Let's Not Panic, but Damn that Was Nervy

Thirty-five minutes into Liverpool’s 4-3 Champions League victory at Anfield versus RB Salzburg and the home crowd were dreaming of a rout. Sadio Mane, Andy Robertson, and Mo Salah had their names on the score sheet.

Despite glimmers of skill and moments that worried the Anfield faithful, Salzburg was unable to cope with the home-side’s quality.

But, just four minutes after Salah put the Reds up 3-0, a poor giveaway by captain Jordan Henderson was compounded when the normally solid Fabinho and Joe Gomez (who was filling in for an injured Joel Matip at center back) were poor transitioning back to defense and Virgil van Dijk gave the fans the rarest of experiences—allowing an attacker to completely break his ankles—ultimately leading to Salzburg’s first goal.

The whistle blew for half time, Liverpool was up 3-1 and even though things looked a little shaky, that maybe RSB could find a way back into it, I was confident that Klopp and company would iron out some of the wrinkles.

My own thoughts, things that I quickly jotted down during half time, keyed on the need to clean up the errant passes and general sloppiness. Even though Liverpool had been far superior in that first thirty-five minutes, there were several moments of madness, where the quality fans have come to expect from the squad was nowhere to be found.

Hendo’s giveaway that led to the goal was just one of many. Salah had a few as well, one in the first half where he played the ball straight to the opposing player sitting right at the halfway line. The ensuing counter was snuffed out, but the fact remained, Liverpool were getting complacent.

Jesse Marsch, Salzburg’s American manager, had switched to a diamond midfield and that caused the European Champions some problems. If I’m honest, I didn’t see much of that and since the game is hidden behind a firewall I’m unwilling to pay to get around (Thanks BR Sports), I’ll have to take Andy Hunter’s word for it.

Daniel Austin, over at Liverpool.com, also said that diamond formation in midfield isolated Fabinho defensively, which makes bringing on James Milner in the 62nd all the more logical.

The real question marks came in defense, though. Giving up three goals at home isn’t necessarily the hallmarks of a top tier side. To be fair though, they don’t do it often, and the last time they did was back in January v Crystal Palace. Liverpool walked away with maximum points there, too. But I digress.

Defensive frailties looked more like unfamiliarity with each other than actual pressure from RBS. Although, the pressure helped exacerbate it and Salzburg certainly took advantage. Gomez, on for Matip, hasn’t played much in central defense this season and when he has come on its been as a wing-back replacing Trent Alexander-Arnold. Gomez’s positioning in the build-up to several of the goals by Salzburg was questionable, often finding himself too far forward (on the first and second goals) and not aware of Erling Haaland lurking behind him on the third.

This isn’t to take away from RB Salzburg, though. They came into Anfield and gave a good accounting of themselves. They look a side to be reckoned with, but like any side with a little bit of quality they can take advantage of even the smallest of mistakes by a side that’s far superior. Some results over in Spain bear this out.

It’s a long season and these sorts of games are inevitable, just so long as they don’t happen too frequently. According to Gareth Roberts over at The Anfield Wrap, there’s a sense of unrealistic entitlement, as if Liverpool’s players aren’t fallible. They are. And they’ll make more mistakes this season.

But it was rare, and really nervy if I’m honest, to see Henderson, Fabinho, Gomez, Van Dijk, and Gini all have really poor performances. It’s natural for fans to feel a bit anxious at the display.

A possibility, though, is that Klopp was confident that Fabs and the other two midfielders could work through the poor performance and Marsch’s tactical adjustment. Normally, I’d bet they could as well.

Roberts’ co-host Lizzi Doyle made it clear that fans need to understand the difference between frustration and anger. We have a right to be frustrated, but being outright angry is something different altogether. Put things into perspective, the squad had 97 points and the Champions League title last year.

Maybe they went into cruise control after scoring three goals in thirty five minutes. Maybe they got a bit complacent, dialing back the intensity a bit. Maybe the disparity in intensity, with Salzburg picking up the tempo a bit, taking the game to Liverpool, prepping for a relaxing 2nd 45 minutes, that shifted the game ever so slightly. And once Salzburg’s second hit the back of the net it gave them all the confidence they needed to push for and ultimately get a 3rd.

Whatever it is it gave fans a bit of a shock.

All of this said, though there are some silver linings. Most importantly, Liverpool found a way to win. Two or three seasons ago, there would have been real anxiety that the team wouldn’t have been able to finish the game off. That they’d not be able to find a way to stem the blood loss after giving up a three-goal lead.

This group is different though. They have a much better mentality than teams from the past decade. They got a bit too cocky too early, let off the gas, got punched in the mouth a few times, then figured out a way to regain control of the match.

That’s a good thing and makes last night’s nervy European match less panic worthy.

On to Saturday.

Fantasy EPL Miracle

Earlier in the week my friend over in the UK was chiding me, because, two weeks into the season, I had already hit midseason form. My performances in recent Fantasy EPL seasons have left much to be desired. Partly because I forget I have a team and partly because I’ve still not fully understood how the whole thing works.

A few seasons ago, I switched, yes, I’m the administer of a league that I sometimes forget about, us over from a total points set up to head-to-head. Owing mainly to some of us living on different continents, we’ve still not committed to a draft yet. I feel like organizing one across 13 time zones would be nearly impossible. So some of us end up having the same players, which almost makes it more interesting.

Nonetheless, my mid season form had elicited some witty banter from my friend. Keeping my mouth shut was a wise choice considering I’d likely jinx my team just as much as I jinxed Liverpool last season.

That was a wise choice, because on the weekend, nearly everyone of my players managed to grab more than the standard fare of points. Mo Salah, my captain, chipping in a cool 30 after the double points were added. Coming on the heels of two subpar performances, clocking in at the end of the weekend with 69 points was a major relief.

My opponent was a normally solid top of the table challenger. So, it was a bit of a relief to get out of there with maximum points. I just hope the roles aren’t reversed this weekend when I face-off against the guy propping up the rest of the league.

Fingers crossed for an Angus Gunn shutout v Manchester United at home. Which may actually be more likely than people realize. Now that I’ve written that, though, I’m probably going to be utterly disappointed.

EPL Fantasy Football. Who knew it could be so much fun?

It's Way too Early for Sentiments

Two weeks after the start of the 2019-20 EPL season and I’m right back where I was last season. My gut tells me that Liverpool are once again title contenders, but not in the same sense that Atletico Madrid always falls short against Barcelona or Borussia Dortmund manages to drop just enough points for FC Bayern to ease comfortably to their 50 bajillionth Bundesliga title.

Who am I kidding? It very well may be the same exact replay from last season. Liverpool, nearly impeccable, lost the title by one point. In every other year, but last year and the year before, Liverpool’s 97 points wins the Premier League.

After two weeks, my gut tells me—and my gut is always right—that somewhere between 90 and 93 points will be enough to win the league. But, according to Open Secrets, my heart has been donating more than usual to my gut’s exploratory fund.

The bottom line is it’s far too early to tell how the season will shake out.

Liverpool and Man City look likely to be the pace-setters. Tottenham will probably make 3rd theirs, unless they get way too Spursy and managed to slip into fourth. Arsenal, with their youth brigade, Chelsea, and Manchester United will battle it out for fourth through sixth. And maybe, just maybe, one of Wolves, Everton, Leicester, or Watford will pip in and take sixth spot.

Norwich, along with Sheffield United, could manage to stay up. And surprisingly, Aston Villa, despite their pedigree, is off to an inauspicious start.

For what it’s worth, Teemu Pukki has been a breath of fresh air. He opened his EPL account with a goal at Anfield, then followed it up with a hattrick at Carrow Road against Newcastle. I wonder how many people signed him for their fantasy EPL team after Saturday’s performance. It’s hard to pass up, but knowing my luck four will be his total for career EPL goals.

An injury or two here or there, an unfortunate, but correct, VAR decision that costs a team two…or three points here or there, some unforeseen point of tension between teammates, a bad January transfer window purchase, whatever you can imagine can and very likely will change the landscape over the course of the season.

Sentiments have no place in the early part of the season. They’re only good for making bold, ill-informed predictions about the the other 36 weeks. But maybe that’s what fandom is all about…it transcends logic and allows for sentiments to inform predictions rather than cold, hard analysis. Maybe we should be okay with that.

Finding Liverpool

By David Shams

“It doesnt matter where you’re from. What religion you are. What language you speak. If you’re a Liverpool fan, you’re a Scouser. All of us are Scousers,” Neil Atkinson bellowed. Atkinson is one of the main writers and producers behind The Anfield Wrap, a popular podcast following all things LFC.

He was speaking during The Anfield Wrap’s End of Season Party on May 11th at Mountford Hall on University of Liverpool’s campus.

For me, that moment had been nearly 14 years in the making.

My Liverpool fandom hasn’t been lifelong. Growing up in Kentucky, my siblings and I didn’t have much access to soccer on television. Our soccer coverage relied on infrequent subscriptions of Soccer America, the occasional promo magazines sent to our dad, and old recordings of matches from the ‘90 and ‘94 World Cups.

Having an immigrant father usually meant the team you followed was selected for you. Normally, it was passed down from generation to generation in the same way that each parent passes on their DNA. But my dad immigrated from Iran in 1964, before soccer became as popular as it is today.

The bottom line, we didn’t have much of a soccer culture growing up. Sure we played and sure we watched games. But “we didn’t,” as my dad likes to say, "know shit from shinola.” We had to make it up as we went along.

It wasn’t until the mid-90s that we were regularly exposed to club soccer. We knew it existed and we knew some of the major teams—AC Milan, Barcelona, Juventus, Manchester United, Liverpool. But we didn’t know much else.

Owing to that lack of ‘culture’ or pre-determined fandom, my brother and I never really settled on a single club to cheer for while we were growing up. We ended up cheering for specific players and watching games for the sake of watching games, to pick up on some sort of tactical innovations that we hadn’t been—and likely never would be—exposed to in Bardstown, KY.

We’d absorb every game possible. Record them, watch them again, dissect them in every way possible. But never once did we settle on a team to cheer for. Ajax, Juventus, and Barcelona all came close to capturing our undivided attention. Ajax won the first Champions League title we saw on television. Juventus won it the next year and made it to the finals in the next two seasons. Barcelona was televised more often as ESPN picked up La Liga and they had more of the players we tried to follow—Romario, Ronaldo, Ronald Koeman, Gheorghe Hagi, Hristo Stoichkov, Luis Enrique, etc.

I chalk all this up (our lack of support for a specific team) to irregular access to games on television and little to no coverage in whatever print media we had access to. Even with regular access to the internet, it was quite hard to know where to find updates on what was happening overseas.

At the turn of the century, though, as I was graduating from high school and heading off to play soccer at Union College in Barbourville, KY, I started to have a little bit more access. My teammates and I could watch games via satellite or pay per view cable channels. Teammates from Brazil came from different areas, so they had different teams they cheered for—Ponte Preta, Flamingo, Sao Paulo, Gremio, Cruzeiro. One from Scotland had played in the Glasgow Celtic youth system. A few of the Latinos were Real Madrid fans, which clashed with the fact I favored Barcelona.

Some of the American players were like me and didn’t have regular access growing up, so didn’t have a team they cheered for. Of the ones who did, they were usually Manchester United fans, owing primarily to that teams’s Treble in 1999. And being obstinate, I made up my mind I would never cheer for the Red Devils.

But, if anything, as opposed to finding a team to support I figured out which teams I wouldn’t be cheering for, and so, I continued following my favorite players—Thierry Henry, Claudio Reyna, Ronaldo, Steven Gerrard, Edgar Davids, Zinedine Zidane.

Even with satellites and pay per view, coverage in the US remained patchy, though. Meanwhile, the MLS continued struggling to improve quality wise. Add to that being in Kentucky where the soccer culture hadn’t fully developed, there still wasn’t massive pressure to pick a side. Rather, the excitement came with any game that would be televised, no matter the sides competing.

It was much of the same when I transferred to Murray State. Although, I would say the campus was a bit more diverse and had a strong international student community. Naturally, this meant there would be more interest in specific clubs. Some of my fraternity brothers were Liverpool fans, others were diehard supporters of Man U. They’d grown up in the St. Louis area, one of the US’s soccer hotbeds.

For some reason, I was still reluctant to go beyond cheering and following specific players. So much so, I had two Claudio Reyna jerseys from when he was at Man City—the horror. I’d tell myself, ‘It’s okay, you love the game, you don’t need to pick a team to cheer for.’

After I studied in Germany during the fall of 2003, I flirted with the idea of becoming an FC Bayern Fan since I went to their Champions League match against Glasgow Celtic. There was a little moment when I felt the same for Newcastle after spending a weekend there when I went to visit Durham University. And my appreciation for Ajax grew a little larger after I saw them play Feyenoord at the Amsterdam Arena. To be clear, I have a soft spot for all three sides. But nothing more grew from it.

A few years later though, I found my way to Liverpool.

It was May 2005, the school year had wrapped up and I would be home for a few weeks before returning to Murray for the summer classes I needed to graduate. I chalked up my fatigue to the tough semester I had just completed. But when it didn’t go away after a few days, I went to my primary care physician who ran a battery of tests to figure out if something more was at play.

Those tests came back with a troubling result. My platelet count, 11,000, was well below normal (150k-450k). I was rushed off to an oncologist for fear that whatever I had could be cancer related. He did a bone marrow biopsy, prescribed me with some steroids to increase the platelet count, and asked me to come back early the next week.

A few days later, the morning after hitting the driving range at a local golf course with a friend, I woke up with a paralyzing headache. My parents drove me back to the oncologist for some sort of emergency triage. For some reason, they sent me back home for 24 hours. And by the next day, when I went back in for my regularly scheduled appointment the pain hadn’t dissipated. In fact, it had only gotten worse.

The doctor admitted me to the hospital next door. They called in an infectious disease specialist, requested another battery of testing, and pumped me full of anti-viral drugs and pain killers. I was supposed to rest and not over exert myself. I wouldn’t have to worry about over exertion, as my headache had immobilized me. But rest would be far more difficult. Whatever drugs they had given me were doing a number on my dreams—think Twisted Metal but in real life.

My second day in the hospital wasn’t much better. But even though I couldn’t hold any food down, one thing was certain. I was going to must up all my strength to watch the Champions League Final that afternoon.

Since Ajax beat AC Milan in 1995, I had only missed on final—Juventus v Real Madrid in 1998.

“Mother,” I started, using the preferred, more formal title, “the Champions League Final is this afternoon, I’m going to watch it.”

She rolled her eyes, because she knew, despite my condition, this was a statement of intent not to be trifled with.

The final pitted Liverpool against AC Milan. If I’m honest, I didn’t think Liverpool stood any chance at winning. AC Milan had a squad filled to the brim with talent.

By halftime the score was 3-0 in favor of AC Milan. My gut told me I should turn it off and actually get some rest. But my soul, that little bit that had directed my lifelong love of the game told me Liverpool would offer up a rebuttal.

“Liverpool still has a chance,” I told my mom, “anything can happen.”

She had gently suggested that maybe I should forget about the game. My Jordanian nurse took one look at the scoreline, clicked his tongue, and agreed with my mom.

“No chance they come back from this. Maybe you should turn off the tv and rest,” he said.

I didn’t budge.From my hospital bed, fighting off fatigue and migraines, I witnessed the Miracle of Istanbul. All it took was six minutes.

Starting in the 54th minute, Steven Gerrard directed a looping header to the far post, fooling AC Milan’s goalkeeper. Two minutes later, Vladimir Šmicer took a speculative shot from 20-plus yards out that went through two defenders and narrowly missed his teammate Milos Baros before finding the back of the net. And four minutes after that, Xabi Alonso missed his penalty kick, but then buried the rebound to complete the comeback.

“Mother, I told you they’d do it,” I said faintly.

“I know, son,” she said, now sitting on the edge of her seat fully captivated by the comeback.

Liverpool fans the world over all know what happens next. LFC held on to beat AC Milan in a shootout winning their fifth Champions League/European Cup.

Captain Steven Gerrard lifting the Champions League trophy in Istanbul

Captain Steven Gerrard lifting the Champions League trophy in Istanbul

Within the next few days, I started to make my own comeback. The migraines subsided, my appetite returned (I’d lost nearly 20 pounds over a ten day period), and I was able to get out of bed and move around for extended periods of time.

As I’m sure most of you guessed early on, my primary care physician missed the signs suggesting I had Mononucleosis—fatigue, low platelet count, swollen lymph nodes, etc. When they prescribed steroids to increase the platelet count, the virus attacked the fluid around my spine and brain causing the headaches. The end diagnosis was Mono and viral meningitis.

I spent the rest of the summer recovering, which wasn’t terrible, but meant I would have to return to Murray for the fall in order to finish the classes I needed to graduate.

But my hospital stay, in all of its terribleness, led me to Liverpool. I will forever link the Miracle of Istanbul to my own comeback. And for that, I will always be a Kopite, a Red, a Liverpool fan, a Scouser.

David is the founder of DC Soccer Digest. He lives in Washington, DC. You can follow him on twitter at @ShamsWriter.

Can You Forgive My Hot Takes?

It’s highly likely I’ve been jinxing Liverpool all season.

Back in late August, while sitting in Brooklyn’s Monro Pub, a favorite haunt for Kopites in the Big Apple, I leaned into my wife. She’d joined me enthusiastically, just as I join her a handful of times each year at a few Sunday services.

This was my church, my religion, not that I’m well versed in the history of the famous club from Merseyside. I’m not going to remember games from the high times in the 70s and 80s. If I’m honest, I’m only a recent Kopite convert choosing the Temple of Anfield as the way I worship the beautiful game.

“This is the year we do it, Doc. We’re just that good,” I whispered, hoping that it wouldn’t be loud enough for the soccer gods to hear and then spin whatever machinations necessary to make it not come true.

At Christmas, in a text to a friend I said, “City dropping points to Palace and now Leicester makes this Liverpool’s to lose.”

He texted back something along the lines of “It’s still too early to tell.” Apparently, he wasn’t wrong.

When City managed to lose at St. James’ Park, almost a month after Liverpool lost that energy sapping match at the Etihad, there was a palpable sense that Liverpool just may pull it off after all. My friend and I had just decided to buy tickets for a trip across the pond to celebrate my 37th birthday and maybe even be present for the first top division title in 29 years. Understandably, I got caught up in the excitement.

Then a few weeks ago, bursting with hubris and a visceral hatred for the Mancunian Sky Blues (maybe visceral is too strong a word, but this is sports and we’re allowed a few outrageous sentiments), I tweeted out that we’d be celebrating a title after a win v. Huddersfield.

To be fair, I did add the hashtag for TooHotTuesday, but clearly it’s part of a long pattern of over-confidence.

And the coup de grace, the one that’s made me a bit more reticent for any future hot takes.

In a state of ceaseless optimism, I engaged in yet another crossing of the hot take line. This one predicted Barcelona, that ever dangerous side driven by arguably the greatest single player to ever grace a soccer pitch, would go down easily.

Again, I’d like to point to the hot take hashtag. That should have been enough for the great soccer puppet masters in the sky to not smite my hopes of a trophy this season. Apparently not.

But I’m not going to say all is lost or that there’s zero chance Liverpool hoists a trophy this year. What ever is left is but a glimmer, a thin sliver of light, a sniff or two of something delectable. If anyone can do it, it is Liverpool.

“We’ve been ying-yanging between two improbable championships,” Rob Gutmann from The Anfield Wrap said on the Post-Match Pint after Wednesday’s match against Barcelona. He’s not wrong. But at some point, we reach the end of the road and either the results we need will come or they won’t.

If someone had told us, though, at the beginning of the season Liverpool would be nearing 97 points by May 12th and in another Champions League Semifinals, we all would have thought that would have been enough for at least one trophy. Our enthusiasm—and let’s be honest, hubris—would have been understandable.

This season has been brilliant and while I’ll fully admit my hot takes were a bit premature (but isn’t that the point of hot takes?), I know that this campaign signals one important thing. It’s Liverpool’s shot across the bow of every damn club in the Premier League and Europe.

And next season, we go again.