EighteenAndFive

In-depth and Intelligent Views on Liverpool FC & Football in General

Tag Archives: champions league

Liverpool Under 19’s Gear Up for NextGen Series; European Test Awaits Youngsters


In less than two weeks, Liverpool and fifteen other teams kick off their NextGen Series tournaments with the first round of fixtures in the new European under-19 tournament, with its Champions League-style format.

For Liverpool this represents another step up for the highly acclaimed Academy set up which has been overseen for the last couple of seasons by Frank McParland (Director), Pep Segura (Technical Director), Rodolfo Borrell (under-18 coach) and Mike Marsh (under-16 coach). This summer saw something of a change to the coaching set-up as Marsh took over the under-18 side and Borrell moved up to lead the reserve team, which functions mainly as an under-21 side for Liverpool these days.

Great strides have been made by the youngsters at the club and those directing them over the past couple of seasons, exemplified by the appearances and performances in the second half of 2010-11 of first Martin Kelly and Jay Spearing (though at 22, he has been more a reserve team product over the same time period than an under 18/academy player, despite obviously coming through the academy system long-term) and later in the season full back pair Jack Robinson and John Flanagan.

Robinson and Flanagan will no doubt feature further for Liverpool’s first team in the coming 2011-12 season but with senior players having now returned from injuries (such as Fabio Aurelio and Glen Johnson) they may find games not quite as regularly forthcoming as at the back end of last term, at least in the near future.

Both of those players, however, at just 17 and 18 years of age respectively are still eligible to take part in Liverpool’s NextGen Series side, despite featuring heavily in the first team’s pre-season campaign.

As well as the talented full-back duo, budding central midfielder Conor Coady played and scored for the first team while out on the tour of Asia last month, as well as featuring against Hull City and Galatasary.

Andre Wisdom, a powerful and composed on the ball defender who has featured for England’s youth sides regularly, came off the bench in Liverpool’s first four pre-season friendlies this summer and was involved in two first team squads last season, as well as training with the first team during the campaign.

Much spoken-about Raheem Sterling made a cameo appearance for Liverpool against Norwegian outfit Valerenga and also represented England at the recent under 17 tournament, while defender Stephen Sama also made his first team bow in the fixture against the Norwegians.

Such exposure at a young age – Sterling is still only 16 while Coady, Sama and Wisdom are all 18 – does not necessarily translate to future success in a Red shirt, but certainly serves to indicate the relative position of strength of the academy and reserve sides at present and perhaps shows that in such a high-profile tournament these players may get a taste of what could be to come should they continue to improve and challenge for a senior place in the coming months and years.

The Reds will face strong competition from Molde and Wolfsburg but arguably the toughest part of the draw – in terms of reputation at least – will come from the impressive youth outfit of Sporting Lisbon, heralded as one of the most prolific and consistent production lines on the continent and the side against who Liverpool’s youngsters will make their debut in the competition.

Whether Liverpool do well, win the tournament or get knocked out at the group stage is at this point almost irrelevant, certainly at least it is secondary to preparing the young players for the challenges that lie ahead.

A minimum of six mouth-watering clashes against some of the continent’s finest representatives of this age group could give a real indication of exactly where the promising youngsters are in their development – and impressive showings in the NextGen Series will certainly do their chances no harm at all of joining up with the senior squad again in the near future.

Robinson, Flanagan, Spearing and Kelly all made big strides last season under Kenny Dalglish; Rodolfo Borrell’s next wave of young charges will hope to emulate them this coming season and the upcoming tournament is a great platform for them to show just why each of them should be next.

Lucrative Liverpool: Anfield Re-development or Stanley Park Naming Rights?


Liverpool Football Club Managing Director, Ian Ayre, recently confirmed that the senior club hierarchy have held productive and informative talks with ‘several’ global brands with a view to possibly selling the naming rights for the new stadium in Stanley Park, should the decision be taken to move away from current stadium Anfield.

Ayre was at pains to clarify that, as yet, no firm choice has been made on whether to stick or twist with regards to an expanded stadium, although he also admitted that talks relating to the naming rights – significantly, how much prospective sponsors would be willing to shell out – would go some way to determining the outcome of the decision.

So which would be the best way to go for Liverpool?

The stadium debate has dragged on for years now; the infamous “spade in the ground at sixty days” quote has gone way past being a bad joke, but even before the Texan cowboys rode into town back in 2007 a new stadium was something which had been on the agenda for the club for quite some time.

Fans were split then and some remain so; the heritage, history and tradition of Anfield or the custom-designed, sponsor-funded shiny new stadium across the way in Stanley Park?

First of all, lets get the raw numbers out the way. Why do Liverpool need a new stadium? Simply put, Liverpool are falling further behind their competitors such as Arsenal and Manchester United with every home game that passes.

In the most simple and roughest of terms, during a domestic season Anfield, which holds around 45.000 spectators at a time, hosts 19 league matches and perhaps 2 or 3 cup games, depending of course on the draw and how far Liverpool progress. Given that this season just finished Liverpool played 1 away FA Cup match and 1 home League Cup match only (which saw an attendance of just 22.500), we will discount cup matches for these basic figures.

Nineteen home matches, multiplied by an average ticket price of £45 (they ranged from £39 to £48 for 2010/11), multiplied again by an average attendance of 43.000 gives a total ticket income of £36.765.000 per Premier League season, approximately £1.9 m per home match.

Compare this to Arsenal (19 x average ticket price of £60 x average attendance of 60.000) who rake in £68.400.000 per season (£3.6m per home game) and Manchester United (19 x £45 x 75.000) who collect £64.125.000 per season (£3.4 million per home game) and it is clear to see that the Reds have a severe handicap when it comes to spending power – and this is on ticket sales alone. Next season Liverpool will not have any Europa League income to be grateful for either (4 home games x £35 tickets x 38.000 average attendance  = another £5.3 million) while both those clubs will contend Champions League football again next season. Newcastle United and Manchester City also had higher average attendances for the 2010/11 season than Liverpool.

Of course, the numbers are extremely rough – kids’ tickets, disabled seats, away supporters and season ticket price differences are not accounted for in the sums, but even taking that into account, 15.000 or 30.000 more people visiting the club shop, buying half time drinks and pies, doing first scorer scratch cards and making bets and buying match-day programmes all makes a hell of a lot of difference to the overall income of the club.

Should Anfield be increased to 60.000 capacity then over the course of a Premier League season the Reds would have their kitty boosted by up to an extra £14.5 million per season – nothing to sniffed at, especially in the climate of Uefa Financial Fair Play Regulations and ever-increasing player values.

Liverpool have been at pains to improve the so-called Anfield Experience recently under the stewardship of Ian Ayre – the Boot Room cafe and improved product range in the club shop are just two examples of that.

Few Reds would turn down the chance to stay at Anfield if it was a viable option, and if the planning permission can be sought and the physical improvements can be done with little fuss then it could be a great option for the club.

But this is a decision for the next hundred years of Liverpool’s existence; an extra £15 million a year is not the only thing to be kept in mind.

Football stadia worldwide are now used for so many other features; music concerts, community occasions and International matches are just a few of them. Is Anfield capable of hosting those events? Are these other sources of income something that LFC want to look at and rely on? Are the surrounding areas beside Anfield Road and Walton Breck Road – neither exactly Sightseeing Avenue – able to cope with the added demand of between ten and twenty thousand extra pairs of shoes every other week, or indeed more frequently at times? There is no parking in or beside the stadium itself; visitors arrive at the ground on foot having departed buses, trains or cars elsewhere.

The original plans for Anfield, after the building of Stanley Park Stadium, as it was, would have been to regenerate it into Anfield Plaza, with offices, restaurants and the like introduced to renovate the area.

All great, but all more expensive of course.

The Stanley Park Stadium was due to cost around £300 million to complete; doubtless the price will have by now increased somewhat as a result of inflation if nothing else, despite the recent economic downturn.

Arsenal’s Emirates Stadium earned the club £100 million for a fifteen year deal on naming rights – however this included an eight year shirt sponsorship. Given that Liverpool have a four-year deal for shirt sponsorship with Standard Chartered worth £20 million per year, it seems that either Ayre and his commercial team have pulled a magnificent rabbit out of a hat by getting so much from the Asia-based bank, or else that Arsenal were short-changed for their double sponsorship income allowance.

In either case, I would certainly expect a payment of at least £5 million per year for naming rights for any new Liverpool FC stadium – and in truth I would hope it to be quite considerably more than that, perhaps around double.

A ten year deal to net the club £100 million for the stadium would go quite some way towards off-setting the construction costs, perhaps as much as a quarter or a third of the total cost – and therefore is absolutely the way to go if a new stadium is the answer.

Of course, nobody wants to be playing at the Tampax Stadium, the Mr. Muscle Bowl or the McDonald’s Arena – but in all honesty, the few corporations who are global enough to want to work with a major football side and profitable enough to pay such high levies for the privilege of having their name adorn the club’s home ground shouldn’t have any real issues with wacky name tags.

Hopefully some time during what is doubtless going to be a hugely busy summer for the Reds – the tour of Asia and the impending signing of Jordan Henderson are two such examples – there will be further news on the final decision to be taken by the Reds, and I can say with no hesitation that I have been impressed enough by Ian Ayre’s leadership and revenue generation so far – even under the despicable duo – that I am confident he and his team will make absolutely the right decision for the long term of the club.

Just don’t promise us anything spade-related.

‘Fortress Anfield’ Returning as Reds Take Home Advantage


Liverpool brushed aside League Cup winners Birmingham City on Saturday with a thumping five-nil victory at Anfield, as the Reds continued their excellent league form under Kenny Dalglish and closed the gap on fifth-placed Tottenham to just three points, though Spurs do have a game in hand.

Under ‘King’ Kenny, Liverpool have now taken a highly impressive 17 points from a possible 21 at home in the league, with the home form of the team really proving the building blocks for the club’s resurgence since the turn of the year.

Draws against Everton and Wigan remain the only time Dalglish has dropped points at home, while Fulham, Stoke City, Manchester United, Manchester City and now Birmingham have all been sent packing with nothing to show for their efforts, giving the Reds an average of 2.4 points per game. Should Liverpool go on and win their remaining two home matches this season (vs Newcastle and Tottenham) Dalglish would claim an average of 2.6 points per home game in his half-season at the helm.

Compared with 6 wins, 2 draws and 2 defeats in the first half of the season at home (average of 2 points per game) and it is clear that Liverpool have improved quite considerably when playing at Anfield since Dalglish took over in January.

However it is not just the results that have improved – though of course, at the end of the day that is what is clearly most important in terms of league placings.

But the manner in which Liverpool are now disposing of visitors, almost casually batting them aside with a confidence and surety which has been missing for far too long at the famous old stadium of Anfield, is the real major difference which Kenny Dalglish has affected.

Current league leaders Manchester United were overwhelmed, out-fought and out-thought by wave upon wave of Red attacks; Kuyt scoring a hattrick but being just one of a collection of impressive performers. Then Manchester City, so expensively assembled and fighting for Champions League qualification were consummately swiped aside in a first half of verve and fire.

Today Birmingham were beaten with much less fuss than was required for either of the Manchester clubs – unsurprisingly, given their lowly league position – but even more emphatically, Maxi Rodriguez’s hattrick just reward for his part in Liverpool’s tactically astute counter-attacking game in the second half.

Considering that these results are being garnered without such first team automatic picks such as club captain Steven Gerrard, £17 million full-back Glen Johnson, the stylish Daniel Agger, full backs Martin Kelly and Fabio Aurelio and, today, record signing Andy Carroll, only goes to underline what a terrific job Dalglish is doing – and indeed what a lot Liverpool supporters should have to look forward to next season once those players are back and the expected summer arrivals are finalised.

Lucas Leiva and Jay Spearing have absolutely dominated the midfield against recent opposition, including Arsenal at the Emirates Stadium, while young full backs John Flanagan and Jack Robinson again proved their substantial promise with an assured display against a side which will be competing in Europe next season. Conor Coady, named on the bench today though not used, will surely also see his time come before long.

Lots remains to be confirmed of course – not least of all Dalglish’s permanent position at the club – but if the home form and swagger of play from Liverpool continues, one thing which is clear is that the club will enjoy many profitable afternoons at Anfield next season – which could go a long way towards helping propel the club back into the upper echelons of the Premier League, as well as towards major European competitions and domestic cup success .

Can King Kenny Steal 5th Place for Liverpool From Tottenham?


After the Europa League exit at the hands of Braga last week, Liverpool’s sole route back into European football next season must come via a fifth place finish in the Premier League. Though seventh place last season was enough for the Reds to face continental opponents this term such as Napoli and Sparta Prague, Birmingham City’s League Cup triumph and the guarantee of either Stoke City or Bolton Wanderers appearing in the FA Cup Final in May means that England’s top league will this season contribute just one place to the Europa League for the 2011/12 campaign – fifth place, which is currently occupied by Tottenham Hotspur.

Given that even Liverpool spent much of the latter months of 2010 hovering around 15th place in the table under Roy Hodgson – even as late as the end of October the Reds were in the relegation zone – even the prospect of finishing in the top six has to be viewed as some sort of achievement, and is even an improvement on last season’s seventh place finish, all of the credit for which must go to current caretaker manager Kenny Dalglish.

But a sixth place finishing would indicate no European football for Liverpool next season, something which hasn’t been the case since Gerard Houllier’s first full season in sole charge, back in 1999.

So it is possible that King Kenny can take Liverpool one giant step further and sneak the fifth place finish which would at least see the Reds compete in the second-tier of European football again?

Is it even something Liverpool fans want? The Reds are all about challenging for honours and playing the biggest sides in the world. That is where we want to be; that is where we must be. And some have argued that, while admittedly a winnable trophy, the Europa League could provide a distraction from seriously challenging for a top four spot next season; a sort of second League Cup in disguise.

For what it’s worth, personally I would very much want to be in the Europa League next season. I would argue that we should always try to win each trophy we can, and our record in European football – nobody has won more Europa League/UEFA Cups than Liverpool – is something which we should proudly defend, not be irritated by.

Those who think differently should muse on this: as a result of being in the Europa League this season, Liverpool’s European coefficient will have dropped significantly, especially going out at a relatively early stage of the competition. Should we not be in any European competition next season our rating will drop even more alarmingly, quite possibly putting the Reds out of the top seeds should we manage to qualify for the Champions League in a years time.

Might I add further, for any prospective signings this summer – the name of Liverpool FC is and will always be a draw, but might it not be even brighter a light if European football can be offered immediately?

So can we do it? Can King Kenny lead Liverpool to an unlikely fifth place finish? A brief look at the fixtures remaining suggests it is possible, if not probable. Liverpool and Spurs are just four points apart at present, though the London side have a game in hand. Liverpool have to travel to The Emirates to play Arsenal as well as receiving Manchester City and Spurs themselves at Anfield, with the remaining five games against sides in the bottom half and therefore in the large group involved in this season’s relegation battle – just six points separate Newcastle (11th) from Wigan (20th).

Spurs on the other hand face four similarly struggling teams, mid-table Stoke, a home derby against Arsenal and three difficult trips to Chelsea, Manchester City and of course Liverpool.

Given Man City’s involvement in the fixtures between the Reds and Spurs, it is not inconceivable that Roberto Mancini’s inconsistent Citizens could be part of the battle, but they have an extra four points on Spurs and five victories in their final eight matches would almost guarantee them to finish above Liverpool.

Now to take a closer look and see just what the Reds need to do to take fifth place.

The first game in April sees Liverpool travel to West Brom to face the man Dalglish succeeded on the Anfield throne, Roy Hodgson. West Brom are a decent footballing side and showed just last week against Arsenal that they can match the big guns at home, but Liverpool have improved markedly under Dalglish away from home (three wins from five away league games under Dalglish, one win from nine under Hodgson) and if the squad comes through the international break unscathed we should be hopeful of taking all three points. The returns to fitness of Steven Gerrard, Jonjo Shelvey, Fabio Aurelio and Martin Kelly may come at different times throughout the month but if any of the four come back for the West Brom game it would boost the Reds’ options considerably.

Spurs meanwhile face Wigan at the DW Stadium. Though Wigan are bottom, they have caused Spurs problems in the past couple of seasons. Then again, Spurs also beat them 9-1 in 2009. In addition, Spurs face Real Madrid in the Champions League just three days later and I fancy they may rest one or two players after the international break and before this big fixture. I’m going for a Wigan victory.

Next up, a home game to Manchester City. This could go either way – the reverse fixture saw City win 3-0 though Liverpool did play well up to a point that day and certainly deserved a goal at least; a three goal defeat was harsh. The lesser-evil-half of Manchester are certainly more functional than spectacular this season, though the returns from injury of Carols Tevez and Adam Johnson will give them a big boost in the attacking areas. A win in this game would be a big boost for the Reds in the run in, and nine days to prepare between the WBA game and this one it is certainly a possibility, but it is a close game to call and I will go with a draw.

Sandwiched between the two legs of the Real Madrid game, Spurs face Stoke. Regardless of resting players, Stoke’s away form is poor – eleven losses this season in the league – and I think Spurs will beat them.

Arsenal away is third in April and is the one game during the last two months of the season which I could see the Reds slipping up in. Arsenal are strong at home and of course one of the best sides in Europe; on their day they can beat any team convincingly. Of course, if Almunia plays in goal for Liverpool there is always a good chance of being gifted a goal…. Nonetheless, I don’t imagine Liverpool will go through the remainder of the season unbeaten so I will elect this game as being a defeat, with the proviso that I will be very happy to be proven otherwise!

Spurs also play Arsenal just a few days later in a midweek North London derby. Arsenal usually beat Spurs late on in these games and though I would like it to be the case again as the Reds seek to overcome the white half of North London, I feel Spurs will win this game. From here on in, Spurs fixtures may be changed or re-arranged depending on their progress in the Champions League.

Liverpool finish April with a home fixture against Birmingham – battling relegation or not, the Reds should win this game at a canter. We have been generally strong at home and barring further injuries most of the squad should be available by this time. Birmingham have struggled for goals this season and I would expect Liverpool to win this game comfortably if they are at their best. As with all the games in April, the Reds will have a full week to prepare for the fixture as a result of being out of the cup competitions.

Roy Hodgson rears his head in this blog again here as he takes his West Brom side to White Hart Lane. Reds supporters know all about Roy’s away form – Tottenham win in this one.

In the final month of the season, Liverpool will first receive Andy Carroll’s old side Newcastle United. Though I hope he has opened his account for the Reds before this game, it would be rather poetic if he was to net the winner in this match, given he cost us three points in the reverse fixture when he was still wearing black and white! Again, at home this is a fixture I would expect Liverpool to win; Newcastle have struggled somewhat under Pardew and few sides can cope with Liverpool in full flow at home.

The day before the Liverpool-Newcastle game, Tottenham face Chelsea at Stamford Bridge. Another London derby, though less intense, Chelsea will by this time hopefully be in full flight as they storm back to rob Manchester United of the Premiership title! Even if they don’t, only very, very good sides beat them at Stamford Bridge (nudge nudge, wink wink) and I have to choose a loss for Spurs.

The visit to Fulham I also expect Liverpool to win; though they are just three points off the relegation zone at the moment, between now and this fixture Fulham face the likes of Blackpool, Wolves and Sunderland and I expect they may have taken enough points to secure their status for another season, making this fixture something of a dead rubber for them. Hopefully of course Liverpool will still be aiming for fifth place, and I would back Dalglish to outfox an old adversary in Mark Hughes, once a player of Manchester United while Dalglish was the same for Liverpool.

Spurs face Blackpool at home on the same day as Liverpool-Fulham and though the Tangerines are inherently unpredictable, this has to go down as a home banker.

Then Spurs take their extra game in hand – a very difficult trip to Manchester City. The two sides met in a similar fourth/fifth place battle one year and five days previously to when this tie is due to take place – Spurs won that game 1-0 at Eastlands and in doing so won their shot at the Champions League. This season, it is City who have the edge at this moment in time and who will surely be determined not to repeat their mistakes of last season. This game truly could go either way – Spurs are sure to attack and hope to outscore City, similarly to how they approached the game last season, while City’s style is not so rash or gung-ho. With Spurs’ porous defence away from home (24 conceded in 15 games) and City’s strong home record (2 defeats in 15) I’m going for a home win, putting Manchester City in the Champions League in the process.

That takes us to the penultimate game of the season when Spurs visit Anfield in what could prove a crucial fixture in the battle for fifth place. Should the games beforehand go as I have predicted (highly unlikely I know!) at the start of this game Liverpool would have 58 points and Tottenham 61 points – the Reds having made up ground of just 1 point between now and then. With a lot riding on the outcome of this game, and with it being played at Anfield, I have to again go with a Reds win. We have a good record at home against Spurs and I can see this continuing. That puts us level on points with Tottenham – with just one game apiece to play.

At this point of course, goal difference would come into play. At this moment Tottenham have a slight advantage over Liverpool, +7 compared to the Reds’ +5, but if the likelihood of my guesses of match outcomes being all correct are slim then predicting the goals scored and conceded in each one would be mostly futile. But let’s guess anyway. I’d imagine Liverpool could add a further +6 to their goal difference with the 3 wins over Birmingham, Newcastle and Fulham. The draw vs Man City and a win and a defeat against West Brom and Arsenal respectively could easily come out at 0 – leaving the game against Spurs to add another +1, giving a total goal difference of +12 come the end of the Spurs game.

For their part, Spurs could even out the loss vs Wigan with the win vs Stoke, and likewise the loss vs Chelsea and the win vs Arsenal. Home wins over West Brom and Blackpool could easily add +5 to their difference, with defeats to Man City and Liverpool lowering that to +3, giving Tottenham a total of +10.

That would put Liverpool in the final fifth spot, though of course very little attention should be paid to such guesswork for the goals scored for and against.

Whoever had a better goal difference, going into the last day of the season both sides would know that a big victory could seal a Europa League spot, while anything less would mean nothing at all to play for outside of the domestic cup competitions next season – unless of course, Tottenham manage to dispose of Real Madrid, the winners of Barcelona-Shakhtar Donetsk and then vanquish Manchester United, Chelsea, Inter Milan or Schalke in the final of the Champions League. As Reds fans, we should not be hoping for this somewhat improbable outcome – Spurs as holders would go into the Champions League, bumping Man City down to the Europa League, taking the third and final English slot in the process!

Back to the Premiership – Liverpool face Aston Villa at Villa Park, with ex-Reds boss Gerard Houllier presumably still at the helm, while Tottenham have a home game against Villa’s Midlands rivals Birmingham City. Either or both of these clubs could be in relegation trouble come the last game of the season, and my money would be on the Blues. Despite their Carling Cup win Birmingham have been poor in the league and with West Ham’s resurgence, Blackpool’s habit of pulling a victory out at unexpected times and the undeniably qualities of teams such as West Brom and Wolves, the Blues are really going to struggle in my opinion to survive the drop.

What that means in terms of Liverpool is one of two things: either they could already be relegated by the time this clash comes around, resulting in a straight forward win for Spurs, or they have one last chance to win on the last day of the season to stay up, meaning much more of a battle – presumably. In either case, I would have to go with a Tottenham win. Spurs are strong at home and the teams down at the bottom are often down there for a reason.

That leaves the Reds in battle at Villa Park – where I believe they will also win. Villa should have clocked up enough points by then to ensure their own survival and with one or two players possibly moving on come the end of the season, their end of season games could become something of a stroll. Liverpool can afford no such luxury of course, and I would hope the motivation of continental football would be enough to see us home with three points to end the season.

64 points to end the season is far from the best total Liverpool have managed in recent seasons, and indeed only beats last season’s seventh place finish by a single point, but given that we had taken only 25 points from our first 20 games, taking an additional 39 points from the remaining 18 matches would really be an incredible achievement.

To put it into perspective, the 20 games under Hodgson clocked up 1.25 points per game, averaging out at 47.5 points for a full season, good enough for about an 11th place finish over the past five years – the 18 games under Dalglish (would) rack up 2.17 points per game, which if extended over the course of an entire season would amount to no less than 82 points, enough for a third place finish in most Premier League seasons.

Europa League football next season is certainly a possibility for Liverpool. If it actually does come down to goal difference whether Liverpool finish 5th or not, nobody could have asked anything more from Kenny Dalglish – apart from maybe putting his boots back on to knock in a couple of extra goals for us.

We still need favours from other teams to give ourselves a chance of making it – Wigan, Chelsea and Manchester City all took points off Spurs in my thoughts above before the Liverpool match, and it doesn’t take a genius to work out which of those is most unlikely – but it seems clear all the same that the clash at Anfield on May 15th could turn out to be a pivotal one for Liverpool, not just for this season but for the seasons ahead as well.

Benzema Strike Hands Real Madrid Vital Champions League Away Goal


Karim Benzema returned to his old club in goalscoring fashion tonight as Real Madrid picked up what could be a crucial away goal in the Stade Gerland in Lyon, as the French and Spanish giants fought out a 1-1 draw in the first leg of the Champions League ’round of 16′.

Benzema started on the bench against his first professional side as Real manager Jose Mourinho went with Emanuel Adebayor as the central forward, ably assisted by the invention of Mesut Ozil and the endeavour of Angel di Maria. In the only other notable difference in what might be termed the ‘usual’ Real Madrid starting eleven, Alvaro Arbeloa played at left-back instead of Marcelo as Mourinho sought to keep a steady ship at the back.

For their part, Lyon went with Bafetimbi Gomis as their spearhead; Yoann Gourcuff and Cesar Delgado the men charged with supporting him in attack.

The two clubs clashed at the same stage last season and on that occasion the French side were triumphant over the two legs, meaning Real Madrid have now gone six consecutive seasons without making it past the first knock-out round of the Champions League.

During a feisty and eventful opening period, the best chance fell for Lyon forward Gomis, who had a clear sight on goal after Spanish stopper Iker Casillas spilled a fairly routine catch from a cross; however he recovered well to make enough of a save to divert the dreadlocked striker’s effort over his crossbar.

Lyon had the better of much of the first half but Real did work their way back into the contest and di Maria tested Lyon’s ‘keeper, Hugo Lloris, with a long range effort before Lloris had to be alert to divert a bouncing free kick away from goal.

The away side continued after the break as they had ended the first and were unlucky not to take a lead shortly after the interval as first the crossbar and then the post denied them in the space of five minutes, the latter effort a looping header from Sergio Ramos. Real would not be denied an opener though, and after Benzema made his belated entrance as substitute the difference in the potency of his team’s attack was immediately clear.

After first battling to win possession near the touchline, he received the ball back from Ozil and twisted his way past two challenges inside the Lyon penalty area, before steering the ball somewhat fortunately through Lloris’ legs and beyond the despairing lunge of Cris on the goal line. Though his team mates celebrated the goal with vigour, Benzema himself made no grand gesture, having been loyally supported by the fans of Lyon for several seasons – and indeed he had received a rousing reception from them not two minutes earlier as he entered the pitch.

Lyon were forced to come out of their shells more as they searched for an equaliser and added both Jimmy Briand and Miralem Pjanic to their attack in an attempt to eke out the craftsmanship to unlock the stubborn Madrid defence. However they could have fallen a second goal behind had either the referee or any of his many assistants spotted a blatant handball inside their area; Mourinho was left fuming on the touchline as all failed to see the elbow of a Lyon player block a free-kick midway through the second half.

The home side continued to press in the latter stages of the game and though they were susceptible to the counter attack, they got their reward in the end as Cris nodded a free kick back across goal to the unmarked Gomis. As the Real defence appealed in vain for a non existent offside, the French forward guided the ball past Casillas to net the equaliser with just seven minutes left on the clock.

Both sides had half chances to win it late on, but in the end the draw was probably a fair result after each side had the better of one 45 minute period.

With an away goal in the bag and the home tie to come – and Real Madrid manager Mourinho having recently passed the nine year milestone of his last career home defeat – the Spanish side will be heavy favourites to progress at long last to the quarter finals, but with Lyon having accomplished feat of knocking them out at the Santiago Bernabeu only a year ago – and with the possible return of main striker Lisandro Lopez to come for the second leg – the Spanish side should take nothing for granted.

A Golden Sky: What Constitutes a Successful Season for Liverpool?


16th of August 2009, some time in the morning.

Myself, as with probably every other Liverpool fan, looking forward to the start of Liverpool’s Premier League campaign; the opening fixture of the 2009/10 season which was due to kick off in just a few hours.

Liverpool were supposed to win the league that season. It didn’t go as planned.

The season before, the Reds were absolutely flying. They came close to the Premier League title; as close as they had done (position-wise) since 2002 and their second-half-of-season form suggested that it was simply a matter of strengthening in one or two key areas and keeping the same form going.

Liverpool lost that opening game of the season, 2-1 at Spurs, and never really recovered. From then on it was a definite downward spiral, on and off the pitch. Crashing out in the Champions League group stage, losing in the F.A. Cup third round to lower-league opposition, defeats to the likes of West Ham, Aston Villa and Darren Bent’s beach ball, even losing the semi final of the Europa League to eventual worthy winners Atletico Madrid – it was all background noise in a story which had gone badly wrong for Liverpool.

Fast forward fourteen months and things had, incredibly, gotten even worse for Liverpool. Rafa Benitez was gone, leaving behind a tale of what-might-have-been after six years, five finals and four trophies; and Roy Hodgson had been appointed the new manager of the club. Defeats against the likes of Northampton and Blackpool, as well as against bitter rivals Manchester United, had ensured it was hardly the happiest of starts for the Englishman, despite an unbeaten run in the Europa League.

But then, something positive happened for the Anfield side. The club owners, Tom Hicks and George Gillett, were ousted from the club after an unsavoury series of courtroom episodes, the end result of which was the takeover of the club by Tom Werner and John W. Henry through their company New England Sports Ventures (now Fenway Sports Group).

It was a big moment for Liverpool; gone were the crippling debts and extravagant interest repayments – one estimate putting the fees owed to RBS at over £100,000 per day – along with the threat of having to sell the club’s best players. Gone were the lies and back-stabbings, the media-fuelled outbursts and in-fighting which had dogged the last two years under the American duo’s stewardship.

A particularly poignant line from the club’s anthem came to mind: “at the end of the storm, there’s a golden sky”.

Perhaps this was just the new beginning the club had been searching for.

Now as we all know, the team’s results did not improve straight away; nor indeed over an extended period. Hodgson was removed from office, voluntarily or not, but rightly so in either case.

And in came Kenny Dalglish. The wave of optimism, of relief, of happiness, which surrounded the club in the following days was incredible.

I can honestly say I cannot remember such a show of unity amongst fans like it, dating back to probably the run towards the 2005 Champions League final. It was amazing – even after the defeat to Manchester United in the F.A. Cup a day later, it almost didn’t matter: Kenny was back, ergo the club was safe.

And now we’re three weeks further down the line. A defeat to Blackpool, a draw with the Blue Shite, and then back-to-back victories and clean sheets against Wolves and Fulham – the first time in almost exactly a year that Liverpool have managed such a combination, since the wins over Bolton and Everton in January and February 2010.

So what next for Liverpool? What lies in store for the remainder of this season? The mandate back in July when Hodgson was appointed was to “steady the ship” – something that I would argue neither Hodgson nor his then-employers managed to do. Wednesday’s win over Fulham, however, left Liverpool in seventh position in the league: exactly the same place the Reds finished the 2009/10 season in, and a full five places above where we were when Dalglish took over.

Steadying the ship then, perhaps, has been achieved.

Now lets look ahead: Liverpool face a home game against Stoke City next week. Despite the dire performance against the same opposition at the Brittania Stadium only a few months ago, this Liverpool side looks a different proposition and we should be hopeful of a positive outcome in the shape of another home victory.

The day before the Liverpool-Stoke fixture, Sunderland (currently 6th, 5 points ahead of Liverpool) will host Chelsea (4th, nine points ahead of the Reds).

Sunderland have been in fine form of late, especially at home where they have lost just once all season, and it is not beyond the realms of fantasy to think that they could take something off the Blues at home – after all, they played them off the park at Stamford Bridge earlier in the season, winning 3-0 in the process.

Should the Black Cats manage to take something off Chelsea and the Reds do the business against Stoke the following day, Liverpool will be going into their clash against the London club at Stamford Bridge four days later only 6 or 7 (Sunderland win or draw) points behind them. Does a top four league spot suddenly become a possibility for Liverpool?

The Reds know how to beat Chelsea – have done so already at Anfield this season in one of the few bright spots of the Roy Hodgson reign – but knowing and doing are two different things. But consider: two more wins for Liverpool in the next two games, and the club could be just one victory off a Champions League place.

That would be some turnaround for the club in just over a month under the watchful and shrewd eye of ‘King’ Kenny.

By the time those next two games roll around for Liverpool, we will already know one thing for certain: which, if any, transfer opportunities end up being successfully targeted in this window. Bids have already been rebuffed for Ajax forward Luis Suarez and Blackpool schemer Charlie Adam, while the proposed loan of Aston Villa left back and Anfield old-boy Stephen Warnock has dragged on for some time and must be questioned now whether it is likely to happen; he is not in favour at his current club so nothing should effectively be holding up a loan deal for this amount of time.

Ryan Babel has left the club permanently, while youngsters such as Steve Irwin, Victor Palsson and Sean Highdale have left on a variety of temporary deals.

Whether any incoming deals materialise or not, Dalglish is already getting much more out of those already at the club than his predecessor managed. One or two new faces could perk the current players up and would certainly provide some welcome depth in key areas of the playing squad, but there is nothing to say, of course, that a £20 million player would hit the ground running, especially coming into a new league at the mid-way stage. On the other hand, a few good performances or even lucky moments in average performances could provide a real impetus for the team over the remainder of the league season.

Liverpool are also fighting on another front; the Europa League gets back underway midway through February with a double header against Sparta Prague of the Czech Republic. Liverpool will be favourites to progress and should they do so, either Lech Poznan or Sporting Braga should also present beatable opposition for a full strength Reds team.

There are several good sides left in the competition; aside from big-spending Manchester City, Spanish duo Sevilla and Villarreal, Dutch league leaders PSV Eindhoven and perhaps most interestingly from a Liverpool point of view, FC Porto – managed by linked manager Andre Villas-Boas – all remain in the hunt for a European trophy and will offer stern opposition should the Reds seek to go one better than last season in the competition.

Liverpool need, as a minimum, continental football next season. Whether Dalglish (together with his important back-room colleagues Sammy Lee and Steve Clarke) and the team really are capable of putting together such a massively improved second half of the season to clinch a top four spot remains to be seen – certainly the odds are against it and Chelsea’s recent poor form may have been put behind them with a convincing victory over Bolton.

But at least the prospect of it is within the realms of possibility and dreaming now – something inconceivable even only a month ago when the Reds were just four points off the relegation zone, and worse, back in October when languishing in nineteenth position. And at the very least, it seems the chances of a Europa League spot – almost always secured with a top six finish in the league – are vastly increased and could be enhanced further by one or two key signings this month.

The mantra of the very existence of the club is to win trophies – and the Europa League, both this and potentially next season, offers Liverpool a good chance to do just that.

Against Sparta and (should we go through) probably in the next round, it is conceivable that the squad could continue to be rotated, until (if and when) Liverpool reach the latter stages and a trophy seems a tantalisingly close prospect.

Only time will tell just how far Dalglish is capable of leading the club, both in the short and possibly long term.

Some fans would maybe even argue that the position of the team come the end of the season is almost irrelevant now; more important the facts that the club, both on and off the field, are back in good hands.

Such a reaction is understandable after the instability of the past couple of seasons, but is unrealistic in the modern football world – stars such as Fernando Torres need to be playing on the biggest stages of all and, questions of loyalty aside, at least a big step towards keeping the likes of him at the club would be qualification for the Champions League, or showing that we can be capable of doing so given stability and strengthening.

For what it’s worth, for me personally the season is certainly no write-off at this stage and a top four spot is not out of reach yet; nor is the Europa League trophy. Anyone wondering as to the value of this cup need only cast their minds back a year to the disappointment of going out at the semi-final stage, or back ten years to our last exhilarating victory against Alaves.

Liverpool’s season is not over, not by a long shot. A few more wins like we’ve seen in the past week or so and the old confidence could be flowing back through the club in a big way. And who better to lead us through those times than a man who has done it all at this very club?

Remember: Walk on, with hope in your heart.