TERRACE TALK: Reaction from the weekend’s top Premiership action

Idler Johnson the unlikeliest of Red heroes

TERRACE TALK: Reaction from the weekend’s top Premiership action

LIVERPOOL

By Steven Kelly

Apparently we were “incredible” against Stoke, as opposed to merely being “outstanding” in Bulgaria. Yes, wee Brendan is talking. Att-en-shun!

No matter what trouble he gets in, he can’t stop. The rubbish about Spurs winning the league after spending 100 million smackeroos came back to haunt him in a big way. One look at Liverpool’s bench on Saturday sparked more punch-lines.

There wasn’t even room for Mario. Injured, so they say. Is it the same two-week thigh strain that’s kept the mouthy, unloved Sakho out for two months? As the waters rise to a man’s chest, he’ll say anything in desperation.

It seems the shady “transfer committee”, complete with extortionate agent payments, will be Brendan’s get out of jail free card, though he’ll have to weave another word-storm to convince anyone all that baggage was none of his doing.

Comolli, Dalglish’s ‘director of football’/ eventual career wrecker, once claimed signing a player against a manager’s wishes was idiotic as he simply wouldn’t play him. Try telling that to Villas-Boas, or to Liverpool’s owners when they desperately tried to electrify Andy Carroll’s £35 million carcass by buying Downing and Adam.

Fittingly, Charlie lurched onto the Anfield turf one more (final?) time at the weekend and stank the place out. Perhaps he’d forgotten he didn’t play for us any more, as he made one exceptional clearance after another.

Or he didn’t get the memo telling the players to play some football in the second half after a first 45 tailor-made to stimulate an earlier Kop protest about modern prices.

Not many were rested after a testing time in the Champions League which gives the Kop a chance to screech at the Swiss. The European campaign’s been more of a skirmish really and never got going. It’ll be nice to end it with an old-fashioned night of foreigner-baiting.

Rodgers only rested two players after the midweek exertions, intuitively though belatedly realising his rotational meddling was part of the problem, not the solution. That one of those players was the captain on the 16th anniversary of his debut did not pass without comment.

Rafa took Gerrard off in his peak years during a derby once and if he hadn’t won it, then all hell would have broken loose. Even in these closing scenes Steven gets to hog the limelight and though many fans had been calling for exactly this, it still could have blown up in Brendan’s face.

The effect was advantageous in terms of sweat but debilitating in terms of guile. Coutinho and Sterling were too slight and easily brushed off the ball while Lucas, Allen and Henderson bulked up in midfield.

Sterling at least has guts and Stoke had to fall back on, well, being Stoke in order to stop him. Chances came after the break for both sides, mostly for Liverpool. It was beginning to look like one of those days. Again.

Someone afterwards said “We won and Johnson got his head kicked in — result!”

Harsh perhaps, but after one arrogant dalliance too many, Johnson had previously triggered that unnerving Kop burr; the one that sounds like a thousand angry bees trapped in a metal box.

If we’d needed to predict one man who’d stick his head into danger to win points, fans could have run through most of our team, their team and both benches (even the managers) before getting the answer.

As he lay still, there was euphoria, then concern. Not just for Glen but for this defence having to protect a lead for five whole minutes.

Yet they did it, with spuriously-added time too. The borderline-sarcastic celebration of Mignolet catching a cross felt like a turning point, though they’ll probably lose tomorrow.

The players had put a lot into this. A one-nil win. At home. To Stoke. That meant a one-place rise. To 11th.

MANCHESTER UNITED

By Richard Kurt

No Red in his right mind ever welcomes the sight of a Man Utd shirt going off injured, especially when it’s someone as wonderful (and expensive) as Angel di Maria. But what a silver lining that particular cloud offered us on Saturday: Herrera and Mata, unexpectedly thrown together, amply demonstrating why soppy Hispanophiles like me have been swooning over them whenever the opportunity arises.

You may recall that I flagged up in last week’s column some disturbing press hints that both have been attracting potential “suitors” keen to “measure them up”.

We have since been assured Herrera retains the full confidence of LvG, although the mood music was a little less emphatic on Mata, above whom Seville, inter alia, are said to be hovering with intent.

Surely the duo’s display of tandem tantalising against Hull has reminded any with eyes to see that they must be retained at all costs?

Yes, yes: the so-called Tigers were toothless, fit only to be a rug over which our stars happily trampled, but still that was a classy turn from the pair, which had Reds united in acclamation as never before this season.

Indeed, as one colleague remarked, at the whistle: “for the first time in yonks, I can’t think of a player who had a poor game”.

Wherever you looked, the evidence was plain. Fellaini is a transformed player, an embodiment of the power that fresh self-confidence can imbue. Chris Smalling had arguably his best game in Red in a year; even Van Persie, all but written off by some after too many lacklustre displays for comfort, responded resplendently to the public kicking Van Gaal had given him during the week. Michael Carrick belied his years with zestily accomplished distribution, whilst Rooney’s purposefulness temporarily silenced his army of scousephobic doubters.

Above all, there was a feeling that some of the concerns raised by the team’s sloth against Crystal Palace a fortnight ago had been put to bed. As Van Persie put it afterwards: “every week it gets quicker and better”.

Taken over the course of the season so far, that is largely true: speed of movement, and speed of passing, were at a zenith on Saturday. For most Reds, that is the biggest difference we’ve seen compared to last season, aside from the observation that these players now seem more confident than the team under Moyes. It is perhaps telling no-one missed Falcao. Saturday’s Red Issue fanzine revealed “Van Gaal doesn’t like what he’s seen so far from Falcao; (superagent) Jorge Mendes is claiming we are looking at options, just in case.”

Yesterday’s papers followed up in similar fashion, after a Thursday night briefing at a Christmas drinks party hosted by Ed Woodward, with the Sunday Mirror’s take typical: “Falcao has just four months to save his Manchester United career.”

Take your pick as to what that might eventually entail in return: some say Cavani, rejuvenated at PSG; others suggest previous bid target Bale; a few (rather optimistically) whisper ‘Ronaldo’.

But let’s leave that all aside for now, and revel in the here and now. Shaky, unimaginative Stoke offer us a chance to produce more of the same tomorrow night, followed by a visit to high-flying Southampton, where United have a priceless opportunity to leapfrog towards the top slots at the expense of a close rival. The Saints play proper decent football too, which will suit us; come this column next week, it’s feasible that we may be talking with some confidence about giving City and Chelsea something to think about this season after all.

Who would have thought that conceivable when we were dragging our sorry arses back from Leicester not so long ago?

Face facts: not me, and not you. Instead, Christmas may be delivering early...

CHELSEA

By Trizia Fiorellino

Chelsea’s Willian battles for the ball with Sunderland’s Lee Cattermole (left) and Santiago Vergini during Saturday’s match. Picture: PA

Just when we thought we’d navigated the traditionally cruel November unscathed, there was draw specialist Gus Poyet and his band of party poopers to bring us back down to earth with a bump!

It has to be said, however, that we contributed as much to the shutout as they did. It all lacked a bit of urgency — we looked comfortable, especially in the first two-thirds of the game — as if we were waiting for the goal to come. Then when it became evident that the ball wasn’t going to simply put itself in the net we resorted to desperate measures, taking pot shots from distance.

I thought Jose had found the answer to last season’s conundrum of teams who put ten behind the ball. Perhaps I was wrong. What was more worrying though from my point of view was watching the boys in blue morphing from a calm, composed unit into a rabble of headless chickens in the final 10 minutes. Perhaps it was fatigue, perhaps it was complacency, perhaps they were focused too much on the two losses against this same team last season — whatever it was, the only positive I can take is that perhaps it served as a reminder that they’re far from champions-elect.

As if the draw against Sunderland wasn’t bad enough, we now face our most despised London rivals on Wednesday without the rottweiler, Costa, and then hot on the heels of that we’re back in the north-east to face Newcastle where Jose has never won.

Costa’s ban was completely of his own doing. I had imagined Mourinho will have planned the ideal game for Costa to miss and had given appropriate instructions, but I doubt this striker thinks in any logical or cohesive manner when he has his game head on.

John Terry continues to defy his age by putting in consistently imperious performances. Many central defenders succumb to the rigours of the increasing years as they are over-reliant on their athleticism but JT’s game has never been built on speed. Instead bravery, hard work and his reading of the game have made him the player he is. When he does finally hang up his boots he is going to be virtually impossible to replace. It looks to me like the club seem to be grooming Gary Cahill to take on this role. But as much as I like the genial northerner, I don’t think he has the personality to lead this team: for me he is more the trusty lieutenant than the brave leader of men.

Speaking of those defying their ages, as I’m writing this piece I have just seen Lampard doubling Man City’s lead against Southampton. I can’t help but remember all those goals out of nothing he used to score for us and I wonder if he would have found the net against Sunderland on Saturday?

That said, I’m in no way unhappy with our current midfield personnel — indeed the likes of Matic, Fabregas, Hazard and Oscar must be envied by the majority of the Premier League managers. The only one I can’t quite make my mind up on is Willian and I know this will not be a popular viewpoint with fellow Blues. He shines when we are playing well and are dominating games but I find him frustrating to watch when we are having a hard time and looking for a goal. I found him the main offender in Sunderland in terms of losing the ball and taking the wrong options from distance.

You’ll have to forgive me these grumblings, the draw with Sunderland has shaken me up. I know it sounds ridiculous given our results this season but I can’t help it. What am I going to be like when we eventually lose a game? Hopefully the weekend just gone will have been a wake-up call for everyone concerned — either that or it will shape up to be my most stressed Christmas ever.

ARSENAL

By Bernard Azulay

The utterly remorseless footballing diet that feeds the insatiable appetite of the sporting media beast and it’s ever more bloated online belly has created this farcically fluid environment, where clubs constantly portrayed as lurching between absolute boom and bust.

For all the media’s effort to throw kindling on the smouldering fire of discontent at the Arsenal, the two wins this past week that have put us through to the knockout stages of the Champions League (for a 15th successive season) and edged us the Premier League, have inevitably taken the pressure off our pugnacious manager. To the point where the unfurling of the “thanks for the memories” banner behind the goal at the Hawthorns, after beating the Baggies on Saturday, seemed more than a little churlish.

After having gone to all the bother, it felt as if le Gaffer’s hardcore detractors were going to broadcast their anti-Arsène bulletin, no matter what transpired on the pitch. Although their message might’ve been loud and clear, the sentiments expressed were far from unanimous, judging by the unrest its appearance caused after the final whistle.

Truth be told, no matter what side of the great Gooner divide one sits on, the vast majority are not the least bit interested in throwing our toys out of the pram, so long as our team are doing the business; even after witnessing our title prospects sink.

And if any assistance was required to put events into proper perspective, it came in the form of a reminder of a real-life sporting tragedy, upon seeing “Hughes 63” etched on the homemade cardboard tribute in the hands of one of the travelling faithful, honouring Aussie cricketer Phillip Hughes.

Shorn of their early season ebullience with them languishing at the bottom of the Bundesliga, Dortmund were unrecognisable in midweek as the same daunting side that bulldozed us in Germany. And on discovering the recently unveiled, gravity-defying bronze statue of Tony “Bomber” Brown outside the Hawthorns, doubtless this Baggies hero of yesteryear won’t have been impressed by the home side’s impotent efforts at the weekend, where despite a hearty chorus of “you don’t know what you are doing” disgust, it wasn’t until after Irvine replaced Sessegnon with Samaras on 76 minutes they managed an effort on goal.

Whether it’s down to biorhythms or their maladjusted bodyclocks, with the early KO, inevitably we failed to produce the sort of zestful blitzkrieg we witnessed against United and & Dortmund. But with Giroud and Koscielny restored to our ranks, the Gunners are instantly transformed into a far more physically imposing outfit, by contrast to a psychologically disadvantaged team of nine-stone weaklings that we’ve grown accustomed to watching in previous weeks.

The nerve-wracking responsibility of amalgamating our decimated defence has taken its toll on Mertesacker and it might take time for Per to rediscover his Teutonic efficiency. But having his regular partner back playing alongside made an immediate difference as that crucial aura composure we’ve so sorely missed was apparent.

At least it was, up until the last 10 minutes, as tension mounted and the Gunners appeared no less haunted than those of us on the terraces, by all those costly gaffes that we’ve endured in recent games. So it was important for us to prove ourselves capable of reaching the finishing line, with our clean sheet intact.

Obviously Southampton are likely to offer a far more testing examination of our credentials on Wednesday. But with Welbeck and Giroud demonstrating they can play together and Cazorla having his most influential game to date, there appears some light at the end of the tunnel.

With matches coming thick and fast as the festive season approaches, I worry that Sanchez might burn out. Especially while others in midfield appear to be taking advantage of his astonishing work-rate. On occasion Ramsey doesn’t bother closing the opposition down, seemingly knowing he can rely on our Chilean terrier to all the donkey work. Now if only Aaron add his gifts to the Christmas season, things might get truly festive.

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