Liverpool attack on record pace; Spurs' Europa woes; EPL thoughts

Sunday February 23rd, 2014

Daniel Sturridge kept Liverpool's attack on record pace in a 4-3 win over Swansea on Sunday.
Clive Brunskill/Getty Images

Replacing Jamie Carragher -- Over 17 seasons, a Liverpool record, Carragher made 737 appearances for the club including 150 in Europe, another Liverpool record. Such a pillar of the team is hard to replace. Liverpool signed three central defenders last summer after he retired; only one, Kolo Touré, has played substantial minutes.

Yet in one area where Carragher holds the club record, Liverpool has done a very good job of replacing his numbers this season.

Carragher scored more own goals than any other player in Liverpool history. His total of seven is also second in Premier League history -- behind Richard Dunne's 10 -- but it works out at less than one every 100 games.

On Sunday against Swansea, Martin Skrtel deflected a tame header by Wilfried Bony into his own net. Skrtel will hope the dubious goals panel rules that, since the header was on target, the goal should be credited to Bony, even though it almost certainly would not have gone in. If it is classified as an own goal, it will be Skrtel's third this season, in 25 starts. And none of those have been quite as spectacular own goal Touré scored in Liverpool's previous league game at Fulham. All in all, the Reds are shooting themselves in the net.

On Sunday, Liverpool surrendered a 2-0 lead and a 3-2 lead but escaped with a 4-3 victory. At Fulham, the worst team in the Premier League, Liverpool won 3-2 with a late penalty by Steven Gerrard.

Against Swansea, Daniel Sturridge and Jordan Henderson each scored twice. After 27 games, Liverpool has 70 goals, the most in the Premier League. It has only twice scored more in a Premier League season and has 11 games left to pass the 77 it scored in 2008-9. Luis Suárez is the league's top scorer with 23. Sturridge is second on 18, three ahead of Sergio Agüero.

The attack is firing. The defense is leaking. Skrtel had a conspicuously bad afternoon. In addition to the potential own goal, he gave away the free kick that preceded it, earned a yellow card and grabbed Bony to concede the penalty from which the striker made the score 3-3. Yet when Brendan Rodgers yanked a center back in the second half it was Daniel Agger he removed, to be replaced by the accident-prone Touré.

Yet it might not simply be the case that Liverpool's stellar attack is repeatedly bailing out the defense. It may be that the back line is being forced to cling on because the commitment to a four-man attack is leaving it unprotected.

Liverpool uses a high press, which can be deadly in generating dangerous turnovers in the opposing half but leaves it short of bodies further back. On Sunday, against Swansea's five-man midfield, Liverpool played, in theory, with two central midfielders screening the defense. Yet one of those, Henderson, repeatedly burst forward. The other was Steven Gerrard who, at 33 and cast in the role of creator rather than destroyer, can no longer take on three opponents single-handed.

On Sunday, as so often this season, it was a strategy that paid off. Henderson scored twice. Liverpool hit four. The Reds will be fine if they keep scoring four goals a game -- but they won't. At some point the defense needs to deliver clean sheets. Liverpool has just seven in 27 league games. Only Cardiff, Stoke, West Brom and Fulham have a lower percentage. Maybe Liverpool should bring back Jamie Carragher.

The curse of the Europa League -- Tottenham Hotspur is, it seems, caught in the Europa League trap. It keeps finishing fifth in the Premier League. That gives it a place in Europe's very second-class cup competition. That's nice, but it doesn't give the club the cash or the glamor that allow Champions League teams to recruit top players to sit on their benches.

Instead, Tottenham lost its best players -- Gareth Bale and Luka Modric over the last two summers -- to a team that can offer Champions League. Tottenham has to start again, burdened by the extra games and extra travels the Europa League brings.

Still, Spurs are in it to win it, as first Andre Villas Boas and now Tim Sherwood have said of the Europa League. Then Spurs produce a performance like the one at Norwich on Sunday, and you have to wonder if maybe Harry Redknapp, who openly despised the competition, didn't have a point.

Since Sherwood took over from AVB as manager on December 16, with the Europa League on its winter break, Spurs had clawed their way onto Liverpool's coat tails in the race for fourth and a Champions League place.

On Thursday, the Europa League resumed. Spurs travelled to the Ukraine, probably not anyone's first choice for a soccer match at the moment, and played FC Dnipro on a muddy, sapping pitch. In the 16 Europa League games on Thursday, only two away teams lost. Tottenham, beaten, 1-0, was one of them, preserving Sherwood's perfect 0-3 record in cup games.

On Sunday, Tottenham lost 1-0 again, this time at Norwich. Spurs had won its last away league game 4-0 with a high-energy display at Newcastle. This time it struggled limply against the cloying, hard-working Norwich midfield. Tottenham did not have a shot on target until the 81st minute. Norwich was well organized and industrious, but Spurs were poor.

The defeat leaves Tottenham six points behind Liverpool but only five ahead of Manchester United and Everton.

Perhaps the best idea would be to accept that it will again lose its best players (Hugo Lloris? Jan Vertonghen? Paulinho?) this summer, gracefully allow United to overtake it and avoid sipping again from the poisoned cup that is the Europa League.

Rooney should have pockets sewn into his shorts -- In the first game since Manchester United agreed to throw unprecedented amounts of money at Wayne Rooney, fans at Crystal Palace hurled even more.

As Rooney prepared to take a corner during United's labored 2-0 victory at Selhurst Park on Saturday, he was pelted by coins from the crowd. It seemed a bizarre expression of contempt. Even at his new basic weekly salary of £300,000 ($500,000, give or take the average windfall at a corner kick), Rooney earns more in a day than the £26,000 the average Briton earns in a year.

Of course, Rooney can do things that even the average soccer player cannot, as he demonstrated with the delicious shot with which completed the United victory.

Rooney can repay United by scoring goal like that. If he can lift United back into the Champions League this season, that extra revenue will more than pay his salary.

But the deal makes sense in other way. There was a danger he would let his United contract wind down and leave on a free transfer. Even though he will cost United a minimum of £85 million over the five years of the deal, that's still less than the just the transfer fee Real Madrid paid Tottenham for Bale in the summer. United is paying a lot less than replacement cost.

But this deal is about more than just performance on the field. It's about image and about hurting other clubs.

Keeping Rooney was crucial to United's constant battle to preserve its standing as one of the world's two or three biggest clubs and the aura that attracts players and fans.

United has scored an important goal in the endless battle of the bling. Real Madrid might have the two most expensive players in the world measured by transfer fees; United now has the most expensive star in the world measured in income.

The contract is inflationary, and that, from United point of view, could be the best part.

UEFA's Financial Fair Play rules are designed to prevent clubs spending more than they earn. With projected revenue of £420 million this year, United will, again, make far more than any of its English rivals. Even with this huge contract, it's way under the Fair Play ceiling.

United was pushed into this deal by pressure from Chelsea. Now that club's owner, Roman Abramovich, who has done so much over the last decade to inflate player salaries, and the Emiratis at Manchester City face a choice. They can keep pace with United by spending more of their own money. But if they do, they risk being excluded from the Champions League, should UEFA have the guts to enforce its rules.

Meanwhile Rooney, who can also expect to see his £4 million annual endorsement income boosted as sponsors fight even harder to throw money at the world's richest player, cannot go anywhere without more money raining down on him. At Palace, he gave the coins to the referee. That wasn't a bribe. He can afford to give it away.

Giroud is well-rested -- Playing Champions League matches in midweek and Premier League matches at the weekend can be demanding for even the deepest squad. When the Champions League match is against the reigning European champion, it is even tougher. When you do so for most of the match with 10 men, as Arsenal did against Bayern Munich on Wednesday, then it really takes a physical toll.

Yet when Arsenal took on resurgent Sunderland at the Emirates on Saturday, manager Arsène Wenger was able to make five changes. Two in particular gave his side a jolt of energy as it produced a devastating display and won 4-1.

First, he recalled Olivier Giroud. Giroud may not be the best player in the Arsenal squad, but he is probably the most important. Arsenal has a couple of others who can play the crucial role of lone striker in Wenger's system. At 20, Yaya Sanogo brings chiefly unfulfilled potential, while at 25 Nicklas Bendtner offers only unfulfilled potential. Yet Sanogo started against Bayern. He certainly tried, but maybe Giroud could have added a precious cutting edge as Arsenal dominated in the first 15 minutes.

So how could Wenger, who many Arsenal fans wanted fired after the first game of the season, dare to leave him out for such a big match? Well, Giroud had reportedly been a naughty boy, allegedly sneaking a "glamor model" into the team hotel the night before a game. Wenger, citing the player's privacy, refused to comment on reports that he had suspended Giroud for the Bayern match for disciplinary reasons. But he didn't deny it either. PR problem solved.

The outcome? Arsenal lost to Bayern, as Wenger probably knew it would. Giroud returned on Saturday and was raring to go and primed to score. He hit the first two and set up Tomas Rosicky for the third with an inspired caress. By half time, Arsenal led 3-0, largely thanks to Giroud, and had emphatically banished its annual February blues.

The other key change was addition by omission.

Mesut Özil's arrival at the end of August helped the players believe the club was a contender. They have played that way since.

Recently, Özil has faded. He missed a penalty against Bayern. More importantly, when the opposition had the ball he seemed unable, or unwilling, to put in the defensive work that is essential to the Wenger system -- indeed to almost any system at the highest levels of modern soccer.

Özil hopes to be at the heart of the German midfield in the World Cup. If he could not find some energy for a match watched by everyone in German soccer, then perhaps there is a problem.

A shot too far for American keepers -- For more than 90 minutes at Stamford Bridge on Saturday, Tim Howard, Everton's American goalie, shut out Chelsea, the Premier League leader.

For more than 90 minutes at St James Park on Sunday, Brad Guzan, Aston Villa's American goalie, shut out Newcastle.

Both men ended up losing 1-0. It's a cruel game.

Howard, the first choice U.S. goalie, was frequently spectacular as he repeatedly thwarted Chelsea's all-star attack giving Everton a chance of a precious point in its pursuit of European soccer.

Ultimately, he was the agent of his team's downfall. When Frank Lampard swung a free kick toward John Terry, Howard lunged to reach it first. He did, and deflected the ball back over his own head and into the net. It was the 92nd minute.

Guzan, who should be going to Brazil as Howard's backup, had much less to do in a dreary game between two lackluster teams. What he had to do, he had done well enough to give his struggling team a chance of a valuable away point. Then he seemed to miss-read a shot by Loïc Remy and was diving to his side as the ball flew into the middle of the net. It was the 93rd minute.

A goalie is only as good as the last shot he saved, or in the case of Howard and Guzan, the last shot he didn't save.

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