Monday, March 30, 2009

There's gotta be a story in here somewhere

Right? I mean, right? I mean, there is still football on some level, isn't there?

You know, in times like these (the barren desert of the international break that slams us right in the face like Jintao winding up with a little white glove to challenge our resolve) I find myself checking the papers even more than I usually do. And that's an obscene amount as it is. I'm sitting here all night just plowing though news, imploring it to just throw me up something new. In case you were keeping score, this doesn't count. I mean to even say something like that just reeks of self-importance, doesn't it, Frank? Just shut your mouth and cash your check, yeah?

And no, I'm not counting Stan Kroenke, the American who continues to increase his shares in the Arsenal. I try to ignore all of the backroom bungling, posturing and scheming. Football please. Rumors, sure, I can deal with that ... but in the end, football please. I'm not gonna worry myself with share percentages, shirt sponsors and the like. Not my style. What I am going to worry myself with are the highlights of Andrei Arshavin continuing to look the part for Russia on Saturday. I am going to worry myself with Kolo Toure and Emmanuel Eboue playing in the Ivory Coast after some 20 plus were killed in a stadium accident. I am going to worry about Emmanuel Adebayor getting some minutes for Togo and getting up to speed. I am going to take notice of Robin Van Persie notching yet again for Holland only to come off with a limp and quiet reports out of Denmark of Nicholas Bendtner coming down with a knee injury. And I'm keeping a particularly weary eye on France's fluttering form as they'll host Lithuania on Wednesday and any number of Gunners can take the pitch.

What I'm not going to worry about are stories of Cesc Fabregas saying that yes, Real Madrid tapped him up. I'm also going to ignore this inflammatory headline about Adebayor simply stating the truth ... that if Arsenal were at full-strength for the entire season, or even close to it, they'd have had to the gusto to mount an actual challenge. Ummm, duh.

So yeah, a few more days of this torture. A few more days until hometown newspapers stop combing the desert for any story they can possibly dig up and turn their attention elsewhere. Meanwhile, we sit here at Match Pricks twiddling our thumbs and simply tossing up (in the midst of Mel Brooks Movie Stills Weeks) a throaty, "man, we ain't found shit!"

Re-igniting the silly season

As you can tell from the lack of activity here at Match Pricks to start the week, it's not so much the international break itself that drives us so batty – it's the damn interminable length of it. For instance, we had real fun as the break started with "Mel Brooks Movie Stills Week," but now as we opened up another Monday, the dull dread of what lies before us became apparent.

There's a bunch of nonsense right now, as even the people who actually get paid to follow footballers around the world can come up with nothing more than a few more plaudits for Gerrard-Rooney-Lampard and a couple of short appreciations for Spain and Argentina. Shit, The Independent even featured a look at the likely favorites to hoist the World Cup next year and handicapped their chances – with half the qualifiers yet to be played.

However, the last refuge of any football scribbler during the international break is the unfounded transfer rumor involving a mega-star player. Thankfully, the Telegraph has supplied us with the funniest one of this current break from club play – Samuel Eto'o to Liverpool.

Sadly, the article is a half-hearted effort, lacking any of the usual details meant to entice readers and supporters into thinking the move actually could go down. It attributes the rumors solely to the "Spanish press" and can't even make a decent case for how Eto'o would fit into Rafa's squad. The Telegraph writer, Rory Smith, does include, however, Eto'o's well-known bad attitude and reputation as a locker room cancer who ruins team spirit. In other words, he makes a great case for why Liverpool wouldn't want to sign him.

Anyway, in the absence of John Terry-for-Manchester City talk or anything at all related to Ronaldo heading to Real Madrid, the Telegraph's limp report sending Eto'o to Merseyside will have to do. It's going to be a long week.

Saturday, March 28, 2009

Deep breath time, but hey, let's enjoy it a little

Alright, time for the plunge, eh? We've been snoring our way through the international break so far with nary a whiff of news. Very little on the Arsenal, a bit more on Liverpool and a few other tidbits to shake a tail at. John Terry's mom gets nicked for, well, nicking? All class that clan. Good thing he's captain of England instead of a certain someone else that you may have heard of in these pages (scroll, baby, scroll). What else did we have? The Guardian tossed up this nice article giving us a look at times past. A sample,
" ... which would inspire France to famously win Euro '84 and reach the semi-finals of Mexico '86, their final act together. They moved the ball around with the lazy serenity of college dudes sharing a spliff."
Another nice bit of news tossed up this morning sees some clarity shone on Nico Bendtner's comments from about a month ago. I was particularly excited about the comments at the time. Some, however, turned it into a way to fuel their dislike of the young man after a series of terrible misses that coincided with the team's poor offensive form and a full-on lack of goal scoring. News today from Vital Arsenal shows that it was a poor translation. So rather than a cocky little kid, I think we can firmly plant this in with the thoughts that any proper professional should express. I still do believe that he can and will grow into a magnificent striker. And it's yet another example of taking player comments in the press with a grain of salt.

So as I look at the clock there's football somewhere and Arsenal (and Liverpool - at this point, I'm pulling for them to grab that title just as much as anyone else, although with a few healthy heapings fewer of Supporter's Agony) players are very likely to take to the pitch around Europe (and Africa, g'on Adebayor, get some minutes in and find some passion for the last two months, we'll need you!). As Jim noted below, when we left off, both teams were in fantastic form. We can just hold our breath, wring our hands and hope that they make it through unscathed and ready to fire it up again in a full week's time against City. You just never know with these matches. And hot damn is it irritating! All the same, let's enjoy it at least a little, shall we?

C'mon down, meet the Match Pricks, have a beer, watch Spain, cross your fingers, sing for Torres

The international break might have bummed out a high-flying Colin (Arsenal) and Jim (Liverpool), but apparently it's done nothing to dampen the mood of Match Pricks readers. We didn't set any peaks this week, but a consistent stream of eyeballs kept stopping by and we set a new high floor for minimum daily visitors, if that makes sense. There were no valleys for pageviews, and for that we are much appreciative. It's a kick every day that anyone besides Colin and myself cares about this stuff. Thank you for reading Match Pricks.

With that said, Spain v. Turkey is on Gol TV at 4 p.m. today (CDT), and we'll be over at the Highbury pub, 2322 S. Kinnickinnic Ave., Milwaukee. See the "Contact Us" link at the Web site there for a handy Google Maps setup giving you directions to the bar from wherever you might be coming from. There'll be a special guest or two, and it's sure to be a blast. The Highbury is showing World Cup qualifiers all day, so come early and grab a drink. And anyone prepared to argue about the merits of Iniesta in the Spanish team better be prepared for a scrap.

OK, let's go ...

Friday, March 27, 2009

C'mon, Skrtel! Use your head, son

Really wish Martin Skrtel had not said this:

"Because we do think that 4-1 win might have been their breaking point. Their lead was seven points at the time but now it is only one point so, psychologically, we are in a much better position than before. We feel very strongly that we have a good chance to win the title now."

Jesus, Skrtel. Keep your head down, your mouth shut and go out and take your 2-0 defeat at Wembley tomorrow like a humble man. And we have our first international break press crackup with a player. He was speaking through an interpreter, no less.

Ack. They still have a game in hand and you have to come back from this and win out – and also hope you get lucky. Don't poke anybody with a stick, Skrtel.

Words to live by

Here's one more this morning. Shankly with some words of wisdom. It's short, less than a minute. Pay no attention to the tag the YouTube poster put on it. Just short-sightedness. Give it a listen.

Hillsborough memorial video

Here's the video for the new recording of "Fields of Anfield Road" to honor those lost 15 April 1989 at Hillsborough. It includes the voices of relatives of the deceased and the newly written verse to memorialize the 96. Watch, listen and consider the new verse.

Also, here's some news media coverage of the event set to debut the video. It's revealing, particularly so for Phil Thompson's comments. If you claim to be a Liverpool supporter, I suggest you give this a look, and pay attention to Phil Thompson's comments that start just after the 2:30 mark.

"There's a great thing about our football club. Liverpool Football Club. We are supporters. We will keep together. We will stick together, and we will support each of them. Not just on the football pitch, but to the families who lost everybody. We will always remember it. I hope some other people will remember it because we won't forget."
– Phil Thompson

Whoa, I got some 'news' to talk about here

While Colin and I settled in to grind through this international break, it turns out there's some actual Liverpool "news" that warrants a thought or two. Let's hit these up quickly, bullet-point style, and then hunker down again and hope these two Spain v. Turkey matches leave everybody involved unscathed.

• David Silva to Liverpool? – That's apparently what Rafa has on tap for this summer. I mean, a winger who can operate on either side? Yeah, where do I sign. Right here? On this line here? OK, here I go. Look, Valencia stopped paying their players several weeks back. That's how bad their debt situation has become. The rumor mill says £25 million, but c'mon – Valencia doesn't have a leg to stand on. Only Barça and Real Madrid can drive the price up. But the boy is out the door. Sure, it's only a goofy international break rumor. It means nothing, really. But damn, that's fun to think about. OK, off to a good start here. What's next?

• Hicks and (to a lesser extent) Gillett look to consolidate their positions – Wow, that's kind of a downer, isn't it? First it was Gillett talking about selling minority stakes in his other sports franchises. Then Hicks came out and made it clear he wants minority investors in the Texas Rangers. What to make of this? Well, they have to refinance that £350 million loan they used to help buy the club, and the new arrangement is due to be settled this summer. They didn't have the money a few weeks ago and were looking to sell to Kuwaiti billionaires. Now, with the events of the last two weeks, Hicks and Gillett appear to have decided this whole Liverpool Football Club thing just might be their speed. It's a tricky proposition. I mean, will they ever build the stadium? But Rafa won the battle of the board room, got his contract extension and – BANG! – the players went on to rattle off three of the most enjoyable victories supporters have witnessed in a long time. For now, I withhold judgment on this move. Just keep the club stable, keep the money situation secure and fer cryin' out loud don't screw anything up!

• Steven Gerrard is the best player in England – This is the one that is so much fun to smile about. Ultimately, it's just some goofy award, but three or four weeks ago, Nemanja Vidic was the odds-on favorite to take this silverware. Then he got sliced into ribbons by Fernando Torres on a sunny Saturday at Old Trafford, and the English public has a new gilded hero, one that is homegrown and surging through the public's consciousness. Let's look at the odds for Gerrard right now to capture the PFA Player of the Year: Paddy Power, 13/8; VC Bet, 6/4; BoyleSports, 11/8; betfair, 18/11. Paddy Power still favors Vidic at 6/4, but elsewhere it's VC Bet, 7/4; BoyleSports, 6/4; and betfair offering 19/12. Basically, it comes down to the League. Who's gonna win it, right? United is still the favorite, clearly. I guess we'll have to see. But it's a wheelbarrow full of laughs to watch the replay of Torres' goal at Old Trafford and see, while Liverpool celebrates the equalizer, Vidic just walking back toward the center circle. He sniffs quickly and rubs his nose, oblivious to the single blade of Old Trafford grass stuck to his sweaty temple, a souvenir from the spot Torres dumped him like so much rubbish while El Niño went on to put one past Van der Sar. And, of course, there's that moment later where Stevie G. outmaneuvered him, and Vidic's only recourse was to drag the Liverpool captain down with no back cover.

OK, I'm getting a little worked up here. Time to get back to the international break or I won't make it to April 4.

Thursday, March 26, 2009

Later, he'll perform a short skit in blackface

What better time than during an international break to turn, once again (deep sigh), to the king dipshit of the European political scene, Silvio Berlusconi:

"Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, criticised last year for describing U.S. President Barack Obama as 'suntanned,' brushed aside a comparison of their leadership styles Thursday by saying: 'I'm paler.'"

So, to review, since last fall Berlusconi has called for all international markets to close while new financial rules could be written, toasted George W. Bush to an everlasting friendship while at the White House in the midst of a true worldwide disaster, helped engineer a silly Kaká fake transfer negotiation to Manchester City, said, in all seriousness, that Italy can't possibly protect all of its women from being raped because the entirety of the country's female population is attractive enough to be targeted by maniacs, and, now, made clear to only ignorant blind people, apparently, that he's "paler" than the American president.

On Wednesday, Ireland plays in Italy. It's time to fire up my fading appreciation for Robbie Keane and hope he can lead his side to a result. I'll take anything. Just bash an Italian over the head or something in the process. Anything to keep this dope from just coasting along unaffected.

So, during the next week, Spain gets to play Turkey twice in five days ... uh, yeaaaaaaah

For this go-round of the international break, Match Pricks is busting out "Mel Brooks Movie Stills Week," among other things, and there's no better start for a Liverpool fan like myself than "High Anxiety." You see, the champions of Europe, Spain, have a neat little trip to Istanbul next Wednesday, after playing in Madrid against Turkey on Saturday. I'm sure I won't be stressed about that or anything.

You might have heard some of my thoughts about Torres for Spain during these mid-season international breaks. The waiting and hoping that the boy comes through it without a knock or tear of some type is just excruciating. It's a little like being told there's a national lottery to choose people for random executions. Yeah, you have to go about your business and live your life, but that number could always come up. It's the waiting that's that hardest part.

This applies to a bunch of players, of course. I'm nervous as hell about Gerrard against Slovakia and Ukraine, and I don't want anything to happen to Kuyt when he's off busting ass for Holland. But it's the endless dance of danger Liverpool fans perform regarding Torres when he's doing his duty for Spain. Good lord, it's enough to drive a man to drink – excessively.

Be well, 'Nando. We want to sing for you against Fulham on April 4. And not because we miss you out there.

Winding up the way back machine

Just look at the players on display ... Just listen to the way Lillian Thuram belts out La Marseillaise  ... Just watch Zidane's movement ... Just look at the way he plays as a master in control of everyone around him ... Just look at his face after the first goal and wonder who, if anyone, would deny him. Watch the way he plants himself and whips the ball in for his second. And watch his smile as the completion of his mission begins to come into focus.

Hell, why not, right? It's football and we're in the depths of the international break that we've only just started.

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Like a rampaging lightning bolt, flashing down like Godzilla breathing fire across the expanse of victory ... or something

With some extra time on our hands this week and next, let's check out Brian Phillips over at The Run of Play, who has an outstanding post up capturing the mood and other ephemeral qualities apparent after Sunday's 5-nil battering of Villa at Anfield. He puts it much better than I've been able to scrape together after the match.

Scroll through the comments at that link for some great extrapolations on the ideas Brian wrote about. Also, if you're not checking out The Run of Play now and again, what are you waiting for? It's an excellent site.

How fitting, a dry patch bereft of football

In what is shaping up to be either Mel Brooks Movie Stills Week or Looney International Heroes Week, just came across this little diddy in the Daily Mail. Granted I think my four year old cousin could do a better editing job (Reebok must focus their hiring policies on the home supporters in their not-so-hallowed ground). All the same, better than retread quotes from players who are forced to speak. Next time you get upset about a report concerning comments from a player dear to your heart, just try to decide what you'd do when you're facing a crew of reporters for days on end through an international break. And remember, in 2009, people can translate.

Pepe Reina: What a beautiful lunatic

We like to really tear into the international break here at Match Pricks, but there are some moments that put a real zing into our hearts. The video below is one of them. It's Pepe Reina leading the celebration after Spain came home as the champions of Europe. It's worth your three minutes, especially from the 2:30 mark to the end, but the sound has to be up. It should be noted Reina hardly played at Euro 2008 – unless you count this performance.

'It's good to be the king'

The news that dominates the major English papers today centers on the feel-good story of the moment – Steven Gerrard.

The new storyline for this go-round with England has been determined: Gerrard is (arguably, some say) England's best player of the so-called Golden Generation. He's in the form of his life. Zidane thinks he might be the best player in the world. Can Capello get him to duplicate his club form for the national side?

None of this is a shock. Gerrard just scored his first Premier League hat trick, and Liverpool has never been better over three games since he joined the club, having recorded such historic, dominant victories over Real Madrid, Manchester United and Aston Villa. Stevie is the brightest of the bright, the starriest of the stars. Oh please, dear Stevie, give Ingur-land reason to believe for South Africa 2010!

Fine, whatever. We know how this story ends for England, don't we? The real jewel of all these Gerrard stories, for me, is the following quote from Stevie, which appears in some form in most of the stories:

"But, at the moment, he's playing me in my favourite position, I'm captain, we're winning. Things at the club are really good."

Read it again. "... (Rafa's) playing me in my favourite position, I'm captain, we're winning." That's a helluva checklist, isn't it? It all comes down to context and individual standards. For example, if I was really going good in my own life, my three-item "things are good" checklist might read something like this: "I just billed another $500 worth of freelance work, a 24-year-old girl talked to me and my buddy just gave me an extra case of beer he had. Things are really good."

Some others:
• Ronaldo: "Fergie let me re-gel my hair – twice – at halftime, Axe body spray signed me to an endorsement deal and it turns out that model didn't give me a social disease! Things are really good."
• Rafa Benitez: "The doctors say I only need one more kidney stones operation, Mead notebooks signed me to an endorsement deal and I only spotted 17 crucial mistakes while watching the DVD of the 5-nil win over Aston Villa. Things are really good."
• Jintao: "I'm maintaining my suffocating oppression against the desire of 1.6 billion people to be free, America's economy stinks and United will have a 4-point lead at the top after they win their game in hand. Things are really good."

See, it's all in how you look at it. Gerrard's playing where he wants, he's scoring a bunch, Liverpool is recording victories that will live on in history forever. Must be a pretty nice life, Stevie.

Actually, it's pretty damn good for the rest of us right now, too. Go get 'em, Stevie. Just be careful out there.

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Dum dee dum dee dum

International break. Snore.

Just when the league was hitting a fever pitch and both Arsenal and Liverpool were rounding into top form the league slams on the breaks again for an international break.

Expect lots of this and this from players who have flittered away to be interviewed by their home country press. Of course those two are considerably better than history would suggest. Normally the international break serves up stories of malcontent, of flirtations with teams at distant shores (ahem, Barca). I reckon we can take some interest in seeing what's on offer given Arsenal's turn in fortune at the moment and run of good results.

In other news, forgive, please, my lack of Match Pricks form in the last couple of days and this week. Time has not been on my side.

Monday, March 23, 2009

The suckiest bunch of sucks that ever sucked

And here we are – again. Just as the League shows signs of life and Liverpool sends a full car battery's worth of juice pulsating through my veins, Sepp Blatter waves his hand through the air and another international break is upon us.

I mean, c'mon. Liverpool probably wishes they played those final eight matches in the next eight days. Instead, SCREEEEEEECCCCHHHHH!!!!!!!! The brakes are slammed by World Cup qualifiers and we have two weeks of pffffft. Nothing.

Well, there's this, American Match Pricks readers. On Sunday, they shoot the clocks forward overseas, so when we return to the League, adjust your body clocks as England will go back to being six hours ahead of us here in the Midwest, five hours on the East Coast and a lonely eight hours out in sunny Southern California.

I'm thinking we'll fill the space here with another installment or two of this stuff.

Sunday, March 22, 2009

5-0: It wasn't enough

That's as good a place to start as any for what in truth was a silly game. The start was really how anyone would draw it up – fast, attacking, imaginative and producing an early goal. But Villa were strong in the first half and while they deservedly lost, the score seems deceptive. Of course, I'm ecstatic about it, but Riera's volley and the first Gerrard penalty just killed Villa's spirit. The game didn't give the impression of a 5-0 thrashing, and Liverpool was nowhere near as good as they played against Madrid and United.

Torres was invisible all day, so perhaps I'm wrong about how the match unfolded. Maybe Liverpool winning 5-0 with a terrible Torres performance means they were actually much better than at first glance. I doubt, it. Riera was superb for the first time in an age, but Reo-Coker was overmatched at right back. Villa's defense just didn't get it together. Riera's goal, obviously, was the perfect example of that. To let the ball bounce from Reina's clearance was just unbelievable. Still, it's fun to make these complaints because the result spices things up for the final two months – or until the next disastrous Liverpool result.

But enough of that, on to the allusion I made in the headline. Rafa was not pleased with the performance, naturally. It's because he's a lunatic, but his crazed pursuit of the "perfect performance" is what's made him so endearing in the last couple of weeks. Here's Rafa from the team site, an hour after the match ended:

"The team was doing well but it's true I am not totally happy because we could have scored more goals from the counter attack," said Benitez, who wanted the Reds to push on after the dismissal of Brad Friedel at 4-0.

He's got a point. Teams get only a couple or three chances a season to inflate the goal differential, and today was that opportunity for Liverpool. They surpassed United and Chelsea in that column Sunday, but it wouldn't have hurt to widen that gap further. It would have been somewhat cruel to Villa if Liverpool just kept scoring, but a little more ruthlessness would've been nice to see.

Odd, after re-reading this post how unhappy I come across. No, that's not true. I'm giggling to myself with how Liverpool is playing, but it was a weird one today. What Liverpool world have we wandered into during these past two weeks? What is happening, and how did we get here? Three matches, 13 goals, one conceded. How did they lose to Boro and draw with Wigan?! Plenty to ponder during the international break.

Rafa's cracking up

It's like they were disappointed that I had given up on the league. United still clear favorites with that game in hand, though. We'll see. I'm getting juiced up a little bit here and might be ready to expose my nerves and emotions to possible crushing disappointment.

Friday, March 20, 2009

This is kind of going all pfffft ...

Real quick, before you scroll down to get to the Champions League stuff, a note about assault charges being dropped against Gerrard in court today. He's no longer being accused of actually hitting anybody, but the affray charge stands. That's an accusation of partaking in "threatening behavior" for those of you who don't have a Black's Law Dictionary handy.

The "law" says Stevie faces up to three years in prison for affray. The "law" in action, however, gives me the feeling we're looking at Gerrard ultimately being punished with something like 50 hours serving soup to the homeless or telling kids they shouldn't do drugs (too often).

OK, get on down there to the Champions League stuff.

It's déja vu all over again

If you're a Ty Webb type who believes there is a certain order to the universe, that for every yin there is a yang, then today's Champions League draw makes perfect sense. After Liverpool meet Real Madrid in the round of 16 – a side they had not faced since the 1981 European Cup final – then naturally fate had long ago determined in the quarterfinals it would be Liverpool v. Chelsea, Part 3,472: The Quickening.

OK, so what's different, other than Hiddink? Well, Chelsea has Michael Essien back now. That's no small matter. Mmmm ... You know, I'd like to lay some sort of super-emotional act on you all where I find the magic Spanish carpet the Moors left behind that Rafa and Torres put everybody on to ride all the way to the final in Rome, but that's not working right now. Well, let's get on with it Liverpool. It's Chelsea again. yeeaaaaa ...

In other news, Arsenal and United have a couple of cute tune-ups before they meet in the semifinals: Wenger and the Mighty Mites with a Spanish holiday against Villarreal and Fergie able to trot out Walbeck and the shitty Da Silva brother against Porto.

Oh, and Barça v. Bayern. That's pretty cool. That's old-fashioned, sponsor-less shirts, permed hair, super-short, tight, hiked-up-past-the-waist-style old-school European Cup right there. I like that one even more than Liverpool v. Chelsea. Seriously. These Liverpool matches are going to be agony – nothing more than 180 minutes of football in seven days that make me convulse with anxious nausea until it's over. Barça v. Bayern, though, that'll give you a football pants tent. Very cool. Of course, I can't watch either of those matches because they'll be played at the same time as Liverpool v ... oh, you know.

It's Villarreal

In 2006, Arsenal met Villarreal in the semi-final of the Champions League. They won and eventually lost to Barcelona in Paris in what amounted to one of those finals that is really more of a blur (is there any other kind?). A 1-nil lead and an eventual late loss with only 10 men. It was hard, there's no doubt about that. There was a sting to it that still lasts, fading as it may be.

Still, for my part, the true agony was in the win over Villarreal over the two-legs of the semi-final. Broken record alert: I always talk about the difficultly of managing your emotions as a football supporter. Trophies matter, naturally, but what's really the most difficult part is the bare tension from week to week and match to match. Often, it's all about getting there. Once you've gotten into the party, it's a blur. Of course, that result still matters like nothing else ... but all the same, you got there, didn't you? Maybe that's just me though. It's just the grinding anticipation and anxiety. Let's equate it to the nerves of asking that one bird who may have been way over your head to the high school dance all those years ago. You'd rather wretch than deal with it, but once you get through the ordeal, well the rest is just gravy, isn't it?

And that's why that semi-final against Villarreal in 2006 was so incredibly gut-wrenching and this moment is one of the most indelible footballing moments in my life (also because my memory doesn't work like it used to and even matches from January have flittered away) ... 

Ah Jens, what a joy he was. "Jens le fou." (Press the red button on your remote for the Lehman Cam.)

Thursday, March 19, 2009

The mind games are back!

Well, that didn't take long. You can't blame Fergie, really. He doesn't want anybody talking about his players, not after 4-1. They need to get in and hammer Fulham this weekend. But it's odd, don't you think? At the time of "Rafa's rant" Fergie dismissed it as no bother to him. Now he feels it necessary to describe it as "weird." Of course it was! Rafa's a goofball! But not a dumb one.

This is my favorite bit of Fergie's comments:

The episode has irreparably damaged the relationship between the two managers, with Ferguson questioning at the weekend that he "would need to read more of Freud" before he could understand what Benítez was talking about.

Go ahead Fergie, Freud has all the answers you require.

Mea culpa! Mea culpa! Mea culpa! My Rafa, why had I forsaken you?!

So, Rafa, about what I said earlier ... Look, there's no easy way to say it. I was wrong.

It's amazing, if you come to Match Pricks with any regularity, how often I reference that short-sighted banshee screech I wrote 45 minutes after the match at Wigan. I continue to do it as a sort of self-flagellation to remind myself: 1) Don't ever post so quickly after a tough result for Liverpool when there's a lot at stake, and 2) As a reminder that as a man, as just flesh, blood and bone, I am a flawed creature prone to foolish mistakes.

The rest of this is going to be a long, sloppy, open-mouthed kiss to Rafa Benitez, so if you're not in the mood to endure that sort of thing right now, you might want to scroll down and check out some of Colin's work.

OK, here we go then: Rafa signed a contract extension committing him to Liverpool until 2014. This, clearly, is terrific news. Like I said when Rick Parry revealed he was stepping down at the end of the season, Hicks and Gillett picking a direction and going with it can only help. You've read it elsewhere all season, but stability is everything. Liverpool needs a presence like Fergie/Wenger. Somebody needs to be in charge for a long time, and now Rafa has secured that position. For better or worse, this is where the club is headed now, with Rafa's two hands – and probably a knee, too – firmly on the steering wheel.

And what do we have to go on to place such trust in him? Well, 8 goals in 180 minutes of football against Real Madrid and United is an historic start for the evidence file. At the least, there'll also be consistently excellent performances in Europe. And other than a hiccup last season, the side has become stronger in the League since Rafa arrived in 2004. The problem has always been for his detractors – and I am surely as guilty of this as anyone else – the improvement has not been accomplished quickly enough.

That's because it's damn difficult for a Liverpool supporter to first watch Chelsea's back-to-back titles and then, of course, the hated United do the same (and likely add a third this year) while Rafa struggled to figure things out. (Although David Moores finding that extra £3 million to meet Sevilla's £15 million Dani Alves valuation a few years back might have changed things, but I digress.) It's not easy recognizing the club has just not been good enough.

But it's getting better. Until the January/February mini meltdown, Liverpool was leading the Premier League this season. They did the double this year over Chelsea and, oh so importantly, United. Let's just throw it out there again: 4-1. He's given the fans what they want, a sign of true progress, head to head, against United in the League. That's what we want. We want to overtake United and win the League. It's a longshot to do it this term, but they're closer than they've ever been.

A common refrain from neutrals and rivals is Liverpool fans are always shouting, "Just wait until next year!" Yeah, they have a point, to an extent, but on this evidence Rafa's got things going in the right direction – up. Every year under him the side has gotten stronger. He's adding the pieces. Just wait until you see Insua in 2009-10, dogg. Him and Aurelio at left back. Talk about depth in the squad where previously Rafa had to trot out Djimi Traoré. There's more to come.

Look, just go with it. This is the next five years of our lives as Liverpool supporters. It's been pretty good so far. They've picked a plan. It gradually just keeps working better. And, hey, maybe next year they win away to Wigan? You can do it, Rafa.

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

The FA await ...

Yeah, and I'm still waiting for the Arsenal to offer me that coveted number 10 role (I've got it in me, I'm telling you!). Hey, first off, let me cover something straight away. Exciting news from Jim down below and plenty of fantastic clips of the Liverpool supporters fully embracing the goal fest from Saturday at Old Trafford that immediately preceded my Football Coma. It appears Rafa spent the last week or so rubbing his good luck kidney stones. Scroll away people. (And follow Match Pricks on Twitter for those times you need some instant blogging.)

Right, moving along then.

The headline I read toward the end of the day began, "The FA await ..." 

They await what, exactly?

Apparently, they are waiting for Hull's response to Cesc Fabregas' alleged gob that traveled toward the Hull City assistant manager. They are "asking" for the club's version of the story, say the reports. My ass. What a load of bollocks. How's about asking them to explain themselves rather than pulling a sleepy head off the desk with a grumble, "huh, what? Someone's got summin' a say? Best listen then, yeah?"

Well hell, does this look like a man who might have done something so disgusting? 

Mmmm, didn't think so.

I also read, somewhere, at some point, (talk about journalistic integrity), the following phrase of sterling journalistic integrity ...

 "if reports are to believed."

Ahem. This is not news. This is certainly not journalism. It's reactionary. It's knee jerk. It's a freaking water boy trying to call in a play. This is the equivalence of someone firing off a story about me standing in Hyde Park shouting, "I want some Tevez money, dammit! Let's count it, shall we, at a square $40 for the cost incurred for booze I blew through during Arsenal matches against West Ham since they should have been relegated!" Beyond that, what's the big deal here, eh?

Look, I'm no hypocrite. If the Arsenal captain Cesc Fabregas spit "at (my) assistant manager's feet," as Phil Brown was quoted (sidebar: Phil's line, "I'm not going tittle-tattling to the FA." Um, Phil, don't be daft, you just did. You'll run your mouth to Sky's cameras with that fire in your eyes, but of course, a man of your stature would surely never "tittle-tattle" would he?), then shame on him and I'm sorry that he resorted to spitting. But what ... he'll be suspended for three games? Maybe? Big deal. 

The kid has been out for three months already. I mean, it was reportedly just at the man's feet, not on him. Not in his face. Not on his, ahem, Bluetooth. Just a couple of weeks ago Ronaldo (press the green button on your remote if you'd Ronaldo to stick his thumb up Nani's ass when they form their next wall) spit in the direction of some other player (was it Tugay? can't be bothered to research that right now.).

Gross and disgraceful? Sure. Absolutely no place for it in the game, much less any other walk of life. But it's not something demanding action when it's in the direction of a player yet not on him. Meanwhile, you have divers, you have cheaters, you have people breaking legs with nary a punishment. Hmmm. That sound right to you? Didn't think so. I mean you wanna talk about bringing the game into disrepute?

And it's all because one man lost (dubiously? maybe, but still ... ) and got extremely bent out of shape. Regardless of the emotions out of (supressed chuckle) Heinz Park or whateverthehell they call it, Cesc immediately (as in, that night) denied it in full. 

And hey, he's not the kind of kid to do something, you know, as, like, stupid as, oh, I don't know, say, tossing some, you know, like pizza, or maybe soup at another team's, umm, manager. Eh? Eh? (ahem)

Rafa sings contact extension and proceeds to ruin yet another favorite tired Liverpool storyline for English football writers

Here's the early details for you to read.

Occupied at work right now but wanted to get up the good news about Rafa "signing on" (heh, heh; right Milwaukee United fans?) through 2014. And yes, you didn't misread that. I did describe it as good news. For further explanation, type "That's it" into the search box at the top of this blog and look for the post-Wigan reaction.

Much more later ...

4-1: Behind the numbers

I'm giving myself one more day to really roll around in this one. It's like making some kind of heavy meat dish in the world's longest-bubbling slow cooker. With every extra hour that concoction sits in there, it gets better and better.

Courtesy Television New Zealand, staff writer Michael Burgess digs into some of United's history to put Saturday in perspective:

• In the 10 years between 1993 and 2003, there were only three penalties awarded at Old Trafford to visiting teams and they all missed!
• United has not scored first at Old Trafford and then gone on to lose a Premier League match since 1995.
• By winning on Saturday, Liverpool also became the first team ever in the history of the Premier League to beat United twice in a season after trailing in both fixtures.

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Quality Red in NYC; sad Old Trafford MC; 'Always Look on the Bright Side of Life'; and inside the Liverpool away supporters section

I realized today that there's not that much going on this week in the Liverpool half of Match Pricks, so Saturday's match is really all there is to ruminate on, for a while at least. How'd that one end up again? Oh yeah.

With that, here's a YouTube roundup of the fun. First up, The Liverpool Supporters Club in New York City sings some songs about all the fun. This is noteworthy for the absolutely quality supporter who pops up first around the 24-second mark directly in front of the camera with the grey away Insua shirt. Well done, son:

This one is beautiful. You'll need the sound up fairly loud, but during the pre-match warmup, 3,000 Scousers in a far corner of the stadium outsing some idiot MC trying – and failing – to fire up Old Trafford with that awful song. Listen close for YNWA overpowering the stadium PA system. The MC just sounds sad and pathetic, a harbinger of how his team was about to play:

Who doesn't enjoy the Fanzone? The Liverpool fan's wig and mustache collection is incredible. Check out the United fan's expressions when Liverpool pours it on:

Liverpool supporters inside Old Trafford during the match. The fun kicks in around the 1:45 mark. Then it goes: Dossena goal, "We want five!" chant, mocking United fans with "Rafa's cracking up," back to "We want five!" to YNWA, "Fergie's right! Your fans are shite!" and full-time whistle into a little more than a minute of pure happiness. Note the wide swaths of empty seats throughout the other parts of Old Trafford.

Happy birthday to Theo

Our little pacey magician Theo Walcott, seemingly a developing player for most of the decade, hit the ripe old age of 20 yesterday. There's no denying his influence in the team at this point. I said a couple of days ago (weeks? tough to tell after a Football Coma.) that we've come to the time where opposition will be looking at him and very soon fearing him.

Tonight, I'm sure, will be no exception. The matches come fast and furious this time of year. Tonight, the Arsenal host Hull at the Emirates in the 6th Round of the FA Cup. This competition definitely provides an outlet where the team can look to prove their progress. We've been fortunate with the draw this year, there's no mistaking that, but in an era when players are seeing matches nearly year round, any respite that comes along will be a welcome one.

Arsene has got the team purring right now and continued momentum to build on the spirit is key again tonight. It's another chance to rotate the squad a little given that it's the third match in less than a week. While I spoke several weeks ago about the team's increasing maturity and cohesiveness, it's important to point out that while the team has been young and brimming with potential for the last couple of years, there was a level of stagnancy to them. Not anymore. Just now there's more confidence to be felt in squad rotation. There's more confidence to be felt when players are called upon. There's more confidence to be felt through the full ranks of the team, even players who weren't performing just back in the winter. There's no way I can pinpoint it beyond a maturity and consistency. Still, it's palpable and it's real. 

Arshavin is a doubt tonight after his brilliant performance against Blackburn. Eight stitches on his ankle/foot will see to that (and where do you think he got those stitches?). Vela, Van Persie, Gibbs at left back, Djourou, Theo, Fabianski are among those I expect to be included. Perhaps Wilshire from the bench. It's an important game and Hull are not to be trifled with, they'll see it as a rare chance to get themselves on the big stage at Wembley in a semi-final against the awaiting Chelsea side.

We're close, and as I've been calling for, we're definitely pouring on the gas right now. Each game brings its own worries and this will be no exception. We lost to Hull at home earlier in the season. We're less than a week out from an exhausting shootout thriller in Roma, we were clattered at home against Blackburn with a scoreline that flattered us. Nowt wrong with a little paranoia to follow the positives, eh?

C'mon then, the Arsenal!

Monday, March 16, 2009

Football coma

This, friends, is what you call a Football Coma. It doesn't happen all the time. In fact they can be pretty rare. It's a time just when the elements align perfectly, and collide perfectly. The result? You got it. You're left in a Football Coma. One that can steal hours like a time warp.

It happened again, for the first time in a while, on Saturday. You'll note, please, that I write 'first time in a while' with the heavy implication that I can't remember the last time a Football Coma came calling. Right, there's a reason for that.

You'll note as well that in the time Match Pricks has been around, you've yet to read much negativity toward Liverpool out of the Arsenal half. It's because I have a truly founded respect for the team. Not much they do so desperately and outwardly leads to a reflexive hate, like the Uniteds and Chelseas of the world. Top that off with the fact that I've got several very close friends who count themselves in the ranks and it's hard to generate much honest bile for the team. Should I dislike them simply because they aren't my team? Hmmm. I don't think so. Quite certainly I won't be openly rooting for them to get the hearty results they need week in and week. But that said, no, I won't be openly rooting for them to fail. In the same way I always say that a team must earn your love and support, it's just silly to detest a team just because.

That's the long way around explaining how incredible that Liverpool result over United was on Saturday morning. Again, the brilliance of those early morning kickoffs (even though with daylight savings time, 7:45 a.m. feels like a right old sleep in) lies in the fact that there were maybe three hours of sleep to prep. So there I was ("if our behavior was gross and outrageous, well it was only a matter of degree," to quote a well known idol), popping awake and ready to go. And this match was primed for it after that darling of a performance from Liverpool on Tuesday.

Job done by The Mighty Reds, well delivered to those lads. That was about as much fun as I've had watching a football game in a long time indeed. And what tops it off? You guessed it, a nice 4-nil follow up by the Arsenal. And that, friends, is the perfect mix of ingredients to induce a Football Coma. Shock win, leading to crazy party that will certainly threaten to spill across the width of the city and challenge the restrictive bubble of decent folk everywhere, and immediately followed by a goalfest for my own team. Done and dusted, a Saturday lost in the celebrations of football. Won by and awarded to the righteous. 

Sunday, March 15, 2009

Where were you on March 14, 2009?

And with that result on the left, I took off – literally – on a wild Saturday that leaves me reflecting this afternoon on one of the sunniest, brightest Saturdays to roll through a Liverpool supporter's heart and mind in a long, long time.

The analytical, rational post-match reaction is what's being said most elsewhere, that United is still clearly in control of the League and the likely favorite to win it. That is all fine and good – and true – but some things go beyond one Saturday result or one season's League championship. Of course winning the League this year would be preferable to any kind of scoreline at Old Trafford yesterday. Yes, you're right Mancs, you'll probably still win the League.

However, the trophy will sit alongside many others through the years, it will occasionally gather dust and require a custodian to polish it a bit, and after a few more seasons, the majority of football fans will have to "hit the Google key" to be reminded of the exact goal differential and points totals accumulated in 2008-09.

But for all time, I'll have Manchester United 1 – Liverpool 4. Forever. At certain points of the match yesterday, it defied reasonable expectation. I mean, for f**k's sake, Doessena scored! And it was the second time time in four days that he added Liverpool's fourth against a titan of the game. In those instances, you just grab on desperately with one hand and hang on for the ride. Liverpool took its supporters all over creation yesterday with that performance. Enjoy it, roll around in it, embrace it. It happened and we can all laugh and slap backs and hug and raise drinks to it.

Beating United is one thing, for anybody. Liverpool taking three points against United is always special in the Premier League era. But just hammering United at Old Trafford – absolutely hammering them – when in recent weeks the pundits and ex-players have been trotting out claims they are the greatest of Fergie's sides, that they might be the greatest of all the club teams of all time, that's something they make T-shirts and songs about. And it happened with Lucas in central midfield, and with Carragher having to fill in at right back right after the warm up.

4-1. It's rare when two numbers describe an entire day, mood and state of mind for a worldwide group of people. United fans will likely have the League to celebrate for all time. Liverpool fans will have 4-1, and any United supporter who would try to say it's really no big deal apparently doesn't care all that much for this rivalry.

4-1. I mean, it's even fun just looking at it.

Saturday, March 14, 2009

With full regrets and apologies

The Match Pricks Live Blog of Liverpool and Man U will not happen as previously announced. It is no more. Some things just get in the way of chronicling one's self-torture. With apologies to all Match Pricks readers everywhere who have come to our site for the recent live blogs. We hope you still consider checking us out in the future.

Friday, March 13, 2009

Liverpool-United Flashback: Old Trafford on 26 February, 1983

The differences between yesterday and today are pretty well spelled out in this video, the first half of the 1-1 draw between Liverpool and United on 26 February, 1983 at Old Trafford. Both goals are in this clip, the Liverpool score from Dalglish and the United score courtesy of a Grobbelar error that leaves the net nekkid. On this day, it was a meeting between the two top teams in the division, only United needed to win at Old Trafford to keep Liverpool from killing off the title race.

It's a nearly unrecognizable Old Trafford, with the announced crowd of 57,397 representing the largest of the season in the First Division to that date. Also, the sponsor-less strip, the haircuts – it's all different. But it's good stuff. Your commentator is Martin Tyler:

Here's the second half. Both sides come close to scoring a winner:

And then, just because I feel like being a bastard about things, here's Denis Law's infamous backheel for Manchester City on 24 April 1974 at Old Trafford that essentially relegated United in their last game of the season:

The Match Pricks Live Blog: Manchester United v. Liverpool – Inside the Mind of a Maniac

Why the hell not? More than anything else, this one's for me. We'll live blog the sucker tomorrow morning, 7:45 a.m. here in Milwaukee, 12:45 p.m. GMT or something:45 a.m. or p.m., in whatever time zone you might find yourself at kickoff. I'm expecting to go through every stage of grief – twice – and maybe stumble upon a moment of happiness or two. We'll see I guess.

It should be interesting to have a chronicle of what will sort of be my entire 2008-09 Liverpool season as a fan crunched into two hours. If you can't get in front of a set capable of broadcasting Setanta, or you don't feel like trudging off to somewhere that is showing the match, come on back to Match Pricks and let me have it in the comments. Trust me, there's nothing you can say that will offend my sensibilities. And there's no scenario you can envision that's more horrific than I've already played out a million times in my head.

F**kin' hell, this is going to be torture.

Match Pricks Way-back Machine: A few thoughts from September 2008 about Liverpool's run-in

I thought this was kind of cute to look back on. My thoughts from Sept. 25 on Liverpool's final 10 matches of the season, the first of which is Saturday. Those were heady days, and any regular Match Pricks reader is well aware of the psychological torture that I've inflicted upon myself in the roughly 5 1/2 months that have passed since I posted that.

Seems funny here, on the eve of whatever the hell is going to happen tomorrow, that I could so casually write: "Now, the United match is away, and that will be a brutalizer for all involved."

That doesn't exactly seem like a sufficient summary of what's on deck, is it? I think if someone only ended up "brutalized" after the match that it would be like hardly breaking a sweat. I wouldn't be surprised in the least if my head exploded, Scanners-like, at some point during the proceedings.

Such a nice boy

Because there wasn't quite enough anticipation for tomorrow's match at Old Trafford, Wayne Rooney had a go at Liverpool the other day, saying he "hates" the red half of his hometown. (For more, see every mainstream football news site on the Internet.)

The comments were posted on the official Manchester United Web site, then taken down, but Fergie defended the remarks and said it's OK for Rooney to say something like that. Honestly, I agree with him. Whatever, like people should be surprised Rooney would "hate" Liverpool. Jeez, ya think?

What's more telling is that Fergie stood up and said what he did. What does he have to worry about? It seems lately Ferguson almost can't believe how good his team has become. I don't think he'd mind it if Rio Ferdinand laid out a couple of bumps on a Liverpool away shirt, blew those suckers back with a £100 note and then set the kit on fire and took a dump on it. "Whatever," he'd likely say. "When's the next match?"

It's clear United wants to kill – not merely just beat, mind you – their guests on Saturday. And their confidence is just an expression of the side's form. I'll still argue with anyone over a pint or six that last year's United was better than this season's edition. But United 2008-09 is what it is: a devastating team. They crush the opposition's hope. Most of the matches are over just by Fergie rolling 11 red shirts out there. That's fine.

Let's play the match, boys.

Thursday, March 12, 2009

Theo on penalties

Not much to report about the weekend yet. Talk is still mired in the aftershocks of yesterday's shootout win over Roma. That said, interesting comments in the Times of London from Theo Walcott regarding penalties:

Theo Walcott was thrilled. "The dressing-room after the game was like we'd just won the World Cup final," he said. The winger scored his spot-kick as Arsenal prevailed in sudden-death and the 19-year old is indebted to James Beattie, the Stoke City striker, formerly of Southampton, where Walcott started his senior career.

"It's all about positive thinking," Walcott said, adding that Beattie was "probably one of the best penalty-takers" he has seen. "It was my first penalty shoot-out," he said. "I had a dry throat going towards the goal but I didn't look at the goalkeeper. Sometimes they might try to put you off."

Just because

The nerves (see below) have passed on now we're (mentally) on to the point where we can actually stop, breath, and embrace our team. We can step back and look, in the eye even, the players that we've embraced and put our trust in so deeply. As they say in French ... alors, et voila.

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Penalties: Or how can I put this?

Let me see if i can squeeze you into this one.

I like the, ah, well the way you look. You have one them, ah, trustworthy faces. Looks like you fancy a little, ah, challenge. There's speed there, velocity. Maybe even a little creativity, yeah? That's right, you know what I'm talking about, don't you? So yeah, I see you standing there, ready to, you know, let loose, see how that puppy handles. Maybe, ah, see how much room you have before it tops out and just hit a nice and smooth cruising speed.

So yeah, let me get you out of that tall vodka tonic you've been sucking down and into something with power. Something with stability. Something, ah, well something that doesn't feel the road as much. You'll need some explosion out of the gates, right? Right. And yet, yeah, I think I can just see it in your eyes there ... theeeeere it is, mmmm. That's it. A smooooooth resolution. Mmm hmmm. Stability. Something that will get you through it.

Try this on for size. Let me put you in, no let me rephrase that, I'd really like to see you a pint of Guinness. I think it'll suit you better than you realize. It's gonna jump right out of the gate. Hell, that's how I deal with it. I mean that puppy is gonna look like fusion right before your very eyes. It's gonna come flying, rising, shooting all over. Like an explosion. You might not be able to handle it. You might freak out a little bit at first and you might think it'll never stop. Screw that. You are gonna freak out. You're gonna grab the table, the desk, the wheel, that bird, whatever the hell is closest to you. You'll scream out. You'll shake, waver, question why you're even doing this. No sane person would, surely. "When will the nerves stop," you'll ask yourself. "Someone make them stop, this is gonna be an utter mess! How can I deal with this feeling all night long!? It'll never settle, will it? It can't, can't keep this insane and soul-rattling momentum. Can it?"

I know, I've been there. I've felt that. Hell, I'm there right now with you. Look around you, man, we all are, we're all there with you.

But you know what? It's gonna smooth right over. Would you stop for a second? Just stop. Breath. That's it, take a breath. And look at me, look me in the eyes. And hear me. By the time all that turbulation, all that propulsion (all that desperate defending, all that exhaustion, all the fear, all the finger tip saves, all the glances at the empty bench, all the intercepted passes, all the ranging up and down and back again, all the shots that sail clear into row M), comes to an end ... it's gonna be smooth sailing.
You'll be through the worst of it all with nothing but a settled set of emotions in front of you. You'll be ready to take it down and fire up that tasty vodka tonic again. You know, the kind that sets the gas pedal on the floor and tears through the traffic with narry a concern for the obstacles in front of it. The kind that tore straight through Burnley and West Brom. That kind that has Blackburn shaking for the match on Saturday.

That's right, that kind.
And oh yeah, one more thing ... It's gonna start all over again in a couple of weeks. Set your watches.

Only in dreams: This can't possibly be good

Who wants a peek into my disturbing subconscious? Well, I'm going ahead with this anyway. Last dream before waking up this morning said it all as, for the first time ever, my sleeping time was interrupted by a guest appearance from Fergie. The context was a pub in Milwaukee on a sunny afternoon. I was there (circumstances unremembered) with a variety of friends from across my background and Fergie was sitting alone, closer to the door and enjoying a quiet pint. He had the full match day get-up on: black overcoat and that stupid black zippered-turtleneck sweater thing. For some reason I made polite small talk with him and he was cordial – friendly even – in return. Then he got up to leave and turned the barstools over onto the table were he was sitting, even though it was the middle of the afternoon.

Yeah, I watch and think about way too much football.

Silvio and now Ronaldo, too, size up some hot Italian action for themselves

When you come down on the same side as Silvio Berlusconi in respect to the tact and taste level of your comments about the relative attractiveness of Italian women, well, you probably haven't noticed that the '60s have ended.

Cristiano Ronaldo had this to say about those banging Italian babes in advance of today's 2nd Leg at Old Trafford against Inter Milan:

"Will I ever play in Italy? Never say never in life," the World Player of the Year told Tuttosport. "I do gladly travel there, like I did last summer, because there are the most beautiful and sexiest girls in the world - joking aside I admire your football, you're the world champions."

Look at Ronaldo there. He's doing schtick. He's got a bit going for himself. That's cute. Maybe he can join Berlusconi's anti-rape brigade to protect those beautiful women. If Silvio's right, they're going to need all the help they can get.

As if on cue

Fantastic stuff from Arsene in advance of today's match. I'd walk anywhere behind this man. Check out the story from the Club site with his pre-match comments.

Be sure to scroll down for Jim's thoughts on Liverpool's incredible night against Real Madrid. And hey, the match came and went but do give a read to his live blog that covered the proceedings in full.

Arsenal versus Roma

A match of massive significance for the Arsenal today - in fact, it's massive as much for the continuing galvanization of this young and multi-national side as it is for the reminder of 2009 season. To say nothing of my mood for the rest of the week. (Image at right: how welcoming.)

It's the second leg of the first knockout game of the Champions League, the round of 16. Arsenal were 1-nil winners at home in London in the first leg and have travelled to Rome for today's encounter. That win came on February 24, during a run of six consecutive clean sheets and a perfectly clean February for the Club. Problem was, or perhaps the stunner as they won the match, it also came during a run of a severe goalless drought for a team that normally bags plenty in style.

The noted fact out of those matches, though, was that while Arsenal struggled to put in the final twist and nab their goals, they still bossed the game. It appeared to be, as has been discussed in this space (check the archives) an intentional tactic to hold the line until the cavalry came roaring back. Now, on the back of two consecutive three goal efforts, Arsenal are coming back to their stride and their confidence.  And so the team heads to Rome, brimming with pace and even a little vigor. It must be one of the more interesting matches to come along in quite some time, yeah?

Arsenal have a strong record of late against Italian opposition, unbeaten in four trips including recent triumphs over Juventus and AC Milan. This event today marks an opportunity to well and truly turn the page and move from promise to challenger. This team of youngsters has been standing on the edges of the truly competitive for a couple of years now. Ever loaded with the promise that one day, just you watch, these lads will string it together and prove their boss right (stubborn in their defense as he's been). That time is coming up at us awfully quickly, with many reaching the point of mere unwillingness to find, much less make, excuses.

Attention turns, then, to the team that Arsene Wenger will put out there. A great deal of the offensive exposure and movement we've seen in the last couple of weeks has come from the influence of the brilliant Andrei Arshavin. He's ineligible for this one, Cup tied as he appeared in the group stages with former club Zenit St. Petersburg (a ridiculous law given their elimination). Will Walcott start after his cameo on Sunday? Will Vela come in again to continue to prove his worth? Will Eduardo start to continue his terrific form in his return from injury? Van Persie will surely get the full match and be looking to score again. The Dutchman has led this team through most of the season, keeping them afloat in spite of incoherent form. Given the leadership he's shown to this point, there's no doubt he'll have a burning desire to score that important first goal.

Here's to it, lads! Go light 'em on fire ... and here's hoping they watched that fantastic Liverpool team yesterday. Every. Single. Ball. Every opportunity was challenged by Liverpool, Torres tracked back, fullbacks pushed the line, Gerrard never stopped running, Mascherano was always there to keep and retake possession. Reina, one of my new favourite people (more on that later), made the spectacular saves called for by the few actually occasions of challenge. What a performance. It's a example that can definitely be followed.

There's a lot of work to do. It's just gutting to know I won't be able to watch this one. (work and all)

Thank you, a summary and that, uh, next match

A quick note of gratitude and thanks, again, to everyone who took time to read the live blog Tuesday. Match Pricks visitors on Tuesday set new viewing records for the site by huge margins. We couldn't be more flattered. The live blogs are a real blast and we're glad to see people enjoy collectively freaking out with us and getting caught up in the matches as they happen. Look for them to be a mainstay during the rest of the Champions League this season. The Match Pricks Live Blog series might even continue today with United and Inter from Old Trafford.

As far as the "most complete Liverpool performance in more than a year" that we all shared Tuesday: I was surprised – after watching later Tuesday a replay of the first half hour, all of the goals and bits and bobs of the second half – that I didn't miss much during the live blog. Well, except for Mascherano's yellow card, which should've gone to Alonso. One of the papers mentioned that it's possible Frank De Bleeckere might have booked Masch because he kicked the ball away when play was stopped. Other than that, however, I was surprised how little more there was to add. It was just incredible. It's rare for Liverpool to surprise me much anymore. Usually every match makes sense, more or less and for better or worse, in how it unfolds. Middlesbrough was a shocking-disappointment-kind of surprise and totally unexpected. But Tuesday was the other, delirious kind of surprise. Who knew? Babel and Kuyt and Alonso and Mascherano, all playing superbly in rhythm with Gerrard and Torres running roughshod over Cannavaro, Pepe, Heinze and the rest. Casillas is the only thing that kept it from 7-0 or worse. Regardless of whatever happens Saturday at Old Trafford, Liverpool will always have this night against Real Madrid as a testament to their European ferocity under Benitez.

Speaking of The Damned United (yes, I know the film is about Clough at Leeds, but just go with it) ... Saturday could be epic, for all the wrong Liverpool-based reasons. I've not seen Fergie make any comments in anticipation of the match, but there's a sense United, in one of their most-glorious runs, would prefer to make an example of Liverpool on Saturday, similar to how they crushed Scolari's Chelsea into irrelevance. I'm not full of hope for this one, but Tuesday's result makes whatever happens Saturday somewhat more tolerable – unless it's 6-0 or 8-0 to United or something. Then I'll just go outside and retch for half an hour.

Anyway, after Tuesday's fun, I'm toying with the idea of another live blog for Saturday. The match is only on Setanta in the U.S., so it might be of more interest for Match Pricks' States-based readers. I'd be watching through a dodgy Internet feed, but it worked just great for the 1st Leg against Real Madrid, so I'm curious to do it that way again. Plus, anyone stopping by could possibly witness the psychotic devolution of a human being impulsively hammering out his thoughts as he watches one of his last sweet dreams get strangled and then immolated by Jintao. And who wouldn't want to see that?!

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Shoe throwing strikes its defiant pose again

Conflicting reports out of Iran, where in the city of Urmia it appears someone threw a shoe at Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Again, these reports are conflicting, as anti-regime bloggers are reporting the incident as fact while writers sympathetic to the Iranian president dismiss it as a rumor spread by "monarchists" and "anti-revolutionaries" spreading dissent.

Also, it should be noted both sides acknowledge it is possible the shoe thrower mistakenly thought Ahmadinejad was Real Madrid manager Juande Ramos leaving for a Mideast getaway after Tuesday's match at Anfield.

Match Pricks Live Blog-tacular: Liverpool v. Real Madrid, 2nd Leg

Madridistas on the march

Sid Lowe with an interesting nugget: Today's match is the most in-demand, non-finals ticket in Real Madrid history.

The particulars:

"There have been more requests from socios – members – for tonight's game than any other in Madrid's history, finals apart. They have fought for tickets to Anfield because they are tickets to Anfield as much they are tickets for Liverpool-Madrid."

The piece linked to above is more an assessment of Real Madrid's impotence in Europe since beating Leverkusen in 2002, but it is telling that a round of 16 2nd leg at Anfield could produce such demand. In a season that is heading toward home with feelings of disappointment for many close to Liverpool, this news from Madrid is a reminder that things are not quite as dire or down as they might seem.

Back 15 minutes before kickoff for the Match Pricks Live Blog-tacular.

Monday, March 9, 2009

While it's still up

You never know when these highlights are gonna come down. Here's Eduardo's finish from youtube. Enjoy it while you can. Note a few things here ...

  1. Song's lob to play him in.
  2. Eduardo holding the line to stay onside.
  3. Arshavin not only chasing the ball down to keep it in play,
  4. But also the composure he shows when he comes up with it. He holds the ball, and moves it back into the flow to develop something, rather than hoofing it across the middle and hoping someone will latch onto it.
  5. Watch the way Eduardo turns his body to the exact angle he needs to finish this as he has.
Scroll, baby, scroll! Lots to see at Match Pricks tonight. Full reaction to Sunday's FA Cup match down below, as well as an update from Jim on the timing for his Live-Blogtacular tomorrow afternoon. Nothing says Champions League loving like a live text feed from an ardent Liverpool supporter. Tell the kiddies to stay home from Anfield, you'll get all the atmosphere you need, right here at Match Pricks.

CORRECTION: Liverpool-Real Madrid Live Blog-tacular starts at 2:30 p.m. CDT

It seems the switch to Daylight Savings Time caught me unprepared before my previous post. (Scroll down for explanation) Things will kick off here at 2:30 p.m. CDT Tuesday, give or take a few seconds. I posted the wrong time earlier. That means 3:30 p.m. in New York, 1:30 p.m. in Colorado and 12:30 p.m. in sunny Southern California. Your local times here in the States might vary. Match Pricks international readers just need to orient themselves to 19:30 p.m. GMT, only because I can barely keep track of DST changes in the States, let alone across the world.

Torres as a sub, no Benayoun at all. Looks like Alonso and Gerrard will have to provide the international class while the rest of the boys chip in. C'mon boys, let's go!

Scroll down for Colin's giddyness about Eduardo and that amazing, incredible goal. It really was something extraordinary.

Eduardo's beach goal

From The Telegraph, another shot of Eduardo's stunner.

Tasty football, mmmmm

Catch that FA Cup match against Burnley on Sunday? (Image from the Club site wallpaper) Mmmmm. Delicious, that was. Like a tall and cold vodka tonic with a dash of lime to it. One that you can really get a good look at, know what I mean? 

Now, now, stop yourself. I know what you're saying all you Match Pricks reading non-Arsenal supporters ... it was Burnley. Right, if I've said it once and all that ... When it comes to the Arsenal, in my opinion (and hey, that's what counts here, right? I'm entitled.), they simply need to play themselves into form. Doesn't matter if it's Chelski, Juventus, some team from Dubai or Our Little Sisters of the Poor. The teams plays on a rhythm. The importance of that cannot be overstated. It's one of the reasons you see them playing so well and then so poorly against such divergent competition from week to week. And it's also one of the reasons they generally (although it's changing with the cash machine of the new Emirates Cup each year) don't play against stiff pre-season competition.

At any rate, here they are then, playing themselves into form. And it's got me all smiley. I've often had the chat of how does one, so mired in supporting his football team, answer the rather simple question of "hey, how are you?" Mmmm (and remember, that's not the mmmm of delicious, more that of rumbly acceptance), right. Well, at the moment, I've more energy than I've had in some time, I've shaken off a weeklong cough and cold, even feel like I may have dropped a few pounds, thanks very much.  I wonder why. Oh that's right, it's because my team is playing good football again. It's because the pieces are coming back into place. 

Arsenal won 3-nil against Burnley on Sunday morning. While Burnley did show up to play, it was never in doubt. The goals, and in fact much of the performances, were sublime. There was touch ... Carlos Vela accepting Arshavin's pass and pushing it through the defender before chipping the goalkeeper (a habit he seems to be picking up). There was magic ... Alex Song lobbing the ball over the defense only for Eduardo, in a turn of sheer necessity, invention and confidence, to slice the ball to the opposite corner with the outside back heel on his left foot. (As Jim commented to me earlier today, just try to stand like that in your living room, much less do it under pressure in the heat of the moment and while placing a ball.) And there was even a little prank ... Alex Song again involved as his back heel sprung the ever-so hardworking (in this match) Emmanuel Eboue who finished cleanly and calmly. Forgive and forget, right?

Beyond that? The match was notable to me for three special instances, one being the aforementioned goal from Eduardo, his third in 2 games back. Another is the fact that Eduardo came out wearing the captain's armband. What an honor. What a man. What an inspiration. This boy, as I've said since the match, just knows how to score goals. He deserves everything he gets and I better not hear a negative word about this man. I don't believe it's possible at this point to overstate his influence and the scope of his inspiration. There's no mistake that if his injury didn't happen last year the title chase would have been extraordinarily different. As it is though, it did happen. And now here we are with Eduardo back in the lineup and contributing mightily, both physically and emotionally - no doubt about it. The haze of the last year of Arsenal's floundering form will hopefully become a fading memory with the sharpened identity we're seeing now. Finally, the other thing I'd like to mention is the return of Theo Walcott. He just looks like he's growing up, doesn't he? Since we bought him from Southampton, he's been young, skinny, fragile and loaded with potential. I think we can well and truly say that he is now a weapon. It won't be long until we can say that opponents fear him. Theo was soaring in his cameo. Burnley were no match for his pace, movement and imagination. 

Then again, not many teams would have been equipped to handle the movement of the Arsenal on Sunday. It's just the notable way they are beginning to link together. Eduardo playing into space with a soft turn of his chest, Arshavin drifting in and sending those incisive passes through to the pacey Vela, even Eboue racing up and down the pitch and Song holding a much higher line made a difference. It allowed the team to play the kind of football they are supposed to play, the kind of football that Arsene Wenger looks for and expects to put on display for the supporters. These dudes are flying right now. And there's only one way to find out how fast this puppy will go. So pump up those tires (you know, to test the cornering) and get that gas on the floor. There's a couple of trophies to win. And apparently, there's goals out there to be picked up. Might I suggest a song for the trip? Maybe a little Purple Rain?

Reality check: yes, I know. West Brom and Burnley. Gotta start somewhere. How about Wednesday for a next step? A match of massive importance and significance.