Thursday, April 30, 2009

Safety first?

I don't know. I just don't know. Safety first ... I guess?

Arsenal have leaned on that 4-5-1 formation a lot in Europe in recent years. Last night was not a night in which they either should have done that or in which they saw it work. The attack was mostly toothless, the possession was mostly vacant and the pieces not working nearly hard enough to pull it off.

Arsenal are not a long ball team. Launching the ball up front to a player who - while he can turn out a brilliant display of athleticism on occasion - can all-too-often appear to be disinterested or even that dreaded l-word (lazy), will not win you a game against two of the best center backs in the world and a team that possesses one of the most dogged back-tracking strikers around in Carlos Tevez.

A lot of things were needed for Arsenal to play their game ... that fluent style of football that so many have come to either admire as supporters or fear as opposition. Granted the team has a score of injuries to deal with leaving personal stretched thin, but the solution - the approach that allows them to play their game - is right there.

Nasri on the left. Cesc in middle where his vision, control and overall masterful understanding of the game will have a true impact (NOT as a withdrawn striker, I repeat NOT as a withdrawn striker). Song, playing better and with more confidence each week, as the other central midfielder. The not-so-secret weapon of Theo Walcott on the right ... there to dazzle, there to strike and there with a formation that supports him to make every foray needed to find and assert the difference he can make. That's where the thrust of this team exists. And that's where people play in their positions, with their roles clearly defined and a full understanding of the expectations.

Up front? I just don't think Adebayor - much less any other striker - is well-suited to play alone, stranded as they are against what is, in this instance, an admittedly terrific back line. It's an incredible burden and must present a mental strain. Were he to actually pull down the ball on any one of those lofted long balls (honestly, long balls?), what exactly was he expected to do with it? Eh? Anyone? Certainly Diaby wouldn't have been able to rush onto it ... Cesc possesses none of the speed of Nasri or Walcott, and while he's capable of scoring he's certainly not a poacher in the mold of, oh I don't know, ED-FREAKING-UARDO! Didn't this game just call for him? For a little Purple Rain? (I mean really, it's not just a myth we've constructed at this point that drives up the excitement - the guy scores goals!)

Look, the team were without their best striker, Robin Van Persie. He'd have complimented Adebayor up front and might have allowed the preferred Arsenal 4-4-2 formation. In his stead? Bendtner and Adebayor would have clattered into each other all night long, that's no good. Walcott has clearly been entrusted with the right wing. It's down to Eduardo at that point isn't it? Why, then, will he not play? Is he that off the pace after time out? Can't be trusted to step into a massive role in a massive match?

I don't know, I just don't know. So as it ended, the team came out in a formation that one would expect to lean toward safety first problem there is the parts were out of place. Diaby? Not a wing, and clearly not nearly interested enough in helping out in the back (could do for watching a bit of Tevez). Nasri? Cesc? If you're going with that formation then flip them, I'd feel better with Cesc reserved deeper and orchestrating from the back while Nasri can unfurl his back of tricks zipping around the big man Adebayor who may well at that point have a place to go with the ball.

After a cleared heard and a deep breath, it's not over. 1-nil heading back to the Emirates. Can we erect a statue of Manuel Almunia? What a performance. Everything left to play for and six (lord help me), count 'em six days of gut-wrenching agony, second guessing, looking to the stars, speculation, aggravation, fury and hope that the team will show and play their game in the return leg.

Will there have ever been a less significant match then the trot out at Pompey on Saturday? Eduardo should start, Arshavin should start, Djourou should start ... as should Jackie Wilshire, Aaron Ramsey, Cesc's third cousin and me.

Wednesday, April 29, 2009

The Match Pricks Live Blog – Manchester United v. Arsenal: The Return Battle of the Buffet

The thing about today's blog is that yesterday only multiplied my anticipation for Arsenal and United – and it already was pretty high to begin with. Clearly, Colin is the Arsenal supporter around these parts, and I'm out front and waving my freak flag for Liverpool. But sometimes we just have to get down and roll around in it against other teams or simply try to enjoy some football. Chelsea stole that opportunity from me yesterday. After all, when Liverpool went into the Camp Nou three years ago, they still mixed their defensive play with two goals (Bellamy and Riise!!!) and won 2-1. I mean, these are the Champions League semifinals, people. We're nearly at the end of the premier European football competition, and one of the teams involved is Barce-fucking-lona, OK?! This is supposed to be loads and loads of fun. Arsenal, United: Give us what Chelsea stole from the happy little children yesterday. Give us some football, boys. Oh, and go to hell Ronaldo.

Today's the day

“Every title makes you bigger, yes,” Wenger said. “The size of a club is the number of people who love the club. People love success. The more you win, the more you have fans who love the club. There's something more than just winning trophies, there's the style of play, the ambition you have, the values the club has, it's all around, but it all has to be right."

The above is torn from The Times.  And it's really all I have to say today. There's a lot of implication in those words and I'm quite sure you'd have seen a sharp glint in Arsene's eye as he delivered that sermon.  

I've been pulled in other directions in the last week or two and haven't been able to find the level of clarity I require to address Arsenal's fortunes (from a league calendar that has turned into lukewarm training matches and formation experiments, to a galloping European Cup run that will see the team face their greatest rival), all of this has been the pulsing nerve in my brain. It's overshadowed everything in my life, driven me to distraction at the most inopportune times and is sure to bubble over in fury once I can finally swing around to catching the match later tonight (some five hours after it will have ended in Manchester).

Until then, tune in to the other half of Match Pricks, Jim, and his LIVE BLOG of the match. While he's no advocate of the Arsenal, Jim surely recognizes this match for what it is. A battle between good and evil. A battle for the souls of the world.

Come back at 1:30 p.m. CDT today for the live blog of Arsenal and United

Don't miss it. We've had select Match Pricks readers clamoring for an Arsenal Champions League live blog. Today is that day. It'll be a riot.

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

The Match Pricks Live Blog: C'mon Barça!!!

Obviously, no big shock here which way I want to see this one turn out. Drogba will be referred to as "Greaseball" throughout.

Last-minute call for The Match Pricks Live Blog: Chelsea v. Barcelona

The live blog interface will show up shortly. It's good to get back into this, and as a warm up for tomorrow's mega colossus: The Match Pricks Live Blog Battle of the Buffet Redux: Manchester United v. Arsenal.

OK, Chelsea/Barça live blog starts in roughly 30 minutes.

Saturday, April 25, 2009

Whew ... Well, job done, but giving Hull that goal made it too close. But, as always, Kuyt put in one helluva shift.

Newcastle and Shearer up next a week from Sunday.

Well, that was some kind of strike from Alonso. Let's get another quick one here in the early minutes of the 2nd and get the hell out of Hull.

Friday, April 24, 2009

We didn't go anywhere, we just kept quiet about things for a few days

This is going to be really short – in both length and substance – but if anyone's wondering where the hell Liverpool's half of Match Pricks has been, I'm still here. I held out a faint hope United might lose, or possibly draw, against Pompey on Wednesday. When that didn't happen, I kind of just slunked off for a couple days. Not much to add right now. The title race appears shot, despite an exhilarating run at it, so I've just been thinking about where things stand. First up: I'm really hoping there isn't an Arsenal hangover at Hull tomorrow morning. When the entire season is on the line at every turn, it's probably somewhat easy to keep finding reservoirs of resolve and strength like Liverpool did Tuesday. The comebacks, while never easy, might even come about almost naturally. After all, there's everything to play for. In my mind, the match tomorrow is one of Rafa's biggest managerial tests of the season. He has to embolden the players to keep fighting. After all, we remember what happened at the Riverside a couple months back, don't we?

Good ol' Tommy

For starters ... Apologies for the absences this week. It's been a rough go.

We all knew he'd miss the year, in truth. And I'm quite certain most of us are still hoping that he'll come around and be healthy enough again to play. Tomas Rosicky has "officially" been ruled out for the remainder of the year. Again, it's no surprise at all.  Best wishes extended this morning to Tommy, a man who clearly loved his football. Let's start the day before the weekend and next week's Champions League matches with that thought and this picture ... a guy who just loves his football. Just hilarious.

Tuesday, April 21, 2009


Ok, so I missed today's match. I got a glance at a ticker but that's it. Just stopped by the football pub for Jim's breathless recounting of each goal, got home and popped online to find this ... and I can't really say too much, not having seen the match, but all the same ... it was just like Jim said (check the archive bar at the left): Arshavin has been added to the Arsenal to face an in-form Benayoun and Torres.

Enjoy. Cheers to loyal Match Pricks reader Barry.

Quick summary: It's unfortunate the title chase ends like this, but it ended with a slugfest. Well done, Arshavin. You were otherworldly. Liverpool refused to die ... until time ran out. 4-4 is about right. Unforgettable.
Unreal. It defies explanation. 4-4 finish after Benayoun scores in extra time. A genuine classic. Best I've seen in years. Maybe ever. Well done. The Match Pricks Derby proves it's among the best on the planet.
Arshavin again. 4-3. Deservedly beaten. Well done Arsenal.
Torres again. 3-3. Wow, what a match!!!
Arshavin hat trick. All well deserved. 3-2, Arsenal.
Arshavin brilliant strike. Wow. 2-2, 68th min.
2-1 Liverpool!!!! Benayoun bravely heads in!!
Torres! Wonderful header!!! 1-1
Well, it's not been short of entertainment. 1-0, Arsenal, Liverpool have had many, many chances. Hopefully the Kop end sucks in a couple Liverpool goals, at least.
Well, it'll really be open now. 1-0 to The Arsenal. Arshavin from wonderful service from Cesc.
Gone a bit flat here. 25th minute and only Torres' shot has required a testing save.
Agger in for Skrtel, Benayoun in Gerrard's slot. Almost kickoff. C'mon Liverpool!!!
Match Pricks Derby mobile posting is now live!

The Match Pricks Derby: Final thoughts

Let's have a drink! Kickoff is in 90 minutes. The location: The Highbury Pub, 2322 S. Kinnickinnic Ave., Milwaukee.

Other than that, I'd just say, here's to no further injuries for anybody. Let's keep it fun out there. Uh, that's it. Time to party. I'm pretty geeked up for this one.

C'mon Liverpool!!!

The Match Pricks Derby: Odds and ends

Before we set off on an outstanding Tuesday with Liverpool and Arsenal, a few words about some things tangentially associated with this match. One of them has received loads of attention, and the other could be the key to the match – and no one is really thinking about it.

First, the bluster: Fergie and Allardyce ganging up to hurl the absurd allegation that Rafa made an arm gesture after Liverpool scored their second against Blackburn 10 days ago that was a targeted insult at the Blackburn manager. You can't find anyone with half a working brain anywhere willing to give any credence to this claim. Of course it's idiotic. Of course Jintao and Big Sam Jiabao can barely finish reading their script at these press conferences without moving on and changing the subject. But the point is not for these claims to be believed. The point is for these claims to be talked about. And now, for five days running, Liverpool's management has had every journalist hither and yon speeding up and asking for comments about Fergie's latest accusations.

Job done then, isn't it? The fact is that today's match represents Liverpool's stiffest remaining challenge in the League. That much is apparent to everyone – and has been so since March 14. Or what I like to refer to as 4-1 Day. Liverpool comes into this match with a full week of rest and – though it's dangerous to trade on matters beyond football like this – clearly of a galvanized spirit and sense of purpose after the Hillsborough memorial services last Wednesday. The team is unified, the city is behind it. And Arsenal is juggling numerous injuries to important first-team players as they come to Anfield, just three days after a dispiriting loss in the FA Cup semifinal. On the surface, Liverpool appears to have an edge in the match.

But just because United isn't playing doesn't mean Fergie can't try to have an effect on the outcome. His comments are meant to be a distraction. They are meant to unsettle the weak-minded. He purposely attacked the integrity of Rafa Benitez, called into question his manhood, really, as a way of trying to turn Liverpool's eyes away from the target. Anything to interrupt Rafa's preparations with the team couldn't hurt, right?

Wrong. Liverpool, unless I'm tremendously mistaken, are not Keegan's Newcastle. Liverpool is too strong-willed for such mind games now. They've won without Torres. They've won without Gerrard. They've won without both Gerrad and Torres, and they've scored 9 goals this term in stoppage time. This is not a team gliding through the year with its head in the clouds. We all saw what happened last Tuesday at Stamford Bridge, the relentless refusal to die, against the odds. Should Liverpool lose to Arsenal today, it will happen because Wenger's side outplayed them. That's certainly possible. Arsenal are still tremendous with Cesc, Arshavin and Eduardo out there, no matter who's hurt. But Arsenal won't win because Liverpool fell asleep or didn't prepare.

One way Liverpool could lose today, however, is through Lucas. With Gerrard hurt, I'm certain Rafa will start Lucas in an advanced midfield position. He might even show up in the hole or "free" role like a healthy Gerrard does. Rafa singled out one player by name in his comments immediately following the second leg at Chelsea. That was Lucas. He is a Rafa favorite, no matter how many supporters desperately wished otherwise. I would prefer Benayoun get the opportunity, as I think a more creative mind could unsettle an Arsenal back four down to its backup players. But my guess is we'll see Lucas, at least for the first hour.

If Liverpool keep this dream of a comeback going in pursuit of the title, Lucas will have to be excellent today. Fergie, much to his dismay, I'm sure, will only be able to watch.

Monday, April 20, 2009

Truer words ...

Kevin McCarra, on today's Football Weekly podcast, with some bang-on words of wisdom:

"Being a fan is a life sentence. You follow a team and you stick with it. It makes you strong. The suffering you go through is good for you. You can't opt out."

Colin has said it numerous times, and I want to get it up here to reinforce the sentiment. Up or down, good or bad, 8-goal thriller or numbing scoreless draw, you buy the ticket and you take the ride. Tomorrow, for The Match Pricks Derby, and throughout this final month and a half, you just go through it and soak up the agony, misery, joy and all the rest. I couldn't imagine having more fun with my clothes on.

The Match Pricks Derby: New faces in new places

It goes without saying that this version of The Match Pricks Derby is quite different than the one we witnessed in December, but it's fun to go over some of the changes since Liverpool and Arsenal last met.

First up, clearly, is the presence of Andrei Arshavin in North London. The little Russian has helped transform what, at the time of his move, was a bit of a stagnant Arsenal side that was looking for some steam after Cesc Fabregas hurt his knee against Liverpool at the Emirates. The hard-luck loss to Chelsea on Saturday in the Cup semifinal notwithstanding, Arsenal are rolling in the League. Undefeated in all Premier League matches since a little bit before Arshavin's transfer, I believe. Colin could tell you more about the details, but to even the most casual observer, Arsenal is in fine form.

Now, Arsenal has experienced more than their fair share of injuries in recent weeks. Van Persie and Adebayor are out tomorrow (see below), and Gallas, Clichy and Almunia also will be missing at Anfield. But Arshavin and the rest of the side are clearly a different Arsenal than at the inaugural Match Pricks Derby.

Liverpool, too, are quite different. While there is no significant new addition to the side, two players have stepped up their performances to drag Liverpool back into the title race against all odds: Yossi Benayoun and Fabio Aurelio. While Aurelio's free kicks have him dreaming of becoming the next Roberto Carlos for his native Brazil, it's Benayoun who's really shined. The Israeli captain has been nothing short of phenomenal since the calendar turned to 2009. He has warmed my heart repeatedly with last-minute heroics, snatching 3 points at Craven Cottage a couple weeks back and, of course, crossing perfectly for Torres to complete the desperate comeback at Fratton Park a couple months ago.

The biggest difference, in some ways, for Liverpool since the first match is their goalscorer from that fixture is gone. Let's just look back on that for a second:

Believe me, we were all surprised at how that sucker went in. It was a fantastic goal, and the only truly great moment Keane had for Liverpool during his six months at the club. It earned the Reds a draw. Whatever, I'll take it. Will Liverpool miss him tomorrow? Hmmm ...

The Match Pricks Derby: Who won't be there?

For such a monumental late-season match, The Match Pricks Derby tomorrow will be missing some important names. Not surprisingly, Gerrard is still out with that groin injury he suffered in the first leg of the Champions League quarterfinal against Chelsea. That's unfortunate, but not a surprise to Liverpool supporters who've been hearing he faces a spell on the sidelines for another week or so.

But for Arsenal, Robin van Persie and Adebayor will not feature. That's too bad because it gives the match an appearance of something less than it deserves to be. However, Arsenal get Eduardo back for action, and that's a victory for free people everywhere (Editor's note: Search for "Eduardo" and "Purple Rain" on this blog for further explanation)

OK, more to come ...

A new week, a new Match Pricks Derby

Hello, everyone. We're about 26 hours and change away from The Match Pricks Derby. There'll be more to come throughout the afternoon here, but I just wanted to start with this greeting. The Cup semifinals this weekend were (mostly) interesting – I'm thinking the one on Saturday more than the one on Sunday. Now, it's back to the League. Liverpool and Arsenal tomorrow afternoon from Anfield. Check out the match's Facebook page if you haven't already, and consider ditching out of work and heading down for a few. It's going to be pretty awesome.

Friday, April 17, 2009

For a manager to show such gall and contempt for the game ... but which one?

Sam Allardyce, Blackburn manager and apparently also ambitious job angler seeking to become Jintao's No. 2 at Old Trafford, is plenty pissed about the way Rafa Benitez conducted himself after Liverpool scored their second last Saturday at Anfield. Allardyce had this to say about Rafa:

"The feeling was that he had written us off. It was open arms and then a ­crossover of the arms as if to suggest that was it. I admit it was a hard game, a difficult game for us, and we were well beaten by an outstanding Liverpool side. But in terms of respect, you don't expect those sort of things to happen in a game of football. I was very, very upset by it."

My guess is Big Sam must not have seen the match, despite his choice position so close to the pitch. The only offensive display visible Saturday was the one offered by Allardyce's players executing his game plan. I don't recall which commentator called the game, but deep into the second half the man did say something to the effect of: "With all due respect to Blackburn, I think Liverpool have had more difficult training sessions than this." The man was exactly right.

Blackburn on Saturday were embarrassingly negative. Allardyce had Benni McCarthy on the bench all day, and the South African was his only fit striker no less. But Benni is in the manager's dog house, so Allardyce played the giant center half Christopher Samba up front and told his players to hoof it and hope. They couldn't even do that, and Riera and Insua played their own version of the Samba down the left – over and over and over. At times, Riera and Insua appeared to be toying with Blackburn's right flank because the resistance from Rovers was nonexistent.

When Torres scored the second the match WAS OVER. Entirely. Blackburn had no chance of getting two, and a lucky first seemed beyond probable all day. But Allardyce didn't like how Rafa crossed his arms or something. Rafa has always described things as he sees them. He's a literalist that leans negative. He can find the lone cloud in the Caribbean. Any gesture Rafa made that could've signaled the match was over was because it was apparent to everyone.

Compounding Allardyce's idiocy is his whinge that Rafa did not accept an offer to share a post-match drink in his office. I'm fairly certain Rafa has never accepted an offer from any manager to have a post-match drink because he doesn't drink alcohol. "Oh, good lord, Sam. The man won't even have a drink with you! What has this world come to when this johnny-come-lately foreigner won't take part in this particularly genteel tradition of the English game!"

Spare me your fake outrage, Allardyce. You're lucky Liverpool didn't put 8 past that dispirited and disjointed 11 you trotted out at Anfield. Stop taking offense at developments that were of your own making and concentrate on keeping Blackburn up – and if that fails, finagling your way to Fergie's side as some kind of assistant toady.

The Match Pricks Derby: Avoiding April showers

How appropriate that this is the 400th post on Match Pricks ...

Last summer, when Colin and I put our heads together and fired up Match Pricks for the first time, we just wanted to put out there for anyone who cared to read it our crazy devotion to Arsenal (him) and Liverpool (me). Roughly 8 1/2 months later, my half of Match Pricks is looking over at his side of the blog's ledger with the knowledge that the biggest match of the season for Liverpool – the entire campaign in 90 minutes, really – is Tuesday at Anfield. We call it The Match Pricks Derby, while Liverpool supporters everywhere also know it as "Holy balls, this could possibly end any chance of winning the League!"

Or, of course, it could rip that handbrake right from its moorings and send this hulking mass straight into May 24 at home against Tottenham with everything to play for. Win against Arsenal – and keep on taking 3 points every weekend – and United is possibly looking at the Gunners on May 16 at Old Trafford with the League on the line. Possibly.

We have a song here at Match Pricks that we like to go to in times like these. Fire up, dogg:

The Arsenal or The Arbitrator?

At the end of this emotional week for Liverpool, we return to the football and find that it kind of all comes down to Arsenal, doesn't it? Liverpool's next match is Tuesday at Anfield against the Gunners. The Reds are looking at this for the run-in:

• Tuesday, Arsenal (H)
• April 25, Hull (A)
• May 3, Newcastle (H)
• May 9, West Ham (A)
• May 16, West Brom (A)
• May 24, Tottenham (H)

There's not much left for Liverpool here. Arsenal, obviously, is the strongest test, but the West Ham match will be extremely tricky, too. I'll have two friends at Upton Park for that one, though they're not Liverpool. Nonetheless, my yearning for a lucky rabbit's foot in any form hopes the presence of two people I've known for years somehow has a positive Liverpool effect that day. Like I said, not much here other than just going out and winning them all.

But, as has been documented pretty much everywhere, Arsenal holds all the cards now. Three certain matches against United left (and possibly a fourth in Rome), two against Chelsea, and The Match Pricks Derby on Tuesday at Anfield. Arsenal is still in it for two cups, and they have one each remaining in the League against the sides above them in the table. Whoever ends up on top after 38 matches will have to get through the form team of the moment – and, also the form dancer of our time:

Scroll, baby, scroll

Morning, hey, lots to read below. 

Don't forget to take the time to reflect on the Hillsborough tragedy and read some of the stories that Jim linked to as well as his fantastic piece on a very personal connection. I've got a bit to say about the Arsenal as well. In the meantime, sometimes footballers just make me laugh. Every now and again there's a photo or video clip that gives us a bit more insight into their personality and they become more than just a two dimensional athlete on your TV or computer screen. Today, it's Emmanuel Eboue. This picture from the official Club Web site is just cracking me up. Can't you just tell that this kid is an utter shit-stirrer? I bet he'd fit in really well with the lads at our football pub - right around the time people start thinking about pulling the plug after about six hours of football and someone pushes the pause button with the brilliant idea to keep partying. Yeah, I think Eboue would fit in really well around then.

Wenger and Ferguson renewed

The picture says about as much as I could ever muster. The article says quite a bit more. Without trying to recant all that is offered, go ahead and visit this article for a nice take on the coming resurrection of one of sport's best rivalries. I can't think of any two men who have so fantastically embodied oil and water as these two titans. The drama of the coming weeks is going to eat away at my sleeping habits.

Thursday, April 16, 2009

If you missed this, you missed out

His name is Arsene Wenger, he does a jig of joy ... (please let there be video of this soon)

"Everyone's playing with a free spirit"

I can't pull this video out to embed it and can only offer the link, but do take the time to watch this quickie. Theo Walcott has his say after the 3-nil win over Villarreal last night. At just about the halfway mark off the video the 20-year old let's rip with that brilliant comment, "everyone's just playing with a free spirit."

That's right Theo. Freedom. Don't let anyone stop you.

I've been saying for a couple of weeks now that Theo is primed to become a player that the opposition is just flat out afraid of. Almost in the way that Franck Ribery was poised on the launch pad for the World Cup in Germany in 2006 but came off as gun shy every time the ball fell to him in the box, Theo has gone through a progression in the last season and is just now ready to takeoff. He says, "There is a lot of confidence in the dressing room, everyone is buzzing. We feel every team are scared of us as soon as we step on the pitch. It's great to play when things are going like that."

Three teams, Theo, that will not be afraid to face you right now are coming up in very short order. Chelsea, Liverpool and Manchester United. The football gods can be cruel, they can be forgiving, they are quick to judge hubris and very often, as stands just the now, they will recognize that a team is ready to finally make that promised next step. This month, they have laid that path straight in front of an Arsenal team that is brimming with confidence, overrun with good form and seemingly finally ready to take that path with their heads held high.

If ever there was a business end to the season, this is it. A team that has tried in vain to get back into the first or second place in their own league for several years, blocked by three others with a vast collection of proven winners and mature men. A team that must now face two of those teams in two other competitions as they desperately try to stand tall and prove their worth - prove that they are no passing apparition. A team that has tried in vain to prove that it belonged, and wasn't just chasing. A team that last night featured only one first choice fullback. A team that last night featured a midfield aged 21, 21, 21 and 20. A team that last night featured a striker, Emmanuel Adebayor, who looks a completely different player than he did for the first several months of the season - when the team lost five of its first 14 games. A team that featured a marauding right back in Emmanuel Eboue, who looks a completely different player than he has for most of the entire year - when he was booed off of his own pitch after a performance so woeful that his teammates had to go to his home to console him after the fact. A team that featured a back-up goalkeeper in Lukasz Fabianski who played what may have been the most assured match of his career. (Siderbar for the naysayers: yes, I understand fully well Villarreal was without two of their more prominent players.)

In listening to player comments after last night it seems that everyone is eager to focus on each game as they come. Their heads on are straight and they are focussed. It just smacks of destiny, doesn't it? And it's just another reason we love football.

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

15 April '89 – 15 April '09: Remember the 96

(Editor's note: For obvious reasons, there will be no Match Pricks Live Blog today of the United-Porto match. Scroll down for Hillsborough reflections from a variety of perspectives and details about extensive coverage of today's ceremonies on the official team site.)

My sincere apologies for the somewhat confusing readability of the names and ages (in parenthesis) of the 96. We have some technical limitations here at Match Pricks, but I wanted to keep this post at the top for the majority of the day.

You'll Never Walk Alone

John Alfred Anderson (62) Thomas Howard (39)
Colin Mark Ashcroft (19) Thomas Anthony Howard (14)
James Gary Aspinall (18) Eric George Hughes (42)
Kester Roger Marcus Ball (16) Alan Johnston (29)
Gerard Bernard Patrick Baron (67) Christine Anne Jones (27)
Simon Bell (17) Gary Philip Jones (18)
Barry Sidney Bennett (26) Richard Jones (25)
David John Benson (22) Nicholas Peter Joynes (27)
David William Birtle (22) Anthony Peter Kelly (29)
Tony Bland (22) Michael David Kelly (38)
Paul David Brady (21) Carl David Lewis (18)
Andrew Mark Brookes (26) David William Mather (19)
Carl Brown (18) Brian Christopher Mathews (38)
David Steven Brown (25) Francis Joseph McAllister (27)
Henry Thomas Burke (47) John McBrien (18)
Peter Andrew Burkett (24) Marion Hazel McCabe (21)
Paul William Carlile (19) Joseph Daniel McCarthy (21)
Raymond Thomas Chapman (50) Peter McDonnell (21)
Gary Christopher Church (19) Alan McGlone (28)
Joseph Clark (29) Keith McGrath (17)
Paul Clark (18) Paul Brian Murray (14)
Gary Collins (22) Lee Nicol (14)
Stephen Paul Copoc (20) Stephen Francis O'Neill (17)
Tracey Elizabeth Cox (23) Jonathon Owens (18)
James Philip Delaney (19) William Roy Pemberton (23)
Christopher Barry Devonside (18) Carl William Rimmer (21)
Christopher Edwards (29) David George Rimmer (38)
Vincent Michael Fitzsimmons (34) Graham John Roberts (24)
Thomas Steven Fox (21) Steven Joseph Robinson (17)
Jon-Paul Gilhooley (10) Henry Charles Rogers (17)
Barry Glover (27) Colin Andrew Hugh William Sefton (23)
Ian Thomas Glover (20) Inger Shah (38)
Derrick George Godwin (24) Paula Ann Smith (26)
Roy Harry Hamilton (34) Adam Edward Spearitt (14)
Philip Hammond (14) Philip John Steele (15)
Eric Hankin (33) David Leonard Thomas (23)
Gary Harrison (27) Patrik John Thompson (35)
Stephen Francis Harrison (31) Peter Reuben Thompson (30)
Peter Andrew Harrison (15) Stuart Paul William Thompson (17)
David Hawley (39) Peter Francis Tootle (21)
James Robert Hennessy (29) Christopher James Traynor (26)
Paul Anthony Hewitson (26) Martin Kevin Traynor (16)
Carl Darren Hewitt (17) Kevin Tyrrell (15)
Nicholas Michael Hewitt (16) Colin Wafer (19)
Sarah Louise Hicks (19) Ian David Whelan (19)
Victoria Jane Hicks (15) Martin Kenneth Wild (29)
Gordon Rodney Horn (20) Kevin Daniel Williams (15)
Arthur Horrocks (41) Graham John Wright (17)

Match Pricks and Hillsborough

My connection to Liverpool Football Club is one that I've struggled at times to reconcile with what happened at Hillsborough. For one, I'm an American, raised with baseball and "throwball" in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. Compounding my limited history with the club is the fact that until roughly 2000, I had only watched two football matches start to finish – the U.S. v. Brazil at USA '94 and then the final from that World Cup, Brazil v. Italy. I didn't give any kind of football a real chance until I was in college. Then once I realized I liked it, I remembered a somewhat hazy memory of Michael Owen's goal from France '98 and now here I am. I've omitted a great deal there, obviously, but it's unimportant.

Where I've struggled with regarding Hillsborough comes from feelings of respect and right to privacy. I'm naturally a curious person, and I have always wanted to know what happened, but often I don't feel it's my place to intrude on the memories of those much closer to the situation. In The Match Pricks Interview, I asked author Neil Dunkin about it, and he was gracious and generous in sharing his thoughts. In the end, I chose to learn more because it's simply too important to understand what happened, how people's grief was mocked and compounded by the authorities and how, with the Taylor Report (click for important details), the presentation of the English game basically came to be what it is today.

But when I've thought recently about Hillsborough and what I would write today, for how I personally relate to it, I kept coming back to how Liverpool Football Club created an invaluable friendship. It's one that I couldn't imagine being without, and it's improved my life to no end. About five years ago, my neighborhood in Milwaukee saw the opening of a place catering to "soccer" fans in the area – The Highbury Pub. Despite the Arsenal-centric name, everyone was welcome. At first, no one really knew anybody else, but familiar faces showed up each week, and there was some guy in there named Ian with the most impossible accent. He talked so fast! I had no clue what he was saying, but I could figure out he was a Liverpool fan, and our friendship grew from there. That's all we needed. Go to the bar, watch the match, bang back more than a "reasonable" number of pints and come back the next week.

Over time, I figured out how a true Scouser talked, met his wife, Kate, learned he grew up in Norris Green and learned he stood on the Kop during its final day before it was converted into an all-seater. The years passed, and Ian's family came to visit. His dad, Les, his mom, Karen, and his brother, Adam, and sister, Amie, have all been to Milwaukee in recent summers. They've treated me like family, and we've had immeasurably great times together. Adam's girlfriend, Stacey, taught us new "bits" we use to crack each other up every weekend. I couldn't be luckier.

And then shortly before the 2007 European Cup final in Athens, Ian and Kate had a son, Roan. Within minutes after that match ended wrongly for Liverpool, I was standing outside in the sun on Kinnickinnic Avenue, holding Roan and singing his name softly to him. Losing to Milan didn't seem that big a deal anymore. Ian and Kate have been welcoming enough, loving enough to treat me as "Uncle Jim" to Roan, and the boy has been amazing to watch for two years. He's just a joy, even if he might drive his parents a little batty now and again. I can just see him in a couple years hopefully joining his dad and I on their couch and watching at least a few minutes of a match, ready to shout on his Reds.

That's what I have focused on in thinking about Hillsborough and how Liverpool Football Club relates to my own ties to the club. I've been up and down all over the place this season, and Match Pricks is basically my "diary of a season" as a fan here since Colin and I started this site last summer. The team is much more than a hobby or passion for me – in good times and bad. Hillsborough is a time to reflect on that relationship for each of us and our own personal experience. Liverpool has introduced me to priceless people and unforgettable experiences that make me better. I'm eternally grateful for that chance. And I know I'm lucky this football club allowed me to get to know the Smiths.

Les Smith went to Hillsborough that day. He was unhurt and returned home safely. His good fortune enriched my life. I offer my deepest, unfailing sympathy to those whose experience ended in tragedy.

Family remembers the Hillsborough dead

Again, if you've read below, the official Liverpool team site has numerous memorials today for the 96, but there's one segment that froze me and drove home the horror of what happened and how it changed lives forever. It's called Letters From the Heart, and the team site has it posted in a few installments. Leading up to today, the club asked surviving family members to submit a few thoughts, if they wished, about the person they lost on April 15, 1989. The responses were numerous, some were extensive (like this one from the brother of Adam Spearitt, 14; scroll down to the second letter), and they are all exceedingly raw and on the very edge of human emotion. Reading only a few is as good a lesson as I can think of for anyone interested in trying to understand how someone could cope with watching a son, daughter or husband leave for a football match and never come home.

There's one I want to post here. It speaks for itself:

A letter to Philip Steele, who died aged 15 at Hillsborough, written by his mother

We watched you walk away on that lovely sunny day, not a care in the world, chatting happily with your brother. So excited because you had tickets to watch your beloved LFC in the semi-final.
A wave of your hand, a smile and you were gone. How could we have known that would be your last smile to us?
You brought so much sunshine into our lives and if I close my eyes and sit quietly, I can still see your lovely smile and hear your laughter.
In our hearts every minute of every day.
Rest in peace and God bless, precious son.
Your very proud mum, Dolores

Some important Hillsborough resources

There's many exhaustive locations on the Web you can learn about what happened at Hillsborough 20 years ago, but I'll start with the official Liverpool team site, which has turned itself completely over to remembering the 96. The club has done an outstanding job in trying to honor the families and all supporters. All of its coverage today is completely free and able to be viewed without any restriction. Not only is video of the official ceremony today available to view, but the club is also offering its TV station – LFC TV – for free on the Web. Here is a link to the LFC TV programming schedule for the day. Overseas, I believe Sky and others are also offering it for free. Go, watch and reflect about the team and its supporters that you love so much.

Second, this site for the Hillsborough Family Support Group provides anyone who doesn't feel they know enough about what happened easy access to the significant details and more on the efforts of those directly affected by the fatal crush to achieve justice and, in some small way, peace of mind about things.

I'll end the links here with the home page for The Hillsborough Football Disaster: Context and Consequences, formerly known as Hillsborough for Dummies. The extent to which this group has documented what happened, how it could've been prevented, who is to blame at crucial moments for failing to stop the escalating danger, what the ensuing years have brought and much more is astonishing and worthy of everyone's respect. It really is an amazing resource about Hillsborough. The group's work is being prepared to be published as a book that can be included in British libraries, and they are requesting donations of any amount through their site, via PayPal. The proceeds after publishing costs will be shared with the Hillsborough Family Support Group, the Hillsborough Justice Campaign and Hope for Hillsborough.

Hillsborough coverage that stands out

We start today, 20 years removed from Hillsborough, with two pieces that rise above the many stories and columns written in the last few days about the tragedy. That's not meant to diminish the efforts of any writers who took time to discuss the events of April 15, 1989. Rather, it's just among the numerous pieces, David Conn at the Guardian and James Lawton at the Independent simply stopped me cold as I read their words.

First, Conn takes a detailed, rational, clinical look at how crucial Hillsborough documents were altered. Of course, the multiplication of the tragedy is the inability/refusal of the police to admit they were at fault for the crush and that some smart – or even competent – work could have easily prevented any loss of life. Conn's piece is long but essential.

Then, from a more personal standpoint, Lawton offers his personal recollections of being at Hillsborough on that day, and he adds his thoughts about the lacking police effort. Again, it is worth your time.

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Scroll, baby, scroll

You know the drill here at Match Pricks. Don't miss out on all the goodies, scroll, baby, scroll.

There's a lot happening and a lot to take notice of this week. For starters, if you missed it live, well hell, it's new to you, isn't it? Give the LIVE BLOG of Liverpool vs. Chelsea a read. It was an astonishing match. So scroll on down and check out Jim's handiwork. Then, I had some thoughts in advance of Arsenal's go at the quarter-finals.

Most importantly, Jim will be keeping everyone focused on Liverpool tomorrow and the memorials being played out in honor of Hillsborough - 20 years later. Please take the time to read up on it and respect. Many of our readers are American and for many, like myself, this may well be the most exposure we've had to this tragic event. Memorial Services at Anfield will begin shortly after 3:06 p.m. Wednesday afternoon in England. That makes 9:06 a.m. CST. 

Take the time to learn about this tragedy and take the time to offer your respects.

You want it? Go get it.

We've heard a lot from the likes of Adebayor, Van Persie and even Fabregas about how they want Arsenal to start winning trophies. There's an all-too perilous chance of sounding whiney and jealous in the way they keep expressing their desire to compare themselves to others who are winning trophies and how badly they want to win one. I think (hope), based on performance, that they are finally (have finally) realizing (realized) that at this point it's simply incumbent upon themselves to be the difference makers. 

Winning is always the goal for a team at this level. Speaking of ... Hey, calling Herm Edwards. Herm, can you clarify it for us?


It's not about buying players to prove ambition. It's not about talking about how much you want it and how you want to be like the others who already have it. It's about stepping up and putting in the performance, about being accountable for your own performance as a part of your team.

Tomorrow's match is important. The last several matches have been important. When a team has gathered as much momentum as Arsenal have right now, the tension and investment cranks up like a horrible internal vice. All you can do is hope that the team continue to turn in the performances that they have. All you can do is avoid the temptation to fear the worst. All you can do is hope that they are ready, and willing, to put in the performance necessary - as a part of that greater unit - to win.

So yeah ... You want to win trophies, Manu? You want Arsenal to "come good" as the headline says. Hmmm, well, it seems to me there's quite a bit riding on you and your performance, isn't there, Manu? I don't know, maybe I get too wound up about comments like these but it chafes me. The team has been coming together with a much tighter chemistry and yet we still hear these comments that can just fall in as selfish and whiney. Arsene's been saying repeatedly that they've been playing with the handbrake off, they've been making supporters smile for the first time since February 2008 and in spite of all the growing pains of this year here we are ready to mix it up at the tail end of the season. I don't think any of us would have thought we'd have a part to play in April and May, but here we are. To make it worth something they all need to be together, and hopefully their performances are proving that they are.

Tomorrow, Arsenal host Villarreal. They're hungry. They're at home. They've a road goal. They're in form. And you know what? IT'S THE FIRST ARSENAL CHAMPIONS LEAGUE MATCH I'LL GET TO WATCH ALL YEAR! ESPN is actually gracing us with their benevolence (I almost think it's gotta be Sir Alex Jintao who specifically told the programmers through his indecipherable mumbling to toss us a bone. Almost like telling Mikael Silvestre to score last weekend to stay deep under cover as a spy. Hey, thanks you purple-nosed bastard. There are several people in this world from whom I will not accept a gift, but when it comes to this, you know what? I'll take it. Just so long as you don't push some button that activates Silvestre's "Screw it Up Button" just to stick it to us. Remember, Jintao, there's one side of the aisle when it comes to sticking to people. We're the stickers around here you little commie, and you're the stickee. So can it, get away from that button and let me enjoy my football.)

The match is being shown on a delay and some hours after that, I'll be watching in my living room - whenever I can pull myself away from work. This will be the first match of any significance watched in my new house since Liverpool/Stoke with the lads a couple of months ago. That didn't go over too well. 

Pending tomorrow's saga and the progression of my nerves, I should probably stuff a letter in my neighbor's mailbox ahead of time to explain myself.

The Match Pricks Live Blog: Seriously, I am not talking myself into Istanbul Redux with Chelsea v. Liverpool; a.k.a. The Denouement

My apologies for disappearing after the Blackburn match Saturday, but other than Torres' first, what was there to say? I mean, other than demanding Blackburn apologize to football fans for crimes against humanity and sport. Rovers somehow gave less than zero effort. Liverpool could've (should've?) had 10.

OK, here we go. You know the score and how this works. Follow along from 1:30 p.m. CDT.

Hey, have you heard about this? A quick roundup

Apparently Theo Walcott is growing up.

We've talked a lot of how Theo's progression will only help this team. He's become a weapon the opposition will fear. Two interviews with Theo in the last couple of days popped up in the Daily Mail and The Guardian. Interesting tidbits throughout. In particular, the extent of his shoulder injury and his dedication as a professional athlete. Give them a read.

Also worth a quick glance in advance of Wednesday's return leg against Villarreal is this piece with comments from their crack midfielder Marcos Senna. An influential player and scorer of the Spanish side's goal in the first leg, he's due to miss out on Wednesday. Nice insights from Senna.

Right, get about your day. And start wringing those hands for a special Liverpool night in London.

Saturday, April 11, 2009

United make it easy to loathe them

To be sure, there are many, many, many reasons. Not the least of which is they keep churning out these douchbag jabronneys. Where do they find these fools? Honestly.

Buckle up for the first half ...

 ... let the top down and the air blow for the second.

Just like the match against Villarreal, Arsenal were nowhere to be found in the first half but in the second they pulled that handbrake loose and let 'er rip. I struggled watching the whole time through a series of dodgy Internet feeds. How aggravating is that, by the way?

Just a few comments on the 4-1 win over Wigan ...

-I'm going to buy a compass and mail it to Nico Bendtner. I don't know that I've ever seen anyone miss as many shots as poorly as he has in the last couple of months. The goal is that way, Nico.

-Arshavin was terrific again. The work he did to set up Walcott's goal was so fun. Just a furious little spindle of feet inside of about one square yard, and then he slips the ball over while he's on the ground for Walcott to score.

-Arshavin's goal ... What a run from Adebayor, he found himself in space in the transition and just raced away from everyone. The problem came as he pulled it to the center and brought the two defenders together. He completely ran out of options and it looked like he'd lose the ball. But - poof! - out of nowhere, Arshavin came in and just drilled it home.

-Missed Silvestre's goal due to the dodgy Internet feed. I don't really trust him (bloody hell, are you kidding me? Just catching highlights on America's Fox Soccer Channel ... they run Macheda's game-winner for Manchester United ... the kid shoots it into the box and the ball bangs off of a defender (another interruption ... just saw Torres' first against Blackburn this morning! Yowsers! Football is fun, isn't it?) and finds its way into the net at a 60 degree angle from the original shot. The announcer, Warren Barton, for Fox Soccer Channel, only just back from the beach - I think he had some kelp hanging off of his left ear - brainlessly serves up this stunner, "The young man calmly slots it away. And what a great deflection too." Bit of a redundancy there, eh? Whatever, the guy's more worried about what the waves will be like when he gets out of the studio. Anyway ... Yeah, Silvestre. Don't really trust him. I'm still convinced in some way that he's been sent as a spy by Sir Alex Jintao just to mess things up for Arsenal. Sure we're not exactly top-competition for the old purple-nosed bastard at the moment but I wouldn't put it past him. In spite of that, maybe in an effort to string us along, to make us believe, Silvestre scored. Good for him. The scary part is Djourou's injury. No word yet but it looked like a knee (through the blurry portal of a dodgy Internet feed) and it looked bad. That'll leave us with only Silvestre and Toure in the middle. Backing them up? Song? Not happy thoughts.

-Speaking of ... Alex Song continues to find himself and play better. You'd have never actually wanted him to learn and grow as he has, starting most of the games this year, but if it's got to be done then at least we can take some solace in the fact that he has gotten better. His end of the game goal was a nice little flash of confidence as he trotted through the back and drove it into the net.  Sure, things were well wrapped up at that point, but those are the little things that help players grow, aren't they?

-I'm shocked that Fabregas got the whole game. And I held my breath when he went down with what looked like a knee again. Thankfully he seems to be fine. Arsene must be counting on some fresh legs there, but still as I noted yesterday, lots of big games coming up.

-Did you catch Bolton playing at Stamford Bridge? I had it on in the background and Chelsea were rolling. I'm mean rolling. I thought they might have ended up hitting for seven. But then - poof! - Bolton pulled three back and made a match of it. I wasn't watching nearly closely enough to see who, what, where, when or how but that was shocking.

-Finally, I used to think people who commented on YouTube videos were probably the dumbest people on the planet (save some of the yahoos I saw in the parking lot of Milwaukee's Miller Park yesterday - two men in their earlier 20s wrestling with rather aggressive intent while they rolled through gutters of trash that included a spilled giant jar of pickles, and some mongoloid who looked like he was fresh off of a lobotomy table staggering around while making his way through dozens of jell-o shots like an anteater fishing through dirt mounds). I have now altered that hierarchy to put dodgy Internet feed chat rooms at the very top. Dios mio.

Friday, April 10, 2009

Carra: Back to business

Jamie Carragher, on tomorrow's match at Anfield with Blackburn:

"In the 13 years I have been involved in the first team, this will be the biggest league game I have been involved in, it really is that important."

With Gerrard likely out hurt – or at best severely compromised while playing with a strained groin – play Carra in the free role if need be. Whatever it takes. Get the points.

OK, I'm off Match Pricks duty today with other, unavoidable duties. Enjoy your Friday, and if you have a chance, download the new Fields of Anfield EP from iTunes. It has the new version of "Fields of Anfield Road" featuring the Kop Choir and the new verse to honor the 96 from Hillsborough, plus tracks by Elvis Costello and Pete Wylie. It's $3.96 and all money raised goes to support the Hillsborough Family Support Group. I'm listening right now to the Pete Wylie track "Heart as big as Liverpool" and it's outstanding.

Start of a tough week and a half

Wigan tomorrow in what starts a very difficult week and a half. Holding fourth is still a driving concern, in spite of the new six-point gap between Arsenal and Aston Villa, who play Everton on Sunday. There are a couple of days before welcoming Villarreal in the return tie in the Champions League quarter-final on Wednesday, then the FA Cup semi-final against Chelsea next weekend and the match against Liverpool, who will still be pushing United for every point, just days after that (and to be honest, that one snuck up on me). 

As much fun as it has been to watch Arsenal recapture some momentum and "play with the handbrake off" as Arsene has been saying, the prospect of our still shaky center defense and a raw goalkeeper in Fabianski (if Almunia is still out) facing those teams is not a happy one. 

And this is all just in time to welcome a new spate of injuries that'll leave an interesting look to the team tomorrow. 

Eduardo and Van Persie are still expected to miss out. Gallas is now counted out for the season which will bring in Johan Djourou in his stead. Djourou has done well in his roles this season but Gallas was an in-form player before the injury and Johan is still rather unproven against the big boys. Gael Clichy, one of Arsenal's very best, has been ruled out for a couple of weeks meaning Wenger will turn to either the very young and untested Gibbs or the well past it Silvestre at left back. Arshavin will come back into the side on the left and I'd be shocked if Fabregas got into the match from the start. He's just played two games after a lengthy lay-off and he'll definitely be needed against Villarreal, Chelsea and Liverpool - all within a week. In all, the Wigan match could end up as one where the team just hopes to escape away from home. 

While it's speaking of a future hope, I still look to Fabregas to bring a stronger desire and drive into the team as he asserts himself as captain. We know well that his form was poor earlier in the year after a long season and then the summer with Spain. There's no doubt the time-off will have helped him and fortunately in his time away there weren't too many points dropped (lots of draws, but no losses). So hopefully Arsene can keep him tucked away on the bench to rest up for the rest of these crucial matches. And hopefully he can keep coming in with the influence he's shown thus far in his return.

Thursday, April 9, 2009

Making a run

With all due respect to Senor Xabi Alonso and the brilliant season he's had to assist in propping up the hopes of the Liverpool side of Match Pricks ... In his just two games back from injury, Cesc Fabregas is making a run a Best Director. I said it the other other and I've heard it from others in the last week - we've forgotten just how good this kid is. Everyone's talking, and rightly so, about Adebayor's goal against Villarreal and his brace at the weekend. But wow, has Cesc slotted back into the team with an impact or what? Just watch how delicately he measures up this ball for Ade, and then watch the incredible reception, plant and turn Ade makes to convert this goal. Absolutely vital. Absolutely. Vital.

A word for William Gallas. It seems the former skipper could miss the rest of the year. This is a big loss. I remember well when our (and by that I mean to both of us at Match Pricks) friend Ian, from Liverpool, said to watch how quick you are to turn on a player. You never know, he said, how things will turn around.

Gallas had an absolutely dreadful first six months of the season, in spite of picking up a few goals here and again. Still, I do believe he's been vital to the upturn in our defensive fortune since the end of December. Hopefully it's not too bad, he's a in-form player we'll need as the games pile up in three competitions through May. Anything's possible at the moment for the Arsenal (yeah, yeah, yeah, except the league ... whatever, stick up your holes, as they say). This team of Mighty Mites looks entirely capable of running circles around Chelsea and United, much less anyone else.

And I can't wait for it.

I may trot out a few songs in the car on the way into the office this morning.

C'mon the Gunners! (And oh yeah, how great is the commentary in this clip? It reminds me that we've yet to touch on North Korea's claims of food poisoning ... )

'Good morning Fantastic Dreamers. This is your return to brutal reality wake-up call'

'Eh ... what can you say? I mean, really? The Daily Mail says Gerrard has aggravated the groin strain fairly seriously so ...

Not much to add. Scroll down and glance through the second half section of the live blog if you're looking for more misery. Chelsea destroyed 'em. I guess these things happen to everybody now and again (cough, cough, March 14).

OK, Blackburn for a lunch-hour kickoff on Saturday. Get back in the saddle Liverpool. No one said it'd be easy.

Wednesday, April 8, 2009

The Match Pricks Live Blog: Liverpool v. Chelsea – Again and Again and Again ...

Add up all the Friday the 13th movies and all the Star Wars movies and you still wouldn't have as many sequels as "Liverpool v. Chelsea – We Meet Again: The Rafa Years."

The live Lucas look-in less than an hour before kickoff of Liverpool v. Chelsea

So, there's this story about Lucas and his supposedly restored confidence ahead of today's match. Mascherano is out through suspension for the first leg, so good ol' Lucas will be in there.

Now, Lucas and I have had beef this year, but he's been nowhere near as atrocious as he was during the Everton and Wigan encounters a couple months back. Actually, he's been pretty good in that he's barely been noticeable – which in his role is pretty much all we ask for right now. Baby steps.

From that link, though, I thought this was funny:

Lucas was one of several star performers as Liverpool demolished Manchester United 4-1 at Old Trafford last month and the Reds number 22 feels it is no coincidence his upturn in form has coincided with that of the team's.

Really? Well, he didn't give the ball away too much – always important in his role – but "one of several star performers"??? Do they mean after Torres, Gerrard, Alonso, Kuyt, Skrtel, Carragher, Hyypia, Aurelio and Dossena? So Lucas was, what, Liverpool's 10th-best player at Old Trafford on March 14?

Ah, but he has his confidence again (editor's note: restored confidence will often be referred to on this site as 'getting his pitch back' from now on; see 'Eastbound & Down' for more). I'll take it for now. Be well today, Lucas.

REMINDER: It's another Match Pricks Live Blog-tacular today for Liverpool v. Chelsea

The full live blog interface will be ready to go at 1:30 p.m. CDT, 2:30 p.m. EDT, 7:30 p.m. BST and ART (Anfield Road Time). Come back for the latest twist on Liverpool and Chelsea in Europe. Anything to mix it up with this tie, right?

Tuesday, April 7, 2009

The Match Pricks Live Blog: Manchester United v. Porto; or 'Fergie got his pitch back!'

UPDATE: Bumped above Colin's Pires piece for the start of the match. Read on for more before jumping into the live blog.

Go one post down past the live blog for a thought or two about Fulham v. Liverpool and Manchester United v. Aston Villa.

Quick respects to be paid

I'm racing off to start the working day here and wringing my hands, as I do ever couple of weeks on a Tuesday or Wednesday, at the realization that there's no way I get to watch the match. That said, I needed to take a second and pay some notice and respect, in advance of today's Champions League quarter-final against Villarreal, to ex-Gunner Robert Pires. He joined Arsenal in 2006 and was instantly one of my favourite players. Just pure class, Robert. And from all I've ever gathered, he was class and intelligence off the pitch as well. A nice article with a brief glance at ol' Bobby in the Daily Mail. I'm sure there's more out there to be seen but I've not got the time at the instant. Full spirit and support, of course, for the Arsenal today but I'll be happy the whole way through for the continued success of Robert Pires. Article here. Scroll on down from Jim's Live Blog extravaganza!!

The weekend when 90 minutes just wasn't enough to figure things out

We've got another Match Pricks live blog today for the Champions League, but before that comes around, a quick word about Sunday and that United match.

First, full disclosure: A month ago, I had written off the League. It was over, and I had taken some time to make peace with that as a Liverpool supporter. The chance had come and gone, and it was time to bite my lip and watch the United stroll to No. 18. Then, all that craziness went down and it was back on, no matter how much I tried to not get too excited.

But Saturday, it was ON, jack. That was unreal. Then, getting up Sunday and watching Villa almost take 3 points and then, nearly make at least a draw happen ... I was on the edge of the couch all morning. Ultimately, we got the new young Italian thing here with Macheda scoring a goal burned into my mind's-eye forever. That was really something, no matter how pissed off I was for the first 30 minutes or so after that match.

Stepping back for a second, though, I have to say: What a weekend. What an absolutely incredibe, fun, mind-bending weekend. Watching Liverpool Saturday and then United on Sunday was like being able to leave my body and experience some kind of higher consciousness. Particularly in the final 20 minutes of that United match, just experiencing every single pass and attack as a possibly season-altering experience. That is fun, even though it went against me. Of course I want to see them slip – somehow, if it's possible – but here's to seeing at least one more weekend with everything riding on the balance of a 15- or 20-minute sequence. It's life, freedom and self-expression jammed into a cannonball that gets blasted straight into the cerebral cortex. More, please.

Monday, April 6, 2009

Happy days

At the risk of dodging a bolt of lightening tomorrow during the match in Spain against Villarreal ... Happy days are here again, folks!
I missed this kind of football. Sure it's to do with bombarding the opposition, pushing forward, always looking like the next goal is minutes away and just breeding smiles, but that bottom line is always the obvious importance ... winning football. This was Arsenal's 17th consecutive unbeaten league match. Nothing to be shy about, that. Especially given from whence they came. Our last league defeat came against Saturday's victims, Manchester City. They handled Arsenal up north 3-nil. Frankly it was embarrassing. And in truth, the form has been so spotty (and poor) through so many batches of the season that I can't even say for certain if that was the worst point of the season. No points were taken and we were torn apart. Bad? Yeah. The worst point of the year? Probably. I still take particular difficulty in that scoreless patch we rolled through in January and February. Points, a scant few, were collected and things changed quite a bit for the team through that run, but still, they looked as if they were barely able to tread water. And completely clueless as to how to break down the opposition. No ideas. Perhaps more importantly, no match winners. At least people stopped losing matches for the team. For my personal outlook, that was the most difficult stretch of the season. It looked as if, with key players out, we'd just continue to drift away from everyone else. I recall mentioning that the team had pulled together a little unbeaten run at that point but in truth it felt silly to even mention given how poor they looked. All the same, the defense strengthened and roles seemed to become more defined, didn't they?

Now, hitting the crucial final weeks of the season, anyone who has been watching this team week in and week out can honestly - and proudly - say that their form is (or has) caught up to their talent. It's a completely different outlook from the start of the year. Saturday was a perfect example of that. And of course a couple of key ingredients have been plopped in the pot just in time to put a particular emphasis on closing out what could end up being a very special month and a half.

New captain, for he's barely had any matches with the armband, Cesc Fabregas is back and surely ready to drive the team forward in his image. Gunnerblog made a fantastic point that he'd forgotten just how good Cesc was. It's so true. I actually found myself noting how Cesc actually drew me to look straight past Andrei Arshavin - a man who had been the driving influence for that two months. In addition, the electric and terrifying Theo Walcott retuned and his pace and momentum troubled City all day. To top it off, the third returning player was Emmanuel Adebayor, who notched both goals. Ade has had his troubles this year, there's no mistaking that. On Saturday he certainly looked the part, his teammates looked more than happy to have him back (his soul and spirit have never been in question, just his work rate) and he looked was clearly thrilled to be back on the pitch. 

It all adds up to just a wonderful way to spend a Saturday morning. Happy football (sexy football) is back with the Arsenal. Saturday was another step in the overall growth and assertion of the maturity of this team. A 2-nil win over any team in the league is nice, and difficult at that. Never mind that City have been woeful for most of the season, it's another fantastic performance for a team that has galvanized. They are now looking to prove themselves.

And have Tuesday in Villarreal to lay down another marker that things are changing in north London.

Saturday, April 4, 2009

A memorable afternoon at Craven Cottage

They deserved it. Four times off the post or crossbar in the first half – even though it seemed like 12 or 15. Consistently came nerve-shreddingly close as the match wound down. It would have been unjust if it ended 0-0. Yes, that's how matches end some days. It's crazy. But to not have gotten that goal at the end would have been like getting blasted in the chest with a sledgehammer. If (when?) Liverpool get knocked out of this title race for good, it should be for a good reason. It should happen because they failed to play well and deservedly dropped points. Saturday was a time where they got what they deserved.

Also, here's a reason why we're all so fond of Fulham Football Club here in our little corner of the world. The place just looks like a fantastic venue to enjoy a match.

Welcome to rowing country

For reasons unique to both halves of Match Pricks, this blog has a long-standing friendship with Fulham Football Club and that lovely little spot along the Thames in West London. (Hi Peter. Go Red Stars!!) Add in Danny Murphy's status as a Cottager, and, well, it's pretty much a good-natured lovefest today with Liverpool visiting Fulham for a late afternoon kickoff.

It's a tricky match for my beloved Liverpool, but the international break saw most of the boys continue their fine form. Kuyt, Alonso and Riera all scored for their respective nations. Here's hoping nobody gets hurt, the match is full of life and things turn out as best as possible for Liverpool. And fair play to the Cottagers. It's about sport this afternoon, lads. Go Liverpool! Go Red Stars! We'll miss you today, Peter.

Friday, April 3, 2009

See you later International Break!

As the World Cup qualifiers walk off into the sunset (for now), I welcome all of you to the return of the League tomorrow.


Back in action

The league finally brushes off the dust tomorrow morning and it couldn't come soon enough. You know how I endlessly trumpet on that my mood directly connects to the form of my football club? Right. Just imagine how lost I am when there's no form to ponder. 

I mean it got so bad last night that I did two things that are awfully rare. Normally, I'd have made it home after a long day at work and flicked on what was left of Sky Sports news. I'd plow through a handful of newspapers. I'd sit down and crank out some little diddy here on Match Pricks and make it through the rest of my night. Last night however? In the last desperate hours of the two-week long international break? 

I took a walk. And I watched Hancock. Hancock. Have you seen Hancock? Awful movie, just terrible. I really strongly and passionately beseech you to avoid watching Hancock. Even in the absence of football. Just don't do it. I should have put on an Arsenal DVD ... or that 30-minute highlight run through of the Arsenal vs. Chelsea match from 1997 that I just recorded. Sure, a group of us clung to it like water squeezed from a rock in the international break's football-less desert at 3:00 a.m. last Sunday morning, but hell, I could've fired it up again. Why not. Would have been better than Hancock. I'd have been better suited doing pencil and paper drawings of football tactics. Just scratching out lines in candle light with Sigur Ros in the background. 

Picture it ... I could draw Sagna swooping up the right flank to show that fantastic give and go that he's mastered, such amazing movement, and then launching Theo Walcott (freshly back from an injury scare that looked like it would have keep him out much, much longer. I could devise a way for Theo to come inside and work with Adebayor, last year's top-scorer who is back from injury this week as. Oh and possibilities are endless for the left side of the pitch now that we get to dream about just what it would be like to see Arshavin and Arsenal captain Cesc Fabregas play together ...

You know, because Cesc is back and all.

Can't expect the boy to be up to full speed but when a player of his quality is back and ready to play, you get him in the team. 

Look out City!

Thursday, April 2, 2009

I've felt this important

Excuse me while I whip this fact out ...

Struggled to find a decent image to drive this point home but, in short, this site is written in English. While we accept and in fact adore several other languages, it's become important in many walks of life to note the proper usage of the name we use to identify our game.

It is called football. (see the example below, please)

In other languages, the word changes. In German, in Spanish, in French, in Russian, in Japanese, in Arabic ... the word will always be different.

But for these purposes we use the english word football.

I feel this important to note because I've often been faced with the improper use of a variant spelling of the word used to identify our game. 

The game is not universally called futbol. In fact, that is the spanish spelling of the word. Savvy?

Forgive me for the brief blast of bitterness. 

Wednesday, April 1, 2009

Later, we will resume our nightly blackouts

Most of the world's residents saw South Africa 2010 qualifying resume today with South Korea defeating North Korea 1-0. In the DPRK, of course, the result was reported by state media as North Korea 98 – South Korea 0, and the North Koreans performed a benevolent gesture and agreed to stop scoring and call the match finished after 20 minutes of play.

Hey, we pick the low-hanging fruit here at Match Pricks during the international break. Also, apologies for busting up "Mel Brooks Movie Stills Week" with the "Team America" shot, but some things just need to be associated with a South Korea-North Korea World Cup qualifying match report. Puppet Jong-il is one of them.

All of the talent in the world, none of the ambition

A spark of news came across yesterday. It seems Arsenal striker Robin Van Persie, 25 and having a fantastic season, would gladly sign a new contract with club (his current deal expires in 2010) - if only the club would show ambition and prove that they want to win trophies as much as he does. Story here. Robin goes on to say that it's been four years since he's lifted a trophy. His career, he believes, should be on the march toward winning things and he does indeed assume that the club have the same ambitions that he holds so dear to his heart as an ambitious young professional athlete. 

What this really qualifies as is a classic international break story. Of course he wants the team to be ambitious. Of course he wants to win and to lead the team to win trophies.  But really, can anyone honestly say that Arsenal lack ambition over their transfer dealings? Can anyone say that we're climbing our way out of the poor house trying to compete with the elite ... and if only, oh if only, we had the further ambition to prove our natural talent, why then we might be worthy of keeping the assembly of only-just-too-close talent that we already have?

There's no mistake that Arsene Wenger has had a plan in this transition period, and there's no mistaking that it may have taken a little bit longer than we'd all have hoped but let's look at the facts.

  • Theo Walcott
  • Emmanuel Adebayor
  • Eduardo
  • Bacary Sagna
  • Samir Nasri
  • Andrei Arshavin
Hefty talent, and a hefty price tag there as well. We all recognize that there are some pieces missing that we'd love to be added. A dependable and hard central defender, a reliable central midfielder (by the way, don't look now but Song and Denilson have been much better), but all the same, to say Arsenal need to prove their ambition is just silly. This team is hurtling forward right now, and it's straight down to ambition. To have brought in both Nasri and Arshavin this year is a massive win. These players are fantastically talented and Arshavin, in even his very short time with the club, is making a massive difference. Everyone can see that.

A final thought on this - and I truly adore the leadership that Van Persie has shown this year so I don't want this to turn into a exercise in slamming one of our own and one of our best - where the hell was the ambition when the team lost to Stoke? To Hull? Where was the ambition in the run of goalless draws? Where was the ambition in the Carling Cup loss to Tottenham last year, or the waffle of the century in the 4-4 draw against them earlier this year? Where was the ambition when Manchester United rolled over the team in the FA Cup last year? 

Goes both ways, Robin. It's awfully hallow when a player sits at the press table and spouts off about wanting to see the club's ambition - assuming that means bringing in players - when you are part of a team that has proven themselves on several occasions to be nothing short of weak and not up to the task. Some maturity for that 25 year old who quite fancies his new role as a mature man with his wild years behind him. (read the rest of the article for that gem) Speaking of leaving your wild years behind you as you reach 30, or push into your 30s, (ahem) that sounds to me like Jintao's been whispering in his ear a little too much.