Cheslea v. Liverpool.
For a while there this fixture filled me personally with the same sense of dread as a Yankees/Red Sox Sunday night game on ESPN with Jon Miller and Joe Morgan.
Yet Sunday morning and the days leading up to it, there was a distinctly different vibe about this particular Chelsea/Liverpool affair. It felt fresh and new, with both sides of the Red vs. Blue conflict settling in with differing sets of nervous anticipation.
The confluence of events made this must-see stuff.
Liverpool's struggles. Its new owners. The rancor around Roy Hodgson. The losses to Blackpool and Everton. And then ... hope. Steven Gerrard's hat trick vs. Napoli, the thought, maybe the stars are aligning.
As for Chelsea? The Blues, despite a leading the Premier League and brushing aside the commoners of the league with a muscular, haughty arrogance sitll appeared about as vulnerable as Mike Tyson on the eve of his title fight in Tokyo vs. Buster Douglas.
And then, Sunday at Anfield we witnessed the veritable "Return of the Kid" -- Fernando Torres playing the Douglas role, delivering the double-knockout blows. It reminded you why you care about this crazy game in the first place.
I'll dispense my Chelsea takeaway up front.
In short, you don't need to be Valery Lobanovsky to realize a team is going to be better with Didier Drogba in the starting XI than without him. The Chelsea template of success is an elite "Blue Chip" player in each line -- Drogba, Frank Lampard and John Terry. The first two didn't play and Terry looked more like the Bionic Woman than the world's best center back, which he once might have been considered.
The Blues, like last week against Blackburn, never got out of first gear and against the returning quality of Torres were made to pay for it. Limp, flat, uninspired, predictable ... inevitable? Take your pick here.
Funny how fast things turn. A month ago Chelsea were smashing the tomato cans of the league with Tyson-like uppercuts. Now the lead in the league is down to a scant two points over Manchester United.
For all of Cheslea's muscular power, without Lampard or even Yossi Benayoun there's not a ton of central creativity. Granted Carlo Ancelotti wants to play that modern 4-3-3 (with a particularily deep midfield V), but that system is so intrinsically based around Drogba making plays, when he's not there, Chelsea don't have other options. I'll throw it out there, but expect plenty of January rumors from Spain, Italy or England of Chelsea and Manchester City fighting for Kaka's signature.
Now for Liverpool?
Take a victory lap fans. You deserve it.
Granted, the woes of Liverpool are magnified and minimal compared to 99 percent of other soccer clubs in the world. Despite the growing 20-year League title drought, Liverpool have still played in two Champions League finals -- winning in 2005 (if you remember, I think you do) -- in the last 10 years. One seventh place finish and a couple weeks in the relegation zone aren't the end of the world. Until the end of the Rafa Benitez reign and the start of the Roy Hodgson era, at least Liverpool was an exciting team to watch, not one you mocked for simply attempting a shot on goal.
Still, there's a treasured sense of pride at Anfield. And the lacking results on the field coupled with the maddening Nero-esque fiddle playing by Tom Hicks were too much for many to bear.
Quick tangent. This week I had Jury Duty. The only upside of sitting in the unheated, 45-degree Voire Dire room was it game me a chance to read about 300 pages of David Goldblatt's "The Ball is Round", a definitive history of world soccer. One of the parts I read about was the rise of the swinging 1960s cultural scene coupled with the ascendancy of the team built by Bill Shankly. It's a symbiotic love that transcends sports.
Yeah, it's one of those intangible, impossible to quantify items, but there is a special spirit between Liverpool, Anfield and its supporters. Hopefully it's something, with the Kop in full voice that John Henry a.k.a. John "W" Henry saw first hand.
Oh right, it certainly helped that Dirk Kuyt was back from injury and Fernando Torres, shorn of his blond locks or not, was back to being Fernando Torres with two glorious goals, including a wondrous second tally.
Once again, you don't need to be a graduate of the Marcelo Bielsa School of Offensive tactics to realize that with Torres, Gerrard and Kuyt all healthy as well as Pepe Reina -- the consistently best keeper England -- to deduce Liverpool will be a lot better. Now the club is up to ninth place, a scant five points off the Top Four.
Sunday the team held its nerve for over 50 minutes, stayed disciplined and got another improved, poised showing from Lucas Leiva, aka Rafa's Boner.
Again, with Liverpool, it's not always simple black-and-white. There's a spirit at the club, when that light goes out it gets ugly. When it's blazing like it was Sunday, there's few other places on earth you'd want to find yourself.
It's been talked about a lot about Henry and Tom Werner and their devotion to "Moneyball" or specifically an analytical approach to building the Red Sox into World Series Champs. Granted, no set of numbers account for Dave Roberts now legendary ALCS extra inning stolen base.
For a long time I've argued that increased stats and numbers should help in soccer, but it's not a sport driven by stats like baseball is. If anything, these are more helpful in signing fair value contracts and could be used to unearth undervalued gems in the transfer market. There's no magic stat, like .OPS (or WAR or whatever) that you can cobble together enough guys on calculators to predict a winning soccer formula once you drop XI players on the pitch together.
Heart, spirit and belief sometimes count just as much, admittedly those are hard to quantify. If you're a Liverpool fan, you hope Henry came to that same conclusion.
Newcastle United go to the Emirates and beat Arsenal 1-0 on a goal from Andy Carroll. So naturally, you'd think I'd spread some man-crush love on the ponytail beast-man, right?
Nah. Carroll's hurly burly play was immense and kept Arsenal unsettled all day, sure. How about some credit, though, for Kevin Nolan and Cheick Tioté in the central midfield for snuffing out a limp Gunners attack?
Tioté, signed from FC Twente, didn't even start for the Dutch club. Yet here it is, another West African -- in this case Ivorian -- player setting up shop in the center of the field and occupying the "Makalele" role for a Premier League Club. There was a lot of talk during the World Cup that African nations have developed plenty of these hard-working, physical grinding players -- like Obi Mikel, Dickson Etuhu, Alex Song, etc. -- and less creative types like Jay Jay Okocha. The idea, at the time, was that as players are signed at earlier ages to European clubs they're stripped of natural inclinations toward creativity and slotted into a spot to play a role.
Not sure if I believe this or if it's just coincidence, but either way, Tioté's been great for the Mapgies, allowing them to play their otherwise marauding style. For a team that romped 5-1 the previous week, this was a tidy, disciplined display of defense and shape. Credit that to Chris Hughton for getting two different types of performances home-and-away from the same base 4-4-2.
Arsenal? A week after struggling to beat West Ham and falling in the Champions League is it a blip or a growing concern? Lukasz Fabianski might scare you again, so too would Laurent Koscielny peeling away from Carroll on the game-winner.
If there's one thing Arsenal loves, it's space. Newcastle denied them that space, especially directly in front of goal. Gangly, Tim Krul -- a modern day Shaggy from Scooby Doo in goal -- was quite good too, timing his charges off his line to gobble any balls that got into the area.
It's hindsight, yeah, but in a game like that maybe the Gunners need the potential moment of brilliance from Robin van Persie, rather than the physical forward play of Maroune Chamakh. Like I said last week, Arsene Wenger might have too many toys to play with -- he dropped Andrey Arshavin to start. Cesc Fabregas returning to form would certainly ameliorate this "problem." Opta Sports had him for a career-high 27 errant passes Sunday. Newcastle was pretty clean too, so who does Arsene blame for that anomaly?
Round 11 Revelations:
A.k.a. stuff we might have learned, to file away for a later date:
No. 1 -- Ji-Sung Park can't actually play in England.
Two goals? In a Premier League game? I thought he lived in Korea and Sir Alex just flew him in for European weeknight affairs.
No. 2 -- Who did Wolves piss off in the schedule office?
Mick McCarthy's team has played in succession: Chelsea, Manchester City, Manchester United and have Arsenal in the midweek. Wolves are playing hard, inspired soccer, so you have to wonder will they be able to get results against the middle rung clubs?
At least they have Robert Plant attending their matches, which was like a fastball down the middle for 140-characters, but my brain locked up. Couldn't think of a joke. Maybe I'm maturing, a fading 1970s icon at a game is just that, another face in the crowd, not a chance for a snarky remark.
Let's move on.
No. 3 -- Are the kids all right at Aston Villa?
No, Aston Villa didn't win, drawing at Fulham 1-1 on Breda Hangeland's injury time header.
With mounting injuries -- John Carew, Emile Heskey, Stilian Petrov, Gabrial Agbonlahor -- it looks grim for Villa. Real grim.
There was a glimmer of hope, since Villa probably should've taken all three points, using a kiddie core which included: Nathan Delfouneso, Marc Albrighton and Barry Bannan, all under 21. Bannan and Albrighton hooked up on an impressive goal with Bannan lifting a long, aerial diagonal pass to Albrighton at the edge of the box, which he cut inside and beat Mark Schwarzer.
Delfouneso was active, too, though his finishing touch wasn't sharp.
No. 4 -- Mario Balotelli might be more than a fancy haircut.
Hey, it's two goals on the road, he'll take it. Neither were museum pieces, but City is simply happy to end a three-match losing streak and take the "pressure" off of Roberto Mancini ahead of the Manchester Derby on Wednesday.
First goal for the ex-Inter striker was a sliding tap-in set up for "Charles" Tevez, the other was a solid, turn-and-shoot at the top of the area. Not sure Balotelli gives you as much consistency as James Milner or Adam Johnson, but he does have a bigger upside for quality and goal-scoring than the other two.
Naturally, Balotelli lives up to his temperamental reputation, getting sent off in the 61st minute (around 8-minute mark of link) for an attempted kick in in the face to at a prone Yousaff Mulumbu. Great Job! (pencil noises)
No. 5 -- Are Tottenham getting by with smoke-and-mirrors?
As my friend and Spurs fan Mike told me, "I was too hungover to get up for the game and I knew they were going to lose anyway." Okay. World's No. 1 Spurs fan Bill Simmons apparently watched, as Bolton won 4-2 in a game crammed with wild second half action.
Good job by Bolton, as the players know their roles and take their cue from the strangely magnetic Kevin Davies.
Tottenham? Knew it would be a weird day when Luka Modric begins the day with the captain's armband. Oh, the Wilson Palacios/Sandro midfield wasn't too inspiring either.
On the one hand, it's commendable Spurs have are still in striking distance of the Top Four, as well as probably advancing to the Champions League knockout rounds ... all with a rotating group of central defenders, including the Artist Formerly Known as William Gallas, who now just seems to do whatever he feels like at any given moment, thinking he's still at right back for 2005 Chelsea.
Yet there are plenty of red flags for Spurs. The team fell behind for the seventh straight match. Spurs took 10 points from the previous six, none this week, despite quality goals from Alan Hutton and Roman Pavlyuchenko.
Without talisman Rafael van der Vaart and Bolton beating up on Gareth Bale, there wasn't a lot of spark from Spurs until it was already 3-0. With the Dutchman and the long-injured Jermain Defoe, goals aren't found in a lot places in this team right now.
Best bet for the club, sit back and enjoy ... riding the European adventure as long as you can, just burn any tape you have lying around from Portsmouth's 2008 UEFA Cup run.
Oh, and any thought about Spurs' having massive depth with guys like Niko Kranjcar and David Bentley was exposed as a bit of a fallacy, though, to be fair to those two guys they were extremely rusty. Might need these guys too, if Tom Huddlestone earns a suspension for that nasty stamp on a Bolton player late in the match.
No. 6 -- All I want to do is Gamst, Gamst, GAMST!
Way back when, Morten Gamst Pederson was my favorite random player in the Premier League. That was a loooooong time ago. Regardless, it was nice to see Gamst launch in a ridicolously floated free kick from the right edge of the boundary to the opposite left corner to leave Ali Al-Habsi flapping.
No. 7 -- England, or at least its media, is starting to love Clint Dempsey:
Dempsey's brace last week vs. Wigan was enough for the FSC.tv halftime mix (which I assume goes around the world) to feature the following trivia question: Who was the first American in the Premier League? Yep. John Harkes. Nothing of interest there. He didn't try to quote Monty Python, which was nice.
Here's the best example of Dempsey's new-found respect, whenever he touched the ball near the Aston Villa penalty area Saturday, it was " Deeeempseeeeee" by the announcers, as if they anticipated something great was about to happen from the feet of the Texan. That sort of stuff is usually reserved for "Roooooneeeee" or "Torreeeeeez" so it's rarefied air for Dempsey.
Guess all is forgotten for Rustenburg.
No. 8 -- The end is nigh for Owen Hargreaves:
I make fun of a lot of fragile players for having "milkbones." The Canadian Manchester United midfielder usually avoided this wrath since he's been out so long for a serious injury. Not sure what Ferguson was trying to accomplish or prove or if Hargreaves was fit to play.
There's not much more to say than it's sad to see him limp off in less than 15 minutes in his first game back from almost two years on the sidelines. I'm sure he's made plenty of money, he could've called it quits, so give credit where credit is due.
Maybe Steve Nash can sign him as a player coach or something like that for the Vancouver Whitecaps.
Even Darker Chocolate:
Bolton's Reebok Stadium has hotel rooms in it? Yeah, probably could have lived the rest of my life to the fullest without learning that fact Saturday morning, but it was a decent addition to the ESPN2 telecast, despite failing to answer who on earth would actually use the rooms considering they're not available on matchday. Nothing wrong with more Rebecca Lowe in your life on a Saturday morning, right?
It was another fantastic day for Mr. Ian Darke. Highlights included:
* Postulating an elderly Bolton fan had, "seen it all."
* Casually mentioning Edson Buddle's MLS playoff golazo, to my knowledge the first time actual specific MLS action, not blanket statements on the quality of the league, were mentioned in an EPL telecast.
* Continued mentions of Stuart Holden's "mum" in Houston.
* This gem, after the camera focused on Daniel Levy (Spurs chairman) and Harry Redknapp's tenure with the club: "So much has happened in two years ... a bit like the Democrats." This forced a stone-faced response from Efan Ekoku, "No politics, please."
* Finally Darke interviewed Clint Dempsey. If I'm Clint, I'd be a little scared of being stalked ... assuming Darke isn't stalking Kevin Davies. In any event, Dempsey revealed he doesn't pay much attention to MLS anymore. Take that however you'd like.
Around the League:
Birmingham City needed two second half goes to draw West Ham 2-2 at home. Brum got both its goals on set pieces beginning from the foot of Seb Larsson. ... Feel like an idiot for leaving Tim Cahill off the list of world's best headers of the ball. ... Well-hit free kick by Blackpool's Neal Eardley. Made Tim Howard look bad, falling back into the net -- something that's happening more-and-more lately. Take note. ... Charles N'Zogbia playing like a man that wants a move in January, ripping a long free kick to beat Paul Robinson. ... John W Henry definitely had ear plugs in at Anfield.
Fantasy Team O' the Week:
Rob Candrian's Jay Goppingen FC -- nice name -- takes weekly top honors with 66 points, thanks to Breda Hangeland (11), Tim Cahill (9) and captaining Torres (22).
Round 12 Quickees:
Not sure why the Powers That Be decided this of all weeks to throw in some midweeks games. So be it. One thing to note, for legal, stress legal, online streaming for the midweek matches you're going to have to have access to ESPN3, not FSC.tv.
* Stoke City v. Birmingham City -- Not sure either of these two are any good, despite their best intentions in August. ... Stoke City 1, Birmingham City 1
* Tottenham v. Sunderland -- (Live, FSC, 3 p.m.) Both these teams love the Jekyl and Hyde scenarios. Think home team is whichever is the better soccer player. ... Tottenham 2, Sunderland 0
* Wigan Athletic v. Liverpool -- (Live, FSC+, 2:45 p.m.) Watch out Liverpool. Wigan is dangerous team with Hugo Rodallega and N'Zogbia lurking. ... Wigan 1, Liverpool 2
* West Ham United v. West Bromwich Albion -- Desperate times for West Ham. Mulumbu out for West Brom is a big loss, as he picked up two yellows vs. City, including a De-Jongian hacking of Tevez. ... West Ham 2, West Brom 1
* Newcastle United v. Blackburn Rovers -- Can we trust the Magpies yet? ... Newcastle United 1, Blackburn Rovers 0
* Chelsea v. Fulham -- (Live, FSC, 3 p.m.) When you steal a Lion's food, he's usually in a bad mood. Still, Fulham may be able to stand up for that lion, which still looks groggy and fat after its August-October seven-course meal of cupcakes. ... Chelsea 2, Fulham 0
* Aston Villa v. Blackpool -- Gotta respect Blackpool for its commitment to playing like a pickup basketball, specifically a lack of defense. ... Aston Villa 2, Blackpool 1
* Wolves v. Arsenal -- Not going to be easy, here, Gunners. Feels like a late snatch-and-grab. ... Wolves 1, Arsenal 2
* Manchester City v. Manchester United -- (Live, ESPN2, 3 p.m.) My quick thought: Is it possible, despite history, for United to be the pluckier underdog in this match? What happens when the tables are turned? This one probably boils down to how angry Carlos Tevez gets. You wouldn't like him when he's angry. Even with his sauve new 'cut, you know that wild hair is waiting to burst out. ... City 1, United 1
Last round: 4-6
One Other Thing:
Not nearly as out-right quotable as the flawless -- Danny McBride throwing motion aside -- but Season Dos of "Eastbound and Down" is going to hold up quite well on DVD and repeated viewings.
One Other Other Thing:
It's been hard to avoid the promos for Conan's new talk show. Now, I love Conan. Anyone who wrote "Marge vs. the Monorail" gets a lifetime free pass. And his "Old Timey Baseball" sketch might be the best thing ever conceived.
But I ask you this, in the year 2010, is there anything more outdated than a late night talk show? There's no shortage for jokes these days, especially with that damned Internets all the kids are talking about. Zingers about the day's events? Eh.
Okay, I'll concede. Who doesn't want to see Denzel Washington sitting on the couch pitching his new movie where he fights the runaway train.
Spoiler Alert. He stops it by throwing an anchor into an over-sized donut sign.