Thursday, July 24, 2014

Dispatches from the Worst Soccer Game of All Time

"I want this game to get chippy."

That was an actual sentence I said during the first half of last night's Liverpool-AS Roma debacle at Fenway Park.

I was obviously deluded. So deluded, in fact, that my friend had to inform me of the fact that the players for Liverpool's first team (names like Gerrard, Sterling, Johnson, Sturridge, and Reina) who were paraded across the pitch at halftime like returning war heroes were actually labeled as "Liverpool legends" by the Fenway P.A. announcer.

Yup, now apparently a 19 year old midfielder with one good season under his belt is a "legend."

This game, with perhaps two exceptions, was a disappointment from beginning to end.

Being the massive Liverpool supporter that I am, I was thrilled to be seated in the midst of the "Fenway Kop" and was expecting a full-throated, rollicking version of "You'll Never Walk Alone." The song began with no introduction several minutes after we were seated, and a halfhearted, half-full bleacher section mewled out the anthem in much the same way a kitten cries for more milk.

One positive moment was the tribute to the 96 victims of the Hillsborough Stadium disaster which happened 25 years ago in April. A banner reading "Never Forgotten, 25 years" was placed over the center circle, and there was a minute's silence, during which Kenny Dalglish released 96 balloons which floated over the Green Monster and out into the city.

From there, it went downhill quickly.

The play was uninspired, with both teams trotting out their B- (or even C-) squads. Philippe Coutinho was far and away the best player on the field, showing brilliant ball control and vision on nearly every touch. Several narrow escapes from tricky situations pulled a breathless exclamation from the Liverpool faithful.

Unfortunately, aside from one Rickie Lambert effort in the second half, Coutinho was the only bright spot for the Reds. Yes, the berserker Martin Skrtel was solid in defense, as was the lanky and somehow skilled Martin Kelly. But there was no invention going forward, with Lambert cutting a lonely figure amongst the central defenders of Roma.

The second half turned ugly, at least from our perspective.

Now, I've never attended a European football match in Europe. But I have been to many college soccer games, New England Revolution games, and two other matches between European teams (Celtic v Sporting at Fenway and Milan v Inter at Gillette), and I seem to remember standing up the whole time at all of these events.

Soccer is a game of ebb and flow, a constant swirl of motion, with few stoppages and no timeouts. Though many deride it as boring, it actually produces the most consistent action of any major sport. Thus, you can imagine our confusion when the second half started, and almost everyone in our section (allegedly the Liverpool supporters' section) remained seated.

The group in front of us, a similar collection of mid-20s soccer enthusiasts, stood up as soon as the whistle blew. This seemed to be the norm for them, as it was for us. We soon realized that we were in the minority, and if we hadn't, the people behind us were all too ready to alert us to this fact.

Curses, sarcastic jeers, comments about our appearance, and actual objects were hurled from behind us, as those patrons who no doubt sit in an office chair all day couldn't be bothered to stand up and watch a soccer game which they paid good money to attend. As a few of us turned to engage, my attention was particularly drawn to a portly man in a Wake Forest baseball cap. This was a man who clearly had less than the first clue about anything related to soccer, yet he was in the thick of it, screaming sarcastic taunts at us as we stood to watch. We returned a few words, but soon realized it was distracting for other patrons and ourselves.

I understand that not being able to see is a legitimate complaint. However, the entire section to our left was standing up, as were many other patrons around the stadium. The energy on the field was lethargic at best, but it was certainly not improved by the sentiment in the stands. Granted, we're not watching the first team go plunging into challenges on a European night at Anfield. But, come on now, this is the team that you wake up at 7 AM on a rainy Saturday in November to watch. The team that you stream at your desk during a Europa League group stage match. The team that you spend far too much disposable income on to ship products from the official team store on Anfield Road (I'm assuming that's where the team store is. I've never been.).

The second half, for us, was endured under the heckling of men who should have been our friends, our comrades, our drinking buddies. "You'll Never Walk Alone" blares the Liverpool anthem. An umbrella statement that seems to indicate that anywhere in the world that two people sporting the Liver bird beneath the Shankly Gate meet, they're bonded instantly by the love of a football club.

Last night, as we were pelted by insults and plastic cups while standing to support our football club amongst a crowd of those who allegedly supported the same club, walking alone to the exit doors of Fenway Park often felt the best option.

But, I did get my wish. It definitely got chippy.

Tuesday, July 15, 2014

Luis Suarez is Gone... Is the Sky Falling?


Or, wait. Kinda.

Hold on... No, it's not.

On the surface, this is devastating. This is LeBron leaving Cleveland for Miami, in terms of your best player taking your team to the brink of glory and then skipping town to go to a superteam.

Of course, we know the story of the Heat's "Big 3" who were supposed to win Not One, Not Two, Not Three, etc. but actually only won two. Barcelona are one of the top three or four teams in the world in terms of pure skill level, top to bottom, with names that even the casualest soccer fan would know (Messi, Neymar, Mascherano of torn asshole fame, and Mr. Shakira).

Lucky bastard
This is also LeBron leaving Miami for Cleveland, in terms of a great player in the prime of his career making a career decision based on family issues. 

Unless your face has been buried in a pair of soft, pillowing breasts over the past month, you've heard that King James has returned to the shitty dominion from whence he came, and Suarez's wife's family (along with the allure of playing for the ever-elite Barrrrrrthelona) have convinced him to leave the Reds. Check out these two quotes from the stars about returning to a home. 

LeBron: "My relationship with Northeast Ohio is bigger than basketball. I didn't realize that four years ago. I do now."

Luis: "This club did everything they could, but playing and living in Spain, where my wife's family lives, is a lifelong dream and ambition." 

It's a surprisingly adult decision from two players whose antics have often been described as childish.

Suarez is more fiercely protective of his wife and his career than you probably are to your gambling/alcohol/FIFA 2014 addiction, as chronicled in this incredible profile by Wright Thompson. Seriously, take a night off from your vice of choice and read that piece - it's tremendous. 

So, rather than bring terror to back lines across the English Premier League next year, he'll be jockeying for playing time with some of the best forwards in the world in Spain. 

What does this mean for Liverpool?

A couple things.

1. Goals from nothing will dry up. 

Every sport has a few players who can create points out of absolutely nowhere - names that come up immediately in my mind, past and present, include Devin Hester, Kevin Durant, Pavel Datsyuk, and Giancarlo Stanton (imperfect comparison, but whatever).

Suarez is one of those players. Just look at the GIFage below.

HauntingDigitalGerenuk Luis Saurez volleys a bouncing ball over John Ruddy from fully 40 yards [GIF] 

Suarez solo goal vs Norwich

EnchantingImmaculateHumpbackwhale video iframe

Those goals, specifically the first and third, are what I'm talking about - goals scored with the type of audacity and panache that few in the global game possess. 


Kid can play.

2. Liverpool's team creativity will suffer. 

Many teams employ a striker of the poaching variety: one of those forwards who sits on the back shoulder of a central defender, timing his runs into the box and trying to end up on the end of crosses for tap-in goals. Classic poachers include all-time leading World Cup scorer Miroslav Klose and renowned Italian offside artist Filippo Inzaghi.

Suarez is the opposite - he'll drop deep into the midfield to receive the ball and link seamlessly with his midfielders to spring offensive attacks. Statistically, this is borne out by his 12 assists last season, good for second in the league (behind his teammate, Steven Gerrard). 

The most deadly part of Liverpoool's attack last year was the interplay between Suarez and his fleet-footed "S" brothers - Daniel Sturridge and Raheem Sterling. Sturridge, 'Pool's other forward, finished in second place in the league goals race, with 21 - 10 behind Suarez. Sterling terrorized left backs with his speed and deception on the wing, often put through by Suarez himself. 

With Luis in Spain, the Reds will need Phillippe Coutinho to step into a more prominent attacking midfield role. The Brazilian is still young but has shown the stereotypical "flashes of brilliance" - we'll need to see more from him as he sends new boys like Lazar Markovic, Adam Lallana, and Rickie Lambert into space this season.

3. The defense will need to step up big time.

Pretty basic analysis here: the best defense is a good offense. That was Liverpool's strategy last year - they went out with the mindset that they were going to pulverize every team into submission, and damn the torpedoes. This was the reason that they scored the second most goals in the league (101) but conceded more than 6 of the top 10 teams (50, to champion Manchester City's 37). 

While I'm pretty confident in our retooled offense's ability to put up numbers, I'm worried about the defense. 

First off, as Steven Gerrard ages, he'll start to drift further and further back to play in a Pirlo-like role, pinging balls to the forwards and wingers. However, he's not the most mobile dude on the pitch as a 35-year-old Englishman with thousands of miles on his boots. 

Secondly, our actual defense is in flux. We have a first-choice right back in England's Glen Johnson, who I'm fine with. Jamie Carragher is retired, and one of our center backs is a berserker Slovak by the name of Martin Skrtel...

Remember me?
who is not reliable enough (in my own personal opinion) to be the anchor at the back of this defense. The great blog Anfield Index has a potential lineup for this season that includes France's Mamadou Sakho at the other center back position, which frightens me to no end. I guess we could have speedster Jose Enrique or Uruguayan youngster Sebastian Coates on the left, but those aren't inspiring options either. 

So, in short:

The sky is falling more than it isn't falling. For all of his noted on-field indiscretions and associated media scrutiny, Luis Suarez is a once-in-a-generation talent. He's the kind of player that LFC fans thought we had in Fernando Torres - a mercurial striker with the ability to score goals from anywhere, at any time, and more importantly, the ability to put the team on his back. We're going to have to alter the tactics this season, so don't bet on quite as many 4- and 5- goal games as last year. 

Sigh. We'll always have Norwich.

Wednesday, July 2, 2014

Liverpool's 5 Most Important EPL Matches for 2014-2015

EDITOR'S NOTE: Luis Suarez has fled to the greener pastures of Barcelona. I wrote this post before that, so disregard Suarez references. The games remain just as important, however. No one player is bigger than the cloob.
I want YOU to watch Liverpool FC.
The US is out of the World Cup. The Red Sox are horrible. The Patriots are doing their little minicamp thing. The Celtics just drafted a complete crazy person. The Bruins just let Jarome Iginla walk. Aaron Hernandez is still in jail.

OK, that last one I'm actually fine with. 

Regardless, it's a tough time to be a sports fan, particularly in Boston. All we can do is look forward and analyze (a sentence which, if the last word is pronounced differently, could be referring to butt stuff).

I'll leave the American football previews to the many who eat, sleep, and breathe that kind of thing, even as they fill their Depends with happy accidents

Instead, let's discuss the glorious Reds of Liverpool Football Club. 

They earned a 2nd-place finish in the English Premier League last year on the back of an outstanding offense. Led by Luis Suarez and Daniel Sturridge, the Reds poured in 101 goals in 38 games, for an average of 2.65 goals per game. 

Pro tip: Bet the over on Liverpool games.

Yes, they have world football's answer to Hannibal Lecter on their team (or more precisely, off their team for the first 3 months), so the output might be curtailed a bit. But they've brought in two young English lads who can bulge the onion bag with the best of them in Adam Lallana and Rickie Lambert. That oughta tide them over. 

Alright, enough jabber. Onto the games. In descending order, these are your most important Liverpool matches of 2014-2015.

If You Watch One Premier League Match All Year, Watch This One.

August 23
Manchester City vs Liverpool

The two top teams from last season face off in this early-season clash in Manchester. Though Liverpool holds a hometown rivalry with Everton and a historical blood feud with the red side of Manchester, City are rising up the rankings as a team to hate with the points of a thousand Suarez incisors. Mainly because they're what the Brooklyn Nets would be if LeBron, Wade, Bosh, Kobe, and Carmelo all played there at various points and won championships (Arab oil money vs Russian diamond money, but 'tevs).

City and Liverpool were so offensively potent last year (both teams eclipsed 100 goals, with the next-closest scoring only 71) that you might think this game will end up like 6-5 or something.

That probably won't happen. Just like in baseball, the offense of a Premier League team takes a few weeks to come alive. Teams need to feel each other out and get used to new teammates' playing styles, plus everyone's flopping isn't even close to midseason form. This match is only on the second weekend of the season, so I'm guessing City will squeak out a close, 2-1 type victory.

Pro tip: Bet the under in this game.

Pro tip: Heed my pro tips at your own discretion.

This One Could Determine The League, So There's That

May 9
Chelsea v Liverpool

Season-ending predictions at this point are about as useless as shit through a goose (I think that's the phrase), due to transfers, injuries, suspensions, managing errors, and some teams just playing inexplicably shittily. 

However, going off recent performance, there's every reason to expect that this match could determine the league. It's the third to last match week of the season (or, as various British oddballs refer to it, the "pointy end," "squeaky-bum time," or "36/38ths, which of course reduces to 18/19ths.").

Both teams will (theoretically, at least) be fatigued from a season-long Champions League effort. This one might come down to who's freshest, and who has the deeper bench. Lallana and Lambert are looking better every day. Physically and metaphorically.

Hoodie sold separately.
The One You Watch Because It's the Derby

September 27
Liverpool v Everton

A derby is a local rivalry. Liverpool's rival is Everton. You can find a more detailed explanation here, but basically, watch this game if you like sports because it's as close as we get to whatever the fuck happened in Rome's Colosseum.

Pro tip: If there's an over/under for yellow cards, bet the over.

Also Tim Howard plays for Everton. He's rather good.

This Game is Important And Not Just Because It's the First One

August 16
Liverpool v Southampton

Would this face lie to you?
Whenever these types of previews come out, the first game of the year is always highlighted. Why? Cuz, fuck, the games are back on! Gather round the tube and drink in the wonder!

That's horseshit. As mentioned earlier, the first few games aren't very fun. In fact, it took until Liverpool's fourth match last year to manage two goals.

This game is big not because of its timing, but because of its characters. While the Terrible Tooth (TM) will be playing with his ni├▒os, his position may well be occupied by a dude who played for the opponents last year.

With the summer transfer window well and truly open, and big names moving between European clubs, Liverpool have snatched up the aforementioned Lallana (the boyish lad above) and Rickie Lambert from the southern club to add even more fuel to their attacking fire. This game should be fun. 

Pro tip: Bet on Lallana or Lambert to be the first goalscorer. It probably won't happen, but if it does, you'll look like a genius. 

Watch This to Seem Knowledgeable at Holiday Parties

December 13
Manchester United v Liverpool

Man U are one of those teams that everybody knows, despite whether they know anything about soccer. So, as soccer becomes bigger and bigger in the States, some people might start to find themselves feeling left behind, much like the people in that new HBO show that everyone's raving about

You can help these people. You can be the bridge between the known and the unknown. Watch this match, then strike up a conversation at your nearest holiday party (before you get belligerently drunk on eggnog and bourbon) that features most or all of the following topics:

  • Suarez's teething tendencies
  • How Brendan Rogers (Liverpool's manager) can keep all the attackers he has at his disposal happy with their playing time
  • The relative lustrousness of Steven Gerrard's and Wayne Rooney's hair.
  • Whether United will ever return to the dominance of the Sir Alex Ferguson years
  • How many shitty cover bands called "SAS" are playing dingy Liverpool bars at that moment
  • That one time that David Moyes managed Manchester United and then signed Marouane Fellaini (feel free to engage in a knowing chuckle here)
  • That one time Liverpool's Kolo Toure had a two-year affair with a woman by claiming he was a used car salesman named Francois. Seriously.
So there you have it. The biggest games, ranked and discussed. Can't wait to get this shit started.


Tuesday, July 1, 2014

What Luis Suarez's Ban Means for 'Pool

EDITOR'S NOTE: I wrote this before I knew about this whole Barcelona thing. Including some bullshit that Liverpool and Barca had a transfer deal worked out for him last November. Regardless, if shit falls through (like, if he bites Lionel Messi or something) and he doesn't move to Barcelona, then this is still valid. 

Luis Suarez has many nicknames. El Pistolero, or "The Gunman," for his lethal finishing. El Conejo, or "The Rabbit," for his quickness and, presumably, his tremendous chompers.

But now, thanks to those very chiclets, he's lived up to a nickname that my friend and I gave to him senior year: the Terrible Tooth. 

By now, you've heard about the bite, and the fact that this is his third incident where he intentionally put an opponent's flesh into his stupid Uruguayan mouth. The man is a serial biter, which is a fine thing to be, provided that you're horribly uninformed on the spelling of a common breakfast item. 

The sentence doled out by FIFA was swift and harsh - a 9 match ban from playing for his country and, more significantly, a 4 month ban from all football (soccer). 

This is, in a word, disastrous for Liverpool. This is a club that prides itself on trophies. They have won the second-most English league titles (18 to Manchester United's 20) and the third-most Champions League titles (5 - tied with Bayern Munich and trailing AC Milan and Real Madrid). 

Simply put, they are one of the most historic and successful clubs in the world. And Suarez is their best player. 

Shit yeah I am!
Liverpool haven't played in the Champions League (a yearlong tournament to crown the best club team in Europe) since 2009-2010.

There's nothing really like the Champions League in American sports, since it runs concurrently with your team's actual regular season, but the best analogy is the Stanley Cup Playoffs. In both instances, players go their whole careers trying just to get into the tournament. Once you're in, it feels like an entirely new season, as the grind of the playoffs/CL is so long and arduous. But the payoff, winning that championship, is unquestionably the pinnacle of the sport. World Cups and league titles may be nice, but for many soccer players, a Champions League title is the dream.

By virtue of their 2nd-place finish in the English Premier League last year, Liverpool have qualified for the tourney. Suarez was the main reason for this qualification, as he dominated the league to the tune of 31 goals and the MVP Award (called the PFA Player of the Year). 

This 4 month ban will see Suarez return to Merseyside at the end of October, which means he will miss not only the first three months of the English league, but the first three matches of the Champions League group stage. Without their fiery (read: crazy) and talented striker, Liverpool's dreams of returning to glory could be over before they begin. 

It's not all doom and gloom for the Reds, as they have added a few players into the mix who will certainly bring some skills to the table, but that's a post for another day.