Wednesday, December 30, 2009

2010: The year I quit smoking and/or support Lucas

As you can see, I'm really going for it with my New Year's resolutions this time around. It's going to be a hard dollar to do the double, but the time has come to go for it. I'm in an ambitious mood after yesterday's Torres (late, late, late) winner at Villa Park.

Adding to all this is over the last couple days of my holiday vacation, I've been watching bits and pieces of Liverpool 2 - United 0 from October. First, it was just for the nostalgia of a consistent Liverpool performance. Then today – to be more precise, five minutes ago – I finished watching the last half hour plus stoppage time. Golly that was fun. Other than the simple thrill of the victory, repeat viewings of it keep leading me to see that match as the last great marauding show of defiance from Jaime Carragher. He had somewhere between 20 and 4,357 headed clearances in the match. I'm not sure about the exact number, but it seems closer to the latter number the more I watch that performance. Age will take him sooner than later – as it will for all of us – so let's appreciate things while we can.

That brings me back to the resolutions. I've got my Liverpool moaning out of the way, as you can read in this post, where I all but hump an 8" x 10" glossy photo of Xabi Alonso. That's OK. Sometimes reactions like that are unavoidable, particularly after losing to Portsmouth in this of all seasons. From this point forward, it's time to appreciate what I have.

So Lucas, you're in luck in 2010. RJ Reynolds, not so much. There's 18 matches left in Liverpool's season, and the team is four points out of fourth. That's the goal now, and there probably isn't a "Jim kvetching" level I can reach that will affect whether Liverpool finishes there or lower, which is why I'm throwing my support to you, Lucas. I was irrationally harsh toward you at the start of 2009, and I'm going in the other direction to end the year. It's not your fault the term "favorite son" is an understated way of describing how Rafa treats you. Lately, I've come to appreciate your more subtle gifts, such as how you play well against United – which always counts for a lot in our world – and you've shown a gift for falling down when slightly challenged outside the box in a way that consistently convinces the referee just enough that there's been a foul committed.

See, we're off to a good start.

The whole coming year feels like a countdown. We're 162 days from the World Cup. We're however many days from this potentially life-altering, paradigm-shifting, future-wrecking, Leeds-inducing change in the course of Liverpool Football Club. And on July 5, 2010, all of the city of Milwaukee goes smoke free. Many of my friends, along with my Match Pricks co-writer Colin, cannot wait for that ban to take effect. I've come to accept it and realize people I care about want it to happen now, though they're just glad it will become law soon. Plus, it's as good an incentive as you can find to get on with dropping the habit. It's going to be odd handling my typical match day nervousness when it's 0-0 in the 86th minute and I can't chase my shot and a beer with the full, rich taste of a delicious cigarette. Then again, it would be much more difficult to handle those moments next season with Torres playing for Barcelona, so there's no point in worrying about my own struggles while watching these things transpire.

I got your back, Lucas. After all, if things don't go well, maybe Liverpool won't even be able to entice you back for another year. I don't want to live in a world where your blond pompadour isn't adorned in red. Kick some ass in 2010, buddy.

Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Would you calm down already!?

Goodness me. You'd think the trains stopped going to the Emirates and Arsenal were crashing into 13th place.

Allow me to offer a brief preface as I get my ankles wet here. And by the way, yeah, I know ... far too many prefaces given the fantastically sporadic nature of Match Pricks in the last several months. It's like each post needs a mea culpa. He pleads, with his hands up and a knowing if not utterly regretful sideways grin etched across his face, "look, I know, you know, we all know, alright? But hey, it's a start. Gotta get the, what do you call it? Momentum, yeah, momentum, going again somehow or another, don't you?" I don't have a lot to say here this morning. This isn't a treatise that I've been munching on and outlining for days and hours on end. But it's a start. And it's better than nothing, which is, frankly, just about all you've gotten ... save some micro-blogging via the Match Pricks Twitter feed.

Here's the situation ...

Cesc Fabregas, Arsenal's still very young captain, has rounded the corner and is clearly pulling away from the pack. Even considering the substantial amount of time he missed last season, he jumped into the '09 - '10 season with bold vigor and a clear statement for all to recognize - that he is vaulting himself into the conversation as one of the very best in the world. For years, everyone recognized his talent and potential. Yet, to be very honest, I for one was beginning to tap the counter with hidden utterances that followed along the lines of, "ok, Cesc, let's see it then ... start winning games ... " And no, I'm not mad.

But he's been doing just that, winning games. He's been turning games, changing them, adding the all important element of 'exerting his will.' Cesc gathers possession near the center circle and the opposition just about shits themselves. His passing makes the masses groan with adoration as well as the passing hope of 'would you look at that, it's so simple,' and he's got a helluva Street Clothes wardrobe.

Of course, for evidence we need look no further than his display against Aston Villa in what was not only a massive game, it was a game that needed a statement. And he made it.

Cesc is undoubtedly important for the Arsenal's title hopes this season. The team is not simply poised to launch an attack on Chelsea and United for the top two or for the title. They are making an attack for the title. They have been all year. It is not a shock assault for the title. It is not the whispered hope of a bunch of kids oozing with inexperience. This team has been together for many years now. They have been together for many big games ... home, away, in Europe, far from home, in derbies, in rain, sleet and snow, in front of 60,000 and in front of 20,000. They have been tested and they have had answers.

They have lost four matches this season. Sunderland came after an international break and they 'just weren't up for it.' Granted that is an excuse that no longer cuts the mustard when pushing for a title, but it's the situation. Chelsea and Manchester City socked them and socked them good. If there's such a thing as a bogey team(s), they fit it at the moment. It's a hurdle, psychological in the case of City I think, and clearly physical in the case of Chelsea. As for the champions, Manchester United? I may catch some heat for this but we played them off the park at Old Trafford for the majority of the proceedings. Losing that match was a clear case of, 'well, that's football, isn't it?' So as it stands they are five points back of the leaders and hold a game in hand. Not bad, eh? That could well be called, 'right in the thick of it.'

But all that is beside the point. Just a quick glance at the records and the table to show that yeah, Arsenal are in it ... not as darkhorses but as legitimate candidates for the title and they should be recognized as such.

What's making me lurch over the last couple of days is that apparently the final chapter in Arsenal's title assault is being written as we speak. Somewhere in London, Cesc Fabregas, the young man who is performing so brilliantly and is so brilliantly leading the way to what will - either way - be a thrilling April and May, is climbing onto a table to receive a scan on his injured hamstring upon which the fate of the entire team hangs.

You see, after a downright moving first half against Burnley on December 16, Cesc limped off with a bit of niggle in his hamstring. He missed the 3-nil win over Hull that weekend and would only feature on the bench against Villa. All week he was noted as 50/50 to play. Would he have made a difference were he to play? Surely. If he didn't feature, might the Arsenal have found a way to win? Quite possibly yes, the match was very much in the balance, wasn't it? Arsene Wenger, in his stunning and sterling wisdom (that I will never question, no siree), brought him on in the second half. Cesc scored two stunning goals to pave the way to the win. One from an unlikely free kick (he's never been particularly strong in that department) and the second from a gut-busting (and apparently hamstring-busting *cymbal clash*) run and a delightfully gilded pass from Theo Walcott. Sure enough, Cesc limped off with the hamstring barking at him and the game wrapped up for his team. A world-beater performance. A best-in-class performance. A performance that could well cost the team but with such massive points on the table to be picked up against a worthy challenger it was a risk worth taking.

Immediately following the match, Arsene supposed that AT WORST Cesc could miss three weeks. Three weeks, people. That covers Pompey, West Ham in the FA Cup, Everton and Bolton. And now we get passages like this from the article in the Times that I linked to above:

Arsene Wenger, the Arsenal manager, predicted a worst-case scenario of “three weeks” out for the midfield player, an absence that would seriously hamper the team’s pursuit of Chelsea and Manchester United at the top of the league.
And we get headlines like this:

Arsenal braced for the worst with Cesc Fabregas set to undergo injury scan
Look, I never expect any level of level-headed self-restraint from the media, much less the football media (bless their little hearts). Still, the man will be fine. Arsenal will be fine. Cesc missing a couple of games will by no means whatsoever derail Arsenal's fine season. In fact, it'll be good to get Diaby, Ramsey or Denilson a little more time and a little more responsibility.

Sunday, December 20, 2009

Occam's Razor, Jesus Christ and my treasured Sidney Moncrief 'Sir Sid' poster

Yes, after two-plus months of inactivity, my return to actual writing – not tweeting! – at Match Pricks is going to be a fan's lament about Liverpool. However, I can offer you a 100 percent money back guarantee that you are not going to come across one similar to this – at least in execution. It'll be like scrolling through one man's private journal, only any sexual allusions that somehow end up in this will be more comical than you might expect.

I have spent a good deal of time during the past two or three months thinking about why I can't seem to piece together long-form (i.e., more than 140 characters) football thoughts here at Match Pricks – enough time, actually, to probably write four or five fun and somewhat-interesting posts. It's been a good deal of wasted energy thinking about football, and I've definitely overthought it. After all, I'm the Liverpool guy here, and there's little else to do when you have a massive football obsession but your team is currently specializing in conceding stoppage-time winners and equalizers, own goals and whatever that was yesterday at Portsmouth.

I could've written a dozen posts about the team's injuries. There also is fodder for the strategic approach: breaking down Glen Johnson's forward style at fullback; breaking down how Glen Johnson's defense is always breaking down; the sudden, unexpected demise of Jamie Carragher (minus the United match); and, of course, The Aquilani Conundrum™.

Look, nobody cares what I think the reason(s) might be for Liverpool spray painting the word "SUCK" all over English top-flight football grounds (and the one in Florence, too). But I do want to shout out a simple reason for my own unique pain. It's the simplest answer available: I miss Xabi Alonso. Not, "I wish Alonso was still there." Not, "The team was better with Alonso" or "They failed to replace Alonso." I miss Xabi Alonso.

I didn't work as a newspaper reporter and editor for 7 1/2 years because scientific theory and mathematics were my specialty, so until recently I never understood what Occam's Razor represented. In thinking more philosophically in my old age, I came to realize the easiest answer or possible solution to something was also the easiest one to defend and explain a situation. Of course, a few weeks back I stumbled across Occam's Razor in the dictionary. (There's the sentence you'll never see in any other Liverpool fan's lament.) Well, I started thinking really hard again, but in a much more clean, productive way.

Ultimately, this is an irrational hobby I've dedicated myself to enjoying. There's a million ways to explain it and also no ways to explain it. I could give you five hours of one-sided conversation about why I love Liverpool and football in general, but sometimes it comes down to "I miss Xabi Alonso." Last year, it came down to "I worship Xabi Alonso! He's a footballing genius!" In 2005 it was, "Way to finish off Juve, Xabi!" There's two moments lately that have kept popping into my head, both innocuous but unforgettable. In the Carling Cup at Tottenham last season – a match in which Philipp Degen etched his name on the "Rafa Benitez failed transfers" granite tablets alongside that of Dossena, Voronin, Pennant and the others – Alonso came on as a second-half substitute. Previously, Liverpool had looked even worse than their most-abysmal performances from this season. He suddenly calmed all of the action around him. Things slowed down but didn't become ponderous. Liverpool took a deep breath and the team's play became coherent. They had been losing something like 3-0 or 4-1, and if I'm remembering correctly, they actually got within a goal and briefly threatened to make a game of it. The transformation in the entire team's play was what was unforgettable – and not a coincidence.

The other moment was at Portsmouth last season, a match Liverpool trailed 0-1 and then 1-2 with only a few minutes left. Again, Alonso was a second-half substitute. The action at the end was quite frantic and Liverpool was desperate for possession to create their winning chances. There was a scramble for the ball in the Portsmouth half along the right side, about 35 or 40 yards away from goal. Four or five players spent several seconds fighting for it. Alonso put a foot in and flicked the ball over his head into free space – which he didn't glance to see was available – then turned to control it, assessed his options and restarted the Liverpool attack. Watching it at my friend's place, I gasped. We shared a quick moment muttering something like, "F***ing genius," and then we went back to the match.

Now, that's an ephemeral quality that's impossible to fully convey the emotion of seeing, so your impression of my brief description there might be underwhelming. But I'll never forget it. Never.

That's why this week Colin and I had an email exchange that brought all of this together. It was the very first thing that popped into my head when I read a short note from Colin about a Mascherano transfer rumor. Here it is:

"One of these days, I'm just going to have this "born-again" moment. Only instead of finding Jesus, this figurative dark shroud is going to be lifted from around my head and all the truths of Liverpool without Alonso will be revealed to me in a soul-shattering epiphany that leaves me weeping uncontrollably on my knees in the middle of the bar at 9:21 a.m. on a Saturday.

"What I'm getting at is, I miss Xabi Alonso."

Other than the moment actually happening at my desk in the middle of the afternoon, everything else there is true – well, I didn't weep on my knees, but you get the idea. It sounds ridiculous and absurd, but it's how I'm viewing my Liverpool fandom at this moment. At a Christmas gathering yesterday, during a conversation about traveling to Spain, I mentioned how I want to go to San Sebastián. Of course it's because that's Alonso's hometown! I want to see Real Sociedad play a home match. I want to just walk around there and enjoy the experience, the whole time knowing in the back of my mind that this is the place that gave birth to Xabi Alonso, my favorite player of all time. The midfielder who revealed the secrets of football passing, tempo and control to me as a latecomer to the experience that is the best-possible way to kill two hours during any day.

It's an idealistic, childish way to look at something I take so seriously. It's also goofy and a little weird. Yeah, so?

Whatever your reasons for following a sport might be, fun has to be in there. Are you having fun? Is this a fun thing to do? Did I consider the previous two hours a fun experience? You want to answer "Yes" to those questions as often as possible. And you want to do it as simply as possible. It's why I wish I still had my Sidney Moncrief "Sir Sid" poster from when I was a boy. Surprisingly, I can't find it on the Web to post here. It's a crazy, "only in the '80s" sort of sports hero worship. Milwaukee Bucks guard Sidney Moncrief, dressed in his uniform and holding a basketball, posing with a full suit of armor. I had it as a boy, and in college we tracked down one of them to re-live the joy of it.

Now I'm going to be 33 years old in a week and a half, and I'm searching for my current version of the "Sir Sid" poster. I had it every time Alonso stood on the ball in a Liverpool shirt. Last year, it was in a golden, diamond-encrusted frame when I watched the proceedings at White Hart Lane, Fratton Park, Anfield and elsewhere. Now, I can't find it anywhere. It doesn't get beamed to me via satellite television technology and Web searches are fruitless, so I'm stuck recalling it in my mind's eye.

Well, that isn't a lot of fun.

Wednesday, December 9, 2009


This isn't the glorious return to Match Pricks I envisioned when I came home from work tonight, but I just can't let go of the Match Pricks Twitter-plosion from Wednesday, December 9 that was #JohnnyCashfootballsongs among this here site's oft-used Twitter feed and the more-polished, regular writers from Run of Play, Sport Is A TV Show and others.

So, here then, for better or (groan-inducing) worse, is "Personal Jesús Navas"

Reach out and touch del Bosque
Your own Personal Jesús Navas
Someone to hear your prayers
Someone who attacks with flair
Your own Personal Jesús Navas
Someone to hear your prayers
Someone who's there – on the wing

Feelings unknown and you're all alone
Flesh and bone but can't go out on loan
Haunted by homesickness
Shows the limits of your quickness

Take second best
Put me to the test
Just got a first cap – hey!
Came on for Iniesta!
I will deliver
You know I'm a forgiver
Reach out and touch del Bosque

Your own Personal Jesús Navas
Feelings unknown and you're all alone
Flesh and bone but can't go out on loan
Haunted by homesickness
Shows the limits of your quickness

Lift up the receiver
Chelsea wanted you with Sheva
I will deliver
You know I'm a forgiver
Reach out and touch del Bosque

Your own Personal Jesús Navas
Reach out and touch del Bosque