected some much-needed impetus into Arsenal’s season. Problems still abound for Arsène Wenger’s side but for all the talk of crisis at the Emirates, they know a win on Sunday could lift them as high as fourth.

 

Liverpool v Arsenal Betting Odds:

Liverpool win 7/4

Arsenal win 29/20

Draw 23/10

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

 

Arsenal’s fanbase has never been more divided over whether Wenger should remain in charge, but the Frenchman’s skin is thicker than most and he will be focusing solely on the job in hand this weekend. Santi Cazorla turned in a mesmerising performance in the 4-1 win over Newcastle last Saturday and he is likely to start again at Anfield. If he can rediscover his best form after an indifferent start to the campaign then the Gunners will have one of the division’s most exciting number tens. He may have just turned thirty but he still has lots to give and could very well make the difference on Sunday.

Arsenal will remain without Laurent Koscielny and Aaron Ramsey, though, who along with Mikel Arteta, Jack Wilshere, Theo Walcott and Mesut Özil form an extensive injury list. Nacho Monreal will hope to return to the matchday squad while Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain is a slight doubt.

Liverpool’s injury woes are far less pronounced; apart from long-term absentees Daniel Sturridge and Jon Flanagan, Glen Johnson is their only concern. He will face a late fitness test.

 

Despite Arsenal’s drastically reduced options they still go into this game as overwhelming favourites. A repeat of their last visit to Anfield, when they were blown away with four early goals and went on to lose 5-1, somehow looks unlikely. That was only in February but already it seems an eternity ago. Liverpool’s confidence has been shot to pieces and while Arsenal remain shaky away from home they would be disappointed to come away on the end of a defeat.

We know Liverpool have the players to lift themselves from their current predicament, but it’s increasingly difficult to see where the next win is coming from. If Raheem Sterling can display the same scoring touch he showed at Dean Court on Wednesday then they will have a chance, but the young Englishman has been inconsistent at best this season. A victory on Sunday could definitely provide them with the momentum to start climbing the table but if there’s one word that sums the Reds up at the moment it’s ‘fragile’. Any early setback is likely to derail them, and Arsenal will look to take full advantage of this.

 

Betting Instinct tip Draw at half-time/Arsenal at full-time is 9/2 with Intertops.eu

 

Jack C avatarJACK CHATTERTON is a student and long-suffering Spurs fan, who has written for In Bed With Maradona and  Sabotage Times, among others. You can read his miscellaneous and quite modest blog, or follow him on Twitter

Old Trafford trip highlights Liverpool’s season of decline

Defeat this weekend will increase the pressure on Liverpool's Brendan Rodgers

Defeat this weekend will increase the pressure on Liverpool’s Brendan Rodgers

As we approach the half-way stage of the 2014-15 Premier League season, once again Liverpool fans are being bombarded by the Groundhog day sensation. The visit of Chelsea and the trip to Selhurst Park last month were reminders of where last season’s title challenge disintegrated, but Sunday’s encounter with Manchester United at Old Trafford promises to be the most harrowing reminder yet of how far Brendan Rodgers’ side have plummeted.

Last March Old Trafford reverberated with the sounds of Poetry in Motion as the revelling hordes of travelling Liverpool fans lauded their side – “We’re gonna win the League”. Their title chances then still looked unlikely, but the swaggering momentum they were building up was undeniable and at times irresistible.

The 3-0 victory that afternoon was one of control and precision, not the swift counter-attacking that came to define them, and that it came at the home of their decaying neighbours made it ever sweeter. How Liverpool fans must wish they could bottle the mood of that afternoon and carry it with them this weekend.

But there will be no repeat of that this Sunday; David Moyes has gone, much to the chagrin of United’s rival fan bases, and the club are in a significantly healthier position this December. Liverpool’s win in Manchester back March was their fifth in succession and they won another six in a row afterward; Louis van Gaal’s United have won their last five and shoved their way into the top three – they could be there for some time now.

 

Manchester United v Liverpool Betting Odds:

Manchester United win 4/5

Liverpool win 3/1

Draw 13/5

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

 

Besides the intrigue of their respective fluctuating fortunes, is the resumption of what remains England’s greatest fixture and club rivalry as it enters a new era. The departure of Luis Suarez removes the most volatile character in its recent history, but the arrival of Van Gaal guarantees that the rivalry cycle continues.

The 63 year-old is no stranger to rivalries and the importance associated to it by supporters. Watching his end-of-season victory speech at Bayern Munich in 2010, where he claimed his side not only to be the champions of Munich and Germany, but of Gelsenkirchen, Bremen and Hamburg too, you can imagine he would require little encouragement to proclaim Manchester United as the champions of Liverpool.

 

His revival of United has been in stark contrast to the slapstick moments of August; they have not quite gone down the route of simply trying to outscore opponents. The defence remains makeshift and rarely convinces, but it is nowhere near as porous as many make out; since the second-half collapse at Leicester in September, West Brom are the only team to score more than once past them. The improved form of David de Gea, who is playing at his most consistent peak since joining three years ago, is an undoubtedly strong factor behind this.

The integration of Marouane Fellaini higher up the pitch has given the Red Devils more than just an aerial reference point, and he doesn’t look quite the £28m waste of space that he did under Moyes last season. The entire side looks to be regaining a presence and purpose under their new Dutch manager, a knowhow for winning all manner of football matches no matter the circumstance and situation – for all of Southampton’s endeavour against them on Monday night, United’s victory felt somewhat inevitable.

 

How Brendan Rodgers desires that winning habit that has so deserted him and his team since the spring. The sight of Martin Skrtel operating as an emergency centre-forward as Liverpool limped out of the Champions League on Tuesday was a painful one for supporters and highlighted the disintegration of the attack that had carried them there in the first place.

In the light of a harrowing run of form in the autumn, which culminated in a fourth successive defeat at Crystal Palace last month, Rodgers has abandoned his idealism and resorted to pragmatic football, selecting the players he trusts most and bringing short-term gains. Play is not built from the back, full backs have stopped rampaging forward and midfielders are charged with stopping the opposition resulting in a static rather than fluid attack. Seven points from the last nine available in the league suggests it’s had some effect, but it did not prevent Champions League elimination.

The autumnal slump has been arrested to some degree – Liverpool have not lost since last month’s aberration at Selhurst Park – but they remain in the full grip of a malaise, and on the precipice of a deeper crisis. If the midweek disappointment is followed by defeats at Old Trafford, away to Bournemouth next week and against Arsenal the weekend after – not out of the question for a team with three wins in 12 – then the pressure on Rodgers could grow insurmountable.

 

There is still time for Rodgers to turn this around and the next three fixtures can be viewed as opportunities to regain pride for himself and his team; to do that he must trust in and accentuate the qualities of his players not fear the opposition’s. It is impossible to say in this day and age without sounding like a glib Alan Hansen rehash, but Liverpool still possess the one weapon that can truly unsettle opposition defences; pace.

If the manager decides again to lead the line with a 32 year-old and a 34 year-old, with the combined pace of a bowl of porridge, it will play right into the hands of van Gaal. Failure to pressurise another changed backline, with Chris Smalling now joining Phil Jones and Luke Shaw on the United treatment table, would be another illustration of the fear that has overcome Rodgers and Liverpool.

 

Betting Instinct tip – With Liverpool having only a few days to recover from their Champions League exit, the hosts can take advantage. Manchester United to win by two or more is 2/1 with AllYouBet.ag

 

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

Will Liverpool and Man City miss key men in Champions League showdowns?

Who will be missed more, Sergio Aguero or Daniel Sturridge?

Who will be missed more, Sergio Aguero or Daniel Sturridge?

While Chelsea and Arsenal have sealed their progress to the Champions League second round with a game to spare, things are not so simple for the remaining two Premier League representatives.

A combination of tough opponents and underwhelming performances have left Liverpool and Manchester City with a tough task to qualify, but both have their fate in their own hands going into matchday 6.

Liverpool v FC Basel Betting Odds:

Liverpool win 7/10

Basel win 7/2

Draw 53/20

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

Liverpool’s return to European football’s top table for the first time in five years has been overshadowed by attacking woes, with Daniel Sturridge’s absence through injury adding to the departure of Luis Suarez to Barcelona. Strikers Mario Balotelli and Rickie Lambert have scored just once each in the five group games so far, with Brendan Rodgers’ side picking up just one more point after a narrow win over Ludogorets in their opening game.

However victory over FC Basel would be enough to ensure progress behind group winners Real Madrid. The Swiss champions edged past the Reds at home thanks to a Marco Streller goal, but have won just one of their last five away games in the competition. That was in England, though, when a Streller winner made the difference against Chelsea last season.

An absent striker is the main story for Manchester City as well, with the injury picked up by Sergio Aguero in Saturday’s victory over Everton ruling the Argentine out of Wednesday’s trip to Roma. And after his hat-trick in a last-gasp win over Bayern Munich, it is fair to say that Aguero will be missed, with Stevan Jovetic and Edin Dzeko both yet to score in the competition this season.

Like their fellow Premier League club, City have just one win from five games so far. However, due to a quirk in the Champions League’s head-to-head tiebreaker, Manuel Pellegrini’s men could progress with six points or exit with eight. All they know is defeat in the Italian capital (or a goalless draw) would see them eliminated.

Will we have a repeat of 2012-13, where two English sides failed to make it past the group stage, or could we still see the perfect qualification record enjoyed by Premier League outfits last season?

Betting Instinct tip Liverpool to win and Manchester City to win or draw is 2.6 with Intertops.eu

tv TOM VICTOR (editor) is the editor and co-founder of Betting Instinct. He has written for a variety of    sports sites in the past, including JustFootball, Footy Matters and BeNeFoot. You can follow him  on Twitter.

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

Real Madrid out for revenge against unpredictable Liverpool

Jay Spearing's cameo was an integral part of Liverpool's most memorable meeting with Real Madrid

Jay Spearing’s cameo was an integral part of Liverpool’s most memorable meeting with Real Madrid

 

‘We made Madrid look like sidemen.’

So went the tweeted verdict of one Liverpool fan reflecting on his side’s 2009 Champions League demolition of the current competition holders. And, it’s true, they did. Liverpool are these days no strangers to making entire teams look like ‘sidemen’, of course; despite a rocky start to this campaign, the last saw sideman after sideman capitulating to the talents of Suarez, Sturridge, Rodgers, and the rest. But there was a greater romance to the feat five years ago: Ryan Babel laid on a goal; Andrea Dossena scored; and in the ultimate indignity for the Spanish side, Jay Spearing replaced Steven Gerrard with fifteen minutes still to play (‘After the skewering, the Spearing’, as Henry Winter so characteristically put it).

Though at least Liverpool had some romance to lose. Their opponents on Wednesday are the antithesis of such an idea. Real Madrid aren’t a team, but a machine – if anything too well oiled – at once both beautiful and ugly. Cristiano Ronaldo spits on your ‘romance’, Pepe headbutts it, and Carlo Ancelotti neatly – but firmly – files it away in a drawer.

They showed it again in Saturday’s 5-0 trashing of Levante. Ronaldo scored his tenth goal in four league games and his fifteenth this season, bringing his Football Manager average rating up to a staggering 9.37 in the process: truly unprecedented. The week before that? Another 5-0 win at home to Athletic Club. Though they sit third in La Liga, their results of late (in all competitions) have been nothing short of ridiculous: since the 2-1 loss to Atletico on September 13, the list reads, 5-1, 8-2, 5-1, 2-0, 2-1, 5-0, 5-0. Gareth Bale will be injured for the away side, and a potential distraction lurks in the background in the form of Saturday’s El Clasico, but even taking both into account, Liverpool ought to be worried.

 

Liverpool v Real Madrid Betting Odds:

Liverpool win 3/1

Real Madrid win 4/5

Draw 13/5

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

 

The English side’s weekend win at QPR was an absurd spectacle; one that you would think had been made up were it not for the eminently plausible event of a Richard Dunne own goal. Absurd, perversely impressive, but far from convincing, it was a performance that will no doubt encourage Real Madrid. Liverpool, remember, have some of their own injury problems – Sturridge is out for another few weeks; Raheem Sterling might well, if he can keep his eyes open, watch from home with some warm milk and a blanket – and their form in Europe has been patchy at best: the last gasp win at home to Ludogorets was concerning enough, but to follow it up with a 1-0 loss to Basel was to put their place in the competition in doubt.

 

It could well be that Liverpool need a tie like this, something to kickstart their stuttering season. There is (rightly) much made of the Anfield atmosphere on big European nights, and Wednesday should be, to quote Rodgers, ‘special’: ‘To see that flag back out in the middle of the pitch and for the supporters to get behind their team, like they do, is going to be an amazing experience.’ Being excited, however, is not the same as being prepared.

There will be no repeat of 2009’s 4-0, not this time. And if you can find odds on Mario Balotelli pulling down Pepe’s shorts, kicking him up the backside, and telling him that he looked better baldy, take them. With such a craaaazy guy – What’s he gonna do next? Dye his hair RED? HAHA! – leading the line, Liverpool have next to no chance. Far better to take a punt on the dependable Rickie Lambert, a man much more likely to terrorise young Raphael Varane than he who dragged his country, kicking and screaming, to the final of Euro 2012.

Otherwise, as a Real Madrid supporting friend of the Liverpool fan we met earlier replied, ‘this time we will see who will be the wasteman.’ It’s up to you, Brendan.

 

Betting Instinct tip Real Madrid to win by two or more goals is 37/20 with AllYouBet.ag

 

Kieran avatar KIERAN DODDS  is a masters student and writer. He has written about sport, politics and current affairs for the Guardian, the Huffington Post, Africa is a Country, When Saturday Comes, IBWM and others. Follow Kieran on Twitter.