Friday, February 27, 2009

So awesome, so much more recent than you'd think

Remember Youri Djorkaeff? I sure do. He used to be one of my favourite strikers. France '98, the World Cup winners. That fantastic team that followed. Inter! Youri! He had a nose for goal, he did.

And now this. I don't even know what to say. Well, that's not exactly true. I do know, and I'm about to say it. At first I didn't know what year this was from. I thought, well, it's gotta be from 1992, right? I mean ... Right?


I looked it up. This puppy was released in 2000. That's right, you heard me.

Shock! Horror!

"Woah, woah, woah, woah, wo, wo, wo, wo, woaaaa, woaaaaa, wooooooooooaaa, woah, woah, woah. Ahhhh, Alex? Alex Song? Right, you, with the hair. That's right, I'm talking to you. Yeah, come on back here would you? Yeah, just have a seat on the, ah, on the bench here. Yeah, that's good, right there. Yeah, um, well, turns out I'm, you know, like, fit. You know, for the match. Right, yeah, mmm hmm, that's right, for the Fulham match. The one tomorrow. Yeah, so, um, just go ahead and sit, yeah, it's ok, just go ahead and sit down. I'll take it from here."

Here we go

Here we (Here we) Here we (Here we) Here we (Here we)

Here f&^*ing gooooo!

Are listening to Glasvegas yet?

This is not a music blog. I'm not spending time recommending new albums, directing you toward the stars of tomorrow or telling what I'm listening to while I write this. But I tell you what ... That Glasvegas record is something else. In particular, the track that is currently responsible for getting me really, really, really fired up? It's called "Go, Square, Go." Now, I'm no square, I'll tell you that straight away, but know this much - the last minute and a half of that song will be sung the second Arsenal take the lead against Fulham tomorrow morning.

Teams must start with defense. And, as Sir Alex Jintao promptly reminded us this week , Arsenal haven't exactly made a habit of buying defenders. But looky here ... Arsenal have been keeping clean sheets. Kolo Toure and William Gallas are not just getting along, they're playing exceptionally well together and Denilson, for all of his "he's not ready" woes, has been paying more attention to tracking back. 

All this as we bring in Wonder-Footballer Andrei Arshavin and Robin Van Persie is grabbing the reigns of team that's been dead out-of-order all year. Note the rather substantial absence of the rest of the midfield beyond Samir Nasri. The goals haven't been coming, but make no mistake, they will. And that little trick from Arsene Wenger's tactical mind might just bring some of them tomorrow, although I'd like to see Nasri stick out left and bring Arshavin in support in order to slot Eboue on the right in the stead of Bendtner. Of course, knowing Arsene, he'll likely stick with Bendtner to keep him going (the boy surely doesn't need confidence though, does he?). And a final of course, I have gotten all worked up every Friday this season only to be let down with imprecise finishing, but this is football. Innit?

Tomorrow, let's look for this:

Van Persie up front with Arshavin in support. Nasri wide left with Eboue left to the right. That's right, Eboue. I'd like to see him get back out there this weekend. Song and Denilson in the middle (probably the slowest I've ever typed six words as I struggle to both admit and live with that fact for the time being) (sidebar: suck it Fergie, just you watch, this team is going to enter an orbit your preening lot could only dream of when it's fully fit.)

Across the back it's the standard set with Clichy and Sagna at left and right back, Gallas and Toure in the middle in front of Bad Guy Almunia in goal. 

Ohhh, just realized something I've yet to mention on Match Pricks. When Manual Almunia came back with platinum blonde hair and that shadow beard a while back, he clearly resembled your archetypal Bad Guy. You know, the kind capable of tying a damsel to a train track. Right, that kind.

So whenever ol' Manuel pulls out a shining example of goalkeeping, those of us gathered at the football pub to watch, agonize and try to have fun belt out, "BAD GUY ALMUNIA, BAD GUY ALMUNIA...." you get the picture. I'd tell you, "to the tune of," but I can't come up with it.

Parry out at Liverpool; I repeat, Rick Parry is out at Liverpool

Quickly, the papers before my thoughts:

The Telegraph
The Guardian
The Times

Now, having learned this news less than 5 minutes ago, my first-blush impressions:

Wow, guess it's about time I apologize for this.

After letting it digest now for, oh, about 10 minutes, it's encouraging to see the owners and the board are picking a direction and going with it, for better or worse. It's funny, because last night after watching the match, going to work and thinking about a possible post, I was about to write my thoughts on how I didn't consider winning at the Bernabeu to be all that big of a deal. Sure, all the papers heralded it as yet another major Benitez triumph against a European colossus. But Liverpool are simply better than Real Madrid. I expected a 0-0 at worst. I didn't see why everybody was making such a fuss.

It's a good thing I was too tired to post those thoughts.

It appears we now know with relative certainty where that asinine "Rafa will quit/be sacked before the weekend" rumor came from, don't we? It's really astonishing, as the Americans seemed incapable of tying their own $450 shoes, let alone figuring out what direction to take the club. Now they've chosen Rafa.

So what does this mean? I've been shattered by the inability to keep pace with United in the League after such a golden opportunity through the first half of the season. But lately, I've come to simply accept that, for now, surpassing United in the League is what it is – a bridge too far. They're the class of the world on most nights, and Liverpool has been brilliant in making the progress it has so far.

Hey, whatever gets you through the night, right?

Another train of thought that made me reconsider my anti-Rafa position was this Paul Tomkins article from the official site. It's not so bad, no matter how much it hurts to be 7 back of United in late February after leading ever since the 2-1 mega-tension-anxiety-release at Anfield back in September.

So what then? It's going to be Rafa for the foreseeable future. The Telegraph report above has this interesting nugget:

Hicks established what is effectively a shadow-executive, led by commercial director Ian Ayre and finance director Steve Nash, who operate out of a city centre office away from Anfield. Ayre and Nash will be among the favourites to replace Parry.

A guy in advertising and a bean counter. Hmm, not quite player personnel experts, are they? Soon, I'm almost certain, there'll be news of Rafa getting the satisfactory level of control in a written contract offer and it'll be time to get on with things.

Incredible. It really is. Benitez, the man who can't walk out the door without having the neighbor kid ask him if his contract situation is distracting the team, won the nastiest, most-prolonged power struggle at a team in some time. The wound-up bastard won it – on the field, apparently – by proving he will lead the club past the giants of European football on a consistent basis.

Now, about beating United over the course of 38 matches ...

Thursday, February 26, 2009

Thank you for your patronage: Please bear with us

Regrettably, Match Pricks has not yet become a self-sustaining endevaour for Colin and myself, and we have to do something non-football-related for income. It's been a trying week, what this economy and all, so please bear with us if you're looking for some kind of anti-Jintao rant that has a little fun while we freak out/revel in Liverpool and/or Arsenal. There'll be more soon. Like, tonight or tomorrow.

However, I want to say thanks again for everyone who checked out the live blogs Tuesday and Wednesday. Those are a real blast. Readership counts are way, way up and we appreciate that anyone wants to read this stuff. It's fun for us, and we're happy to see it's fun for a few of you around the world, too.

OK, enough for now. More soon.

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

This should be, ahem, interesting: Liverpool-Real Madrid AND Chelsea-Juventus live blog

I've got an unidentified Spanish feed of the game coursing through the ol' PowerBook here, and Chelsea-Juve is set to arrive via the more-traditional ESPN2 feed here in the States. Try to keep up – because I'm going to be flying here.

Damn time zones.

I love those glitzy European nights. Even when the ties grow a little more dour than we'd prefer for some of the hottest talents in all of football. Rather oppressively, the kickoff time where I live in America is 1:45 p.m. Smack dab in the middle of the work day. Those precious vacation days are saved in the event The Arsenal should make it through to the semi, or even final. Time was, I'd be able to record the match, avoid all utterances of the match, race home and watch the, ahem, passionate act of European Club football with piercing eyes to catch every last detail. Time was, the one network responsible for carrying these games in America, ESPN, bothered to bestow us with more than just Manchester United and Chelsea on alternating days. Time was, other teams existed beyond the realm of the ticker. (Grumble)

Arsenal hosted Roma last night in what was always going to be a fantastically interesting match. Arsenal's form is well documented. Both worrying and optimistic at best. Roma? They scraped the gutter to start the year but have been climbing back to themselves of late. And I was relegated to checking the ticker about three times throughout the match. Thankfully, one of those peeks was the instant Robin Van Persie moved into the box, was brought done, and dutifully (is there any way other than dutifully to complete your penalty task? cheekily, sure. beyond that, not much.) converted his penalty. Arsenal's defence held on and, reportedly (for it's all I've got, damn am I bitter about that) they moved forward and held possession quite well. It seems they used a new approach with Nasri supporting Van Persie. I like the sound of that quite a bit. I also like that Diaby was healthy and seems to have turned out for the match. He's got his haters, to be sure, for the amount of time he spends in the trainer's room, but Diaby adds something to The Arsenal. I will stand by that fact. Arsenal kept yet another clean sheet - they have been broken three times since December 28, a span of 11 matches. With another solid and organized effort on Saturday against Fulham, they can keep al of February clean as a whistle. Quite an accomplishment given from whence they've come. 

To the goal ... Van Persie again. There's a lot, an awful lot, to say about Robin at the moment. Because time is pressing (dios mio! I just saw the replay of Juninho's goal for Lyon! dios mio! Ronaldo can bite me.) I can only offer the following (and trust me, I'd pour on and on given a moment's opportunity) ...

The man has become a leader, and the leader we've needed so desperately. He's the leader we've waited for him to become. He's remained healthy, he's checked the temper he was noted for in his early career and he has found the drive to succeed that we'd only demand of him at 25. 

To close .... you gotta read the live blogs from ol' Jim there, Match Pricks readers. Great, great stuff.

Later today: Real Madrid v. Liverpool AND Chelsea v. Juventus live blog

Yeah, I don't know how it's going to work either. Should be fun finding out, though. Start time, more or less, will be 1:30 p.m. CST (7:30 p.m. GMT). Until then, check out the kick-ass Dalglish photo in the post below.

A historic match, some historic reflections

No, this isn't yet another Jim lookback on May 25, 2005. I'll save that for May 25, 2009. Actually, I got wistful and nostalgic for Liverpool in Europe earlier tonight while reading through the Anfield-based installment of The Independent's series on the greatest teams. The first one was on Real Madrid, Liverpool's opponent later today in the Champions League. I didn't go through that one, but from the Liverpool series, it appears The Independent is naming its version of the best 11 to ever wear the shirt for these teams, while also sticking to a general 4-4-2, more or less. That would explain no John Barnes alongside Rush and Dalglish and Keegan out wide to the right. The Independent's midfield is, from left to right, Billy Liddell-Souness-Gerrard-Keegan. Yeah, my heart just skipped a beat, too.

Anyway, it's a fun read, as the bios for most every player include multiple European Cups and gobs of goals. Plus, the included photos are remarkable.

Back later with an outrageously ambitious attempt to live blog the Liverpool-Madrid match AND the Chelsea-Juventus meeting.

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Champions League live blog: Internazionale v. Manchester United

I've seen more photos of Jose Mourinho and Fergie during the last 24 hours than even their mothers could tolerate. Naturally, rather than be repulsed, we're going to try something a little different today and attempt to live blog Inter and United today. Come back at 1:30 p.m. Milwaukee time (7:30 p.m. GMT), and hopefully this will all be working and allowing for comments and such. Let's see what happens.

Monday, February 23, 2009

We're those guys, at the match

Quick note for all of our much appreciated readers ...

We've got some fantastic friends, associates, and fellow fully-immersed-in-the-desperate-life-of-a-football-supporter readers out these. Some close to home who enjoy the matches with us on a week-to-week basis (even if they are on the wrong side of the curtain - trust me, I'm working on my tolerance, y'all) and some far flung across the world.

Several of them are active commentators on Match Pricks. Divergent opinions, complimentary opinions, however they stand, they are terrific additions to the discourse on Match Pricks and we thank you.

Don't forget to check them out, and chime in for yourself.

Hey, it's tough following the football. At risk of sounding remarkably corny and getting an earful, whether our team is rolling, sputtering or crashing wildly out of control, we're all in this together, doggs.

Arshavin's debut

In a word, the Arsenal performance on Saturday as they hosted Sunderland ... well, it was flat. And it's too bad, I hadn't sensed that much emotion around the team in a while. Back to, I'd reckon, the Boxing Day match against Villa. Oh how things could have been different if Gallas had his head on in that one. Do you recall how terrible he was heading back as Villa nabbed two to get a draw? And now, as I talk about the subtle maturity coursing its way through the team (a thought I'll hold tightly to, by the way), one of the major pieces of that so-called growth spurt has indeed been William Gallas. Putting himself on display for a move or not, the now former captain has put his head down and played some solid football in the last month.

At any rate, plugging in for the match on Saturday how delighted - if not surprised - was I to see new signing Andrei Arshavin in the starting line-up!? Although, I couldn't have expected too much from him. It's been well accounted at this point but the 27 year old hasn't had a competitive match since Zenit's Champions League draw against Real Madrid in November. Quite rightly though, I, for my part, was salivating to see him out there, to see him move and to see how the others would be able to converse with him on the pitch. Sadly, the audition didn't go too well. And I'm not talking about his performance or the final result.

Andrei was a delight. No two ways around it. Those of us who were first introduced to him during the European Championships last year remember well how we sat with rapt attention, afraid to miss even a second of creation or imagination. Make no mistake, I felt just the same emotions on Saturday, and noticed it on the faces of many others who came out for the event. The problem was that he seemed to be two ideas ahead of his peers at several instances. Andrei would move the ball, fill the space, look for the next move and see an all-too-quick dissolution. Mostly at fault was current Gabber in Chief Nico Bendtner, who was slated the responsibility of holding the line on Andrei's side. I want him to succeed as much as anyone - he's an Arsenal player after all. Yet, as fellow Gooner Jamie quite rightly pointed out in a comment down below (scroll, baby, scroll!), the Dane has been well off his expected career track at this point. He's been given more of a chance and he's not quite taking it, is he? I can think of a couple of pointed instances in particular where the Russian Arshavin moved the ball to Bendtner, clearly expecting a bang-bang interchange, only to see the ball kick off of Nico's heels. Frustrating, to say the least.

Still, there's hope for the days to come. Arshavin had a deep eye for goal. He was quick, slippery and will fit in the Arsenal style quite well. That much is certain. The goal is to get everyone speaking at the same level of fluency - quickly.

Six points back of fourth place on February 23. The ticker, with 12 league games remaining, has well and truly started.

To close up here ... Big cheers to everyone who joined us at the pub for a full day of football during a full-on blizzard. No better place to be stuck than with a full Arsenal of booze and gobs of football on display for all. On two rocking hours of sleep, I was able to catch (with an assortment of pricks passing through for myriad matches) the Chelski v. Aston Villa match at 6:30 a.m., Arsenal v. Sunderland at 9 a.m., Manchester United v. Blackburn at 11:30 a.m. and Espanyol v. Barcelona at 1:30 p.m. Take that Jintao.

See you next year

I didn't even have the heart to find a halfway decent picture from the match yesterday to express my disappointment. That headline up there is actually a direct quote from yours truly as I left my Liverpool-lovin' friend's house yesterday afternoon. Such a crushing disappointment, sitting 7 points behind United on Feb. 23 after 8 months of delirium. I especially enjoy the black humor in Rafa "conceding" in the post-match misery that now Liverpool has no choice but to beat United at Old Trafford on March 14. Self-delusion can often be funny – when it's happening to someone or something you don't care about.

I can't believe I'm turning to the Champions League in 48 hours as some sort of consolation prize. More later.


Friday, February 20, 2009

I like the way you think, dogg

(Danish striker Nico Bendtner, "Wow is this game easy. I loves me some football, dogg.")

You may have heard tell this week that Arsenal's young Danish striker  - their young, non-starting, from-time-to-time scoring reserve striker - Nicklas Bendtner believes that he should be starting every match, and playing every minute of those matches. You know, because he's better than everyone else. The young man likely believes that with more minutes, comes more goals, more influence, more wins, more Arsenal success and more trophies. 

Naturally such a notion has been rendered laughable and ridiculous be the majority of the English press. "There he goes, then, running his mouth again." Mmm, yes, I'm quite sure that's how it went. In fact, I even heard this one ass compare his ineffective goal-scoring rate to his highly-effective mouth-running rate earlier in the week (editor's note: ahem, see below).

For argument's sake, here are his stats for the year thus far ...

9 goals comprised of/3 league, 2 European, 2 FA Cup, 2 League Cup

Hardly the massive sum that would call for the man to romp up and down the length of the pitch wherever he damn well pleased. Thing is ... 

Hot damn do I love such talk! You know what, I really love it. And I really want my team talking like this. What else would you ask for? Would you have him lean back at his post on the bench and shrug, "Eh, Ade can do better. I'll sit this one out. Maybe next time, boss." Is that would you'd like him to say? Just put his career in someone else's hands with the heavy implication that, eh, no, I don't have the confidence necessary to, ah, you know, like, score, man. Do you want a wet noodle? A guy who doesn't know what he wants? Who doesn't want to, like, you know, um, score? You know, like, one of them, ah, one of them players from that Stoke? Someone with no confidence, would that be better?

Right .... Hell Noooooo! Same here, folks. So get out there Nico! That's the best goddamn thing I've heard all year out of this team. Get stuck in, Nico!

Torres gets screwed with a 5.4 from the Slovakian judge

It goes without saying that Torres would deny that he wants to be on something called "Dancing on Ice", but it's fun as hell to think about, isn't it?

Here's a link to a nice Photoshop of what Torres appearing on the show would look like. I thought "Dancing with the Stars" was eight shades of silly, but this "Dancing on Ice" show is really something else.

Anyway, it's a funny distraction, and in terms of completely rubbish Fernando rumors, it sure beats this this Torres to Barça talk from earlier this month.

C'mon, c'mon, c'mon ...

Besides the handiwork of "Evil Jintao", part of the reason I've been laid up sick for most of this week is because of this agonizing two weeks since the last match. Now, granted, that match was Portsmouth 2 – Liverpool 3, with the killer comeback from Torres in stoppage time. So things aren't all bad.

But I can only watch those last 8 minutes on DVR so many times, you know? I tore through it again this morning after getting up. First cup of coffee complements those two goals so well. Now though, it's time to fire up for City on Sunday. United's going to be 8 points clear when that sucker kicks off and The Director is out with a one-game suspension for too many yellows. Gerrard's going to be a last-20-minutes substitute at best, so we're also looking at friggin' Lucas starting. Great.

Still, I stand by my view of the City match I wrote in this post a couple weeks ago. They shouldn't be overly troubled by Robinho and Friends. Liverpool's the only team realistically left in this thing with United, even though most everyone else has already handed Fergie the silverware. They'll likely have to win them all until March 14 and then hope for "The Landmark Victory of the Benitez Era in the League" at Old Trafford – just to get it down to 2 points. It's looking a longshot, but it's a shot, and everyone else is finished.

I remain cautiously optimistic.

Thursday, February 19, 2009

Top 50 Liverpool players

From The Times of London, a list of the Top 50 Liverpool Players. I'm sure there's plenty of debate to wrangle through, but either way, this makes for a terrific read. Especially for those who, like me, are uninitiated in the full lore of Liverpool FC.

Of the 50, I picked the picture of Diti Hamann for three reasons.
  • He was a vital part of one of the greatest matches I've ever seen - a match that still brings a smile each time it's brought up
  • I'll never forget that terrible tackle he endured from a then relatively new to the Premier League (kind of still is though, isn't he?) Michael Essien - before we realized how good Essien would turn out to be
  • My Scouse mate Ian likes to feature his Hamann shirt from time to time
I often note that as an American, gathering a base of knowledge on the history of the game is the most difficult part of moving forward. All those little anecdotes, player triumphs and failures, legendary managers, you name it. I, like many others, love the game dearly. I know the game well, but I'll never be riddled with the hubris to think that I know even a slice of what has come before me. Coming across pieces like this helps add the layers. 

Give it some time. And while you're at it, give this some time ...

Oh would you stop! He'll be fine

I feel like Jim from a couple of weeks ago when Gerrard went out with a hamstring and the media acted like there were fire-breathing dragons attacking innocent civilians up and down the countryside. (By the way, in case you've missed it, they're pegging Captain Stevie to be back shortly. I'm quite sure that Rafa won't risk him too quickly though. Especially after Torres was out a bit longer than they'd have liked with a hamstring himself.)

You've heard the word, yeah? Eduardo played. And scored twice. And he came off with a hamstring tweak. Today, word comes out that he'll miss two weeks. Well, first off, hamstrings are never on a time table. I think we've all learned that by now. 

If anyone actually expected Eduardo to be perfectly fit after his first competitive league run out in about 360 days, they were gravely mistaken. This isn't news. I'd reckon that it's just the way things are after so long a lay-off. The body will react and need time to develop as it regains fitness. At the same time, I'd rather that schedule be linked to the manager's discretion and not see him specifically ruled out of a match ... but still.

He'll be fine, people!

Another thing to mention today is news of comments from new Arsenal CEO Ivan Gazidis. I'm of the mind, like many others, that these aren't quite new quotes. The Daily Mail (linked above) has an interesting take on things. They spin it to imply that Gazidis has flipped on the green light for the Arsene Wenger Summer Spending Spree of '09. 

Yep, that's what it is. You know, because he said that they'll always back Arsene in anything he wants or needs to do. Pouring through these headlines can be hilarious sometimes.

Sunderland up next ... lots to prove, lots to talk about, more later.

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Good players can play in any position

Total football. Inter-changeability. Quick passing. High movement. Flowing and evolving triangles. Shapes that are as fluid as air filling an open space. Heads on swivels, feet that turn in all directions and eyes that see an extra dimension - a dimension that has not yet come to pass.

That's football to me. It's football to many others, and it's clearly football to Arsene Wenger. The gaffer has always said that a good player should be able to play in any position. All parts should be equal to create a greater whole. And we've seen it numerous times over the years with Arsene's Arsenal. Kolo Toure from the midfield to central defence. Armand Traore (currently on loan) from defence to the wing. Theo Walcott from striker to winger and presumably back again some day. Gilberto from the midfield to the back four. Perhaps most famously, Thierry Henry from the wing to striker and his eventual evolution into the deadliest of poachers - drifting from middle left and back again, ready at any moment. With that in mind, today, interesting comments from Arsenal striker Nicolas Bendtner on the official Club page.
Just a couple of days ago, I referred to Nico as a non-scoring ego-maniac. It's true, in part. He scores goals (often big ones), but many would argue that his mouth-flapping rate far surpasses his goal-scoring rate. In his comments, Nico drops this little pearl of wisdom on us and I quite fancy it indicitive of the growth spurt we're witnessing at this instant in the Club:

"Good players can always play in different positions. It's similar to
playing as a second striker, but a bit wider," say Bendtner [to further
illustrate his feelings regarding a more recent wide role on the

Granted it's a lot to do with the inspired (yet pending for so long) return of Eduardo, the major addition of Arshavin, and rumours of improving health for Theo Walcott and Cesc Fabregas, but make no mistake, with a close look, there's a sudden growth spurt passing through the squad. I rather pointedly will call it a growth spurt as opposed to improving form. I think it's an important point of clarification.
Look, we all knew that this team was young, inexperienced (in spite of some registering as "young without youth") and not truly ready for the fires they'd face in a race at the top of the table. At the same time, I doubt many believed (Aston Villa's form aside) that the Gunners would have themselves perched so precipitously at the edge of ruin (by their lofty standards) all year. I think the team, in the image that Arsene Wenger so fantastically and stubbornly clings to, is hitting a rapid maturation at the moment. A growth spurt that supporters and players alike hope they can maintain as we hit the stretch in all competitions. These players, having exploring each other's nuances and the varied corners and spaces of the pitch they fill, are coming to understand their places in Arsene's universe a bit more fully. It's more complicated that just improving form, or a stronger understanding of their own personal ambitions or roles within the team. It is a team becoming itself. Fullfiling what the manager has forseen. Becoming what its manager needs ... and expects.
More to come on this, but for the moment, keep your eyes open ... there's a rising on the horizon.

A temporary holding pattern: Talk to the wife, enjoy the outdoors or re-read the Match Pricks Q&A

I really do not feel well physically right now. While I recharge the batteries, it'd be a really good idea to read The Match Pricks Q&A with Martin Banks, who runs the stellar Aston Villa Blog. Even if you've already read, consider reading it again. It's Villa, they're playing today in the UEFA Cup against CSKA Moscow, they've got Chelsea at Villa Park this weekend – I mean, c'mon, it's got everything.

OK, sleepy time for me now. Remedies that will accelerate the healing process are encouraged in the comments.

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Good morning ... I'm going to sleep

It's 5 a.m. local time in Milwaukee and I've been up after work for much too long. I wanted to give this news a little more thorough treatment than this, but I can't put my head down for some sleep without a little mini celebration here:

• Gerrard could be back in time to play in the Champions League against Real Madrid. Always nice to have the captain back, isn't it?

• Insua returns from Argentina and the asinine U-20 South American championships. This is the real reason to smack Jintao in the mouth right here. You know, those absolutely classic grey Liverpool away kits are half price at the team shop these days. Hmmm ...

More later. Enjoy your morning, wherever you are, loyal Match Pricks reader.

It's happy days all over again

I just want to jump in real quick and talk about how awesome it was Monday to have Eduardo back. I try to leave the Arsenal stuff where it belongs, with Colin. But I'd argue Eduardo's comeback transcends allegiances.

It took me well over a week to bring myself to even look at a photo of Eduardo's leg break, and even then it was a shot taken from a ground angle at such a position that you couldn't really see the full display of how horrible it was. Then, one day a couple weeks later after I'd forgotten about it, I picked up an issue of ESPN The Magazine and started flipping through the first few pages. There's always some excellent photography at the front of the magazine, and with Eduardo's trauma the furthest thing from my mind, I turned a page and – BAM! – there it was. A double-truck photo spread fully encompassing the material I was holding in my hands, enlarged and capturing the very second after impact where the leg had broken and stressed to its farthest point. I don't remember exactly, but though I was home alone I think I might have shrieked or otherwise audibly gasped. I instantly slammed the magazine shut and put it down.

Seeing it left me and everyone I know with half a brain hoping the boy would return to full strength and play again. On Monday it happened. In between that time, we had the oustanding "Summer of Doing It for Eduardo" and many good times laughing and hoping – aware of the ridiculousness, mind you – that our weekend celebrations and craziness would somehow help him get back out there scoring goals. It worked, apparently.

Welcome back, Eduardo. It's so good to have you here again.

Monday, February 16, 2009

Taking attendance

Middle of February. Long way to go yet, yeah? 

Last year at this time Arsenal were sitting pretty and rolling downhill with some spectacular football. This year? Yeah, long way to go yet this year. Wins against the big-boys, sure, but five points behind Chelsea for that key fourth place spot in the league table for the Arsenal. Woeful form, disenchanted and frustrated supporters, a stripped captaincy, Jintao's heavy hand making supporters take an awfully long look at that snooze button at 6:30 in the morning, rumours of in-fighting, finger-pointing and bickering, an out-of-form-striker, a non-scoring-ego-maniac striker, a missing captain, a steam engine of a player who packed up for Milan, a flashy speedster out injured and a bomber of a midfielder who is still injured. Lots to do yet. Yep, lots and lots to do for a team that has been missing many, many pieces. And a team that has stopped scoring goals. 

Heading back to the 2-2 draw with Villa on Boxing Day when Arsenal looked like they were waking themselves up after staking a 2-nil lead, the team have scored 11 goals in nine matches in all competitions. Ahem. That return from a team that is supposed to be the one we look to for that kind of football. (Sidebar: I watched the Arsenal Invincibles DVD out of desperation for a look at that kind of football this weekend.) So here we are with a lot to do and a lot of missing pieces. Hmmmm. Let's take a look around that squad and see what we've got to work with today for the FA Cup replay against Cardiff City. If there's a competition we just might be able to pull something out of, it's the old FA Cup. Right, right, right. Win here, at the Emirates today against Cardiff and we face Burnley for a trip to the quarter-final and a match against either Sheffield United or Hull. Not too much to ask, that. Not too much to ask at all.

And just in time ... Eduardo da Silva stands up to be counted for Arsene Wenger, the supporters of the Arsenal and free people everywhere. "Yes, boss, I'm here. I'm ready."

Can there have been a more perfect, emotional and virtually scripted return for the Crozillian? Arsenal poured forward, they switched, they passed, they wove, they ran, they sent each other through in the seams and gaps of an overrun Cardiff side. And they scored. And they scored again, and again. They scored four times. And they kept a clean sheet. And they gave a first start back after injury to a man who, for all of his grace, inspires us all in so many ways. Arsenal supporters and neutrals alike can't help but be moved and applaud this man. 

Sure. People have come back from horrific injury in the past. Some have made it, some haven't. They've come and gone. Each matched with their own varying levels of success. But this feels different. It is different. Eduardo gives us more. He's an athlete. Nothing more complicated than that. He finds space, and he scores goals. He is not overly big, fast, powerful or tricksy. He is not overly accomplished, confident or storied. He is simply a man who knows how to score goals. And he is a man who pairs himself with a wonderful humility that, when coated in the pain he's endured over the last year ... just makes us all smile, shake our heads and say, "hot damn do I love sports. And does that boy look like Prince or what! Hey, I'll tell you what, put on some 'Purple Rain,' This calls for a celebration!"

Well, this explains a whole lot

This Is Anfield comes through with another translation from AS, this time an interview with Rafa. There's a little more insight into Rafa's past, including this little nugget that I'm just going to go ahead and declare as his motivation for continually trotting out Lucas in recent weeks. It makes as much sense as anything else, I think:

"I could’ve played in Primera. Horacio de Leiva, our manager in Mexico and later the President of the School of Referees, proposed me to sign for Oviedo. ..."

Well, there you have it. Something about the name "Leiva" just makes Rafa all nostalgic inside.

Scroll down for The Match Pricks Q&A with Martin Banks from Aston Villa Blog. It's good to hear from a Villan during this season of heady times for their side.

The Match Pricks Q&A: Martin Banks from Aston Villa Blog

OK, back at it after the international mini break and the Liverpool-less FA Cup weekend. We start a new week with a new feature: The Match Pricks Q&A. I hope to make these semi-regular, and our first effort features Martin Banks from the excellent and devoted Aston Villa Blog. Villa are, in many ways, the most interesting side in the Premier League this season, and their ascendance into the Top 4 has caused a rethink of how the league can operate. It's certainly arguable that Villa indirectly cost Big Phil Scolari his job at Chelsea, at the least.

Of course, back in the early days of Match Pricks, Villa's captain caused me all sorts of consternation, so with Villa there's a hefty connection to Liverpool this season, too.

As the club embarks on a crucial two-week stretch that includes Chelsea at Villa Park this weekend and a trip to Moscow in the UEFA Cup, Martin Banks took some time to answer a bunch of my questions and share with Match Pricks what it's been like following the side this season, share some bits of Martin O'Neill humor and reveal that in the past, many Villans just hoped to play as exciting a brand of football as Bolton.

MATCH PRICKS: I'm guessing most Villa supporters were optimistic back in August, but cracking the Top 4 and being within a shout of first wasn't assumed a realistic goal. How's it been as a fan to go along on this ride?
MARTIN BANKS: It’s been fantastic but in many ways it still seems like a dream. The top four is uncrackable, we all know that, or at least we thought we did because now we find ourselves in amongst them. Will it last till May? Who knows, but if it doesn’t I won’t be disappointed, I’ll be proud that we came so close and did so well for so long. Back in August I was telling anyone who said we could do this, that they had their head in the clouds! But now, here we are, 7 points clear of the Arse, 2 points above Chelsea and even getting some to talk of our chances of winning the league.

MP: From a distance, it seems like Martin O'Neill is keeping things loose and fun, trying to reduce any pressure on the players. Does he have his "Rafa Benitez moments" where the pressure of the moment seems apparent? Or is he just encouraging everyone to enjoy things?
MB: His serious and pressured moments are on the sidelines. He is almost unparalleled in his passion on the side of a match. If you stuck a mic in his face during the game, you’d need to be pretty savvy on the bleep button. When it comes to interviews, he is very level headed and never boasts of his amazing success but does like to have a laugh too. O’Neill has a great dry sense of humour which has echoes of John Lennon’s. I reckon he’d be a great bloke to drink into the early hours with, talking football and putting the world to rights.

MP: What's been Villa's high-comedy point of the season? When O'Neill valued Ashley Young at £82 million seemed like a good joke and commentary on the state of football. Or has there been a comedy moment come on the pitch?
MB: When he told Robbie Williams that he thought he would struggle after Take That was hilarious but that was years ago. This season he has been on top form in some interviews, but I agree that I loved his ridiculous quotes about the value of Ashley Young, which he first said was £30m and then raised it when the Kaka farce kicked off. It was pretty ballsy of him to make jokes of a player's value after all the summer saga with Gareth Barry and the price tag he placed on him being the cause of so much fuss.

MP: What's been Villa's signature moment? Was it the 3-2 over Everton in early December? Had I been watching Liverpool make a comeback like that in the final seconds, I think I'd build a statue outside my house to honor the match. Or was it something else?
MB: You could look at the Everton finale as a signature of this season because for years we have been the team who that happens to, so it does encapsulate how far we’ve come. But as boring as it might be, I think the signatures of this season have been the games like Hull, West Ham, Baggies etc., where we’ve played cack but won.
To win when you aren’t on your game is a sign of good morale and a good team. But ... the Everton finale was fucking priceless! Let’s watch it again:

Watch that and not smile, I double dare you! (except Everton fans I guess)

MP: Who is Villa's unsung hero? Before the season, I thought Steve Sidwell might be a great signing, but I read somewhere recently, he's disappointed. Who hasn't gotten enough credit?
MB: Sidders hasn’t really managed to regain his Reading form with us as yet but he looks like there is still promise there. Barry staying was a bit of a kick in the teeth for him. Our heroes this season have been Ashley ‘The fucking man’ Young, Gabriel ‘No one can say my name but they all love me anyway’ Agbonlahor, Big John Carew, Super Martin Laursen, Stiliyan ‘At bleeding last I got good’ Petrov, Brad ‘I bet you can’t score past me’ Friedel and Curtis ‘I can’t think of any middle name for’ Davies, but they’ve all been ‘sung’. If Bouma’s leg hadn’t got all bent out of shape just before the season started I think I’d be answering with his name now, but as it is most the heroes have been so good that they’ve been impossible to not credit.

MP: How are supporters assessing the Gareth Barry thing from last summer? Does the success make it an afterthought? I'd think a Top 4 finish means he comes back next season.
MB: The success has overshadowed it, but he will never be the hero to the fans that he once was. I could understand him wanting CL football, but at Liverpool he would’ve just been part of a squad, whereas if he hadn’t rocked the boat he was on course to being treated like a deity at Villa Park. He’ll stick with us if we get top 4, but that could cause more animosity. We’ll see. The juries waiting till the summer on Bazza.

MP: Randy Lerner gets held up in the papers as the ideal foreign billionaire for the Premier League because he doesn't meddle. Is there anything supporters don't like about him? Maybe because he hasn't used his billions to sign Messi?
MB: Randy Lerner walked into a team that hated its owner very passionately, which was half the battle done for him – we would’ve embraced almost any new owner with open arms. So when he was also a great bloke, he became very difficult to dislike. He hasn’t thrown money around like crazy, which the fans may knock but it’s better to succeed our way than Chelsea’s. Man City and Spurs like to act big in the transfer window too, but where has it got them?! The Acorns touch was magic too. So nah, we love our Randy J. Long may he reign over us.

MP: On your blog, you mentioned some people booed at Villa Park after the 0-0 with Wigan. I watched the last half hour or so, and it was a miracle Villa didn't score. You're right, on effort alone, they had no right to boo. But, do you think some of the booing might have come because supporters see this season as not just a great chance to crack the four, but also a once-in-a-lifetime chance to win the League? As a Liverpool supporter, I know the pressure of getting so close to the top spot has caused me to crack more than once this season.
MP: As a Liverpool supporter I recommend you don’t get your hopes up. This is Man U’s title ;-) It’s a weird season this year and United will win the title because the others aren’t good enough rather than from their own qualities. None of the top four are maintaining any consistency this season. You may well be right, but I think Villa fans who think we can win the league need a reality check. We are doing great, but we are nearing burnout. It's going to be very tough to maintain this form. By the way, we won the league and European Cup in my lifetime. I was 2. I remember it well! ;-)

MP: Lastly, can you give me a Villa story – from any season you've supported them – that would help outsiders like me understand a little better how exciting and meaningful this season has been?
MB: Villa are the kings of the draw. No team has drawn as many games as us in Premier League history. For the majority of the time since the Prem was formed we have been (though we were loathe to admit it at the time) BOOOOOORING! We’ve successfully bored the living shit out of more football fans than anyone else. Even Bolton! We’ve had seasons where we’ve made Bolton look like Brazil, we were that boring. But since Martin O’Neill has arrived we have been young, full of pace and exciting. It’s fantastic. I can even give my Man-Utd-fan family members shit. I love it. I hope it continues for the rest of the season and beyond.

Friday, February 13, 2009

What's a good film analogy for Barcelona in 2009?

c´etait un rendezvous from megahoschi on Vimeo.

Liverpool's out of the Cup, the international break meant not much drama developed in any of the competitions I prefer, so watch this, loudly if at all possible, and have a great weekend. Mine's shaping up to be pretty spectacular.

Thursday, February 12, 2009

A long week, an international break, a blast from the past

Not much shaking this week. We sit here, keep an eye out to ensure that no one gets injured and pour over the reports from the training grounds. 

So ... how about a blast from the past? That Arsenal run through to the Champions League final a couple of years ago. Articles written for a football newsletter we used to put together for our local football pub - The Highbury Times. Part one today, starting with the draw against Juventus. Enjoy a little memory lane ...
On Tuesday, March 28, 2006, Arsenal carved another stunning chapter in their run through the Champions League with a 2-nil win over Juventus at Highbury. Here's the match as I saw it from the front row at the pub (appropriately named The Highbury) with my heart in my throat and my hands shaking.

-On kickoff as more and more Arsenal supporters marched through the door, the bartender, wearing his homemade Juve shirt uttered, "Shoulda named this place Della Alpi." To which fellow Gooner Carl described jumping out of a plane near the alpine regions of Torino.

-Soaking in the emotion one can only get even more excited for World Cup this summer. I keep asking myself, is there anything better than the Champions League? I just love its pageantry, the tension, the aggregate scoring on a home and away leg, seeing the best up against the best, knowing that there are pubs all over Europe where people are packed-in shoulder-to-shoulder to breathe in the event and try to find their own patch of glory. As I ask this question, I realize the answer is simple, the World Cup can trump the emotion, and we're a short time away.

-Approaching kickoff as the team flags are presented and the captains meet the referees we are treated to the sight of Thierry Henry and Lillian Thuram exchanging vows at the center of the pitch. Two French stars encompassing past, present and future.

-And there he is, Gianluigi Buffon, the world's most expensive goalkeeper. Complete with the most expensive hair. I imagine that the likes of Buffon and Luis Figo of Inter Milan live on cliffs, drink incredible wine, drive fast cars and wear white linen suits. They're probably high-end art thieves in the off-season.

-On 6', the passing is not up to Arsenal's standards, they are too far from the mark and too heavy on the first touch.

-A very nervy first 15 minutes as neither team is able to exert their will. The physicality of Juve looks to be a problem. 

-On 21', it's noticed that Robert Pires is switching all over the pitch and popping up in spots unusual for a man normally strapped to the wing.

-On 28', Alexander! Use your left foot! Hleb, who has been stronger of late, played himself into space but couldn't fire with his left.

-Kolo! Toure! Kolo! Toure! (sing it like Marco! Polo!) The young man is becoming a lion in central defence. He makes tackles, much as Vieira used to, that make you wary of a foul - full extension - but he pulls it off in clean fashion.

-Too many long, searching passes. Not the Arsenal style of working back to build forward and get men in front of the ball before attacking.

-On 40', and there it is! Cesc! The starlet at 18 years old goes through someone's legs and makes it 1-0 to the Arsenal! Elation! Wonder! Vieira's "replacement" is standing tall at the moment on both sides of the pitch.

-On 41' Henry serves notice that he'll get one yet.

-Cesc Fabregas is dominating, even against Vieira, the ex-Arsenal living legend.

-On 66', Buffon is doing notably well on low shots that are now coming like buckshot.

-Arsenal look like scoring soon as we approach 70'.

-On 68', there it is! Cesc feeds his captain, Henry, who rolls it down the pipe to mark a 2-0 Arsenal lead! As I leapt to scream, my voice simply wouldn't work!

-Now the goal is to not concede the away goal.

-Right back Eboue is dominating ex-Chelsea striker Adrian Mutu.

-Juve right back Zebina has his hands full with Jose Antonio Reyes.

-On 77', Arsenal are on their ascendancy, their trademark. Wenger is smiling, a welcome sight from a generally reserved man. He's smarter than the rest of us and knows it.

-On 80', shots are 14-5 in favor of Arsenal.

-Zebina body-checked Reyes, the closest he's come to defending him yet. Late tackles are, at the moment, the only way Juve can match Arsenal's skill. 

-And on the final whistle, I can note that Juve were completely plugged up in the middle with no threat to the Arsenal back four or to Lehmann in goal.

I'd love to know what Arsene Wenger did, beyond picking the squad to get Arsenal to play as they have. It's incredible really, the inexperience that is trumping such European masters as Fabio Capello and Patrick Vieira. Ibrahimovic was absent. Trezeguet, the snake, so revered by the French for his wonder goal in Euro 2000, was a non-factor with maybe two touches. Emerson looked old and the others were mismatched against an Arsenal side that has been so focused that they've performed like warriors. Senderos, who was abused early in the year, has bloomed with rugged confidence. Flamini takes his bloody determination to excel in Ashley Cole's stead. Eboue is on his first stage and making it his own. Gilberto has found a toughness that Vieira's absence demanded be filled. Cesc has made himself the envy of the world at 18. Reyes has proved too tricksey for even the savviest of tacklers. And Henry, Henry has toyed with top defenders as if they were me living out their dreams against the greats. 

For this Arsenal supporter, this campaign is a dream rolling downhill and just maybe the distant reality that has been too surreal to accept can be achieved.

Xabi Alonso interview: The Director on life, love and Liverpool

Yeah, a little sappy hed there, but This Is Anfield has a terrific interview with Alonso that was translated from its original form as it appeared in AS.

Some highlights:

But those Japanese dinners at Pepe Reina’s house don’t count.

No, ha ha, they’re a delight. I’ve adapted to a lot of English customs, but not to the food. I can’t do it. And I can’t do the schedules either, this business of dinner at six o’clock. I miss pinchos (a Basque food, bread and meat, held together with a stick, or pincho – Spanish ‘thorn) and fish! But I can deal with it. The family come and go and my pantry is always full.

With Reina it’s impossible to be bored, of course.

PepeHe’s hyperactive, too much! All of Spain knows it after the Euros. It’s tremendous the number of friends that visit him and bring him food. Pepe is in a class by himself.

(Click the link above. It's a great read.)

I can just imagine dinners at Reina's house. Ten, 12 people just shuffling in, arms full of homemade dishes, some out there and "Japanese," as the interviewer puts it. I need to get on that guest list.

Keep scrolling: Lots going on today

• England was taught a lesson by who?
Agger should think about getting a chat show.
• "Honey, let's buy that Villa in Liverpool."
• Sticking it to Jintao, del Bosque-style.

Generalissimo del Bosque is more than ready to grab a ruler and see who's bigger

One of these pictures shows a ruthless dictator, filled with disregard for the people whose lives and fates mean nothing to him. The other is of Generalissimo Francisco Franco.

The best way to get a Liverpool supporter writhing around and gnashing his bared fangs at any sudden movement is to tell him Spain is playing somewhere in the middle of the Premier League season. Despite my deep fondness for Spain, the way they play and how Rafa's connection with that country's players has helped transform Liverpool for the better, my primary concern with these international breaks is this:

Luckily, it appears by all the accounts I've read that Torres made it through 64 needless minutes against England last night without aggravating those million-dollar hamstrings that we always worry about. But Spanish manager Vicente del Bosque couldn't help himself in the post-match news conference. Knowing Rafa is going to urge caution with how Torres is used in a meaningless international friendly pitting Spain at home against an experimental England filled with players who are as likely to see 90 minutes at a time at South Africa 2010 as yours truly, del Bosque slyly winked at the assembled journalists and made a deadpan comment about Liverpool's No. 9 being returned to club duty completely fit. No muss, no fuss, in so many words.

It appears from some of the articles about the Spain-England match that del Bosque's line drew some knowing chuckles from the scribblers eating up their latest angle for the "Isn't Rafa goofy and neurotic?" storyline. Well, isn't that precious.

But whatever del Bosque hoped to accomplish with that stupid, stupid friendly that proves nothing, his carefree attitude toward Torres' health does a tremendous disservice to Torres. Torres played 64 minutes. David Villa played 55. Why? It was clear to the world Torres wasn't fit, despite the three goals he scored in Liverpool's previous two League matches, the boy's pace is not there right now because his hamstring is not perfect. Rafa has exhibited caution toward Torres' long-term health.

Vicente del Bosque is in a tense spot, no doubt. The Spain manager has his own interests he must serve, but it appears to del Bosque one of them is keeping the Spanish press giggling and happy. The more distractions the better, right? It'll help down the line when things aren't so rosy and the public starts to question why Spain isn't stampeding through the World Cup with 3-0 after 4-1 results.

But I'd like to tell del Bosque that his days are filled with peaches and cream right now because Torres scored the goal that lifted the 8,000-ton gorilla from Spain's back at Euro 2008 – under Luis Aragonés' management, it should be mentioned. No longer is Spain the talented outfit that goes out to Italy in major tournaments. Never again does Spain have to hear from supporters, "How are they going to screw this up? You know they will." Torres played an integral role in ending 44 years of nothing for Spain on the international stage. That counts for something.

And it should count toward more thoughtfulness in how Torres is treated. He's 24 years old, is the toast of strikers in the English league and any conversation about the world's best forward players includes his name among the handful at the top. Torres is in the middle of his club team's greatest chance to win their domestic league since the boy was 6 years old. His sustained health and success on the pitch will ensure riches and the world at his feet for the rest of his life. Torres has a lot riding on that group of muscles that connect his rear end to the back of his knees. Vicente del Bosque treats him like a prop to get a laugh at Benitez' expense.

Torres is never going to decline to play for Spain. No player would, for Spain or any other country (well, except for a few in England and Italy). During a glitzy but utterly pointless February friendly, Vicente del Bosque got lucky Fernando Torres didn't aggravate any of his leg problems – or worse, suffer an errant kick from some "stuck in" England player trying to get Capello's attention and maybe another cap or three down the line. Torres' health is more than just a Liverpool concern. A continually knackered Torres would hurt Spain's chances when the time comes for real international matches that count for something. Let's see David Villa play to this level without the strike partner that scored 33 goals in his first season in England and who has defenders from Belize to Bangkok and Brussels soiling themselves when he gets on the ball.

Maybe del Bosque is cavalier toward Torres' health because he doesn't see the importance of those "real" international matches. Perhaps he's been around Spain's losing ways so long he didn't catch how Fernando Torres lifted the chains of failure from around Spain's neck last summer. Then he should stay as far away from Fernando Torres as possible.

I'll chip in a fiver toward this

There's a whole lot from The Guardian today, but the news during the international break tends to be the same no matter where you look. This piece from Sid Lowe gave me a pants tent. ¡Dios mío!

Torres, Villa ... Villa, Torres ... Glarrlllarrrrllll ... (drool)

Danny Agger is talking without thinking

The January window came and went with a lot of talk about Agger heading off to Milan but no action on that front. Hmm, Berlusconi must have been busy or something. But now Danny is intensifying his talk of heading out, making it clear through his agent he can buy out his contract in the summer for £2 million.

First, my thoughts haven't really changed since I wrote this. Agger deserves the fans' tribute, to some extent. He provided some good moments at Liverpool.

But, he still has a lot to offer, and Liverpool has much for him. Agger is forever connected in my mind, and likely many other supporters' minds, with Vidic. They came into England at the same time, Agger was the second-choice signing for Rafa when the money couldn't be raised for Vidic, and now the Man U defender is the clear bookies' favorite for the League's player of the year while Danny is stuck behind Skrtel and Carragher, save for the odd run-out against Pompey in some mad scientist 3-4-2-1 jag Rafa decides to go on. It's tough, but Agger might want to look beyond this season.

Two years ago, Carragher was the best defender in England – hands down. He was at his peak. Last year he slipped somewhat beneath that standard he set for himself, and this season Carra's age is showing. Not terribly so, but it wasn't until fall of 2008 that I asked myself, "How much longer does he have?" Just asking one's self that question reveals a lot. The calendar conquers all. Carra turned 31 a few weeks back. Sol Campbell is 34, and that obelisk of obstinance in the center of defense for those great Arsenal sides has been well below championship standard for a couple years now. Few players' skills erode gradually, and for someone already short of pace, how many years can Carra get by with his wits, positioning and understanding of how attackers work?

My point in all this is that Agger should realize Liverpool and life in the English league offers a high-profile, high-paying position in the world of football. Sooner than later, he could find himself partnering more regularly with Skrtel as Liverpool's first choice center backs. He'll play for trophies, compete in the Champions League and get pushed to perfect his form because Carra's not going to just slink away into nothing. Look, this isn't going to happen this year. Next year's playing time likely would improve somewhat, but by 2010-2011, Agger would be looking at full-time, first-team football on all fronts.

If he wants to go to Italy and finish 2nd or 3rd for a few years with Milan, go ahead. Take care, Danny. But his future as a top-flight defender in Europe's best competitions could be much more than that.

Liverpool 2 – England 0

Ha, ha ... ho, ho. That's only kind of funny, especially since the first goal came from David Villa and The Director teamed up with Xavi and Iniesta in midfield to completely embarrass a second-choice England side missing several important cogs. Plus, it was a meaningless friendly with nothing to gain and everything to lose (more on that in a bit).

But still, Alonso delivered cutting passes all night – or so I've read, as I was unable to watch it – and set up Villa's goal chance. Torres played 64 healthy minutes (much more on that later), and Arbeloa and Reina got in for the homeland. But right now, let's raise a figurative glass (or a literal one, if you're so inclined while reading Match Pricks) to Xabi Alonso: The Director. He came out of this little hooey-phooey show against England being heralded by none other than the coach of England as part of the world's greatest midfield. Hell, I could've told you that Capello, even if he constituted a midfield of one.

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

"Ohhh, it's Match Pricks, innit!"

"Excuse me?"

"Yes, luv, what can we do for you then?"

"Well, go on, give us a look, yeah? Ohhhh, it's Match Pricks! I've 'eard 'bout them, 'aven't I!? Ohhh, that's quite nice, isn't it?"

-Cheers to Match Pricks reader and fellow Gooner Jamie for hosting the flag at The Gunners Pub the weekend of the dour draw with West Ham.

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Well, whaddya know? It's Aurelio

Another interminable international break is upon us, but that doesn't mean the fun is going to stop. It's still "Liverpool Pulls a Rabbit Out of Fratton Park Appreciation Week" for me here at Match Pricks. Today's moment of reflection upon Saturday's heart-stopper focuses on Fabio Aurelio, the talented left back who often is overlooked at Anfield because he's injured so often.

Well, he used to be just a left back, but after Saturday, I guess he's a left back/attacking left-side central mid. Wow, I really had no idea what Rafa was going for with that 3-4-2-1, putting Ngog upfront with Benayoun and Babel cutting in with support. It didn't really work as he envisioned (because Babel is awful), but Mascherano hung back in front of the three defenders and Aurelio was the only force forward through the middle. Never, ever would've guessed that'd work anywhere except on the training ground against the reserves. But Aurelio really was an effective worker Saturday in that new role. Ngog wasn't experienced enough to pull some of the flick and turns he tried, although he showed promise, and of course, Babel has the first touch of a 15-year-old in a dark corner at the junior prom. But still, Aurelio made some things happen and they controlled the first half.

During the comeback, Aurelio banged in the brilliant close-range indirect free kick because of Crouchy's horrible back pass to David James and the thrill of the month was on. Amazing.

I'm not saying Rafa should stick with this in a really big match (*cough, cough* March 14), but it was a blast. It was a lot of fun, Aurelio. I've watched the final two goals again today on DVR. I don't think it'll ever get old.

Monday, February 9, 2009

Don't forget to scoll

Sometimes we here at Match Pricks get ahead of ourselves. That said, don't forget to scroll and check out all the goodies down below.

As ever, thank you for your patronage, and don't forget, we love to hear from you. Especially when we hear that the word verification for leaving comments sometimes tosses out "Messi."

Watching, waiting ...

How great is this shot? They are almost ready, aren't they? I'll expect Eduardo to take the pitch with Croatia and the Man with All the Answers, Slavan Bilic, this week. Then we've a full weekend off before the FA Cup replay against Cardiff and Sunderland - almost two full weeks away - for Andrei Arshavin to get himself used to our football, and get himself all wound up to hit the ground running and bring some smiles back to Arsenal supporters (and football supporters who look to the Arsenal for that pure example, one that Barcelona are easily wrangling away from us at the moment). It'll give some terrific opportunities for this team to find its creative momentum. There's no mistake that's what we're missing right now. As suspect as the side have been defensively, and it's been well documented, they've had tremendous problems going forward.

I'd also like, in consideration of Eboue and my thoughts that were targeted directly toward him after Sunday's pitiful performance from the Ivorian and collaborative effort from the rest of the side, to remind everyone of just how short Arsenal are are the moment.

Missing Cesc Fabregas, Tomas Rosicky, Eduardo and Theo Walcott has left us quite desperate. We've lacked pace, creativity, thrust, incision and - as a result - goals. Here's hoping the stand-ins can just continue to hold things together a little bit longer. They aren't losing, but they are drawing all too often. At the moment, while Arsenal are spinning their wheels, Aston Villa are pole vaulting into consideration - their title credentials coming under closer and more admirable scrutiny each week - and Chelsea are double-checking their life preservers and parachutes. 

Big Phil gets the sack

Scolari got the sack this morning, and now he's got the knives out. He claims that he'll speak with the media soon. Well save my front row seat for that one, please. You know that won't be a furtive conversation. You know he's gonna be loud and will definitely share each and every opinion. Big Phil strikes me as a man who would unrepentantly throw most of the administration's big players (Kenyon, Abramovic) under the bus. 

Who else is out there then? The odds are fantastic fun. Sven Goran Ericksson at 8-1. Gianfranco Zola, predictably, is the odds-on favourite. Mancini is there, of course. Quite plainly, any big European manager is in there. Fantastically, Carlo Ancelotti makes the list. Now that'd be a gas. Can you imagine that guy departing for Chelsea? Interestingly, no Didier Deschamps. In truth, Avram Grant would be (at 12-1) the man I'd bet on. As silly as it would be, but he's the man who would just want a job, as opposed to someone else with a bigger name demanding assurances for the perfect situation. I have to imagine that most of the top, top level of managers would have entirely too much pride to take on Chelsea in a role that would essentially amount to grabbing a bucket to help bale water. 

And again, the inherent problem with sugar daddy owners is laid bare. I can't wait until Abramovic truly starts losing interest. For now, he's just pushing buttons in the hopes that things will happen. Kind of like my skills in the kitchen and a reliance on the microwave. 

Now to the best part. 

Scolari says Chelski are too old. He says they are tired. He says (here's the kicker) that he asked for Deco and Robinho ... and he only got Deco.


You must be kidding me. Have you seen the players Chelsea have available? And you know what else? It's your own damn fault. You people have tossed gobs of cash at players for several years now. You've offered wage packages that make most other teams blush. And now, you're struggling for form because you chased one of the world's best managers out of town a while back (Mourinho) and have found yourself with a squad of aging All-Stars that may or may not be able to play together.

And you've hit the eject button.

Ahem, uh, this is happening, in case you forgot

With the Champions League knockout stages starting up again soon, let's take a peek at the form team on the planet these days:

Barcelona: 22 played, 19 won, 2 drawn, 1 lost, 68 for, 16 against, 52 GD

For some perspective, the 52 goal differential is 5 more goals than the entire season's output for the next highest-scoring side in La Liga. Eto'o, Messi and Henry have combined for 47 goals, more than the totals for any team in the Spanish first division except for Atletíco, whose 47 can only match the numbers for Barcelona's starry trio.

It's at the point where if I see they've scored three in a match it seems like Barca's had an off night.


Another Match Pricks record

A quick aside here to mention that this past week represented the highest unique visitor totals for one Monday-Sunday period in the brief history of Match Pricks. From the Liverpool-Chelsea aftermath on Monday through Colin's brilliant Mad Libs-esque rant against Eboue (scroll down for fun with swears you insert yourself), we appreciate your coming here to read a little bit and, hopefully, laugh both with and at us – when it's appropriate.

Thanks again for reading Match Pricks.

Sunday, February 8, 2009

E-boooooo-'im off the bloody pitch and off the bloody squad

Business first. Great stuff from Jim and Liverpool down below, scroll away. What a result for them yesterday. Have you heard about this Torres kid? I think he'll be alright in this league. I mean, it's tough to adjust to a new league sometimes, but I think he'll be alright. Right, moving on.

Decorum. Must show decorum. Must. For the kids. It can be done, right? Deep breath, big gulp and a little bit of f%^&ing decorum. (slams fist)

My word we're a pendulum over here at Match Pricks at the moment, aren't we? (editor's note: in a straining effort to display a level of decorum and civility here, please realize that this post likely took about 40 minutes longer to write than you'd imagine. That having been said, to understand what I'm actually restraining myself from doing, go ahead and insert of few of those magic words before each noun or verb you come across. Consider it your very own Match Pricks mad lib. Go ahead, be creative. Thank you for your patience and understanding.)

Arsenal just fought for a very tough singular [ example number one, see above ] point at White Heart [ example number two, see above ] Lane against [ three ] Spurs who are, in case you haven't [ four ] noticed, in a fight against [ five ] relegation for [ six ] sake. And why was it so [ seven ] difficult? Because Emmanuel [ eight ] Eboue, in spite of all of his efforts and his running and his [ nine ] whinging, went and got himself [ ten ] sent off - AGAIN. [ ELEVEN ]

[ Twelve ] Spurs! And that singular point now sees Arsenal sit a full five points behind Chelsea for fourth place and - as of the halftime at Upton Park as Manchester United and West Ham United take care of their business - 11 points adrift of the league leaders. But all of that is [ thirteen ] beside the [ fourteen ] point. The point is that Arsenal, with Alex Song and Emmanuel Eboue in the middle are woefully de [ fifteen ] ficient.

Some points need to be made though. Samir Nasri worked his socks off. Everyone watching with me noted how gassed he was around the 60th minute. Beyond that, I think plaudits are due for the back four, particularly in the middle where Kolo Toure and William Gallas put in an assured performance. Giving Toure the armband in Cesc's absence could have be looked at as a no-brainer given his service to the club, but still, it was a massive decision.

Kolo has been fantastic in years past and we've all noted his slip in form this year. In the last couple of weeks, I have to say that he's displaying leadership and a particular verve - quite a bit like Robin van Persie has done. Other laurels to dish out? To Gael Clichy for getting half of his head torn off to clear an airborne threat and for this tackle to eliminate an open threat.

But for Eboue? You know what? A friend of mine (and Match Pricks comment regular) has a saying when things start to get a little heated. He'll have already dished out the proper warnings and admonishments (decorated with a delicately perched eyebrow) and then comes the second of calm and clarity, followed by, "That's enough." If you still push it you'll get one final gusto, "That's e-f%^&in'-nuff." 

Please hear me Emmanuel Eboue. At this point, "THAT'S E-[ SIXTEEN ]-NUFF."

I'm tired, and I'm sure the entire team are as well, of everyone having to carry you. I know you mean well. I know you're a good person and you care. I get that. What I don't get is how you simply refuse to make adjustments. The manager's hand is forced. He has no options left and he's had to turn to you, in good faith, to prove that you're mature enough to take the field. At this point I don't even care if you make a difference. I know you're gonna run and maybe chip a ball in the box. All I want is for you to [ seventeen ] behave, [ eighteen ] shut your [ nineteen ] mouth and [ twenty ] keep yourself on the [ twenty-one ] pitch!

And I got up at 5: [ twenty-two ] 30 in the morning and drove 90 minutes on three hours of sleep with pounding head cold and cough to [ twenty-three ] be there!

You like that? I ended nice and tidy like on 23. That was just for you, Andrei. Welcome aboard, we'll see you soon.

Final sidebar - I got chills when Eduardo was warming up on the touchline. He'll be back soon, folks. And if every last one of you doesn't get on your feet and applaud that man I can't be held responsible for my reaction. Yeah, that's right, I'm talking to you Jintao. And yes, I see you at the back of the room Silvio, Putin and Jiabao. Don't think I've taken my eyes of you for a second.

The chosen one

Kicking off what is set to be "Liverpool Pulls A Rabbit Out Of Fratton Park Appreciation Week" here at Match Pricks (at least from the Scouse half of this setup), I want to give full credit to one Yossi Benayoun, whose tenure at Anfield has, to this point, been marked by rather middling forays into the box with too much dribbling, not enough shooting and nothing overly remarkable. But in the last three weeks, he's been the one mid-level Liverpool player to accelerate his game. And if this improbable title chase is going to continue, he's going to need to keep it up.

We stop at this moment to appreciate the quality with which Benayoun cut it back onto Torres' head for the winner. If Yossi had been standing directly in front of Torres and attempted to drop the ball onto his head from a foot away he couldn't have placed it any better. The only way this is going to happen is if a heretofore unheralded player elevates his play to a level commensurate with the excellence we've come to expect from Alonso, Torres and Gerrard. Benayoun has shown that elevation over the last few weeks. Now, he needs to keep it up for another three months. Saturday at Fratton Park was an excellent continuation of what Liverpool needs to make this happen.

I still can't believe it.

Saturday, February 7, 2009

Whoooooo!!!! HA HA HA! WHOOOOOOOO!!!!!!

Unbelievable. UNBELIEVABLE!!!

It's three hours since the match ended and I'm still flying. Just watched the final 10 minutes again – twice – on DVR and I can't believe it. Say what you will about a lucky escape, but it was beyond thrilling. So much to talk about with this match. Aurelio the forward attacking central midfielder?! He was outstanding for the majority of the match.

Much more to be discussed here, but with Milwaukee receiving a rare spring day in February with loads of sunshine and temperatures in the 50s, today is for celebration. What an outstanding comeback and an amazing day for fun. Thank you Kuyt, thank you Benayoun, thank you Aurelio and thank you from the bottom of my Liverpool soul, Fernando Torres. You're brilliant son. What a match!

Sing along with this. You'll feel loads better about every part of your life.

Friday, February 6, 2009

Pausing for a second to enjoy an old favorite during an apparent moment of frivolity

Here at Match Pricks, we like to keep a wary eye trained on Vladimir Putin. You never know what he might be up to, right?

That's why, though it lacks football content, I can't help but point you to this: Putin recently took in a private concert by ABBA imitators Bjorn Again in a super-secret Russian compound. The money line:

"The band were warned in advance not to try to speak to the audience or leave the stage and Putin made no attempt to speak to them afterwards, instead going off to watch fireworks, she said."

Putin's chief fixer denies all of this, naturally. Hmmm ... look, Putin. I reluctantly saw "Mamma Mia!" and ended up liking it. Stop being a bitch, Putin, and just acknowledge you like ABBA.

Thursday, February 5, 2009

Gerrard might be dead! Title race over!!!

With Benitez unwilling to be taken in by the Robbie Keane questions after the Everton match Wednesday, Gerrard's hamstring injury has provided the latest "doomed Liverpool" storylines. A sampling of the overreaction:

"Liverpool reel as Gerrard is ruled out for up to three weeks"
– Guardian

"Liverpool fear long-term loss of Gerrard"
– Times

"Gerrard to miss Bernabeu battle as injury rules Liverpool skipper out for three weeks"
– Daily Mail

"Labor MP in sizzling sex romp with cheeky chav"
– News of the World

However, credit to The Independent for the following restrained headline: "Gerrard to miss three weeks"

And that's all it is. Let's look at what Stevie G. will be on the sidelines for during the next three weeks:

• Saturday, away to Portsmouth: Liverpool sometimes struggles at Pompey, and I don't think it'll be easy this time without Gerrard. However, Liverpool have dodged a bullet as I feared Pompey would dump Tony Adams this week. The Reds saw what effect a new manager has earlier this season when Harry Redknapp came in at Spurs and produced Liverpool's only defeat this year. With Adams still there, though, it's just a weary Portsmouth stripped of its strikers and unable to do much lately. Althought that Southampton 0 – Pompey Ladies 4 result from Wednesday might add some zing into the club. All in all, for having to play an away match with Gerrard out injured, Liverpool could have fared much worse.

• Wednesday, England away to Spain: Here's the silver lining in the injury. Keep him out of this hooey-phooey international break friendly garbage that pollutes the fixture list. Yeah, sorry Capello. Gerrard can't make it. I know you need full access to these players so you can mold a cohesive England that loses in dramatic, heartbreaking fashion to Argentina in the quarterfinals of South Africa 2010. I know, it sucks, dogg.

• Feb. 22, Manchester City at Anfield: If they don't clean up this clown act at Anfield without Gerrard, Liverpool shouldn't pretend to be in any title race worth running. City lost away to 10-man Stoke, who played shorthanded for about an hour. This match does not concern me in the least, no matter where Gerrard is on this day.

• Feb. 25, away to Real Madrid, Champions League: OK, this one is less than thrilling to face without Gerrard, but if there's anything Liverpool under Rafa Benitez can do it's play for a draw away in Europe. Of course I feel worse off as a supporter going into this one without Gerrard. But really, it's not all that bad. You might have heard of how Liverpool plays away in Europe against a talented opponent and lacking Gerrard. See the file labeled: "Alonso, The Director at work, Turin, 2005." As long as they lose by no more than one goal, I'm not concerned. If they lose 1-2 or 2-3, all the better.

So there it is, Gerrard is missing that lineup. There's two League matches Liverpool sure as hell should be able to handle, a needless international friendly with Spain that has me nervous about Torres' hamstrings, and then the trip to Madrid, which looks more spicy on paper than what it will prove to be once played out.

So, you know, not the end of the world. Bring on Pompey.