Joel Matip

Newcastle United 1-1 Liverpool: Rafa frustrates former club

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Rafa Benitez took a point from his old pals Liverpool as the favorite Reds drew Newcastle United 1-1 on Sunday at St. James Park.

Liverpool rises seventh with 12 points, while Newcastle sits ninth with 10.

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Rafa remembered his Liverpool roots, and there was certainly a pro-Benitez buzz from all four corners of the stadium ahead of the match.

Mohamed Salah led a lightning counter and sprung Sadio Mane on goal with a fantastic pass, but Magpies keeper Rob Elliot ended up rescuing the ball after several bobbles through the 18.

Ex-Liverpool man Jonjo Shelvey was back in Newcastle United’s lineup, and curled an early shot from outside the 18 into the arms of Simon Mignolet.

Shelvey cued Matt Ritchie up for a left-footed shot that wasn’t much of a problem for Mignolet.

The Reds grew into the game, and their fine attackers looked a cut above the Magpies back line (though Jamaal Lascelles stood tall at the back).

Liverpool’s mysterious finishing problems continued on a 23rd minute corner, with a post hit, a point-blank chance missed, and two more attempts off the mark.

But then, oh my, Coutinho. Given some room by Shelvey, Coutinho moved to his right and curled a near post shot past a flying Elliot and into the top corner.

Yet Newcastle leveled the score thanks to an outstanding through ball

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A Ciaran Clark error gave Sturridge an amazing chance that Elliot saved, and Salah put the rebound well over the goal.

Liverpool dodged a bullet when Sadio Mane’s raking of a boot on Joselu went unheeded, and then another when Joe Gomez just saw yellow after clattering into Christian Atsu.

The Magpies had a decent series of chances around the hour mark, but couldn’t quite orchestrate a quality final shot.

Jurgen Klopp attacked the game by tossing on Dominic Solanke and Roberto Firmino, while Newcastle’s introduction of Isaac Hayden showed a desire to see out a point.

Still 1-1 in the 84th minute, Klopp injected Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain. The high-priced midfielder headed an Alberto Moreno cross over the frame in the 88th minute.

Dejan Lovren partially blocked a Mohamed Diame shot off a late corner.

Liverpool’s Joel Matip: “I have no doubt about our way of playing”

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LIVERPOOL — Joel Matip is often a busy man in the heart of Liverpool’s defense.

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Yet, he certainly doesn’t resemble someone who is usually frantically scrambling to keep out opposition forwards.

Ahead of schedule for our chat he was relaxed as he leaned back in his chair at Liverpool’s Melwood training center, occasionally scratching his chin.

Part of a Liverpool team brimming with attacking talents and packed with goals from Sadio Mane, Philippe Coutinho, Mohamed Salah and Roberto Firmino, defense is often an afterthought for the Reds.

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After conceding sloppy goals against Watford and Burnley in the Premier League this season, plus a demolition at Manchester City, a draw against Sevilla in the UEFA Champions League group stage and a defeat at Leicester City in the League Cup in midweek, many armchair analysts and pundits are calling for Liverpool boss Jurgen Klopp to alter his high-pressing approach and set up his defense differently.

You won’t find Matip doing that.

Quite clearly Liverpool’s most consistent defender since he arrived in the Premier League last summer, Matip doesn’t believe he and his teammates need to change to a more defensive style to keep winning games.

Speaking exclusively to Pro Soccer Talk ahead of Liverpool’s trip to Leicester City on Saturday (Watch live, 12:30 p.m. ET on NBC and online via NBCSports.com) Matip was adamant that the players, both attackers and defenders, must stay true to themselves.

“Both parts only work together. I cannot stand at the back and our attackers go forward and there is so much big space. We all have to fit together. It is not always easy but this is our way of play but I think that is a good way of playing,” Matip said. “Everything has its positive and negative sides but I have no doubt about our way of playing.”

The 6-foot 5-inch center back arrived from Schalke on a free transfer last summer and has settled in impressively in his first 12 months in England, establishing himself as Liverpool’s first-choice center back.

His strong aerial ability and calmness to make key challenges and blocks around the box have particularly impressed.

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How does he assess their start to the season which sees them in eighth place in the Premier League after two wins, two draws and a defeat in their opening five games?

“We have had our good moments and also our not so good moments. We were punished for these and it was ruthless, the first few games, but we have to carry on,” Matip said. “I am not in doubt about the quality in our team and I am looking forward to the next game and I’m positive still.”

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That next game comes against Leicester, who beat Liverpool 2-0 to on Tuesday in the League Cup third round after Klopp made multiple changes to his starting lineup — including a rest for Matip and usual center back partner Dejan Lovren — and the Reds failed to take many clear cut chances (a reoccurring theme) in a first half they dominated.

Matip, a late injury concern ahead of the clash at the King Power Stadium, believes Liverpool can take plenty of positives from their defeat at Leicester earlier in the week.

“The game on Saturday will be a completely different game,” Matip said. “You cannot compare these two games. I think we did it very well in the first half [on Tuesday] and we will try to copy this, maybe with a bit more luck upfront, but we are in a good way if we score then keep a clean sheet and don’t concede many goals. I am looking forward to it and I think we can win.”

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Looking back at his first 12 months in England the German born defender, who represented Cameroon at international level from 2010-15, is enjoying life in the Premier League.

Smiling and laughing often as we chat at Melwood, the languid center back is in his full tracksuit and is getting ready for an afternoon training session ahead of the Leicester game.

“It was a long year but I enjoyed this year, with all the ups and downs. It is a pleasure and an honor to play for Liverpool in the Premier League,” Matip said. “I try to do my best and help all of my teammates and my teammates also help me, so we have to help each other. Everybody helps each other and that’s the only way to go.”

At Liverpool the weight of past success, particularly in Europe, often sits heavy with five European Cups in the trophy cabinet and the Reds now back in the Champions League for the first time since 2014.

Does extra pressure come from Liverpool’s illustrious history as the fans demand more success in Europe?

“I think pressure, that would not be right. There is an opportunity,” Matip said. “We worked hard for this opportunity. Pressure is the wrong word because Liverpool has this great past but we only try to do our best and use this opportunity and try to enjoy.”

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Special European nights at Anfield are something Matip clearly cherishes.

“They are tough games but everyone is happy we have the opportunity to play in the Champions League. Every football player wants to play in these games. It is always a special night [at Anfield] and always special to play against the biggest teams in Europe. These are special nights to play against these international teams and these are the nights when you are really small, what you dreamed of,” Matip added, smiling.

What has been the main difference of moving to the Premier League from the Bundesliga?

“Physically and sometimes the pace,” Matip said. “It’s going up and down, up and down. In Germany it is often a little more tactical I would say. It is not going down from the one goal to the other goal. That would be the main difference.”

Matip worked hard over the offseason to prepare his body for those differences and for his second grueling campaign in England.

He admitted he can improve in many areas and said it is “a pleasure” to work with Klopp who “tries to improve me every day” and is “enjoying” the experience of working for his countryman as he makes the necessary adjustments.

“For me it was really important to make the whole preparation. For me last season was not easy with all the injuries but injuries belong to football. You cannot always do something against that. I hope preparation will help me a lot to get a good fitness level but there are a lot of points to work hard on. I have to improve a lot of things. It would be better to list all the things I don’t have to improve!” Matip chuckled. “I don’t know things on this list. I have to improve at everything and get better to help the team.”

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In terms of how the team plays and how Klopp asked his defenders to defend, has Matip worked on positioning and other specifics since making the move to England?

“This depends on the way you play. When Klopp was a coach in Germany he also had his center backs to play in a similar ways. I would say psychically because you play against a striker who are really strong in the air and bring a lot of body weight into the game,” said Matip, laughing out loud. “Also the pace. If you go directly from offense to defense, offense to defense, that’s something different to get used to.”

Should Liverpool switch to a back three to give them extra numbers in central defense and in the central attacking areas?

“It is different but it is not all about the system. It is not always easy for us against deep, defending teams with many lads in the back,” Matip said. “Sometimes they manage really good but we are always trying and because of this, in the end, we will have the luck because we work really hard for this.”

Matip has always worked hard to reach the top but it certainly helped being from a soccer mad family as his father, Jean, was a footballer and his older brother, Marvin, still plays for Ingolstadt in Germany’s second-tier. His cousin is also Joseph-Desire Job, the former Middlesbrough striker, so soccer was always in his blood.

“My older brother was my biggest role model. He was a few years older and I always looked up to him. Our family growing up, there was a lot of football,” Matip smiled. “It is a pleasure but there was no pressure from my family. I could do anything I wanted and they always support me.”

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Matip’s parents are both qualified doctors and the German-born, Cameroon international gives thoughtful, insightful answers when considering questions.

He owes plenty to his education in both life and soccer via an esteemed academy at Schalke. He graduated from the now famous Gesamtschule Berger Feld school which has German internationals Mesut Ozil, Julian Draxler, Manuel Neuer and Benedikt Howedes among their alumni.

“The school was not the only part. The work they did at Schalke at youth level, there was a brilliant coach at U-19, [Norbert] Elgert. Every former player if you call and ask about him would say he was a fantastic coach and is still a fantastic coach,” Matip said. “Everybody is really thankful for him and he did a great job with the connection with the school. Everything there was a good start for every football player.”

After leaving for a new experience and a new country Matip is settling into life in England’s north west. Last summer he moved away from home for the first time at the age of 25 and Matip is enjoying life on Merseyside. Even if he is yet to perfect his Scouse accent…

“I am still struggling with most of the dialect,” Matip laughed. “The language is not easy but you start talking and you are getting better and better. I am still fighting and when they use the Scouse accent I am always like ‘what!?’ I need one, two, three or maybe four tries to understand it but I am in a good way. Maybe it will take a while to understand the Scouse but I am still happy to be here.”

Always smiling, always peaceful, Matip is ready to continue leading Liverpool’s defense as they aim to win their first trophy in over five years.

“Of course, everyone wants to win trophies but this will not happen from one day to the other,” Matip said. “But we work hard to improve ourselves and achieve something.”

Klopp’s reliance on top CB pair nothing new, but a problem

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When Jurgen Klopp was hired at Borussia Dortmund in 2008, he did something right away that would set the stage for BVB’s run back into Bundesliga power.

Klopp brought defender Neven Subotic with him from Mainz, and took Mats Hummels on loan from Bayern Munich.

The 19-year-old Subotic played 38 times for BVB that season, and Hummels played well on way to a permanent transfer.

[ MORE: Klopp left fuming at defending ]

Largely, Klopp seemed to “set it and forget it” with his center backs from that point forward: No big summer buys, and neither Subotic nor Hummels was headed anywhere.

That didn’t change until 2013-14, when Klopp bought Sokratis Papastathopoulos from Werder Bremen, adding Matthias Ginter the next season.

Klopp left BVB after a disappointing 2014-15, taking the job at Liverpool in October 2015.

He didn’t do much in January, but agreed to terms with Schalke center back Joel Matip in February and landed Ragnar Klavan from Augsburg in the summer. The Reds already had bought Dejan Lovren from Southampton in the Summer of 2014, and Klopp seemed set.

[ MORE: League Cup Weds. wrap ]

Lovren improved a lot with Matip next to him, and Klavan made just 15 appearances for the Reds last season. The Reds went hard at Southampton’s Virgil Van Dijk, but failed to get him for any number of reasons. Still, Klopp figured his quartet, including young Joe Gomez in a pinch, would be just fine this season.

And maybe they will be, but there are daunting signs for the Reds in the first couple months of the season. Klopp has used Matip in eight matches, tied for the most on the team with Mohamed Salah and Roberto Firmino. He’s used Lovren six times, and Klavan four.

Liverpool’s record by CB pair (admittedly a tiny sample size):

Matip-Lovren: 3W-2D
Matip-Klavan: 1W-1D-1L
Gomez-Klavan: 1L (today)

The center backs, sans Matip and Lovren, especially hurt the Reds in the 2-0 loss to Leicester on Tuesday. All three moments of Leicester threat in this highlight package find either Klavan or Gomez cooked or out-of-place.

Look, a lot of teams are going to be hurt when using their second-choice CB pair, and many won’t be bothered by Liverpool’s exit from the League Cup. Furthermore, it’s not like anyone has been mistaking Lovren and Matip for Puyol and Pique.

But look at every English team in Europe, including the ones with far fewer defensive frailties heading into this summer than Liverpool.

Chelsea bought Antonio Rudiger.

Everton added Michael Keane.

Manchester United bought Victor Lindelof.

Spurs bought Davinson Sánchez and Juan Foyth.

Arsenal didn’t buy anyone besides Alexandre Lacazette, while Man City bought full backs and has received plenty of criticism for failing to add to its center back corps of Vincent Kompany, John Stones, and Eliaquim Mangala.

Liverpool? They sold Mamadou Sakho.

It’s problematic, yes, and it can’t be fixed until January. The question is whether Klopp sees a need to spend in the winter window. As illustrated above, he loves to ride his horses, even if Lovren and Matip aren’t quite Hummels and Subotic.

Think of what’s ailed Liverpool in recent seasons: Are some of those flops against lesser Premier League teams changed with more rest for their top pair or a better option for the mix?

FIFA allows Matip to represent Liverpool during AFCON

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Joel Matip is going to get to play for Liverpool during AFCON after all.

The center back had turned down the chance to represent Cameroon at the Africa Cup of Nations, and Liverpool was forced to apply to FIFA for a waiver.

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Matip suffered an ankle injury in December, adding to his desire to stay at Anfield. He declared himself internationally retired and was one of six Cameroon players who refused call-ups for AFCON.

He last played for the Reds on Dec. 11, and can be selected by Jurgen Klopp against Swansea City on Saturday.

Klopp, Liverpool still consulting lawyers over in-limbo Matip

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Few footballing sagas will ever reach heights of absurdity comparable to that of the Joel Matip/Liverpool versus Cameroon/FIFA battle currently raging, as the Reds defender finds himself “ineligible” to play for his club due to an international call-up 18 months after announcing his international retirement.

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PST’s Joe Prince-Wright summed up the situation quite well, in full, right here. An excerpt:

Matip, 25, was called up by the Cameroon national team for the 2017 African Cup of Nations which is currently taking place in Gabon. However, the former Schalke defender has previously stated that he did not want to play for them and he had retired from international duty.

Cameroon called him into their initial 35-man squad for the competition anyway but did not include him in their final 23-man squad once it became clear Matip, along with six other players, had no interest in playing for them at AFCON.

FIFA has confirmed that Liverpool has been in touch regarding Matip’s status and it now appears that he will not be able to play in any other competition while Cameroon is still in AFCON action under Article 5 of FIFA’s rules.

[ MORE: Monday’s transfer rumor roundup | Sunday | Friday | Thursday ]

Fast forward a few days, and Jurgen Klopp and Co. have no further clarity regarding the situation. It’s so unclear, in fact, that Klopp said on Tuesday he may select the 25-year-old during one of two remaining games this week, and hope for the best — quotes from the Guardian:

“As you can imagine, we are in a lot of talks. We’ve done transfers quicker than this. It’s already long term but now it’s getting really tense on our side. We’ve tried everything but at the end I have to make the decision. Of course I have to ask [Liverpool’s lawyers] but the decision is for me to make. I could put him in the lineup. I don’t think the referee is going to say: ‘Stop, stop, you cannot go on the pitch.’ But I will do it when it’s OK from our point of view. Of course I need advice — I’m not a lawyer.”

“Most of the time in life you know if you do this, then you get this. But it’s not 100 percent clear what happens [if Matip plays]. We try everything to win football games. If this can happen — out of the tournament or whatever — then we have to decide about the risk. He’s ready to play for us and that makes it difficult.”

What an utter disaster of a situation Cameroon have intentionally created here.