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Liverpool on the Edge

Kenny welcomes back his prodigal hijo..

Two-thirds into the season, the jury is still out on Liverpool. Has the storied club moved one step closer to its former exalted position? Or does Kenny Dalglish have his team running to stand still while other clubs leapfrog over the fallen giants?

One of the clubs on the rise is Tottenham Hotspur.  “Wheeler-Dealer” ‘Arry Redknapp has built a team that sits in third place, and — along with Manchester City — has displaced long-time Top 4 residents Chelsea and Arsenal.   It is hard not to see them in the group stages of the Champions League come September, but there are no guarantees.  Meanwhile, five points separate four teams for the last CL spot.  So today’s game at Anfield may be rich with meaning and consequence for both sides.

But where are the Reds exactly? They have reached one cup final, and have bested a mighty rival to progress in another.  The club has stated that its goal is Champions League football… but they have to go through the aforementioned Chelsea and Arsenal, as well as fight off the football renaissance going on in the country’s Northeast.  Newcastle were supposed to collapse after the £35 million sale of Andy Carroll to the Reds, and the defection of Kevin Nolan to play for his old boss, Sam Allardyce.  But in a case of addition through subtraction (and the smart pickup of Demba Ba), the Magpies are keeping pace.  Meanwhile, Martin O’Neill is weaving that Ol’ Black Magic with the Black Cats: Sunderland are 8-2-3 under the Irishman.

In hope of making sense of  Liverpool’s season, let’s look at the numbers.

– Liverpool have six more points than this time last year.  But in comparable games played, they are -1.  In other words, when you take all the matches they’ve played this year and compared them to the games from last year against the same teams, they are behind.

– The Reds’ record against Top 10 teams is trending to be about the same (just better than 50%), but they have improved against the lower half.

– Their away record has improved significantly, while their home record is worse.  Liverpool have yet to lose at Anfield this year, but they have frustrated fans by drawing a league-leading seven times at home.

– Liverpool’s goal difference is +7 compared to 0 at this time last year.  But they have scored three fewer goals.  A year ago the ranked fifth in offence, sixth in defence.  This year, they are one of the stingiest sides in the Prem, but are 12th in goals scored.  Fulham, Villa and Blackburn have all scored more than the Reds.

And therein lies the problem.   After spending over £100m on players like Andy Carroll, Jordan Henderson, Charlie Adam and Luis Suarez, the offence has gone backwards.  Carroll and Henderson are young players wilting under the pressure and excessive price tags. Charlie Adam seems to have been a big fish in Blackpool’s small pond.  And Suarez has been dubious in both play and disposition, letting shots go errant while embroiling himself in several controversies.

However, there appear to be several lights in the fog.  A player who is no stranger to discipline problems himself, Craig Bellamy seems to have been settled down by Dalglish, his boyhood idol. He now leads the team in scoring… not bad for a player who’s started half the games on the bench.  Jose Enrique — another wantaway from St. James’ Park — has admirably filled the long-time void at left back, and may be the team’s Player of the Year.

Is it enough?  Spurs have amassed a midfield and defence that are as good as any in the league, and snapping up Brad Friedel in the supposed twilight of his career looks like a stroke of genius.  But Liverpool have yet to lose at Anfield this season.  The talismanic Steven Gerrard will be in the line-up, and Suarez returns after his long stay in the corner, hopefully with something to prove.

If they win the Carling Cup (likely), win the FA Cup (maybe) but don’t reach the Champions League, will this have been a successful season? Or will Kenny have to take a long, hard look in the mirror and decide whether he’s the man to lead his team back to the promised land?  Tonight’s game may go a long way to answering those questions.

My prediction: 2-2.

Brent Lanthier

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The Wild Rovers No More?

Chimbonda gives his final regards to Lancashire

The putting of pen to paper today by “nice guy” Steve Kean seems to indicate a turning point for Blackburn Rovers: that Ewood Park is shedding its image as a Home for Wayward Boys.

Indeed, the news seemed to cap off what looked like a week of redemption for the club.  Rovers have sold off poor sport Pascal Chimbonda, a whiny wantaway from every team he’s ever played for.  Kean also wondered aloud to reporters whether it might be time to let go of the Human Camel, El-Hadji Diouf.  Those words come just a week after Diouf allegedly stood over QPR player Jamie Mackie, taunting the player as he writhed in pain from a double leg fracture.

Diouf: Couldn’t meet a nicer fella…

The truth is that  — in the history of the Premier League — Blackburn has been a place for boys who behave badly.  Out of the players in the top 50 for all-time Premier League fouls, 10 spent time at Rovers.  Out of all-time Prem yellow cards, 12 wore the blue and white.  Of course, it’s also what they do off the pitch that makes them such problems.

Jason Roberts (2006 – ) – He lit up what is now League One for Bristol Rovers over two seasons.  But when they failed to get promoted, Roberts handed in a transfer request to a bitter Ian Holloway.  He was just as fickle to ex-manager Sam Allardyce.  Now Roberts can’t find the bright side of a barn door and is hated by the Rovers faithful.

Paul Dickov (2004-2006) – Nicknamed “The Wasp” and “The Pest”, Dickov’s role as a second striker was more to irritate central defenders. At only 5′ 6″, the cranky Scotsman did his job but picked up a weeee bit of fouls along the way.

Brett Emerton (2003 – ) – The Aussie plays the same style as many of his countrymen (Neill, Cahill, Kewell, Viduka): nasty.  The midfielder seems to find his way to a yellow card or two internationally, including this weekend in the Asian Cup.

Emerton, Neill: Model Citizens

Lucas Neill (2001 – 2007) – The epitome of Blackburn Rovers football in the last decade, Neill is also the epitome of the phrase “See You Next Thursday”.  A dirty player, he broke Jamie Carragher’s leg in 2003… an incident that literally made him a marked man on Merseyside. Neill is now playing for Galatasaray, so if Blackburn is a stop on the Road to Perdition, then Welcome to Hell, you Aussie git!

Morten Gamst Pedersen (2004 – ) – Alternating between pest and crybaby, Pedersen made a meal of Joey Barton’s punch this season. Barton is no angel but Pedersen made it handbags at dawn.

Robbie Savage (2005 – 2008) – By all accounts a nice fella when he’s in civilians, the Welshman is probably the most hated man on the pitch.

Bonkers Bellamy

Craig Bellamy (2005-2006) – Another Welshman,  Bellamy never shuts up, irritating “friend and foe” alike.  He pissed off former Blackburn boss Graeme Souness when both were at Newcastle. He went after Liverpool teammate John Arne Riise with a golf iron. He can’t stay at one club more than a season and a half.

Of course, one only has to look at the managers over the last ten years to see why the team is built like it is.  The seeds were likely sown with Souness’ arrival in 2000.  The Scotsman earned his reputation as the Godfather of Hard during his playing days at Liverpool. When he arrived at Blackburn he attempted to build the team in his own image.  After the Neill-Carragher incident, Souness refused to apologize for 48 hours.  Just this fall, Carragher returned the favour, saying that Souness’ time as Liverpool manager was the beginning of the end for the once-great club.

Sparky points out the Road to Perdition

But the man who probably had the most influence was Mark Hughes.  The irritable striker was a superstar for Manchester United… but it was at Blackburn that he ended his prolific career.  Sparky — another Welshman, by the way — brought in the likes of Roberts, Dickov, Pedersen, Savage, and Bellamy during his tenure.  While successful — Blackburn made two UEFA Cup appearances because of their League finishes — they were often the most penalized team in the Prem.

After Hughes left for the greener pastures of Manchester City (snicker), another bad boy took his place: Hughes’ former United teammate Paul Ince.  But Blackburn soon realized what lots of people already know: that ex-players without their coaching badges are almost always awful. Plus, the players couldn’t stand him.  Ince had a cup of coffee in Lancashire and then made way for Big Sam, who brought the same philosophy of “stuck-in” football that he used at Bolton… which leaves us where we are today.

A quick note: Even when Kenny Dalglish was managing the club, there were players getting up to no good.  Many members of the 1995 league-winning side were as familiar with the referee’s book as they were with the opposing goal.  That season, Tim Sherwood got 10 yellow cards, Graeme Le Saux got eight, Chris Sutton seven.  And just months after winning the Premier League, teammates LeSaux and David Batty fought each other during a Champions League match.

I’m not saying the arrival of the Indian Chicken family, and the permanent hiring of Kean, will make Blackburn a kinder, gentler team.  But after watching the club over the last ten years, it may be that a more attractive brand of football is on its way.

Anyway, it could be worse.  Could be Millwall…

Brent Lanthier

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Man. City pick out another

So, after spending a million pounds a day in the summertime and still failing to win their opening match of the season (rescued by the true England’s number one, Joe Hart, in a first-half barrage at White Hart Lane), Man Citeh’s wealthy owners have reporedly dipped into their pockets once again and inked Villa’s James Milner for 26 million pounds, sending Stephen Ireland back the other way. You’ve got to love these guys. It hasn’t even been a week since they threw 22.5 million quid down on Mario Balotelli, and they’re back at the buffet table. This is now the most expensive lineup in Premier League history.

To relieve their glut, City have rid themselves of Craig Bellamy, now bound for the bright lights of Cardiff. Can’t wait for that Doncaster Rovers clash this weekend, I’ll bet. With Hart’s glittering performance, Roberto Mancini seems willing to let Shay Given leave, possibly for the capital, where two teams are interested.

There’s none of City’s financial largesse at Anfield, where Uncle Woy says Javier Mascherano will be allowed to escape Merseyside as long as someone can meet the price. If you had Liverpool’s debt problems, you’d feel the same way.

City weren’t the only team making a splashy signing today. With just under two weeks left in the transfer window, German playmaker Meszut Ozil is leaving Werder Bremen for Real Madrid.

It’s Learn your Lesson day in France, where Nicolas Anelka has been banned a whopping 18 matches for his central role in les follies du Coupe de Monde, while co-conspirators Patrice Evra, Franck Ribery and Jeremey Toulalan got five, three and one games. Maybe Eric Abidal, who walked away without punishment, ratted them out. According to the BBC, the Learn your Lesson part was lost on Chelsea’s Anelka, who “did not show up at the disciplinary hearing … his international career now appears to be all but over.” Let us not forget that Laurent Blanc has vowed to quit if he can’t reach Euro 2012 with this team, now rather weakened (or strengthened, depending on your point of view). Bonne chance, mon frere.

Ian Harrison

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