Thinkering Towards Athens!

15 05 2007

Well its the end of another semi-successful season at Anfield. We finished third and secured another year of Champions League Football next year. And we still have the Champions League Final in less than 10 days at Athens against Milan, a repeat of our Istanbul exploits for 2 years back.

Looking forward to next week, I have to wonder realistically if the Reds have a chance against a side the demolished Man U in the semis a couple of weeks back. Going by the performance against Charlton, you really have to question whether the Reds can bring home Ol’ Big Ears for the sixth time. Things like Istanbul usually happen only once. Lightning does strike twice sometimes, but you can’t bank on it.

Still, one thing that struck me as I watched the Charlton game was how uncreative our attack was. Only when Kewell came on did we actually get creative in the forward third. And even then, it was all on the wings. The Reds don’t seem to be able to press through the middle, which was how they got back at Milan 2 years back. The usual drill these days seems to be if there’s nothing on the wings, punt it up and see what happens. It’s ok once in a while but not for 90 minutes.

In a game as big as this, I don’t think we will falter defensively [IMHO Carra wont allow it, not after the way Istanbul started], but clean sheets never won a cup final. Only scoring more goals than the opposition counts. And that’s my biggest concern. Where will the goals come from? Between Crouch, Kuyt, and Bellamy (if he plays) and on current form, I can’t really see where the goals can be created. Crouch is the best target man only because he’s 6’17” or something like that, and he seems to have learnt how to head a ball for a goal. Kuyt’s workrate is phenomenal but his touch could use some work. And Bellamy. Well, it depends on whether he decides to show up. If he’s the Bellamy that showed up against Barca then fantastic. Otherwise, you have to wonder how he’ll contribute. He can disappear from games at an alarming speed, often never to return.

The trouble with ‘Pool is that we’re a bit too dependent on goals from our midfielders. Plus, our wingers don’t really score enough. Guys like Pennant, Riise, Zenden, Gonzalez need to chip in with more goals. But, keeping all that in mind, there is still some good news. Looking at the 2nd leg of the Milan – Man U match, the key weakness of Milan’s defence seems to be speed and width. Whenever they’ve been stretched and the ball switched across flanks, spaces open up on either flank, and channels in the middle. And the backline of Oddo, Nesta, Maldini, Kaladhze/Jankulovski isn’t what you’d call pacy. But more than attacking alone, Liverpool also have to work on containing Milan’s offence. Seedorf and Kaka are key. Take them out of the game and you’re a good step towards neutralizing Milan. Pirlo is a threat to but he sits a little deeper and needs Kaka and Seedorf to create space. Exploit the wings with pace, shutdown Milan’s midfield and have at least 2 target men in the box for crosses. Of course, that’s always the plan in theory.

I have two theories on how Rafa can approach this game:
1. 4-4-1-1: What I’d like to see for this lineup is a targetman, 2 good wingers, and an attacking midfielder in the hole to exploit and roam. Then 2 holding midfielders to take care of Kaka and Seedorf. The full backs can move up to help the attack, and the central defenders can sit with the holding midfielders to contain the Milan attack. So my line-up for this scenario would be:

Goalie: Reina
Defenders: Arbeloa/Finnan (RB), Carra, Agger, Riise/Arbeloa (LB)
Midfielders: Pennant (RW), Mascherano, Alonso, Zenden/Riise (LW)
Attack: Crouch, Gerrard (Hole)
Bench: Kuyt, Dudek, Bellamy, Gonzalez, Finnan/Zenden, Hyypia, Sissoko/Kewell

2. 4-4-2: For this it’d be a counter-attacking setup. So you need strength and speed upfront, and a quick box-to-box midfield. In this case, I’d have to switch between Mascherano and Gerrard, and bring on Bellamy and Kuyt instead of Crouch. The advantage is that both Kuyt and Bellamy like to work the backlines and can move the balls quickly to the wings, for the midfield to ramp in. The trouble is though that the primary goal threat is from midfielders who are usually outside the box. So the lineup for this would be:

Goalie: Reina
Defenders: Arbeloa/Finnan (RB), Carra, Agger, Riise/Arbeloa (LB)
Midfielders: Pennant/Gerrard (RW), Gerrard, Alonso, Zenden/Riise (LW)
Attack: Kuyt, Bellamy
Bench: Mascherano, Dudek, Crouch, Gonzalez, Finnan/Zenden, Hyypia, Sissoko/Kewell

I have a feeling that Rafa will not start with Kewell due to his lack of match fitness but will bring him on later in the game. He was brilliant against Charlton so Rafa would be mad to leave him out of the game completely. I presume Zenden will be handed a starting berth on the left if Riise is left back. Of the two tactics, I think the first has a better balance since we can pack the midfield and stifle Milan, and at the same time have more options in the box. We don’t seem able to create many openings through the middle. So, it might be better to play to our strengths and exploit the wings more, rather than try to do something that hasn’t worked recently.

Whatever my speculation, Rafa has his own mercurial thinking which has never failed us when it comes to crunch situations so far. And I have faith that he’ll have Ancelotti’s number again. Incidently, number 6 will tie us with Milan as the second most successful team in Europe’s premier knockout cup competition after Real Madrid with 9 titles.

Better make space in the trophy cabinet boys! Ol’ Big Ears is coming home to the Kop! YNWA!

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