Balotelli penalty earns Liverpool lead

Liverpool 1 (Balotelli (p) 85’)

Besiktas 0

Mario Balotelli’s coolly converted penalty gave Liverpool a narrow win against Besiktas in the first leg of their Europa League last 32 tie at Anfield.

Teenage winger Jordon Ibe was the creator, with his run forcefully ended in the box by Ramon Motta just before the byline.

Demba Ba had spurned a glorious first-half opportunity for an away goal but shot too close to a sprawling Simon Mignolet when clean through.

Liverpool had struggled to invent good attacking situations throughout the game and were grateful to the newly-contracted Ibe, who was a rare creative influence in an even game.

Despite the Liverpool starting XI shorn of Steven Gerrard through injury and with Raheem Sterling dropped to the bench, the home side began quickly with a trademark Ibe run allowing Daniel Sturridge to fashion a shot after some byline trickery.

Liverpool had dominated the opening 15 minutes without adding to Sturridge’s opportunity, but it was Besiktas who supplied the game’s next major chance when captain Veli Kavlak’s powerful header flew just wide of Mignolet’s left-hand post.

After offering little in attack, Besiktas began to grow into the game with the slippery Gökhan Töre their best outlet on the right with manager Slaven Bilic’s counter-attacking tactics clear to see.

The Turkish side then wasted a massive chance when ex-Chelsea striker Ba raced clear after a slick one-two with Olcay Sahan, but the Senegalese hitman failed to beat Mignolet in a situation similar to the one where he buried Liverpool’s title hopes last season following Gerrard’s infamous slip.

Brendan Rodgers’ side responded before the break with a fierce 40-yard drive from Alberto Moreno before Jordan Henderson saw a free-kick curl just wide of goal with Besiktas keeper Cenk Gönen motionless.

The Reds continued their momentum into the second half and nearly panicked the visitors into conceding when Gönen flapped at a Henderson cross, only for Adam Lallana to spoon wastefully into The Kop from three yards.

With Besiktas resolute in defence, Rodgers thrust Balotelli into the action at the expense of Joe Allen, before introducing Dejan Lovren in a move which allowed Emre Can to occupy his preferred midfield role.

Lovren then missed the target with a looping header and, with chances at a premium, Rodgers sent Sterling on for the quiet Lallana in a bid to secure a precious advantage for the second leg in Turkey.

Yet it was Ibe, who had drifted through the second half, who provided the attacking inspiration as Liverpool secured a late winner.

Ibe’s superb run drew a rash foul from Motta inside the area and the ice cool Balotelli slotted home the penalty with just five minutes remaining.

Besiktas attempted to find an equaliser but never troubled Liverpool as the hosts held on to take a slender advantage to the Ataturk Stadium next week.

You can follow me on Twitter @NeilWalton89

2015 Cricket World Cup Blog 3 – Could England win the World Cup?

Could England win the World Cup?

It’s a question that could be laughed off as ludicrous, optimistic or perhaps even imbecilic.

However, in just five days the World Cup will begin and so too will England’s campaign – against red-hot favourites and hosts Australia.

Given how hyped the build-up is towards any English sporting team in close proximity to a major tournament, is it too much to suggest that England could win the Cricket World Cup?

On paper at least, England have a chance.

Coach Peter Moores is starting to shape his side into a balanced, professional unit with both strength in-depth and the correct mix of emerging talent and established stars.

The most exciting of the talented players in England’s squad is Jos Buttler.

Buttler’s ability to play shots across 360 degrees mirrors the style of AB de Villiers, who is by far the world’s leading batsman at present.

Yet Buttler has a formidable journey to take if he is to morph into a cricketer capable of the destruction that de Villiers can wreak at will.

Not only that, his wicketkeeping skills must improve if he is to emulate de Villiers later in his career.

Aside from Buttler, England’s coaching staff will be hopeful of a polished display from opener Moeen Ali, who looks the perfect foil for Ian Bell, a player most at home when quietly accumulating runs at the top of the order.

Moeen is not a batsman of maniacal aggression, but his timing of the ball is majestic.

The Worcestershire man has also drastically improved his spin bowling and is the leading long-term candidate to replace Graeme Swann in all forms of the game.

England’s celebrated bowling unit is also worthy of attention, with James Anderson spearheading an attack comprising of Stuart Broad, Steven Finn, Chris Woakes and Chris Jordan.

Throughout the winter ODIs against Sri Lanka, Australia and India, the bowlers outperformed the batsman in what has become an established trend over the past few seasons.

Worryingly for England it is a trend that extends to all forms of the game.

When Alastair Cook, a batsman who struggled for runs for a long period of time, departed as England captain it was Eoin Morgan who took over the reins.

Morgan’s own form at that time was patchy, but his batting record when captaining England previously was far better than when he wasn’t.

However, Morgan’s form has continued to decline into his tenure as permanent ODI captain.

After hitting 121 against Australia in the first match of a tri-series also involving India, Morgan was then dismissed for two ducks against their arch-rivals and only managed two runs against India, before another dismal duck during the defeat to Pakistan in England’s final warm-up game.

Despite Morgan’s scratchy form, he remains one of England’s most dangerous batsmen and could in the future form a mouthwatering alliance with the likes of Buttler if he remains in charge.

Morgan and Buttler are both ‘finishers’, meaning they can accelerate their scoring to win their side a match when chasing a total in excess of 300 runs.

Too often, though, they have been found out – particularly when chasing such lofty totals – and the World Cup will provide plenty of giddy run chases if England are to go deep into the latter stages.

If England were to be successful Down Under, plenty of work needs to be done on the mentality of the batsmen when chasing large totals – a fear of such run chases also seems to plague the England batsmen.

England’s middle order also needs to score runs faster, in greater volume and with a prudent balance of orthodox and unorthodox shot selection.

Perhaps they have been hindered by the ECB central contracts and the subsequent lack of experience in T20 cricket such as the IPL, where players such as de Villiers and MS Dhoni have both honed and revolutionised the skill set of a modern batsman.

World Cup victory may therefore be out of England’s reach, for now.

Looking at their squad, their recent performances and their ‘flair’ players they could reasonably expect to make the quarter-finals, but any result beyond that would be seen as a shock.

You can follow me on Twitter @NeilWalton89

2015 Cricket World Cup Blog 2 – Top 10 bowlers

Cricket, as every bowler knows, is very much a batsman’s game.

Bowlers are afforded a disproportionate share of the limelight, especially in the batsman-friendly Twenty20 arena, but could that be about to change?

At the upcoming World Cup, which starts next Friday, spectators will have the chance to cast their eyes over some toe-crunching yorkers, devious slower balls, doosras, sliders and of course, some good old-fashioned chin music.

Part of the skill of being a bowler in the modern game is the art of deception. If a bowler can deceive a batsman with a well-concealed variation, half the battle is won.

So, with all these things in mind, who are the top 10 bowlers to watch out for in Australia and New Zealand this February?

  1. James Faulkner – Australia – left-arm pace
  • Key stat: Took 19 wickets in 14 ODIs during 2014

Under normal circumstances, this crafty Aussie pacer would occupy a spot in my top three bowlers at the 2015 World Cup. However, a side strain has thrown Faulkner’s participation into doubt. There is a chance he may overcome the niggling injury to bat for the home side, but his chances of bowling are slim. His fans will be lamenting his luck as his superb variations have made him Australia’s go-to man in the ‘death overs’ with the back-of-the-hand slower ball his most impressive, and deceptive, weapon. He will be sorely missed if he cannot recover in time.

  1. Vernon Philander – South Africa – seamer
  • Key stat: Conceded just 4.84 runs an over in 2014

Very much underrated in some corners of the cricketing world, Philander will line up Down Under as one of the Proteas’ most valued assets. His economy is outstanding and the unsung seamer also has the knack of picking up key wickets – often by frustrating batsmen with his line and length, making him the perfect foil for the terrifying pace duo of Dale Steyn and Morne Morkel.

  1. Matt Henry – New Zealand – right-arm fast
  • Key stat: Averaged over three wickets per ODI in 2014

New Zealand have unearthed a gem in Matt Henry. The 23-year-old destroyed Pakistan in their ODI series in December, claiming 13 wickets at a measly average of 16.30 apiece. Henry is still relatively new to ODI cricket, competing in eight games, but his career wicket tally of 21 suggests he has the ability to strike quickly and regularly. His lack of fame could see him surprise many teams and looks set to be the World Cup’s dark horse bowler.

  1. Shakib Al-Hasan – Bangladesh – left-arm spin
  • Key stat: Took 21 ODI wickets with a 3.72 economy in 2014

Shakib is a proven limited-overs performer and is consequently coveted by many T20 franchises across the world. Those lucky enough to secure his signature can count on his accurate spin, frugal economy and habit of picking up wickets in the middle overs. His bowling alone would see him picked in most teams but his batting is aggressive, making him the top-ranked all-rounder in all three forms of the game.

  1. Ravi Ashwin – India – off-spin
  • Key stat: Took 23 ODI wickets in 17 matches through 2014

Tall, clever and hugely effective, Ashwin will lead India’s spin attack Down Under. Using variations both subtle and tricky, he has become one of the leading spinners in world cricket. However, his temperament can sometimes be questioned, particularly when he is attacked by batsmen looking to unsettle him, and that will prove to be his biggest challenge at the World Cup.

  1. Mohammed Shami – India – seamer
  • Key stat: Joint-highest ODI wicket taker in 2014 with 38 scalps

Shami enters the World Cup as one of India’s breakthrough trio of pacemen. Alongside Bhuvneshwar Kumar and Varun Aaron he is beginning to dispel the myth that Indian pace bowlers lack bite. Shami enjoyed an excellent 2014, taking 38 ODI wickets, but his economy of 6.16 is in danger of undermining his good work Down Under if he cannot limit the runs he concedes.

  1. Dale Steyn – South Africa – right-arm fast
  • Key stat: Claimed 22 ODI wickets in 2014

The sight of Dale Steyn charging in to bowl at over 90mph is arguably the scariest in cricket and South Africa will reap the rewards on the fast, bouncy Antipodean pitches. Steyn is especially useful in the death overs, where fierce yorkers and off-cutters help him to keep the run rate down. He will form a lethal opening attack with Morne Morkel, but his individual brilliance alone could help South Africa to World Cup victory come March.

  1. Lasith Malinga – Sri Lanka – right-arm fast
  • Key stat: Took 29 wickets (one every 27 balls) in 2014

‘Malinga the slinger’ is a harsh nickname for such a talented player, but Malinga’s unique action continues to fool the world’s best batsmen. Armed with 90mph pace and a fiendishly deceptive slower-ball, Malinga regularly picks up wickets in large numbers, including two five-wicket hauls in 2014 alone. Look out for his eye-watering yorkers, which decimated the lesser teams in 2011.

  1. Mitchell Johnson – Australia – left-arm fast
  • Key stat: Claimed a 4.80 economy in 2014

Part of Mitchell Johnson’s appeal is that he tends to aim for batsmen’s heads rather than the stumps but, then again, how else would he be considered the world’s most feared pace bowler? He has managed to ditch his reputation as a wayward paceman, and is now seen as one of the most accurate around. Add that to his ability to reach speeds of up to 95mph and Australia might just have a World Cup-winning bowler on their hands.

  1. Ajantha Mendis – Sri Lanka – right-arm spin
  • Key stat: Took 38 ODI wickets at 21.63 in 2014

Mendis has become the great mystery of modern spin bowling. His mastery of variation balls has helped his deception to such an extent that nobody is sure whether he’s an off-spin or a leg-spin bowler. As a batsman, that uncertainty must be a gruesome thought and his collection of 38 victims during 2014 shows just how effective he is. The one criticism that surrounds his magical bowling is that he tends to be quite expensive – he had an economy of 5.76 in 2014 – but his awesome strike rate of 22.5 goes a long way to excuse that profligacy.

You can follow me on Twitter @NeilWalton89