hello, goodbye.

High-ay-tuss, unless something drastic happens, like inspiration, for instance.

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About That Game: Manchester City vs Liverpool

All I can say on this the morning before New Years Eve is: Thank god this wasn’t a 5am game, or I might’ve swallowed my tongue by now. But there’s no saying this game won’t make me suffer in some other meaningful way, is there?

1. Steven Gerrard vs Didi Hamann, believe it or not, was one of my most anticipated match-ups of the season. The Kaiser basically engineered the Liverpool midfield for seven years, only relinquishing that role when Gerrard started to blossom, and even then his influence on the younger generation was palpable and very much welcome. Alonso, as great is he can be, has paid huge tribute to Hamann, and they only played together for two seasons — while Didi was indeed displaced by Alonso’s presence in the center (and later Momo Sissoko), his influence certainly never diminished, and that’s still evident even now.

Today Gerrard played deeper than a deep-sea diver for much of the game, taking on a controlling role similar to that of the Kaiser, mostly out of necessity, as the City players did a fantastic job pressuring Liverpool when not in possession of the ball (in hockey terms, “forechecking”). But his composure there, I’d like to think, was a tribute to the blinkyman — who had quite a good game himself.

2. Arbeloa in central defense sort of scares me on paper, and it sort of scared me in reality as well. While the defense wasn’t exactly perforated, the relative disorganization in the absence of Sami Hyypia was sadly noticeable.

3. Injury-ridden he may be, but Harry Kewell has blossomed into Liverpool’s most reliable left-winger, staving off challenges by players such as Mark Gonzalez even while in the examiner’s room. I say reliable because he has been, in recent seasons, a fine two-way player. Not the fittest, of course, but he’s good for 60-70 solid minutes every game. In the first half, he was the only consistent playmaker, often sent a-gallop by one of Gerrard’s half-crazy, half-inspired long passes, but he also tracked back diligently to help out Aurelio against the half-crazy, half-inspired Stephen Ireland.

4. One of the more ridiculous aspects of football in the winter: players wearing fingered gloves with short-sleeved shirts. Well hey, at least it’s not mittens.

5. Compared to City, whose hustle limited Liverpool’s potency especially on the right wing and through the middle, the Reds looked a bit slow on the uptake, players hesitating just enough on their decision making to allow City to snap at their heels more than they’d like. Vassell, Dunne, and Ireland especially, and of course, Hamann, made things extremely difficult for Liverpool to really settle the game as they would’ve liked. And Ericksson kept things fresh, too, making his substitutes to keep the energy level buzzing. Unlike the Derby match on Wednesday, Liverpool weren’t hampering themselves. Like the Derby match, however, this was going to be a test of will and attitude for the players, in order to break down a tough opponent.

6. Tough day for Torres, as Richards and Dunne have corralled him all evening en route to one of his only lackluster performances in red so far.

7. Dunne, in fact, singlehandedly prevented two winners from going in, first that brilliant goalline clearance off Kuyt’s header and then an equally brilliant tackle on Benayoun inside the box, and somehow City were able to stave off what seemed like two surefire scoring chances. What a performance by the captain, overshadowing any and every effort put forth by Liverpool in the last 10 minutes. This is one result that should have went our way, perhaps, but one can’t begrudge City their success so far this season. They’ve worked hard for it, and they look legit for the first time in awhile.

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About That Game: Derby County vs Liverpool

Season’s greetings, happy holidays, etc., I never know what to say because the household I grew up in knew not of a little thing called celebration. My childhood was a lurid combination of Maoist brainwashing and Dickensian dread. Which explains why I’m such an ardent football fan, I suppose, but let’s not drone on about this-and-that, there’s a game to be blogged.

1. I’ve identified the quality that makes Fernando Torres such a hypnotic footballer, or at least part of it — he’s sort of an inverted yo-yo, isn’t he, upper body swaying to and fro, kept in motion as if by an invisible finger attached to a thin string that stretches down the middle of his torso, right through to his heels. And yes, you can count this as an admission of reluctant admiration. He has no problem finding the target, and between keeping a personal grudge and appreciating a player who can put a ball into the back of a neck without being asked fifteen times — well, I think I’m making the right choice here. Besides, he hasn’t been nearly as wormy as I expected him to be, especially when contending with Prem-grade defenders, so that’s another point in the for-column.

2. Xabi Alonso really does bring another level of class to the game. Long passes suddenly shed their negative connotation and take on a certain polish, a feeling of pedigree. I don’t know what it is. Maybe the way he always looks up, always takes great care to pick out his spot before hoofing it thataway, or maybe just the fanciful imagination that he’s considering his moves like a field general. Still, while it’s the calculation that makes his movement appreciable, it’s the execution that makes his style of football (and, by association, Liverpool’s style of football) beautiful.

3. If we were so inclined to make the comparison: Alonso treats each ball like a gift to be given, with personalized name tags but no-nonsense packaging. Mascherano, on the other hand, is a moon, controlling the pull and push of the game by drawing in a player here, taking away the ball there, all done in rough, necessary movements.

4. I don’t think I’ve heard any other opposing set of fans cheer quite as loudly as the Derby faithful did upon winning their first corner of the match. Baby steps, I suppose.

5. I never have anything to say about Derby, and I think it’s because what they play can hardly be described as football. I would require some sort of degraded sporting vocabulary to discuss the way the players seem to abort passes even as the ball is leaving their feet, or how two players can be so unaware of each other that they collide like particularly eager molecules. Even that shabby (or Xabi) giveaway that let Steven Howard cut into the Liverpool box resulted in the striker somehow shooting in a direction completely opposite
from the right one.

6. Continuing our discussion of finishing, I guess it’s a good thing Torres has rung up the net like it were a chick at a bar and the ball was her cell phone number (yeah, don’t question that simile, it’s before 8am and I haven’t slept), because no one else seemed to want to score in the first half. A fairer scoreline going into the break might have been 3-0, were it not for Babel and Carragher’s badly squandered chances.

7. What an intriguing defensive substitution, pulling Fabio Aurelio into the middle in place of Hyypia and switching Babel onto the left wing (Benayoun came in and took the right). Derby did start launching more crosses and lifting high balls into the Liverpool box after the switch was made, which had to have been a conscious decision.

8. Kenny Miller has extreme elfin ears. That is all I can really say on the matter.

9. Derby did a much better job in the second half controlling the ball for short periods of time. (It’s good to know Benny Feilhaber is still alive.) And it paid off, perhaps with a lucky bounce off the original free kick, but it’s hard to begrudge McEveley the equalizer — and his first Prem goal — as they duly deserved it. Liverpool were virtually unwatchable for much of the second half, with Voronin the worst of the lot — he was all over the place, and not in a positive, Kuyt sort of way. Funny story: As soon as I typed “Kuyt,” the camera cut to the Dutchman getting ready to come on for Babel.

10. As much as I rail against these sorts of games — where one team shouldn’t have much trouble with the other team, but for some reason does, and so finds themselves needing a late winner, and goes about methodically trying to pin that other team back into their own territory, but one wonders whether they’ll actually succeed with the way they’re playing — I think they’re also necessary throughout the course of the season, as periodical tests, if you will, of a team’s ability to power through one afternoon’s particular disconnect. Still, I hate these kinds of games the most, and I suspect most fans feel similarly, because they are extraordinarily difficult to sit through, and each missed chance or unlucky break stands out glaringly as a what-if moment.

11. Thank the sweet baby Jesus for Steven Gerrard’s legs, and for his all-consuming unwillingness to give up. I wonder if McEveley was a smidge at fault, though, as Price seemed to be within reach of the ball after parrying Torres’s initial shot, but the defender tried to poke it out of harm’s way, only for Gerrard to meet it with his knee. Either way, it was a day of mixed fortunes for McEveley, having brought his team so close to a moral triumph, only to find himself directly involved in the play that submerged them once again.

OH, THANK GOD THAT’S OVER. LIKE I SAID, WORST KIND OF GAME. I’M GOING TO SLEEP NOW.

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The CL draw, Crouch rings the gongs, and a Hornby reference

All in a Friday’s work, people.

1. Champions League draw was early this morning. These are the worst years, when there are some battles worthy of a final and others that can be considered featherweight — and that’s being generous:

Celtic — Barcelona
Lyon — Manchester Utd
Schalke 04 — Porto
Liverpool — Inter Milan
Roma — Real Madrid
Arsenal — AC Milan
Olympiakos — Chelsea
Fenerbahce — Sevilla

Aside from Liverpool’s matchup, I think Man U and Arsenal both have fantastic ties, and Roma-Real could be a real scrap. The others are all underwhelming. Upon first glance, I’m calling it thusly: Barcelona, Lyon (let’s see if they can finally fulfill their perennial dark horse prophecies), Porto, Liverpool, Real, Arses, Chelsea, Sevilla. But we’ll see.

2. This year, Liverpool has given Peter Crouch the opportunity to give out the annual team gongs. Pennant continually gets the short stick, Momo is apparently blingin’, Arbeloa owns an ugly jacket, and Stevie G loves the ’80s, among other fun tidbits. I like that teams do this — it let the fans catch a small glimpse into their lives as teammates and friends.

3. I’ve started writing haikus based on football news items. They’re more immediate reactions than anything profound, but who knows, sports haikus could mark a new trend in blogging. (I jest.) The origin of “little poles” — again, not a dick joke! — of course goes back to Hornby:

“One thing I know for sure about being a fan is this: it is not a vicarious pleasure, despite all appearances to the contrary, and those who say that they would rather do than watch are missing the point. Football is a context where watching becomes doing — not in the aerobic sense, because watching a game, smoking your head off while doing so, drinking after it has finished and eating chips on the way home is unlikely to do you a whole lot of Jane Fonda good, in the way that chuffing up and down a pitch is supposed to. But when there is some kind of triumph, the pleasure does not radiate from the players outwards until it reaches the likes of us at the back of the terraces in a pale and diminished form; our fun is not a watery version of the team’s fun, even though they are the ones that get to score the goals and climb the steps at Wembley to meet Princess Diana. The joy we feel on occasions like this is not a celebration of others’ good fortune, but a celebration of our own; and when there is a disastrous defeat the sorrow that engulfs us is, in effect, self-pity, and anyone who wishes to understand how football is consumed must realise this above all things. The players are merely our representatives, chosen by the manager rather than elected by us, but our representatives nonetheless, and sometimes if you look hard you can see the little poles that join them together, and the handles at the side that enable us to move them. I am a part of the club, just as the club is a part of me; and I say this fully aware that the club exploits me, disregards my views, and treats me shoddily on occasions, so my feeling of organic connection is not built on a muddle-headed and sentimental misunderstanding of how professional football works.”

(from Fever Pitch, where else)

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I quit.

That’s it for me. I can’t do it anymore, not after this latest fuck-up by the freakshow at Valencia CF. First Quique Sanchez Flores is replaced by the utterly uninspiring Ronald Koeman, and now Santiago Cañizares and David Albelda, two players who have unquestionably been the heart and soul of this Valencia team for the better part of a decade, are senselessly dismissed by the manager, who then says (in effect), “I don’t care about what they have to say.” It should be needless for me to point out that the fans have lodged furious protests (as they did when contract negotiations were breaking down last season between the club and Albelda), but it’s probably not going to make much of a difference.

I haven’t been able to watch this team play much under Koeman, but what I’ve seen, I haven’t liked at all. Quique’s recent personnel investments — made before he left the club — were a bit baffling, to be honest, but Koeman has completely changed the identity of the team, the same kooky hyperregional identity that drew me to Los Che in the first place, and this latest dismissal of two club leaders is the last straw.

The blame for this should fall on both Koeman and president Soler. The lack of respect is one thing; the lack of courtesy is another. According to the players, they haven’t received any communication from the president, let alone an explanation for the club’s actions. I was overjoyed when they finally renewed his contract; I thought, maybe this is a turning point.

I’m so disappointed. No, I believe the right word is “heartbroken.” Just like Albelda, who grew up with the club, captained the club (his own personal armband is quite astonishing, if you’ve never seen it up close), devoted his entire career to the club, and is now being discarded like none of it meant anything. He (and Cañete) have basically been surgically removed, as if they were tumors. But the cancer at Valencia, as everybody knows, runs deeper than the players and deeper than the coaching staff. Need a few reminders of the insanity? Rafa Benítez and the case of the missing furniture; Amedeo Carboni and Quique Flores’s battle of egos; everything about the Roberto Ayala transfer. It’s a completely diseased organization, and I can’t bring myself to support a club like that anymore, where backroom bickering bleeds onto the field, where you can no longer separate the human figures from the drama that envelops them.

At this point, I’m not sure whether I’ll even follow the rest of the season, which is regrettable, because players like Villa, Silva, Miguel, Morientes, and Albiol are players who still command my attention, who deserve to be watched and adored by fans. I am still undying in my loyalty to the Valencia players. But this organization? I have no more faith in them.

A final note about Albelda as a footballer: I’ve never, never seen anyone do what he does, and it’s so rare to see an entire tactical system successfully built around an individual, but that was his value to the team. For so many years, he and Baraja were the perfect central midfield pairing, and their tandem, their unique dynamic will probably never be recreated by Valencia or any other team. I’ve seen him play in person twice, and the way he covers his territory on the field is so subtle, yet it translates into a tangible dominance. Skill- and speed-wise, the past few seasons have been unkind to his body, and it was obvious that he was entering the twilight of his career, but still, I always expected him to retire like a king. It’s what he deserved, what the fans deserved, what the club owed him. Unless Soler does something drastic (which, if history serves us, will never happen), he’ll go without even saying goodbye. Him and Cañete.

What a damn shame.

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About That Game: Liverpool vs Manchester United

So many little things wrong with that game. The tactics were fundamentally sound (hard to go tails-up with your strongest XI in a 4-4-2, innit?), and the strategies were made very clear. The problem? There was no friggen execution. Passes were miscontrolled, shots were scuffed or pulled wide, dead ball situations not taken advantage of. Every time someone made a run, the ball was sent behind them, and no one bothered to get the second ball. How was it that every single time one of our attacking players got the ball in the final third, at least three black shirts swarmed around him, and no one was there to help out? Individual heroics do not defeat Manchester United. Hell, eleven men playing with the utmost will and effort sometimes do not defeat Manchester United. Liverpool fell short today of their best, and I’m too emotionally drained (at 7:30 am) to write anything else about this game. Suffice to say, this fixture terrifies me every year. Arsenal inspire the normal amount of apprehension associated with a really good opponent; playing Chelsea has taken on the sheen of a moral struggle between opposing footballing ideologies, which deflects a bit of the nerves, I think; these Man U games, though, are a bit like shock therapy.

Four seasons with Rafa in charge: seven games played and zero goals scored against our fiercest rival. The season isn’t even half over yet, and people are already writing off Liverpool’s chances at winning the Prem. In my mind, if we don’t win at least one away game against either Man U, Arses, or Chelsea, that’ll be the damning evidence.

Switching gears for a mo’. I’m not sure whether to be worried about Rafa’s transfer plans or not. The only two things on my personal wishlist are: 1) TIE DOWN MASCHERANO FOR AS LONG AS POSSIBLE, and 2) get a cheap but reliable central defender in case Agger really has dropped off the face of the planet and Hyypia succumbs even further to old age. But I’m still worried that Gillette and Hicks don’t understand the importance of the winter transfer window. These few weeks can help shape the rest of our season, which is certainly in need of some direction after the rollercoaster week we’ve had.

Then again, I guess that’s why they’re the men in suits and I’m the girl in the fuzzy slippers and old scarf.

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Roman: of dreams and religions

Billups of Free Darko fame has written a heady, epic post about the miracle of Juan Roman Riquelme, as he heads back to Boca Juniors, his boyhood club.

Boca Juniors — the club I hate most in this world, even if I don’t follow River Plate like I used to. But some players transcend club loyalties, and Riquelme is one of them. The sine curve of his career is one of the great enigmas of our footballing generation, decipherable only through the haze of Ray Hudson soundbytes, the bewilderment of the press, and awestruck posts like Billups’ — he is one player about whom every football fan has an opinion, but even more significantly, it is an opinion that is liable to change every two years.

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not the most iconic picture of Roman, I’m afraid, but I can’t find any good Argentina shots and I am ethically unable to post anything from his Boca days

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