There’s still football?

Liverpool played QPR yesterday. Perhaps you heard about the match, we had a 2-0 lead in the 76th minute and blew it, losing 2-3. It was pretty galling, and at the time I was very cross. And I stayed very cross for about ten minutes. In that time I stepped outside. It’s been raining, but it was still quite warm and the flowers are blooming. I then went over to the Lancashire website and read about Luke Procter’s century in the pre-season match in the UAE. And then the football result didn’t really matter. This sort of thing happens every year. It’s usually a few weeks later, but I cannot remember a year in which I’ve really still cared about football after mid-April at the latest.

There are many reasons for this. One of them is because Liverpool don’t have a lot for which to play right now, at least not in the league. (I expect I’ll still care about the FA Cup matches.) It’s no coincidence that I never care after the baseball season and County Championship start though. For me football is a winter sport. Football is great when it’s dark and cold, it is something about which I can care and follow in the middle of winter. But it isn’t the same as cricket. Football is a very divisive, vitriolic sport and although it is so much fun to watch it can be very painful to follow between matches. It interests me, and I can’t really disengage from it, but I don’t enjoy it. But now there is something else. The weather has got warm unusually early and happily the County Championship is starting unusually early too. It is time, or nearly so, to leave the dark and cold of football in favour of the warmth and light of cricket. England’s match against Sri Lanka starts on Monday (late Sunday night here) and Lancashire start the County Championship curtain raiser the day after that. Football has been a lovely diversion since October, but it is no longer needed.

Of course, the season isn’t actually over. No, that will drag on for another two months almost. I’ll still watch. I’ll still enjoy the matches as they take place and I’ll still cheer on Liverpool with all my heart. But any joy or pain from the match will likely end with the broadcast. It just doesn’t matter anymore. The season should be ending. Football is so lucrative that it’s probably lucky that there’s an offseason at all (and even so there only barely is one) but the season is really at least two months too long. It should start a month later than it does and it should end no later than the second week of April. For those who love that sport above all others, some more time off should make the season all the sweeter. For the rest of us, a few months in which to enjoy summer and cricket without the interruption of winter’s sport should not be too much to ask.

I was mostly right

In a way, I did a pretty good job of predicting the weekend’s matches. I correctly called one win out of two for England’s women, a win for Wales and a win for Liverpool. The only things I got wrong were a washout in the other women’s match (I predicted a Kiwi win) and the England men winning their T20 (by quite a lot, as it transpired). So on the face of it, I did okay. It was the details that went a bit awry though.

First off, an English victory in the T20. We are the World Champions and world number one in that format, but I never feel comfortable saying that we will win. I know I’ve said it before, but there is a huge element of luck in T20s and I think England have been almost more fortunate than good in the past. Yesterday though saw a very skilful performance by young Jonny Bairstow who hit an unbeaten 60 to propel us to 150-7 after a slow start. Once again though, it was the bowlers who really won the match for us. The captain led from the front with 2-12 from 3.2 overs and was ably backed up by Finn (as usual), Swann (2-17) and Dernbach (1-13 from three overs). Pakistan were 33-4 after the powerplay and all but out of the match at 50-5. Afridi and Hammad Azam had a go near the end, but it was already too late and when Azam was out Pakistan capitulated. Afridi started turning down singles and looked like he was going to just bat out the 20 overs, before getting impatient and skewing a catch. One of the biggest factors in the run chase was England’s outstanding fielding. Of the ten wickets to fall, nine of them were caught (with the other run out) and at least eight of the catches were difficult ones. If England had dropped even a few of those the match would have been a lot closer, but as it was Pakistan never had a chance.

That was going on at the same time as the Six Nations match between England and Wales. Whilst I correctly predicted the outcome, I didn’t expect England to make their match so close. England actually led until fairly late at Twickenham, coming back well after a dismal first 20 minutes. It is a mark of how well they did that the loss was still gutting, with Wales getting a very late try and England not quite being able to match it at the death. Still, England can take a lot of positives from that match. After a horror start to the match that saw Wales completely dominate possession England turned it around and dominated the next 20 minutes to almost the same extent, playing a surprisingly fluent passing game. They had good width and were able to force Wales back well. The one thing they could not do, however, was get over the tryline, though it took an incredible tackle from, as I recall, Sam Warburton to deny Manu Tuilangi at one point. What England will particularly rue though is the ten minute man advantage that they wasted. After kicking the penalty to go 12-6 in front, they did not get possession for the next five minutes as Wales held on to the ball and gradually worked it down the pitch. England did eventually manage to get a lineout on the Welsh 22, but made an absolute hash of it despite being a man up. By the time Wales were back to 15 they had scored a penalty and had the momentum, which they didn’t really relinquish until England’s last ditch effort to bring the scores level. It was, as I said, a very disappointing result in the end but there is at least more cause for optimism ahead of the last two matches. Wales, meantime, having won the Triple Crown have a great chance for a Grand Slam. Effectively, they only need to beat France at the Millennium Stadium.

The big result was the League Cup though. I said that I thought Cardiff would score a goal, but Liverpool would score at least two. I was half right: Cardiff did go in front in the first half, but Liverpool equalised in the second. Cardiff’s goal came against the run of play, and although they did have other chances (including a heart-stopping moment a few minutes before the second half ended) Liverpool were always the more positive side. We had what seemed like dozens of corners (I lost count), hit the woodwork a couple of times and it seemed like we were almost constantly threatening. Whilst there was some of the profligacy in front of goal that has plagued us all season, Cardiff were also very good. They never seemed to tire in defence and kept charging down shots and attempts to pass the ball in the box. The effort looked like it had worn them down in the end though, as after all the chances we had had it was a relatively meek one by Kuyt that put us in front 2-1 in extra time. After that was where Cardiff really deserve credit though, they did not drop their heads, they did not give up. They came back, put us under pressure and got the last gasp equaliser. I’m sure the adrenaline of a big match helped, but how many teams could go behind after 108 minutes and still have the energy to come back in the 118th? It was a phenomenal show of fight from them and they deserve no end of praise for it. I thought that it would be enough to win them the match, myself. We have been very poor at normal penalties this season and apart from Gerrard and Kuyt I did not know on whom we could rely to take them. Fortunately Suarez, after his howler last week, was not amongst the five. I had been pessimistic to start, so when Gerrard had his saved and Charlie Adam followed up with an attempt that looked like he was aiming for the net at Anfield instead of Wembley, I was despairing. Kuyt was as reliable as ever though, and some hope appeared when the Cardiff players missed badly too. In the end it was Downing and Johnson who scored the vital last two penalties, much to my astonishment and delight, before poor Anthony Gerrard, Stevie’s cousin, missed for Cardiff.

I’m still, of course, ecstatic about having snatched victory from the jaws of defeat and finally getting some silverware. King Kenny is also now the first person to win a career treble as both a player and manager, though he’s helped by having done some of them at the same time, of course! And I could be wrong, but I think the win also guarantees European football at Anfield next year. Whilst we still need to push hard for a top four finish, it’s nice to know that we have the Europa League on which to fall back should that not go our way. We’ll be able to help ourselves in that respect soon too, as our next Premiership match is at home to Arsenal who rather annoyingly won today.

Ultimately, it’s been a pretty good weekend.

Should be a fun weekend

Including tonight, there are three cricket matches, two rugby matches and a football match that I’m planning to follow closely this weekend. England’s women have their last two (dead rubber) T20 matches tonight and Sunday night, whilst the men play tomorrow morning looking to level the series. At the same time as the men’s match, however, there is rugby on as England play Wales at Twickenham and when that ends Bath will play away to Exeter in the Premiership. Finally, Sunday morning is the League Cup final with the Reds favourites to win a first bit of silverware for a while.

As far as predictions go, I’m still sticking with my original 4-1 prediction for the England women. They very nearly (and arguably ought to have) lost the third match, and whilst winning that will give them a mental edge for the last two it could be negated by the fact that they are now dead rubbers. T20 is an inherently unpredictable format and I still think the Kiwis will sneak a win this weekend. That said, I would not be surprised if England got the whitewash.

As far as the men go, the loss on the first T20 was, whilst not entirely unexpected, quite disappointing given that England probably should have won after the start to which we got off chasing. (It seems that we simply cannot chase 145 in the UAE.) Although the batting mostly let us down, we did drop a couple of catches, which may have cost us. The turning point was probably Bopara’s wicket, but I think KP’s was actually more important. He had picked up right where he left off in the ODIs and looked like he might have been able to knock off at least half of the target by himslef, but he was well caught on the boundary for 33. The catch also cost us six runs, as the ball was on course to clear the rope, the important of which should not be underestimated. (We only lost by eight runs.) For the next match I’m tipping Pakistan to win again, and not merely because the first two series were both whitewashes. England, despite being champions and world number one in this format, still don’t tend to look terribly convincing. I suspect a large part of England’s strong T20 record is actually down to luck, (the rest being very good bowling) though that’s to be expected in this format.

In the rugby, I did not see anything in the second round to persuade me that my initial assessment of Wales and England was incorrect. England will have home field advantage, but I think that is about it. Whilst we looked composed and competent for the last half an hour or so against Italy, there were still a lot of mistakes in that match as there were against Scotland. I expect Wales to punish those mistakes a lot more efficiently than Scotland or Italy did, as well as to make fewer themselves. If England can play very error-free rugby then they will have a chance with the crowd behind them, however I don’t think they will be quite up to the level required to beat a strong looking Wales, even at Twickenham.

Finally, the League Cup final on Sunday. Liverpool are strong favourites (2-5, according the Guardian), of course, playing 5th in the Championship Cardiff. That said, we have had problems forcing victories over lower placed side this year (though more at Anfield than anywhere else). Cardiff also have a very good record against us, and we saw Arsenal upset just last year. That said, I do think we will win, though it will probably be nervy for a considerable portion of the match. As good as Reina et al are, I expect we will ship probably one goal, but with Andy starting to find a bit of form up front and Suarez looking to make up for lost time I think we will score two or three to take home the trophy.

MUFC v LFC etc

It’s into that part of the football season where I will spend hours at a time looking at the league table and fixture list and working out the various permutations of who needs to win against whom for me to get the results I want. (Specifically: Champions League qualification and for neither of the Manchester clubs, but especially not United to win the title.) This year, it’s also an opportunity to look back at all the points we’ve dropped against clubs trying to avoid relegation and think what might have been. (If we’d beaten Wigan, Blackburn and Bolton in the past six weeks we would be pretty comfortable in fourth right now.)

Liverpool and Tottenham can help each other tomorrow by winning. We play United (as everyone knows and more on which below) who are five points in front of Tottenham and they play Newcastle who are four points in front of us. Obviously three points will be very, very hard to get at Old Trafford, but we beat them at home in the FA Cup and we have a bit of momentum against teams from Manchester recently. If we can get those three points then if Arsenal even draw at Sunderland we will go into sixth. It’s not a huge improvement, but every bit helps and we need to start moving up the table.

The match itself starts at a more than a little bit irritating 06.45 CST, which is really far too early to be getting up on a Saturday, but I would not think of missing it. I do think we have a chance of pulling off an upset. United’s defence looks shaky and we will have an extra motivated Suarez and probably an in-form Bellamy. We have occasionally looked a bit shoddy at the back too, despite how good Agger and Skrtel have been overall, and it will be very difficult against a United who have scored twice the number of goals this year that we have. I think we have a great chance of getting a goal or two, however, (though we will need to be less wasteful in front of goal, that seems like it has been more of a problem at home) and if we can hold firm at the back I think we will have a very good chance of winning.

The match is also notable for being the first time Suarez and Evra have come face to face since the FA hearing. There has been some speculation about whether Evra will shake Suarez’s hand before the match. I’m sure I’ve heard something more pointless, but I’m hard pressed to think of what. There is no point in any of them shaking hands, ever. It is an entirely meaningless display of ritual sportsmanship, a cursory glance at cricket and football will show that it has no effect on the game. The battle between Evra and Suarez will be much, much more interesting than whether or not they shake hands. Hopefully Evra will repeat the performance he put in at Anfield.

Suarez verdict

Luis Suarez has been given an eight match ban and a fine today in the racism case with Patrice Evra. Not being privy to all the details I don’t know if that is a reasonable result or not, though the Liverpool statement suggests that it was harsh. If it is true that the only evidence against Suarez was the word of Evra then it certainly is, but I am not certain that is the case. I do think that Suarez is often treated harshly by the media, fans and sometimes by referees but it is worth remembering that he did blatantly cheat during the last World Cup. I would be very surprised if the Independent Regulatory Commission found the charge proven on the basis only of Evra’s statement. It is a travesty if they did, but I suspect there is some other hard evidence. The eight match ban does seem reasonable if he is guilty though. There should not be any tolerance for racist remarks.

I would not be surprised to see Suarez appeal the decision, but even if he doesn’t do so it isn’t clear how much time he will miss. For one thing, the ban will not take effect until after the 14 days given for Suarez to appeal expires and I do not know if that includes the match against City in exactly a fortnight or not. either way, however, the ban includes no fewer than three cup ties and will include a fourth if Liverpool beat Oldham. Even if Suarez does not appeal he should be available to face United in February.

FA Cup draw

The draw for the third round (AKA the first round about which anyone cares) of the FA Cup was today. Last year, as everyone will probably remember, Liverpool were drawn away to Manchester United and lost due a dodgy penalty. Our draw is a lot more favourable this year, as we’ll host the winner of the Oldham Athletic v Southend United replay. United, meanwhile, will travel to Eastlands in the first round, so there’s a good chance they’ll go out in the first round this year. The matches will take place during the first (full) weekend in January. I would imagine it will be on the seventh, as the first leg of our League Cup semi-final is on the eleventh.

Given our form in the League Cup this year I am cautiously optimistic. We already have one more home tie than we have had in the League Cup and I think an average draw will see us go deep in the competition.

Why the Reds will win today

Later today Liverpool will play at Stamford Bridge for the second time in fewer than ten days, this time for the League Cup quarter final. It’s an odd quirk of scheduling, but such are the possibilities of a random draw. More irritating is the fact that we have not had a single home tie in the competition. Still, I think we will win.

Liverpool are currently playing their best football this season. After throwing away winning positions earlier in the season we rallied late to beat Chelsea once and would have beat City were it not for the brilliance of Joe Hart. Chelsea, meanwhile look poor. Yes, they beat Wolves 3-0 on Saturday, but that was Wolves. It’s hardly indicative of a return to prominence. Last Wednesday they conceded a stoppage time winner against Leverkusen after being 1-0 in front at one stage. Chelsea have one advantage in that they had an extra day to rest, having played on Saturday. It will make things more difficult for the Reds, but we have a deep squad and should field a strong XI regardless. Historically, Chelsea have had a slight edge in this competition, although the Reds have dominated the recent encounters in the league. The Liverpool website has a great overview of the stats.

The fact that Liverpool have had only one day in which to recuperate means that the side to face Chelsea is difficult to predict. Carragher has been on the bench for the last couple of matches, but has not played in either so he might be an option. Sebastian Coates and Martin Kelly are also good options at the back, though neither have played a lot of first XI football this season. Carroll presumably has a decent chance to start as he will be rested, as is Maxi Rodriguez. Rodriguez, of course, scored last week at Stamford Bridge. I don’t know if Craig Bellamy is ready to return yet, but if he is he is probably a near automatic selection. It’s harder to say who might make way for those players, as that will mostly depend on fitness. It’s probably safe to assume that Reina and Suarez will both start though. Johnson, with his recent injury woes, might be one to miss out, but he scored the winner last time we were at Stamford Bridge and looked in good form on Sunday. It won’t be an ideal XI, and those who played on Sunday will be tired, but I think they will do enough to beat a Chelsea side that have not looked up for it at times this season. I’m predicting another 2-1 win, but after extra time.

Liverpool 1-1 Manchester City

There’s really never been any doubt that Joe Hart is the best goalkeeper in England, but he demonstrated that fact again today anyway. Liverpool could have very easily won 4-1 were it not for Hart; after a sluggish start Liverpool dominated the last hour of the match and forced Hart into no fewer than three brilliant saves. It wasn’t a particularly good match for City otherwise. They looked tired and Balotelli, coming on as a sub, needed only 19 minutes to pick up two yellow cards.

I’m not sure if it was a good result for Liverpool or not. On the one hand the Reds dominated much of the game, and for all the brilliant saves by Hart there were a couple of chances that were spurned. With City down to ten over the last ten minutes there was a clear advantage. Liverpool played well enough to win, certainly. At the same time, City are table toppers for a good reason and they have only failed to win one match this season. It certainly wasn’t the same style of frustrating draw that characterised the previous three home matches. I think I would have taken a draw at the start of the match, but coming so close to winning against the top of the table is agonising. It is more reason for optimism ahead of the League Cup match against Chelsea though.

Chelsea 1-2 Liverpool!

It was great to see the Reds win again today, it seems like it’s been a while. They deserved the win too, they played much more convincingly than I have seen them for a lot of this season, at least in the first half. Before the interval they kept possession well and harried Chelsea into errors. It was one of these which led to the opening goal and almost to a second. It was good sustained pressure from the Reds and they deserved the lead.

It was odd, then, that all of their positive nature seemed to desert them at halftime. Chelsea did make a change at the interval, but Liverpool seemed more content to sit back. It is this that led to Chelsea’s equaliser as the Reds failed to close down the attack. It was all right in the end though. Johnson put together an absolutely brilliant run to score the winner that had eluded the Reds in their last few matches.

Why can’t the Reds win at home?

Liverpool drew at home once again today, this time a goalless affair against Swansea. It is the fourth draw in six home matches and the third on the trot. This one was slightly different to the first three. In those first three draws we scored first before conceding a late equaliser and being unable to find an even later winner. (The two home wins followed similar patters, it’s worth noting.) This time, however, we nearly scored early before nearly conceding late and being unable to find and even later winner. Liverpool’s failure to turn pressure and chances into goals is starting to become an unwelcome staple of home matches. The Reds actually have nine points from five matches away from Anfield (plus all three League Cup wins) and ten points from six matches at home.

It’s late enough in the season now that it looks like a serious problem instead of just an early season fluke and it begs the question of why. Statistically, Liverpool play better at home than away (the Guardian have the season’s averages in several categories) but as mentioned above, we have fewer points per match at home. It’s not clear why this is, although Liverpool have clearly had a more difficult time converting opportunities into goals at home. Part of the problem has been the profligacy of Suarez and Carroll. Both are very talented, and Suarez in particular has created chances from absolutely nowhere time and time again, but both he and Carroll have conversion rates under ten per cent. This has been a feature both at and away from Anfield, but away from home Liverpool have been able to come up with late goals more often than they have at home. We did so at Arsenal, Everton and in the League Cup tie at Stoke (though we failed to do so in the league match at Stoke). By contrast, we are yet to score a late winner at home this season.

To be fair, the last two home matches have featured some spectacular saves by the visiting keepers to deny the Reds, but there have not been a shortage of outright misses either. (Of course I should point out that I’d be hard pressed to hit a ten metre wide target from ten metres out, but I am not a professional so I have an excuse.) This may, however, still be the main reason for Liverpool coming up short. The wins at home have been against Bolton Wanderers (19th) and Wolves (17th) whilst the three most recent draws were against Manchester United (2nd), Norwich City (9th), and Swansea City (10th). This would at least explain the dip in home form as a quirk of the schedule, though it’s still a problem; for the Reds to have any hope of being in Europe next year we must be able to beat mid-table sides at home. Finding a way to improve the Red’s goals to chances ratio must be Kenny’s main focus over the international break and hopefully that will cause everything else to fall into place.