mcgillianaire: (Liverpool FC)
Many football fans probably don't even know their club has a Reserves team. Many of those who do know, don't really care. Reserve teams are notorious for featuring forgotten players who stopped playing for the first-team a decade ago and giving injured players an opportunity to gain match-practice during recuperation. Not anymore. At last night's 2008 Reserves Premier League Playoff Final, no less than 10 players had played for their respective first-teams, while the average age of the Liverpool team was a staggeringly youthful 19. The oldest player was 21, the youngest 17. This drastic change to the Reserves set-up is the work of Rafa Benitez. Unknown to those (vast majority of football fans) who follow only the first-team, is the magic the Spaniard is unleashing at the Reserves and other Junior levels of the club. Before Rafa became manager in the summer of 2004, the Reserves and Academy were useless entities, churning out worthless players, many of whom were getting snapped up elsewhere. There was no proper grooming system to prepare Liverpool for the seasons ahead, in the way that Manchester United and Arsenal have become the two most successful clubs in the land since the Premier League began in 1992.

Things are very different now. When Rafa took over he got rid of all the old farts who were being paid to do virtually nothing. He brought his friends from Spain and identified the good people from the existing system. He told them that the purpose of the Academy was to identify the best young talent across Europe. To achieve this he expanded the existing scouting system by sending experienced and dedicated scouts to strategic countries which he believes contains the brightest footballing talent on the planet. The scouts jobs were to not only identity promising talent but to snap them up quickly and bring them back to Merseyside for future development. But Rafa didn't just focus on the players. He set about revamping the Academy's facilities and ensuring the Academy trained at a separate location from the Reserves and first-team. This was a master-stroke as it provided dedicated attention for the Academy's recruits, while allowing Rafa to focus on preparing the big boys for the big stage. And what of the results? Simple. Including last night's deserved victory over Aston Villa's Reserves (their first Premier Reserve League victory in two decades), Liverpool have also won the FA Youth Cup twice, in 2006 and 2007.

What does it all mean? Not much if you don't care or don't value the results of a club's second and third-stringers. But I do and I think the results reflect the changes Rafa has brought to the club in his short time as manager, and bode well for the future. In other words, Liverpool's chances of reclaiming a league title that has eluded them for nearly two decades are all the more higher because of the quality of players coming through the ranks. One can easily gloss over the odd victory in a Youth/Reserves competition, but a continuous trend and the ease with which Liverpool ran away with the Reserves title this year (given the age and inexperience of its squad, especially compared to its competition) augurs well for the first-team in the seasons to come. Many people criticize Benitez for his rotation policies and how it has affected Liverpool's chances of challenging the other Big Three for the Premier League title. Others criticize Benitez for focusing only on the European Cup. Both sets of people (often they are one and the same) are right to a point. What they ignore, at their peril, is the good work our manager is doing behind-the-scenes. It is important to win trophies and improve our title-challenging record, but I commend Mr Benitez for treating England's most successful club with a long-term view in mind and the respect it deserves. The fans love the guy and knowledgeable fans know his backstage plan. May his reign at Anfield prolong for many a year to come. Beware the Rafalución!!!
mcgillianaire: (Liverpool FC)
Liverpool are constantly accused of lacking creativity, playing boring football, and focusing on tactical rigidity to grind out marginal results. Fact is, we have scored more goals than any other English team in all competitions this season. At 116 goals, we have five goals more than Arsenal and twelve goals more than Manchester United. We are also accused of relying too heavily on two players to score our goals (Torres and Stevie G). It's true they both score a lot of goals, in fact 45% of all our goals this season (a total of 53). But few people talk about the fact that down the M62 in Old Trafford, a certain Cristiano Ronaldo and Carlos Tevez have scored 59 of United's goals this season, 56% of their club's total goals. And what's more? When Babel piled in his belter at Stamford Bridge last week, he took his season tally to 10. Five other Reds have already made double-figures this season (Torres, Gerrard, Benayoun, Kuyt and Crouch). Liverpool are the only team in the land with a sextet of double-figure goal scorers this season. Chelsea are next nearest with a quartet. So, we might not be the most attractive to watch or cup/championship winners, but we're certainly not boring and definitely not over-reliant on our best two players.

COME ON YOU REDS, MAKE IT 19 NEXT SEASON!!! YNWA.
mcgillianaire: (England 2006)
Thanks to Manchester United's victory over Barcelona in the European Cup Semifinal, natural order has been restored to the footballing universe. For the first time since 1985, when English clubs were banned from European football for ten years (this was later rescinded to five years and an extra year for Liverpool), England leads the UEFA Country Ranking Coefficients (albeit by a minuscule difference over Spain). But by the time next season's European campaign begins, the gap will be even wider. Hip Hip Hooray! COME ON YOU ENGLISH CLUBS!!
mcgillianaire: (Football player)


Explain why 7th-placed Hearts have more points than 6th-placed Aberdeen in this season's latest Scottish Premier League table.
mcgillianaire: (Football player)
We've done it! The Reds are going back to the Championship after three miserable seasons in English football's Third Division (but now known as League One)! And what better way to exorcise the ghosts of last season's playoff disaster against Yeovil Town than to defeat the same team to secure an automatic promotion. It wasn't completely in their hands however, as they needed Doncaster Rovers to draw or lose to relegation-battlers Cheltenham Town. That result was duly achieved as The Robins avoided relegation by defeating The Vikings.

Having starting the season with much promise, it seemed like Colin Calderwood (Forest's manager) had figured out how to ensure the much wanted promotion. But a mid-season slump resulted in Forest slipping down the table and raising concerns about whether it would even qualify for the playoffs. Luckily that didn't happen and the players regrouped before it was too late. Today's victory was their sixth in their last seven matches, enabling the Reds to finish on a high. Hopefully their return to the Championship will bring in some necessary investment to continue the good work and eventually return to the Premier League. It's been nearly a decade since Forest last competed with England's 20 best clubs and it's a decade too long. A few seasons ago Forest made the wrong headlines throughout Europe by becoming the continent's first club to be relegated to their nation's Third Division as a former European Cup winner (1979 & 1980). They are also the only European club (to my knowledge) to have won more European Cups (two) than First Division titles (one in 1978). It's not too late to change.

GO FOREST!!! And congratulations. It's about bloody time...
mcgillianaire: (Liverpool FC)
I had an inkling we wouldn't go through and that's exactly what happened. What is extremely freaky however, is how ever since last week's 1st leg I have been replaying a dream in which Liverpool would go 2-nil down by half-time, after which Torres and Babel (in that order) would score in the 2nd half to equalise, and that we would also score in the dying seconds of the game to put it beyond the Blues. As it happened, Torres & Babel did score, but it was Chelsea who went on to win it 3-2. If one can ignore the first goal offside and the blatant Hyypia penalty, then it's fair to say that Chelsea deserved to win. They dominated the game and it always felt like we were playing catch up. I still wish we had gone through and though I'm chuffed about the fact that there are two English clubs in the final, I don't really care who wins. Ironic as it may seem given what I've written in the first half of the previous sentence, these are the two clubs I dislike the most in world football. Only Everton could come close to matching the dislike I feel for either of these teams making the final. In any case, congratulations to Abramovich's millions finally bearing fruit, and to Avram Grant who achieved what the great Jose Mourinho couldn't at Stamford Bridge. Considering these two teams are equal on points in the Premier League (which will have been decided by the time they meet in Moscow), one could not have scripted a more relevant final. These are without doubt the two best football clubs in Europe this season.

For Liverpool, it is the end of a magical European run and though they could not crack the London-club for the third time in four years, they can be very proud of the fight they put up, not just in this match but throughout the competition. From needing three wins in the last three group stage games to overcoming two deficits against Arsenal, the Reds have proven just why they are perhaps the most feared team in the world's greatest club football competition. We'll be back next year, but if I could advise Rafa Benitez on just one thing, it'd be to concentrate more on the Premier League. Manchester United are getting too close to comfort to our record 18 titles, and that's the one we really really yearn for. Thanks boys and staff for another memorable European run. Long Live Torres and super-sub Babel. YOU'LL NEVER WALK ALONE!!!!

PS Typical innit. 841 minutes of not scoring at The Bridge, and then 2 goals in the space of 50 minutes...
mcgillianaire: (Football player)
Ronaldo missed a 2nd minute penalty and Barcelona maintained the vast majority of possession. That pretty much sums up the match. Barcelona and Chelski will go into the 2nd leg with the advantage, but the 1st leg results were so tight that both Liverpool and Manchester will fancy their chances of nicking an only goal to send them through. A lotta people expected a goal-fest at Camp Nou tonight but it was not to be. Chelski and Manchester play each other on Saturday which is good for Liverpool because they'll hope their North-Western bitter rivals will run the London team ragged for the return leg. Chelski on the other hand haven't lost a domestic competition game at home since going out on penalties in the 2005 League Cup to Crystal Palace. In European competition however, Liverpool can take heart from Barcelona's victory at Stamford Bridge two years ago. There's still a lot to play for next week. Will the Red(s) (Devils) set up an all-English final?!
mcgillianaire: (Liverpool FC)
That was a shit ending. Riise should've cleared the ball with his foot, even if it was with his weak right one. I doubt we can score the necessary away goal next week which means it's going to be Chelski in the final. At least tomorrow's game will be more interesting, and less stressful to watch. It's one of the few times I want Manchester United to win. There's never been an all English final before. COME ON LFC!!!
mcgillianaire: (Liverpool FC)

Later tonight, Liverpool take on Chelsea for the third time in four years at this stage of the world's greatest club football competition. In 2005, Luis Garcia's "phantom goal" took Liverpool to the final and last year, Liverpool destroyed Chelsea in the penalty shoot-out after the two legs ended one-all. This year's duel will be significantly different. Instead of playing at home in Anfield in the 2nd leg, Liverpool will play at home first. It might throw a spanner into Rafa Benitez's preparations but let's hope it doesn't. I'm not really sure how we're gonna approach tonight's match. We definitely don't want to concede an away goal so there will be at least five to six defensive players on the pitch. Will Rafa continue with the 4-2-3-1 formation that has brought us much success this year, or will he change things like he did against Arsenal a couple weeks ago to go all-out for victory? Either way, it's gonna be a boring game that'll probably result in a stalemate. The best news is that Gerrard is going to play. Can we make it three times lucky? Tune in at 1845 GMT to find out. COME ON YOU REDS!!
mcgillianaire: (Liverpool FC)

Today is the 19th anniversary of the Hillsborough Disaster in which 96 Liverpool fans were killed. Yesterday, Liverpool and Blackburn held a minute's silence before kickoff to pay respect to those who lost their lives in the tragedy. After the midweek European Cup madness, England returned to Premier League action this weekend. Liverpool entertained Blackburn at home hoping to further consolidate their stranglehold on 4th position and with it a place in next season's European Cup Qualifying campaign. Earlier in the weekend, 5th-placed Everton had dropped crucial points with a 1-1 draw at Birmingham, while there were potentially relegation-saving victories for Fulham (away at Reading) and Bolton (at home to West Ham). Derby's miserable season however continued unabated as visitors Aston Villa thrashed them 6-nil to maintain the pressure on Portsmouth and Everton for an automatic UEFA Cup place. Even if they miss out on automatic entry, their victory at Pride Park has improved their chances of gaining entry through the Intertoto Cup. In other Saturday fixtures, Spurs were held to a 1-1 draw at home to Middlesbrough, while FA Cup finalists Portsmouth were unable to break the deadlock at home to Newcastle. Pompey will feel especially aggrieved with this result as a victory would've brought them within two points of Everton. Even so, as FA Cup finalists they can still qualify for the UEFA Cup by defeating Cardiff City* at Wembley on May 17.

There were two Premier League games yesterday as Liverpool took on mid-table Blackburn in the afternoon fixture while Manchester United hosted fellow league-title hopefuls, Arsenal in the day's late kickoff. Liverpool took 60 minutes to convert their dominance into fruition as Steven Gerrard slotted in his 11th Premier League goal of the season and 21st in all competitions. Eight minutes from time Fernando Torres became the first Liverpool player to score in seven consecutive top-flight matches at home as he headed himself into the record books. He also became the first Red since Robbie Fowler in the 1995/6 season to score 30 goals in all competitions in a single season. The Spaniard is just four goals away from scoring the most goals in a debut season in England. Andriy Voronin added insult to injury with a third, though Paraguayan Roque Santa Cruz pulled one back in the dying seconds for the Rovers. Overall, a great result!

And finally, Manchester United produced a sublime comeback to defeat Arsenal 2-1 at the Theatre of Dreams to destroy any lingering hopes of an Arsenal title-challenge, while increasing The Red Devil's lead to six-points over 2nd placed Chelsea who play later today, and nine points over 3rd placed Arsenal. At the rate the Gunners are going, they would be better to concentrate on preventing Liverpool from overtaking them in the season's last four games. The Reds are only five points behind the seriously out-of-form London club who have picked up only 8 points from their last 8 league games. In contrast, Manchester have picked up 22, Chelsea 20 and Liverpool 19. Arsene Wenger insists the trophies will come, but could this be the beginning of the end? Three trophy-less seasons and growing discontent. How much longer will Arsenal fans put up with beautiful football but have nothing to show for it at the end of the day?

(* Cardiff City are one of only three Welsh clubs playing in the English Football League. The others are Swansea City and Wrexham.)
mcgillianaire: (Football player)
Glasgow Rangers are the only British team to qualify for the semis of Europe's other cup competition. Congratulations! I grew up supporting Heart of Midlothian (not passionately, but just as my Scottish representatives) but then when I began playing Championship Manager in the mid-90s, I gained much success as the boss of the Gers. Ever since then I have celebrated their every success. Tonight they proved their European credentials and moved one step closer to an audacious quad of trophies this season. Go get it Teddy Bears!!
mcgillianaire: (Football player)
So there we have it. Three English clubs versus Spain's best: FC Barcelona. Last season it was the same three English clubs playing Milan in the Semis. Question is, can we expect a first-ever European Cup all-English affair in Moskova come May 23? I certainly hope so.
mcgillianaire: (Liverpool FC)
Three matches, three draws. What more could you have predicted for the fourth encounter between Liverpool and Arsenal this season? Another stalemate of course and after 68 minutes of absorbing football, it looked like we were heading for a fourth consecutive draw and a penalty shootout. But then cometh the hour, cometh the man, step up Fernando Torres. A moment of magic. Back to goal, the Spaniard turned with the ball and without even looking up to pick his spot, he swung the ball into the top right corner of the Kop, sending every Liverpudlian fan into a frenzy. We were now 3-2 up on aggregate and just 20 minutes away from yet another European Cup S/F.

But that's the beauty of football. Just when you think you've seen it all, something new and exciting takes place. What followed were 20 minutes of tension-filled suspense and absolute chaos. El Niño's rocket forced Arsenal Wenger into a panic and he sacrificed two defenders as he went hook, line and Theo Walcott for a match-winning equaliser. Liverpool responded by bringing on their own young winger, Dutchman Ryan Babel. It would be a massive understatement to say the two youngsters changed the game. They re-wrote the destinies of two of England's most famous football clubs. Two pairs of fresh legs twisted a game that had already lived up to its star-studded billing.

On 83 minutes, an hour since Arsenal had truly dominated the game, Theo Walcott produced the greatest run across a pitch since Maradona in '86 and Saeed Owairan in '94. The 19-year-old Englishman didn't score, but his inch perfect pass set-up Adebayor to easily slot in his 25th goal of the season. Arsenal had not only equalised but were seven minutes away from a place in the S/F on the away-goals rule. Surely we couldn't recover from this? That we did has already become the stuff of legend, but it wasn't without controversy.

Did Toure do enough to deserve a penalty? It didn't matter. The referee booked Kolo; and Steven Gerrard, the soul of the Liverpool team, stepped up to take the most pressure-soaked penalty of his decade-long career. That he scored with such ease and composure will also become the stuff of legend - and don't forget, it was in front of the Kop. Every Liverpudlian toddler grows up dreaming of playing in front of the Kop and scoring a match-winning goal on a night like this. Gerrard makes such dreams come true like nobody's business.

It wasn't over yet. Liverpool had four minutes of regular play, three minutes of injury time and consecutive waves of Arsenal assaults to withstand and secure a third European Cup S/F meeting with Chelsea in four years. The final score belied the real difference between the two teams. Once Liverpool secured a lead, Arsenal had no choice but to throw all hands on deck. Kuyt hacked the ball away in the dying seconds of the game and Babel did the rest. A tired Fab-who-regas just couldn't keep pace with Babel and the rest is history. Some Arsenal fans may cringe and cry conspiracy but the fact remains: in the last 12 games each club has played this season, we have won 9, drawn 2 and lost only 1 (to MUFC in the League). Arsenal on the other hand have won only 2, drawn 7 and lost 3, including a 4-nil thrashing at the hands of Manchester United in the FA Cup. Double-trophy credentials? You gotta be kidding me. After an awe-inspiring start to their season, Arsenal's title-aspirations have been completely derailed. The sooner they realize this and rectify the situation, the better.

So there we are. Yet another trophyless season for Arsene's babes, and yet another European Cup S/F for the Rafalución's Class of Benitez. Watching both legs in a bar filled to capacity (ie, 600 people) dominated by Red supporters is an experience I'll never forget. Mixed together with my first ever Liverpool match LIVE at the Emirates on the weekend caps it off as one of the greatest weeks in my life. It didn't matter who won at the end (well it did) but what was important was that two clubs illustrated why the English Premier League is on its way to European invincibility. The level of football on display was of the top drawer. Congratulations to Arsenal for putting up a performance worthy of a final. A fitting finale to three matches that left little to separate between the two teams. A fitting spectacle for the world to see just why football is the globe's most favourite sport. Chelski FC, here we come! YNWA!

Other notes )
mcgillianaire: (Liverpool FC)

Fernando Torres celebrates his goal against Arsenal as Liverpool nip ahead, 2-1.

This will go down as one of my greatest sporting experiences of all time. MORE TO FOLLOW. For now I sleep!

BEEB MATCH REPORT
mcgillianaire: (Liverpool FC)

Scarfed up at work today for the match later this evening.

Liverpool & Arsenal have played each other 4 times this season & each time the score has ended 1-1. But tonight, even if the score is 1-1 after full-time, the match will go into extra-time and if there is still a deadlock, the match will go to penalties. One thing's for sure, there will be a winner tonight and there will be heartbreak for the loser. Let's just hope England's most successful club in Europe prove their Continental credentials once again. It's yet another special European night at Anfield. I'll be back at the Barracuda to cheer the Reds. YNWA!
mcgillianaire: (Liverpool FC)
In a couple hours I will be at the Arsenal Stadium to watch my first ever Liverpool game LIVE. Unfortunately, it looks highly likely that Rafa is going to rest or not start with the four players that have contributed the most to our campaign: Steven Gerrard (the soul of the team), Fernando Torres (the record debutante goal-scorer), Javier Mascherano (serving a 3 match ban) and Jamie Carragher (the best English defender not to be playing international football - though by personal choice, might I add). Nevertheless, one can live on hope that at least two of them will make half-time or super-sub appearances during the course of the biggest match this weekend. Arsenal on the other hand will field a full-strength team despite the fact they play us again in the final part of the week-long trilogy because they are only 6 points behind league leaders Manchester United. Next week Arsenal travel to Manchester so if they can close the gap to 3 points this week, then it's actually conceivable for the Gunners to thwart United's bid to win a 10th Premier League title and 17th title overall. All that is in the future. For now I'm just excited to know that in less than a couple hours, the ends of my skin are going to be sticking up as the traveling Scouser fans belt out the world's most famous football club anthem: You'll Never Walk Alone. LFC FOREVER!!! COME ON YOU REDS!!!
mcgillianaire: (Liverpool FC)
Will it be greatness or disaster? (The Times)

"The myth about LFC's success in Europe is that it is a fluke. Certain aspects, maybe. To go three goals down to AC Milan in a Champions League final playing as badly as Liverpool did in Istanbul before coming back to draw 3-3 - while still not playing particularly well, just with better shape and self-belief - will never be repeated without influence from the Almighty. Yet the rest of it, the deserved victories over Inter Milan, Juventus, Chelsea and Barcelona, the capacity to find reserves of resolve in the tightest corners, happens too frequently to be merely the work of the Fates. If it was that easy for a failing team to raise their game in the Champions League, they would all do it."
mcgillianaire: (Liverpool FC)

At 7:45pm local time tonight, Arsenal take on Liverpool in the first of 3 consecutive encounters this week. Tonight's match is the 1st leg of their European Cup Q/F at The Arsenal Stadium, followed by their league match at The Arsenal Stadium again on Saturday, and finally their return leg European fixture at Anfield in Liverpool next Tuesday. Needless to say, I will be intently following all three matches and what's more, I've got tickets to watch the League match on Saturday!!! I've never been to a Liverpool game before so it is simply incredible to think that I'll be making my spectator-debut at such a big game! Unfortunately, I'm gonna be sitting in an Arsenal section, so I may not be able to bring out my Anfield Road credentials too loudly. Anyways, more on that later. Let's focus on tonight's match. It's the biggest match yet for both teams this season and I hope it turns out to be yet another European cracker of a night. As usual, I'll be at the Barracuda with dozens, if not a hundred other City-based Scouser fans cheering on England's best team in Europe. COME ON YOU REDS!!!

PS The video embedded above is a 10-minute highlight clip of the only game played between the two teams earlier this season, a 1-1 draw at Anfield with goals from the best players on either team: Steven Gerrard and Cesc Fabregas.
mcgillianaire: (Football player)
BBC Goalflashes and Major Incidents
--BBC Text Commentary

Well, it was obvious who was gonna score innit? But just when you thought he'd displayed everything out of the Book of Ronaldo Specials, came the sorta goal that Centre Forwards are famous for. Barely seconds before the goal was scored, Ronaldo was a couple dozen yards behind the box waiting to see what Rooney had in mind and shore up the midfield. But the moment Scholes got the ball and prepared to pass the ball into the box, Ronaldo darted forward and in one swooping movement headed the loooping ball into the net and produced an oh-so-crucial away goal for the Red Devils, as Manchester United moved just that much closer to yet another European Cup semifinal.

UPDATE:
Manchester United moved another step closer to Moscow as they defeated Roma 2-nil. Though their 2nd away goal came totally against the run-of-play, nobody could deny that they were the better team overall. The Ronaldo-Rooney combination is just too good, not just in England but even against Europe's best. It looks nigh impossible for the Italians to get back from this. Meanwhile, Barcelona managed to hold on to their away goal advantage despite a late assault by German-club Schalke 04. It looks like the dream S/F between the English and Spanish giants is well on the cards. Now, if only Chelski and Liverpool can match today's performance in tomorrow's games.

PS The atmosphere provided by the Roman fans has been simply electric. I've only heard better once earlier this season when we went to Istanbul to play Besiktas. Their home fans were so loud I was feeling nervous all the way in London, even though I was just watching it on a large screen. I shudder to think how I would've felt if I'd been in the stadium itself! No wonder we lost that match!

PPS Barcelona are 1-nil up against Schalke 04 and also have a crucial away goal.

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