Starting Sturridge with Suarez, Liverpool explodes for five against Norwich

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While the debate over Daniel Sturridge’s value is far from settled, there’s little doubt he represents an intriguing piece for a Liverpool team that spent the first half of the season trying to find enough attackers to match Brendan Rodgers’ system. When he was acquired from Chelsea, it was initially unclear to what extend Sturridge would help, but after the Reds posted five today with the 23-year-old starting with Luis Suárez, we got some answers.

The effect was evident on the Reds’ second goal, Liverpool having already gone up after Jordan Henderson’s well hit half-volley from inside the arc. A ball hit to feet just inside Norwich’s half saw Sturridge dummy, leaving the pass to roll behind the line as the Canary defense collapsed on Sturridge. Coming in from the left, Suárez was left to go in alone on Mark Bunn, the Uruguayan converting for this 20th all-competition goal of the season.

Sturridge would add his own early in the second half. After Steven Gerrard and a Norwich own goal rounded out the scoring, Liverpool had their most impressive victory of the season: 5-0 at Anfield.

It’s not the victory over a top team for which Reds supporters have begun to pine, but unfortunately for Rodgers, Liverpool weren’t scheduled against one of the league’s better sides. Had they been, the Reds probably would have secured three points and quieted all the building criticism. They were that good.

We’re also likely to hear some misgivings about the competition. While Norwich has played well this season, they’ve also been prone to some terrible results. In September, one of those results came against Liverpool, who won 5-2 in the reverse fixture. It’s possible Liverpool just matches up particularly well against Chris Houghton’s team.

Beyond the Sturridge-Suárez combination, there are a number of reasons to believe Liverpool’s actually improving and not just taking advantage of a fortuitous matchup:

Jamie Carragher gets a start – At this point in his career, if Carragher is the answer you need to really reconsider the question, but there has been something off all season with the Daniel Agger-Martin Skrtel partnership. My theory: They’re too similar, and it leaves the Reds vulnerable to pace (as they were exploited against Manchester United ahead of the Red Devil’s second goal). While it’s uncertain Carragher would solve that problem, he got his chance ahead of Skrtel today.

Joe Allen sits – He was considered an astute signing in summer, but Joe Allen has not met expectations since following Rodgers from Swans. Again Manchester United, he was a non-factor, a huge indictment for a midfielder. Jordan Henderson got the nod today and came through with a goal.

Switch in approach – With both Suárez and Sturridge getting the start, Rodgers had to change things up (formation-wise) to accomodate two through-the-middle forwards. As a result, we saw Henderson return to a wide-to-in role he often played under Kenny Dalglish (possibly the reason he started over Allen). Stewart Downing manned the other side. Whereas Rodgers has been pretty staunchly 4-3-3 this season, we may now be a change of approach.

Stewart Downing continues to contribute – This is not new news, but after a year-and-a-half of middling contributions after moving from over Villa, Stewart Downing’s finally found a place at Liverpool. The England international assisted in Sturridge’s goal.

The victory temporarily moved Liverpool into sixth place, and while the rest of the weekend’s results might see them fall one or two places, Rodgers has the Reds at the edge of Europe. Although he proclaimed greater expectations, this is right about where we thought Liverpool would land. If they continue improving, they’ll end Rodgers’ first season ahead of where we’d thought they’d be.

Sampaoli defends Messi, blasts Argentina squad

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Jorge Sampaoli is lambasting his team after a 3-0 loss put Argentina on the edge of failing to qualify for the 2018 World Cup’s knockout rounds.

“The reality of the Argentina squad clouds Lionel Messi’s brilliance,” Sampaoli said. “The team doesn’t gel as well as it should.”

[ MORE: Modric urges humility ]

Sampaoli said his players could not find a way to get the ball to Messi, and that the introduction of Boca Juniors youngster Cristian Pavón was aimed at opening up the field a little bit.

And Sampaoli is not shying away from the long-discussed comparison between Messi and Portuguese star Cristiano Ronaldo. From the BBC:

“Cristiano is a great player and he has achieved a lot with club and country. Right now it is hard to compare these two players because of the ability in the Argentinian squad clouds the judgment. Leo is in a difficult position because the squad doesn’t gel with him. As coach I have to accept that. I don’t feel shame but I definitely feel pain. It has been a long time since I have gone through this experience as a coach and obviously it is more painful when I’m wearing the colours of my country.

“We have no alternative but to give it our all in the final match. We have not performed at the level the country expects. We were ambitious ahead of the game but now it is harder for us as a group. We did think this would be the match we can take off as a team, but it wasn’t in the end. I think this is an excellent squad but we didn’t gel or come together. We need to take advantage of the next match, when the pressure will be on, and hope to progress.”

Now, of course Sampaoli is going to defend Messi, but Argentina’s team is not chopped liver. The side certainly isn’t as deep or solid as Croatia, but 1-1 with Iceland preceded this one.

That said, Argentina’s performance once Croatia essentially decided to surround Messi was unacceptable. If favored Nigeria doesn’t handle its business against Iceland, the World Cup finalists won’t have a prayer of going back.

Modric urges humility after big win, stunning goal (video)

AP Photo / Ricardo Mazalan
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There are few teams who’ve looked as strong as Croatia at the World Cup in Russia.

[ RECAP: Argentina 0-3 Croatia ]

Zlatko Dalic’s men now have a pair of shutout wins against decent competition, topping Nigeria 2-0 over the weekend before hammering Argentina 3-0 on Thursday.

The nature of those performances will have many, us included, debating just how far Croatia can run in this tournament. Veteran midfielder Luka Modric is hoping his team doesn’t do the same.

Let’s not be euphoric or get ahead of ourselves,” Modric said. “Of course this win will boost our confidence for the next game, and we have shown we can create opportunities, but let’s keep our feet firmly on the ground.”

Modric noted that Willy Caballero‘s howler “was a shot in the arm,” but added that they had played a “perfect game.”

That’s true. And while so much focus will be on Messi’s struggles, don’t sleep on the terrific performance of Vatreni. 

Modric also seemed to bristle when asked about shutting down Messi.

“I don’t want to talk about other players. We are happy with our own performance. We wanted to cut out Messi receiving the ball because he is the most dangerous player.”

Croatia smashes disheveled Argentina

AP Photo/Ricardo Mazalan
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Ante Rebic, Luka Modric, and Ivan Rakitic have Croatia in the knockout rounds and Argentina on the verge of World Cup disaster.

Croatia scored a trio of second half goals, one aided by a Willy Caballero howler, in a 3-0 win in Nizhny Novgorod on Thursday.

Argentina will enter its final match against Nigeria on the outskirts of the knockout rounds regardless of how Nigeria-Iceland ends on Friday.

[ MORE: Latest 2018 World Cup news ] 

Ivan Perisic forced a big save out of Wily Caballero for an early Croatia corner kick that came to nothing.

Messi had a chance stopped inside of 10 minutes, then started a play that Dejan Lovren blocked for a corner in the 13th.

Enzo Perez missed an open goal off a poor Croatia giveaway in the 30th minute.

There were a pair of fouls not out of place on a red card lowlight reel, one for each team, but neither resulting in a sending off.

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Croatia took the lead through Caballero’s gaffe and Rebic’s smash in the 54th.

Argentina nearly answered moments later. After a mazy Messi dribble, Argentina regained possession in the 64th minute, spearheaded by a Gonzalo Higuain run that led to a corner.

Croatia came close to making it 2-0, as Mario Mandzukic couldn’t turn a flick on frame and instead saw it glide into the outside of the goal.

Then Modric put the match to bed as the clock hit 80, an absolute beauty. Another huge defensive mistake allowed Mateo Kovacic to cue up Rakitic for the third.

[ LIVE: World Cup scores ]

WATCH: Caballero blunder punished as Rebic rip puts Argentina on ropes

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Willy Caballero has made one of the bigger blunders in recent World Cup history.

His Argentina side needs at least a point from Thursday’s match-up with Croatia, and the match remained scoreless into halftime.

[ MORE: Latest 2018 World Cup news ] 

But 10 minutes after the break, Caballero flubbed a clearance in a big way.

The Argentina goalkeeper then could only watch as Ante Rebic kept his composure to blast a side volley into the goal.

It was a fine finish, to be sure, but not possible without such a terrible gaffe.